Chapter 34 Venetian Masque by Rafael Sabatini

The week that followed the affair of the Lido was an uneasy one. Venice was full of rumours, and she was being patrolled now day and night by troops. The soldiers originally brought there to defend the State were thus being employed to repress disturbances among the restive citizens. The Lion of Saint Mark had become as a beast that crouches in expectation of the whip.

At the Casa Pizzamano, despite the pride in Domenico for his fearless performance of duty, it was a week of mourning. The Count recognized the moribund condition of the Republic, understood that its hours were numbered.

Perceiving his dark mood, Vendramin hesitated to remind him that Easter had come and gone and that the marriage date remained unappointed. He hesitated the more because the events had robbed him of a good deal of the power of insistence which he had possessed. He no longer had any influence to market. He raged a little at this, and at his own lack of foresight. He should ruthlessly have beaten down all hesitations whilst it was in his power to do so. He had been too foolishly considerate. Perhaps he had been too trusting even. What if this stiff-necked Count and that cold, proud piece, his daughter, should now refuse to honour the debt they had contracted?

Such a thought brought him more than a shiver of apprehension. Never had he been so debt-ridden; never had his credit been so exhausted. He dared not nowadays so much as approach that traitorous Vicomtesse, who formerly, and to his undoing, had kept him so liberally supplied. At the casinos such prestige as he had enjoyed had never recovered from the blow it had received from Mr. Melville. There was no one from whom he could today borrow a sequin. In his despair he had even gone the length of offering his services secretly to Lallemant. But Lallemant had shown him the door none too politely. He had pawned or sold most of his jewellery, and now little remained him beyond his fine clothes. His state was parlous. If the Pizzamani should play him false, he did not know what would become of him.

The suspense of this was not to be borne. However the intrusion of so personal a matter might be resented at a time of such national anxiety, Vendramin could not suffer any scruples to deter him.

So he sought Isotta, and found her one afternoon in the loggia that overlooked the garden, where all was green again and fragrant, and where early roses were already budding in the sunshine.

She received him with that cold gentleness which he had always found so exasperating: more exasperating perhaps than an active dislike. With dislike he might have wrestled. But this indifference gave him nothing that he could grasp.

Leaning, tall and graceful, upon the parapet of the loggia, and muting his rich voice to a tone of prayer, he reminded her that a week and more was gone since that Easter for which she had promised him the happiness of the appointment of their wedding-day.

She betrayed no nervousness. She looked at him straightly and candidly with eyes that were full of melancholy.

'If I were to say to you, Leonardo, that it is in my thoughts to take the veil, should you oppose such a desire?'

It took him a moment to realize what she meant. Then he flushed. 'Should I be human if I did not? Are you mad, Isotta?'

'Is it madness to be disillusioned with earthly existence? To perceive the vanity of the world? To centre all hopes upon a future life?'

'In such as you it is no less than madness. Leave that to women who are simple-minded, ugly or decrepit. Let them take that compensation, for the glories of life that are denied them. And, whether it be mad or sane, it is for you to remember that it is not the life to which you are pledged.'

'But if I desire to pledge myself to God, shall not that overrule all pledges made to man?'

He struggled with his rising choler; strove desperately to clutch this thing that he felt was slipping from him. 'Would God accept a pledge that makes you a cheat? Do you suppose they have no sense of honour in Heaven?' Then abruptly he asked yet another question. 'Have you told your father of these crazy notions?'

She frowned at this glimpse of the roughness of which he was capable.

'It was in my mind to tell him today.'

'My God! You are serious, then, in this fraudulent thought; this...this swindle? By the Host! Can you dream that your father will be a party to it? Your father—I thank God—is a man of honour, a man who keeps to his pledged word. Have no illusions about that, Isotta. I have loyally done my part in what was agreed between us, and he will not see me cheated of just reward.'

She looked away from him. 'Should you consider it a reward to take to wife an unwilling maid?'

He had a sense of beating his head against a cold, unyielding wall of fraudulent obstinacy. Fury blinded him. It almost choked him. 'A maid!' he jeered in a thick voice. 'And are you a maid? Are you?'

That drew her eyes to him, and he laughed brutally, hideously into her face. 'Are you even fit to take the veil? To enter upon the mystic nuptials? Have you asked yourself that? Oh, I understand you. You would cheat me now in this, as you cheated me before with lies; persuaded me of the innocence of your visit to that dog's lodging. Will you so easily persuade your father of it?'

'Do you mean to tell him?'

The question suggested to him where his power might yet lie.

'As God's my witness, unless you come to your senses and fulfil your promise.'

That, he thought, should checkmate her. But she looked at him with her unfailing, disconcerting calm.

'So that, soiled as you believe me to be, false, hypocritical, and lying as you tell me that I am, you are still content to take me to wife for the sake of my endowments? That is noble!'

'Sneer all you please. I have earned you, and I will be paid.'

'Even though you dispute me with God?'

'With God or the devil, madame.'

'Will you ring, Leonardo, and bid them ask my father and brother to come here?'

He made no movement to obey. 'What is that for? What are you going to do?'

'If you will ring, you will discover. I shall tell you in my father's presence.'

He glowered upon her. How baffling and obstinate she could be in that accursed repose which he could not shake.

'Remember what I have said. You are warned. Either you fulfil the sacred promise that you made me, or Count Pizzamano shall learn that he has a wanton for his daughter.'

For the first time she showed a flash of resentment. 'You would do well to remember that I have a brother.'

But that veiled threat he met with a fleering laugh. 'To be sure! The heroic Domenico! You will send him to seek satisfaction of me for imputations upon his sister's honour. He may find it a very different matter from emptying guns upon a French warship from a safe distance.' He drew himself up. 'Send this little hero of the Lido to me, by all means. You may have heard that I can take care of myself.'

'When supported by three bullies. Yes, I've heard that. Will you ring? The longer you delay it, the more disgusting I am finding you. You should judge how this interview has reconciled me to our nuptials.'

'Bah!' he retorted. 'Your hypocrisy nauseates me. You seize on this, so as to buttress your swindling pretences.' As he spoke, he swung round in the loggia to do at last her bidding, only to discover that it was no longer necessary. He had delayed too long. Count Pizzamano and Domenico were in the room beyond.

Seeing them, he grew suddenly afraid. How much had they overheard, and how much must they now be told in explanation?

Vendramin's case was that of every blackmailer. His power endures only so long as the revelation dreaded by his victim is not made. So here. Isotta's fear of the revelation might be a lever to obtain his will. The revelation itself, whilst damaging to her, could nothing profit him.

He stood now a little abashed under the grave, weary eyes of the Count.

The strain of the last few weeks had told heavily upon Count Pizzamano. Much of the man's normal calm urbanity had deserted him.

He advanced, Domenico following a pace behind him; and so they came to the threshold of the loggia. He was very cold and very stern.

'I do not know, Leonardo, when such words as I have overheard from you have been uttered under this roof before. I trust never. Will you tell me the occasion of terms so wanting in respect to my daughter and so threatening to my son?'

'For his threats to me...' Domenico was beginning, when his father's raised hand imposed silence upon him.

Vendramin could see nothing for it but to begin at the point which he had hoped would never have been reached.

'I am sorry that you should have overheard me, Lord Count. But since it has happened, you must be the judge of whether I have cause for heat. After all the patience I have used, after so loyally doing my part, Isotta threatens to evade by fraud her obligation. I appeal to you, sir, to bring your daughter reason.'

'Odd that you should use the word fraud,' said the Count. 'For that is the very subject I was coming to discuss with you. Domenico has been telling me something of the circumstances of your duel with Messer Melville: something that he has lately discovered.'

'My duel with Melville?' Vendramin became impatient. 'What has my duel with Melville to do with this? Let that wait, sir. Let us first settle this fulfilment of a pledge. After that I'll discuss the duel with you to your heart's content.'

'What is this? You take an extraordinary tone, I think.'

But Vendramin was excited, exacerbated, at bay. 'Excuse it, sir, on the score of my anxiety: my anxiety for my rights, which appear to be in danger.'

'Your rights?'

'Are they questioned? That cannot be. As a man of honour, my lord, you cannot hesitate where your word has been given.'

The Count smiled acidly. 'And now we appeal to honour. It is opportune. Well, well! To come to this duel, then...'

'By the Host!' cried the infuriated Vendramin, 'if you must know the causes of that duel, you shall know them.'

But the Count did not suffer him to proceed further. 'Not the causes, sir. That may come after. Or we may not get so far. It is on the circumstances that I desire a word with you.'

'The circumstances?' Vendramin did not understand.

'Tell him, Domenico.'

Domenico was prompt. 'It is common knowledge in the casini you frequent that you owed Messer Melville a thousand ducats, which you had borrowed from him. It is further said that, trusting to your accomplishments as a swordsman, you calculatedly provoked him, hoping thus to liquidate the debt.'

'If you will tell me by whom that abominable lie is being repeated...'

'At the Casino del Leone I found it on the lips of everyone to whom I mentioned the matter.'

'To whom you mentioned the matter? At the Casino del Leone? You mean that you went there to spy upon me?'

'To investigate. Yes. To assure myself that there might be nothing against the honour of the man who proposed to marry my sister. I learnt that you were publicly charged by Messer Melville with the very thing which you denounce as an abominable lie.'

'Does that make it true? The fact is, if you must know, that the coward sheltered himself behind the debt. He paraded it, so that he might excuse himself from meeting me until it was paid. That because he was sure I could not pay.'

'Then, since you met him, it follows that you paid him.'

'Of course. What then?' His manner was blustering, but in his heart he was afraid, suddenly assailed by a premonition of whither this was leading.

Domenico looked at his father with a crooked smile before replying.

'Your duel was fought two days after the feast of Saint Theodore. Was it not?'

'It may have been. Is that important?'

'I think so. Will you tell my father where you obtained so large a sum of money?'

This was the deadly question that Vendramin had been fearing. But he was ready with his answer, and the manner of its delivery was crafty. He folded his arms, to express the self-control that he was exercising. 'I understand,' he said bitterly. 'You think to embarrass me before your sister. To prejudice me with her. So it be. After all, what does it matter? I had the money from a lady; from a lady with whom it follows that I was very friendly. Must I name her? But why not? I borrowed the money from the Vicomtesse de Saulx.'

Domenico's answer came like a blow between the eyes.

'She tells me that you did not.'

In his stupefaction Vendramin unfolded his arms and let them fall to his sides. He stared about him, his lips foolishly parted, at Domenico, at the Count, and at Isotta, all of whom were inscrutably watching him. At last he found his voice.

'She tells you...She tells you that? You questioned her, and she tells you that?' He paused there to add stormily, 'She lies, then.'

'She lies,' said the Count, 'to cancel a debt of a thousand ducats. I never heard a stranger reason for falsehood. However, we must accept your word for it. Tell me this: did this lady know the purpose for which she was lending you the money?'

'I don't know. I don't remember.'

'Then let me help your memory,' said Domenico. 'She must have known, because she was present when Marc made his stipulation that he would not meet you until you had paid your debt. You won't trouble to deny that?'

'No. Why should I?'

The Count answered him. 'If you knew more about the Vicomtesse de Saulx, you would know that for whatever purpose she might have lent you money, she would certainly not have lent it so as to make possible this duel between you and the...between you and Messer Melville.' And then, with an increasing sternness he continued, 'Your falsehood proves what my son's information had led me to suspect.'

'Falsehood, sir! Is that a word to use to me? To my face?'

'I do not know what word to use to you.' The Count's tone now was one of withering contempt. 'Your meeting with Messer Melville took place two days after the feast of Saint Theodore. On Saint Theodore's day you came to me here with a tale that for the purposes of our patriotic campaign you required a thousand ducats. You required it for distribution among some of the more necessitous in your barnabotti following, so as to ensure us their votes at the meeting of the Grand Council that was to follow. What does one say to a man—a patrician of Venice—who can stoop to so loathly a fraud?'

Vendramin clenched his hands. 'By the Sacrament! Wait before you judge. Wait until you learn how I was justified...'

'Nothing can justify a gentleman in stealing and lying,' he was answered. 'I will not hear you now, or ever again. There is the door, sir. I beg you to go.'

But Vendramin had still a card to play; the last card standing between himself and ruin; between himself and destitution and a debtor's prison. For the moment it were bruited abroad that he was not to marry Isotta Pizzamano, his creditors would come down upon him like kites upon a carcase.

He might yet succeed in so bursting the bubble of their silly pride that they would be glad to have him marry the girl, thief and liar though they called him.

But Destiny was to interfere to prevent the playing of that soiled card.

'You think I can be dismissed like that?' he began theatrically.

Domenico cut him short. 'The servants can throw you out if you prefer it.'

And then the door opened, and a lackey entered. He came to announce Major Sanfermo; but to their surprise the Major followed instantly upon the announcement without waiting to be bidden.

He uncovered and bowed respectfully to the Count, who stared frowning uncomprehending displeasure at this intrusion. Then erect in his bright red coat with its steel gorget, the officer formally turned to Domenico and very formally addressed him.

'Captain Pizzamano, I am here to execute an order of the Council of Ten for your arrest.'