The Viper of Milan, by Marjorie Bowen

Chapter 5.

The Painter’s Daughter

Three days had passed since that futile midnight encounter, and Francisco had found no means to enter Milan.

He stood on the banks of the water looking moodily toward the city, watching the figure of Vittore, who trudged along the meadows — his errand to procure provisions.

The three still sheltered in the ruins, to which no owner had returned, nor had any signs of life or occupancy broken the silence within the villa’s all-encircling walls: now, as he watched Vittore out of sight — the boy looking back often to renew his courage — Francisco’s brow was furrowed, and his eyes heavy with sleeplessness. The stream, clear, deep, and sparkling, here ran darkened with the shadow of the willows that bent over it their long bluish leaves. A path, thickly bordered with reeds, ran beside the water to the head of the small lake into which the stream flowed, whence it continued, a scarcely discernible footway, toward the city.

Behind Francisco, separated from him only by the fosse, was the wall of the villa and, Vittore being lost to view, Francisco withdrew his gaze, always roaming restlessly in quest of something that should aid him, and glanced along it curiously. His eyes rested on a great tuft of yellow lichen, brilliant with scarlet spikes; it was so huge and spreading he could not but stare at it. From the lichen his gaze travelled slowly upward, but not a foothold could he see. Spreading above the wall the topmost boughs of a gigantic yew showed a clear-cut black against the sky, and on the broad, fan-like surface brooded a pair of doves, pink, grey, and white. The beauty of the scene, its calmness and repose, exasperated the man’s inaction. He stamped on the little flowers at his feet, then, with a bitter curse at his folly, threw himself upon the grass to watch for Vittore’s return, and ponder, for ever ponder, on his purpose. Suddenly there shot into sight upon the stream a little boat, with high curling prow and gaily painted sides. A blue sail was furled above it, and it was impelled lightly forward by a delicate pair of oars. The grounds of the villa formed a promontory, and coming around the brow of it the boat broke upon his gaze and was within hail at one and the same moment. It came rapidly nearer, and the stranger’s first impulse was to hide himself from these unexpected and unwelcome intruders; but there was no time; as he rose he was observed, but the genial hand-wave and the merry laughter reassured him. These were simple pleasure-seekers. He reseated himself, and the boat came on.

The rower was a dark-haired man of middle age, clothed in a plain brown robe. Lean and vivacious, eager-eyed, he appeared one of those people who are always talking and moving; even seated and rowing he gave the impression of restlessness; of the good humour common to the people too. His companion was a young girl dressed in a simple blue gown. She was a delicate blonde, very young, very slender; the curls of her amber hair were blown across a round dimpled face; eyes of a dancing blue; a sweet small mouth curled in laughter, a fine chin and throat, a slack young figure. This was her principal characteristic, the floating yellow hair like a veil about her.

Coming abreast of Francisco, the man paused on his oars with a friendly greeting.

‘Good day, messer,’ he called. ‘So thou hast found our secret haunt. Graziosa and I had thought this place our own,’ and as he spoke he waved his hand around him at the water.

The boat rocked now alongside the path, and Francisco courteously approached.

‘I am a stranger here,’ he said.

The other glanced at him anew, and with the awakening of a little friendly wonder.

‘A stranger? Ah, then, this is new to thee — this most beautiful part of Italy. I assure thee,’ he continued excitedly, ‘I have been through the fairest parts of Tuscany, I have wandered about Naples, but never have I seen such colours, such lights as here!’ Again he waved his all-inclusive hand. ‘Thou, messer, as a stranger, must see how wonderfully fair it is?’

He paddled the boat nearer among the reeds in his eagerness to obtain new sympathy.

I have not been used to judge lands by their beauty,’ returned Francisco. ‘Yet methinks I have seen spots as beautiful and easier to hold in time of need.’

The other twisted his mouth in contempt. The girl leaned forward, laughing. ‘You forget, father,’ she said, ‘everyone is not a painter.’

But the little man, as if he had found a sudden mission, secured the boat, and, still in silence, stepped ashore, helping his daughter to follow him. Francisco, preoccupied and mistrustful, saw this with uneasiness, and would gladly have withdrawn. Moreover, the smiling face of the happy girl was an added sting to a burning thought.

The enthusiast, however, had no idea of giving up a possible convert, and swept aside the other’s protestations while he commenced pointing out the beauties of the yellow lichen against the villa wall, the sight of which had restored all his good humour. ‘See!’ he exclaimed. ‘How bright it is! See the contrast of the yew — so brilliant, yet so in harmony, so — you do not, paint?’

‘No,’ said Francisco between grimness and scorn. ‘Do I look as if I did?’

The artist glanced anew at his huge frame and tattered attire, and mentally decided he did not.

‘Ah, then, thou dost not understand,’ he said; ‘but I, I am a painter. Agnolo Vistarnini is my name, messer, a student of Taddeo Gaddi.’ He swept off his leather cap with an air of profound respect.

‘Ah, he could paint! I am’ far behind him, messer, but I can see I can see! Which thou canst not,’ he added with superb pity.

‘Graziosa,’ he called, turning to his daughter, ‘we will stay here awhile.’

And seating himself on the bank, he produced from his wallet a panel of wood, polished and carefully planed, upon which he began to draw the outline of a corner of the scene, using a dark brown pigment.

Francisco fell again to brooding while the painter chattered on, dividing his attention between the panel and his daughter, who was wandering up the stream, filling with flowers a flat basket.

‘Thou see’st yonder my daughter, messer,’ he said, pointing to the slender figure in blue. He blew a kiss in her direction. ‘She is the model for my angels —’

‘And the model for thy devils?’ asked Francisco suddenly. Vistarnini started and looked around at the speaker.

‘Devils! Messer!’ He crossed himself. ‘God forbid there should be a model for such found anywhere,’ he said.

‘Yet methinks thou hast in thy city yonder,’ said Francisco with a bitter smile, ‘one who well might sit for the fiend himself: Visconti.’

‘The Duke? Ah, my friend, hush, hush, thou art a stranger, take care! Even in this lonely spot such words are far from safe. Who art thou, messer, who dost not live in Milan and yet speakest with such a look of the Visconti?’

‘Do not all who know the Visconti speak with such a look of him?’

The painter gazed at him in silence.

Tut thou askest for my name,’ continued the other. ‘I am Francisco di Coldra, one who has suffered much from the Visconti’

‘In the sack of Verona, perhaps?’ asked Agnolo after a pause. ‘The sack of Verona was some time ago. The prisoners have been in Milan twenty days!’

These words were inscrutable, and the little painter did not even try to understand them; but they kindled a memory that would not be repressed.

‘Ah, and what a night that was,’ he cried, ‘when the Duke reentered Milan with them! Since I do not hurt thee by the recollection, messer, let me tell thee, it was a splendid sight, that night the Duke returned. I live a quiet life, as an artist may do, even in Milan. I know little, I care little for the wars of princes. They tell me the Visconti’s crimes outnumber the stars; but, messer, his shadow has not fallen across my house, and what one does not see one does not fear — but when he returned from Verona, that was a sight, messer. It was late. Our house overlooks the western gate, and all day long the messengers had come and sped, bringing the news the Duke was here. Towards evening — we leaning from the window as did everyone — Alberic, da Salluzzo comes galloping to the walls — red-hot upon some report that the Visconti has been slain — to look to the arming of the citizens. Even as we strain from the window, following the flash of his plumes — back he comes in madder haste — the Visconti is alive! The people shout and yell, and some cry ’tis not the Visconti’s army on the road, but della Scala’s. Meanwhile a mob, with Napoleone della Torre at their head, begins to agitate, to threaten riot. With a strong hand Alberic puts them down — the streets are cleared, Graziosa and I on the balcony, all is dark, silent, save now and then the clink of the armour of the sentries on the walls. I am too excited for sleep, messer, all so hushed, so subdued, waiting, waiting. All at once it comes. Oh, the rattle, the roar! The great gates clatter back, the streets fill with crowds no man can keep back. The victorious army pelts through them; two men on every horse, great flaring torches throwing their yellow light on the torn banners and the wild faces of the soldiers, and then the cannon, leaping over the rough stones, drawn by the smoke-blackened gunners, all tearing, rushing through the streets, a mass of light and shade, wonderful, wonderful! In the midst, the Visconti, the ragged light streaming over his battered armour, and Isotta d’Este, guarded between two soldiers, swaying on her black horse, and above all the shouts of the frenzied triumph of the Milanese . . . Ah!’

Agnolo paused now for want of breath, and glanced at his companion.

But Francisco offered no response. His face was turned away, and his hands were clenched. The little painter had a vague sense of having allowed a mere artist’s enthusiasm to carry him too far into a dangerous theme.

‘Ah, well,’ he continued in a deprecating tone, ‘a splendid sight truly, and one to fire the blood, but I am a man of peace, and I greatly grieve della Scala should have perished. He was a noble prince.’

The stranger rose abruptly.

‘Do not speak of della. Scala,’ he said harshly. ‘I love to hear his name as little as Visconti’s. His was the crime of failure.’

‘Failure! Who would not have failed?’ said Agnolo gently, for he thought he spoke to one who must have lost his all in the sacked town. ‘I know little of such things, but ’twas here and there asserted he fell by craft as well as force, and he was a great soldier and an honourable man, Messer Francisco.’

‘He had all the virtues, doubtless,’ said Francisco, ‘and lost Verona.’

‘And his life!’ replied the painter. ‘Ah, well, these things are grievous! The saints protect my daughter from all share in them,’ and he glanced affectionately toward Graziosa, returning through the grey-green willows with lilies in her hands.

‘For my pictures,’ said the painter, pointing to them. ‘I am painting an altar-piece — for the lunettes. I shall have Graziosa as St Catherine, and Ambrogio (her betrothed, messer) as St Michael. These flowers will make the border.’

He took some as he spoke, and began arranging them in wreaths.

Francisco would scarcely have heeded the speaker’s words, save that his glance was caught almost involuntarily by the girl’s sweet blush at mention of her lover’s name.

Thy betrothed,’ he murmured, interested a moment in the happiness that was such a contrast to his own feeling. ‘And does he paint too?’

Graziosa looked up with sparkling eyes.

‘Beautifully,’ she said eagerly. ‘He is at work now in the Church of Sant’Apollinare in Brescia. We have not seen his painting, the journey is too long; but some of the panel bits he has shown us, and they are noble.’

Francisco smiled faintly at her outspokenness, and her father laughed good-humouredly.

‘Thou must not listen to her,’ he said. ‘She overrates his painting. He paints well, truly, but cold! ah, so cold; no spirit in it! He will sit for hours thinking how the fold of a robe should fall. I, however, have seen Taddeo Gaddi paint! The angels would seem to flow from his brush as if he gave no thought to them!’ But Graziosa turned a smiling face from the boat she was unmooring.

‘His altar-piece will draw all Lombardy,’ she cried.

‘Say rather that his altar-piece draws him away from thee,’ laughed the painter, ‘and thou wilt be nearer to the truth. The altar-piece has all his time; thou but a few meagre hours a week! Still, they love each other, messer, and are happy, so we never care whether Ambrogio paints well or ill.’ Graziosa seated herself under the blue sail, and looked up with radiant-eyes.

‘I am very happy,’ she laughed softly, ‘so never mind whether he paint the best or the second best in Italy.’

The painter grasped the oars and pushed out into the stream: ‘Good-bye,’ he called, and Graziosa waved a hand; then something in the stranger’s aspect made the little painter pause again.

‘Gladly would we offer our poor hospitality, messer,’ he said, ‘only the gates are sternly barred to any stranger . . . ’ But Graziosa, glancing also at the strong, commanding figure, and the stern set face, checked her father’s impulse.

‘We are too humble, father,’ she said gently, ‘but if there were any service we could render, any message —? We live at the sign of Lo Scudo, the armourer’s, near to the western gate.’

‘I will remember it,’ said Francisco simply.

Graziosa drew her blue cloth hood about her smiling face, and, with gentle strokes from the painter’s paddle, the boat disappeared.

When Francisco found himself alone again, momentary misgiving seized him that he had lost an opportunity.

Could these folk have been of service? They were of a sort unknown to him; courtiers, soldiers, burghers, merchants, with all such he was at home, but these plebeians of kindly nature and good speech, of humble rank and careless happiness, were new to him. The painter’s talk of his craft had had no meaning for Francisco, it had passed from his mind for craziness; but the girl had said they dwelt near the, western gate — could they perchance have been of service? But presently he dismissed the notion; they were too simple for his purpose.

Raging in the pain of rekindled memory and present helplessness, Francisco paced to and fro, waiting for Vittore’s figure in the distance.

Suddenly his eyes rested again on the great clump of yellow lichen, and he stopped, arrested.

In the midst of it he had seen something that interested him, something very much its colour, but not quite its kind.

He approached, and thrusting his hand in among the great tufts, touched the rusty iron of a disused bolt. There was a door here, then, that led into the grounds of the deserted villa! Francisco’s heart beat strongly.

From the finding of the silver goblet in the ruined hut, he had associated with the Visconti’s name the darkened dwelling and its silent grounds. There was none to question, for there was none of whom he dared inquire; but more than once Francisco had thought of trying to enforce an entrance, only to find, however, that by whomsoever abandoned, ingress to the villa had been left well-nigh impossible. But here was an entrance that had been overlooked, and it was not to be wondered at, for the rusty bolt could have been discerned only by eyes as keen as his, and the door belonging was completely hidden by close-growing ivy, too frail to climb by, but the most effectual of all concealments. Tearing up the lichen from its roots, Francisco set to work upon the ivy. The delicate, rope-like strands clung with their black filaments like fingers bewitched, and little had been accomplished when Francisco, taking cautious survey around him, saw Vittore returning across the meadows. Concealing what he was about, Francisco waited till the lad came up, flushed and triumphant from a successful errand.

‘What news going in the city?’ asked Francisco.

‘All is quiet. One of the soldiers snatched a leek from me, another bade me tell my sister he was still unwed. They jested finely, but I should not like them to have turned to questioning me. There were so many, and so finely armed.’

‘And the money? Didst thou need to change the pieces that I gave thee?’

‘Yes, messer, I had not enough! They said it was Veronese.’

‘Nothing new to them in Milan now — the money of the Veronese,’ said Francisco, with a flashing glance toward the ramparts.

‘They told me ’twas no longer taken; that the Duke was having it recast. But a bystander reached forward, and gave me a piece of Milanese. He said that he would keep my piece; it bore the della Scala arms, he said, and was a curiosity.’

Francisco muttered something that the lad did not catch.

‘Well, thou hast faced the soldiers and the market now,’ he said aloud, ‘and art safe for other journeys, as I promised thee. Go on to the hut, and give thyself food and Tomaso. Keep close and answer none. I will be with thee presently.’

The boy went on obediently. These two days with his rescuer had taught him and Tomaso both that what Francisco said he meant, and his word was their law already. But Francisco needed stronger allies.

With some half-formed thought that the villa might conceal one, he now returned to his attack upon the ivy, and after many a wrench and cut and struggle, the garden door stood bare enough to use. It was stained, discoloured, locked, and immovable.

But this was nothing to Francisco; with his dagger he cut the woodwork around the lock, removed it, and, thrusting his hand and arm well through the breach, with no great difficulty withdrew the upper and lower bolts. With knee and shoulder then he pressed inward, driving against the weeds and growths that choked it, and presently had forced an aperture that would admit him.

After a cautious glance along the meadow path, fortunately for his purpose little used, he replaced the loose strands of ivy as far as he was able, and slipping through, pushed the door back into its place, filling up the broken lock with green.

He was in a garden of great beauty. The yew-tree overhead shaded a patch of velvety green starred with daisies. Before him a straight path led to a marble seat and a belt of cypress trees.

The ring-doves cooed blissfully; the flowering trees stirred; there was no other sound save the distant one of faintly splashing water. Treading softly, Francisco set forward in the direction in which he knew the villa lay.

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