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Chapter 8 Venetian Masque by Rafael Sabatini

Marc-Antoine in a blue-and-gold bedgown sipped his chocolate on the following morning in his pleasant salon at the Inn of the Swords. He sat before windows set wide to the shallow balcony and the sunshine of a perfect May morning. From the canal below came intermittently the swish of the long oar, the gurgle of water under the swanlike prow of a passing gondola, the inarticulate-sounding cry of gondolier giving warning as he swung round the corner from the Grand Canal, and, mellowed by distance, a sound of church bells from Santa Maria della Salute.

It was a morning to make a man glad that he was alive. But Marc-Antoine found little gladness in it. A beacon which for three years had glowed steadily to guide him had suddenly gone out. He was in darkness and without orientation.

Presently there were sounds of a gondola that did not pass. A hoarse hail from a gondolier before the portals of the inn: 'Ehi! Di casa!'

Some moments later the landlord, thrusting a bald head round Marc-Antoine's door, announced that a lady was asking for Mr. Melville; a lady in a mask, he added, with a suggestion of humour about the set of his lips.

Marc-Antoine was on his feet at once. A lady in a mask was no portent in Venice, where the habit of going masked abroad was so common among gentlefolk that the unique city may have gathered from it something of its romantic reputation for mystery and intrigue. The portent lay in the fact that a lady should be seeking him. It was inconceivable that the only lady instantly occurring to him should be his visitor. Yet so it proved when presently the landlord had left her with Marc-Antoine behind closed doors.

She had masked herself with the completeness Venetian habit sanctioned. Under the little three-cornered gold-laced hat, a black silk bauta, that little mantilla edged in lace, covered her head and fell to the shoulders of the black satin cloak that concealed every line of the figure.

When she removed the white silk vizor, Marc-Antoine sprang to her with a cry that was of concern rather than of joy; for the face she showed him framed in the black lines of the bauta was more nunlike than ever in its pallor. Her dark eyes were wistful pools through which a soul looked out in sorrow and some fear. The heave of her breast told of her quickened nervous breathing. She pressed upon it her left hand which was closed about a white fan, the golden frame of which was set with jewels.

'I surprise you, Marc. Oh, I do a surprising thing. But I shall know no peace until it is done. Perhaps not much peace even then.'

It was more surprising even than Marc-Antoine suspected. Gone might be the days when, perhaps from her close relations with the East, Venice imposed so claustral a seclusion upon her women that only a courtesan would show herself freely in public places. The march of progress had gradually mitigated this, and of late those new ideas from beyond the Alps had introduced a measure of licence. But for patrician women this licence was still far indeed from the point at which a reputation could survive such a step as Isotta was now taking.

'I have to talk to you,' she said, her tone implying that nothing in the world could equal this in consequence. 'And I could not wait for opportunity, which might be indefinitely delayed.'

Troubled for her, he pressed her gloved hand to his lips, and strove to keep his voice level as he said: 'I exist to serve you.'

'Must we be formal?' She twisted her lips into a wistful smile. 'God knows the situation does not warrant it. There is nothing formal in what I do.'

'Sometimes we take refuge in formal words to express a meaning that is deep and sincere.'

He conducted her to a chair, and, with the fine consideration that distinguished him, placed her with her back to the light. Thus he thought she might find herself at some slight advantage. He remained standing before her, waiting.

'I hardly know where to begin,' she said. Her hands lay in her lap clutching her fan, and her eyes were lowered to them. Abruptly she asked him: 'Why did you come to Venice?'

'Why? But did I leave anything unexplained last night? I am here on a mission of state.'

'And nothing else? Nothing else? In pity's name be frank with me. Do not let anything that you find impose restraint. I desire to know.'

He hesitated. He had turned pale, as she might have seen had she looked up.

'Could the knowledge profit you?'

She seized upon that. 'Ah! Then there is something more to know! Tell me. Give me the help I need.'

'I do not perceive how it will help. But you shall have the truth since you demand it, Isotta. The mission of state followed upon the resolve I had taken to come to Venice. That, I think, you gathered from what I said last night. But the real motive of my visit...Your heart must tell you what it was.'

'I desire to hear it from you.'

'It was the love I bear you, Isotta. Though God knows why in all the circumstances you should compel me to say what I had never meant to say.'

She looked up at him at last. 'I had to hear it for my pride's sake; lest I should despise myself for a vain fool who had attached to words more meaning than they held. I had to hear it before I could tell you how clearly I had understood those words—I mean the words you spoke to me on the night before you left London to go to Tours. That, as they were a pledge from you, so my silent acceptance of them made up a pledge from me. If you lived, you said, you would follow me to Venice. You remember?'

'Could I forget?'

'I loved you, Marc. You knew that, didn't you?'

'I hoped it. As we hope for salvation.'

'Ah, but I want you to know it. To know it. To be sure of it. I was nineteen; but no vain, empty maid to take as a trophy what was a pledge of a man's love. And I want you to know that I have been stedfast in my love. That I love you now, Marc, and that my heart, I think, is broken.'

He was on his knees beside her. 'Child, child! You must not say these things to me.'

She set a gloved hand upon his head. Her other wrought the while upon the fan as if she would crush it. 'Listen, my dear. It broke, I think—nay, I know—when word came that you were dead. Guillotined. My father and mother knew; yes, and Domenico. And because they, too, loved you, they were very tender and compassionate with me; and they helped me back to calm and to a measure of peace. The peace of resignation. The superficial peace we carry over memories that are stirred to life a hundred times a day to bleed the heart in secret. You were gone. You had taken with you all of pure joy and gladness that life could ever bring me. Oh, I am a bold maid to be so frank with you. But it is helping me, I think. You were gone. But my life had still to be lived; and helped as I was by my dear ones, I brought to it such courage as I could.'

She paused a moment, and then continued in that level, lifeless recital. 'Then Leonardo Vendramin came. He loved me. In any time but this, his position in life would have made a barrier that he would not even have attempted to surmount. But he knew what an endowment he gathered from his influence with men in his own sorry case; he knew how this must be viewed by a man of my father's burning patriotism. He knew how to present it, too, so that it should profoundly impress my father. You understand. They put it to me that I could do a great service to the tottering State, by enlisting on the side of all our ancient sacred institutions a man of enough influence to sway the issue if it came to a struggle between parties. At first I withstood them, repelled. I belonged to you. I had sustained myself with the thought that life is not all; that existence on earth is little more than a school, a novitiate for the real life that is to follow; and that out there, when this novitiate was over, I should find you, and say: "My dear, though you could not come to me on earth, I have kept myself your bride until I should come to you now." Do you understand, my dear, the strength of resignation which I gathered from that dream?'

She did not give him time to answer before resuming. 'But they would not leave me even that. It was shattered for me like the rest. It bent and finally broke under their persistent pleading, under the argument—oh, very gently urged, but not to be misunderstood—that I should devote to a worthy and sacred cause a life which was otherwise in danger of remaining empty. That was specious, wasn't it? And so, my dear, I yielded. Not lightly, believe me. Not without more tears in secret, I think, than I shed even at the news of your death. For now it was my soul and my soul's hope of you that was being slain.'

She fell silent, and left him silent. For one thing he could find no words for the emotions dazing him; for another he felt that she had not yet reached the end; that there was something more to come. She did not keep him waiting long.

'Last night, after you had gone, I sought my father. I asked if this thing still must be. He was very gentle with me, because he loves me, Marc. But he loves Venice more. Nor can I resent it. Since I know that he loves Venice better than himself, it is reasonable that he should love Venice better than his daughter. He made me see that withdrawal now would be a worse disaster than if at first I had refused; that if I drew back now, it might drive Leonardo in rancour to march his forces into the opposite camp.

'Do you conceive how I am torn, and yet how helpless I am? Perhaps if I were really brave, Marc, negligent of pledges, of honour and of all else, I should say to you: my dear, take me if you will have me, and let betide what will. But I have not the courage to break my father's heart, to be false to a pledge that is given in which he is concerned. Conscience would never let me rest thereafter, and its reproaches would poison our lives—yours and mine, Marc. Do you understand?'

Kneeling ever, his arm round her, he had drawn her close. She sank her head to his shoulder. 'Tell me that you understand,' she implored him.

'Too well, my dear,' he answered miserably. 'So well, indeed, that you need hardly have given yourself the pain of coming here to tell me this.'

'There is no pain in that. No added pain; but rather a relief. If you do not see this, then you do not yet understand. If I cannot give you myself, my dear, at least I can offer all I have to give of my mind and soul, by letting you know what you are to me, what you have been since that veiled pledge was passed between us. There is a solace to me in knowing that you know; that between us all is clear; that there can be no doubtings, no searchings of spirit. Somehow it absolves me of what I have done. Somehow it revives my hopes in that future when all this is over. For whereas, before, the knowledge was buried in myself, now you share it: the knowledge that whatever they may do with the rest of me, the spiritual part of me is and always will be yours, the eternal Me that wears for a while this body like a garment, and suffers all that wearing it imposes.' She let the fan which she had been bending and twisting fall into her lap, and she turned to take his face in both her hands. 'Surely, my Marc, you believe with me that this life on earth is not all that there is to us? If I have hurt you, as God knows I have hurt myself, by the course to which I am committed, will you not find solace where I find it?'

'If I must, Isotta,' he answered. 'But all is not yet done. We have not come yet to the end of the journey.'

Still holding his face, her eyes abrim with tears, she shook her head.

'Torture neither yourself nor me with any such hopes.'

'Hope is not torture,' he answered her. 'It is the anodyne of life.'

'And when it fails? What of the pain then? The agony?'

'Ay, when it fails; if it fails. But until then I'll bear it in my heart. I need it. I need courage. And you have brought it to me, Isotta, with a nobility to have been looked for in none but you.'

'Courage I desired to bring you, and to take from you for my own needs. But not the courage of a hope that leads to cruelest disillusion. Content you, dear. I pray you.'

'Yes, I'll content me.' His tone rang clear. 'I'll content me whilst I wait upon events. It is not my way to order a requiem while the patient lives.' He rose, and drew her up with him, so that her breast was against his breast, his hands gripping her arms. From her lap her fan and her mask fell to the floor.

There was a tap upon the door, and before Marc-Antoine could speak, it opened.

Facing it, as he stood with Isotta in his arms, Marc-Antoine beheld the landlord framed for a moment in the doorway, his countenance startled at realizing his intrusion. Over his shoulder, in that moment, he had a glimpse of another face, fair and florid. Then, as abruptly as it had been opened, the door was closed again by the hurriedly retreating landlord. But a deep, rich laugh from beyond it came to add to the confusion of Isotta, conscious of that momentary detection.

They fell apart, and Marc-Antoine stooped to pick up fan and mask. In her panic she almost snatched the white vizor, and hurriedly with fumbling fingers readjusted it.

'Someone is there,' she whispered. 'Waiting at the door. How am I to go?'

'Whoever it is will not venture to hinder you,' he promised her, and stepping to the door he flung it wide. On the threshold the landlord waited, Vendramin beside him.

'Here is a lord who will not be denied, sir,' Battista explained himself. 'He says he is your friend, and expected.'

Vendramin was broadly smiling as if with infinite, unpleasant understanding.

'Ah, but, morbleu, the fool, did not say that you had a lady with you. God forgive me that I should be a marplot, that I should come between a man and his delights.'

Marc-Antoine stood stiff and straight, admirably masking his deep irritation.

'It is no matter. Madame is on the point of going.'

Isotta, responsive to his glance, was already moving towards the door. But Vendramin made no shift to give her passage. He continued to fill the doorway, observing her approach with his slyly humorous eyes.

'Do not let me be the cause of that, I pray you.' He employed an oily gallantry. 'I was never one to drive out beauty, madame. Will you not unmask again, and let me make amends for my intrusion?'

'The best amends you could make, sir, would be to suffer the lady to pass.'

'Suffer is indeed the word,' he sighed, and stood aside. She swept past him, and out, leaving no more behind her than a faint perfume, for the Venetian to inhale.

When the landlord had departed in her wake, Vendramin closed the door, and came breezily to clap Marc-Antoine on the shoulder.

'Oh, my Englishman! You lose no time, faith. Scarce twenty-four hours in Venice, and already you show a knowledge of its ways that is not usually acquired in weeks. Morbleu, there's more of the Frenchman about you than the accent.'

And Marc-Antoine, to cover that retreat, to avoid the birth of the least suspicion of the truth, must feed the obvious foulness of this rakehell's mind by pretending the levity with which it credited him. He laughed, and waved a careless hand.

'It is lonely for a man in a foreign country. We must do what we can.'

Vendramin thrust playfully at his ribs. 'A coy piece, on my life! And she looked neat. Let her be never so muffled, I have eyes, my friend, that can strip a nun.'

Marc-Antoine thought it time to turn the talk. 'You told the landlord that you were expected?'

'You'll not pretend to have forgotten it? You'll not break my heart by saying that you had forgotten it, indeed? The last thing I said to you last night, when you landed here, was that I would come and take you to Florian's this morning. And you are not yet dressed. This nègligè...Ah, yes, of course, the lady...'

Marc-Antoine turned away, dissembling disgust. 'I have but to don a coat and my walking-shoes. I will be with you at once.'

He yielded without argument so as to have a moment to himself, a moment in which to master the emotions Isotta had left in him, and those produced by this most inopportune intrusion. And so, he left the salon to pass into his bedroom beyond.

Messer Vendramin, smiling and nodding at the picture his imagination conjured of the doings he had interrupted, sauntered slowly towards the balcony. Something grated under his foot. He stooped and picked up an object that in size and shape was like the half of a large pea. The sunlight struck a dull glow from it as it lay in his palm. He looked over his shoulder. The door to the bedroom was closed. He continued his walk to the balcony. There he stood contemplating the little jewel. A malicious smile took shape on his full lips, as he realized that he held a clue. It would be amusing if chance were to lead him one day to find the indiscreet owner. The smile broadened as he dropped the cabochon sapphire into his waistcoat pocket.

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