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Chapter 19 Venetian Masque by Rafael Sabatini

On the following afternoon, wandering into the Cafè Bertazzi, that patrician resort at the head of the Piazza, where nowadays Marc-Antoine was known and welcomed, he found there the lively Major Sanfermo, who, to make him regret having parted company so early on the previous night, entertained him with an account of their lively doings at La Beata. They had danced until daylight, and then on their way home a further entertainment was supplied them. By the Bridge of San Moisè they had come upon the Signors of the Night with the body of a man they had just fished out of the canal under the bridge.

'And who do you think it was?' Sanfermo asked him.

'That bully swordsman we saw in the box at La Fenice with Leonardo Vendramin. I think you said his name was Ottolino.'

Sanfermo's mouth fell open in ludicrous surprise.

'How the devil should you know that?'

'For the best of reasons. I put him there.'

Sanfermo was dumbfounded by the cool announcement. Then a light of angry understanding flashed in his eyes. 'By the Host! Do you mean that you were attacked?'

Marc-Antoine rendered a brief account. 'I came here looking for you; to tell you about it. And to ask you what I should do now.'

'Do? Faith, it seems to me you've done all that matters.'

'But the Signors of the Night will be looking for a murderer.'

'They're more likely to be concerned with the fact that they've found one. This is the common end of such rascals as Ottolino. Men who live by the sword...You know.'

'Don't forget that one of them got away.'

'I see. And you expect him to testify, do you?' Sanfermo smiled.

'Then there is also Vendramin. He will know whose hand killed Ottolino.'

'And of course he will go and inform the Signors of the Night, explaining to them, when they ask him, that he knows because he sent Ottolino and another rogue to murder you. My dear Melville, you plague yourself without need. That matter is ended for you, and well ended. What isn't ended is Vendramin's murderous intention.' The Major was serious. 'That remorseless villain will not leave the matter where it is. Let me think of something. But in the meantime, take your precautions, especially at night.'

'You may depend upon it,' said Marc-Antoine.

With just that intention, Marc-Antoine took himself off to the French Legation, and, breaking in upon ambassadorial labours, drove Jacob out of the room.

'What the devil is the matter now?' grumbled Lallemant.

'The devil is the matter. My life is threatened.'

Lallemant was startled. 'Peste...' Then a grin broke on his broad face. 'We shall be wanting a pretext for hostilities presently. It would be a fine one if the Representative Camille Lebel were murdered here in Venice.'

'Much obliged to you, Lallemant. When Bonaparte wants that pretext I should prefer to be alive to provide it. Meanwhile, I am curious to know how much longer you propose to postpone the coercion of Leonardo Vendramin into your service.'

Lallemant conceived a reproof in this. He thrust out a deprecatory lip.

'You are supposing that it's time we gagged him; that he is working mischief against us by his stormy advocacy of armed neutrality. You see I keep myself informed of what happens in the Grand Council. But you're mistaken. The time is past when a state of armed neutrality could distress us. Very soon now we shall require a pretext for definite aggression, and in a state of armed neutrality it should not be difficult to find one.'

His shrewd eyes challenged Marc-Antoine to contradict him. As no contradiction came from that solemnly attentive gentleman, the ambassador continued.

'There are letters here from Bonaparte which you should read. Mantua can't hold out much longer. Once it capitulates, we shall be in a very different position.'

Marc-Antoine ran his eye over the letters. They were brief and definite, like all General Bonaparte's dispatches.

'And this new Austrian army under Alvinzy?' he asked.

'You see what he says. Alvinzy's strength has been exaggerated here in Venice. He will be broken as easily as Wurmser before him and Beaulieu before Wurmser. The only mischief we have to dread is that Venice, arming to her full capacity, should ally herself with Austria. That is the English dream. But there's no danger of it as long as the spineless Manin is Doge of Venice. So by all means let Vendramin advocate armed neutrality. I shall pray that the Senate listens to him.'

To Marc-Antoine there was a dismaying irony in the reflection that the efforts which were establishing Vendramin in the eyes of Count Pizzamano as the champion and saviour of his country had now become the very efforts welcomed by the enemies of Venice because rendering her vulnerable to their designs.

Lallemant interrupted the stream of his thoughts.

'But what's this you were saying about your life being threatened?'

'I am glad it has some interest for you.' He told Lallemant of his duel with Vendramin and of last night's sequel to it.

The ambassador was flushed with indignation. Nor was his wrath merely official. Ever since the Terzi affair his relations with the supposed Lebel had steadily increased in warmth.

'What do you want me to do? What can I do to protect you?' he demanded. 'Nothing, since policy won't allow you to do what I require. I shall have to anticipate you, and do it for myself.' Answering the question in the other's eyes, he added: 'I propose to borrow the means you possess to fetter Vendramin.'

Lallemant understood at once. 'Ah, that name of name! But it may be awkward.'

'Not so awkward to me as my assassination. Display a little common humanity, Lallemant.'

'My dear friend! Oh, my dear friend!' Lallemant was on his feet in a fervour of concern. 'To suppose me callous!' So great indeed and apparently genuine was his alarm for this good Lebel that he ended by wondering whether it was really necessary for him to continue in Venice.

Marc-Antoine was indignant. Did Lallemant really suppose that he was the man to run away from danger? And as for his utility in Venice, his work there had not really yet begun. That would come when the crisis was reached.

'And, anyway, how can I leave until I am recalled?' He picked up his three-cornered hat from Lallemant's table. 'There's only one course. And I am going to take it.'

His gondola bore him to the district of San Felice, to a palace on the canal of that name in which Vendramin was lodged. Not for him any of the houses of San Barnabò, placed by the State at the disposal of impoverished patricians. Here on the second floor of this fine palace he dwelt in a comparative luxury that was in the nature of a problem to those who were aware of his actual resources.

An elderly manservant in a plain livery opened to Marc-Antoine's knock, and peered at him suspiciously.

'Ser Leonardo Vendramin?' he asked.

'He lives here. Yes,' the man replied in dialect. 'What do you want with him?'

'The pleasure of a little chat.'

Still guarding the entrance, the man half-turned and called.

'Ser Leonardo, xè un moossoo che gha domanda.'

A door opened within. A tall man in a brocaded dressing-gown of crimson, his feet in slippers, his head swathed in a kerchief, made his appearance. The right sleeve of his dressing-gown hung empty.

He advanced, craning to see who asked for him. Upon perceiving Marc-Antoine, his face flushed scarlet.

His voice came harsh with anger. 'What do you want? Who told you to come here?'

Marc-Antoine advanced into the narrow opening. So as to prevent the door from being slammed in his face he carefully set his foot against the edge of it.

'I have to talk to you, Vendramin. It is urgent, and it is very serious—for you.' He took the tone of a gentleman speaking to an undutiful lackey, and the look on his face matched the tone.

'You can talk to me elsewhere. I do not receive...'

'No. I can understand it.' Marc-Antoine's hard, light eyes played over the servant at his elbow, whose attitude was almost menacing. 'But you will receive me.'

A moment still Vendramin stood glaring at him. Then abruptly he surrendered.

'Come in, then, since you insist. Let him pass, Luca. Let him pass.'

Marc-Antoine advanced into the passage. Vendramin flung out his left arm towards the doorway from which he had emerged. 'In there, if you please,' he said.

They went into a fair-sized salon which if without splendours was also without meanness in its furnishings; indeed, it gathered a certain pretentiousness from a spread of tapestry covering one of its walls and the gildings on some of the movables.

Vendramin remained with his back to the closed door. Marc-Antoine turned, one gloved hand holding his hat in the crook of his left arm, the other leaning lightly upon his gold-headed cane.

'I don't think you are pleased to see me,' he said, with ironic affability.

'What do you want with me, Monsieur l'Anglais?'

'I want to tell you that it might have had the most serious consequences for you if I had not been able, as a result of any arrangements you had made for me, to have paid you this little visit. You will have heard, of course, that a friend of yours was fished out of the Canal of San Moisè in the early hours of the morning. You will have surmised how he got there. I hope you have some sense of your responsibility for that poor fellow's untimely end.'

'I don't know what you mean.'

'I mean, my dear Messer Leonardo, that at your next attempt upon my life, you had better send at least four of your bullies to the job. Two are hardly enough.'

Vendramin smiled balefully. 'That, my dear Monsieur Melville, is my intention.'

'I see that we shall understand each other.'

'Will you take a piece of advice from me? Leave Venice while you are able to do so. The air here is not very healthy for meddling foreigners.'

'Your concern touches me. But my health, I assure you, is excellent.'

'It may not so continue.'

'I am content to take the risk. But does your own health give you no concern? Have you reflected how short might be your shrift if the inquisitors of state were to discover that in the past six months you have received five or six thousand ducats from the French Legation?'

Vendramin went white to the lips. He took a step forward. 'What do you mean by that lie? It's a foul lie, do you hear?'

'Of course if it's a lie, it should give you no anxiety.'

'I have not had a farthing; not a farthing from the French Legation.'

'Strictly speaking, perhaps you have not. But there are drafts in existence for that amount, issued by the Legation, endorsed by you, and cashed at Vivanti's Bank. How would you satisfy the inquisitors of state that you have innocently acquired all this French money? How would you persuade them that you had not received it for the purposes which they must naturally assume?'

Vendramin glared at him, speechless and trembling. Marc-Antoine continued pleasantly.

'You would go the way of Rocco Terzi, whom it would be remembered was your friend; who, as impecunious as yourself, was as unable as you might be to explain upon what resources he lived in surroundings similar to these. Unless you want this to happen to you, you will meddle no more with me. When you realize that this is what I came to tell you, perhaps you will not resent my visit quite so much. It does not suit me to leave Venice just at present. It does not suit me to lie under a perpetual menace of assassination. And it does not suit me to move about with a bodyguard to protect me from your bully swordsmen. Therefore, I have taken my precautions; and they are such that I should advise you to do all in your power to promote my good health and my well-being.' He had been smiling. But he hardened now his tone. 'I have provided that at any accident to me, of whatsoever nature, and even if not fatal, information will immediately be lodged with the inquisitors of state which will lead them to ask you some awkward questions. You understand, I hope?'

Vendramin showed his strong teeth in a rigid grin.

'Do you think you can frighten me so easily? Where are the proofs?'

'You don't suppose that the drafts have been destroyed. They could be produced under inquisitorial insistence.'

'By whom? By whom?'

'I will leave you to find the answer to that question. You are warned, Vendramin. I will detain you no longer.'

Mechanically Vendramin wiped the beads of sweat from his upper lip. 'You miserable coward, to shelter yourself behind this lie! Is this how men of honour protect themselves in England? I swear to God that not a penny of this money is in payment for any treasonable service.'

'But will the inquisitors believe you? You will have to reckon with what they suppose. And that is easily imagined.'

'My God! I believe you know the truth. And yet, you scoundrel, you can hold this menace over me! My God, it's unbelievable.'

'Of course, I could adopt your methods, and hire ruffians to assassinate you. But I prefer to do things in my own way. And now, if you will let me pass, I will be wishing you good-day.'

Violently Vendramin threw the door open.

'Go, sir! Go!'

Marc-Antoine went out without haste.

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