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Sermon Podcast | Audio | Video : Christian Books : XX. On the first floor of an ancient mansion, in a street which slopes down towardsà

The Master-christian by Marie Corelli

XX. On the first floor of an ancient mansion, in a street which slopes down towardsà

On the first floor of an ancient mansion, in a street which slopes down towards the Tiber, there is a suite of dreary old rooms which must evidently have once belonged to some great |Prince of the Church|, (to use the term which Cardinal Bonpre held so much in aversion,) if one may form any opinion from the ecclesiastical designs on the faded green hangings, which cling like moss to the damp walls, and give an additional melancholy to the general gloom The |salon| or audience-chamber is perhaps the best in repair, and possesses a gorgeous, painted ceiling, bordered by a frieze of red and gold, together with one or two large pictures, which perhaps if cleaned might show the touch of some great Master, but which in their sad condition of long neglect, present nothing to the view but a dark blur of indistinct outlines. The rooms in their entirety composed the business, or town dwelling of Monsignor Gherardi, one of the cleverest, most astute, and most unscrupulous of men, to whom Religion was nothing more than a means of making money and gaining power. There was scarcely a Roman Catholic |community| in the world, in which Gherardi had not a share, -- and he was particularly concerned in |miraculous shrines|, which were to him exactly in the same category as |companies| are to the speculator on the Stock Exchange. He had been cautious, prudent, and calculating from his earliest years, -- from the time when, as the last male scion of the house of Gherardi he had been educated for the Ecclesiastical career at the |College of Nobles|. He had read widely, and no religious or social movement took place anywhere without his knowing of it and admitting it into his calculations as a sort of new figure in his barking sum. He was an extensive shareholder in the |Lourdes| business; and a careful speculator in all the religious frenzies of the uneducated and superstitious. His career had been very successful so far. He had amassed a considerable fortune; and away out towards Frascati he had a superb Villa, furnished with every modern luxury and convenience, (not rented in his own name, but in that of a man whom he paid heavily to serve him as his tool and menial,) -- where a beautiful Neapolitan danseuse condescended to live as his mistress; -- he was a diplomat for himself if not for his country, and kept his finger on the pulse of European politics as well as on the fluctuating fevers of new creeds. But he never troubled himself seriously as to the possible growth of any |movement|, or |society|, or |crusade|; as experience had taught him that no matter how ardently thinkers may propound theories, and enthusiasts support them, there is always a dense and steady wave of opposition surging against everything new, -- and that few can be found whose patience will hold out sufficiently long to enable them to meet and ride over that wet wall of dull resistance.

Monsignor Gherardi was a most useful man at the Vatican, as he never failed to comfort the Pope whenever that Holy Personage was cast down or afraid of brooding disasters. When the Representative of the ever-merciful Christ ventured to give it out as his Christian opinion that the unhappy and maltreated Dreyfus would be found guilty Monsignor Gherardi smilingly agreed with him. When His Holiness denounced Freemasonry as a wicked association, formed for atheistical and revolutionary purposes, Gherardi, though he knew well enough that it was a fraternity formed for the mutual help and sustainment of its members, denounced it too; -- in the gardens of the Vatican, but not elsewhere. There was nothing really either in the way of Freemasonry or other sort of |society|, that he was afraid of; -- no anxiety whatever troubled his mind, except the possibility of losing money by some incautious speculation. In appearance he was an exceedingly handsome man, -- tall, with a fine figure and commanding features, -- physical advantages which greatly helped him to enforce his spiritual authority. As he sat in his high-backed, gilded chair, turning over papers on his desk, docketing this and marking that for reference, his dark eyes sparkling with avidity as he counted up certain dividends obtained from mysterious shares in |miracle| health resorts, and a smile of satisfaction playing on the firm, well-shaped curve of his intellectual but hard mouth, he looked an imposing personage enough, of the very type to awe the weak and timorous. He was much entertained on this particular morning, -- one might almost say he was greatly amused. Quite a humorous little comedy was being played at the Vatican, -- a mock- solemn farce, which had the possibility of ending in serious disaster to the innocent, -- and he, as a student of the wily and treacherous side of human nature, was rather interested in its development. Cardinal Felix Bonpre, a man living far away in an obscure cathedral-town of France, where he had become renowned for good works and saintly living, had now, after many years, come out of his long voluntary retirement, and had performed a miracle!

|And very well done too!| murmured Monsignor Gherardi, smiling to himself, |Well prepared, well thought out, and successfully accomplished! Our good Felix is much cleverer than I gave him credit for. First, he wins a renown for good works, -- then he starts travelling toward Rome, the Mother of our Faith, -- and on his way to the sacred city performs a miraculous cure! An excellent move! I see a possibility of making the Cathedral of Rouen a popular shrine for healing. Yes, much can be done there! Only I am sorry that Felix has made a little mistake in Paris -- just a little mistake! -- in that matter of Vergniaud. And it is exceedingly unfortunate that the son should turn out to be Gys Grandit. No wonder the Holy Father is troubled; -- no wonder! It is a little drama of the age, and will no doubt prove complex in its movement, and worth watching.| Here his smile broadened, -- and his eyes glittered more keenly than ever |Yes! -- it will be an excitement; and one wants a little excitement now and then in the general monotony. Since Agostino preached, -- | here he paused, and a dark contraction knitted his brows, -- |Let me see! -- this morning, yes! -- this morning I receive the English socialist Aubrey Leigh.|

He turned in his chair, and glanced at the dial of a huge ticking clock behind him, and saw that the hands were close on the appointed hour of eleven. His smile slowly disappeared, and vanished altogether in a heavy frown. |A dangerous man! I do not like his book -- it is written in melodramatic style, with heat and with enthusiasm, and will attract the vulgar. He must be suppressed -- but how?|

He rose and paced the room slowly, his long white hands clasped behind his back, and the frown on his brows deepened; -- how suppress a man who had announced himself as free of every Church and Creed, and who was resolved to stand by the moral ethics of Christ only? A man who desired nothing for himself, not even money; -- |But stop!| thought Gherardi, -- |that is absurd! Every man wants money! Every man must have it, and the more he has, the more he seeks. There is no one in the world who cannot be bought or bribed!|

At that moment the green hangings of the door were lifted, and the Italian man-servant announced, --

|Il Signor Aubri Lee!|

Gherardi, who in his pacing to and fro had reached the window, wheeled round abruptly and faced his entering visitor. The light fell aslant upon his stately figure as he drew himself up to his full height, and greeted Leigh with a suavely condescending bow and smile, while Aubrey in turn glanced him up and down with a pleasurable consciousness of his intellectual appearance, and evident combative temperament.

|You are welcome, Mr. Leigh,| said Gherardi, speaking English with a fluency of which he was pardonably proud, |Your letter from Florence received my instant attention, and as you see, I have made it a point to receive you at once -- in spite of pressing business. Yes, -- in spite of pressing business! I confess I have been curious to see the writer who has made himself so obnoxious to our dear friends and brothers, the English clergy!|

A smile that was brilliant, but which conveyed no meaning whatever, illumined his features; but for all reply to these words Aubrey simply bowed and remained silent. Gherardi glanced at him sharply. Was he intimidated already? -- overawed at being in the presence of one who was known to be a friend and confidant of the Pope? No -- there was nothing of fear or embarrassment in the composed attitude, proud manner, and reserved expression of this slim, muscular man, with the bright hair and keen eyes, -- and Gherardi dropped his tone of patronage for one of courtesy.

|Pray sit down!| he said, |I understand that you wish to obtain a private audience of the Holy Father. That of course is impossible!|

Aubrey drew a chair slowly towards the desk where Gherardi had resumed his own usual seat, and raised his eyes with a curious look of half satirical questioning.

|Impossible!| he said, |And why?|

Gherardi almost laughed.

|Why? My dear sir, is it necessary to ask? Your name is sufficiently well-known! and -- I am sorry to tell you so, -- but it is quite as unpleasant at the Vatican as that of Gys Grandit!|

|Gys Grandit is a friend of mine,| responded Aubrey composedly, |In fact, I may almost say he is my disciple. I found him working in the fields as a little peasant lad, -- the love child, or 'bastard,' to put it roughly, of some priest whose name he never told me. He was helping to earn daily bread for his deserted mother whose maiden name he then bore; and I helped to train his evident genius in the way it has since developed.|

|I cannot congratulate you on your pupil!| said Gherardi, smiling coldly, |The offspring of a priest's sin is not likely to do the world any credit. The son of the renegade Abbe Vergniaud may become notorious, but never famous!|

Aubrey Leigh started up from his chair doubting whether he had heard aright.

|The son of Abbe Vergniaud!| he exclaimed, |Is it possible! No, you must surely be mistaken! -- I know the Abbe, -- I saw him in Paris but a fortnight ago!|

|Indeed! Well, since that time strange things have happened,| said Gherardi, still preserving his calm inscrutability of demeanour, |We have had our news from Monsignor Moretti, an envoy of ours in Paris, on secret service. To put it briefly, -- Vergniaud, for no particular cause whatever, save perhaps the idea -- (which may be only an idea) -- that he is going to die soon, has made a public confession of his twenty-five-year-old crime and hypocrisy, in a blasphemous address preached from the pulpit of Notre Dame de Lorette. The son, known to the world as Gys Grandit, was present in the church, and fired a pistol shot at his father, hoping to murder him, -- then came the theatrical denouement of the whole scene; -- the Abbe ordered the gendarmes to release the assassin, pronouncing him to be his son. And finally -- the saddest incident of all -- there took place the mutual pardon and reconciliation of both parties in the presence of one of our most respected and beloved Princes of the Church, Cardinal Felix Bonpre, whose grave error in this matter is causing poignant and loving sorrow to the Holy Father!|

A curious expression began to appear in the delicate lines of Aubrey's face -- an expression which some of his London audiences knew so well, and which generally meant war.

|You surprise me, Monsignor,| he said in quiet accents, -- |Events move quickly, I know, in a quickly moving age, -- still your news is entirely unexpected. I never knew till now who the father of my friend Gys Grandit was; -- but now that I do know I think the public confession you tell me of, was the only fitting reparation such a man as the Abbe could make to the dead woman who was his wife in the sight of God, as well as to his living son, and the public generally. I never quite liked or trusted the Abbe; but if all this be true, he has risen a hundred per cent, in my opinion! As for Cardinal Bonpre, one of the noblest and purest of men, you surely cannot be in earnest when you speak of his having committed a grave error!|

|You know the Cardinal?| asked Gherardi evading the question.

|I was presented to him in Paris the day before I left for Florence,| replied Aubrey, |at the studio of his niece, Donna Angela Sovrani.|

|Ah!| and Gherardi balanced a paper-knife lightly on the point of his long forefinger, |An unpleasant woman that! One of the female 'geniuses' who presume nowadays to compete with men in art and literature.|

|In Donna Sovrani's case there can be no question of competition,| answered Leigh quietly, |She is by far and away the best artist of her time.|

|You think so? Very good, very good!| and Gherardi laughed a little, |You are very chivalrous! You have a touch of the American in you, have you not? -- there is a tendency in the men of the New World to be always on their knees before women. Strange, very strange!|

|We begin our lives in that way,| replied Leigh, |We kneel to our mothers!|

A slight flush reddened Gherardi's yellow paleness, but he kept his smile well in evidence.

|Charmingly expressed -- very charmingly!| he said suavely, |And so you have met our dear St. Felix! Well, well! And did he tell you all about the wonderful miracle he performed at Rouen?|

A cloud of surprise intermingled with contempt darkened Leigh's intellectual brows.

|Never!| he said emphatically, |I should not have thought so much of him if he had laid any claim to such a pretence!|

Gherardi laughed again softly.

|What a pity,| he observed, |What a pity you clever heretics are so violent! You think the power of the Church is a decaying one, and that our Lord has ceased to supply its ministers with the Spirit of Grace and the powers of healing? But this is where you are mistaken! The Church -- the Roman Church -- remains as it always was and always will be; impregnable! -- the source of inspiration, the seat of miracle, the only clue and road to everlasting life! And as for its power -- | here he closed his hand and dropped it on the table with a silent force which was strangely expressive, |its power is immeasurable! It reaches out in every direction -- it grasps -- it holds, -- it keeps! Why will you and your co-workers 'kick' like St. Paul 'against the pricks'? It is quite useless! The Church is too strong for any one of you -- aye, and for any army of you! Do you not hear the divine Voice from heaven calling daily in your ears, 'Why persecutest thou Me?'|

|Yes,| answered Aubrey deliberately, |I hear that every time I enter a church! I hear it every time I see an ordained priest or minister of the Gospel misusing his time in construing to his own purposes the classic simplicity of Christ's doctrine. In some places of worship, such as the tawdry church of the 'Annunziata' in Florence that protest seems to reach its climax. When one sees the unwashen priests expectorating every five minutes or so [Footnote: A fact] on the very altars where they perform Mass; -- when one notes the dirt, the neglect, the gim-crackery; -- the sickening and barbarous superstition everywhere offered as being representative of sublime Deity, -- the Force which has raised the heaven above us with its endless star-patterns of living universe, -- then the cry of 'Why persecutest thou Me?' seems to roll through the arches like the thunder which sometimes precedes a general earthquake!|

Leigh's clear penetrating voice, artistically modulated to the perfectly musical expression of thought, was not without its usual effect, even on a mind so callous as that of Gherardi. He moved uneasily in his chair, -- he was inwardly fuming with indignation, and for one moment was inclined to assume the melodramatic pose of the irate Churchman, and to make himself into the figure of an approved |stage| dignitary of religion, with out stretched arm, menacing eyes, and words that were as darts to wound and sting. But looking under his eye lids at the cold, half satirical tranquillity of Aubrey's pale clear-cut features, he felt that any attempt at |acting| his part would be seen through in a second by a man who was so terribly in earnest. So with a benevolent and regretful air, he said,

|Yes! -- no doubt things appear to you as they do not appear to us. The spirit of faith enables us to see through all unsatisfactory outward forms and ceremonies, to the actual divine mysteries which they symbolise; -- and heretics perceive incongruities, where we, by the grace of God, see nothing but harmony! And though you, Mr. Leigh, receive the information with incredulity and a somewhat blameable indifference, it is a matter of rejoicing to us that Cardinal Bonpre has performed this miracle of healing at Rouen. It would have raised him to a very high place indeed in the Holy Father's estimation, had it not been for the strange mistake he has unfortunately made with respect to the Abbe Vergniaud.|

|One may cure a sick person then, but one must not pardon a sinner?| suggested Aubrey, |'For whether is it easier to say, Thy sins be forgiven thee;' or 'Arise and walk?' The one is considered a miracle; -- the other a mistake!|

Gherardi's cold eyes glittered.

|We will not go into the technicalities of the question,| he said frigidly, |We will return to the point from whence we diverged. Your wish expressed in this letter,| and he drew one from a packet on the table and glanced it over in a business-like way, |was to obtain a private audience from the Pope. I repeat that to a mere civilian and socialistic writer like yourself, that is impossible!|

Aubrey sat unmoved.

|I suppose if I were a prince of the blood-royal I should not be refused an audience?| he said.

Gherardi's thick dark eyebrows went up with a movement of surprise at such an irrational remark.

|That would make a difference certainly,| he answered smiling, |The claims of diplomacy have to be considered!|

|If a prince of the blood-royal whose private life was a scandal to the world| -- went on Aubrey, |who was guilty of every vice known in the calendar, -- who was neither intelligent nor sympathetic, -- whose whole career was one of self and self-indulgence, -- I say if he were to seek a private audience of the man who is declared to be the representative of Christ in Christendom, he would obtain it! On the other hand, if a man who had denied himself every personal gratification, and had sacrificed his whole life in working for his fellow men, and to the following of the teachings of the Gospel as far as it was possible, -- but who yet had got no further in world's wealth than to be earning from his writings a few hundreds a year, he could NOT be received! Monsignor, this may be diplomacy, but it is not Christianity!|

|I cannot enter into these matters with you -- | began Gherardi impatiently.

|No, you cannot, because you dare not!| said Aubrey boldly. |Man, you are not a Christian! Why pretend to be one? Is it not time you left off feigning what you do not feel? Is it not preposterous that you, at your years, should consent to make your life a lie in the face of Omnipresent Deity?|

Gherardi rose up pale and trembling.

|Mr. Leigh, if you have come here to insult me -- |

|Insult you!| echoed Aubrey, |Not I! I would make a man of you if I could, -- but that is too late! You are a witness of imposture and a supporter of it, -- and we are none of us worthy to be called men if we do either of these two things. You know as well as I do, that there is no representative of the blameless Christ at the Vatican, -- you know there is only a poor weak old man, whose mind is swayed by the crafty counsels of the self-seeking flatterers around him, and who passes his leisure hours in counting up money, and inventing new means of gaining it through forms of things that should be spiritual and divine. If you BELIEVE Christ was God Incarnate, how dare you tamper with such a Supernal Mystery?|

Gherardi turned his head slowly and looked round at Aubrey, -- then recovering his composure, sat down and pretended to turn over some documents on the table, but Aubrey went on undeterred by his aspect of frigidity, |How dare you, I say? The God in Man! Do you realize the stupendous meaning of such a phrase? Do you not see that it means A DIVINE LIFE PALPITATING THROUGH EVERY ATOM OF CREATION? A Force so great, so pure and majestic, so absolute in Its working for good, and yet so deliberate in Its movements that It will give Its creature Man whole centuries of chance to find and save his own soul before utterly destroying him? What has this sublime Power in common with the Pope, who shuts himself up in his palace, a voluntary prisoner, all forsooth because he is denied temporal power! Temporal power! What is temporal power compared to spiritual power! If he were the true representative of Christ he would move the world by deeds of benevolence, goodness, and sanctity! In such a case as that of the unhappy Dreyfus for instance, he would have issued a solemn warning and earnest reproach to the French nation for their misguided cruelty; -- he would have travelled himself to Rennes to use his personal influence in obtaining an innocent man's release with honour! That would have been Christian! That would have been a magnificent example to the world! But what did he do? Shut comfortably up in his luxurious palace where no harm could touch him, where no crucifixion of the heart or soul could torture him, he announced to his myrmidons his opinion that the wretched martyr would be found guilty! And who can tell but that his utterance thus unchristianly proclaimed did not help to sway the minds of the Rennes Court-martial? Again, why are there so many poor in Italy? If the Pope were the father indeed of those who are immediately around him, the land should be like the fabled Paradise, flowing with milk and honey. The Vatican is full of money and jewels. 'Sell half that thou hast and give to the poor,' was the command of Christ. -- Does the Pope do that? Why does he not go out among the people and work in active sympathy with them? Christ did so! Christ was never borne with solemn flourish of trumpets like a mummy in a chair, under canopies of cloth of gold, to give a blessing to a crowd who had got admission to see him by paid ticket! Man, man! The theatrical jugglery of Rome is a blasphemy in the sight of heaven; -- and most truly did St. John declare this city, throned on its seven hills, to be, 'MYSTERY, THE MOTHER OF HARLOTS AND ABOMINATIONS OF THE EARTH.' And most clearly does God say at this period of our time, 'Come out of her My people, that ye be not partakers of her sins, and that ye receive not of her plagues. For her sins have reached unto heaven, and God hath remembered her iniquities!' The days of evil are drawing to an end; Rome must fall!|

Gherardi's breath came and went quickly, -- but he kept up the outward appearance of cold composure.

|You rant very well, Mr. Leigh!| he said, |You would make an excellent Hyde Park orator! You have all the qualities which attract the vulgar; but we -- we of the Church know quite well how to deal with men of your class, -- their denunciations do not affect us at all. They amuse us occasionally; and sometimes they pain us, for naturally we grieve for the backslidings of refractory brethren. We regret the clamourings of ignorance which arise from a strong personal desire for notoriety. That passage in the Revelation of St. John, has been quoted scores of times as being applicable to Rome, though as a matter of fact it distinctly mentions Babylon.| Here he smiled suavely. |And thanks to the workings of an All-wise Influence, Rome was never more powerful than she is at the present moment. Her ramifications are everywhere; and in England she has obtained a firm footing. Your good English Queen has never uttered one word of reproach against the spread of our Holy Religion among her subjects! Our prayers for the conversion of England will yet be granted!|

|Not while I live!| said Aubrey firmly, |Not while I can hold back but a handful from such a disaster, and that handful shall hold back yet another handful! The hand of Roman priestcraft shall never weigh on England while there are any honest men left in it! The conversion of England! The retrogression of England! Do you think such a thing is likely to happen because a few misguided clerics choose to appeal to the silly sentimentality of hysterical women with such church tricks and rags of paganism as incense and candles! Bah! Do not judge the English inward heart by its small outward follies, Monsignor! There are more honest, brave, and sensible folk in the British Islands than you think. And though our foreign foes desire our fall, the seed of THEIR decay is not yet in us!|

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