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SermonIndex.net : Christian Books : XIX. Set square and dark against the pale blue of the Italian sky the Palazzo Sovranià

The Master-christian by Marie Corelli

XIX. Set square and dark against the pale blue of the Italian sky the Palazzo Sovranià

Set square and dark against the pale blue of the Italian sky the Palazzo Sovrani, seen for the first time, suggests a prison rather than a dwelling house, -- a forbidding structure, which though of unsentient marble, seems visibly to frown into the light, and exhale from itself a cloud on the clearest day. Its lowest windows, raised several feet from the ground, and barred across with huge iron clamps, altogether deprive the would-be inquisitive stranger from the possibility of peering within, -- the monstrous iron gate, richly wrought with fantastic scroll-work and heraldic emblems raised in brass, presents so cold and forbidding a front that some of the youthful ladies who were Angela's friends, were wont to declare that it gave them a palpitation of the heart to summon up the necessary courage required to ring the great bell. Within the house there was much of a similar gloom, save in Angela's own studio, which she had herself made beautiful with a brightness and lightness found in no other corner of the vast and stately abode. Her father, Prince Pietro Sovrani, was of a reserved and taciturn nature, -- poor but intensely proud -- and he would suffer no interference by so much as a word or a suggestion respecting the manner in which he chose to arrange or to order his household. His wife Gita Bonpre, the only sister of the good Cardinal, had been the one love of his life, -- and when she died all his happiness had died with her, -- his heart was broken, but he showed nothing of his grief to the outside world, save that in manner he was more silent and reserved than ever, -- more difficult to deal with, -- more dangerous to approach. People knew well enough that he was poor, but they never dared to mention it, -- though once an English acquaintance, moved by the best intentions in the world, had suggested that he could make a good deal of money by having a portion of the Palazzo Sovrani redecorated, and modernized, to suit the comfort and convenience of travelling millionaires who might probably be disposed to pay a high rent for it during the Roman |season.| But the proposal was disastrous in its results. Sovrani had turned upon his adviser like an embodied thunder-cloud.

|When a prince of the House of Sovrani lets out apartments,| he said, |you may ask your English Queen to take in washing!|

And a saturnine smile, accompanied by the frowning bend of his white fuzzy eyebrows over his flashing black eyes, had produced such a withering, blistering effect on the soul of the unfortunate Englishman, whose practical ideas of utility had exceeded his prudence, that he had scarcely ever dared to look the irate Italian noble in the face again.

Just now, the Prince was in his library, seated in dignified uprightness like a king enthroned to give audience, in a huge high- backed chair, shadowed over by an ancient gilded baldacchino, listening with a certain amount of grim patience to his daughter's softly murmured narrative of her stay in Paris. He had received the Cardinal an hour ago on his arrival, with first, a humble genuflexion as became a son of the Church, and secondly with a kiss on both cheeks as became a brother-in-law. The Cardinal's youthful companion Manual, he had scarcely remarked, even while giving him welcome. These two had gone to the suite of rooms prepared for the reception of His Eminence, -- but Angela, after hastily changing her travelling dress, had come down to her father, anxious not only to give, but to hear news -- especially news of Florian Varillo. Prince Sovrani, however, was not a man given to much social observation, -- nor did he ever break through his half cynical, half gloomy humour, to detail the gossip of Rome, and he therefore sat more or less unmoved, while Angela told him all she could think of that would interest him. At last with a little delicate hesitation, she related the strange story of Abbe Vergniaud, and added,

|And by this time, I suppose, the Holy Father has been told all!|

|Naturally,| said the Prince, with a stern smile moving the hard muscles of his mouth, |Moretti's love of scandal is as deep as that of any old woman! -- and the joy of excommunicating a soul from the salvation of the Church must be too exquisite to admit of any delay! I am sorry for Vergniaud, but I do not think he will suffer much. These things are scarcely ever noticed in the press nowadays, and it will only be a very limited circle that even learns of his excommunication. Nevertheless, I am sorry -- one is always sorry for brave men, even if they are reckless. And the son is Gys Grandit! Corpo di Bacco! What a denouement!|

He considered it a moment, looking straight before him at the rows of ancient and musty books that adorned his walls, -- then he gave a sudden exclamation.

|Pesta! I had nearly forgotten! I knew there was a curious thing I had to tell you, Angela, -- but in the hurry of your arrival it had for the moment escaped my mind . . .|

|About Florian?| asked Angela anxiously.

The Prince bent his brows upon her quizzically.

|Florian! What should I know about Florian? He has not been near me since you left Rome. I fancy he will not be too attentive a son-in- law! No, it is not about Florian. It is about your uncle Felix. Have you heard of this miracle he has performed?|

Angela's eyes opened wide.

|A miracle! What do you mean by a miracle?|

|Santissima Madonna! A miracle is always a miracle,| retorted her father testily, |A something out of the common, and an upsetting of the ordinary laws of nature. Did your uncle tell you nothing of his visit to Rouen?|

|Nothing,| replied Angela, |Nothing but the story of Manuel.|

|Manuel? Who is he?|

|The boy he has with him now. Uncle Felix found him lost at night near the Cathedral of Rouen, and has taken him under his protection ever since.|

|Altro! That is nothing!| said her father, |That is only one of Felix's quixotic ideas. There is no miracle in that. But when a child is a cripple from babyhood, and our Felix cures him by one simple prayer, and makes him strong and well again -- Gran Dio! -- it is not remarkable that such news creates a stir at the Vatican.|

|But it cannot be true!| said Angela surprised, |Uncle Felix never said a word about it. I am sure he knows nothing whatever of such a report!|

|Ebben! We will ask him presently,| -- and the Prince raised himself stiffly and slowly out of his throne-like chair, |Personally I have considered Felix above any sort of priestly trickery; but after all, if he has an ambition for the Papacy, I do not see why he should not play for it. Others do!|

|Oh, father!| cried Angela, |How can you think such a thing of Uncle Felix! He is as nearly a saint as any mortal man can be!|

|So I always thought, child -- so I always thought!| replied the Prince, with a vexed air, |But to perform such a miracle of healing as to cure a child with a twisted spine and bent legs, by the mere utterance of a prayer! -- that is impossible! -- impossible! It sounds like charlatanism -- not like Felix!|

As he spoke he straightened himself and stood upright, a tall, spare, elegant figure of a man, -- his dark complexioned face very much resembling a fine bronze cast of the Emperor Aurelius. Angela rose too and stood beside him, and his always more or less defiant eyes slowly softened as he looked at her.

|You grow very like your mother,| he said, with just the faintest tremor in his voice -- |Ah, la mia Gita!|

A sigh that was like a groan broke from his lips, and Angela laid her head caressingly against his breast in silence. He touched her soft hair tenderly.

|Very like your mother,| he repeated, |Very like! But you will leave me soon, as she has left me, -- not for Heaven, no! -- but for that doubtful new life called marriage. It is not doubtful when there is love -- love in both hearts; -- and if there is any difference at all, the love should be greater on the man's side than on the woman's! Remember that, Angela mia, remember that! The true lover is always spiritually on his knees before the woman he loves; not only in passion, but in worship -- in reverence!|

|And is not Florian so?| murmured Angela timidly.

|I do not know, child; he may be! Sometimes I think that he loves himself too much to love YOU as well as you deserve. But we shall see.|

As he spoke a servant entered, carrying an exquisite basket of flowers, and brought it to Angela who blushed and smiled divinely as she took it and opened the envelope fastened to its handle and addressed to her, which contained merely these words, --

|A la mia dolcezza! Con voto d'eterno amore!
|FLORIAN.|

|Are they not lovely?| she said, bending over the blossoms tenderly as though she would have taken them all into her embrace, |Such a sweet welcome home!|

Her father nodded, but gave no verbal response to her enthusiasm. Presently he said,

|How about your picture? When will it be finished?|

|A month's work will be enough now,| she replied, looking up quickly -- |And then -- |

|Then it will remain in one of the galleries unsold!| said Sovrani, with a touch of bitterness in his tone which he could not quell, |You have chosen too large a canvas. From mere size it is unsaleable, -- for unless it were a marvel of the world no nation would ever purchase a woman's picture.|

Angela's delicate head drooped, -- she turned away to hide the tears that rushed to her eyes. Her father's words were harsh, yet eminently practical; she knew he did not mean them unkindly, but that the continual pinch of poverty was sometimes greater than he could endure with patience. Angela had earned considerable sums of money by the smaller pictures which had established her name; and the Prince had bitterly grudged the time she had given to the enormous canvas which had now remained so long in her studio covered up, even from his eyes -- for he had made up his mind that it was one of those fantastic dreams of genius, which when they become realised into the substance of a book or a picture, terrify the timid conventions of the world so completely as to cause general avoidance.

|If Raffaelle were alive he would not paint a 'Transfiguration' now,| he was wont to say, |The Church no longer employs great artists. It keeps its money for speculation purposes. If a Michael Angelo were in Rome he would find nothing to do.|

Which statement was true enough. For the modern Italian loves money next to his own precious skin, and everything beautiful or sacred is sacrificed to this insatiable craze. There is no love, no honour, no patriotism in Italy without careful calculation as to the cost of indulging in these sentiments, -- and what wreck of religion is left merely panders to the low melodramatic temper of an ignorant populace. Art is at its lowest ebb, it cannot live without encouragement and support -- and it is difficult for even the most enthusiastic creator in marble or colour to carry out glorious conceptions for an inglorious country. But Angela Sovrani -- ambitious Angela, -- was not painting for Italy. She was painting for the whole world. She had dreams of seeing her great picture borne away out of Rome to Paris, and London, to be gazed upon by thousands who would take its lesson home to their hearts and lives. Italy was merely a village in the area of her aspiring mind; but she built her |castles in the air| alone; and never by so much as the smallest hint allowed anyone to guess the far reaching scope of her intentions. Truth to tell, she had obtained very little encouragement during her long days and months of work, though in the sweetness of her nature she pleased herself by imagining that Florian Varillo gave her a complete and perfect sympathy. Yet even with Florian, one or two casual remarks he had let fall lightly and unthinkingly, had vaguely startled her, and set her wondering, |Perhaps he does not think much of my abilities after all| -- and had caused her for once to be closely reserved upon the subject and treatment of her work, and to refuse a glimpse of it even to him who was her elect Beloved. She had thought he would perhaps have been pained at this inviolate secrecy on her part, -- she had feared he might take offence at finding the doors of her studio always locked, -- but on the contrary he appeared quite amused at her uncommunicative humour, and jested about it as if she were a little child playing in a dark corner at some forbidden game. She was somewhat surprised at this, -- the more so as he frequently spoke of the importance of his own pictures for the Roman |Art Season,| -- pictures to which he really gave the attentive discussion and consideration a man always bestows on matters of his personal business -- but often when Angela's work was spoken of, he smiled with a kindly tolerance, as one who should say, |Dear girl! How sweetly she embroiders her simple sampler!| And yet again, he never failed, when asked about it in Angela's presence, to say that he was |sure Donna Sovrani would astonish the world by what she was doing!| So that one never quite knew where to have him, his nature being that curious compound of obsequious servility and intense self-love which so often distinguishes the Italian temperament. Angela however put every shadow of either wonder or doubt as to his views, entirely aside, -- and worked on with an earnest hand and trusting heart, faithfully and with a grand patience and self-control seldom found either in masculine or feminine heroes. Sometimes her spirit sank a little, as now, when her father told her that her picture would remain unsold in one of the galleries -- but all the same, some force within her urged her to go on with her intention steadily, and leave all results to God. And the tears that had sprung to her eyes at the smart of old Sovrani's rough speech, soon returned to their source; and she was quite her composed sweet self again when her uncle the Cardinal, accompanied by Manuel, entered the room, holding an open letter in his hand, and looking strangely agitated.

|Brother, here is a matter which I cannot possibly understand,| he said, |Monsignor Gherardi writes here to congratulate me upon a miracle I have worked in Rouen! -- and summons me at once to the presence of His Holiness! What can it mean? I have performed no miracle! Surely some jest is being played with me, -- and one most unbecoming to a man of Gherardi's position and influence!|

Prince Sovrani took the letter from Bonpre's hand and read it in silence.

|Yes -- I have heard about it already,| he said, |And if you indeed know nothing, it is strange! But can you not remember -- is there no clue to such a report? Were there no sick children brought to you . . . ?|

|Oh, for that,| answered the Cardinal quickly, |a little boy named Fabien Doucet, was brought to me by the children of an inn-keeper of the Hotel Poitiers where I stayed two nights, and to grant their wishes, (and also because it is my duty to do what I can for the suffering and the afflicted), I laid my hands upon him and prayed to our Lord that he might be healed.|

|Ebbene! Our Lord has then healed him,| said Sovrani drily, |It is remarkable! -- but if the cure is truly accomplished, we shall have to admit that the Deity does sometimes pay attention to our many prayers, though for the most part they appear to fall upon a deaf, dumb, and irresponsive Silence.|

The Cardinal sat down, wearily resting his head on his hand.

|I do not like it!| he said, |It is altogether amazing to me; it seems like a snare set to catch my soul! For I have no power to perform miracles . . . I can only pray.|

|And why should not your prayer be answered?| asked Manuel suddenly.

They had all forgotten the boy's presence in the room, and his voice startled them. His young face was pale, yet tranquil -- and the deep tenderness that always dwelt in his eyes seemed deeper and softer at this moment than ever.

|Truly I do not see why,| said Prince Sovrani, bending his fierce regard full on the lad as he spoke, and beginning to wonder like the rest at his fairness and beauty, |Only as a rule, fanciuollo mio -- prayer is mere waste of breath -- a demand without supply.|

|Is that not perhaps the fault of the person who prays?| said Manuel, |May that person not lack faith and pure intention? May he not even be too self-absorbed to lift his soul high enough for an approach to God? When the disciples were vexed that they could not cure a child that was afflicted, and saw that their Master healed that child at once, they asked why they were unable to do what He did. And He told them plainly, 'Because of your unbelief. For verily I say unto you, if ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed ye shall say unto this mountain, remove from yonder place, and it shall remove, and nothing shall be impossible to you.' And I am sure that my lord the Cardinal's faith is greater than a grain of mustard seed!|

They were all silent. Cardinal Bonpre turned his eyes thoughtfully on the young speaker

|You were with me, child, when the little cripple sat on my knee and held my crucifix,| he said in a low tone, |You saw -- you heard all. What did I do? -- what did I say?|

|You held him in your arms, even as Christ took little children in His arms and blessed them,| replied Manuel, |And you prayed -- and in your prayer you said -- 'King and Master of all such children, even as Thou wert a child Thyself, be pleased to heal him of his sad infirmity. For if Thou wilt, Thou canst make this bent body straight, and these withered muscles strong, -- from death itself Thou canst ordain life, and nothing is impossible unto Thee!'|

There was a pause. Then Manuel added, --

|That is what you said, my lord Cardinal; -- and when the child went away, you told him that if the giving of your own life could make him strong, he should have that life willingly. Some people might say that without meaning it, -- but you meant what you said, -- every word came straight from your heart. And should it then surprise you that God has granted your prayer?|

Prince Sovrani listened to the dulcet young voice with a strange emotion. Something holy and convincing seemed to emanate from the boy's very presence, and though he, as became a modern Italian, was thoroughly sceptical and atheistical, and would have willingly argued against the very words of Christ as written in the Gospel, some curious hesitation that was almost shamefacedness held him silent. But the Cardinal was even more strongly moved. The earnest spirit of truth with which Manuel appeared always to be environed, -- his simple and straight enunciation of the old, oft-quoted phrases used by the Divine Saviour of the world, -- and then his unfaltering memory of the simple prayer that had been said for the comfort of the unfortunate little Fabien Doucet, together with this strange and unexpected announcement of the child's miraculous cure, -- these things rushed over the mind of the good Bonpre like an overwhelming flood, and confused his brain -- strange half-formed thoughts occurred to him that he dared not express, chief among which was a vague, a terrifying idea that the young boy beside him who spoke so sweetly, and almost so commandingly, must surely be an Angel! Strange legends of the Church began to recur to him; -- legends of old-time when angels had descended to walk with priests in their monastic seclusion, and instruct them as to the value of time, as in the |Legend Beautiful,| when the monk Felix, being perplexed by the phrase |a day with God is as a thousand years,| went to sleep in a garden, soothed by the singing of the birds at sunset, and woke up to find that in his slumber a century had rolled away! All manner of fantastic notions swept in upon him, and he grew suddenly blind and dizzy -- rising from his chair totteringly he extended his hands -- then suddenly sank back again in a dead faint. Sovrani caught him as he fell -- and Angela ran for water, and tenderly bathed his forehead while Manuel took his hand and held it fast.

|Too long a journey, and too much excitement!| said the Prince, -- |Our Felix is growing old, -- he cannot stand fatigue. He is failing fast!|

|Oh, no,| said Manuel brightly, |He is not failing! He is younger by far than he seems! He is too strong to fail!|

And as he spoke the Cardinal opened his eyes and smiled with an expression of perfect rapture.

|Why, what has ailed me?| he enquired, looking at Angela's anxious face, |I had but gone for a moment into the presence of my Lord!| Here he paused, and then gradually recovering himself entirely, sat upright.

|All is well with me!| he said, pressing the hand of Manuel in his own, and releasing it again, |Do not fret, Angela, -- it was the merest passing faintness. Forgive me, brother, for alarming you thus foolishly! As for the letter from the Vatican concerning this miracle, I must needs present myself before His Holiness and assure him that I know nothing of it, -- that I did no more than pray -- that I left the crippled child still crippled -- and that if indeed it be true he is healed, it is by the merciful act of God and -- the intervention of our Lord and Saviour Christ, to Whom be all the praise and glory!|

He rose up again from his chair and stood full height, -- a grand and beautiful figure of noble old age, transfigured by the light of some never-aging thought, some glorious inspiration. And Angela, who had been startled and alarmed by his sudden fainting fit, was even more overcome by the sight of him thus radiant and selfpossessed, and dropping on her knees she caught his hand and kissed it, her tears falling fast. He stooped and raised her.

|Child, why are you weeping?| he said tenderly, |Nay, I am not so ill as you think me! I am well -- strong! -- ready for the doing of many things in my Master's service! Pietro, take this dear girl and comfort her!| and he put her gently into her father's arms, -- |For myself, I have work to do -- work to do! -- | he repeated musingly, -- |I see trouble ahead! -- but I shall face it -- and if God please -- overcome it!| His, eyes flashed, and after a moment he resumed, |I will write to Gherardi now -- and to-morrow -- to-morrow I will speak!|

|Can I help you, brother?| asked the Prince, taken out of himself by the air of splendour and sovereignty which seemed to surround the Cardinal as with a divine halo, |You are fatigued with your journey, -- let me write for you!|

|No, Pietro! I must do this myself, and think well of all I should say.| He paused, then added, |They tell me Claude Cazeau, secretary to the Archbishop of Rouen brought the news of this so-called miracle to Rome. I should have liked to have seen that man to- night.|

|You will see him at the Vatican,| said Sovrani. with a touch of irony, |That will be time enough! Oh, innocent Felix! Do you not see you will be confronted with Cazeau? And that Gherardi and his set will be there to note your every look and gesture, and privately judge as to whether you and the Archbishop of Rouen concocted the miracle between you! And that if you were to see this Cazeau to- night, that very meeting would be taken as a sign of conspiracy!|

Over the pale features of the Cardinal rushed a warm glow of indignation, but it died away as rapidly as it had come.

|True!| he said simply, |I forgot! If a good deed is done in the world by the force of the undefined Spirit of Christ, it is judged as trickery, -- and we must never forget that even the Resurrection of our Blessed Lord from the dead is believed by some to be a mere matter of conspiracy among His disciples. True -- I forgot the blindness, -- the melancholy blindness of the world! But we must always say, 'Father forgive them, for they know not what they do!' I will write to Gherardi, -- and, -- if you will permit me, I will remain in my own rooms tonight for I must think and pray, -- I must be alone . . .|

|Without me, my lord Cardinal?| asked Manuel softly.

|No, not without you!| and Bonpre looked at him with a smile, |Not without you! I have no wish to be so much alone as your absence would make me. Come!|

And lifting the heavy velvet portiere at the door, he held it back for his |foundling| to pass, -- and then slowly followed.

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