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SermonIndex.net : Christian Books : XXIV. The next morning dawned with all the strange half mystical glow of light and colourà

The Master-christian by Marie Corelli

XXIV. The next morning dawned with all the strange half mystical glow of light and colourà

The next morning dawned with all the strange half mystical glow of light and colour common to the Italian sky, -- flushes of pink warmed the gray clouds, and dazzling, opalescent lines of blue suggested the sun without declaring it, -- and Sylvie Hermenstein, who had passed a restless and wakeful night, rose early to go on one of what her society friends called her |eccentric| walks abroad, before the full life of the city was up and stirring. She, who seemed by her graceful mignonne fascinations and elegant toilettes, just a butterfly of fashion and no more, was truly of a dreamy and poetic nature, -- she had read very deeply, and the griefs and joys of humanity presented an ever-varying problem to her refined and penetrative mind. She was just now interesting herself in subjects which she had never studied so closely before, -- and she was gradually arriving at the real secret of the highest duty of life, -- that of serving and working for others without consideration for oneself. A great love was teaching her as only a great love can; -- a love which she scarcely dared to admit to herself, but which nevertheless was beginning to lead her step by step, into that mysterious land, half light, half shadow, which is the nearest road to Heaven, -- a land where we suffer gladly for another's sorrow, and are joyous in our own griefs, because another is happy! To love ONE greatly, means to love ALL more purely, -- and to find heart-room and sympathy for the many sorrows and perplexities of those who are not as uplifted as ourselves. For the true mission of the divine passion in its divinest form, is that it should elevate and inspire the soul, bringing it to the noblest issues, and for this it must be associated with respect, as well as passion. No true soul can love what it does not sincerely feel to be worthy of love. And Sylvie -- the brilliant little caressable Sylvie, whose warm heart had been so long unsatisfied, was, if not yet crowned by the full benediction of love, still gratefully aware of the wonderful colour and interest which had suddenly come into her life with the friendship of Aubrey Leigh. His conversation, so different to the |small talk| of the ordinary man, not only charmed her mind, but strengthened and tempered it, -- his thoughtful and tender personal courtesy filled her with that serenity which is always the result of perfect manner, -- his high and pure ideas of life moved her to admiration and homage,- -and when she managed to possess herself of every book he had written, and had read page after page, sentence after sentence, of the glowing, fervent, passionate language, in which he denounced shams and glorified truth, -- the firmness and fearlessness with which he condemned religious hypocrisy, and lifted pure Christianity to the topmost pinnacle of any faith ever known or accepted in the world, her feelings for him, while gaining fresh warmth, grew deeper and more serious, merging into reverence as well as submission. She had a book of his with her as a companion to her walk this very morning, and as she entered the Pamphili woods, where she had a special |permesso| to go whenever she chose, and trod the mossy paths, where the morning sun struck golden shafts between the dark ilex-boughs, as though pointing to the thousands of violets that blossomed in the grass beneath, she opened it at a page containing these lines: --

|Who is it that dares assert that his life or his thoughts are his own? No man's life is his own! It is given to him in charge to use for the benefit of others, -- and if he does not so use it, it is often taken from him when he least expects it. 'THOU FOOL, THIS NIGHT THY LIFE SHALL BE REQUIRED OF THEE!' No man's thoughts even, are his own. They are the radiations of the Infinite Mind of God which pass through every living atom. The beggar may have the same thought as the Prime Minister, -- he only lacks the power of expression. The more helpless and inept the beggar, the greater the responsibility of the Premier. For the Premier has received education, culture, training, and the choice of the people, and to him is given the privilege of voicing the beggar's thought. And not only the beggar's thought, but the thoughts of all in the nation who have neither the skill nor the force to speak. If he does not do what he is thus elected to do, he is but an inefficient master of affairs. And what shall we say of the ministers of Religion who are 'ordained' to voice the Message of Christ? To echo the Divine! -- to repeat the grand Ethics of Life, -- the Law of Love and Charity and Forbearance and Pity and Forgiveness! When one of these highly destined servants of the Great King fails in his duty, -- when he cannot pardon the sinner, -- when he looks churlishly upon a child, or condemns the innocent amusements of the young and happy, -- when he makes the sweet Sabbath a day of penance instead of praise -- of tyranny instead of rest, -- when he has no charity for backsliders, no sympathy for the sorrowful, no toleration for the contradictors of his own particular theory -- do we not feel that his very existence is a blasphemy, and his preaching a presumption!|

Here Sylvie raised her eyes from the book. She was near an ancient cedar-tree whose dark spreading boughs, glistening with the early morning dew, sparkled like a jewelled canopy in the sun, -- at her feet the turf was brown and bare, but a little beyond at the turn of the pathway, a cluster of white narcissi waved their graceful stems to the light wind. There was a rustic bench close by, and she sat down to rest and think. Very sweet thoughts were hers, -- such thoughts as sweet women cherish when they dream of Love. Often the dream vanishes before realisation, but this does not make the time of dreaming less precious or less fair. Lost in a reverie which in its pleasantness brought a smile to her lips, she did not hear a stealthy footstep on the grass behind her, or feel a pair of dark eyes watching her furtively from between the cedar-boughs, -- and she started with surprise, and something of offence also, as Monsigner Gherardi suddenly appeared and addressed her, --

|Buon giorno, Contessa!|

She rose from her seat and saluted him in silence, instinctively grasping the book she held a little closer. But Gherardi's quick glance had already perceived the title and the name of its author.

|You improve the time!| he said, sarcastically, pacing slowly beside her. |To one of your faith and devotion that book should be accursed!|

She raised her clear eyes and looked at him straightly,

|Is the sunlight accursed?| she said, |The grass or the flowers? The thoughts in this book are as pure and beautiful as they!|

Gherardi smiled. The enthusiasm of a woman's unspoilt nature was always a source of amusement to him.

|Your sentiments are very pretty and poetic!| he said, |But they are exaggerated. That book is on the 'Index'!|

|Yes, of course it would be!| answered Sylvie quietly, |I have often wondered why so much fine literature is condemned by the Church, -- and do you know, it occurred to me the other day that if our Lord had WRITTEN what He said in the form of a book, it might be placed on the 'Index' also?|

Gherardi lifted his eyes from their scrutiny of the ground, and fixed them upon her with a look of amazement that was almost a menace. But she was not in the least intimidated, -- and her face, though pale as the narcissi she had just seen in blossom, was very tranquil.

|Are you the Comtesse Hermenstein?| said Gherardi then, after an impressive pause, |The faithful, gentle daughter of Holy Church? or are you some perverted spirit wearing her semblance?|

Sylvie laughed.

|If I am a perverted spirit you ought to be able to exorcise me, Monsignor!| she said, -- |With the incense of early Mass clinging to you, and the holy water still fresh on your hands, you have only to say, 'Retro me Sathanas!' and if I am NOT Sylvie Hermenstein I shall melt into thin air, leaving nothing but the odour of sulphur behind me! But if I AM Sylvie Hermenstein, I shall remain invincible and immovable, -- both in myself and in my opinions!|

Gherardi controlled his rising irritation, and was silent for some minutes, reflecting within himself that if the fair Countess had suddenly turned restive and wayward, it was probably because she was falling in love with the author whose works she defended, and taking this into consideration, he judged it would be wisest to temporise.

|Invincible you always are!| he said in softer tones, |As many unhappy men in Europe can testify!|

|Are you among them?| queried Sylvie mischievously, the light of laughter beginning to twinkle and flash in her pretty eyes.

|Of course!| answered Gherardi suavely, though his heart beat thickly, and the secret admiration he had always felt for the delicate beauty of this woman who was so utterly out of his reach, made his blood burn with mingled rage and passion. |Even a poor priest is not exempt from temptation!|

Sylvie hummed a little tune under her breath, and looked up at the sky.

|It will be a lovely day!| she said -- |There will be no rain!|

|Is that the most interesting thing you can say to me?| queried Gherardi.

|The weather is always interesting,| she replied, |And it is such a safe subject of conversation!|

|Then you are afraid of dangerous subjects?|

|Oh no, not at all! But I dislike quarrelling, -- and I am afraid I should get very angry if you were to say anything more against the book I am reading| -- here she paused a moment, and then added steadily, |or its author!|

|I am aware that he is a great friend of yours,| said Gherardi gently, |And I assure you, Contessa -- seriously I assure you, I should be the last person in the world to say anything against him. Indeed, there is nothing to say, beyond the fact that he is, according to our religion, a heretic -- but he is a brilliant and intellectual heretic, -- WELL WORTH REDEEMING!| He emphasised the words, and shot a meaning glance at her; but she did not appear to take his hint or fathom his intention. She walked on steadily, her eyes downcast, -- her tiny feet, shod in charming little French walking shoes, peeping in and out with a flash of steel on their embroidered points, from under the mysterious gleam of silk flounces that gave a soft |swish,| as she moved, -- her golden hair escaping in one or two silky waves from under a picturesque black hat, fastened on by velvet ribbons, which were tied in a captivating knot under the sweetest of little white chins, a chin whose firm contour almost contradicted the sensitive lines of the kissable mouth above it. A curious, dull sense of anger teased the astute brain of Domenico Gherardi, as with all the dignified deportment of the stately churchman, he walked on by her side. What was all his scheming worth, he began to think, if this slight feminine creature proved herself more than a match for him? The utmost he could do with his life and ambitions was to sway the ignorant, cram his coffers with gold, and purchase a change of mistresses for his villa at Frascati. But love, -- real love, from any human creature alive he never had won, and knew he never should win. Sylvie Hermenstein was richer far than he, -- she had not only wealth and a great position, but the joys of a natural existence, and of a perfect home-life were not denied to her. Presently, seeing that they were approaching the gates of exit from the Pamphili, he said, --

|Contessa, will you give me the favour of an hour's conversation with you one afternoon this week? I have something of the very greatest importance to say to you.|

|Can you not say it now?| asked Sylvie.

|No, it would take too long, -- besides, if walls have ears, it is possible that gardens have tongues! I should not presume to trouble you, were it not for the fact that my business concerns the welfare of your friend, Mr. Aubrey Leigh, in whose career I think you are interested, -- and not only Mr. Leigh, but also Cardinal Bonpre. You will be wise to give me the interview I seek, -- unwise if you refuse it!|

|Monsignor, you have already been well received at my house, and will be well received again,| -- said Sylvie with a pretty dignity, |Provided you do not abuse my hospitality by calumniating my FRIENDS, whatever you may think of myself, -- you will be welcome! What day, and at what hour shall I expect you?|

Gherardi considered a moment.

|I will write,| he said at last, |I cannot at this moment fix the time, but I will not fail to give you notice. A riverderci! Benedicite!|

And he left her abruptly at the gates, walking rapidly in the direction of the Vatican. Full of vague perplexities to which she could give no name, Sylvie went homewards slowly, and as she entered her rooms, and responded to the affectionate morning greetings of Madame Bozier, she was conscious of a sudden depression that stole over her bright soul like a dark cloud on a sunny day, and made her feel chilled and sad. Turning over the numerous letters that waited her perusal, she recognised the handwriting of the Marquis Fontenelle on one, and took it up with a strange uneasy dread and beating of the heart. She read it twice through, before entirely grasping its meaning, and then -- as she realised that the man who had caused her so much pain and shame by his lawless and reckless pursuit of her in the character of a libertine, was now, with a frank confession of his total unworthiness, asking her to be his wife, -- the tears rushed to her eyes, and a faint cry broke from her lips.

|Oh, I cannot . . . I cannot!| she murmured, |Not now -- not now!|

Madame Bozier looked at her in distress and amazement.

|What is the matter, dear?| she asked, |Some bad news?|

Silently Sylvie handed her Fontenelle's letter.

|Dear me! He is actually in Rome!| said the old lady, |And he asks you to be his wife! Well, dear child, is not that what you had a right to expect from him?|

|Yes -- perhaps -- but I cannot -- not now! -- Oh no, not now!| murmured Sylvie, and her eyes, wet with tears, were full of an infinite pain.

|But -- pardon me dear -- do you not love him?|

Sylvie stood silent -- gazing blankly before her, with such perplexity and sorrow in her face that her faithful gouvernante grew anxious and troubled.

|Child, do not look like that!| she exclaimed, |It cuts me to the heart! You were not made for sorrow!|

|Dear Katrine, -- we were all made for sorrow,| said Sylvie slowly, |Sorrow is good for us. And perhaps I have not had sufficient of it to make me strong. And this is real sorrow to me, -- to refuse Fontenelle!|

|But why refuse him if you love him?| asked Madame Bozier bewildered.

Sylvie sat down beside her, and put one soft arm caressingly round her neck.

|Ah, Katrine, -- that is just my trouble,| she said, |I do not love him now! When I first met him he attracted me greatly, I confess, -- he seemed so gentle, so courteous, and above all, so true! But it was 'seeming' only, Katrine! -- and he was not anything of what he seemed. His courtesy and gentleness were but a mask for licentiousness, -- his apparent truth was but a disguise for mere reckless and inconstant passion. I had to find this bit by bit, -- and oh, how cruel was the disillusion! How I prayed for him, wept for him, tried to think that if he loved me he might yet endeavour to be nobler and truer for my sake. But his love was not great enough for that. What he wanted was the body of me, not the soul. What I wanted of him was the soul, not the body! So we played at cross purposes, -- each with a different motive, -- and gradually, as I came to recognise how much baseness and brutality there is in mere libertinism, -- how poor and paltry an animal man becomes when he serves himself and his passions only, my attraction for him diminished, -- I grew to realise that I could never raise him out of the mud, because he had lived by choice too long in it, -- I could never persuade him to be true, even to himself, because he found the ways of falsehood and deceit more amusing. He did unworthy things, which I could not, with all my admiration for him, gloze over or excuse; -- in fact, I found that in his private life and code of honour he was very little better than Miraudin, -- and Miraudin, as you know, one CANNOT receive!|

|He is in Rome also,| said Madame Bozier, |I saw his name placarded in the streets only yesterday, and also outside one of the leading theatres. He has brought all his Parisian company here to act their repertoire for a few nights before proceeding to Naples.|

|How strange he should be here!| said Sylvie, |How very strange! He is so like the Marquis Fontenelle, Katrine! So very like! I used to go to the theatre and frighten myself with studying the different points of resemblance! be the rough copy of Fontenelle's, -- and I always saw in the actor what the gentleman would be if he continued to live as he was doing. Miraudin, whose amours are a disgrace, EVEN to the stage! -- Miraudin, who in his position of actor-manager, takes despicable advantage of all the poor ignorant, struggling creatures who try to get into his company, and whose vain little heads are turned by a stray compliment, -- and to think that the Marquis Fontenelle should be merely the better-born copy of so mean a villain! Ah, what useless tears I have shed about it, -- how I have grieved and worried myself all in vain! -- and now . . .|

|Now he asks you to marry him,| said Madame Bozier gently, |And you think it would be no use? You could not perhaps make him a better man?|

|Neither I nor any woman could!| said Sylvie, |I do not believe very much in 'reforming' men, Katrine. If they need to reform, they must reform themselves. We make our own lives what they are.|

|Dear little philosopher!| said Madame Bozier tenderly, taking Sylvie's small white hand as it hung down from her shoulder and kissing it, |You are very depressed to-day! You must not take things so seriously! If you do not love the Marquis as you once did -- |

|As I once did -- ah, yes!| said Sylvie, |I did love him. I thought he could not be otherwise than great and true and noble-hearted -- but -- |

She broke off with a sigh.

|Well, and now that you know he is not the hero you imagined him, all you have to do is to tell him so,| said the practical Bozier cheerfully, |Or if you do not want to pain him by such absolute candour, give him his refusal as gently and kindly as you can.|

Sylvie sighed again.

|I am very sorry,| she said, |If I could have foreseen this -- perhaps -- |

|But did you not foresee it?| asked Madame Bozier persistently, |Did you not realize that men always want what they cannot have -- and that the very fact of your leaving Paris increased his ardour and sent him on here in pursuit?|

Sylvie Hermenstein was of a very truthful nature, and she had not attempted to deny this suggestion.

|Yes -- I confess I did think that if I separated myself altogether from him it might induce him to put himself in a more honourable position with me -- but I did not know then -- | she paused, and a deep flush crimsoned her cheeks.

|Did not know what?| queried Madame Bozier softly.

Sylvie hesitated a moment, then spoke out bravely.

|I did not know then that I should meet another man whose existence would become ten times more interesting and valuable to me than his! Yes, Katrine, I confess it! There is no shame in honesty! And so, to be true to myself, however much the Marquis might love me now, I could never be his wife.|

Madame Bozier was silent. She guessed her beloved pupil's heart's secret, -- but she was too tactful to dwell upon the subject, and before the brief, half-embarrassed pause between them had ended, a servant entered, asking,

|Will the Signora Contessa receive the Capitano Ruspardi?|

Sylvie rose from her seat with a look of surprise.

|Ruspardi? -- I do not know the name.|

|The business is urgent; -- the Capitano is the bearer of a letter to the Signora Contessa.|

|Remain with me, Katrine,| said Sylvie after a pause, -- then to the servant -- |Show Captain Ruspardi in here.|

Another moment, and a young officer in the Italian uniform entered hurriedly, -- his face was very pale, -- and as the Comtesse Hermenstein received him in her own serene sweet manner which, for all its high- bred air had something wonderfully winning and childlike about it, his self-control gave way, and when after a profound salute he raised his eyes, she saw they were full of tears. Her heart began to beat violently.

|You bring some bad news?| she asked faintly.

|Madama, I beg you not to distress yourself -- this letter -- | and he held out a sealed envelope, -- |was given to me specially marked, among others, by my friend, the Marquis Fontenelle -- last right before -- before he went to his death!|

|His death!| echoed Sylvie, her eyes dilating with horror -- |His death! What do you mean?|

Madame Bozier came quickly to her side, and put a hand gently on her arm. But she did not seem to feel the sympathetic touch.

|His death!| she murmured. And with trembling fingers she opened and read the last lines ever penned by her too passionate admirer.

|SWEETEST SYLVIE! Dearest and purest of women! If you ever receive this letter I shall be gone beyond the reach of your praise or your blame. For it will not be given to you at all unless I am dead. Dead, dear Sylvie! That will be strange, will it not? To be lying quite still, cold and stiff, out of the reach of your pretty warm white arms, -- deprived for ever and ever of any kiss from your rose- red lips, -- ah, Sylvie, it will be very cold and lonely! But perhaps better so! To-night I saw you, up in your balcony, with someone who is a brave and famous man, and who no doubt loves you. For he cannot fail to love you, if he knows you. God grant you may be happy when I am gone! But I want you to feel that to-night -- to-night I love you! -- love you as I have never loved you or any woman before -- without an evil thought, -- without a selfish wish! -- to the very height and breadth of love, I love you, my queen, my rose, my saving grace of sweetness! -- whose name I shall say to God as my best prayer for pardon, if I die to-night!

FONTENELLE.|

Sylvie shuddered as with icy cold . . . a darkness seemed to overwhelm her . . . she staggered a little, and Ruspardi caught her, wondering -- at the lightness and delicacy and beauty of her, as he assisted Madame Bozier to lead her to a deep fauteuil where she sank down, trembling in every nerve.

|And -- he is dead?| she asked mechanically.

Ruspardi bowed a grave assent. She paused a moment -- then forced herself to speak again.

|How did it happen?|

In brief, concise words Ruspardi gave the account of the quarrel with Miraudin, -- and Sylvie shrank back as though she had received a blow when she heard that her name had been the cause of the dispute.

|And this morning, hearing no news,| continued Ruspardi, |I made enquiries at the theatre. There I found everything in confusion; Miraudin and a soubrette named Jeanne Richaud, had left Rome the previous evening so the box-keeper said, and there was no news of either of them beyond a note from the girl saying she had returned alone to Paris by the first morning train. Nothing had been heard of Miraudin himself; -- I therefore, knowing all the circumstances, drove out to the Campagna by the Porte Pia, the way that Miraudin had gone, and the way I bade the Marquis follow; -- but on the Ponte Nomentano I met some of the Miserecordia carrying two corpses on the same bier, -- two corpses so strangely alike that they might almost have been brothers! -- they were the bodies of the Marquis Fontenelle and, -- Miraudin!|

Sylvie uttered a low cry and covered her face with her hands.

|Miraudin!| exclaimed Madame Bozier in horrified tones. |Miraudin! Is he killed also?|

|Yes, Madame! Both shots must have been fired with deadly aim. They had no seconds. Miraudin had hired a common fiacre to escape in from the city, and the police will offer a reward for the discovery of the driver. My horse, which my unfortunate friend Fontenelle rode, is gone, and if it could be discovered, its possessor might furnish a clue; -- but I imagine it will be difficult, if not impossible to trace the witnesses of the combat. The woman Richaud is on her way to Paris. But by this time all Rome knows of the death of Miraudin; and in a few hours all the world will know!|

|And what of the Marquis Fontenelle?| asked Madame Bozier.

|Madama, I posted all the letters he entrusted to my charge. The one I have brought to the Contessa was enclosed in an envelope to me and marked 'To be personally delivered in case of my death.' But among the letters for the post was one to the Marquis's only sister, the Abbess of a convent in Paris -- she will probably claim her brother's remains.|

He was silent. After a pause Sylvie rose unsteadily, and detached a cluster of violets she wore at her neck.

|Will you -- | her voice faltered.

But Ruspardi understood, and taking the flowers, respectfully kissed the little hand that gave them.

|They shall be buried with him,| he said. |His hand was clenched in death on a small knot of lace -- you perhaps might recognise it, -- yes? -- so! -- it shall be left as it was found.|

And, -- his melancholy errand being done, -- he bowed profoundly once more, and retired.

Sylvie gazed around her vaguely, -- the letter of her dead admirer grasped in her hand, -- and his former letter, proposing marriage, lying still open on the table. Her old gouvernante watched her anxiously, the tears rolling down her cheeks.

|You are crying, Katrine!| she said, |And yet you knew him very little, -- he never loved you! I wish -- I wish MY tears would come! But they are all here -- aching and hurting me -- |and she pressed her hand to her heart -- |You see -- when one is a woman and has been loved by a man, one cannot but feel sorry -- for such an end! You see he was not altogether cruel! -- he defended my name -- and he has died for my sake! For my sake! -- Oh, Katrine! For MY sake! So he DID love me -- at the last! . . . and I -- I -- Oh, Katrine! -- I wish -- I wish the tears would come!|

And as she spoke she reeled -- and uttering a little cry like that of a wounded bird, dropped senseless.

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