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The Master-christian by Marie Corelli

XXI. Gherardi sat for two or three minutes in absolute silence.à

Gherardi sat for two or three minutes in absolute silence. Only the twitching of his eyelids and a slight throbbing in the muscles of his throat showed with what difficulty he suppressed his rising fury. But his astute and crafty powers of reasoning taught him that it would be worse than ridiculous to give way to anger in the presence of this cool, determined man, who, though he spoke with a passion which from its very force seemed almost to sound like |the mighty wind| which accompanied the cloven tongues of fire at the first Pentecost, still maintained his personal calm, -- that immovable calmness which is always the result of strong inward conviction. A dangerous man! -- yes, there was no doubt of that! He was one of those concerning whom Emerson wrote, |let the world beware when a Thinker comes into it.| Aubrey Leigh was a thinker, -- and more than that, he was a doer. He was of the strong heroic type of genius that turns its dreams into facts, its thoughts into deeds. He did not talk, in common with so many men, of what they considered OUGHT to be done, without exerting themselves to DO it; -- he was sincerely in earnest, and cared nothing for any personal loss or inconvenience he might suffer from carrying out his intentions. And Gherardi saw that there was little or no possibility of moving such a man from the firm ground of truth which he had elected to stand on. There is nothing so inconvenient in this world as an absolutely truthful person, who can both speak and write, and has the courage of his convictions. One can always arrange matters with liars, because they, being hampered by their own deceits, are compelled to study ways, means, and chances for appearing honest. But with the man or woman who holds truth dearer than life, and honour more valuable than advancement, there is nothing to be done, now that governments cannot insist on the hemlock-cure, as in the case of Socrates. Gherardi, looking furtively under his eyelids at Leigh's strong lithe figure, and classic head, felt he could have willingly poisoned or stabbed him. For there were, and ARE great interests at stake in the so-called |conversion of England,| -- it is truly one of the largest financial schemes ever set afloat in the world, if those whose duty it is to influence and control events could only be brought to see the practical side of the matter, and set a check on its advancement before it is too late. Gherardi knew what great opportunities there were in embryo of making large fortunes; -- and not only of making large fortunes but of obtaining incredible power. There was a great plan afoot of drawing American and English wealth into the big Church-net through the medium of superstitious fear and sentimental bigotry, -- and an opposer and enemy like Aubrey Leigh, physically handsome, with such powers of oratory as are only granted to the very few, was capable of influencing women as well as men -- and women, as Gherardi well recognised, are the chief supporters of the Papal system. Uneasily he thought of a certain wealthy American heiress whom he had persuaded into thinking herself specially favoured and watched over by the Virgin Mary, and who, overcome by the strong imaginary consciousness of this heavenly protection, had signed away in her will a million of pounds sterling to a particular |shrine| in which he had the largest share of financial profit. Now, suppose she should chance to come within the radius of Leigh's attractive personality and teaching, and revoke this bequest? Deeply incensed he sat considering, yet he was conscious enough of his own impotency to persuade or move this man a jot.

|I am very sorry,| he said at last without raising his eyes, and carefully preserving an equable and mild tone of voice, |I am sorry you are so harsh in your judgments, Mr. Leigh; -- and still more sorry that you appear to be bent on opposing the Roman Catholic movement in England. I will do you the justice to believe that you are moved by a sincere though erroneous conviction, -- and it is out of pure kindness and interest in you that I warn you how useless you will find the task in which you have engaged. The force of Rome is impregnable! -- the interpretation of the Gospel by the Pope infallible. Any man, no matter how gifted with eloquence, or moved by what he imagines to be truth-(and alas! how often error is mistaken for truth and truth for error!) -- must be crushed in the endeavour to cope with such a divinely ordained power.|

|The Car of Juggernaut was considered to be divinely ordained,| said Aubrey, |And the wretched and ignorant populace flung themselves under it in the fit of hysterical mania to which they were excited by the priests of the god, and so perished in their thousands. Not THEY were to blame; but the men who invented the imposture and encouraged the slaughter. THEY had an ideal; -- the priests had none! But Juggernaut had its end -- and so will Rome!|

|You call yourself a Christian?| asked Gherardi, with a touch of derision.

|Most assuredly I do,| replied Aubrey, |Most assuredly I am! I love and honour Christ with every fibre of my being. I long to see that Divine Splendour of the ages stand out white and shining and free from the mud and slime with which His priests have bespattered Him. I believe in Him absolutely! But I can find nowhere in His Gospel that He wished us to turn Religion into a sort of stock-jobbing company managed by sacerdotal directors in Rome!|

|What do you know about the 'sacerdotal directors' as you call them, of Rome?| asked Gherardi slowly, his eyes narrowing at the corners, and his whole countenance expressing ineffable disdain, |Do you think we give out the complex and necessary workings of our sacred business to the uneducated public?|

|No, I do not,| replied Aubrey, |For you keep the public in the dark as much as you can. Your methods of action are precisely those of the priests of ancient Egypt, who juggled with what they were pleased to call their sacred 'mysteries' in precisely the same way as you do. Race copies race. Roman Christianity is grafted upon Roman Paganism. When the Apostles were all dead, and their successors (who had never been in personal touch with Christ) came on to the scene of action, they discovered that the people of Rome would not do without the worship of woman in their creed, so they cleverly substituted the Virgin Mary for Venus and Diana. They turned the statues of gods and heroes into figures of Apostles and Saints. They knew it would be unwise to deprive the populace of what they had been so long accustomed to, and therefore they left them their swinging censers, their gold chalices, and their symbolic candles. Thus it is that Roman Catholicism became, and is still, merely a Christian form of Paganism which is made to pay successfully, just as the feasts and Saturnalia of ancient days were made to pay as spectacular and theatrical pastimes. I should not blame your Church if it declared itself to be an offshoot of Paganism at once, -- Paganism, or any other form of faith, deserves respect as long as its priests and followers are sincere; but when their belief is a mere pretence, and their system degenerates into a scheme of making money out of the fond faiths of the ignorant, then I consider it is time to protest against such blasphemy in the presence of God and all things divine and spiritual!|

Gherardi had listened to these words very quietly, his countenance gradually relaxing and smoothing into an amiable expression of forbearance. He looked up now at Aubrey with a smile that was almost benignant.

|You are quite right, Mr. Leigh!| he said gently, |I begin to understand you now! I see that you have studied deeply, and you have thought still more. If you will continue your studies and your thinking also, you will see how difficult it is for us to move as rapidly with the times as you would have us do. You must remember that it would be quite possible for Holy Mother Church to rise at once to the high scientific and psychical position you wish her to adopt, if it were not for the mass of the ignorant, with whom one must have patience! You are a man in the prime of life -- you are zealous -- eager for improvement, -- yes! -- all that is very admirable and praiseworthy. But you forget the numerous and widely differing interests with which we of the Church have to deal. For the great majority of persons it would be useless, for example, to give them lessons on the majesty of God's work in the science of Astronomy. They would be confused, bewildered, and more or less frightened out of faith altogether. They must have something tangible to cling to -- for instance,| -- and he pressed the tips of his fingers delicately together, |there are grades of intelligence just as there are grades of creation; you cannot instruct a caterpillar as you instruct a man. Now there are many human beings who are of the caterpillar quality of brain -- what are you to do with them? They would not understand God as manifested in the solar system, but they would try to please some favourite Saint by good conduct. Is it not better that they should believe in the Saint than in nothing?|

|I cannot think it well for anyone to believe in a lie,| said Aubrey slowly, taken aback despite himself by Gherardi's sudden gentleness, |There is a magnificent simplicity in truth; -- truth which, the more it is tested, the truer it proves. Where is there any necessity of falsehood? Surely the marvels of nature could be explained with as much ease as the supposed miracles of a Saint?|

|I doubt it!| answered Gherardi smiling, |You must admit, my dear sir, that our scientific men are a great deal too abstruse for the majority; -- in some cases they are almost too abstruse for themselves! You spoke just now of the priests of Egypt; -- the oracles of Memphis were clear reading compared to the involved sentences of some of our modern scientists! Scientific books are hard nuts to crack even for the highly educated; but for the uneducated, believe me, the personality of a Saint is much more consoling than the movements of a star. Besides, Humanity must have something human to love and to revere. The infinite gradations of the Mind of God through Matter, appeal to none but those of the very highest intellectual capability.|

Aubrey was silent a moment, then he said,

|But even the most ignorant can understand Christ, -- Christ as He revealed Himself to the world in perfect beauty and simplicity as 'a Man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.' There needs no Vatican, no idolatry of the Pope, no superstitious images, no shrines of healing and reliquaries to explain His sublime intention!|

|I am afraid, Mr. Leigh, you entertain a very optimistic view of mankind,| said Gherardi, |Unfortunately Christ is not enough for many people. Christ was an Incarnation of God, and though He became Man he 'knew not sin.' He therefore stands apart; an Example, but not a Companion. There are a certain class of sinners who like to think of Saints; -- human beings constituted like themselves, who have committed errors, even crimes, and repented of them. This is a similar spirit to that of the child who catches hold of any convenient support he can find to guide his first tottering steps across the floor to his mother,-the Saint helps the feeble-footed folk to totter their way towards Christ. I assure you, our Church considers everything that is necessary for the welfare of its weakest brethren.|

|Yes, -- I grant you that it is full of subtle means for approaching and commanding the ignorant,| said Aubrey. |But to the intellectual forces it offers no progress.|

|The intellectual forces can clear their own way!| declared Gherardi, rising to his full imposing height, and beaming sovereign benevolence on his visitor, |and can, if they choose, make their own Church. This is the age of freedom, and no restraint is placed on the action of the intellectually free. But the ignorant must always form the majority; and in their ignorance and helplessness, will do wisely to remain like obedient children under the sway of Rome!|

Aubrey rose also, and could not forbear an involuntary glance of reluctant admiration at the stately figure and commanding attitude of the man who confronted him with such a pride in the persistent Jesuitical conviction that even a Lie may be used in religion for the furtherance of conversion to the Truth.

|I do not see,| Gherardi went on, smiling blandly, |why after all, you should not be received by the Holy Father. I will try to arrange it for you. But it would avail you very little, I imagine, as he is not strong, and would not be capable of conversing with you for more than a few minutes. I think it would serve your purpose much more to carefully study the movements, and the work of what you call 'the stock-jobbing company of sacerdotal directors,'| and here his smile became still more broadly benevolent, |and take note of their divisions and subdivisions of influence which extend from the very poorest and most abandoned to the very highest and most cultured. You will then understand why I maintain that Rome as a power is impregnable; -- and why some of the more far-sighted and prophetic among us look upon the Conversion of England as an almost accomplished fact!|

Aubrey smiled; but he was not without the consciousness that from his own particular point of view Gherardi had some excuse for his belief.

|According to your own written opinions,| went on Gherardi, |for I have read your books, -- the Church of England is in a bad way. Its Ritualistic form is very nearly Roman. Some of your Archbishops confess to a liking for incense! You admit that the stricter forms of Protestantism do not comfort the sick soul in times of need; well, what would you Socialists and Freethinkers have? Would you do without a Church altogether?|

|No,| said Aubrey quickly, |But we would have a purified Church, -- a House of Praise to God -- without any superstition or dogma.|

|You must have dogma,| said Gherardi complacently, |You must formulate something out of a chaos of opinion. As for superstition, you will never get rid of that weakness out of the human composition. If the Church gives nothing for this particular mood of man to feed on, man will invent something else OUTSIDE the Church. My dear sir, we have thought of all these difficulties for ages! In religion one cannot appeal solely to the intellect. One must touch the heart -- the emotions. Music, painting, colour, spectacle, all these are permitted us to use for the good purpose of lifting the soul of a sinner to contemplate something better than himself. Women and little children enter the Church as well as men, -- would you have THEM find no comfort? Must a woman with a broken heart take her sorrows to the vast Silence of an unreasonable God among universes of star systems? Or shall she find hope, and a gleam of comfort in a prayer to a woman of the same clay as herself in the person of the Virgin Mary? And remember, there is something very beautiful in the symbol of the Virgin as applied to womanhood! The Mother of God! Does it not suggest to your poetical mind that woman is destined always to be the Mother of the God? -- that is, mother of the perfect man when that desirable consummation shall be accomplished?|

|I have never doubted it.'| said Aubrey, |The Mother of Christ is to me a symbol of womanhood for all time!| Gherardi smiled.

|Good! Then in spite of your denunciations you come very near to our faith'|

|I never denied the beauty, romance, or mysticism of the Roman Catholic Faith,| said Aubrey, |If it were purified from the accumulated superstition of ages, and freed from intolerance and bigotry, it would perhaps be the grandest form of Christianity in the world. But the rats are in the house, and the rooms want cleaning!|

|In every house there are those rats -- in every room there is dirt!| said Gherardi, |Presuming that you speak in a moral sense. What of your Houses of Parliament? What of the French Senate? What of the Reichstag? What of the Russian Autocracy? -- the American Republic? In every quarter the rats squeal, and the dirt gathers! The Church of Rome is purity itself compared to your temporal governments! My dear sir,| and approaching, he laid a kindly hand on Aubrey's arm, |I would not be harsh with you for the world! I understand your nature perfectly. It is full of enthusiasm and zeal for righteousness, -- your heart warms to the sorrows of the human race, -- you would lift up the whole world to God's footstool; you would console -- you would be a benefactor -- you would elevate, purify, rejuvenate, inspire! Yes! This is a grand mood -- one which has fired many a would-be reformer before you, -- but you forget! It is not the Church against which you should arm yourself -- it is the human race! It is not one or many religious systems with which you should set yourself to contend -- it is the blind brutishness of humanity!| As he spoke, his tall form appeared to tower to an even greater height, -- his eyes flashed, and the intellectual pride and force of his character became apparent in every feature of his face. |If humanity in the mass asked us for Christ only; if men and women would deny themselves the petty personal aim, the low vice, the crawling desire to ingratiate themselves with Heaven, the Pharisaical affectation of virtue -- if they would themselves stand clear of 'vain repetition' and obstinate egoism, and would of themselves live purely, the Church would be pure! May I venture to suggest to you that men make the Church, not the Church the men? We try to supply the spiritual needs of the human being, such as his spiritual needs at present are, -- when he demands more we will give him more. At present his needs are purely personal, and therefore low and tainted with sensuality, -- yet we drag him along through these emotions as near to the blameless Christ as we can. When he is impersonal enough, unselfish enough, loyal-hearted enough, to stand face to face with the glorious manifestation of the Deity unaided, we can cast away his props, such as superstitious observances, Saints and the like, and leave him, -- but then the Millennium will have come, and there will be new heavens and a new earth!|

He spoke well, with force and fervour, and Aubrey Leigh was for a moment impressed. After a slight pause however, he said,

|You admit the ignorance of human beings, and yet -- you would keep them ignorant?|

|Keep them ignorant!| Gherardi laughed lightly. |That is more than any of us can do nowadays! Every liberty is afforded them to learn,- -and if they still remain barbarous it is because they elect to be so. But OUR duty is to look after the ignorant more than the cultured! Quite true it is that the Pope lost a magnificent opportunity in the Dreyfus affair, -- if he had spoken in favour of mercy and justice he would have won thousands of followers; being silent he has lost thousands. But this should be a great satisfaction to you, Mr. Leigh! For if the Holy Father had given an example to the Catholic clergy to act in the true Christian spirit towards Dreyfus, the Conversion of England might have been so grafted on enthusiastic impulse as to be a much nearer possibility than it is now!|

Aubrey was silent.

|Now, Mr. Leigh, I think you have gained sufficient insight into my views to judge me with perhaps greater favour than you were inclined to do at the beginning of our interview,| continued Gherardi, |I assure you that I shall watch your career with the greatest interest! You have embarked in a most hopeless cause, -- you will try to help the helpless, and as soon as they are rescued out of trouble, they will turn and rend you, -- you will try to teach them the inner mysteries of God's working, and they will say you are possessed of a devil! You will endeavour to upset shams and hypocrisies, and the men of your press will write you down and say you are seeking advertisement and notoriety for yourself. Was there ever a great thinker left unmartyred? Or a great writer that has not been misunderstood and condemned? You wish to help and serve humanity! Enthusiast! You would do far better to help and serve the Church! For the Church rewards; humanity has cursed and killed every great benefactor it ever had INCLUDING CHRIST!|

The terrible words beat on Aubrey's ears like the brazen clang of a tocsin, for he knew they were true. But he held his ground.

|There are worse things than death,| he said simply.

Gherardi smiled kindly.

|And there are worse things than life!| he said,

|Life holds a good many harmless enjoyments, which I am afraid you are putting away from you in your prime, for the sake of a mere chimera. But -- after all, what does it matter! One must have a hobby! Some men like horse-racing, others book-collecting, -- others pictures, -- and so forth -- you like the religious question! Well, no doubt it affords you a great many opportunities of studying character. I shall be very happy -- | here he extended his hand cordially, |to show you anything that may be of interest to you in Rome, and to present you to any of our brethren that may assist you in your researches. I can give you a letter to Rampolla -- |

Aubrey declined the offered introduction with a decided negative shake of his head.

|No,| he said, |I know Cardinal Bonpre; that is enough!|

|But there is a great difference between Rampolla and Bonpre,| said Gherardi, with twinkling eyes, |Bonpre is scarcely ever in Rome. He lives a life apart -- and has for a long while been considered as a kind of saint from the privacy and austerity of his life. But he has heralded his arrival in the Eternal City triumphantly -- by the performance of a miracle! What do you say to this? -- you who would do away with things miraculous?|

|I say nothing till I hear,| answered Aubrey, |I must know what the nature of the so-called miracle is. I am a believer in soul-forces, and in the exhalation of spiritual qualities affecting or influencing others: but in this there is no miracle, it is simply natural law.|

|Well, you must interview the Cardinal yourself,| said Gherardi indulgently, |and tell me afterwards what you think about it, if indeed you think anything. But you will not find him at home this morning. He is summoned to the Vatican.|

|On account of the miracle? -- or the scandal affecting the Abbe Vergniaud?| asked Aubrey.

|Both matters are under discussion, I believe,| replied Gherardi evasively, |But they are not in my province. Now, can I be of any further service to you, Mr. Leigh?|

|No. I am sorry to have taken up so much of your time,| said Aubrey, |But I think I understand your views -- |

|I hope you do,| interrupted Gherardi, |And that you will by and by grasp the fact that my views are shared by almost everyone holding any Church authority. But you must go about in Rome, and make enquiries for yourself . . . now, let me see! Do you know the Princesse D'Agramont?|


|Oh, you must know her, -- she is a great friend of Donna Sovrani's, and a witty and brilliant personage in herself. She is rather of your way of thinking, and so is out of favour with the Church. But that will not matter to you; and you will meet all the dissatisfied and enthusiastic of the earth in her salons! I will tell her to send you a card.|

Aubrey said something by way of formal acknowledgment, and then took his leave. He was singularly depressed, and his face, always quick to show traces of thought, had somewhat lost its former expression of eager animation. The wily Gherardi had for the time so influenced his sensitive mind as to set it almost to the tune of the most despairing of Tennyson's |Two Voices|,

|A life of nothings, nothing worth,
From that first nothing ere his birth,
To that last nothing under earth.|

What was the use of trying to expound a truth, if the majority preferred a lie?

|Will one bright beam be less intense,
When thy peculiar difference
Is cancelled in the world of sense?|

And Gherardi noted the indefinable touch of fatigue that gave the slight droop of the shoulders and air of languor to the otherwise straight slim figure as it passed from his presence, -- and smiled. He had succeeded in putting a check on unselfish ardour, and had thrown a doubt into the pure intention of enthusiastic toil. That was enough for the present. And scarcely had Aubrey crossed the threshold -- scarcely had the echo of his departing footsteps died away -- when a heavy velvet curtain in the apartment was cautiously thrust aside, and Monsignor Moretti stepped out of a recess behind it, with a dignity and composure which would have been impossible to any but an Italian priest convicted of playing the spy. Gherardi faced him confidently.

|Well?| he said, with a more exhaustive enquiry expressed in his look than in the simple ejaculation.

|Well!| echoed Moretti, as he slowly advanced into the centre of the room, |You have not done as much as I expected you would. Your arguments were clever, but not -- to a man of his obstinacy, convincing.|

And sitting down, he turned his dark face and gleaming eyes full on his confrere, who with a shrug of his massive shoulders expressed in his attitude a disdainful relinquishment of the whole business.

|You have not,| pursued Moretti deliberately, |grasped anything like the extent of this man Leigh's determination and indifference to results. Please mark that last clause, -- indifference to results. He is apparently alone in the world, -- he seems to have nothing to lose, and no one to care whether he succeeds or fails; -- a most dangerous form of independence! And in his persistence and eloquence he is actually stopping -- yes, I repeat it, -- stopping and putting a serious check on the advancement of the Roman Catholic party. And of course any check just now means to us a serious financial loss both in England and America, -- a deficit in Vatican revenues which will very gravely incommode certain necessary measures now under the consideration of His Holiness. I expected you to grasp the man and hold him, -- not by intimidation but by flattery.|

|You think he is to be caught by so common a bait?| said Gherardi, |Bah! He would see through it at once!|

|Maybe!| replied Moretti, |But perhaps not if it were administered in the way I mean. You seem to have forgotten the chief influence of any that can be brought to bear upon the heart and mind of a man, -- and that is, Woman.|

Gherardi laughed outright.

|Upon my word I think it would be difficult to find the woman suited to this case!| he said. |But you who have a diplomacy deeper than that of any Jew usurer may possibly have one already in view?|

|There is now in Rome,| pursued Moretti, speaking with the same even deliberation of accent, |a faithful daughter of the Church, whose wealth we can to a certain extent command, and whose charm is unquestionable, -- the Comtesse Sylvie Hermenstein -- |

Gherardi started. Moretti eyed him coldly.

|You are not stricken surely by the childlike fascination with which this princess of coquettes rules her court?| he enquired sarcastically.

|I?| echoed Gherardi, shifting his position so that Moretti's gaze could not fall so directly upon him. |I? You jest!|

|I think not!| said Moretti, |I think I know something about women -- their capabilities, their passions, their different grades of power. Sylvie Hermenstein possesses a potent charm which few men can resist, and I should not wonder if you yourself had been occasionally conscious of it. She is one of those concerning whom other women say 'they can see nothing in her'. Ah!| and Moretti smiled darkly, |What a compliment that is from the majority of women to one! This woman Sylvie is unique. Where is her beauty? You cannot say -- yet beauty is her very essence. She cannot boast perfection of features, -- she is frequently hidden away altogether in a room and scarcely noticed. And so she reminds me of a certain flower known to the Eastern nations, which is difficult to find, because so fragile and small that it can scarcely be seen, but when it is found, and the scent of it unwittingly inhaled, it drives men mad!|

Gherardi looked at him with a broadly wondering smile.

|You speak so eloquently,| he said, |that one would almost fancy -- |

|Fancy nothing!| retorted Moretti quickly, |Fancy and I are as far apart as the poles, except in the putting together of words, in which easy art I daresay I am as great an adept as Florian Varillo, who can write verses on love or patriotism to order, without experiencing a touch of either emotion. What a humbug by the way, that fellow is! -- | and Moretti broke off to consider this new point- -|He rants of the honour of Italy, and would not let his finger ache for her cause! And he professes to love the 'Sovrani' while all Rome knows that Pon-Pon is his mistress!|

Gherardi wisely held his peace.

|The Comtesse Sylvie Hermenstein is the little magic flower you must use;| resumed Moretti, emphasising his words with an authoritative movement of his hand, |Use her to madden Aubrey Leigh. Bring them together; -- he will lose his head as surely as all men do when they come under the influence of that soft deep-eyed creature, with the full white breast of a dove, and the smile of an angel, -- and remember, it would be an excellent thing for the Church if he could be persuaded to marry her, -- there would be no more preaching then! -- for the thoughts of love would outweigh the theories of religion.|

|You think it?| queried Gherardi dubiously.

|I know it!| replied Moretti rising, and preparing to take his departure, |But, -- play the game cautiously! Make no false move. For- -understand me well, this man Leigh must be silenced, or we shall lose England!|

And with these last words he turned abruptly on his heel and left the apartment.

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