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Chapter 20 Venetian Masque by Rafael Sabatini

Messer Vendramin descended in wrath upon the Vicomtesse de Saulx that afternoon. He found her holding a reception in the dainty black-and-gold salon that was so admirable a setting to her own delicate elegance.

The queenly Isabella Teotochi, with the dissipated-looking little Albrizzi in passionate attendance, was the dominant figure in that fashionable gathering.

The barnabotto leader found here the cool reception which was everywhere being vouchsafed him nowadays. He fortified himself in a scorn of them, which was genuine enough. Simpering, affected, presumptuously critical and self-assertive, they made up a noisy group to be found in every age and in every society.

There was a great deal of talk of Liberty, the Age of Reason and the Rights of Man; and a great deal of ill-digested matter from the encyclopaedists was being tossed about by these pseudo-intellectuals, over ices and coffee and malvoisie. There was also some scandal. But even this was dressed-up in intellectual rags, implying on the part of those who mongered it a breadth of outlook as startling as it would have been indefensible by any reasonable canons.

He was fretted by impatience until the last of them had departed.

Then the Vicomtesse reproached him with the disgruntled air and manner he had paraded among her friends.

'Friends?' he said. He was very bitter. 'Faith, if you find your friends among these posturing pimps and these silly spirituelle baggages I can believe anything of you. Nothing surprises me any more. Not even that you should stoop to betraying me.'

She accommodated herself of her black-and-gold settee, and spread on either side of her the blue panniers of her gown. 'Oh, I see. Your ill-humour is rooted in jealousy again.' She sighed. 'You grow intolerably tiresome, Leonardo.'

'I have, of course, no cause. Your loyalty renders my suspicions shameful. They emanate from the intemperance of my own mind. That is what you would say, is it not?'

'Something of the kind.'

'You would be wise to leave flippancy. I am not in the humour for it. And you had better not provoke me more than you have done already.'

But the dainty little lady laughed at him. 'You are not threatening me, by any chance?'

He looked down upon her malevolently. 'My God! Are you quite shameless?'

'It must be that I follow your example, Leonardo, although with less cause for shame.'

'What I ask myself is whether a woman ever had cause for more.'

'Your mother, perhaps, Leonardo.'

He stooped and seized her wrist viciously. 'Will you curb that pert tongue of yours before I do you a mischief? I will not have my mother's name on your lips, you jade.'

She rose, suddenly white and fierce, a galled jade, indeed, under his insult. She wrenched her wrist from his grasp.

'I think you had better go. Out of my house!' And as he stood sneering at her, she stamped her daintily shod foot. 'Out of my house! Do you hear me?' She twisted away, to reach the bell-rope. But he interposed himself.

'You shall hear me first. You shall render me an account of your betrayal.'

'You fool, I owe you no account. If we are to talk of accounts, you had better think of how you stand in my debt.'

'I have occasion to think of it since you have published it.'

'Published it?' Some of the vixenish anger fell from her in surprise. 'Published it, do you say?'

'Yes, published it, madame. Published it to your paramour, to this damned Englishman from whom you have no secrets. I could forgive your infidelity. After all, I can make allowances for your wanton kind. But I cannot forgive you for betraying that. Do you know what you have done? You have placed me in this man's power. But that, I suppose, is what you intended.'

Her clear blue eyes were fixed upon him now in distress rather than in anger. She passed a slim white hand across her brow, disarranging the golden tendrils that curled on either temple.

'My God, this is Greek to me. You are raving, Leonardo. It is all false, this. I have never said a word to Melville or to anyone of the money you have had from me. That I swear to you. As for the rest...' She curled her lip, and shrugged. 'That Melville is not my lover matters little compared with this.'

'That you should have told him this proves him your lover even if I had no other evidence. For you are lying to me. Why is he always here? Why does he always hover about you when you meet elsewhere?'

'Leave that!' she cried impatiently. 'Keep to the main point. Keep to what is really important. This matter of the money. I swear to you again that I have never so much as whispered it.'

'Oh, yes, you'll swear and swear. Perjury has never mattered to women of your kind.' And fiercely, inter-larding his narratives with opprobrium, he told her, with reservations, of his interview that morning with Mr. Melville.

'Now,' he asked at the end, 'will you still think it worth your while to deny your infamy?'

She was too startled even to show resentment of his insults. Her smooth white brow was knit. She pushed him away, and under the force of her will rather than of her hand he fell back and let her pass. She went to resume her seat on the couch, set her elbows on her knees, and took her chin in her hands. Doubting, he watched her and waited.

'This is much more serious than you realize, Leonardo. I can understand your anger. You would suppose it justified. But that is nothing. There is something else here. You have exaggerated nothing, I suppose, in what you have told me? Oh, but what matter if you have? The main fact is there. Melville's knowledge. His incredible knowledge. What is to discover is how he comes by it.'

'Can there be more ways than the one I perceive?' he asked, and there was still a sneer in his tone.

'I beg you to be serious; for it seems to me we face a real danger. I solemnly assure you, Leonardo, that the only other person who knows anything from me is my cousin Lallemant from whom the supplies came. Melville could have discovered it only from him.'

'From Lallemant! Do you pretend that the French Ambassador is in relations—and in such intimate relations—with this man, with this Englishman?' Almost idly, he added: 'If he is, indeed, an Englishman.' But even as the rhetorical sentence left his lips, he caught his breath on it, and he repeated on quite another tone: 'If he is, indeed, an Englishman.'

His chin sank to his neckcloth, and very slowly, very deeply in thought, he moved to stand before her again. But he was not looking at her. His eyes were fixed upon the ground. If this golden-headed little trull were indeed speaking the truth, then one only conclusion seemed possible.

'If what you say is true, Anne, and this man's relations with the ambassador of the French Republic are as intimate as this would prove them, then there is only one inference to be drawn; that he's a damned spy.'

It was not merely, as he supposed, his suspicion that brought the startled look to her face. It was the fact that this suspicion was the very one that she had just reached independently. Having reached it, her duty to the service in which she was at work made her regret that she should so incautiously have supplied the clue to that conclusion.

'Oh, but that is utterly impossible!' she cried.

He was smiling wickedly. 'It's a matter, anyway, for investigation. The inquisitors of state have a short, quiet way with spies just now in Venice. And he had the temerity to threaten me with them!'

She sprang up. 'You are not going to denounce him on this paltry assumption! You dare not, Leonardo.'

'Ah, that alarms you, does it?'

'Of course it does. For you. Without hurting him, if you should be mistaken, you will destroy yourself. Don't you see? What did you say was his threat? That at any accident to him, of whatsoever nature, information touching those drafts on Vivanti's will be lodged with the inquisitors of state. That is what you have told me. And if he should really be a spy, isn't this just one of the precautions he will have taken?'

This quenched his rising exultation. He took his chin in his sound left hand. 'God! How that infernal scoundrel has hobbled me!'

She came to him whilst in that dismayed mood and set a hand upon his arm. 'Leave me to act,' she urged him. 'Let me sound Lallemant, and see what I can discover. There may be some explanation quite other from what you are assuming. That surely can't be right. Leave this with me, Leonardo.'

He looked down upon her gloomily. He put that sound left arm of his about her shoulder, and pulled her to him. 'I suppose, you lovely little white devil, you are not just fooling me? This is not just a trick of yours to put me off the scent, to cover up your own lying tracks?'

She disengaged herself from his arm. 'You're a coarse beast. Sometimes I wonder why I tolerate you here at all. God knows I've never taken joy in a fool before.'

It was the tone that brought him whimpering to heel. He abased himself in excuses for his roughness, pleaded the cursed jealousy that tormented him, and passionately reminded her that jealousy was the first-born of love.

It was a scene they had often played before, and usually it led to kisses at the curtain. But this evening she remained cold and disdainful. It was not easy even in the service of her ends to submit to the caresses of a man who had uttered that deadly insult: 'I will not have my mother's name on your lips, you jade.'

She had never liked him; she had never carried anything but contempt in her heart for this worthless man whom she had been set to trap. But tonight she loathed him so much that she could scarcely conceal it.

'I have had to forgive your boorishness too often,' she answered him. 'It will take me some time to forget what you've said to me tonight. You had better wash your mouth and mend your manners before you approach me again, or you'll approach me for the last time. Now go.'

Whilst his eyes glared at her, his lips shaped a foolish grin.

'You are not really sending me away?'

She gave him a look that was like a blow. She had reached the bell-cord, and she pulled it.

'I doubt if you will ever understand the decencies of life,' she said.

And he just stared at her until the door was opened by her French lackey.

'Messer Vendramin is leaving, Paul,' she said.

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