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Chapter 1 Venetian Masque by Rafael Sabatini

The traveller in the grey riding-coat, who called himself Mr. Melville was contemplating the malice of which the gods are capable. They had conducted him unscathed through a hundred perils merely, it seemed, so that they might in their irony confront him with destruction in the very hour in which at last he accounted himself secure.

It was this delusive sense of security, the reasonable conviction that having reached Turin the frontiers of danger were behind him, which had urged him to take his ease.

And so in the dusk of a May evening he had got down from his travelling-chaise, and walked into the trap which it afterwards seemed to him that the gods had wantonly baited.

In the dimly lighted passage the landlord bustled to inquire his needs. The inn's best room, its best supper, and the best wine that it could yield. He issued his commands in fairly fluent Italian. His voice was level and pleasantly modulated, yet vibrant in its undertones with the energy and force of his nature.

In stature he was above the middle height and neatly built. His face, dimly seen by the landlord under the shadow of the grey sugar-loaf hat and between the wings of black hair that hung to the collar on either side of it, was square and lean, with a straight nose and a jutting chin. His age cannot have been more than thirty.

Accommodated in the best room above-stairs, he sat in the candlelight contentedly awaiting supper when the catastrophe occurred. It was heralded by a voice on the stairs; a man's voice, loud and vehement and delivering itself harshly in French. The door of Mr. Melville's room had been left ajar, and the words carried clearly to him where he sat. It was not merely what was said that brought a frown to his brow, but the voice itself. It was a voice that set memories dimly astir in him; a voice that he was certainly not hearing for the first time in his life.

'You are a postmaster and you have no horses! Name of God! It is only in Italy that such things are permitted to happen. But we shall change that before all is over. Anyway, I take what I find. I am in haste. The fate of nations hangs upon my speed.'

Of the landlord's answer from below a mumble was all that reached him. That harsh, peremptory voice rejoined.

'You will have horses by morning, you say? Very well, then. This traveller shall yield me his horses, and in the morning take those you can supply. It is idle to argue with me. I will inform him myself. I must be at General Bonaparte's headquarters not later than tomorrow.'

Brisk steps came up the stairs and crossed the short landing. The door of Mr. Melville's room was pushed open, and that voice, which was still exercising him, was speaking before its owner fully appeared.

'Sir, let my necessity excuse the intrusion. I travel on business of the utmost urgency.' And again that pompous phrase: 'The fate of nations hangs upon my speed. This post-house has no horses until morning. But your horses are still fit to travel, and you are here for the night. Therefore...'

And there abruptly the voice broke off. Its owner had turned to close the door, whilst speaking. Turning again, and confronting the stranger, who had risen, the Frenchman's utterance was abruptly checked; the last vestige of colour was driven from his coarsely featured face; his dark eyes dilated in an astonishment that gradually changed to fear.

He stood so for perhaps a dozen quickened heart-beats, a man of about Mr. Melville's own height and build, with the same black hair about his sallow, shaven face. Like Mr. Melville he wore a long grey riding-coat, a garment common enough with travellers; but in addition he was girt by a tricolour sash, whilst the conspicuous feature of his apparel was the wide black hat that covered him. It was cocked in front, á la Henri IV, and flaunted a tricolour panache and a tricolour cockade.

Slowly in the silence he recovered from the shock he had sustained. His first wild fear that he was confronted by a ghost yielded to the more reasonable conclusion that he was in the presence of one of those jests of nature by which occasionally a startling duplication of features is produced.

In this persuasion he might well have remained if Mr. Melville had not completed the betrayal of himself which Fate had so maliciously conducted to this point.

'An odd chance, Lebel,' he said, his tone sardonic, his grey eyes cold as ice. 'A very odd chance.'

The Citizen-Representative Lebel blinked and gasped, and at once recovered. There were no more illusions either about supernatural manifestations or chance likenesses.

'So it is you, Monsieur le Vicomte!' The thick lips tightened. 'And in the flesh. Faith, this is very interesting.' He set his dispatch-case on a marble-topped console beside Mr. Melville's conical grey hat. He uncovered himself and placed his own hat on the dispatch-case. There were beads of perspiration glistening on his brow just below the straight fringe of black hair. 'Very interesting,' he repeated. 'It is not every day that we meet a man who has been guillotined. For you were guillotined—were you not?—at Tours, in ninety-three.'

'According to the records.'

'Oh, I am aware of the records.'

'Naturally. Having been at such pains to sentence me, you would not be likely to neglect to make sure that the sentence had been executed. Only that, Lebel, could give you security of tenure in my lands. Only that could ensure that when France returns to sanity, you will not be kicked back to the dunghill where you belong.'

Lebel displayed no emotion. His coarse, crafty face remained set in impassivity.

'It seems that I did not make sure enough. The matter calls for inquiry. It may bring some heads to the basket besides your own. It will be interesting to discover how you come to be a ci-devant in two senses.'

Mr. Melville was ironical. 'Who has better cause than yourself to know what bribery can do among the masters of your cankered republic, your kingdom of blackguards? You, who have corrupted and bribed so freely, and who have so freely been bribed and corrupted, should find no mystery in my survival.'

Lebel set his arms akimbo, scowling. 'I find a mystery in that a man in your condition should take that tone with me.'

'No mystery, Lebel. We are no longer in France. The warrant of the French Republic doesn't run in the dominions of the King of Sardinia.'

'Does it not?' Lebel chuckled maliciously. 'Is that your fool's paradise? My dear ci-devant, the arm of the French Republic reaches farther than you suppose. We may no longer be in France, but the Republic is master here as elsewhere. We have a sufficient garrison in Turin to see that Victor Amadeus observes the terms of the Peace of Cherasco and to do what else we please. You will find the commandant very much at my orders. You'll realize how a French warrant runs here when you are on your way back to Tours, so that the little omission of three years ago may be repaired.'

It was at this point, in the sudden annihilation of his confidence, that Mr. Melville was brought to contemplate the cruel ironies of which the gods are capable. This man, who once had been his father's steward, was perhaps the only member of the government personally acquainted with him, and certainly the only one whose interests would be served by his death. And of all the millions of Frenchmen in the world, it must be just this Lebel who was chosen by Fate to walk in upon him at the White Cross Inn.

For a moment a wave of anguish swept over him. It was not only that his own personal ruin confronted him, but the ruin at the same time of the momentous mission to Venice with which Mr. Pitt had entrusted him, a mission concerned with the very fortunes of civilization, imperilled by Jacobin activities beyond the frontiers of France.

'A moment, Lebel!'

His cry checked the Frenchman as he was turning to depart. He turned again; not indeed to the request, but to the quick step behind him. His right hand slid into the pocket of his riding-coat.

'What now?' he growled. 'There is no more to be said.'

'There is a great deal more to be said.' Mr. Melville's voice miraculously preserved its level tone. In his manner there was no betrayal of the anxiety consuming him. He side-stepped swiftly, putting himself between Lebel and the door. 'You do not leave this room, Lebel. I thank you for warning me of your intentions.'

Lebel was contemptuously amused.

'Perhaps because I am a lawyer I prefer things to be done for me by the law and in proper form. But if that is denied me by violence, I must act for myself in kind. Now, will you stand away from that door and let me pass?'

His hand emerged from his pocket grasping the butt of a pistol. He proceeded without haste. Perhaps it amused him to be deliberate; to observe the futile struggles of a victim, trapped and helpless at pistol-point.

Mr. Melville was without weapons other than his bare hands. But there was more of the Englishman in him than the name. Before the muzzle of that slowly drawn pistol had cleared the lip of Lebel's pocket a bunch of knuckles crashed into the point of his jaw. The blow sent him reeling backwards across the room. Then, his balance lost, he toppled over and went down at full length with a clatter of fire-irons which his fall disturbed.

He lay quite still.

Mr. Melville stepped forward, swiftly and delicately. He stooped to pick up the pistol which had fallen from the Citizen-Representative Lebel's hand.

'Now I don't think you will send for the commandant,' he murmured. 'At least, not until I am well away from Turin.' He touched the fallen man with his toe contemptuously. 'Get up, canaille.' But even as he issued the command, his attention was caught by the queer, limp inertness of the body. The eyes, he perceived, were half-open. Looking more closely, he saw a spreading flow of blood upon the floor. And then the spike of an overturned andiron caught his eye. It was tipped with crimson. He realized at once that Lebel's head had struck it in his fall, and that it had pierced his skull.

With a catch in his breath, Mr. Melville went down on one knee beside the body, thrust his hand inside the breast of the coat, and felt for the heart. The man was dead.

He came to his feet again, shuddering, nauseated. For a moment, the shock of finding himself an unintentional murderer turned him numb. When presently he recovered the use of his wits, physical nausea was supplanted by panic. At any moment the landlord or another might walk into that room and find him with the body; and the body that of a man in high authority among the French, who, as Lebel had informed him, were virtually, if not officially, the masters here in Turin. He would have to face the French commandant, after all, and in no whit better case than if Lebel had summoned him. There were no explanations that would save or serve him. Investigation of his identity, if they troubled about that, would merely provide confirmation of the deliberate murderous intent with which it would be assumed that he had acted.

Only instant flight remained, and even of this the chances were dismayingly slender. He could announce that he had changed his mind, that he would pursue his journey that very night, at once, and demand his chaise. But whilst the horses were being harnessed and the postilion was making ready, it was unthinkable that no one should enter his room, that there should be no inquiry for the French representative who had gone to interview him. His very action in calling for his chaise must excite suspicion and inquiry. Yet he must take this monstrous chance. There was no alternative.

He stepped briskly to the door, and pulled it open. From the threshold, whilst putting out his hand to take his hat from the console, his eyes, those grey eyes that were normally so calm and steady, wandered in a last glance of horror to the supine form with its head by the hearth and its toes pointing to the ceiling.

He went out, mechanically pulling the door after him until it latched. He clattered down the stairs calling for the landlord, in a voice the harshness of which almost surprised him; and because of the confusion in his mind, French was the language that he used.

As he reached the foot of the stairs, the landlord emerged from a door on the left.

'Here, citizen-representative.' He advanced a step or two, and bowed with great deference. 'I hope the English gentleman has been persuaded to accommodate you.'

Mr. Melville was taken aback. ' accommodate me?'

'To yield you his horses, I mean.'

The landlord was staring at him. Instinctively, not knowing yet what capital might be made of this unaccountable mistake, Mr. Melville averted his countenance a little. In doing so he found himself looking into a mirror on the wall, and the landlord's mistake became less unaccountable. He was wearing Lebel's wide-brimmed hat cocked á la Henri IV with its tricolour panache and tricolour cockade.

He braced himself, and answered vaguely: 'Oh, yes. Yes.'

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