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Chapter 26 Venetian Masque by Rafael Sabatini

Marc-Antoine had been visited at his lodging that morning by the secretary Jacob, who brought him a letter addressed to Camille Lebel which had arrived at the French Legation two days ago. It was accompanied by a note from Lallemant inviting him to supper at the Palazzo della Vecchia that evening, and asking him to act as an escort to the Vicomtesse de Saulx, who was also expected.

Now that he had actually parted with the drafts to Vendramin, Lallemant was not entirely without uneasiness on Marc-Antoine's behalf. Anyway, the job being done and Villetard in possession of his charts, there was nothing to prevent the ambassador from discharging what he regarded as a duty to Lebel by informing him of what had taken place. If he did this in the presence of the Vicomtesse, that should avoid him the recriminations which he had cause to fear. So he asked them both to supper.

Marc-Antoine sent word back by Jacob that he would be glad to come, and then opened the letter. It was from Barras, and it proved perhaps the most startling communication that the Directors had yet addressed to their plenipotentiary Lebel.

Writing in the name of the Directory, Barras began by contrasting the strength of the Army of Italy with that of the imperialists under the Archduke. In view of the greatly superior French forces, the Austrian defeat was considered inevitable. When it occurred, if the situation were properly handled, it should be possible to end, not merely the campaign, but the war itself. Austria, if properly approached, should be more than ready to make peace. To ensure this, the plan of the Directors was that Austria should be offered the Venetian provinces both in Italy, Istria, and Dalmatia as compensation for the loss of Lombardy. In the view of the Directors there was little doubt that the Austrians would count themselves fortunate in being able to make peace on such terms.

Barras went on to state that instructions to this end were being sent to General Bonaparte; and Lebel was desired to co-operate as might be necessary, and empowered to take all measures that he accounted desirable for the promotion of the end now in view. He was particularly desired to see that an adequate pretext for hostilities was supplied by Venice. Hitherto the Serenissima had yielded supinely to every demand, however rigorous. If she persisted in this, she might rob France of all justification for employing the strong hand. Lebel on the spot would see where provocation might be given of a kind to draw Venice into an act of hostility that should open the door for a declaration of war.

Marc-Antoine sat with his elbows on his writing-table, his head in his hands and that letter before him. In these months in Venice he had tasted more than once the bitterness of failure; but never so completely as now. This was definitely the end. The doom of the ancient, great and glorious Republic of Venice was written. The Serenissima was to pay with her independence for the spinelessness of her Doge and the meanness of spirit of the preponderance of her governing patricians.

It seemed to him, too, that it must prove the end of those personal hopes in which he had come to Venice, and which so far he had been able to sustain in spite of what he found there.

That sense of failure paralyzed his wits, and in this despairing acceptance of defeat he remained all day. In the mechanical pursuit of the processes of existence, he was suffering Philibert to dress him that evening, when suddenly he perceived that this was not yet necessarily the end. Sometimes those whom an excessive caution has brought to the point of ruin will, when face to face with it, adventure all upon a gambler's throw.

The indolent, irresolute Doge had hitherto leaned ever upon the conviction that Venice would be saved by other hands than her own. This plan of the Directory should bring him at last to face the fact that, if Venice was now to be saved at all, she could be saved only by her own effort. In an eleventh-hour alliance with Austria there was no longer the assurance of victory that there would have been before Rivoli; but in anything short of that alliance there was only the assurance of extinction. Perhaps, when this was perceived, that supreme and tardy effort would be made.

It was too late for action tonight. But early tomorrow he would bear to Count Pizzamano the news of this daring French plan to end the war, and leave it to the Count to arouse the Serenissima to the needs of the hour.

Uplifted a little from his earlier despondency, he went off in the dusk to the Casa Gazzola, so that he might escort thence the lady to whom in his thoughts he always alluded derisively as his widow.

She received him with reproaches. 'It is two weeks and more since you came last to see me. Fi donc! Is that the way to treat a friend?'

He made excuses that were condemned as too vague to be sincere.

But in the gondola her mood completely melted, and abruptly she manifested a solicitude that startled him.

'I want you to be on your guard, Marc, with Lallemant, and particularly with a friend of his named Villetard whom you will probably meet tonight. I don't know how far you may have been imprudent to have become so friendly with the French Ambassador at such a time. But, in Heaven's name, tread carefully. I don't want you enmeshed in any of his schemes.'

Marc-Antoine laughed gently, and thereby earned her reproof.

'This is not a matter for laughter. I beg you to take care, Marc.' She pressed his arm affectionately as she spoke.

It was not the first time that the little baggage had issued one of these little caressing invitations to a greater intimacy, and each time he had been conscious of a certain distress. It gave him a feeling of treachery towards her, remembering that she was at liberty only by his favour, and that in certain circumstances he might find himself constrained to speak the word that should lead to her arrest.

He spoke lightly. 'You are afraid that he will enrol me in his regiment of spies. Few things are less likely.'

'I hope so, indeed. But I am sometimes afraid that he may have been seeking something that would give him a hold upon you. He is quite unscrupulous in his recruiting methods, Marc. I have meant to warn you before.'

'You place me in your debt by this concern.'

She nestled a little nearer to him, and his nostrils were assailed by essences as of roses that came to him from her pelisse. 'It is a very genuine concern, Marc.'

He parried the half-avowal by a flippancy. 'I thank Heaven that Vendramin can't overhear you, or I should expect to find my throat cut by morning.'

'Vendramin! Oh, that!' She spoke in contempt, as if something unpleasant had been mentioned. 'I am delivered of him at last, thank Heaven. That nightmare is over.'

To Marc-Antoine, knowing what he knew, this could only mean that Lallemant had taken the Venetian off her hands. But it was not a matter upon which he could question her.

He sighed. 'The loveliest dreams will turn to nightmares sometimes. It is saddening to hear that it has been so with you.'

There was a silence, at the end of which she turned to him. In the rays of the lantern he could dimly make out her delicate little face. 'You imagine that it was ever a lovely dream for me?' She asked the question on a note of bitterness. And then, abruptly, she was pleading. 'Marc! Don't despise me more than you must, my dear. If you knew all... If you knew all about me, and all that has gone to make me what I am, you would find excuses for me. Your mind is generous, Marc. If I had known a man like you earlier in my life...' She broke off as if her voice failed her.

He sat quite still, deeply troubled, wishing himself anywhere but in the close propinquity to which the felza compelled him. For a moment he asked himself was she acting, and then dismissed the suspicion as ungenerous. She was speaking again, more steadily, but in a voice gone suddenly dull.

'I don't want to sail under false colours with you, Marc. For you have been so frank and open with me. Shall I tell you about myself? Shall I tell you how I know that Lallemant may have those intentions concerning you?'

'My dear Anne,' he said quietly, in dread, 'I was not made to be father confessor to penitent beauty.'

'Marc, don't jest. I am very serious. Very serious and very sad. I must take you for my confessor, dreadful though you may account my confession. But it is less dreadful to me that you should know the real truth than that you should suppose that I could be moved to love for such a man as Vendramin. Listen, then, my dear, and listen compassionately. Let me begin at the beginning.'

'Neither at the beginning, nor at the end,' he cried. 'A gondola is not a confessional box; nor is this the hour; nor yet will I permit you to yield to a passing emotion.' He seized on this as on an inspiration, with which to stop the avowal that he knew was coming. 'Tomorrow you might regret this surrender to sentiment.'

'Not tomorrow, or ever.'

'For my sake, then, let it wait. Let it wait until you have coldly considered. If tomorrow you should regret that I have silenced you tonight, why, tomorrow you will still be in time to speak if you must.'

'But why for your sake?'

It was not easy to answer her, but he contrived it after a second's thought. 'Lest afterwards you should hate me for the knowledge you will have given me of yourself.'

'Never that. I want you to know. Perhaps it is you who will hate me when you have the knowledge. But at least I shall have been honest with you. That is what I most desire. To be honest with you, Marc.'

He no more doubted her sincerity than he doubted what it was that she desired to tell him. Compassion for her surged in him, and a bitter awareness that there was something of the Judas in his attitude towards her. He was the betrayer who held his hand for just as long as it suited his purposes. Meanwhile, he had acted the friend in such a manner as to urge her to be honest with him to the point of self-betrayal. He realized again, as he had realized when for his own safety's sake it had been necessary for him to fling Louis XVIII to the lions, that to be an effective secret agent it was necessary to approach too closely the border-line between honour and dishonour.

'My dear,' he said quietly, 'you owe me no avowals detrimental to yourself. And whatever avowals are in your mind, let them wait until you have considered further.'

'You do not help me,' she complained.

'Perhaps I do,' he said. 'You will know tomorrow.'

She yielded to his will in the matter, and by that very yielding showed him for how much his wishes counted with her.

Lallemant received them in his work-room, and gave them a very cordial greeting. Madame Lallemant, too, would rejoice, he assured Marc-Antoine. It offended her sense of hospitality that Mr. Melville should have dined with them only once in all the months he had been in Venice. It made her doubt the skill with which she strove to furnish her table.

And then Madame Lallemant arrived to speak for herself, and to carry off the Vicomtesse, leaving in her place Villetard, who had accompanied his hostess.

The three men were no sooner alone than Marc-Antoine was asking the question uppermost in his mind.

'Lallemant, you never informed me of what happened in the matter of Vendramin.'

'Oh, that.' The ambassador, suddenly uncomfortable, affected indifference. 'That is all over and finished. At the pistol-point he did what was required, and so expeditiously that Villetard is already in possession of his chart.'

Marc-Antoine frowned first upon one and then upon the other of them. 'Why was I not informed?'

The ambassador turned to Bonaparte's envoy. 'That's your affair, Villetard. You had better tell him.'

Villetard, with a sneer for Lallemant's cowardice, related coldly, briefly, and exactly what had taken place.

Marc-Antoine's manner betrayed his annoyance. 'And you surrendered to him these drafts!'

For months he had been waiting patiently to see that scoundrel drawn into a situation in which he could be dealt with for what he was. And now that he learnt of it, he learnt at the same time that the fellow had been allowed, not only to escape from the net, but to take with him the only evidence upon which he could have been incriminated.

'Why do you suppose that I am here?' he asked them, suddenly white with fury. 'You leave me marvelling at your temerity in ignoring me in such a matter.'

Villetard took it upon himself to answer. He imagined, of course, that regard for his own skin was at the bottom of the representative's annoyance. And whilst he could excuse it, he was not disposed to bow to it.

'What the devil could you have done? Was there any alternative? The fellow would act only upon certain terms. Should you have withheld them?'

Lallemant came to the rescue, more conciliatory. 'Name of a name,' he exclaimed, as if in sudden realization. 'I am reminded that you held that rogue in check by a threat of those drafts. On my soul, I am sorry.'

'That is no matter,' said Marc-Antoine, which was the truth, although neither of them believed him. 'I am not thinking of that, but of your presuming to act upon a matter of this importance without so much as informing me.'

'I must take the blame for that,' said Villetard, with insolent indifference.

'Is that so? Then let me inform you that the next time you expose yourself to similar blame, the consequences will be serious. I'll say no more about it now. But if we are to work in harmony, Citizen Villetard, you will keep it present in your mind that here I am the plenipotentiary representative of the Directory, that steps of any political significance are not to be taken behind my back, but only after consultation with me.'

There was a faint stir of colour in Villetard's lean, grey cheeks. But Marc-Antoine gave him no time to express resentment. Determined at least to make what capital he could out of this situation in which he had lost so much, he swept on. 'And that brings me to another matter; a matter of far graver significance, in which I may require your co-operation, and in which I shall certainly expect it to be given to me loyally and unstintedly.' He drew Barras' letter from his pocket. 'If you will both read this, it will inform you exactly. I shall leave it here with you, Lallemant, that you may file it with my other documents.'

Lallemant took the sheet, and Villetard, silenced by Marc-Antoine's manner and spurred by curiosity, came to stand by the ambassador so as to read at the same time.

The terms in which Barras wrote were an emphatic and timely reminder to the overbearing envoy from Bonaparte that in the plenipotentiary Lebel he was to recognize his superior. He was a little awed even by the words in which Barras empowered Lebel 'to take all measures that he accounted desirable for the promotion of the end now in view.'

Having read them, he went as far as it lay in his arrogant nature to offer an expression of regret, which, however, Marc-Antoine not ungraciously cut short.

But a sense of their offence against the plenipotentiary burdened both Lallemant and Villetard throughout dinner, whilst Marc-Antoine himself, dejected by the thought that Vendramin should have escaped him so completely, contributed as little as they did to the liveliness of the repast. It was left for the spy Casotto, who was also of the party, to exert himself to entertain the ravishing little Vicomtesse de Saulx, whose presence at this dinner would be mentioned tomorrow in his bulletin to the inquisitors of state.

Scarcely was the meal ended than Marc-Antoine, on a plea—perfectly understood by the ambassador and Villetard—of letters to be written, took leave of his hostess. Upon that, the Vicomtesse begged to be allowed to take advantage of Monsieur Melville's escort for her return to the Casa Gazzola, and so they prepared to depart together, as they had come.

It would be at just about the time that they were rising from table that the valet Renzo reached the Corte del Cavallo, and he made his way swiftly to the Palazzo della Vecchia.

But he was not the only one who was speeding thither that night in quest of Messer Melville.

Shortly after Renzo's call at the Inn of the Swords, Philibert was claimed yet again to render an account of the movements of his master, and this time it was by an imposing gentleman in a red surcoat, in whom Philibert recognized at once the Captain of Justice, known to all Venetians as Messer Grande. He brought at his heels two archers, and a stiffly built, sly-faced man in civilian clothes. An alarmed landlord hovered in the background.

'Monsieur Melville is not here,' said Philibert, in mild alarm.

The captain turned. He addressed his civilian attendant. 'Come along, Cristofoli. You, at least, can set about your task.'

Cristofoli became brisk. 'Stand aside, my lad. I am coming in.'

Philibert stood aside. Not for him to argue with the law.

'Now, then, my man,' Messer Grande was questioning him. 'Do you happen to know where Messer Melville is to be found?'

Twice already that evening Philibert had answered this question truthfully. This time, however, it seemed to him that the truth might not be in the best interests of his master.

'Oh, yes. I think so,' he said. 'He told me he was going to San Daniele, to the Palazzo Pizzamano.'

'The Palazzo Pizzamano, eh?' Messer Grande swung on his heel. 'Come on,' he barked to his men, and they marched off in his wake, leaving Cristofoli to his work.

Philibert saw them off the premises. Bareheaded, he stood on the steps of the inn watching the lantern of Messer Grande's great barge until it had swung round the corner to turn eastwards. Then he hailed a passing gondola, and desired to be conveyed westward to the Casa Gazzola. He urged the gondolier to exert himself, for he desired to make the most of the advantage gained by sending Messer Grande in the wrong direction.

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