Chapter 7 Venetian Masque by Rafael Sabatini

Marc-Antoine beheld a tall, floridly handsome man, past his first youth, but still graceful of shape and carriage, very easy of manner, with a ready laugh, and debonair to the point of effusiveness: one, obviously, whose main desire was to stand well with all the world. That he stood well with the Count and Donna Leocadia, the Countess, was instantly plain. With Domenico he seemed less successful, and Isotta, whilst graciously receiving his marked, almost proprietary greeting, yet appeared to shrink a little as he bowed over her hand.

Presented as his future son-in-law by the Count to Mr. Melville, Ser Leonardo smothered the supposed Englishman in voluble congratulations upon his nationality and swept into fulsomeness on the score of England. It had never yet been his felicity to see that marvellous country which by her dominion of the seas had assumed in the world the place that Venice once had held; but he knew enough of her great institutions, had seen enough of her noble people, to realize how fine a thing it was, how enviable, to have been born an Englishman.

Persuaded that he would have said precisely the same to a Frenchman or a Spaniard, Marc-Antoine acknowledged the compliments with cool civility, wondering the while why this man's name should seem familiar to him.

Thereafter and during supper, to which Marc-Antoine was retained, he was intermittently subjected to a bombardment of questions as to when he had arrived, where he was lodged, how long he proposed to stay, and what was the object of his visit. French—which in Venice then was the common language of the polite world—was being spoken by Vendramin out of regard for a stranger whom he could not suppose to be fluent in Italian.

He set his questions with such an air of friendly good-nature that their probing quality might have been overlooked. To the last of them Marc-Antoine returned the answer that his objects were to amuse and instruct himself, and to resume relation with his good friends the Pizzamani.

'Ah! You are old friends, then? But that is charming.' He looked about him, nodding, smiling, at once possessive and ingratiatory. But his vividly blue eyes, thought Marc-Antoine, were oddly watchful. They came to rest upon Isotta. As if challenged by them, she supplied the information he appeared to seek.

'Mr. Melville has been very dear to us all from our London days, and he is too old a friend for you to pursue with your inquisitiveness.'

'Inquisitiveness! Just Heaven!' Ser Leonardo uplifted his eyes in mock distress. 'Ah, but Mr. Melville, I am sure, does not mistake for inquisitiveness the deep interest he arouses in me. And if he is an old friend of yours, why, that should make another bond of sympathy between us.'

Mr. Melville was entirely formal. 'You are too gracious, sir. I am deeply honoured.'

'But what impeccable French you speak for an Englishman, Monsieur Melville! There is no disparagement of your fellow-countrymen in that,' he made haste to explain. 'It is only that it is unusual to hear so pure a fluency from one who was not born a Frenchman.'

'I have enjoyed exceptional opportunities,' was the answer. 'I spent much of my youth in France.'

'Ah, but tell me of that. It is so interesting, so unusual to meet a man...'

'Who asks so many questions,' Domenico completed for him.

The gentleman, whose speech had thus been cropped, stared his displeasure; but only for a moment. At once he recovered his bonhomie. 'I am rebuked.' He laughed airily, waving a hand that was smothered in a cloud of lace. 'Oh, but justly rebuked. I have allowed my interest in this charming Mr. Melville to outrun my manners. Bear me no rancour, my dear sir, and count me at your service—oh, but very much at your service—while you are in Venice.'

'Reveal to him the beauties of the district of San Barnabò,' suggested Domenico with sarcasm. 'That should entertain and instruct him.'

And then at last Marc-Antoine knew where he had heard the name and in what connection. Lallemant had mentioned Leonardo Vendramin as a barnabotto, a member of that great class of impecunious and decayed patricians, called barnabotti from the district of San Barnabò in which they herded. Because of their patrician birth, they must not degrade themselves by toil, nor yet could they be suffered to starve. And so they lived as parasites upon the State, imbued with all the faults and vices found where poverty and vanity are in alliance. They were maintained partly by an official dole from the government, partly, and in the case of those who possessed wealthy relatives, by the doles they levied in the euphuistic guise of loans. Because of their patrician birth they possessed the right to vote in the Grand Council and could exercise upon the fortunes of the State a control denied to worthy citizens whom the accident of birth had not so favoured. Occasionally, as a result, a barnabotto who was able and spirited could by the votes of his brethren in exalted mendicancy procure election to one of the great offices of State with its rich emoluments.

Marc-Antoine recalled now what Lallemant had said of this Vendramin, but he was more concerned to speculate how it happened that a member of that poverty-stricken class could display the extravagant richness of apparel that distinguished this man. He was also asking himself how it came to pass that Isotta, daughter of one of the greatest families of senatorial rank, who would have graced and honoured any house into which she had married, should be bestowed by her stiff-necked aristocratic father upon a barnabotto.

Meanwhile Vendramin, choosing to perceive a pleasantry in the insult from his prospective brother-in-law, replied by a pleasantry of his own at the expense of the esurience of his barnabotto brethren. Then, swiftly and skilfully he shifted the talk to the safer ground of politics and the latest rumours from Milan concerning the French and this campaign. He indulged the optimism that obviously was fundamental to his nature. This little Corsican would presently receive a sound whipping from the Emperor.

'I pray God you may be right,' said the Count with fervour. 'But until the events so prove you, we can relax no effort in our preparations for the worst.'

Ser Leonardo became solemn. 'You are right, Lord Count. I do not spare myself in what is to do, and I am making progress. Oh, but great progress. I have no anxieties, no doubt that soon now I shall have brought my fellows into line. But we will talk of this again.'

When at long last Marc-Antoine rose to depart, he thought that at least he could take credit for having so dissembled his hurt that none had even suspected it.

It was not quite so, however.

Gravely Isotta's gentle glance searched his face when he stood before her to take his leave. Its pallor and the lassitude and sadness which he could not exclude from his eyes as they considered her, told her what the lips withheld.

Then she realized that he was gone, and Ser Leonardo effusive to the end had insisted upon going with him, upon carrying him off in his gondola to deposit him at his inn.

Domenico, darkly thoughtful, had retired abruptly, and his mother had followed.

Isotta lingered in the loggia whither she had now returned, looking out into the garden over which the moon had risen. Her father, thoughtful, too, his countenance troubled, approached her and set a hand affectionately upon her shoulder. His voice was very gentle.

'Isotta, my child. The night has turned chilly.'

It was a suggestion that she should come indoors. But she chose to take him literally.

'Chilly, indeed, my father.'

She felt the increased pressure of his hand upon her shoulder, in expression of understanding and sympathy. There was silence awhile between them. Then he sighed, and uttered his thought aloud.

'Better that he had not come.'

'Since he lives, his coming was inevitable. It was a pledge he made me in London on the night before he set out for Tours. It was a pledge of more than a journey. I understood, and I was glad. He came now to fulfil and to claim fulfilment.'

'I understand.' His voice was low and sad. 'Life can be very cruel.'

'Must it be cruel to him and me? Must it, father?'

'My dear child!' Again he pressed her shoulder.

'I am twenty-two. There is perhaps a long life before me. Believing Marc dead, it was easy to resign myself. Now...' She spread her hands and helplessly broke off.

'I know, child. I know.'

The sympathy and sorrow in his voice lent her courage. Abruptly she spoke, in a passion of rebellion.

'Must this thing be? Must it go on?'

'Your marriage with Leonardo.' He fetched a sigh. The clear-cut old patrician face looked as if carved of marble. 'What else is possible in honour?'

'Is honour all?'

'No.' His voice rose. 'There is Venice too.'

'What has Venice done for me, what will Venice ever do for me, that I should be sacrificed to Venice?'

He was very gentle again. 'I can answer you only that it is my creed, and so it should be yours since you are my child, that we owe all that we possess to the State whence we derived it all. You ask, my dear, what Venice has done for you. The lustre of the name you bear, the honours of your house, the wealth with which we are endowed are the great gifts we have received from Venice. We lie under the debt of these, my dear. And in the hour of our country's need, only if we are ignoble will we shrink from honouring that debt. All that I possess is at the service of the State. You see that it must be so.'

'But I, father? I?'

'Your part is plain. A very noble part. Too noble to be set aside for personal considerations, however dear or deep. Ponder the situation here today. You heard what Marc has learnt of the intentions towards us of the French. Even if he can stir the Doge with that tomorrow, what can His Serenity achieve against a Council in which men, fearful of sacrifice, considering only personal interest, prefer to stand inert and hoard their gold? Wilfully they refuse to perceive the danger, because to avert it would be costly, and because they believe that even if the danger to the State is realized there will be no danger to their own substance.

'The barnabotti remain. They can muster some three hundred voices in the Council. With nothing to lose themselves, they may be brought before it is too late to vote for the costly policy that will save Venice; and if they do, they will establish a preponderance. At present, because they have nothing to lose, they imagine there may be something to gain from an upheaval. It is ever so with the needy and the worthless. And their ranks are rotten with Jacobinism; so that even without an invasion of French arms, the Serenissima may yet succumb to an invasion of French anarchical ideas.

'Leonardo is one of them. A man of gifts, of force and of eloquence. His influence with them is notorious and is increasing. Soon he will have them in the hollow of his hand. He will control their votes; which means, in short, that the fate of Venice may come to lie at the mercy of his will.' He paused a moment, and then added slowly: 'You are the price we pay for his conservatism.'

'Can you trust the patriotism of a man who sells it?'

'Sells it? That is not just. When he aspired to you, I saw the chance to bind him to us. But already he leaned our way and his patriotism was stout and pure, or else I should never have received him. He was seeking guidance. He brought me doubts and I resolved them. The rest was accomplished by his love for you. So that now he is wholly on the side of those who set the State above any personal interest. He would have come to it in the end without us, I am persuaded. But if we were to reject him now, we should be in danger of arousing a despair and a vindictiveness which would drive him with all his barnabotto following into the camp of the Jacobins. And that we dare not contemplate.'

To this she had no answer. It left her with a sense of being trapped.

She hung her head in misery and confusion.

He set an arm about her, and drew her close. 'My child! In this cause I am prepared to sacrifice all. I ask of you and of Domenico no more than the same preparedness.'

But now he seemed to step beyond the unanswerable bounds.

'Ah, but this!' she cried. 'This that is asked of me! To marry, to give myself to a man I do not love, to bear him children, to...Oh, God! You talk of readiness to sacrifice. What have you to sacrifice that will compare with this? If you gave the last sequin of your wealth and the last drop of your blood, you will still have given nothing by comparison with what you bid me give.'

'It may be as you say. But I who am not twenty-two take leave to doubt it. Be honest with yourself and me, Isotta. If you faced a choice between death and marriage with Leonardo, which would you choose?'

'Death without hesitation.' She was almost fierce.

'I urged you to be honest,' he reproached her softly, drawing her against him. 'I said if you faced the choice. But the choice has always been before you, and yet you have not taken what you tell me is the easier road. You see, my dear, how a surge of emotion may deceive us. And tonight you are the victim of it, and overwrought. Presently your views will readjust themselves. When all is said, Leonardo cannot be repugnant to you, or you would have recoiled before now from the prospect of this marriage. He has great qualities, for which you will come to esteem him. And to sustain you, you will have the proud, exultant thought of a high duty selflessly performed.'

He kissed her tenderly. 'My dear, you may have tears to shed. Believe me, child, they will not be half so salt as those which I shall shed on the grave of your personal hopes. Courage, my Isotta. It needs courage to live worthily.'

'Sometimes it needs courage to live at all,' she answered, choking on the words.

But she was conquered, as she had known from the outset that she would be. If his fanaticism had been of the kind that is thundered forth in uncompromising behests, open rebellion would have met him. But he was so gentle and sincere, he reasoned so patiently, pleaded so mildly that he persuaded where he did not convince and shamed opposition into silence.