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Chapter 23 Venetian Masque by Rafael Sabatini

Marc-Antoine was roused on the morning the first Sunday in Lent by a peremptory summons from Lallemant.

Masks and mummeries had disappeared from the streets and canals of Venice, and the church bells were summoning a sobered population to devotion. The sun shone with a hard brightness, and already there was a feeling of spring in the air.

Closeted with Lallemant, Marc-Antoine found a young-old man of middle height, whose pallid, foxy countenance, lean, dry, and lined, seemed too old for his lithe, active body. His spare, sinewy legs were encased in white buckskins and black knee-boots with reversed yellow tops. He wore a long riding-coat of rough brown cloth with silver buttons and very wide lapels. And on the conical brown hat which he retained he had plastered a tricolour cockade. He was without visible weapons.

Lallemant, who did not appear to be in the best of humours, presented him as the Citizen Villetard, an envoy from General Bonaparte.

The keen glance of the man's small, sunken eyes played searchingly over Marc-Antoine. His nod was curt, his voice, harsh and rasping.

'I have heard of you, Citizen Lebel. You have been some months in Venice. But you do not appear to have accomplished very much.'

Marc-Antoine met aggressiveness with aggressiveness.

'I render my accounts to the Directors, from whom I take my orders.'

'General Bonaparte finds it necessary to supplement them. That is why I am here. The Little Corporal is tired of temporizings. The hour for action has arrived.'

'So long,' said Marc-Antoine, 'as his wishes coincide with those of the Directory, we shall do our best to realize them for him. Since he has thought it worth while to send you to Venice, I trust that you bring some useful suggestion.'

Villetard was visibly taken aback by an arrogance that seemed to wrest from him his authority. Lallemant, who had just been hectored by this envoy, permitted himself the ghost of a smile.

Villetard frowned. 'You do not seem to understand, Citizen Lebel, that I have been sent here to co-operate with you. With you and the citizen-ambassador.'

'That is different. Your tone led me to suppose that you came here to give orders. That, you must understand, is inadmissible until the Directory relieves me of my responsibility.'

'My dear Citizen Lebel...' the other was beginning to protest, when he was interrupted by the peremptory hand which Marc-Antoine raised.

'Here in Venice, Citizen Villetard, I am known as Mr. Melville, an English idler.'

'Ah, bah!' Villetard was jocularly contemptuous. 'We can afford to throw off our masks now that we are about to prick this oligarchic bubble.'

'I shall prefer that you wait until the bubble has been pricked. Shall we come to business?'

It transpired that Villetard's first business was to obtain and forward at once to Bonaparte the charts of the soundings taken in the canals approaching Venice from the mainland. Lallemant had to confess that they were incomplete. After the arrest and suppression of Terzi and Sartoni, he had abandoned the matter as too obviously dangerous.

Villetard was sarcastic. 'I suppose you have been assuming that Bonaparte would invade Venice with an army of ducks.'

Coldly Marc-Antoine asserted himself again. 'Would not consideration of the means to employ be more profitable than offensive pleasantries? It will save time. And you have said yourself, Citizen Villetard, that there is no time to lose.'

'What I have said is that too much time has been lost,' was the truculent answer. 'But certainly let us consider what means are now available. Do you dispose of anyone capable of undertaking the work? After all, it does not entail a great deal of intelligence.'

'No,' said Lallemant. 'But it entails a great deal of risk. It is certain death to the man who is detected.'

'Therefore, the man to be employed should be one who is not otherwise valuable,' was the cynical answer.

'Of course. I would, naturally, not employ a Frenchman. And, as it fortunately happens, I have under my hand a Venetian whom I think we can coerce.'

He mentioned Vendramin and the nature of the coercion. Marc-Antoine was conscious of excitement.

'Vendramin?' said Villetard. 'Oh, yes, I've heard of him. One of the preachers of francophobia.' He appeared to be very fully informed. 'It would be poetically humorous to constrain him to perform this service. If you are really able to do it, let it be done without loss of time. Where is this barnabotto to be found?'

They found him that same Sunday evening at the lodging of the Vicomtesse de Saulx. And they found him there because Lallemant so contrived it, by instructing the Vicomtesse to ask Vendramin to supper. Accompanied by Villetard, the ambassador presented himself at the Casa Gazzola at nine o'clock, by when he judged that supper would be over.

It was. But Vendramin and the Vicomtesse were still at table. Vendramin had accepted the invitation with alacrity as a mark of favour of which lately the marks had been few. This to his distress, because he was becoming more and more urgently in need of favour. His hopes ran high that the Vicomtesse would prove more generous than she had been of late; and he was in the very act of moving her compassion for his needs when, to his annoyance, Lallemant was announced.

The ambassador was of a disarming urbanity when the Vicomtesse presented Ser Leonardo. He had heard of Monsieur Vendramin, of course, from his cousin Anne, and had long desired the felicity of meeting him. Villetard's acknowledgments of the presentation might have been considered equally flattering but for the contemptuous smile on his grey, wolfish face.

'Monsieur Vendramin's name is well known to me, too, although I am new to Venice: well known as that of a patrician of great prominence in the councils of the Most Serene Republic. Not exactly francophile, perhaps. But I am of those who can admire energy even in an enemy.'

Vendramin, flushed with annoyance and discomfort, mumbled empty amiabilities. Beautifully dressed himself, for the occasion, in a shimmering satin coat that was striped in two shades of blue, he eyed with disgust the unceremonious redingote and buckskins and loosely knotted neckcloth in which this very obvious Jacobin presumed to intrude upon a lady of quality.

Lallemant made himself at home. He even did the honours, setting a chair for his companion, providing him with a glass and placing a decanter of malvoisie before him. Then he drew up a chair for himself, and sat down at the table.

'Do you know, cousin François, you arrive very opportunely,' said the Vicomtesse, with her sweetest smile.

'You mean, I suppose,' said the portly ambassador, 'that you will be wanting something. The day is long past when a lovely lady accounted me opportune on any other grounds.'

'My friend, you do yourself injustice.'

'So does everybody else. But what is it that you are requiring?'

'Do you think that you could advance me two or three hundred ducats?'

Vendramin felt a pleasant warmth rising in his veins. After all, his annoyance at this visit had been premature.

The ambassador blew out his red cheeks, and raised his brows. 'God of God, Anne! You say two or three hundred, as if there were no difference between the one figure and the other.'

'What is the difference, after all?' She set a hand, long, slim, and of a dazzling whiteness upon the ambassador's black satin arm. 'Come, François. Be a good child, and let me have two hundred and fifty.'

Lallemant looked at her gravely. 'You don't seem to realize how large a sum it is. What can you want it for?'

'Need that matter to you?'

'Very much; you do not dispose of such a sum; and if I am to advance it, I have some sort of right to know how it is going to be spent. After all, I am in a sense responsible for you.' He looked across at Vendramin, and his eyes usually kindly had become a little hard. 'If, for instance, you are proposing to add this, or any part of this, to the money that this gentleman already owes you...'

'Monsieur!' exclaimed Vendramin. His face flamed scarlet. He made as if to rise, then sank together again on his chair, as the Vicomtesse exclaimed:

'François! How can you? This is to betray my confidence.'

Villetard quietly sipped his wine like one who seeks to efface himself.

'Betray your confidence, my dear! What will you say next? Can Monsieur Vendramin suppose that in a few months I would advance you sums, amounting in all to some six or seven thousand ducats, without informing myself of what was becoming of the money? I should be an odd guardian if I had done that, should I not, Monsieur Vendramin?'

From flushed that it had been Vendramin's face had turned pale. He was breathing hard.

'Really!' he ejaculated. 'I had no notion of this. A transaction of so very private a nature...' He swung in dark annoyance to the Vicomtesse. 'You never told me, Anne, that...'

'My dear Leonardo,' she interrupted him, a pleading little smile on her distressed face, 'where was the need to trouble you? And, after all, what does it matter?' She swung again to the ambassador. 'You have made my poor Leonardo uncomfortable, and this before Monsieur Villetard, too. It is not nice. You'll do penance by letting me have that two hundred and fifty tomorrow morning.'

For all his annoyance, Vendramin watched the ambassador from under his brows. Lallemant shook his big head slowly. Slowly he turned his glance upon the Venetian.

'You realize, sir, that the sum you are owing the Vicomtesse is a very heavy one. I should not be doing my duty to her if I allowed her to increase the debt without some clear assurance of how and when this money is to be repaid.'

The Vicomtesse flashed in with vexation in her voice. 'Why do you plague him with such remarks? I have told you already that Monsieur Vendramin is to make a rich marriage.'

Lallemant affected to recollect. 'Ah, yes. I remember now.' He smiled deprecatingly. 'But marriages sometimes miscarry. What would happen, for instance, if, after all, Monsieur Vendramin were not to make this rich marriage? You would lose your money. Well, as your cousin, and in some sort your guardian, I do not want to see you lose such a sum as that. It is very much more than you can afford to lose. I wish you to understand that, Monsieur Vendramin.' His manner had become stern.

And now, to increase Vendramin's almost intolerable and speechless discomfort, Lallemant's saturnine companion thrust himself into the matter.

'There is no reason why the citoyenne should not be repaid at once.'

'Ah?' Lallemant slewed round on his chair to gaze interrogatively at the speaker.

'Transfer the debt from the citoyenne to the French Republic, as moneys paid to this Venetian gentleman out of the secret service funds, on account of services to be rendered.'

'That is an idea,' said Lallemant, and in the deathly stillness that followed, his dark eyes questioned Vendramin.

The Venetian stared blankly. 'I do not think I understand.'

Villetard again intruded. 'God of God! It's plain enough, isn't it? You have received from the French secret service funds an advance of six thousand ducats, or some such sum, on account of services to be rendered. The time has come to render them.'

'To render them?' said Vendramin. 'What services?'

Villetard leaned forward to answer him. 'The nature of the services doesn't matter. You'll receive full instructions about that. May we take it that you will adopt this method of discharging your debt?'

'You may take nothing of the kind,' was the furious answer. 'Is this a trap, sirs? Anne!' he appealed wildly to the Vicomtesse. 'Is this a trap?'

'If it is,' said the rasping voice of Villetard, 'it is a trap of your own making.'

Vendramin pushed back his chair and rose. 'Sirs,' he announced, with a sudden access of dignity, 'I have the honour to wish you a very good-night.'

'It will be a very bad night for you if you do,' sneered Villetard. 'Sit down, man.'

Tall, straight, and disdainful Vendramin looked down at the Frenchman beyond the table.

'As for you, sir, who have had the effrontery to impugn my honour with such a proposal, I should be glad to know where a friend of mine can find you.'

Villetard leaned back and looked up at him through half-closed eyes, a tight-lipped smile on his lean, ashen face. 'You bleat of honour, do you? You prey upon a woman, and borrow from her large sums of money which you are unable to repay unless, as a result of a prospective marriage, you commit an act that is even more flagrantly dishonest. Yet you boast an honour that may be impugned. Do you not even suspect that you are ridiculous?'

With a foul oath Vendramin snatched up a decanter from the table. He was baulked of his murderous intention by the Vicomtesse. Suddenly on her feet, she clutched his arm. A glass was swept to the floor and shivered there. Almost like an echo of the sound came the rasping voice of Villetard, who had not moved.

'Sit down!'

Vendramin, however, remained standing; panting and swaying. The Vicomtesse, still clinging to him, was murmuring 'Leonardo! Leonardo!' the music of her voice cracked by agitation. She took the decanter from his hand, and replaced it on the table. His spasm of passion spent, he let her have her way.

Villetard, still sitting back and slightly tilting his chair, still looking at him with that expression of contempt, spoke again.

'Sit down, you fool, and listen. And in God's name, let us be calm. In heat nothing was ever accomplished. Just survey your position. You have had these sums from the French secret service funds. They have been paid to you in drafts on Vivanti's issued by the French Legation, and these drafts have been countersigned by you in acknowledgment of the money. Do you suppose that you will be allowed to swindle the French Government by refusing now to do the work for which you have been paid?'

'That is infamous!' cried the livid Venetian. 'Infamous! Did you say swindle? It is you who are attempting a swindle. A gross, impudent swindle. But you are dealing with the wrong man, let me tell you. You may take your treacherous proposals to the devil. Where I am concerned you may do your worst. My answer to you is no. No, and be damned to you.'

'Very fine and heroic,' said Villetard. 'But I don't happen to be the man to take "no" for an answer. You say that we may do our worst. Have you reflected what that would be? Have you even considered how you would allay the natural assumptions of the inquisitors of state as to the purpose for which you received this money from the French Embassy?'

Vendramin stood there with the feeling that the blood was draining from his heart. The defiant spirit that had been sustaining him a moment ago was slowly perishing. Gradually sheer terror came to stare out of his prominent blue eyes.

'Oh, my God!' he said. 'My God!' He swallowed, and made an effort to brace himself. 'You mean that you would do that? That you would use this lying blackmail against me?'

'You happen to be necessary to us,' said Lallemant quietly. 'Just as this money was necessary to you. You did not scruple to take it from my cousin. You did not trouble to inquire whence it came or whether she could spare it. Why should we be less unscrupulous with you?'

'You try to make a case against me, so as to justify the vileness of what you do. You are just a pair of scoundrels; low, Jacobin scoundrels; and this woman has...been your decoy. Mother of God! What company have I been keeping?'

'Very profitable company,' said Villetard. 'And now we call the reckoning.'

'And insult will not help you,' added Lallemant. 'After all, Venice will not suffer more than she must by what you do. If you should persist in refusing, someone else will be found for the service we require. It is only that we do not waste the money of the Nation. You are paid in advance.'

Villetard shifted impatiently. 'Haven't we had words enough? Our proposal is before Monsieur Vendramin. If he is such a fool as to prefer the Prison of the Leads and the garrotter, let him say so, and have done.'

Vendramin leaned heavily upon the back of a chair. In his heart he cursed the day when he had first seen the Vicomtesse, cursed every ducat that he had ever borrowed from her. That scoundrel Melville had been able to blackmail him with this threat into foregoing a just vengeance; and now the thing was being used again to force him into this treachery. His mind remained clear, in fact, it was rendered more than ordinarily clear by the peril in which he stood. The suspicion concerning Melville, which this little Delilah had quieted, was now stronger than ever. It was too much of a coincidence that both he and these admitted French agents should adopt exactly the same method of imposing their wills upon him.

And from this suddenly sprang a thought which proved the determining factor in his agony of vacillation.

He looked at them with eyes that narrowed suddenly.

'If I were to listen to you...If I were to agree to do what you want, what guarantee should I have that you would keep faith with me?'

'Guarantee?' said Villetard, raising his brows.

'How should I know that you would not still betray me?'

'There would be our word,' Lallemant assured him.

But Vendramin, still stinging where he could, shook his head. 'I should need something more in so grave a matter.'

'I am afraid that is all that we can give you.'

'You can give me the drafts that you hold as proof of what you call my debt to you.'

On the point of answering, Lallemant suddenly checked. He sat silent and thoughtful, his eyes on the wine-glass which he was twirling by its delicate stem. Thus, until Villetard broke in impatiently: 'But why not? He has a sort of right to them once the debt is paid.'

'Once it is paid, yes,' the ambassador slowly agreed. Then, taking his resolve, he became more brisk. 'Come to me at the embassy tomorrow in the forenoon, and we will settle the terms with you.'

'You mean that you agree?' Vendramin was eager.

'I mean that I will let you know tomorrow morning.'

'I will serve you on no other terms,' Vendramin defied him.

'Well, well. We will talk of it tomorrow.'

After the Venetian had departed, Villetard expressed impatience of a procrastination for which he could discover no reason. But Lallemant postponed explanation until the two men were in their gondola, on the way back to the Madonna dell' Orto. Then, at last, he satisfied Bonaparte's envoy.

'I have my reasons, of course. Naturally I could not state them in the presence of this Venetian. Just as naturally I preferred not to state them after he had departed.'

'But why not, since Madame la Vicomtesse...'

Lallemant interrupted him, adopting the tone of the master towards the dilettante.

'My dear Villetard, the experience gathered in controlling as I do a considerable secret service has taught me never, unless there are very good reasons for it, to allow one secret agent to be aware of another. In the case of Lebel there are more than ordinary reasons why none of my people should be allowed to guess his real identity. It would have been impossible to have discussed this matter before the Vicomtesse without disclosing it. That is why I preferred to wait until we should be by ourselves.'

'I don't myself see what there is to discuss. This miserable barnabotto was ready to come to terms, and...'

Again he was interrupted. 'If you will have a little patience, my dear Villetard, you shall learn what there is to discuss.' And he disclosed how, to shield himself from the danger of assassination, Lebel employed those drafts on Vivanti's which Vendramin now asked them to surrender. 'Now, if harm should befall Lebel through my having neglected any precautions, that would be a very serious thing. I do not care about the responsibility.'

Villetard was impatient. 'If the Little Corporal doesn't get what he wants, the consequences may be still more serious. I don't care for the responsibility of that. Lebel must take his chances. He seems a man well able to take care of himself.'

'But I must consult him before accepting Vendramin's condition?'

'Why?' Villetard was vehement. 'Suppose that he opposes it? What then? Is General Bonaparte...Is France to forego advantages because of risks to the Citizen Lebel?' And he quoted: '"Salus populi suprema lex."'

'Yes, yes. But if Vendramin won't hear reason, I might find another man to do the work?'

'When?' barked Villetard.

'Oh, soon. I should have to look round.'

'And is the Army of Italy to wait while you look round? Name of a name! I begin to think it is fortunate I was sent to Venice. There is one thing only to be done. Duty points it out quite clearly.' His tone hardened. 'Tomorrow, you will agree to Vendramin's terms. And you will conveniently forget to mention the matter to Lebel, or to anyone else. I hope that is clear.'

'It is clear,' said Lallemant, stifling his resentment of that hectoring tone. 'But let it be also clear to you that I shall not do it until I have exhausted every attempt to constrain Vendramin without going quite so far.'

'That is legitimate,' Villetard admitted. 'But it is the utmost that I will permit.'

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