Chapter 6 Venetian Masque by Rafael Sabatini

His gondola brought him to the marble steps of the Casa Pizzamano on the Rio di San Daniele, by the Arsenal, as the summer dusk was deepening into night.

He came in a shimmer of black satin with silver lace, a silver-hilted sword worn through the pocket. A jewel glowed in the fine old Valenciennes at his throat, and paste buckles sparkled on his lacquered shoes.

He stepped into a wide hall whose walls were inlaid with marble, where the red-liveried porter was lighting the lamp set in a great gilded lantern that once had crowned the poop of a Venetian galley. By a wide marble staircase he was conducted to an anteroom on the mezzanine, whilst a lackey to whom he gave the name of Mr. Melville went in quest of Captain Domenico Pizzamano, for whom the visitor had asked.

Some moments only was he kept waiting, with quickening pulses. Then the door opened, to admit a young man who, in his tall slimness and proud, darkly handsome face, was so reminiscent of his sister that Mr. Melville momentarily seemed to see her in him.

The young captain stood at gaze upon the threshold, his expression almost scared, his hand trembling on the cut-glass door knob.

Marc-Antoine advanced briskly, smiling. 'Domenico!'

The lips, so red against the pallor which had slowly overspread the Venetian's face, parted now. But his voice was husky as it ejaculated in French: 'Marc! Is it really you? Marc!'

Marc-Antoine opened wide his arms. 'Here to my heart, Domenico, and assure yourself that it is really I, in bone and blood and sinew.'

Domenico flung forward to embrace him. Thereafter he held him at arm's length, and scanned his face. 'Then you were not guillotined?'

'My neck is witness that I was not.' Nevertheless he became grave. 'But have you believed it all this while?'

'It was the last news we had of you before we left London. For your poor mother, who so bitterly upbraided herself for having sent you, it was the end of the world. We did what we could.'

'Oh, yes. I know how good you all were. It strengthens my love of you. But my letters, then? I wrote twice. Ah, but letters in these days are like shots fired into the dark. We don't know where they'll go. The more reason why I should come to render my accounts in person.'

Domenico was very solemnly considering him. 'That is why you've come? You have journeyed all the way to Venice, to come to us?'

'That is the cause. If I happen to be charged with other matters that is a mere effect.'

The solemnity of the young Venetian's eyes increased. His glance searched almost uneasily the flushed and smiling face of his friend. He faltered a little in answering. 'You make us very proud.' And he went on to mention the joy to his parents of this visit and the miracle of Marc-Antoine's survival.

'And Isotta? She is well, I trust.'

'Oh, yes. Isotta is well. She, too, will be glad to see you.'

Marc-Antoine detected a vague embarrassment. Did the rogue suspect what particular member of the House of Pizzamano had drawn him across Europe? His smile broadened at the thought, and he was very gay and exalted in mood when he came to the salon where the family was assembled.

It was a vast room that ran the entire depth of the palace, from the Gothic windows of the balcony above the Canal of San Daniele to the fluted pillars of the loggia over-looking the garden. It was a room made rich by treasures which the Pizzamani had assembled down the ages, for their patrician house went back to a time before the closure of the Grand Council and the establishment of the oligarchy in the fourteenth century.

A Pizzamano had been at the sack of Constantinople, and some of the enduring spoils he had brought home were here displayed. Another had fought at Lepanto, and his portrait painted by Veronese, against a background of red galleys, faced the entrance. There was a portrait by Giovanni Bellini of Caterina Pizzamano who had reigned as a Dogaressa in Bellini's day, and another by Titian of a Pizzamano who had been Governor of Cyprus, and yet another noteworthy one from an unknown brush of that Giacomo Pizzamano who had been created a Count of the Empire two hundred years ago, and so had brought the title to these patricians of a state that bestowed no titles.

The coffered ceiling bore frescoes by Tiepolo in frames that were nobly carved and gilded, the floor was of rich wood mosaics, with here and there a glowing rug that evoked memories of the Serenissima's Levantine traffic.

It was a room which for splendour of art, of wealth, and of historical significance could be found in no country of Europe but Italy, and in no city of Italy but Venice.

Its glories were only vaguely revealed to Marc-Antoine in the soft glow of candlelight from clusters of tapers in great golden branches fantastically chiselled, their bases set with stones of price. They had been the gift of a Pope to a long dead Pizzamano, together with the Golden Rose, and it was believed that Cellini's hands had wrought them.

But it was not to the treasures of the room that Marc-Antoine turned his eager eyes. He sought its inhabitants.

They had been seated in the loggia: the Count, very tall and spare and gaunt with age, a little old-fashioned in his dress, from his red-heeled shoes to his powdered wig, but of an aquiline countenance full of energy and vigour; the Countess, still comparatively young, gracious and noble, and bearing about her something as elusively fine and delicate as the point de Venise of her fichu; and Isotta, her tall, straight slenderness stressed by the sheathing indoor gown, of a material so dark as to seem almost black in the half-light.

It was upon her that his eyes came to rest as he stood to face them where they had risen, startled by Domenico's announcement. She was framed, with the fading turquoise of the evening sky for background, between two slender columns of the loggia, columns of marble which had been weathered to the tone of ivory, and as pale as was now that face which held for Marc-Antoine the sum of all nobility and loveliness. Her very lips seemed pale, and her dark eyes, the normal softness of whose glance tempered the austerity of her features, were dilated as she stared at him.

She had ripened, he observed, in the three years and more that were gone since he had last beheld her in London, on the night before he left for France. But it was a ripening that was no more than the rich fulfilment of the promise of her nineteenth year. It had not then seemed that she could be more desirable; yet more desirable he found her now; a woman to cherish, to worship, to serve; who in return would be a source of inspiration and a fount of honour to a man. For this is what love meant to Marc-Antoine.

So rapt was he in this material contemplation of her whom the eyes of his soul had so steadily contemplated through all the trials and tribulations of the last three years that he scarcely heard the ejaculations, first of amazement, then of joy, with which the Count and Countess greeted him. It needed the hearty embrace of the Count to awaken him, and to send him forward to kiss the trembling hands which the Countess so readily extended.

Then he stood close before Isotta. She gave him her hand; her lips quivered into a smile; her eyes were wistful. He took the hand, and whilst it lay ice-cold in his, there followed a pause. He waited for some word from her. None coming, he bowed his dark glossy head, and kissed her fingers very reverently. At that touch of his lips he felt her tremble and he heard at last her voice, that gentle voice which he had known so melodious and laughter-laden, now strained and hushed.

'You said that you might one day come to Venice, Marc.'

He thrilled with joy at this evidence that she had remembered what were almost his last words. 'I said that I would come if I lived. And I am here.'

'Yes. You are here.' Her tone was lifeless. It turned him cold. Still more lifeless, and therefore invested for him with peculiar significance was what she added: 'You have delayed your visit.'

It was, he thought, as if she said to him: 'You have come too late, you fool. Why, then, have you come at all?'

Uneasy, he half-turned, to discover concern and even alarm in the eyes of her parents. Domenico stood aloof, his glance upon the ground, a frown knitting his brows.

Then the Countess spoke, gently, easily, her voice level.

'Do you find Isotta changed? She has aged, of course.' And before he could proclaim the enhancement he discovered in her beauty, the words had been added that made all this contraint clear, resolved his doubts into a conviction of despair. 'She is to be married very soon.'

In the stillness that followed, an observant, anxious stillness, he felt much as he had felt that day three years ago when Camille Lebel, presiding over the Revolutionary Tribunal of Tours, had sentenced him to death. And at once, now as then, his sense of doom was suffused by the recollection that he was Marc-Antoine Villiers de Melleville, Vicomte de Saulx and peer of France, and that he owed it to his birth and blood to hold up his head, to admit no tremor from his lips, no faltering to his glance.

He was bowing to Isotta.

'I felicitate that enviable, that most fortunate of men. It is my prayer that he may prove worthy of so great a blessing as he receives in you, my dear Isotta.'

It was well done, he thought. His manner had been correct; his words well chosen. Why then should she look as if she would weep?

He turned to the Count. 'Isotta has said that I have delayed my coming. Not my inclination, but the events delayed it.'

Shortly he related how he had bribed his way out of prison at Tours; how he had returned thereafter to England, where he was claimed by duty to the cause of the èmigrès; how he had been in the disastrous affair of Quiberon, and, later, in that other disaster at Savenay, where he had been wounded; how thereafter he had continued in the Vendèe with the army of Charette until its final rout by Hoche a couple of months ago, when he was so fortunate as to escape alive from France for the second time. He had returned to England; and defeat having at last relieved him of all duty, he had turned his mind to the gratification of his personal aspirations, whereupon duties had once more been imposed upon him, but duties fortunately no longer at war with his own dispositions.

He had for the purposes of the service he had undertaken Anglicized his name to Melville, and he begged them to remember that to all in Venice he was Mr. Melville, an English gentleman of leisure seeing the world.

Mechanically he rehearsed these matters, in a tone that was listless, in a manner that was flat. His mind was elsewhere. He had come too late. Within Isotta's gift lay all that it imported him to have of life, and it had not occurred to him, poor fool, that what he found so divinely desirable would be coveted by others. What was this silly talk he made of a mission, of service to the monarchist cause, of opposition to the forces of anarchy that were loose in the world? What was the world to him, or monarchies or anarchies? What had he to do in all this, since for him the light had gone from the world?

Nevertheless, even if the manner of his narrative had been dull, the matter of it was lively enough in itself. It was an Odyssey that moved his listeners to wonder and sympathy, and deepened the esteem and love in which they already held him.

At the end of the tale the Count got to his feet in the intensity of his feelings on the subject of Marc-Antoine's mission to the Serenissima.

'God prosper you in that,' he cried passionately. 'The effort is needed if we are not to be extinguished and the glory of Venice, already so sadly tarnished, become as if it had never been.'

His long, lean face was flushed.

'You will find your path beset by obstacles: sloth, pusillanimity, avarice, and this canker of Jacobinism which is corroding the foundations of the State. We are impoverished. Our impoverishment has been gradual now for two hundred years, and accelerated of late by incompetent government. Our frontiers, once so wide and far-flung, are sadly shrunken; our might that in its day evoked the League of Cambrai against us, so that we stood to face a world in arms, has largely withered. But we are Venice still, and if we hold fast we may yet again become a power with which the world must reckon. Here we stand at the crisis of our fate. Whether we are to go down in ruin or maintain ourselves to rise again in glory, and be the proud and worthy bridegroom of the sea that once we were, will depend upon the courage we display and the will for sacrifice in those who still have something to lay upon the country's altar. Stout hearts there are still amongst us: men who advocate the armed neutrality that must compel respect for our frontiers. But so far they have been overborne in the Council by those who in their secret hearts are francophile, by those who prefer supinely to think that this is the Empire's affair, and by those who—God forgive them!—fearing the cost, cling like soulless misers to their sequins.

'The Doge himself is of these, for all his enormous wealth. Heaven forgive me that I should speak ill of our prince; but the truth must prevail. Lodovico Manin was not the Doge for us in such an hour. We needed a Morosino, a Dandolo, an Alviani, not this Friulian, who lacks the fervent patriotism that only a true Venetian could supply. Still, your messages from England, and the evidences of French intentions with which it has pleased Heaven so opportunely to supply you, may have their effect.'

He sat down again, shaken almost to the point of exhaustion by the passion surging in him: the contempt, despair, and anger that sprang from a patriotism nothing short of fanatical.

The Countess rose, and went to soothe and pacify him. Isotta looked on with an odd solemnity, like a person entranced, whilst Marc-Antoine, observing her with eyes from which he manfully withheld the pain that gnawed him, was beset by the notion that these matters about which Count Pizzamano waxed so phrenetic were less than nothing.

Domenico's voice aroused him. 'If there is any help you need, you know that you may count upon us.'

'To my last breath and my last sequin,' the Count confirmed his son.

Marc-Antoine wrenched his mind back to this political business. 'There is a service that I require at once. Fortunately, it will not greatly tax you. I need a sponsor: someone in authority to give me the necessary credentials to His Serenity.'

He felt that he should explain how this came about. But he was too weary to go into it unless they should press him. And of this they had no thought.

'I will take you myself to the Doge tomorrow,' Count Pizzamano assured him. 'My knowledge of you is not of yesterday. Come to me at noon, and we'll go when we have dined. I'll send word to His Serenity, so that he may expect us.'

'You will remember that to him as to all without exception I remain Mr. Melville. If by any indiscretion my true identity were to reach the ears of Lallemant, there would be a sharp end to my activities.' And even as he said it he was conscious of how little it really had come to matter.

After this they sat and talked of other things, of Marc-Antoine's mother, of common friends in England, but most of all of Bonaparte, this portent unknown three months ago, suddenly arisen to focus the attention of the world.

Isotta, in the background with folded hands and vacant eyes, played no more than a listener's part, if, indeed, she listened. Thus until an interruption was created by the arrival of Leonardo Vendramin.