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Chapter 5 Venetian Masque by Rafael Sabatini

If the manners of Mr. Melville had ruffled the feelings of the ambassador of the French Republic, One and Indivisible, they were almost as severely to ruffle those of the ambassador of His Britannic Majesty, upon whom he waited that same afternoon. There was, however, a difference. Whilst the overbearing tone assumed with Lallemant had been purely histrionic, convincingly to colour the rôle assumed, that which he employed with Sir Richard Worthington was a genuine expression of his feelings.

Sir Richard, a stocky, sandy, pompous man, hung out those inevitable banners of a poor intellect: self-sufficiency and suspicion. Prone to assume the worst, he was of those who build suspicions into convictions without analyzing their own mental processes. It is a common enough type, readily identified; and within five minutes of being in the ambassador's presence Mr. Melville was aware in dismay that he conformed with it.

He presented to the ambassador a letter from Mr. Pitt which had travelled with him from England in the lining of his boot.

Seated at his writing-table, Sir Richard left his visitor standing, whilst with the aid of a glass he slowly perused the letter.

He looked up at last and his greenish eyes narrowed in scrutiny of the slim straight figure before him.

'You are the person designated here?' he asked in a high-pitched voice that went well with his receding chin and sloping brow.

'That would seem to follow, would it not?'

Sir Richard opened his eyes a little wider at the tone.

'I did not ask you what would seem to follow. I like direct answers. However...Mr. Pitt says here that you will state your business.'

'And he requests you, I think, to afford me every assistance in the discharge of it.'

Sir Richard opened his greenish eyes to their utmost. He set the letter down, and sat back in his tall chair. There was an edge to his thin tone. 'What is this business, sir?'

Mr. Melville stated it briefly and calmly. Sir Richard raised his sandy brows. A flush was creeping up to his cheek-bones.

'His Majesty is already quite adequately represented here. I fail to perceive the necessity for such a mission.'

It was Mr. Melville's turn to be annoyed. The man was a pompous idiot. 'That observation is not for me; but for Mr. Pitt. At the same time you may tell him of something else that you fail to perceive.'

'If you please?'

'Something that suggested to him that he should supplement you. Representations of the kind that expediency now suggests should be made to the rulers of the Most Serene Republic, to be effective are not to be made in public.'

'Naturally.' The ambassador was sharp and frosty. 'You will not have travelled all the way from England to state the obvious.'

'It seems that I have. Since the laws of Venice rigidly forbid all private intercourse between any member of the government and the ambassador of a foreign power, you are debarred by your office from steps possible only to an individual visiting Venice in an ostensibly private capacity.'

Sir Richard made a gesture of impatience. 'My dear sir, there are ways of doing these things.'

'If there are, they are ways that do not commend themselves to Mr. Pitt.'

Mr. Melville accounted that he had been standing long enough. He pulled up a chair, and sat down facing the ambassador across his Louis XV writing-table, which was of a piece with the handsome furnishings, the gildings and brocades of that lofty room.

Sir Richard glared, but kept to the subject.

'Yet those ways are so manifest, that I fail, as I have said—utterly fail—to perceive the necessity for the intervention of a...a secret agent.' His tone was contemptuous. 'That I suppose is how you are to be described.'

'Unless you would prefer to call me a spy,' said Mr. Melville humbly.

Suspecting sarcasm, Sir Richard ignored the interpolation. 'I fail to see what good can come of it. In fact, at this juncture, I can conceive that harm might follow; great harm; incalculable harm.'

'Considering what has happened at Lodi, I should have thought that the representations I am charged to make have become of a singular urgency.'

'I do not admit, sir, your qualifications to judge. I do not admit them at all. You must allow me to know better, sir.' His ruffled vanity was stiffening him in obstinacy. 'The importance of what happened at Lodi may easily be exaggerated by the uninformed; by those who do not know, as I know, the resources of the Empire. I have sure information that within three months Austria will have a hundred thousand men in Italy. That should abundantly suffice to sweep this French rabble out of the country. There is the answer for timid alarmists who take fright at these lucky successes of the French.'

Mr. Melville lost patience. 'And if in the meanwhile Venice should be drawn into alliance with France?'

Sir Richard laughed unpleasantly. 'That, sir, is fantastic, unimaginable.'

'Even if France should tempt the Serenissima with offers of alliance?'

'That, too, is unimaginable.'

'You are sure of that?'

'As sure as that I sit here, sir.'

Mr. Melville fetched a sigh of weariness, produced his snuffbox and proceeded to shatter that complacency.

'You relieve me. I desired to test your opinions by that question. I find, as I supposed, that I cannot trust myself to be guided by them.'

'By God, sir! You are impudent.'

'Mr. Melville snapped his snuffbox. With a pinch of snuff held between thumb and forefinger, he tapped the writing-table with his second finger. 'The proposals of alliance which you so complacently assert to be unimaginable have already been put forward.'

The ambassador's countenance momentarily reflected his dismayed astonishment. 'But...But...How could you possibly know that?'

'You may accept my assurance that the French Ambassador here has received instructions from Bonaparte to propose an alliance to the Serenissima.'

Sir Richard announced his recovery by a fleering laugh.

'Only an utter ignorance of procedure could permit you so easily to be deceived. My good sir, it is not for Bonaparte to make such proposals. He has no such powers. These are matters for governments, not for soldiers.'

'I am as aware as you are, Sir Richard, of the irregularity. But it does not affect the fact. That Bonaparte has done this I know; and the presumption is that he has grounds for believing that his government will support him. Generals who achieve what Bonaparte has achieved do not want for influence with their governments.'

Before Mr. Melville's impressiveness, Sir Richard was driven from irony to sullenness.

'You say that you know positively. But how can you know?'

Mr. Melville took time to answer him.

'Just now, Sir Richard, you described me as a secret agent. You need not have boggled at the word "spy." It would not have offended me. I am a spy in a cause that dignifies the calling; and it happens that I am a good spy.'

Sir Richard's expression suggested the presence of an offensive smell. But he said nothing. Mr. Melville's revelation left him with a sense of defeat. Still, obstinately, like a stupid man, he struggled against reason.

'Even if all this were so, I still fail to perceive what you can hope to accomplish.'

'Are we not wasting time? Does it really matter that you should perceive it? You have Mr. Pitt's orders, as I have. It only remains that acting upon yours, you should enable me to act upon mine.'

The mildness of the tone employed could not rob the rebuke of its asperity. Sir Richard, deeply affronted, coloured from chin to brow.

'By God, sir, I find you singularly bold.'

Mr. Melville smiled into the fierce greenish eyes. 'I should not otherwise be here, sir.'

For a long moment the scowling ambassador considered. Irritably, at last, he spoke, tapping the letter before him.

'I am asked here to lend you support and assistance. I am asked to do this in a letter brought to me by a man whom I do not know. There is the question of your identity. You will have papers; a passport, and the like.'

'I have not, Sir Richard.' He did not attempt to explain how this happened. There was only his word for it, and this man would certainly affront him by refusing to accept it. 'That letter should be my sufficient passport. Mr. Pitt, you observe, has taken the precaution of adding a description of me at the foot. However, if that does not suffice, I can produce persons of eminence, integrity, and repute in Venice who are personally acquainted with me.'

Mr. Melville read in his glance the man's mean satisfaction at being at last able to gratify the rancour aroused in him by the appointment of this envoy-extraordinary and nourished by the defeat he had suffered in argument.

'Until you produce them, sir, and until I am satisfied that they are as you describe them, you will not wonder that I decline to act as your sponsor.' He touched a bell on the table as he spoke. 'That, I am sure, is what Mr. Pitt would expect and desire of me. I must be very sure of my ground, sir, before I can take the responsibility of answering for you to His Serenity the Doge.'

The door was opened by the usher. There was no invitation to dinner from the British Ambassador.

'I have the honour, sir, to wish you a very good day.'

If Mr. Melville departed in any perturbation, it was only to see England represented in Venice at such a time by such a man. When he came to contrast the shrewd smoothness of Lallemant—one who had won to his position by the proofs of ability he had afforded—with the stiff-necked stupidity of Sir Richard Worthington—who no doubt owed his appointment to birth and influence—he began to ask himself whether, after all, there might not be grounds for the republican doctrines which had found application in France and which everywhere in Europe were now in the air; whether the caste to which he belonged was not indeed already an effete anachronism, to be shovelled by men of sense out of the path of civilization and progress.

These misgivings, however, did not sink so far as to imperil the championship of the cause of aristocracy to which he was pledged. After all, he belonged to that caste; the recovery of his estates of Saulx depended upon the restoration of the monarchy in France, and this restoration could not take place until the anarchs were brought to their knees and broken. Personal profit apart, however, the cause was one to which by birth he owed his loyalty, and loyally he would spend himself in its service, right or wrong.

From the austere English lady, his mother, he had inherited a lofty and even troublesome sense of duty, which his education had further ingrained.

An instance of this is afforded by the order in which he handled the matters concerned with his presence in Venice. That affair of his own primarily responsible for the journey—and one which might well have justified impatience—was yet to be approached. His approach of it now may have gathered eagerness because Sir Richard Worthington's cavalier treatment of him rendered it politically as necessary as previously it had been personally desirable.

When, on the death of his father Marc-Antoine had undertaken at the call of duty to his house and caste that hazardous and all but fatal journey into France, Count Francesco Pizzamano was, and had been for two years, Venetian Minister in London. His son Domenico, an officer in the service of the Most Serene Republic, was an attachè at the Legation, and between him and Marc-Antoine a friendship had grown which had presently embraced their respective families. Gradually Marc-Antoine's interest in Domenico had become less than his interest in Domenico's sister, the Isotta Pizzamano, whom Romney painted, and whose beauty and grace are extolled in so many memoirs of the day.

The events—first Marc-Antoine's excursion into France and then the recall of Count Pizzamano—had interrupted those relations. It was his ardent desire to resume them, now that the way was clear, which had dictated his journey to Venice.

A thousand times in the last month he had in fancy embraced Domenico, gripped the hand of the Count and pressed his lips upon the fingers of the Countess, and more lingeringly upon the fingers of Isotta. Always she was last in that recurring day-dream. But at the same time infinitely more vivid than the others. Always he saw her clearly, tall and slender with a quality of queenliness, of saintliness, in which your true lover's worshipping eyes will ever array his mistress. Yet always in that fond vision she melted from her virginal austerity: the vivid, generous lips in that otherwise nunlike face smiled a welcome that was not only kindly but glad.

This dream he was speeding now to realize, in an anticipation almost shot with apprehension, as all things too eagerly anticipated ever must be.

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