Chapter 33 Venetian Masque by Rafael Sabatini

'Isotta, my dear, did Marc ever tell you that he was married?'

The Count sat at table with his Countess and their daughter. Supper was at an end, and the servants had left the room.

Isotta looked up with a smile; and smiling was an art that Isotta seemed lately to have lost. 'He must have forgotten to do so,' she said, and her father perceived that she mocked him.

'That is what I supposed.' He was very grave. He, too, had smiled little of late.

The Countess, looking from her husband to her daughter, supposed that a jest was passing which she did not understand. She begged to be enlightened. The Count responded clearly and definitely in a manner startling to both mother and daughter. Isotta, recovering, shook her dark head, and spoke confidently.

'There is an error somewhere in your information.'

Francesco Pizzamano, grave-eyed, denied the possibility of error. He stated whence his information came, and now, at last, Isotta's confidence deserted her.

'Oh! But it is unbelievable!' Her eyes were very round and black in the scared pallor of her face.

'Truth so often is,' said her father. 'Myself at first I could not credit it; not until it was admitted by Marc himself. Since then, considering it, I perceive that he must have had sound reason for his secrecy.'

'What reason could possibly exist?' Her voice shook.

He hunched his shoulders and spread his hands. 'In these times, when a man carries the burdens borne by Marc, reasons are not lacking. The inquisitors have discovered a reason, a very specious reason, that is entirely unfavourable to him. The true reason, whilst putting an entirely different appearance on it, may run it fairly close. What I most find to respect in Marc is that he is a man who will sacrifice everything to the cause he serves.'

'But if the inquisitors...' she began, and then broke off. Abruptly she asked: 'Is he in danger?'

Slowly the Count shook his head. 'My chief hope for him lies in the fact that Catarin is not by any means a fool.'

She questioned him closely, feverishly, upon the precise words that had passed between inquisitors and prisoner. When he had answered her with scrupulous accuracy, she sat as if drugged for a while; then, pleading weariness, she rose from the table, and begged them to excuse her.

When she had gone, Francesco Pizzamano looked gloomily at his Countess.

'Do you judge her to be deeply hurt by this?'

The handsome countess was tragic. 'The poor child looked as if she had taken her death-wound. I'll go to her.' She rose.

'A moment, my dear.'

The Count held out his arm. She came to him. Encircling her waist, he drew her to him where he sat. 'It might be better to leave her. I feared she would take it badly. Though God knows why.'

'I think I know, too.'

The Count slowly nodded. 'All things considered, my dear, it is surely best so. Resignation comes more readily when the thing desired is seen to exist no more.'

She set a hand upon his head. 'You are not hard, Franceschino. I have never found you so. And yet, where your own child is concerned, you consider nothing but expediency. Think of her heart, my dear.'

'I am thinking of it. I do not want it hurt more than it must be. I do not want it to bear more suffering than I have brought upon it. That is why I almost welcome a state of things that imposes resignation.'

'I scarcely understand you, dear.'

'Perhaps that is because you do not credit me with a conscience. I have gambled my daughter. Used her as a stake in a game played for Venice. And the game is lost. I have sacrificed her to no purpose. Just squandered her. I have no more illusions. The Venetian sun has set. Twilight is upon us. Soon, very soon, it will be dark.' His voice was heavy with despair. 'But this I want you to know, my dear: I should never have asked such a sacrifice of my Isotta if both she and I had not believed that Marc was dead. Nor would she have accepted it. The discovery that he lived was tragic. Now that to her he becomes, as it were, dead again, she may resign herself once more to this futile sacrifice to which we are pledged. That is why I say that perhaps it is best so. They loved each other, she and Marc, and he was worthy of her.'

'You can say that in the face of this discovery?'

He nodded. 'Because I believe that he has given himself in marriage in some such spirit as that in which I have given her. To serve a cause so great that it commands all that a man may give. When he made answer on this point today, he had the martyred air of one who has immolated himself. If that does not prove true, then I know nothing of human nature.' He rose heavily. 'Go to her now, dear. Tell her that. She may find comfort in it and strength. God help the child! God help us all, my dear!'

But Isotta's burden was heavier than they knew, or than she allowed even her mother to suspect. When at last she could believe this thing, far from bringing her the resignation her father hoped, it robbed her of that to which she had already won. Circumstances might forbid that Marc and she should ever be man and wife; but at least she had taken comfort in the thought of a spiritual bond between them, which should make them one eternally. And now this bond had snapped, leaving her terribly alone, adrift and afraid.

She listened to her father's theory, conveyed to her by her mother. It brought her no conviction. The only explanation that she found was one that loaded her with humiliation. When she had sought him that morning at his lodging, she had done so upon too rash an assumption that it was for her that he had come to Venice. Instead, as it now seemed, he had come solely in the pursuit of his political mission. Not to wound her pride, he had refrained from disillusioning her. And that, too, may have been a reason for his subsequent silence on the subject of his marriage.

The fugitive words of tenderness and hope which he had since uttered she now explained as meaning only that he hoped to deliver her from a betrothal which he perceived to be odious to her. That betrothal lost none of its odiousness as a result of what was now discovered. On the contrary, this wall that had arisen between Marc and herself, in isolating her, robbed her of what little power of endurance remained.

Only if this great spiritual lassitude which beset her should finally conquer her pride would she now submit to marriage with Vendramin.

In those days she began to discover in herself a vocation for a religious life. Nauseated with the world and the meaningless perpetual strife with which man filled it, she conceived a yearning for the peace of the cloister, perceived in it a refuge, a sanctuary which none would venture to deny her. Vendramin might dispute her with man; but he would never dare to dispute her with God.

In the contemplation of this, her courage was restored, and only Domenico restrained her from an immediate declaration of the intention.

He had learnt from his father the little that was known of Marc's marriage, which is to say the little that was disclosed at the trial before the inquisitors. But by an odd chance he learnt it on the evening of a day when he had actually made the acquaintance of the Vicomtesse de Saulx.

In the course of his investigations into the quarrel between Marc and Vendramin, he had sought Major Sanfermo with whom he had formerly been on friendly terms, and by Sanfermo he was taken for the first time in his austere young life to the Casino del Leone, in quest of Androvitch.

He had sought information on the subject of the debt upon the payment of which Marc-Antoine had insisted before he would cross swords with Vendramin, and particularly upon the sources whence Vendramin might have procured such a sum. Major Sanfermo had suggested that conceivably the money had been supplied him by the Vicomtesse de Saulx. Androvitch had definitely denied it. Domenico, however, had scarcely heard the denial.

'Whom did you say?' he asked, like one who conceives that his hearing has deceived him.

'The Vicomtesse de Saulx. She is yonder.' Sanfermo indicated the little lady, who made one of a fashionable, animated group.

The bewildered captain was conducted to her and presented, to be, although he did not suspect it, almost as great an object of interest to the little Frenchwoman as she was to him. When he left her at the end of a half-hour's talk, he was more bewildered than ever, nor did his father subsequently succeed in clearing up the doubts in his mind.

'She maintains the fiction of his death on the guillotine,' the Count explained, 'so as to ensure the concealment of his identity.'

'Does that satisfy you?' quoth Domenico.

'Upon reflection it seems plain.'

What else he had added, on the generous theory he had formed, was now repeated by Domenico to his sister.

'It must be, Isotta, that, like yourself, Marc is a victim of the needs of his country or his party. But you are not yet at the altar. I have discovered something; and I may yet discover more.'

At her brother's bidding, she postponed announcement of the decision that must be her last recourse.

Meanwhile, the days flowed on. Holy Week was reached, it brought darker clouds of despair into her sky, as into the sky of Venice.

The war was over. Of this Venice was now aware, as she was also increasingly aware that this peace, to which for a year she had so eagerly looked forward, did not of necessity mean a cessation of hostilities towards herself. Indeed, what was to follow for the Serenissima was brutally foreshadowed on Holy Saturday.

The revolutions of Bergamo and Brescia had led to the arming of the peasants of the Veneto, so that they might support the militia in the repression of further revolutionary outbreaks. They had also produced throughout the Venetian dominions a violent explosion of feeling against the French who were held responsible for them.

This francophobia had for further stimulant the insolent rapine of which the French had been guilty towards the peasantry, seizing their crops, their cattle, and their women. Everywhere the peasants flocked to the recruiting-stations, and soon there were some thirty thousand of them under arms. They were armed for the repression of revolutionaries. But the only enemy they knew were the French, and wherever small parties of Frenchmen were found, they were made to pay with their lives for the outrages that had been suffered.

To end this state of things Andoche Junot was dispatched to Venice.

Bad manners were the order of the day with the men of the new French règime. Equality, they held, could dispense with courtesies, and was best expressed by an insolent and coarse directness, and by the elimination of all ceremonial. It was strict attention to this which had enabled Marc-Antoine so successfully to play the part of Lebel. The bad manners of Bonaparte were overshadowed by the greatness of the man; his arrogance sprang from consciousness of power in himself rather than in his office. The bad manners of those who surrounded him, each of whom played to other audiences the rôle of a little Bonaparte, was stark, flagrant, and uncondonably offensive.

To receive this emissary the College assembled in the splendid chamber in which Veronese and Tintoretto had immortalized the power and glory of Venice. Overhead, on the ceiling, depicted in sensuous beauty by Veronese, Venetia was enthroned upon the globe, with Justice and Peace for her supporters. Above the throne of the Doge glowed the same master's great canvas of the Battle of Lepanto, whilst on the right were ranged Tintoretto's portraits of such great doges as Donà, da Ponte, and Alvise Mocenigo.

Here, arrayed in their patrician robes, the members of the College, with the enthroned Doge presiding, awaited the soldier.

When he faced them from the threshold, booted, spurred, and hat on head, it was as a meeting of the old order and the new: the austere, ceremonious, and gracious with the frankly direct, the boorish, and the graceless.

The Master of Ceremonies, the Knight of the Doge, advanced, wand in hand, to conduct and present the emissary as the etiquette prescribed. But the coarse soldier, thrusting him brutally aside, tramped across the room without uncovering, his sabre clanking after him. Unbidden he mounted the steps of the throne and flung himself into the seat reserved for foreign ambassadors, on the right of the Doge.

The Senators stared askance, stricken dumb by this contemptuous treatment. The sun of Venice had set indeed if an insolent foreign upstart could dare to be so negligent of the deference due to this august assembly. Lodovico Manin, pale and nervous, was so lost to a sense of the dignity of his high office as to offer, nevertheless, the courteous words of welcome that the forms prescribed.

Junot's utter disregard of these was like a blow in the face to every patrician present. He plucked a paper from his belt. It was the letter from Bonaparte. In a voice loud and harsh he read out its contents to them. They were in tune with his conduct. They were inspired by the same brutal, hectoring directness. The commander of the Army of Italy complained of the arming of the peasants and of the murder of French soldiers. On the provocative brigandage by these same French soldiers, the robbery, rape, and murder of subjects of a state which was at peace with France, he was silent.

'You attempt in vain,' Bonaparte wrote, 'to avoid the responsibility of your order. Do you think that I cannot cause the first people of the Universe to be respected?...The Senate of Venice has replied with perfidy to the generosity which we have always shown. My aide-de-camp, who goes to you, will offer you the choice of peace or war. If you do not at once disarm and disperse the hostile peasants and arrest and surrender to us the authors of the murders, war is declared.'

There was more of the same kind.

Having read it to the end, Junot got to his feet as abruptly as he had sat down, and ever with the same coarse disregard of courtesies, he clanked out again.

'Now we see,' said Count Pizzamano, addressing no one in particular, 'how low our policy of drift, our pusillanimity, and our avarice have brought us. From being the first people in Europe, we are become the most abject.'

And abjectly now they sent their apologies to Bonaparte, their expressions of respect and devotion and their promise of immediate compliance with his demands.

With that war-averting answer Junot departed on Easter Monday, and on that same day in Verona to cries of 'Saint Mark!' and 'Death to the French!' the fury of a long-suffering people flamed terribly forth.

The French fled for shelter to the forts, but not before some hundreds of them had been slaughtered. In those forts they were besieged by the Dalmatian troops and the armed peasants who had headed the rising, and Count Francesco Emili was dispatched to Venice to implore the Senate to break with France and to send reinforcements to support the Veronese patriots.

But the Serenissima, which had not broken with France when she might successfully have done so, was horror-stricken at the invitation to break now. Dissociating herself utterly from that rising known to history as the Veronese Easter, she once more asserted her neutrality and her friendship for France, leaving those who had risen in their loyalty to her to prepare for death as their reward.

Meanwhile, Bonaparte dispatched Augier to Verona, and peace was restored there within a few days.

In that massacre of the Veronese Easter was all the pretext that the French required for a declaration of war. But as if it were not enough, there occurred in Venice itself, on the very day that the uprising in Verona was quelled, an act of war of which Domenico Pizzamano was the hero.

On Easter Monday the Council of Ten had published a decree, consonant with Venetian neutrality, excluding from the harbour all foreign warships.

On the following Thursday the French frigate, the Libèrateur d'Italie, commanded by Jean Baptiste Laugier, and accompanied by two luggers, having taken on board a Chioggia fisherman as a pilot, attempted to enter the Port of Lido.

Domenico Pizzamano, who was in command at the Fort Sant' Andrea, shared the despair and humiliation in which such patriots as his father watched the now inevitable and shameful end of the Most Serene Republic. It may be that he welcomed this opportunity of showing that in Venice there were still embers at least of the great fire that in other days had made her glorious; and in any case his orders from the Council of Ten made his duty clear.

When word was conveyed to him of the approach of those foreign ships, he repaired instantly to the ramparts to survey matters for himself.

The vessels displayed no colours, but they were certainly not Venetian, and whatever might be the case of the two consorts, the Libèrateur, which was leading, was heavily armed.

Domenico took his decision instantly. He ordered two rounds to be fired across her bows as a warning.

For the luggers this was enough. Without more ado they both went about and stood off. Captain Laugier, however, continued defiantly upon his course, breaking out the French tricolour.

It was now that Domenico may well have given thanks to Heaven that to him, as to those martyrs at Verona, it was vouchsafed to strike a blow for Venetian honour without regard to what might follow. He opened fire in earnest. The Libèrateur returned it, until crippled by a shot between wind and water she ran aground on a mudbank to save herself from sinking. Domenico went off with two armed launches to take possession of the ship, and was accompanied by a galliot commanded by Captain Viscovich with a company of Slavonian soldiers.

They boarded the French vessel, and after a brief sharp fight, in which Laugier was killed, made themselves master of her as night was falling.

Among her papers, which he seized, Domenico found abundant evidence of intelligence between Laugier and French residents in Venice. These papers he delivered to the Council of Ten, so that action might be taken upon them. But next morning, under the sternest representations from Lallemant, all were surrendered to the ambassador.

On the day after that Domenico was commanded to attend before the Council of Ten. He was received with enthusiasm, officially praised, and encouraged to continue with the same zeal in the discharge of his duty. To the men who had taken part in the affair the Council voted an extra month's pay.

In Domenico's own eyes it was no great thing that he had done. But in the eyes of the Venetians, exasperated by French insolence, he found himself the hero of the hour, and he was saddened by it. It merely showed him how far had Venice been from ever again hoping to hear the roar of the old Lion of Saint Mark that once had been so powerful and so proud.