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Chapter 30 Venetian Masque by Rafael Sabatini

Blood recklessly lost by Vendramin in his murderous adventure in the Corte del Cavallo had so weakened him that for ten days thereafter he, too, was compelled to keep the house. If prudent considerations of health dictated that he should keep it longer, no less considerations of appearances dictated, in the light of the political events, that he should go forth.

So on that same day which had seen Marc-Antoine penning his warning to Count Pizzamano, Vendramin ventured abroad, in defiance of his weakness and his imperfectly healed wound.

The weather was mild and genial, and the sunshine quickened the colours of the houses mirrored in the deep blue of the waters. By these he was borne, reclining on the cushions in the felza from which the leather curtains were drawn back. He was arrayed with care in the lilac and silver suit which he knew became him so well, and his shining golden hair had been carefully dressed and clubbed. Regard for his wound, which was at the junction of neck and shoulder, dictated a sling for his left arm. But regard for the necessity to conceal that he had been wounded, dictated that he carry the limb before him with the thumb hooked into an opening of his waistcoat. He hoped that this would not seem unnatural or attract attention.

His gondola swung westwards down the Grand Canal past the sunlit dome of the Salute and on until it turned into the canal of San Daniele. In these narrower waters it passed another gondola, hard driven by two gondoliers, in which Messer Corner was departing from the Casa Pizzamano.

Vendramin came so opportunely now as only just to prevent the Count from sending for him.

Pizzamano was expressing this intention when, from below, the lapping of waters under a prow and the melancholy hailing cry of an approaching gondolier attracted Domenico's attention. The long windows to the balcony by which he was standing were open. He stepped out to look over the parapet.

'You are saved the trouble,' he announced. 'Vendramin is here.'

The Count's face brightened a little. In mentioning the timeliness of this arrival, he referred again to the oddness of the fact that Vendramin should not have been seen for over a week.

'Not, in fact, since the attempt on Marc's life,' said Domenico.

So dry was his tone that his father looked at him sharply. 'You are not suggesting a connection?'

'It might exist. Anyway, it would be wise, perhaps, not to let Vendramin suspect the source of your information about this French plan.'

'What are you hinting?'

'Marc has been put to bed at the French Legation. It might be very dangerous for him if this news were to leak out while he is there. It would be best to say no more than that you have the best of reasons for believing this to be the French intention. If you mention that Messer Corner has just been here, you will leave Leonardo to suppose that Messer Corner was the bearer of the news.'

The Count nodded gravely. 'Very well.'

Messer Vendramin came in with a jauntiness that cost him a considerable effort. He was conscious that the eyes of Domenico, in whom he had always sensed an enemy, were searching him from head to foot, observing his pallor, and the dark stains under his eyes, and resting long upon the arm which he strove to carry naturally before him.

He answered the Count's inquiry into his absence by asserting that he had been ill. Pleading that he was still weak, he begged leave to sit, and found himself a chair. The Count and his son remained standing; the captain by the window, with his back to the light, facing their visitor; the Count pacing the small room, whilst he expounded the situation disclosed by Marc-Antoine's letter.

Next he dwelt upon the defection of Bergamo, of which Vendramin was already informed, and upon that of Brescia, of which he had just received news.

'You realize,' said Pizzamano, 'what is to be done, and done at once, if the Republic is to survive. Can you depend, now as before, upon your barnabotti?'

'To the last man. They will stand solidly behind me.'

Vendramin spoke without hesitation. Nor had he any misgivings on the score of his position now that in some degree he had accepted the French service imposed upon him. That had been a limited and specific service. There had been no suggestion of curtailing his activities or constraining his loyalty in other directions.

The Count was standing squarely before him.

'And I can count upon you absolutely, can I not?'

Pizzamano, pleading with voice and eyes, betraying how anxiously he hung upon the answer, revealed to Vendramin the increased advantage which this situation gave him. Never had he been so necessary to Pizzamano. This time not even Domenico's hostility should prevail against him.

'Absolutely,' he said.

In visible relief the Count resumed his pacing. 'In that case, perhaps we need not even lose time in summoning the Grand Council. Between us we may be able to force Manin immediately into the action which the vote of the Grand Council must demand.'

'I am ready to go to him whenever you bid me,' said Vendramin. 'You may depend upon me not to spare myself now, who have never spared myself.'

'I am sure of it, and I bless you for it,' said Pizzamano.

'You bless me for it?' Vendramin spoke slowly, looking up at the Count. 'Would you bless me, I wonder, in something more than words? Would you bless me, my lord, with the proof of confidence I so desire, in return for all the proofs of zeal that I have given?'

The Count checked in his pacing, and looked at him, his brows knit. Vendramin's meaning was plain enough to both father and son. From Domenico he was expecting immediate opposition. But Domenico said nothing.

After a pause Vendramin continued. 'The moment is most apt. If it should come to another struggle in the Council, as your son-in-law, Lord Count, I should command an increase of weight, and so I should be able to sweep many a waverer into our following.'

Still they said nothing, so he brought his plea to a conclusion. 'I confess that I am urging this as much from personal motives as from patriotic ones.'

If the Count was under no delusion that here was an opportunist taking full advantage of the situation, at the same time, with the detached tolerance that he could bring to the judgment of all things outside of his fanatical patriotism, he could not blame Vendramin.

He spoke quietly. 'You have in mind an early marriage.'

Vendramin answered him as quietly. 'You will admit, my lord, that not to be impatient would be a poor compliment to Isotta, and that already I have been tried in curbing it.'

The Count's chin was buried in the lace at his throat.

'It is very abrupt,' he complained.

'So is the situation that advocates it.'

'And, of course, we are in Lent.'

'Naturally I must wait for Easter. That is a month hence. A most propitious season.'

Pizzamano turned to his son. The captain's silence seemed unnatural.

'What do you say, Domenico?'

'That Isotta is the person to whom you should address that question.'

'Oh, yes. Decision, of course, must rest with her. But provided that she is willing to be married so soon, at Easter be it, then.'

As he spoke, the door opened, and Isotta paused on the threshold.

'Are you private, or may I come in?' she asked.

'Come in, child, come in,' her father answered. 'There is a matter you can settle.'

Vendramin sprang up, and turned to greet her.

She came forward, wrapped in calm, and smoothly, with the grace that was in all her movements.

'Ah, Leonardo!' she said. 'I was told that you were here. We have missed you these days.'

He bowed over her hand. 'Then I am compensated for having been none so well.'

'We have been wondering what had become of you; of you and also of Marc. You both disappeared at the same time.'

He looked at her sharply. But her face was entirely candid; she even smiled a little. From this he judged it impossible that she should have heard that Melville was dead.

And then Domenico drew his attention. 'I commented upon the oddness of that coincidence a few moments before Leonardo arrived,' he said. But the captain's face was as bland as his sister's.

Vendramin sighed. 'I am afraid we must resign ourselves to continue to miss him.' He spoke gravely. 'Calling at the Inn of Swords on my way here, I am told that he had disappeared, and I am asking myself whether he has been arrested, or whether he has fled from Venice to avoid it.'

'I can tell you that he has not been arrested,' said the Count.

What Domenico added was less expected. 'And I can tell you that he has not fled.'

Isotta followed her brother with something less expected still. 'And I can tell you that he is not even dead, as you are really supposing.'

The Count looked in surprise from one to the other of his children. He perceived something astir under the surface of things, something which he did not understand. So, at last, did Vendramin. The assertion that Melville lived was as dismaying a shock to him as the terms in which the assertion was made. But until he discovered what else lay behind it he would not flinch. Therefore, he asked the question for which that assertion called.

'But why should I suppose that?'

'Is it not what you supposed when you and your bullies left him in the Corte del Cavallo on the night of Tuesday of last week?'

He was startled as his round eyes showed. But no more than would be natural to anyone under such an accusation. No more, in fact, than the Count appeared to be at hearing it made.

'My dear Isotta! What tale has been carried to you? I am under no necessity to endanger myself by such expedients. I am well able to take care of my honour, as is, I think, well known.'

He alluded to the reputation as a swordsman which he enjoyed. But Isotta was not impressed. She raised her eyebrows.

'Yet you do not seem to have been able to take such care of it—or, at least, of your person—on a former occasion when you met Mr. Melville.'

Domenico chose this moment to display a sudden unusual solicitude on behalf of their guest. 'I protest,' he cried, 'that you are keeping this poor Leonardo standing, regardless of his weakness.' He sprang forward as he spoke, and in his haste to set a chair for Vendramin, he hurtled clumsily against him. Off his guard, Vendramin cried out sharply, and his right hand went instinctively to the seat of pain in his left shoulder.

Domenico's face was within a foot of his own, and Domenico was looking straight into his eyes, and smiling apologetically.

'Ah! Your wound, of course. Forgive me. I should have used more care.'

'Oh, I have a wound? On my soul, you give me news upon news of myself, today.' But the effort cost him a good deal. He sank into the chair, and brought forth a handkerchief to mop a brow which was coldly moist.

The Count spoke at last out of his bewilderment. 'What is all this, Domenico? Will you tell me plainly?'

'Let me do that, sir,' cried Vendramin. 'Because some months ago I fought a duel with Messer Melville...'

'Oh! You admit that, at least,' Domenico interrupted. 'But, of course, denial would hardly be worth while.'

'Why should I deny it? We had a difference which admitted of adjustment in no other way.'

'And the subject of it?' the Count asked him.

Vendramin hesitated before answering. 'The subject, Lord Count, was entirely personal.'

But Count Pizzamano's stiff, old-fashioned notions of honour made him insistent.

'It cannot have been so personal that I must be excluded from knowledge of it. The honour of one of the parties must have been impugned. Considering the relationship with me to which you aspire, I have, I think, the right to learn the circumstances.'

Vendramin appeared troubled. 'I admit the right. But it would be impossible for me to disclose the grounds of my quarrel with Melville without causing distress where I should least wish to cause it. If you will allow Isotta, sir, to be your deputy, I will frankly tell her all. Since it is on her behalf that you desire this knowledge, it should serve if I impart it directly to her.'

Count Pizzamano considered. He thought he understood. On the subject of the feeling that existed between his daughter and Marc-Antoine, Isotta had once been very frank with him. For the repression which he was persuaded that both had practised, he had only respect and praise. But he realized that in a man in Vendramin's position a detection of the sentiment might lead to an explosion of jealousy, and that this might well have been at the root of the quarrel. All things considered, it might be best to let Vendramin have his way. An explanation now between him and Isotta might clear the air and facilitate what was to follow.

He bowed his head. 'Be it so. Come, Domenico, let us leave Leonardo to explain himself to Isotta. If she is satisfied, there is no reason why I should not be.'

Domenico departed without protest with his father. But once outside the room he had a word to say to him.

'There is something of greater consequence than the duel that Leonardo should be asked to explain. You observed, sir, that he is suffering from a hurt in the left shoulder. You observed his movement, you heard his exclamation when I jostled him, intentionally?'

'I observed,' said the Count, and surprised his son by the readiness and the gloom of that answer.

'You are forgetting, then, the particulars we heard from the valet. There were four assailants. Two of them were wounded; one of these in the shoulder, and this was the leader of the party. It's a coincidence. Do you draw no inference from it?'

Tall and spare, but less straight than his wont, the Count stood before his son. And Domenico became suddenly aware that his father seemed lately to have aged. The dark eyes flanking that high-bridged nose had none of their old pride of glance. He sighed.

'Domenico, I desire to draw no inference. He has chosen to state the matter of his quarrel with Melville to Isotta. I presume that he will state it all. She will see to that. Let it be hers to judge, since it will be hers to bear the consequences.'

The captain understood that for the first time in his life his father was shirking an issue. It was too much for him. He spoke indignantly.

'And if Isotta, as I warn you, sir, that well she may, should not be satisfied by his explanation? What then?'

The Count laid his hand on his son's shoulder. 'Have I not said, Domenico, that it is for her to judge? I mean it with all that this implies. I merely pray, considering how much is involved—which must be as plain to you as it is to me—that she may judge mercifully. Even more fervently I pray that she may have no cause to judge harshly.'

Domenico bowed his head. 'I beg you to pardon my presumption, sir,' he said.

But within the library Isotta was being afforded little opportunity to pass judgment. The explanations which Vendramin offered her were an accusation rather than a defence.

'Will you sit, Isotta, to justify my remaining seated?' he had begged her. 'I am still weak.'

'From your wound,' she said, as composedly she sat down to face him.

'Oh, from my wound, yes.' He was faintly contemptuous in the admission. 'But it is of my duel with Messer Melville that I am to speak. When I shall have told you of that, I hardly think that you will desire to pursue the matter of our quarrel further. It is quite true that I sought to kill him, loyally, in single combat. And never was a man better justified. For I had discovered that this scoundrel had dishonoured me. Do I need to tell you how?'

'Do you expect me to guess it?'

He looked at her intently, in silence, incensed by her calm. He was very near to hating her for this air of frosty, virginal purity which hung about her like the aureole about the Lion of Saint Mark, and which he knew to be the travesty of a wanton. He marvelled that she should dare to confront him in this half-scornful self-possession, carrying what she carried in her heart. He must see what he could do to shake it.

'I had discovered,' he said, 'that your Messer Melville was the seducer of the lady whom I hoped to make my wife.'

She sat stiff and straight, a slow flush mounting to her brow.

'You cannot be speaking of me,' she said.

He rose, forgetting wound and weakness in the intensity of his emotion. 'Must I advance the proof before you will cease to nauseate me with your hypocrisy? Must I tell you that I know you for the masked lady who fled so precipitately before me from Mr. Melville's lodging one morning months ago? Must I tell you how I know it? Shall I tell you what evidence I hold with which to convince others. Shall I...'

'Stop!' she cried, and she too was on her feet confronting him. 'How dare you soil me with your vile assumptions? It is quite true that I was that lady. Can you suppose that I would ever deny anything that I had ever done? But between what I went to do there, and what you so infamously conclude, because your mind is foul, there is the difference that lies between snow and mud.' No longer could he complain that she was a cold, insensible piece, incapable of emotion. Here was emotion and to spare, a withering, scorching emotion of anger before which he found himself flinching.

'Oh, my mind is foul? Test it against any other mind in Venice. Test it, if you dare, against your own father's mind. Ask him what inference he would draw if he found a lady of quality so closeted in a man's lodging; if he had seen her actually in that man's arms. If you want to break a father's heart with shame, ask him that.'

This was to her anger as water is to fire. But perception of the truth of what he asserted did no more than restore her to her normal calm.

Almost composedly she sat down again, and repressing emotion spoke in a quiet, level voice. If there was pleading in what she said, it was in her actual words, not in their tone.

'Listen, Leonardo.' Quietly she told him the circumstances and purpose of that visit of hers to Marc-Antoine. She made of it a long narrative, and weakness drove him to sit again whilst the tale was telling. If it convinced him, he showed no sign of it. On the contrary, his answering comment touched upon its main improbability.

'And for this renunciation, as you call it, no other occasion would serve? Although this man was a constant visitor here and your opportunities of speaking to him were frequent, you preferred a course from which any Venetian lady who prized her repute must have shrunk in horror?'

She knew that it would be idle to explain this by the urgency of her desire to put herself right in Marc-Antoine's eyes, an urgency that could brook no least delay. This was something that he would never understand. The statement would merely earn her an aggravation of his insulting incredulity.

'That,' she answered simply, but very firmly, 'was what I happened to prefer. I may not have perceived the indiscretion. But there was certainly nothing beyond indiscretion in that visit.'

'Will anyone believe that, Isotta?'

'Don't you?' she challenged him.

He considered before answering. When at last he spoke, his manner had subtly changed. 'I believe you now that you have explained. But I am asking myself whether I believe you merely because for my peace of mind's sake I must. Without this explanation I could believe only what all the world would believe. Because I loved you it was necessary that I should kill the only man who had knowledge of what I believed. By killing him I felt that I should kill at least some of the shame attaching to this. That is my explanation to you of a deed that has earned me your displeasure.'

He waited a moment for her to speak. Then, seeing her silent and thoughtful, he rose again and went to stand beside her and over her. 'Now that we have both confessed, shall we absolve each other?'

'You can be generous, then?' she said, and he did not know whether she spoke in sarcasm.

'Cruel question! Much more than that to you, Isotta.' He lowered his rich voice to a wooing note, a note which he believed that no woman could hear without a thrill. For it was a boast to which possibly his experiences may have entitled him that woman was an instrument upon which he was a virtuoso. 'Let us make peace, my dear. I am on my knees to implore it in the great need which my worship of you arouses in me. I have been speaking of our marriage to your father. He consents that it shall take place when Lent is out, provided that this shall be your wish.'

'My wish?' There was a crooked little smile of pain on her lips. 'It can never be my wish.'

He met the rebuff with plaintiveness. 'You break my heart, Isotta, with your coldness.'

'After all that I have just told you—that you have compelled me to tell you—could you expect me to be other?'

'That I understand. To that I am resigned. Resigned in the confidence that by tenderness I shall know how to conquer it. When all is said, Isotta, patricians of Venice should mate with patricians of Venice. You will not deny that I have been very patient, a servant at your orders, which is what you will always find me. What shall I say to your father?'

She sat quite still, looking silently before her, conscious only of horror. The threatened imminence of this step made her realize poignantly the impossibility of taking it.

Yet, if she refused, she would rightly be accounted a cheat, defrauding Vendramin of the wages at which he had been hired by her father, wages which once, perceiving no other use for herself, she had consented to be.

Guessing perhaps something of the conflict in her spirit, he sought slyly to assist her decision.

'If you consent, then your father will conclude that my explanation to you must have been satisfactory, and no more need be said about the matter. If you don't, I shall be under the odious necessity of explaining to him, in justice to myself; and my explanation must be as full as it has been to you.'

'Oh, that is brave! That is brave!' she cried. 'It is worthy of a man who hires bullies to assassinate a rival. What solid foundations of respect you are laying upon which to build this marriage of ours.'

'So that we build it, I do not care upon what we build. That is how I love you, Isotta. With the recklessness that belongs to real love.'

She pondered the evils that confronted her and of which she must make choice, and choice grew more impossible the more she pondered them.

She could no more brave the anger of her father in his inevitable assumptions, and in the shame which he would account that she had brought upon their house, than she could brave the alternative of taking to husband this man who daily grew more odious, who daily revealed himself more vile.

Decision being impossible, it but remained to obtain postponement.

'When Lent is out, you said?' she half-questioned.

'You consent, then, Isotta?'

'Yes,' she answered, and reddened at her own disingenuousness. 'When Lent is out. You may tell my father that I will appoint the date at Easter.'

But at this he frowned. Then uttered the short laugh of the man who sees the trap, and refuses to be taken in it. 'That will not serve. You will appoint the date now.'

Her trouble of spirit was betrayed only by the old gesture of wringing the slim white hands that lay in her lap. Then she perceived her course. Knowing where his interest lay, she played boldly. She rose to answer him, and never was she more stately.

'Am I to be hectored so even before marriage?' She thrust out her chin. 'I will appoint the date at Easter, or I will never appoint it; at your choice.'

His prominent eyes scanned her face and found it resolute. There was no faltering in the glance that met his own. He inclined his head after a moment, accepting defeat upon the minor point. 'So be it. I will wait until Easter.'

To seal the bargain, to stress perhaps his right, he leaned forward and kissed her cheek.

She suffered it with a statuesque impassivity that maddened him.

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