The Viper of Milan, by Marjorie Bowen

Chapter 3.

The Hostage of the d’Estes

‘A hundred thousand florins — and no more, even if they refuse the bargain.’

It was the Visconti that spoke. In a small dark room in the Visconti palace, he and the pale-faced, red-haired man, who had held the bridle of his horse two days before in the procession that had wended toward Brescia, were seated opposite to one another at the table; between them a pile of papers over which the secretary bowed his shoulders.

‘The demand is a hundred and fifty, my lord,’ he said, his voice meek, his eyes furtive.

‘They said two hundred to begin with,’ was the curt answer. ‘A hundred thousand florins, or I go elsewhere.’

The secretary’s pen flew nervously across the parchment, filling it with a cramped, mean writing that trailed unevenly along the page. Visconti’s secretary wrote a characteristic hand. Visconti leaned back in his chair, watching him in silence.

The room was small and circular, hung with leather stamped in gold, and furnished plainly even to bareness. A narrow lancet window, placed low in the wall, admitted a subdued light, which fell upon the only spot of colour in the room, the suit of turquoise blue the secretary wore.

‘A hundred thousand florins, to be paid in gold,’ repeated Visconti; ‘and no more, Giannotto.’

He rose and began to pace the room. Long habit and constant contact had not lessened the secretary’s fear of Visconti, nor mitigated the hate, none the less intensified for being for ever concealed under the mask of cringing servility. But in Giannotto’s dislike there was nothing noble; it was merely mean hate of a sordid soul that grudged the success of the bold crimes itself could never dare to undertake. Had the secretary been in Visconti’s place, there would have been as vile a tyrant, of equal cruelty and far less courage.

The Duke moved to the window and stood there in observation awhile, then turning, spoke to Giannotto with a smile. His eyes were a beautiful grey, open wide, and just now lighting up a pensive, pleasant face. But the secretary knew it too under a different guise.

‘My sister’s alliance with the Duke of Orleans gratifies my ambition, Giannotto,’ lie said, ‘and is well worth a hundred thousand florins. So far the Valois have never married out of royal houses.’

‘Yet they consider themselves honoured by this match, my lord,’ said the secretary.

‘They consider themselves well paid,’ returned Visconti. ‘Now, if I can find a daughter of the Plantagenets for brother Tisio, behold us firmly placed among the dynasties of Europe!’

Early in the fourteenth century, but no more than a meagre fifty years ago, before the last Visconti culminated the evil of his race, Matteo Visconti, Gian Galeazzo’s grandfather, had first firmly established his family as lords of Milan, supplanting their rival the Torriani, who had long reigned as magistrates-inchief, and under Martin della Torre risen to some eminence. Every year of the fifty since then had seen some increase of territory, some fresh acquisition of power, till with his last overthrow of della Scala, the seizure of Verona, and the murder of his father, already miserably deposed, Gian Galeazzo had planted himself upon a level with kings.

Almost the whole of Lombardy was under his sway, and that sway extended from Vercelli in Piedmont to Feltre and Belluno. Florence, lately leagued against him in support of his deposed father, had been beaten in battle after battle and was glad to escape, shorn of her fairest possessions, and cherishing only her liberty.

All this Giannotto knew. Della Scala, Duke of Verona, had owned fair lands and wide, Verona, Brescia, all now in Visconti’s hands. The secretary wondered, as he thought, how long it would be before the triumphant Gian threw away the mere rag of respect, the mere mockery of a title which bound him to the Empire, and became King of Lombardy in name as well as power.

‘And thou thyself, my lord,’ he said. ‘Thou wilt marry a Valois to thy sister! Who will be thy bride?’

Visconti smiled. ‘These marriages are for ambition. Dost thou think I shall marry for ambition? No, Giannotto, I have placed myself above the need of that. The alliances that make the Visconti one with the kings of Europe are for Valentine and Tisio; I shall marry —’

‘For love, my lord?’ ventured the secretary, with a hint of sarcasm.

‘Whom I please,’ said Visconti. ‘Which is not what Valentine is doing,’ he added with a smile.

‘She may give trouble yet, my lord’

Visconti frowned. He thought of Conrad von Schulembourg, the brilliant young German noble, who had been a favourite with him and all his court and had won the heart of Valentine Visconti; no favourite of his now. ‘As for my lady sister,’ he said, ‘let her dare turn her eyes save where I bid her.’

His own grew ominous, and Giannotto shuffled uneasily.

A noise without broke the sudden silence of reflection. Visconti, responding at once to what it meant, glanced a moment from the window where he still stood, then swept down to the head of the table. He leaned across to Giannotto, not that he valued any response that he could offer — Visconti’s secretary was no more to him than the chair on which he sat, valued solely for his skill in letters — but his triumph had to have its vent. ‘Hark!’ he cried. ‘Listen to it, Giannotto! The wealth of Verona is pouring into Milan! The spoils of Verona, Giannotto, the treasures from Mastino della Scala’s palace!’

Giannotto winced before Visconti’s passionate joy.

”Twas a man I hated, Giannotto — I would he had lived to feel it. The only man I ever hated, because the only man I ever ‘feared, the only man who ever dared to despise me! But he has fallen, he is dead, his wife is in my power, and in his fall he has placed me higher than my highest hopes.’

Carried away by his transports, he seized Giannotto by the arm and dragged him to the window.

The secretary gazed into the courtyard, where a group of soldiers and servants were busy conveying statues, gilt and silver plate, rich tapestry, glass, china, and arms, from carts and mules into the narrow doorways that led into the grim interior of the palace. They were presided over by a major-domo in a black gown, who called out directions in a shrill voice. To one side a few unhappy men, of note enough to have been spared, watched in grim silence the unloading of the spoils that came from the sacking of their palaces. The great gates stood at their widest, and through them wound a long train of soldiers, some driving before them groups of prisoners, tightly chained together, others galloping in laden with plunder of all kinds, art treasures, blackened as if by fire, banners, and suits of armour.

‘Ah, Giannotto, look,’ cried Visconti, ‘della Scala’s collection, della Scala’s jewels. How my treasury will be enriched! Only one thing mars it, that he should not be here to see!’

He turned from the window. Giannotto followed, cringing. ‘Still, thou hast his wife, my lord,’ he said. Gian’s eyes flashed afresh.

‘Isotta d’Este — ah!’

He leaned back against the wall in silence. A certain winter morning, five years ago, rose clearly before him; a massive castle, frowning from the rocks above Ferrara, and on its steps a fair girl who stood there and laughed to see him ride away back to Milan, his offer of the Visconti’s friendship scorned and flung in his face by her proud family, the haughty Estes. Visconti’s face grew dark as he remembered her; almost more than della Scala, her dead husband, did he hate Isotta, della Scala’s wife. And she was in his power. Greatly would it have soothed him to know her death was in his power too, but the lust of ambition was greater with this man even than the lust of pride or hate.

Isotta d’Este was a valuable hostage to be used against her family, should they think Of avenging their fallen kinsman.

‘Where hast thou finally placed her, my lord?’ asked Giannotto, with his stealthy glance. The Duke started from his reverie.

‘In the West Tower,’ he smiled. ‘Every day I go to gaze on the room that holds her to make sure it is not a dream; to see and feel with my eyes and my own hands that her prison is doubly sure. If Isotta d’Este should now escape me — but she will not!’

He crossed the room to leave it, but paused at the door.

‘Be watchful, Giannotto, the Princess Valentine may try to leave the palace. I have spies on her every movement; still, thine eyes upon her also will do no harm — to me!’

He laughed an instant. A rustle of the hangings and he was gone. Giannotto sat on silently, looking in front of him. His thoughts were with Valentine Visconti, Gian’s unhappy sister, whom he had been told to watch; from her they travelled to the German Count, who, five days ago, had left the palace.

‘I wonder if she loved him,’ he mused. ‘I do not think she did. Dear God, she did not need to wait to love a man, her life was not such that she could pick and choose her way of escaping from it. Conrad offered one and she was ready to take it — now —five days ago! Yes — Count Conrad is dead, and she will marry the Duke of Orleans! Ah, well! The German was a fool, he deserved no better fate than a fool! I do not think she’ll break her heart if she can find some other way’

He returned to his papers, pausing now and then to glance toward the door, as if to keep himself on the alert for the Duke’s noiseless entry.

But Gian had bent his steps elsewhere. Plainly dressed, he passed almost unnoticed across an inner courtyard to a dark angle of a wall where a secret door anew admitted him. The whole Visconti palace was a sombre and gloomy place; men crept about it on their tiptoe, glancing fearfully around them, afraid of their own shadows. Visconti smiled to himself at sight of fear; he loved to be feared, to hold lives in the hollow of his hand, and play with them and death.

The door let him into a long narrow passage flagged with stone, and lit by diamond-shaped holes left in the walls; the air was damp and chill, and Visconti drew his cloak around him. Unlocking a second door, he ascended a flight of stone steps, pitch dark, from which he emerged into a large circular chamber with a thick pillar in the middle from which the groined ceiling sprang. Save table and high-backed chair of blackened wood, there was no furniture. This chamber was the outer guard-room of the prison wing, and a gloomy-faced man leaned against the pillar, his eyes fixed upon the opening door. It could be no other than the Visconti entering thus, and he crouched almost to the ground.

What is thy guard?’ said Visconti.

‘Twenty men in each guard-room, my lord, and each one picked for size and trustworthiness, and I myself keep watch upon the door. Escape is impossible.’

By so much the more that thy head will answer for it.’

As he spoke, Visconti flung wide one of a ring of doors opening from the chamber, and stepped into a posse of soldiers. No one spoke. Glancing keenly to the right and left, Visconti passed through their ranks into the room beyond — a small apartment, dim lit and hung with arras. An old woman sat at a tapestry frame with her back to the door, but at Visconti’s entrance she rose, as at something expected, and sank in a deep obeisance.

Gian Maria closed the door behind him.

‘How is she?’ he said. ‘How, does she bear her change of prison?’

The old woman glanced toward an inner door, massive and iron-clamped.

‘When I am with her, my lord, she sits in silence, her eyes for ever on her missal; indeed she has not spoken since we brought her here; but when she is alone, she weeps, I have heard her through the door; she weeps passionately, and calls wildly upon her husband to save her.’

‘I would I had him, to stand him gagged against the door to hear her,’ said the Duke.

‘By the look of her she will die of it,’ continued the old woman. ‘But if I know anything of prisoners, and I have seen a few, thou wilt never break her spirit, my lord.’

‘She must be more humbled now,’ he said to himself. ‘She must turn and implore me for pity.’

The huge door creaked and swung on its hinges, and he stood at the top of two low stone steps, looking down into Isotta’s prison. It was little better than a dungeon of stone, lofty but dark, with one window deep set, high out of reach, and thickly barred. The walls were hung with faded tapestry, the gloomy, sad-looking folds drooping like torn, captured standards. A huge chest of sombre blackness leaned against the wall; above it hung a horn lantern, which after dark gave all the light that was obtained. For the rest, a few high-backed chairs stood stiffly about the room. In his black dress Visconti, pausing at the head of the steps, seemed part of its gloom. His wide-open grey eyes looked straight across at the solitary occupant.

Isotta sat in one of the huge black chairs, her delicate hands resting on the faded crimson velvet of the arms, her feet on a wooden footstool. She was of a fair and noble appearance, but her face was marred by sorrow and her eyes red from many tears. Her pale yellow hair was drawn under a white veil. Her long grey dress clung close about her slender figure. On her knee rested a little book, and on this she kept her eyes. Not by so much as a flutter of her hand did she show she knew of the Visconti’s presence.

He waited, raging inwardly, but words would not come easily to break that silence. At last he slowly descended into the room, his eyes still on her face.

She never stirred, nor raised her own. With his noiseless tread, Visconti paced around the chamber, raising the arras, and testing with his dagger every block of stone. It was a superfluous precaution; any attempt to escape would have been simple madness, and Isotta d’Este was not likely to give way to frenzy. Still it was joy to be sure and doubly sure that she was safe. Every inch was inspected, every crevice searched. Meanwhile from time to time he observed her keenly. But she seemed not to know her solitude was broken, save that once, when he passed her, she swept in the train of her gown, as she might have done had a leper come too near. A simple thing, but it goaded him, and for a moment she was near her death; rage almost overcoming prudence. But as he stood behind her chair, half-inclined to strike, he noticed on her hand, a ring. His expression changed; he smiled; his hand dropped down. The ring was of pearl, cut with the arms of della Scala, and worn on the third finger of her left hand; her wedding ring.

Visconti smiled again. Stooping, he raised her hand, and —‘Will she bear this in silence?’ was his thought. For a moment it seemed as if she might not. The delicate fingers stiffened and half-closed, then, as if remembering anew, she left her hand passive in Visconti’s hold, and only by a faint quiver told she knew the ring had been withdrawn. The spoiled hand fell back again on to the velvet arm, her eyes were fixed immovably upon her book, and Visconti, turning away to the door, silent as he came, looked back at her, incredulous of such control. She was sitting straight and slender, her delicate head poised high, but — ah yes, he thought it must be so! — he noted with delight that her breast heaved and the firm line of her mouth trembled ever so slightly. For a second he stood thus, a ray of the pale prison light caught by the ring he held, then the door clattered and shook back into its bolts, and he was gone.

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