The Novels of F. Marion Crawford In Twenty-five Volumes—Authorized Edition
A Maid of Venice
F. MARION CRAWFORD
P. F. Collier & Son New York
Very little was known about George, the Dalmatian, and the servants in the house of Angelo Beroviero, as well as the workmen of the latter's glass furnace, called him Zorzi, distrusted him, suggested that he was probably a heretic, and did not hide their suspicion that he was in love with the master's only daughter, Marietta. All these matters were against him, and people wondered why old Angelo kept the waif in his service, since he would have engaged any one out of a hundred young fellows of Murano, all belonging to the almost noble caste of the glass-workers, all good Christians, all trustworthy, and all ready to promise that the lovely Marietta should never make the slightest impression upon their respectfully petrified hearts. But Angelo had not been accustomed to consider what his neighbours might think of him or his doings, and most of his neighbours and friends abstained with singular unanimity from thrusting their opinions upon him. For this, there were three reasons: he was very rich, he was the greatest living artist in working glass, and he was of a choleric temper. He confessed the latter fault with great humility to the curate of San Piero each year in Lent, but he would never admit it to any one else. Indeed, if any of his family ever suggested that he was somewhat hasty, he flew into such an ungovernable rage in proving the contrary that it was scarcely wise to stay in the house while the fit lasted. Marietta alone was safe. As for her brothers, though the elder was nearly forty years old, it was not long since his father had given him a box on the ears which made him see simultaneously all the colours of all the glasses ever made in Murano before or since. It is true that Giovanni had timidly asked to be told one of the secrets for making fine red glass which old Angelo had learned long ago from old Paolo Godi of Pergola, the famous chemist; and these secrets were all carefully written out in the elaborate character of the late fifteenth century, and Angelo kept the manuscript in an iron box, under his own bed, and wore the key on a small silver chain at his neck.
He was a big old man, with fiery brown eyes, large features, and a very pale skin. His thick hair and short beard had once been red, and streaks of the strong colour still ran through the faded locks. His hands were large, but very skilful, and the long straight fingers were discoloured by contact with the substances he used in his experiments.
He was jealous by nature, rather than suspicious. He had been jealous of his wife while she had lived, though a more devoted woman never fell to the lot of a lucky husband. Often, for weeks together, he had locked the door upon her and taken the key with him every morning when he left the house, though his furnaces were almost exactly opposite, on the other side of the narrow canal, so that by coming to the door he could have spoken with her at her window. But instead of doing this he used to look through a little grated opening which he had caused to be made in the wall of the glass-house; and when his wife was seated at her window, at her embroidery, he could watch her unseen, for she was beautiful and he loved her. One day he saw a stranger standing by the water's edge, gazing at her, and he went out and threw the man into the canal. When she died, he said little, but he would not allow his own children to speak of her before him. After that, he became almost as jealous of his daughter, and though he did not lock her up like her mother, he used to take her with him to the glass-house when the weather was not too hot, so that she should not be out of his sight all day.
Moreover, because he needed a man to help him, and because he was afraid lest one of his own caste should fall in love with Marietta, he took Zorzi, the Dalmatian waif, into his service; and the three were often together all day in the room where Angelo had set up a little furnace for making experiments. In the year 1470 it was not lawful in Murano to teach any foreign person the art of glass-making; for the glass-blowers were a sort of nobility, and nearly a hundred years had passed since the Council had declared that patricians of Venice might marry the daughters of glass-workers without affecting their own rank or that of their children. But old Beroviero declared that he was not teaching Zorzi anything, that the young fellow was his servant and not his apprentice, and did nothing but keep up the fire in the furnace, and fetch and carry, grind materials, and sweep the floor. It was quite true that Zorzi did all these things, and he did them with a silent regularity that made him indispensable to his master, who scarcely noticed the growing skill with which the young man helped him at every turn, till he could be entrusted to perform the most delicate operations in glass-working without any especial instructions. Intent upon artistic matters, the old man was hardly aware, either, that Marietta had learned much of his art; or if he realised the fact he felt a sort of jealous satisfaction in the thought that she liked to be shut up with him for hours at a time, quite out of sight of the world and altogether out of harm's way. He fancied that she grew more like him from day to day, and he flattered himself that he understood her. She and Zorzi were the only beings in his world who never irritated him, now that he had them always under his eye and command. It was natural that he should suppose himself to be profoundly acquainted with their two natures, though he had never taken the smallest pains to test this imaginary knowledge. Possibly, in their different ways, they knew him better than he knew them.
The glass-house was guarded from outsiders as carefully as a nunnery, and somewhat resembled a convent in having no windows so situated that curious persons might see from without what went on inside. The place was entered by a low door from the narrow paved path that ran along the canal. In a little vestibule, ill-lighted by one small grated window, sat the porter, an uncouth old man who rarely answered questions, and never opened the door until he had assured himself by a deliberate inspection through the grating that the person who knocked had a right to come in. Marietta remembered him in his den when she had been a little child, and she vaguely supposed that he had always been there. He had been old then, he was not visibly older now, he would probably never die of old age, and if any mortal ill should carry him off, he would surely be replaced by some one exactly like him, who would sleep in the same box bed, sit all day in the same black chair, and eat bread, shellfish and garlic off the same worm-eaten table. There was no other entrance to the glass-house, and there could be no other porter to guard it.
Beyond the vestibule a dark corridor led to a small garden that formed the court of the building, and on one side of which were the large windows that lighted the main furnace room, while the other side contained the laboratory of the master. But the main furnace was entered from the corridor, so that the workmen never passed through the garden. There were a few shrubs in it, two or three rose-bushes and a small plane-tree. Zorzi, who had been born and brought up in the country, had made a couple of flower-beds, edged with refuse fragments of coloured and iridescent slag, and he had planted such common flowers as he could make grow in such a place, watering them from a disused rain-water cistern that was supposed to have been poisoned long ago. Here Marietta often sat in the shade, when the laboratory was too close and hot, and when the time was at hand during which even the men would not be able to work on account of the heat, and the furnace would be put out and repaired, and every one would be set to making the delicate clay pots in which the glass was to be melted. Marietta could sit silent and motionless in her seat under the plane-tree for a long time when she was thinking, and she never told any one her thoughts.
She was not unlike her father in looks, and that was doubtless the reason why he assumed that she must be like him in character. No one would have said that she was handsome, but sometimes, when she smiled, those who saw that rare expression in her face thought she was beautiful. When it was gone, they said she was cold. Fortunately, her hair was not red, as her father's had been or she might sometimes have seemed positively ugly; it was of that deep ruddy, golden brown that one may often see in Venice still, and there was an abundance of it, though it was drawn straight back from her white forehead and braided into the smallest possible space, in the fashion of that time. There was often a little colour in her face, though never much, and it was faint, yet very fresh, like the tint within certain delicate shells; her lips were of the same hue, but stronger and brighter, and they were very well shaped and generally closed, like her father's. But her eyes were not like his, and the lids and lashes shaded them in such a way that it was hard to guess their colour, and they had an inscrutable, reserved look that was hard to meet for many seconds. Zorzi believed that they were grey, but when he saw them in his dreams they were violet; and one day she opened them wide for an instant, at something old Beroviero said to her, and then Zorzi fancied that they were like sapphires, but before he could be sure, the lids and lashes shaded them again, and he only knew that they were there, and longed to see them, for her father had spoken of her marriage, and she had not answered a single word.
When they were alone together for a moment, while the old man was searching for more materials in the next room, she spoke to Zorzi.
"My father did not mean you to hear that," she said.
"Nevertheless, I heard," answered Zorzi, pushing a small piece of beech wood into the fire through a narrow slit on one side of the brick furnace. "It was not my fault."
"Forget that you heard it," said Marietta quietly, and as her father entered the room again she passed him and went out into the garden.
But Zorzi did not even try to forget the name of the man whom Beroviero appeared to have chosen for his daughter. He tried instead, to understand why Marietta wished him not to remember that the name was Jacopo Contarini. He glanced sideways at the girl's figure as she disappeared through the door, and he thoughtfully pushed another piece of wood into the fire. Some day, perhaps before long, she would marry this man who had been mentioned, and then Zorzi would be alone with old Beroviero in the laboratory. He set his teeth, and poked the fire with, an iron rod.
It happened now and then that Marietta did not come to the glass-house. Those days were long, and when night came Zorzi felt as if his heart were turning into a hot stone in his breast, and his sight was dull, and he ached from his work and felt scorched by the heat of the furnace. For he was not very strong of limb, though he was quick with his hands and of a very tenacious nature, able to endure pain as well as weariness when he was determined to finish what he had begun. But while Marietta was in the laboratory, nothing could tire him nor hurt him, nor make him wish that the hours were less long. He thought therefore of what must happen to him if Jacopo Contarini took Marietta away from Murano to live in a palace in Venice, and he determined at least to find out what sort of man this might be who was to receive for his own the only woman in the world for whose sake it would be perfect happiness to be burned with slow fire. He did not mean to do Contarini any harm. Perhaps Marietta already loved the man, and was glad she was to marry him. No one could have told what she felt, even from that one flashing look she had given her father. Zorzi did not try to understand her yet; he only loved her, and she was his master's daughter, and if his master found out his secret it would be a very evil day for him. So he poked the fire with his iron rod, and set his teeth, and said nothing, while old Beroviero moved about the room.
"Zorzi," said the master presently, "I meant you to hear what I said to my daughter."
"I heard, sir," answered the young man, rising respectfully, and waiting for more.
"Remember the name you heard," said Beroviero.
If the matter had been any other in the world, Zorzi would have smiled at the master's words, because they bade him do just what Marietta had forbidden. The one said "forget," the other "remember." For the first time in his life Zorzi found it easier to obey his lady's father than herself. He bent his head respectfully.
"I trust you, Zorzi," continued Beroviero, slowly mixing some materials in a little wooden trough on the table. "I trust you, because I must trust some one in order to have a safe means of communicating with Casa Contarini."
Again Zorzi bent his head, but still he said nothing.
"These five years you have worked with me in private," the old man went on, "and I know that you have not told what you have seen me do, though there are many who would pay you good money to know what I have been about."
"That is true," answered Zorzi.
"Yes. I therefore judge that you are one of those unusual beings whom God has sent into the world to be of use to their fellow-creatures instead of a hindrance. For you possess the power of holding your tongue, which I had almost believed to be extinct in the human race. I am going to send you on an errand to Venice, to Jacopo Cantarini. If I sent any one from my house, all Murano would know it to-morrow morning, but I wish no one here to guess where you have been."
"No one shall see me," answered Zorzi. "Tell me only where I am to go."
"You know Venice well by this time. You must have often passed the house of the Agnus Dei."
"By the Baker's Bridge?"
"Yes. Go there alone, to-night and ask for Messer Jacopo; and if the porter inquires your business, say that you have a message and a token from a certain Angelo. When you are admitted and are alone with Messer Jacopo, tell him from me to go and stand by the second pillar on the left in Saint Mark's, on Sunday next, an hour before noon, until he sees me; and within a week after that, he shall have the answer; and bid him be silent, if he would succeed."
"Is that all, sir?"
"That is all. If he gives you any message in answer, deliver it to me to-morrow, when my daughter is not here."
"And the token?" inquired Zorzi.
"This glass seal, of which he already has an impression in wax, in case he should doubt you."
Zorzi took the little leathern bag which contained the seal. He tied a piece of string to it, and hung it round his neck, so that it was hidden in his doublet like a charm or a scapulary. Beroviero watched him and nodded in approval.
"Do not start before it is quite dark," he said. "Take the little skiff. The water will be high two hours before midnight, so you will have no trouble in getting across. When you come back, come here, and tell the porter that I have ordered you to see that my fire is properly kept up. Then go to sleep in the coolest place you can find."
After Beroviero had given him these orders, Zorzi had plenty of time for reflection, for his master said nothing more, and became absorbed in his work, weighing out portions of different ingredients and slowly mixing each with the coloured earths and chemicals that were already in the wooden trough. There was nothing to do but to tend the fire, and Zorzi pushed in the pieces of Istrian beech wood with his usual industrious regularity. It was the only part of his work which he hated, and when he was obliged to do nothing else, he usually sought consolation in dreaming of a time when he himself should be a master glass-blower and artist whom it would be almost an honour for a young man to serve, even in such a humble way. He did not know how that was to happen, since there were strict laws against teaching the art to foreigners, and also against allowing any foreign person to establish a furnace at Murano; and the glass works had long been altogether banished from Venice on account of the danger of fire, at a time when two-thirds of the houses were of wood. But meanwhile Zorzi had learned the art, in spite of the law, and he hoped in time to overcome the other obstacles that opposed him.
There was strength of purpose in every line of his keen young face, strength to endure, to forego, to suffer in silence for an end ardently desired. The dark brown hair grew somewhat far back from the pale forehead, the features were youthfully sharp and clearly drawn, and deep neutral shadows gave a look of almost passionate sadness to the black eyes. There was quick perception, imagination, love of art for its own sake in the upper part of the face; its strength lay in the well-built jaw and firm lips, and a little in the graceful and assured poise of the head. Zorzi was not tall, but he was shapely, and moved without effort.
His eyes were sadder than usual just now, as he tended the fire in the silence that was broken only by the low roar of the flames within the brick furnace, and the irregular sound of the master's wooden instrument as he crushed and stirred the materials together. Zorzi had longed to see Contarini as soon as he had heard his name; and having unexpectedly obtained the certainty of seeing him that very night, he wished that the moment could be put off, he felt cold and hot, he wondered how he should behave, and whether after all he might not be tempted to do his enemy some bodily harm.
For in a few minutes the aspect of his world had changed, and Contarini's unknown figure filled the future. Until to-day, he had never seriously thought of Marietta's marriage, nor of what would happen to him afterwards; but now, he was to be one of the instruments for bringing the marriage about. He knew well enough what the appointment in Saint Mark's meant: Marietta was to have an opportunity of seeing Contarini before accepting him. Even that was something of a concession in those times, but Beroviero fancied that he loved his child too much to marry her against her will. This was probably a great match for the glass-worker's daughter, however, and she would not refuse it. Contarini had never seen her either; he might have heard that she was a pretty girl, but there were famous beauties in Venice, and if he wanted Marietta Beroviero it could only be for her dowry. The marriage was therefore a mere bargain between the two men, in which a name was bartered for a fortune and a fortune for a name. Zorzi saw how absurd it was to suppose that Marietta could care for a man whom she had never even seen; and worse than that, he guessed in a flash of loving intuition how wretchedly unhappy she might be with him, and he hated and despised the errand he was to perform. The future seemed to reveal itself to him with the long martyrdom of the woman he loved, and he felt an almost irresistible desire to go to her and implore her to refuse to be sold.
Nine-tenths of the marriages he had ever heard of in Murano or Venice had been made in this way, and in a moment's reflection he realised the folly of appealing even to the girl herself, who doubtless looked upon the whole proceeding as perfectly natural. She had of course expected such an event ever since she had been a child, she was prepared to accept it, and she only hoped that her husband might turn out to be young, handsome and noble, since she did not want money. A moment later, Zorzi included all marriageable young women in one sweeping condemnation: they were all hard-hearted, mercenary, vain, deceitful—anything that suggested itself to his headlong resentment. Art was the only thing worth living and dying for; the world was full of women, and they were all alike, old, young, ugly, handsome—all a pack of heartless jades; but art was one, beautiful, true, deathless and unchanging.
He looked up from the furnace door, and he felt the blood rush to his face. Marietta was standing near and watching him with her strangely veiled eyes.
"Poor Zorzi!" she exclaimed in a soft voice. "How hot you look!"
He did not remember that he had ever cared a straw whether any one noticed that he was hot or not, until that moment; but for some complicated reason connected with his own thoughts the remark stung him like an insult, and fully confirmed his recent verdict concerning women in general and their total lack of all human kindness where men were concerned. He rose to his feet suddenly and turned away without a word.
"Come out into the garden," said Marietta. "Do you need Zorzi just now?" she asked, turning to her father, who only shook his head by way of answer, for he was very busy.
"But I assure you that I am not too hot," answered Zorzi. "Why should I go out?"
"Because I want you to fasten up one of the branches of the red rose. It catches in my skirt every time I pass. You will need a hammer and a little nail."
She had not been thinking of his comfort after all, thought Zorzi as he got the hammer. She had only wanted something done for herself. He might have known it. But for the rose that caught in her skirt, he might have roasted alive at the furnace before she would have noticed that he was hot. He followed her out. She led him to the end of the walk farthest from the door of the laboratory; the sun was low and all the little garden was in deep shade. A branch of the rose-bush lay across the path, and Zorzi thought it looked very much as if it had been pulled down on purpose. She pointed to it, and as he carefully lifted it from the ground she spoke quickly, in a low tone.
"What was my father saying to you a while ago?" she asked.
Zorzi held up the branch in his hand, ready to fasten it against the wall, and looked at her. He saw at a glance that she had brought him out to ask the question.
"The master was giving me certain orders," he said.
"He rarely makes such long speeches when he gives orders," observed the girl.
"His instructions were very particular."
"Will you not tell me what they were?"
Zorzi turned slowly from her and let the long branch rest on the bush while he began to drive a nail into the wall. Marietta watched him.
"Why do you not answer me?" she asked.
"Because I cannot," he said briefly.
"Because you will not, you mean."
"As you choose." Zorzi went on striking the nail.
"I am sorry," answered the young girl. "I really wish to know very much. Besides, if you will tell me, I will give you something."
Zorzi turned upon her suddenly with angry eyes.
"If money could buy your father's secrets from me, I should be a rich man by this time."
"I think I know as much of my father's secrets as you do," answered Marietta more coldly, "and I did not mean to offer you money."
"What then?" But as he asked the question Zorzi turned away again and began to fasten the branch.
Marietta did not answer at once, but she idly picked a rose from the bush and put it to her lips to breathe in its freshness.
"Why should you think that I meant to insult you?" she asked gently.
"I am only a servant, after all," answered Zorzi, with unnecessary bitterness. "Why should you not insult your servants, if you please? It would be quite natural."
"Would it? Even if you were really a servant?"
"It seems quite natural to you that I should betray your father's confidence. I do not see much difference between taking it for granted that a man is a traitor and offering him money to act as one."
"No," said Marietta, smelling the rose from time to time as she spoke, "there is not much difference. But I did not mean to hurt your feelings."
"You did not realise that I could have any, I fancy," retorted Zorzi, still angry.
"Perhaps I did not understand that you would consider what my father was telling you in the same light as a secret of the art," said Marietta slowly, "nor that you would look upon what I meant to offer you as a bribe. The matter concerned me, did it not?"
"Your name was not spoken. I have fastened the branch. Is there anything else for me to do?"
"Have you no curiosity to know what I would have given you?" asked Marietta.
"I should be ashamed to want anything at such a price," returned Zorzi proudly.
"You hold your honour high, even in trifles."
"It is all I have—my honour and my art."
"You care for nothing else? Nothing else in the whole world?"
"Nothing," said Zorzi.
"You must be very lonely in your thoughts," she said, and turned away.
As she went slowly along the path her hand hung by her side, and the rose she held fell from her fingers. Following her at a short distance, on his way back to the laboratory, Zorzi stooped and picked up the flower, not thinking that she would turn her head. But at that moment she had reached the door, and she looked back and saw what he had done. She stood still and held out her hand, expecting him to come up with her.
"My rose!" she exclaimed, as if surprised. "Give it back to me."
Zorzi gave it to her, and the colour came to his face a second time. She fastened it in her bodice, looking down at it as she did so.
"I am so fond of roses," she said, smiling a little. "Are you?"
"I planted all those you have here," he answered.
She looked up as she spoke, and met his eyes, and all at once she laughed, not unkindly, nor as if at him, nor at what he had said, but quietly and happily, as women do when they have got what they want. Zorzi did not understand.
"You are gay," he said coldly.
"Do you wonder?" she asked. "If you knew what I know, you would understand."
"But I do not."
Zorzi went back to his furnace, Marietta exchanged a few words with her father and left the room again to go home.
In the garden she paused a moment by the rose-bush, where she had talked with Zorzi, but there was not even the shadow of a smile in her face now. She went down the dark corridor and called the porter, who roused himself, opened the door and hailed the house opposite. A woman looked out in the evening light, nodded and disappeared. A few seconds later she came out of the house, a quiet little middle-aged creature in brown, with intelligent eyes, and she crossed the shaky wooden bridge over the canal to come and bring Marietta home. It would have been a scandalous thing if the daughter of Angelo Beroviero had been seen by the neighbours to walk a score of paces in the street without an attendant. She had thrown a hood of dark green cloth over her head, and the folds hung below her shoulders, half hiding her graceful figure. Her step was smooth and deliberate, while the little brown serving-woman trotted beside her across the wooden bridge.
The house of Angelo Beroviero hung over the paved way, above the edge of the water, the upper story being supported by six stone columns and massive wooden beams, forming a sort of portico which was at the same time a public thoroughfare; but as the house was not far from the end of the canal of San Piero which opens towards Venice, few people passed that way.
Marietta paused a moment while the woman held the door open for her. The sun had just set and the salt freshness that comes with the rising tide was already in the air.
"I wish I were in Venice this evening," she said, almost to herself.
The serving-woman looked at her suspiciously.
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."
"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.
"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."
"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.
It was past midnight when Jacopo Contarini barred the door of his house and was alone. He took one of the candles from the inner room, put out all the others and was already in the hall, when he remembered that he had left his winnings on the table. Going back he opened the embroidered wallet he wore at his belt and swept the heap of heavy yellow coins into it. As the last disappeared into the bag and rang upon the others he distinctly heard a sound in the room. He started and looked about him.
It was not exactly the sound of a soft footfall, nor of breathing, but it might have been either. It was short and distinct, such a slight noise as might be made by drawing the palm of the hand quickly over a piece of stuff, or by a short breath checked almost instantly, or by a shoeless foot slipping a few inches on a thick carpet. Contarini stood still and listened, for though he had heard it distinctly he had no impression of the direction whence it had come. It was not repeated, and he began to search the room carefully.
He could find nothing. The single window, high above the floor, was carefully closed and covered by a heavy curtain which could not possibly have moved in the stillness. The tapestry was smoothly drawn and fastened upon the four walls. There was no furniture in the room but a big table and the benches and chairs. Above the tapestries the bare walls were painted, up to the carved ceiling. There was nothing to account for the noise. Contarini looked nervously over his shoulder as he left the room, and more than once again as he went up the marble staircase, candle in hand. There is probably nothing more disturbing to people of ordinary nerves than a sound heard in a lonely place and for which it is impossible to find a reason.
When he reached the broad landing he smiled at himself and looked back a last time, shading the candle with his hand, so as to throw the light down the staircase. Then he entered the apartment and locked himself in. Having passed through the large square vestibule and through a small room that led from it, he raised the latch of the next door very cautiously, shaded the candle again and looked in. A cool breeze almost put out the light.
"I am not asleep," said a sweet young voice. "I am here by the window."
He smiled happily at the words. The candle-light fell upon a woman's face, as he went forward—such a face as men may see in dreams, but rarely in waking life.
Half sitting, half lying, she rested in Eastern fashion among the silken cushions of a low divan. The open windows of the balcony overlooked the low houses opposite, and the night breeze played with the little ringlets of her glorious hair. Her soft eyes looked up to her lover's face with infinite trustfulness, and their violet depths were like clear crystal and as tender as the twilight of a perfect day. She looked at him, her head thrown back, one ivory arm between it and the cushion, the other hand stretched out to welcome his. Her mouth was like a southern rose when there is dew on the smooth red leaves. In a maze of creamy shadows, the fine web of her garment followed the lines of her resting limbs in delicate folds, and one small white foot was quite uncovered. Her fan of ostrich feathers lay idle on the Persian carpet.
"Come, my beloved," she said. "I have waited long."
Contarini knelt down, and first he kissed the arching instep, and then her hand, that felt like a young dove just stirring under his touch, and his lips caressed the satin of her arm, and at last, with a fierce little choking cry, they found her own that waited for them, and there was no more room for words. In the silence of the June night one kiss answered another, and breath mingled with breath, and sigh with sigh.
At last the young man's head rested against her shoulder among the cushions. Then the Georgian woman opened her eyes slowly and glanced down at his face, while her hand stroked and smoothed his hair, and he could not see the strange smile on her wonderful lips. For she knew that he could not see it, and she let it come and go as it would, half in pity and half in scorn.
"I knew you would come," she said, bending her head a little nearer to his.
"When I do not, you will know that I am dead," he answered almost faintly, and he sighed.
"And then I shall go to you," she said, but as she spoke, she smiled again to herself. "I have heard that in old times, when the lords of the earth died, their most favourite slaves were killed upon the funeral pile, that their souls might wait upon their master's in the world beyond."
"Yes. It is true."
"And so I will be your slave there, as I am here, and the night that lasts for ever shall seem no longer than this summer night, that is too short for us."
"You must not call yourself a slave, Arisa," answered Jacopo.
"What am I, then? You bought me with your good gold from Aristarchi the Greek captain, in the slave market. Your steward has the receipt for the money among his accounts! And there is the Greek's written guarantee, too, I am sure, promising to take me back and return the money if I was not all he told you I was. Those are my documents of nobility, my patents of rank, preserved in your archives with your own!"
She spoke playfully, smiling to herself as she stroked his hair. But he caught her hand tenderly and brought it to his lips, holding it there.
"You are more free than I," he said. "Which of us two is the slave? You who hold me, or I who am held? This little hand will never let me go."
"I think you would come back to me," she answered. "But if I ran away, would you follow me?"
"You will not run away." He spoke quietly and confidently, still holding her hand, as if he were talking to it, while he felt the breath of her winds upon his forehead.
"No," she said, and there was a little silence.
"I have but one fear," he began, at last. "If I were ruined, what would become of you?"
"Have you lost at play again to-night?" she asked, and in her tone there was a note of anxiety.
Contarini laughed low, and felt for the wallet at his aide. He held it up to show how heavy it was with the gold, and made her take it. She only kept it a moment, but while it was in her hand her eyelids were half closed as if she were guessing at the weight, for he could not see her face.
"I won all that," he said. "To-morrow you shall have the pearls."
"How good you are to me! But should you not keep the money? You may need it. Why do you talk of ruin?"
She knew that he would give her all he had, she almost guessed that he would commit a crime rather than lack gold to give her.
"You do not know my father!" he answered. "When he is displeased he threatens to let me starve. He will cut me off some day, and I shall have to turn soldier for a living. Would that not be ruin? You know his last scheme—he wishes me to marry the daughter of a rich glass-maker."
"I know." Arisa laughed contemptuously, "Great joy may your bride have of you! Is she really rich?"
"Yes. But you know that I will not marry her."
"Why not?" asked Arisa quite simply.
Contarini started and looked up at her face in the dim light. She was bending down to him with a very loving look.
"Why should you not marry?" she asked again. "Why do you start and look at me so strangely? Do you think I should care? Or that I am afraid of another woman for you?"
"Yes. I should have thought that you would be jealous." He still gazed at her in astonishment.
"Jealous!" she cried, and as she laughed she shook her beautiful head, and the gold of her hair glittered in the flickering candle-light. "Jealous? I? Look at me! Is she younger than I? I was eighteen years old the other day. If she is younger than I, she is a child—shall I be jealous of children? Is she taller, straighter, handsomer than I am? Show her to me, and I will laugh in her face! Can she sing to you, as I sing, in the summer nights, the songs you like and those I learned by the Kura in the shadow of Kasbek? Is her hair brighter than mine, is her hand softer, is her step lighter? Jealous? Not I! Will your rich wife be your slave? Will she wake for you, sing for you, dance for you, rise up and lie down at your bidding, work for you, live for you, die for you, as I will? Will she love you as I can love, caress you to sleep, or wake you with kisses at your dear will?"
"No—ah no! There is no woman in the world but you."
"Then I am not jealous of the rest, least of all, of your young bride. I will wager with myself against all her gold for your life, and I shall win—I have won already! Am I not trying to persuade you that you should marry?"
"I have not even seen her. Her father sent me a message to-night, bidding me go to church on Sunday and stand beside a certain pillar."
"To see and be seen," laughed Arisa. "It is not a fair exchange! She will look at the handsomest man in the world—hush! That is the truth. And you will see a little, pale, red-haired girl with silly blue eyes, staring at you, her wide mouth open and her clumsy hands hanging down. She will look like the wooden dolls they dress in the latest Venetian fashion to send to Paris every year, that the French courtiers may know what to wear! And her father will hurry her along, for fear that you should look too long at her and refuse to marry such a thing, even for Marco Polo's millions!"
Contarini laughed carelessly at the description.
"Give me some wine," he said. "We will drink her health."
Arisa rose with the grace of a young goddess, her hair tumbling over her bare shoulders in a splendid golden confusion. Contarini watched her with possessive eyes, as she went and came back, bringing him the drink. She brought him yellow wine of Chios in a glass calix of Murano, blown air-thin upon a slender stem and just touched here and there with drops of tender blue.
"A health to the bride of Jacopo Contarini!" she said, with a ringing little laugh.
Then she set the wine to her lips, so that they were wet with it, and gave him the glass; and as she stooped to give it, her hair fell forward and almost hid her from him.
"A health to the shower of gold!" he said, and he drank.
She sat down beside him, crossing her feet like an Eastern woman, and he set the empty glass carelessly upon the marble floor, as though it had been a thing of no price.
"That glass was made at her father's furnace," he said.
"A pity he could not have made his daughter of glass too," answered Arisa.
"Graceful and silent?"
"And easily destroyed! But if I say that, you will think me jealous, and I am not. She will bring you wealth. I wish her a long life, long enough to understand that she has been sold to you for your good name, like a slave, as I was sold, but that you gave gold for me because you wanted me for myself, whereas you want nothing of her but her gold."
"But for that—" Contarini seemed to be hesitating. "I never meant to marry her," he added.
"And but for that, you would not! But for that! But for the only thing which I have not to give you! I wish the world were mine, with all the rich secret things in it, the myriads of millions of diamonds in the earth, the thousand rivers of gold that lie deep in the mountain rocks, and all mankind, and all that mankind has, from end to end of it! Then you should have it all for your own, and you would not need to marry the little red-haired girl with the fish's mouth!"
Contarini laughed again.
"Have you seen her, that you can describe her so well? She may have black hair. Who knows?"
"Yes. Perhaps it is black, thin and coarse like the hair on a mule's tail; and she has black eyes, like ripe olives set in the white of a hard-boiled egg; and she has a dark skin like Spanish leather which shines when she is hot and is grey when she is cold; and a black down on her upper lip; and teeth like a young horse. I hate those dark women!"
"But you have never seen her! She may be very pretty."
"Pretty, then! She shall be as you choose. She shall have a round face, round eyes, a round nose and a round mouth! Her face shall be pink and white, her eyes shall be of blue glass and her hair shall be as smooth and yellow as fresh butter. She shall have little fat white hands like a healthy baby, a double chin and a short waist. Then she will be what people call pretty."
"Yes," assented Jacopo. "That is very amusing. But just suppose, for the sake of discussion—it is impossible, of course, but suppose it—that instead of there being only one perfectly beautiful woman in the world, whose name is Arisa, there should be two, and that the name of the other chanced to be Marietta Beroviero."
Arisa raised her eyes and gazed steadily at Jacopo.
"You have seen her," she said in a tone of conviction. "She is beautiful."
"No. I give you my word that I have not seen her. I only wanted to know what you would do then."
"I do not believe that any woman is as beautiful as I am," answered the Georgian, with the quiet simplicity of a savage.
"But if there were one, and you saw her?" insisted the man, to see what she would say.
"We could not both live. One of us would kill the other."
"I believe you would," said Jacopo, watching her face.
She had forgotten his presence while she spoke; a fierce hardness had come into her eyes, and her upper lip was a little raised, in a cruel expression, just showing her teeth. He was surprised.
"I never saw you like that," he said.
"You should not make me think of killing," she answered, suddenly leaving her seat and kneeling beside him on the divan. "It is not good to think too much of killing—it makes one wish to do it."
"Then try and kill me with kisses," he said, looking into her eyes, that were growing tender again.
"You would not know you were dying," she whispered, her lips quite close to his.
As she kissed him, she loosened the collar from his white throat, and smoothed his thick hair back from his forehead upon the pillow, and she saw how pale he was, under her touch.
But by and by he fell asleep, and then she very softly drew her arm from beneath his tired head, and slipped from his side, and stood up, with a little sigh of relief. The candle had burned to the socket; she blew it out.
It was still an hour before dawn when she left the room, lifting the heavy curtain that hung before the door of her inner chamber. There, a faint light was burning before a shrine in a silver cup filled with oil. As she fastened the door noiselessly behind her, a man caught her in his arms, lifting her off her feet like a child.
Shaggy black hair grew low upon his bossy forehead, his dark eyes were fierce and bloodshot, a rough beard only half concealed the huge jaw and iron lips. He was half clad, in shirt and hose, and the muscles of his neck and arms stood out like brown ropes as he pressed the beautiful creature to his broad chest.
"I thought he would never sleep to-night," she whispered.
Her eyelids drooped, and her cheeks grew deadly white, and the strong man felt the furious beating of her heart against his own breast. He was Aristarchi, the Greek captain who had sold her for a slave, and she loved him.
In the wild days of sea-fighting among the Greek islands he had taken a small trading galley that had been driven out of her course. He left not a man of her crew alive to tell whether she had been Turkish or Christian, and he took all that was worth taking of her poor cargo. The only prize of any price was the captive Georgian girl who was being brought westward to be sold, like thousands of others in those days, with little concealment and no mystery, in one of the slave markets of northern Italy. Aristarchi claimed her for himself, as his share of the booty, but his men knew her value. Standing shoulder to shoulder between him and her, they drew their knives and threatened to cut her to pieces, if he would not promise to sell her as she was, when they should come to land, and share the price with them. They judged that she must be worth a thousand or fifteen hundred pieces of gold, for she was more beautiful than any woman they had ever seen, and they had already heard her singing most sweetly to herself, as if she were quite sure that she was in no danger, because she knew her own value. So Aristarchi was forced to consent, cursing them; and night and day they guarded her door against him, till they had brought her safe to Venice, and delivered her to the slave-dealers.
Then Aristarchi sold all that he had, except his ship, and it all brought far too little to buy such a slave. She would have gone with him, for she had seen that he was stronger than other men and feared neither God nor man, but she was well guarded, and he was only allowed to talk with her through a grated window, like those at convent gates.
She was not long in the dealers' house, for word was brought to all the young patricians of Venice, and many of them bid against each other for her, in the dealers' inner room, till Contarini outbid them all, saying that he could not live without her, though the price should ruin him, and because he had not enough gold he gave the dealers, besides money, a marvellous sword with a jewelled hilt, which one of his forefathers had taken at the siege of Constantinople, and which some said had belonged to the Emperor Justinian himself, nine hundred years ago.
Then Aristarchi and his men paid the dealers their commission and took the money and the sword. But before he went from the house, the Greek captain begged leave to see Arisa once more at the grating, and he told her that come what might he should steal her away. She bade him not to be in too great haste, and she promised that if he would wait, he should have with her more gold than her new master had given for her, for she would take all he had from him, little by little; and when they had enough they would leave Venice secretly, and live in a grand manner in Florence, or in Rome, or in Sicily. For she never doubted but that he would find some way of coming to her, though she were guarded more closely than in the slave-dealers' house, where the windows were grated and armed men slept before the door, and one of the dealers watched all night.
More than a year had passed since then; the strong Greek knew every corner of the house of the Agnus Dei, and every foothold under Arisa's windows, from the water to the stone sill, by which he could help himself a little as he went up hand over hand by the knotted silk rope that would have cut to the bone any hands but his. She kept it hidden in a cushioned footstool in her inner room. Many a risk he had run, and more than once in winter he had slipped down the rope with haste to let himself gently into the icy water, and he had swum far down the dark canal to a landing-place. For he was a man of iron.
So it came about that Jacopo Contarini lived in a fool's paradise, in which he was not only the chief fool himself, but was moreover in bodily danger more often than he knew. For though Aristarchi had hitherto managed to escape being seen, he would have killed Jacopo with his naked hands if the latter had ever caught him, as easily as a boy wrings a bird's neck, and with as little scruple of conscience.
The Georgian loved him for his hirsute strength, for his fearlessness, even his violence and dangerous temper. He dominated her as naturally as she controlled her master, whose vacillating nature and love of idle ease filled her with contempt. It was for the sake of gold that she acted her part daily and nightly, with a wisdom and unwavering skill that were almost superhuman; and the Greek ruffian agreed to the bargain, and had been in no haste to carry her off, as he might have done at any time. She hoarded the money she got from Jacopo, to give it by stealth to Aristarchi, who hid their growing wealth in a safe place where it was always ready; but she kept her jewels always together, in case of an unexpected flight, since she dared not sell them nor give them to the Greek, lest they should be missed.
Of late it had seemed to them both that the time for their final action was at hand, for it had been clear to Arisa that Jacopo was near the end of his resources, and that his father was resolved to force him to change his life. There were days when he was reduced to borrowing money for his actual needs, and though an occasional stroke of good fortune at play temporarily relieved him, Arisa was sure that he was constantly sinking deeper into debt. But within the week, the aspect of his affairs had changed. The marriage with Marietta had been proposed, and Arisa had made a discovery. She told Aristarchi everything, as naturally as she would have concealed everything from Contarini.
"We shall be rich," she said, twining her white arms round his swarthy neck and looking up into his murderous eyes with something like genuine adoration. "We shall get the wife's dowry for ourselves, by degrees, every farthing of it, and it shall be the dower of Aristarchi's bride instead. I shall not be portionless. You shall not be ashamed of me when you meet your old friends."
"Ashamed!" His arm pressed her to him till she longed to cry out for pain, yet she would not have had him less rough.
"You are so strong!" she gasped in a broken whisper. "Yes—a little looser—so! I can speak now. You must go to Murano to-morrow and find out all about this Angelo Beroviero and his daughter. Try to see her, and tell me whether she is pretty, but most of all learn whether she is really rich."
"That is easy enough. I will go to the furnace and offer to buy a cargo of glass for Sicily."
"But you will not take it?" asked Arisa in sudden anxiety lest he should leave her to make the voyage.
"No, no! I will make inquiries. I will ask for a sort of glass that does not exist."
"Yes," she said, reassured. "Do that. I must know if the girl is rich before I marry him to her."
"But can you make him marry her at all?" asked Aristarchi.
"I can make him do anything I please. We drank to the health of the bride to-night, in a goblet made by her father! The wine was strong, and I put a little syrup of poppies into it. He will not wake for hours. What is the matter?"
She felt the rough man shaking beside her, as if he were in an ague.
"I was laughing," he said, when he could speak. "It is a good jest. But is there no danger in all this? Is it quite impossible that he should take a liking for his wife?"
"And leave me?" Arisa's whisper was hot with indignation at the mere thought. "Then I suppose you would leave me for the first pretty girl with a fortune who wanted to marry you!"
"This Contarini is such a fool!" answered Aristarchi contemptuously, by way of explanation and apology.
Arisa was instantly pacified.
"If he should be foolish enough for that, I have means that will keep him," she answered.
"I do not see how you can force him to do anything except by his passion for you."
"I can. I was not going to tell you yet—you always make me tell you everything, like a child."
"What is it?" asked the Greek. "Have you found out anything new about him? Of course you must tell me."
"We hold his life in our hands," she said quietly, and Aristarchi knew that she was not exaggerating the truth.
She began to tell him how this was the third time that a number of masked men had come to the house an hour after dark, and had stayed till midnight or later, and how Contarini had told her that they came to play at dice where they were safe from interruption, and that on these nights the servants were sent to their quarters at sunset on pain of dismissal if Jacopo found them about the house, but that they also received generous presents of money to keep them silent.
"The man is a fool!" said Aristarchi again. "He puts himself in their power."
"He is much more completely in ours," answered Arisa. "The servants believe that his friends come to play dice. And so they do. But they come for something more serious."
Aristarchi moved his massive head suddenly to an attitude of profound attention.
"They are plotting against the Republic," whispered Arisa. "I can hear all they say."
"Are you sure?"
"I tell you I can hear every word. I can almost see them. Look here. Come with me."
She rose and he followed her to the corner of the room where the small silver lamp burned steadily before an image of Saint Mark, and above a heavy kneeling-stool.
"The foot moves," she said, and she was already on her knees on the floor, pushing the step.
It slid back with the soft sound Contarini had heard before he came upstairs. The upper part of the woodwork was built into the wall.
"They meet in the place below this," Arisa said. "When they are there, I can see a glimmer of light. I cannot get my head in. It is too narrow, but I hear as if I were with them."
"How did you find this out?" asked Aristarchi on the floor beside her, and reaching down into the dark space to explore it with his hand. "It is deep," he continued, without waiting for an answer. "There may be some passage by which one can get down."
"Only a child could pass. You see how narrow it is. But one can hear every sound. They said enough to-night to send them all to the scaffold."
"Better they than we if we ever have to make the choice," said the Greek ominously.
He had withdrawn his arm and was planted upon his hands and knees, his shaggy head hanging over the dark aperture. He was like some rough wild beast that has tracked its quarry to earth and crouches before the hole, waiting for a victim.
"How did you find this out?" he asked again, looking up.
She was standing by the corner of the stool, now, all her marvellous beauty showing in the light of the little lamp and against the wall behind her.
"I was saying my prayers here, the first night they met," she said, as if it were the most natural thing in the world. "I heard voices, as it seemed, under my feet. I tried to push away the stool, and the foot moved. That is all."
Aristarchi's jaw dropped a little as he looked up at her.
"Do you say prayers every night?" he asked in wonder.
"Of course I do. Do you never say a prayer?"
"No." He was still staring at her.
"That is very wrong," she said, in the earnest tone a mother might use to her little child. "Some harm will befall us, if you do not say your prayers."
A slow smile crossed the ruffian's face as he realised that this evil woman who was ready to commit the most atrocious deeds out of love for him, was still half a child.
Marietta awoke before sunrise, with a smile on her lips, and as she opened her eyes, the world seemed suddenly gladder than ever before, and her heart beat in time with it. She threw back the shutters wide to let in the June morning as if it were a beautiful living thing; and it breathed upon her face and caressed her, and took her in its spirit arms, and filled her with itself.
Not a sound broke the stillness, as she looked out, and the glassy waters of the canal reflected delicate tints from the sky, palest green and faintest violet and amber with all the lovely changing colours of the dawn. By the footway a black barge was moored, piled high with round uncovered baskets of beads, white, blue, deep red and black, waiting to be taken over to Venice where they would be threaded for the East, and the colours stood out in strong contrast with the grey stones, the faint reflections in the water and the tender sky above. There were flowers on the window-sill, a young rose with opening buds, growing in a red earthen jar, and a pot of lavender just bursting into flower, with a sweet geranium beside it and some rosemary. Zorzi had planted them all for her, and her serving-woman had helped her to fasten the pots in the window, because it would have been out of the question that any man except her father should enter her room, even when she was not there. But they were Zorzi's flowers, and she bent down and smelt their fragrance. On a table behind her a single rose hung over the edge of a tall glass with a slender stem, almost the counterpart of the one in which Contarini had drunk her health at midnight. Her father had given it to her as it came from the annealing oven, still warm after long hours of cooling with many others like it. She loved it for its grace and lightness, and as for the rose, it was the one she had made Zorzi give back to her yesterday. She meant to keep it in water till it faded, and then she would press it between the first page and the binding of her parchment missal. It would keep some of its faint scent, perhaps, and if any one saw it, no one would ever guess whence it came.
It meant a great thing to her, for it had told her Zorzi's secret, which he had kept so well. He should know hers some day, but not yet, and her drooping lids could hide it if it ever came into her eyes. It was too soon to let him know that she loved him. That was one reason for hiding it, but she had another. If her father guessed that she loved the waif, it would fare ill with him. She fancied she could see the old man's fiery brown eyes and hear his angry voice. Poor Zorzi would be driven from Murano and Venice, never to set foot again within the boundaries of the Republic; for Beroviero was a man of weight and influence, of whom Venice was proud.
Youth would be very sad if it counted time and labour as it is reckoned and valued by mature age. Some day Zorzi would be no longer a mere paid helper, calling himself a servant when his humour was bitter, tending a fire on his knees and grinding coloured earths and salts in a mortar. He had the understanding of the glorious art, and the true love of it, with the magic touch; he would make a name for himself in spite of the harsh Venetian law, and some day his master would be proud to call him son. There would not be many months to wait. Months or years, what mattered, since she loved him and was at last quite sure that he loved her? To-day, that was enough. She would go over to the glass-house and sit in the garden, by the rose he had planted, and now and then she would go into the close furnace room where he worked with her father, or Zorzi would come out for something; she should be near him, she should see his face and hear his quiet voice, and she would say to herself: He loves me, he loves me—as often as she chose, knowing that it was true.
Since she knew it, she was sure that she should see it in his face, that had hidden it from her so long. There would be glances when he thought she was not watching him, his colour would come and go, as yesterday, and he would do her some little service, now and then, in which the sweet truth, against his will, should tell itself to her again and again. It would be a delicious and ever-remembered day, each minute a pearl, each hour a chaplet of jewels, from golden sunrise to golden sunset, all perfect through and through.
There were so many little things she could watch in him, now that she knew the truth, things that had long meant nothing and would mean volumes to-day. She would watch him, and then call him suddenly and see him try to hide the little gladness he would feel as he turned to her; and when they were alone a moment, she would ask him whether he had remembered to forget Jacopo Contarini's name; and some day, but not for a long time yet, she would drop a rose again, and she would turn as he picked it up, but she would not make him give it back to her, and in that way he should know that she loved him. She must not think of that, for it was too soon, yet she could almost see his face as it would be when he knew.
Yesterday her father had talked again of her marriage. A whole month had passed since he had even alluded to it, but this time he had spoken of it as a certainty; and she had opened her eyes wide in surprise. She did not believe that it was to be. How could she marry a man she did not love? How could she love any man but Zorzi? They might show her twenty Venetian patricians, that she might choose among them. Meanwhile she would show her indifference. Nothing was easier than to put on an inscrutable expression which betrayed nothing, but which, as she knew, sometimes irritated her father beyond endurance.
He had always promised that she should not be married against her will, as many girls were. Then why should she marry Contarini, any more than any other man except the one she had chosen? She need only say that Contarini did not please her, and her father would certainly not try to use force. There was therefore nothing to fear, and since her first surprise was over, she felt sure of appearing quite indifferent. She would put the thought out of her mind and begin the day with the perfect certainty that the marriage was altogether impossible.
She looked out over her flowers. The door of the glass-house was open now, and the burly porter was sweeping; she could hear the cypress broom on the flagstones inside, and presently it appeared in sight while the porter was still invisible, and it whisked out a mixture of black dust and bread crumbs and bits of green salad leaves, and the old man came out and swept everything across the footway into the canal. As he turned to go back, the workmen came trooping across the bridge to the furnaces—pale men with intent faces, very different from ordinary working people. For each called himself an artist, and was one; and each knew that so far as the law was concerned the proudest noble in Venice could marry his daughter without the least derogation from patrician dignity. The workmen differed from her own father not in station, but only in the degree of their prosperity.
If Zorzi could ever have been one of them the rest would have been simple enough. But he could not, any more than a black man could turn white at will. There was no evasion of law by which a man not born a Venetian could ever be a glass-blower, or could ever acquire the privileges possessed from birth by one of those shabby, pale young men who were crowding past the porter to go to their hard day's work. Yet dexterous as they were, there was not one that had his skill, there was not one that could compare with him as an artist, as a workman, as a man. No Indian caste, no ancient nobility, no mystic priesthood ever set up a barrier so impassable between itself and the outer world as that which defended the glass-blowers of Murano for centuries against all who wished to be initiated. Even the boys who fed the fires all night were of the calling, and by and by would become workmen, and perhaps masters, legally almost the equals of the splendid nobles who sat in the Grand Council over there in Venice.
Zorzi's very existence was an anomaly. He had no social right to be what he was, and he knew it when he called himself a servant, for the cruel law would not allow him to be anything else so long as he helped Angelo Beroviero.
Suddenly, while Marietta watched the men, Zorzi was there among them, coming out as they went in. He must have risen early, she thought, for she did not know that he had slept in the laboratory. He looked pale and thin as he flattened himself against the door-post to let a workman pass, and then slipped out himself. No one greeted him, even by a nod. Marietta knew that they hated him because he was in her father's confidence; and somehow, instead of pitying him, she was glad.
It seemed natural that he should not be one of them, that he should pass them with quiet indifference and that they should feel for him the instinctive dislike which most inferiors feel for those above them. Doubtless, they looked down upon him, or told themselves that they did; but in their hearts they knew that a man with such a face was born to be their teacher and their master, and the girl was proud of him. He treated them with more civility than they bestowed on him, but it was the courtesy of a superior who would not assert himself, who would scorn to thrust himself forward or in any way to claim what was his by right, if it were not freely offered. Marietta drew back a little, so that she could just see him between the flowers, without being seen.
He stood still, looking down at the canal till the last of the men had passed in. Then, before he went on, he raised his eyes slowly to Marietta's window, not guessing that her own were answering his from behind the rosemary and the geranium. His pale face was very sad and thoughtful as he looked up. She had never seen him look so tired. The porter had shut the door, which he never allowed to remain open one moment longer than was absolutely necessary, and Zorzi stood quite alone on the footway. As he looked, his face softened and grew so tender that the girl who watched him unseen stretched out her arms towards him with unconscious yearning, and her heart beat very fast, so that she felt the pulses in her throat almost choking her; yet her face was pale and her soft lips were dry and cold. For it was not all happiness that she felt; there was a sweet mysterious pain with it, which was nowhere, and yet all through her, that was weakness and yet might turn to strength, a hunger of longing for something dear and unknown and divine, without which all else was an empty shadow. Then her eyes opened to him, as he had never seen them, blue as the depth of sapphires and dewy with love mists of youth's early spring; it was impossible that he should stand there, just beyond the narrow water, and not feel that she saw him and loved him, and that her heart was crying out the true words he never hoped to hear.
But he did not know. And all at once his eyes fell, and she could almost see that he sighed as he turned wearily away and walked with bent head towards the wooden bridge. She would have given anything to look out and see him cross and come nearer, but she remembered that she was not yet dressed, and she blushed as she drew further back into the room, gathering the thin white linen up to her throat, and frightened at the mere thought that he should catch sight of her. She would not call her serving-woman yet, she would be alone a little while longer. She threw back her russet hair, and bent down to smell the rose in the tall glass. The sun was risen now and the first slanting beams shot sideways through her window from the right. The day that was to be so sweet had begun most sweetly. She had seen him already, far earlier than usual; she would see him many times before the little brown maid crossed the canal to bring her home in the evening.
The thought put an end to her meditations, and she was suddenly in haste to be dressed, to be out of the house, to be sitting in the little garden of the glass-house where Zorzi must soon pass again. She called and clapped her hands, and her serving-woman entered from the outer room in which she slept. She brought a great painted earthenware dish, on which fruit was arranged, half of a small yellow melon fresh from the cool storeroom, a little heap of dark red cherries and a handful of ripe plums. There was white wheaten bread, too, and honey from Aquileia, in a little glass jar, and there was a goblet of cold water. The maid set the big dish on the table, beside the glass that held Zorzi's rose, and began to make ready her mistress's clothes.
Marietta tasted the melon, and it was cool and aromatic, and she stood eating a slice of it, just where she could look through the flowers on the window-sill at the door of the glass-house, so that if Zorzi passed again she should see him. He did not come, and she was a little disappointed; but the melon was very good, and afterwards she ate a few cherries and spread a spoonful of honey on a piece of bread, and nibbled at it; and she drank some of the water, looking out of the window over the glass.
"Was it always so beautiful?" she asked, speaking to herself, in a sort of wonder at what she felt, as she set the glass upon the table.
Nella, the maid, turned quickly to her with a look of inquiry.
"What?" she asked. "What is beautiful? The weather? It is summer! Of course it is fine. Did you expect the north wind to-day, or rain from the southwest?"
Marietta laughed, sweet and low. The little maid always amused her. There was something cheerful in the queer little scolding sentences, spoken with a rising inflection on almost every word, musical and yet always seeming to protest gently against anything Marietta said.
"I know of something much more beautiful than the weather," Nella added, seeing that she got no answer except a laugh. "Do you wish to know what is more beautiful than a summer's day?"
"Oh, I know the answer to that!" cried Marietta. "You used to catch me in that way when I was a small girl."
"Well, my little lady, what is the answer? I have said nothing."
"What is more beautiful than a summer's day? Why, two summer's days, of course! I was always dreadfully disappointed when you gave me that answer, for I expected something wonderful."
Nella shook her head as she unfolded the fine linen things, and uttered a sort of little clucking sound, meant to show her disapproval of such childish jests.
"Tut, tut, tut! We are grown up now! Are we children? No, we are a young lady, beautiful and serious! Tut, tut, tut! That you should remember the nonsense I used to talk to make you stop crying for your mother, blessed soul! And I myself was so full of tears that a drop of water would have drowned me! But all passes, praise be to God!"