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Chapter 28 Venetian Masque by Rafael Sabatini

The three who came so ineffectually, but with such good intentions, to the rescue from the side of the fondamenta, were Renzo and his gondolier, and Philibert, the valet, who, re-directed from the Casa Gazzola, was arriving on his errand of warning.

They reached the spot a moment ahead of the party with a lantern, coming down the alley from the other side, a party composed of the porter and his son from the embassy, and the secretary Jacob. The porter carried a blunderbuss, and Jacob brandished an ugly-looking sabre.

On her knees in the mud of the alley the Vicomtesse was whimpering piteously over the body of Marc-Antoine, imploring him in accents of distraction to speak to her. She did not become conscious of the presence of Jacob until he was down on one knee on the other side of the body, with Jacques, the porter's son, holding the lantern for him.

Then she felt hands upon her shoulder and her arms, strong hands that attempted to raise her, and Coupri, the porter from the embassy, was gently remonstrating with her.

'Madame! Madame! Madame la Vicomtesse!'

'Leave me, leave me,' was her answer, impatiently sobbed out. All her attention the while strained upon the intent face of Jacob, whose hands were quietly busy with the body.

He turned Marc-Antoine gently over where he lay, disclosing a pool of blood. As she realized the nature of that dark patch gleaming in the light of the lantern, a long-drawn cry of horror escaped her.

Jacob's face was close to Marc-Antoine's; his hand felt for the heart, his eyes scanned the lips.

In a hushed voice she asked him presently: 'Is he...Is he...?' she dared not complete the question.

'He is not dead, citoyenne,' said the grave young man.

There was no sound from her in answer. Her whimpering ceased, but it was as if she dared express no thankfulness for something that might yet hold no grounds for it.

Jacob stood up, and gave his orders quietly.

They spread Marc-Antoine's cloak, and placed him upon it. Then Coupri and his son, Philibert and Renzo took each a corner. Thus they bore the wounded man gently up the alley, across the Corte del Cavallo, and so back to the embassy, the Vicomtesse following with dragging feet, supported by Jacob.

When they had laid Marc-Antoine in the porter's lodge, Renzo and his gondolier departed, enjoined by Jacob not to talk of what had happened. The young Jew kept his wits about him and remembered that silence is the best provision for all circumstances.

Renzo, however, did not account his mistress included in that injunction. Introduced to her by her maid, he delivered Marc-Antoine's note, and, when she had read it, he told her what had happened. She stood tense and straight before him, making no outcry, but her eyes were like dark, shining pools in her marble face. Before the tragedy of that countenance, Renzo made haste to assert not only that Messer Melville lived, but that no doubt he would recover.

Swaying a little, she steadied herself against a table, and so remained until a besetting sense of faintness passed. Then she commanded herself. They were a rough-fibred race these Pizzamani, and Isotta, for all her delicate fashioning, had inherited her portion of that toughness. Dry-eyed and in a voice of startling calm she questioned Renzo, but could draw from him no clue to the identity of Marc-Antoine's assailants. It had been so dark in that accursed alley.

High though her courage might be, it was not equal to the suspense that must lie in inaction. On a resolve that overrode every possible restraining consideration, she bade her maid bring her a cloak and hood. Without recking that she might be sought and missed by her mother, who had not yet retired, she slipped from the house, with Renzo for escort. They went by the garden, so that the porter should not see her leave. The garden-gate, which they left unbolted, opened upon a diminutive square. Beyond this, by a bridge over a little watercourse, they came to an open space bordering the wide Canal of Saint George. Thence in a hired gondola they made their way to the Madonna dell' Orto.

To Lallemant, whom this visit profoundly surprised, she was admitted without a moment's hesitation. In the salon that was his work-room, he advanced to meet her, his air deferential.

He was not alone. By the writing-table, in the background, two men remained standing with whom he had been in talk when she was admitted.

One of these was Villetard, whose tired eyes quickened a little to observe the grace and beauty of this woman; the other was a stocky, middle-aged man in formally cut clothes of black, with a face that was at once strong and kindly.

'Monsieur Melville?' she faltered to Lallemant. Then she steadied herself, and became coherent. 'I have just heard what has happened to him. He is a friend of ours. A great friend...'

'I am aware of it, mademoiselle.' Kindly, he sought to spare her explanations. 'I have this very moment learnt how great is your friendship for him.' He stepped to the table and took thence a scrap of paper. 'Doctor Delacoste here has just brought me this. It came from you, I think.'

He held out to her the note she had that evening written to Marc-Antoine. Realizing the nature of the red-brown stain that blurred it, she momentarily closed her eyes.

'Unfortunately,' said Lallemant, with a sigh, 'he did not sufficiently heed the warning.'

'How...How is it with him?' she asked, and waited in terror for the reply.

The ambassador turned. 'Will you tell her, doctor?'

The stocky man came slowly forward, speaking as he approached her.

'His condition is grave, but gives no cause to despair. No cause to despair at all. Almost he makes me believe in miracles. The sword must have been guided through him by his guardian angel. His worst danger is from his terrible loss of blood. But I trust he has not lost more than he can renew.'

Her eyes searched that grave, kindly face, and some of the lifelessness passed from her countenance.

Then Lallemant was speaking. 'We shall take good care of him, and we shall keep him here where he will be safe from any further attempts upon him.'

'Who did this? Is it known?' she asked.

Villetard's harsh voice cut in quickly to answer her. 'Your letter of warning tells us that, I think.' He sauntered forward to join the group.

She took his meaning at once. 'The inquisitors? Oh, no.'

But Villetard was insistent. 'Isn't it just how they would deal with one whom it might be inconvenient to arrest?'

'I don't think so, ever. And, anyway, I know positively that only Monsieur Melville's arrest was intended. I know it from Messer Corner, who is one of the inquisitors. Besides, monsieur, the inquisitors are not assassins.'

'I shall cling to my opinion,' said Villetard.

'Oh, but I know that you are wrong. The Inquisitor Corner came to see my father this evening, not merely to tell him that this arrest would be made, but to invite him to be present at Mr. Melville's examination tomorrow, so that he might urge what he knows in Monsieur Melville's favour.'

'You see,' said Lallemant to Villetard. 'It isn't even as if he had resisted arrest; for we know that there was no attempt to arrest him. I come back to my first conclusion: that this is the work of that barnabotto scoundrel Vendramin. The dog has lost no time.'

'Whom did you name?'

She asked the question in so sharp and startled a tone, that Lallemant stared a moment before answering: 'Vendramin. Leonardo Vendramin. You know him, perhaps?'

Incredulity swept across her white face. 'Oh, no. That is as impossible as the other.'

'Ah!' Villetard was suddenly eager. 'And so say I. Vendramin would never have dared.'

'He dared it once before.'

'Yes, but the altered circumstances...'

'It is just the altered circumstances would make him dare again,' said the shrewd Lallemant.

'What are you saying?' she asked. And now she learnt from Lallemant, not only of that earlier attempt at assassination, but also of the duel in which Vendramin had been disabled.

Intentionally or otherwise, Lallemant was vague upon the grounds of the quarrel, but quite clear and definite that it was of Vendramin's provoking.

'Considering that this barnabotto owed Monsieur Melville a matter of a thousand ducats which he had borrowed, I can't dismiss the suspicion that he sought to liquidate the debt by a sword-thrust. You'll gather, mademoiselle, that I have no great opinion of Monsieur Vendramin.'

Isotta stood before them, stricken of countenance, mechanically wringing her gloves between her hands; that gesture of hers when troubled which once had played such havoc with her fan.

At last: 'Could I...Could I see him?' she asked. 'Is it possible?'

Lallemant looked at Delacoste, and Delacoste made a lip of ponderous doubt. 'I should prefer that you did not...' he was beginning, when the expression of her countenance moved him to compassion. 'I do not want him disturbed, mademoiselle. But if you will promise to stay no more than a moment, and not to talk...'

'Oh, I promise.' She was fervent in her eagerness.

Delacoste opened the door for her, and they went out.

'That woman,' said Villetard, with the appreciation of a connoisseur, 'explains Lebel's friendship with the Pizzamani much more completely than the duties of his office. Her concern for him makes one suspect that like his master, Barras, he understands the art of combining business with pleasure.'

Lallemant ignored the assumption. 'What is to be done about Vendramin?' he asked.

But Villetard was cynical in all things. 'It will be more convenient to assume your suspicions groundless, at least until we have some evidence that they are not.'

'We may be called to a very stern account for this if Lebel should die.'

'Don't I perceive it?' Villetard was in a state of exasperation. 'But what the devil was I to do when Bonaparte had to be served? We should both be wiser to cling to the belief that this is the work of the inquisitors. It's the explanation that clears us of responsibility. God knows why you must have talked so freely to the Pizzamano. I did my best to check you.'

Above-stairs Delacoste was introducing his companion to a lofty chamber, dimly lighted by a single shaded candle placed on a table below the foot of the canopied bed.

The doctor closed the door and soundlessly drew her forward to the bedside.

At the sight of the face upon the pillow she could scarcely repress an outcry, for it seemed to lie in the livid repose of death. The eyes were closed and deep shadows filled the hollows of cheeks and temples. The black hair was tumbled about a brow that gleamed with moisture. In terror she looked from that face to the doctor's. Delacoste answered her with a little smile of reassurance and a nod.

From beyond the bed there was a rustle, and suddenly Isotta became conscious of another person in the room. A woman had risen, and was standing there, staring across at them.

At the sound she made in rising, the wounded man's eyelids fluttered, and then Isotta found him staring up at her. Into the dull vacancy of those eyes came consciousness like the glow of an ember that is fanned. But for the swift, anticipatory action of Delacoste he would have raised himself.

'Isotta!' Marc-Antoine uttered her name in wonder. 'Isotta!' His voice sank as he spoke. 'I have your letter... your warning...But all is well. All is very well.' His speech became blurred. 'I'll take care. I'll...' His lips continued to move, but sound no longer came from them. As she bent nearer, his eyes slowly closed as if under the weight of an unconquerable lassitude.

The doctor put an arm about her, and drew her gently away.

Outside the room he was stilling her alarm, reassuring her again.

'He is very weak. That is natural. The great loss of blood. But he has much natural vigour. With God's help we shall make him well. Meanwhile, he is safe here and in devoted hands.'

Isotta saw again that slight, sweet-faced, golden-headed woman rising at the bedside.

'Who is that lady?' she asked.

'Madame la Vicomtesse de Saulx.'

'The Vicomtesse de Saulx, did you say?' and the doctor wondered why the question should hold such a depth of incredulity.

'The Vicomtesse de Saulx,' he repeated, and added: 'She will remain with him tonight, to watch him and tend him.'

Only then did Isotta recall that part of the overheard conversation between her father and Corner in which that name had been mentioned. She had never supposed other than that the inquisitor repeated some false rumour. But now it seemed that such a woman did, indeed, exist. It was bewildering. As she tried to recall the exact words that had passed, she heard again her father's confident assertion that the Vicomtesse de Saulx must be an impostor. And yet she found this woman installed here at the wounded man's bedside. It was disquieting, inexplicable. It still clouded her mind when Lallemant had escorted her to the vestibule where her servant waited. He was assuring her, not only that her friend Melville would be well cared for, but also that he would be safe.

'Here in the embassy, at least, the warrant of the inquisitors does not run. So that even though they may know of his presence, they are powerless to trouble him.'

Yet, when at last she spoke, it was not of this.

'The lady with him is the Vicomtesse de Saulx,' she said.

'Yes. Her interest in him is perhaps natural. She was with him when the attack was made on him. They had both dined here.'

She hesitated over the form of her next question, and uttered at last the best that she could find.

'The Vicomte de Saulx? Is he in Venice?'

Lallemant smiled gently. 'Oh, no. Let us hope that he is in heaven, mademoiselle. The Vicomte de Saulx was guillotined in ninety-three. The Vicomtesse is a widow.'

'I see,' said Isotta slowly, and it seemed to Lallemant as if a cloud had lifted from her.

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