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The Master-christian by Marie Corelli

IV. As the terrors of imagined suffering are always worse than actual painà

As the terrors of imagined suffering are always worse than actual pain, so dreams are frequently more vivid than the reality of life,- -that is we are sure that life is indeed reality, and not itself a dream within a dream. Cardinal Bonpre's sleep was not often disturbed by affrighting visions, -- his methods of daily living were too healthy and simple, and his conscience too clear; -- but on this particular night he was visited by an impression rather than a dream, -- the impression of a lonely, and terrifying dreariness, as though the whole world were suddenly emptied of life and left like a hollow shell on the shores of time. Gradually this first sense of utter and unspeakable loss changed into a startled consciousness of fear; -- some awful transformation of things familiar was about to be consummated; -- and he felt the distinct approach of some unnameable Horror which was about to convulse and overwhelm all mankind. Then in his dream, a great mist rose up before his eyes, -- a mingling as of sea-fog and sun-flame, -- and as this in turn slowly cleared, -- dispersing itself in serpentine coils of golden-grey vapour, -- he found himself standing on the edge of a vast sea, glittering in a light that was neither of earth nor of heaven, but that seemed to be the inward reflection of millions of flashing sword blades. And as he stood gazing across the width of the waters, the sky above him grew black, and a huge ring of fire rose out of the east, instead of the beloved and familiar sun, -- fire that spread itself in belching torrents of flame upward and downward, and began to absorb in its devouring heat the very sea. Then came a sound of many thunders, mingled with the roar of rising waters and the turbulence of a great whirlwind, -- and out of the whirlwind came a Voice saying -- |Now is the end of all things on the earth, -- and the whole world shall be burnt up as a dead leaf in a sudden flame! And we will create from out its ashes new heavens and a new earth, and we will call forth new beings wherewith to people the fairness of our fresh creation, -- for the present generation of mankind hath rejected God, -- and God henceforth rejecteth His faithless and unworthy creatures! Wherefore let now this one dim light amid the thousand million brighter lights be quenched, -- let the planet known to all angels as the Sorrowful Star fall from its sphere forever, -- let the Sun that hath given it warmth and nourishment be now its chief Destroyer, and let everything that hath life within it, perish utterly and revive no more!|

And Cardinal Felix heard these words of doom. Powerless to move or speak, he stood watching the terrible circle of fire, extend and expand, till all the visible universe seemed melting in one red furnace of flame; -- and in himself he felt no hope, -- no chance of rescue; -- in himself he knew that the appalling work of destruction was being accomplished with a deadly swiftness that left no time for lamentation, -- that the nations of the world were as flying straws swept into the burning, without space or moment for a parting prayer or groan. Tortured by an excruciating agony too great for tears, he suddenly found voice, and lifting his face towards the lurid sky he cried aloud --

|God of Eternity, stay Thy hand! For one remaining Cause be merciful! Doom not Thy creature Man to utter destruction! -- but still remember that Thou wast born even as he! As helpless, as wronged, as tempted, as betrayed, as suffering, as prone to pain and death! Thou hast lived his life and endured his sorrows, though in the perfect glory of Thy Godhead Thou hast not sinned! Have patience yet, oh Thou great Splendour of all worlds! Have patience yet, Thou outraged and blasphemed Creator! Break once again Thy silence as of old and speak to us! -- pity us once again ere Thou slay us utterly, -- come to us even as Thou earnest in Judaea, and surely we will receive Thee and obey Thee, and reject Thy love no more!|

As he thus prayed he was seized with a paralysing fear, -- for suddenly the red and glowing chaos of fire above him changed into soft skies tinged with the exquisite pearl-grey hues of twilight, and he became conscious of the approach of a great invisible Presence, whose awful unseen beauty overwhelmed him with its sublimity and majesty, causing him to forget altogether that he himself existed. And Someone spoke, -- in grave sweet accents, so soft and close to him that the words seemed almost whispered in his ears, --

|Thy prayer is heard, -- and once again the silence shall be broken. Nevertheless remember that 'the light shineth in darkness and the darkness comprehendeth it not'.|

Deep silence followed. The mysterious Presence melted as it were into space, -- and the Cardinal awoke, trembling violently and bathed in a cold perspiration. He gazed bewilderedly around him, his mind still confused and dazzled by the strong visionary impression of the burning heavens and sea, -- and he could not for a moment realize where he was. Then, after a while, he recognised the humble furniture of the room he occupied, and through the diamond-shaped panes of the little lattice window, perceived the towers of Notre Dame, now gleaming with a kind of rusty silver in the broader radiance of the fully uplifted moon.

|It was a dream,| he murmured, -- |A dream of the end of the world!| He shuddered a little as he thought of the doom pronounced upon the earth, -- the planet |known to all angels as the Sorrowful Star| -- |Let the Sun that hath given it warmth and nourishment be now its chief Destroyer.|

According to modern scientists, such was indeed the precise way in which the world was destined to come to an end. And could anything be more terrifying than the thought that the glorious Orb, the maker of day and generator of all beauty, should be destined to hurl from its shining centre death and destruction upon the planet it had from creation vivified and warmed! The Vision had shown the devastating ring of fire rising from that very quarter of the heavens where the sun should have been radiantly beaming, -- and as Felix Bonpre dwelt upon the picture in his mind, and remembered his own wild prayer to the Eternal, a great uneasiness and dread overwhelmed him.

|God's laws can never be altered;| he said aloud -- |Every evil deed brings its own punishment; and if the world's wickedness becomes too great an offence in the eyes of the Almighty, it follows that the world must be destroyed. What am I that I should pray against Divine Justice! For truly we have had our chance of rescue and salvation; -- the Way, -- the Truth, -- and the Life have been given to us through Christ our Redeemer; and if we reject Him, we reject all, and we have but ourselves to blame.|

At that moment a plaintive wailing, as of some human creature in distress broke on his ears through the deep silence of the night. He listened attentively, and the sorrowful sound was repeated, -- a desolate yet gentle cry as of some sick and suffering child. Moved by a sudden impulse the Cardinal rose, and going to the window looked anxiously out, and down into the street below. Not a living creature was to be seen. The moonlight spread itself in a vast silver glory over the whole width of the square, and the delicate sculpture of the great rose-window of the Cathedral, centrally suspended between the two tall towers, looked in the fine pale radiance like a giant spider's web sparkling with fairy dew. Again -- again! -- that weary sobbing cry! It went to the Cardinal's heart, and stirred him to singular pain and pity.

|Surely it is some lost or starving creature,| he said -- |Some poor soul seeking comfort in a comfortless world.| Hastily throwing on his garments he left his room, treading cautiously in order not to disturb the sleeping household, -- and feeling his way down the short, dark staircase, he easily reached the door and passed noiselessly out into the square. Walking a few steps hurriedly he paused, once more listening. The night was intensely calm; -- not a cloud crossed the star-spangled violet dome of air wherein the moon soared serenely, bathing all visible things in a crystalline brilliancy so pure and penetrative, that the finest cuttings on the gigantic grey facade of Notre Dame could be discerned and outlined as distinctly as though every little portion were seen through a magnifying glass. The Cardinal's tall attenuated figure, standing alone and almost in the centre of the square, cast a long thin black shadow on the glistening grey stones, -- and his dream-impression of an empty world came back forcibly upon him, -- a world as empty as a hollow shell! Houses there were around him, and streets, and a noble edifice consecrated to the worship of God, -- nevertheless there was a sense of absolute desertion in and through all. Was not the Cathedral itself the mere husk of a religion? The seed had dropped out and sunk into the soil, -- |among thorns| and |stony places| indeed, -- and some |by the wayside| to be devoured by birds of prey. Darker and heavier grew the cloud of depression on the Cardinal's soul, -- and more and more passionate became the protest which had for a long time been clamouring in him for utterance, -- the protest of a Churchman against the Church he served! It was terrible, -- and to a |prince of the Roman Church| hideous and unnatural; nevertheless the protest existed, and it had in some unaccountable way grown to be more a part of him than he himself realized.

|The world is empty because God is leaving it,| he said, sorrowfully raising his eyes to the tranquil heavens, -- |and the joy of existence is departing because the Divine and Holy Spirit of things is being withdrawn!|

He moved on a few paces, -- and once more through the deep stillness the little sobbing cry of sorrow was wafted tremulously to his ears. It came or seemed to come from the Cathedral, and quickening his steps he went thither. The deeply hollowed portal, full of black shadows, at first showed nothing but its own massively sculptured outlines -- then -- all at once the Cardinal perceived standing within the embrasured darkness, the slight shrinking figure of a child. A boy's desolate little figure, -- with uplifted hands clasped appealingly and laid against the shut Cathedral door, and face hidden and pressed hard upon those hands, as though in mute and inconsolable despair. As the Cardinal softly drew nearer, a long shuddering sigh from the solitary little creature moved his heart anew to pity, and speaking in accents of the utmost gentleness he said --

|My poor child, what troubles you? Why are you here all alone, and weeping at this late hour? Have you no home? -- no parents?|

Slowly the boy turned round, still resting his small delicate hands against the oaken door of the Cathedral, and with the tears yet wet upon his cheeks, smiled. What a sad face he had! -- worn and weary, yet beautiful! -- what eyes, heavy with the dews of sorrow, yet tender even in pain! Startled by the mingled purity and grief of so young a countenance, the Cardinal retreated for a moment in amaze, -- then approaching more closely he repeated his former question with increased interest and tenderness --

|Why are you weeping here alone?|

|Because I am left alone to weep,| said the boy, answering in a soft voice of vibrating and musical melancholy -- |For me, the world is empty.|

An empty world! His dream-impression of universal desolation and desertion came suddenly back upon the prelate's mind, and a sudden trembling seized him, though he could discover in himself no cause for fear. Anxiously he surveyed the strange and solitary little wayfarer on the threshold of the Cathedral, and while he thus looked, the boy said wistfully --

|I should have rested here within, but it is closed against me.|

|The doors are always locked at night, my child,| returned the Cardinal, recovering from his momentary stupor and bewilderment, |But I can give you shelter. Will you come with me?|

With a half-questioning, half-smiling look of grateful wonder, the boy withdrew his hands from their uplifted, supplicating and almost protesting attitude against the locked Cathedral-door, and moving out of the porch shadows into the wide glory of the moonlight, he confronted his interlocutor --

|Will I come with you?| he said -- |Nay, but I see you are a Cardinal of the Church, and it is I should ask 'will you receive me?' You do not know who I am -- nor where I came from, and I, alas! may not tell you! I am alone; all -- all alone, -- for no one knows me in the world,- -I am quite poor and friendless, and have nothing where -- with to pay you for your kindly shelter -- I can only bless you!|

Very simply, very gravely the young boy spoke these words, his delicate head uplifted, his face shining in the moon-rays, and his slight, childish form erect with a grace which was not born of pride so much as of endurance, and again the Cardinal trembled, though he knew not why. Yet in his very agitation, the desire he had to persuade the tired child to go with him grew stronger and overmastered every other feeling.

|Come then,| he said, smiling and extending his hand, |Come, and you shall sleep in my room for the remainder of the night, and to-morrow we will talk of the future. At present you need repose.|

The boy smiled gratefully but said nothing, and the Cardinal, satisfied with the mere look of assent walked with his foundling across the square and into the Hotel Poitiers. Arrived at his own bed-room, he smoothed his couch and settled the pillows carefully with active zeal and tenderness. The boy stood silently, looking on.

|Sleep now, my child,| said the Cardinal, -- |and forget all your troubles. Lie down here; no one will disturb you till the morning.|

|But you, my lord Cardinal,| said the boy -- |Are you depriving yourself of comfort in order to give it to me? This is not the way of the world!|

|It is MY way,| said the Cardinal cheerfully, -- |And if the world has been unkind to you, my boy, still take courage, -- it will not always be unjust! Do not trouble yourself concerning me; I shall sleep well on the sofa in the next room -- indeed, I shall sleep all the better for knowing that your tears have ceased, and that for the present at least you are safely sheltered.|

With a sudden quick movement the boy advanced and caught the Cardinal's hands caressingly in his own.

|Oh, are you sure you understand?| he said, his voice growing singularly sweet and almost tender as he spoke -- |Are you sure that it is well for you to shelter me? -- I -- a stranger, -- poor, and with no one to speak for me? How do you know what I may be? Shall I not perhaps prove ungrateful and wrong your kindness?|

His worn little face upturned, shone in the dingy little room with a sudden brightness such as one might imagine would illumine the features of an angel, and Felix Bonpre looked down upon him half fascinated, in mingled pity and wonder.

|Such results are with God, my child,| he said gently -- |I do not seek your gratitude. It is certainly well for me that I should shelter you, -- it would be ill indeed if I permitted any living creature to suffer for lack of what I could give. Rest here in peace, and remember it is for my own pleasure as well as for your good that I desire you to sleep well.|

|And you do not even ask my name?| said the boy, half smiling and still raising his sorrowful deep blue eyes to the Cardinal's face.

|You will tell me that when you please,| said Felix, laying one hand upon the soft curls that clustered over his foundling's forehead -- |I am in no wise curious. It is enough for me to know that you are a child and alone in the world, -- such sorrow makes me your servant.|

Gently the boy loosened his clasp of the Cardinal's hands.

|Then I have found a friend!| he said, -- |That is very strange!| He paused, and the smile that had once before brightened his countenance shone again like a veritable flash of sunlight -- |You have the right to know my name, and if you choose, to call me by it, -- it is Manuel.|

|Manuel!| echoed the Cardinal -- |No more than that?|

|No more than that,| replied the boy gravely -- |I am one of the world's waifs and strays, -- one name suffices me.|

There followed a brief pause, in which the old man and the child looked at each other full and steadfastly, and once again an inexplicable nervous trembling seized the Cardinal. Overcoming this with an effort, he said softly, --

|Then -- Manuel! -- good night! Sleep -- and Our Lady's blessing be upon you!|

Signing the cross in air he retired, carefully shutting the door and leaving his new-found charge to rest. When he was once by himself in the next room, however, he made no attempt to sleep, -- he merely drew a chair to the window and sat down, full of thoughts which utterly absorbed him. There was nothing unusual, surely, in his finding a small lost boy and giving him a night's lodging? -- then why was he so affected by it? He could not tell. He fully realized that the plaintive beauty of the child had its share in the powerful attraction he felt, -- but there was something else in the nature of his emotion which he found it impossible to define. It was as though some great blankness in his life had been suddenly filled; -- as if the boy whom he had found solitary and weeping within the porch of the Cathedral of Notre Dame, belonged to him in some mysterious way and was linked to his life so closely and completely as to make parting impossible. But what a fantastic notion! Viewed by the light of calm reason, there was nothing in the occurrence to give rise to any such sentiment. Here was a poor little wayfarer, evidently without parents, home, or friends, -- and the Cardinal had given him a night's lodging, and to-morrow -- yes, to-morrow, he would give him food and warm clothing and money, -- and perhaps a recommendation to the Archbishop in order that he might get a chance of free education and employment in Rouen, while proper enquiries were being made about him. That was the soberly prosaic and commonplace view to take of the matter. The personality of the little fellow was intensely winning, -- but after all, that had nothing to do with the facts of the case. He was a waif and stray, as he himself had said; his name, so far as he seemed to know it, was Manuel, -- an ordinary name enough in France, -- and his age might be about twelve, -- not more. Something could be done for him, -- something SHOULD be done for him before the Cardinal parted with him. But this idea of |parting| was just what seemed so difficult to contemplate! Puzzled beyond measure at the strange state of mind in which he found himself, Felix Bonpre went over and over again all the events of the day in order, -- his arrival in Rouen, -- his visit to the Cathedral, and the grand music he had heard or fancied he heard there, -- his experience with the sceptical little Patoux children and their mother, -- his conversation with the Archbishop, in which he had felt much more excitement than he was willing to admit, -- his dream wherein he had been so painfully impressed with a sense of the desertion, emptiness, and end of the world, and finally his discovery of the little lonely and apparently forsaken boy, thrown despairingly as it were against the closed Cathedral, like a frail human wreck cast up from the gulf of the devouring sea. Each incident, trivial in itself, yet seemed of particular importance, though he could not explain or analyse why it should be so. Meditatively he sat and watched the moon sink like a silver bubble falling downward in the dark, -- the stars vanished one by one, -- and a faint brown-gold line of suggestive light in the east began the slow creation of a yet invisible dawn. Presently, yielding to a vague impulse of inexplicable tenderness, he rose softly and went to the threshold of the room where his foundling slept. Holding his breath, he listened -- but there was no sound. Very cautiously and noiselessly he opened the door, and looked in, -- a delicate half- light came through the latticed window and seemed to concentrate itself on the bed where the tired wanderer lay. His fine youthful profile was distinctly outlined, -- the soft bright hair clustered like a halo round his broad brows, -- and the two small hands were crossed upon his breast, while in his sleep he smiled. Always touched by the beauty, innocence and helplessness of childhood, something in the aspect of this little lad moved the venerable prelate's heart to an unwonted emotion, -- and looking upon him, he prayed for guidance as to what he should best do to rescue so gentle and young a creature from the cruelties of the world.

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