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Chapter 27 Venetian Masque by Rafael Sabatini

Renzo stood in the wide stone vestibule of the Palazzo della Vecchia inquiring breathlessly for Messer Melville. The burly French porter emerging from his lodge ended the lad's anxieties with the answer that Monsieur Melville was above-stairs, and he sent up his wife to inform the gentleman of this messenger who begged for a word with him. Discreetly Renzo withheld all mention either of a letter or of its sender.

The woman returned with the information that the gentleman was about to descend, and presently Mr. Melville, accompanied by a lady who was cloaked and hooded, stood before Renzo, and recognized him by the light from the great gilded lantern overhead.

By that same light Mr. Melville read Isotta's hurried, trembling scrawl.

'You are in great danger. The inquisitors of state believe they have proof that you are someone who has been calling himself Labelle, or some such name, and that you are a spy, and they intend to arrest you tonight. I shall die of terror if you fall into their dreadful clutches. Heed this warning, my dear, if you love me; and leave Venice the moment it reaches your hands. Do not lose a moment. I am praying God and the Virgin that I may still be in time. Renzo, who bears this, is to be trusted. Use him in your need. God keep you, my dear. Send me a word by Renzo if you can, to reassure me. Isotta.'

The loving terror of that letter, whilst moving him to tenderness, yet exalted him. Here there was no thought or care for what he might have done; no doubt of him; no concern of whether he might or might not be one with this 'Labelle' who was a spy. These hurried lines breathed only a love that was sharpened by fear. Very tenderly his lips smiled as he read it for the second time. Then, folding it, he placed it in an inner pocket in the breast of his coat.

He had been prepared for this, and he was not perturbed. It would be an easy matter for him, with the aid of Count Pizzamano and Sir Richard Worthington—who had long since been severely admonished by Mr. Pitt for his attitude towards Mr. Melville—to establish his real identity, and the mission which had brought him to Venice. The circumstances of his having assumed the identity of Lebel, and the apparent betrayals which he had been constrained to commit in the character of that representative, would then be clear and credible.

He stepped into the porter's lodge, calling for pen and ink, with which he wrote three lines: 'Your thought for me is to my soul as a draught of wine to my body. Dismiss your sweet alarms. Arrest would have no perils for me. I am quite safe, and I shall come in person to assure you of this tomorrow.'

'That is to your mistress, Renzo, and this for your pains.' He pressed a gold sequin into the lad's hand, and so dismissed him.

When Mr. Melville came forth with the Vicomtesse on his arm, Renzo, vaguely discernible in the clear night, was vanishing into the narrow passage that led from the Corte del Cavallo to the fondamenta where the gondola waited.

The Vicomtesse, following his shadowy figure with her glance, saw at that moment another shadowy figure detach itself from the deeper shadows of a building at the mouth of the alley, hover a moment as Renzo approached, then melt back again into the gloom. But she saw without observing, her mind preoccupied.

'You were a long time below with Lallemant and Villetard,' she said probingly. 'And, at dinner, you were strangely silent and thoughtful. Something is troubling you. I hope you remembered my warning, Marc. But that man Villetard fills me with dread. He is horrible.'

'Have no concern,' he answered. 'But you are right to suppose that something is troubling me.' He was wondering in his mind whether, being so obviously well-disposed towards him, she might assist him when she learnt of how he was uncovered to Vendramin by Lallemant's action. 'We will talk of it at the Casa Gazzola. I may need your help.'

He felt her weight increase upon his arm. 'I would give it you so gladly,' she assured him.

They entered the narrow passage leading to the fondamenta. At the far end of it they could perceive the livid gleam of water.

'It would be a happiness...' she was beginning, and there she suddenly checked, looking sharply over her shoulder, to cry out suddenly in loud alarm: 'What's here?'

Steps were pattering quickly after them. Two figures were approaching at a run from the Corte del Cavallo, and momentarily there was from one of them the glitter as of a naked blade. Their design was not to be left in doubt.

A piercing scream for help rang out from the Vicomtesse before the two were upon them.

Marc-Antoine's first assumption was that he had to deal with the poursuivants of the inquisitors. But the sinister silence of this attack put the assumption in such doubt that he whipped out his blade. And only just in time. At the scream of the Vicomtesse, one of the twain, leaping in advance of his fellow, thrust at her savagely, whilst at the same moment the one who followed hurled at her an obscene epithet such as was not to be cast at the most abject street-walker. A white vizor covered his face. Whether from this or by intention, his voice was thick and muffled.

In the very last second of time Marc-Antoine's blade leapt forth to deflect the murderous thrust at the Vicomtesse. That parry took the assassin by surprise, as did the riposte that came in one movement with it to tear through the muscles at the base of his neck. He reeled back with a cry, accounting himself a dead man, and staggered into his companion who was close on his heels in that narrow passage.

From the other's muttered oath, and accompanying exclamation, 'Get out of my way, you fool,' it was easy to guess how he was hampered. Darting forward, and crouching so as to see as much as possible in that darkness, Marc-Antoine could just discern the group they made. The man he had pinked had collapsed with his back against the breast of his advancing fellow, who was heaving to cast him aside. Over the shoulder of the wounded man Marc-Antoine thrust instantly, heard another oath, and saw the group sag down into a black heap.

He waited for no more. He groped for the arm of the Vicomtesse; clutched it in the dark, and, dragging her with him, turned again in the direction of the fondamenta. 'Come,' he said, but, even as they started, he caught his breath to find himself confronted by yet another couple who were advancing to meet them.

This was too much. Marc-Antoine became really angry. He could not hope for the same luck a second time. Whilst he hung there, hesitating, instinctively he wrapped his cloak round his left arm. Then the Vicomtesse was tugging at the skirts of his coat. 'In here!' she cried breathlessly. 'Take shelter in here.' She had discerned a cavern of a doorway on her left, the deep porch of a warehouse, and so made him aware of it.

He thrust her in, followed, and in that shelter, stood to meet these newcomers, whilst the Vicomtesse rent the night again with her cries for help.

Swords came licking like long tongues of steel into the gloom by which Marc-Antoine was so effectively surrounded. Invisible to his assailants he could see enough of them to hold them at bay with his darting point. And then, to his disgust and dismay, he heard the same muffled voice that he had heard before, the voice of the man in the white vizor urging them on, and he realized that the blades opposing him had been increased to three. In his haste and in the dark he had done his work badly on that fellow, and had merely scratched him.

From behind the white vizor came a fierce, rapid mutter. 'We shall have the whole quarter about our ears in a moment. If you can't get the man, for God's sake, stop the screeching of that hell-cat.'

In his urgency to end things, the speaker came forward rather recklessly. Marc-Antoine in whom anger had stifled prudence succumbed to the lure of this. Taking the thrusting blade on his own, he enveloped it in a circular parry, and in delivering the counter leaned forward too boldly. One of the newcomers, a burly fellow, who, wary and experienced, had hitherto been more watchful than active, was quick to take the chance this offered, and from Marc-Antoine's uncovered flank passed his sword through his body. 'That settles it, I think,' he grunted.

The weapon dropped from the stricken man's extended hand. For a moment he emerged there into full view, swaying forward erect and rigid on that threshold. Then he crumpled and collapsed forward into the alley, whilst the scream that rang out behind him from the Vicomtesse was on a different note from any that had preceded it.

As Marc-Antoine lay prone and still, the bully who had brought him down touched him with his foot. 'Ay, that's the end of him,' he croaked.

The leader in the white vizor stooped forward. 'Is he dead?'

'As dead as Judas, after what I put through him. Come, man. We must look to ourselves.'

He glanced swiftly to right and left, as he spoke. The cries of the Vicomtesse had not been wasted. Lights were moving in the Corte del Cavallo, and with them footsteps and a sound of voices, whilst from the side of the fondamenta three dark figures were approaching, one of them brandishing an oar.

The assassins were caught between two groups. But the bully who had accounted for Marc-Antoine was Contarini, a man of ripe experience. He was prompt to take charge. 'Here, to me!' he ordered his immediate neighbour. Instead of obeying him, the man in the white vizor turned aside and plunged towards the doorway. His foot was on the threshold, and his blade was already probing the shadows, when Contarini's heavy hand fell on his shoulder, and wrenched him back.

'Damn you for a fool!' he was angrily cursed.

'Save your breath for running, my master,' growled Contarini, and dragged him on. 'So. Shoulder to shoulder.' He croaked an instruction to the two behind him. 'Follow close, you others.'

They charged down the alley towards the water, thrusting aside the three who faced them. Before their threatening blades even the man with the oar, who was the only one who had a weapon of any description, fell impotently back.

Thus they reached the quay, and the man in the mask almost tumbled into the gondola that awaited them, sick and faint from a wound which he had ignored until the business was over. As the gondola sped away, he lay on the cushions in the felza, plucked off the vizor and then tore open the breast of his coat, disclosing in the lantern-light linen that was dark with blood.

The burly ruffian, standing over him, swore softly at the sight. 'Saint Mark! Did he get you, Vendramin?' He knelt to lay bare the wound, whilst, behind him, one of his companions was attending to the hurt of the other, who was also very near the end of his endurance.

'It's nothing,' said Vendramin. 'I've lost some blood. That's all. But take a look at it.'

'On my soul,' said Contarini, 'that fellow should have followed my trade. He'd have made a great success of it. It makes me feel like a murderer to have killed a man who could pink two assailants out of four.'

If Vendramin nursed a regret that he had not fulfilled his intentions by serving that false Delilah in the same way, that regret did not suffice to mar the satisfaction in his half-swooning senses. He had settled the account of that damned Englishman and removed all peril of his further interference. He had the exalted sense of honour vindicated.

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