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

“Which is the wiser here? Justice or iniquity?”
Measure for measure.

In the constant struggle between the innocent and the artful, the latter have the advantage, so long as they confine themselves to familiar interests. But the moment the former conquer their disgust for the study of vice, and throw themselves upon the protection of their own high principles, they are far more effectually concealed from the calculations of their adversaries than if they practised the most refined of their subtle expedients. Nature has given to every man enough of frailty to enable him to estimate the workings of selfishness and fraud, but her truly privileged are those who can shroud their motives and intentions in a degree of justice and disinterestedness, which surpass the calculations of the designing. Millions may bow to the commands of a conventional right, but few, indeed, are they who know how to choose in novel and difficult cases. There is often a mystery in virtue. While the cunning of vice is no more than a pitiful imitation of that art which endeavors to cloak its workings in the thin veil of deception, the other, in some degree, resembles the sublimity of infallible truth.

Thus men too much practised in the interests of life, constantly overreach themselves when brought in contact with the simple and intelligent; and the experience of every day proves that, as there is no fame permanent which is not founded on virtue, so there is no policy secure which is not bottomed on the good of the whole. Vulgar minds may control the concerns of a community so long as they arc limited to vulgar views; but woe to the people who confide on great emergencies in any but the honest, the noble, the wise, and the philanthropic; for there is no security for success when the meanly artful control the occasional and providential events which regenerate a nation. More than half the misery which has defeated as well as disgraced civilization, proceeds from neglecting to use those great men that are always created by great occasions.

Treating, as we are, of the vices of the Venetian system, our pen has run truant with its subject, since the application of the moral must be made on the familiar scale suited to the incidents of our story. It has already been seen that Gelsomina was intrusted with certain important keys of the prison. For this trust there had been sufficient motive with the wily guardians of the jail, who had made their calculations on her serving their particular orders, without ever suspecting that she was capable of so far listening to the promptings of a generous temper, as might induce her to use them in any manner prejudicial to their own views. The service to which they were now to be applied proved that the keepers, one of whom was her own father, had not fully known how to estimate the powers of the innocent and simple.

Provided with the keys in question, Gelsomina took a lamp and passed upwards from the mezzinino in which she dwelt, to the first floor of the edifice, instead of descending to its court. Door was opened after door, and many a gloomy corridor was passed by the gentle girl, with the confidence of one who knew her motive to be good. She soon crossed the Bridge of Sighs, fearless of interruption in that unfrequented gallery, and entered the palace. Here she made her way to a door that opened on the common and public vomitories of the structure. Moving with sufficient care to make impunity from detection sure, she extinguished the light and applied the key. At the next instant she was on the vast and gloomy stairway. It required but a moment to descend it, and to reach the covered gallery which surrounded the court. A halberdier was within a few feet of her. He looked at the unknown female with interest; but as it was not his business to question those who issued from the building, nothing was said. Gelsomina walked on. A half-repenting but vindictive being was dropping an accusation in the lion’s mouth. Gelsomina stopped involuntarily until the secret accuser had done his treacherous work and departed. Then, when she was about to proceed, she saw that the halberdier at the head of the Giant’s stairway was smiling at her indecision, like one accustomed to such scenes.

“Is there danger in quitting the palace?” she asked of the rough mountaineer.

“Corpo di Bacco! There might have been an hour since, Bella Donna; but the rioters are muzzled and at their prayers.”

Gelsomina hesitated no longer. She descended the well known flight, down which the head of Faliero had rolled, and was soon beneath the arch of the gate. Here the timid and unpractised maid again stopped, for she could not venture into the square without assuring herself, like a deer about to quit its cover, of the tranquillity of the place into which she was to enter.

The agents of the police had been too much alarmed by the rising of the fishermen not to call their usual ingenuity and finesse into play, the moment the disturbance was appeased. Money had been given to the mountebanks and ballad singers to induce them to reappear, and groups of hirelings, some in masks and others without concealment, were ostentatiously assembled in different parts of the piazza. In short, those usual expedients were resorted to which are constantly used to restore the confidence of a people, in those countries in which civilization is so new, that they are not yet considered sufficiently advanced to be the guardians of their own security. There are few artifices so shallow that many will not be their dupes. The idler, the curious, the really discontented, the factious, the designing, with a suitable mixture of the unthinking, and of those who only live for the pleasure of the passing hour, a class not the least insignificant for numbers, had lent themselves to the views of the police; and when Gelsomina was ready to enter the Piazzetta, she found both the squares partly filled. A few excited fishermen clustered about the doors of the cathedral, like bees swarming before their hive; but, on that side, there was no very visible cause of alarm. Unaccustomed as she was to scenes like that before her, the first glance assured the gentle girl of the real privacy which so singularly distinguishes the solitude of a crowd. Gathering her simple mantle more closely about her form, and settling her mask with care, she moved with a swift step into the centre of the piazza.

We shall not detail the progress of our heroine, as, avoiding the commonplace gallantry that assailed and offended her ear, she went her way on her errand of kindness. Young, active, and impelled by her intentions, the square was soon passed, and she reached the place of San Nico. Here was one of the landings of the public gondolas. But at the moment there was no boat in waiting, for curiosity or fear had induced the men to quit their usual stand. Gelsomina had ascended the bridge, and was on the crown of its arch, when a gondolier came sweeping lazily in from the direction of the Grand Canal. Her hesitation and doubting manner attracted his attention, and the man made the customary sign which conveyed the offer of his services. As she was nearly a stranger in the streets of Venice, labyrinths that offer greater embarrassment to the uninitiated than perhaps the passages of any other town of its size, she gladly availed herself of the offer. To descend to the steps, to leap into the boat, to utter the word “Rialto,” and to conceal herself in the pavilion, was the business of a minute. The boat was instantly in motion.

Gelsomina now believed herself secure of effecting her purpose, since there was little to apprehend from the knowledge or the designs of a common boatman. He could not know her object, and it was his interest to carry her in safety to the place she had commanded. But so important was success, that she could not feel secure of attaining it while it was still unaccomplished. She soon summoned sufficient resolution to look out at the palaces and boats they were passing, and she felt the refreshing air of the canal revive her courage. Then turning with a sensitive distrust to examine the countenance of the gondolier, she saw that his features were concealed beneath a mask that was so well designed, as not to be perceptible to a casual observer by moonlight.

Though it was common on occasions for the servants of the great, it was not usual for the public gondoliers to be disguised. The circumstance itself was one justly to excite slight apprehension, though, on second thoughts, Gelsomina saw no more in it than a return from some expedition of pleasure, or some serenade perhaps, in which the caution of a lover had compelled his followers to resort to this species of concealment.

“Shall I put you on the public quay, Signora,” demanded the gondolier,” or shall I see you to the gate of your own palace?”

The heart of Gelsomina beat high. She liked the tone of the voice, though it was necessarily smothered by the mask, but she was so little accustomed to act in the affairs of others, and less still in any of so great interest, that the sounds caused her to tremble like one less worthily employed.

“Dost thou know the palace of a certain Don Camillo Monforte, a lord of Calabria, who dwells here in Venice?” she asked, after a moment’s pause. The gondolier sensibly betrayed surprise, by the manner in which he started at the question.

“Would you be rowed there, lady?”

“If thou art certain of knowing the palazzo.”

The water stirred, and the gondola glided between high walls. Gelsomina knew by the sound that they were in one of the smaller canals, and she augured well of the boatman’s knowledge of the town. They soon stopped by the side of a water-gate, and the man appeared on the step, holding an arm to aid her in ascending, after the manner of people of his craft. Gelsomina bade him wait her return, and proceeded.

There was a marked derangement in the household of Don Camillo, that one more practised than our heroine would have noted. The servants seemed undecided in the manner of performing the most ordinary duties; their looks wandered distrustfully from one to another, and when their half-frightened visitor entered the vestibule, though all arose, none advanced to meet her. A female masked was not a rare sight in Venice, for few of that sex went upon the canals without using the customary means of concealment; but it would seem by their hesitating manner that the menials of Don Camillo did not view the entrance of her who now appeared with the usual indifference.

“I am in the dwelling of the Duke of St. Agata, a Signore of Calabria?” demanded Gelsomina, who saw the necessity of being firm.

“Signora, si ”

“Is your lord in the palace?”

“Signora, he is and he is not. What beautiful lady shall I tell him does him this honor?”

“If he be not at home it will not be necessary to tell him anything. If he is, I could wish to see him.”

The domestics, of whom there were several, put their heads together, and seemed to dispute on the propriety of receiving the visit. At this instant a gondolier in a flowered jacket entered the vestibule. Gelsomina took courage at his good-natured eye and frank manner.

“Do you serve Don Camillo Monforte?” she asked, as he passed her, on his way to the canal.

“With the oar, Bellissima Donna,” answered Gino, touching his cap, though scarce looking aside at the question.

“And could he be told that a female wishes earnestly to speak to him in private? A female.”

“Santa Maria! Bella Donna, there is no end to females who come on these errands in Venice. You might better pay a visit to the statue of San Teodore, in the piazza, than see my master at this moment; the stone will give you the better reception.”

“And this he commands you to tell all of my sex who come!”

“Diavolo! Lady, you are particular in your questions. Perhaps my master might, on a strait, receive one of the sex I could name, but on the honor of a gondolier he is not the most gallant cavalier of Venice, just at this moment.”

“If there is one to whom he would pay this deference, you are bold for a servitor. How know you I am not that one?”

Gino started. He examined the figure of the applicant, and lifting his cap, he bowed.

“Lady, I do not know anything about it,” he said; “you may be his Highness the Doge, or the ambassador of the emperor. I pretend to know nothing in Venice of late ”

The words of Gino were cut short by a tap on the shoulder from the public gondolier, who had hastily entered the vestibule. The man whispered in the ear of Don Camillo’s servitor.

“This is not a moment to refuse any,” he said. “Let the stranger go up.”

Gino hesitated no longer. With the decision of a favored menial he pushed the groom of the chambers aside, and offered to conduct Gelsomina himself to the presence of his master. As they ascended the stairs, three of the inferior servants disappeared.

The palace of Don Camillo had an air of more than Venetian gloom. The rooms were dimly lighted, many of the walls had been stripped of the most precious of their pictures, and in other respects a jealous eye might have detected evidence of a secret intention, on the part of its owner, not to make a permanent residence of the dwelling. But these were particulars that Gelsomina did not note, as she followed Gino through the apartments, into the more private parts of the building. Here the gondolier unlocked a door, and regarding his companion with an air, half-doubting, half-respectful, he made a sign for her to enter.

“My master commonly receives the ladies here,” he said. “Enter, eccellenza, while I run to tell him of his happiness.”

Gelsomina did not hesitate, though she felt a violent throb at the heart when she heard the key turning in the lock behind her. She was in an ante-chamber, and inferring from the light which shone through the door of an adjoining room that she was to proceed, she went on. No sooner had she entered the little closet than she found herself alone, with one of her own sex.

“Annina!” burst from the lips of the unpractised prison-girl, under the impulse of surprise.

“Gelsomina! The simple, quiet, whispering, modest Gelsomina!” returned the other.

The words of Annina admitted but of one construction. Wounded, like the bruised sensitive plant, Gelsomina withdrew her mask for air, actually gasping for breath, between offended pride and wonder.

“Thou here!” she added, scarce knowing-what she uttered.

“Thou here!” repeated Annina, with such a laugh as escapes the degraded when they believe the innocent reduced to their own level.

“Nay, I come on an errand of pity.”

“Santa Maria! we are both here with the same end!”

“Annina! I know not what thou would’st say! This is surely the palace of Don Camillo Monforte! a noble Neapolitan, who urges claims to the honors of the Senate?”

“The gayest, the handsomest, the richest, and the most inconstant cavalier in Venice! Hadst thou been here a thousand times thou could’st not be better informed!”

Gelsomina listened in horror. Her artful cousin, who knew her character to the full extent that vice can comprehend innocence, watched her colorless cheek and contracting eye with secret triumph. At the first moment she had believed all that she insinuated, but second thoughts and a view of the visible distress of the frightened girl gave a new direction to her suspicions.

“But I tell thee nothing new,” she quickly added. “I only regret thou should’st find me, where, no doubt, you expected to meet the Duca di Sant’ Agata himself.”

“Annina! This from thee!”

“Thou surely didst not come to his palace to seek thy cousin!”

Gelsomina had long been familiar with grief, but until this moment she had never felt the deep humiliation of shame. Tears started from her eyes, and she sank back into a seat, in utter inability to stand.

“I would not distress thee out of bearing,” added the artful daughter of the wine-seller. “But that we are both in the closet of the gayest cavalier of Venice, is beyond dispute.”

“I have told thee that pity for another brought me hither.”

“Pity for Don Camillo.”

“For a noble lady a young, a virtuous, and a beautiful wife a daughter of the Tiepolo of the Tiepolo, Annina!”

“Why should a lady of the Tiepolo employ a girl of the public prisons!”

“Why! because there has been injustice by those up above. There has been a tumult among the fishermen and the lady and her governess were liberated by the rioters and his Highness spoke to them in the great court and the Dalmatians were on the quay and the prison was a refuge for ladies of their quality, in a moment of so great terror and the Holy Church itself has blessed their love ”

Gelsomina could utter no more, but breathless with the wish to vindicate herself, and wounded to the soul by the strange embarrassment of her situation, she sobbed aloud. Incoherent as had been her language, she had said enough to remove every doubt from the mind of Annina. Privy to the secret marriage, to the rising of the fishermen, and to the departure of the ladies from the convent on a distant island, where they had been carried on quitting their own palace, the preceding night, and whither she had been compelled to conduct Don Camillo, who had ascertained the departure of those he sought without discovering their destination, the daughter of the wine-seller readily comprehended, not only the errand of her cousin, but the precise situation of the fugitives.

“And thou believest this fiction, Gelsomina?” she said, affecting pity for her cousin’s credulity. “The characters of thy pretended daughter of Tiepolo and her governess are no secrets to those who frequent the piazza of San Marco.”

“Hadst thou seen the beauty and innocence of the lady, Annina, thou would’st not say this!”

“Blessed San Teodoro! What is more beautiful than vice! ’Tis the cheapest artifice of the devil to deceive frail sinners. This thou hast heard of thy confessor, Gelsomina, or he is of much lighter discourse than mine.”

“But why should a woman of this life enter the prisons?”

“They had good reasons to dread the Dalmatians, no doubt. But it is in my power to tell thee more, of these thou hast entertained, with such peril to thine own reputation. There are women in Venice who discredit their sex in various ways, and of these more particularly she who calls herself Florinda, is notorious for her agency in robbing St. Mark of his revenue. She has received a largess from the Neapolitan, of wines grown on his Calabrian mountains, and wishing to tamper with my honesty, she offered the liquor to me, expecting one like me to forget my duty, and to aid her in deceiving the Republic.”

“Can this be true, Annina!”

“Why should I deceive thee! Are we not sisters’ children, and though affairs on the Lido keep me much from thy company, is not the love between us natural! I complained to the authorities, and the liquors were seized, and the pretended noble ladies were obliged to hide themselves this very day. ’Tis thought they wish to flee the city with their profligate Neapolitan. Driven to take shelter, they have sent thee to acquaint him with their hiding-place, in order that he may come to their aid.”

“And why art thou here, Annina?”

“I marvel that thou didst not put the question sooner. Gino, the gondolier of Don Camillo, has long been an unfavored suitor of mine, and when this Florinda complained of my having, what every honest girl in Venice should do, exposed her fraud to the authorities, she advised his master to seize me, partly in revenge, and partly with the vain hope of making me retract the complaint I have made. Thou hast heard of the bold violence of these cavaliers when thwarted in their wills.”

Annina then related the manner of her seizure, with sufficient exactitude, merely concealing those facts that it was not her interest to reveal.

“But there is a lady of the Tiepolo, Annina!”

“As sure as there are cousins like ourselves. Santa Madre di Dio! that woman so treacherous and so bold should have met one of thy innocence! It would have been better had they fallen in with me, who am too ignorant for their cunning, blessed St. Anna knows! but who have not to learn their true characters.”

“They did speak of thee, Annina!”

The glance which the wine-seller’s daughter threw at her cousin, was such as the treacherous serpent casts at the bird; but preserving her self-possession she added

“Not to my favor; it would sicken me to hear words of favor from such as they!”

“They are not thy friends, Annina.”

“Perhaps they told thee, child, that I was in the employment of the council?”

“Indeed they did.”

“No wonder. Your dishonest people can never believe one can do an act of pure conscience. But here comes the Neapolitan. Note the libertine, Gelsomina, and thou wilt feel for him the same disgust as I!”

The door opened, and Don Camillo Monforte entered. There was an appearance of distrust in his manner, which proved that he did not expect to meet his bride. Gelsomina arose, and, though bewildered by the tale of her cousin, and her own previous impressions, she stood resembling a meek statue of modesty, awaiting his approach. The Neapolitan was evidently struck by her beauty, and the simplicity of her air, but his brow was fixed, like that of a man who had steeled his feelings against deceit.

“Thou would’st see me?” he said.

“I had that wish, noble Signore, but Annina ”

“Seeing another, thy mind hath changed.”

“Signore, it has.”

Don Camillo looked at her earnestly, and with manly regret.

“Thou art young for thy vocation here is gold. Retire as thou earnest. But hold dost thou know this Annina?”

“She is my mother’s sister’s daughter, noble Duca.

“Per Diana! a worthy sisterhood! Depart together, for I have no need of either. But mark me,” and as he spoke, Don Camillo took Annina by the arm, and led her aside, when he continued with a low but menacing voice “Thou seest I am to be feared, as well as thy Councils. Thou canst not cross the threshold of thy father without my knowledge. If prudent, thou wilt teach thy tongue discretion. Do as thou wilt, I fear thee not; but remember, prudence.”

Annina made an humble reverence, as if in acknowledgment of the wisdom of his advice, and taking the arm of her half-unconscious cousin, she again curtsied, and hurried from the room. As the presence of their master in his closet was known to them, none of the menials presumed to stop those who issued from the privileged room. Gelsomina, who was even more impatient than her wily companion to escape from a place she believed polluted, was nearly breathless when she reached the gondola. Its owner was in waiting on the steps, and in a moment the boat whirled away from a spot which both of those it contained were, though for reasons so very different, glad to quit.

Gelsomina had forgotten her mask in her hurry, and the gondola was no sooner in the great canal than she put her face at the window of the pavilion in quest of the evening air. The rays of the moon fell upon her guileless eye, and a cheek that was now glowing, partly with offended pride, and partly with joy at her escape from a situation she felt to be so degrading. Her forehead was touched with a finger, and turning she saw the gondolier making a sign of caution. He then slowly lifted his mask.

“Carlo!” had half burst from her lips, but another sign suppressed the cry.

Gelsomina withdrew her head, and, after her beating heart had ceased to throb, she bowed her face and murmured thanksgivings at finding herself, at such a moment, under the protection of one who possessed all her confidence.

The gondolier asked no orders for his direction. The boat moved on, taking the direction of the port, which appeared perfectly natural to the two females.

Annina supposed it was returning to the square, the place she would have sought had she been alone, and Gelsomina, who believed that he whom she called Carlo, toiled regularly as a gondolier for support, fancied, of course, that he was taking her to her ordinary residence.

But though the innocent can endure the scorn of the world, it is hard indeed to be suspected by those they love. All that Annina had told her of the character of Don Camillo and his associates came gradually across the mind of the gentle Gelsomina, and she felt the blood creeping to her temples, as she saw the construction her lover might put on her conduct. A dozen times did the artless girl satisfy herself with saying inwardly, “he knows me and will believe the best,” and as often did her feelings prompt her to tell the truth. Suspense is far more painful, at such moments, than even vindication, which, in itself, is a humiliating duty to the virtuous. Pretending a desire to breathe the air, she left her cousin in the canopy. Annina was not sorry to be alone, for she had need to reflect on all the windings of the sinuous path on which she had entered.

Gelsomina succeeded in passing the pavilion, and in gaining the side of the gondolier.

“Carlo!” she said, observing that he continued to row in silence.

“Gelsomina!”

“Thou hast not questioned me!”

“I know thy treacherous cousin, and can believe thou art her dupe. The moment to learn the truth will come.”

“Thou didst not know me, Carlo, when I called thee from the bridge?”

“I did not. Any fare that would occupy my time was welcome.”

“Why dost thou call Annina treacherous?”

“Because Venice does not hold a more wily heart, or a falser tongue.”

Gelsomina remembered the warning of Donna Florinda. Possessed of the advantage of blood, and that reliance which the inexperienced always place in the integrity of their friends, until exposure comes to destroy the illusion, Annina had found it easy to persuade her cousin of the unworthiness of her guests. But here was one who had all her sympathies, who openly denounced Annina herself. In such a dilemma the bewildered girl did what nature and her feelings suggested. She recounted, in a low but rapid voice, the incidents of the evening, and Annina’s construction of the conduct of the females whom she had left behind in the prison.

Jacopo listened so intently that his oar dragged in the water.

“Enough,” he said, when Gelsomina, blushing with her own earnestness to stand exculpated in his eyes, had done; “I understand it all. Distrust thy cousin, for the Senate itself is not more false.”

The pretended Carlo spoke cautiously, but in a firm voice. Gelsomina took his meaning, though wondering at what she heard, and returned to Annina within. The gondola proceeded, as if nothing had occurred.