Chapter 21 Venetian Masque by Rafael Sabatini

The Vicomtesse de Saulx paid the Citizen Lallemant a visit, with two definite objects.

Settling herself in a gilded armchair, she loosened the costly furs in which she was swathed, partly for adornment and partly for protection against the rigorous weather which had now set in. Encased in a little fur bonnet that was fastened under her chin by a ribbon of palest blue satin, her delicately featured, delicately tinted face looked a miracle of allurement.

Lallemant, at his table, considered her with an appreciative smile on his broad peasant face, and desired to be informed how he could serve her.

'I want to know,' she said, 'how much longer I am to keep this fellow Vendramin on the chain.'

'My dear child, until I need him, of course.'

'Will you be good to me, and let that happen soon? I am growing very tired of him.'

Lallemant sighed. 'God help me! You have the capriciousness, the inconstancy that goes with ardent temperaments. You should, nevertheless, remember that I am not concerned with your amusements, but with your official duty.'

'My official duties are a little too personal to be entirely at the mercy of official requirements.'

'You are doing very well out of it. You are being very handsomely paid. You should remember that.'

'Oh, I remember it. But we are reaching a point where not all the gold in the Bank of France, if there is any gold there, will compensate me for what I have to endure. This imbecile makes me sick. It is not only that he is absurdly exacting. But he threatens to become violent.'

'The Italian temperament, my dear. We must reckon with it.'

'Thank you, Lallemant. But I happen to have a temperament, too. And I have feelings. This rascal outrages them. I have never liked him. A vain, strutting, self-complacent peacock. But now I have grown to detest and fear him. I have to submit to quite enough in this service, without being asked to risk my life as well. That is why I want to know how much longer I am to endure him. How soon do you propose to take him off my hands?'

Lallemant had ceased to smile. He considered. 'At the moment it suits me too well to have him where he is. Without suspecting it, he is giving us just the service that we require. So you must have a little more patience, my dear. It will not be for long. I promise you it will not be for a moment longer than it must be.'

She was mutinous. He got up, and wandered round to her. He patted her shoulder, he coaxed her, he praised the work she had done, fanned the embers of her patriotism, and so conducted her into a state of resignation.

'Very well,' she consented at last. 'For a little while longer, I'll do my best. But now that you know what I am enduring, I'll depend upon you not to try my patience too far.' Then, stroking the fur of the enormous sable muff in her lap, she said casually: 'But I wish you would use more frankness with me, Lallemant. To keep me in the dark about things as you do might even have serious consequences. How long has Mr. Melville been in the French service?' She looked up at him suddenly as she asked the question.

Lallemant raised his brows. 'That is an extraordinary question.' Then he laughed at her. 'And such a feminine method of investigating a suspicion. But isn't the suspicion a little wild for such shrewd wits as yours? Mr. Melville is a very good friend of mine. That is all, my child. Disabuse your mind of anything else.'

'I am to believe that the French Ambassador in Venice is the very good friend of an Englishman in such times as these? Such a good friend, in fact, that embassy secrets are communicated to him?'

'Embassy secrets? What embassy secrets?' Lallemant was suddenly very stern. Inwardly he was a little alarmed. Like the prudent man he was, he never allowed one secret agent to know of another unless the knowledge were rendered absolutely necessary. In the case of Lebel there were more than ordinary reasons for his identity to remain closely veiled.

Her answer partly allayed his apprehensions. For she was entirely frank with him on the subject of what last night had been communicated to her by Vendramin.

Lallemant's tone and manner made light of it. 'Oh, that! But that is not an embassy secret. In what I disclosed to Melville there was no betrayal of our intentions concerning your barnabotto. Melville happened to inform me that his life had been attempted, and that he went in danger of assassination by this rascal Vendramin.'

'What's that?' Her tone was like the edge of a knife, and the dainty little face looked suddenly pinched and vicious. 'Vendramin never told me that. All he told me was that Melville acted on a suspicion of intentions. But is it really true, this?'

'True enough. He sent a couple of bully swordsmen after Melville some nights ago. Melville disposed of those. But he perceived that there would presently be others. He told me what had happened. It lay in my power to present him with a very effective shield. That's all. But you are oddly moved, my dear.'

'Why should you be concerned to employ that secret so as to shield an Englishman who has no official connection with you?'

'I am on my defence, it seems. Well, well. I am helpless in your hands. Shall I tell you a secret? Although Melville has no official connection with me at present, I have cultivated him because I have a notion that I may be able to make use of him one of these days. There are all sorts of ways of using a man without directly employing him.'

Here at last was a reasonable explanation. Her knowledge of Lallemant's methods made it convincing. But her scorn was oddly aroused. 'Do you know that sometimes you disgust me, Lallemant; you and this vile service of yours? You sit here in this office weaving webs like some fat obscene spider. Why must you want to enmesh a decent man like Mr. Melville in your slime?'

Lallemant laughed without a trace of irritation. 'What an interest, my dear, in this Mr. Melville! A moment ago you looked as if you could murder Vendramin. And now you look as if you could murder me. And all this fury because you conceive that we might injure the little Englishman. Take care, Anne! Beware the ardent temperament!'

'Don't be a beast, Lallemant.'

He merely laughed again, and sauntered back to his table. But the laugh wounded her.

'Don't be a beast, I say, and jump at the beastly conclusion that Mr. Melville is my lover. That's what you are hinting, I suppose.'

'But why beastly? Mr. Melville is entirely to be envied. God knows if I were ten years younger, my dear...'

'It would make no difference to you if you were twenty years younger. Let that assurance reconcile you to your age. You're a slug, Lallemant, a nasty-minded slug. And you're wasting time if you think that you will ever get Mr. Melville into your toils. You don't know the man.'

'You certainly seem to have the advantage of me there, spider and slug that I am.' His mockery so infuriated her that it brought her to her feet.

'Yes, I have. I know him for a man of honour; courteous, kind, considerate, and brave. I take pride in numbering him among my friends. And God knows I haven't many. He's not like the others, who pursue me because I am a woman, who turn my stomach with their gallantries and nauseate me with their calculated flattery. Because I pass for a widow without a man to protect me, they regard me as something to be hunted and trapped by their sickly seductive arts. Mr. Melville is the one man in Venice who has sought my society and at the same time deserved my respect; because he has refrained from making love to me.'

'Thereby, as I perceive, exciting your interest all the more violently. It's the subtler method.'

She looked at him without affection. 'Your mind is a cess-pool, Lallemant. I am wasting my time on you. I talk of things you can't understand.'

'At least be grateful to me for the service I have done your Galahad.'

'I'll be grateful when you complete it by ridding me of this pig Vendramin.'

He abandoned his gross jocularity. 'That will follow soon, child. A little more patience. It shall be well rewarded. You know that. You've never found us stingy.'

But she was still angry with him when she departed.