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Anna Jane Vardill

Annals of Public Justice

The Black Gondola

The mock trial of the crooked shoemaker by the Doge of Venice, only exhibited the ready talent for stratagem and deliberate spirit of revenge often found in the lowest order of Italians. The sequel displayed those national characteristics in a higher and more fatal degree.

Count Annibal Fiesco, by whom that mock trial had been instigated, was secretly suspicious of the high-chamberlain’s share in the catastrophe, and severely piqued at the ridicule it had called upon him. He baffled the jest in the most graceful way he could, by being foremost in laughter at his personal resemblance to the grotesque cobler, and by representing him at masked balls as his favorite character. On one of these occasions, as he returned from a midnight entertainment in the attire of Crispin’s disciple, a man started from an obscure corner of St. Mark’s-square, and whispered, “You have been dangerously late—we have waited for you more than an hour.”

Though the speaker wore a lazzarone’s loose and squalid apparel, the Count knew the voice and features of his enemy, the Doge’s chamberlain. Believing this the beginning of some intrigue, he was not unwilling to seize what might retort the jest; and imitating the cobler’s voice with his usual perfection of mimicry, he replied, “Give me my business, and let me finish it before day-light.”—“Take this ring, Raffaelle,” returned the Chamberlain, “and make haste to the Villa Salviati—if the man you meet under the gateway says ‘Yes,’ give him the ring, and he will trust you with a letter —if ‘No,’ return here to me, and I shall have other employment for you.”

It was safest to make no answer. Annibal took the ring, now well convinced that his adversary held intimate correspondence with the knavish shoemaker, and satisfied by the right of retaliation which this certainty seemed to give him. He went courageously to the gateway of the villa, and said to the man who stood under its shadow —“Yes or No?”—“No!” was his answer, without lifting his head; and Fiesco, disappointed by not seeing the face of the intrigue’s other agent, returned to St.Mark’s Place, determining to pursue the adventure, and trusting to his talents as a mimic to prevent his own detection.

Martini, the Doge’s chamberlain, stood where he had been left, and shewed a joyful gesture when he saw his messenger return. Not a word was exchanged, except the monosyllable No, and Martini beckoned the supposed cobler to follow him. They went through various obscure byeways to the back-door of a house from whence Martini brought a large package, which he gave to his companion; and taking another himself, made him a second sign to follow. Count Fiesco began to dislike his enterprise, and to fear it was not connected with ordinary gallantry, or that it was another stratagem to render him ridiculous. But when his conductor stopped at the garden-door of a palace occupied by the French ambassador, his ideas changed. He knew how jealously the Venetian republic viewed any intercourse between its subjects and the agents of a foreign power, and he therefore knew that an officer of state in Venice would not hazard a private visit to an ambassador without some motive more powerful than a jest. His adversary was a young and gallant man; and the probability so strongly favored his first suspicion of an intrigue, that Fiesco once more determined to understand the matter, and convert it, if he could, into a means of retrieving his own lost credit. The door was opened, not, as he expected, by a muffled duenna, but by the ambassador himself, wrapped in a plain coat with a lantern in his hand. He looked at his visitors as if he expected a third; and shutting them within his garden-door, asked if all was concluded. “Your excellency’s word is sufficient,” said the Chamberlain; “and here is a farther pledge of my employer’s good faith.” He took from Fiesco’s shoulders the package they bore, and laid his own on it. “But where is the other deposit?” enquired the Frenchman—“Can we not finish the affair to-night?—Notwithstanding the convenient indisposition of your Doge, I can defer my audience of leave no longer.”—“Not to-night, Monseigneur, unless—but in a matter of such high importance, we shall be able to amuse the senate with excuses for delaying your last audience till this secret treaty is settled.”—“And,” answered the Ambassador, “it will be, I hope, a preamble and preparation for public treaties still more expressive of your master’s trust. I give him, on my own behalf, a guarantee of the friendship which my sovereign wishes to exist between our nations.”—“I am only authorized,” said Martini, in an agitated voice, “to seal this compact—you are a French nobleman, and will not forget its secresy or its sacredness.”—“Neither,” rejoined the Envoy; “nor shall I forget that I received it from a noble Venetian, an officer of state, and a prime counsellor of the Doge.”

Martini opened the red box he had brought, without replying. It contained jewels and some papers which the envoy eyed with a glance of triumph; and closing the lid, put his seal upon it. Fiesco saw the secret glance, and the feelings of a politician rose within him, mingled with those of his private enmity. Martini was concluding a negociation with the crafty minister of a rival nation, and had probably compromised the welfare of Venice for some purpose connected with his own ambition. Here, indeed, was an unexpected opening to the revenge which Fiesco’s soul had claimed as a right till it thirsted for it at a banquet. The conversation he heard implied some acquiescence on the Doge’s part, and he felt a sullen pleasure in finding that the patron who had sacrificed him for a jest was not incapable of sacrificing his country. While he hesitated between that vindictive pleasure, and the more generous impulse which tempted him to throw off his disguise and arrest Martini, the envoy cast on him a significant glance, and the chamberlain directed him to depart, and await his return in the square of St. Mark.

This was the crisis of Fiesco’s fate. He stopped an instant on the threshold after the garden-gate had been closed upon him; and strove to overhear their farther conversation. But he only heard the envoy repeat the words he had before addressed to Martini, and they renewed the worst passions in the Count’s inmost heart. “An officer of state!— prime counsellor of the Doge!”—these titles might have belonged to him if the ingenious mischief of his rival had not supplanted him. He had never been any thing more than the favorite jester of the court, and he loathed the Doge even for loving what he knew to be only his lowest talent, and for not discovering the many nobler ones which he felt in his possession. Thus stung by private pique and political jealousy, and justified as he believed by both, he returned to St. Mark’s Square: not to await Martini’s return, but to lodge an accusation against him of traitorous intercourse with the minister of France. Then throwing his cobler’s coat and other apparel into the canal, he made haste, muffled in an ordinary cloak, to his own mansion. On the door, in large letters written with red chalk, he saw this alarming sentence —“Let those who visit foreigners beware.”

Had he been watched and detected by some spies of the State-inquisition; or was the whole a farce concerted by his enemy to annoy him? Whatever might be the truth, he had acted indiscreetly. He might be proved to have visited the envoy himself, and the Doge, whether he was Martini’s dupe or his accomplice, was sufficiently powerful to sacrifice him. But Fiesco’s spirit was too proud and his appetite for vengeance too keen to be checked by vague apprehension. Both were roused, rather than repelled, by the mysterious danger which threatened him; and boldly effacing the inscription, he entered his palace, prepared to await the result.

In less than an hour Martini returned from the French Minister’s rendezvous, and found the crooked cobler waiting for him in the square of St. Mark. They went together with long strides to the chamberlain’s palace, and had no sooner entered his private cabinet by a back-door, than the cobler spoke. “You are betrayed. Fiesco has made a worse use of his likeness to me now, than when he cheated me of my wife. He has dropped a letter into the lion’s mouth, and the officials will be here in an hour. I saw him, and by the blessing of St. Mark they will see something on his door too, unless he rubs out my red chalk.”

Martini stood stupified, without listening to Raffaelle Gobbo’s long explanation of the accident which prevented his own attendance at the appointed time. “There is no leisure for groans, monsignor,” he added, with a grin which shewed how well mischief agreed with his nature, though he hated the inventor:—“let us take the chance we have. Give me the deposit you talked of, and I will carry it through fire and water to the Frenchman’s— If there be any thing else in the house not safe for the knaves of office to find, a torch will do the business better than a stiletto.”

Martini clenched his hands in agony. He put his ear to another door in the cabinet, listened eagerly, and grew pale as ashes—“Not yet!” he muttered— “not gone yet!—then there is no hope—but I can—” and he cast a glance of desperate meaning at his own sword, which lay on the table. Gobbo’s prompt eye caught the intelligence of his; and putting both his hands firmly on Martini’s, he exclaimed, “No, you are right: it is not yet time for you to use it. I have a shorter and a quicker blade, and it shall never flinch from the service of a man who hates my enemy.” Martini answered by a ghastly look of hesitation and dismay—“There is no use now for torch or stiletto,” he said, instinctively recoiling from the deformed dwarf’s grasp—“a gondola! —a gondola would save us all.”— Gobbo grinned with the glee of a goblin, and sprang out of the window at the same instant that the door was burst open by the officers of the State inquisitors. They arrested Martini by virtue of their secret warrant: and seizing his sword, demanded admittance into the interior cabinet. His countenance had recovered its firmness from the moment of their entrance. Turning resolutely towards the balcony, he pointed to it, and said, with an unfaltering voice, “Gentlemen, if I had meditated escape, the way was open, and the leap easy; but there can be no need of flight where there is no consciousness of crime. I have committed none, and know of no right you have to violate my private chambers. There is the door—here is my poniard, and the first man who enters shall know its temper.” He sprang suddenly from their hold as he spoke, and placed his back against the door with a gesture which proved his determination; but one of the officials, more daring and crafty than his companions, instantly threw himself out of the window, and, calling for a ladder, prepared to climb into the balcony of the next room. The crisis was desperate. Martini, believing that his own flight would force these men’s attention from their other purpose, made an audacious leap after him, and ran towards the canal. All the officials followed, forgetting the mysterious cabinet in their zeal to prevent his escape; and his plunges into the labyrinths of his wooded garden again drew them from the banks of the canal. His own escape, he knew, was utterly impossible, but he prolonged the struggle in the darkness of his groves till the dashing of an oar informed him that his point was gained. Slowly and with difficulty he suffered himself to be overcome, and was carried, covered with wounds, to the state-prison of the republic. His violent resistance had given force to the charge exhibited against him; and though neither papers nor any suspicious articles could be found in his cabinet when rigorously searched, the correspondence he had held with a foreign minister, contrary to the letter of Venetian law, was too clearly manifest. The physician of the French envoy had been often seen in his company, and the most severe and artful examination could extort no confession from him. Neither affirmative nor denial escaped his lips, and the cruel question warranted by national custom was applied without success. An appeal was made to the ambassador, requesting him to permit the physician of his household to appear before the secret council; but his reply was a positive refusal grounded on his privileges, and followed by his departure with all his suite from the Venetian territory. The promptness of this removal, and the ceremonious caution of his answer indicated, or seemed to indicate, the political importance of the fact. No one knew, though a few of his friends suspected, the cause of Martini’s disappearance from court, and none, except Count Fiesco, rejoiced to observe it. Even his gloomy rejoicing was not unmingled with fears for his own safety, excited by the writing on the wall, and he remained at his villa in cautious inactivity. A summons to attend the Doge brought the cowardice of conscious guilt to his heart; and not daring to disobey, lest his hesitation should convict him of a share in Martini’s downfall, he entered his patron’s presence. The quiet sadness in the aspect of the good old Doge relieved him from fear, and even revived the sullen pleasure of vengeance; but that dark and brief feeling sunk into remorse when the Doge squeezed his hand and wept: “I sent for you, Fiesco, because I know your affection for me is strong enough to vanquish your dislike to a man I cannot forsake. Here is a testimonial in his favor, written and signed with my own hand, which I require you to read for him in the presence of the Council. From no one but yourself have I a right to expect such an effort of courage, and from no other man would it have such force. You are his avowed opponent, therefore you can be suspected of no prejudice in his favor;—you have been always high, perhaps highest in my esteem, therefore you have nothing to gain by his release, except the honour of serving justice and befriending an enemy.”

Fiesco’s spirit melted at this appeal, and he knelt to kiss the hand which offered him the paper. “Promise nothing till you have read it, Count!—Go, and return to me with your determination.”—He would have been unable to form a reply, and retired eagerly to read the contents in the next chamber. They were short, and in this frame of words:—

“The Doge of Venice cannot appear as a witness before the supreme council of his government, nor assent to their decision as a judge without acknowledging himself a party in the cause.

“Perhaps his selection of Martini to fill the high office of his chamberlain and public secretary, has offended some competitor of more eminent birth and enterprizing spirit. Such a competitor has probably been the writer of the anonymous accusation, and the discoverer of Martini’s supposed conspiracy with a foreigner. Had this discoverer known all the secrets of the court he has been so ready to disgrace, he would have remembered the disappearance of the Doge’s daughter: Ippolita’s innocent levity of heart led her to the verge of a marriage she secretly repented. On the eve before its completion, her father detected her correspondence with his secretary and their plan of flight together. The gondola was in waiting at the steps of his terrace, when the Doge seized his daughter, and confessed himself the father of her lover. She plunged in despair into the caual, and was saved by the desperate efforts of her brother. What was their miserable father’s resource?—His only daughter’s life was reserved, but her reason seemed to have forsaken her. There were no witnesses of this dismal scene, and he resolved to circulate a rumour of her death, and consign her to the care of her unfortunate brother. The gondola was ready, her ravings were stifled, and Martini conveyed her to the retirement of his villa. No one doubted her accidental death, or no one ventured to contradict the tale she and her confidantes had contrived to deceive her father. The scarf and veil were found among the sedges of the canal, and the scheme she had devised to cover her elopement by pretended death served as a refuge for her misery. The physician of the French embassy had well-known skill and integrity, and the Doge of Venice submitted to the grievous necessity of trusting to them. The ambassador agreed to charge himself with the sick princess, and to seclude her safely in a noble convent if her afflicted spirit revived. Had that cruel spy who debased himself to watch Martini, understood the purport of his conversation, he would have pitied the anguish of a brother obliged to surrender his sister to a stranger; his sister, made insane by the criminal reserve of an erring father, and the too vivid sense of her own virtue. Had the messengers of the Council entered his cabinet which he defended at the risque of his life, they would have seen that miserable father weeping over his only daughter, striving to recall her recollection, and entreating her to accompany him to the asylum he had prepared for her. They would have seen him forced at last to hide her in the gondola brought by a poor faithful wretch, and to leave her while she clung to him in the helplessness of idiotism. Could he publish her misfortune to a cruel and misjudging world?—Can he blame the noble courage of a son and brother willing to sacrifice both his life and honour to preserve his family’s?— Shall he see it recompensed by a shameful death, or by tortures and imprisonment, without convincing the Council how deeply the remorse of a father is felt, though too late, by the Doge of Venice?”

Fiesco read no farther. He returned into the presence of the Doge, and threw himself at his feet, crying—“No, my lord, it is my task to clear Martini, since my accusation has been the cause of this misery. I have visited the ambassador—I can take on myself the whole odium of the offence, without exposing the secret of your family. Let me prove my love for Ippolita’s fair fame equal to Martini’s—Ah! my lord—in this, at least, I deserved to be your son also.”

The Doge rested his grey hairs on Fiesco’s shoulder, and clasped his hands over his head. The strong ague of mental agony shook his whole body as he answered—“Ye had the same father— Ippolita has two brothers.”—Fiesco was silent and stiff as in death; and, after a long pause, his distressed parent added —“But I have not injured thee, my son; go and atone for me and thyself.”

“For myself!” said the Count, rousing himself with the fire of sudden frenzy in his eyes—“am I, who have been your other victim, to be your advocate— Shall a father, whose blind pride or untimely caution educated me in ignorance of my birth, call on me now to atone for the mischief caused by his false shame? Was it the deformity of my figure or the beauty of my brother’s that raised him to your council, and debased me to the station of your court-buffoon? Why was I tempted to love and hate without measure, by living as a stranger among my kindred? Should I have been seduced by opportunity to disgrace my rival, had I known he was my brother—or to endanger my prince, had I been permitted to reverence him as a father?—But I will not sacrifice my sister’s honour, and my brother’s blood shall not rest on my head.”

Fiesco disappeared, leaving the paper among the burning ashes on the hearth; and his father frozen with dismay and horror. That night the Council of Three passed sentence of death on Martini, for whom no advocate appeared, and ordered his immediate execution. But the black gondola employed to convey the State’s secret victims to the fatal lagoon, was seen hastening towards the Adriatic coast, rowed by two goblin dwarfs, and returned no more. A stone in the cemetery of a Bolognese convent bears the name of Ippolita, and was permitted also to cover the remains of an unknown soldier who fought and died in the army of the Doge of Venice.


The European Magazine, Vol. 78, October 1820, pp. 297-301