Chapter 16 Venetian Masque by Rafael Sabatini

It was a subdued Vendramin who was to be seen at the Casa Pizzamano in the days that followed; a Vendramin in sackcloth and ashes seeking by humility to be taken back into the full favour he had earlier enjoyed. It helped him that Domenico was kept absent by his military duties. Francesco Pizzamano was by nature of that philosophical turn of mind which endeavours hopefully to colour the inevitable. In his manner there was never an echo of that painful scene. But at the same time there was now a chill upon the courtesy he extended to Vendramin. Sensing it, Vendramin was not quite happy. But it was the least of his worries. Financial difficulties which he had hoped to relieve by an early marriage grew daily more oppressive. The Vicomtesse, hitherto so liberal, displayed an increasing reluctance to untie her purse-strings. The dangers never absent from delay were magnified in Vendramin's mind by his abiding dread of the rivalry of Marc-Antoine. And then, quite suddenly, he was afforded evidence, not merely of the reality of this rivalry, but that it went to depths which he could never have suspected.

It happened one evening that whilst at her father's request Isotta was playing for them an air by Paisiello, Ser Leonardo wandered down the room to the harpsichord, to do her the little service of turning the sheet from which she was reading.

Standing close behind and immediately over her, Vendramin fell appreciatively to considering the rich mass of her dark hair. A faint elusive fragrance that arose from it had the effect of quickening his perception of her other charms. With the eye of an experienced dilettante, he passed on to appraise the lovely column of the neck and the smooth shoulders, whiter than the foam of lace from which they emerged. He became aware of advantages other than those of wealth and position to be derived from making her his wife. By contrast with a beauty so regal, the porcelain daintiness of the Vicomtesse de Saulx became trivial and commonplace.

His day-dream was disturbed when Isotta paused, waiting for him to turn the sheet of music. Leaning forward to do so, his eyes strayed to the fan which she had placed on top of the harpsichord. He had seen it many times in her hand, or hanging from her girdle; but he had never before had this opportunity of considering the beauty of its workmanship. Its shafts were of gold in the lower half and very delicately carved, presumably by Chinese hands, into the semblance of a dragon. There were little emeralds in the tail and little rubies in the nostrils. But the dragon's eye was missing; the disproportionately large eye-socket was empty.

Idly he picked up the fan, and turned it over in his hand. The design on the other side was the same and identically jewelled; but here the eye was present, a grotesquely bulging cabochon sapphire.

He turned the fan over again, and perspiration broke out in his palm.

He had a sudden vision of a lady surprised in Mr. Melville's arms, and then of that same lady scurrying masked from Mr. Melville's lodging. The vision was conjured by the dragon's missing eye. Just such a cabochon sapphire was in his malicious possession, and at need, to convict her, he could fit it to this empty socket.

Whilst her skilled, graceful fingers drew Paisiello's melodies from the harpsichord, he stood immediately behind her with hell raging in his soul. The eyes that so lately had grown soft and tender as he regarded her burned now with hate. In this delicately fashioned lady, so cold and virginal and aloof, they contemplated a consummate hypocrite, a wanton. And he, poor fool, for all his vaunted experience of her sex, had been so easily deluded by her false, prudish airs.

He was the more enraged because he perceived at once, despite the disturbance in his mind, that he could not call her to account for her wantonness without irrevocably wrecking all those worldly prospects which were already in jeopardy. He was being grossly abused and swindled. She would accept him for her husband so that his support might be given to the cause the Pizzamano had at heart. But the false jade, with her airs of dignity and her nunlike reserves, cheated him in advance by taking a lover.

Small wonder that he had sensed the existence of intelligences between Mr. Melville and this wanton, this cold piece who could never suffer to be left alone for a moment with her future husband lest the proprieties should be outraged. He saw this imposture, and must submit to it, pretending not to see it. It was an intolerable situation to a man of feeling.

But if he dared not denounce it, at least he could in part avenge it upon Mr. Melville. That would be something towards restoring his self-respect. And not only would it set a term to the dishonour he was suffering, it would remove that other danger he had been apprehending. In this perception he so far recovered his equanimity as to be able to dissemble his black thoughts.

He found his opportunity two days later at the Casino del Leone, where, as if to supply him with yet another grievance, he came upon Mr. Melville in the company of the Vicomtesse.

Vendramin came accompanied by a young gentleman named Nani—a nephew of the Proveditor of the Lagoons—and he thrust his way without ceremony into the little group of which Marc-Antoine formed part. From this group one or two fell away immediately on his approach. Vendramin's was not a company that was ardently sought by all Venetian gentlemen. Young Balbi and Major Andrea Sanfermo, between whom and Marc-Antoine a certain friendliness, if not actual friendship, had been growing in these last few months, remained, but with assumptions of aloofness.

Vendramin flung a hearty greeting to them all, and stooped to kiss the hand of the seated Vicomtesse.

As he straightened himself, his smiling eyes met those of Marc-Antoine.

'Ah, Monsieur l'Anglais! You, too, are here. Still lingering in Venice. You threaten to become permanently domiciled.'

'The enchantment of Venice is an abundant justification. But I don't like "threaten." I am not a menace, Ser Leonardo.'

'Not a serious one. No,' said Vendramin, in a tone that set them staring. 'And I can understand that these our enchantments should lay a potent spell upon one accustomed to a barbarous northern country.'

There was a stir at this. But Marc-Antoine, whilst mystified, continued easily to smile.

'Alas, yes! We are barbarians up there. So we come to Venice to improve our manners; to study the elegancies of deportment, the courtesies of phrase.'

Major Sanfermo laughed outright at the sly hit, and some laughed with him, hoping to end the matter thus.

'You come then to achieve the impossible; to grow figs on thistles.'

Marc-Antoine could no longer be in doubt of Vendramin's purpose, however little he might understand the reason for it. But, unruffled, he avoided Sanfermo's uneasy, warning glance.

'You judge us harshly, Ser Leonardo. Possibly you will not have known many Englishmen.'

'As many as desirable. I have known you.'

'I see. And so with you it is ex uno omnes.' No tone or manner could have been more amiable. 'But it is bad reasoning to assume that the shortcomings discerned in one poor Englishman are common to all his fellow-countrymen. Even if you had been the only Venetian I had ever met, I should still hesitate to believe that all Venetians are crude and mannerless, stupid and vulgar.'

There was a sudden hush about them. Vendramin was looking white and ugly. Roughly he shook off the clutch of the Vicomtesse, who had risen in alarm.

'That will suffice, I think. None could expect me to suffer quite so much. My friend here, Messer Nani, will have the honour to wait upon you at your lodging.'

Marc-Antoine looked innocent surprise. 'To what end?'

There was a hubbub about them, for by now most of the occupants of the anteroom had been attracted to the spot. The Vicomtesse was begging Sanfermo to intervene, imploring Nani not to heed his friend.

Then Vendramin, thrusting back those who pressed about him, made himself heard. 'Do you ask me to what end? You'll know something, I suppose, even in England, of satisfaction between gentlemen.'

'I see. I see,' said Marc-Antoine, with the air of one penetrated at last by understanding. 'Forgive my dullness. It arises from our different codes. I do not know what I may have done to invite this provocation. But I do know that there are certain circumstances which it seemed to me must make impossible in honour a meeting between us. It would certainly be impossible in barbarian England. And even now I can hardly believe that this is how you pay your debts in Venice.'

'Pay our debts? What the devil do you mean?'

'Oh, but is it possible that I am obscure?'

He was still the essence of urbanity, and still supremely at ease. Carelessly he flicked a speck from his laces as he spoke. But under this serenity a wickedness was stirring. There had been so many reasons why he could not himself have taken the easy road of provoking Vendramin. But since the fool delivered himself so into Marc-Antoine's hands, he should have full measure. Marc-Antoine would spare him nothing. He would humble him to the dust, strip the fine coat from this detestable fellow's shoulders and reveal the ulcers it covered.

'I must be plainer, then. In the last three months, Vendramin, you have borrowed from me various sums amounting in all to about a thousand ducats. It does not suit me that you should cancel the debt by killing me. Nor does it suit me to lose my money by killing you. No man of honour would compel me to put the matter quite so plainly.'

Vendramin's face was the colour of lead. Here was a foul, cowardly blow that he had not expected.

He strove with Nani and the Vicomtesse, who were holding him, and then suddenly he fell still to hear Major Sanfermo's vibrant exclamation.

'You are right, by God! no man of honour would.'

'My affair just now is with this Englishman, Major Sanfermo; this coward who shelters himself behind his ducats.'

But Marc-Antoine was concerned to shelter himself no longer. His wicked purpose had been served. For Vendramin there were now only scornful eyes and hostile mutterings.

'Oh! If you call my courage in question, that is entirely another matter, ducats or no ducats.' He bowed to Nani. 'I shall have the honour of expecting you, sir.'

Even as the gleam of satisfaction leapt to Vendramin's eyes, it was quenched by Nani's unexpected answer.

'I carry no messages for Messer Vendramin.'

'Nor will any other Venetian gentleman,' added Major Sanfermo.

Vendramin looked about him, bewildered, furious, everywhere to meet eyes of condemnation. He understood now to the full how Melville had dealt with him. For an instant he was shaken. Then he rallied his wits and his courage.

'You are very quick to conclude, and very quick to condemn. As rash, indeed, as Mr. Melville. It does not occur to you, any more than it occurred to him, that a man of honour would liquidate his debts before meeting his creditor. You make it necessary that I should tell you that Mr. Melville shall be paid to the last ducat before we meet.'

'You will be putting the meeting off indefinitely,' sneered Balbi.

Vendramin turned on him sharply. 'Your irony is wasted, Balbi. I count upon meeting Mr. Melville tomorrow, or the next day at the latest. And I shall not want for a gentleman to carry my message, without troubling any of you.'

He swung on his heel, and went out, swaying more than ever from the hips in his walk.

Marc-Antoine laughed softly. 'He had the last word, after all.'

They were closing in upon him, men and women, volubly condemning Vendramin, whilst scarcely a man amongst them, in his eagerness to vindicate the Venetian character, did not offer his service to Mr. Melville in what might follow.

The Vicomtesse in an obvious agitation hung on the skirts of the little crowd. At first she had made shift to follow Vendramin when he had left. Thinking better of it, she had turned again; and in her eyes Marc-Antoine could read now the anxiety with which she waited for a word with him.

When presently he was departing, she made the opportunity by requesting his escort to her gondola which waited at the Piazzetta steps.

As they came out under the arcades of the square, she hung heavily on his arm. She was wearing mask and bauta, for they were in October now, from when until the following Lent the mask was worn so commonly in Venice that scarcely a lady of quality would show her uncovered face abroad.

'What have you done, monsieur?' she wailed. 'What have you done?'

'I could answer you better if I knew for whom you are concerned; for me or for him.'

'I am concerned for you both.'

'Be reassured, then. We shall not both die.'

'Oh, in God's name, do not jest about it. There must be no meeting between you.'

'You will prevail upon him to apologize?'

'If necessary, I will endeavour.'

'There's a more certain way,' said Marc-Antoine. They were crossing the square in the dusk. Lights gleamed from shops under the procuratie. The stained-glass windows of Saint Mark's ahead of them glowed like colossal jewels, and the rhythmic pealing of bells was in the air, for this was Saint Theodore's Eve. 'There's the condition attaching to this meeting. He is first to pay me a matter of a thousand ducats. If when he comes to borrow the money from you, you deny him, that will settle the matter.'

Amazement robbed her of breath for a moment. 'Why... why should you suppose that he would come to me for the money?'

'The answer is a simple one. Because he has nowhere else to go. No one else—forgive me—would be so foolish as to lend it to him.'

She reflected. 'You are quick. Quick and shrewd.' Her little nervous laugh was an admission. 'Do you promise me that unless he pays you the money you will not meet him?'

'I swear it.'

She seemed to breathe more freely. She swore in her turn that Vendramin should not have a sequin from her.

And upon that oath she acted when, on arrival home, she found Vendramin awaiting her.

Her refusal left him stricken. Her assertion that she could not procure the money, or even half that sum, threw him into a passion. He pointed to the string of pearls about her neck, to the brilliants flashing in her solitaire. Did she hold these baubles dearer than his honour?

This roused on her side a royally responsive anger. Was she to strip herself naked so that he might be clothed? How much money had he had from her in these last six months? Did he know that it amounted to more than five thousand ducats? If he denied or doubted it, she could bring him the drafts which Vivanti's Bank had honoured, all bearing his signature in proof that he had received the money.

He looked at her with dull eyes. 'If you won't help me, Anne, in God's name, what am I to do?'

He sprawled dejectedly on her brocade couch. She stood over him, white-faced, almost contemptuous.

'What need had you to vent your spleen against him? Why did you not think of this, you fool, before you deliberately put this quarrel on him?

He could not tell her how deeply he had been provoked. For it could not suit him to pillory the lady he was to marry; and in any case the plea was not one that would win favour with a mistress.

'Could I suppose, could any gentleman suppose, that he would take refuge behind a debt? It's only an Englishman could behave so basely. My God, Anne, I shall kill that man.' He got up, trembling with passion. He looked at her keenly, then caught her wrist, and pulled her roughly to him. 'Does he matter to you, that you are afraid of that? Is that why you won't lend me the money? Because you want to protect this dog?'

She wrenched herself away from him. 'Oh, you are mad. God knows why I suffer you.'

He advanced upon her again. He caught her in his arms this time, and crushed her to him. 'You suffer me because you love me, Anne. As I love you, dear Anne. Dear Anne! Help me this once. I am ruined, shamed, dishonoured, unless you come to the rescue. You could not let that happen to the man who worships you, who lives for you. I have given you such proofs of my love, Anne.'

'You have certainly taken almost all that I possess,' she conceded. 'That is why you find me now at the end of my resources.'

'But there is your cousin, the ambassador.'

'Lallemant!' She laughed without mirth. 'If you knew the scenes he has made me of late because of my extravagance. My extravagance! If he knew the truth...Oh, but there! I cannot wring another ducat from Lallemant.'

He returned to the subject of her jewels, and whined to her that she should let him raise money on those. He protested that he would soon be married now; and then he could redeem the trinkets and restore them together with all that he had borrowed.

But she was not to be moved by his entreaties, not even when the tears sprang from his eyes. So that in the end, he flung out of her lodgings, cursing her for a hard-hearted Jezebel who had never known the meaning of love.

It certainly seemed as if Fate were against the affair. For just as this solid obstacle stood in the way of Vendramin, so another, no less solid, came to be placed in the way of Marc-Antoine.

This happened on the following evening, which was that of the feast of Saint Theodore, a public holiday in Venice, where Saint Theodore was held in a veneration second only to that of Saint Mark. Marc-Antoine sat in his lodging at the Swords, writing letters, when, to his surprise, Domenico suddenly stood before him.

The little affair at the Casino del Leone had created, naturally enough, gossip, and some of this had actually been borne to the Fort of Sant' Andrea by one of Domenico's brother-officers. It was responsible for Domenico's presence, as he now announced.

'It's a sweet mark of friendship,' said Marc-Antoine. 'But you have little occasion for concern.'

'You speak, Marc, as if the issue could be in no doubt. It is not your way to boast.'

Marc-Antoine shrugged. 'When a man engages in undertakings such as that which has brought me to Venice, and when he knows that his life may hang at any moment upon his use of his weapons, he's a fool unless he studies them closely. Do you account me a fool, Domenico?'

Domenico set a hand on his shoulder. 'I hope this quarrel was not of your provoking. I have had an account of it, but...'

'I give you my word that it was deliberately sought by Vendramin. And to my astonishment, he publicly insulted me.'

'That is how I heard the tale. What are you going to do?'

'I cannot suppose that the meeting will take place. I so handled Vendramin as to make it impossible until he pays me a matter of a thousand ducats that he owes me. It seems equally impossible that he should find such a sum.'

'I hope you may be right. I hope it devoutly.' Domenico explained himself. 'In my heart, Marc, I could wish that you should kill him. But if that happened, my father would never forgive you. You would be dead to us, Marc. It would be held against you that you had killed the only chance remaining to our cause, such is the power in certain quarters exercised by this worthless scoundrel. There have been things...Oh, but what use to talk of them? I do not think my father has many illusions left on the score of Vendramin. Nevertheless, for the sake of what Vendramin can do for Venice there is no sacrifice that my father will not make for him.'

'Including Isotta,' said Marc-Antoine in a dull voice. 'His daughter and your sister! Can fanaticism go further?'

'I have sought to combat it. But it is idle. My father put me in the wrong. He shamed me with my lack of patriotism.'

'And yet, Domenico, I tell you—and I have cause to know it—the chances are that in the end this dog will fail you. So if you love Isotta, play for time. Postpone and postpone the irrevocable until we reach the end.'

Domenico took him by the arm. 'You know something against him?'

'I know nothing in his favour. Nor does anyone else.'

'It will need more than that to save Isotta.'

'I shall hope to provide it. But I need time. That is all that I can say now.'

Domenico tightened his grip of his friend's arm. 'Count upon all the time that I can make for you. For Isotta's sake.'

'Oh, and for mine,' said Marc-Antoine, with his wistful smile.