The historian who would wish his lessons to sink deep into the heart, thereby essaying to render mankind virtuous and more happy, must not content himself with simply detailing a series of events—he must ascertain causes, and follow progressively their effects; he must draw deductions from incidents as they arise, and ever revert to the actuating principle.
About the latter end of the fifteenth century, on the birth-night of the young Victoria de Loredani, most of the youthful nobility of any rank in Venice were assembled at the pallazzo of her parents to do honour to the festival—the hearts of all appeared in unison with the hilarity of the scene; even the lovely and haughty Victoria smiled with an unchecked vivacity; for no fair Venetian had presumed to vie with her, either in beauty of person, or splendour of decoration. Another circumstance contributed to elevate her spirits, and render her triumph complete. Leonardo, her brother, ever haughty and turbulent in his manners, had acknowledged that she outshone every female present.
At this time the Marchese di Loredani had been married seventeen years to Laurina di Cornari, a female of unexampled beauty, and of rare and singular endowments. If she possessed a foible, it arose from vanity, from too great a thirst of admiration, and confidence in herself. At the period of her marriage with the Marchese she was scarcely fifteen, and he himself not more than twenty—it was a marriage contracted without the concurrence, without even the knowledge of respective friends, resolved on in the delirium of passion, concluded in the madness of youth! Yet, unlike the too frequent result, disgust and repentance did not follow this impetuous union; for chance and circumstances happily combined to render it propitious. Time had not yet perfected the character of Laurina: she saw beside her an husband whose ardent love appeared to suffer no diminution; no temptations crossed her path—it required, then, no effort to be virtuous; and as, in revolving years, reason approved the choice of a passion at the time undiscriminating, she gradually adored as an husband him she had thoughtlessly selected as a lover.
Two children, within two years after their marriage, had been its only fruits: from this circumstance, lavish and imprudent was the fondness bestowed by the parents upon their idolized offspring—boundless and weak was the indulgence forever shewn to them. The youthful parents little comprehended the extent of the mischief they were doing: to see their wayward children happy, their infantine and lovely faces undisfigured by tears or vexation, was a pleasure too great to be resigned, from the distant reflection of future evil possible to accrue from the indulgence. The consequence was, that Victoria, though at the age of fifteen, beautiful and accomplished as an angel, was proud, haughty, and self-sufficient—of a wild, ardent, and irrepressible spirit; indifferent to reproof, careless of censure—of an implacable, revengeful, and cruel nature, and bent upon gaining the ascendancy in whatever she engaged.
The young Leonardo, who was a year older than his sister, having been as much the victim of an injurious fondness as herself, possessed, with all the bolder shades of her character, a warm impassioned soul, yielding easily to the seductions of the wild and beautiful, accessible of temptation, and unable to resist, in any shape, the first impulses of his heart. This disposition, though it perhaps might never lead him into vice, would prevent him from repelling its inroads with the iron shield of energy: he was violent and revengeful, yet capable of sacrificing himself to a sentiment of gratitude; he had a quick impatient sense of honour—feelings noble, though impetuous, and a pride (encouraged infinitely by the Marchese) of birth and family dignity, which, sooner than by an act of meanness have disgraced, he would have perished. Thus it could not be denied, that in his ill-regulated character were some bright tints.
Such were the children whom early education had tended equally to corrupt; and such were the children, whom to preserve from future depravity, required the most vigilant care, aided by such brilliant examples of virtue and decorum as should induce the desire of emulation. Thus would have been counteracted the evils engendered by the want of steady attention to the propensities of child« hood.
Yet, with all these causes for reflection and deep regret—causes which did not strike the broad beam of conviction upon the eyes of the infatuated parents; yet were they happy; the whole city of Venice contained no pair so happy. Laurina di Loredani, still in the meridian of beauty, and still adored by an husband, though not with the fantastic delirium of a boy, yet with an enthusiastic and approved affection; the most beneficent, the noblest, and the best of human beings, was the Marchese, admired by all, yet living alone for her whom his boyish heart had worshipped: his unsuspicious and generous nature gloried in the attractions of his wife—to see her followed and admired yielded to his heart a pleasure exquisite and refined—to hers a sentiment less noble, because it centered in self-gratification, and considerations of self ever debase the heart.
At this juncture it may not be amiss for a few moments to digress, in stating, that at the period which commences this history, the Venetians were a proud, strict, and fastidious people—in no country was the pride of nobility carried to a greater extent; their manners, also, received a deep and gloomy tincture from the nature of their government, which in its character was jealous and suspicious, dooming sometimes to a public, sometimes to a private death, on mere surmise or apprehension of design against the state, and always by secret trial, its most distinguished members. This power was exercised by Il Consiglio di Dieci, or council of ten, by ordering nobles to be hung by the feet between the pillars of St. Marc, or else dispatching them more privately, that the order might not suffer in the opinion of the people, by plunging their bodies in the Orfano, or otherwise. The Venetians were fond of their mistresses, and jealous of their wives to a degree, uniting the Spanish and Italian character in its most Sublimated state of passion. To avenge an injury sustained, or supposed to be so, to atchieve a favourite point, or gratify a desire otherwise unobtainable, poison or the dagger were constantly resorted to. Sanguinary and violent by nature, climate, habit, and education, the hatred of the Venetians once excited became implacable, and endured through life.
Having thus briefly reverted to the character of a nation where the principal scenes of the following history are laid, we proceed with matter more immediately connected with it.
It was in the midst of the gay reveling in the Pallazzo di Loredani that a stranger arriving at the gates, requested admittance to the Marchese. On being told that one acquainted with his name desired to see him, the Marchese ordered immediately that the person should be admitted; when, the doors of the saloon being thrown open, a graceful figure entered, respectfully bowing, and presented to Loredani a letter from the Baron Wurmsburg, a German nobleman, and most intimate friend of his; wherein he requested of the Marchese, that he would exercise his hospitality in favour of Count Ardolph, the bearer, a German likewise, of high rank, fortune, and unblemished character. No sooner had the Marchese di Loredani perused the letter, than, with conciliating politeness, he extended his hand to the count, and led him immediately to the upper end of the saloon, where Laurina, her daughter, and the rest of the company, had assembled, that the stranger, on his entrance, might not be disconcerted or pained by fancied observation. He introduced him first to the Marchesa, and then to the company in general. There was that in the air and striking appearance of the count, which created at once a sensation of awe and admiration; his figure was noble and commanding, and in his features shone a dignity and fascination, which, while it irresistibly attracted the regards of all, flattered and delighted, if his could be attracted in return; yet, once attracted, those powerful regards overpowered by their beauty and their brilliancy those on whom they turned. Such in his personal semblance was Count Ardolph; and, as such, drew speedily around him a bright circle, of which he became the focus: every one forgetting, in the ease and gracefulness of his manners, the recentness of his introduction, while his presence diffused around a spirit, a vivacity, and an interest, of which before the assembly had seemed unconscious.
Victoria, as the young divinity of the festival, was presented to him by her beautiful and scarce less blooming mother: the eyes of the count dwelt momentarily upon her charms; he complimented her with politeness, but not with warmth, and turned immediately to the Marchesa with an air so expressive of admiration, that an insignificant observer might have remarked the difference of his regards.
At a late hour the company separated, and Count Ardolph was conducted to a splendid apartment in the Pallazzo of the Marchese.
Before we proceed, some account must be given of Count Ardolph, as to the bent of his principles and character; as to his introduction amid the ill-fated family of Loredani, may be ascribed the origin of those misfortunes which subsequently overwhelmed them.
By birth he was German: being left early in, life, from the death of an only surviving parent, to his own disposal, he quilted his native country, and visited France and England; in both places, instigated at once by inclinations naturally vicious, and the contamination of bad example, he plunged into such a stream of depravity as rendered him in a few years callous to every sentiment of honour and delicacy; but the species of crime, the dreadful and diabolical triumph which gratified his worthless heart the most, was to destroy, not the fair fame of an innocent; unsullied female—not to deceive and abandon a trusting, yielding maid—no, he loved to take higher and more destructive aim—his was the savage delight to intercept the happiness of wedded love—to wean from an adoring husband the regards of a pure and faithful wife— to blast with his baleful breath the happiness of a young and rising family—to seduce the best, the noblest affections of the heart, and to glory and to exult in the wide-spreading havoc, he had caused. Endowed with a form cast in nature's finest mould, blest, or rather cursed, with abilities to astonish and enslave, possessed of every grace and every charm that could render a man the most dangerous, or the most perfect of his sex, he employed these rare and fascinating qualities, as a demon would put on the semblance of an angel, to mislead and to betray. Yet, even of perpetual conquest the heart of man will grow weary. Ardolph, as the fury of passion or excitement of vanity became gratified and assuaged, sunk into inanity; and, despising all he had acquired, disdaining those females whose blandishments, while they had momentarily enchanted his senses, had been incapable of touching his heart, he quitted Paris, the hot-bed of his vices and profligacy, in disgust, and hoped by change of scene to give a zest to those feelings which excessive and unlimited gratification had blunted and almost destroyed. Yet, in change of scene, he had as yet failed of finding what he sought with an anxious and impatient curiosity—a woman who should be capable of inspiring his heart with continued sensation; for the proud Ardolph denied, in his mind, the possibility of the existence of such a woman. He analysed and investigated, with too contemptuous and prejudiced an eye, not to find in the sex an infinity of folly, weakness, and inconsistency. Thus it was, that having triumphed over them, he disdained his conquest, and disdained himself to have been attracted by them.
Such was the sceptical, the cruel, the dangerous Ardolph, at the period of his arrival in Venice; for which place the Baron Wurmsburg; a friend and distant relative of his family, seeing him only such as he appeared to be (for Ardolph had deigned to revisit for a short period his native land), gave him to the Marchese di Loredani an introductory letter: little suspecting the depravity of his heart, he recommended him in strong terms to the kindness and hospitality of that nobleman, building that recommendation upon the strength of an honourable friendship formerly subsisting between them.
To Venice, Ardolph had only come in search of novelty and amusement, to find, if possible, fresh scope for the gratification of his seductive and destroying talents; little expecting, however, that he should meet with aught to attract or to retain him there. We now hasten to the more circumstantial part of our history.
He had not been long an envious and ungrateful guest in the house of Loredani, ere he beheld with evil eye the happiness which reigned among them; his soul burned to disfigure the beautiful fabric of a family's happiness, and to scatter around him misery and devastation. But, to atchieve this, on whom did the malignant timid fix his regards? Not on the young, the ardent, and self-confident Victoria, but on her lovely and attractive mother!——On the wife of his hospitable unsuspecting host!—of the man who daily and hourly showered down civilities and attentions on him. It was his honour and his happiness that he sought to blight—it was his offspring whom he sought to destroy and to disgrace—it was his wife whom he sought to seduce! Such was the gratitude of man to man! and such still it continues to be!
But it so happened, that, susceptible as was Laurina to admiration, and more particularly so from a man of the high accomplishments and endowments of Count Ardolph, she still loved her husband with an undiminished love, and considered him as the god of his sex. The attention and the admiration she excited, were certainly a source of gratification to her; but then she excused herself with the belief, that it was as much on his account as on her own, and hence was a most powerful barrier opposed to the machinations of the wily Ardolph. But, unfortunately, opposition and difficulty were what he had long and ardently sought: it strung his dangerous energies anew; and while he gazed on the glowing charms of the devoted wife, and beheld with darkened eye their faithful vassalage to her husband, he vowed, even in the centre of his guilty heart, that he would conquer, or perish in the attempt.
He had now been nearly three months under the roof the Marchese, when a profound melancholy (partly occasioned by a view of happiness he had not yet destroyed, and partly by the gradual increase of sensations to which he had till now been a stranger) appeared to take entire possession of him. Whether it was the beautiful and unobtrusive virtues of Laurina, or whether it was that her high and protected situation, by enhancing the danger and boldness of his attempt, added fuel to his passion, cannot be ascertained: certain it was, women, more beautiful than the Marchesa, had been tempted, obtained, and forsaken by him; it could not, therefore, all-seducing as she was, be her person only that enslaved him; and for the beauties of mind, further than they added glory to the destruction be caused: he had little devotion. How then happened it, that on frequent occasions rushing from her presence, in a delirium of rage and passion, he discovered, and avowed to his proud heart, the ascendancy she had gained over its hitherto frigid insensibility. Sometimes, in imagination, he would reduce her in an instant to the level of these unfortunates he had betrayed and abandoned: but even so, she was still Laurina, and he felt that over her he could gain no triumph. Thus, in the maddening passion which hourly consumed him, did he experience some slight retribution for the misery he had so often caused to others.
Mean time Laurina, on remarking his increasing melancholy, had experienced sensations in her bosom which she wished not to investigate: she could not help perceiving (for so the insidious Ardolph had desired) that it was a melancholy not independent of herself. His stolen, yet purposely betrayed, ardent glances, directed towards her—his deep sighs, the tumultuousness of his frame, if by accident he touched her hand, or even any part of her dress—all, all failed not to be observed by the Marchesa, and to make its unfortunate impression; yet, had she never, even in thought, strayed from her husband—for so gradual, so unsuspected, are the first approaches of a guilty passion to the heart, that she would have started on being told she felt more for Ardolph than the interest of friendship.
It was one evening, that, straying pensively down an avenue in the garden, she suddenly encountered him; not, however, accidentally on his side, who was forming, unconsciously to herself, a portion of her thoughts: he appeared before her, pale, haggard, and with an expression of wretchedness on his countenance deeper than any he had yet worn. Involuntarily she stopped; and, looking with kindness in his face, asked, in a soothing voice, if he were ill. An enquiry into the cause of his complaint was all he had anxiously desired, but had not yet ventured to expect: thrown for once, however, off his guard, no longer master of his violent emotions, he threw himself at her feet, and acknowledged, in hurried accents, the passion with which she had filled up his heart. Confounded, bewildered, and overcome, the trembling Laurina knew not how to fly; yet to remain an instant after an avowal so base, would, she felt, be infamous, and participating in its guilt. She made an agitated attempt to disengage herself from the Count, who on his knees grasped wildly between his hands one of her's. But in admitting to her thoughts, even for an instant, any other man than her husband—in listening for an instant to an acknowledgment of the passion with which she had inspired him, the unhappy Laurina had advanced one step in the path of vice, and to recede required an energy and resolution almost incompatible with the weakness of which she had been already guilty!—At length, inspired with sudden resolution, touched, as it were, by a keen sense of the impropriety of her situation, she snatched her hand from the deluding Ardolph, and, flying from his presence, sought, in the solitude of her chamber, vent to her emotions.
There, sunk in shame, and absorbed in retrospection, she dared not analyse the feelings excited in her bosom: a thousand times did she wish that Count Ardolph had never entered the Pallazzo Loredani; but the reigning, the only foible of her nature, whispered to her the brilliant triumph of captivating such an heart as his, whose every smile, whose every look, seemed a condescension from the superiority of his nature.
Oh! self-love!—dangerous and resistless flatterer!—thou immolatest at thy shrine more victims than all the artifices of man!
Earnestly did Laurina desire to be virtuous, earnestly did she pray for fortitude to preserve her from the power of temptation; but she had not strength to fly from it, and in that alone her safety would have consisted. Her mind became tom with conflicting sentiments; her reason, her gratitude, the secret and powerful ties of early habit, taught her to adore her husband; but the insidious Ardolph daily led her senses wandering, and corrupted the purity of her heart. In his company she became thoughtful and embarrassed; in his absence, restless and unhappy. The cruel Ardolph perceived his advantage, and pursued it: like a keen blood-hound he hunted the wretched victim of his pursuit, even to the brink of destruction—no friendly hand extended to save her, no guardian angel hovered nigh; and, ere she knew the extent of her danger, she was far beyond the reach of preservation.