It was nearing Midnight, but the revels in the ball-room of the Duchess Malevisia were famous for lasting from dusk until dawn, and nobody, not even old Count Umbric, showed any signs of fatigue as yet; the orchestra played on, waltz after gavotte after mazurka, and the three hundred guests danced and laughed and flirted by the refreshment tables, their glittering costumes creating prisms of surreal color from the light of the chandeliers. All were gay and carefree, tipsy and heedless of the morrow--only I remained sober, alert and unsmiling, for I alone knew that someone intended to murder Her Excellency before the night was over.
Parravicini had hired me earlier that same day; Parravicini, faithful servitor of the Duchess, an old sad hound, devoted to his mistress, though she scarcely noticed him and had not an inkling of the deep love he bore her--and like a hound he growled as he thrust the purse of gold into my hand; "She MUST be protected--at all costs, do you mark me?"
"I shall, I shall...but surely I could protect her better if I knew who intends to kill her," I shrugged at him. "You swear that the Duchess's life is in danger--you are as certain of it as you are that the sun will set tonight--yet you refuse to tell me whom you suspect!"
The majordomo of the Duchess's palazzo wrung his old hands, his lips twitching, but he kept them sealed; "Come, now!" I smiled. "You know as well as I that the Duchess's reforms in policy have made her some bitter enemies in the Senate...she forced the Archimandrite to open his swollen money-bags and distribute half of his hoard to improve the lives of the poor...has he hired an assassin? Or is it her dissolute nephew, Count Fabrizio? In debt up to his eyeballs, with a score of creditors baying for his money or his blood--she is only six years older than him, he cannot hope for her to die of old age and leave her fortune to him...is it he?"
The stubborn servant shook his head, and I threw my hands in the air.
"Just keep close to her tonight, that's all...stay at her elbow, watch her back--keep your hawk-eyes peeled for the glint of a dagger, a dagger with an owl's head hilt! The blow will fall before the last chimes of Midnight strike, that is all I can tell you, Signore! God go with you."
So there I was, surrounded by a swirl of masked faces and outlandish costumes, striving to keep up with the Duchess; alone in that grandiose throng, she wore dazzling white, a gown of the finest Venetian silk and lace, all a-trim with silver bells and cockle shells; oft-times to my dismay I lost sight of her as she flitted from one group of revellers to the next, greeting all and sundry with her dazzling smile--but the jingle of her bells never escaped my ears, and I always found her.
"My lady, you promised to stay close," I muttered in her exquisite ear as she pulled me into a waltz, laughing like a naughty little girl; her mouth flashed in a smile of ruby and pearl.
"I still do not understand why old Parravicini engaged you, Signore! Why are you two so close-mouthed about it?" she scoffed. "I do not believe this story you told me--a robber, forsooth! Every lady present is wearing jewels; why should this thief be so keen to steal mine alone?" She touched the ruby-and-emerald choker round her throat as she spoke, a king's ransom set in purest gold.
I paused, weighed the dangers, gauged her proud spirit, and decided to speak plain--"Very well, Excellency, you force me to tell you; your majordomo swears that he knows someone will kill you tonight, here at this masquerade, on the stroke of Midnight."
I had heard that the Duchess Malevisia was fearless--she had fought duels, ridden the most dangerous Arabian stallions, hunted man-eating panthers in Cathay; to her credit, she did not even blink as I confessed her servant's fear to her.
"Does he know the name of my would-be murderer?" she asked, floating over to the punch-bowl.
"I think he does, but he refuses to say who," I replied---just then the great clock over the main entrance struck, a deep sonorous chime, and I started forward, shielding her with my cloak as my hand leapt to the hilt of my rapier--but it was only the third quarter of Eleven.
"Steady, my valiant guardian! You almost spilled my punch," the Duchess teased me, her eyes sparkling in the candlelight. "I want neither my punch nor my blood to stain this gown, it cost far too much!
"It is curious, though," said Malevisia, more thoughtfully, as we danced a stately gavotte some moments later; "Dear old Parravicini is devoted to me, he has served this house all my life...why would he not reveal the name of the assassin?"
"It must be somebody he knows, and knows well," I shrugged, "perhaps another member of the household? Do any of your servants bear you a grudge, my lady? Have you ever had occasion to punish someone?"
The duchess shook her head, and gasped as I suddenly pulled her closer, for it was now but four minutes until the fatal hour--I scanned the crowd around us with merciless eyes, silently waving them away from her person; "How...will it happen?" Malevisia whispered, and my heart ached within me as I felt that brave woman shiver in my arms.
"A dagger...a dagger with an owl's head hilt," I whispered, and she bit her lip, inhaling sharply. "My lady! Are you hurt?" I exclaimed--no one was near us, no one save old Parravicini coming toward us through the throng of dancers, his eyes blazing with protective zeal.
"But Signore," whispered the Duchess, her angelic face pale as that of a ghost--"Parravicini's dagger has an owl's head hilt!"
The clock sounded: BONG, BONG, BONG as the madman lunged, a flash of steel in his upraised fist--I hurled the Duchess to one side, my rapier sang as it flew out of my sheath and plunged through the majordomo's body in one swift movement--impaled as he was, he still strove to reach his mistress, but I wrenched his dying body backwards, and he sank to the floor amidst the screams and shouts of the guests; his sad old hound eyes stared up at me.
"Grazie, Signore," he groaned, and slumped to the floor.
As soon as she bade the last of her guests farewell, the Duchess Malevisia accompanied me to Parravicini's quarters in the servant's wing of her palazzo, which was almost as sumptuous as her own apartments--"Even your scullery maid has better rooms than my own poor home," I could not help jesting as she showed me the way.
"Signore, you saved my life--you shall be able to buy yourself a villa on the Hills, I assure you," she murmured with a somber half-smile; "But first, show me why my oldest retainer tried to kill me--and why at the same time he engaged you to prevent him from killing me!"
"That is indeed an enigma," I replied; my theory was that the old fool had gone mad from long-suppressed, unrequited love for his mistress, and had retained enough presence of mind to hire me in order to stop him when he could no longer stop himself; a specious theory, but as yet I had no better idea in mind.
We reached the door to the late majordomo's rooms, and the Duchess paused and crossed herself as I opened it and stepped in ahead of her.
Parravicini's chambers were sparsely yet comfortably furnished; my eyes were immediately drawn to the ebony writing desk standing near the window, and I lost no time in striding over to it. Upon the blotter lay a cream-colored envelope, the single name MALEVISIA scrawled on it in a firm hand.
The Duchess reached for it--I seized her wrist: "Do not touch it! The man intended to dagger you tonight--for all we know, the paper is steeped in poison as well," I admonished, pulling a pair of thick kid gloves from my pocket; gingerly I picked up the envelope, tore it open, and extracted a sheet of paper.
"Well? Read it aloud, I beg of you!" Malevisia exclaimed as I scanned the contents...I glanced at her.
"It begins, 'If you still live, my lady, forgive an old mad fool...'"
She sobbed once, but mastered her emotions and cooly nodded at me to proceed; "'I first heard the Command in my head three months ago, after you returned home from your triumph over the Senate; KILL HER, SHE WILL NEVER LOVE YOU, the demon voice hissed in my brain, and every hour since then, I have not been free from hellish whispers...you asked me how I burned my hand, a fortnight later; the devils in my mind had compelled me to buy a bottle of vitriol, they nearly made me pour it into your bathtub--I dashed it from my left hand with my right at the last instant, which also is why the rug in your bathroom disappeared.
"'I fought every insidious command, beloved duchess, but the flesh is weak, and I am old and tired...if Varon fails, you shall feel no pain, my owl-dagger is sharp and keen--if he succeeds, I shall be free forever of the hateful voices in my head...but remain on your guard, Malevisia; the warlock who possessed me--whose name even now I am unable to write--will try again.'"
The duchess took a deep breath as I finished reading; "The Warlock in the Senate," she exhaled, her eyes narrowed.
"Only one man has that dark nickname," I frowned; "Waldemar Garoush, Count of Trimonde! Your Excellency, perhaps you should take an extended holiday, far away from the city---"
"And let him undo all my work for the poor? Let him get away with driving my most loyal servant out of his mind? Signore Varon, you will come with me at once to the Chateau Garoush--Count Waldemar has cast his last spell!"
We did not go alone, be assured--Her Excellency sent word to the Prefect of Police, who provided us with ten stout-hearted gendarmes, armed to the teeth, and a priest to bless their bullets; then we all trooped out of the city to the forbidding chateau at the edge of the cliffs overlooking the sea. The massive doors did not give way easily, but I had the foresight to bring an axe, and we chopped through the bolts and entered the monster's lair, my impetuous Duchess leading the way!
Count Waldemar stood alone in the foyer, a grim-faced, gaunt jackal of a man with frosty hair swept up in a pompadour and a black Satanic beard; he held a naked rapier in his hand, and his fathomless eyes were fixed upon us--the policemen raised their weapons, but he whispered nameless words and every man of them fell senseless to the floor as the priest fled screaming.
"Signore Varon, I thank you for bringing the lady into my power," said he with a bow; "Now, you but have to turn and walk out of my house alone, and I foresee great fortune coming to you! The Prefecture of Police will be but the first stepping stone to your illustrious career...you are a clever man, an ambitious man, even as I!"
For answer, I drew my rapier and saluted him coldly; "Perhaps not quite so clever, after all," he added with a sneer.
Malevisia grasped my sword arm: "Are you mad? He's the deadliest swordsman in the city!"
"My lady, we are not in the city," I quipped, though I could already feel my knees trembling--like a pouncing cat the count lunged at me, and the Duchess fell on her exquisite rump with a slight shriek as my blade met his with a clash! Waldemar was swift and merciless as Death itself--he had me dancing backwards, parrying his every vicious thrust and lunge with never even a chance to launch a counterattack of my own; I stumbled over one of the fallen gendarmes, and the point of his rapier nearly had me in the throat--his white bony face never changed expression as he fought, but his eyes glowed with hellish pleasure, savoring my imminent death---
Then a shot rang out, and Count Waldemar staggered, blood gushing out of his twisted mouth as one of the blessed bullets found his black heart! He fell flat on his face, twitched twice, and moved no more.
"You need to work on your swordplay, Signore Varon," smiled Duchess Malevisia, lowering the revolver she had borrowed from one of the policemen, who even now were sitting up and looking around in confusion.