E-text prepared by Martin Robb
THE LION OF ST. MARK:
A Story of Venice in the Fourteenth Century
G. A. Henty.
Preface. Chapter 1: Venice. Chapter 2: A Conspiracy. Chapter 3: On The Grand Canal. Chapter 4: Carried Off. Chapter 5: Finding A Clue. Chapter 6: The Hut On San Nicolo. Chapter 7: On Board A Trader. Chapter 8: An Attack By Pirates. Chapter 9: The Capture Of The Lido. Chapter 10: Recaptured. Chapter 11: The Battle Of Antium. Chapter 12: In Mocenigo's Power. Chapter 13: The Pirates' Raid. Chapter 14: The End Of The Persecutor. Chapter 15: The Battle Of Pola. Chapter 16: The Recapture Of The Pluto. Chapter 17: An Ungrateful Republic. Chapter 18: The Release Of Pisani. Chapter 19: The Siege Of Chioggia. Chapter 20: The Triumph Of Venice.
Of all the chapters of history, there are few more interesting or wonderful than that which tells the story of the rise and progress of Venice. Built upon a few sandy islands in a shallow lagoon, and originally founded by fugitives from the mainland, Venice became one of the greatest and most respected powers of Europe. She was mistress of the sea; conquered and ruled over a considerable territory bordering on the Adriatic; checked the rising power of the Turks; conquered Constantinople; successfully defied all the attacks of her jealous rivals to shake her power; and carried on a trade relatively as great as that of England in the present day. I have laid my story in the time not of the triumphs of Venice, but of her hardest struggle for existence—when she defended herself successfully against the coalition of Hungary, Padua, and Genoa—for never at any time were the virtues of Venice, her steadfastness, her patriotism, and her willingness to make all sacrifice for her independence, more brilliantly shown. The historical portion of the story is drawn from Hazlitt's History of the Republic of Venice, and with it I have woven the adventures of an English boy, endowed with a full share of that energy and pluck which, more than any other qualities, have made the British empire the greatest the world has ever seen.
G. A. Henty.
Chapter 1: Venice.
"I suppose you never have such nights as these in that misty island of yours, Francisco?"
"Yes, we have," the other said stoutly. "I have seen just as bright nights on the Thames. I have stood down by Paul's Stairs and watched the reflection of the moon on the water, and the lights of the houses on the bridge, and the passing boats, just as we are doing now.
"But," he added honestly, "I must confess that we do not have such still, bright nights very often, while with you they are the rule, though sometimes even here a mist rises up and dims the water, just as it does with us."
"But I have heard you say that the stars are not so bright as we have them here."
"No, I do not think they are, Matteo. I do not remember now, but I do know, when I first came here, I was struck with the brightness of the stars, so I suppose there must have been a difference."
"But you like this better than England? You are glad that your father came out here?"
Francis Hammond did not answer at once.
"I am glad he came out," he said after a pause, "because I have seen many things I should never have seen if I had stayed at home, and I have learned to speak your tongue. But I do not know that I like it better than home. Things are different, you see. There was more fun at home. My father had two or three apprentices, whom I used to play with when the shop was closed, and there were often what you would call tumults, but which were not serious. Sometimes there would be a fight between the apprentices of one ward and another. A shout would be raised of 'Clubs!' and all the 'prentices would catch up their sticks and pour out of the shops, and then there would be a fight till the city guard turned out and separated them. Then there used to be the shooting at the butts, and the shows, and the Mayday revels, and all sorts of things. The people were more merry than you are here, and much more free. You see, the barons, who are the same to us that your great families are to you, had no influence in the city. You are a nation of traders, and so are we; but in London the traders have the power, and are absolute masters inside their own walls, caring nothing for the barons, and not much for the king. If anyone did wrong he got an open and fair trial. There was no fear of secret accusations. Everyone thought and said as he pleased. There was no Lion's Mouth, and no Council of Ten."
"Hush! hush! Francisco," the other said, grasping his arm. "Do not say a word against the council. There is no saying who may be listening."
And he looked nervously round to see if anyone was within earshot.
"There it is, you see," his companion said. "So long as we have a safe conscience, in London we are frightened at nothing, whereas here no one can say with certainty that he may not, before tomorrow morning, be lying in the dungeons of St. Mark, without the slightest idea in the world as to what his crime has been."
"There, there, Francisco," Matteo said uneasily. "Do talk about other things. Your notions may do very well in England, but are not safe to discuss here. Of course there are plenty here who would gladly see a change in some matters, but one cannot have everything; and, after all, when one has so much to be proud of, one need not grumble because everything is not just as one would like."
"Yes, you have much to be proud of," Francis Hammond agreed. "It is marvellous that the people of these scattered islets should be masters of the sea, that their alliance should be coveted by every power in Europe, that they should be the greatest trading community in the world. If I were not English I should like to be Venetian."
The speakers were standing at the edge of the water in front of the Palace of St. Mark. In the piazza behind them a throng of people were walking to and fro, gossiping over the latest news from Constantinople, the last rumour as to the doings of the hated rival of Venice, Genoa, or the purport of the letter which had, as everyone knew, been brought by the Bishop of Treviso from the pope to the seignory.
The moon was shining brightly overhead, and glittering in the waters of the lagoon, which were broken into innumerable little wavelets by the continual crossing and recrossing of the gondolas dotting its surface. There was a constant arrival and departure of boats from the steps, fifty yards to the right of the spot where the speakers were standing; but where they had stationed themselves, about halfway between the landing steps and the canal running down by the side of the ducal palace, there were but few people about.
Francis Hammond was a lad between fifteen and sixteen years old. His father was a merchant of London. He was a man of great enterprise and energy, and had four years before determined to leave his junior partner in charge of the business in London, and to come out himself for a time to Venice, so as to buy the Eastern stuffs in which he dealt at the headquarters of the trade, instead of paying such prices as the agents of the Venetian traders might demand in London.
He had succeeded beyond his expectations. In Venice there were constantly bargains to be purchased from ships returning laden with the spoils of some captured Genoese merchantman, or taken in the sack of some Eastern seaport. The prices, too, asked by the traders with the towns of Syria or the Black Sea, were but a fraction of those charged when these goods arrived in London. It was true that occasionally some of his cargoes were lost on the homeward voyage, captured either by the Genoese or the Moorish pirates; but even allowing for this, the profits of the trade were excellent.
The English merchant occupied a good position in Venice. The promptness of his payments, and the integrity of his dealings, made him generally respected; and the fact that he was engaged in trade was no drawback to his social position, in a city in which, of all others, trade was considered honourable, and where members of even the most aristocratic families were, with scarcely an exception, engaged in commerce. There were many foreign merchants settled in Venice, for from the first the republic had encouraged strangers to take up their residence there, and had granted them several privileges and advantages.
Between Venice and England there had always been good feeling. Although jealous of foreigners, England had granted the Venetians liberty to trade in London, Southampton, and some other towns as far back as the year 1304; and their relations had always been cordial, as there were no grounds for jealousy or rivalry between the two peoples; whereas the interference of France, Germany, Austria, and Hungary in the affairs of Italy, had frequently caused uneasiness to Venice, and had on several occasions embroiled her with one or other of the three last named powers. France had as yet taken a very minor part in the continual wars which were waged between the rival cities of Italy, and during the Crusades there had been a close alliance between her and Venice, the troops of the two nations fighting together at the siege of Constantinople, and causing the temporary overthrow of the Greek Empire of the East.
The rise of Venice had been rapid, and she owed her advancement to a combination of circumstances. In the first place, her insular position rendered her almost impervious to attack, and she had therefore no occasion to keep on foot any army, and was able to throw all her strength on to the sea, where Genoa was her only formidable rival. In the second place, her mercantile spirit, and her extensive trade with the East, brought in a steady influx of wealth, and her gold enabled her to purchase allies, to maintain lengthy struggles without faltering, and to emerge unscathed from wars which exhausted the resources, and crippled the powers, of her rivals.
The third source of her success lay in the spirit of her population. Like Rome in her early days, she was never cast down by reverses. Misfortune only nerved her to further exertions, and after each defeat she rose stronger than before. But the cause which, more than all, contributed to give to Venice her ascendancy among the cities of Italy, was her form of government. Democratic at first, as among all communities, it had gradually assumed the character of a close oligarchy, and although nominally ruled by a council containing a large number of members, her destinies were actually in the hands of the Doge, elected for life, and the Council of Ten, chosen from the great body of the council. Thus she had from the first been free from those factions which were the bane of Genoa and Florence. Some of the great families had from time to time come more prominently to the front than others, but none had attained predominant political power, and beyond a few street tumults of slight importance, Venice had not suffered from the popular tumults and uprisings which played so prominent a part in the history of her rivals.
Thus, undisturbed by discord at home, Venice had been able to give all her attention and all her care to her interests abroad, and her affairs, conducted as they were by her wisest citizens, with a single eye to the benefit of the state, had been distinguished by a rare sagacity. Her object had been single and uniform, to protect her own interests, and to prevent any one city on the mainland attaining such a preponderance as would render her a dangerous neighbour. Hence she was always ready to ally herself with the weaker against the stronger, and to aid with money and men any state struggling against an ambitious neighbour. Acting on this principle she by turns assisted Padua against Verona, and Verona against Padua, or either of them when threatened by the growing power of Milan, and at the end of a war she generally came out with an increased territory, and added importance.
It is probable that no community was ever governed, for hundreds of years, with such uniform wisdom and sagacity as was Venice; but the advantage was not without drawbacks. The vigilance of the Council of Ten in repressing plots, not unfrequently set on foot by the enemies of the republic, resulted in the adoption of a hateful system of espionage. The city was pervaded with spies, and even secret denunciations were attended to, and the slightest expression of discontent against the ruling authorities was severely punished. On the other hand, comparatively slight attention was paid to private crime. Assassinations were of frequent occurrence, and unless the victim happened to be very powerfully connected, no notice was taken when a man was found to be missing from his usual place, and his corpse was discovered floating in the lagoon. Consequently crimes of this kind were, in the great majority of cases, committed with impunity, and even when traced, the authors, if possessed of powerful protectors, seldom suffered any greater punishment than temporary banishment.
After standing for some time on the Piazzetta, the two lads turned and, entering the square of Saint Mark, mingled with the crowd. It was a motley one. Nobles in silks and satins jostled with fishermen of the lagoons. Natives of all the coasts and islands which owned the sway of Venice, Greeks from Constantinople, Tartar merchants from the Crimea, Tyrians, and inhabitants of the islands of the Aegean, were present in considerable numbers; while among the crowd, vendors of fruit and flowers from the mainland, and of fresh water or cooling drinks, sold their wares. The English lad's companion—Matteo Giustiniani—belonged to one of the leading families of Venice, and was able to name to Francis most of the nobles and persons of importance whom they passed.
"There is Pisani," he said. "Of course you know him. What a jolly, good-tempered looking fellow he is! The sailors would do anything for him, and they say he will have command of the next fleet that puts to sea. I wish I was going with him. There is sure to be a fierce fight when he comes across the Genoese. His father was one of our greatest admirals.
"That noble just behind him is Fiofio Dandolo. What a grand family they have been, what a number of great men they have given to the republic! I should like to have seen the grand old Doge who stormed the walls of Constantinople, and divided the Eastern empire among the crusading barons. He was a hero indeed.
"No; I don't know who that young noble in the green velvet cap and plum coloured dress is. O yes, I do, though; it is Ruggiero Mocenigo; he has been away for the last two years at Constantinople; he was banished for having killed Polo Morosini—he declared it was in fair fight, but no one believed him. They had quarrelled a few days before over some question of the precedence of their families, and Morosini was found dead at the top of the steps close to the church of Saint Paolo. Some people heard a cry and ran up just as Mocenigo leapt into his gondola, but as it rowed off their shouts called the attention of one of the city guard boats which happened to be passing, and it was stopped. As his sword was still wet with blood, he could not deny that he was the author of the deed, but, as I said, he declared it was in fair fight. The Morosinis asserted that Polo's sword was undrawn, but the Mocenigo family brought forward a man, who swore that he was one of the first to arrive, and pick up the sword and place it in its scabbard to prevent its being lost. No doubt he lied; but as Mocenigo's influence in the council was greater than that of the Morosini, the story was accepted. However, the public feeling was so strong that they could not do less than sentence Ruggiero to two years' banishment. I suppose that has just expired, and he has returned from Constantinople. He had a bad reputation before this affair took place, but as his connections are so powerful, I suppose he will be received as if nothing had happened. There are plenty of others as bad as he is."
"It's a scandalous thing," Francis Hammond said indignantly, "that, just because they have got powerful connections, men should be allowed to do, almost with impunity, things for which an ordinary man would be hung. There ought to be one law for the rich as well as the poor."
"So there is as far as the state is concerned," his companion replied. "A noble who plots against the state is as certain of a place in the lowest dungeons as a fisherman who has done the same; but in other respects there is naturally some difference."
"Why naturally?" Francis retorted. "You belong to a powerful family, Giustiniani, and my father is only a trader, but I don't see that naturally you have any more right to get me stabbed in the back, than I have to get you put out of the way."
"Naturally perhaps not," Matteo laughed; "but you see it has become a second nature to us here in Venice. But seriously I admit that the present state of things has grown to be a scandal, and that the doings of some of our class ought to be put down with a strong hand."
"Well, I shall say goodnight now," the English boy said. "My father doesn't like my being out after ten. He keeps up his English habits of shutting up early, and has not learned to turn night into day as you do here in Venice."
"The bell has just tolled the hour, Francis," his father said as he entered.
"I didn't think it was quite so late, father; the Piazza is crowded. I really do not think there is one person in Venice who goes to bed so early as we do. It is so pleasant in the moonlight after the heat of the day."
"That is true enough, Francis, but men are meant to sleep at night and to work in the day. I think our fathers carried this too far when they rang the curfew at eight; but ten is quite late enough for any honest man to be about in the streets, and the hours of the early morning are just as pleasant and far more healthy than those of the evening, especially in a place like this where the mists rise from the water, to say nothing of the chance of meeting a band of wild gallants on their way homewards heated with wine, or of getting a stab in the back from some midnight assassin. However, I do not blame Venice for enjoying herself while she can. She will have more serious matters to attend to soon."
"But she is at peace with every one at present, father. I thought when she signed the treaty with Austria after a year's fighting, she was going to have rest for a time."
"That was only the beginning of the trouble, Francis, and the council knew it well; that was why they made such terms with Austria as they did. They knew that Austria was only acting in accord with Hungary, and Padua, and Genoa. The others were not ready to begin, so Austria came on her own account to get what booty and plunder she could. But the storm is gathering, and will burst before long. But do not let us stand talking here any longer. It is high time for you to be in bed."
But though Francis retired to his room, it was more than an hour before he got into bed. His window looked down upon one of the canals running into the Grand Canal. Gondolas lighted by lanterns, or by torches held by servitors, passed constantly backwards and forwards beneath his window, and by leaning out he could see the passing lights of those on the Grand Canal. Snatches of song and laughter came up to him, and sometimes the note of a musical instrument. The air was soft and balmy, and he felt no inclination for sleep.
Francis thought over what his father had said of the probability of war, as he sat at his window, and wished that he were a couple of years older and could take part in the struggle. The Venetian fleet had performed such marvels of valour, that, in the days when military service was almost the sole avenue to distinction and fortune, the desire to take part in a naval expedition, which promised unusual opportunities of gaining credit and renown, was the most natural thing possible for a boy of spirit.
Francis was a well built lad of nearly sixteen. He had, until he left London when about twelve years old, taken his full share in the rough sports which formed so good a training for the youths of England, and in which the citizens of London were in no way behind the rest of the kingdom. He had practised shooting with a light bow and arrows, in company with boys of his own age, in the fields outside the city walls; had engaged in many a rough tussle with light clubs and quarterstaffs; and his whole time—except for an hour or two daily which he had, as the son of a well to do citizen, spent in learning to read and write—had been occupied in games and exercises of one kind or other.
Since his arrival in Venice he had not altogether discontinued his former habits. At his earnest solicitation, his father had permitted him to attend the School of Arms, where the sons of patricians and well-to-do merchants learned the use of sword and dagger, to hurl the javelin, and wield the mace and battleaxe; and was, besides, a frequenter of some of the schools where old soldiers gave private lessons in arms to such as could afford it; and the skill and strength of the English lad excited no slight envy among the young Venetian nobles. Often, too, he would go out to one of the sandy islets, and there setting up a mark, practise with the bow. His muscles too, had gained strength and hardness by rowing. It was his constant habit of an evening, when well away from the crowded canals in the gondola, with Giuseppi, the son and assistant of his father's gondolier, to take an oar, for he had thoroughly mastered the difficult accomplishment of rowing well in a gondola; but he only did this when far out from the city, or when the darkness of evening would prevent his figure from being recognized by any of his acquaintances, for no Venetian of good family would demean himself by handling an oar. Francis, however, accustomed to row upon the Thames, could see no reason why he should not do the same in a gondola, and in time he and his companion could send the boat dancing over the water, at a rate which enabled them to overtake and distance most pair-oared boats.
After breakfast next morning he went down to the steps, where Beppo and Giuseppi, in their black cloth suits with red sashes round their waists, were waiting with the gondola in which Mr. Hammond was going out to Malamocco, to examine a cargo which had the day before arrived from Azoph. Giuseppi jumped ashore.
"I have heard of just the gondola to suit you, Messer Francisco, and you can get her a bargain."
"What is she like, Giuseppi?"
"She belongs to a man out at Lido. She was built for the race two years ago, but her owner fell sick and was unable to start. He has not got strong again, and wants to sell his boat, which is far too light for ordinary work. They say she is almost like an eggshell, and you and I will be able to send her along grandly. She cost four ducats, but he will sell her for two."
"That is capital, Giuseppi. This gondola is all well enough for my father, but she is very heavy. This evening we will row over to Lido and look at her."
A few minutes later Mr. Hammond came down. Beppo and his son took off their jackets, and in their snow white shirts and black trousers, set off by the red scarf and a red ribbon round their broad hats, took their places on the bow and stern. Mr. Hammond sat down on the cushions in the middle of the boat, and with an easy, noiseless motion the gondola glided away from the stairs. Francis, with a little sigh, turned away and strolled off for a couple of hours' work with the preceptor, with whom he had continued his studies since he came to Venice.
This work consisted chiefly of learning various languages, for in those days there was little else to learn. Latin was almost universally spoken by educated men in southern Europe, and Greeks, Italians, Spaniards, and Frenchmen were able to converse in this common medium. French Francis understood, for it was the language in use in the court and among the upper classes in England. Italian he picked up naturally during his residence, and spoke it with the facility of a native. He could now converse freely in Latin, and had some knowledge of German. At the same school were many lads of good Venetian families, and it was here that he had first made the acquaintance of Matteo Giustiniani, who was now his most intimate friend.
Matteo, like all the young nobles of Venice, was anxious to excel in military exercises, but he had none of the ardour for really hard work which distinguished his friend. He admired the latter's strength and activity, but could not bring himself to imitate him, in the exercises by which that strength was attained, and had often remonstrated with him upon his fondness for rowing.
"It is not seemly, Francisco, for a gentleman to be labouring like a common gondolier. These men are paid for doing it; but what pleasure there can be in standing up working that oar, till you are drenched with perspiration, I cannot understand. I don't mind getting hot in the School of Arms, because one cannot learn to use the sword and dagger without it, but that's quite another thing from tugging at an oar."
"But I like it, Matteo; and see how strong it has made my muscles, not of the arm only, but the leg and back. You often say you envy me my strength, but you might be just as strong if you chose to work as I do. Besides, it is delightful, when you are accustomed to it, to feel the gondola flying away under your stroke."
"I prefer feeling it fly away under some one else's stroke, Francisco. That is pleasant enough, I grant; but the very thought of working as you do throws me into a perspiration. I should like to be as strong as you are, but to work as a gondolier is too high a price to pay for it."
That evening, Francis crossed the lagoon in the gondola with Giuseppi, to inspect the boat he had heard of. It was just what he wanted. In appearance it differed in no way from an ordinary gondola, but it was a mere shell. The timbers and planking were extremely light, and the weight of the boat was little more than a third of that of other craft. She had been built like a working gondola, instead of in the form of those mostly used for racing, because her owner had intended, after the race was over, to plank her inside and strengthen her for everyday work. But the race had never come off, and the boat lay just as she had come from the hands of her builder, except that she had been painted black, like other gondolas, to prevent her planks from opening. When her owner had determined to part with her he had given her a fresh coat of paint, and had put her in the water, that her seams might close up.
"I don't like parting with her," the young fisherman to whom she belonged said. "I tried her once or twice, and she went like the wind, but I got fever in my bones and I am unlikely to race again, and the times are hard, and I must part with her."
Francis and Giuseppi gave her a trial, and were delighted with the speed and ease with which she flew through the water. On their return Francis at once paid the price asked for her. His father made him a handsome allowance, in order that he might be able to mix, without discomfort, with the lads of good family whom he met at his preceptor's and at the schools of arms. But Francis did not care for strolling in the Piazza, or sitting for hours sipping liquors. Still less did he care for dress or finery. Consequently he had always plenty of money to indulge in his own special fancies.
As soon as the bargain was completed, Giuseppi took his place in the old gondola, while Francis took the oar in his new acquisition, and found to his satisfaction that with scarcely an effort he could dart ahead of his companion and leave him far behind. By nightfall the two gondolas were fastened, side by side, behind the gaily painted posts which, in almost all Venetian houses, are driven into the canal close to the steps, and behind which the gondolas belonging to the house lie safe from injury by passing craft.
"I have bought another gondola, father," Francis said the next morning. "She is a very light, fast craft, and I got her cheap."
"I don't see what you wanted another gondola for, Francis. I do not use mine very much, and you are always welcome to take it when I do not want it."
"Yes, father, but you often use it in the evening, and that is just the time when one wants to go out. You very often only take Beppo with you, when you do not go on business, and I often want a boat that I could take with Giuseppi. Besides, your gondola is a very solid one, and I like passing people."
"Young people always want to go fast," Mr. Hammond said. "Why, I can't make out. However, Francis, I am not sorry that you have got a boat of your own, for it has happened several times lately, that when in the evening I have gone down intending to row round to the Piazzetta, I have found the boat gone, and have had to walk. Now I shall be able to rely on finding Beppo asleep in the boat at the steps. In future, since you have a boat of your own, I shall not be so particular as to your being in at ten. I do not so much mind your being out on the water, only you must promise me that you will not be in the streets after that hour. There are frequent broils as the evening gets on, not to mention the danger of cutthroats in unfrequented lanes; but if you will promise me that you will never be about the streets after half past nine, I will give you leave to stay out on the water till a later hour; but when you come in late be careful always to close and bar the door, and do not make more noise than you can help in coming up to your room."
Francis was much pleased with this concession, for the obligation to return at ten o'clock, just when the temperature was most delightful and the Grand Canal at its gayest, had been very irksome to him. As to the prohibition against being in the streets of Venice after half past nine, he felt that no hardship whatever, as he found no amusement in strolling in the crowded Piazza.
Chapter 2: A Conspiracy.
"Who are those ladies, Matteo?" Francis asked his friend one evening, as the latter, who was sitting with him in his gondola, while Giuseppi rowed them along the Grand Canal, half rose and saluted two girls in a passing gondola.
"They are distant cousins of mine, Maria and Giulia Polani. They only returned a short time since from Corfu. Their father is one of the richest merchants of our city. He has for the last three years been living in Corfu, which is the headquarters of his trade. The family is an old one, and has given doges to Venice. They are two of our richest heiresses, for they have no brothers. Their mother died soon after the birth of Giulia."
"They both look very young," Francis said.
"Maria is about sixteen, her sister two years younger. There will be no lack of suitors for their hands, for although the family is not politically powerful, as it used to be, their wealth would cause them to be gladly received in our very first families."
"Who was the middle-aged lady sitting between them?"
"She is only their duenna," Matteo said carelessly. "She has been with them since they were children, and their father places great confidence in her. And he had need to, for Maria will ere long be receiving bouquets and perfumed notes from many a young gallant."
"I can quite fancy that," Francis said, "for she is very pretty as well as very rich, and, as far as I have observed, the two things do not go very often together. However, no doubt by this time her father has pretty well arranged in his mind whom she is to marry."
"I expect so," agreed Matteo.
"That is the worst of being born of good family. You have got to marry some one of your father's choice, not your own, and that choice is determined simply by the desire to add to the political influence of the family, to strengthen distant ties, or to obtain powerful connections. I suppose it is the same everywhere, Matteo, but I do think that a man or woman ought to have some voice in a matter of such importance to them."
"I think so, too, at the present time," Matteo laughed; "but I don't suppose that I shall be of that opinion when I have a family of sons and daughters to marry.
"This gondola of yours must be a fast one indeed, Francisco, for with only one rower she keeps up with almost all the pair oared boats, and your boy is not exerting himself to the utmost, either."
"She can fly along, I can tell you, Matteo. You shall come out in her some evening when Giuseppi and I both take oars. I have had her ten days now, and we have not come across anything that can hold her for a moment."
"It is always useful," Matteo said, "to have a fast boat. It is invaluable in case you have been getting into a scrape, and have one of the boats of the city watch in chase of you."
"I hope I sha'n't want it for any purpose of that sort," Francis answered, laughing. "I do not think I am likely to give cause to the city watch to chase me."
"I don't think you are, Francisco, but there is never any saying."
"At any rate it is always useful to be able to go fast if necessary, and if we did want to get away, I do not think there are many pair-oared gondolas afloat that would overtake us, though a good four oar might do so. Giuseppi and I are so accustomed to each other's stroke now, that though in a heavy boat we might not be a match for two men, in a light craft like this, where weight does not count for so much, we would not mind entering her for a race against the two best gondoliers on the canals, in an ordinary boat."
A few evenings later, Francis was returning homewards at about half past ten, when, in passing along a quiet canal, the boat was hailed from the shore.
"Shall we take him, Messer Francisco?" Giuseppi asked in a low voice; for more than once they had late in the evening taken a fare.
Francis rowed, like Giuseppi, in his shirt, and in the darkness they were often taken for a pair-oared gondola on the lookout for a fare. Francis had sometimes accepted the offer, because it was an amusement to see where the passenger wished to go—to guess whether he was a lover hastening to keep an appointment, a gambler on a visit to some quiet locality, where high play went on unknown to the authorities, or simply one who had by some error missed his own gondola, and was anxious to return home. It made no difference to him which way he rowed. It was always possible that some adventure was to be met with, and the fare paid was a not unwelcome addition to Giuseppi's funds.
"Yes, we may as well take him," he replied to Giuseppi's question.
"You are in no hurry to get to bed, I suppose?" the man who had hailed them said as the boat drew up against the wall of the canal.
"It does not make much difference to us, if we are well paid, to keep awake," Giuseppi said.
Upon such occasions he was always the spokesman.
"You know San Nicolo?"
"Yes, I know it," Giuseppi said; "but it is a long row—six miles, if it's a foot."
"You will have to wait there for an hour or two, but I will give you half a ducat for your night's work."
"What do you say, partner?" Giuseppi asked Francis.
"We may as well go," the lad replied after a moment's pause.
The row was certainly a long one, but the night was delightful, and the half ducat was a prize for Giuseppi; but what influenced Francis principally in accepting was curiosity. San Nicolo was a little sandy islet lying quite on the outside of the group of islands. It was inhabited only by a few fishermen; and Francis wondered that a man, evidently by his voice and manner of address belonging to the upper class, should want to go to such a place as this at this hour of the night. Certainly no ordinary motives could actuate him.
As the stranger took his place in the boat, Francis saw by the light of the stars that he was masked; but there was nothing very unusual in this, as masks were not unfrequently worn at night by young gallants, when engaged on any frolic in which they wished their identity to be unrecognized. Still it added to the interest of the trip; and dipping his oar in the water he set out at a slow, steady stroke well within his power. He adopted this partly in view of the length of the row before them, partly because the idea struck him that it might be as well that their passenger should not suspect that the boat was other than an ordinary gondola. The passenger, however, was well satisfied with the speed, for they passed two or three other gondolas before issuing from the narrow canals, and starting across the broad stretch of the lagoon.
Not a word was spoken until the gondola neared its destination. Then the passenger said:
"You row well. If you like the job I may employ you again."
"We are always ready to earn money," Francis said, speaking in a gruff voice quite unlike his own.
"Very well. I will let you know, as we return, what night I shall want you again. I suppose you can keep your mouths shut on occasion, and can go without gossiping to your fellows as to any job on which you are employed?"
"We can do that," Francis said. "It's no matter to us where our customers want to go, if they are willing to pay for it; and as to gossiping, there is a saying, 'A silver gag is the best for keeping the mouth closed.'"
A few minutes later the bow of the gondola ran up on the sandy shore of San Nicolo. The stranger made his way forward and leapt out, and with the words, "It may be two hours before I am back," walked rapidly away.
"Why, Messer Francisco," Giuseppi said when their passenger was well out of hearing, "what on earth possessed you to accept a fare to such a place as this? Of course, for myself, I am glad enough to earn half a ducat, which will buy me a new jacket with silver buttons for the next festa; but to make such a journey as this was too much, and it will be very late before we are back. If the padrone knew it he would be very angry."
"I didn't do it to enable you to earn half a ducat, Giuseppi, although I am glad enough you should do so; but I did it because it seemed to promise the chance of an adventure. There must be something in this. A noble—for I have no doubt he is one—would never be coming out to San Nicolo, at this time of night, without some very strong motive. There can be no rich heiress whom he might want to carry off living here, so that can't be what he has come for. I think there must be some secret meeting, for as we came across the lagoon I saw one or two beats in the distance heading in this direction. Anyhow, I mean to try and find out what it all means."
"You had better not, sir," Giuseppi said earnestly. "If there is any plot on foot we had best not get mixed up in it. No one is too high or too low to escape the vengeance of the council, if found plotting against the state; and before now gondolas, staved in and empty, have been found drifting on the lagoons, and the men who rowed them have never been heard of again. Once in the dungeons of Saint Mark it would be of no use to plead that you had entered into the affair simply for the amusement. The fact that you were not a regular boatman would make the matter all the worse, and the maxim that 'dead men tell no tales' is largely acted upon in Venice.
"I think, sir, the best plan will be to row straight back, and leave our fare to find his way home as best he may."
"I mean to find something out about it if I can, Giuseppi. A state secret may be dangerous, but it may be valuable. Anyhow, there can be no great risk in it. On the water I think we can show our heels to anyone who chases us; and once in Venice, we are absolutely safe, for no one would suspect a gondola of Mr. Hammond, the English merchant, of having any connection with a hired craft with its two gondoliers."
"That is true enough, sir; but I don't like it for all that. However, if you have made up your mind to it, there is nothing more to be said."
"Very well. You stay here, and I will go and look round. You had better get the gondola afloat, and be ready to start at the instant, so that, if I should have to run for it, I can jump on board and be off in a moment."
Francis made his way quietly up to the little group of huts inhabited by the fishermen, but in none of them could he see any signs of life—no lights were visible, nor could he hear the murmur of voices. There were, he knew, other buildings scattered about on the island; but he had only the light of the stars to guide him, and, not knowing anything of the exact position of the houses, he thought it better to return to the boat.
"I can find no signs of them, Giuseppi."
"All the better, Messer Francisco. There are some sorts of game, which it is well for the safety of the hunter not to discover. I was very glad, I can tell you, when I heard your whistle, and made out your figure returning at a walk. Now you are back I will take an hour's nap, and I should advise you to do the same."
But Francis had no thought of sleep, and sat down at his end of the gondola, wondering over the adventure, and considering whether or not it would be worth while to follow it up another night. That it was a plot of some sort he had little doubt. There were always in Venice two parties, equally anxious perhaps for the prosperity of the republic, but differing widely as to the means by which that prosperity would be best achieved, and as to the alliances which would, in the long run, prove most beneficial to her. There were also needy and desperate men ready enough to take bribes from any who might offer them, and to intrigue in the interest of Padua or Ferrara, Verona, Milan, or Genoa—whichever might for the time be their paymasters.
Francis was English, but he had been long enough in Venice to feel a pride in the island city, and to be almost as keenly interested in her fortunes as were his companions and friends; and a certain sense of duty, mingled with his natural love of adventure, decided him to follow up the chance which had befallen him, and to endeavour to ascertain the nature of the plot which was, he had little doubt, being hatched at San Nicolo.
In a very few minutes the regular breathing of Giuseppi, who had curled himself up in the bottom of the boat, showed that he had gone to sleep; and he did not stir until, an hour and a half after the return of Francis, the latter heard the fall of footsteps approaching the gondola.
"Wake up, Giuseppi, here comes our fare!"
Francis stood up and stretched himself as the stranger came alongside, as if he too had been fast asleep.
"Take me back to the spot where I hailed you," the fare said briefly, as he stepped into the boat and threw himself back on the cushions, and without a word the lads dipped their oars in the water and the gondola glided away towards Venice.
Just as they reached the mouth of the Grand Canal, and were about to turn into it, a six-oared gondola shot out from under the point, and a voice called out:
"Stop, in the name of the republic, and give an account of yourselves!"
"Row on," the passenger exclaimed, starting up. "Ten ducats if you can set me safely on shore."
Had the lads been real gondoliers, it is probable that even this tempting offer would not have induced them to disregard the order from the galley, for they would have run no slight risk in so doing. But Francis had no desire to be caught, and perhaps imprisoned for a considerable time, until he was able to convince the council that his share of the night's work had been merely the result of a boyish freak. With two strokes of his oar, therefore, he swept the boat's head round, thereby throwing their pursuers directly astern of them; then he and Giuseppi threw their whole weight into the stroke, and the boat danced over the water at a pace very different to that at which it had hitherto proceeded.
But, fast as they went, the galley travelled somewhat faster, the rowers doing their utmost in obedience to the angry orders of their officer; and had the race been continued on a broad stretch of water, it would sooner or later have overhauled the gondola. But Francis was perfectly aware of this, and edged the boat away towards the end of the Piazzetta, and then, shooting her head round, dashed at full speed along the canal by the side of the ducal palace, the galley being at the time some forty yards behind.
"The first to the right," Francis said, and with scarce a pause in their speed, they turned off at right angles up the first canal they came to. Again and again they turned and twisted, regardless of the direction in which the canals took them, their only object being to gain on their pursuers, who lost considerably at each turn, being obliged always to check their speed, before arriving at each angle, to allow the boat to go round.
In ten minutes she was far behind, and they then abated their speed, and turned the boat's head in the direction in which they wished to go.
"By San Paolo," the stranger said, "that was well done! You are masters of your craft, and sent your boat along at a pace which must have astonished those fellows in that lumbering galley. I had no reason to fear them, but I do not care to be interfered with and questioned by these jacks-in-office of the republic."
A few minutes later they reached the place where he embarked, and as he got out he handed the money he had promised to Giuseppi.
"Next Thursday night," he said, "at half past ten."
"It seems a dangerous sort of service, signor," Giuseppi said hesitatingly. "It is no joke to disobey the officers of the republic, and next time we may not be so fortunate."
"It's worth taking a little risk when you are well paid," the other said, turning away, "and it is not likely we shall run against one of the state galleys another night."
"Home, now, Giuseppi," Francis said, "we can talk about it tomorrow. It's the best night's work you ever did in your life, and as I have had a grand excitement we are both contented."
During the next few days Francis debated seriously with himself whether to follow up the adventure; but he finally decided on doing so, feeling convinced that there could be no real danger, even were the boat seized by one of the state galleys; as his story, that he had gone into the matter simply to discover whether any plot was intended against the republic, would finally be believed, as it would be beyond the bounds of probability that a lad of his age could himself have been concerned in such a conspiracy. As to Giuseppi, he offered no remonstrance when Francis told him that he intended to go out to San Nicolo on the following Thursday, for the ten ducats he had received were a sum larger than he could have saved in a couple of years' steady work, and were indeed quite a fortune in his eyes. Another such a sum, and he would be able, when the time came, to buy a gondola of his own, to marry, and set up housekeeping in grand style. As for the danger, if Francis was willing to run it he could do the same; for after all, a few months' imprisonment was the worst that could befall him for his share in the business.
Before the day came Matteo Giustiniani told Francis a piece of news which interested him.
"You remember my cousin Maria Polani, whom we met the other evening on the Grand Canal?"
"Of course I do, Matteo. What of her?"
"Well, what do you think? Ruggiero Mocenigo, whom I pointed out to you on the Piazza—the man who had been banished for two years—has asked for her hand in marriage."
"He is not going to have it, I hope," Francis said indignantly. "It would be a shame, indeed, to give her to such a man as that."
"That is just what her father thought, Francisco, and he refused Ruggiero pretty curtly, and told him, I believe, he would rather see her in her grave than married to him; and I hear there was a regular scene, and Ruggiero went away swearing Polani should regret his refusal."
"I suppose your cousin does not care much about his threats," Francis said.
"I don't suppose he cares much about them," Matteo replied; "but Ruggiero is very powerfully connected, and may do him damage, not to speak of the chance of his hiring a bravo to stab him on the first opportunity. I know my father advised Polani to be very cautious where he went at night for a time. This fellow, Ruggiero, is a dangerous enemy. If he were to get Polani stabbed, it would be next to impossible to prove that it was his doing, however strong the suspicion might be; for mere suspicion goes for nothing against a man with his influence and connections. He has two near relations on the council, and if he were to burn down Polani's mansion, and to carry off Maria, the chances are against his being punished, if he did but keep out of the way for a few months."
As in England powerful barons were in the habit of waging private wars with each other, and the carrying off a bride by force was no very rare event, this state of things did not appear, to Francis, as outrageous as it would do to an English lad of the present day, but he shook his head.
"Of course one understands, Matteo, that everywhere powerful nobles do things which would be regarded as crimes if done by others; but, elsewhere, people can fortify their houses, and call out and arm their retainers, and stand on their guard. But that here, in a city like this, private feuds should be carried on, and men stabbed when unconscious of danger, seems to me detestable."
"Of course it isn't right," Matteo said carelessly, "but I don't know how you are going to put a stop to it; and after all, our quarrels here only involve a life or two, while in other countries nobles go to war with each other, and hundreds of lives, of people who have nothing to do with the quarrel, may be sacrificed."
This was a light in which Francis had hardly looked upon the matter before, and he was obliged to own that even private assassination, detestable as it was, yet caused much less suffering than feudal war. Still, he was not disposed entirely to give in to his friend's opinion.
"That is true, Matteo; but at the same time, in a war it is fair fighting, while a stab in the back is a cowardly business."
"It is not always fair fighting," Matteo replied. "You hear of castles being surprised, and the people massacred without a chance of resistance; of villages being burned, and the people butchered unresistingly. I don't think there is so much more fairness one way than the other. Polani knows he will have to be careful, and if he likes he can hire bravos to put Ruggiero out of the way, just as Ruggiero can do to remove him. There's a good deal to be said for both sides of the question."
Francis felt this was so, and that although he had an abhorrence of the Venetian method of settling quarrels, he saw that as far as the public were concerned, it was really preferable to the feudal method, of both parties calling out their retainers and going to war with each other, especially as assassinations played no inconsiderable part in the feudal struggles of the time.
On the Thursday night the gondola was in waiting at the agreed spot. Francis had thought it probable that the stranger might this time ask some questions as to where they lived and their usual place of plying for hire, and would endeavour to find out as much as he could about them, as they could not but suspect that he was engaged in some very unusual enterprise. He had therefore warned Giuseppi to be very careful in his replies. He knew that it was not necessary to say more, for Giuseppi had plenty of shrewdness, and would, he was sure, invent some plausible story without the least difficulty, possessing, as he did, plenty of the easy mendacity so general among the lower classes of the races inhabiting countries bordering on the Mediterranean. Their fare came down to the gondola a few minutes after the clock had tolled the half hour.
"I see you are punctual," he said, "which is more than most of you men are."
Francis was rowing the bow oar, and therefore stood with his back to the passenger, and was not likely to be addressed by him, as he would naturally turn to Giuseppi, who stood close behind him. As Francis had expected, as soon as they were out on the lagoon the passenger turned to his companion and began to question him.
"I cannot see your faces," he said; "but by your figures you are both young, are you not?"
"I am but twenty-two," Giuseppi said, "and my brother is a year younger."
"And what are your names?"
"Giovanni and Beppo Morani."
"And is this boat your own?"
"It is, signor. Our father died three years ago, leaving us his boat."
"And where do you usually ply?"
"Anywhere, signor, just as the fancy seizes us. Sometimes one place is good, sometimes another."
"And where do you live?"
"We don't live anywhere, signor. When night comes, and business is over, we tie up the boat to a post, wrap ourselves up, and go to sleep at the bottom. It costs nothing, and we are just as comfortable there as we should be on straw in a room."
"Then you must be saving money."
"Yes; we are laying money by. Some day, I suppose, we shall marry, and our wives must have homes. Besides, sometimes we are lazy and don't work. One must have some pleasure, you know."
"Would you like to enter service?"
"No, signor. We prefer being our own masters; to take a fare or leave it as we please."
"Your boat is a very fast one. You went at a tremendous rate when the galley was after us the other night."
"The boat is like others," Giuseppi said carelessly; "but most men can row fast when the alternative is ten ducats one way or a prison the other."
"Then there would be no place where I could always find you in the daytime if I wanted you?"
"No, signor; there would be no saying where we might be. We have sometimes regular customers, and it would not pay us to disappoint them, even if you paid us five times the ordinary fare. But we could always meet you at night anywhere, when you choose to appoint."
"But how can I appoint," the passenger said irritably, "if I don't know where to find you?"
Giuseppi was silent for a stroke or two.
"If your excellency would write in figures, half past ten or eleven, or whatever time we should meet you, just at the base of the column of the palace—the corner one on the Piazzetta—we should be sure to be there sometime or other during the day, and would look for it."
"You can read and write, then?" the passenger asked.
"I cannot do that, signor," Giuseppi said, "but I can make out figures. That is necessary to us, as how else could we keep time with our customers? We can read the sundials, as everyone else can; but as to reading and writing, that is not for poor lads like us."
The stranger was satisfied. Certainly every one could read the sundials; and the gondoliers would, as they said, understand his figures if he wrote them.
"Very well," he said. "It is probable I shall generally know, each time I discharge you, when I shall want you again; but should there be any change, I will make the figures on the base of the column at the corner of the Piazzetta, and that will mean the hour at which you are to meet me that night at the usual place."
Nothing more was said, until the gondola arrived at the same spot at which it had landed the passenger on the previous occasion.
"I shall be back in about the same time as before," the fare said when he alighted.
As he strode away into the darkness, Francis followed him. He was shoeless, for at that time the lower class seldom wore any protection to the feet, unless when going a journey over rough ground. Among the gondoliers shoes were unknown; and Francis himself generally took his off, for coolness and comfort, when out for the evening in his boat.
He kept some distance behind the man he was following, for as there were no hedges or inclosures, he could make out his figure against the sky at a considerable distance. As Francis had expected, he did not make towards the village, but kept along the island at a short distance from the edge of the water.
Presently Francis heard the dip of oars, and a gondola ran up on the sands halfway between himself and the man he was following. He threw himself down on the ground. Two men alighted, and went in the same direction as the one who had gone ahead.
Francis made a detour, so as to avoid being noticed by the gondoliers, and then again followed. After keeping more than a quarter of a mile near the water, the two figures ahead struck inshore. Francis followed them, and in a few minutes they stopped at a black mass, rising above the sand. He heard them knock, and then a low murmur, as if they were answering some question from within. Then they entered, and a door closed.
He moved up to the building. It was a hut of some size, but had a deserted appearance. It stood between two ridges of low sand hills, and the sand had drifted till it was halfway up the walls. There was no garden or inclosure round it, and any passerby would have concluded that it was uninhabited. The shutters were closed, and no gleam of light showed from within.
After stepping carefully round it, Francis took his post round the angle close to the door, and waited. Presently he heard footsteps approaching—three knocks were given on the door, and a voice within asked, "Who is there?"
The reply was, "One who is in distress."
The question came, "What ails you?"
And the answer, "All is wrong within."
Then there was a sound of bars being withdrawn, and the door opened and closed again.
There were four other arrivals. The same questions were asked and answered each time. Then some minutes elapsed without any fresh comers, and Francis thought that the number was probably complete. He lay down on the sand, and with his dagger began to make a hole through the wood, which was old and rotten, and gave him no difficulty in piercing it.
He applied his eye to the orifice, and saw that there were some twelve men seated round a table. Of those facing him he knew three or four by sight; all were men of good family. Two of them belonged to the council, but not to the inner Council of Ten. One, sitting at the top of the table, was speaking; but although Francis applied his ear to the hole he had made, he could hear but a confused murmur, and could not catch the words. He now rose cautiously, scooped up the sand so as to cover the hole in the wall, and swept a little down over the spot where he had been lying, although he had no doubt that the breeze, which would spring up before morning, would soon drift the light shifting sand over it, and obliterate the mark of his recumbent figure. Then he went round to the other side of the hut and bored another hole, so as to obtain a view of the faces of those whose backs had before been towards him.
One of these was Ruggiero Mocenigo. Another was a stranger to Francis, and some difference in the fashion of his garments indicated that he was not a Venetian, but, Francis thought, a Hungarian. The other three were not nobles. One of them Francis recognized, as being a man of much influence among the fishermen and sailors. The other two were unknown to him.
As upwards of an hour had been spent in making the two holes and taking observations, Francis thought it better now to make his way back to his boat, especially as it was evident that he would gain nothing by remaining longer. Therefore, after taking the same precautions as before, to conceal all signs of his presence, he made his way across the sands back to his gondola.
"Heaven be praised, you are back again!" Giuseppi said, when he heard his low whistle, as he came down to the boat. "I have been in a fever ever since I lost sight of you. Have you succeeded?"
"I have found out that there is certainly a plot of some sort being got up, and I know some of those concerned in it, but I could hear nothing that went on. Still, I have succeeded better than I expected, and I am well satisfied with the night's work."
"I hope you won't come again, Messer Francisco. In the first place, you may not always have the fortune to get away unseen. In the next place, it is a dangerous matter to have to do with conspiracies, whichever side you are on. The way to live long in Venice is to make no enemies."
"Yes, I know that, Giuseppi, and I haven't decided yet what to do in the matter."
A quarter of an hour later, their fare returned to the boat. This time they took a long detour, and, entering Venice by one of the many canals, reached the landing place without adventure. The stranger handed Giuseppi a ducat.
"I do not know when I shall want you again; but I will mark the hour, as agreed, on the pillar. Do not fail to go there every afternoon; and even if you don't see it, you might as well come round here at half past ten of a night. I may want you suddenly."
Before going to sleep that night, Francis thought the matter over seriously, and finally concluded that he would have no more to do with it. No doubt, by crossing over to San Nicolo in the daytime, he might be able to loosen a plank at the back of the hut, or to cut so large an opening that he could hear, as well as see, what was going on within; but supposing he discovered that a plot was on hand in favour of the enemies of Venice, such as Padua or Hungary, what was he to do next? At the best, if he denounced it, and the officers of the republic surrounded the hut when the conspirators were gathered there, arrested them, and found upon them, or in their houses, proofs sufficient to condemn them, his own position would not be enviable. He would gain, indeed, the gratitude of the republic; but as for rewards, he had no need of them. On the other hand, he would draw upon himself the enmity of some eight or ten important families, and all their connections and followers, and his life would be placed in imminent danger. They would be all the more bitter against him, inasmuch as the discovery would not have been made by accident, but by an act of deliberate prying into matters which concerned him in no way, he not being a citizen of the republic.
So far his action in the matter had been a mere boyish freak; and now that he saw it was likely to become an affair of grave importance, involving the lives of many persons, he determined to have nothing further to do with it.
Chapter 3: On The Grand Canal.
Giuseppi, next morning, heard the announcement of the determination of Francis, to interfere no further in the matter of the conspiracy at San Nicolo, with immense satisfaction. For the last few nights he had scarcely slept, and whenever he dozed off, dreamed either of being tortured in dungeons, or of being murdered in his gondola; and no money could make up for the constant terrors which assailed him. In his waking moments he was more anxious for his employer than for himself, for it was upon him that the vengeance of the conspirators would fall, rather than upon a young gondolier, who was only obeying the orders of his master.
It was, then, with unbounded relief that he heard Francis had decided to go no more out to San Nicolo.
During the next few days Francis went more frequently than usual to the Piazza of Saint Mark, and had no difficulty in recognizing there the various persons he had seen in the hut, and in ascertaining their names and families. One of the citizens he had failed to recognize was a large contractor in the salt works on the mainland. The other was the largest importer of beasts for the supply of meat to the markets of the city.
Francis was well satisfied with the knowledge he had gained. It might never be of any use to him, but it might, on the other hand, be of importance when least expected.
As a matter of precaution he drew up an exact account of the proceedings of the two nights on the lagoons, giving an account of the meeting, and the names of the persons present, and placed it in a drawer in his room. He told Giuseppi what he had done.
"I do not think there is the least chance of our ever being recognized, Giuseppi. There was not enough light for the man to have made out our features. Still there is nothing like taking precautions, and if—I don't think it is likely, mind—but if anything should ever happen to me—if I should be missing, for example, and not return by the following morning—you take that paper out of my drawer and drop it into the Lion's Mouth. Then, if you are questioned, tell the whole story."
"But they will never believe me, Messer Francisco," Giuseppi said in alarm.
"They will believe you, because it will be a confirmation of my story; but I don't think that there is the least chance of our ever hearing anything further about it."
"Why not denounce them at once without putting your name to it," Giuseppi said. "Then they could pounce upon them over there, and find out all about it for themselves?"
"I have thought about it, Giuseppi, but there is something treacherous in secret denunciations. These men have done me no harm, and as a foreigner their political schemes do not greatly concern me. I should not like to think I had sent twelve men to the dungeons and perhaps to death."
"I think it's a pity you ever went there at all, Messer Francisco."
"Well, perhaps it is, Giuseppi; but I never thought it would turn out a serious affair like this. However, I do wish I hadn't gone now; not that I think it really matters, or that we shall ever hear anything more of it. We may, perhaps, some day see the result of this conspiracy, that is, if its objects are such as I guess them to be; namely, to form a party opposed to war with Hungary, Padua, or Genoa."
For some days after this Francis abstained from late excursions in the gondola. It was improbable that he or Giuseppi would be recognized did their late passenger meet them. Still, it was possible that they might be so; and when he went out he sat quietly among the cushions while Giuseppi rowed, as it would be a pair-oared gondola the stranger would be looking for. He was sure that the conspirator would feel uneasy when the boat did not come to the rendezvous, especially when they found that, on three successive days, figures were marked as had been arranged on the column at the corner of the Piazzetta.
Giuseppi learned indeed, a week later, that inquiries had been made among the gondoliers for a boat rowed by two brothers, Giovanni and Beppo; and the inquirer, who was dressed as a retainer of a noble family, had offered five ducats reward for information concerning it. No such names, however, were down upon the register of gondoliers licensed to ply for hire. Giuseppi learned that the search had been conducted quietly but vigorously, and that several young gondoliers who rowed together had been seen and questioned.
The general opinion, among the boatmen, was that some lady must have been carried off, and that her friends were seeking for a clue as to the spot to which she had been taken.
One evening Francis had been strolling on the Piazza with Matteo, and had remained out later than he had done since the night of his last visit to San Nicolo. He took his seat in the gondola, and when Giuseppi asked him if he would go home, said he would first take a turn or two on the Grand Canal as the night was close and sultry.
There was no moon now, and most of the gondolas carried torches. Giuseppi was paddling quietly, when a pair-oared gondola shot past them, and by the light of the torch it carried, Francis recognized the ladies sitting in it to be Maria and Giulia Polani with their duenna; two armed retainers sat behind them. They were, Francis supposed, returning from spending the evening at the house of some of their friends. There were but few boats now passing along the canal.
Polani's gondola was a considerable distance ahead, when Francis heard a sudden shout of, "Mind where you are going!"
Then there was a crash of two gondolas striking each other, followed by an outburst of shouts and cries of alarm, with, Francis thought, the clash of swords.
"Row, Giuseppi!" he exclaimed, leaping from his seat and catching up the other oar; and with swift and powerful strokes the two lads drove the gondola towards the scene of what was either an accident, or an attempt at crime.
They had no doubt which it was when they arrived at the spot. A four-oared gondola lay alongside that of the Polanis, and the gondoliers with their oars, and the two retainers with their swords, had offered a stout resistance to an armed party who were trying to board her from the other craft, but their resistance was well nigh over by the time Francis brought his gondola alongside.
One of the retainers had fallen with a sword thrust through his body, and a gondolier had been knocked overboard by a blow from an oar. The two girls were standing up screaming, and the surviving retainer was being borne backwards by three or four armed men, who were slashing furiously at him.
"Quick, ladies, jump into my boat!" Francis exclaimed as he came alongside, and, leaning over, he dragged them one after the other into his boat, just as their last defender fell.
With a fierce oath the leader of the assailants was about to spring into the gondola, when Francis, snatching up his oar, smote him with all his strength on the head as he was in the act of springing, and he fell with a heavy splash into the water between the boats.
A shout of alarm and rage rose from his followers, but the gondolas were now separated, and in another moment that of Francis was flying along the canal at the top of its speed.
"Calm yourselves, ladies," Francis said. "There is no fear of pursuit. They will stop to pick up the man I knocked into the canal, and by the time they get him on board we shall be out of their reach."
"What will become of the signora?" the eldest girl asked, when they recovered a little from their agitation.
"No harm will befall her, you may be sure," Francis said. "It was evidently an attempt to carry you off, and now that you have escaped they will care nothing for your duenna. She seemed to have lost her head altogether, for as I lifted you into the boat she clung so fast to your garments that I fancy a portion of them were left in her grasp."
"Do you know where to take us? I see you are going in the right direction?" the girl asked.
"To the Palazzo Polani," Francis said. "I have the honour of being a friend of your cousin, Matteo Giustiniani, and being with him one day when you passed in your gondola, he named you to me."
"A friend of Matteo!" the girl repeated in surprise. "Pardon me, signor, I thought you were two passing gondoliers. It was so dark that I could not recognize you; and, you see, it is so unusual to see a gentleman rowing."
"I am English, signora, and we are fond of strong exercise, and so after nightfall, when it cannot shock my friends, I often take an oar myself."
"I thank you, sir, with all my heart, for my sister and myself, for the service you have rendered us. I can hardly understand what has passed, even now it seems like a dream. We were going quietly along home, when a large dark gondola dashed out from one of the side canals, and nearly ran us down. Our gondolier shouted to warn them, but they ran alongside, and then some men jumped on board, and there was a terrible fight, and every moment I expected that the gondola would have been upset. Beppo was knocked overboard, and I saw old Nicolini fall; and then, just as it seemed all over, you appeared suddenly by our side, and dragged us on board this boat before I had time to think."
"I am afraid I was rather rough, signora, but there was no time to stand on ceremony. Here is the palazzo."
The boat was brought up by the side of the steps. Francis leapt ashore and rang the bell, and then assisted the girls to land. In a minute the door was thrown open, and two servitors with torches appeared. There was an exclamation of astonishment as they saw the young ladies alone with a strange attendant.
"I will do myself the honour of calling tomorrow to inquire if you are any the worse for your adventure, signora."
"No, indeed," the eldest girl said. "You must come up with us and see our father. We must tell him what has happened; and he will be angry indeed, did we suffer our rescuer to depart without his having an opportunity of thanking him."
Francis bowed and followed the girls upstairs. They entered a large, very handsomely furnished apartment where a tall man was sitting reading.
"Why, girls," he exclaimed as he rose, "what has happened? you look strangely excited. Where is your duenna? and who is this young gentleman who accompanies you?"
"We have been attacked, father, on our way home," both the girls exclaimed.
"Attacked?" Signor Polani repeated. "Who has dared to venture on such an outrage?"
"We don't know, father," Maria said. "It was a four-oared gondola that ran suddenly into us. We thought it was an accident till a number of men, with their swords drawn, leaped on board. Then Nicolini and Francia drew their swords and tried to defend us, and Beppo and Jacopo both fought bravely too with their oars; but Beppo was knocked overboard, and I am afraid Nicolini and Francia are killed, and in another moment they would have got at us, when this young gentleman came alongside in his gondola, and dragged us on board, for we were too bewildered and frightened to do anything. One of them—he seemed the leader of the party—tried to jump on board, but our protector struck him a terrible blow with his oar, and he fell into the water, and then the gondola made off, and, so far as we could see, they did not chase us."
"It is a scandalous outrage, and I will demand justice at the hands of the council.
"Young sir, you have laid me under an obligation I shall never forget. You have saved my daughter from the worst calamity that could befall her. Who is it to whom I am thus indebted?"
"My name is Francis Hammond. My father is an English merchant who has, for the last four years, established himself here."
"I know him well by repute," Polani said. "I trust I shall know more of him in the future.
"But where is your duenna, girls?"
"She remained behind in the gondola, father; she seemed too frightened to move."
"The lady seemed to have lost her head altogether," Francis said. "As I was lifting your daughters into my gondola, in a very hasty and unceremonious way—for the resistance of your servitors was all but overcome, and there was no time to be lost—she held so tightly to their robes that they were rent in her hands."
Signor Polani struck a gong.
"Let a gondola be manned instantly," he said, "and let six of you take arms and go in search of our boat. Let another man at once summon a leech, for some of those on board are, I fear, grievously wounded, if not killed."
But there was no occasion to carry out the order concerning the boat, for before it was ready to start the missing gondola arrived at the steps, rowed by the remaining gondolier. The duenna was lifted out sobbing hysterically, and the bodies of the two retainers were then landed. One was dead; the other expired a few minutes after being brought ashore.
"You did not observe anything particular about the gondola, Maria, or you, Giulia?"
"No, father, I saw no mark or escutcheon upon it, though they might have been there without my noticing them. I was too frightened to see anything; it came so suddenly upon us."
"It was, as far as I noticed, a plain black gondola," Francis said. "The men concerned in the affair were all dressed in dark clothes, without any distinguishing badges."
"How was it you came to interfere in the fray, young gentleman? Few of our people would have done so, holding it to be a dangerous thing, for a man to mix himself up in a quarrel in which he had no concern."
"I should probably have mixed myself up in it, in any case, when I heard the cry of women," Francis replied; "but, in truth, I recognized the signoras as their gondola passed mine, and knew them to be cousins of my friend Matteo Giustiniani. Therefore when I heard the outcry ahead, I naturally hastened up to do what I could in the matter."
"And well you did it," Polani said heartily. "I trust that the man you felled into the water is he who is the author of this outrage. I do not think I need seek far for him. My suspicions point very strongly in one direction, and tomorrow I will lay the matter before the council and demand reparation."
"And now, signor, if you will permit me I will take my leave," Francis said. "The hour is late, and the signoras will require rest after their fright and emotion."
"I will see you tomorrow, sir. I shall do myself the honour of calling early upon your father, to thank him for the great service you have rendered me."
Signor Polani accompanied Francis to the steps, while two servants held torches while he took his seat in the gondola, and remained standing there until the barque had shot away beyond the circle of light.
"We seem fated to have adventures, Giuseppi."
"We do indeed, Messer Francisco, and this is more to my liking than the last. We arrived just at the nick of time; another half minute and those young ladies would have been carried off. That was a rare blow you dealt their leader. I fancy he never came up again, and that that is why we got away without being chased."
"I am of that opinion myself, Giuseppi."
"If that is the case we shall not have heard the last of it, Messer Francisco. Only someone of a powerful family would venture upon so bold a deed, as to try to carry off ladies of birth on the Grand Canal, and you may find that this adventure has created for you enemies not to be despised."
"I can't help it if it has," Francis said carelessly. "On the other hand, it will gain for me an influential friend in Signor Polani, who is not only one of the richest merchants of Venice, but closely related to a number of the best families of the city."
"His influence will not protect you against the point of a dagger," Giuseppi said. "Your share in this business cannot but become public, and I think that it would be wise to give up our evening excursions at present."
"I don't agree with you, Giuseppi. We don't go about with torches burning, so no one who meets us is likely to recognize us. One gondola in the dark is pretty much like another, and however many enemies I had, I should not be afraid of traversing the canals."
The next morning, at breakfast time, Francis related to his father his adventure of the previous evening.
"It is a mistake, my son, to mix yourself up in broils which do not concern you; but in the present instance it may be that your adventure will turn out to be advantageous to your prospects. Signor Polani is one of the most illustrious merchants of Venice. His name is known everywhere in the East, and there is not a port in the Levant where his galleys do not trade. The friendship of such a man cannot but be most useful to me.
"Upon the other hand, you will probably make some enemies by your interference with the plans of some unscrupulous young noble, and Venice is not a healthy city for those who have powerful enemies; still I think that the advantages will more than balance the risk.
"However, Francis, you must curb your spirit of adventure. You are not the son of a baron or count, and the winning of honour and glory by deeds of arms neither befits you, nor would be of advantage to you in any way. A trader of the city of London should be distinguished for his probity and his attention to business; and methinks that, ere long, it will be well to send you home to take your place in the counting house under the eye of my partner, John Pearson.
"Hitherto I have not checked your love for arms, or your intercourse with youths of far higher rank than your own; but I have been for some time doubting the wisdom of my course in bringing you out here with me, and have regretted that I did not leave you in good hands at home. The events of last night show that the time is fast approaching when you can no longer be considered a boy, and it will be better for you to turn at once into the groove in which you are to travel, than to continue a mode of life which will unfit you for the career of a city trader."
Francis knew too well his duty towards his father to make any reply, but his heart sank at the prospect of settling down in the establishment in London. His life there had not been an unpleasant one, but he knew that he should find it terribly dull, after the freedom and liberty he had enjoyed in Venice. He had never, however, even to himself, indulged the idea that any other career, save that of his father, could be his; and had regarded it as a matter of course that, some day, he would take his place in the shop in Cheapside.
Now that it was suddenly presented to him as something which would shortly take place, a feeling of repugnance towards the life came over him. Not that he dreamt for a moment of trying to induce his father to allow him to seek some other calling. He had been always taught to consider the position of a trader of good standing, of the city of London, as one of the most desirable possible. The line between the noble and the citizen was so strongly marked that no one thought of overstepping it. The citizens of London were as proud of their position and as tenacious of their rights as were the nobles themselves. They were ready enough to take up arms to defend their privileges and to resist oppression, whether it came from king or noble; but few indeed, even of the wilder spirits of the city, ever thought of taking to arms as a profession.
It was true that honour and rank were to be gained, by those who rode in the train of great nobles to the wars, but the nobles drew their following from their own estates, and not from among the dwellers in the cities; and, although the bodies of men-at-arms and archers, furnished by the city to the king in his wars, always did their duty stoutly in the field, they had no opportunity of distinguishing themselves singly. The deeds which attracted attention, and led to honour and rank, were performed by the esquires and candidates for the rank of knighthood, who rode behind the barons into the thick of the French chivalry.
Therefore Francis Hammond had never thought of taking to the profession of arms in his own country; though, when the news arrived in Venice of desperate fighting at sea with the Genoese, he had thought, to himself, that the most glorious thing in life must be to command a well-manned galley, as she advanced to the encounter of an enemy superior in numbers. He had never dreamed that such an aspiration could ever be satisfied—it was merely one of the fancies in which lads so often indulge.
Still, the thought that he was soon to return and take his place in the shop in Chepe was exceedingly unpleasant to him.
Soon after breakfast the bell at the water gate rang loudly, and a minute later the servant entered with the news that Signor Polani was below, and begged an interview. Mr. Hammond at once went down to the steps to receive his visitor, whom he saluted with all ceremony, and conducted upstairs.
"I am known to you by name, no doubt, Signor Hammond, as you are to me," the Venetian said, when the first formal greetings were over. "I am not a man of ceremony, nor, I judge, are you; but even if I were, the present is not an occasion for it. Your son has doubtless told you of the inestimable service, which he rendered to me last night, by saving my daughters, or rather my eldest daughter—for it was doubtless she whom the villains sought—from being borne off by one of the worst and most disreputable of the many bad and disreputable young men of this city."
"I am indeed glad, Signor Polani, that my son was able to be of service to you. I have somewhat blamed myself that I have let him have his own way so much, and permitted him to give himself up to exercises of arms, more befitting the son of a warlike noble than of a peaceful trader; but the quickness and boldness, which the mastery of arms gives, was yesterday of service, and I no longer regret the time he has spent, since it has enabled him to be of aid to the daughters of Signor Polani."
"A mastery of arms is always useful, whether a man be a peace-loving citizen, or one who would carve his way to fame by means of his weapons. We merchants of the Mediterranean might give up our trade, if we were not prepared to defend our ships against the corsairs of Barbary, and the pirates who haunt every inlet and islet of the Levant now, as they have ever done since the days of Rome. Besides, it is the duty of every citizen to defend his native city when attacked. And lastly, there are the private enemies, that every man who rises but in the smallest degree above his fellows is sure to create for himself.
"Moreover, a training in arms, as you say, gives readiness and quickness, it enables the mind to remain calm and steadfast amidst dangers of all sorts, and, methinks, it adds not a little to a man's dignity and self respect to know that he is equal, man to man, to any with whom he may come in contact. Here in Venice we are all soldiers and sailors, and your son will make no worse merchant, but rather the better, for being able to wield sword and dagger.
"Even now," he said with a smile, "he has proved the advantage of his training; for, though I say it not boastfully, Nicholas Polani has it in his power to be of some use to his friends, and foremost among them he will henceforward count your brave son, and, if you will permit him, yourself.
"But you will, I trust, excuse my paying you but a short visit this morning, for I am on my way to lay a complaint before the council. I have already been round to several of my friends, and Phillipo Giustiniani and some six others, nearest related to me, will go with me, being all aggrieved at this outrage to a family nearly connected. I crave you to permit me to take your son with me, in order that he may be at hand, if called upon, to say what he knows of the affair."
"Assuredly it is his duty to go with you if you desire it; although I own I am not sorry that he could see, as he tells me, no badge or cognizance which would enable him to say aught which can lead to the identification of those who would have abducted your daughter. It is but too well known a fact that it is dangerous to make enemies in Venice, for even the most powerful protection does not avail against the stab of a dagger."
"That is true enough," the merchant said. "The frequency of assassinations is a disgrace to our city; nor will it ever be put down until some men of high rank are executed, and the seignory show that they are as jealous of the lives of private citizens, as they are of the honour and well being of the republic."
Francis gladly threw aside his books when he was told that Signor Polani desired him to accompany him, and was soon seated by the side of the merchant in his gondola.
"How old are you, my friend?" the merchant asked him, as the boat threaded the mazes of the canals.
"I am just sixteen, signor."
"No more!" the merchant said in surprise. "I had taken you for well-nigh two years older. I have but just come from the Palazzo Giustiniani, and my young kinsman, Matteo, tells me that in the School of Arms there are none of our young nobles who are your match with rapier or battleaxe."
"I fear, sir," Francis said modestly, "that I have given up more time to the study of arms than befits the son of a sober trader."
"Not at all," the Venetian replied. "We traders have to defend our rights and our liberties, our goods and our ships, just as much as the nobles have to defend their privileges and their castles. Here in Venice there are no such distinctions of rank as there are elsewhere. Certain families, distinguished among the rest by their long standing, wealth, influence, or the services they have rendered to the state, are of senatorial rank, and constitute our nobility; but there are no titles among us. We are all citizens of the republic, with our rights and privileges, which cannot be infringed even by the most powerful; and the poorest citizen has an equal right to make himself as proficient in the arms, which he may be called upon to wield in defence of the state, as the Doge himself. In your country also, I believe, all men are obliged to learn the use of arms, to practise shooting at the butts, and to make themselves efficient, if called upon to take part in the wars of the country. And I have heard that at the jousts, the champions of the city of London have ere now held their own against those of the court."
"They have done so," Francis said; "and yet, I know not why, it is considered unseemly for the sons of well-to-do citizens to be too fond of military exercises."
"The idea is a foolish one," the Venetian said hotly. "I myself have, a score of times, defended my ships against corsairs and pirates, Genoese, and other enemies. I have fought against the Greeks, and been forced to busy myself in more than one serious fray in the streets of Constantinople, Alexandria, and other ports, and have served in the galleys of the state. All men who live by trade must be in favour of peace; but they must also be prepared to defend their goods, and the better able they are to do it, the more the honour to them.
"But here we are at the Piazzetta."
A group of nobles were standing near the landing place, and Signor Polani at once went up to them, and introduced Francis to them as the gentleman who had done his daughter and their kinswoman such good service. Francis was warmly thanked and congratulated by them all.
"Will you wait near the entrance?" Signor Polani said. "I see that my young cousin, Matteo, has accompanied his father, and you will, no doubt, find enough to say to each other while we are with the council."
The gentlemen entered the palace, and Matteo, who had remained respectfully at a short distance from the seniors, at once joined his friend.
"Well, Francis, I congratulate you heartily, though I feel quite jealous of you. It was splendid to think of your dashing up in your gondola, and carrying off my pretty cousins from the clutches of that villain, Ruggiero Mocenigo, just as he was about to lay his hands on them."
"Are you sure it was Ruggiero, Matteo?"
"Oh, there can't be any doubt about it. You know, he had asked for Maria's hand, and when Polani refused him, had gone off muttering threats. You know what his character is. He is capable of any evil action; besides, they say that he has dissipated his patrimony, in gaming and other extravagances at Constantinople, and is deep in the hands of the Jews. If he could have succeeded in carrying off Maria it would more than have mended his fortunes, for she and her sister are acknowledged to be the richest heiresses in Venice. Oh, there is not a shadow of doubt that it's he.
"You won't hear me saying anything against your love of prowling about in that gondola of yours, since it has brought you such a piece of good fortune—for it is a piece of good fortune, Francis, to have rendered such a service to Polani, to say nothing of all the rest of us who are connected with his family. I can tell you that there are scores of young men of good birth in Venice, who would give their right hand to have done what you did."
"I should have considered myself fortunate to have been of service to any girls threatened by violence, though they had only been fishermen's daughters," Francis said; "but I am specially pleased because they are relatives of yours, Matteo."
"To say nothing to their being two of the prettiest girls in Venice," Matteo added slyly.
"That counts for something too, no doubt," Francis said laughing, "though I didn't think of it.
"I wonder," he went on gravely, "whether that was Ruggiero whom I struck down, and whether he came up again to the surface. He has very powerful connections, you know, Matteo; and if I have gained friends, I shall also have gained enemies by the night's work."
"That is so," Matteo agreed. "For your sake, I own that I hope that Ruggiero is at present at the bottom of the canal. He was certainly no credit to his friends; and although they would of course have stood by him, I do not think they will feel, at heart, in any way displeased to know that he will trouble them no longer. But if his men got him out again, I should say you had best be careful, for Ruggiero is about the last man in Venice I should care to have as an enemy. However, we won't look at the unpleasant side of the matter, and will hope that his career has been brought to a close."
"I don't know which way to hope," Francis said gravely. "He will certainly be a dangerous enemy if he is alive; and yet the thought of having killed a man troubles me much."
"It would not trouble me at all if I were in your place," Matteo said. "If you had not killed him, you may be very sure that he would have killed you, and that the deed would have caused him no compunction whatever. It was a fair fight, just as if it had been a hostile galley in mid-sea; and I don't see why the thought of having rid Venice of one of her worst citizens need trouble you in any way."