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Chapter 22 Venetian Masque by Rafael Sabatini

Warned by Marc-Antoine of the present French attitude towards armed neutrality and of the pretext it might provide for a declaration of war, Count Pizzamano bestirred himself with the energy of despair. As a result there was an assembly a week later in Lodovico Manin's study in the Casa Pesaro. Seven alarmed gentlemen came there to consider with the Doge the situation in which the Serenissima found herself and the measures to be taken. There was Francesco Pesaro, the leading advocate of action; Giovanni Balbo and Marco Barbara, members of the Council of Ten, the State Inquisitor Catarin Corner, and Giacomo Nani, the Proveditor of the Lagoons. To these, who were to form his deputation, the Count had added Leonardo Vendramin, as the leader of the Barnabotti.

These were bad days for Vendramin. He moved precariously, and haunted by dangers; the danger of losing Isotta and the great fortune that went with her; the danger of losing his very life on a false charge at the hands of the inquisitors of state.

The scoundrel Melville held poised over his head a sword from which he was helpless to guard himself. The rage engendered by his bitter sense of wrong was held in check by fear alone.

Meanwhile, he did what he could for himself by displaying to Count Pizzamano more than ever his patriotic zeal, and he came to this meeting at Manin's house to give the Count's demand a passionate support.

This demand was for an offensive and defensive alliance with Austria.

Whatever the Doge had been bracing himself to hear, he had certainly been very far from expecting this. Pale and agitated, he rose to denounce the proposal as sheer madness.

Francesco Pesaro, however, that gravely courteous gentleman, who was perhaps the strongest man in Venice in those disastrous days, constrained the irresolute Doge to hear the facts.

In the Tyrol and on the Piave the Austrian troops were massing. Soon Alvinzy would oppose an army of some forty thousand men to a similar number under Bonaparte. Although the French were under the handicap of having Mantua strongly held against them, yet the scales were somewhat too evenly balanced for assurance of Austrian victory, in which today it must be admitted lay Venice's only hope of security.

Manin would have interrupted him here. But Pesaro ploughed steadily on.

He pointed out with irresistible force that for the present state of things in Italy the blame must rest upon the irresoluteness shown by Venetian statesmen. If from the outset, generously responding to the appeal for help, Venice had ranged herself on the side of the allies with the army of forty or fifty thousand men which they could have put into the field, Bonaparte's invasion of Italy would have been definitely frustrated, Savoy would never have passed into the possession of the French, and not a French soldier would ever have reached Lombardy. But with a parsimony and an egotism that were contemptible—the time for mincing terms was overpast, and he must speak frankly—Venice had excused herself on the ground that the quarrel was not her affair.

After Beaulieu's defeat, the Emperor had sent down a second army under Wurmser. The alliance with Austria which earlier would have been a matter of generosity had then become a matter of expediency. The recent events throughout the violated Venetian provinces were an eloquent proof of how wrong was their shameful aloofness. The abuses committed by the French troops were daily accumulating. The Serenissima was being treated with the contempt which her irresoluteness had earned. Plunder travestied as requisition was everywhere being suffered; arson, rape, and murder ravaged their mainland provinces, and if their governors or emissaries ventured to protest, they were insulted, maltreated, and threatened.

Were Venetians prepared to see this state of things continue until worse ensued, until their fair lands were appropriated by France, as Savoy had been appropriated, as Lombardy had been appropriated?

They knew from what Count Pizzamano had just told them that already the French were seeking pretexts for conquest, and that, today, they would actually welcome the armed neutrality which earlier might so effectively have hindered them.

Yet, even now, by the mercy of God, Venice was for the third time offered the chance which twice before she had neglected. Well might it be the last chance that would be vouchsafed her by a Providence weary of her pusillanimity. Strategically they were well placed to co-operate with Alvinzy. Whilst he made his frontal attack, they could assail the French on the flank. Could anyone doubt the issue of such overwhelming co-operation? Thus would Italy be delivered from the French; Venetian honour would be vindicated and her prestige restored.

Before the Doge, shaken and distressed, could find words, Vendramin had taken up the argument at the point where Pesaro left it. Since the last meeting of the Grand Council, troops had been recruited; ships had been fitted and conditioned; they had been working day and night at the arsenal, so that they were now in a position to put an equipped army of thirty thousand men in the field within a week, and these numbers might be increased by further levies from the Dalmatian provinces. This army, intended for the tardy defence of Venetian property, could with equal effect be rendered definitely hostile by an alliance with the Austrian forces.

When the trembling Doge cried out to know upon what grounds they could declare war on France, Pizzamano answered him sharply that grounds for hostilities, which were never difficult to create, existed in abundance in the ravages Venetian provinces had suffered. He reminded the Doge that His Serenity was the keeper of Venetian honour, and that posterity would hold him up to execration if he neglected what was perhaps the last opportunity of defending it.

At this Manin broke down before them. He sank his elbows into his knees, and took his big head in his hands. Sobs shook him whilst he inveighed against the day when the ducal dignity and the ducal corno had been thrust upon him.

'These were not honours that I desired. They were honours that I sought, as you all know, to avoid.'

'But having assumed them,' said Pizzamano gently, 'you cannot evade the responsibility they carry.'

'Do I seek to evade them? Am I an autocrat? Is there not a Grand Council, a Senate, a College, a Council of Ten, to rule the destinies of this Republic? You, who are the representatives of these bodies, know that for one voice preaching what you preach, there are three that preach neutrality as the only course of duty. You come to me as if I alone were opposing you. It is unjust. It is unconscionable.'

They reminded him that in the executive bodies there were many who wavered undecided, looking to the Doge to lead them.

'And must I assume the responsibility of leading them along a course which I am not myself satisfied is the prudent one?'

Vendramin threw in an audacious phrase.

'Prudence from being a virtue may become a crime in a situation in which energy and courage are required.'

'Is not the reverse also true? This warlike spirit with which you strive to inspire me rests, after all, upon a scrap of rumour; that the French are seeking pretexts.'

He swung to his old arguments. Why should the French seek pretexts? This was not an Italian war. It was a vast flanking movement in a great campaign, the chief theatre of which was on the Rhine. If the French had committed abuses in Venetian territory, these had not been acts of deliberate hostility, but merely the expressions of the brutality from which armies were never free; and they should perceive that if France had violated Venetian territory at all, it was under the necessity of war dictated by the fact that this violation had first been committed by the Austrians when they occupied Peschiera.

'An occupation,' said Pesaro, 'that could never have taken place if we had been in the state of armed neutrality for which you and those who share your easy views refused to perceive the necessity.'

'That was not to have been foreseen!' the Doge exclaimed.

'It must have been,' answered Pesaro. 'For I foresaw it.'

And then Catarin Corner, the inquisitor, interpolated yet another argument. He spoke with quiet incisiveness, his clear-cut, ascetic face as calm as his tone. He denounced the error of assuming friendliness on the part of the French. He pointed to the fanaticism with which the French were spreading their religion of Jacobinism. He alluded to the Cispadane Republic, established in Italy under the auspices of French Jacobinism and lately swollen by embracing Bologna and Ferrara. He dwelt upon the subterranean work of proselytizing that was going on here in Venice, and of the dangerous extent to which this was sapping the foundations of the oligarchy. From his office as one of the inquisitors he derived authority for what he said. Their spies were diligently at work, observing and at need pursuing the ubiquitous French agents, not all of whom were French. There had been, he informed them in his quiet, level voice, more secret arrests than perhaps they suspected, and, after convictions of correspondence with the French, not a few secret executions. Vendramin was conscious of a chill down his spine as he listened to this.

But although the argument was protracted for some hours, they could not tear the weak, vacillating old Doge from the errors to which he clung so obstinately.

The matter ended, as all matters ended with which he had to deal, in compromise. The Proveditor of the Lagoons should continue his activities of preparation, and further recruiting should be set on foot at once, so that they might be in a state of preparedness for whatever course the events should prove desirable. In the meanwhile he promised that he would keep in mind and further consider all that the deputation had urged, and that he would pray for guidance.

He was still considering when in the early days of November Alvinzy's army began to march. And then, suddenly, Venice rang with news of Austrian successes. Massèna had been beaten on the Brenta; Augereau, heavily defeated at Bassano, was retreating upon Verona.

Stimulated by this, Pizzamano and his resolute associates returned to the assault. This was the moment. Whilst the French were staggering, let Venice strike the blow that must put a definite end to the menace of Bonaparte. They were still urging this when, by the end of the month, the French situation had grown so desperate that every temporizer, from Lodovico Manin down to the most neutral senator, now accounted his policy justified by the events. By inaction, whilst the war rolled forward, by economy of blood and treasure, they had conserved unimpaired the strength of the Most Serene Republic.

Such firebrands as Pesaro and Pizzamano were convicted of a rashness, which if it had prevailed must have impoverished Venice and left the Lion of Saint Mark to lick his wounds.

Against this there were no arguments. The men contemned could only look on in silence, and pray, like the loyal patriots they were, that those who contemned them might be right.

It certainly seemed so now.

Bonaparte's hopeless situation finds expression in the cry contained in his dispatch of the thirteenth of that month of November to the Directory: 'The army of Italy reduced to a handful of men is exhausted...We are abandoned in the interior of Italy. The brave men remaining regard death as inevitable amid chances so continual and with forces so inferior in number.'

And then, when all seemed ended, when the loud jubilation in Venice bore witness to relief from the anxieties that had been simmering under her ever-frivolous surface, the genius of the Corsican blazed forth more terribly than ever. Four days after writing that dispatch, he heavily defeated Alvinzy's army on the bloody field of Arcola, and drove its wreckage before him.

But the consequent dismay was not long to endure. Soon it was realized that the French had snatched victory from the ashes of defeat at a cost they could not afford. They had gained a breathing space; no more. Heavy reinforcements were being hurried to Alvinzy. Mantua held firmly against Serrurier's blockade. Arcola, in the Venetian view, had merely postponed a conclusion which it could not avert. The French were face to face with ruin.

In vain did the advocates of intervention denounce this crass optimism which would not learn from past experiences. God and the Austrians, they were confidently answered, would settle matters very soon. So why should the Government of Venice shoulder this burden?

Marc-Antoine himself was encouraged to agree with the optimists by the pessimism which he now discovered at the French Legation. There was more than the exhausted state of the Army of Italy to trouble France at that moment. Her armies on the Rhine were also doing badly, and it looked, indeed, as if at last Europe were to be rid of the French nightmare.

Effectively to maintain the rôle of Lebel, Marc-Antoine wrote strongly to Barras, as Lebel would have written, urging Bonaparte's need of reinforcements if all that had been won were not to be thrown away. He had no qualms in writing thus. His representations, he knew, could add nothing to those which Bonaparte himself was making; and it was clear that if the Directory had not found it possible to respond adequately to similar demands in the past, the events on the Rhine would render it even less possible now.

His letters, however, produced one unexpected result, communicated to him by Lallemant, whom he found one day more than ordinarily perturbed.

'I am wondering,' said the ambassador, 'whether, after all, there is anything to justify your lingering here. I have sure information that the police are hunting Venice for you at this moment.'

'For me?'

'For the Citizen-Representative Lebel. They are assured of his presence. They have, of course, been more or less aware of it ever since that ultimatum of yours on the subject of the ci-devant Comte de Provence.' He sighed a little wearily. 'These Venetians are rousing themselves to audacity now that they think our claws have been cut. My last courier was held up by General Salimbeni at Padua. He was eventually allowed to proceed with my dispatches to the Directory. But I learn that a letter of yours to Barras was detained on the ground that it was a personal, and not an official, communication. It is now in the hands of the inquisitors of state, and Messer Grande has received orders to discover and arrest you.'

As once before, the only thing in all this that really impressed Marc-Antoine was the efficiency it revealed of the secret service which Lallemant had organized.

'It is not possible that they should identify me with Lebel,' he said.

'I am of the same opinion. But if they should, it would go very hard with the man whom they regard as having placed them under the shame of expelling the soi-disant Louis XVIII from Venetian territory. And I should be given no chance of intervening on your behalf. The inquisitors move very secretly, and they leave no traces. Only this week I have lost one of my most valuable agents: a Venetian. By no means the first. He has simply disappeared, and I have no doubt at all that he has been quietly strangled after a secret trial. As he was not a French subject, I cannot even lodge an inquiry about him.'

'I thank Heaven that I am at least a French subject, and...'

'You forget,' Lallemant interrupted him, 'that you pass for an English one. I can't claim you without admitting the fraud. That wouldn't improve your chances.' He paused there, to repeat a second later: 'I really think you would be wise to leave.'

But Marc-Antoine dismissed the suggestion.

'Not while the service of the Nation may create a need for my presence.'

That same evening he received confirmation of the news from Count Pizzamano. The Count accepted the interception of Lebel's letters as a sign that at long last the Serenissima was asserting her rights. The presence in Venice of Barras' cat's-paw Lebel was one more evidence of the evil intentions of the French, and it would go very ill with this secret envoy when he were found.

This did not trouble Marc-Antoine at all. Messer Grande—as the Venetian Captain of Justice was called—would hunt in vain for Camille Lebel. What troubled him was that the prospect of French defeat, instead of uplifting him, was actually and disloyally dejecting him because of its dangers for Isotta.

Meanwhile, if Vendramin's hatred of Marc-Antoine, by whom he accounted himself so outrageously wronged, abated nothing, at least he was able to dissemble it on those comparatively rare occasions when they met at the Casa Pizzamano.

In this stagnation, Christmas came and went. It was celebrated in Venice with gaieties as unrestrained as usual, or, if restrained at all, restrained merely by the intense cold of a winter that brought the rare spectacle of snow on the house-tops and ice-floes in the canals of Fusina and Marghera. The result was to drive the people to seek indoor amusements. The theatres were never more crowded; the cafès did a roaring trade; and the casinos were thronged with those who went to gamble, to dance, or merely to flirt and gossip.

With the new year the city disposed itself for the licences of carnival, as if these were no serious matters to preoccupy it.

Marc-Antoine killed time as best he could. With a party of friends he attended the first performance of Ugo Foscole's Tieste, and supped, as was the carnival custom, in the box which they had rented. He allowed himself to be taken to masked balls given at the Filarmonici and the Orfei, which presented scenes of light-hearted merriment the like of which he had never witnessed. The numerous attendance at these functions of Venetian officers who flocked into the city from their quarters on Malamocco and elsewhere, far from reminding the merrymakers of the clouds of war that still hung upon the horizon, merely served to contribute to the general gaiety.

Whilst life flowed so carefree now in Venice, the Austrians marched to relieve Mantua, and to deliver the decisive blow that should end this campaign. Their defeat on the snow-clad field of Rivoli, with the capture of Provera's division of seven thousand men and thirty guns, gave pause for a moment to the carnival gaieties in Venice. But even now the alarm was far from being either as deep or as general as the circumstances warranted. With the aim of overriding panic, the Government deliberately circulated the assurance that it would provide for whatever might be necessary. In that assurance amusement was resumed.

Along the Riva dei Schiavoni and in the Piazza, as the weather became milder with the advent of February, there were constant throngs of idlers and revellers, and little crowds congregating about the itinerant shows set up for their amusement: the marionettes, the tumblers, the quack-salvers, the story-singers, the astrologers, the fortune-telling canaries, the Furlana dancers, or the circus in the Piazza. Patrician men and women, in mask and bauta, their quality proclaimed by their silks and velvets and gold-laced hats, mingled freely with the noisy populace, sharing their greed of laughter, and as reckless of the doom which was advancing so relentlessly upon the Serenissima.

For now the pace of events was quickening. The fall of Mantua followed upon Alvinzy's defeat. Rendered mobile thereby, Bonaparte went off to Rome and constrained the Pope to the Treaty of Tolentino. As one result of it three great convoys, including bullock carts laden with bronzes, pictures, and treasures of art of every description plundered from the Vatican, took the road to France.

Yet Venice, unable, it seemed, to tolerate any protraction of depression, was uplifted within a few days of the fall of Mantua by definite news that the Archduke Charles was coming with reinforcements from the Rhine to take command of the remains of Alvinzy's army.

Those in authority and those with real vision or real knowledge saw little ground for confidence in this fourth Austrian attempt against Bonaparte. For Bonaparte, too, had received at last, and unstintedly, the reinforcements for which he had so long been clamouring. With an army of sixty thousand men at his back, more than well-found in artillery upon which he placed so much reliance, and rid at last of the Mantua incubus, he was incalculably more formidable than ever before in this campaign.

So formidable, indeed, that the Doge and his councillors, in insisting more passionately than ever upon inaction, completely reversed their former arguments. Hitherto it had been that the Austrian strength more than sufficed to shield them. Now it was that the strength of the French must render futile anything that Venice could do.

The city itself and the surrounding islands swarmed with the troops that had been levied. There were four thousand men at Chioggia; three Dalmatian regiments on Malamocco, one at the Certosa, and a battalion on the Giudecca. There was a Slavonian regiment at San Giorgio Maggiore, and a battalion of Italians under Domenico Pizzamano at Sant' Andrea. Sixteen companies were quartered at Murano; the Croatian company of Colonel Radnich was at Fusina; and there were further troops quartered at San Francesco della Vigna and at San Giorgio in Alga. The total came to some sixteen thousand men, without taking into account a further ten thousand in garrisons on the mainland. In addition, there were seven naval divisions, stationed at Fusina, Burano, in the Canal of the Marani, and elsewhere. Nevertheless, it was deemed, even by minds as intrepid as that of Count Pizzamano, that these forces were inadequate now for an offensive alliance.

Manin was constrained to admit, at least in private and almost in tears, the error of having missed the moment for action which had presented itself just before Rivoli. To take such action now would be in the nature of a gambler's throw. And if the dice fell against them, the independence of the Serenissima would be the forfeit.

Austria having failed them, Manin perceived their only hope to lie now in the favour of Heaven. By his orders there were special prayers, services, and processions, and the unveiling of a miraculous image in Saint Mark's. The only result of this was to alarm the people and lead to demonstrations hostile to the Signory for not having taken timely measures.

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