It was on my lips to tell him that he was a liar, but there is a time to argue and a time to be silent.
“I am an honourable soldier,” said I. “I have obeyed my orders and done my duty.”
The blood flushed into the old man's face and his eyes blazed through his mask.
“You are thieves and murderers, every man of you,” he cried. “What are you doing here? You are Frenchmen. Why are you not in France? Did we invite you to Venice? By what right are you here? Where are our pictures? Where are the horses of St. Mark? Who are you that you should pilfer those treasures which our fathers through so many centuries have collected? We were a great city when France was a desert. Your drunken, brawling, ignorant soldiers have undone the work of saints and heroes. What have you to say to it?”
He was, indeed, a formidable old man, for his white beard bristled with fury and he barked out the little sentences like a savage hound. For my part I could have told him that his pictures would be safe in Paris, that his horses were really not worth making a fuss about, and that he could see heroes– I say nothing of saints– without going back to his ancestors or even moving out of his chair. All this I could have pointed out, but one might as well argue with a Mameluke about religion. I shrugged my shoulders and said nothing.
“The prisoner has no defence,” said one of my masked judges.
“Has any one any observation to make before judgment is passed?” The old man glared round him at the others.
“There is one matter, your Excellency,” said another.
“It can scarce be referred to without reopening a brother's wounds, but I would remind you that there is a very particular reason why an exemplary punishment should be inflicted in the case of this officer.”
“I had not forgotten it,” the old man answered.
“Brother, if the tribunal has injured you in one direction, it will give you ample satisfaction in another.”
The young man who had been pleading when I entered the room staggered to his feet.
“I cannot endure it,” he cried. “Your Excellency must forgive me. The tribunal can act without me. I am ill. I am mad.” He flung his hands out with a furious gesture and rushed from the room.
“Let him go! Let him go!” said the president. “It is, indeed, more than can be asked of flesh and blood that he should remain under this roof. But he is a true Venetian, and when the first agony is over he will understand that it could not be otherwise.”
I had been forgotten during this episode, and though I am not a man who is accustomed to being overlooked I should have been all the happier had they continued to neglect me. But now the old president glared at me again like a tiger who comes back to his victim.
“You shall pay for it all, and it is but justice that you should,” he said. “You, an upstart adventurer and foreigner, have dared to raise your eyes in love to the grand daughter of a Doge of Venice who was already betrothed to the heir of the Loredans. He who enjoys such privileges must pay a price for them.”
“It cannot be higher than they are worth,” said I.
“You will tell us that when you have made a part payment,” said he. “Perhaps your spirit may not be so proud by that time. Matteo, you will lead this prisoner to the wooden cell. To-night is Monday. Let him have no food or water, and let him be led before the tribunal again on Wednesday night. We shall then decide upon the death which he is to die.”
It was not a pleasant prospect, and yet it was a reprieve. One is thankful for small mercies when a hairy savage with a blood-stained knife is standing at one's elbow. He dragged me from the room and I was thrust down the stairs and back into my cell. The door was locked and I was left to my reflections.
My first thought was to establish connection with my neighbour in misfortune. I waited until the steps had died away, and then I cautiously drew aside the two boards and peeped through. The light was very dim, so dim that I could only just discern a figure huddled in the corner, and I could hear the low whisper of a voice which prayed as one prays who is in deadly fear. The boards must have made a creaking. There was a sharp exclamation of surprise.
“Courage, friend, courage!” I cried. “All is not lost. Keep a stout heart, for Etienne Gerard is by your side.”
“Etienne!” It was a woman's voice which spoke– a voice which was always music to my ears. I sprang through the gap and I flung my arms round her.
“Lucia! Lucia!” I cried.
It was “Etienne!” and “Lucia!” for some minutes, for one does not make speeches at moments like that. It was she who came to her senses first.
“Oh, Etienne, they will kill you. How came you into their hands?”
“In answer to your letter.”
“I wrote no letter.”
“The cunning demons! But you?”
“I came also in answer to your letter.”
“Lucia, I wrote no letter.”
“They have trapped us both with the same bait.”
“I care nothing about myself, Lucia. Besides, there is no pressing danger with me. They have simply returned me to my cell.”
“Oh, Etienne, Etienne, they will kill you. Lorenzo is there.”
“The old greybeard?”
“No, no, a young dark man. He loved me, and I thought I loved him until– until I learned what love is, Etienne. He will never forgive you. He has a heart of stone.”
“Let them do what they like. They cannot rob me of the past, Lucia. But you– what about you?”
“It will be nothing, Etienne. Only a pang for an instant and then all over. They mean it as a badge of infamy, dear, but I will carry it like a crown of honour since it was through you that I gained it.”
Her words froze my blood with horror. All my adventures were insignificant compared to this terrible shadow which was creeping over my soul.
“Lucia! Lucia!” I cried. “For pity's sake tell me what these butchers are about to do. Tell me, Lucia! Tell me!”
“I will not tell you, Etienne, for it would hurt you far more than it would me. Well, well, I will tell you lest you should fear it was something worse. The president has ordered that my ear be cut off, that I may be marked for ever as having loved a Frenchman.”
Her ear! The dear little ear which I had kissed so often. I put my hand to each little velvet shell to make certain that this sacrilege had not yet been committed.
Only over my dead body should they reach them. I swore it to her between my clenched teeth.
“You must not care, Etienne. And yet I love that you should care all the same.”
“They shall not hurt you– the fiends!”
“I have hopes, Etienne. Lorenzo is there. He was silent while I was judged, but he may have pleaded for me after I was gone.”
“He did. I heard him.”
“Then he may have softened their hearts.”
I knew that it was not so, but how could I bring myself to tell her? I might as well have done so, for with the quick instinct of woman my silence was speech to her.
“They would not listen to him! You need not fear to tell me, dear, for you will find that I am worthy to be loved by such a soldier. Where is Lorenzo now?”
“He left the hall.”