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Chapter 38 Venetian Masque by Rafael Sabatini

The little lady who called herself Vicomtesse de Saulx was restless and unhappy.

However vexatious to Lallemant might have been the disappearance of Mr. Melville and the accumulation at the legation of unclaimed letters addressed to Camille Lebel by the Directory, to her the matter was a source of deepest anxiety. Her besetting fear was that he might again, and this time definitely, have fallen a victim to the vindictiveness of Vendramin. Herself, she could not pursue the matter because Vendramin, in wholesome fear of her after what had happened, now kept his distance. Moreover, his supplies exhausted and without means of renewing them, the man was no longer even to be met in the casinos which formerly he had frequented.

She pestered Lallemant to get on the track of the Venetian. But Lallemant, feeling that he could take no measures without perhaps seriously compromising the supposed Lebel, was doomed to inaction.

It had become her daily habit to visit the legation in quest of news of the missing man. In the pursuit of this habit, she came to Villetard on the morning after Marc-Antoine's visit.

The chargè d'affaires was alone at the time and considerably disgruntled. He was far from easy on the score of this Pizzamano business. Unlike Lebel, he held no mandate from the Government. He was Bonaparte's creature. And his view of the little Corsican soldier was that he was by no means the most reasonable of men when he was thwarted. Having slept on the matter of that order of release, he was deeply troubled. He balanced desperately between a sense that he had acted unwisely in yielding and a conviction that in view of Lebel's authority he could not have done otherwise. He felt that he was in an unfortunate position in being placed by circumstances between the military and the civil power. It seemed to him inevitable that in any clash between them, he must be crushed unless he moved carefully.

He was poring again over that covering note which Marc-Antoine had left with him and wondering uncomfortably what Bonaparte would have to say about it, when the Vicomtesse entered his room unannounced, and flitted towards him with a mild 'Good-morning, Villetard!'

He was by temperament a man who delighted in the sight of pretty women, and normally the contemplation of the Vicomtesse was a source of pleasure to him. This morning, however, he considered her almost malevolently. In a growling tone he anticipated her daily question.

'You may take satisfaction in the fact that your Monsieur Melville has at last turned up again.'

With flushed cheek and brightened eye she ran round to him. She leaned her arm on his shoulder whilst she questioned him. He answered her gloomily, resenting a gladness he was so very far from sharing. The fellow was well; completely—too completely—recovered. On the subject of his absence Villetard was vague. Lebel's instructions that his identity was to remain veiled were so very definite. Pressed, the chargè d'affaires took refuge in the statement that Monsieur Melville had been in convalescence at the Casa Pizzamano.

This took a little of the joy out of the lady's countenance. Her brow was puckered in thought as she continued to lean on Villetard's shoulder. It was then that her idly straying eyes fell on the document lying before him on his table. The signature arrested her attention.

Another might not so quickly have perceived what was instantly obvious to the Vicomtesse. The occupation that for some considerable time now she had been following had cultivated her observation and had sharpened her power of swift inference. The glance that saw the signature read the date, and instantly she expressed the result of the addition of those factors.

'Camille Lebel is here in Venice!'

That exclamation of surprise at once fired a train in the no less quick wits of the chargè d'affaires. He flung himself back in his chair the better to look up at her.

'You know Camille Lebel?' For all its interrogative note, it was an assertion—and an amazed assertion—rather than a question.

'Know him?' There was an unmistakable significance in her glance. A little smile, bitter-sweet, curled her lip. 'Faith, I have some cause to know him, Villetard. To know him very well. In a sense I am his creation. It was he who made me Vicomtesse de Saulx.'

She saw amazement change to horror in that pallid, sardonic, upturned face.

'And you ask me if he is in Venice? You ask me that? Name of God!'

He was on his feet suddenly, thrusting away her arm, sending his chair crashing over behind him. 'Then who in the devil's name is this scoundrel who impersonates him? Who is your Monsieur Melville?'

She shrank before the fury of his aspect. 'Mr. Melville? Mr. Melville, Lebel! Are you mad, Villetard?'

'Mad!' he roared. 'I think they must all have been mad here. What is it? A legation, or a lunatic asylum? What was that fool Lallemant doing that he never suspected this? And—my God!—what were you doing that you never discovered it before?' He strode upon her furiously, a man out of his senses with rage and fear.

She retreated before him again. 'I? What had I to do with it? How was I to discover it? It was never whispered even that Melville called himself Lebel.'

'No.' Villetard remembered with what specious cunning that swindler—whoever he might be—had insisted upon the secrecy of his supposed identity. He curbed his anger before the urgent need to think. He stood still, his head in his hands, and fell to muttering.

'Bonaparte has always believed Lallemant to be a fool. My God! That doesn't begin to do the fellow justice. This man here during all these months! The secrets of the legation all open to him! The havoc he may have wrought! Rocco Terzi's end is explained, and Sartoni's. God knows whom else he may have betrayed.' He looked at her with fierce, brooding eyes. 'I marvel that he should have spared you.' Then, swift suspicion mounting in him to renew his rage, he advanced upon her threateningly once more. He took her roughly by the shoulder. 'Will you tell me, in God's name, why he did. You were not by any chance in this with him, you little trull? Answer me! Do you take the pay of both sides like every other damned spy I've ever known? Bah!' He flung her from him. 'Your neck's not worth wringing. I've other work to do. There's this order of release. Sacred name! What am I to say to the Little Corporal? He will break me for this, unless...By God! I'll have this rascal before a firing-party, anyway.'

He turned from her, and strode for the door. She heard him on the landing outside bawling furiously for Jacob. He came back wild-eyed, leaving the door open. He waved her out.

'Away with you! Go! I have work to do.'

She did not wait for a second bidding. It was not only that she had become afraid of him. She had become even more afraid of something else. His threat to have the false Lebel before a firing-party brought home to her how she had inadvertently betrayed Marc-Antoine, in what danger she had placed him. She fled, calling herself a fool for having talked so incautiously. Villetard's first exclamation should have warned her.

As she crossed the Corte del Cavallo almost at a run, she had no thought or care for what Marc might be, or for her duty to the side she served. All that she considered was that she had placed him in deadly peril. Through her brain like a reverberation rang Villetard's words: 'I marvel that he should have spared you. Will you tell me—in God's name—why he did?'

It was the question that she now asked herself. Being what he was, he must have known her for what she was. Why, then, had he not denounced her to the inquisitors of state? If his having spared her was not all the reason why now she must make every effort to warn him and save him, negligent of consequences to herself, at least it was an additional spur to the one that her heart must in any case have supplied.

As eleven o'clock was striking from Madonna dell' Orto, and pealing over Venice from its other belfries, she stood undecided on the fondamenta where her gondola waited. Where was he? How was she to reach him? From the stormy scene with Villetard came recollection that the chargè d'affaires had said that during the time of his disappearance he had been at the Casa Pizzamano. If that was true, even if he were not there now, the Pizzamani would know where he might be reached.

At about the same moment that she was being handed aboard and bidding her gondolier to take her to San Daniele, Marc-Antoine was landing with Domenico on the steps of the Casa Pizzamano.

He had lost no time once the order of release was in his hands, for he realized the danger of delays. So as to be ready for action as soon as daylight came, he had wrested that same night from the Doge, in exchange for the note from the legation, the warrant that should open the door of Domenico's prison on Murano.

The news of the captain's home-coming ran through the palace like a fired powder-train which increases in crackling vigour as it flares. From porter to chamberlain, from chamberlain to lackeys, from lackeys to serving-maids, the rumour ran; so that before they had reached the salon the house was agog with it, to an accompaniment of fleet steps, slamming doors and excited voices.

Francesco Pizzamano with his Countess and Isotta came to the two men where they stood waiting. The Countess sped ahead of them, and father and sister yielded glad precedence to the mother, who in tears gathered to her bosom the son whom yesterday she had accounted doomed. She crooned over him as she had crooned over him when he was a babe, so that he was brought himself to the very brink of tears.

Tears were in the eyes of Isotta when she kissed him, and of the Count, who took him to his heart. Then, that transport easing, all asked him at once by what miracle he was delivered.

'Behold the miracle-worker,' he said, and so drew attention at last to Marc-Antoine, where he stood in the background, a grave spectator.

The Count strode to him and embraced him. The Countess, following, did the same. Last came Isotta, slim and straight, with very wistful eyes, to take his hand, hesitate a moment, and then set him trembling by a kiss upon his cheek.

Francesco Pizzamano dashed what remained of tears from his eyes. But his voice faltered and broke as he cried: 'I possess nothing, sir, that is not yours for the asking.'

'He may take you at your word,' said Domenico, with cryptic humour, in an attempt to steady these emotions.

Marc-Antoine stood forward. 'Lord Count, this is less of a deliverance than an escape.' He raised his hand to stay an interruption. 'Have no fear. It is not an escape for which Venice will be held responsible. It is covered by an order from the French Legation, bearing the signature of the chargè d'affaires. I wrung it from him in my superior capacity as the plenipotentiary Lebel.' Then he smiled a little. 'At this time yesterday I was persuaded that I had played the part of Lebel in vain for a whole year. Now I discover a sufficient reason for it.' Then he resumed his earlier tone. 'Because an accident may at any moment discover the deception, Domenico must lose no time. The gondola that brought us from Murano will take him on to San Giorgio in Alga and the Admiral, so that he may be conveyed to Trieste and thence journey to Vienna, to lie there until all is safe again.'

Joy in his preservation outweighed the pain this severance must otherwise have caused. There was instant agreement and instant bustle of preparation. It was Isotta who undertook to supervise the packing of his necessaries. She departed on that errand almost in relief to escape from the presence of Marc-Antoine, a presence which today should have been to her as the opening wide of the gates of happiness and fulfilment.

When at the end of a half-hour she came back to inform them that all was ready and that Domenico's packages were being loaded in the gondola, the lackey who held the door for her followed her into the room to announce at the same time that Madame la Vicomtesse de Saulx was below asking to see Messer Melville immediately. The servant took it upon himself to add that the lady seemed deeply agitated.

The announcement made a curious hush in that room, a hush which had no mystery for Marc-Antoine. He was less concerned to speculate why the lady should seek him here than to be thankful for her presence.

He begged leave to have her introduced, and in a complete and rather constrained silence they awaited her coming.

She entered breathlessly. She checked a moment within the threshold, her anxious eyes questing this way and that until they rested on Marc-Antoine. Then, with a little gasp, she gathered up her flowered panniers, and fluttered across to him.

'Marc! Oh, God be thanked!' She caught him by the arms in her excitement, disregarding utterly the other tenants of the room. 'My dear, I have done a dreadful, dreadful thing. It was an accident. A miserable accident. You'll never suppose that I would consciously have betrayed you, whatever I had discovered. You know that I am incapable of that. I did not know that you were impersonating Camille Lebel. How could I? And I told Villetard...No, I didn't tell him. It came out by accident. I was unaware of what I was really telling him. I have let him know that you are not Lebel.' Thus, breathlessly, confusedly, in her anxiety to announce and to explain, she got it out.

Marc-Antoine caught her wrist. He spoke sharply in his alarm.

'What exactly have you told him?'

She explained it all: the document she had seen, and the manner in which the truth had been surprised from her. To Marc-Antoine it was instantly clear. To the others it was but a deeper mystification. Then came her more definite warning, the announcement of Villetard's avowed intentions.

'You must go, Marc. I don't know how. But go. Don't waste a moment.'

He had recovered and now preserved his momentarily shaken calm. 'We have a little time. Villetard must first procure an order from the Doge; then find men to execute it; and finally these must discover me. I told him that I was to be found at the Inn of the Swords. So that is where they will first seek me; and this must create delays. Without wasting time, then, we need not be precipitate. Your warning, madame, is a very noble amend for an error you could not avoid.'

'As to that, I only pay a debt. I perceive now that I owe you for having spared me.'

She would have said much more had she obeyed her impulses. She would have put into words some of the tenderness that was in her eyes as they now regarded him. But the presence of those others, of whom she seemed at length to become aware, imposed restraint. He had not attempted to present her to them. Now that she became conscious of their presence, she perceived the omission and begged him to correct it.

'Ah, yes.' There was an oddness in his manner. He looked at Count Pizzamano and the others, particularly at Isotta, who shared the general sense of mystery. 'Your pardon,' he begged of them, and then to the Vicomtesse: 'By what name shall I present you to these good friends of mine?'

'By what name?' She was bewildered.

He smiled. 'Just as you know that I am not Lebel, so I also know that you are not the Vicomtesse de Saulx.'

There was a little cry from Isotta. Convulsively she gripped the arm of her brother, who knew so well what was passing in her mind.

The Vicomtesse recoiled a pace, amazement and fear in her delicate countenance. Instinctively at once she became the secret agent, on her guard. Instinctively she gathered up her weapons. Her manner changed. The fond, natural child vanished, giving place to the sophisticated woman of the world. Her eyes narrowed.

'And how long may you have been of that opinion?' she asked him.

'Of that conviction from the moment that I met you. Indeed, from the moment that I heard you named.'

The hard, unfaltering stare of those narrowed eyes was evidence of her self-control, as was the hard laugh that seemed to brand his words an impertinence. There was not a quaver in her faintly scornful voice.

'I scarcely know how to set about dispelling so extravagant a delusion. I can only assert that I am certainly the widow of the Vicomte de Saulx.'

'The widow?' interjected Count Pizzamano.

The interjection did not draw her glance. She kept her eyes on Marc-Antoine whilst answering: 'He was guillotined at Tours in ninety-three.'

Gently smiling, Marc-Antoine shook his head. 'I have the best of reasons for knowing that that is not the case, although your friend Lebel believed it.'

Her fear deepened under his odd gaze, half-humorous, half-sad. But resolutely she stood her ground. She tossed her head a little. 'Even if it were true that the Vicomte de Saulx was not guillotined, would that prove that he is not my husband?'

'Oh, no, madame.' He came forward. He took her hand, which in spite of her angry fear she relinquished to him, for there was something compellingly gentle in his manner and pitiful in his eyes, as if to express regret and ask forgiveness for what he did. 'What proves it is that if he had married anyone half so charming, it is impossible that he could have forgotten it. And I can positively assure you that he has no recollection of the marriage. Can it be that, like you, he suffers from a bad memory? For you appear completely to have forgotten what he looks like.'

She drew her hand out of his clasp. Her lip trembled. His words, without meaning to her, gave her the sense of being in a trap. She was bewildered. She looked round and met a curious smile from each of her three observers. The only one who did not smile, whose glance reflected something of the gentle wistfulness in Marc-Antoine's, was Isotta: an Isotta who in these last moments had lost her listlessness, whose eyes, that lately had been so dull, were shining now as with an inner light.

Then the poor, dazed Vicomtesse found that Marc-Antoine had recaptured her hand. Very straight, his chin high, he seemed suddenly to have become protective. So much was she conscious of this that her impulse was to bury her face upon his breast and in the shelter of it yield to the weakness of a woman who is lonely and frightened.

He spoke to the others, quietly firm. 'She shall not be further harassed, further humiliated. It is a poor return for what I owe her.'

The Count and Domenico both bowed as if in understanding and acknowledgment.

'Come, madame. Let me reconduct you.'

Still bewildered, faltering a little in her step, she obeyed the suasion of his hand. Glad to obey it; glad to escape, although she did not know from what. All that she gathered was that sense of his protection, and in that she readily went out with him and down the stairs.

In the vestibule he addressed the liveried porter.

'The gondola of Madame the Vicomtesse de Saulx.'

She looked up at him appealingly as she stood waiting at his side.

'Marc, what is it? You know that I do not understand.'

'Understand this, that in me you have a friend who will always treasure the memory of the debt in which today you have placed him. We part here, Anne, and we may never meet again. But if ever I can serve you, send me word to Avonford in Wiltshire. I will write it for you.'

He stepped into the porter's lodge, and on a sheet of paper supplied by the under-porter, he wrote rapidly in pencil. He handed her the sheet. At the sight of what he had written her face turned bloodless. She looked up at him with an expression that was akin to terror.

'This is impossible. You are mocking me. Why?'

'To what end should I mock you? That is less impossible than it may seem when you consider how Fate links us through Lebel. Oh, yes, I am Marc-Antoine de Saulx, my dear. I was not guillotined, and I never married. Now you understand.'

'And in all these months...'

'It has been my privilege to observe my widow. A unique experience. Come, child, your gondola waits.' He led her out to the marble steps. 'Let us at least part friends, my vicomtesse.' He bowed and kissed her hand, then steadied her as she stepped down into the boat.

As the gondola glided away, he stood a moment looking after that little crumpled heap of silks and laces, upon the cushions of the felza.

Then it occurred to him that even now he did not know her name.

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