Chapter 10 Venetian Masque by Rafael Sabatini

It would be a couple of days later when Leonardo Vendramin came to fulfill a promise to show Mr. Melville something of Venetian society, and carried him off to the Casino del Leone under the Procuratie. It was one of those little resorts, some owned privately and some in the nature of clubs, which had sprung up to replace the fashionable Ridotto, abolished by the Council of Ten nearly twenty years ago. But the gaming, which had been the main cause of the existence of those assembly-rooms, and the scandals connected with which had led to their suppression, was the main reason for the existence now of most of these casini.

Mr. Melville found himself in an elegant anteroom of brocaded panels, elegant furnishings, crystal chandeliers and Murano mirrors, that was tolerably filled by persons of fashion. The atmosphere, tepid, and oppressive with mingling perfumes, reverberated gently to light, gay chatter and rippling laughter. Ser Leonardo, evidently a familiar figure, appeared to enjoy the acquaintance of all. He presented his companion to one and another, and Mr. Melville noted the patrician names of those he met. Here a Moncenigo or a Condulmer, there a lady of the great houses of Gradenigo or Morosini, who eyed him coyly over the edge of a fan, or gave him a more liberal welcome by making room for him to sit awhile beside her.

Lackeys in white stockings, their heads heavily powdered, circulated with trays of cooling drinks and sorbets; somewhere a string band was softly playing an air from Mayr's latest opera, Lodoiska, which was then being performed at the Fenice Theatre.

Mr. Melville discovered something vaguely unwholesome and repellent in this resort of voluptuaries, this obvious temple of frivolity and inconsequence, so incongruously set up, as it seemed to him, upon the crust of a volcano from which an eruption might shatter it at any moment.

He was rescued by Ser Leonardo from the light persiflage of Donna Leonora Dolfin, and swept away to the faro-room, which Vendramin described as the inner temple. On the threshold their way was blocked by a sturdy, dark-haired young man, pallid of face and with dark, restless eyes, who in extravagance of dress outvied even Vendramin himself.

Ser Leonardo presented him as 'Fortune's most insistent and audacious gallant,' a description which the young man, whose name was Rocco Terzi, repudiated with a laugh of some bitterness.

'Present to him Fortune, rather, as the most obdurate and unyielding of all the objects of my wooing.'

'What would you, Rocco? You know the proverb: "Lucky in love..."' He took him by the arm. 'Come you back, my friend. Men unlucky in themselves will often invite the luck for others. Stand by me for five minutes whilst I punt. You will permit it, Monsieur Melville?'

The five minutes grew to ten without, apparently, Ser Leonardo being aware of it; when they had grown to twenty, he was probably not even aware that he kept a guest waiting. Guest and the world and time were forgotten in the battle he was fighting against persistent losses.

Rocco Terzi yawned wearily. He occupied with Marc-Antoine a rose-brocaded settle where they had a clear view of Ser Leonardo, flushed and desperate, at the faro-table.

'You see the luck I bring him,' growled Messer Rocco. 'I don't function even as a charm. The Goddess not only hates me; she hates my friends.' He stood up, stretching his limbs a little. 'My only compensation for the flaying I have endured this afternoon lies in the pleasure of becoming acquainted with you, Monsieur Melville.'

Marc-Antoine rose, and they shook hands.

'We shall meet again, I hope. I am commonly to be found here. If you will ask for me, it will be an honour. Rocco Terzi, sir, your very humble servant.'

He sauntered out, with a nod here and a word there, his restless, uneasy, deep-set eyes being everywhere at once.

Marc-Antoine sat down again, to wait.

A dozen punters, of whom one half were women, sat about the oval green table; as many spectators stood over them or moved about. The bank had been made by a corpulent man, whose back was turned towards Marc-Antoine. Immovable as an idol, there was no sound from him beyond an occasional hiss or chuckle as the croupier made his announcements and plied his rake.

Vendramin was losing steadily, and in a measure as he lost his methods grew more obstinately reckless.

Not once when he won did Marc-Antoine see him take up his winnings. Each time, in a voice that became gradually more and more husky and aggressive, he would make paroli, and if he won again his 'sept et le va' came like a defiance to Fortune. Once only, winning this, he went to 'quinze et le va,' and cursed the luck he had tempted when he saw all his gains swept away.

Marc-Antoine set his losses at between two and three hundred ducats before diminishing stakes implied the approaching end of his resources.

At last, he pushed back his chair, and wearily rose. After a moment, his eyes alighting on Marc-Antoine, he seemed suddenly to grow conscious of a forgotten presence. He came round to him with dragging feet. For once there was no effusive sparkle in his air.

'The worst of my cursed luck is that I must cease to play at a time when by all the laws of chance the tide should turn.'

'There are no laws of chance,' said Marc-Antoine.

They were the idlest words. But Ser Leonardo chose to perceive in them a challenge. 'A heresy! Lend me a hundred ducats, if you have them at hand, and I will prove it.'

It happened that Marc-Antoine had the money. He was abundantly supplied. His London bankers had opened a credit for him at Vivanti's in Venice, and Count Pizzamano had been his sponsor to that great Jewish financier.

Vendramin took the rouleau with a short word of thanks, and in a moment was back at the table punting again.

Within ten minutes, pale now and feverish of eye, he was once more staking his last ten sequins. And once more it proved a losing one, so that the borrowed money was consumed.

But before that final card was turned, a slight wisp of a woman in palest violet, with golden hair piled high and almost innocent of powder, no doubt from pride in its natural bright colour, had come to take her stand behind Vendramin. Marc-Antoine had not observed her entrance; but he observed her now, for she was a woman to take the eye of any man, delicately exquisite as a piece of Dresden porcelain and looking as fragile.

She watched the turn of the card, craning her slender neck a little, her fan moving gently to and fro beneath a countenance quietly composed. She even smiled a little at the muttered oath with which Vendramin greeted his final loss. Then her hand descended suddenly upon his shoulder as if to detain him in his seat.

He looked up and round to meet a reassuring smile. From a little brocaded bag she carried she drew a rouleau which she placed beside him on the green table.

'Of what avail?' he asked. 'My luck is out.'

'O coward,' she laughed. 'Will you own defeat? It is endurance that wins the day.'

He resumed, staking heavily, wildly, losing steadily, until once more all was gone. But even then she would not let him rise. 'I have an order here for two hundred on Vivanti's bank. Countersign it and take the money. You'll repay me from your winnings.'

'My angel! My guardian angel!' he apostrophized her tenderly, and bawled to a lackey for pen and ink, whilst the play went on.

At first he lost. But at last the tide turned. His winnings were piled before him like a rampart, when the obese banker at last announced that he had had enough. At this, Vendramin would have swept up his winnings, and departed; but his temptress stayed him.

'Will you insult Fortune when she smiles so winningly? My friend, for shame! Make a bank with what you have.'

The gamester hesitated only for a moment.

The bank he made ran steadily in favour of the punters. Swiftly the piled rouleaux diminished, and Vendramin, livid, fevered, the urbanity all departed out of him, played anxiously and savagely.

In the lady who had spurred the gamester to this folly, Marc-Antoine had little doubt that he beheld the mysterious Vicomtesse of whom Lallemant had spoken, the lady upon whom, according to Lallemant, Lebel had bestowed a title so as to facilitate her activities as a secret agent. He observed her very closely. Whether because she detected his interest, or whether because moved by an interest of her own, her eyes, blue as myosotis and serene as a summer sky, gave him what consideration she could spare from Messer Vendramin.

Had he not been expected at the Casa Pizzamano and already in danger of being late, he would have lingered if only to make her acquaintance. But the game looked as if it would continue for hours. He rose quietly, and quietly withdrew, his departure unnoticed.