Chapter 25 Venetian Masque by Rafael Sabatini

Isotta occupied a high-backed settee, near the glass doors leading to the loggia at the garden end of the salon. A servant had placed it for her so that she immediately faced the light with the piece of needlework upon which she was engaged. She worked mechanically, her mind overclouded by the melancholy of a hopeless waiting. It was late afternoon, and as the March daylight began to fade, she relinquished her work, and reclined with closed eyes. Eye-strain had induced a drowsiness to which she yielded.

Suddenly she was aware of voices at the other end of the room. From this and the deepening twilight, she realized that she had been asleep. The voice that had aroused her was her father's, loud and vehement; and now it was answered by the smooth, level tones of Catarin Corner's. She moved to rise and disclose herself, when the red inquisitor's words thrust her back again, breathless.

'That Camille Lebel and your friend Messer Melville are one and the same person there is, I assure you, no possible doubt. He will be arrested tonight, and a thorough search will be made of the effects at his lodgings. But whether that discloses anything or not, there is quite enough before the inquisitors already to determine his doom.'

'And I assure you that this is sheer lunacy.' The Count was excited. 'My acquaintance with him is not of yesterday. And the British Ambassador here can speak for him very definitely.'

'Unfortunately for him, our spies can speak more definitely still. This man has covered his traces very cleverly, taking advantage of, no doubt, laudable antecedents so as to establish his credit. Whoever he may really be, the French Legation knows him for Camille Lebel, and the activities of this elusive Camille Lebel, whom we had almost despaired of discovering, make up a heavy account against him.'

'But it is preposterous, Catarin. His comings and goings at the French Legation prove nothing. If he had not been in relations with Lallemant, passing himself off as a francophile agent, he would never have obtained the valuable information which from time to time he has passed on to us. I will tell you this, and you may obtain confirmation of it from Sir Richard Worthington: Melville came to Venice primarily on a mission from Pitt, and his labours here have been unremittingly anti-Jacobin.'

'If you had ever held my office, my dear Francesco, you would know that there never was a secret agent of any value who did not pretend to serve both sides. It is the only way in which he can really render service.'

'But then! Knowing this, and remembering what he has done for us, isn't that a sufficient answer to those silly suspicions?'

'They are not suspicions, Francesco. They are facts very well established. That he is Lebel we know definitely upon the evidence of Casotto.'

'Even so...'

'There is no even so to that. No, no. The little services with which this Lebel has so craftily flung dust in your eyes are as nothing to the disservices the Republic has suffered at his hands. There is that letter of his which we intercepted in which he informed Barras of our situation.'

'Information of no value whatsoever,' the Count interjected.

'Not in itself, perhaps. But the terms of the letter prove a regular correspondence. All the information he sent would not be of as little value as this.'

'How can you assert that?'

'From what we know of his true character. Have you forgotten that the infamous ultimatum by which Venice was put to the shame and indignity of defiling her hospitality, of expelling the King of France from Verona, bore this man's signature?'

Isotta, huddled, trembling and horror-stricken, in her corner of the settle, heard her father's gasp of dismay.

Corner went on, a warmth of indignation creeping into a voice that normally was so suave and level. 'There was evidence, you will remember, in the ultimatum itself that this fellow Lebel was acting in the matter upon his own responsibility; that he was not even executing orders from the Directory. Had this been the case, the ultimatum would have come to us from Lallemant. There was in that action a depth of ill-will towards us which nothing can condone. The intention must have been to discredit us in the eyes of the world, as a measure of preparation for whatever the French were brewing. For that, if there were nothing else against him, it has always been our intention to deal with this spy, when discovered and caught, as spies are always dealt with.' He paused, and there was a moment's silence before he continued: 'You see, Francesco. Knowing your interest in this young man...'

'It is more than interest,' the Count interrupted him miserably. 'Marc is a very dear friend.' In angry protest he exclaimed: 'I utterly refuse to believe this nonsense.'

'I can understand,' said Corner gently. 'If you desire it, I will have you summoned as a witness at his trial, so that you may urge anything in his favour. But probably you realize that no intervention will avail him.'

'I am very far from realizing it.' The Count spoke with a renewed access of confidence. 'Whatever he may have done, I am quite certain that the man who fought at Quiberon and Savenay, and who incurred the perils Marc has incurred in the service of his Prince, could never have been the author of that ultimatum. Instead of incriminating him, it definitely proves to me that he is not Lebel. If you want another proof, you'll find it in his real identity. His name is not Melville, but Melleville; and he is the Vicomte de Saulx. That should prick this bubble.'

'The Vicomte de Saulx, did you say?' There was profound amazement in Corner's voice. 'But the Vicomte de Saulx was guillotined in France two or three years ago.'

'That is what is generally supposed. But it was not so.'

'Are you quite sure?'

'My dear Catarin, I knew him and his mother in England before the journey to France in the course of which he was reported guillotined.'

'And you say that this is the same man?'

'What else am I saying? You see, Catarin. The disclosure of that fact alone blows all your assumptions into dust.'

'On the contrary,' he was slowly answered. 'It supplies one more and very significant piece of incriminating evidence against him. Have you never heard of the Vicomtesse de Saulx?'

'His mother. I know her well.'

'No. Not his mother. A lady of fashion here in Venice, commonly to be met in the more modish casinos.'

'I do not frequent casinos,' said the Count, with a touch of scorn.

The inquisitor continued: 'She is said to be a cousin of Lallemant, she is known to us for a spy, but is shielded by her relationship—real or pretended—with the ambassador. She also pretends to be a widow; the widow of the Vicomte de Saulx, who was guillotined, but whom you now tell me was not guillotined. You perceive the implications?'

'I perceive a mare's nest. Are you telling me that he has a wife; a wife here in Venice?'

'I am telling you that there is a lady here who claims to be the widow of the guillotined Vicomte Saulx. You are as capable as I am, Francesco, of drawing an inference.'

'She must be an impostor! You have said that she is known to the inquisitors for a spy.'

'If she is an impostor, your Vicomte de Saulx is singularly tolerant. He sees a good deal of the lady. Considering what she is known to be, do you really think the revelation of his true identity will assist this unfortunate young man?'

'My God! You bewilder me. All this is fantastic. Opposed to everything I know about Marc. I must see him.'

'You will hardly now have an opportunity of doing that.' There was the scraping of a chair. 'I must be going, Francesco. I am awaited at home. It has been a shock to me to find my own convictions respecting this young man shattered by Casotto's revelations. Consider tonight whether you desire to attend his trial in the morning. Send me word if you do, and I will contrive it.'

'But of course I will.'

They were moving towards the door. 'Well, well. Give it thought. Consider all that I have said.'

They went out, and the door closed upon them.

Isotta continued huddled in panic. This was as terrible as it was preposterous. Not for one moment, not under any arguments urged by Corner had her confidence in Marc-Antoine known the least wavering. That matter of the existence of a Vicomtesse de Saulx, imperfectly understood by her, she dismissed as the mare's nest her father had denounced it. Scorn of wits that could leap at such rash conclusions mingled with her terror on Marc-Antoine's behalf. In their rashness, in their present state of nerves on the subject of French agents, the two black inquisitors might easily share Corner's conviction of Marc's guilt, and in that case she knew how swiftly execution would follow.

By this time tomorrow, unless something were meanwhile done, it might be too late to do anything. With a sense of suffocation she realized the urgency of action. From the way Corner had spoken it might already be too late even to warn him. And what else was there that she could do?

She was suddenly on her feet. Her limbs were stiff and cold, her teeth chattered. She pressed a hand to her brow as if to constrain thought. Then, having made her determination as swiftly as the case demanded, she rustled from the room, and sought her own chamber.

Her maid, awaiting her in her room, cried out in concern at the deathly pallor of her face.

'It is nothing. Nothing,' said Isotta impatiently.

In a breath she ordered the girl to summon Renzo, her brother's valet, who in Domenico's absence made himself generally useful.

Whilst the maid was about that errand, she scrawled a hurried note with fingers scarcely able to hold a pen.

This note hastily sealed, she delivered to the young man ushered presently by Tessa. Her instructions, if breathlessly delivered, were yet precise.

'Listen, Renzo. You will take a gondola; two oars, so as to make the better speed; and you will go straight to the Inn of the Swords on the Rio delle Beccherie. You will ask to see Messer Melville, and you will deliver this note to him in person. In person, you understand?'

'Perfectly, madonna.'

'Listen still. If by any chance he should not be there, endeavour to discover where he is. He has a valet, a Frenchman. See him. Question him. Tell him that the matter is of great urgency, and have him help you, if he can, to find his master, so that you may deliver the note at the very earliest moment. It is very, very important, Renzo, do you understand? And I depend upon you to do all in your power to reach Mr. Melville with it without losing a moment.'

'I understand, madonna. If I am wanted here...'

'Never mind that,' she interrupted him. 'Tell no one where you are going, or even that you are going. I will answer for you if you are missed. Now go, boy; I pray God you may make good speed. And bring me word the moment you are back.' She gave him a handful of silver and so dismissed him.

Deriving some relief from the sense of having at least done something, Isotta sank down on the stool before her dressing-table and viewed her ghostly face in its long Murano mirror.

It would be an hour after the Angelus had sounded, and night had already closed in when Renzo reached the Inn of the Swords to be met by the landlord with the information that Messer Melville was absent. Since the landlord could add nothing to this information, Renzo asked to see Messer Melville's valet. He was conducted by the landlord above-stairs.

The keen-faced Philibert desired to know what the young man wanted with his master. Renzo told him frankly, whence he came and what his errand.

'Morbleu,' said Philibert, 'it seems, then, that all Venice is hunting Monsieur Melville this evening. Half-an-hour ago it was Monsieur Vendramin, just as eager to find him. It's fortunate I overheard him ordering his gondolier, or you would both be disappointed. He left here to go to the Casa Gazzola, if you know where that is.'

'By the Rialto. I know.' The breathless Renzo would have departed, but that Philibert caught him by the arm.

'Not so much haste, my lad. You have a proverb in Italy that he goes safely who goes slowly. Remember it. When you come to the Casa Gazzola, ask for Madame la Vicomtesse de Saulx. Madame la Vicomtesse de Saulx,' he repeated. 'That's where you'll find him.'

Renzo flung down the stairs and back to the waiting gondola. Within ten minutes he was at the Casa Gazzola.

The Vicomtesse was from home, the porter informed him. She had gone out nearly an hour ago.

'It is not the Vicomtesse I was seeking, but a gentleman I was told I should find here with her. A Messer Melville. Do you know him? Is he here?'

'He left with madama. If your business is urgent, you may find him at the French Legation. At least, that's where they were going when they left here. Do you know where it is? In the Corte del Cavallo, Fondamenta of the Madonna del' Orto. Palazzo della Vecchia. Anyone there will point it out to you.'

Renzo re-embarked, and the black boat glided away and swung presently from the broad waters of the Grand Canal, aglitter with the lights of the Rialto Bridge, into the darkness of a narrow rio to the north. It was a long way to the Madonna del' Orto, and Renzo prayed that he was not making the journey merely again to be sent on somewhere else.