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Chapter 15 Venetian Masque by Rafael Sabatini

Marc-Antoine beguiled his abundant enforced leisures in amusements, which even in those days were never far to seek in Venice. He was to be seen at theatres and casinos, often accompanied by Vendramin, who continued freely to borrow money from him whilst keeping him under observation.

He was being a source of definite anxiety to Vendramin, who could not rid himself of the feeling that between Marc-Antoine and Isotta some intelligence existed. Marc-Antoine was too constantly at the Casa Pizzamano for the peace of mind of Vendramin, who knew nothing of his political activities. There were water-parties to Malamocco, and occasional visits to Domenico at the Fort Sant' Andrea, in which Marc-Antoine was invariably included, whilst once in September, when some British ships of war stood off the Port of Lido, Marc-Antoine took Isotta and her mother with him to visit the captain of one of them who was a friend of his.

He was also frequently met by Vendramin at the lodgings of the Vicomtesse de Saulx in the Casa Gazzola. This, too, was becoming disquieting, if only because Marc-Antoine, fully aware by now of Vendramin's liaison with the Vicomtesse, might be moved to carry the tale of them to Isotta. And Vendramin had good cause to dread its effect upon the mind of a patrician Venetian maid, who had been so cloistered and guarded from knowledge of the world's impurities.

So far he had played his cards shrewdly with Isotta. He had affected an austerity which should make him stand well in her virginal mind. And he had taken care that the Pizzamani had never even heard the name of the Vicomtesse de Saulx, an easy matter considering how different were the social worlds in which they moved. Isotta's was a very restricted circle, and she had never seen the inside of a casino. Nor for that matter had her parents, whilst for the last few months Domenico had been chiefly absent on the duties of his command.

But the possibility of betrayal by a man whose rivalry he sensed so clearly set him brooding upon measures for bringing matters to an issue.

He was in this obsession when he went one afternoon of late September to the Casa Pizzamano, to be informed by the porter that his excellency the Count was above stairs, and that Madonna Isotta was in the garden. As a matter of natural instinct the lover chose the garden.

There he found not only Isotta, but Marc-Antoine, walking with her.

Jealousy has the faculty of taking every attendant circumstance for its confirmation. Because the sky was grey and there was an edge to the wind of that autumnal day, it must seem to Vendramin unnatural that these two should choose to saunter in the open; he must see in it evidence of an overwhelming desire to be alone together, to escape the restraining surveillance indoors; and at once, disregarding the intimate standing of Marc-Antoine with the Pizzamani, he must perceive here an impropriety.

In a less degree some consciousness of this may have been upon the straitly-reared Isotta herself. She had gone out to cut a few roses that still lingered within the shelter of a trim, tall, boxwood enclosure. Marc-Antoine, espying her from above, had slipped away, leaving the Count and Countess in talk with Domenico who happened that day to be on leave from the fort.

She had greeted him with a glance so timid as to be almost apprehensive. With constraint they had talked of roses, of the garden, of the fragrance of the vervain that was everywhere, of the summer that was dying, and of other things as remote from what was in the mind of each. Then, with her little sheaf of roses red and white in the hand coarsely gloved for her task, she turned to re-enter.

'What haste, Isotta,' he reproached her.

She met his eyes with that serenity in which she had been schooled, and which she had by now recovered.

'It is kindly meant, Marc.'

'Kind? To avoid me? When I so rarely, so very rarely have a moment with you?'

'How else shall we save unnecessary heartache? See! You make me say things that I should not say. We have the knowledge of them to place among our memories. But there is no strength to be gathered from adding to it.'

'If you would only hope a little,' he sighed.

'So that I may heighten my ultimate despair?' She smiled as she spoke.

He attacked on a new line. 'Why do you suppose that I linger in Venice? What I came to do is done so far as I can do it. Which is to say that I have accomplished nothing, and that nothing is to be accomplished. I have no illusions on that score. Whether Venice stands or falls depends today no longer upon those entrusted with her government, but upon whether the French or the Austrians prevail in this struggle. Therefore, it must seem to me that Vendramin can have little claim to be rewarded for services he will never be called upon to render.'

Sadly she shook her head. 'A sophism, Marc. He will still claim fulfilment of a promise, a fulfilment not to be withheld in honour.'

'But the promise was in the nature of a bargain. Domenico perceives this, I know. If Vendramin is given no opportunity to perform his part, the bargain fails. So at least I see it, and therefore I remain in Venice, and I wait. I keep my hopes alive. You are so pale and wan these days, Isotta.' His voice assumed an ineffable tenderness that tortured her. 'There is not yet the need for this despair, my dear. I have been looking for a chance to tell you this; to tell you, too, that I am not entirely idle; that I not merely wait and watch. It is not only in the cause of monarchism that I am a secret agent here in Venice.'

This hint of action stirred her sharply. Her hand closed suddenly over his. 'What is it that you do? What is it that you can do? Tell me.'

Did he catch in her voice the tremor of that hope which she insisted was dead? His hand turned in the clasp of hers, to clasp in its turn.

'I cannot tell you more than that just yet, my dear. But I do implore you fervently not to count lost a battle that has not yet been fought.'

And then Vendramin was upon them, and found them thus: with hands clasped, looking intently into each other's eyes, the cold and stately Isotta in a flushed agitation such as he, certainly, had never succeeded in arousing in her.

He controlled his feelings. He had the sense to know that he could not rant here as in the salon of the Vicomtesse. Isotta, of whom he went a little in dread and must so continue until he married her, was not the person to tolerate either sarcasm or innuendo. So he swallowed rage and fears, and arrayed himself in his usual effusiveness.

'In the garden braving these autumn winds! But is it prudent? For our good friend Marc this may have no dangers. The chilly climate of his native land will have toughened him. But for you, my dear Isotta! Of what is your mother thinking that she permits it?'

With such solicitous reproaches he hustled them indoors, very gay and friendly on the surface, but tormented in the depths of him. What if the mischief he feared should have been done already? What if this sneaking Englishman should have told her of his relations with that Frenchwoman? His anxious eyes scanned her closely as he talked, and found her more than usually aloof and chill.

He took his resolve. There must be an end to this indefinite state.

And so for once he outstayed Marc-Antoine and that evening requested a word alone with the Count. The Count conducted him to a little room in which he kept his archives and transacted business, and beckoned Domenico to go with them. Vendramin would have preferred to be entirely private with the Count, and reminded him that this had been his request.

But the Count had laughed: 'What? And put me to the trouble of repeating whatever it may be to Domenico? Nonsense! I have no secrets from the boy, either family or political. Come along.'

Father and son sat behind closed doors in that rather musty little room, the elder Pizzamano gaunt and masterful, yet amiably disposed, the younger very elegant in his well-fitting blue coat with yellow facings, and stiff military stock. His air was alert, yet invested with that chill dignity that to Vendramin was so damnably reminiscent of his sister.

Although he had considered his opening, Vendramin was ill-at-ease.

He had accepted the proffered chair and had sat down at the Count's bidding. But as he began to speak he got up again, and continued after that to pace the room, his glance chiefly upon the wood-blocks that made a pattern on the floor.

He alluded to his fervent patriotism and in great detail to the energy he had displayed in swaying opinion among the recalcitrant barnabotti until he had them in his control and had been able to direct them into conservative channels with such signal effect as had been seen at the last momentous meeting of the Grand Council. He assumed that these claims of his would be conceded.

'My dear boy,' the Count soothed him, for as he proceeded his assertions had become vehement, 'what need to protest with so much heat that which we know already? Surely we have never stinted praise of your efforts, or admiration for your patriotic energy and skill.'

'No. That is not my complaint,' said Vendramin.

'Ah! He has a complaint.' It was a dry interjection from Domenico.

The Count repressed his son by a glance. 'But let us hear it, Leonardo.'

'The praise and the admiration, my lord, are but words. Oh, I nothing doubt their sincerity. But words they remain, and words profit a man little. I have, as you well know, certain aspirations, which you have encouraged; certain very dear hopes for the fulfilment of short, it would be a poor compliment if I were not naturally impatient.'

The Count, reclining easily in his chair, his legs crossed, smiled gently. Perhaps had Vendramin left the matter there, he would better have served his aims. But he must be talking. His recent political labours had rendered him aware of a gift of rhetoric.

'After all,' he pursued, 'I must and do recognize that a marriage is in the nature of a contract to which each party must bring something. I am a poor man, my lord, as you well know; so that I could not approach Isotta with the ordinary endowments. But I am rich at least in power to serve my country; rich enough in this to have deserved your opinion that it abundantly compensates for what I may otherwise lack. If evidence of this, as it were, abstract wealth of mine lay in protestations, I should not have the temerity come before you now with...with my impatience.' He fumbled and faltered a little here. Then went forcefully on. 'But it has been established by my activities, the fruits of which have already been placed upon the altar of our country.'

He struck an attitude, his blond head thrown back, his hand on his heart.

Domenico smiled sourly. But the Count continued benign.

'Yes, yes. You preach to the converted. And then?'

This easy surrender seemed almost to cut the ground from under Ser Leonardo's feet. To make himself really effective he needed some opposition against which he could lean. The lack of it left him with a sense of anti-climax.

'Then,' he said, 'since it is seen, and since you, my lord, so generously admit that my part of the contract is fulfilled, you will not—you cannot, I am sure—resist my demand that you should now fulfil yours.'

Domenico startled both his father and Ser Leonardo by the question he fired into that pause.

'Did you say "demand," sir?'

Vendramin's challenging attitude lost something of its noble poise. But, resentful, he was not to be put down.

'Demand. Yes. Natural, impatient demand.' Having thus defended his dignity, he could afford to make a concession. 'The word may not be of the happiest, of the best chosen to express what is in my heart. But then...'

'Oh, the word is excellently chosen,' said Domenico. 'It is most appropriate.'

The Count turned his head to look at him. He was a little puzzled. Domenico explained himself.

'You have very truly said yourself, Leonardo, that your betrothal to my sister is in the nature of a contract. Therefore, when one party to a contract has fulfilled his obligation under it, he is within his rights to demand a like fulfilment from the other party. So that we need not quibble over words which so exactly express the situation.' Vendramin sensed something ominous under this silky surface. And it came at once. Domenico turned to the Count. 'What you have rather to consider, father, are the facts themselves; whether Leonardo may properly be judged yet to have done as much as he claims.'

The Count in his benignity raised his brows and smiled tolerantly at his son.

'But is it to be doubted, Domenico?'

'I am by no means sure that it is not. It is for you, my lord, to judge. You see, Leonardo himself has very properly classified this betrothal as a bargain, and...'

He was indignantly interrupted by Vendramin. 'Bargain, sir! I mentioned no such odious word. I spoke of a contract. A very proper term.'

'But does not a contract imply a bargain? Is not a contract the record of a bargain?'

'You twist words, sir. My meaning...'

'Your meaning was clear when you demanded the fulfilment of our part, as due upon the fulfilment of your own.'

Vendramin looked at his prospective brother-in-law without love. He tried to smother the poison of his answer in a laugh.

'On my soul, Domenico, you should have been a lawyer.'

The Count uncrossed his legs, and sat forward, interposing. 'But what is all this bother about words? What difference does it make?'

Resolutely Domenico stood his ground, in this battle he was fighting for his sister. 'Have you considered, my lord, what would happen if Leonardo were to turn slothful in marriage, and should neglect to maintain his influence upon his fellow-barnabotti?'

'This, sir, is too much,' Vendramin protested. 'You have no right to insult me by such an assumption.'

'Why perceive insult? We are dealing with a bargain struck. A bargain in which your part cannot be accounted fulfilled until we have reached the end of this sad struggle.'

Vendramin smiled sourly upon Domenico. 'I thank God, sir, that your father does not share your narrow and offensive views.'

This moved the Count to defend his son.

'They are not offensive, Leonardo. You are to consider that, all else apart, patriotism justifies a demand for the very fullest guarantees. If it were a question only of our own personal interests, I could be lenient. But the interests of Venice are concerned, and these impose that we should see your services fully rendered before we reward them.'

Anger betrayed Vendramin into sheer folly.

'You want guarantees? Why should I not demand guarantees from you? Guarantees that it is not in vain that I am holding barnabotto opinion in conservative channels?'

Sitting forward, elbow on knee, the Count looked up side-ways at the tall, imposing figure of Vendramin.

'But,' he said, 'you are not suggesting that you could possibly do otherwise?'

Too quickly Vendramin answered out of his irritation. 'Could I not? I could let it run its natural Jacobin course. And why should I not if I have no guarantees that faith will be kept with me?'

Domenico rose, a twisted smile on his lips. 'Is this your patriotism? Is this all that Venice matters to you—to you, who resented just now the word bargain? Is this the man you are, Vendramin?'

Vendramin had the sense of being trapped, and now, like a trapped creature, twisted and turned in his efforts to extricate himself.

'You misunderstand me again. Wilfully. Oh, my God! How is it possible to weigh my words, Domenico, when you drive me frantic by your opposition?'

'It is the words that are not weighed that are the most revealing.'

'But those did not represent my mind.'

'I pray God they did not,' said the Count, as cold and stern now as hitherto he had been conciliatory.

'They did not, my lord. They did not. How could they? I was so goaded that I spoke without considering the implications of what I said. I vow to God that I would be flayed for Venice as Brigadin was flayed at Famagosta. I have been taunted into hasty words that do not express my mind. It was never my intention to do more, sir, than plead with you; than beg you to consider whether what I have already done is not proof enough of my zeal; enough to entitle me to enter upon the great happiness, the great blessing to which you know that I aspire.'

Domenico would have answered him, but that he was stayed by his father. The Count spoke quietly, gently, but with a definite coldness.

'Had you confined yourself to pleading, Leonardo, I must have found it difficult to withstand you. But the expressions that you have used...'

'I have said, sir, that they do not represent my mind. I swear that they do not.'

'If I did not believe you, I should deny you my house after tonight. But words have been uttered which shake my faith in you, and something must remain of them. Enough to make me perceive that your marriage with Isotta should await the end of this sad struggle in which we are engaged. I owe this as much to Venice as to myself.'

Vendramin had cause to rage that his own folly and the astuteness of Domenico, by whom he knew himself to be disliked, should have encompassed his defeat. But at least he was in no worse case than he had been before making this attempt. It remained only to retire in good order. He bowed his head.

'I have deserved it, of course, and I must accept your decision, Lord Count. I shall study to make amends for tonight's impatience by my resignation to this postponement. I shall hope to deserve some credit in your eyes for that.'

The Count stepped up to him, and let his hand rest on his shoulder for a moment. 'We will forget all this, Leonardo. I think I understand. We will forget it.'

But from what followed when Vendramin had departed, Count Pizzamano did not look at all as if he had forgotten. In the chair which he had resumed he sat wrapped in gloomy thought whilst for a little spell Domenico silently observed him. At last the soldier spoke.

'You realize now, sir, I hope, to what manner of rascal you are marrying your daughter.'

The tone of the Count's answer was laden with weariness.

'I have counter-balanced all the shortcomings of which I have been aware in him by his ardent patriotism. But you surprised him into expressions which reveal this patriotism to be a sham, a posture assumed for profit by a man without loyalty and without conscience. Oh, yes, Domenico, I realize. But, as I told him, I must forget it. He has threatened us. His retraction counts for nothing. I am not a fool. He has shown me that, if I were to break off his engagement to Isotta, he would go over with his pestilent barnabotti to the already swollen ranks of the obstructionists, the Francophiles, the Jacobins. And I know, as you know, Domenico, that if this happened, with such a weakling as Lodovico Manin in the ducal seat, the doom of the Most Serene Republic would be written. Even if Bonaparte were defeated or were to spare us, we should still go the way of Reggio and Modena. Our traditions would be torn up, our dignity bespattered, and all that has made Venice glorious would be extinguished. A democratic government would follow, and the Tree of Liberty would be planted in Saint Mark's Square. That is the alternative which this scoundrel offers us. And it is an alternative which we cannot face.'

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