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Chapter 13 Venetian Masque by Rafael Sabatini

Marc-Antoine sent up his name to the Vicomtesse de Saulx. He was kept waiting. The Vicomtesse was in a state of distraction, which at first prompted her to deny herself. On second thoughts she decided to receive him.

Dressed with the care and elegance demanded by a visit of gallantry, the visitor was ushered into a dainty boudoir that was hung and tapestried in faded golds to make a background for delicate ebony furniture with ivory inlays. The Vicomtesse had made no effort to compose herself. The signs of distraction were plainly upon her. Thus she could come more directly to her very object in admitting him.

'My friend, you arrive in a sad moment. You behold me inconsolable.'

He bowed over her slim white hand. 'Nevertheless, give me leave to essay consolation.'

'You will have heard the news?'

'That Austrian troops are pouring down from the Tyrol to the relief of Mantua?'

'I mean about poor Rocco. Rocco Terzi. He has disappeared, and the rumour is that he has been arrested. What do they say in the Piazza?'

'Oh, yes. Of course. Rocco Terzi. A friend of Vendramin's. That is the rumour: that the inquisitors have arrested him.'

'But why? Have you heard?'

'It is said, I think, that he is suspected of holding communications with General Bonaparte.'

'Preposterous! My poor Rocco! A butterfly; a joyous creature concerned in life only with its gay aspects. And so amusing. Do they say what it was that he communicated?'

'I don't think it is known. The inquisitors work very secretly.'

She shuddered. 'That is what frightens one.'

'You! But of what should you be frightened?'

'That harm may come to this poor, foolish Rocco.'

'So much concern! He is enviable a little, this Messer Rocco.'

Vendramin was announced and ushered in at the same time. Marc-Antoine observed that here was one who did not wait to discover if he would be received.

He came in airily with that swaying, jaunty step of his, and frowned upon beholding Marc-Antoine. His greeting was tart.

'Sir, I protest, you begin to have the gift of ubiquity.'

'A little, yes.' Marc-Antoine smiled amiably. 'I develop it. I do what I can.' Then he turned the subject. 'This is sad news I hear of your friend Terzi.'

'No friend of mine, by God, sir. The treacherous rogue. I pick my friends with care.'

'Fi donc, Leonardo!' cried the Vicomtesse. 'To deny him at such a time. That is not nice.'

'Time to deny him. High time. Do you know of what they accuse him?'

'Of what? Tell me.'

Her eagerness faded into disappointment when it was discovered that he merely repeated what was known already.

'I sicken to think that such a man moved freely amongst us,' he protested.

'Yet,' Marc-Antoine objected, 'all that you know at present is that he has been arrested. The remainder is rumour.'

'I want no friends about whom such rumours are possible.'

'How is rumour ever to be suppressed? It builds on the flimsiest grounds. Rocco Terzi, for instance, is said to have lived in luxury, and yet he is known to have been without any proper source of means. Is it not usual in such cases for rumour to suggest an improper source? Might not the suspicion born of this be the sole reason for his arrest?'

Vendramin had entirely lost his genial look. His eyes were almost malevolent at this reminder that Rocco Terzi's case in that respect was very much his own.

He came to it with the Vicomtesse as soon as Marc-Antoine had gone, which was quite soon thereafter, for Ser Leonardo made him feel that here his room would be more welcome than his company.

'You heard what that damned Englishman said, Anne? That Rocco may have been arrested on suspicion because of the means he displayed. Do you know whence he derived them?'

'How should I?'

He got up from the couch, where he had been sitting beside her, and paced the little room. 'It is cursedly odd. It must be that what is said is true. He was being paid by the French Government. They'll most likely rack him to make him speak.' He shivered. 'The inquisitors stop at nothing.' He stood still and looked at her. 'Suppose now that I...'

He did not dare, nor was it necessary to continue; nor for that matter did she give him time.

'You are starting at shadows, Leonardo.'

'A shadow seems to me to have been all that there was against Rocco; the same sort of shadow they may discover that I am casting. Like Rocco's my resources are beggarly; yet like Rocco I live well and lack for nothing. Suppose they put me on the rack to discover the source of my means. Suppose that I break down, and confess that you...that you...'

'That I have been lending you money. What then? I am not the French Government. They may despise you for living on a woman. But they can't hang you for it.'

The phrase made him uncomfortable. He flushed and looked at her in annoyance. 'You know that the money is only borrowed. I am not living on you, Anne. I shall pay you back every penny.'

'When you make your rich marriage, I suppose.'

'Do you sneer? You are not jealous, Anne? You are never jealous?'

'Why not? You are jealous enough of me. But perhaps you have the exclusive right to jealousy. You certainly behave as if you had, and as if you suppose that others have no feelings.'

'Oh, Anne!' He set a knee on the couch beside her, and put an arm about her shoulders. 'How can you say this to me? You know that I make this marriage because I must. That all my future hangs upon it.'

'Oh, yes, I know. I know.' She spoke a trifle wearily.

He stooped to kiss her cheek. She suffered it without excitement. And he discovered that he was straying from the point.

'You are not the French Government, you have said. But a good deal of the money has been in drafts on Vivanti's drawn by Lallemant.'

'What then?' She was sharply impatient. 'How many times have I told you that Lallemant is my cousin and has charge of my affairs. When I want money, it is thus he gives it to me.'

'I know, my love. But if this were discovered? You see this misfortune of Rocco's has made me cursed nervous.'

'How could it be discovered? You are being foolish. What does the money matter? Do you suppose I care whether you pay me back or not?'

He slid down onto the couch, and took her in his arms. 'How I love you for your sweet trust.'

But the lady was not thrilled. 'Nevertheless you will marry Madame Isotta.'

'Why will you rally me, my angel? You have said that you will not marry ever again.'

'Certainly not you, Leonardo.'

He frowned annoyance. 'Why not?' he demanded.

Impatiently she thrust him away from her. 'God in Heaven! Was there ever such a vain fribble of a man? You are to love where you please and marry where you please, and those upon whom you place the sacred seal of your kiss are to hold themselves in perpetual fidelity to you! Faith, you are modest in your claims. What woman could deny you? It annoys you that I should not be ready to marry you, given the chance, whilst you would take no chance of marrying me.' She stood up, a slight wisp of lovely, dainty anger. 'Do you know, Leonardo, there are moments when you make me sick. And this is one of them.'

He was in an alarm of penitence. He protested that he was just a poor devil at the mercy of a cruel fate, with a great name to maintain and perpetuate, and able to do it only by a marriage of convenience. Knowing how he loved her, as she must know from the proofs he had given, it was cruel of her to cast his misfortunes in his teeth. He was on the point of tears before she consented to make her peace with him. In the sweetness of that reconciliation he forgot the fate of Rocco Terzi and his own fears, persuaded himself that he had been starting at shadows, as she had declared.

But there were others who had not at hand such delectable means to stifle alarm at the fate of Rocco Terzi. And Lallemant was of these.

Profoundly disturbed and exercised by the event, he welcomed the arrival of Marc-Antoine.

'I have just left the Vicomtesse,' the supposed representative announced. 'I found her distressed by news of the arrest of a friend of hers, one Rocco Terzi.' And then he dropped his voice. 'Was not that the name of the man who was charting the canals?'

'It was,' said Lallemant, with a queer dryness.

He sat at his writing-table in a crouching attitude, watching Marc-Antoine with eyes that were like gimlets in his pallid face. The tone and the look were warning enough for Marc-Antoine. He knew himself in danger.

Meditatively he stroked his chin, his face a mask of glumness.

'This is very serious,' he said.

Again the Frenchman was incisively laconic. 'It is, Lebel.'

Swiftly Marc-Antoine stepped close up to the table. He lowered his voice until it was little more than a whisper, but a whisper sibilant with fury.

'You fool! Have I not warned you against using that name?' His eyes played briskly round to the door, and back to Lallemant's big face. 'With a spy in your household, you talk without the least circumspection. God of God! Do you think I want to end like your Rocco Terzi? How do you know that Casotto is not outside that door at this moment?'

'Because he is not in the house,' said Lallemant.

Marc-Antoine gave visible signs of relief.

'Was he in the house the other day, when you told me about Terzi?'

'Not to my knowledge.'

'Oh! So you don't even know when he comes and goes?' Marc-Antoine was carrying the war into the enemy's territory. 'Anyway, whether he is here or not, I should prefer to talk to you in that inner room. I don't know why you should lately have grown careless.'

'I am not careless, my friend. I know what I do. But have it your own way.' He heaved himself up, and they passed into the farther chamber.

This gave Marc-Antoine time to think. And the need to think had rarely been more imperative. He stood, he realized, on the very edge of discovery. And he most certainly would be hurled over that edge unless he could completely stifle Lallemant's well-founded suspicions. To accomplish it some ultra-Jacobin gesture was necessary at whatever cost.

Before they had come to rest in that inner room the memory of Barras' last letter came to suggest a course. Odious and repellent though it was, yet he must take it if he was to restore and consolidate his shaken credit.

'Do you know,' Lallemant attacked him, 'that I find it more than odd that when a secret matter passes between us here, it should be followed by almost immediate publication. There was that business of Sir Richard Worthington. You explained it. But the explanation seems to me less plausible today than at the time.'

'Why so?' Marc-Antoine was dry and haughty, very much the citizen-representative of their first interview.

'Because of this affair of Rocco Terzi. Until I told you four days ago, not a soul in Venice knew of it but Terzi and myself. And then that very night Rocco is arrested, his papers seized, and by now, if I know their methods at all, he will have been strangled.'

Accusation could hardly have been plainer.

Marc-Antoine stood before him, stiff and cool.

'Not a soul but Terzi and yourself, eh? And the Vicomtesse whom you employed to corrupt Terzi? Does she count for nothing?'

'That is brave! That is clever! You accuse her, do you?'

'I do not. I merely indicate to you the general looseness of your statements.'

'My statements are not loose. The Vicomtesse did not know the purpose for which I employed Terzi. She did not know, do you hear? Do you think I tell all my business to my spies? She did not know.'

'You never doubt, do you? No, you are just the man to make sure of things. How do you know that Terzi did not tell her?'

'That is unthinkable.'

'Why? Because you don't choose to think it. There's stout reasoning, on my soul. And how do you know that one or another of the men working for Terzi did not blab? I must suppose they knew what they were doing?'

Lallemant showed exasperation. 'They were being well paid. Would any of them cut off a supply of money easily earned?'

'One of them may have taken fright. It would not be surprising.'

'Is there anyone else upon whom you can cast suspicion?'

'Upon whom do you prefer to cast it, Lallemant?' Marc-Antoine's voice had grown hard as steel.

Lallemant gulped. His eyes were furious. But he hesitated.

'Well?' quoth Marc-Antoine. 'I am waiting.'

The other took a turn in the room, his double chin in his hand. The aspect of the representative was a little terrifying. Lallemant swayed helplessly between doubts.

'Will you frankly answer me a question?' he asked at last.

'I should welcome a direct one.'

'Will you tell me why you went to the Ducal Palace on Monday evening, with Count Pizzamano, and whom you went to see there?'

'Do you set spies upon me, Lallemant?'

'Answer my question. Then I will answer yours. What were you doing at the Ducal Palace a few hours before Terzi's arrest?'

'I went to see the inquisitors of state.'

As once before the immediate frankness of the admission was like a blow.

Lallemant rallied. 'For what purpose?' he insisted, but already he had lost half his fierce assurance.

'For a purpose which I came here to discuss with you today. Sit down, Lallemant.' All at once he was peremptory, the hectoring official in authority. 'Sit down,' he repeated, more harshly, and Lallemant, almost mechanically, obeyed him.

'If you kept your wits about you, and addressed yourself to the real interests of the Nation instead of frittering away your energies and resources on trivialities, what I have now had to do would have been done long ago. You will have known in your time, Lallemant—you must have done, for they are to be met everywhere—chicken-witted men of law, who run cackling after the small grains of detail so diligently that they lose sight of the main issues. You are like those, Lallemant. You sit here so intent upon the little foolish webs of intrigue that you are spinning with such self-complacency that you have no eyes for the things that matter.'

'For instance?' growled Lallemant, whose face was turning purple.

'I am coming to the instance. In Verona there is a fat slug of a man, the ci-devant Comte de Provence, who calls himself Louis XVIII, keeps a court that in itself is an insult to the French Republic, and is actively in correspondence with all the despots in Europe, weaving every kind of intrigue to sap our credit. That man is a menace to us. Yet for months he has been suffered to continue unmolested in the enjoyment of Venetian hospitality, abusing it to our constant detriment. Have you really been blind to the harm that he is doing us? It seems you must have been, since it has been necessary for me to take in hand the work you should have done.'

His level gaze was steadily, almost hypnotically, upon the ambassador, whom he had now cast into bewilderment.

'Here was the chance to serve two purposes at once: on the one hand, to put an end to an intolerable interference; on the other, to establish a sound grievance against the Serenissima; to create a pretext for the measures which our arms may presently find desirable. Thoroughly to establish this a written ultimatum would not serve. That is to follow. It shall go from here today. It was necessary—or I judged it so—that I should first attend before the inquisitors and test the extent of their awareness of the monarchist activities of this so-called Louis XVIII.'

Lallemant interrupted him. 'Do you mean that you went in your own person? As the Representative Lebel?'

'Since I am here and alive, you may be sure that I did not. I went in the character of a friendly mediator, who had been informed by you of what was proposed, and requested by you to see the inquisitors first, so as to mitigate the blow. That is why I enlisted the assistance of Count Pizzamano. You understand?'

'No. That is—not yet. Not quite. But continue.'

'The inquisitors met me with the assertion that the gentleman to whom they had given shelter in Verona was known to them only as the Comte de Lille. I pointed out as politely as I could that a change of name does not imply a change of identity. I pointed out to them, speaking as a friendly onlooker holding certain commissions from the British Government, that by his intrigues this unfortunate exile had put them in an extremely false position. I informed them that it was within my knowledge that an ultimatum from France on the subject would reach them almost at once. I urged them in their own interest to conciliate France by an immediate compliance with the terms of this ultimatum when it came.'

He paused. There was a scornful curl to his lip as he pondered Lallemant's dazed agitation.

'Now that you know what I went to do at the Ducal Palace, you will perhaps realize that it is something you should have done months ago.'

Indignation surmounted the ambassador's bewilderment.

'How could I take a step of such gravity without express orders from Paris?'

Marc-Antoine was sententious. 'A fully accredited ambassador requires no special orders to perform that which is so obviously in the interests of his government.'

'I do not admit that it is so obviously in our interests. I cannot see that it is in our interests at all. We shall certainly provoke resentment; bitter resentment. The Venetian Government cannot comply with our demand without covering itself with opprobrium.'

'What have we to do with that?'

'We shall have something to do with it if they are driven into resistance. Where shall we stand then?'

'The whole purpose of that preliminary step of mine was to ascertain the chances of active resistance. I have no cause to suppose that it will be offered. And, anyway, my mind is made up. The ultimatum must go at once. Today.'

Lallemant got up in agitation. His broad peasant face was purple. He no longer had a thought for the suspicions which had originally been urging him. He was already far, indeed, from those, more than persuaded of their utter idleness. This man Lebel showed himself to be an extremist, a revolutionary of the intransigent school which had passed away with Robespierre. To suspect the republican zeal of a man capable of conceiving such an ultimatum was utterly fantastic. He might not yet perfectly understand Lebel's explanation of his visit to the inquisitors. But he was no longer even concerned to understand it, in view of the fruits of it with which he was presented. These were quite enough for his digestion.

'Are you asking me to send this ultimatum?' he demanded.

'Haven't I been clear?'

The rather corpulent figure stood squarely before Marc-Antoine.

'My regrets, citizen. I cannot take your orders.'

Marc-Antoine was very cold and dignified. 'You are aware of the powers vested in me by the Directory.'

'I am perfectly aware of them. But I cannot do such violence to my judgment. I regard this ultimatum as rash and provocative, and opposed to my instructions which are to keep the peace with the Serenissima. It demands of the Venetian Government an unnecessary humiliation. Without express orders from the Directory itself, I cannot take the responsibility of putting my signature to such a document.'

Marc-Antoine looked him squarely between the eyes for a moment. Then he shrugged. 'Very well. I will do no violence to your feelings. I must take upon myself the responsibility that you shirk.' He began to draw off his gloves. 'Be good enough to call Jacob.'

It was Lallemant's turn to stare. He had understood the intention.

'That, of course, will be your own affair,' he said, at length. 'But I tell you frankly that if I had the power to oppose you, I should exercise it.'

'The Directory will be thankful that you have not. Jacob, if you please.'

To the swarthy little secretary when he came, Marc-Antoine dictated the curt terms of his communication, whilst Lallemant paced up and down the room simmering with suppressed indignation.

It was addressed to the Doge and Senate of the Most Serene Republic of Venice, and couched as follows:

I have the honour to inform you that the French Directory views with the gravest misgivings the shelter afforded in Verona to the so-called Comte de Lille, ci-devant Comte de Provence, and the facilities for conspiring and for intriguing against the French Republic, One and Indivisible, which the said ci-devant has there enjoyed. As evidence of this we hold and are prepared to submit to Your Serenities letters of the said ci-devant Comte de Provence to the Empress of Russia, which were intercepted by us as lately as last week. In consideration of these activities we must regard the said ci-devant's sojourn in Verona as a breach of the amity existing between our two republics, and we are under the necessity of demanding the immediate expulsion of the ci-devant Comte de Provence from the territory of the Most Serene Republic of Venice.

When Jacob had completed it, Marc-Antoine took the quill from him, and signed the document: 'Camille Lebel, Representative of the Directory of France.'

'Let it be delivered at the Ducal Palace without the least delay,' he ordered. 'You understand, Lallemant?'

'Oh, but of course,' was the ill-humoured answer. And again he repeated: 'The responsibility is yours.'

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