Chapter 11 Venetian Masque by Rafael Sabatini

Lallemant, curt and surly, handed Marc-Antoine a sealed letter from Barras. It confirmed to Camille Lebel the instructions to preserve friendly relations with the Serenissima, but indicated that presently it might be desirable to allow the Venetians a glimpse of the iron hand within the velvet glove. Barras was proposing to demand the expulsion from Venetian territory of the ci-devant Comte de Provence who now called himself Louis XVIII. The hospitality extended to him by the Serenissima might be construed as hostile to France, since from Verona, which he had converted into a second Coblentz, the soi-disant King Louis XVIII was actively intriguing against the French Republic. Barras waited only until his views should be shared by his colleagues, who were still hesitating to ruffle so serene a surface as Venice appeared to present.

Marc-Antoine was distressed. Loyalty to the man whom he must regard as his present sovereign made him grieve to think of this unfortunate gentleman who had been driven from one state of Europe to another—for he was welcome nowhere—being sent again upon his travels.

In silence he folded and pocketed the letter, and only then observed the surliness with which the ambassador, elbows on the table, was observing him.

'There is nothing here for you, Lallemant,' he said, as if to answer that curious glance.

'Ah!' Lallemant stirred. 'Well, it happens that I have something for you.' He seemed at once stern and ill-at-ease. 'It is reported to me that the British Ambassador has been overheard to say that Bonaparte has urged an alliance with Venice.'

The most startling thing to Marc-Antoine in this was the evidence of the thoroughness of Lallemant's organization of espionage.

'You said yourself that the man is a fool.'

'It is not a question of his wits, but of his information. What he is saying happens to be true, as you know. Can you explain how he comes by his knowledge?'

Lallemant's tone had hardened. It flung down a challenge. Marc-Antoine's smiling pause before answering betrayed nothing of his momentarily quickened heart-beats.

'Quite easily. I told him.'

Whatever reply Lallemant had been expecting, it was certainly not this. He was disarmed by the assertion of the very thing that against his will he had been suspecting. Blank astonishment showed on his broad, peasant face. 'You told him?'

'That was the object of my visit to him. Didn't I mention it?'

'You certainly did not.' Lallemant was testy. He was rallying—as his manner showed—the forces of suspicion momentarily scattered. 'Will you tell me with what purpose?'

'Isn't it plain? So that he might repeat it, and thereby lull the Venetians into a sense of false security that will keep them inactive.'

With narrowing eyes Lallemant considered him across the table. Then he delivered, as he believed, checkmate.

'Why, then, since you hold that view, did you so definitely instruct me to suppress Bonaparte's proposal? Answer me that, Lebel.' In a gust of sudden fierceness he repeated: 'Answer!'

'What's this?' Marc-Antoine's agate eyes were at their hardest. 'I suppose I had better answer and kill whatever maggot is stirring in your brain. But—name of God!—the weariness of pointing out the obvious to dullards.' He set his hand on the table, and leaned towards the ambassador. 'Are you really unable to perceive for yourself that it is one thing to make a formal offer, which might conceivably be accepted, and quite another to seek such advantage as may be derived from the circulation of an irresponsible rumour to the same effect? I see that you do perceive it now. I am relieved. I was beginning to despair of you, Lallemant.'

The ambassador's antagonism collapsed. He lowered his eyes in confusion. His voice faltered. 'Yes. I should have seen that, I suppose,' he admitted. 'I make you my excuses, Lebel.'

'For what?' It was a sharply delivered challenge to an avowal that Lallemant dared not make.

'For...For having troubled you with unnecessary questions.'

That night Marc-Antoine wrote a long letter in cipher to Mr. Pitt, in the course of which he did not spare Sir Richard Worthington, and next morning he conveyed it in person, together with a letter for his mother, to the captain of an English ship lying off the Port of Lido.

That was by no means the only official letter that he wrote in those days. His correspondence with Barras, steadily maintained, represents one of the most arduous and skilful of all the tasks that he discharged during his sojourn in Venice. It was his practice to write his dispatches currently in his own hand, as if a secretary were employed, appending the signature and flourish of the dead Lebel, which he had rehearsed until he could perfectly reproduce them.

Days followed of observant waiting for the Grand Council which the Doge had promised to convene.

It came at last, and on the evening of that day Marc-Antoine sought, at the Casa Pizzamano, news of what had occurred.

He found Vendramin there, flushed with the triumph he had scored. From the tribune of the vast hall of the Grand Council he had eloquently denounced the Senate's neglect to put the country in a posture of defence. Governors had been appointed: a Proveditor of the Mainland, a Proveditor of the Lagoons, a Proveditor of This and a Proveditor of That; officials had been multiplied, and money had lavishly been spent; but of effective preparation, as they now saw, there had been none.

Passionately he had formulated in detail his demand that troops be raised overseas and brought at once to garrison the cities of the Venetian mainland; that arms be furnished by supply and manufacture; that the Lido forts be properly equipped and manned, and that the same be done by the ships of the Serenissima; in short, that all measures be instantly taken to provide for a state of war to which the Most Serene Republic, despite her ardent and laudable desire for peace, might at any moment find herself constrained.

When he descended from the tribune, a sense of awe pervaded the great patrician multitude assembled under that fabulous ceiling with its gildings of purest gold leaf and its treasures from the brushes of Tintoretto and Paolo Veronese. From their portraits along the frieze the eyes of some seventy doges, who had ruled in Venice since the year eight hundred, looked down upon these their descendants in whose enfeebled hands lay now the destinies of a nation which once had been amongst the most powerful and opulent of the earth.

It was idle to take a vote, for it was known that the applauding barnabotti, of whom there were close upon three hundred present, had been marshalled by Vendramin to support him.

Lodovico Manin, trembling in his ducal chlamys, his countenance grey under the corno—the jewelled gold cap of his princely office—announced briefly and in a lifeless voice which was lost in those vast spaces that the Senate would take steps at once to carry out the wishes of the Grand Council, and for the rest he prayed God and Our Lady to have them in Their Holy Keeping.

The few stout patriots like Count Pizzamano, who placed the glory of the Serenissima above every earthly consideration, could feel at last that their feet were set upon the road of action, which was the road of dignity and honour.

Hence, that night, the Count's caressing manner towards Vendramin; hence the unusual civility towards him of Domenico, who had come from the Fort of Sain' Andrea di Lido to attend the Council; and hence, too, perhaps, the increasing wistfulness which Marc-Antoine detected in Isotta.

After supper, when they sought in the loggia the cool of the summer night, she hung behind, and took her way alone to the harpsichord placed under the window at the long room's other end. The strains of a sweetly melancholy air of Cimarosa's broke forth under her fingers, as if in expression of her mood.

Marc-Antoine, intolerably urged to bear her comfort, quietly rose, and, whilst the others were engrossed in their talk of the day's events and of the things to follow from it, went to join her.

She greeted his approach with a smile at once wan and tender. Her fingers mechanically found the familiar sequence of keys, and Cimarosa's air continued uninterrupted.

Since that morning when so audaciously she had sought him at his lodgings they had not exchanged above a dozen words, and these in the presence of others. But her murmur now was an allusion to his last utterance in that clandestine interview.

'You may order the Requiem, my Marc.'

Facing her across the instrument, he actually smiled.

'Not while the body lives; and it still does. I never trust appearances only.'

'There is more than the appearance here. Leonardo has performed what was required. Soon now he will claim payment.'

'Soon he may not be in a position to claim it.'

Her hands fell idle on the keys a moment. Then, lest the interruption should be observed, she resumed, and with the melody to mask her words, she questioned him.

'What do you mean?'

He had spoken upon impulse, uttering more than he intended. Just as he saw no reason in honour to raise a finger to frustrate Lallemant's scheme for the seduction of the barnabotto leader, so he also felt that he should do nothing to promote it. His part was to stand passively by and wait; to pick up the fruit when another shook the tree. Meanwhile both honour and prudence sealed his lips, even to Isotta.

'Merely that life is uncertain. Too often we forget it, preparing for joys that perish on the way, or trembling at evils that never reach us.'

'Is that all, Marc?' He caught the disappointment in her voice. 'This evil, this...horror, my dear, is already on the threshold.'

'Often the mere utterance of a thought will raise its poignancy beyond endurance. So now with Isotta. Having given this expression to her besetting dread, she was forsaken by the little courage that had still upheld her.

Her hands crashed a discordant jangle from the keys, her head sank forward, and Isotta, usually so calmly proud and self-contained, was bowing over the instrument and sobbing like a hurt child.

It lasted no more than a few seconds; but long enough to be perceived by those in the loggia, already startled by the explosive discord from the harpsichord.

Donna Leocadia came hastening down the room in a flutter of maternal concern; and, no doubt, with more than a suspicion of the source of this distress. The others followed.

'What have you said to her?' Vendramin was angrily demanding.

Marc-Antoine raised his eyebrows. 'Said to her? Said to her?'

'I demand to know.'

Domenico thrust between them.

'Are you mad, Leonardo?'

Before this need to be collected, Isotta rose. 'You make me ashamed. It is only that I am not so well. I will go now, mother.'

Vendramin moved towards her in concern.

'Dear child...'

But the Countess gently waved him back. 'Not now,' she begged.

Mother and daughter departed, and the Count, protesting that here was a deal of turmoil because a girl was feeling indisposed, drew Vendramin back to the cool of the loggia, leaving the other two to follow.

But Domenico detained Marc-Antoine. His manner was hesitant.

'Marc, my friend, are you not being imprudent? You don't misunderstand me? You know that if I could change the course of things I would not spare myself.'

Marc-Antoine was short. 'I will study to be prudent, Domenico.'

'You see,' the young soldier continued, 'there is Isotta to consider. Already her fate is hard enough.'

'Ha! You perceive that, do you?'

'Can you suppose that I am blind: that I don't see, that I don't feel—for both of you?'

'Leave me out of account. If you feel so much for Isotta, why do you do nothing?'

'What is there to be done? You see how my father fawns upon him tonight now that he has given proof of his power. That is the expression of my father's love for Venice. Against that selfless passion of patriotism, to which he will sacrifice everything that he possesses, don't you see that it is idle to contend? We must bow, Marc.' He pressed his friend's arm.

'Oh, I am bowing. But whilst I bow, I watch.'

'For what?'

'For a gift from the gods.'

Domenico still detained him. 'They tell me you are a deal together: you and Vendramin.'

'That is by his seeking.'

'As I supposed.' Domenico was scornful. 'To Vendramin all travelling Englishmen are wealthy. Has he borrowed money from you yet?'

'How well you know him,' said Marc-Antoine.