( Originally Published Early 1900's )
The scene of this story is Venice in the days of the doges. The object of the tale, said William Cullen Bryant, is "to show how institutions, professedly created to prevent violence and wrong, become, when perverted from their natural destination, the instruments of injustice, and how, in every system which makes power the exclusive property of the strong, the weak are sure to be oppressed." The picture is that of the social system of a soi-disant re-public, which was anything but a republic in our sense of the word. The writer disavowed any attempt to portray historical characters, his object being simply to set forth the familiar operations of Venetian policy. The story was dramatized in 1833 by John Buckstone, comedian and dramatist.
ON CAMILLO MONFORTE, Duke of Sant' Agata, of Naples, was in Venice to press his claims to the rank of a senator of that Republic. An ancestor of his had been a senator of Venice when the death of a relation brought many Calabrian seignories into his possession. The younger of his sons, by an especial decree, which favored a family that had well served the state, took these estates, while the elder transmitted the senatorial rank and the Venetian fortunes to his posterity. Time extinguished the elder branch; and Don Camillo had for years besieged the council to be restored to those rights which his predecessor renounced when he accepted the Calabrian estates. But this claim was contrary to the policy of Venice, which was to preclude the union of any interests in opposition to each other, and whose conjunction might endanger the power of the state. Thus its laws forbade any of senatorial rank to hold lands without the limits of the Republic; and Don Camillo could not be admitted to that rank without renouncing his Calabrian lordships.
The laws of Venice bore hard on Don Camillo in another respect. They prescribed that none of its nobles should connect themselves by the ties of marriage with any stranger with-out the consent and supervision of the Republic. A short time before this, Don Camillo had saved the life of the Donna Violetta of the noble house of Tiepolo, whose gondola had been run down by a careless boatman. This led to mutual es-teem, but, as Donna Violetta was an orphan, she was regarded as the ward of Venice, and her hand, in the gift of the Senate, could not be given to an alien.
That Donna Violetta was interested in the success of the Neapolitan was shown in her intercession in his behalf with Signore Gradenigo, to whom the Senate had entrusted the guardianship of the person of the heiress. Accompanied by her mentor, Donna Florinda, she went, cloaked and masked, as was the custom of the time, one evening to the Palazzo , Gradenigo, where she was cordially greeted by its owner. "Thou canst never come amiss, child, as thou art of my ancient friend, and the especial care of the state!"
After some desultory conversation, Donna Violetta said to her guardian:
"You know, Signore Gradenigo, that though I am gifted by the accidents of fortune and birth, I have received one boon which I have not been enabled to requite in a manner to do honor to the house of Tiepolo."
"This is serious! Donna Florinda, our ward should not receive boons of this nature from any."
"I think she speaks of the boon of life," said the companion, smiling.
Signore Gradenigo's countenance assumed a dark expression.
"I understand you," he said coldly, "but Don Camillo Monforte is not a common diver of the Lido, to be rewarded like him who finds a bauble dropped from a gondola. Thou hast thanked the cavalier; I trust that a noble maiden can do no more in a case like this."
" Signore Gradenigo, that I have thanked him, and thanked him from my soul, is true; but I have now come to entreat favor in behalf of him to whom I owe my life. Don Camillo Monforte has long pursued, without success, a claim so just that, were there no other motive to concede it, the character of Venice should teach the senators the danger of delay."
"The Republic hath its laws, and none who have right on their side appeal to it in vain."
"They tamper with his rights! Being born in a foreign realm, he is required to renounce more in the land of the stranger than he will gain within the limits of the Republic! He wastes life and youth in pursuing a phantom! You are of weight in the Senate, my guardian, and were you to lend him the support of your powerful voice, a wronged noble would have justice, and Venice better deserve the character of which she is so jealous."
"Thou art a persuasive advocate, and I will think of what thou urgest," said he, changing the frown which had been gathering on his brow to a look of indulgence. "His service to thee, and my weakness in thy behalf, extort that thou wouldst have."
Donna Violetta kissed her guardian's hand and was about to retire, when Signore Gradenigo said: "My son has been mindful of his duty and respect of late, Donna Violetta, as I would have him? Thou wilt receive him with friendship, for the love thou bearest his father?"
"The door of my palace is never shut on the Signore Giacomo on all proper occasions," she said coldly. "The son of my guardian could hardly be other than an honored visitor."
The ladies had hardly gone before Giacomo entered. The son's countenance and air bore the signs of well-bred profligacy. After the parent had spoken some words of reproof in a tone between paternal indulgence and reproach, he told him of Donna Violetta's visit, and asked him if he had improved the occasion of his own guardianship to urge his suit.
"Doubt it not, father. By refusing to supply my wants, you have made certain of my consent. There is not a fool in Venice who sighs more loudly beneath his mistress's window than I—when there is opportunity, and I am in the humor."
"Giacomo, thou hast a rival in the Neapolitan. His act in saving her in the Gindecca has won upon the fancy of the girl, and she supplies his character with all necessary qualities by her own ingenuity."
"I would she did the same by me!"
"Hast thou bethought thee of turning the eyes of the council on the danger which besets their heiress?"
"I have. The Neapolitan stands accused, and if thy council is faithful, he will be a suspected if not a banished man."
As Giacomo passed within, an aged man was admitted, his face tawny by exposure, his hair thin and white.
"Ha! Antonio!" exclaimed the senator. "Why this visit?" "Signore, my heart is heavy."
"The sirocco hath emptied thy nets? Hold! thou art my foster-brother, and thou must not want."
The fisherman drew back with dignity as a purse was offered him.
"Signore, we have lived from childhood to old age since we drew our milk from the same breast; in all that time have you ever known me a beggar ? "
"Age conquers our pride with our strength, Antonio. If it be not sequins thou seekest, what wouldst thou?"
Old Antonio thereupon disclosed his errand, which was to beg the senator to use his influence to secure the release of his grandson, a lad in his fourteenth year and an orphan, condemned by the state to serve in the galleys against the infidels. Signore Gradenigo listened to his pathetic tale with a cold, unanswering countenance, void of human sympathy. For on any subject that touched an interest so vital as the maritime power of the Republic the senator was adamant.
"Thy grandson fareth no worse than others; and , thou knowest that the Republic hath need of every arm."
"Eccellenza, I saw the Signore Giacomo as I entered the palace."
"Out upon thee, fellow! dost thou make no distinction between the son of a fisherman and the heir of an ancient house? Go to; remember thy condition, and the difference that God hath made between our children."
"Mine never gave me sorrow but for the hour in which they died," said the fisherman.
The Signore Gradenigo felt the sting of this retort, which in no degree aided Antonio's cause. Nor did his final remark mend the matter.
"Signore, adieu; I would not part in anger with my foster-brother, and I pray the saints to bless you and your house. May you never know the grief of losing a child by a fate worse than death—that of destruction by vice!"
One who sought a private audience was next admitted.
When his cloak and visor were removed, Signore Gradenigo recognized the face of the most dreaded man in Venice, the Bravo Jacopo Frontoni.
"Didst thou note him that left me?" eagerly demanded Signore Gradenigo.
"'Twas Antonio a fisherman, your Eccellenza's foster-brother."
"Hast thou had dealings with him?"
"In what manner hath he come to thy knowledge?"
"I have known him as one esteemed by his fellows, skilful in his craft, and long practised in the mystery of the lagoons."
"He is a defrauder of the revenue, thou wouldst be under-stood to say?"
"I would not. He toils too late and early to have other means of support than labor."
"He hath a habit of making his voice heard concerning affairs of which none but his superiors may discreetly judge. The paternal care of the Senate cannot see discontent planted in the bosom of a class it is their duty and pleasure to render happy. Seek opportunities to let him hear this wholesome truth, for I would not willingly see a misfortune light on his head in the decline of his days. Hast thou had applications of late in thy character of avenger of private wrongs?"
"None of note; there is one who seeks me earnestly, though I am not yet master of his wishes."
"Thou wilt not withhold his name?"
"It is a noble Neapolitan who hath long sojourned in Venice—"
"Ha! Don Camillo Monforte! Am I right?"
"Signore, the same."
As the clock in the great square struck eleven, the senator started as if expecting some one, and said:
"This is well; thy faith and punctuality shall be remembered. Look to the fisherman Antonio. As to this stranger—quickly, thy mask and cloak; depart as if thou wert merely a friend bent on some idle pleasantry."
The Signore Gradenigo paced up and down the apartment until the arrival of his next visitor, who also was closely masked.
"I am honored in the visit of Don Camillo Monforte," said the host, while that person laid aside his cloak and visor.
The two at once entered on a conversation on the Spanish succession, in which the interests of the Republic were being urged by Don Camillo through his influence with his kinsman of Castile. After which Don Camillo asked advice as to the manner of further urging his own long-neglected claims.
But Signore Gradenigo answered only in glittering generalities, advising him to win the Senate's esteem by acts of service to the state.
" Could I have communication with those reverend fathers," said Don Camillo, "the justice of my claim would speedily work out its own right."
"That were impossible!" said the senator gravely. "Those august bodies are secret that their majesty may not be tarnished by communication with vulgar interests."
"I expressed the desire rather as a wish than with any hope of its being granted," replied the Duke of St. Agata, resuming his cloak and mask, and making his adieux.
The Signore Gradenigo accompanied his guest through all the rooms of the long suite until he committed him to the care of the groom of his chambers.
"The youth must be stirred to greater industry, by clogging the wheels of the law," he meditated, as he slowly returned to his closet. "He that would ask favors of St. Mark must first earn them, by showing zealous dispositions in his behalf."
Though old Antonio the fisherman had been duly warned by Jacopo, in accordance with Signore Gradenigo's commands, he was still determined to get the ear of his superiors in behalf of his grandson. To this end he became a competitor in the gondoliers' race, though he was received with coarse laughter and many jests on his white hairs and fisherman's costume. When the competitors were placed, Gino of Calabria, Don Camillo's gondolier, was on the right of the line and an unknown, who persisted in wearing a mask, on the left. "Thou hast forgotten to call the fisherman," cried the latter, as he took his station.
"Does the hoary fool persist in exposing his vanity and his rags to the best of Venice?"
"I can take a place in the rear," meekly observed Antonio.
"A few strokes of the oar, more or less, can differ but little in so long a strife."
Old Antonio calmly took a position in the rear, amid the gibes of the spectators, and during the race made no apparent effort until the line of gondoliers had broken into groups, when he began to pass one after another. The crowd ceased its gibes as he gained and watched in wondering silence while he crept past contestant after contestant until the race appeared to lie between him, Gino, and the mask. Gino was in the lead, but presently, in a supreme effort, the mask passed him, followed closely by the fisherman. The beak of Antonio's boat hung on the quarter of that of the mask, but it could do no more. The masked waterman glanced back and said:
"Thou hast deceived me, fisherman; there is more of manhood in thee than I had thought."
" If there is manhood in my arms, there is sorrow at the heart," was the reply.
"Thou art second; be content with thy lot."
"It will not do; I must be foremost, or I have wearied my old limbs in vain."
The masker heard this in silence. Twenty more strokes and the goal would be won. Then he said to his opponent, now nearly abeam:
"Push thy soul into the blade, or thou wilt yet be beaten!"
The fisherman threw all the strength of his body on the coming effort, shot ahead, and the little flags that marked victory fell into the water before his prow. The masker came second and Gino third in the best-contested race ever seen in the waters of Venice. When Antonio was proclaimed the victor, there arose a great commotion among the living mass of people, who shouted his name as if celebrating the success of some conqueror, and young and old, the fair, the gay, the noble, struggled alike to catch a glimpse of the humble old man. Antonio smiled as he listened to the shouts, and turned a hopeful eye on the herald who summoned him, the masked water-man, and Gino to the presence of the Doge on the deck of the Bucentaur.
"Approach, fisherman," said the Prince; "thou art the conqueror, and to thy hands must I consign the prize. It is my duty, Antonio, and, being a duty, it hath become a pleasure, to place around thy neck this golden chain."
"Highness!" observed Antonio, "I am not fit to bear about me such a sign of greatness and good fortune. The glitter of the gold would mock my poverty."
"Thou must not think this," said the Doge. "Bend thy knee, that I may bestow the prize."
"Highness, for my wants the lagoons are sufficient; but it is in thy power to make the last days of an old man happy, and to have thy name remembered in many an honest and well-meant prayer. Grant me back my child, and forget the boldness of a heart-broken father!"
"Is not this he who once before urged us concerning one who has gone into the service of the state?" exclaimed the Doge.
"The -same," returned the cold voice of Signore Gradenigo. "Pity for thy ignorance, fisherman, represses our anger."
"Sovrano mio, I am not vain enough to think that my humble name is inscribed among the patricians in the Golden Book, but the little I have done for my country is written here in scars on my body, won in battle against the Turks. I offer them as so many petitions to the bounty of the Senate."
"Thou speakest vaguely. What is thy will?"
" Justice, mighty Prince. They have taken the sole companion of my labors and pleasures, the child to whom I have looked to close my eyes, and exposed him to the temptation and sin of the galleys!"
"Is this all?"
"Is this all?" repeated Antonio. "Doge of Venice, it is more than one, old, heart-stricken, and bereaved, can bear!" "Go to; take thy golden chain and depart."
" Give me my child, or give me nothing."
"Away with him!" muttered a dozen voices. "He utters sedition!"
Antonio was hurried away and thrust into his gondola, and the winner of the second prize was called. The masked water-man approached, but held back when ordered to kneel.
"Highness, pardon! If it be your gracious will to grant a boon for the success of the regatta, I too have to pray to have it given in another form."
"This is unusual! Name thy desire."
"I too, and on my knee, in dutiful homage to the chief of the state, beg that the prayer of the old fisherman be heard, and that the father and son may be restored to each other."
"This touches on importunity! Who art thou, that comest thus to support a petition once refused? I command thee, unmask!"
The waterman removed his visor and disclosed the pallid features and glittering eyes of the Bravo Jacopo.
"I know thee not!" exclaimed the Doge.
The Signore Gradenigo drew near and whispered in his ear. The sovereign cast one look of mingled curiosity and aversion on the countenance of the Bravo, and motioned him to depart.
"We shall look into this at our leisure," he remarked. "Let the festivities proceed."
While the third prize was being awarded to Gino, a loud shout drew the spectators to the side of the Bucentaur. A hundred boats, manned by red-capped fishermen, were moving in a body toward the Lido. In their midst, borne in triumph, was seen the bare head of Antonio. Had the triumph of the fishermen confined itself to this natural exhibition, it would not have given grave offense, but amid the shouts of approbation were mingled cries of censure. Denunciations were heard of those who refused to restore to Antonio his child, and it was even whispered on the Bucentaur that the rioters dared to threaten force to obtain what they termed the justice of the case.
It will be remembered that the Signore Gradenigo had been informed by the Bravo that Don Camillo had sought his services for some unknown purpose, and he had also learned from Giacomo that the latter had made certain accusations against the Neapolitan which he averred would result in his banishment. Some days later, the Senate, suspecting that these movements might have some reference to the Donna Violetta, determined to remove her from the charge of Signore Gradenigo. To this end, officers of the state were sent to inform her that on the morrow new guardians would take her in charge and hold her until the wisdom of the Senate should form for her a suitable alliance; and that until that time her doors must be closed against the Signore Gradenigo and all others of his sex. Father Anselmo, the Carmelite in charge of their spiritual welfare, raised his hands in silent benediction over his two charges, Donna Violetta and Donna Florinda, who had sunk into each other's arms in tears, when an officer appeared and said to him:
"Reverend father, may I crave a moment of your time for an affair that concerns the soul of a sinner?"
Though amazed, the monk could not hesitate about answering such an appeal. Obedient to a gesture of the officer he followed him down to his gondola, and the dash of oars announced his departure to those within the palace.
When the Carmelite returned, his face was deathly pale and so charged with horror that Donna Florinda asked if he were ill.
"Ill at heart, Florinda."
"Deceive us not; thou hast more evil tidings. Thou nast shrived a penitent ? "
"One who met an unmerited end—one Antonio, a poor fisherman, better fitted to live than those who pronounced his doom. In what a fearful state is Venice!"
" Such are they who are the masters of thy person, Violetta," said Don Camillo Monforte, who had come in meanwhile. "To these midnight murderers will thy happiness be consigned!"
"Thou art right," said the monk, "such are the men who mean to dispose of the person of our pupil. Holy St. Mark pardon the prostitution of his revered name, and shield this poor child with the virtue of his prayers!"
A long conversation ended in a proposition from Don Camillo for an immediato marriage between Donna Violetta and himself, and that all should then fly with him from Venice.
"There is now lying in port a Sorrentine felucca, whose pa-drone, one Stefano Milano, is a vassal born of mine. He is here on the canals on some errand of the Republic, and is ready from hour to hour to put to sea; but I doubt not that he would rather serve his natural lord than these double-dealing miscreants of the Senate." "I fear the result," observed the hesitating monk. "If known and arrested, we are all lost. Hark! a gondola at the water-gate!"
Don Camillo had hardly concealed himself in the oratory when the same messenger of the Senate who had visited the palace once before that evening came in.
"Noble lady," he said, bowing with deference to Donna Violetta, " I am sent to request you will make such preparations as may befit your convenience during a few months' residence in a purer atmosphere, and that this may be done speedily, as your journey will commence before the rising of the sun."
"This is short notice for one about to quit the dwelling of her ancestors! For myself, little preparation is needed, but the servitors that befit my condition will require more time."
" Lady, that embarrassment hath been foreseen; the council will supply you with the only attendant you will require."
"How, Signore ! am I to be separated from my people?"
The officer answered by calling in Annina, the daughter of a wine-seller, known to be a spy of the government, and announcing that she only would be allowed to attend Donna Violetta.
A profound and sorrowful silence succeeded. Then Annina was sent to make arrangements for departure. As soon as she was gone, Don Camillo again appealed to the Carmelite, and he agreed to accede to his wishes. Don Camillo wrote instructions to Gino, wrapped the paper around a coin and dropped it from the balcony into his gondola beneath. An hour later, after the performance of the marriage ceremony by the Carmelite in the little oratory, the party made ready for leaving the palace. They hastened down at the sound of oars below and found a six-oared gondola awaiting them. All had entered excepting Don Camillo, when Annina attempted to follow her new mistress.
"Thy service ends here," whispered Don Camillo, as he barred her progress. "Seek another mistress; in fault of a better, devote thyself to Venice."
The next instant he himself was seized rudely from behind, Annina sprang past him into the gondola, the oars fell, and in speechless agony he saw the boat glide away up the canal.
His first thought was that Gino had played him false, but in a few minutes a gondola, apparently the one that had just gone, approached the landing, manned like it by six masked gondoliers. Don Camillo leaped aboard and hastened under the canopy only to find it empty. This gave him a glimpse of the truth—the spies of Venice had once more got the better of him.
"Gino," he said, "thou didst not fail to deliver the note to my agent ? "
"He had it at once, Signore. He told me where to find the gondola, equipped as thou seest."
"The mercenary villain! So tender is his care, he even deals in duplicates."
Don Camillo, convinced that she who was now his wife was to be sent somewhere on the Dalmatian coast, sent Gino to find out the condition of the Bella Sorrentina, the felucca esteemed the fastest craft in port. The master of this vessel, though born on Don Camillo's estates, was secretly in the service of Venice, receiving his orders usually through Jacopo, who was known to him only as Roderigo.
Fortunately for the interests of Don Camillo, the Bravo had been a witness of the execution of his friend, the fisherman Antonio, who had been thrown overboard and left to drown by the agents of the Republic, and this had so disgusted him that he determined to leave the city and seek fortune elsewhere. Meeting with the Neapolitan, who naturally mistrusted him, he at last won his entire confidence by the simple recital of his own wrongs. His aged father lay in the dungeons of Venice under a false charge, and his own efforts, under orders of the Senate, had been in hope of securing his parent's release. "They have blasted my youth, and loaded my name with infamy. I serve them no longer, Don Camillo. I wait only the last solemn scene, my parent's death—now certain—and then I quit the city of deceit forever."
The result of this interview was that the captain of the Bella Sorrentina received orders from Jacopo, or Roderigo, to receive ladies on board and to be ready to sail at once. He found out, through Annina, that the ladies, escaped from the gondoliers who had them in charge, had taken refuge in the house of the keeper of the prison. Before attempting their rescue, he saw the necessity of disposing of Annina herself; so he enticed her into his gondola and delivered her into the care of the padrone of the Bella Sorrentina, with strict orders to keep her shut in the cabin until he should come again. He then ordered Stefano to lift his anchors and drop below the other vessels, and there await his return. Next he hastened to the prison and sought the keeper's daughter Gelsomina, to whom he was well known as Carlo. Through her he found the ladies, and bade them follow him.
"Hast thou seen the Duca di Sant' Agata?" asked Donna Florinda.
"Question me not, but follow, noble dames."
A few minutes later and they were all on the deck of the Bella Sorrentino.
"Thou hast noble ladies as thy passengers," said Jacopo to the padrone. "Policy requires that they should quit the city for a time, but thou wilt gain favor by consulting their pleasures."
"Doubt me not, Master Roderigo; but thou forgettest I have received no sailing instructions."
"An officer of the Republic will settle this with thee. Go without the Lido and await my coming. If I do not return by one o'clock, bear away to Ancona, and await further tidings."
Bidding Stefano to permit no interview between the ladies and Annina, Jacopo returned to the Piazza, where he agreed to meet Don Camillo to acquaint him with news of the disposition of the two ladies. He had scarcely landed when he was confronted by a masked man who called him by name. The stranger looked cautiously around and raising his mask revealed the features of Giacomo Gradenigo. Giacomo offered him a bag of a hundred sequins, with a promise of doubling it as soon as he was assured of the death of Don Camillo Monforte, who had been lured from his palace, and was now waiting an appointment at a place where he would have no aid but that which his own arm would afford him.
Jacopo accepted the commission and was landed on the strand of the Lido, and left there.
"Art thou sent to meet me?" demanded Don Camillo, coming forward with his unsheathed rapier in his hand. "Signore Duca, I am," said Jacopo, unmasking.
" Jacopo ! This is better than I had hoped. Hast thou tidings from my bride?"
"Follow, Don Camillo, and you shall soon meet her." A few minutes sufficed to put Don Camillo on the deck of the
felucca, where he folded his bride in triumph to his heart.
Jacopo permitted his gondola to be towed a league to sea before he entered it to return to Venice. Don Camillo tried to induce him to go with him, but the Bravo declined to leave while his father lived. "Fear not for me, Signore. God disposes of all as He sees fit. If fortune favor me, I may some day see your stout castle of Sant' Agata."
But fortune rarely favored those who offended Venice. Shortly after his return the Bravo was summoned before the Council of Three on a charge of assassinating Don Camillo, whose means of departure was still unknown. The Senators were struck with astonishment when Jacopo related the whole story of the escape and informed them that the happy lovers were safe in the States of the Church, under the protection of the Cardinal Secretary, Don Camillo's own uncle.
"Fool! why didst thou do this? Hadst thou no thought for thyself ?"
"Eccellenza, but little. I have not known so sweet a moment in years as that in which I saw the lord of Sant' Agata fold his beautiful bride to his heart!"
A few days later Jacopo was beheaded in the public square, ostensibly for the murder of the fisherman Antonio, a crime for which the Republic itself was responsible.