The Sword and Three

The Sword and Three  (1896) 
by Max Pemberton
Extracted from Cassell's Family magazine, vol 22 1896, pp. 125-134. Accompanying illustrations may be omitted. A story of 18th Century Venice.

“It is a bitter thing, old friend, to see a child in sorrow. It is more bitter if that child has loved you all her life with a great love. ... And there were but twenty hours before me—twenty hours in which to save little Christine for her lover; to deal with Girolamo as justly he should be dealt with.


The Sword and Three

A SHORT STORY. BY MAX PEMBERTON.

Being a fragment of a letter written to Count Ruzzini by Nicola Ferrara, of Belluno, who going to Venice in the fiftieth year of his age, brought the fashioning both of broadswords and of rapiers to much perfection. Long a servant of the Moro family, Nicolo died in a room of the Palazzo Balbi, in the year 1702, carrying with him to the grave many cunning secrets of the art he had so worthily adorned.

BODY of Bacchus, forget! As soon would I forget the face of her that had my first love. And yet I have killed many a man, Count. The quiver of flesh upon my blade has been meat and drink to me often since the day I slew Marco Foscari in my father’s garden at Belluno. But the work in the garden of swords! Ah, that was like new wine in my veins.

“I had been in the city—benedetta la mia Venezia—five years when Girolamo brought the trouble to my doors. The people had learned already to applaud me; men bent the weapons of Nicolo and cried that the devil was in the steel. But I made them as the son of Andrea taught me; and finer for play or work never came out of Damascus.

“I had been in the city five years, as I write, when Girolamo came like an evil thing across my path. He was a Capello: a man of great race and pleasant tongue, well schooled in all those arts which women favour, ready with his sword when the occasion was, not wanting a fine face or a fine word—a man that may leave desolation in his path or blessing; a friend to be kept or an enemy to be feared. What truck I had with him, that was in my own house, where he came that I might school him in the use of the rapier—a pretty toy, old comrade, which these masters of France insist shall now hang like bodkins at our girdle; but, faugh! a weapon for boys, or for the hand of women at their play.

“I taught Girolamo, and he came daily to my house—at first, to hold me in fence with the fine conceit that I was making him my master; after that, as presently I was to learn, for love of Christine, the daughter of my neighbour, Orio Zorzi. She had then grown quite the woman; her beauty, though she had come only to her fifteenth year, was the talk of all the painters over upon the Guidecca, And for her, Count, I would have broken my sword the sword of Andrea of Belluno, the like to which there is not in the world.

“I would have broken my sword for Christine—ay, indeed, for she was all my company, and the day was rare when she did not sit at my feet in pleasant talk after my work was ended. Often we supped out there in the little garden, with the music of the lagoon in our ears. Her father, Orio, was a widower, and a man of many occupations, as you know well. His business carried him frequently to Zara, and even to the remoter East. And he was pleased that I should see much of his child when he was gone, for our houses lay back to back under the shadow of the new church of our Lady of Safety; and what fashioning and hammering of blades I did was kept for my shop over yonder in the city of Murano. Then, as in my later years, the setting of the sun over the waters of Chioggia brought me always to my home. Little Christine loved to wait for me upon the riva; she had supper set in that pleasant arbour whence one may see the shores of the Lido and the purple crowns of the Eugaæean Hills. Oh, it was good to see her thus: the child become the woman, the little maid playing mother. And I have never said her nay—not even when she told me of Paolo Steno, and of the words which he spoke when the Ascension brought him to her from Torcello.

“For what would you? The maid must become the wife, and the wife the mother, as it is written. And if the youth be honest, of good heart and will, and the child be ready, how is the love of an old man to come between them? Not, be it understood, that any consent of mine could help her to this happiness. Her father was a hard man; Paolo was a simple fellow of the people, who had nothing but his honest labour at the making of the finer glass-ware to help him. I foresaw trouble from the beginning of it; and when I talked of the thing to Orio, his old love for me alone permitted him to hear me out.

“‘And thou, old friend,’ cried he, ‘to talk of this to me! What, wed her to a lout that blows beads upon a string? My daughter, whose lap I will fill ten times with sequins? Madonna mia, what words!’

“He went on to speak of sending her to a convent of sisters at San Clemente, and of other hard intentions; nor had I any courage to wrestle with him then, in the early moment of his displeasure. It was plain that Paolo must come no more to my house by the church of the Salute; and while I gave Orio this promise, I wept in my heart for little Christine. But oh, how cunning is woman—how quick to see and mend her misfortunes!

“‘Nicolo,’ said she to me that very night at supper, ‘dear Nicolo’—for this was her way of speaking—‘what shall I do, how shall I live without him?’

“‘Who knows,’ said I, to cheer her, ‘what time may bring? I have seen men more set than your father, and yet turned about when a month has gone like a blade in a rotten basket. Perchance, before the feast, you shall dance with Paolo at Torcello, little Christine.’

“She gave me no fair word of answer; but presently, when she had thought, she said to me—

“‘Nicolo, thou knowest the house of Paolo’s brother Lorenzo, over in the city yonder?’

“‘As I know my own,’ said I, ‘for they be close together as the pillars upon the Piazza.’

“‘And, Nicolo, thou knowest that Paolo now goes every day after Mass to help Lorenzo in his work?’

“‘So surely, child, I know—rare the day is that I do not speak with him on his way.’

“‘And he may not come here now when his work is done?’

“‘I fear not, little friend.’

“She mused yet a little while, and then, putting her red lips very close to mine, she said—

“‘Nicolo, if I may not see him here, could I not come to watch thee make swords? And Paolo, he would be near. Dear Nicolo, do not turn thy head away; I know that thou lovest me. Oh, say that I may come, and will pray for thee every day. Sweet Nicolo!’

“What the end of it all was, comrade, I may tell in a few words. She came after that every day in my gondola to Murano, and there I watched her happiness, and that of the boy she had taken for her lover. For a whole month there was no more joyous creature in Venice. Then Girolamo the worthless came to my house; and almost from the day of his coming little Christine’s cheeks paled, and the rings of sorrow stood out black beneath her eyes.

“‘Cousin Nicolo!’ said she to me one night, calling me oddly as she was wont, ‘thou lovest me, and yet Girolamo comes to thy house!’

“‘And why not, child?’ asked I. ‘He likes to cross a blade with me. What is that to thee?’

“‘He has asked me of my father in marriage,’ she sobbed; and then, for want of any more words, she laid her pretty face upon my lap, and her cheeks were wet with tears. Nor could I find a word to comfort her.

“‘Knowest thou,’ said I, ‘what thy father said?’

“‘Oh, surely,’ cried she, ‘surely, Nicolo! I cannot bear to tell thee the word; he has promised me at Candlemass.’

“I feared to hear it, but in this city of republicans, mon ami, name buys much. Girolamo was a Capello, a great man among the Serenissima; he had place, position, all that a father may seek in a new son. Why, then, should not Orio prefer this man for his daughter before the glass-maker, who had naught but the blunt speech and the willing hands? Nay, I knew that he must; and I trembled for little Christine.

“‘Pretty child,’ said I, raising her up to me, ‘there are two months to Candlemass. Who can say what two months may bring? And every day thou shalt see Paolo in the shop thou lovest, I promise thee.’

“‘And thou wilt save Paolo’s life?’ she asked.

“I laughed at her childish fancies.

“‘Why should Paolo have need of me?’ cried I.

“‘Because Girolamo has sworn to kill him. Oh, dear Nicolo, thou knowest what he is; thou hast crossed swords with him. Paolo will surely die.’

“‘Little Christine,’ said I, ‘dost thou then forget that thy lover has stood before me, a son of Andrea? Dost thou forget that I shaped the blade he wears? There is no finer in Venice; no quicker eye than Paolo’s, no truer hand. Who shall kill him, then? Not Girolamo, the lumberer; Girolamo, the horse; Girolamo, the buffoon. Body of Bacchus, I would worst him with a cane.’

“My raillery comforted her, but upon the next day, Paolo being away at Torcello, as she said, she was not with me at my forge; and at sunset, the light being red upon the sails of ships and the whole lake shining as with a tide of blood, she called me while I was yet a long way from my house; and her distress was made plain to all that passed by.

“‘Cousin Nicolo!’ was her cry, ‘dear cousin, they have killed him. Oh, Paolo, he is dead; I have seen him. He is dead in the garden of Manin the painter. They took him there that they might kill him. I have seen his bleeding body. Nicolo! thou hearest me; thou art my friend. Nicolo! thou wilt not let him die.’

“With such wild words in her mouth she continued to run to and fro upon the riva before my garden; but I, thinking that she had waked from some feverish dream, made no answer until I had drawn her to the shelter of the little arbour, and there I sat her down and began to question her.

“‘Christine,’ said I, ‘what dream is this? Thou sayest that they have killed him?’

“She stifled her tears, and looked up to me with a face very worn and full of suffering.

“‘Oh, dear Nicolo, it is the truth; I have seen him with my own eyes. He went there at sunset; I watched him from my window. An hour ago Luigi carried me in the boat to the garden gate, and I saw him at Girolamo’s feet. He is dead. Oh, God help me, he is dead.’

“She spoke the words, and such a torrent of weeping came upon her that I troubled her with no more questioning; but carried her to my gondola, which lay still at the steps. It was then quite dark; yet I feared so much to find the story as she had told to me that I waited for no lantern, but bade my boatman make straight for the house of Manin, which lies near by the canal of the Zitelle. And we had come up to the riva of the garden before I had begun to think in what way the cunning swordsman Paolo had fallen before the blunderer, by what means he had been lured to the nest of his enemies.

“At the sight of the bronze gates of Manin’s house,, through the bars of which the leafy walks and avenues of the garden were plain to our view, little Christine started up from her weeping and took my hand in hers.

“‘Seest thou the lantern swinging beneath the great lime-tree, Nicolo? It was there he lay; I saw his body upon the grass. Oh, my tears blind me.’

“‘Pray God thou dreamest, child,’ said I; and with this I sprang from the boat and went up to the gate. There was no sign of any lamp then lit in the house, nor of any persons occupying it; indeed, it was cold with stillness, and but for the one lantern set upon the bench, it had been without any token of human presence. Nor could I for a long time get any answer to my knocking—not until I had rung twice the great bell behind the pillars, and heard a hundred echoes over the water. At the last a crone with a very yellow face and wicked little eyes came hobbling from the garden; and when she had held up her lamp that she might see my face, she cried—

“‘Chi xe?

“‘Amici!’ said I; and that she might not misunderstand me I added, ‘and if you do not open the gate quickly, good dame, I will surely blow your brains out.’

“She gave a harsh little laugh and put down her light.

“‘Thou art Nicolo! Well I know thee,’ cackled she; ‘and he was one of thine! Madonna mia, that thou shouldst find me with his blood upon my hands!’

“She opened the gate with this harsh croak of apology, and I pushed by her, snatching the lamp from her hands.

“‘Where are your masters?’ I asked, as she fawned before me, the flicker of the yellow rays strong upon her crackled face.

“‘My masters? What are they to thee? Belike they seek a priest, Nicolo; who can say? Thou wouldst not have thy friend want shrift—one of thine own, too?’

“The malice of the croaking hag was beyond concealment. Bidding her be silent, I crossed the garden to the grassy knoll beneath the lime-tree; and so still was it there, so dark, that for a minute I believed Christine’s message to be a phantom of her dreams. But when I had cast an aureola of light upon the soft carpet of the grass, I found, not at the place which the child had indicated, but at a boat’s breadth from it, the body of Paolo.

“They had wrapped him round in the scarlet coat he always wore; and would have left him there, I doubt not, until nightfall, that they might the more secretly cast the body into the lagoon. As I saw him by the lantern’s wavering light, the pallor of his face was beyond experience; and he had so turned upon his side in the agony of his suffering that I could see the stain of blood which had dripped upon his mantle and run down upon his stockings, striping them with ugly stains. And he lay now without so much as a whisper of breathing; one hand straight out upon the grass, the other resting under his head, as though he were weary even in his death.

“‘Thou art surely gone, Paolo,’ said I to myself as I knelt by his side to tear the vest from his wound; ‘they have killed thee, my son, and little Christine must weep. Yet there were few that could stand before thy blade if it was in fair exchange that thou wast struck.’

“With this, I took linen from the sleeve of my own shirt, and running down to the canal to dip it in the water, I called to my boatman to come to me. We made haste together to bind up the wound, lest there might be life yet smouldering in the body; and telling Christine to spread cushions in the boat, we carried Paolo thither. Scarce, however, were we in the long canal, when the gondola of Manin, the painter, came sweeping up towards his home; and at the sight of us and of our burden, the three men in it, first of whom was Girolamo, cried out to us to stop, or they would run us through as we sat. Very tipsily and with loud words they came bumping against us, until the light of their lantern fell upon my face and showed them into what company they had fallen. Then, crying to one another that they had run upon a trap, they turned their boat towards the island, and were instantly gone from sight.

We got Paolo home, whether alive or dead we knew not; and, having sent for a surgeon, we laid the body in my own chamber. It must have been a full hour before my man could bring the help we needed to us; but when at last the surgeon came, and had listened long for a beat of the heart or an expiration of the breath, he said that life was not wholly gone, and if it were the same at dawn we might begin to hope; with which pronouncement he administered a strong cordial to his patient; and when he had bathed Paolo’s head and had undone our clumsy bandages, the wounded man himself surprised us by opening his eyes and turning again upon his side.

“I had no heart to send Christine home that night. Since we had picked up the body of her lover she had not ceased to bend over it, covering the cold lips with her kisses, and happy if she might hold so much as the fingers of a hand. Her father was then at Fiume; and now she watched with me until the dawn broke, and for very weariness she fell asleep with her head pillowed upon my knees. While she slept I thought of her words, ‘You will avenge him, Nicolo,’ and I knew not what answer to give to her. I was then growing a bent old man; I could have no part or lot in any lover’s quarrel; there would be an outcry through the whole city if I, who set up as a master, should fall upon the pupil and kill him in combat. He had committed no offence known to the social or the moral law; the greater number of people would applaud him because he had struck his rival down in fair fight. They would admit no right of mine to take the quarrel upon my shoulders: for all that I could do, Paolo must die with no blow struck for him, and little Christine must marry Girolamo.

“I had made up my mind to this when dawn broke upon the city, and the bells in the neighbouring churches began to ring for the first service. Our surgeon was to come again at daybreak, and the light was scarce up when I heard his voice upon the riva. He found Paolo to be doing well, and would not have him waked from the deep sleep into which he had fallen. The wound, he said, was near to the heart, and could be healed only by sustained rest and quiet. Any movement might set it bleeding again; and then the little flame of life, which had been husbanded with such care, would waver and die out. He left with this instruction and the promise to be in again at mid-day; and I accompanied him to the steps of the riva. My own gondola then lay by his, and the felze being taken away, I was able to see what a deep stain of blood there was upon the cushions we had spread, and even upon the boards; but more to be noticed than this was the half of a sword-blade lying near to the prow, as though tossed in at hazard by one who had picked it from the ground. This fragment of a blade was soon in my hands; and while I was looking at it my own boatman, Michele, came up the canal and began to tell me that he had found it in Manin’s garden at the moment when we took up the body of Paolo.

“‘It is your own blade, excellency,’ said he—‘the blade you shaped for him. Strange that it should have snapped like a rotting bough.’

“I said nothing to answer him; my hand trembled as though he had struck me a blow.

“‘And, my master,’ he went on, seeing nothing of my distress, ‘look now, the blade is all black and burnt—the blade which shone like silver yesterday, for I saw him draw it to make sure.’

“Again I said nothing to him; but taking the fragment of the blade which remained, I bent it across my knee, and it snapped like a withered branch. And at this Michele laughed aloud.

“‘You see now, excellency,’ cried he, ‘what steel he had. Oh, that such a one should have come from your hands!’

“I sent him about his business, not choosing to dispute with him, and returned to Paolo’s room, a tumult of strange thoughts in my mind. How came the sword to be rotten? Why was it black and burnt? My cunning gave me in a moment the whole secret of the enigma. The blade had first been heated in the fire, then plunged into water, so becoming brittle as the glass in my windows. With such a blade Paolo, who lay there with death for a bedfellow, had stood up for his life. And the sword that had failed him was the sword of Nicolo!—of Nicolo Ferrara, the pupil of Andrea. Oh, cursed day!

“All that morning I sat hugging my sorrow and asking myself, ‘What will the city say?’ I knew full well that Girolamo and his fellows would be quick to put abroad the story; and how could I answer it until Paolo spoke? Easy enough to stand upon the Piazza and proclaim that treachery had been busy, but who would hearken to a defender of his own wares? If Paolo died, then indeed was I utterly undone. Venice could no longer be a home for me. I must set out, old man that I was, and seek a new city and new friends. But if Paolo lived—ah, then!

“It is impossible in such a letter as this, my friend, to write to you of all that I suffered in the week succeeding this terrible misfortune. Hour by hour and day by day I watched feverishly at the bedside of the sick man. I saw him fighting that stern battle with death which only youth may fight and win. I heard his laboured breathing, his feeble moaning; I trembled as the pallor on his face deepened, as the froth stood upon his lips and the cold sweat upon his brow. And added to my own exceeding trouble was the grief of Christine, now kept to her house since her father knew that Paolo lay at mine, but none the less worn with the weariness of it and with the overwhelming burden of her childish sorrow. Nay, it was not until the tenth night that she came running to my garden and fell at my feet, imploring me to help or to kill her, for surely, as she said, the crisis of her suffering was come.

“I comforted her as I could, asking her what new thing it was; and then, well as she was able for her tears, she made it plain to me.

“‘Dear Nicolo, dear friend,’ said she, ‘my father has gone to Zara; and when he shall come again, I am to wed Girolamo. Thou wilt save me, Nicolo?’

“‘How shall I save thee, child?’

“‘Thou wilt kill him, Nicolo.’

“‘Nay, they would cry out that I murdered him.’

“‘What matter to thee, since they cry already that thy cunning has left thee and thy hand is failing?’

“‘They say that, child?’

“‘Oh, surely, Nicolo; the very boys cry it in the street. Has not Girolamo declared that thy blades snap like frosted glass?’

“‘He has a lie in his throat then, and I will cut it out,’ exclaimed I, ‘if only Paolo would wake to his senses that I might know the truth.’

“‘Pray God, Nicolo, that he does not wake when I am dead,’ she sobbed; and with no more words she ran up to the chamber of the sick man, and left me to all the bitterness of my confusing thoughts.

“Upon the third day after Christine brought to me this bitter news, the crisis of the sick man’s illness came. I had sat at his bedside from the setting of the sun until dawn, and had grown very weary with my watching. About the hour of eight o’clock, when I was near to dozing in my chair, what should happen but that Paolo drew a deep breath, which called me to my senses instantly; and I had scarce walked to his bed when he opened his eyes and cried, in a voice that was little more than a whisper, for Christine.

“‘Paolo,’ said I, ‘God be thanked for this. Take drink to your lips.’

“‘Is it thou, Nicolo?’ said he, looking up with the eyes of a man still dreaming.

“‘No other, Paolo,’ said I, pressing the drink upon him.

“‘Where have I been? How did I come here?’ he asked, trying to raise himself in the bed.

“‘We found you in the garden of Manin the painter; but think of none of these things now.’

“He lay back for a moment, with a look of fear on his face. Then he said:

“‘Manin the painter?—oh, yes—and Girolamo Capello! Is it thou, Nicolo?’

“Again I told him that it was.

“‘Then listen,’ said he. ‘My sword broke—the sword that was shaped by thee.’

“‘Paolo,’ said I, ‘what word is this?’

“‘As I say,’ cried he. ‘In the morning it was bright as the mirror above us; but when I drew it in the garden, it was black and burnt.’

“‘Did you put off yours while you were there?’ asked I.

“I laid my belt at the foot of the lime-tree when we sat to food,’ said he. ‘It was the work of the hag Giovanna and of Girolamo. Doubt it not. But thou shalt shape me another, Nicolo, that I may cut his heart out.’

“I said nothing to him, so full was I of my anger; and presently he spoke again of Christine.

“‘Is it well with her?’ he asked. And I lied to him.

“‘It is well,’ said I. ‘Talk no more now, Paolo; only sleep.’

“He obeyed me, being a child in strength, and soon he lay in deep slumber most pleasant to see. Nor did I, when little Christine came running in an hour later, let her hear of it, or approach him, for she was wild in her grief, and not to be held back from weeping.

“‘Nicolo,’ said she, ‘to-morrow they will wed me; to-morrow, Nicolo, I shall be in Girolamo’s arms. Thou wilt lose me, Nicolo; I shall die, dear cousin; I shall never touch Paolo’s lips again.’

“‘Thy father has returned, then?’ said I.

“‘He was here at sundown,’ said she, ‘and even now has gone to speak with the priests.’

“It is a bitter thing, old friend, to see a child in sorrow. It is more bitter if that child has loved you all her life with a great love. I have never known so sad a moment as that; never one in which I stood so perplexed and helpless. And there were but twenty hours before me—twenty hours in which to save little Christine for her lover; to deal with Girolamo as justly he should be dealt with.

“You would think, it may be, that with misfortune so pressing upon me, I had gone out at once to do as best I might for the child who called me cousin and for my own good name. But it was only in the hour before sundown that I put my cloak about me and called Michele to bring the gondola to the steps. To his question ‘Where do we go?’ I could for the moment find no answer; but then, and in no way curiously—for these thoughts flash upon our minds when we court them least—I cried:

“‘To the house of Manin the painter.’

“He nodded his head, and, our own canal being blocked by a boat that lay stuck for want of tide, we went out by the Piazza, and so to the open water before the Dogana. It was now near fifteen days since I had ventured from my own house; and plainly as Christine had told me that men cried out upon my work, I was struck as by a blow when a number of urchins, playing before the new church, called after me:

“‘There goes Nicolo that makes his swords of wood!’

“‘Did you hear that, Michele?’ said I. ‘I am Nicolo that makes swords of wood!’

“‘I have heard it every day these ten days and more, excellency,’ said he. ‘Oh, we are merry souls in Venice. Listen to that, now.’

“He pointed to a gondola in which sat three young men known to me—one the son of a senator, and all persons of much account. But these fellows, so soon as their boat was near to us, began to rail as the boys had done.

“‘Good-day, Signor Nicolo, that makes the rotting swords! Master Nicolo, I will send you a load of branches; nay, on my honour, I have them in my garden. Excellent Nicolo, that Andrea taught, I play Arlecchino at Carnival, make a wand for me!’

“I listened to them with bitter thoughts; but when I had borne with it silently for some time, I rose in my seat and answered them.

“‘Sirs,’ said I, restraining the anger I felt, ‘if there be any among you that would know more of the work of Nicolo Ferrara, he will step with you to the nearest private place, and there teach you both the quality of his blades and the manner in which they should be held.’

“At this, they drew away quickly, and I heard no more of them. We had now come up the canal before Manin’s house; and being at my destination, and stung to great anger with the insult put upon me, I had the sudden thought that I would drag from the hag Giovanna the whole story of Paolo’s mishap. To which end, and after I had seen that no one moved about the house, I rang the great bell above the porch, and it being then almost full dark, I drew my cloak about my face and waited for the crone. She came hobbling down the path as she had done when first I saw her; but she had no lantern in her hand, and she peered at me through the bars of bronze when she asked ‘Who goes?’ I, however, giving her no answer, laid my hand upon her throat; and when I had dragged her to the grating, and held her there in a grip of iron, I cried:

“‘Woman, where is the sword of Paolo who is murdered?’

“As well as she might, for I went nigh to choking her, she gasped:

“‘What do I know of that, thou braggart that beatest women?’

“‘Hag,’ said I, my rage overmastering me, ‘if you do not tell me what I would know, surely you shall choke!’

“With which word I so squeezed her throat that she gurgled for her breath, and her face was near to being black with the blood in it. When I loosened the grip of my finger, there were minutes before she could bring speech to her lips.

“‘Nicolo,’ she stammered at last, ‘thou hast a devil in thee. What wilt thou pay me for the word?’

“‘What it is worth to me when spoken,’ I answered her.

“‘At least let me open to thee.’

“‘If it please you.’

“‘But I choke.’

“‘The better reason that you open quickly.’

“Observing that I would not loose my hand from her neck, she made shift to open the gate; and still holding to her, I suffered her to draw me to the dark place of the garden.

“‘Now,’ said I, ‘answer me, woman: what did you do with the sword of Paolo?’

“‘Why should I answer thee when thou knowest?’

“‘Indeed, I know well,’ said I, ‘that while he sat at meat, his sword lying by the tree, you took it to the fire and then to the water: was it so?’

“‘Even so.’

“‘Who paid you?’

“‘Who should pay me but the one that wished his death?’

“‘Girolamo Capello, was the money his?’

“‘As you say.’

“‘Fiend,’ said I, now seeing it all, ‘what wage had you?’

“To this she made no answer, only seeking to struggle from my grasp, and raising her voice until it rang over the water in echoing shrieks. So sudden was it, and so fearful was her cry, that I came near to telling her go; but some good instinct kept my hand upon her, and seeming to feel that danger lay behind me, I swung her round with all my force, so that she came between me and the gate. Scarce was the motion made when three swords flashed in the light, and then buried themselves in her body. She had received the thrusts aimed at my own back, and she fell shrieking at the feet of the men she had served.

“Dim as the light was, dark as the secret place of the garden, I saw the men, and there was a burning of blood in my veins when I named them.

“‘Signor Girolamo, an old man greets you,’ said I, while my blade leapt from its scabbard; ‘and you, Signor Manin, and my old friend Lorenzo. Ho! ho! a merry company, and a fine night for a little play, gentlemen. It is I, Nicolo, that makes the blades of wood.’

“Before I had done with this saying we had got down to our work. It seemed to me that the three of them sprang at me together; but Manin the painter caught his foot in the robe of the woman, and fell headlong upon the grass. Of the two that remained, so unshapely was the play of the one called Lorenzo that I thrust him deep in the throat, and he died without a cry.

“‘Oh, master Lorenzo! master Lorenzo!’ cried I; ‘often have I taught thee the parry for that thrust, and now thou must learn it in Paradise, where thy friends go quick to join thee.’

“‘Boasting fool, look to your words,’ said Girolamo, for him they called Manin had now come up with us. ‘Look to your words and save your breath, since your blood must soon run out from your body.’

“‘Signor Girolamo,’ said I, ‘had you cut over into sixte and lunged, I had been a dead man; but see, now there are two of you, and one must go lose his blade.’

“For thus it was. I had struck the blade from the painter’s hand, and while it went singing through the air, I felt his flesh running like silk over my steel. An exceeding joy was it to me, though the sword of Girolamo ran through my shoulder as I struck and my own blood flowed out upon my cloak.

“‘Well done! oh, well done! Master Girolamo,’ said I, for the pain was to me like the spit of a cat; ‘wrongly, indeed, have I called you blunderer. Oh, we shall have a merry night, Master Girolamo!’

“He could make no answer to me; so quick he drew his breath and thrust or parried, that his tongue, I doubt not, was cleaving to his palate; and we fought as men blindfolded that read thoughts upon their blades, and answer by instinct of touch, which is the swordsman’s surest gift. Twice round the garden I forced him, and twice he stood before me as I had never looked to see him stand; twice I touched him, and yet was the touch no more than a scratch, for my eyes were troubled and my strength was waning.

“Such an admission, dear friend, is one I may make to you. alone. Let me tell you plainly that there was a moment in the passing of that bout when I looked to die; a moment when I felt his blade speaking upon mine, when I knew that he said: ‘the man is old and I am young; faltering, and I am strong’; a moment when even the thought of Christine’s tears could not bring me to that opening I had played for so long. Nor do I think to this day that any skill of mine would have prevailed in the end had not the God of all our justice come to my help when I needed help so sorely. But thus it was, and thus that I live to write again with all the joy of an old man’s victory.

“When the thing befell, we had worked round to that part of the garden where the body of the hag lay. Retreating before the new fury of his attack—for fury it was when he felt that I was wearing—I stepped upon the woman whom I thought to be dead, and almost losing my foothold I gave him opening. But while I waited to feel the steel at my heart, while my head swam and a prayer rose upon my lips, the seemingly dead woman of a sudden raised herself up to clutch him about the legs; so shrill and piercing was her cry, so dreadful the sight of her gaping wounds, that the thrust which he made hung in the air, and before he could recover himself I shot out my arm, and with him spitted upon my sword we all fell to the ground and rolled together. But I had thrust him to the heart; and when I rose up, no other lived in the garden of swords.

“The first sweetness of night was upon Venice, Count, when I came again to the riva of my house. Little Christine alone was in my mind: her pretty face and her joy to come.

“‘Dear Nicolo,’ said she when she ran to meet me then as in the olden time, ‘thou art very pale, dear Nicolo, and thy cloak is all bloody; they have hurt thee, cousin?’

“‘Nay,’ said I, stooping to kiss her, ‘it is Girolamo’s blood—dost thou not weep?’

“‘I weep, Nicolo; oh, I weep; but it is for gladness.’

“‘Then weep no more,’ cried I; ‘they have my answer, writ in their own blood—the answer of Nicolo Ferrara, that makes his swords of wood.’”

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1927.


The author died in 1950, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 70 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.