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Chapter 12 Venetian Masque by Rafael Sabatini

Battista, the landlord of the Inn of the Swords, had procured a valet for Mr. Melville: a Frenchman named Philibert, who was an excellent hairdresser.

This Philibert, a plump, soft-voiced, soft-footed man of forty, had dressed for years the hair of the Duc de Ligniáres. But the guillotine having taken off the Duke's head, Philibert found himself out of work, and since other aristocratic heads in France seemed equally impermanent, Philibert, following the example of his betters, had emigrated from a republic in which the National Barber left hairdressers without employment.

Marc-Antoine, who was fastidious about the appearance of his glossy black mane, thanked God for it, and took the soft-voiced man into his service.

Philibert was at his duties on the head of his new master; to be particular, he was in the act of shaving him. Upon the intimate operation, Messer Vendramin, very brave in lilac taffeta, intruded. He strolled in familiarly, swinging a gold-headed cane, and found himself a chair by the dressing-table, whence he faced the lathered Mr. Melville.

He entertained the supposed Englishman with small talk and little anecdotes, mostly scandalous and sometimes salacious, of which invariably he was the hero. The presence of Philibert set no restraints upon him. Ser Leonardo made it appear that in Venice reticence was little practised. Besides, he was of those for whom kissing would lose half its delights if there were no telling.

Mr. Melville, wishing him at the devil, let him chatter, and grew somnolent.

'I shall take you today,' Vendramin announced, 'to one of the most elegant and exclusive casinos in Venice: that of the exquisite Isabella Teotochi. You'll have heard of her?'

Mr. Melville had not. The Venetian prattled on.

'I take you there at the request of a very entrancing lady who has remarked you, and desires your acquaintance: a very dear and charming friend of mine, the Vicomtesse de Saulx.'

Razor in hand, Philibert leapt back with a cry of dismay. 'Ah, Dieu de Dieu!' His voice was soft no longer. 'Not in twenty years has such a thing happened to me. Never shall I forgive myself, monsieur. Never!'

A crimson stain suffusing the lather on Mr. Melville's cheek explained the valet's anguish.

Vendramin was pouring abuse upon the luckless Frenchman. 'Clumsy, maladroit lout! You should be caned for that, by God! What the devil are you? A valet or a butcher?'

Mr. Melville was languid, yet with a hint of sternness. He waved Ser Leonardo into silence.

'If you please, sir! If you please.' He took a corner of the towel, and dabbed the gash. 'It's not a question of whether you can forgive yourself, Philibert; but whether you can forgive me for having spoilt the record of your twenty years. The fault was mine, my friend. I was drowsing, and I started under your hand.'

'Oh, monsieur! Oh, monsieur!' Philibert's tone expressed the inexpressible.

Vendramin was sneering. 'I vow to Heaven you English are incomprehensible.'

Philibert was bustling feverishly; finding a fresh towel; mixing something in a basin. 'I have water here that will staunch a cut almost at once, monsieur. By the time I have dressed your hair the bleeding will have ceased.'

He approached to minister. 'You are very good, sir,' he said, and the gratitude in his tone was touching.

Mr. Melville's next words announced that the subject was closed.

'You were speaking, Ser Leonardo, of a lady, I think; of a lady to whom you are to present me. You named her; did you not?'

'Ah, yes. The Vicomtesse de Saulx. You will be glad to meet her.'

'I can think of no one who would interest me more,' said Mr. Melville in a tone that sharpened Vendramin's glance.

'You will have heard of her?'

'The name is extraordinarily familiar.'

'She is an èmigrèe. The widow of the Vicomte de Saulx who was guillotined in the Terror.'

So that was it! Beyond a doubt this would be the Vicomtesse described by Lallemant as of Lebel's creation. That, in itself, went far to explain the title Lebel had chosen for her. Considering that dead scoundrel's connection with Saulx, it would, of course, be the first to occur to him. Of the danger attached to meeting her in his present circumstances, Marc-Antoine could only judge when he had met her. And since, in any case, it would be his duty to denounce her for a spy, she would not remain a danger to him long.

They came to the casino of Isabella Teotochi, the famous and beautiful Greek prècieuse, who, separated from her first husband, Carlo Marin, was now being ardently wooed by the patrician Albrizzi. This private casino, conducted for her by a French director, bore no resemblance to the Casino del Leone. There was no gaming here. Its rooms were devoted to intellectual reunions. It was a temple of arts and letters, in which La Teotochi was the high priestess; in which the compositions of the day supplied the topics of conversation; and in which the advanced ideas of life imported from France were given a free flight. So much was this the case that already the British and Russian ambassadors, looking upon these assemblies as hot-beds of Jacobinism, were urging the inquisitors of state to give attention to them.

In Marc-Antoine the lovely Teotochi could discern no claim to her lofty interest. She gave him a languid, careless welcome. She was absorbed and entranced at the moment by a youth with a lean, pale, Semitic face and ardent eyes, who, leaning over her where she reclined, talked volubly and vehemently.

If he made a pause when Vendramin presented his Englishman, it was merely to glare his impatience at the interruption. He acknowledged by a curt, contemptuously absent-minded nod the expansive greeting which Vendramin addressed to him.

'A mannerless Greek cub,' Ser Leonardo condemned him as they withdrew.

Later Marc-Antoine was to learn that he was Ugo Foscolo, a young student from Zara turned dramatist, who already at the age of eighteen was startling Italy by his precocious genius. But at the moment his attention was elsewhere.

He had discovered the porcelain lady of the Casino del Leone enthroned on a settee, receiving the courtship of a little group of lively gallants, amongst whom he recognized Rocco Terzi of the uneasy eyes. Observing her he reflected that it is rarely given to a man to enjoy the advantage of contemplating his own widow.

Her quickening glance apprised him that she was aware of his approach. Then, he was bowing before her, and she was telling him archly that he arrived in time to check the scandalous tongues of those about her to whom no character was sacred.

'That is too severe,' Terzi protested. 'We leave sacred things alone. Madame Bonaparte is hardly sacred even when hailed by the mob as a divinity.'

He alluded to the accounts which had just reached Venice of the worship of Madame Josèphine since the arrival in Paris of the captured Austrian standards sent home by Bonaparte, and to the title of 'Our Lady of Victory,' by which she was hailed whenever she showed herself in public.

Presently Marc-Antoine found the opportunity he sought.

'We have acquaintances in common, I believe, madame. In England I know another Vicomtesse de Saulx.'

The blue eyes flickered. But the movement of the slowly waving fan was never checked or troubled. 'Ah!' she drawled. 'That will be the dowager Vicomtesse. My late husband's mother. He was guillotined in '93.'

'So I had heard. And then there are others.' His dreamy-looking eyes watched her closely. 'There is Camille Lebel, for instance.'

'Lebel?' She frowned in thought, and slowly shook her head. 'I do not number anyone of that name among my friends.'

'I could not suggest that. But you will have heard of him. Lebel was at one time the Vicomte de Saulx's steward.'

'Ah, yes,' she said vaguely. 'I think I remember that. But I never met the man to my knowledge.'

'That is strange; for I seem to recollect that he spoke of you and told me that you were in Italy.' He sighed, and then, to complete the test, abruptly flung his bombshell.

'Poor fellow! He died a week or two ago.'

There was a little pause before she answered him.

'We need not trouble about him, then. Talk to me of the living. Sit here beside me, Mr. Melville, and tell me of yourself.'

This utter lack of interest in Lebel's fate reassured Marc-Antoine. The steward of Saulx must, he assumed, have been personally unknown to her. His connection with her had gone no further than the indication to Barras of the title she might conveniently assume.

Her interest in Marc-Antoine had dispersed her audience. Only Terzi and Vendramin remained, and Terzi was stifling a yawn. Ser Leonardo took him by the arm.

'Do not let us restrain these confidences, Rocco. Let us go and annoy the Levantine Foscolo by praising Gozzi to him.'

Alone with the lady who claimed to be his widow, Marc-Antoine found himself subjected to a rapid fire of questions. Above all she desired to know why he was in Venice and what the nature of his relations with the Pizzamani. She was a little arch on this. But he did not choose to notice it.

He answered that he had known the Pizzamani in London when the Count was Venetian Minister there, and they had become friends of his.

'One of them in particular, no doubt.' She watched him slyly over the edge of her fan.

'Oh, yes. Domenico.'

'You disappoint me. Leonardo, then, troubles himself in vain?'

'Ser Leonardo troubles himself? On my account?'

'You know, of course, that he is to marry Isotta Pizzamano. He senses a rival in you.'

'And he has left us together so that you may ascertain for him whether he has cause to do so?'

She was shocked. 'You are blunt, you English. Mon Dieu, how blunt! It is what renders you adorable. And how sternly you can look upon a woman! With those eyes upon me I could never lie to you. Not that I should ever want to. Can you keep faith?'

'Put me to the test if you doubt it.'

'You've guessed the truth. An easy guess to one who knew Leonardo better. Unless he had ends to serve, he would not so readily have left us alone together.'

'Let me hope that he will often have ends to serve. Is it possible that I could have the honour of making him uneasy on your account as well?'

'Are you so ungallant as to be surprised?'

'It is the plurality of his jealousies that confuses me. Are there in Venice any ladies with whom I may be friends without going in peril of assassination by Monsieur Vendramin?'

'Now you want to laugh, and I am serious. Oh, but very serious. He is as jealous as a Spaniard, and as dangerous in his jealousy. Am I to reassure him on the score of Monna Isotta?'

'If I interest you sufficiently that you should not desire my death.'

'Far from it. I desire to see more of you.'

'In spite of the Spanish jealousy of this jealous Venetian?'

'Since you are so brave as to make a jest of it, come and see me soon. I am lodged at the Casa Gazzola, near the Rialto. Your gondolier will know it. Will you come?'

'In imagination I am there already.'

She smiled. A sweet, alluring smile, he accounted it; but he observed how it deepened the creases about her vivid eyes, betraying an age more advanced than was at first to be supposed in her.

'For an Englishman,' she said, 'you do not seem to lack enterprise. But, then, you'll have learnt it with your excellent French.'

Vendramin and Terzi were returning. Marc-Antoine stood up, and bowed over her hand.

'I shall expect you,' she said. 'Remember!'

'Superfluous injunction,' protested Marc-Antoine.

Terzi bore him away to make him known to others present and to give him refreshment. As he sipped a glass of malvoisie and listened to a heated argument upon the sonnet between two dilettanti, he saw Vendramin in the place he had vacated beside the little spurious Vicomtesse, very deeply and earnestly in talk.

The precise extent of Vendramin's entanglement with this woman was only half—and the less important half—of the problem that confronted Marc-Antoine. Knowing her for an active French secret agent, charged at this very moment with the corruption of a man as valuable to the anti-Jacobin cause as Vendramin, it was his duty at once to denounce her. A man so engaged he would destroy without compunction. But she was a woman, and very delicate and frail, and the vision of that slender white neck in the strangler's cord was a vision of pure horror. Chivalry, then, made duty's course repellent. The reflection that Vendramin's corruption if accomplished would open a door of escape for Isotta must—even had there been in that no profit to himself—make the course impossible. Duty, however, demanded imperiously that he should follow it.

In this conflict of aims personal and political he postponed solution of his problem until he could see ahead more clearly. He could keep this charming widow of his under closest observation, and he would watch no less closely the measures taken for the seduction of Vendramin.

This took him a few days later to the legation, at a time when Venice was agog with the news that the Austrians, pleading the necessities of war, had occupied the fortress of Peschiera.

He found Lallemant rubbing his hands over the news.

'After this,' said the French Ambassador, 'it seems to me that we do as we please. Having tolerated the violation of her frontiers by the Austrians, Venice can hardly complain if we do the same. Unarmed neutralities have no rights that I can discern.'

Marc-Antoine was caustic. 'If it will remove the necessity for your reckless waste of the nation's money, that will be something to the good.'

Lallemant looked up from his dispatches. 'What flea is biting you now? Of what reckless waste am I guilty?'

'I was thinking of Vendramin, on whose corruption you have spent so much so vainly.'

'So vainly? Ah, that! You are well informed.'

'Well enough. I see a scurry of warlike activity where hitherto all has been peaceful indifference, and I know where the reason is to be found: in Vendramin's eloquence at the last meeting of the Council, when he was supported by the entire barnabotto rabble. Having spent so much gold and pains upon his corruption, you might have completed it in time to avoid that.'

'Bah!' Lallemant stretched his hand across the table palm upwards, the fingers and thumb clawing inwards. 'I have him there whenever I want him.'

'Then why let him go bleating of defences and armaments? How much longer will you leave him to do the work of the Austrophiles?'

'All in my own good time, citizen-representative. The further he is led into this quagmire, the more difficult will it be for him to extricate himself.' He turned aside to take up two packages from his table. 'Here are letters for you.'

One of these was from Barras. The Director wrote on various matters, and particularly stressed the need for harmonious co-operation with Bonaparte, who must be given every assistance. Marc-Antoine observed here a change of tone reflecting the growing influence of the commander-in-chief of the Army of Italy.

The other letter was from Bonaparte himself. It was cold, curt, peremptory, and remarkable for bad spelling. It informed the Representative Lebel that General Bonaparte required soundings taken of the canals by which the city of Venice was to be approached. He added that he was writing to Lallemant in the same sense, and he commanded rather than requested the representative to co-operate diligently with the ambassador.

Since thus the matter was already in Lallemant's knowledge, Marc-Antoine at once took it up with him as if he were giving him news.

'Yes, yes,' he was interrupted. 'I have a letter from the General, too, on that. He's behind the fair. These soldiers think they alone can discern the obvious. We've been at work on it here for some weeks already.'

Marc-Antoine displayed a proper interest.

'Who is at work on it?'

'Our invaluable Vicomtesse.'

'You are not telling me that she is taking soundings, are you?'

'Don't be a fool. She has charge of the matter. She has corrupted a rascal named Rocco Terzi—another starveling barnabotto—and he is employing three or four scoundrels of his own. They work for him by night and bring him daily their results from which he is preparing charts. Considering what I have done, I propose, myself, to inform the General in detail.'

Marc-Antoine shrugged indifferently. 'You will save me the trouble.'

He repressed his excitement until he was closeted with Count Pizzamano.

The Count was in exasperation at the hedonistic apathy into which he observed the Government and the people alike to be relapsing. In particular he was disgusted with the Doge. Along the canals and through the narrow streets of the city was to be heard a new song:

El Doge Manin
Dal cuor picenin
L'è streto de man
L'è nato furlan.

But not even this lampoon directed at the meanness of His Serenity's contribution to the defence fund, in which his Friulian birth was mockingly urged as the reason for his little heart and tight hand, could sting him into an energy of patriotism.

'I am, then, the more opportune,' said Marc-Antoine. 'I bring you something that must make Lodovico Manin realize the seriousness of the French menace.' And he disclosed the matter of the soundings.

He did not know whether the Count was more appalled than uplifted. But he was certainly in a simmer of excitement when he carried Marc-Antoine off to the Casa Pesaro and the Doge.

Two barges stood at the palace steps and an encumbrance of chests and cases filled the vestibule, heralding the imminent departure of Manin for his country seat at Passeriano.

The Prince consented to receive them. But his greeting was peevish. He was dressed for travelling, and they were delaying a departure already belated if he were to reach Mestre before nightfall. He hoped that their news was of an importance to justify this.

'Your Serenity shall judge,' said the Count grimly. 'Tell him, Marc.'

When he had heard the story, the Doge wrung his hands in distress. And yet he was disposed to discount its importance. It had an ugly look. Oh, yes. He would admit that much. But, after all, so had the preparations the Serenissima was making. Most probably the French were, like themselves, merely disposing for a remote eventuality. He was the more persuaded that it was remote in view of the assurances he had received that peace between France and the Empire would not now be long delayed. That would put an end to all these troublesome questions.

'But until the peace is signed,' ventured Marc, with a daring hardness of voice, 'these troublesome questions will exist, and answers to them must be found.'

'Must be found!' The Doge stared at him, deeply offended that a stranger, one who was not even a Venetian, should take this tone with the Prince of Venice.

'Your Highness will remember that I speak with the voice of the British Government. It is as if Mr. Pitt himself were speaking to you. Myself, I am of no account. Remembering this, perhaps Your Serenity will pardon a frankness which duty seems to impose upon me.'

The Doge shambled ill-humouredly about the room. 'At so inconvenient a moment,' he was muttering. 'As you see, Francesco, I am on the point of leaving. My health demands it. I am too fat to endure the heat here. I am going to Passeriano. I shall be ill if I remain in Venice.'

'Venice may be ill if you depart,' said the Count.

'You, too! Always am I addressed in the language of exaggeration, except about my own personal concerns. My God! You would make me think that you suppose a Doge not to be a man any more; not to be flesh and blood. There are limits to his endurance as to another's. And I am not well, I tell you. Notwithstanding, I am to remain here in this stifling heat to investigate every rumour that you and others choose to bring me!'

'This is no rumour, Highness,' said Marc-Antoine. 'It is a fact, and one from which the gravest inferences may be drawn.'

The Doge checked in his aimless, peevish wanderings. He squared himself before his visitors, his hands on his broad hips.

'After all, how do I know that it is a fact? Where is the evidence of this incredible story? For it is incredible. Utterly incredible. Every known circumstance contradicts it. After all, Venice is not concerned in this war. It lies between France and the Empire. The action here of the French is simply a wide outflanking movement to relieve the pressure against their armies on the Rhine. If men would remember that, there would be less of this alarmist nonsense, less of this frenzy of arming. This is what may bring us trouble. It may be interpreted as provocative, and so bring upon us the very calamity which fools pretend that it will avoid.'

There is no arguing with an obstinacy so ingrained that it finds in all things its confirmation. Marc-Antoine kept narrowly to the matter.

'Just now Your Serenity asked for evidence. The evidence will be found at the house of Rocco Terzi.'

He merely provoked a deeper impatience.

'So that what you bring me, really, is a denunciation! Really, Francesco, you should know better than to trouble me with this. Denunciations are for the inquisitors of state. It is to them you should address yourselves. Time enough to trouble me when they have found evidence to support this incredible story. Go then to the inquisitors, Francesco. Lose no time.'

Thus he got rid of them, which appeared to be his main concern so that he might be free, himself, to set out for Mestre.

The Count, his soul laden with contempt, carried Marc-Antoine to the Piazzetta and the Ducal Palace. They found the secretary of the inquisitors in his office there; and to him, at Marc-Antoine's request—since he desired to appear in these matters no more than he must—the Count formulated the denunciation of Rocco Terzi.

In the dead of that night Messer Grande, as the Captain of Justice was called, attended by a dozen of his men descended upon Rocco Terzi in the house at San Moisè where he lived in a luxury that in itself should have betrayed him. Cristofoli, the alert confidente of the secret tribunal, went carefully through the prisoner's effects and papers, and amongst them found the charts that were in course of being completed.

A brother of Terzi's, hearing of the arrest, presented himself two days later before the inquisitors of state, to offer with brotherly solicitude to procure anything lacking for the prisoner's comfort.

He received from the secretary the smooth sibylline reply that nothing whatever was then necessary to the prisoner.

It was the literal truth, for Rocco Terzi, of the uneasy eyes, convicted of high treason, had been quietly strangled in the Piombi.

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