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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesMarietta: A Maid Of Venice - Chapter 2
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Marietta: A Maid Of Venice - Chapter 2 Post by :crikket Category :Long Stories Author :F. Marion Crawford Date :July 2011 Read :1307

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Marietta: A Maid Of Venice - Chapter 2

CHAPTER II

The June night was dark and warm as Zorzi pushed off from the steps before his master's house and guided his skiff through the canal, scarcely moving the single oar, as the rising tide took his boat silently along. It was not until he had passed the last of the glass-houses on his right, and was already in the lagoon that separates Murano from Venice, that he began to row, gently at first, for fear of being heard by some one ashore, and then more quickly, swinging his oar in the curved crutch with that skilful, serpentine stroke which is neither rowing nor sculling, but which has all the advantages of both, for it is swift and silent, and needs scarcely to be slackened even in a channel so narrow that the boat itself can barely pass.

Now that he was away from the houses, the stars came out and he felt the pleasant land breeze in his face, meeting the rising tide. Not a boat was out upon the shallow lagoon but his own, not a sound came from the town behind him; but as the flat bow of the skiff gently slapped the water, it plashed and purled with every stroke of the oar, and a faint murmur of voices in song was borne to him on the wind from the still waking city.

He stood upright on the high stern of the shadowy craft, himself but a moving shadow in the starlight, thrown forward now, and now once more erect, in changing motion; and as he moved the same thought came back and back again in a sort of halting and painful rhythm. He was out that night on a bad errand, it said, helping to sell the life of the woman he loved, and what he was doing could never be undone. Again and again the words said themselves, the far-off voices said them, the lapping water took them up and repeated them, the breeze whispered them quickly as it passed, the oar pronounced them as it creaked softly in the crutch rowlock, the stars spelled out the sentences in the sky, the lights of Venice wrote them in the water in broken reflections. He was not alone any more, for everything in heaven and earth was crying to him to go back.

That was folly, and he knew it. The master who had trusted him would drive him out of his house, and out of Venetian land and water, too, if he chose, and he should never see Marietta again; and she would be married to Contarini just as if Zorzi had taken the message. Besides, it was the custom of the world everywhere, so far as he knew, that marriage and money should be spoken of in the same breath, and there was no reason why his master should make an exception and be different from other men.

He could put some hindrance in the way, of course, if he chose to interfere, for he could deliver the message wrong, and Contarini would go to the church in the afternoon instead of in the morning. He smiled grimly in the dark as he thought of the young nobleman waiting for an hour or two beside the pillar, to be looked at by some one who never came, then catching sight at last of some ugly old maid of forty, protected by her servant, ogling him, while she said her prayers and filling him with horror at the thought that she must be Marietta Beroviero. All that might happen, but it must inevitably be found out, the misunderstanding would be cleared away and the marriage would be arranged after all.

He had rested on his oar to think, and now he struck it deep into the black water and the skiff shot ahead. He would have a far better chance of serving Marietta in the future if he obeyed his master and delivered his message exactly; for he should see Contarini himself and judge of him, in the first place, and that alone was worth much, and afterwards there would be time enough for desperate resolutions. He hastened his stroke, and when he ran under the shadow of the overhanging houses his mood changed and he grew hopeful, as many young men do, out of sheer curiosity as to what was before him, and out of the wish to meet something or somebody that should put his own strength to the test.

It was not far now. With infinite caution he threaded the dark canals, thanking fortune for the faint starlight that showed him the turnings. Here and there a small oil lamp burned before the image of a saint; from a narrow lane on one side, the light streamed across the water, and with it came sounds of ringing glasses, and the tinkling of a lute, and laughing voices; then it was dark again as his skiff shot by, and he made haste, for he wished not to be seen.

Presently, and somewhat to his surprise, he saw a gondola before him in a narrow place, rowed slowly by a man who seemed to be in black like himself. He did not try to pass it, but kept a little astern, trying not to attract attention and hoping that it would turn aside into another canal. But it went steadily on before him, turning wherever he must turn, till it stopped where he was to stop, at the water-gate of the house of the Agnus Dei. Instantly he brought to in the shadow, with the instinctive caution of every one who is used to the water. Gondolas were few in those days and belonged only to the rich, who had just begun to use them as a means of getting about quickly, much more convenient than horses or mules; for when riding a man often had to go far out of his way to reach a bridge, and there were many canals that had no bridle path at all and where the wooden houses were built straight down into the water as the stone ones are to-day. Zorzi peered through the darkness and listened. The occupant of the gondola might be Contarini himself, coming home. Whoever it was tapped softly upon the door, which was instantly opened, but to Zorzi's surprise no light shone from the entrance. All the house above was still and dark, and he could barely make out by the starlight the piece of white marble bearing the sculptured Agnus Dei whence the house takes its name. He knew that above the high balcony there were graceful columns bearing pointed stone arches, between which are the symbols of the four Evangelists; but he could see nothing of them. Only on the balcony, he fancied he saw something less dark than the wall or the sky, and which might be a woman's dress.

Some one got out of the gondola and went in after speaking a few words in a low tone, and the door was then shut without noise. The gondola glided on, under the Baker's Bridge, but Zorzi could not see whether it went further or not; he thought he heard the sound of the oar, as if it were going away. Coming alongside the step, he knocked gently as the last comer had done, and the door opened again. He had already made his skiff fast to the step.

"Your business here?" asked a muffled voice out of the dark.

Zorzi felt that a number of persons were in the hall immediately behind the speaker.

"For the Lord Jacopo Contarini," he answered. "I have a message and a token to deliver."

"From whom?"

"I will tell that to his lordship," replied Zorzi.

"I am Contarini," replied the voice, and the speaker felt for Zorzi's face in the darkness, and brought it near his ear.

"From Angelo," whispered Zorzi, so softly that Contarini only heard the last word.

The door was now shut as noiselessly as before, but not by Contarini himself. He still kept his hold on Zorzi's arm.

"The token," he whispered impatiently.

Zorzi pulled the little leathern bag out of his doublet, slipped the string over his head and thrust the token into Contarini's hand. The latter uttered a low exclamation of surprise.

"What is this?" he asked.

"The token," answered Zorzi.

He had scarcely spoken when he felt Contarini's arms round him, holding him fast. He was wise enough to make no attempt to escape from them.

"Friends," said Contarini quickly, "the man who just came in is a spy. I am holding him. Help me!"

It seemed to Zorzi that a hundred hands seized him in the dark; by the arms, by the legs, by the body, by the head. He knew that resistance was worse than useless. There were hands at his throat, too.

"Let us do nothing hastily," said Contarini's voice, close beside him. "We must find out what he knows first. We can make him speak, I daresay."

"We are not hangmen to torture a prisoner till he confesses," observed some one in a quiet and rather indolent tone. "Strangle him quickly and throw him into the canal. It is late already."

"No," answered Contarini. "Let us at least see his face. We may know him. If you cry out," he said to Zorzi, "you will be killed instantly."

"Jacopo is right," said some one who had not spoken yet.

Almost at the same instant a door was opened and a broad bar of light shot across the hall from an inner room. Zorzi was roughly dragged towards it, and he saw that he was surrounded by about twenty masked men. His face was held to the light, and Contarini's hold on his throat relaxed.

"Not even a mask!" exclaimed Jacopo. "A fool, or a madman. Speak, man I Who are you? Who sent you here?"

"My name is Zorzi," answered the glass-blower with difficulty, for he had been almost choked. "My business is with the Lord Jacopo alone. It is very private."

"I have no secrets from my friends," said Contarini. "Speak as if we were alone."

"I have promised my master to deliver the message in secret. I will not speak here."

"Strangle him and throw him out," suggested the man with the indolent voice. "His master is the devil, I have no doubt. He can take the message back with him."

Two or three laughed.

"These spies seldom hunt alone," remarked another. "While we are wasting time a dozen more may be guarding the entrance to the house."

"I am no spy," said Zorzi.

"What are you, then?"

"A glass-worker of Murano."

Contarini's hands relaxed altogether, now, and he bent his ear to Zorzi's lips.

"Whisper your message," he said quickly.

Zorzi obeyed.

"Angelo Beroviero bids you wait by the second pillar on the left in Saint Mark's church, next Sunday morning, at one hour before noon, till you shall see him, and in a week from that time you shall have an answer; and be silent, if you would succeed."

"Very well," answered Contarini. "Friends," he said, standing erect, "it is a message I have expected. The name of the man who sends it is 'Angelo'--you understand. It is not this fellow's fault that he came here this evening."

"I suppose there is a woman in the case," said the indolent man. "We will respect your secret. Put the poor devil out of his misery and let us come to our business."

"Kill an innocent man!" exclaimed Contarini.

"Yes, since a word from him can send us all to die between the two red columns."

"His master is powerful and rich," said Jacopo. "If the fellow does not go back to-night, there will be trouble to-morrow, and since he was sent to my house, the inquiry will begin here."

"That is true," said more than one voice, in a tone of hesitation.

Zorzi was very pale, but he held his head high, facing the light of the tall wax candles on the table around which his captors were standing. He was hopelessly at their mercy, for they were twenty to one; the door had been shut and barred and the only window in the room was high above the floor and covered by a thick curtain. He understood perfectly that, by the accident of Angelo's name, "Angel" being the password of the company, he had been accidentally admitted to the meeting of some secret society, and from what had been said, he guessed that its object was a conspiracy against the Republic. It was clear that in self-defence they would most probably kill him, since they could not reasonably run the risk of trusting their lives in his hands. They looked at each other, as if silently debating what they should do.

"At first you suggested that we should torture him," sneered the indolent man, "and now you tremble like a girl at the idea of killing him! Listen to me, Jacopo; if you think that I will leave this house while this fellow is alive, you are most egregiously mistaken."

He had drawn his dagger while he was speaking, and before he had finished it was dangerously near Zorzi's throat. Contarini retired a step as if not daring to defend the prisoner, whose assailant, in spite of his careless and almost womanish tone, was clearly a man of action. Zorzi looked fearlessly into the eyes that peered at him through the holes in the mask.

"It is curious," observed the other. "He does not seem to be afraid. I am sorry for you, my man, for you appear to be a fine fellow, and I like your face, but we cannot possibly let you go out of the house alive."

"If you choose to trust me," said Zorzi calmly, "I will not betray you. But of course it must seem safer for you to kill me. I quite understand."

"If anything, he is cooler than Venier," observed one of the company.

"He does not believe that we are in earnest," said Contarini.

"I am," answered Venier. "Now, my man," he said, addressing Zorzi again, "if there is anything I can do for you or your family after your death, without risking my neck, I will do it with pleasure."

"I have no family, but I thank you for your offer. In return for your courtesy, I warn you that my master's skiff is fast to the step of the house. It might be recognised. When you have killed me, you had better cast it off--it will drift away with the tide."

Venier, who had let the point of his long dagger rest against Zorzi's collar, suddenly dropped it.

"Contarini," he said, "I take back what I said. It would be an abominable shame to murder a man as brave as he is."

A murmur of approval came from all the company; but Contarini, whose vacillating nature showed itself at every turn, was now inclined to take the other side.

"He may ruin us all," he said. "One word--"

"It seems to me," interrupted a big man who had not yet spoken, and whose beard was as black as his mask, "that we could make use of just such a man as this, and of more like him if they are to be found."

"You are right," said Venier. "If he will take the oath, and bear the tests, let him be one of us. My friend," he said to Zorzi, "you see how it is. You have proved yourself a brave man, and if you are willing to join our company we shall be glad to receive you among us. Do you agree?"

"I must know what the purpose of your society is," answered Zorzi as calmly as before.

"That is well said, my friend, and I like you the better for it. Now listen to me. We are a brotherhood of gentlemen of Venice sworn together to restore the original freedom of our city. That is our main purpose. What Tiepolo and Faliero failed to do, we hope to accomplish. Are you with us in that?"

"Sirs," answered Zorzi, "I am a Dalmatian by birth, and not a Venetian. The Republic forbids me to learn the art of glass-working. I have learned it. The Republic forbids me to set up a furnace of my own. I hope to do so. I owe Venice neither allegiance nor gratitude. If your revolution is to give freedom to art as well as to men, I am with you."

"We shall have freedom for all," said Venier. "We take, moreover, an oath of fellowship which binds us to help each other in all circumstances, to the utmost of our ability and fortune, within the bounds of reason, to risk life and limb for each other's safety, and most especially to respect the wives, the daughters and the betrothed brides of all who belong to our fellowship. These are promises which every true and honest man can make to his friends, and we agree that whoso breaks any one of them, shall die by the hands of the company. And by God in heaven, it were better that you should lose your life now, before taking the oath, than that you should be false to it."

"I will take that oath, and keep it," said Zorzi.

"That is well. We have few signs and no ceremonies, but our promises are binding, and the forfeit is a painful death--so painful that even you might flinch before it. Indeed, we usually make some test of a man's courage before receiving him among us, though most of us have known each other since we were children. But you have shown us that you are fearless and honourable, and we ask nothing more of you, except to take the oath and then to keep it."

He turned to the company, still speaking in his languid way.

"If any man here knows good reason why this new companion should not be one of us, let him show it now."

Then all were silent, and uncovered their heads, but they still kept their masks on their faces. Zorzi stood out before them, and Venier was close beside him.

"Make the sign of the Cross," said Venier in a solemn tone, quite different from his ordinary voice, "and repeat the words after me."

And Zorzi repeated them steadily and precisely, holding his hand stretched out before him.

"In the name of the Holy Trinity, I promise and swear to give life and fortune in the good cause of restoring the original liberty of the people of Venice, obeying to that end the decisions of this honourable society, and to bear all sufferings rather than betray it, or any of its members. And I promise to help each one of my companions also in the ordinary affairs of life, to the best of my ability and fortune, within the bounds of reason, risking life and limb for the safety of each and all. And I promise most especially to honour and respect the wives, the daughters and the betrothed brides of all who belong to this fellowship, and to defend them from harm and insult, even as my own mother. And if I break any promise of this oath, may my flesh be torn from my limbs and my limbs from my body, one by one, to be burned with fire and the ashes thereof scattered abroad. Amen."

When Zorzi had said the last word, Venier grasped his hand, at the same time taking off the mask he wore, and he looked into the young man's face.

"I am Zuan Venier," he said, his indolent manner returning as he spoke.

"I am Jacopo Contarini," said the master of the house, offering his hand next.

Zorzi looked first at one, and then at the other; the first was a very pale young man, with bright blue eyes and delicate features that were prematurely weary and even worn; Contarini was called the handsomest Venetian of his day. Yet of the two, most men and women would have been more attracted to Venier at first sight. For Contarini's silken beard hardly concealed a weak and feminine mouth, with lips too red and too curving for a man, and his soft brown eyes had an unmanly tendency to look away while he was speaking. He was tall, broad shouldered, and well proportioned, with beautiful hands and shapely feet, yet he did not give an impression of strength, whereas Venier's languid manner, assumed as it doubtless was, could not hide the restless energy that lay in his lean frame.

One by one the other companions came up to Zorzi, took off their masks and grasped his hand, and he heard their lips pronounce names famous in Venetian history, Loredan, Mocenigo, Foscari and many others. But he saw that not one of them all was over five-and-twenty years of age, and with the keenness of the waif who had fought his own way in the world he judged that these were not men who could overturn the great Republic and build up a new government. Whatever they might prove to be in danger and revolution, however, he had saved his life by casting his lot with theirs, and he was profoundly grateful to them for having accepted him as one of themselves. But for their generosity, his weighted body would have been already lying at the bottom of the canal, and he was not just now inclined to criticise the mental gifts of those would-be conspirators who had so unexpectedly forgiven him for discovering their secret meeting.

"Sirs," he said, when he had grasped the hand of each, "I hope that in return for my life, for which I thank you, I may be of some service to the cause of liberty, and to each of you in singular, though I have but little hope of this, seeing that I am but an artist and you are all patricians. I pray you, inform me by what sign I may know you if we chance to meet outside this house, and how I may make myself known."

"We have little need of signs," answered Contarini, "for we meet often, and we know each other well. But our password is 'the Angel'--meaning the Angel that freed Saint Peter from his bonds, as we hope to free Venice from hers, and the token we give is the grip of the hand we have each given you."

Being thus instructed, Zorzi held his peace, for he felt that he was in the presence of men far above him in station, in whose conversation it would not be easy for him to join, and of whose daily lives he knew nothing, except that most of them lived in palaces and many were the sons of Councillors of the Ten, and of Senators, and Procurators and of others high in office, whereat he wondered much. But presently, as the excitement of what had happened wore off, and they sat about the table, they began to speak of the news of the day, and especially of the unjust and cruel acts of the Ten, each contributing some detail learned in his own home or among intimate friends. Zorzi sat silent in his place, listening, and he soon understood that as yet they had no definite plan for bringing on a revolution, and that they knew nothing of the populace upon whose support they reckoned, and of whom Zorzi knew much by experience. Yet, though they told each other things which seemed foolish to him, he said nothing on that first night, and all the time he watched Contarini very closely, and listened with especial attention to what he said, trying to discern his character and judge his understanding.

The splendid young Venetian was not displeased by Zorzi's attitude towards him, and presently came and sat beside him.

"I should have explained to you," he said, "that as it would be impossible for us to meet here without the knowledge of my servants, we come together on pretence of playing games of chance. My father lives in our palace near Saint Mark's, and I live here alone."

At this Foscari, the tall man with the black beard, looked at Contarini and laughed a little. Contarini glanced at him and smiled with some constraint.

"On such evenings," he continued, "I admit my guests myself, and they wear masks when they come, for though my servants are dismissed to their quarters, and would certainly not betray me for a dice-player, they might let drop the names of my friends if they saw them from an upper window."

At this juncture Zorzi heard the rattling of dice, and looking down the table he saw that two of the company were already throwing against each other. In a few minutes he found himself sitting alone near Zuan Venier, all the others having either begun to play themselves, or being engaged in wagering on the play of others.

"And you, sir?" inquired Zorzi of his neighbour.

"I am tired of games of chance," answered the pale nobleman wearily.

"But our host says it is a mere pretence, to hide the purpose of these meetings."

"It is more than that," said Venier with a contemptuous smile. "Do you play?"

"I am a poor artist, sir. I cannot."

"Ah, I had forgotten. That is very interesting. But pray do not call me 'sir' nor use any formality, unless we meet in public. At the 'Sign of the Angel' we are all brothers. Yes--yes--of course! You are a poor artist. When I expected to be obliged to cut your throat awhile ago, I really hoped that I might be able to fulfil some last wish of yours."

"I appreciated your goodness." Zorzi laughed a little nervously, now that the danger was over.

"I meant it, my friend, I do assure you. And I mean it now. One advantage of the fellowship is that one may offer to help a brother in any way without insulting him. I am not as rich as I was--I was too fond of those things once"--he pointed to the dice--"but if my purse can serve you, such as it is, I hope you will use it rather than that of another."

It was impossible to be offended, sensitive though Zorzi was.

"I thank you heartily," he answered.

"It would be a curiosity to see money do good for once," said Venier, languidly looking towards the players. "Contarini is losing again," he remarked.

"Does he generally lose much at play?" Zorzi asked, trying to seem indifferent.

Venier laughed softly.

"It is proverbial, 'to lose like Jacopo Contarini'!" he answered.

"Tell me, I beg of you, are all the meetings of the brotherhood like this one?"

"In what way?" asked Venier indifferently.

"Do you merely tell each other the news of the day, and then play at dice all night?"

"Some play cards." Venier laughed scornfully. "This is only the third of our secret sittings, I believe, but many of us meet elsewhere, during the day."

"Our host said that the society made a pretence of play in order to conspire against the State," said Zorzi. "It seems to me that this is making a pretence of conspiracy, with the chance of death on the scaffold, for the sake of dice-playing."

"To tell the truth, I think so too," answered the patrician, leaning back in his chair and looking thoughtfully at the young glass-blower. "It is more interesting to break a law when you may lose your head for it than if you only risk a fine or a year's banishment. I daresay that seems complicated to you."

Zorzi laughed.

"If it is only for the sake of the danger," he said, "why not go and fight the Turks?"

"I have tried to do my share of that," replied Venier quietly. "So have some of the others."

"Contarini?" asked Zorzi.

"No. I believe he has never seen any fighting."

While the two were talking the play had proceeded steadily, and almost in silence. Contarini had lost heavily at first and had then won back his losses and twice as much more.

"That does not happen often," he said, pushing away the dice and leaning back.

Zorzi watched him. The yellow light of the wax candles fell softly upon his silky beard and too perfect features, and made splendid shadows in the scarlet silk of his coat, and flashed in the precious ruby of the ring he wore on his white hand. He seemed a true incarnation of his magnificent city, a century before the rest of all Italy in luxury, in extravagance, in the art of wasteful trifling with great things which is a rich man's way of loving art itself; and there were many others of the company who were of the same stamp as he, but whose faces had no interest for Zorzi compared with Contarini's. Beside him they were but ordinary men in the presence of a young god.

No woman could resist such a man as that, thought the poor waif. It would be enough that Marietta's eyes should rest on him one moment, next Sunday, when he should be standing by the great pillar in the church, and her fate would be sealed then and there, irrevocably. It was not because she was only a glass-maker's daughter, brought up in Murano. What girl who was human would hesitate to accept such a husband? Contarini might choose his wife as he pleased, among the noblest and most beautiful in Italy. One or both of two reasons would explain why his choice had fallen upon Marietta. It was possible that he had seen her, and Zorzi firmly believed that no man could see her without loving her; and Angelo Beroviero might have offered such an immense dowry for the alliance as to tempt Jacopo's father. No one knew how rich old Angelo was since he had returned from Florence and Naples, and many said that he possessed the secret of making gold; but Zorzi knew better than that.

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