The Viper of Milan, by Marjorie Bowen

Chapter 27.

Unequal Odds

For days the sun had risen and set in cloudless splendour, hanging through the long summer day in a sapphire sky, flooding the beautiful country with gold, making the air heavy with perfume and sense of summer.

Mastino della Scala, standing at the door of his tent, hardly saw the glory and the brightness, the splendour of the great chestnuts, all deep green and snowy white, the proud beauty of the heaped-up flowers, the vivid richness of the foliage; for his heart was too sore for the finest sun that ever shone to ease it. He had waited long, and waited hopelessly.

In the tent behind him, Tomaso and a page polished his armour. For once Mastino was without it — yesterday he had donned it, and waited expectant for the answer to the challenge he could not believe Visconti would refuse. It was his fault to think the best of men, a fault that had cost him dear when he had trusted Count Conrad, a fault that had cost him the insult now of Visconti’s answer to his message.

‘I have tried everything, and in everything I have been outwitted or betrayed. I am helpless, powerless. Will it last unto the end?’

The thought burned across Mastino’s heart like fire.

Would it last unto the end?

The dazzling sun blinded him, the waving of the green made him giddy; he lifted the flap of the tent and entered. After the glare the dark and gloom were welcome.

The tent was large and bare, only the two boys in their quiet dresses and the bright armour strewn over the worn grass, only these and Ligozzi seated near the entrance watching Mastino with anxious eyes.

Della Scala could not speak to him. He avoided his eyes, he had talked to him so often on this one theme. He could not meet his friend’s eyes, so often humiliated with failure, with nothing but fresh disaster to speak of.

In silence he paced up and down the tent, Ligozzi’s eyes following him wistfully. He also did not care to speak.

Mastino had left the entrance half open, and a great shaft of sunlight fell across the ground like a branch of yellow flowers. And as della Scala passed it fell upon him, showing clearly his erect figure in its leathern doublet, his fine worn face and the unhappiness in his eyes, his hands locked behind his back.

The next instant he had passed into the shadow again, and Ligozzi leaned from where he sat and shook the covering into place. Twice Mastino had passed, twice he had seen the look on his face, and he did not care to see it again.

The tent was hot.

Tomaso and the page laid the armour down in silence, overawed by the silent figure pacing to and fro.

Outside it was quiet too, only now and then the gallop past of horses or the tramp of men as they moved from one part of the field to another.

At last Mastino spoke, stopping before Ligozzi suddenly.

‘I have not told thee yet,’ he said, ‘but a messenger has arrived from d’Este. There have been some slight successes with his army, and he thinks that I should join him.’

‘And leave Milan?’

‘And leave Milan. He thinks it is hopeless, now Rome leagues with Visconti — he thinks it better to hold what we have nor risk it all by careless daring — but I— I shall stay here, Ligozzi.’

Ligozzi was silent; he knew d’Este’s words were true; he knew Mastino knew it also. There was nothing to be said.

‘I shall advance on Milan,’ continued della Scala. ‘If the d’Estes’ troops care not to join me, I will advance alone with my Veronese.’

He sat down on the wooden bench, fingering with nervous hands his gold belt and the dagger that hung there.

‘Why dost thou not speak?’ he said, after a moment’s pause, suddenly turning to Ligozzi. ‘Dost thou too think it hopeless?’

There was a wistful eagerness in his voice that struck to Ligozzi’s heart; he could not utter his thought.

‘With waiting, my lord,’ he replied. ‘With new allies —’ But della Scala cut him short.

‘I see, Ligozzi, I see. I am a man wanting to be persuaded against himself; yet do I still hope — against myself —’

‘To rescue —’

‘To rescue my wife, wouldst thou say?’ flashed Mastino. ‘No, I do not hope that: that I will do — in my soul I know it; but I still hope to conquer in fair fight. What did the attempt at guile avail us? We were betrayed; open force were better.’

Ligozzi’s anger rose at the thought of that betrayal.

‘I would I had the slaying of the traitoress!’ he cried. Mastino smiled sadly.

‘What were we to her? She loved, perchance. I should have done the same — for Isotta.’

‘Thou wert ever too gentle, my lord,’ returned Ligozzi. ‘Could woman love Visconti?’

‘She loved someone of her own creating, I trow,’ said della Scala. ‘Poor lady! The awakening will be her punishment.’

Ligozzi made no reply. Mastino’s point of view was not his: in his eyes Graziosa was a hussy he would have liked to have the hanging of.

‘In two days or a little more, when I have had my answer from the Estes,’ said Mastino, rising, ‘I march on Milan.’

‘But in those two days?’ questioned Ligozzi.

‘Visconti seems to have ceased all sallies,’ said della Scala; ‘and yet I know not what this quiet means.’

‘It means his policy was ever caution,’ returned Ligozzi. ‘Of a sudden he may —’

‘He may do anything,’ cried Mastino; ‘he hath Milan and Rome and the Empire to back him. Still do I hold many towns. Verona is strongly fortified; I lie between him and Mantua. He cannot fall on those.’

‘He has Padua, Bassano, Mestre, and Chioggia,’ said Ligozzi.

Mastino struck his hand against the tent impatiently.

‘I know!’ he cried. ‘I know the odds are not equal! When I seek to comfort myself, why wilt thou remind me, Ligozzi? What can I do? Nothing but what I say: march on Milan. And mark me, Ligozzi; whatever befall, if all desert me to a man, if d’Este fail me, I will not leave the walls of Milan — alive — without my wife.’

‘I will not desert thee,’ said Ligozzi ‘I will never desert thee, my lord.’

‘I never doubted thee,’ returned Mastino impulsively. ‘Ah, forgive me if I am harsh, for in truth my heart is very heavy; when I think of her — in Visconti’s power — it is terrible! Terrible!’

He shuddered and put his hand on Ligozzi’s shoulder, speaking eagerly.

‘Such things cannot happen, Ligozzi, can they? It cannot be I shall never see her again! God cannot mean that — though He take all from me, though He humiliate me before my enemy, He cannot mean that! No! Visconti is not leagued with Heaven: it cannot be! It cannot be!’

‘No,’ said Ligozzi; ‘even Visconti would not dare to harm the Duchess. Ye will see her again, my lord.’

Della Scala turned away to the other end of the tent; it was plain to him Ligozzi’s heart was not in the comfort that he gave, that he thought with the others that they would do well to fall back from Milan, join the Estes, and hold the towns they had.

‘But they do not understand,’ said Mastino in his heart. ‘I will never go back alive — withotit my wife.’

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