The Viper of Milan, by Marjorie Bowen

Chapter 25.

In Cloth of Gold

Graziosa Vistarnini, the saviour of Milan, and the Duke’s betrothed, was lodged with regal state in the magnificent new tower that stood in the grounds of the Visconti palace. Visconti could be liberal to a fault where it suited his vanity or his purpose, and Graziosa’s new residence was decorated with a lavishness that made the French stare.

For not only had she saved Milan, but she had done it solely for love of him, and it gratified Visconti’s pride as much as it pleased his ambition. Save for this girl he had been now even as had been della Scala, and Milan humbled as Verona. She had been the means of his once more outwitting a foe; she had assured his safety and the safety of his city; and Visconti’s proud gratitude showed in the state and splendour with which he surrounded his chosen wife.

This glorious summer morning she was seated on the side terrace that surrounded the tower, a terrace of black marble and alabaster, the delicate balustrade smothered in lemon and myrtle trees and clusters of white roses.

Graziosa was in the midst of a brilliant company; the best-born dames in Italy were among her women, and more knights and pages composed her train than had ever waited on Visconti’s sister.

Beneath them the garden, reached by a shallow flight of steps, spread in perfect loveliness to the palace, above whose pink brick walls and rugged grey fortifications floated the banner of the Viper.

The air was golden with the brightness of the sun, there was not a cloud in the purple sky, and Graziosa’s heart was singing in pure happiness.

She rose from her chair impulsively, and walked to the edge of the terrace, leaning over the balustrade, the ladies behind her.

”Tis sad to think there should be fighting on such a day as this,’ said one, handing Graziosa her fan. ‘God grant it may soon be peace!’

‘God grant it!’ repeated the painter’s daughter fervently. ‘They say the Veronese cannot hold out much longer,’ said another. ‘This very morn there was news. Bassano has fallen —’ Graziosa picked a cluster of roses and buried her face in them.

‘How beautiful they are!’ she said. ‘See, they have little hearts all gold, never showing till they die; a pretty fancy, is it not?’ And she stroked them tenderly.

‘Bassano has fallen?’ she repeated idly.

‘Yes, and ’tis said they cannot fail in getting Reggio.’

‘Then my lord’s arms are everywhere victorious!’ cried Graziosa with sparkling eyes.

‘As ever, lady,’ was the answer.

‘And we can hope for peace,’ continued Graziosa softly.

‘And when peace is proclaimed you will be Duchess — almost Queen — of Lombardy, Gian Visconti’s wife!’

There was a note of envy in the speaker’s voice at such a splendid destiny, but Graziosa did not notice it. She even shuddered faintly at Visconti’s name; it had been associated with awe and terror too long for her to be able easily to shake the fear away.

‘Meanwhile, the sun is shining hot, lady,’ said a third attendant. Will you not come into the shelter?’

Graziosa moved away; the white roses at her bosom were not more pure than her face. Two pages lifted her rich train, and as she crossed the terrace a third came and spoke to her on bended knee.

‘My Lord Giannotto awaits your pleasure, lady.’

‘Tell him I am here,’ and the colour rose in Graziosa’s face at so much honour.

She turned to the steps where Giannotto waited, cap in hand, and advanced toward him.

‘Lady,’ said the secretary, bowing low, ‘my lord sent me to say he will wait on you himself; and meanwhile, if you have any commands —’

Graziosa interrupted him.

‘Indeed, my lord is too good; what commands should I have? Tell him so, with my deepest thanks, sir.’

Giannotto looked at her curiously, with a mixture of pity and wonder.

‘He comes himself, lady, to hear your thanks, and learn your will.’

And he stepped aside, joining the group that had been gathered about Graziosa.

Gian Visconti was coming through the garden, a grave-looking man by his side, a white hound at his heels, and two boys following, one bearing a wooden case, the other carrying a roll of drawings.

Visconti was talking to his companion; he was in the best of humours, at the height of triumph and success, his enemies well under his heel, his ambitions on the point of being gratified.

Graziosa came to the head of the steps, and Visconti took his gold cap off and waved it, coming up them gaily.

She stood silent in the glory of the sunshine and held out her hands, and he kissed them, and looked at her and laughed pleasantly.

‘Now art thou happy, donna mia?’ he said. ‘Hast thou all that thou couldst wish?’

‘More than I ever dreamed of, my lord,’ she answered softly. ‘I did not know the world could be so beautiful — or so happy.’ ”Tis but a small return, Graziosa, my beloved, for what thou hast done for me,’ returned Visconti. ‘And I will make it more — this is but an earnest of the future. Visconti’s wife shall live in such splendour that men shall not see her for its dazzle.’

What am I, that thou shouldst give me so much joy!’ cried Graziosa, with swimming eyes.

Visconti smiled.

‘Thou art thyself — it is enough!’

He turned to his companion, who stood respectfully at some little distance.

‘Come hither, Messer Gambera. Here is a lady who shall often pray within your church — my betrothed, who saved us Milan.’

Messer Gambera bowed low, and kissed the hem of her gown.

Visconti watched his homage with pleased pride, arid turned again to Graziosa.

‘Now I have somewhat to show thee. This is the architect of my new church, which shall be the wonder of Italy. Follow me, messer.’ And he led the way into the entrance hall.

It was low and wide, the walls covered with frescoes, the floor red sandstone, the windows opening on to the terrace.

In the middle stood a gilt stucco table, and to this Visconti drew a chair and bade Graziosa seat herself.

‘Here is what I will make of Milan, sweet, when the war is ended!’ he said, as the architect unrolled and arranged his drawings.

‘And will that be soon?’ she asked, looking up at him.

‘Aye, I hope so,’ laughed the Duke. ‘Mastino della Scala grows weaker day by day — I have Bassano, and shall have Reggio. He has lost his wits as well as his fortresses,’ for he bids me to a single combat: all to stand or fall by our own swords. He has his answer, and I have his wife. Now, look at these, Graziosa —’ and he took the drawings from the architect and spread them on the table.

‘My new church,’ he said. ‘The plans, my well-beloved.’ And he looked eagerly at Graziosa.

‘Indeed, my lord, I do not understand them — it is no church, surely?’ And she raised a sweet, bewildered face.

”Tis the plan of one. Messer Gambera will explain it,’ and he motioned eagerly to the architect. ‘Here, messer, this is the porch?’ and he laid his finger on the drawing, absorbed in contemplation.

‘Yes, my lord.’

‘Set on three steps?’

”Tis so, my lord.’

‘I do not care for that, messer, and I will have more carving — would you not, Graziosa?’

‘You must not ask me; indeed I do not know,’ she smiled.

Visconti’s face for an instant darkened. ‘You must learn,’ he said. ‘My duchess must know architecture. Take away the plans, messer; I will look at them alone.’

‘Perchance the lady might care for the model, my lord?’ returned the architect. He spoke bad Italian, and was shaking with nervousness.

‘Bring the model,’ replied Visconti, and the page placed the box upon the table.

Messer Gambera touched a spring and it flew apart, showing an exquisite little model of white marble, some twelve inches high.

‘Oh! it is beautiful!’ said Graziosa, and Visconti looked at her with sparkling eyes.

‘You think so? Yes, it will be beautiful — the church of all Lombardy.’

‘It will be like this, of marble?’ she asked, breathless.

‘Every inch — from the porch to the pinnacles, and the floor shall be precious mosaic, and the altars crystal and serpentine, jasper and amethyst; men shall spend their lives in carving one pillar, and the price of cities shall pay for the gold that shall be lavished on it. Not in our life will this be done, nor in the lives of those that reign after us — or even them that follow, but finished it shall be, and one of the wonders of the world — and I shall be remembered as he who planned it — to the glory of God and the house of Visconti!’

He turned with shining eyes to the architect, who gazed on him with admiration, with a face that reflected the speaker’s own fervour.

‘Yes, mine will be the glory, though I shall never see the pinnacles kiss the sky, or hear the Mass beneath that marble roof — mine will be the glory — even though I am not buried there, it will be my monument to all eternity!’

Graziosa gazed at him in silence: she could not understand. Gian glanced down at her with a smile.

‘Would it not be a worthy tomb, even for a king, Graziosa?’

‘For an emperor — but we will not talk of tombs, my lord,’ she answered, ‘but of pleasant things, and — and — of something that I have to ask you.’

‘What?’ smiled Visconti.

The pages had gathered up the drawings, and the architect had removed his precious model and withdrawn.

They were alone, and Graziosa rose and looked at Visconti a little timidly.

‘I— I mean — there will be peace soon — you think, my lord?’

‘I think so — but peace or war, it shall not touch thee, Graziosa.’

‘Indeed, I do not fear it — but —’

She hesitated a moment, and glanced anxiously at Visconti’s smiling face.

‘Prince Mastino’s wife — my lord —’

‘What of her?’ asked Gian, lightly. ‘How does she trouble thee?’

‘I fear she is in sad woe,’ said Graziosa, encouraged by his tone. ‘She will return to della Scala when the war is ended?’ Visconti laughed.

‘The war will not be ended till she does, methinks; yet be comforted, Graziosa; before our wedding day she shall be in della Scala’s camp — and the war over: now think of it no more.’

‘Indeed I am satisfied; and my father, my lord?’

‘Now, can I help it and he will not come to the palace? My word on it, he is safe; think no more of that, Graziosa. Now are you content?’

‘My dear, dear lord, I am content: I will trouble you no more with questions. I am content to leave my father’s safety in your hands — content.’

She laid her arms about his neck, and Visconti kissed the roses on the breast that crushed them against his golden doublet, and then her upturned face.

Through the open window came the distant sound of singing; someone was singing in French, and then a woman’s laugh. Graziosa drew herself away, and Visconti’s face darkened.

‘Please Heaven, she will not annoy me long,’ he muttered. He took Graziosa’s hand in silence and stepped out on to the terrace.

Seated on the steps was Orleans, playing with the red ribbons of his lute, and standing among the cluster of ladies at the foot of them was Valentine Visconti.

She looked very brilliant and beautiful, and angry and scornful; her laughter was bitter, and the veiled brightness of her eyes not pleasant.

The shade of Visconti’s face deepened as he looked at her: compared to his sister, Graziosa was a candle beside the sun; the contrast did not please Gian.

Orleans rose and bowed low to the lady, yet in a way that was not respectful.

‘So there has been a challenge from the enemy,’ he lisped. ‘Now I shall love to see a single meeting of brave swords again.’

‘Who said so?’ asked Visconti. He came slowly down the steps; his manner had quite changed, and his eyes were on his sister.

‘The Lady Valentine,’ said the Frenchman. ‘She —’

‘The Lady Valentine,’ interrupted the Duke sternly, ‘had best remember — what I have often remembered to her advantage — that she is a woman, and these affairs are none of hers’

And he gave her a glance that made her wince, as that glance always did, for all her boldness.

Graziosa, her hand held lightly by the Duke, was following him down the steps, her pages behind, and Visconti kept his eyes upon his sister.

There was a meaning pause, and Orleans grew restless in the silence and moved away.

Valentine sent after him a look of bitter scorn, then walked slowly up to Graziosa and saluted her humbly, though her eyes were burning brightly.

Visconti watched them keenly, and noticed with displeasure how crushed and silent Graziosa showed before his brilliant sister: she shrank into herself, as if she divined the scorn Valentine concealed, and could scarce stammer a few words of greeting in reply.

‘I must go back to the palace, Graziosa,’ said Visconti, as they reached the garden, and his eyes roved over the crowd of attendants for Giannotto’s figure. ‘Remember these are all at thy commands — and, for the present, then farewell.’

To Valentine he said nothing, but turned away toward the palace with the secretary.

Graziosa looked after him, a little pained; she had noticed he was always different when his sister was there. Valentine had noticed it too, and guessed the cause, and the knowledge gave a triumph to her beauty that made it dazzling indeed.

‘I fear I interrupted your discourse,’ she said with another curtsey.

‘Indeed no, lady,’ replied Graziosa, timidly, ‘you not come within with me from the sun?’

Nay, that were too much of an honour,’ said Valentine. ‘Are you not my brother’s promised wife — and the saviour of Milan?’

‘I pray you, do not speak of it — I— I—’ answered Graziosa hurriedly.

Valentine lifted her brows and opened her grey eyes wide. ‘Do not speak of it? Why, ’tis a deed to be proud of — even when so well rewarded, lady.’

Graziosa flushed under the mock in her tone, and turned to one of her ladies.

‘We will go in-alone — since the Princess will not come,’ she said.

‘Come and walk in the garden, madama,’ said Valentine. ‘At least it seems like liberty — there will be little enough of that when you are Duchess of Milan.’

Graziosa, looking at her with frightened eyes, joined her meekly, having not the spirit to refuse.

Now, bid your ladies back a pace — at least Gian will allow us that,’ and Valentine motioned them away.

‘What do you mean?’ faltered Graziosa, with a pang of something like envy, as she noticed the grace and dignity of Valentine’s bearing, and the superb carriage of her queenly head.

Valentine shrugged her white shoulders and laughed bitterly.

‘Many things — among them this — get yourself a better tire-woman and you will keep Visconti longer — learn a little spirit and you will keep him longer still.’

Graziosa glanced down at her dress, the richer of the two, but worn with no such grace.

”Tis no question of my dress, lady,’ she answered, with some dignity, ‘nor of beauty — but of love alone.’

Valentine looked at her curiously, scornfully. They were passing between rich bushes of roses and lilies, the air was heavy with scent, and from the ladies following came gentle laughter.

‘You think he loves you?’ asked Valentine.

‘I know it,’ answered Graziosa, proudly.

Valentine smiled and looked away. The smile and glance stung Visconti’s betrothed like a whip-stroke. ‘What do you mean?’ she cried. ‘You insult me — you insult him!’

‘Do you know Gian Visconti so very well?’ asked his sister. ‘Have you seen him torturing his prisoners with the slow torture of the mind — worse than any rack? Have you seen him lying and betraying, stealing and murdering?’

Graziosa looked at her wildly; Valentine looked strangely, as her brother could look, her voice was very like his.

‘You know how his father died? How his mother’s heart was broken?’

‘I know you never raised a hand to save them — I know I love him!’ cried Graziosa.

‘Doubtless,’ smiled Valentine with scorn. ‘But does he love you? Why, he is so stained with crime I do not care to touch his hand. Would such a man love — you?’

‘Some tales I have heard, but now I know them false,’ said Graziosa, white and trembling. ‘And I will hear no more.’

‘She thinks he loves her!’ murmured Valentine. ‘She thinks Gian Visconti loves her!’

Graziosa was as near hate as was possible for her; her heart was too full for a reply, she called to her ladies and turned away. But Valentine followed, and laid her hand on her shoulder with what seemed a loving gesture.

‘Tell Gian what I have said,’ she whispered. ‘It will be an office to suit you, traitress!’. and with a smile she turned away.

Graziosa walked slowly toward her tower; somehow the garden had grown dim, the sky was not so bright, nor the sun so brilliant; she was looking at them through a veil of tears, unshed and bitter.

‘The Lady Valentine is not a gay companion today,’ remarked one of her attendants, looking at her.

‘No,’ said Graziosa dully. Valentine’s words were rankling in her heart; all the past came before her, all the tales she had heard of Visconti, all her father’s tenderness, the old, happy time. What if it had all been a mistake? What if Visconti still played with her and he was what Valentine had said? The idea was too awful, she crushed it back, she would not believe.

She thought of her father with a sudden yearning; she had always turned to him in her little troubles. She felt uneasy about him with a sudden wave of homesickness. ‘Can I forget?’ she cried in her heart. ‘Can I live this life and forget?’

But the next moment she calmed herself. She thought of Visconti leaning over his cathedral, of his hand in hers, of his’ earnest voice — and she had his word for her father’s safety.

Smiling to herself, she mounted the steps to her gorgeous dwelling, made splendid by Visconti’s love.

‘My father! We shall be happy together again yet!’ And she laughed and kissed the roses Gian had kissed, and the sun seemed bright again.

But Agnolo Vistarnini lay in the little chapel of Santa Maria Nuova, near to the western gate, with tapers burning at his head and feet, and five sword-thrusts through his heart.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:51