Tuesday, 25 November 2008

Chapter Thirty Nine

The masked ball at the Doge’s palazzo marked the beginning of carnival, and this year was particularly symbolic of the determination of Venice to resist its enemies by refusing to be cowed.

"Surely the Doge will be guarded", Alonso pointed out, "How can anyone hope to get near him to do him any harm?"

"The attempt will come from somebody that he knows and trusts because they are member of the council. It will almost certainly be somebody from our list of names" said Silvio

"So how do we prevent it then?" asked Donatella

"I don't know." admitted Silvio, "All we can do is to act the patient agent. We must watch for our enemy to make his move and then respond. I like it even less than you, but it is all we can do. We will attend the ball and be ready to act".

As members of the nobility the family di Rossini were all automatically invited to the ball, but Alonso posed a problem. Rachel suggested that he return to the ghetto in case of trouble there.

"We know that something is being planned but we don't know what yet. We need to be on our guard, and any help is more than welcome" she said

"I'm just glad to be of some use" replied Alonso.

"Well, that's settled then." said Antonio, with an air of finality, "We will attend the ball as a family, and try to prevent an atrocity"

o o o o o

A costume ball required costumes, and of course the family had their favourites from the many traditional choices on offer.

Silvio was to dress as Harlequin, in a diamond patterned jacket and trousers with a demonic black half mask covering his face and a fur trimmed white felt cap. Donatella adopted her favourite disguise of Columbine the servant girl, with the patterns on the dress matching her brother's costume and a coquettish gold mask carried on a stick. Antonio was, naturally enough, Pantaloon - the wealthy and hard nosed merchant with his a red jacket, short belted breeches with a wooden sword, a black cloak over his shoulders lined with red on the inside and black Turkish slippers with the ends curled up. He stroked the goatee beard on his mask in the manner of a businessman appraising a deal and spoke to his children.

"Let us be about our business", he said, and they set off into the cold winter's night.

o o o o o

Alonso and Rachel walked through the Campo Santo Stefano, enjoying the carnival atmosphere despite the serious nature of the business that they had just been discussing. A carpet of grass had been laid across the square, and elegantly dressed and masked revellers were promenading there to display their costumes to best effect for the admiration of the crowd.

Wine was being quaffed in generous quantities and some people were already approaching a state of rambunctious inebriation. As the couple made their way through the streets toward the ghetto the carnival gaiety seemed to give way to something darker and more sinister. Both Alonso and Rachel had simple wooden masks borrowed from the di Rossinis, and the crowd assumed that both were Jewish people returning to their homes before the midnight curfew.

Some of the people they passed shouted insults and jeered at them, others spat and threw fruit, and still others, local toughs and yahoos, jostled them. Alonso resisted the urge to fight back, and they made it to the bridge across the canal that would lead them back to the ghetto.

"It's turning nasty out there", Alonso noted.

"Somebody is whipping the crowd up. I recognised some of the troublemakers there, and when they have a group of people who are drunk and looking for trouble it is not difficult to provoke them into acting on their base impulses. We had best prepare for the worst.”

o o o o o

The Palazzo Ducale di Venezia, the Doge's palace, was alive with colour and life. Each of the rooms hosted dancing and music in the grandest possible setting amidst the gilded ceilings, the awe inspiring paintings and sculptures and the sumptuous architecture.

The costumes sported by the revellers were as intricate and ornate as the setting that they were being worn in, particularly the ornate masks, gilded and covered with jewels. As well as examples of the Harlequin, Columbine and Pantaloon costumes that the Rossinis were sporting, there were Brighellas and Gnagas, Bernardons and The Mattacino, Turks, fishermen, weeping Jews, demons and satyrs and a myriad others. All of them intermingled, true identities concealed by the facade of carnival.

The Rossinis made their way through the inner courtyard and climbed the giant stairway where the statutes of Mars and Neptune had been draped with decorations to show that even the Gods themselves were not above the mockery of carnival. Moving through the crowd formed an elaborate social dance with intricate rules of its own. It would be rude to push through in a hurry, so they had to flit from one group to the next, exchanging pleasantries and then slipping from one orbit to the next like wandering planets amongst the stars.

Their ultimate goal was to climb the fabled golden staircase to the party in the Doge's apartment. This was were the Doge himself was to be found, and they spotted him dressed in the multicoloured striped tunic embellished with golden buttons, a feathered hat and of course the enormous sword of The Captain, another famous trope of the carnival tradition. He was not wearing a mask, one of very few not to be so adorned.

Antonio di Rossini went to speak to the Doge directly, whilst Silvio and Donatella mingled with the larger crowd nearby, being watchful for anything that caught their eye.

“This is a hopeless task”, complained Silvio, “Unless we see somebody actually pull a dagger, what can we do?”

“Patience brother”, replied Donatella, “Watch and wait”

In the inner orbit of nobles, dignitaries and guards around the Doge, Antonio di Rossini waited patiently and then finally, at last, caught the eye of the Doge.

“My lord, a brief word, if it pleases you?” he said, bowing politely

“Of course, di Rossini. I had been given to understand that you were absent from Venice. You are well I trust?”

“Yes my lord, I am well now. However, in recent days I have been held prisoner by the very same forces currently arrayed against our fair republic. They are plotting against you personally, as I believe my son has already warned you. I urge you to be on your guard at all times”

“Believe me, I will be watchful. I am pledged to defend this city and this republic to my very last breath, but I do not intend to draw that breath for many years to come.”

“Thank you, my lord. Our family is, forever, at your service”, said Antonio, bowing again and retiring from the crowd.

o o o o o

Through patient listening to the buzz of flirting and general conversation, Donatella had identified most of the people in the immediate vicinity within a fairly short space of time, and believed that most of those she recognised were to be trusted. However, one figure in particular troubled her – a person dressed in the black robes and the strange bird like bespectacled mask of the plague doctor. The plague was one of the few forces of nature ever to truly threaten all of Venice, afflicting as it did rich and poor alike with a fearful rate of mortality and no known cure or treatment. She shuddered at the thought.

The plague doctor did not seem to be talking to anybody in particular, and if anything was acting in the same watchful manner as Donatella and Silvio themselves. She resolved to approach the figure to see if she could talk to them when they seemed to vanish through the melee of the crowd like a wraith at midnight. She was still trying to see where the figure had gone when a commotion was heard at the other side of the room. A note of alarm spread through the room and then a cry rang out from one voice, quickly taken up by others.

“Fire! Fire!”

The Doge's palace was ablaze and starting to fill with smoke. Fear gripped the crowd with an icy hand, and Donatella knew that if action was not taken quickly then not just the Doge, but hundreds upon hundreds of people would die in a terrible inferno.

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