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Sermon Podcast | Audio | Video : Christian Books : IX. Low beetling brows, -- a sensual, cruel mouth with a loosely projecting under-lipà

The Master-christian by Marie Corelli

IX. Low beetling brows, -- a sensual, cruel mouth with a loosely projecting under-lipà

Low beetling brows, -- a sensual, cruel mouth with a loosely projecting under-lip, -- eyes that appeared to be furtively watching each other across the thin bridge of nose, -- a receding chin and a narrow cranium, combined with an expression which was hypocritically humble, yet sly, -- this was the type Angela Sovrani had chosen to delineate, sparing nothing, softening no line, and introducing no redeeming point, -- a type mercilessly true to the life; the face of a priest, -- |A servant of Christ,| as she called him. The title, united with that wicked and repulsive countenance, was a terribly significant suggestion. For some minutes no one spoke, -- and the Cardinal was the first to break the silence.

|Angela, -- my dear child| -- he said, in low, strained tones, |I am sorry you have done this! It is powerful -- so powerful that it is painful as well. It cuts me to the heart that you should find it necessary to select such an example of the priesthood, though of course I am not in the secret of your aims -- I do not understand your purpose . . .|

He broke off, -- and Angela, who had stood silent, looking as though she were lost in a dream, took up his unfinished sentence.

|You do not understand my purpose? -- Dearest uncle, I hardly understand it myself! Some force stronger than I am, is urging me to paint the picture I have begun, -- some influence more ardent and eager than my own, burns like a fever in me, persuading me to complete the design. You blame me for choosing such an evil type of priest? But there is no question of choice! These faces are ordinary among our priests. At all the churches, Sunday after Sunday I have looked for a good, a noble face; -- in vain! For an even commonly- honest face, -- in vain! And my useless search has ended by impressing me with profound sorrow and disgust that so many low specimens of human intellect are selected as servants of our Lord. Do not judge me too severely! I feel that I have a work to do, -- and a lesson to give in the work, when done. I may fail; -- I may be told that as a woman I have no force, and no ability to make any powerful or lasting impression on this generation; -- but at any rate I feel that I must try! If priests of the Church were like you, how different it would all be! But you always forget that you are an exception to the rule, -- you do not realise how very exceptional you are! I told you before I showed you this sketch that you would probably disapprove of it and condemn me, -- but I really cannot help it. In this matter nothing -- not even the ban of the Church itself, can deter me from fulfilling what I have designed to do in my own soul!|

She spoke passionately and with ardour, -- and the Cardinal looked at her with something of surprise and trouble. The fire of genius is as he knew, a consuming one, -- and he had never entirely realized how completely it filled and dominated this slight feminine creature for whom he felt an almost paternal tenderness. Before he could answer her the Abbe Vergniaud spoke.

|Donna Sovrani is faithful to the truth in her sketch,| he said, |therefore, as a lover of truth I do not see, my dear Bonpre, why you should object! If she has, -- as she says, -- some great aim in view, she must fulfil it in her own way. I quite agree with her in her estimate of the French priests, -- they are for the most part despicable-looking persons, -- only just a grade higher than their brothers of Italy and Spain. But what would you have? The iron hand of Rome holds them back from progress, -- they are speaking and acting lies; and like the stagemimes, have to put on paint and powder to make the lies go down. But when the paint and powder come off, the religious mime is often as ill-looking as the stage one! Donna Sovrani has caught this particular example, before he has had time to put on holy airs and turn up the footlights. What do you think about it, Mr. Leigh?|

|I think, as I have always thought,| said Leigh quietly, |that Donna Sovrani is an inspired artist, -- and that being inspired it follows that she must carry out her own convictions whether they suit the taste of others or not. 'A Servant of Christ' is a painful truth, boldly declared.|

Angela was unmoved by the compliment implied. She only glanced wistfully at the Cardinal, who still sat silent. Then without a word she withdrew the offending sketch from the easel and set another in its place.

|This,| she said gently, |is the portrait of an Archbishop. I need not name his diocese. He is very wealthy, and excessively selfish. I call this, 'LORD, I THANK THEE THAT I AM NOT AS OTHER MEN'.|

Vergniaud laughed as he looked, -- he knew the pictured dignitary well. The smooth countenance, the little eyes comfortably sunken in small rolls of fat, the smug smiling lips, the gross neck and heavy jaw, -- marks of high feeding and prosperous living, -- and above all the perfectly self-satisfied and mock-pious air of the man, -- these points were given with the firm touch of a master's brush, and the Abbe, after studying the picture closely, turned to Angela with a light yet deferential bow.

|Chere Sovrani, you are stronger than ever! Surely you have improved much since you were last in Paris? Your strokes are firmer, your grasp is bolder. Have your French confreres seen your work this year?|

|No,| replied Angela, |I am resolved they shall see nothing till my picture is finished.|

|May one ask why?|

A flash of disdain passed over the girl's face.

|For a very simple reason! They take my ideas and use them, -- and then, when my work is produced they say it is I who have copied from THEM, and that women have no imagination! I have been cheated once or twice in that way, -- this time no one has any idea what I am doing.|

|No one? Not even Signer Varillo?|

|No,| said Angela, smiling a little, |Not even Signor Varillo. I want to surprise him.|

|In what way?| asked the Cardinal, rousing himself from his pensive reverie.

Angela blushed.

|By proving that perhaps, after all, a woman can do a great thing in art, -- a really great thing!| she said, |Designed greatly, and greatly executed.|

|Does he not admit that, knowing you?| asked Aubrey Leigh suggestively.

|Oh, he is most kind and sympathetic to me in my work,| explained Angela quickly, vexed to think that she had perhaps implied some little point that was not quite in her beloved one's favour. |But he is like most men, -- they have a preconceived idea of women, and of what their place should be in the world -- |

|Unchanged since the early phases of civilization, when women were something less valuable than cattle?| said Leigh smiling.

|Oh, the cattle idea is not exploded, by any means!| put in Vergniaud. |In Germany and Switzerland, for example, look at the women who are ground down to toil and hardship there! The cows are infinitely prettier and more preferable, and lead much pleasanter lives. And the men for whom these poor wretched women work, lounge about in cafes all day, smoking and playing dominoes. The barbaric arrangement that a woman should be a man's drudge and chattel is quite satisfactory, I think, to the majority of our sex. It is certainly an odd condition of things that the mothers of men should suffer most from man's cruelty. But it is the work of an all-wise Providence, no doubt; and you, Mr. Leigh, will swear that it is all right!|

|It is all right,| said Leigh quietly, |or rather I should say, it WILL be all right, -- and it would have been all right long ago, if we had, as Emerson puts it, 'accepted the hint of each new experience.' But that is precisely what we will not do. Woman is the true helpmate of man, and takes a natural joy in being so whenever we will allow it, -- whenever we will give her scope for her actions, freedom for her intelligence, and trust for her instincts. But for the present many of us still prefer to play savage, -- the complete savage in low life, -- the civilized savage in high. The complete savage is found in the dockyard labourer, who makes a woman bear his children and then kicks her to death, -- the savage in high life is the man who equally kills the mother of his children, but in another way, namely, by neglect and infidelity, while he treats his numerous mistresses just as the Turk treats the creatures of his harem -- merely as so many pretty soft animals, requiring to be fed with sweets and ornamented with jewels, and then to be cast aside when done with. All pure savagery! But we are slowly evolving from it into something better. A few of us there are, who honour womanhood,- -a few of us believe in women as guiding stars in our troubled sky,- -a few of us would work and climb to greatness for love of the one woman we adore, -- would conquer all obstacles, -- ay, would die for her if need be, of what is far more difficult, would live for her the life of a hero and martyr! Yes -- such things are done, -- and men can be found who will do such things -- all for a woman's sake.|

There was a wonderful passion in his voice, -- a deep thrill of earnestness which carried conviction with sweetness. Cardinal Bonpre looked at him with a smile.

|You are perhaps one of those men, Mr. Leigh?| he said.

|I do not know, -- I may be,| responded Leigh, a flush rising to his cheeks; -- |but, -- so far, no woman has ever truly loved me, save my mother. But apart from all personalities, I am a great believer in women. The love of a good woman is a most powerful lever to raise man to greatness, -- I do not mean by 'good' the goody-goody creature, -- no, for that is a sort of woman who does more mischief in her so-called 'blameless' life than a very Delilah. I mean by 'good', a strong, pure, great soul in woman, -- sincere, faithful, patient, full of courage and calm, -- and with this I maintain she must prove a truly God-given helpmate to man. For we are rough creatures at best, -- irritable creatures too! -- you see,| and here a slight smile lighted up his delicate features, |we really do try more or less to reach heights that are beyond us -- we are always fighting for a heaven of some sort, whether we make it of gold, or politics, or art; -- it is a 'heaven' or a 'happiness' that we want; -- we would be as gods, -- we would scale Olympus, -- and sometimes Olympus refuses to be scaled! And then we tumble down, very cross, very sore, very much ruffled; -- and it is only a woman who can comfort us then, and by her love and tenderness mend our broken limbs and put salve on our wounded pride.|

|Well, then, surely the Church is in a very bad way,| said Vergniaud smiling, |Think of the vow of perpetual celibacy!|

|Celibacy cannot do away with woman's help or influence,| said Leigh, |There are always mothers and sisters, instead of sweethearts and wives. I am in favour of celibacy for the clergy. I think a minister of Christ should be free to work for and serve Christ only.|

|You are quite right, Mr. Leigh;| said the Cardinal, |There is more than enough to do in every day of our lives if we desire to truly follow His commands. But in this present time, alas! -- religion is becoming a question of form -- not of heart.|

|Dearest uncle, if you think that, you will not judge me too severely for my pictures,| said Angela quickly, throwing herself on her knees beside him. |Do you not see? It is just because the ministers of Christ are so lax that I have taken to studying them in my way, -- which is, I know, not your way; -- still, I think we both mean one and the same thing!|

|You are a woman, Angela,| said the Cardinal gently, |and as a woman you must be careful of offences -- |

|Oh, a woman!| exclaimed Angela, her beautiful eyes flashing with mingled tenderness and scorn, and her whole face lighting up with animation, |Only a woman! SHE must not give a grand lesson to the world! SHE must not, by means of brush or pen, point out to a corrupt generation the way it is going! Why? Because God has created her to be the helpmate of man! Excellent reason! Man is taking a direct straight road to destruction, and she must not stop him by so much as lifting a warning finger! Again, why? Only because she is a woman! But I -- were I twenty times a woman, twenty times weaker than I am, and hampered by every sort of convention and usage, -- I would express my thoughts somehow, or die in the attempt!|

|BRAVISSIMA!| exclaimed Vergniaud, |Well said, chere Sovrani! -- Well said! But I am the mocking demon always, as you know -- and I should almost be tempted to say that you WILL die in the attempt! I do not mean that you will die physically, -- no, you will probably live to a good old age; people who suffer always do! -- but you will die in the allegorical sense. You will grow the stigmata of the Saviour in your hands and feet -- you will bear terrible marks of the nails hammered into your flesh by your dearest friends! You will have to wear a crown of thorns, set on your brows no doubt by those whom you most love . . . and the vinegar and gall will be very quickly mixed and offered to you by the whole world of criticism without a moment's hesitation! And will probably have to endure your agony alone, -- as nearly everyone runs away from a declared Truth, orif they pause at all, it is only to spit upon it and call it a Lie!|

|Do not prophesy so cruel a fate for the child!| said the Cardinal tenderly, taking Angela's hand and drawing her towards him. |She has a great gift, -- I am sure she will use it greatly. And true greatness is always acknowledged in the end.|

|Yes, when the author or the artist has been in the grave for a hundred years or more;| said Vergniaud incorrigibly. |I am not sure that it would not be better for Donna Sovrani's happiness to marry the amiable Florian Varillo at once rather than paint her great picture! Do you not agree with me, Mr. Leigh?|

Leigh was turning over an old volume of prints in a desultory and abstracted fashion, but on being addressed, looked up quickly.

|I would rather not presume to give an opinion,| he said somewhat coldly, |It is only on the rarest occasions that a woman's life is balanced between love and fame, -- and the two gifts are seldom bestowed together. She generally has to choose between them. If she accepts love she is often compelled to forego fame, because she merges herself too closely into the existence of another to stand by her own individuality. If on the other hand, she chooses fame, men are generally afraid of or jealous of her, and leave her to herself. Donna Sovrani, however, is a fortunate exception, -- she has secured both fame -- and love.|

He hesitated a moment before saying the last words, and his brows contracted a little. But Angela did not see the slight cloud of vexation that darkened his eyes, -- his words pleased her, and she smiled.

|Ah, Mr. Leigh sees how it is with me!| she said, |He knows what good cause I have to be happy and to do the best work that is in me! It is all to make Florian proud of me! -- and he IS proud -- and he will be prouder! You must just see this one more sketch taken from life,- -it is the head of one of our most noted surgeons, -- I call it for the present 'A Vivisectionist'.|

It was a wonderful study, -- perhaps the strongest of the three she had shown. It was the portrait of a thin, fine, intellectual face, which in its every line suggested an intense, and almost dreadful curiosity. The brows were high, yet narrow, -- the eyes clear and cold, and pitiless in their straight regard, -- the lips thin and compressed, -- the nose delicate, with thin open nostrils, like those of a trained sleuth-hound on the scent of blood. It was a three- quarter-length picture, showing the hand of the man slightly raised, and holding a surgeon's knife, -- a wonderful hand, rather small, with fingers that are generally termed |artistic| -- and a firm wrist, which Angela had worked at patiently, carefully delineating the practised muscles employed and developed in the vivisectiomst's ghastly business.

Aubrey Leigh stood contemplating it intently.

|I think it is really the finest of all the types,| he said presently, |One can grasp that man's character so thoroughly! There is no pity in him, -- no sentiment -- there is merely an insatiable avidity to break open the great treasure-house of Life by fair means or foul! It is very terrible -- but very powerful.|

|I know the man,| said Abbe Vergniaud, |Did he sit to you willingly?|

|Very willingly indeed!| replied Angela, |He was quite amused when I told him frankly that I wanted him as a type of educated and refined cruelty.|

|Oh, these fellows see nothing reprehensible in their work,| said Leigh, |And such things go on among them as make the strongest man sick to think of! I know of two cases now in a hospital; the patients are incurable, but the surgeons have given them hope of recovery through an 'operation' which, however, in their cases, will be no 'operation' at all, but simply vivisection. The poor creatures have to die anyhow, it is true, but death might come to them less terribly, -- the surgeons, however, will 'operate', and kill them a little more quickly, in order to grasp certain unknown technicalities of their disease.|

Angela looked at him with wide-open eyes of pain and amazement.

|Horrible!| she murmured, |Absolutely horrible! Can nothing be done to interfere with, or to stop such cruelty?|

|Nothing, I fear,| said Leigh, |I have been abroad some time, studying various 'phases', of its so-called intellectual and scientific life, and have found many of these phases nothing but an output of masked barbarity. The savages of Thibet are more pitiful than the French or Italian vivisectionist, -- and the horrors that go on in the laboratories would not be believed if they were told. Would not be believed! They would be flatly denied, even by the men who are engaged in them! And were I to write a plain statement of what I know to be true, and send it to an English journal, it would not be put in, not even in support of the Anti-Vivisection Society, lest it might 'offend' the foreign schools of surgery, and also perhaps lest English schools might prove not altogether free from similar crimes. If, however, by chance, such a statement were published, it would be met with an indignant chorus of denial from every quarter of accusation! How, then, can justice be obtained from what I call the New Inquisition? The old-time Inquisitors tortured their kind for Religion's sake, -- the modern ones do it in the name of Science, -- but the inhumanity, the callousness, the inborn savage love of cruelty -- are all the same in both instances.|

Cardinal Bonpre shuddered as he heard.

|Lord Christ, where art thou!| he thought, |Where is Thy spirit of unfailing tenderness and care? How is Thy command of 'love one another' obeyed!| Aloud he said, |Surely such deeds, even in the cause of surgical science, ought not to be permitted in a Christian city?|

|Christian city!| and Vergniaud laughed, |You would not apply that designation to Paris, would you? Paris is hopelessly, riotously pagan; -- nay, not even pagan, for the pagans had gods and Paris has none! Neither Jove -- nor Jupiter -- nor Jehovah! As for the Christ, -- He is made the subject of many a public caricature, -- yes! -- you may see them in the side-streets pasted upon the walls and hoardings! -- and also of many a low lampoon; -- but He is not accepted as a Teacher, nor even as an Example. His reign is over, in Paris at least!|

|Stop!| said the Cardinal, rising suddenly, |I forbid you, Vergniaud, to tell me these things! If they are true, then shame upon you and upon all the clergy of this unhappy city to stand by and let such disgrace to yourselves, and blasphemy to our Master, exist without protest!|

His tall spare figure assumed a commanding grandeur and authority, -- his pale face flushed and his eyes sparkled -- he looked inspired -- superb -- a very apostle burning with righteous indignation. His words seemed to have the effect of an electric shock on the Abbe, -- he started as though stung by the lash of a whip, and drew himself up haughtily . . . then meeting the Cardinal's straight glance, his head drooped, and he stood mute and rigid. Leigh, though conscious of embarrassment as the witness of a strong reproof administered by one dignitary of the Church to another, yet felt deeply interested in the scene, -- Angela shrank back trembling, -- and for a few moments which, though so brief, seemed painfully long, there was a dead silence. Then Verginaud spoke in low stifled accents.

|You are perfectly right, Monseigneur! It IS shame to me! -- and to the priesthood of France! I am no worse than the rest of my class, -- but I am certainly no better! Your reproach is grand, -- and just! I accept it, and ask your pardon!|

He bent one knee, touched the Cardinal's ring with his lips, and then without another word turned and left the room. The Cardinal gazed after his retreating figure like a man in a dream, then he said gently,

|Angela, go after him! -- Call him back! -- |

But it was too late. Vergniaud had left the house before Angela could overtake him. She came back hurriedly to say so, with a pale face and troubled look. Her uncle patted her kindly on the shoulder.

|Well, well! -- It will not hurt him to have seen me angry,| he said smiling, |Anger in a just cause is permitted. I seem to have frightened you, Angela? Of a truth I have rather frightened myself! There, we will not talk any more of the evils of Paris. Mr. Leigh perhaps thinks me an intolerant Christian?|

|On the contrary I think you are one of the few 'faithful' that I have ever met,| said Leigh, |Of course I am out of it in a way, because I do not belong to the Roman Church. I am supposed -- I say 'supposed' advisedly -- to be a Church of England man, or to put it more comprehensively, a Protestant, and I certainly am so much of the latter that I protest against all our systems altogether!|

|Is that quite just?| asked Bonpre gently.

|Perhaps not! -- but what is one to do? I am not alone in my ideas! One of our English bishops has been latterly deploring the fact that out of a thousand lads in a certain parish nine-hundred-and-ninety- nine of them never go to church! Well, what can you expect? I do not blame those nine-hundred and-ninety-nine at all. I am one with them. I never go to church.|


|Simply because I never find any touch of the true Spirit of Christ there -- and the whole tone of the place makes me feel distinctly un- Christian. The nine-hundred-and-ninety-nine youths possibly would sympathise with me. A church is a building more or less beautiful or ugly as the case may be, and in the building there is generally a man who reads prayers in a sing-song tone of voice, and perhaps another man who preaches without eloquence on some text which he utterly fails to see the true symbolical meaning of. There are no Charles Kingsleys nowadays, -- if there were, I should call myself a 'Kingsleyite'. But as matters stand I am not moved by the church to feel religious. I would rather sit quietly in the fields and hear the gentle leaves whispering their joys and thanksgivings above my head, than listen to a human creature who has not even the education to comprehend the simplest teachings of nature, daring to assert himself as a teacher of the Divine. My own chief object in life has been and still is to speak on this and similar subjects to the people who are groping after lost Christianity. They need helping, and I want to try in my way to help them.|

|Groping after lost Christianity!| echoed the Cardinal, |Those words are a terrible indictment, Mr. Leigh!|

|Yet in your own soul your Eminence admits it to be true,| returned Leigh quickly, -- |I can see the admission in your eyes, -- in the very expression of your face! You feel in yourself that the true spirit of Christ is lacking in all the churches of the present day, -- that the sheep are straying for lack of the shepherd, and that the wolf is in the fold! You know it, -- you feel it, -- you see it!|

Cardinal Bonpre's head drooped.

|God help me and forgive me, I am afraid I do!| he said sorrowfully. |I see the shadow of the storm before it draws nigh, -- I feel the terror of the earthquake before it shakes down the edifice! No, the world is not with Christ to-day! -- and unhappily it is a fact that Christ's ministers in recent years have done more to sever Him from Humanity than any other power could ever have succeeded in doing. Not by action, but by inertia! -- dumbness -- lack of protest, -- lack of courage! Only a few stray souls stand out firm and fair in the chaos, -- only a few!|

|'I know thy works, that thou art neither cold nor hot, -- I would thou wert cold or hot! So because thou art lukewarm and neither cold nor hot I will spew thee out of my mouth!'| quoted Leigh, his eyes flashing and his voice trembling with repressed earnestness, |That is the trouble all through! Apathy, -- dead, unproductive apathy and laissez-faire! -- Ah, I believe there are some of us living now who are destined to see strange and terrible things in this new century!|

|For myself,| said the Cardinal slowly, |I think there is not much time left us! I feel a premonition of Divine wrath threatening the world, and when I study the aspect of the times and see the pride, licentiousness, and wealth-worship of men, I cannot but think the days are drawing near when our Master will demand of us account of our service. It is just the same as in the case of the individual wrong-doer, when it seems as if punishment were again and again retarded, and mercy shown, -- yet if all benefits, blessings and warnings are unheeded, then at last the bolt falls suddenly and with terrific effect. So with nations -- so with churches -- so with the world!|

His voice grew feeble, and his eyes were clouded with pain.

|You are fatigued,| said Leigh gently, |And I ought not to have stayed so long. I will bid you farewell now. If I am in Rome when you are there, I trust you will permit me to pay my respects to you?|

|It will be a pleasure to see you, my son,| answered the Cardinal, pressing his hand and courteously preventing him from making the formal genuflection, |And let me add that it will help me very much to hear from you what progress you make in your intention of working for Christ. For, -- when you speak to the people as a teacher, it is in His name, is it not?|

|In His name, and I pray in His spirit,| said Leigh, |But not through any church.|

The Cardinal sighed, but said no more, and Leigh turned to Angela.

|Good-bye,| he said, |I may come and see the picture in Rome?|

|You may indeed,| and Angela gave him her hand in frank friendliness, |I shall feel the necessity of your criticism and the value of your opinion.|

He looked at her intently for a moment.

|Be of good courage,| he then said in a low tone, |'Work out your own salvation', it is the only way! Fulfil the expression of your whole heart and soul and mind, and never heed what opposing forces may do to hinder you. You are so clear-brained, so spiritually organised, that I cannot imagine your doing anything that shall not create a power for good. You are sometimes inclined to be afraid of the largeness of your own conceptions in the picture you are dreaming of, -- I can see that, -- but do not fear! The higher influences are with you and in you; -- give yourself up to them with absolute confidence! Good-bye -- God bless you!| He stooped and kissed her hand, -- then left the room.

Angela looked after him, and a half sigh escaped her lips unconsciously. The Cardinal watched her with rather a troubled look. After a little silence he said,

|You must pardon me, my child, if I seemed over hasty in my judgment of your work . . .|

|Dearest uncle, do not speak of it!| exclaimed Angela, |You were pained and sorry to see such a 'servant of Christ' as the type I chose, -- you could not help expressing your feeling -- it was natural . . .|

|Yes, I was vexed, -- I own it! -- | went on Bonpre, |For I know many priests, poor, patient, simple men, who do their best for our Lord according to their measure and capability, -- men who deserve all honour, all love, all respect, for the integrity of their lives, -- still -- I am aware that these are in the minority, and that men of the kind your sketch depicts, compose alas! -- the majority. There is a frightful preponderance of evil influences in the world! Industry, and commerce, and science have advanced, and yet a noble and upright standard of conduct among men is sadly lacking. Men are seeking for happiness in Materialism, and find nothing but satiety and misery, -- satiety and misery which become so insupportable that very often suicide presents itself as the only way out of such a tangle of wretchedness! Yes, child! -- all this is true -- and if you think you have a lesson to give which will be useful in these dark days, no one, -- I least of all -- should presume to hinder you from giving it. Still, remember that the results of work are not with the worker to determine -- they rest with God.|

|Truly I hope they do,| said Angela fervently, |For then all bad work will pass away and only the good and necessary remain.|

|That always is the rule,| said the Cardinal, |No criticism can kill good work or vivify bad. So be happy, Angela mia! Paint your great picture with courage and hope -- I will neither judge nor condemn, and if the world's verdict should be cruel, mine shall be kind!|

He smiled and stroked her soft hair, then taking her arm he leaned upon it affectionately as they left the studio together.

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