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Chapter 29 Venetian Masque by Rafael Sabatini

For some six days Marc-Antoine's life hung on a slender, but gradually strengthening thread. After another three, there came a morning when Delacoste, seated beside his patient, announced to him that for the present he had fooled the devil.

'But I'll confess to you now that he all but had you. My skill would never have defeated him without that angel who remained at your bedside to beat him back. She has not spared herself. For a whole week she hardly slept. A little more, my friend, and she would have saved your life at the expense of her own.' Pensively the doctor sighed. 'We make too light of women, my friend. There is no self-sacrifice equal to that of which a good woman is capable; just as there are no limits to the sacrifices demanded by a bad one. When we have been the object of such devotion as you have known, that is something that we should go on our knees to acknowledge.'

He got up and called Philibert, who was hovering near the window. He instructed him about a cordial which he had brought, and so departed.

In the last two or three days, ever since his mind had recovered a full clarity, Marc-Antoine had been tormented by thoughts of the vital information he had been about to communicate to Count Pizzamano when he was stricken. It troubled him that the situation must have been rendered much more acute by this delay; but at last the absence of the Vicomtesse from his bedside gave him the chance to repair the matter.

'Prop me up, Philibert,' he commanded.

Philibert was scandalized.

'You'll exhaust me more by argument than compliance,' Marc-Antoine insisted. 'Do as I bid you. It is important.'

'Your recovery is much more important, monsieur.'

'You are wrong. It is not. Don't waste time.'

'But, monsieur, if the doctor should find that I have done this...'

'He won't. I promise you. If you keep faith with me, I'll keep faith with you. Lock the door, and get me pen, ink, and paper.'

His senses swam at first, and he was compelled to waste some moments in waiting for them to steady. Then, as quickly as they would permit him, he scrawled the following lines:

'Bonaparte is in such strength that the defeat of the Archduke seems inevitable. If it happens, it is expected that Austria will be disposed to make peace. To ensure this the settled French plan is to seize the Venetian States and trade them to Austria in exchange for Lombardy. You are warned. Venice must decide whether by joining hands with the Empire, at this eleventh hour, she will make a supreme effort to preserve an independence which otherwise will be lost to her.'

He read the note over, folded it, and handed it to Philibert. 'Hide this carefully somewhere about you. Now take away these things, and let me down again. Then unlock the door.'

At full length once more, Marc-Antoine lay silent for some moments, exhausted by his effort. But the reproachful eyes of the valet drew presently a smile from him.

'Never look so black at me, Philibert. It had to be done. Now listen. Conceal that letter carefully. It is dangerous. When you go out today, go to the Casa Pizzamano at San Daniele. Ask for the Count. See him in person, and deliver that note to him. To him, and to no one else. Should he be absent, wait for him. Is that clear?'

'Quite clear, monsieur.'

'You will inform him fully of my condition, and you may freely answer any questions he may ask you.'

The diligent Philibert delivered his letter that same afternoon, and it was read at once, not only by the Count, but also by Domenico, who was with him at the time.

Captain Pizzamano had come over from the fort at the first opportunity in response to a summons sent him two days ago by his sister. At the time, Isotta, who through Renzo kept herself daily informed of the progress made by Marc-Antoine, had felt the burden to be more than she could bear alone. Today, when at last Domenico had arrived, and she could take counsel with him, the anxiety had already been lessened by the better news that Renzo had brought her. Marc-Antoine was definitely out of all danger.

But her indignation remained and it informed the tale that she told her brother. Appalled, Domenico hesitated to believe, for all his dislike of Vendramin, that the man would stoop to murder. Perhaps that very dislike made him honourably cautious in his assumptions.

Isotta enlightened him. 'They quarrelled before, in October last; and I have learnt that a duel was fought in which Leonardo was wounded. You remember that he was ill then, and kept the house for a couple of weeks. That was the occasion.'

'I know of the duel,' said Domenico. 'But it is a far cry from a duel to an assassination. Though I can see how the one could create a suspicion of the other. But something more is necessary before we can be persuaded.'

'I think I have something more. This attempt on Marc took place on the night of Monday of last week. Since then we have not seen Leonardo, and it is not his way to let a whole week pass without coming to San Daniele, especially such a week as this in which the news has daily made my father fret and wonder at his absence.'

'Ah!' Domenico was now alert. 'But why...'

She cut through his interpolation to continue what she had to say. 'Of the four who attacked Marc, he wounded two, and one of these was the leader, I am told. If it should be discovered that Leonardo has a wound—a wound in the left shoulder—will not that complete the proof?'

'I think it would.'

'That is why I have sent for you, Domenico. Will you seek out Leonardo, and discover this?'

'I will do more. There are to me things I require to know about this duel last October. Amongst others, the real grounds...' He broke off, looking at her keenly. 'Have you no suspicion of what they might have been?'

'Sometimes I have thought...' She broke off with a little gesture of helplessness. 'No, no. I have nothing definite. Nothing, Domenico.'

'But something indefinite,' he said gently, with understanding. 'Well, well.' He rose. 'I will see what I can find out about it all.'

There were other things in his mind, but he thought he could postpone their utterance until the present question was resolved. So he passed out of her boudoir where the interview had taken place and went below for a word with his father before departing.

He found the Count in the library with Philibert. The valet's narrative added nothing to what the captain had learnt from his sister; whilst the letter, which he read after Philibert's departure, came to deepen the grave trouble already agitating every loyal Venetian mind. For whilst Marc-Antoine had lain helpless at the French Embassy portentous happenings had shaken Venice and aroused at last even the most nonchalant to perception of the storm-clouds in the political heavens.

The impotent negligence of the Serenissima to give due protection to her mainland provinces had borne, at last, alarming fruits in Bergamo. The unrepressed Jacobins, under French encouragement, had laid hands upon the neglected helm of government. The city had revolted from Venice, had declared for Jacobinism, had raised a Tree of Liberty, and had established an independent municipal government of her own.

News of this gesture of contemptuous repudiation had reached Venice six days ago, and had created consternation in every mind from that of the Doge to that of the meanest beggar at a traghetto.

Before Domenico could even begin to discuss with his profoundly troubled father this latest evidence of French perfidy, in Marc-Antoine's letter, Messer Catarin Corner was announced.

He came with calamity written upon his finely featured face and in every line of his slight, elegant figure. He brought the evil tidings that another city had gone the way of Bergamo.

The Podestà of Brescia, in flight to save his life and disguised as a peasant, had just reached Venice and sought the Doge with the miserable tale that Brescia, like Bergamo, had now declared her independence, and had set up a Tree of Liberty, at the foot of which in mockery of Venice crouched a Lion of Saint Mark in chains.

'We have begun to pay the terrible price of Manin's weakness,' Corner concluded. 'The Republic is disintegrating.'

The Count sat appalled, staring into space, whilst the inquisitor strained his weak voice in vehement exposition. Order must be taken without delay, before this Jacobin contagion spread to other subject cities. If the Senate itself should not suffice to deal with such a matter, the Grand Council must be convened, and the responsibility shouldered by the entire patriciate.

Then at last the Count roused himself. He spoke in angry pain. 'After the errors we have committed, the chances we have missed, the consistent meanness and selfishness of the policy pursued, can we hope now for heroism? Unless we can, nothing remains but to resign ourselves to the disruption of this Republic which has so proudly endured for a thousand years. Look at this.'

He handed to Corner the letter he had received from Marc-Antoine.

When the inquisitor had read it, his voice trembled as he asked whence it came.

'From a sure source. From Melville.' He smiled sadly. 'You were very quick to assume that he had fled when he heard that he was to be arrested, and for a moment I was so weak as to suppose that you might be right. But now we have the truth. There was an attempt to assassinate him on the very night that you sent to arrest him; it was an attempt that all but succeeded. Since then he has hung between life and death. His first action when he can summon sufficient strength for the effort is to send me this precious piece of information; something done at the greatest peril to himself. I trust this will persuade you in whose interest he works. But let that pass for the moment. The information must be communicated to the Doge. This supreme effort, which the case demands, must be made or we are irrevocably lost, doomed to become an Austrian province, living under the rule apportioned to a conquered people.'

Corner permitted himself an unusual bitterness of expression. 'Will that woman Manin ever make it? Or will he bow to this in the same spirit in which he has allowed our provinces to be trampled under the feet of a ruffianly foreign soldiery?'

Pizzamano rose. 'The Grand Council must compel him; it must sweep the Senate into definite and immediate action. There must be no more mere promises of preparation for contingencies; promises which in the past have led to nothing. Vendramin must marshal his barnabotti for this final battle against the forces of inertia.' Emotion mastering him, he became almost theatrical in his intensity and in the sweep of his gesture. 'If perish we must, at least let us perish like men, the descendants of those who made this Venice glorious, and not like the feeble, yielding women Manin has all but made of us.'

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