Venetian Masque by Rafael Sabatini

Venetian Masque


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subjects: Action & Adventure, Historical Fiction

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Monsieur le Vicomte is a remarkable man - not least because, for all concerned, he had been guillotined along with numerous French aristocrats. Yet by some twist of fate he managed to escape and seek refuge in Turin, out of the jurisdiction of the French authorities. But by an even more perverse twist of fate, he is apprehended, leaving him once and for all in the hands of the gods. In this dramatic adventure, Sabatini portrays all the colour and passion of Revolutionary France.

411 pages, with a reading time of ~6.25 hours (102,866 words), and first published in 1934. This DRM-Free edition published by epubBooks, .

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The traveller in the grey riding-coat, who called himself Mr. Melville was contemplating the malice of which the gods are capable. They had conducted him unscathed through a hundred perils merely, it seemed, so that they might in their irony confront him with destruction in the very hour in which at last he accounted himself secure.

It was this delusive sense of security, the reasonable conviction that having reached Turin the frontiers of danger were behind him, which had urged him to take his ease.

And so in the dusk of a May evening he had got down from his travelling-chaise, and walked into the trap which it afterwards seemed to him that the gods had wantonly baited.

In the dimly lighted passage the landlord bustled to inquire his needs. The inn’s best room, its best supper, and the best wine that it could yield. He issued his commands in fairly fluent Italian. His voice was level and pleasantly modulated, yet vibrant in its undertones with the energy and force of his nature.

In stature he was above the middle height and neatly built. His face, dimly seen by the landlord under the shadow of the grey sugar-loaf hat and between the wings of black hair that hung to the collar on either side of it, was square and lean, with a straight nose and a jutting chin. His age cannot have been more than thirty.

Accommodated in the best room above-stairs, he sat in the candlelight contentedly awaiting supper when the catastrophe occurred. It was heralded by a voice on the stairs; a man’s voice, loud and vehement and delivering itself harshly in French. The door of Mr. Melville’s room had been left ajar, and the words carried clearly to him where he sat. It was not merely what was said that brought a frown to his brow, but the voice itself. It was a voice that set memories dimly astir in him; a voice that he was certainly not hearing for the first time in his life.

‘You are a postmaster and you have no horses! Name of God! It is only in Italy that such things are permitted to happen. But we shall change that before all is over. Anyway, I take what I find. I am in haste. The fate of nations hangs upon my speed.’

Of the landlord’s answer from below a mumble was all that reached him. That harsh, peremptory voice rejoined.

‘You will have horses by morning, you say? Very well, then. This traveller shall yield me his horses, and in the morning take those you can supply. It is idle to argue with me. I will inform him myself. I must be at General Bonaparte’s headquarters not later than tomorrow.’

Brisk steps came up the stairs and crossed the short landing. The door of Mr. Melville’s room was pushed open, and that voice, which was still exercising him, was speaking before its owner fully appeared.

‘Sir, let my necessity excuse the intrusion. I travel on business of the utmost urgency.’ And again that pompous phrase: ‘The fate of nations hangs upon my speed. This post-house has no horses until morning. But your horses are still fit to travel, and you are here for the night. Therefore … ‘

And there abruptly the voice broke off. Its owner had turned to close the door, whilst speaking. Turning again, and confronting the stranger, who had risen, the Frenchman’s utterance was abruptly checked; the last vestige of colour was driven from his coarsely featured face; his dark eyes dilated in an astonishment that gradually changed to fear.

He stood so for perhaps a dozen quickened heart-beats, a man of about Mr. Melville’s own height and build, with the same black hair about his sallow, shaven face. Like Mr. Melville he wore a long grey riding-coat, a garment common enough with travellers; but in addition he was girt by a tricolour sash, whilst the conspicuous feature of his apparel was the wide black hat that covered him. It was cocked in front, à la Henri IV, and flaunted a tricolour panache and a tricolour cockade.

Slowly in the silence he recovered from the shock he had sustained. His first wild fear that he was confronted by a ghost yielded to the more reasonable conclusion that he was in the presence of one of those jests of nature by which occasionally a startling duplication of features is produced.

In this persuasion he might well have remained if Mr. Melville had not completed the betrayal of himself which Fate had so maliciously conducted to this point.

‘An odd chance, Lebel,’ he said, his tone sardonic, his grey eyes cold as ice. ‘A very odd chance.’

The Citizen-Representative Lebel blinked and gasped, and at once recovered. There were no more illusions either about supernatural manifestations or chance likenesses.