Signors of the Night/Golden Ashes
The heavy key fell from the hand of the alchemist; he staggered against the door of the bookcase he had opened, and it shut behind him with a crash of glass and a splintering of wood.
"Who is there, who calls me?" he asked, as he held the taper high above his head and sought to peer into the shadows of the room. He was sure that someone had whispered his name; yet when he ventured the question, the wind answered him; the wind and a harmony of voices floating up from the Grand Canal below his balcony.
It was a long room, the great salon of the Palazzo Balbi which Venice had given to this man, Zuane de Franza, that he, in return, might practise his arts therein and make her rich beyond the nations. A single lamp, shaded and placed upon an exquisite cabinet near the long windows, illumined the apartment at the moment when the alchemist heard a whisper of his name. He had believed himself to be alone in the room when he left his writing-table; it was nearly midnight and his servants were sleeping. Who, then, he asked himself, could have come to his house. Nevertheless, he was sure that someone had called to him from the darkness.
"Who is it, who asks for me?" he repeated, recovering himself a little, and advancing to the centre of the room.
Again there was no voice to satisfy him; only the bells of the city striking midnight in a glorious chord of silver notes, as though celestial singers heralded the morning from a hundred moonlit steeples. The alchemist counted the notes, and his heart quailed while he numbered them. Another day had begun then! How many yet were to dawn and to die before Venice discovered the impostor she had harboured? He dare not ask himself that question.
"Pah!" he said, when the echoes floated away and his limbs were released from the trance which had fallen upon them, "the night is making a fool of me. There was no voice. I dreamed it as I have dreamed many a sight and sound since fortune sent me to Venice. Who could be in this house when midnight strikes? Who is there with the courage to set foot in the laboratory of Zuane de Franza? Fools all—there is not one among them——"
He turned again, with a gesture of contempt, to the bookcase for the volume he needed. The taper showed a coarse, white face, with a great height of forehead, and lips thick and sensual as those of an African. In stature short, yet with limbs that would have been no disgrace to a workman at the Arsenal, Zuane de Franza, clothed in his long black gown, with fur at the wrists and throat, was a man who would have been marked in whatever assembly he had been found. And there was no more persuasive tongue in all Venice. "I am sent from God to bring you the gift of gold," he had said to the people—and the people, and with the people, the Senate, had believed him.
He took the book from the shelf and returned to his writing-table. When he had blown out his taper and drawn the lamp closer to his paper, a smile of sensuous content in his employment took possession of him, and he forgot the voice and his own foreboding.
"Another month and it shall be the end," he muttered; "one more throw with the dice of life, and it shall be the last. As I came, so will I go. The fools that wait for me shall be left with their folly. The gold they seek shall be the saddle for my horse. My Elixir of Life shall stink in the flasks of Murano or wash the dead they carry to the coffins. Another month—a hundred thousand ducats yet from their Treasury—and the game is ended. The star of Franza will set, but it will rise again in another city, before another people, who will worship it as this people has done."
The thought was stimulating as wine upon the palate. He dipped his pen into the great gold inkstand before him and began to write quickly. When he had written ten lines, a memory of the voice he had forgotten came rushing back, and with it all his dread of the night, magnified tenfold, for a shadow fell suddenly across the paper still glistening with the unblotted ink. And it was the shadow of a man's hand!
Franza seemed to feel the grip of the hand upon his very heart.
"Great God," he cried, "who is it? Who is there? Whom do you seek?"
There was no answer. The shadow vanished as it had come, swiftly, inexplicably. Yet the presence of another in the room was no longer to be doubted. The alchemist could hear a sound of breathing, even a footstep in the darkness near him. An assassin was his guest, he thought; a robber had come to his house, carried there by the wild stories that Venice told of the man who had promised her gold. No other theory was possible. And it was a theory which made good his broken courage. The terror of the unseen could bring sweat to his forehead; but of anything living he had no fear.
"Ah," he said, when he had waited a moment, and the unknown had not declared himself, "it is like that, then. You think that old Franza wears petticoats, and will pull out his purse to the first rascal who shows him the blade of a dagger. Not so, my friend, as I am going to teach you."
He stooped quickly at the words, and took a pistol, ready primed, from the drawer in the bureau at which he had been writing. The idea that he must fight for his life, with some bravo sent to his house to rob him, did not trouble him at all. He would shoot the fellow as he would shoot a wolf, he said.
"You are saying your prayers, rogue?" he exclaimed, stepping suddenly toward the place where he had heard the sound of breathing. "I conjure you to be quick, or, certainly, you shall say them in purgatory. What! you would rob old Franza, the friend of Venice! A thousand devils take your impudence."
He was bold enough by this time, for his had been a life of adventure; and many a narrow plank had bridged the gulf of death for him. As he stood there in a bright circle of light, turning to this side or to that in his quest of the robber, he might himself have been some reckless cavalier of the road driven suddenly to scheme for his very liberty.
"Come out," he cried again and again; "come out, and show yourself, rascal! You would rob old Franza, the alchemist! He is here, and waiting for you."
Until this moment, the unknown, whoever he was, kept to the shadows of the room. Franza could hear him moving lightly from place to place; once he thought that he saw a masked figure standing almost at his elbow. But before he could solve the amazing mystery of the presence, the point of a sword was thrust from the shadows; and so clever was the hand which held the sword that the blade struck the lock of the pistol, and fired the powder in the pan.
The report which followed seemed to shake the old house to its very foundations. The lamp upon the table, struck by the slugs, was broken into twenty pieces. A great vase fell with a crash almost at the feet of the alchemist; thick, sulphurous smoke filled the room; utter darkness prevailed, and out of the darkness a strange voice spoke.
"Signor Franza," the voice said, "what sort of a host is that who takes a pistol to welcome his best friends?"
The alchemist stood spellbound. The smoking pistol had tumbled from his hand to the floor. He could perceive a pair of bright eyes shining beneath a mask; he could see the glitter of precious stones upon the vest of the unknown; he thought that he recognised the voice of him who spoke.
"A friend!" he gasped. "How comes a friend to my house when the bells are striking midnight?"
"If he should be here to warn you, signore."
"To warn me; what warning, then, do I need?"
"The warning of one who is here to tell you that to-day Venice will demand a reckoning."
The alchemist laughed scornfully.
"How, a reckoning with me, signore?"
"Certainly, with you who have promised her gold."
Franza began to grope his way toward his table. He sought to find a gong that he might summon his servants. But the unknown continued quickly:
"You have promised her gold, signore, and she, in return for that promise, has given you two hundred thousand ducats and this palace you live in. Beware how you provoke her! Beware the dawn, Signor Franza, for you may never see another!"
Franza answered him by striking the gong three times. The loud notes brought servants quickly to the room. But when the lamp was lighted again, they found their master alone, with an empty pistol and a broken vase at his feet. He, in his turn, made a poor excuse to them, and dismissed them curtly.
"To-day—the reckoning is to-day," he muttered, when they had left him; "well, well, let it be so. The same tongue that conquered Padua shall win victory—ay, in Venice itself, though a hundred thousand were against me."
He went to one of the long windows, and opened it to pass to his balcony. It had been a glorious day of October, and Venice slept now while a world of glittering stars watched her slumbers. Below, on the Grand Canal, the long black boat of the Signori of the Night was keeping vigil of the city. Franza shuddered when he saw the boat, and closed the window quickly.
"It is an omen," he said.
Franza, accustomed to spend the night amidst the jars and phials of his splendid laboratory, slept heavily at six o'clock on the following morning when his valet called him, and, failing to wake him at the first attempt, persisted doggedly in his endeavours.
"Excellency, wake up, I beg of you; there is a messenger from the Prince, and he will not be refused."
The alchemist opened eyes heavy with sleep, and sat up in his bed.
"Well," he said, "and what did you say, Filippo?"
"That they have sent for you to go to the palace, and will not listen to me, excellency."
Franza lay down again.
"I have yet to learn that I am at their beck and call, Filippo. Let them come again in an hour."
Filippo, a stolid man who always spoke that which was in his mind, blurted out his news without further parley.
"Excellency," said he, "the messenger is not alone!"
"Not alone, Filippo?"
"As I say, excellency. He is not alone."
"Then who comes with him?"
"The police, excellency."
Franza turned as pale as the sheets upon his bed when he heard the words. In an instant the scenes of the forgotten night were remembered by him. He recalled the visit of the unknown, the mystery of the warning, the omen of the black boat lying motionless beneath his windows. A vague fear of some terrible ordeal, through which he must pass presently, haunted him to the exclusion of all other thoughts. "Beware the dawn!" the strange voice had said. He repeated the words as he dressed himself quickly. Was it true, then, that the day of reckoning had come at last; the day when he must be questioned and Venice must be answered? He would not believe it.
"Come," he said at last to his valet, while he endeavoured to assume a bold and care- less manner, "you tell a tale for children. Why should the police be in this house, Filippo?"
Filippo answered him bluntly. The time for sham civilities was past, he thought.
"Excellency," he said, "you know that Frà Giovanni preached yesterday in the church of the Frari?"
"And if he did——?"
"It was to warn them against you and your work."
All the colour left the alchemist's face for the second time that morning.
"Who is this monk," he cried fiercely, "that would come between me and the work I must do in Venice?"
"He is one who has now sent the captain of the police to your house, excellency."
"Then let it be his affair and mine; and the sword decide between us."
He put on his long gown with sable at the neck and wrists of it, and made haste to descend to the great room below. Despite his fear and misgivings, he maintained that majestic and pompous manner which had won him the support of so many dupes; and he entered his laboratory with the air of a noble. The two men, who waited for him there, rose as he entered, and bowed ceremoniously to him. One was the captain of the Doge's guards; the other the captain of the police.
"Gentlemen," said the alchemist very proudly, "I am told that the Serene Prince sends for me."
The captain of the guard bowed.
"At once, if you please, signore," said he.
Franza waved his hand in acquiescence, and turned gaily to Pietro Falier, the captain of the police.
"Signor Falier," said he, "you will at least drink a cup of wine with me. There is need for haste, indeed, if a man must quit the Palazzo Balbi and know nothing of the wine of Cyprus lying in its cellars. It will not detain us a moment——"
The captain of the police answered him as the other had done.
"We must go at once, if you please, signore," said he.
The two stood with soldiers' figures, stiff and square, as men at the drill; the alchemist could read no message on their immobile faces. Their civility perplexed him. An impatience to learn the worst began to gnaw at his mind.
"Well," he said, "if it is your wish, signori——"
"It is the wish of Venice, excellency."
"Then Venice shall be obeyed. I am ready, sirs."
A plain black gondola carried him swiftly from his house to the Ducal Palace. By here and there the people cheered him, as was their wont. But the cries and plaudits grated on his ears. Why had the Doge sent the police to his house? Why were the honours, with which the Council of Three usually heralded his coming to the Palace, lacking?
There were many in the great square of St. Mark when the gondola came up. Clowns ran from their booths to cry "Viva Zuane"; women, hungry and ragged, blessed the man who had promised bread to the children; gallants jested with him; rich dames pressed forward to see the gold maker.
He was accustomed to such homage—the homage of fools to one who had duped them; but on this morning of October, in the year 1703, he had neither eyes nor ears for it. He must defend himself before the Three; he must plead for time; he must declare himself unprepared for the last, the great experiment which should enrich the city beyond her dreams. A man of dogged courage, his spirit returned to him at the thought of combat. His eloquence had won a fortune for him in three cities; it should not lose a fortune for him in Venice.
And so he entered the Palace with smiling face and ready step. That his coming had been eagerly looked for he had no doubt. He passed the guards at the Giant's Staircase without challenge. Lacqueys conducted him at once to the antechamber of the Council. A minute later he was ushered into the famous Sala dei Capi, and the President of the Three spoke to him.
It was a strange scene: the exquisite little room with the ceiling by Paolo Veronese; the aged councillors; the guards with drawn swords at the door; the secretary at the table; the solemnity, the dignity, the meaning of it all. Franza, accustomed to such scenes, bowed to the Three, and began at once to excuse himself.
"My lords," said he, "I have come here at your bidding, unceremonious though it be."
The President of the Council silenced him with a motion of his hand.
"Zuane de Franza," said he, "a year ago you came to Venice with the story that you had discovered the long sought secret of the transmutation of metals. You brought with you water in jars which you called the anima d'oro, the spirit of the gold. You demanded money and a home for the purpose of your experiments. That money and that home Venice has found for you. In twelve months, you said, the waters in the jars would fructify. Yesterday the last of those months was ended. You will not be surprised, then, if to-day Venice demands the return for her hospitalities."
The alchemist heard him with a smile upon his face.
"My lord," he pleaded, "I cannot complain of your words; nevertheless, before you command me further, I would remind you that if Venice is to reap the reward of my labours, she must be faithful to me, and wish that reward. Possibly it is unknown to you that yesterday, in the Church of the Frari, the Capuchin monk, Giovanni, warned the people against me——"
"It is not unknown to us, Signor Franza. We have heard of the affair, and our officers have gone to speak to the priest you name. He has answered that, until your experiments are ended, he will promise to keep a vow of silence."
Franza shook his head slowly and pulled his long gown over his shoulders.
"That is well," he said, seeking time to think; "nevertheless, my lord——"
The President of the Three did not permit him to finish his sentence.
"Nevertheless," he exclaimed, "this is no time for excuses, signore, but fit and proper for the fulfilment of your promises. In a room below you will find the jars of water which you entrusted to our keeping a year ago. Anything else you seek shall be brought to you. But you will understand that Venice asks a hundred thousand golden ducats, and that you must find them for her before the sun has set to-day."
Franza cried out in amazement:
"A hundred thousand ducats, my lord! It is impossible."
"No more, no less, signore. And since the time is short already for your task, I beg you to begin it without any further words."
He signalled to the guards at the door, and they placed themselves, one on either side of the trembling gold-maker. Franza knew not why, yet all the cunning of his tongue deserted him in that moment He stared wildly at the motionless figures of the Three; he muttered strange words; he tried to shake the hands of the guards from his shoulders. Still gabbling incoherent excuses, he was led from the room through other galleries and other halls until at last they brought him to a narrow staircase.
"Mother of God," he cried, "you are taking me to the dungeons?"
"To the dungeons, signore, as you say. Yet you have but to pay Venice a hundred thousand golden ducats, and you are free to go to your home again."
He did not answer them. They could feel his limbs trembling as they led him across the bridge to the prisons which lay beyond the water. He knew well now that he could dupe Venice no more. This was the day, then, against which the masked man, who came so mysteriously to his house, had warned him. He cursed the folly which had kept him in the city an hour after that warning had been spoken.
Down and yet down, over steps green with slime and fungus; into passages where the very air breathed pestilence; by cells whence came the voices of men who had forgotten day and night and the wondrous world of stars; down and yet down into a filthy dungeon, lighted by a blazing flambeau, they carried him. As one in a dream, he saw the horrid cell, wherein the price must be paid.
"A hundred thousand golden ducats—oh, God help me, it is the half of my fortune."
But none heard him. When he looked up once more, when he recovered from the paralysing trance of fear, he was alone with the burning flambeau and the two great jars of water which he had presented to Venice a year ago. Since that day, they had been locked up as sacred treasure in the Mint of the city. The people said that they contained the anima d'oro, the spirit of the gold; but Franza knew better; he knew they had been filled with water from the well of his house. And here they were in his cell. Never had his own quackery seemed so pitiful to him. Venice, indeed, was a hard mistress. She would strip the very clothes from his body, he thought. Perchance, she would demand his life.
He feared death, in truth; but as yet there was no sign that Venice contemplated so terrible a punishment. He began to think that he might temporise with her. He would offer ten thousand twenty thousand ducats. They would liberate him, perhaps, for such a payment, and he would fly the city. He would leave that very night; in Savoy, in France, it might be, he would find new dupes and new rewards. Thinking of these things, he took courage a little, and began to beat upon the door of his cell.
"Signori, I will give ten thousand ducats for my liberty. It is all my fortune. I swear it before Heaven."
The echo of his own voice was the response. Those tremendous walls cast back the words so that he seemed to mock himself. Without or within, there was no other sound than the drip of the water from one of the great jars from one of those jars—which Venice had carried, a year ago, with lighted candles and Host uplifted, to the cellars of the Mint. Franza looked at the jar, and a scornful laugh came to his lips. An instant later, the laugh changed to an exclamation of wonder and surprise.
"How!" he cried, "the jar overflows so that the water is above my ankles, and yet it remains full to the brim. Am I losing my eyes, then? God! what a thing to imagine!"
Cold to the marrow with the shock of that discovery, he snatched the flambeau from its iron stick and held it aloft to watch the water in the jar. Not a drop of it seemed to have passed out—and yet, the floor beneath him was running with water above his ankles. Again and again he stooped to touch the lapping stream in the cell, or to mark the jars by which he stood.
The truth was slow to come, but when it came it was as the sentence of the death that he must die. They would drown him in the cell! He knew not how or whence the water came; but he could feel it striking cold and dank upon his legs. Anon, he said, it would climb higher, would touch his knees, his breast, his neck, his chin. He cried aloud with the agony of the thought and dropped the flambeau. It hissed in the rising tide of water and he stood in darkness.
"Signori, I will pay twenty thousand ducats for my liberty—I will sell my gold and silver—oh, in the name of mercy, I feel the water at my knees—I drown, signori!"
With darkness, a dread of death unspeakable seized upon him. He fell upon his hands and knees and crawled towards the door of the cell, cutting his knuckles as he beat upon the panel, growing hoarse with his terrible cries for help and mercy. He knew now what the justice of Venice was to those who would betray her. There, in that dank cell, with the water creeping inch by inch to his lips, he was to pay the uttermost penalty for the months of pleasure and success his roguery had earned for him.
"Signori—fifty thousand ducats for my life! I swear on the cross that I have no more. Pity, for Heaven's sake. I am dying here, signori—hear me, help me!"
He was weak and faint at this time; faint from terror and from cold, half suffocated with the foul air which the water drove up towards the roof of the cell. His lungs pained him as though a hot iron seared them. His pulse was quick and weak; the blood seemed driven to his head; he stretched out his arms as though to seek pity of the terrible walls or to drive the darkness from him. The steady drip of the water was as a knell—the tocsin of a death cruel beyond any he could have imagined.
Once he thought that the flow of it ceased; and then a delirium of joy began to possess him; but an instant later he knew that his strained ear had deceived him. Relentless, unmistakable, the tide was rising about him. He plunged his hands in it, and foul things fixed on them. He heard it lapping against the stones, and, in terror uncontrollable, he dashed himself against the unpitying walls, and fell headlong. Any death but that, he prayed. Any death but that of the foul tide and the darkness. God would not permit such cruelty.
"A hundred thousand ducats! I will pay the money! Quick, signori, light—give me light! The water is choking me! Oh, for God's sake——!"
And then, for the first time, Venice listened to him.
Hardly had he spoken the words when some drain in the floor of the cell opened quickly, and the foul water ran back to the canal from which it had been pumped. The great trap of wood and iron swung upon its hinges. Guards with torches in their hands dragged him from the place to the light above. He came into the sunlight reeling as a drunken man. People said that he had the face of one who had lived a hundred years.
That night, at sunset, Zuane de Franza sat alone in the laboratory of his splendid palace upon the Grand Canal.
An hour ago the messengers of the Three had carried away from his house one hundred thousand ducats in gold. He could still hear the cheers of the people in the gondolas before his door. Their cries: "Viva Franza, who has made the gold!" were as omens to his ears. The city without, then, believed that he had fulfilled his promise to Venice. He had given her gold, the people said, in return for the palace and the servants and the ducats she had found for him during the year he had been her guest. He cursed the fools who said the thing, and shut himself in his great room. He wished to be alone, that he might take counsel of the night.
He was very weak and ill at this time, and could scarce drag his weary legs up the great marble staircase of the palace. He shivered with cold, and the strong red wine he poured out for himself would not warm him. All his servants had deserted him directly they saw the boat of the Signori of the Night at the quay of his house. Even Filippo, who had been his companion in many a day of daring and of intrigue, had gone with the poltroons and the cowards who had fed upon his bounty. And he was glad of it. He must be alone, he repeated—alone at a moment when he fled Venice, when he sought a new home, and a new country, and new dupes for his cunning tongue to conquer.
It was very silent in that lonely house, and, as the shadows fell, strange shapes were conjured up of the twilight; strange figures seemed to stalk the empty rooms. Terror of the morning still haunted the broken man. He feared the things his eyes saw. When he looked at himself in a great mirror, when he saw that woeful face and the shrunken cheek and the long, dank hair, all the suffering he had endured in the unspeakable cell recurred to him. He drew back from the glass with a groan, and lay long upon a couch, quivering with fear and seeking to beat the phantoms from him.
Once or twice, as this paroxysm of terror returned, he thought that he heard footsteps in the house; and he would run wildly to the head of the staircase and cry out for his servant, Filippo. But his voice, cast back in moaning echoes, was his answer. He did not complain that it should be so. The night must find him wakeful. He had his work to do. He would cheat Venice yet—Venice and the cursed priest who had stirred up the people against him.
A hundred thousand ducats had been the price of his freedom. It was the half of the fortune he had accumulated since he began to practise his arts in the city. The rest lay safe and snug in a great iron chest in his laboratory. If he could escape from Venice with that, he would still be a rich man. Other countries would be open to him. In Savoy, in France, he would find new dupes. This was his argument; but against it stood the haunting question—was Venice paid in full? Would she permit him to flee? Might not the police-boat be at his door even then?
The question sent him hurrying to his balcony. He could make out the gondolas of many who went gaily to the pleasures of the night; but he did not see the boat of the Signori of the Night; nor could he espy his own gondola. Filippo had taken it, then! He, Franza, was a prisoner in his own house. He dare not trust the wreck of his fortune to the first hired barcarole that should chance to pass his door.
He must hide his money, he said to himself—must hide it from Venice and the Three.
Fired with this idea, he worked at the execution of it with the energy of ten men. He had no very clear notion of a hiding-place at first; but, presently, he determined to store his gold in the cellar of the palace, beneath one of the flags of the pavement which he had removed before that day to conceal some of those things which had helped him in his rôle of quack and seer.
Full of the excellence of his plan, he lighted lanterns and carried them to the dismal cellar; whose walls reeked of damp, whose level was below that of the water outside. It was heavy work to remove the great square stone which concealed his rude treasure-chamber; but fear gave him strength, and his very sinews seemed to crack with his efforts. He would cheat Venice yet, he promised himself; he would be revenged on the boasting monk who had denounced him. And so he worked on, and unseen eyes—the eyes of those who laughed at his labours—watched him as he worked.
Unseen eyes watched him, yet never once did he suspect that the spies of Venice were in the house. Driven on by a miser's greed, he took the golden ducats in sacks of canvas and carried them from the iron box in his laboratory to the dank and mildewed cellar.
Once, as he worked, a curious fit of terror seized upon him. A great picture, whose cord had been rotted by age, fell on the staircase just as he was about to descend with his last bag of gold. So startling was the crash, echoing in the lonely house, that he dropped the bag he was carrying and the golden coins went rolling down the stairs. He picked them up with quivering fingers, not unwilling to linger there. For he feared the darkness of the cellar; it was like a tomb, he thought. All his courage could not bring him to face it readily.
"Pah!" he said, hesitating upon the brink of the lower steps, "what am I thinking of? I that have been feared in my own house! Let them come if they choose—let them do what they will with me. A hundred thousand ducats will pay the bill at many an inn. They shall carry me to France, and I will promise gold to the French King. I will begin again and make good the fortune I have lost. While men's greed remains, there will always be a home for Franza, the gold-maker."
He stooped again to the bag and went down to the cellar quickly. When he had poured the last of the gold coins into the cavity, a mighty effort forced the stone back to its place, and a low cry of joy escaped him.
"To-morrow," he said, "to-morrow Filippo will return, and together—God, what is that?"
The word of triumph ended in broken exclamation. He had hung a lantern upon a hook in the wall of the cellar, and it cast a poor ray of wan light on the pavement beneath which his fortune lay. That which caused him to cry out suddenly was a shadow upon this patch of light. He saw that it was the shadow of a man, and he watched it with outstanding eyes, and remembered the warning of yesternight, which he had long forgotten. All his false strength left him in an instant. He sank upon his knees; he uttered a low moan as of ultimate woe and pain.
"What is it—what do you want with me?" he asked pitifully.
Again, as last night, a voice answered him out of the darkness.
"A hundred thousand ducats, in the name of Venice, signore—the hundred thousand you have just hidden beneath that stone."
Franza groaned aloud; his hands were outstretched before him; he seemed bent to the very earth by this new blow.
"Who are you that came yesterday as a friend, but to-day are an enemy?" he asked.
"Yesterday, I stood for the mercy of Venice, signore; to-day I stand for its justice."
"Is it justice that I, who have paid a hundred thousand ducats this morning, shall pay yet again?"
"A hundred thousand a day—so you promised Venice a year ago, signore. And a new day has come. Hark to the bells, they are striking twelve!"
Franza listened to the sweet music floating over the still lagoon. He shuddered as he heard the bells.
"I will pay the money," he said in a low voice—"take it, signore, it is beneath this stone."
The unknown laughed softly.
"Not so," he said. "Venice is no bandit, Signer Franza. You shall yourself lift the stone and count the money into my hand."
"But I am weak, signore—all my strength is gone. I am as a child."
"That is your misfortune, then. It is a very great misfortune indeed, signore, for if you do not pay me that which I am sent to ask here and now, you will not be alive when the clock strikes again."
Franza breathed heavily. He staggered to his feet, and turned to the place whence the voice came.
"Who are you that come to torment me?—in God's name, speak."
A man stepped from the shadows. He was clothed from head to foot in scarlet, and wore a scarlet mask. He carried a naked sword in his hand.
"Signore," said he, "I am the executioner of Venice."
Franza drew back from the apparition step by step. He covered his eyes to shut it out; he tried to speak, but could not articulate his words. He knew that the end of his life had come; but to die there, in that cellar, to die with no prayer upon his lips, to know that his head would roll upon that slime-dewed floor—it was a fear of death surpassing all imagination.
"I cannot die," he moaned, "I cannot die here—in this place."
"Not so," said the other, "you should have asked mercy of him who is the voice of Venice, signore."
Franza cast himself upon his knees.
"I ask it," he cried, cringing in the very dirt of the pavement. "I ask it of Giovanni, the lord of Venice."
"Whom you denounced this morning, and compelled to take a vow of silence! How shall he pardon you when he may not speak of you to anyone until another day has dawned and set? It is not to be, signore. Prepare for death, for you have not a minute of life!"
He raised his hand, and other figures emerged from the darkness. Men, dressed in red and masked as the executioner was, seized the wretched gold-maker and dragged him from the ground. A block of wood was thrown carelessly to the floor; they forced the head of their prisoner down to it; they held him by the arms in an iron grip. His terrible cries fell on ears that might not hear. He waited for the blow, waited to feel the steel cutting through his neck—yet no blow fell.
"Strike," he implored, "in the name of God, strike!"
But the sword did not fall. Those instants of delay, with the shining blade poised above him, were eternities of suffering. A thousand deaths he died, and every one was an agony surpassing the others.
"Oh!" he cried, "strike if you are not devils. I will die—I will——"
They did not answer him; and he rolled, fainting, from their arms; for he had passed the bounds of suffering and of fear.
Early on the next day, one of the gondolas belonging to the police of Venice left the Palazzo Balbi to set down upon the mainland an old man clothed in rags, and thankful for the morsel of bread and the cup of wine which his jailors gave to him. When the boatmen had set him ashore, the unwilling traveller limped with pain along the deserted shore, and as he went, he looked back often toward the blue lagoon, above which the spires and domes of Venice rose gloriously in the morning light.
"She has repaid," he said, shaking his fist at the distant city, "God knows, she has repaid."
And so Zuane de Franza, the alchemist, started on his journey towards a new home and a new country.