Cardinal Felix Bonpre sat alone in the largest and loneliest room of the large and lonely suite of rooms allotted to him in the Palazzo Sovrani, -- alone at a massive writing table near the window, his head resting on one hand, and his whole figure expressive of the most profound dejection. In front of him an ancient silver crucifix gleamed in the flicker of the small wood fire which had been kindled in the wide cavernous chimney -- and a black-bound copy of the Gospels lay open as if but lately consulted. The faded splendour of certain gold embroidered hangings on the walls added to the solemn and melancholy aspect of the apartment, and the figure of the venerable prelate seen in such darkening gloom and solitude, was the crowning completion of an expressive and pathetic picture of patient desolation. So might a martyr of the Inquisition have looked while the flames were getting ready to burn him for the love of the gentle Saviour; and something of the temper of such a possible predecessor was in the physically frail old man, who just now was concentrating all the energies of his mind on the consideration of a difficult question which is often asked by many hearts in secret, but is seldom voiced to the public ear; -- |Christ or the Church? Which must I follow to be an honest man?|
Never had the good Cardinal been in such a strange predicament. Living away from the great centres of thought and action, he had followed a gentle and placid course of existence, almost unruffled, save by the outside murmurs of a growing public discontent which had reached him through the medium of current literature, and had given him cause to think uneasily of possible disaster for the religious world in the near future, -- but he had never gone so far as to imagine that the Head of the Church would, while being perfectly conscious of existing threatening evils, deliberately turn his back to appeals for help, -- shut his ears to the cry of the |lost sheep of the House of Israel|, and even endeavour, with an impotence of indignation which was as pitiable as useless, to shake a rod of Twelfth-century menace over the advancement of the Twentieth!
|For the onward movement of Humanity is God's work,| said the Cardinal, |And what are we -- what is even the Church -- when it does not move side by side in perfect and pure harmony with the order of Divine Law?|
And he was bitterly troubled in spirit. He had spent the whole morning at the Vatican, and the manner of his reception there had been so curiously divided between flattery and reproach that he had not known what to make of it. The Pope had been tetchy and querulous, -- precisely in such a humour as one naturally expects so aged a man to be when contradicted on any matter, whether trivial or important. For with such advanced years the faculties are often as brittle as the bones, and the failing powers of the brain are often brought to bear with more concentration on inconsiderable trifles than on the large and important affairs of life. He had questioned the Cardinal closely concerning the miraculous cure performed at Rouen, and had become excessively angry when the honest prelate earnestly disclaimed all knowledge of it. He had then confronted him with Claude Cazeau, the secretary of the Archbishop of Rouen, and Cazeau had given a clear and concise account of the whole matter, stating that the child, Fabien Doucet, had been known in Rouen since his babyhood as a helpless cripple, and that after Cardinal Bonpre had prayed over him and laid hands on him, he had been miraculously cured, and was now to be seen running about the city as strong and straight as any other healthy child. And Bonpre listened patiently;- -and to all that was said, merely reiterated that if the child WERE so cured, then it was by the special intervention of God, as he personally had done no more than pray for his restoration. But to his infinite amazement and distress he saw plainly that the Holy Father did not believe him. He saw that he was suspected of playing a trick, -- a trick, which if he had admitted, would have been condoned, but which if he denied, would cause him to be looked upon with distrust by all the Vatican party. He saw that even the man Cazeau suspected him. And then, -- when the public confession of the Abbe Vergniaud came under discussion, -- the Pope had gathered together all the visible remains of physical force his attenuated frame could muster, and had hurled himself impotently against the wall of opposing fact with such frail fury as almost to suggest the celebrated simile of |a reed shaken with the wind|. In vain had the Cardinal pleaded for Vergniaud's pardon; in vain had he urged that after all, the sinner had branded himself as such in the sight of all men; what further need to add the ban of the Church's excommunication against one who was known to be within touch of death? Would not Christ have said, |Go, and sin no more|? But this simple quotation from the Gospels seemed to enrage the representative of St. Peter more violently than before, and when Bonpre left the Holy Presence he knew well enough that he was, for no fault of his own, under the displeasure of the Vatican. How had it all come about? Nothing could have been simpler than his life and actions since he left his own Cathedral-town, -- he had prayed for a sick child, -- he had sympathised with a sorry sinner, -- that was all. And such deeds as these were commanded by Christ. Yet -- the Head of the Church for these same things viewed him with wrath and suspicion! Wearily he sat, turning over everything in his mind, and longing, with a weakness which he fully admitted to his own conscience, to leave Rome at once and return to his own home, there to die among his roses at peace. But he saw it would never do to leave Rome just yet. He was bound fast hand and foot. He was |suspect|! In his querulous fit the Pope had ordered Claude Cazeau to return to Rouen without delay, and there gather further evidence respecting the Cardinal's stay at the Hotel Poitiers, and if possible, to bring the little Fabien Doucet and his mother back to Rome with him. Pending the arrival of fresh proof, Bonpre, though he had received no actual command, knew he was expected to remain where he was. Weary and sick at heart, the venerable prelate sighed as he reviewed all the entangling perplexities, which had, so unconsciously to himself, become woven like a web about his innocent and harmless personality, and so absorbed was he in thought that he did not hear the door of his room open, and so was sot aware that his foundling Manuel had stood for some time silently watching him. Such love and compassion as were expressed in the boy's deep blue eyes could not however radiate long through any space without some sympathetic response, -- and moved by instinctive emotion, Cardinal Felix looked up, and seeing his young companion smiled, -- albeit the smile was a somewhat sad one.
|Where have you been, my child?| he asked gently, |I have missed you for some hours.|
Manuel advanced a little, and stood between the pale afternoon light reflected through the window, and the warmer glow of the wood fire.
|I have been to the strangest place in all the world!| he answered, |The strangest, -- and surely one of the most wicked!|
The Cardinal raised himself in his chair, and bent an anxious wondering look upon the young speaker.
|One of the most wicked!| he echoed, |What place are you talking of?|
|St. Peter's!| answered Manuel, with a thrill of passion in his voice as he uttered the name, |St. Peter's, -- the huge Theatre misnamed a Church! Oh, dear friend! -- do not look at me thus! Surely you must feel that what I say is true? Surely you know that there is nothing of the loving God in that vast Cruelty of a place, where wealth and ostentation vie with intolerant officialism, bigotry and superstition! -- where even the marble columns have been stolen from the temples of a sincerer Paganism, and still bear the names of Isis and Jupiter wrought in the truthful stone; -- where theft, rapine and murder have helped to build the miscalled Christian fane! You cannot in your heart of hearts feel it to be the abode of Christ; your soul, bared to the sight of God, repudiates it as a Lie! Yes!| -- For, startled and carried away by the boy's fervour, Cardinal Felix had risen, and now stood upright, making a feeble gesture with his hands, as though seeking to keep back the crushing weight of some too overwhelming conviction, -- |Yes -- you would silence me! -- but you cannot! -- I read your heart! You love God . . . and I -- I love Him too! You would serve Him! -- and I -- I would obey Him! Ah, do not struggle with yourself, dear and noble friend! If you were thrice crowned a martyr and saint you could not see otherwise than clearly -- you could not but accept Truth when Truth is manifested to you, -- you could not swear falsely before God! Would the Christ not say now as He said so many centuries ago -- 'My House is called the house of prayer, but ye have made it a den of thieves!' Is it not truly a den of thieves? What has the Man of Sorrows to do with all the evil splendour of St. Peter's? -- its bronzes, its marbles, its colossal statues of dead gods, its glittering altars, its miserable dreary immensity, its flaring gilding and insolent vulgarity of cost! Oh, what a loneliness is that of Christ in this world! What a second Agony in Gethsemane!|
The sweet voice broke -- the fair head was turned away, -- and Cardinal Felix, overcome by such emotion as he found it impossible to explain, suddenly sank on his knees, and stretched out his arms to the young slight creature who spoke with such a passion and intensity of yearning.
|Child!| he said, with tremulous appeal in his accents, |For God's sake' -- you who express your thoughts with such eloquence and fervent pain! -- tell me, WHO ARE YOU? My mind is caught and controlled by your words, -- you are too young to think as you do, or to speak as you do, -- yet some authority you seem to possess, which I submit to, not knowing why; I am very old, and maybe growing foolish in my age- -many troubles are gathering about me in these latter days, -- do not make them more than I can bear!|
His words were to himself incoherent, and yet it seemed as if Manuel understood them. Suffering himself to be clasped for a moment by the old man's trembling hands, he nevertheless gently persuaded and assisted him to rise, and when he was once more seated, stood quietly by his side, waiting till he should have recovered from his sudden agitation.
|Dear friend, you are weary and troubled in spirit,| he said tenderly then, |And my words seem to you only terrible because they are true! If they grieve you, it is because the grief in your heart echoes mine! And if I do think and speak more seriously than I should, it is for the reason that I have been so much alone in the world, -- left to myself, with my own thoughts of God, which are not thoughts such as many care for. I would not add to your sorrows, -- I would rather lighten them if I could -- but I feel and fear that I shall be a burden upon you before long!|
|Never!| exclaimed Bonpre fervently, |Never a burden on me, child! Surely while I live you will not leave me?|
Manuel was silent for a little space. His eyes wandered from the Cardinal's venerable worn features to the upstanding silver crucifix that gleamed dully in the glow of the wood-embers.
|I will not leave you unless it is well for you that I should go,| he answered at last, |And even then, you will always know where to find me.|
The Cardinal looked at him earnestly, and with a searching interrogation, -- but the boy's face though sweetly composed, had a certain gravity of expression which seemed to forbid further questioning. And a deep silence fell between them, -- a silence which was only broken by the door opening to admit Prince Sovrani who, pausing on the threshold, said,
|Brother, if you will allow yourself to be disturbed, Angela would like to see you in her studio. There are several people there, -- her fiance, Varillo among the number, -- and I think the girl would be glad of your presence.|
The Cardinal started as from a dream, and rose from his chair.
|I will come at once -- yes -- I will come,| he said, |I must not be selfish and think only of my own troubles!| He stood erect, -- he was still in the scarlet robes in which he had made his appearance at the Vatican, and they fell regally about his tall dignified form, the vivid colour intensifying the pallor of his thin features. A servant entering at the moment with two large silver candelabra ablaze with lights, created an effect of luminance in the room that made him appear to even greater advantage as an imposing figure of ecclesiastical authority, and Prince Pietro looked at him with the admiring affection and respect which he, though a cynic and sceptic, had always felt for the brother of his wife, -- affection and respect which had if anything become intensified since that beloved one's untimely death.
|You were well received at the Vatican?| he said tentatively.
|Not so well as I had hoped,| replied the Cardinal patiently -- |Not so well! But the cloud will pass. I will go with you to the studio,- -Manuel, will you stay here?|
Manuel bent his head in assent; he had just closed the before open copy of the Gospels, and now stood with his hand upon the Book.
|I will wait till you call me, my lord Cardinal,| he replied.
Prince Pietro then led the way, and Cardinal Bonpre followed, his scarlet robes sweeping behind him with a rich rustling sound, and as the two entered the large lofty studio, hung with old tapestries, and panelled with deeply carved and gilded oak, the room which was Angela Sovrani's special sanctum, all the persons there assembled rose from their different sitting or lounging attitudes, and respectfully bent their heads to the brief and unostentatious benediction given to them by the venerable prelate of whom all present had heard, but few had seen, and everyone made way for him as Angela met and escorted him to a seat on one of the old, throne- like chairs with which the Sovrani palace was so amply supplied. When he was thus installed, he made the picturesque centre of a brilliant little scene enough, -- one of those vivacious and bright gatherings which can be found nowhere so perfectly blended in colour and in movement as in a great art-studio in Rome. Italians are not afraid to speak, to move, to smile, -- unlike the Anglo-Saxon race, their ease of manner is inborn, and comes to them without training, hence there is nothing of the stiff formality and awkward gloom which too frequently hangs like a cloud over English attempts at sociality, -- and that particular charm which is contained in the brightness and flashing of eyes, creates a dazzling effect absolutely unknown to colder northern climes. Eyes, -- so potent to bewitch and to command, are a strangely neglected influence in certain forms of social intercourse. English eyes are too often dull and downcast, and wear an inane expression of hypocrisy and prudery; unless they happen to be hard and glittering and meaningless; but in southern climes, they throw out radiant invitations, laughing assurances, brilliant mockeries, melting tendernesses, by the thousand flashes, and make a fire of feeling in the coldest air. And so in Angela's beautiful studio, among the whiteness of classic marbles, and the soft hues of richly falling draperies, fair faces shone out like flowers, lit up by eyes, whose light seemed to be vividly kindled by the heat of an amorous southern sun, -- Venetian eyes blue as a cornflower, Florentine eyes brown and brilliant as a russet leaf in autumn, Roman eyes black as night, Sicilian eyes of all hues, full of laughter and flame -- and yet among all, no sweeter or more penetratingly tender eyes than those of Sylvie Hermenstein ever shot glances abroad to bewilder and dazzle the heart of man. Not in largeness, colour or brilliancy lay their charm, but in deep, langourous, concentrated sweetness, -- a sweetness so far-reaching from the orb to the soul that it was easy to sink away into their depths and dream, -- and never wish to wake. Sylvie was looking her fairest that afternoon, -- the weather was chilly, and the close- fitting black velvet dress with its cape-like collar of rich sables, well became her figure and delicately fair complexion, and many a spiteful little whisper concerning her went round among more showy but less attractive women, -- many an involuntary but low murmur of admiration escaped from the more cautious lips of the men. She was talking to the Princesse D'Agramont, who with her brilliant dark beauty could afford to confess ungrudgingly the charm of a woman so spirituelle as Sylvie, and who, between various careless nods and smiles to her acquaintance, was detailing to her with much animation the account of her visit to the Marquis Fontenelle before leaving Paris.
|He must be very epris!| said the Princesse laughing, |For he froze into a rigid statue of virtue when I suggested that he should escort me to Rome! I did not wait to see the effect of my announcement that YOU were already there!|
Sylvie lowered her eyes, and a faint colour crimsoned her cheeks.
|Then he knows where I am?| she asked.
|If he believes ME, he knows,| replied Loyse D'Agramont, |But perhaps he does not believe me! All Paris was talking about the Abbe Vergniaud and his son 'Gys Grandit', when I left, and the Marquis appeared as interested in that esclandre as he can ever be interested in anything or anybody. So perhaps he forgot my visit as soon as it was ended. Abbe Vergniaud is very ill by the way. His self-imposed punishment, and his unexpected reward in the personality of his son, have proved a little too much for him, -- both he and 'Grandit' are at my Chateau,| here she raised her lorgnon, and peered through it with an inquisitive air, |Tiens! There is the dear Varillo making himself agreeable as usual to all the ladies! When does the marriage come off between him and our gifted Sovrani?|
|I do not know,| answered Sylvie, with a little dubious look, |Nothing is contemplated in that way until Angela's great picture is exhibited.|
The Princesse D'Agramont looked curiously at the opposite wall where an enormous white covering was closely roped and fastened across an invisible canvas, which seemed to be fully as large as Raffaelle's |Transfiguration|.
|Still a mystery?| she queried, |Has she never shown it even to you?|
Sylvie shook her head.
|Never!| and then breaking off with a sudden exclamation she turned in the direction of the door where there was just now a little movement and murmur of interest, as the slim tall figure of a man moved slowly and with graceful courtesy through the assemblage towards that corner of the studio where the Cardinal sat, his niece standing near him, and there made a slight yet perfectly reverential obeisance.
|Mr. Leigh!| cried Angela, |How glad I am to see you!|
|And I too,| said the Cardinal, extending his hand, and kindly raising Aubrey before he could complete his formal genuflection, |You have not wasted much of your time in Florence!|
|My business was soon ended there,| replied Aubrey. |It merely concerned the saving of a famous religious picture -- but I find the modern Florentines so dead to beauty that it is almost impossible to rouse them to any sort of exertion . . .| Here he paused, as Angela with a smile moved quickly past him saying,
|One moment, Mr. Leigh! I must introduce you to one of my dearest friends!|
He waited, with a curious sense of impatience, and full beating of his heart, answering quite mechanically one or two greetings from Florian Varillo and other acquaintances who knew and recognised him- -and then felt, rather than saw, that he was looking into the deep sweet eyes of the woman who had flung him a rose from the balcony of the angels, and that her face, sweet as the rose itself, was smiling upon him. As in a dream he heard her name, |The Comtesse Sylvie Hermenstein| and his own, |Mr. Aubrey Leigh|; he was dimly aware of bowing, and of saying something vague and formal, but all the actuality of his being was for the moment shaken and transfigured, and only one strong and overwhelming conviction remained, -- the conviction that, in the slight creature who stood before him gracefully acknowledging his salutation, he had met his fate. Now he understood as he had never done before what the poet-philosopher meant by |the celestial rapture falling out of heaven|; -- for that rapture fell upon him and caught him up in a cloud of glory, with all the suddenness and fervour which must ever attend the true birth of the divine passion in strong and tender natures. The calculating sensualist can never comprehend this swiftly exalted emotion, this immediate radiation of light through all life, which is like the sun breaking through clouds on a dark day. The sensualist has by self- indulgence, blunted the edge of feeling, and it is impossible for him to experience this delicate sensation of exquisite delight, -- this marvellous assurance that here and now, face to face, stands the One for whom all time shall be merged into a Song of Love, and upon whom all the sweetest thoughts of imagination shall be brought to bear for the furtherance of mutual joy! Aubrey's strong spirit, set to stern labour for so long, and trained to toil with but scant peace for reward, now sprang up as it were to its full height of capability and resolution, -- yet its power was tempered with that tender humility which, in a noble-hearted man, bends before the presence of the woman whose love for him shall make her sacred. All his instincts bade him recognise Sylvie as the completion and fulfilment of his life, and this consciousness was so strong and imperative that it made him more than gentle to her as he spoke his first few words, and obtained her consent to escort her to a seat not far off from the Cardinal, yet removed sufficiently from the rest of the people to enable them to converse uninterruptedly for a time. Angela watched them, well pleased; -- she too had quick instincts, and as she noted Sylvie's sudden flush under the deepening admiration of Aubrey's eyes, she thought to herself, |If it could only be! If she could forget Fontenelle -- if -- |
But here her thoughts were interrupted by her own |ideal|, -- Florian Varillo who, catching her hand abruptly, drew her aside for a moment.
|Carissima mia, why did you not introduce the Princesse D'Agramont to Mr. Leigh rather than the Comtesse Hermenstein? The Princesse is of his way of thinking, -- Sylvie is not!| and he finished his sentence by slipping an arm round her waist quickly, and whispering a word which brought the colour to her cheeks and the sparkle to her eyes, and made her heart beat so quickly that she could not speak for a moment. Yet she was supposed by the very man whose embrace thus moved her, to be |passionless!|
|You must not call her 'Sylvie',| she answered at last, |She does not like such familiarity -- even from you!|
|No? Did she tell you so?| and Florian laughed, |What a confiding little darling you are, Angela! I assure you, Sylvie Hermenstein is not so very particular -- but there! I will not say a word against any friend of yours! But do you not see she is already trying to make a fool of Aubrey Leigh?|
Angela looked across the room and saw Leigh's intellectual head bending closely towards the soft gold of Sylvie's hair, and smiled.
|I do not think Sylvie would willingly make a fool of anyone,| she answered simply, |She is too loyal and sincere. I fancy you do not understand her, Florian. She is full of fascination, but she is not heartless.|
But Florian entertained a very lively remembrance of the recent rebuff given to himself by the fair Comtesse, and took his masculine vengeance by the suggested innuendo of a shrug of his shoulders and a lifting of his eyebrows. But he said no more just then, and merely contented himself with coaxingly abstracting a rose out of Angela's bodice, kissing it, and placing it in his own buttonhole. This was one of his |pretty drawing-room tricks| according to Loyse D'Agramont who always laughed unmercifully at these kind of courtesies. They had been the stock-in-trade of her late husband, and she knew exactly what value to set upon them. But Angela was easily moved by tenderness, and the smallest word of love, the lightest caress made her happy and satisfied for a long time. She had the simple primitive notions of an innocent woman who could not possibly imagine infidelity in a sworn love. Looking at her sweet face, earnest eyes, and slim graceful figure now, as she moved away from Florian Varillo's side, and passed glidingly in and out among her guests, the Princesse D'Agramont, always watchful, wondered with a half sigh how she would take the blow of disillusion if it ever came; would it crush her, or would she rise the nobler and stronger for it?
|Many a one here in this room to-day,| mused the Princesse, |would be glad if she fell vanquished in the hard fight! Many a man -- shameful as it seems -- would give a covert kick to her poor body. For there is nothing that frets and irks some male creatures so much as to see a woman attain by her own brain and hand a great position in the world, and when she has won her crown and throne they would deprive her of both, and trample her in the mud if they dared! SOME male creatures -- not all. Florian Varillo for instance. If he could only get the world to believe that he paints half Angela's pictures he would be quite happy. I daresay he does persuade a few outsiders to think it. But in Rome we know better. Poor Angela!|
And with another sigh she dismissed the subject from her mind for the moment, her attention being distracted by the appearance of Monsignor Gherardi, who just then entered and took up a position by the Cardinal's chair, looking the picture of imposing and stately affability. One glance of his eyes in the direction of Aubrey Leigh, where he sat absorbed in conversation with the Comtesse Hermenstein, had put the wily priest in an excellent humour, and nothing could exceed the deferential homage and attention he paid to Cardinal Bonpre, talking with him in low, confidential tones of the affairs which principally occupied their attention, -- the miraculous cure of Fabien Doucet, and the defection of Vergniaud from the Church. Earnestly did the good Felix, thinking Gherardi was a friend, explain again his utter unconsciousness of any miracle having been performed at his hands, and with equal fervour did he plead the cause of Vergniaud, in the spirit and doctrine of Christ, pointing out that the erring Abbe was, without any subterfuge at all, truly within proximity of death, and that therefore it seemed an almost unnecessary cruelty to set the ban of excommunication against a repentant and dying man. Gherardi heard all, with a carefully arranged facial expression of sympathetic interest and benevolence, but gave neither word nor sign of active partisanship in any cause. He had another commission in charge from Moretti, and he worked the conversation dexterously on, till he touched the point of his secret errand.
|By the way,| he said gently, |among your many good and kindly works, I hear you have rescued a poor stray boy from the streets of Rouen -- and that he is with you now. Is that true?|
|Quite true,| replied the Cardinal, |But no particular goodness can be accredited to any servant of the Gospel for trying to rescue an orphan child from misery.|
|No -- no, certainly not!| assented Gherardi -- |But it is seldom that one as exalted in dignity as yourself condescends -- ah, pardon me! -- you do not like that word I see!|
|I do not understand it in OUR work,| said the Cardinal, |There can be no 'condescension' in saving the lost.|
Gherardi was silent a moment, smiling a little to himself. |What a simpleton is this Saint Felix!| he thought. |What a fool to run amuck at his own chances of distinction and eminence!|
|And the boy is clever?| he said presently in kindly accents -- |Docile in conduct? -- and useful to you?|
|He is a wonderful child!| answered the Cardinal with unsuspecting candour and feeling, |Thoughtful beyond his years, -- wise beyond his experience.|
Gherardi shot a quick glance from under his eyelids at the fine tranquil face of the venerable speaker, and again smiled.
|You have no further knowledge of him? -- no clue to his parentage?|
Just then the conversation was interrupted by a little movement of eagerness, -- people were pressing towards the grand piano which Florian Varillo had opened, -- the Comtesse Sylvie Hermenstein was about to grant a general request made to her for a song. She moved slowly and with a touch of reluctance towards the instrument, Aubrey Leigh walking beside her.
|You are a musician yourself? -- | she said, glancing up at him, |You play -- or you sing?|
|I do a little of both,| he answered, |But I shall be no rival to you! I have heard YOU sing!|
|You have? When?|
|The other night, or else I dreamed it,| he said softly, |I have a very sweet echo of a song in my mind with words that sounded like 'Ti volglio bene', and a refrain that I caught in the shape of a rose!|
Their eyes met -- and what Emerson calls |the deification and transfiguration of life| began to stir Sylvie's pulses, and set her heart beating to a new and singular exaltation. The warm colour flushed her cheeks -- the lustre brightened in her eyes, and she looked sweeter and more bewitching than ever as she loosened the rich sables from about her slim throat, and drawing off her gloves sat down to the piano. Florian Varillo lounged near her -- she saw him not at all, -- Angela came up to ask if she could play an accompaniment for her, -- but she shook her bright head in a smiling negative, and her small white fingers running over the keys, played a rippling passage of a few bars while she raised her clear eyes to Aubrey and asked him, --
|Do you know an old Brittany song called 'Le Palais D'Iffry'? No? It is just one of those many songs of the unattainable, -- the search for the 'Fortunate Isles', or the 'Fata Morgana' of happiness.|
|Is happiness nothing but a 'Fata Morgana'?'| asked Aubrey gently, |Must it always vanish when just in sight?|
His eyes grew darkly passionate as he spoke, and again Sylvie's heart beat high, but she did not answer in words, -- softening the notes of her prelude she sang in a rich mezzo-soprano, whose thrilling tone penetrated to every part of the room, the quaint old Breton ballad,
|Il serait un roi! Mais quelqu'un a dit, 'Non! -- Pas pour toi! 'Reste en prison, -- ecoute le chant d'amour, 'Et le doux son des baisers que la Reine a promit 'A celui qui monte, sans peur et sans retour Au Palais D'Iffry!' Helas, mon ami, C'est triste d'ecouter le chanson sans le chanter aussi!|
Aubrey listened to the sweet far-reaching notes -- |Sans peur, et sans retour, au Palais D'Iffry|! Thither would he climb -- to that enchanted palace of love with its rainbow towers glittering in the |light that never was on sea or land| -- to the throne of that queen whose soft eyes beckoned him -- whose kiss waited for him -- everything now must be for her -- all the world for her sake, willingly lost or willingly won! And what of the work he had undertaken? The people to whom he had pledged his life? The great Christ-message he had determined to re-preach for the comfort of the million lost and sorrowful? His brows contracted, -- and a sudden shadow of pain clouded the frank clearness of his eyes. Gherardi's words came back to his memory, -- |You have embarked in a most hopeless cause! You will 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!| Then he thought of another and grander saying -- |Whoso, putting his hand to the plough, looketh back, is not fit for the Kingdom of God! -- | and over all rang the enchanting call of the siren's voice --
|Et le doux son des baisers que la Reine a promit A celui qui monte, sans peur et sans retour Au Palais D'Iffry!|
and he so lost himself in a tangle of thought that he did not observe how closely Monsignor Gherardi was studying every expression of his face, and he started as if he had been awakened from a dream when Sylvie's song ceased, and Sylvie herself glanced up at him.
|Music seems to make you sad, Mr. Leigh!| she said timidly.
|Not music -- but sometimes the fancies which music engenders, trouble me,| he answered, bending his earnest searching eyes upon her, and wondering within himself whether such a small, slight gossamer thing of beauty, brilliant as a tropical humming-bird, soft and caressable as a dove, could possibly be expected to have the sweet yet austere fortitude and firmness needed to be a true |helpmeet| to him in the work he had undertaken, and the life he had determined to lead. He noted all the dainty trifles of her toilette half doubtingly, half admiringly, -- the knot of rich old lace that fastened her sables, -- the solitary star-like diamond which held that lace in careless position -- the numerous little touches of taste and elegance which made her so unique and graceful among women -- and a pang shot through his heart as he thought of her wealth, and his own poverty. She meanwhile, on her part, was studying him with all the close interest that a cultured and refined woman feels, who is strongly conscious of having awakened a sudden and masterful passion in a man whom she secretly admires. A triumphant sense of her own power moved her, allied to a much more rare and beautiful emotion -- the sense of soul- submission to a greater and higher life than her own. And so it chanced that never had she looked so charming -- never had her fair cheeks flushed a prettier rose -- never had her easy fascination of manner been so bewitchingly troubled by hesitation and timidity -- never had her eyes sparkled with a softer or more irresistible languor. Aubrey felt that he was fast losing his head as he watched her move, speak, and smile, -- and with a sudden bracing up of his energies resolved to make his adieux at once.
|I must be going, -- | he began to say, when his arm was touched from behind, and he turned to confront Florian Varillo, who smiled with all the brilliancy his white and even teeth could give him.
|Why must you be going?| asked Varillo cheerily, |Why not stay and dine with my future father-in-law, and Angela, and the eminent Cardinal? We shall all be charmed!|
|Thanks, no! -- I have letters to write to England . . .|
|Good-bye!| said the Comtesse Hermenstein at this juncture, -- |I am going to drive the Princesse D'Agramont round the Pincio, will you join us, Mr. Leigh? The Princesse is anxious to know you -- may I introduce you?|
And without waiting for a reply, as the Princesse was close at hand, she performed the ceremony of introduction at once in her own light graceful fashion.
|Truly a strange meeting!| laughed Varillo, |You three ought to be very good friends! The Comtesse Hermenstein is a devout daughter of the Roman Church -- Madame la Princesse is against all Churches -- and you, Mr. Leigh, are making your own Church!|
Aubrey did not reply. It was not the time or place to discuss either his principles or his work, moreover he was strangely troubled by hearing Sylvie described as |a devout daughter of the Roman Church.|
|I am charmed!| said the Princesse D'Agramont, |Good fortune really seems to favour me for once, for in the space of a fortnight I have met two of the most distinguished men of the time, 'Gys Grandit', and Aubrey Leigh!|
|You are too kind, Madame! Grandit and I have been friends for some years, though we have never seen each other since I parted from him in Touraine. But we have always corresponded.|
|You have of course heard who he really is? The son of Abbe Vergniaud?| continued the Princesse.
|I have heard -- but only this morning, and I do not know any of the details of the story.|
|Then you must certainly come and drive with us,| said Loyse D'Agramont, |for I can tell you all about it. I wrote quite a brilliant essay on it for the Figaro, and called it 'Church Morality'!| She laughed. |Come, -- we will take no denial!|
Aubrey tried to refuse, but could not, -- the attraction, -- the 'will o' the wisp' magnetism of Sylvie's dainty personality drew him on, and in a few minutes, after taking respectful leave of the Cardinal, Prince Sovrani, and Angela, he left the studio in the company of the two ladies. Passing Monsignor Gherardi on the way out he received a wide smile and affable salute from that personage.
|A pleasant drive to you, Mr. Leigh,| he said, |The view from the Pincio is considered extremely fine!|
Aubrey made some formal answer and went his way. Gherardi returned to the studio and resumed his confidential talk with Bonpre, while one by one the visitors departed, till at last the only persons left in the vast room were Angela and Florian Varillo, Prince Pietro, and the two dignitaries of the Church. Florian was irritated, and made no secret of his irritation to his fair betrothed, with whom he sat a little apart from the others in the room.
|Do you want a love affair between Sylvie Hermenstein and that fellow Leigh?| he enquired, |If so, it is probable that your desire will be gratified!|
Angela raised her delicate eyebrows in a little surprise.
|I have no wish at all in the matter,| she answered, |except to see Sylvie quite happy.|
|How very romantic is the friendship between you two women!| said Varillo somewhat sarcastically, |You wish to see Sylvie happy, -- and the other day she told me she would form her judgment of me by YOUR happiness! Really, it is most admirable and touching!|
Angela began to feel somewhat puzzled. Petulance and temper were not in her character, and she was annoyed to see any touch of them in her lover.
|Are you cross, Florian?| she asked gently, |Has something worried you to-day?|
|Oh, I am often worried!| he replied; -- and had he spoken the exact truth he would have confessed that he was always seriously put out when he was not the centre of attraction and the cynosure of women's eyes -- |But what does it matter! Do not think at all about me, cara mia! Tell me of yourself. How goes the picture?|
|It is nearly finished now,| she replied, her beautiful violet eyes dilating and brightening with the fervour that inspired her whenever she thought of her work, |I rise very early, and begin to paint with the first gleam of daylight. I think I shall have it ready sooner than I expected. The Queen has promised to come and see it here before it is exhibited to the public.|
|Margherita di Savoja is very amiable!| said Florian, with a tinge of envy he could not wholly conceal, |She is always useful as a patron.|
A quick flush of pride rose to Angela's cheeks.
|I do not need any patronage, Florian,| she said simply yet with a little coldness, |You know that I should resent it were it offered to me. If my work is not good in itself, no 'royal' approval can make it so. Queen Margherita visits me as a friend -- not as a patron.|
|There now! I have vexed you!| And Florian took her hand and kissed it. |Forgive me, sweetest! -- Look at me -- give me a smile! -- Ah! That is kind!| and he conveyed an expression of warm tenderness into his eyes as Angela turned her charming face upon him, softened and radiant with the quick affection which always moved her at his voice and caress. |I spoke foolishly! Of course my Angela could not be patronised -- she is too independent and gifted. I am very glad the Queen is coming!|
|The Queen is coming?| echoed Gherardi, who just then advanced. |Here? To see Donna Sovrani's picture? Ah, that will be an excellent advertisement! But it would have been far better, my dear young lady, had you arranged with me, or with some other one of my confreres, to have the picture sent to the Vatican for the inspection of His Holiness. The Popes, as you know, have from time immemorial been the best patrons of art!|
|My picture would not please the Pope,| said Angela quietly, |It would more probably win his denunciation than his patronage.|
Gherardi smiled. The idea of a woman -- a mere woman imagining that anything which she could do was powerful enough to bring down Papal denunciation! The strange conceit of these feminine geniuses! He could almost have laughed aloud. But he merely looked her over blandly and forbearingly.
|I am sorry,| he said, |very sorry you should consider such a thing as possible of your work. But no doubt you speak on impulse. Your distinguished uncle, the Cardinal Bonpre, would be sadly distressed if your picture should contain anything of a nature to bring you any condemnation from the Vatican, -- and your father . . .|
|Leave me out of it, if you please!| interrupted Prince Pietro, |I have nothing whatever to do with it! Angela works with a free hand; none of us have seen what she is doing.|
|Not even you, Signor Varillo?| enquired Gherardi affably.
|Oh, I?| laughed Florian carelessly, |No indeed! I have not the least idea of the subject or the treatment!|
|A mystery then?| said Gherardi, still preserving his bland suavity of demeanour, |But permit me, Donna Sovrani, to express the hope that when the veil is lifted a crown of laurels may be disclosed for you!|
Angela thanked him by a silent inclination of her head, and in a few minutes the stately Vatican spy had taken his leave. As he disappeared the Cardinal rose from his chair and moving somewhat feebly, prepared to return to his own apartments.
|Dearest uncle, will you not stay with us to-night? Or are you too tired?| asked Angela as she came to his side.
He raised her sweet face between his two wrinkled hands and looked at her long and earnestly. |Dear child!| he said, |Dear brave little child! For you must always be nothing more than a child to me, -- tell me, are you sure you are moved by the right spirit in the painting of your picture?|
|I think so!| answered Angela gently, |Indeed, indeed, I think so! I know that according to the teaching of our Master Christ, it is a TRUE spirit!|
Slowly the Cardinal released her, and slowly and with impressive earnestness traced the Cross on her fair brows.
|God bless you!| he said, |And God help you too! For if you work by 'the Spirit of Truth, the Comforter', remember it is the same Spirit which our Lord tells us 'the world cannot receive because it seeth Him not, neither knoweth Him.' And to testify of a Spirit which the world cannot receive makes the world very hard to you!|
And with these words he gently leaned on the arm she proffered and left the studio with her, the rich glow and voluminous folds of his scarlet robes contrasting vividly with the simple black gown which Angela wore without other adornment than a Niphetos rose to relieve its sombreness. As she went with her uncle she looked over her shoulder and smiled an adieu to Florian, -- he, in his turn lightly kissed his hand to her, and then addressed Prince Pietro, who, with the care of a man to whom expense is a consideration, was putting out some of the tall lamps that had illumined the dusk of the late afternoon.
|The good Cardinal is surely breaking up,| he said carelessly, |He looks extremely frail!|
|Young men sometimes break up before old ones!| returned the Prince drily, |Felix is strong enough yet. You dine with us to-night?|
|If you permit -- | said Varillo, with a graceful salutation.
|Oh, my permission does not matter'| said Sovrani eyeing him narrowly, |Whatever gives pleasure to Angela must needs please me. She is all that is left to me now in an exceedingly dull world. A riverderci! At eight we dine.|
Flonan nodded, -- and took his departure, and the Prince for a moment stood hesitating, looking at the great white covering on the wall which concealed his daughter's mysterious work. His tall upright figure stiff and sombre, looked as if cast in bronze in the half light shed by the wood fire, -- one lamp was still burning, and after a pause he moved from his rigid attitude of gloomy consideration, and extinguished it, then glancing round to see that all was in order, he left the studio, closing its great oaken door behind him. Five minutes after he had gone a soft step trod the polished floor, and the young Manuel, holding a lighted taper, entered all alone. The flame of the little torch he carried cast a soft golden glow about him as he walked noiselessly through the great empty room, his blue eyes lifted to the marble heads of gods and heroes which occupied their different positions on the gilded and oaken brackets set against the tapestried walls, -- and presently he paused in front of Angela's hidden work. It was but a moment's pause, and then, still with the same light step, and the same bright glow reflected from the flame that glittered in his hand, he passed through the room, lifted the velvet portiere at the other end where there was another door leading to the corridor connected with the Cardinal's apartments, and so unnoticed, disappeared.