Chapter 2 Venetian Masque by Rafael Sabatini

In a flash Mr. Melville perceived all that he had contributed to the confusion of identities. His height and build were much the same as Lebel's. Like Lebel, he wore a grey riding-coat, and the landlord evidently overlooked the lack of the representative's tricolour sash. Both he and Lebel had arrived at nightfall, and had been seen only briefly in the dimly lighted passage. The most distinguishing feature between them so viewed was the panached hat of the representative; and this Mr. Melville was now wearing. Also, whereas on arrival Mr. Melville had spoken Italian, now, in summoning the landlord, he had used the language in which he had lately been speaking to Lebel. Therefore, even before seeing him, the landlord had persuaded himself that it was the Frenchman who called him.

All this he perceived in a flash, between saying 'Oh, yes,' and adding the second 'Yes.' From that perception Mr. Melville passed instantly to consider how best he could turn the landlord's error to account. The most imminent danger was that of an invasion of the room above-stairs whilst he was waiting for the chaise.

He must begin by averting this, and hope that in the leisure gained he would discover the next step. To this end he spoke promptly.

'You may order the horses to be harnessed and the postilion to be ready. I shall be departing presently. But first this English traveller and I have business together. A very fortunate meeting. We are not on any account to be disturbed.' He turned on the stairs as he spoke. 'You understand?'

'Oh, but perfectly.'

'Good.' Mr. Melville began to ascend again.

A waiter appeared, to inform the landlord that he was ready to serve the supper ordered by the gentleman above. Mr. Melville, overhearing him, paused.

'Let that wait,' he said, with the peremptory curtness that Lebel had used. 'Let it wait...until we call for it.'

Back in the room above-stairs, with the door now locked, Mr. Melville took his square jutting chin in his hand, and those cold, thoughtful, wide-set eyes of his considered the body at his feet without emotion. What was to do he by now perceived. Precisely how to do it might be suggested, he hoped, by the papers in the representative's dispatch-case.

He made a beginning by transferring the sash of office from Lebel's waist to his own. In adjusting it, he surveyed himself in the long gilt-framed mirror above the console. He took off the big cocked hat, and pulled his long black hair a little more about his face, so as to deepen the shadows in it. Beyond this he attempted no change in his appearance, and when it was done he went to work swiftly, and, all things considered, with a surprising calm. There was not a tremor in the hands with which he searched Lebel's pockets. He found some money: a bundle of freshly printed assignats, and a small handful of Sardinian silver; a pocket knife; a handkerchief; and some other trivial odds and ends; a bunch of four keys on a little silken cord; and a passport on a sheet of linen-backed paper.

Proceeding with method, he next emptied his own pockets, and from their contents made a selection of passport, notebook, soiled assignats and other loose money, a handkerchief, and a silver snuffbox engraved with a monogram of the letters M.A.V.M. which agreed nearly enough with the name on the passport. These objects he bestowed suitably in the pockets of Lebel.

To his own pockets he transferred all that he had taken from Lebel's, with the exception of the little bunch of keys, which he placed on the table, and the linen-backed passport, which he now unfolded. His eyes brightened at the terms of it.

It bore the signature of Barras and was countersigned by Carnot. It announced that the Citizen Camille Lebel, a member of the Council of the Cinque-Cents, travelled as the fully accredited representative of the Directory of the French Republic, One and Indivisible, on a mission of state; it commanded all subjects of the French Republic to render him assistance when called upon to do so; it warned any who hindered him that he did so at the peril of his life; and it desired all officers of whatsoever rank or degree, civil or military, to place at his disposal all the resources within their control.

It was not merely a passport. It was a mandate, and probably as formidable as any that had ever been issued by the Directory. It showed Mr. Melville the heights to which the dead rogue had climbed. A man to whom such powers were entrusted must himself be ripe for election as a director.

A description of the bearer was appended: Height 1.75 metres (which was within a couple of centimetres of Mr. Melville's own height), build slim, carriage erect, face lean, features regular, complexion pale, mouth wide, teeth strong and white, eyebrows black, hair black and thick, eyes black, distinctive signs none.

In all details save only that of the colour of the eyes, the description fitted Mr. Melville. But the eyes offered an awkward obstacle, and he did not see how the word 'noirs' was to be changed into 'gris' without leaving obvious and dangerous signs of tampering penmanship. Inspiration came, however. Writing materials were on the table. He sat down and made experiments. The ink was stale and deep in colour, a shade deeper than that on the document, he thinned it with water from a carafe, adding drop by drop until he was satisfied. Then he chose a quill, tested it, cut it, tested it again, and rehearsed with it on a separate sheet of paper. Finally satisfied, he addressed himself with confidence to the passport. It was a simple matter to lengthen the first limb of the n, so that it became a p; he appended a stroke to the o, so that it became an a, and added a circumflex above; he passed on to join the dot with the body of the next letter, so that the i was transformed into an l. Then a little curl above the r made it look like an e, and the final s remained intact. He let it dry, and then examined it. A magnifying-glass might reveal what had been done, but to the naked eye 'noirs' had been impeccably transformed into 'pâles'; a neat compromise, thought Mr. Melville.

He had proceeded without haste, and therefore a little time had been consumed. To make up for it he went now to work more briskly. He unlocked Lebel's dispatch-case. A swift survey of its contents was all that the moment permitted. But here he was fortunate. Almost the first document he scanned disclosed that Lebel was the creature of Barras, dispatched by Barras to exercise surveillance over Bonaparte—that other creature of Barras'—to check the young general's inclination to go beyond the authority of his position, and to remind him constantly that there was a government in Paris from which he must take his orders and to which he would ultimately be answerable.

For the moment this was all that he required to know. He thrust back the papers and locked the case.

His eyes moved slowly round the room in a last survey. Satisfied, he drew a sheet of paper towards him, took up a pen, dipped it, and wrote swiftly:

Citizen—I require that you wait upon me here at the White Cross Inn without an instant's delay on a matter of national importance.

He signed it shortly with the name Lebel, and added below the words: 'Reprèsentant en mission.'

He folded it, and scrawled the superscription: 'To the Commandant de Place of the French Garrison in Turin.'

Out on the landing, in the harsh, peremptory tones the Frenchman had used, Mr. Melville bawled for the landlord. When he had curtly ordered him to have the note conveyed at once, he went back and shut himself into the room again; but this time he did not trouble to lock the door.

It was a full half-hour before voices, a heavy tread on the stairs, and the clatter of a sabre against the balusters proclaimed the arrival of the commandant.

The officer, a tall, gaunt, sinewy man of forty, his natural arrogance and self-sufficiency inflamed by the curt terms of the note he had received, flung the door wide, and walked in unannounced. He checked at what he beheld upon the floor. Then his questioning glance travelled to the man who, pencil in hand at the table, sat as unconcernedly busy with some documents as if corpses were his daily companions.

The truculent eyes of the soldier met a sterner truculence in the eyes of the gentleman with the pencil. He heard himself greeted in a rasping tone of reproof.

'You make yourself awaited.'

The officer bridled. 'I am not at everybody's beck and call.' With a soldier's ready sneer for the politician, he added: 'Not even a citizen-representative's.'

'Ah!' Mr. Melville poised his pencil. 'Your name, if you please?'

The question crackled so sharply that the commandant, who was himself full of questions by now, answered it almost unawares.

'Colonel Lescure, Commandant de Place in Turin.'

Mr. Melville made a note. Then he looked up as if waiting for something more. As it did not immediately come, he added it himself.

'Entirely at my orders, I hope.'

'At your orders? See here. Supposing you begin by telling me what this means. Is that man dead?'

'You have eyes, haven't you? Take a look at him. As to what it means, it means that there has been an accident.'

'Oh! An accident! That's simple, isn't it? Just an accident.' He was full of obvious malice. Behind him the landlord showed a round white face of fear.

'Well, perhaps not quite an accident,' Mr. Melville amended.

The colonel had gone forward, and was stooping over the body. In that stooping attitude he looked round to jeer again: 'Oh, not quite an accident?' He stood up, and turned. 'Seems to me that this is a police affair; that a man has been murdered. Supposing you tell me the truth about the matter.'

'Why else do you suppose I sent for you? But don't raise your voice to me. I don't like it. I met this man here tonight by chance. I distrusted his looks and his manner. For one thing, he was English; and God knows no Frenchman today has cause to think well of any member of that perfidious race. An Englishman in Turin, or anywhere in Italy, may be an object of suspicion to any but a fool. Foolishly I announced the intention of sending for you that he might render a proper account of himself before you. At that he drew a pistol on me. It is there on the floor. I struck him. He fell, and by the mercy of Providence broke his head on that fire-iron, on which, if you look, you will find blood. That is all that I can tell you. And now you know precisely what occurred.'

'Oh, I do, do I? Oh, I do?' The commandant was laboriously ironical. 'And who is to confirm this pretty little tale of yours?'

'If you were not a fool you would see the evidence for yourself. The blood on the fire-iron; the nature of the wound; the position in which he is lying. He had not been moved since he fell. He will have papers that should speak to his identity as an Englishman, named Marcus Melville. I know that he has, because he showed them to me under my insistence. You will find them in his pocket. You had better have a look at them. And at the same time, it may save words if you have a look at mine.' And he proffered the linen-backed sheet.

It checked an outburst from the empurpling colonel. He snatched the passport, and then his manner changed as he read those formidable terms, which might be said to place the entire resources of the State at the bearer's service. His eyes grew round. The high colour receded from his cheeks.

'Bu...but, citizen-representative, why...why did you not tell me sooner?'

'You did not ask. You take so much for granted. You seem so ignorant of the proper forms. Do you know, Colonel Lescure, that you do not impress me very favourably? I shall have occasion to mention it to General Bonaparte.'

The colonel stood dismayed.

'But name of a name! Not knowing who you were...In dealing with a stranger...naturally...I...'

'Silence! You deafen me.' Mr. Melville recovered the passport from the soldier's nerveless fingers. He stood up. 'You have wasted enough of my time already. I have not forgotten that I was kept waiting half-an-hour for your arrival.'

'I did not realize the urgency.' The colonel was perspiring.

'It was stated in my note to you. I even said that the matter was one of national importance. That to a zealous officer should have been enough. More than enough.' He began to replace his documents in the dispatch-case. His cold, hard, inflexible voice went on: 'You are now in possession of the facts of what happened here. The urgency of my business does not permit me to be detained for the convenience of the local authorities and their inquiries into this man's death. I am already overdue at General Headquarters in Milan. I leave this matter in your hands.'

'Of course. Of course, citizen-representative. Why, indeed, should you be troubled further in the affair?'

'Why, indeed?' Ever stern and uncompromising he locked the dispatch-case and turned to the awed landlord. 'Is the chaise ready?'

'It has been waiting this half-hour, sir.'

'Lead the way then, if you please. Good-night, citizen-colonel.'

But on the threshold the commandant stayed him. 'Citizen-representative! You—you will not be too harsh with an honest soldier, who was seeking to do his duty in the dark. If now...General Bonaparte...'

Eyes light and hard as agates flashed upon him sternly. Then a chill, tolerant smile broke faintly on the features of the citizen-representative. He shrugged.

'So that I hear no more of this affair, you shall hear no more of it,' he said, and with a nod went out.