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Chapter 37 Venetian Masque by Rafael Sabatini

The door-keeper of the Della Vecchia Palace, whom Marc-Antoine's appearance startled, startled the visitor in return with the information that the Citizen Lallemant was no longer at the legation. Nor did Marc-Antoine by any means recover his calm when he heard that the Citizen Villetard was in charge. He had the feeling that in Villetard, who was the creature of Bonaparte, he would meet a sterner opposition than that which Lallemant might have offered.

Because of this when presently under the amazed glances of the chargè d'affaires and the secretary Jacob, who were at work together, he walked hat on head into the room that had been Lallemant's, his air carried all the truculence of the Jacobin in office that he could pack into it.

Villetard sprang to his feet in amazement. 'Lebel! Where the devil have you been these weeks?'

No question could have done more to restore Marc-Antoine's courage. It resolved the one doubt in his mind; assured him that the one danger he might face in coming thus into the lair of the wolf was not present.

Coldly he looked his questioner up and down as if the question were presumptuous. 'Where I was needed, of course,' he answered dryly.

'Where you were needed! Don't you think you were needed here?' He flung open a dispatch-box, and pulled out a sheaf of papers. 'Look at these letters from the Directory for you, all awaiting your attention. Lallemant told me you had not been seen since the day I left for Klagenfurt. He began to fear that you had been murdered.' He dropped the sheaf ill-humouredly on the table within Marc-Antoine's reach. 'Will you explain yourself?'

Marc-Antoine was languidly turning over the letters. There were five, all sealed, and all addressed to the Citizen-Representative Camille Lebel. His eyebrows went high above the cold light eyes that fixed Villetard.

'Explain myself? To whom are you speaking, Villetard?'

'And—sacred name of a name!—what are you doing with that cockade in your hat?'

'If in the discharge of my functions I find it necessary to display the Venetian colours—just as I choose to call myself Mr. Melville—what affair may that be of yours? Do you know that I find you presumptuous?'

'You give yourself airs, I think.'

'And this being chargè d'affaires here seems to have gone to your head. I asked you just now to whom you suppose that you are speaking. I shall be glad of an answer.'

'A thousand devils! I know to whom I am speaking.'

'I am glad to hear it. I was wondering if I should have to show you my papers, so as to remind you that in Venice I am the plenipotentiary of the Directory of the French Republic.'

Browbeaten, the browbeater changed his tone. He took refuge in remonstrance. 'Name of a name, Lebel, what necessity is there for this?'

'That is what I have been wondering: why it should be necessary for me to remind you that I am here not to take orders, but to give them.'

'To give them?'

'At need. And that is why I have come tonight.' He looked round for a chair, drew one up to the table, sat down and crossed his legs.

'Sit down, Villetard.'

Mechanically Villetard obeyed him.

Marc-Antoine took up one of the letters from the pile, broke the seal, and spread the sheet. When he had read he commented.

'Barras is behind the fair. Here he urges me to do what is done already.'

He opened a second one and scanned it. 'Always the same instructions. Faith! They must be tender in Paris of an adequate pretext for this declaration of war. As I told Lallemant, I provided pretext enough over the matter of the ci-devant Comte de Provence: that is to say, I laid stress on the pretext that existed. But we are becoming as mawkish as if we were under a theatrical règime of aristocrats. We are much too solicitous about the opinion of the despots who still rule in Europe. To hell with all despots, I say. When I die, Villetard, that sentiment will be found engraved on my heart.'

Thus he ranted on whilst he opened the letters, one after the other. Suddenly he found something momentarily to silence him. Then with a snort of contempt he read out the sentence that had riveted his attention.

'General Bonaparte is prone to precipitate and high-handed action. In this matter of a casus belli, you will see that his impatiences are restrained, and you will take care that there is no premature action. All must be done in correct form. To ensure this you must at need exercise the authority in which you are vested.'

Having read it, he folded that letter with the others, and stuffed the bundle into an inner breast-pocket. It was just as well that Villetard should not see that particular letter, for the passage that Marc-Antoine had read aloud had been considerably embellished by improvisations of his own. 'There is nothing in these,' he commented, 'to justify your excitement at the delay in my receiving them. They tell me nothing that I did not know, give me no instructions that I have not already carried out.' He looked across at Villetard, and smiled sardonically. 'You want to know where I have been, do you?'

Villetard, impressed by what he had heard, even whilst scornful of some of it, made haste to assure him: 'Oh, but as a matter of concern.'

Jacob, all eyes and ears, pretended to busy himself with the papers before him.

Marc-Antoine's manner diminished in arrogance to increase in sarcasm.

'As the plenipotentiary of the Directory I have been doing what you considered beneath the dignity of your office; discharging the functions of an agent-provocateur. To be more precise, I have been with my friend Captain Pizzamano at the Fort of Sant' Andrea. Now perhaps you understand how it happens that one of these milksop Venetians had the temerity to fire upon a French warship.'

Villetard leaned forward, round-eyed. 'My God!' was all that he said.

'Just so. As an agent-provocateur I have every reason to account myself a success.'

The other smote the table with his hand. 'That explains it. When it occurred, I could hardly believe it. It seemed impossible that any of these effete aristocrats should have so much audacity in his bowels. But what a waste when in the Verona business we had all the casus belli that we needed!'

'Yes. But pretexts can hardly be over-multiplied. Besides, news of the Verona affair hadn't reached us in the Fort Sant' Andrea when at last the Libèrateur d'Italie gave me the chance for which I waited. I pulled the strings and the Pizzamano puppet danced, with the result that a perfectly justifiable state of war now exists.'

'And you did that?' Villetard was lost in wonder.

'I did it. But I want no scapegoat for my action, Villetard.'


'I have interrupted other important work to come here tonight to ask you what blockhead is guilty of ordering Pizzamano's arrest.'

'Blockhead!' At last the sneer so habitual to it came back to Villetard's countenance. 'Perhaps you'll choose some other term when I tell you that the order came from General Bonaparte.'

But Marc-Antoine was not impressed. 'A blockhead is a blockhead, whether he commands the Army of Italy or burns charcoal in a forest of the Ardennes. General Bonaparte has proved himself a great soldier; the greatest soldier in Europe today...'

'He will be encouraged by your commendation.'

'I hope so. But I am not encouraged by your sarcasm, and I dislike being interrupted. What was I saying? Oh, yes. General Bonaparte may be a genius in military matters; but this is not a military matter; it is a political one. Politically the arrest of Captain Pizzamano is a blunder of the first magnitude. When I made him a hero, I had no intention that he should in addition be made a martyr. That is not merely unnecessary, but dangerous. Extraordinarily dangerous. It may lead to grave trouble here.'

'Who cares?' said Villetard.

'Every man with the rudiments of intelligence. I happen to be one of them. And I have more than a suspicion that the members of the Directory will care. Care very much. It is foolish to precipitate trouble that can be avoided. Therefore, Villetard, you will oblige me by issuing at once an order for the release of Captain Pizzamano.'

'Release Captain Pizzamano!' Villetard was scandalized. 'Release that butcher of Frenchmen?'

Marc-Antoine waved a hand delicately contemptuous. 'You may leave that cant for the official publications. Between you and me it is not impressive. I require this man's immediate and unconditional release.'

'You require it? Oh, you require it? And Bonaparte has required his arrest. Behold the amusing clash of great wills. You will defy the Little Corporal, will you?'

'As the representative of the Directory, and in doing what I consider the Directory would require me to do, I will defy the devil himself, Villetard, and not be troubled about it.'

The chargè d'affaires stared harder than ever. At last he shrugged his shoulder and uttered a snort of laughter. 'In that case, my faith, you had better issue the order yourself.'

'I would have done so already if my signature would be recognized by the Venetian Government. Unfortunately, I am accredited only here at the legation. We are wasting time, Villetard.'

'We'll continue to waste it as long as you ask anything so preposterous. I daren't issue such an order. I should have to account to Bonaparte for it.'

'If you don't issue it, you will have to account to the Directory for disobedience to their plenipotentiary. And that may be even more serious for you.'

They looked at each other: Marc-Antoine with an air of faint amusement; Villetard sullenly at bay.

Jacob from under his brows watched with interest this duel of wills, carefully concealing his excitement.

At last the chargè d'affaires pushed back his chair and rose.

'It is useless. I will not do it. I tell you I dare not. Bonaparte is capable of having me shot.'

'What? If it were done upon my order? Upon my responsibility? Are you mad?'

'Will your authority, your responsibility, cover me with General Bonaparte?'

'Will you forever cast your General Bonaparte in my teeth?' Marc-Antoine, too, stood up, impatient, angry. 'Do you recognize in me the voice of the French Government, or do you not?'

Out-hectored, Villetard was in despair. He clenched his hands, set his teeth, and at last discovered a way out. 'Give it to me in writing, then!' he cried.

'In writing? The order? Why not? Citizen Jacob, be good enough to write for me.' And he dictated:

'In the name of the Directory of the French Republic, I require Charles Villetard, the French chargè d'affaires in Venice, to issue at once an order to the Doge and Senate of the Most Serene Republic for the immediate and unconditional release of Captain Domenico Pizzamano, at present detained in the Fortress of San Michele on the Island of Murano.'

He took up a quill from the table. 'Add the date,' he commanded, 'and I will sign it.'

The scratching of Jacob's pen ceased. He rose to place the document before Marc-Antoine. In a hand that much practice had made perfect, Marc-Antoine scrawled at the foot of the sheet the signature and description:

'Camille Lebel, Plenipotentiary Representative of the Directory of the French Republic, One and Indivisible.'

With a touch of scorn he handed the document to Villetard. 'There is your aegis and gorgoneion.'

Villetard scowled over it; he stood hesitant, pulling at his lip; finally he shrugged in ill-humoured resignation.

'So be it,' he said. 'The responsibility is yours. I'll send the order to the Senate in the morning.'

But this did not suit Marc-Antoine. 'You will deliver it to me now, as soon as it is written. I want Captain Pizzamano out of prison before it is even known that he has been put there. You should remember that to the Venetians he is the Hero of the Lido. I want no disturbance such as the news of his arrest might create.'

Villetard flung himself down in his chair, took his pen, and rapidly wrote the order. He signed it and added the seal of the legation. Then, having dusted it with pounce, he handed the completed document to Marc-Antoine.

'I would not be in your shoes for an empire when the Little Corporal hears of this.'

'Ah! And yet, my dear Villetard, they are good solid shoes, of Directoire pattern. I think they will bear my weight if I walk delicately.'

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