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Chapter 17 Venetian Masque by Rafael Sabatini

Marc-Antoine's confidence that it must prove impossible for Vendramin to find the money was abruptly shattered on the morrow.

He was waited upon at an early hour by Colonel Androvitch, a middle-aged officer of the Slavonian regiment stationed at San Giorgio Maggiore. The colonel, a short, spare man, but as tough of body as of manner, placed two heavy bags upon the table. Having done so, he clicked his heels together, bowed from the waist, stiffly, and announced that the bags contained gold to the value of nine hundred and fifty ducats due from Messer Leonardo Vendramin.

He passed on to state that as Ser Leonardo's friend he would be happy to hear from Messer Melville when it would suit his convenience to afford Ser Leonardo the satisfaction due between them.

Remembering Domenico's warning, Mr. Melville preserved with difficulty a calm deportment. He assumed, of course, that the woman who called herself the Vicomtesse de Saulx had, after all, allowed herself to be persuaded, reluctantly or otherwise, to provide the money.

And just as Vendramin had found this, so he had found a Slavonian officer to carry the message which Andrea Sanfermo had said that no gentleman would carry for him.

For Mr. Melville, however reluctant he now might be, there was no retreat.

He could only accept the assurance of Colonel Androvitch that the piece of ground behind the riding-school on the Giudecca would in the early hours be a suitable place for the transaction of their business. When he had agreed to attend there at seven o'clock on the following morning, accompanied by a friend, the colonel clicked his heels once more.

'Most fortunate to have had the honour.' He bowed. 'Your very obedient servant, Monsieur Melville.' And he creaked out in his long military boots.

Later in the day the uneasy Marc-Antoine sought Major Sanfermo, and found him in the gaming-room of the Casino del Leone. He drew him aside.

'Vendramin has paid me his debt.'

'I wonder whom he has robbed.'

'And we meet tomorrow morning. May I count upon your services, Sanfermo?'

Sanfermo bowed formally. 'Deeply honoured.' His dark eyes were grave. 'This Vendramin, like all rascals who live more or less on their wits, has a reputation as a swordsman.'

'I trust I shall not help him to maintain it,' said Marc-Antoine.

That night he wrote a letter to Domenico Pizzamano: 'I am meeting Vendramin tomorrow morning. You are not to suppose from this that I am breaking faith with you. He has paid the money, and I cannot help myself. I shall do what I can; but if there should be an accident, save Isotta from this scoundrel.'

He also wrote letters to his mother and to Isotta, which he left, with definite instructions, in the hands of Philibert.

For what occurred on the morrow Vendramin blamed the dullness of the light and the slipperiness of the ground; for it was a grey morning, and it had rained a little in the night. These, however, were excuses urged to save his face. The light was not merely abundant, it was excellent because there were no reflections. And the turf on that strip of ground with its single rather melancholy sycamore, behind the long, low, brick building of the riding-school, whilst damp was certainly not slippery.

Vendramin came to the engagement with the confidence of acknowledged mastery, and the first few engages with which the adversaries tested each other revealed him for a graceful and accomplished, if academic fencer.

Marc-Antoine's play displayed a greater flexibility; but neither Sanfermo nor Androvitch, who stood watchfully at hand, and both of whom had been trained in the Italian school, could approve his methods. Sanfermo was fearful and Androvitch confident of the issue. Neither of them had a high regard for the French school. This may have been because neither of them had ever seen an exponent of it who was in the first class. The straight Italian arm, with its consequent extremely close parries and ever-menacing point, seemed to them infinitely superior, because entailing infinitely less exertion, than the bent arm of the French method which kept the elbow close to the body. And to Marc-Antoine, who had never yet opposed an Italian swordsman, that extended reach and steady point were at first so disconcerting he could not do himself full justice. He could do himself justice enough, however, successfully to deflect every attempt to pass his guard. Presently growing accustomed to the opposing method, and settling down more to his own, he gave a demonstration which surprised them of the advantages of the French school. Its greater flexibility permitted of double feints; and their lightning speed was impossible to the Italian rigidity, which confined a swordsman to single time, wherein parry and riposte were almost one. With a succession of attacks following upon these whirling double feints, Marc-Antoine presently drove Vendramin before him in such a manner as to make the seconds reconsider their opinion.

The Venetian was irritated by what at first he accounted a buffoonery of the French academies as practised by an Englishman. This was not fencing as he understood it. In his irritation he swore to himself that he would not be made to go dancing off like this before these charging thrusts. He would stop the next one with a time lunge that should put an end to the comedy. But his time lunge when it came was eluded by a demi-volte, followed by a riposte delivered from the flank. Vendramin twisted precipitately to parry. At a disadvantage the movement was an awkward and ungainly one. He succeeded in deflecting the thrust, but so narrowly that the sweat started from his brow in panic. Then he leapt back again out of reach, in spite of his resolve to give no more ground. Only thus could he regain his poise, mental and physical.

His surprise was shared by the seconds. But with a difference. There had been an instant in Marc-Antoine's execution of that movement when his opponent was entirely uncovered to him. But in that instant he had seemed to hesitate; and in this hesitation his chance had been lost.

Had Marc-Antoine been untrammelled in this duel, had his aim been merely to wound without recking whether he slayed, there would have been no hesitation; the mechanics of his manœuvre would have been completed, and his blade would have gone through his adversary's flank before Vendramin could effect his clumsy recovery. But even as Marc-Antoine checked the completing thrust, he perceived how and where it should be delivered so as to serve his purpose. Because this was unforeseen, there was that hesitation which had saved his opponent.

Marc-Antoine, however, was now instructed. He saw his way. Confidence surged up in him. He was this man's master. What had been done once could be done again. Nor did it even prove necessary to be strategic so as to create the occasion. Vendramin himself created it, made rash by anger.

His poise recovered, he bounded forward to attack relentlessly, to make an end. Before his fury, it was Marc-Antoine who now fell back, lightly, nimbly, just eluding that hard-driven vicious point, and so making his opponent feel that his reach was never quite long enough, so luring him to extend himself again in a lunge that should end the business. And at last it came. Again it was eluded by that treacherous demi-volte. But now there was no hesitation to give leisure for recovery. This time Marc-Antoine riposted with the speed of lightning and Vendramin's weapon fell from suddenly numbed fingers. His opponent's sword had skewered the muscles of his sword-arm.

He uttered an 'Ai!' of pain as the blade was withdrawn; then he reeled away, his nether lip in his teeth, to come to rest against Androvitch who had sprung to his aid.

It was not only pain that turned his face drawn and livid. There was the discomfiture, the shame of this defeat to a man of his mastery. And then he heard Sanfermo addressing his principal in a buoyant tone.

'The most magnanimous thing I have ever witnessed, sir. I am proud to have been out with you.'

It needed only this: that it should be bruited through Venice that he owed his life to the magnanimity of his adversary. He steadied himself. Sanfermo, who had kept his principal's coat over his left arm, was now holding it for Marc-Antoine.

'What are they supposing?' Vendramin asked Androvitch. 'This is not over yet. This is no first-blood affair. I fence as well with my left arm as my right. Tell them that it is my intention to continue.'

'Continue? You are in no case to continue. You are bleeding horribly.'

'What then? Can't you patch me up? Can't you make a bandage? Tear up my shirt, man.'

But here Sanfermo intervened. 'We do not continue, Colonel Androvitch. My friend came out solely to prove a courage which had been called in question. If Messer Vendramin is not lying dead at this moment, that is due entirely to Messer Melville's clemency, as you yourself have seen.'

'You lie, Sanfermo,' shouted Vendramin. 'And if you have the audacity to repeat it, I'll prove it on your body.'

Sanfermo made a little bow to Androvitch. 'Let me suggest that you restrain your friend. He is in no case to provoke resentments, and I am not disposed to take notice of him. But there are decencies to be observed. And, anyway, I am taking my friend off the ground. This matter is at an end.'

It was indeed at an end as became suddenly plain to Vendramin's swimming senses. He was faint from loss of blood and in need of immediate attention.

Sanfermo's enthusiasm for his principal's conduct led to Mr. Melville's finding himself that same afternoon at the Casino del Leone in a celebrity which he was far indeed from desiring.

But in one quarter he found himself the object of reproaches. Momentarily alone with the Vicomtesse, he confronted an unusual hardness in her glance.

'So, you broke faith with me,' she said. 'And I thought you a man whom one might trust.'

'That was the reproach I had for you,' he answered.

'What?' He thought there was more than surprise in her face. 'Are you telling me that he paid you? A thousand ducats?'

'I should not have met him else. And are you telling me that you did not give him the money?'

'I certainly did not.'

They looked at each other in mutual unbelief.

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