Chapter 3 Venetian Masque by Rafael Sabatini

The real name of this escaping gentleman who rolled out of Turin that night, in a jolting chaise, was Marc-Antoine Villiers de Melleville.

In manner and air he was as French as his real name when he spoke French, but as English as that name's present Anglicized form when he spoke English. And he was not merely bi-lingual. He was bi-national, lord of considerable estates both in England and in France.

He derived his English possessions of Avonford, from his grandmother, the Lady Constantia Villiers, who had been so bright an ornament of the court of Queen Anne. She had married the brilliant Grègoire de Melleville, Vicomte de Saulx, who at the time was French Ambassador at the Court of Saint James's. Their eldest son, Gaston de Melleville, had further diluted the French blood of his house by an English marriage. Himself as much English as French, he had divided his time between the paternal estates at Saulx and the maternal inheritance at Avonford, and it was actually at Avonford that Marc-Antoine had been born, one degree more English than his half-English father before him. When the troubles grew menacing in France, Gaston de Melleville's definite departure for England can hardly be regarded in the light of an emigration.

He placed his affairs in the hands of his steward, Camille Lebel, a young lawyer educated at the Vicomte's own charges, and putting his trust in this man whom he had raised from the soil to the robe, he confidently left him to steer the fortunes of the estates of Saulx through the dangerous political waters of the time.

Upon his father's death, unintimidated by the condition of things in France, and actually encouraged by his English mother, a woman who placed duty above every consideration, Marc-Antoine crossed the Channel to go and set affairs in order at Saulx.

His estates, like those of all emigrated noblemen, had been confiscated by the State, and had been sold for the benefit of the nation. They had, however, been purchased for a bagatelle by Camille Lebel with Melleville money which had come into his hands as the intendant of the estate. No doubt crossed Marc-Antoine's mind even when he found Lebel of such republican consequence in Touraine that he was actually president of the Revolutionary Tribunal of Tours. He assumed that this was a mask donned by that loyal steward the better to discharge his stewardship. Disillusion did not come until, denounced and arrested, it was actually by Lebel that he was sentenced to death. Then he understood.

One great advantage Marc-Antoine possessed over other unfortunate nobles in his desperate case. Wealth was still his, and wealth that was safe in England and could there be drawn upon. This weapon he was shrewd enough to wield. He had perceived how corruptible were these starvelings of the new règime, and to what lengths corruption could go. He sent for the advocate he had employed, but whom Lebel had silenced, and what he said to him induced the lawyer to bring the public prosecutor into the business. Lebel, his work done, had left Tours for Saulx, and this rendered possible the thing that Marc-Antoine proposed. Against his solemn pledge and his note of hand for some thousands of pounds in gold redeemable in London, his name was inserted in a list of persons executed, and he was spirited out of prison and supplied with a passport that bore him safely back across the Channel.

Until their chance meeting that night at the White Cross Inn in Turin, Lebel had remained in the persuasion that no hereditary proprietor of the Saulx estates survived ever to rise up and claim them even should the monarchy be restored. How far that meeting, instead of the catastrophe he had accounted it, was actually destined to further Marc-Antoine's present aims, he was not to realize until he came to a closer scrutiny of Lebel's papers.

This happened at Crescentino. He reached it towards midnight, and since, according to the postilion, his horses had also reached the limit of endurance, he was constrained to put up at the indifferent house that was kept by the postmaster. There, late though the hour and weary though he was, he sat down to investigate, by the light of a couple of tallow candles, the contents of Lebel's dispatch-case. It was then discovered to him that Lebel had not been crossing merely the path of his travels when they met, but also the very purpose of his mission to Venice.

On his escape from France in '93, Marc-Antoine bore with him the fruits of shrewd observations, as a result of which he was able to convey to King George's watchful government a deal of first-hand information. The authority which he derived from his social position, the lucidity of the expositions which he was in a position to make, and the shrewdness of his inferences from the facts, caught the attention of Mr. Pitt. The minister sent for him, not only then, but on subsequent occasions when news more than ordinarily startling from across the Channel rendered desirable the opinions of one as well-informed upon French matters as Marc-Antoine.

From all this it had resulted that when, in the spring of this year 1796, the Vicomte had announced that his own affairs were taking him to Venice, Mr. Pitt displayed his trust in him by inviting him to assume a mission of considerable gravity on behalf of the British Government.

The successes of Bonaparte's Italian campaign had appeared all the more dismaying to Mr. Pitt because so utterly unexpected. Who with the facts before him could have imagined that a mere boy without experience of leadership, followed by a ragged, starveling horde, inadequate in numbers and without proper equipment, could successfully have opposed the coalition of the Piedmontese with the seasoned army of the Empire under the command of veterans in generalship? It was as alarming as it seemed fantastic. If the young Corsican were to continue as he had begun, the result might well be the rescue of the French Republic from the bankruptcy on the brink of which Mr. Pitt perceived it with satisfaction to be reeling. Not only was the exhausted French treasury being replenished by these victories, but the ebbing confidence of the nation in its rulers was being renewed, and the fainting will to maintain the struggle was being revived.

A republican movement which was almost in the nature of a religion was being given a new lease of life, and it was a movement that constituted a deadly peril to all Europe and to all those institutions which European civilization accounted sacred and essential to its welfare.

From the outset William Pitt had laboured to form a coalition of European states which should present a solid, impregnable front to the assaults of the anarch. The withdrawal of Spain from this alliance had been his first grave setback. But the rapid victories of the Army of Italy under Bonaparte, resulting in the armistice of Cherasco, had changed mere disappointment into liveliest alarm. It was idle to continue to suppose that the successes of the young Corsican, who, as a result of a piece of jobbery on the part of Barras, had been placed in command of the Army of Italy, were due only to the favour of fortune. A formidable military genius had arisen, and if Europe were to be saved from the deadly pestilence of Jacobinism, it became necessary to throw every ounce of available strength into the scales against him.

The unarmed neutrality declared by the Republic of Venice could be tolerated no longer. It was not enough that Austria might be prepared to raise and launch fresh armies more formidable than that which Bonaparte had defeated. Venice, however fallen from her erstwhile power and glory, was still capable of putting an army of sixty thousand men into the field; and Venice must be persuaded to rouse herself from her neutrality. Hitherto the Most Serene Republic had met all representations that she should definitely take her stand against the invaders of Italy with the assumption that the forces already ranged against the French were more than sufficient to repel them. Now that the facts proved the error of this assumption, she must be brought to perceive the danger to herself in further temporizing, and out of a spirit of self-preservation, if from no loftier motive, unite with those who stood in arms against the common peril.

This was to be the Vicomte de Saulx's mission. The very laws of Venice, which forbade all private intercourse between an accredited ambassador and the Doge or any member of the Senate, called for something of the kind.

Virtually, then, the Vicomte de Saulx travelled as a secret envoy-extraordinary, charged with a method of advocacy paradoxically impossible to the avowed British Ambassador by virtue of his very office. And since he had set out, the need for this advocacy had been rendered increasingly urgent by Bonaparte's crushing defeat of the Imperial forces at Lodi.

Now Lebel, it appeared from the papers which Marc-Antoine perused with ever-increasing interest and attention, had the same ultimate destination, and went in much the same capacity to represent the French interest.

The elaborate, intimate notes of instruction in Barras' hand confirmed that complete confidence in Lebel which the powers bestowed upon him already announced.

Lebel's first errand was to Bonaparte, from whom he was enjoined to stand no nonsense. He might find—and there were already signs of it—that the general's successes had gone to his head. Should Bonaparte display any troublesome arrogance, let Lebel remind him that the hand that had raised him starving from the gutter could as easily restore him to it.

There were minute instructions for the future conduct of the Italian campaign, but in no particular were they so minute as in what concerned Venice. Venice, Barras pointed out, was dangerously poised, not merely between armed and unarmed neutrality, but between neutrality and hostility. Pressure was being brought to bear upon her. There were signs that Pitt, that monster of perfidy and hypocrisy, was active in the matter. A blunder now might fling Venice into the arms of Austria with sorry consequences for the Army of Italy.

What exactly this would mean was made clear by a minute schedule of the forces by land and sea within Venetian control.

It must be Lebel's task to insist with Bonaparte, and to see that he complied with the insistence, that Venice should be lulled by protestations of friendship until the time to deal with her should arrive, which would be when the Austrian strength was so shattered that alliance with Venice could no longer avail either of them.

The instructions continued. From Bonaparte's headquarters at Milan, Lebel was to proceed to Venice, and there his first task should be thoroughly to organize the revolutionary propaganda.

'In short,' Barras concluded this voluminous note, 'you will so dispose that Venice may be strangled in her sleep. It is your mission first to see that she is lulled into slumber, and then to ensure that those slumbers are not prematurely disturbed.'

An open letter from Barras to the Ambassador Lallemant, presenting the bearer and asserting in unequivocal terms the powers that were vested in him by the Directory, made it clear that Lallemant and Lebel were not personally acquainted. This fact came to nourish and fertilize the notion that was already taking root in Marc-Antoine's mind.

His tallow candles were guttering and flickering at the point of exhaustion and day was breaking before Marc-Antoine with a hectic flush on his prominent cheek-bones and a feverish glitter of excitement in his eyes flung himself, half-dressed as he was upon his bed. And then it was not to sleep, but to survey the prospect spread before him by all that he had read.