Table of Content

Chapter 35 Venetian Masque by Rafael Sabatini

This order for the arrest of the hero of the Lido, who a few days ago had received the thanks of the Senate for his gallantry, was one of the last submissions that the moribund Republic was called upon to make.

It was consistent with the irresolute conduct of the rulers of Venice that, whilst on the one hand extolling Domenico Pizzamano's patriotic fidelity to duty, on the other they were offering the French General-in-Chief their abject apologies for the deed in which that fidelity had been expressed.

Instructions to placate Bonaparte were sent to the two envoys, who were on their way to the General with the Senate's docile answer to his ultimatum by Junot. Those envoys reached the General at Palmanuova and requested an audience. The request was answered by a letter in which Bonaparte described the death of Laugier as an assassination, and further described it in the inflated language that the revolutionists had made current as 'an event without parallel in the history of modern nations.' In the same language the letter went on to apostrophize them. 'You and your Senate are dripping with French blood.' Finally, it consented to receive them only if they had anything to communicate on the subject of Laugier.

Humbly those two middle-aged representatives of that old patrician order came before the tempestous young upstart of genius who commanded the Army of Italy.

They beheld a short, lean, tired-looking young man, whose black hair hung dank and ragged across a bulging, pallid brow, whose hazel eyes, large and luminous, stared at them in hostility.

Rudely he interrupted the considered speech in which one of them expressed Venetian friendship. He broke into unmeasured invective against the Most Serene Republic's perfidy. French blood had been shed. The army cried out for vengeance.

He moved restlessly about the room, as he talked in fluent Southern Italian, working himself into a passion real or pretended, and waving his arms in a vigour of gesticulation.

He spoke of the atrocity of Laugier's death, and he demanded the arrest and surrender to him of the officer who had given the order to fire upon the Libèrateur. From this he went on to demand the immediate release of all those detained in Venetian prisons for political offences, among whom he knew that there were many French. In the ranting theatrical cant of the politicians of his adopted country, he invoked the spirit of his murdered soldiers crying out for vengeance. The climax of his tirade came in the final announcement of his will.

'I will have no more inquisitors. I will have no more Senate. I will be Attila for the State of Venice.'

Such was the report which the envoys brought home.

At the same time Villetard came back with a letter from Bonaparte to Lallemant, in which the French Ambassador was ordered to depart, leaving Villetard as chargè d'affaires.

'French blood flows in Venice,' the General wrote, 'and you are still there. Are you waiting to be driven out? Write a short note appropriate to the circumstances and leave the city immediately.'

The report of the envoys was so terrifying and the conviction so clear of a declaration of war to follow that the Council of Ten wasted no time in complying with the intransigent demands.

The political prisoners in the Leads were restored to liberty, the inquisitors of state were placed under arrest, and it fell to Major Sanfermo's lot to be sent to secure the person of Domenico Pizzamano.

To Count Pizzamano, who had not been in his place in the Council when these measures were decreed, the arrest of his son was the last test of endurance. When Major Sanfermo informed him that he understood that the order resulted from a demand of the French General-in-Chief, the Count could not doubt that Domenico's life was forfeit, that he was to be a scapegoat for the cowardice and weakness of the Government.

He stood stricken, trembling, vaguely conscious that Isotta was at his side, hanging upon his arm. Then, as mastering himself, he looked round, his glance fell upon Vendramin standing there at a loss, momentarily stupefied by the nature of this interruption.

'Why do you wait, sir?' the Count asked him.

And the mortified Vendramin, who was realizing that he had lost all, that he was baulked, by the thunderbolt that had fallen upon this house, of even his last desperate attempt at redemption, slunk out in silent, baffled rage. Deep in his heart he bore the malevolent resolve to return, if only for the satisfaction of flinging his handful of mud at the escutcheon of these proud Pizzamani, who in his own view had so infamously cheated him.

Domenico waited until he had gone, then quietly addressed the officer. 'If you will give me a moment with my father, Major, I shall be at your service.'

But Sanfermo, grim of countenance, surprised them.

'Now that we are alone, I may speak out. I could hardly have done so before Vendramin. My confidence in him is not stout enough for that. I am under orders which I frankly tell you are in the last degree repugnant to me. When I received them, I considered whether I would break my sword and fling it with my service at the feet of the Doge. But...' He shrugged. 'Others would have taken my place here.' Then, on another tone he proceeded. 'Lord Count, the knell of the Serenissima has sounded. The envoys returning from Bonaparte bring the demand that if war is to be averted, the patrician government must be deposed. He demands the abolition of our oligarchy, and its replacement by a Jacobin democracy. The Lion of Saint Mark is to be flung from his pedestal, and the Tree of Liberty is to be raised in the Piazza. He demands no less than this.'

'Democracy!' It was an ejaculation of pain and scorn from the Count. 'The government of Demos. The government by all that is base in a nation. The ruling of a state by its populace, its lowest elements. The very negation of all that government implies. That is even worse than what I feared for Venice, which was that it might become an Imperial province.'

'That, it seems, is to follow. The democratic government is but a step to it; a sham. The news from Klagenfurt is that the Treaty of Loeben under which peace has been made provides for the cession of the Venetian territories to Austria in exchange for Lombardy. It is clear, my lord, that here there is no more to be done.' He paused, and, instinctively lowering his voice, more directly expressed his mind. 'From Verona we hear that Count Emili and seven others who attempted to vindicate the honour of Venice have been shot by the French. No honest Venetian could suffer that Captain Pizzamano should be added to the roll of martyrs.' He turned to Domenico. 'That is why deliberately I have come alone to effect your arrest. I have brought no men with me. I am easily overpowered. A gondola would take you to San Giorgio in Alga, where the galleys of your friend Admiral Correr are stationed. In one of these you could reach Trieste, and make your way to Vienna.'

When they had recovered from their amazement in the presence of such generosity, there was a cry of relief from the Count, an invocation by him of blessings on the head of this good friend and true Venetian.

But Domenico had yet a word to say.

'Have you thought, sir, of the consequences? Of the consequences to Venice? And perhaps to Major Sanfermo? My arrest becomes a political measure. It is an integral part of the demand of the French Commander, one of the conditions he imposes if he is not to turn his guns on Venice. Is it not also possible that Major Sanfermo may be shot in my place by French vindictiveness, for not having taken proper measures to secure me? Is not that in accordance with French methods?'

'I will take my chance of that,' said Sanfermo, with a stout, careless laugh. 'After all it is a chance. For you, Captain Pizzamano, I tell you frankly there is no chance at all.'

But Domenico shook his head. 'Even if I could profit by your generosity, I must weigh the other consequences that these French brigands would visit upon Venice for my escape.' He unbuckled his sword-belt as he spoke. 'My heart is full of gratitude and wonder. But I cannot take advantage of your generosity. Here is my sword, sir.'

The Count stood grey-faced but grim in the iron self-control which birth and honour imposed upon him. Isotta, trembling, clung to him for strength of body and of spirit.

Domenico came to them. 'If Venice demands of you the sacrifice of a son, at least the sacrifice is one that does us honour. And I may thank God that in his mercy he should have permitted my last action to have been the deliverance of our house from the necessity of making a sacrifice also of its daughter, and a sacrifice that would have been ignoble.'

Not trusting himself to speak, the Count took him in his arms, and pressed him almost convulsively to his breast.

 Table of Content