Zanoni, by Edward Bulwer-Lytton

Chapter 6

Tu vegga o per violenzia o per inganno

Patire o disonore o mortal danno.

“Orlando Furioso,” Cant. xlii. i.

(Thou art about, either through violence or artifice, to suffer either dishonour or mortal loss.)

It was a small cabinet; the walls were covered with pictures, one of which was worth more than the whole lineage of the owner of the palace. Oh, yes! Zanoni was right. The painter IS a magician; the gold he at least wrings from his crucible is no delusion. A Venetian noble might be a fribble, or an assassin — a scoundrel, or a dolt; worthless, or worse than worthless, yet he might have sat to Titian, and his portrait may be inestimable — a few inches of painted canvas a thousand times more valuable than a man with his veins and muscles, brain, will, heart, and intellect!

In this cabinet sat a man of about three-and-forty — dark-eyed, sallow, with short, prominent features, a massive conformation of jaw, and thick, sensual, but resolute lips; this man was the Prince di —. His form, above the middle height, and rather inclined to corpulence, was clad in a loose dressing-robe of rich brocade. On a table before him lay an old-fashioned sword and hat, a mask, dice and dice-box, a portfolio, and an inkstand of silver curiously carved.

“Well, Mascari,” said the prince, looking up towards his parasite, who stood by the embrasure of the deep-set barricadoed window — “well! the Cardinal sleeps with his fathers. I require comfort for the loss of so excellent a relation; and where a more dulcet voice than Viola Pisani’s?”

“Is your Excellency serious? So soon after the death of his Eminence?”

“It will be the less talked of, and I the less suspected. Hast thou ascertained the name of the insolent who baffled us that night, and advised the Cardinal the next day?”

“Not yet.”

“Sapient Mascari! I will inform thee. It was the strange Unknown.”

“The Signor Zanoni! Are you sure, my prince?”

“Mascari, yes. There is a tone in that man’s voice that I never can mistake; so clear, and so commanding, when I hear it I almost fancy there is such a thing as conscience. However, we must rid ourselves of an impertinent. Mascari, Signor Zanoni hath not yet honoured our poor house with his presence. He is a distinguished stranger — we must give a banquet in his honour.”

“Ah, and the Cyprus wine! The cypress is a proper emblem of the grave.”

“But this anon. I am superstitious; there are strange stories of Zanoni’s power and foresight; remember the death of Ughelli. No matter, though the Fiend were his ally, he should not rob me of my prize; no, nor my revenge.”

“Your Excellency is infatuated; the actress has bewitched you.”

“Mascari,” said the prince, with a haughty smile, “through these veins rolls the blood of the old Visconti — of those who boasted that no woman ever escaped their lust, and no man their resentment. The crown of my fathers has shrunk into a gewgaw and a toy — their ambition and their spirit are undecayed! My honour is now enlisted in this pursuit — Viola must be mine!”

“Another ambuscade?” said Mascari, inquiringly.

“Nay, why not enter the house itself? — the situation is lonely, and the door is not made of iron.”

“But what if, on her return home, she tell the tale of our violence? A house forced — a virgin stolen! Reflect; though the feudal privileges are not destroyed, even a Visconti is not now above the law.”

“Is he not, Mascari? Fool! in what age of the world, even if the Madmen of France succeed in their chimeras, will the iron of law not bend itself, like an osier twig, to the strong hand of power and gold? But look not so pale, Mascari; I have foreplanned all things. The day that she leaves this palace, she will leave it for France, with Monsieur Jean Nicot.”

Before Mascari could reply, the gentleman of the chamber announced the Signor Zanoni.

The prince involuntarily laid his hand upon the sword placed on the table, then with a smile at his own impulse, rose, and met his visitor at the threshold, with all the profuse and respectful courtesy of Italian simulation.

“This is an honour highly prized,” said the prince. “I have long desired to clasp the hand of one so distinguished.”

“And I give it in the spirit with which you seek it,” replied Zanoni.

The Neapolitan bowed over the hand he pressed; but as he touched it a shiver came over him, and his heart stood still. Zanoni bent on him his dark, smiling eyes, and then seated himself with a familiar air.

“Thus it is signed and sealed; I mean our friendship, noble prince. And now I will tell you the object of my visit. I find, Excellency, that, unconsciously perhaps, we are rivals. Can we not accommodate out pretensions!”

“Ah!” said the prince, carelessly, “you, then, were the cavalier who robbed me of the reward of my chase. All stratagems fair in love, as in war. Reconcile our pretensions! Well, here is the dice-box; let us throw for her. He who casts the lowest shall resign his claim.”

“Is this a decision by which you will promise to be bound?”

“Yes, on my faith.”

“And for him who breaks his word so plighted, what shall be the forfeit?”

“The sword lies next to the dice-box, Signor Zanoni. Let him who stands not by his honour fall by the sword.”

“And you invoke that sentence if either of us fail his word? Be it so; let Signor Mascari cast for us.”

“Well said! — Mascari, the dice!”

The prince threw himself back in his chair; and, world-hardened as he was, could not suppress the glow of triumph and satisfaction that spread itself over his features. Mascari took up the three dice, and rattled them noisily in the box. Zanoni, leaning his cheek on his hand, and bending over the table, fixed his eyes steadfastly on the parasite; Mascari in vain struggled to extricate from that searching gaze; he grew pale, and trembled, he put down the box.

“I give the first throw to your Excellency. Signor Mascari, be pleased to terminate our suspense.”

Again Mascari took up the box; again his hand shook so that the dice rattled within. He threw; the numbers were sixteen.

“It is a high throw,” said Zanoni, calmly; “nevertheless, Signor Mascari, I do not despond.”

Mascari gathered up the dice, shook the box, and rolled the contents once more on the table: the number was the highest that can be thrown — eighteen.

The prince darted a glance of fire at his minion, who stood with gaping mouth, staring at the dice, and trembling from head to foot.

“I have won, you see,” said Zanoni; “may we be friends still?”

“Signor,” said the prince, obviously struggling with anger and confusion, “the victory is yours. But pardon me, you have spoken lightly of this young girl — will anything tempt you to yield your claim?”

“Ah, do not think so ill of my gallantry; and,” resumed Zanoni, with a stern meaning in his voice, “forget not the forfeit your own lips have named.”

The prince knit his brow, but constrained the haughty answer that was his first impulse.

“Enough!” he said, forcing a smile; “I yield. Let me prove that I do not yield ungraciously; will you favour me with your presence at a little feast I propose to give in honour,” he added, with a sardonic mockery, “of the elevation of my kinsman, the late Cardinal, of pious memory, to the true seat of St. Peter?”

“It is, indeed, a happiness to hear one command of yours I can obey.”

Zanoni then turned the conversation, talked lightly and gayly, and soon afterwards departed.

“Villain!” then exclaimed the prince, grasping Mascari by the collar, “you betrayed me!”

“I assure your Excellency that the dice were properly arranged; he should have thrown twelve; but he is the Devil, and that’s the end of it.”

“There is no time to be lost,” said the prince, quitting his hold of his parasite, who quietly resettled his cravat.

“My blood is up — I will win this girl, if I die for it! What noise is that?”

“It is but the sword of your illustrious ancestor that has fallen from the table.”

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31