Read CHAPTER XI of The Bravo, free online book, by James Fenimore Cooper, on ReadCentral.com.

“Which is the merchant here, and which the Jew?”
SHAKSPEARE.

The evening of such a day, in a city with the habits of Venice, was not likely to be spent in the dulness of retirement. The great square of St. Mark was again filled with its active and motley crowd, and the scenes already described in the opening chapters of this work were resumed, if possible, with more apparent devotion to the levities of the hour, than on the occasion mentioned. The tumblers and jugglers renewed their antics, the cries of the fruit-sellers and other venders of light luxuries were again mingled with the tones of the flute and the notes of the guitar and harp; while the idle and the busy, the thoughtless and the designing, the conspirator and the agent of the police, once more met in privileged security.

The night had advanced, beyond its turn, when a gondola came gliding through the shipping of the port with that easy and swan-like motion which is peculiar to its slow movement, and touched the quay with its beak, at the point where the canal of St. Mark forms its junction with the bay.

“Thou art welcome, Antonio,” said one, who approached the solitary individual that had directed the gondola, when the latter had thrust the iron spike of his painter between the crevices of the stones, as gondoliers are accustomed to secure their barges; “thou art welcome, Antonio, though late.”

“I begin to know the sounds of that voice, though they come from a masked face,” said the fisherman. “Friend, I owe my success to-day to thy kindness, and though it has not had the end for which I had both hoped and prayed, I ought not to thank thee less. Thou hast thyself been borne hard upon by the world, or thou would’st not have bethought thee of an old and despised man, when the shouts of triumph were ringing in thy ear, and when thy own young blood was stirred with the feelings of pride and victory.”

“Nature gives thee strong language, fisherman. I have not passed the hours, truly, in the games and levities of my years. Life has been no festa to me but no matter. The senate was not pleased to hear of lessening the number of the galleys’ crew, and thou wilt bethink thee of some other reward. I have here the chain and golden oar in the hope that it will still be welcome.”

Antonio looked amazed, but, yielding to a natural curiosity, he gazed a moment with a longing at the prize. Then recoiling with a shudder, he uttered moodily, and with the tones of one whose determination was made: “I should think the bauble coined of my grandchild’s blood! Keep it; they have trusted it to thee, for it is thine of right, and now that they refuse to hear my prayer, it will be useless to all but to him who fairly earned it.”

“Thou makest no allowance, fisherman, for difference of years and for sinews that are in their vigor. Methinks that in adjudging such a prize, thought should be had to these matters, and then wouldest thou be found outstripping us all. Holy St. Theodore! I passed my childhood with the oar in hand, and never before have I met one in Venice who has driven my gondola so hard! Thou touchest the water with the delicacy of a lady fingering her harp, and yet with the force of the wave rolling on the Lido!”

“I have seen the hour, Jacopo, when even thy young arm would have tired in such a strife between us. That was before the birth of my eldest son, who died in battle with the Ottoman, when the dear boy he left me was but an infant in arms. Thou never sawest the comely lad, good Jacopo?”

“I was not so happy, old man; but if he resembled thee, well mayest thou mourn his loss. Body of Diana! I have little cause to boast of the small advantage youth and strength gave me.”

“There was a force within that bore me and the boat on, but of what use hath it been? Thy kindness and the pain given to an old frame, that hath been long racked by hardship and poverty, are both thrown away on the rocky hearts of the nobles.”

“We know not yet, Antonio. The good saints will hear our prayers, when we least think they are listening. Come with me, for I am sent to seek thee.”

The fisherman regarded his new acquaintance with surprise, and then turning to bestow an instant of habitual care on his boat, he cheerfully professed himself ready to proceed. The place where they stood was a little apart from the thoroughfare of the quays, and though there was a brilliant moon, the circumstance of two men in their garbs being there, was not likely to attract observation; but Jacopo did not appear to be satisfied with this security from remark. He waited until Antonio had left the gondola, and then unfolding a cloak, which had lain on his arm, he threw it, without asking permission, over the shoulders of the other. A cap, like that he wore himself, was next produced, and being placed on the grey hairs of the fisherman, effectually completed his metamorphosis.

“There is no need of a mask,” he said, examining his companion attentively, when his task was accomplished. “None would know thee, Antonio, in this garb.”

“And is there need of what thou hast done, Jacopo? I owe thee thanks for a well meant, and, but for the hardness of heart of the rich and powerful, for what would have proved a great kindness. Still I must tell thee that a mask was never yet put before my face; for what reason can there be why one who rises with the sun to go to his toil, who trusteth to the favor of the blessed St. Anthony for the little he hath, should go abroad like a gallant, ready to steal the good name of a virgin, or a robber at night?”

“Thou knowest our Venetian custom, and it may be well to use some caution in the business we are on.”

“Thou forgettest that thy intention is yet a secret to me. I say it again, and I say it with truth and gratitude, that I owe thee many thanks, though the end is defeated, and the boy is still a prisoner in the floating-school of wickedness; but thou hast a name, Jacopo, that I could wish did not belong to thee. I find it hard to believe all that they have this day said on the Lido, of one who has so much feeling for the weak and wronged.”

The Bravo ceased to adjust the disguise of his companion, and the profound stillness which succeeded his remark proved so painful to Antonio, that he felt like one reprieved from suffocation, when he heard the deep respiration that announced the relief of his companion.

“I would not willingly say ”

“No matter,” interrupted Jacopo, in a hollow voice. “No matter, fisherman; we will speak of these things on some other occasion. At present, follow, and be silent.”

As he ceased, the self-appointed guide of Antonio beckoned for the latter to come on, when he led the way from the water side. The fisherman obeyed; for little did it matter to one poor and heart-stricken as he, whither he was conducted. Jacopo took the first entrance into the court of the Doge’s palace. His footstep was leisurely, and to the passing multitude they appeared like any others of the thousands who were abroad to breathe the soft air of the night, or to enter into the pleasures of the piazza.

When within the dimmer and broken light of the court, Jacopo paused, evidently to scan the persons of those it contained. It is to be presumed he saw no reason to delay, for with a secret sign to his companion to follow, he crossed the area, and mounted the well known steps, down which the head of the Faliero had rolled, and which, from the statues on the summit, is called the Giant’s Stairs. The celebrated mouths of the lions were passed, and they were walking swiftly along the open gallery when they encountered a halberdier of the ducal guard.

“Who comes?” demanded the mercenary, throwing forward his long and dangerous weapon.

“Friends to the state and to St. Mark.”

“None pass at this hour without the word.”

Jacopo motioned to Antonio to stand fast, while he drew nearer to the halberdier and whispered. The weapon was instantly thrown up, and the sentinel again paced the long gallery with practised indifference. The way was no sooner cleared than they proceeded. Antonio, not a little amazed at what he had already seen, eagerly followed his guide, for his heart began to beat high with an exciting but undefined hope. He was not so ignorant of human affairs as to require to be told that those who ruled would sometimes concede that in secret which policy forbade them to yield openly. Full, therefore, of the expectation of being ushered into the presence of the Doge himself, and of having his child restored to his arms, the old man stepped lightly along the gloomy gallery, and darting through an entrance, at the heels of Jacopo, he found himself at the foot of another flight of massive steps. The route now became confused to the fisherman, for, quitting the more public vomitories of the palace, his companion held his way by a secret door, through many dimly lighted and obscure passages. They ascended and descended frequently, as often quitting or entering rooms of but ordinary dimensions and decorations, until the head of Antonio was completely turned, and he no longer knew the general direction of their course. At length they stopped in an apartment of inferior ornaments, and of a dusky color, which the feeble light rendered still more gloomy.

“Thou art well acquainted with the dwelling of our prince,” said the fisherman, when his companion enabled him to speak, by checking his swift movements. “The oldest gondolier of Venice is not more ready on the canals, than thou appearest to be among these galleries and corridors.”

“’Tis my business to bring thee hither, and what I am to do, I endeavor to do well. Antonio, thou art a man that feareth not to stand in the presence of the great, as this day hath shown. Summon thy courage, for a moment of trial is before thee.”

“I have spoken boldly to the Doge. Except the Holy Father himself, what power is there on earth besides to fear?”

“Thou mayest have spoken, fisherman, too boldly. Temper thy language, for the great love not words of disrespect.”

“Is truth unpleasant to them?”

“That is as may be. They love to hear their own acts praised, when their acts have merited praise, but they do not like to hear them condemned, even though they know what is said to be just.”

“I fear me,” said the old man, looking with simplicity at the other, “there is little difference between the powerful and the weak, when the garments are stripped from both, and the man stands naked to the eye.”

“That truth may not be spoken here.”

“How! Do they deny that they are Christians, and mortals, and sinners?”

“They make a merit of the first, Antonio they forget the second, and they never like to be called the last by any but themselves.”

“I doubt, Jacopo, after all, if I get from them the freedom of the boy.”

“Speak them fair, and say naught to wound their self-esteem, or to menace their authority they will pardon much, if the last, in particular, be respected.”

“But it is that authority which has taken away my child! Can I speak in favor of the power which I know to be unjust?”

“Thou must feign it, or thy suit will fail.”

“I will go back to the Lagunes, good Jacopo, for this tongue of mine hath ever moved at the bidding of the heart. I fear I am too old to say that a son may righteously be torn from the father by violence. Tell them, thou, from me, that I came thus far, in order to do them respect, but that, seeing the hopelessness of beseeching further, I have gone to my nets, and to my prayers to blessed St. Anthony.”

As he ceased speaking, Antonio wrung the hand of his motionless companion, and turned away, as if to retire. Two halberds fell to the level of his breast ere his foot had quitted the marble floor, and he now saw, for the first time, that armed men crossed his passage, and that, in truth, he was a prisoner. Nature had endowed the fisherman with a quick and just perception, and long habit had given great steadiness to his nerves. When he perceived his real situation, instead of entering into useless remonstrance, or in any manner betraying alarm, he again turned to Jacopo with an air of patience and resignation.

“It must be that the illustrious Signore wish to do me justice,” he said, smoothing the remnant of his hair, as men of his class prepare themselves for the presence of their superiors, “and it would not be decent in an humble fisherman to refuse them the opportunity. It would be better, however, if there were less force used here in Venice, in a matter of simple right and wrong. But the great love to show their power, and the weak must submit.”

“We shall see!” answered Jacopo, who had manifested no emotion during the abortive attempt of the other to retire.

A profound stillness succeeded. The halberdiers maintained their rigid attitudes within the shadow of the wall, looking like two insensible statues in the attire and armor of the age, while Jacopo and his companion occupied the centre of the room with scarcely more of the appearance of consciousness and animation. It may be well to explain here to the reader some of the peculiar machinery of the State, in the country of which we write, and which is connected with the scene that is about to follow: for the name of a Republic, a word which, if it mean anything, strictly implies the representation and supremacy of the general interests, but which has so frequently been prostituted to the protection and monopolies of privileged classes, may have induced him to believe that there was at least a resemblance between the outlines of that government, and the more just, because more popular, institutions of his own country.

In an age when rulers were profane enough to assert, and the ruled weak enough to allow, that the right of a man to govern his fellows was a direct gift from God, a departure from the bold and selfish principle, though it were only in profession, was thought sufficient to give a character of freedom and common sense to the polity of a nation. This belief is not without some justification, since it establishes in theory, at least, the foundations of government on a base sufficiently different from that which supposes all power to be the property of one, and that one to be the representative of the faultless and omnipotent Ruler of the Universe. With the first of these principles we have nothing to do, except it be to add that there are propositions so inherently false that they only require to be fairly stated to produce their own refutation; but our subject necessarily draws us into a short digression on the errors of the second as they existed in Venice.

It is probable that when the patricians of St. Mark created a community of political rights in their own body, they believed their State had done all that was necessary to merit the high and generous title it assumed. They had innovated on a generally received principle, and they cannot claim the distinction of being either the first or the last who have imagined that to take the incipient steps in political improvement is at once to reach the goal of perfection. Venice had no doctrine of divine right, and as her prince was little more than a pageant, she boldly laid claim to be called a Republic. She believed that a representation of the most prominent and brilliant interests in society was the paramount object of government, and faithful to the seductive but dangerous error, she mistook to the last, collective power for social happiness.

It may be taken as a governing principle, in all civil relations, that the strong will grow stronger and the feeble more weak, until the first become unfit to rule or the last unable to endure. In this important truth is contained the secret of the downfall of all those states which have crumbled beneath the weight of their own abuses. It teaches the necessity of widening the foundations of society until the base shall have a breadth capable of securing the just representation of every interest, without which the social machine is liable to interruption from its own movement, and eventually to destruction from its own excesses.

Venice, though ambitious and tenacious of the name of a republic, was, in truth, a narrow, a vulgar, and an exceedingly heartless oligarchy. To the former title she had no other claim than her denial of the naked principle already mentioned, while her practice is liable to the reproach of the two latter, in the unmanly and narrow character of its exclusion, in every act of her foreign policy, and in every measure of her internal police. An aristocracy must ever want the high personal feeling which often tempers despotism by the qualities of the chief or the generous and human impulses of a popular rule. It has the merit of substituting things for men, it is true, but unhappily it substitutes the things of a few men for those of the whole. It partakes, and it always has partaken, though necessarily tempered by circumstances and the opinions of different ages, of the selfishness of all corporations in which the responsibility of the individual, while his acts are professedly submitted to the temporizing expedients of a collective interest, is lost in the subdivision of numbers. At the period of which we write, Italy had several of these self-styled commonwealths, in not one of which, however, was there ever a fair and just confiding of power to the body of the people, though perhaps there is not one that has not been cited sooner or later in proof of the inability of man to govern himself! In order to demonstrate the fallacy of a reasoning which is so fond of predicting the downfall of our own liberal system, supported by examples drawn from transatlantic states of the middle ages, it is necessary only to recount here a little in detail the forms in which power was obtained and exercised in the most important of them all.

Distinctions in rank, as separated entirely from the will of the nation, formed the basis of Venetian polity. Authority, though divided, was not less a birthright than in those governments in which it was openly avowed to be a dispensation of Providence. The patrician order had its high and exclusive privileges, which were guarded and maintained with a most selfish and engrossing spirit. He who was not born to govern, had little hope of ever entering into the possession of his natural rights: while he who was, by the intervention of chance, might wield a power of the most fearful and despotic character. At a certain age all of senatorial rank (for, by a specious fallacy, nobility did not take its usual appellations) were admitted into the councils of the nation. The names of the leading families were inscribed in a register, which was well entitled the “Golden Book,” and he who enjoyed the envied distinction of having an ancestor thus enrolled could, with a few exceptions (such as that named in the case of Don Camillo), present himself in the senate and lay claim to the honors of the “Horned Bonnet.” Neither our limits nor our object will permit a digression of sufficient length to point out the whole of the leading features of a system so vicious, and which was, perhaps, only rendered tolerable to those it governed by the extraneous contributions of captured and subsidiary provinces, of which in truth, as in all cases of metropolitan rule, the oppression weighed most grievously. The reader will at once see that the very reason why the despotism of the self-styled Republic was tolerable to its own citizens was but another cause of its eventual destruction.

As the senate became too numerous to conduct with sufficient secresy and dispatch the affairs of a state that pursued a policy alike tortuous and complicated, the most general of its important interests were intrusted to a council composed of three hundred of its members. In order to avoid the publicity and delay of a body large even as this, a second selection was made, which was known as the Council of Ten, and to which much of the executive power that aristocratical jealousy withheld from the titular chief of the state, was confided. To this point the political economy of the Venetian Republic, however faulty, had at least some merit for simplicity and frankness. The ostensible agents of the administration were known, and though all real responsibility to the nation was lost in the superior influence and narrow policy of the patricians, the rulers could not entirely escape from the odium that public opinion might attach to their unjust or illegal proceedings. But a state whose prosperity was chiefly founded on the contribution and support of dependants, and whose existence was equally menaced by its own false principles, and by the growth of other and neighboring powers, had need of a still more efficient body in the absence of that executive which its own Republican pretensions denied to Venice. A political inquisition, which came in time to be one of the most fearful engines of police ever known, was the consequence. An authority as irresponsible as it was absolute, was periodically confided to another and still smaller body, which met and exercised its despotic and secret functions under the name of the Council of Three. The choice of these temporary rulers was decided by lot, and in a manner that prevented the result from being known to any but to their own number and to a few of the most confidential of the more permanent officers of the government. Thus there existed at all times in the heart of Venice a mysterious and despotic power that was wielded by men who moved in society unknown, and apparently surrounded by all the ordinary charities of life; but which, in truth, was influenced by a set of political maxims that were perhaps as ruthless, as tyrannic, and as selfish, as ever were invented by the evil ingenuity of man. It was, in short, a power that could only be intrusted, without abuse, to infallible virtue and infinite intelligence, using the terms in a sense limited by human means; and yet it was here confided to men whose title was founded on the double accident of birth, and the colors of balls, and by whom it was wielded without even the check of publicity.

The Council of Three met in secret, ordinarily issued its decrees without communicating with any other body, and had them enforced with a fearfulness of mystery, and a suddenness of execution, that resembled the blows of fate. The Doge himself was not superior to its authority, nor protected from its decisions, while it has been known that one of the privileged three has been denounced by his companions. There is still in existence a long list of the state maxims which this secret tribunal recognised as its rule of conduct, and it is not saying too much to affirm, that they set at defiance every other consideration but expediency, all the recognised laws of God, and every principle of justice, which is esteemed among men. The advances of the human intellect, supported by the means of publicity, may temper the exercise of a similar irresponsible power, in our own age; but in no country has this substitution of a soulless corporation for an elective representation, been made, in which a system of rule has not been established, that sets at naught the laws of natural justice and the rights of the citizen. Any pretension to the contrary, by placing profession in opposition to practice, is only adding hypocrisy to usurpation.

It appears to be an unavoidable general consequence that abuses should follow, when power is exercised by a permanent and irresponsible body, from whom there is no appeal. When this power is secretly exercised, the abuses become still more grave. It is also worthy of remark, that in the nations which submit, or have submitted, to these undue and dangerous influences, the pretensions to justice and generosity are of the most exaggerated character; for while the fearless democrat vents his personal complaints aloud, and the voice of the subject of professed despotism is smothered entirely, necessity itself dictates to the oligarchist the policy of seemliness, as one of the conditions of his own safety. Thus Venice prided herself on the justice of St. Mark, and few states maintained a greater show or put forth a more lofty claim to the possession of the sacred quality, than that whose real maxims of government were veiled in a mystery that even the loose morality of the age exacted.