Chapter 32 Venetian Masque by Rafael Sabatini

Marc-Antoine landed at the Rialto. He sent Philibert on to the Inn of the Swords to inform Battista, the landlord, that he followed.

His natural promptings were to go at once to the Casa Pizzamano at San Daniele; and yet he was withheld by hesitations. He asked himself in a sort of despair what it was that he could go to do there. All that remained, so far as he could see, was to take his leave of the Count's family and depart whilst he was yet free to do so from this doomed capital of a doomed state where his every endeavour had failed.

He was of those who reflect most lucidly whilst moving; and so it was, in spite of the lingering weakness from his long confinement, that he had chosen to land at the Rialto, and set out to walk as far as Saint Mark's, where he would embark again to complete the journey. He hoped that by the time he reached the Piazza he would have resolved the problem that beset him.

Leaning a little heavily upon his cane, he took his way across the Merceria, where all was life and bustle, where traders bawled their wares in the narrow streets and haggling buyers were scarcely less vociferous, yet all of them jocular and good-humoured under the clear spring sky. He made brisk progress notwithstanding a lingering weakness, an elegant figure that took the eye. But by the time he reached the Piazza he was conscious of fatigue, and his brow was damp under his three-cornered hat.

It was the hour when the great square was most crowded, and today the throng of loungers seemed to him more dense than usual, and also a great deal less joyous than he had ever seen it.

A file of Slavonian soldiers guarded the approaches of the Ducal Palace.

Already there had been one or two demonstrations against the Signory, and in the palace they were fearful of a conflagration in material which from being normally docile now gave signs of having become highly inflammable.

Officers from the various regiments quartered about the city, displaying the blue-and-gold cockade of Venice, were numerous among the saunterers. They mingled freely with the idle men and women, drawn to the open perhaps by the precocious geniality of the weather and the anxiety for news of which this was the great mart. It was a crowd sobered by suspense.

Conscious now of lassitude, and with his problem still unsolved, Marc-Antoine found himself a table at Florian's, in the open, and sat down to remove his hat and mop his heated brow. He ordered himself a bavaroise and he had begun to sip it when he was aware of a presence at his elbow. He looked up to find there a stocky figure in rusty black. A pair of beady eyes regarded him out of the yellow vulturine face of Cristofero Cristofoli, the confidente of the inquisitors of state.

The Venetian, smiling upon him with a certain grimness, greeted him in terms which showed him to be startlingly well-informed. 'I rejoice to see you in health and abroad again. My felicitations. We have been anxious for you. May I sit?' He drew up a chair, and sank to it without waiting for permission. 'Thus we shall be less conspicuous. I suffer from being too well known.'

'At present,' said Marc-Antoine, 'you suffer also from being uninvited. I am flattered by your concern for my health. But I do not think my reputation will profit by your presence.'

Cristofoli sighed. 'That is the common complaint against me. But you do me an injustice. Knowing how little my society is desired, I never inflict it unless I have business.'

Marc-Antoine veiled his annoyance. 'Can it be my misfortune that you have business with me?'

'Do not let us regard it as a misfortune—yet.'

'When I know the business I shall be able to judge.' He sipped his bavaroise.

Cristofoli's beady eyes watched him stolidly. 'You keep to your native drinks even here in Venice,' he observed. 'Habit is hard to repress.'

Marc-Antoine set down his glass. 'You are mistaken. The bavaroise is not an English drink.'

'Oh, I am aware of that. But not that you are English. And that brings me to my business with you.' He leaned across the little table, and lowered his voice, an unnecessary and merely instinctive precaution, for there was no one in their immediate neighbourhood. 'Messer, the inquisitors of state desire to resolve a doubt upon this very question of your nationality.'

Marc-Antoine's annoyance deepened. This was a silly, vexatious waste of time and effort. It was of a piece with everything that he had seen of this Venetian Government, which spent itself in futilities whilst doing nothing to guard against the forces that were sapping the foundations of the State. But he preserved his calm on the surface.

'I shall be happy to assist them whenever they desire it.'

The apparitor's smile approved him. 'No time like the present. If you will accompany me, I shall have the honour of conducting you.'

Marc-Antoine looked at him sternly. Cristofoli grinned again.

'There are three of my men over there, and if they were to employ force it would create a scene. I am sure you would wish to avoid that.' He got up. 'Shall we be going, sir?'

Marc-Antoine did not even hesitate. He beckoned the waiter, paid for his bavaroise, and with an impeccably calm demeanour over a raging spirit, sauntered off with the tipstaff.

Past the soldiers guarding the Porta della Carta, they came into the Ducal courtyard, where a half-battalion of Slavonians bivouacked about the great bronze well-heads. They ascended the staircase over which Sansovino's giants presided, and then, by the noble external gallery, came to another staircase at the foot of which there was a guard. They ascended again, and continued to ascend until Marc-Antoine, out of breath, found himself on the top-most floor of the Ducal Palace, where the Prison of the Leads was situated.

Here in a chamber that was something between a guard-room and an office, the confidente at last handed him over to a corpulent official, who desired to know his name, age, quality, nationality, and place of abode.

Cristofoli stood by whilst Marc-Antoine resignedly gave the name of Melville and all the particulars that went with it. His answers were entered in a register. Next, by a couple of archers, acting upon the order of the official, he was searched. But with the exception of his sword, they found upon him nothing of which they accounted it their duty to deprive him.

When this was over, he was conducted by the same archers and preceded by a turnkey to the room assigned to him. It was a fair-sized chamber furnished with a table, a chair, a stool on which stood ewer and basin, and a truckle bed.

He was informed that anything in reason for which he was prepared to pay would be supplied to him, and it was suggested to him by the turnkey that he should order his supper.

After that he was left to reflect as philosophically as he might upon the indubitable fact that he was a prisoner of the inquisitors. This situation, usually accounted terrifying, was to him merely an irritation. Terrors it had none.

He wrote a note to Sir Richard Worthington and another to Count Pizzamano. He claimed the assistance of the first as a right, and begged that of the second as a favour.

He might have spared himself the trouble. For Catarin Corner, whilst more than half-persuaded of his guilt, was yet deeply concerned that he should be afforded every opportunity of establishing his innocence. Therefore, when next morning he was summoned to appear before the dread tribunal of the Three, both the British Ambassador and the Count were in attendance.

It was Cristofoli who came for him, and conducted him below to the second floor of the vast palace. He was led along a wide gallery with windows above the courtyard in which the shadows were retreating before the April sunshine and whence arose the chatter and laughter of soldiers lounging there off duty.

Cristofoli halted his prisoner before a tall, handsome door that was guarded by two archers. In the wall beside this door a lion's head of natural size was carved in stone. The open mouth was the letter-box for secret denunciations.

The door was opened, and Marc-Antoine passed into a splendid lofty antechamber. Two archers in red with short halberts were ranged inside the doorway, and two similar ones guarded another smaller door on the right. A subaltern officer paced slowly to and fro. A blaze of colour from the armorial bearings in a tall window set high at the eastern end of the room was splashed by the sunlight upon the wood mosaics of the floor. Under this window stood two tall figures. They were Sir Richard and the Count.

Turning sharply as Marc-Antoine entered, Francesco Pizzamano, who wore his senatorial toga over his walking-dress, would have come to speak to him, but that he was respectfully restrained by the officer.

This subaltern at once took charge of the prisoner, and, with Cristofoli following him as a guard, ushered him into the presence of the inquisitors.

Marc-Antoine found himself in a chamber, small and intimate, but as rich in frescoes, gildings, and stained glass as was every room in this house of splendours. He was placed at a wooden rail, whence he bowed calmly to the inquisitors. The three occupied wide bucket seats on a shallow dais set against the wall, and there was a writing-pulpit before each of them. Catarin Corner, in red as the representative of the Ducal Council, occupied the middle place, between his two colleagues in black, who were members of the Council of Ten. For background, covering the wall, they had a tapestry on which the aureoled Lion of Saint Mark stood with one paw supported upon the open evangel.

Beside another writing-pulpit set immediately below the dais stood now a man in a patrician robe, who was the secretary of the tribunal.

The officer withdrew, leaving the prisoner with Cristofoli for only guard.

Then Marc-Antoine, in a tone as easy and confident as his bearing, informed the inquisitors that he had been ill and was still weak, and begged to be allowed to sit.

A stool was provided for him, and the secretary opened the proceedings by reading the lengthy act of accusation. Summarized, it amounted to a charge of espionage and misrepresentation, of conveying to the French Government information detrimental to the Most Serene Republic, information obtained by falsely representing himself as working in the interests of the Serenissima; of passing under the assumed name of Melville and an assumed British nationality, whereas, in fact, he was a subject of the French Republic, a member of the Cinq-Cents, and a secret agent of the Directory, whose real name was Camille Lebel.

The secretary resumed his seat, and Catarin Corner's gentle voice addressed the prisoner.

'You have heard. And no doubt you are aware of the penalties which our laws prescribe for an offence of this gravity. You have leave, sir, to urge any reasons why these penalties should not be imposed upon you.'

Marc-Antoine rose and leaned upon the rail. 'Since these charges rest entirely, or almost entirely, upon the question of my identity, and since my own assertions on this can have little weight, I would respectfully submit that your excellencies hear the British Ambassador and my friend the Senator Count Pizzamano, who are in attendance.'

Angelo Maria Gabriel, the inquisitor on Corner's right, a man of a long, sorrowful countenance, speaking mournfully through his nose, approved the invitation as a very proper one. The other, Agostino Barberigo, a shrunken, trembling, half-palsied old man, nodded a silent, contemptuous concurrence.

Sir Richard was brought in first. He was important and emphatic. He had made a grave mistake once where Mr. Melville was concerned, and for this, upon Mr. Melville's complaint, he had been severely reprimanded from Whitehall. Until this moment Mr. Melville had punished him—in Sir Richard's own view—by ignoring him and denying him all opportunity of making amends. But this opportunity being vouchsafed him at last, he meant to rehabilitate himself with his Government by making the most of it.

Hence the vehemence of the oration—it amounted to no less—which he now delivered in Marc-Antoine's defence. When stripped, however, of the imposing rhetoric, which survived even in the French that Sir Richard employed, the ambassador's statements were seen to lack authority. They rested upon letters from Mr. Pitt, one of which the Vicomte de Saulx had personally presented and others which had subsequently followed.

Sir Richard was under the necessity of admitting that, having had no acquaintance with the prisoner before their meeting here in Venice, he could not, upon his own personal knowledge, testify to the identity he claimed. He was going on to add that, nevertheless, in view of Mr. Pitt's communications, it was impossible to harbour doubt, when the doleful voice of the inquisitor Gabriel—even more nasal and doleful in French than in Italian—cut him short.

'You would not venture, Sir Richard, to exclude the possibility that the prisoner might improperly have obtained the letter he delivered to you. Monsieur Pitt's later communications to you might have been written under a misapprehension created by forgeries committed by the prisoner.'

'I should say,' answered Sir Richard, with heat, 'that such a thing is so extremely improbable as to make the suggestion...fantastic.'

'Thank you, Sir Richard,' droned the tearful voice.

Marc-Antoine knew how far was the suggestion from being fantastic, considering that it expressed precisely what he had done in the character of Lebel.

Messer Corner added graciously his thanks to those which his colleague had expressed, whilst old Barberigo bowed in silent dismissal.

Sir Richard, breathing noisily, but with a lift of the hand and a friendly smile for the prisoner, which he thought must impress the court, was shown out by Cristofoli.

Count Pizzamano followed at once, and with his coming the proceedings became more serious. By virtue of his senatorial rank the Count was offered a seat near the secretary's pulpit, where by a turn of the head he could face at once the inquisitors or the prisoner.

He was clear, and comparatively brief. He had read the act of accusation, and in his mind no doubt existed of the error which the tribunal was committing. The evidence of this was overwhelming.

It was true that the prisoner had assumed a false nationality and had modified his family name to suit that assumption. But he had done it in the monarchist service and to combat the evil of Jacobinism which was the worst evil that had ever confronted the Most Serene Republic. To establish this, the prisoner's real identity and his record before coming to Venice should satisfy any reasonable men. There was, however, a great deal more. There were the real services which he had rendered to the Serenissima during his sojourn amongst them, services rendered at considerable peril to himself.

The Count went on to tell the court that his acquaintance with the prisoner was not of yesterday. That he was Marc-Antoine de Melleville, Vicomte de Saulx, Count Pizzamano could assert from assured knowledge acquired whilst he was Venetian Minister in London. Then he spoke in detail of the Vicomte's record in the Vendèe.

'But nothing in that record,' he wound up, 'magnificent as it is, can compare in heroism with the perils he has incurred here in the service of a cause which is the cause of every Venetian to whom his country's welfare is dear.'

Thus his testimony had become an advocacy, and as Marc-Antoine's advocate he now continued and was tolerated out of deference to his senatorial rank. This might be unusual, and yet, as a member of the Council of Ten, he could not, in any case, have been excluded from these proceedings.

Gabriel's lean, red forefinger stroked an equally red and very long nose that jutted from his otherwise pallid face.

'The prisoner,' he whined, 'has assumed so many identities that a man's mind loses its way amongst them. To some he is the Vicomte de Saulx, a French èmigrè; to others he is Mr. Mark Melville, agent of the British Government; and to others still he is the Citizen Camille Lebel, a secret agent of the Directory.'

'If you will review what I have done,' said Marc-Antoine, 'you will realize that I could not otherwise have done it.'

'We are familiar in this tribunal,' said the gentle Corner, 'with the methods of secret agents. We know that to be truly effective in the service of one side, such an agent is commonly under the necessity of pretending to serve the other. In this way we can accept your explanation that it was sometimes necessary for you to pose as Melville and sometimes as Lebel. The real question for us is: in which of these characters—both assumed—were you actually honest?'

'That question, Excellency, should be sufficiently answered by my real identity, upon which you have heard Count Pizzamano. Would the Vicomte de Saulx, who has suffered what the Vicomte de Saulx is known to have suffered at the hands of Jacobins, be likely to imperil his life by promoting the interests of Jacobinism?'

'You are answered, I think,' the Count interjected.

The finely featured, rather whimsical face of Corner was dark with thought. It was old Barberigo who bestirred himself to a rejoinder, a thin streak of sarcasm running through his quavering accents.

'On the surface the answer would seem conclusive. But we are not in a position to say that under the surface no other motive is operating. I can conceive circumstances,' he mumbled on, 'in which the Vicomte de Saulx might find it profitable to serve the Directory. After all, the Directory, we must remember, is not quite the same thing as the Government which dispossessed the Vicomte.'

'To that,' said Marc-Antoine, 'the answer should lie in the nature of the services I have rendered here. Count Pizzamano can speak to these, if he will.'

The Count spoke at once and with weight. He dwelt upon the valuable information which from time to time the Vicomte de Saulx had brought to him and which he had passed on to His Serenity the Doge. In particular he dwelt upon the denunciations of Rocco Terzi and of Sartoni, matters which had been investigated by this very tribunal. Was more necessary? he asked.

'It would not be,' said the tenaciously malevolent old man, 'if it did not appear that the prisoner's services to the Serenissima as Messer Melville were outweighed by his disservices as the Citizen Lebel.'

This drew from the Count a question that had been troubling him from the outset. 'But is it, then, so clearly established that he and Camille Lebel are one?'

'We have not heard the prisoner deny it,' said Corner. 'Tacitly at least he has admitted it.'

'It is expressly admitted,' said Marc-Antoine at once, and thereby seemed to puzzle the Count. 'It must be clear to your excellencies that I could not have enjoyed the confidence of the French Legation unless I could impose myself there as an accredited agent of the Directory. Let me tell you of the chance that made this possible.'

As briefly as so long a story might be told, he related his adventure with the real Lebel at the White Cross Inn in Turin.

There was a senile cackle from Barberigo. 'A chapter from the Thousand-and-One Nights.'

The melancholy of Gabriel seemed to deepen. 'Do you ask us to believe that you have been able for all these months successfully to impersonate this man at the French Legation?'

'That is what I ask you to believe. Improbable though it may seem to you, I ask it with confidence, since it should be confirmed by the information which from time to time I have conveyed to you.'

It was Corner who took up the argument. 'We do not deny that some of this information has been of real value. But we must beware of persuading ourselves too readily that it might not have been given so as to win our confidence, so as to supply you now with the very contention you are making.'

'Could you reasonably assume that of a denunciation so destructive of French effort as that of Rocco Terzi or of Sartoni?' the prisoner confidently asked.

'Or,' added Count Pizzamano, 'the more recent information of the French plan to declare war on Venice, so as to use her as a pawn in peace negotiations with Austria?'

Old Barberigo wagged a forefinger at him. 'Only the future can establish whether that is true and we are trying the prisoner upon what lies in the past.'

Corner sat back in his chair, his chin in his hand, and addressed the Count. 'Our first difficulty,' he said, 'is that we know, from intercepted letters, that the prisoner has been communicating information of Venetian measures to the Directory.'

Marc-Antoine's answer was immediate and clear. 'You have, yourself, indicated the necessity under which a secret agent lies. To sustain my assumed character of Lebel, it was necessary that I communicate something. I do not know what letters you may have intercepted, but I fearlessly challenge you to produce a single one containing anything which on close examination could be hurtful to the Venetian Republic, or that would not have been a matter of common knowledge by the time my letter could reach Paris.'

Corner nodded silently, as if disposed to accept this explanation. But Gabriel brought his hand down upon his writing-pulpit. 'There is something much graver than that!' he shrilled.

'I am coming to it,' said Corner quietly, almost as if rebuking this vehemence. He sat forward now, and leaned his elbows on his pulpit. 'Some months ago,' he said slowly, 'at a time before the French had crossed our borders, the Senate received an unconscionable, a shameful demand to expel from Venetian territory the unfortunate refugee prince who, under the style of the Comte de Lille, enjoyed our hospitality in Verona. That demand, couched in the terms of an ultimatum, bore the signature of Camille Lebel. Now it has lately come to our knowledge that this demand was not made under any instructions from Paris. It was made entirely upon your own responsibility, and it bore your signature, as Lebel. And this because the French Ambassador deliberately refused to sign at your bidding a document so infamous. If you deny this, I shall place the proof of it before you.'

'I do not deny it, or anything else that is true.'

The answer seemed to take not only the inquisitors by surprise, but Count Pizzamano as well.

'You do not deny it?' said Corner. 'Can you, then, who profess to work in the monarchist and anti-Jacobin interest, explain your motives for an act so malevolent at once to your King and to the Serenissima?'

'Ay, sir!' whined Gabriel. 'How do you reconcile with your professions an ultimatum which inflicted such hardship on your Prince, and compelled the Serenissima to a step which you knew must render her shameful in the eyes of all nations?'

'Answer that,' cackled old Barberigo. 'Answer that, sir. You'll need to stir your invention, fertile though it seems to be. He, he!'

Corner raised one of his delicate hands to repress the malice of his colleague.

Marc-Antoine flashed on the grey old face a glance of contempt, before quietly answering.

'I shall need, I hope, to stir only your excellencies' memories.' He paused under their stern eyes to collect himself, and found in that moment even Count Pizzamano frowning upon him.

'When I admitted that I acted in that without express orders from Paris, I admitted what is true literally; but literally only. Actually the order was foreshadowed by a letter which I had just received from Barras, and, in fact, the order to make that demand arrived a few days after I had made it.'

'But why should you have betrayed such anxiety to perform an act which, if you are what you pretend to be, should be repellent to you?'

'It will be in your excellencies' memory, or, at least, in your records, that this ultimatum came to the Senate within a couple of days of the arrest of Rocco Terzi. That arrest placed me in a position of grave difficulty and danger. I was the only person besides Lallemant—and excepting Terzi's partners in treason—who had knowledge of the work upon which Terzi was engaged. His arrest brought me under the gravest suspicion. If I was to save my life and continue the anti-Jacobin work to which I had devoted myself, it was necessary to restore Lallemant's confidence in me. This was not an easy matter. I accomplished it by an outstanding proof of my Jacobinism. Actually I merely anticipated an order which I was persuaded must reach the embassy at any moment. Even without that I should have been justified. For if I sacrificed my Prince and the dignity of the Serenissima upon the altar of necessity, I sacrificed both so that I might forward the ultimate triumph of both.'

That answer, so frankly delivered, seemed complete. Count Pizzamano, who had listened at first in bewilderment, sank back now with a sigh that expressed relief. The inquisitors hesitated, seeming to question one another with their eyes. Then Corner leaned forward again, quiet and urbane.

'If I understand you correctly, your assertion is that at the French Legation you are believed to be Camille Lebel, and that Monsieur Lallemant does not so much as suspect that you are the Vicomte de Saulx?'

'That is my assertion.'

The fine, ascetic features of the red inquisitor seemed for the first time to lose their gentle expression; the eyes under their fine grey brows grew stern.

'And this,' he said, 'in spite of the fact that Madame, your wife, who passes for a cousin of Monsieur Lallemant, who is constantly in your company, who has remained with you at the French Legation to nurse you through your illness, makes no secret of the fact that she is the Vicomtesse de Saulx.'

To Marc-Antoine the unexpectedness of this was like a blow in the wind. He caught his breath sharply, almost audibly. Messer Corner, after a scarcely perceptible pause, continued: 'Do you really wish us to understand that whilst knowing her—his reputed cousin—for the Vicomtesse de Saulx, Monsieur Lallemant does not know you for the Vicomte? Is that what you ask us to believe?'

Marc-Antoine's hesitation did not last perhaps for more than a couple of seconds. Yet in those seconds his thoughts ranged over a wide field.

He was conscious at once that Count Pizzamano had deliberately slewed round on his stool to face him, perhaps as much taken aback as Marc-Antoine himself by that deadly question.

In certain circumstances the answer would be so easy, and tested by the sequel its veracity must be established. He had but to denounce the so-called Vicomtesse de Saulx for the impostor that she was. He had but to point out that she adopted the title of Saulx on a suggestion from the real Lebel. He could make it clear how, since it was desired to make this woman appear to be an èmigrèe aristocrat, the title of Saulx was the first that would suggest itself to the man who held the estates of Saulx and who believed that the real Vicomte had been guillotined.

He could have gone on to explain that, when about to denounce her for the Jacobin agent and French spy that he perceived her to be, one of his reasons for pausing was because it would have been imprudent to have let this denunciation follow so closely upon that of Rocco Terzi. Therefore, whilst he had postponed denouncing her, he had entered into relations with her so that he might keep her under surveillance and also so as to use her as a channel of information.

He could not merely have told them all this, he could have indicated how easily the proof of it was to be obtained, and so he could have cleared himself of this last and heaviest suspicion. But he could only so clear himself at the expense of that frail creature, into the lonely wistfulness and perhaps hopelessness of whose soul he had been afforded a glimpse. Denunciation must mean her certain arrest and probable death, secretly at the hands of the garrotter.

He had a swift vision of that horrible instrument of steel, shaped like a horseshoe. It enclosed the back of the neck, whilst across the front of it a silken cord was passed communicating with a winch that was turned and turned. And in the grip of that collar of steel and silk he beheld the slim white neck, and above it the little face, fair and delicate as a child's, with the eyes moist and tender as they had last looked at him, and the lips that had avowed a love that was all service.

To clear himself at that price was to be haunted to the end of his days by this vision, to despise himself with the knowledge of safety purchased at the price of the life of a poor woman to whom at that moment he owed his own existence.

That on the one hand.

On the other there was the thought of Isotta, whose father's stern eyes were turned upon him to question this unaccountable hesitation in him. Though Isotta might be lost to him, yet the thought of what must be her view of him when her father reported this to her was an intolerable anguish.

It was not the first time in his life that a choice of evils had been forced upon him; but never a choice so terrible. He must choose the less, of course, which was the one in which the suffering fell upon himself, for to a heart of any nobility it is easier to bear pain than to inflict it. It was impossible to fling to the lions the poor woman to whom at that moment he owed his life.

And so, at last, all that he answered, very gravely, was: 'That is what I ask you to believe.'

Messer Corner continued for a long moment to regard him sternly without speaking. There was something of astonishment, too, in that glance. It was as if the inquisitor had expected a different answer and were disappointed. At last, with a sigh, he sank back in his seat, and left it to his brethren to pursue the examination.

But Gabriel merely stroked his long nose in contemplative silence, whilst the senile Barberigo yawned and then wiped the tears from his bleary eyes.

Count Pizzamano continued to stare uncomprehending at the prisoner.

Not only was the thing admitted to be true which had seemed to him so fantastic when asserted by Corner, but in tacitly admitting it Marc-Antoine was admitting also his guilt; for the existence of a Vicomtesse de Saulx in the circumstances expounded by the inquisitor seemed a clear proof that Marc-Antoine's true identity must be known to the French Ambassador. And if that were so, one only conclusion was possible. Yet to this conclusion, the Count, unlike the inquisitors, perceived too many obstacles. He was utterly bewildered.

His thoughts swung to his daughter and to his talk with her on the night when Marc-Antoine had first sought them upon his arrival. How deceived the poor child was now proved in her assumption that the journey to Venice had been undertaken by Marc-Antoine primarily on her behalf! What a humiliation was she not spared now by the circumstances of her own betrothal! Also there was the probability that knowledge of this would help to reconcile her to her approaching marriage with Vendramin, a matter which troubled Count Pizzamano more profoundly than he allowed it to appear.

Out of this thought grew the reflection that, all things considered, perhaps it was better so. But was it really so? The more questions he asked himself on this, the fewer answers could he discover.

The gentle voice of Corner came at last to interrupt his speculations. The inquisitor was addressing Cristofoli.

'You will reconduct the prisoner to the room that has been assigned to him. Let him be shown every consideration consistent with his close detention until we make known our pleasure.'

The ominous words struck a chill into Marc-Antoine's heart. He stood up. He grasped the rail before him and hesitated for a moment. Then, realizing that mere protest or assertion would be idle, he bowed to the Three, and in silence suffered himself to be conducted from the room.

When the door had closed upon him, Messer Corner asked Count Pizzamano if he had anything to urge that might assist their deliberations. Wearily Barberigo yawned again.

The Count stood up. 'I would only remind your excellencies that whilst all that you may have against the Vicomte de Saulx is based upon assumptions, that which tells in his favour rests upon solid fact.'

'Be sure that we shall remember it. Our obstacle to a favourable view is his Vicomtesse, as you will understand.'

The Count's chin sank to his neckcloth. 'There I am baffled,' he confessed. 'Chiefly because I can't conceive why he should have concealed his marriage.'

'Is there not a more or less obvious reason? To have acknowledged her would have been to admit his own identity. He could hope, in an emergency, to persuade us that he imposed upon the French Legation by passing there for Camille Lebel. But could he hope to persuade us that his association with the French Government was a pretence if they knew him for the Vicomte de Saulx?'

'As I said before,' Barberigo interposed, 'I could conceive of circumstances in which the Vicomte de Saulx might consider it worth his while to serve the Directory. To me it is plain that we are in the presence of such circumstances. A prospect of restoration to his confiscated estates, for instance, might be a difficult bribe to resist.'

'That, from my knowledge of him, I could never believe,' said the Count stoutly. 'It is but another assumption that you are setting against the known facts of the services he has rendered Venice, every one of which contradicts the conclusion towards which you lean.'

'Be sure,' said Corner, 'that they shall be given due weight.' Then very courteously he inclined his head. 'We are grateful to you, Lord Count, for your assistance.'

Perceiving in this his dismissal, Count Pizzamano bowed gravely to the Three, and passed out, deeply troubled in spirit.

Barberigo shuffled restlessly. 'Need we waste more words on this? The matter is clear, I think.'

Corner turned upon him his gentle, rather whimsical smile. 'I envy you your clarity of vision. My own poor eyes seek to pierce a fog. In what case are you, Messer Gabriel?'

Gabriel shrugged his narrow shoulders. 'Just lost in all the conjectures we have raised.'

'Surely,' grumbled Barberigo, 'it is not in your mind to pursue them further.'

'That would be unprofitable, we should merely travel in a circle.'

'And so say I,' the old man agreed. He cleared his throat shrilly. 'To judgment, then.'

Corner was wistful. 'Would your excellency venture to deliver judgment in a matter so delicately balanced as is this?'

'Would I? Is not that my function? These are not times for hesitations. Beset as we are by spies and enemies, it is our duty to give the State the benefit of any doubt.'

'It is our first duty to be just,' said Corner.

Gabriel turned squarely to the red inquisitor in expostulation. 'But if we are neither to debate the case further nor yet to deliver judgment upon it, what then?'

'Postpone,' said Corner, and tightened his lips. 'The matter being so evenly balanced, as I have said, and as you must agree, it only remains to wait until some fresh discovery disturbs that balance. That is my considered view. If you cannot concur, we shall have to refer the matter to the Council of Ten.'

'You relieve me,' said the doleful Gabriel. 'I concur cordially.'

Together they now looked at Barberigo, and waited. The old man blinked at them with his watery eyes. His head shook more than ever in annoyance.

'I'll not oppose you,' he said at last. 'But this postponement is a waste of time. That young man was of an effrontery that I have always associated with guilt. And I don't want for experience. It would be more merciful not to keep him lingering in suspense, for it is written that he must come to the strangler in the end. Still, since you seem set on it, we will postpone the sentence.'