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Chapter 18 Venetian Masque by Rafael Sabatini

At a stormy meeting of the Grand Council on the last Monday in October, Leonardo Vendramin signally proved once more that, although nothing in himself, and contemptible in the eyes of almost every patrician of account, yet, by a queer irony which the oligarchic system made possible, he wielded a power which might well give him control of the destinies of the State.

The proceedings were opened by Francesco Pesaro, a leading member of the Senate, who from the outset had vigorously striven for armed neutrality. He came sternly to indict the policy of drift pursued in spite of undertakings wrung from the Doge at their last assembly. He pointed to the fruits of this in the contempt with which the French armies overran the Venetian provinces, trampling with impunity on their every right. Thence he came to a passionate plea that even at this late hour they should take up arms so that they could bring to account those who presumed to violate the neutrality Venice had assumed.

He was answered with well-worn financial arguments; with the old assertion that this war was not in any sense the quarrel of Venice; and with pleas that it was better to bear with resignation the ills resulting from their provinces having become the cockpit of this campaign, rather than sow the seed of greater distress in the future by a reckless squandering of the shrunken substance of the State.

To those who urged these arguments of pusillanimity and avarice came Vendramin to answer. Pale from the blood he had lost, and refined by his pallor to an air of asceticism, his injured arm so craftily slung under his patrician toga that its condition was not to be perceived, he stood in the tribune tall and dominant before his brother-oligarchs. He began by a slow, emphatic announcement of the fatal error of assuming that the independence of Venice was not menaced. It was well within the knowledge of some, and he had reason to believe that His Serenity the Doge was amongst this number, that if the French should emerge victorious from their contest with the Empire, the independence of Venice might well be placed in jeopardy. Having dwelt at length upon the intransigence of Bonaparte, he asked them whether they could really suppose that if that man were ultimately victorious in Italy he would withhold his brigand's hands from the treasures of the Most Serene Republic.

With that, protesting that already more words had been used in that hall than the occasion justified, he demanded that the vote be taken upon the motion presented to them by the Senator Francesco Pesaro.

The barnabotti, of whom there was a full muster present, voted solidly as their leader indicated. It is possible even that Vendramin's advocacy swayed some of the more solid patricians who were hesitating, for when the votes were counted it was discovered that, in spite of a hundred abstentions, there was a majority of over one hundred in favour of the motion. By this the Senate was required to proceed with the utmost dispatch to increase the armaments so that the Serenissima should be in a position to declare that, in view of the abuses committed upon her territories and her subjects, she was constrained to pass from an unarmed to an armed neutrality, and to demand the evacuation of her provinces by the belligerent forces.

The meeting dispersed with the feeling that only at its peril could the Senate neglect to carry out a recommendation so strongly supported.

Once more Vendramin had given proof of his capacity, through his worthless barnabotti following, to sway decisions.

From this he derived a sense of consequence marred only by the memory of his defeat at the hands of Mr. Melville. Upon this, however, measures were being taken. Vendramin thanked God that he did not lack for friends, even if his associates in the Casino del Leone and other similar meeting-places were looking a little askance at him these days.

These good friends had the matter in hand.

On the Thursday of that week Marc-Antoine attended, with Sanfermo, Balbi, and another of his recent Venetian friends, a performance of Panzieri's ballet Odervik at the Fenice Theatre. The theatre was gaily filled, which was the rule at all theatres in Venice that winter; for the pleasure-loving Venetians did not suffer anxieties begotten by the political situation to deprive them of their gaieties.

The Vicomtesse occupied a box, and Vendramin in lilac and silver, his arm in a lilac sling, was with her, besides two other men, one of whom Balbi recognized for a barnabotto named Ottolino. He was known to practice as a fencing-master, one of the very few occupations which a patrician might pursue without loss of caste, and he was held in sinister repute as a bully swordsman.

At the end of the performance, the night although cold being fine, the four friends, ignoring the press of gondolas in the little basin before the main entrance, left the theatre on foot. In the vestibule they had passed the Vicomtesse, who smiled a greeting to them, undeterred by the scowl of her cavalier. Even as he was bowing to her, Marc-Antoine had seen Vendramin turn his head to speak to Ottolino, under cover of a three-cornered hat held across his face.

The four friends crossed the Bridge of La Fenice and walked together as far as Santa Maria Zobenigo. Here they were greeted by the strains of music from the Casino of La Beata, where a ball was in progress. Sanfermo halted them before the door, which was hung with coloured lanterns and festooned with ramage and artificial flowers. He urged that they should join those revellers for an hour or two. The other two Venetians were eager. But Marc-Antoine excused himself. He was a little tired, and he would go straight back to his lodgings.

So they parted company there, and Marc-Antoine went on alone in the direction of San Moisè. Even as he was bidding them good-night and good enjoyment, he caught a glimpse of two dark figures that were coming very slowly down the street from the direction of La Fenice. As he looked, they crossed the light issuing from the open doorway of a malvasia, and in one of them he recognized Ottolino. This evoked a vision of Vendramin, half-covering his face with his hat, as he spoke to him over his shoulder.

For a moment Marc-Antoine hesitated on a thought of following his late companions into La Beata. Then, annoyed with himself for having even thought of being driven by a suspicion into amusements for which he had no inclination, he went briskly forward. He had not, however, gone a dozen paces before he was aware that those saunterers were sauntering no longer. They, too, had suddenly lengthened their stride to match his own. He could not doubt that he was being followed, or that mischief was intended. He was nearing the Bridge of San Moisè, and had still some way to go to reach the Piazza, where he would be rendered safe by the people still astir. But here he was virtually alone with these two who tracked him. He unwound the cloak in which he had been tight-wrapped against the chilly night, and let it hang entirely loose upon his shoulders. Similarly, he loosened in its scabbard the small-sword that he was fortunately wearing. This without checking or shortening his stride. Behind him the rapid steps of his followers rang briskly upon the pavement of the narrow street. They were steadily gaining. And yet, if his suspicions were correct, why did they not attack at once? For what were they waiting? He guessed the answer when he reached the opening at the foot of the Bridge of San Moisè, and when at last the short, swift rush took place. They preferred to set upon him at a spot where a canal would enable them instantly to dispose of his remains.

With delicate precision he calculated the moment at which to turn and face them. He chose to do it standing on the lowest step of the bridge, a position which would give him a slight command of them when they charged. As he spun round, he drew his sword with one hand whilst with the other he swept the cloak from his shoulders. He knew exactly what he was going to do. They should find that a gentleman who had been through all the hazards that had lain for him between Quiberon and Savenay did not fall an easy prey to a couple of bully swordsmen.

In the street itself the shadows had been dense. But here at the opening by the bridge the light of a moon in the last quarter, aided perhaps by its reflection from the water, made things dimly visible.

As he turned to meet the charge, one of his assailants, a full yard ahead of his fellow, was within striking distance on his left, and Marc-Antoine caught the livid gleam of his sword levelled for the stroke. Onto that level blade Marc-Antoine flung his cloak, to bear it down. As it sank under the weight, and uncovered the man, Marc-Antoine doubled him, winded, by a kick in the stomach, and almost simultaneously parried the thrust of the second assassin, who was Ottolino. Before he could riposte, the parried blade had disengaged. Ottolino had sprung nimbly to the right, so as to take his man in flank, trusting to the gloom to mask his movement.

But Marc-Antoine was whirling his blade to cover himself at all points. It caught the sidelong thrust, enveloped it in a circular parry, and drove home a counter-thrust that sank through his assailant's body.

Without a pause, he swung to the left again, to meet the renewed attack of the other bully, who had by now recovered. In his haste Marc-Antoine had not even waited to see what happened to Ottolino. Already his blade was engaged again when a loud splash informed him of where the led-captain fell. It may also have been the other assassin's first intimation of disaster to his fellow. And it may have been due to this that he suddenly sprang back well out of reach. Craning forward, Marc-Antoine could just make him out crouching there in the gloom three or four yards away. He did not crouch to spring, but to guard himself as he retreated. Farther and farther back he went thus, until, judging that the distance made it safe, he suddenly straightened himself, turned and ran.

Marc-Antoine let him go, sheathed his sword, and recovered his cloak. He went up the steps of the little bridge, and, pausing on the summit, leaned on the parapet to recover breath and survey the canal. Moonbeams danced upon the diminishing ripples of Messer Ottolino's plunge. They were the only signs of his presence somewhere under that oily-looking surface.

The warning cry of a gondolier broke the silence, and a lantern suddenly showing told of a gondola swinging round the corner ahead. Marc-Antoine sauntered off, and went home without further adventure.

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