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

“Let us lift up the curtain, and observe
What passes in that chamber.”
Rogers.

There were many rumors uttered in the fearful and secret manner which characterized the manner of the town, in the streets of Venice that day. Hundreds passed near the granite columns, as if they expected to see the Bravo occupying his accustomed stand, in audacious defiance of the proclamation, for so long and so mysteriously had he been permitted to appear in public, that men had difficulty in persuading themselves he would quit his habits so easily. It is needless to say that the vague expectation was disappointed. Much was also said, vauntingly, in behalf of the Republic’s justice, for the humbled are bold enough in praising their superiors; and he, who had been dumb for years on subjects of a public nature, now found his voice like a fearless freeman.

But the day passed away without any new occurrence to call the citizens from their pursuits. The prayers for the dead were continued with little intermission, and masses were said before the altars of half the churches for the repose of the fisherman’s soul. His comrades, a little distrustful, but greatly gratified, watched the ceremonies with jealousy and exultation singularly blended. Ere the night set in again, they were among the most obedient of those the oligarchy habitually trod upon; for such is the effect of this species of domination, that it acquires a power to appease, by its flattery, the very discontents created by its injustice. Such is the human mind: a factitious but deeply-seated sentiment of respect is created by the habit of submission, which gives the subject of its influence a feeling of atonement, when he who has long played the superior comes down from his stilts, and confesses the community of human frailties!

The square of St. Mark filled at the usual hour, the patricians deserted the Broglio as of wont, and the gaieties of the place were again uppermost, before the clock had struck the second hour of the night. Gondolas, filled with noble dames, appeared on the canals; the blinds of the palaces were raised for the admission of the sea-breeze; and music began to be heard in the port, on the bridges, and under the balconies of the fair. The course of society was not to be arrested, merely because the wronged were unavenged, or the innocent suffered.

There stood, then, on the grand canal, as there stand now, many palaces of scarcely less than royal magnificence. The reader has had occasion to become acquainted with one or two of these splendid edifices, and it is now our duty to convey him, in imagination, to another.

The peculiarity of construction, which is a consequence of the watery site of Venice, gives the same general character to all the superior dwellings of that remarkable town. The house to which the thread of the narrative now leads us, had its water-gate, its vestibule, its massive marble stairs, its inner court, its magnificent suites of rooms above, its pictures, its lustres, and its floors of precious stones embedded in composition, like all those which we have already found it necessary to describe.

The hour was ten, according to our own manner of computing time. A small but lovely family picture presented itself, deep within the walls of the patrician abode to which we have alluded. There was a father, a gentleman who had scarcely attained the middle age, with an eye in which spirit, intelligence, philanthropy, and, at that moment, paternal fondness were equally glowing. He tossed in his arms, with paternal pride, a laughing urchin of some three or four years, who rioted in the amusement which brought him, and the author of his being, for a time seemingly on a level. A fair Venetian dame, with golden locks and glowing cheeks, such as Titian loved to paint her sex, reclined on a couch nigh by, following the movements of both, with the joint feelings of mother and wife, and laughing in pure sympathy with the noisy merriment of her young hope. A girl, who was the youthful image of herself, with tresses that fell to her waist, romped with a crowing infant, whose age was so tender as scarcely to admit the uncertain evidence of its intelligence. Such was the scene as the clock of the piazza told the hour. Struck with the sound, the father set down the boy and consulted his watch.

“Dost thou use thy gondola to-night, love?” he demanded.

“With thee, Paolo?”

“Not with me, dearest; I have affairs which will employ me until twelve.”

“Nay, thou art given to cast me off, when thy caprices are wayward.”

“Say not so. I have named to-night for an interview with my agent, and I know thy maternal heart too well, to doubt thy being willing to spare me for that time, while I look to the interests of these dear ones.”

The Donna Giulietta rang for her mantle and attendants. The crowing infant and the noisy boy were dismissed to their beds, while the lady and the eldest child descended to the gondola. Donna Giulietta was not permitted to go unattended to her boat, for this was a family in which the inclinations had fortunately seconded the ordinary calculations of interest when the nuptial knot was tied. Her husband kissed her hand fondly, as he assisted her into the gondola, and the boat had glided some distance from the palace ere he quitted the moist stones of the water-gate.

“Hast thou prepared the cabinet for my friends?” demanded the Signor Soranzo, for it was the same Senator who had been in company with the Doge when the latter went to meet the fishermen.

“Signore, si.”

“And the quiet, and the lights as ordered?”

“Eccellenza, all will be done.”

“Thou hast placed seats for six we shall be six.”

“Signore, there are six arm-chairs.”

“’Tis well: when the first of my friends arrive, I will join them.”

“Eccellenza, there are already two cavaliers in masks within.”

The Signor Soranzo started, again consulted his watch, and went hastily towards a distant and very silent part of the palace. He reached a small door unattended, and closing it, found himself at once in the presence of those who evidently awaited his appearance.

“A thousand pardons, Signori,” cried the master of the house; “this is novel duty to me, at least I know not what may be your honorable experience and the time stole upon me unmarked. I pray for grace, Messires; future diligence shall repair the present neglect.”

Both the visitors were older men than their host, and it was quite evident by their hardened visages they were of much longer practice in the world. His excuses were received with courtesy, and, for a little time, the discourse was entirely of usage and convention.

“We are in secret here, Signore?” asked one of the guests, after some little time had been wasted in this manner.

“As the tomb. None enter here unbidden but my wife, and she has this moment taken boat for better enjoyment of the evening.”

“The world gives you credit, Signor Soranzo, for a happy ménage. I hope you have duly considered the necessity of shutting the door even against the Donna Giulietta to-night?”

“Doubt me not, Signore; the affairs of St. Mark are paramount.”

“I feel myself thrice happy, Signori, that in drawing a lot for the secret council, my good fortune hath given me so excellent colleagues. Believe me, I have discharged this awful trust, in my day, in less agreeable company.”

This flattering speech, which the wily old senator had made regularly to all whom chance had associated with him in the inquisition, during a long life, was well received, and it was returned with equal compliments.

“It would appear that the worthy Signor Alessandro Gradenigo was one of our predecessors,” he continued, looking at some papers; for though the actual three were unknown, at the time being, to all but a few secretaries and officers of the state, Venetian policy transmitted their names to their successors, as a matter of course, “a noble gentleman, and one of great devotion to the state!”

The others assented, like men accustomed to speak with caution.

“We were about to have entered on our duties at a troublesome moment, Signori,” observed another. “But it would seem that this tumult of the fishermen has already subsided. I understand the knaves had some reason for their distrust of the state.”

“It is an affair happily settled,” answered the senior of the three, who was long practised in the expediency of forgetting all that policy required should cease to be remembered after the object was attained. “The galleys must be manned, else would St. Mark quickly hang his head in shame.”

The Signor Soranzo, who had received some previous instruction in his new duties, looked melancholy; but he, too, was merely the creature of a system.

“Is there matter of pressing import for our reflection?” he demanded.

“Signori, there is every reason to believe that the state has just sustained a grievous loss. Ye both well know the heiress of Tiepolo, by reputation at least, though her retired manner of life may have kept you from her company.”

“Donna Giulietta is eloquent in praise of her beauty,” said the young husband.

“We had not a better fortune in Venice,” rejoined the third inquisitor.

“Excellent in qualities, and better in riches, as she is, I fear we have lost her, Signori! Don Camillo Monforte, whom God protect until we have no future use for his influence! had come near to prevail against us; but just as the state baffled his well laid schemes, the lady has been thrown by hazard into the hands of the rioters, since which time there is no account of her movements!”

Paolo Soranzo secretly hoped she was in the arms of the Neapolitan.

“A secretary has communicated to me the disappearance of the Duca di Sant’ Agata also,” observed the third; “nor is the felucca, usually employed in distant and delicate missions, any longer at her anchors.”

The two old men regarded each other as if the truth was beginning to dawn upon their suspicions. They saw that the case was hopeless, and as theirs was altogether a practical duty, no time was lost in useless regrets.

“We have two affairs which press,” observed the elder. “The body of the old fisherman must be laid quietly in the earth with as little risk of future tumult as may be; and we have this notorious Jacopo to dispose of.”

“The latter must first be taken,” said the Signor Soranzo.

“That has been done already. Would you think it, Sirs he was seized in the very palace of the Doge!”

“To the block with him without delay!”

The old men again looked at each other, and it was quite apparent that, as both of them had been in previous councils, they had a secret intelligence, to which their companion was yet a stranger. There was also visible in their glances something like a design to manage his feelings before they came more openly to the graver practices of their duties.

“For the sake of blessed St. Mark, Signori, let justice be done openly in this instance!” continued the unsuspecting member of the Three. “What pity can the bearer of a common stiletto claim? and what more lovely exercise of our authority than to make public an act of severe and much-required justice?”

The old senators bowed to this sentiment of their colleague, which was uttered with the fervor of young experience, and the frankness of an upright mind; for there is a conventional acquiescence in received morals which is permitted, in semblance at least, to adorn the most tortuous.

“It may be well, Signore Soranzo, to do this homage to the right,” returned the elder. “Here have been sundry charges found in different lions’ mouths against the Neapolitan, Signor Don Camillo Monforte. I leave it to your wisdom, my illustrious colleagues, to decide on their character.”

“An excess of malice betrays its own origin,” exclaimed the least practised member of the Inquisition. “My life on it, Signori, these accusations come of private spleen, and are unworthy of the state’s attention. I have consorted much with the young lord of Sant’ Agata, and a more worthy gentleman does not dwell among us.”

“Still hath he designs on the hand of old Tiepolo’s daughter!”

“Is it a crime in youth to seek beauty? He did great service to the lady in her need, and that youth should feel these sympathies is nothing strange.”

“Venice hath her sympathies, as well as the youngest of us all, Signore.”

“But Venice cannot wed the heiress!”

“True. St. Mark must be satisfied with playing the prudent father’s part. You are yet young, Signore Soranzo, and the Donna Giulietta is of rare beauty! As life wears upon ye both, ye will see the fortunes of kingdoms, as well as of families, differently. But we waste our breath uselessly in this matter, since our agents have not yet reported their success in the pursuit. The most pressing affair, just now, is the disposition of the Bravo. Hath his Highness shown you the letter of the sovereign pontiff, in the question of the intercepted dispatches, Signore?”

“He hath. A fair answer was returned by our predecessors, and it must rest there.”

“We will then look freely into the matter of Jacopo Frontoni. There will be necessity of our assembling in the chamber of the Inquisition, that we may have the prisoner confronted to his accusers. ’Tis a grave trial, Signori, and Venice would lose in men’s estimation, were not the highest tribunal to take an interest in its decision.”

“To the block with the villain!” again exclaimed the Signor Soranzo.

“He may haply meet with that fate, or even with the punishment of the wheel. A mature examination will enlighten us much on the course which policy may dictate.”

“There can be but one policy when the protection of the lives of our citizens is in question. I have never before felt impatience to shorten the life of man, but in this trial I can scarce brook delay.”

“Your honorable impatience shall be gratified, Signor Soranzo: for, foreseeing the urgency of the case, my colleague, the worthy senator who is joined with us in this high duty, and myself, have already issued the commands necessary to that object. The hour is near, and we will repair to the chamber of the Inquisition in time to our duty.”

The discourse then turned on subjects of a more general concern. This secret and extraordinary tribunal, which was obliged to confine its meetings to no particular place, which could decide on its decrees equally in the Piazza or the palace, amidst the revelries of the masquerade or before the altar, in the assemblies of the gay or in their own closets, had of necessity much ordinary matter submitted to its inspection. As the chances of birth entered into its original composition, and God hath not made all alike fit for so heartless a duty, it sometimes happened, as in the present instance, that the more worldly of its members had to overcome the generous disposition of a colleague, before the action of the terrible machine could go on.

It is worthy of remark, that communities always establish a higher standard of justice and truth, than is exercised by their individual members. The reason is not to be sought for, since nature hath left to all a perception of that right, which is abandoned only under the stronger impulses of personal temptation. We commend the virtue we cannot imitate. Thus it is that those countries, in which public opinion has most influence, are always of the purest public practice. It follows as a corollary from this proposition, that a representation should be as real as possible, for its tendency will be inevitably to elevate national morals. Miserable, indeed, is the condition of that people, whose maxims and measures of public policy are below the standard of its private integrity, for the fact not only proves it is not the master of its own destinies, but the still more dangerous truth, that the collective power is employed in the fatal service of undermining those very qualities which are necessary to virtue, and which have enough to do, at all times, in resisting the attacks of immediate selfishness. A strict legal representation of all its interests is far more necessary to a worldly than to a simple people, since responsibility, which is the essence of a free government, is more likely to keep the agents of a nation near to its own standard of virtue than any other means. The common opinion that a Republic cannot exist without an extraordinary degree of virtue in its citizens, is so flattering to our own actual condition, that we seldom take the trouble to inquire into its truth; but, to us, it seems quite apparent that the effect is here mistaken for the cause. It is said, as the people are virtually masters in a Republic, that the people ought to be virtuous to rule well. So far as this proposition is confined to degrees, it is just as true of a Republic as of any other form of government. But kings do rule, and surely all have not been virtuous; and that aristocracies have ruled with the very minimum of that quality, the subject of our tale sufficiently shows. That, other things being equal, the citizens of a Republic will have a higher standard of private virtue than the subjects of any other form of government, is true as an effect, we can readily believe; for responsibility to public opinion existing in all the branches of its administration, that conventional morality which characterizes the common sentiment, will be left to act on the mass, and will not be perverted into a terrible engine of corruption, as is the case when factitious institutions give a false direction to its influence.

The case before us was in proof of the truth of what has here been said. The Signor Soranzo was a man of great natural excellence of character, and the charities of his domestic circle had assisted in confirming his original dispositions. Like others of his rank and expectations, he had, from time to time, made the history and polity of the self-styled Republic his study, and the power of collective interests and specious necessities had made him admit sundry theories, which, presented in another form, he would have repulsed with indignation. Still the Signor Soranzo was far from understanding the full effects of that system which he was born to uphold. Even Venice paid that homage to public opinion, of which there has just been question, and held forth to the world but a false picture of her true state maxims. Still, many of those which were too apparent to be concealed were difficult of acceptance, with one whose mind was yet untainted with practice; and the young senator rather shut his eyes on their tendency, or, as he felt their influence in every interest which environed him, but that of poor, neglected, abstract virtue, whose rewards were so remote, he was fain to seek out some palliative, or some specious and indirect good as the excuse for his acquiescence.

In this state of mind the Signor Soranzo was unexpectedly admitted a member of the Council of Three. Often, in the day-dreams of his youth, had he contemplated the possession of this very irresponsible power as the consummation of his wishes. A thousand pictures of the good he would perform had crossed his brain, and it was only as he advanced in life, and came to have a near view of the wiles which beset the best-intentioned, that he could bring himself to believe most of that which he meditated was impracticable. As it was, he entered into the council with doubts and misgivings. Had he lived in a later age, under his own system modified by the knowledge which has been a consequence of the art of printing, it is probable that the Signor Soranzo would have been a noble in opposition, now supporting with ardor some measure of public benevolence, and now yielding gracefully to the suggestions of a sterner policy, and always influenced by the positive advantages he was born to possess, though scarcely conscious himself he was not all he professed to be. The fault, however, was not so much that of the patrician as that of circumstances, which, by placing interest in opposition to duty, lures many a benevolent mind into still greater weaknesses.

The companions of the Signor Soranzo, however, had a more difficult task to prepare him for the duties of the statesman, which were so very different from those he was accustomed to perform as a man, than they had anticipated. They were like two trained elephants of the east, possessing themselves all the finer instincts and generous qualities of the noble animal, but disciplined by a force quite foreign to their natural condition into creatures of mere convention, placed one on each side of a younger brother, fresh from the plains, and whom it was their duty to teach new services for the trunk, new affections, and haply the manner in which to carry with dignity the howdah of a Rajah.

With many allusions to their policy, but with no direct intimation of their own intention, the seniors of the council continued the conversation until the hour for the meeting in the Doge’s palace drew nigh. They then separated as privately as they had come together, in order that no vulgar eye might penetrate the mystery of their official character.

The most practised of the three appeared in an assembly of the patricians, which noble and beautiful dames graced with their presence, from which he disappeared in a manner to leave no clue to his motions. The other visited the death-bed of a friend, where he discoursed long and well with a friar, of the immortality of the soul and the hopes of a Christian: when he departed, the godly man bestowing his blessing, and the family he left being loud and eloquent in his praise.

The Signor Soranzo clung to the enjoyments of his own family circle until the last moment. The Donna Giulietta had returned, fresher and more lovely than ever, from the invigorating sea-breeze, and her soft voice, with the melodious laugh of his first-born, the blooming, ringlet-covered girl described, still rang in his ears, when his gondolier landed him beneath the bridge of the Rialto. Here he masked, and drawing his cloak about him, he moved with the current towards the square of St. Mark, by means of the narrow streets. Once in the crowd there was little danger of impertinent observation. Disguise was as often useful to the oligarchy of Venice as it was absolutely necessary to elude its despotism, and to render the town tolerable to the citizen. Paolo saw swarthy, bare-legged men of the Lagunes, entering occasionally into the cathedral. He followed, and found himself standing near the dimly lighted altar at which masses were still saying for the soul of Antonio.

“This is one of thy fellows?” he asked of a fisherman, whose dark eye glittered in that light, like the organ of a basilisk.

“Signore, he was a more honest or a more just man did not cast his net in the gulf.”

“He has fallen a victim to his craft?”

“Cospetto di Bacco! none know in what manner he came by his end. Some say St. Mark was impatient to see him in paradise, and some pretend he has fallen by the hand of a common Bravo, named Jacopo Frontoni.”

“Why should a Bravo take the life of one like this?”

“By having the goodness to answer your own question, Signore, you will spare me some trouble. Why should he, sure enough? They say Jacopo is revengeful, and that shame and anger at his defeat in the late regatta, by one old as this, was the reason.”

“Is he so jealous of his honor with the oar?”

“Diamine! I have seen the time when Jacopo would sooner die than lose a race; but that was before he carried a stiletto. Had he kept to his oar the thing might have happened, but once known for the hired blow, it seems unreasonable he should set his heart so strongly on the prizes of the canals.”

“May not the man have fallen into the Lagunes by accident?”

“No doubt, Signore. This happens to some of us daily; but then we think it wiser to swim to the boat than to sink. Old Antonio had an arm in youth to carry him from the quay to the Lido.”

“But he may have been struck in falling, and rendered unable to do himself this good office.”

“There would be marks to show this, were it true, Signore!”

“Would not Jacopo have used the stiletto?”

“Perhaps not on one like Antonio. The gondola of the old man was found in the mouth of the Grand Canal, half a league from the body and against the wind! We note these things, Signore, for they are within our knowledge.”

“A happy night to thee, fisherman.”

“A most happy night, eccellenza,” said the laborer of the Lagunes, gratified with having so long occupied the attention of one he rightly believed so much his superior. The disguised senator passed on. He had no difficulty in quitting the cathedral unobserved, and he had his private means of entering the palace, without attracting any impertinent eye to his movements. Here he quickly joined his colleagues of the fearful tribunal.