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Chapter 9 Venetian Masque by Rafael Sabatini

Past the majestic portal of Santa Maria della Salute and across the Basin of Saint Mark they were borne in Vendramin's gondola, with the funereal exterior trappings which the old sumptuary laws ordained, but enriched within the felza—the little cabin amidships—by delicate carvings, little painted escutcheons and wide cushions covered in leather that was wrought with scroll-work in gold and ultramarine and red. Whilst of no startling extravagance, yet for a pauper patrician it seemed to Marc-Antoine too much.

Ser Leonardo presented something of a problem to him. But, for that matter, so did all Venice as he saw it that morning. Everywhere life seemed inspired and suffused by the bright sunshine in which it was lived. In the crowds moving along the Riva dei Schiavoni, idling in the Piazzetta, or sauntering in the greater square, all was gay, careless vivacity. The mood of the Venetians, populace, burghers, and patricians, seemed as serene as the blue dome of heaven overhead, without apparent care or even thought for the mutterings of a storm that might at any moment overwhelm them.

It was little more than a week since on Ascension Thursday the Doge, aboard the great red-and-gold bucentaur of forty oars, with splendours as great as those displayed by the Serenissima at her zenith, had gone to the Port of Lido for the annual ceremony of the espousal of the sea.

Today, before the wondering eyes of Marc-Antoine, the sparkling human stream poured along the Schiavoni, past the gloomy prison and the unfortunate wretches who showed themselves grimacing behind the massive bars or thrust forth claws for alms, to be commiserated by some, but to move the derision of more. Westwards, past the Gothic marble-encrusted loveliness of the Ducal Palace, linked with the prison by that marble gem, the Bridge of Sighs, the human current flowed on, to lose its impulse in the spaces of the Piazzetta, to pause there or eddy about the Zecca and the columns of Eastern granite, one of them surmounted by Saint Theodore and the dragon, the other by the Lion and the Book, the emblems of Saint Mark.

Marc-Antoine stood on the pavement of trachyte and marble, spread like a carpet before the Byzantine glories of Saint Mark's. He caught his breath at the vision of the vast, arcaded square with that miracle of grace, the Campanile, thrusting, like a gigantic spear, its point into the blue.

This was the heart of the great city and here the pulsations of its vivid life were strongest.

By the rich bronze pedestals of the three great flagstaffs a quacksalver, in a fantastic hat with a panache that was a rainbow of dyed cocks' feathers, hoarsely called his unguents, perfumes, and cosmetics. By San Geminiano an itinerant little puppet-show was holding a crowd from which laughter intermittently exploded to startle the pigeons circling overhead.

They came to a table at Florian's on the shady side of the Piazza.

Here among the fashionable loungers of both sexes circled itinerant merchants, hawking pictures, Eastern rugs, trinkets of gold and silver, little gems of Murano glass and the like.

Of the poverty which in her decadence was consuming ever more swiftly the entrails of the State, there was no sign upon the glittering surface here displayed. The apparel of the men and women about these little tables was nowhere in Europe exceeded in extravagance, and their gay, inconsequent, leisurely air gave no hint of gloomy preoccupations.

If, thought Marc-Antoine, the Serenissima was, indeed, as some had diagnosed, upon her death-bed, she would die as she had lived, in luxury and laughter. Thus, we are told, had the Greek republics perished.

He sipped his coffee, listened indifferently to the chatter of the amiable Ser Leonardo and gave his real attention to the pattern woven before his eyes by the shifting loungers. Sauntering gallants and ladies in silks and satins, an occasional masked face amongst them; more soberly clad merchants; here the black of a cleric, there the violet of a cannon, or the coarse brown of a friar, hurrying by with his eyes upon his sandals; occasionally the scarlet toga of a senator proceeding importantly to Pregadi, or the white coat and cockaded hat of a swaggering officer; groups of kilted Albanians or Montenegrins, sashed and jacketed in red or green, soldiers these from the Serenissima's Dalmatian provinces.

From time to time Ser Leonardo would point out a person of distinction in their environment. But there was only one who arrested Marc-Antoine's rather dazed attention: a sturdy, swarthy little man of middle age, in a black wig and a rusty coat; a man with observant, questing eyes, and the hint of a sneer about his tight-lipped mouth. Not only did he sit alone, but in a loneliness made conspicuous by the empty tables immediately about him, as if he bore some disease upon him of which others avoided the infection. Upon being informed that he was Cristofero Cristofoli, a well-known agent—confidente was the term employed—of the Council of Ten, Marc-Antoine wondered what was to be discovered by a spy whom everybody knew.

A couple passed, thrusting contemptuously through the crowd, which without resentment gave way at once. The man was short and mean of appearance, very swarthy and ugly in a suit of shabby camlet that an artisan on holiday might have disdained. A fat, untidy woman of fifty hung wobbling on his arm. They were followed by two men in black, each with a golden key upon his breast to proclaim him a chamberlain, and after these rolled a gondolier in a threadbare livery.

'Who is the scarecrow?' Marc-Antoine inquired.

Ser Leonardo's ready laugh rang out. 'Most apt! A scarecrow, indeed; in fact, as well as in appearance. Well might he scare some sense into these silly, strutting crows.' He waved a long supple hand to indicate the people about them. 'He is an itinerant warning to all Italy, and most of all perhaps to Venice. Oh, yes; a scarecrow. He is the Emperor's cousin, Ercole Rinaldo D'Este, Duke of Modena, lately chased from his dominions by the Jacobins, who, uniting Modena with Reggio, have formed the Cispadane Republic. The woman is Chiara Marini, said to be his second morganatic wife. He's a precious instance of how little the Imperial aegis can now shelter a man.'

Marc-Antoine nodded without comment as tightly reticent in this as in other matters, and evasive of the persistent questions with which the Venetian still sought to probe him. He discounted the repugnance which Vendramin inspired in him, lest some of it should result from a jealous resentment which he had not been human and a lover had he not experienced.

So when they parted at last, it was without much progress made on either side in knowledge of the other, but with effusive promises from Vendramin to seek him shortly again.

Marc-Antoine hailed a gondola at the steps of the Piazzetta, and was borne away to San Daniele and Count Pizzamano.

He dined with the Count and Countess and Domenico, Isotta keeping her room on a plea of indisposition. Later in the afternoon the Count carried him off to the Casa Pesaro, where the Doge resided.

Lodovico Manin, apprised of their coming, received them in the richly hung chamber that served him for a work-room.

Marc-Antoine bowed before a man of seventy who inclined towards obesity, whose scarlet gown was caught about his loose bulging loins by a girdle set with gems of price. His head was covered by a black velvet cap worn instead of a wig. His face was large and pallid, with sagging cheeks and very dark, lack-lustre eyes under heavy tufted black brows. The aquiline nose had been thickened by age; the upper of the heavy lips protruded, adding an expression that was almost foolish to the general weariness of his unimpressive countenance.

He received his visitors with a courtesy touched, in the case of Count Pizzamano, by a hint of deference.

Marc-Antoine was presented as Mr. Melville, a gentleman charged with a mission from His Britannic Majesty's Government. The Count had known him intimately in London, and was in every way prepared to answer for him.

Evidently no better credentials were required, for Lodovico Manin, turning upon Mr. Melville those dark eyes of his in which apprehension seemed to deepen, formally announced himself honoured and entirely at Mr. Melville's service.

'It is irregular, perhaps, that I should receive thus in private a gentleman coming to Venice as an envoy-extraordinary. But these sad, anxious times and the persuasion of my friend Count Pizzamano will perhaps justify me. I scarcely know. There is so much nowadays to bewilder us. However, sir, be seated, and let us talk.'

With quiet impressiveness, and making it clear that his words were the words of Mr. Pitt, Marc-Antoine spoke of the French menace to all Europe, and of the urgent need in the interests of civilization that all should unite against this common enemy. He touched upon the coalition that had been formed, and deplored the abstentions from it of some whose interests were surely identical with those of England, Austria, and the rest. In the forefront of these he ventured to place the Most Serene Republic, directly menaced now by the presence of the French armies on her very frontiers. If hitherto Venice might have been justified in holding aloof on the reasonable assumption that the allied Piedmontese and Austrian armies more than sufficed to preserve Italy inviolate, that justification had now been extinguished. The Piedmontese army had been shattered and Savoy had been surrendered to France. As a warning of what might ensue, His Serenity had the recent Jacobin revolt, with French assistance, of Modena and Reggio, which had formed themselves into the Cispadane Republic and had set up the anarchical rule of Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity.

His Serenity raised a podgy hand to interrupt him there.

'What has happened in Modena is one thing; what could happen in Venice quite another. That, sir, was a state resentful of government by a foreign despot, and, therefore, ripe for revolt. Venice is ruled by her own patricians, and the people are happy in their government.'

Marc-Antoine made bold to set a question: 'Does Venice consider that the happiness of her people is a sufficient guarantee that her frontiers will not suffer violation?'

'By no means, sir. Our guarantee of that lies in the friendly attitude of the French Directory towards Venice. France makes war upon Austria, not upon Italy. Only last week Monsieur Lallemant, speaking for General Bonaparte, desired the Council of Ten clearly to indicate our line of frontier on the mainland, so that it might be respected. Does it appear from this that we have cause to share the apprehensions which your Mr. Pitt does us the honour to entertain on our behalf?' He spoke with the air of one who delivers checkmate.

'It does not appear so because the French are careful of appearances, and until their plans are ripe they will deceive you with false ones.'

This moved the Doge to petulance. 'That is an opinion, sir.'

'Highness, it is a fact of which by great good fortune I have secured and am able to bring you the fullest evidence.'

He produced Barras' letter to Lebel, unfolded it and handed it to the Doge.

The only sound for some moments after that was the heavy breathing of Manin, and the rustle of the document as it shook in his soft white hand. At last, in clear dismay, his expression dull and dazed, he turned the document about. 'It is genuine, this?' he asked, and his voice was husky. But the question was rhetorical and scarcely required the clear assurance that Marc-Antoine afforded.

'But then...?' The dull eyes stared.

Marc-Antoine was blunt.

'That which three months ago would have been a gracious and generous concession for the Most Serene Republic is today a stark necessity if she is to be saved from annihilation.'

The Doge started to his feet, shuddering. 'My God! Oh, my God! Do not use such words.'

The Count took a hand. 'It is as well to use the words that apply. Then there can be no misconceptions. We see where we stand. It only remains to arm and unite with Austria against the common foe.'

'Arm!' The Doge looked at him in horror. 'Arm? And the cost of arming? Have you counted that?' He seemed at last to have come fully to life. Perhaps the richest man in the Republic, indeed owing his election to his very wealth, he was notoriously a miser.

'The cost of arming?' he stormed on. 'Virgin Mother! How is it to be defrayed?'

Marc-Antoine supplied the answer. 'However defrayed, the cost should prove less than the levy a victorious Bonaparte will exact.'

'Bonaparte! Bonaparte! You talk as if Bonaparte were already here.'

'He is almost at the gate, Highness.'

'And since you know the true French intentions,' growled the Count, 'you cannot suppose that he will stand hat in hand on the doorstep.'

His Serenity almost raged. 'Is there not the Empire? If Beaulieu's army were smashed to atoms, the resources of the Emperor would scarcely be broached. Austria has lost Belgium already. Do you suppose she will let her Italian provinces go the same way?'

'Her loss of Belgium,' said Marc-Antoine, with an exasperating calm, 'was in spite of her resources.'

Impatient, yielding to his fierce patriotism, the Count again cut in.

'And, anyway, are we come so low that we must look to another to fight our battles, whilst we stand idly by? That is an attitude, sir, for women; not for men.'

'It is not yet our battle. It is Austria's.'

This was mere obstinacy, and the Count's impatience flared in his tone. 'But we are to profit by the spending of Austrian blood and treasure, and contribute nothing of our own. Is that the argument? Will the Council tolerate it?'

The Doge turned away in distress and anger. Bowed and trembling, he shambled from them, towards the window.

Marc-Antoine addressed the broad, receding back. 'By Your Serenity's leave, what is of more immediate importance than these abstract considerations is that, whilst you wait for the Empire to develop her resources, Venice may be under the conqueror's heel. Can she, having done nothing for Austria, having done nothing even for herself, look then to Austria to come to her deliverance?'

It was a long moment before Manin turned, and he had come slowly back to them before he spoke. By then he had recovered his lugubrious self-control.

'Sirs, I am obliged to you. Amongst us here we can do no more. This matter is one for the Council. I shall lose no time in convening it.' He drew a hand wearily across a brow that was damp. 'And now, if you will give me leave...' His glance embraced them both. 'I am shaken, deeply shaken by all this, as you may conceive.'

Back in their gondola, the Count was grimly bitter. 'I told you it was an evil day for Venice when she elected a Friulian to Doge. You have seen him. He will pray; he will have masses said; he will burn candles rather than levy men and arm them. Always will he put his trust in alien help: in Austria's or in Heaven's. But we have still some Venetians left, like Francesco Pesaro, who from the outset have demanded that we arm. And the barnabotti shall stiffen them. This is a matter for Vendramin. The time for action has arrived.'

On the whole Marc-Antoine could give himself peace. He might, had he so chosen, account his mission accomplished. But he did not yet choose so to account it. Therefore, the next day saw him waiting once more upon Lallemant.

He had been busy, he announced. In his pretended character of Mr. Melville he had seen the British Ambassador, who mistrusted him and therefore would do nothing to assist him.

'That man,' said Lallemant, 'would mistrust his own mother.'

They laughed together, and Marc-Antoine proceeded. He had found, however, in the Senator Count Pizzamano, a member of the Council of Ten, one who believed in him well enough to sponsor him to the Doge. He had seen Manin. Such a man need give them no anxieties.

The ambassador, whilst amazed at the audacity of this Lebel, cordially agreed with him. He was contemptuous of the Venetian Government and Venetian patricians. They lived upon an illusion of greatness from the past, and refused to read the present. Venetian industries were languishing, her trade, crushed by taxation, was moribund. Consequently her finances were desperate.

'As in the case of all nations sweeping to the last stage of decay, she multiplies public offices and takes upon herself the burden of maintaining more and more of her pauper subjects. It is as if a man, finding himself impoverished, hopes to combat it by undertaking to support his needy relatives.'

This brought him naturally to speak of the barnabotti, and of Vendramin, whom he described as a man of great influence in that regiment of paupers.

'That one, at least,' said Marc-Antoine, 'displays no sign of pauperdom.'

Lallemant's broad face broke into creases of amusement. 'Why, no. We see to that.'

Marc-Antoine breathed more quickly. 'He is in your pay?'

'Not yet. But it's only a question of time.' The shrewd eyes were amused. 'He's important to us. If it comes to a struggle in the Council between our aims and those of the Austrophiles, the issue, believe me, will lie with the man who can control the vote of the barnabotti. Vendramin is that man. Therefore I shall buy him.'

'That is well conceived. But if he will not sell?'

'There are ways of compelling such men, and—faith!—I have no compunctions.' His lip curled in scorn. 'These vicious profligates, otherwise useless to humanity, exist only so that they may be used where possible for the furtherance of worthy aims. The Vicomtesse has charge of the affair.'

'The Vicomtesse?' Marc-Antoine's tone was heavy with interrogation.

Lallemant was impatient of his dullness. 'Why, your Vicomtesse, of course. Or, if not yours, Barras'. From his seraglio, I suppose. But as a Vicomtesse she's of your own creation. Shrewd of you to have her pass for an èmigrèe. A clever little baggage.'

'Oh, that!' said Marc-Antoine, wondering who the devil she was, but daring to ask no questions. 'Oh, yes. Clever enough.'

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