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The Master-christian by Marie Corelli

XXXI. Meanwhile Florian Varillo had not gone to Naples.à

Meanwhile Florian Varillo had not gone to Naples. He had been turned back by a spectre evoked from his own conscience -- coward fear. He was on his way to the station when he suddenly discovered that he had lost the sheath of his dagger. A cold perspiration broke out on his forehead as this fact flashed upon him. What had he done with it? Surely he had drawn the weapon out and left the sheath in his breast pocket as usual -- but no! -- search as he would, he could not find it. It must have dropped on the floor of Angela's studio! If that were so, he would be traced! -- most surely traced -- as the sheath was of curious and uncommon workmanship, and many of his friends had seen it. He had told everybody he was going to Naples, and of course he would be followed there. Then, he would not go! But he went to the station as if bent on the journey, and took a ticket for Naples. Then, setting down his portmanteau on a bench, he surreptitiously tore off the label on which his name was written, and tearing it up in small bits scattered the fragments on the line. After this, he walked away leisurely, leaving the portmanteau behind him for there was nothing in it by which he could be traced, and sauntered slowly out of the station into the streets of Rome once more. Hailing the first fiacre he saw, he told the driver to take him to Frascati. The man was either lazy or sulky.

|Why not take the train, Signor?|

|Because I wish to drive!| replied Varillo. |What is your fare?|

|Twenty-five francs for half the way!| said the man, showing his white teeth in a mischievous grin.


The driver was surprised, as he had not thought his terms would be accepted. But he made no further demur, and Varillo jumped into the vehicle, his teeth chattering with an inward terror he could not control. |Drive quickly!| he said.

The man shouted an affirmative, and they clattered away through the streets, Varillo shrinking back in the carriage overcome by panic. What a fool he had been! -- what a fool! He ought to have told Pon- Pon. If the dagger-sheath were found and taken to his residence, it would be recognised instantly! And all Rome would rise against Angela Sovrani's murderer. Murderer! Yes, -- that was what he had chosen to make of himself!

|It was all an impulse,| he muttered, -- |Just a hot impulse, nothing more! Just a sudden hatred of her which made me stab her! It was enough to make any man angry to see such a picture as that painted by a woman! Her fame would have ruined mine! But I never meant to kill her -- no -- no, I never meant to kill her!|

Shuddering and whimpering, he huddled himself in a corner of the carriage, and did not dare to look out of the window to see which way he was being driven. He only rallied a little when the wheels moved more quietly and smoothly, and he knew that he was on the open road, and out of Rome. Suddenly, after jolting along a considerable time, the vehicle stopped, and the driver shouted to him. Varillo dashed down the window and put his head out, almost beside himself with rage.

|What are you stopping for! What are you stopping for!| he yelled. |Go on -- go on -- we are not half way to Frascati yet! Go on, I tell you!|

|Ma-che! Eccellenza, I only stopped to ask a question!|

|What question -- what? Is this a time for asking questions?| cried Varillo, -- |The night is falling, -- I want to get on!|

|But we are going on as fast as we can!| expostulated the driver, -- |It is only this -- there is an albergo on the way -- where we can get food and wine. Would the Eccellenza like to stop there? It is as far as I can go, for I am wanted to-night in Rome.|

|Very well -- stop where you like -- only get on now!| said Varillo, pulling his head in with a jerk. And sinking back in his seat again he wiped his hot face and cursed his miserable destiny. It would have been all right if he had only remembered that sheath! No one would have got on such a track of suspicion as that he, the lover and affianced husband of Angela, was her brutal assassin!

|I wrote a loving letter and sent her flowers,| he argued with himself, |when I knew she would be dead! But her father would have got them, and he would have wired to me in Naples, and I should have come back overcome with sorrow, -- and then I should have told them all how the picture was a secret between my Angela and myself, -- how I had painted the greater part of it, and how she in her sweetness had wished me to surprise the world, -- the plan was perfect, but it is all spoiled! -- spoiled utterly through that stupid blunder of the sheath!|

Such a trifle! It seemed to him incredible -- unjust -- that so slight a thing could intervene between him and the complete success of his meditated treachery. For notwithstanding the fact that he had been a great reader and student of books, he now, in this particular hour of his own emergency, completely forgot what all the most astute and learned writers have always expounded to an inattentive world -- namely, the fact that crime holds within itself the seed of punishment. Sometimes that seed ripens quickly, -- sometimes it takes years to grow, -- but it is always there. And it generally takes root in a mere, slight circumstance, so very commonplace and casual as to entirely escape the notice of the criminal, till the network of destiny is woven so closely about him that he can no longer avoid it, -- and then he is shown from what a trifling cause the whole result has sprung. Varillo's present state of mind was one of absolute torture, for he felt that whoever found the sheath of his dagger would at once recognise it and declare the owner. If Angela had only been wounded, -- if SHE had found it -- she would never have given up the name of its possessor, -- the miserable man knew her straight, pure soul intimately enough for that!

|If she heard, she would shield me and defend me at the cost of her own life!| he said -- |She was always like that! SHE would never listen to anything that was said against me, -- and if she lived, she would love me still, and never say that I had tried to kill her!| and he actually smiled at the thought. |How strangely some women are constituted! -- especially women like Angela, who set up an exalted standard of life, and accommodate their daily conduct to it! They are sublime fools! -- and so useful to men! We can do anything we like with them. We can ruin them -- and they bear their shame in silence. We can laugh away their reputations over a game at billiards, and they are too pure and proud to even attempt to defend themselves. We can vilify whatever work they do, and they endure the slander, -- we can murder them -- | he paused,| Yes, we can murder them, and they die, without so much as leaving a curse behind them! Extraordinary!- -angelic -- superb! -- and a wise Fate has ordained that we men shall never sacrifice ourselves for SUCH women, or go mad for the love of them! We love the virago better than the saint; we are afraid of the woman who nags at us and gives us trouble -- who screams vengeance upon us if we neglect her in a trifle -- who clamours for our money, and insists on our gifts -- and who keeps our lives in a perpetual fever of excitement and terror. But the innocent woman we hate -- very naturally! Her looks are a reproach to us, and we like to kill her when we can -- and we often succeed morally, -- but THAT is not called murder. The other way of killing is judged as a crime -- and -- then -- the punishment is death!|

As this word passed his lips in a whisper, he trembled violently. Death! It had a chill sound -- yet he had not thought so when he associated it with Angela. For of course Angela was dead. Was she not? Surely she must be -- he had driven the dagger straight home!

|She could not possibly live,| he muttered -- |Not after such a well directed blow. And that amazing picture! If I could but claim it as my work, I should be the greatest artist in the world! It would be quite easy to make out a proof -- only that cursed dagger-sheath is in the way!|

He was startled out of his reverie by another stoppage of the carriage, and this time the driver jumped down from his box and came to the door.

|This is as far as I can take you, Signor,| he said, looking curiously at his passenger, -- |It is quite half way to Frascati. There is the inn I told you of -- where those lights are,| and he pointed towards the left, -- |The carriage road does not go up to it. It is a great place for artists!|

|I am not an artist!| said Varillo brusquely.

|No? But artists are merry company, Eccellenza! -- | suggested the driver, wishing to make up for his previous sulkiness by an excess of amiability -- |And for a night, the albergo is a pleasant resting place on the way to Frascati, for even the brigands who sup there are good-natured!|

|Ah! There are brigands, are there?| said Varillo, getting out of the fiacre and beginning to recover something of his usual composure, -- |And I daresay you are one of them if the truth were known! Here is your money.| And he gave the man two gold pieces, one of twenty francs, the other of ten.

|Eccellenza, I have no change -- |

|I want none!| said Varillo airily, -- |You asked twenty-five francs -- there are thirty. And now -- as you say you have business in Rome, be off with you!|

The man needed no second bidding; delighted with his thirty francs, he called a gay |Buona notte, Signor!| and turning his horse's head jogged down the road at a tolerably smart pace. The horse knew as well as the driver, that the way now lay homeward, and lost no time. Varillo, left to himself, paused a moment and looked about him. The Campagna! How he hated it! Should he pass the night at that albergo, or walk on? He hesitated a little -- then made for the inn direct. It was a bright, cosy little place enough, and the padrona, a cheery, dark-eyed woman seated behind the counter, bade him smiling welcome.

Lodging -- oh yes! she said, there was a charming room at the Signor's disposal, with a view from the windows which in the early morning was superb! The Signor was an artist?

|No!| said Varillo, almost fiercely -- |I am a tourist -- travelling for pleasure!|

Ah! Then the view would enchant the Signor, because it would be quite new to him! The room should be prepared at once! Would the Signor take supper?

Yes, -- the Signor would take supper. And the Signor went and sat in a remote corner of the common-room, with a newspaper of a week old, pretending to read its contents. And supper was soon served to him,- -a tasty meal enough, flavoured with excellent wine, -- and while he was drinking his third glass of it, a man entered, tall and broad- shouldered, wrapped in a heavy cloak, which he only partially loosened as he leaned against the counter and asked for a cup of coffee. But as he caught sight of the dark face, Varillo shrank back into his corner, and put up his newspaper to shield himself from view, -- for he saw that the new-comer was no other than Monsignor Gherardi. His appearance seemed to create a certain amount of excitement and vague alarm in the little inn; the padrona evidently knew him well, and hastened to serve him herself with the coffee he asked for.

|Will you not sit down, Eccellentissima?| she murmured deferentially.

|No, I am in haste!| replied Gherardi, glancing carelessly about him -- |My carriage waits outside. There is strange news in Rome to- night! The famous artist, Angela Sovrani, has been found in her studio, murdered!|

The padrona uttered a little cry.


|So it seems! Here are the papers from which they cry the news. I will leave them with you. It is perhaps the judgment of Heaven on the Sovrani's uncle, Cardinal Bonpre!|

The mistress of the inn crossed herself devoutly.

|Guiosto cielo! -- Would Heaven punish a Cardinal?|

|Certainly! If a Cardinal is a heretic!|

The stout padrona clasped her hands and shuddered.

|Not possible!|

|Quite possible!| And Gherardi drained his coffee-cup. |And when so great a personage of the Church is a renegade, he incurs two punishments -- the punishment of God and the punishment of the Church! The one comes first -- the other comes -- afterwards! Buena notte!|

And throwing down the money for his refreshment, Gherardi cast another glance around him, muffled himself up in his coat and went out into the night. Florian Varillo breathed again. But he was not left in peace for long. The padrona summoned her husband from the kitchen where he performed the offices of cook, to read the halfpenny sheets of news her visitor had left with her.

|Look you!| she said in a low voice, |The wicked Monsignor who has thee, my poor Paolo, in his clutches for debt, has just passed by and left evil tidings! -- that beautiful girl who painted the famous pictures in Rome, has been murdered! Do you not remember seeing her once with her father at Frascati?|

Paolo, a round-faced, timid-looking little Piedmontese, nodded emphatically.

|That do I!| he answered -- |Fair as an angel -- kind-hearted too, -- and they told me she was a wonder of the world. Che, che! Murdered! And who could have murdered her? Someone jealous of her fame! Poor thing -- she is engaged to be married too, to another artist named Florian Varillo. Gran Dio! He will die of this misery!| And they bent their heads over the paper together and read the brief announcement headed |Assassinamento di Angela Sovrani!|

A sudden crash startled them. Varillo had sprung up from his table in haste and overset his glass. It fell, shivering to atoms on the floor.

|Pardon!| he exclaimed, laughing forcedly, -- |A thousand apologies! My hand slipped -- it was an accident -- |

|Do not trouble yourself, Signor,| said the landlord, Paolo, cautiously going down on his fat knees to pick up the fragments -- |It was an accident as you say. And truly one's nerves get shaken nowadays by all the strange things one is always hearing! Myself, I tremble to think of the murder of the Sovrani -- the poor girl was so innocent of evil -- and see you! -- we might all be murdered in our beds with such villains about . . .|

He broke off, surprised at the angry oath Varillo uttered.

|Per Dio! Can you not talk of something else?| he said hoarsely, -- |There is a murder nearly every day in Rome!|

Without waiting for a reply he hastily strode out of the inn, banging the door behind him. He had engaged his room there for the night -- true! -- but -- after all this foolish gabble he resolved he would not go back. They would still talk of murder, if he did! Murder was in the air! Murder seemed written in letters of fire against the clear sky now luminous with the moon and stars! He was in a fever and a fury -- he walked on and on, little heeding where he went. What the devil had brought Gherardi to that particular inn at that particular time of night? He could not imagine. For though he knew most scandals in Rome, the scandal of the priest's |villa d'amour| at Frascati, was a secret too closely guarded for anyone save the sharpest of professional detectives to discover, and he was totally ignorant of it. He wondered restlessly whether the crafty Vatican spy had seen him while pretending not to see? If that were so, then he was lost! He could not satisfy himself as to whether he had really escaped observation, and tormented by this reflection he walked on and on, the burning impetus of his thoughts hastening his footsteps. A cold wind began to rise, -- a chill, damp breath of the Campagna, bringing malaria with it. He felt heated and giddy, and there was a curious sense of fulness in his veins which oppressed him and made him uncertain of his movements. Presently he stopped, and stood gazing vaguely from left to right. He was surely not on the road to Frascati? There was a tall shadowy building not far from him, surrounded with eucalyptus trees -- he tried to locate it, but somehow though, as a native of Rome and an artist, he was familiar with most of the Campagna, he did not recognise this part of it. How bright the stars were! Living points of fire flashing in dense purple! -- one could never paint them! The golden round of the moon spreading wide reflections on the road, seemed to his excited mind like a magic ring environing him, drawing him in, pointing him out as the one criminal for whom all the world was seeking. He had no idea of the time, -- his watch had stopped. He began to count up hours. He remembered that when he had gone to see Angela, it was about four o'clock. He had known perfectly well that she was alone, for he had seen the Cardinal drive past him in the streets on the way to the Vatican, and he had heard at his |Cercolo| or club, that Prince Sovrani had gone out of Rome for a few hours. And, thus informed, he had timed his visit to Angela well. Then, had he meant to kill her? No. He was quite certain that he never had had any such intention. Then what had been his purpose? First, to see her picture, and then to condemn it. Not harshly, but gently -- with the chill toleration and faint commiseration of the critic who pretends to judge everything. He knew -- none better -- the glowing ardour and enthusiasm of the genius which was as much a part of Angela as colour is part of a rose, -- his intention had been to freeze all that warmth with a few apparently kind words. For he had never thought it possible that she, -- a mere woman, -- could evolve from her own brain and hand, such a poetic, spiritual and magnificent conception as |The Coming of Christ.| And when he saw what she had done, he bitterly envied her her power, -- he realized the weakness of his own efforts as compared with her victorious achievement, and he hated her accordingly, as all men hate the woman who is intellectually superior to themselves. After all, there was no way out of it, but the way he had chosen, -- to kill her and make an end! To kill her and make an end! He muttered these words over and over to himself, as he stood irresolutely watching the broad patterns of the moonlight, and thinking confusedly about the time. Yes, -- it was four o'clock when he went to Angela's studio, -- it must have been five, or past that hour when he left it, -- when he slunk down the side-street which led to the river, and threw the key and his dagger together into the muddy tide. After that he had gone home, -- and had superintended his valet, while that individual packed his portmanteau for Naples -- and then -- and then? Yes, -- then he had written to Angela, -- one of the pretty gracious little notes she was accustomed to receive from him, -- how strange it was to write to a dead girl! -- and he had gone out to the nearest florist's shop, and chosen a basket of lilies to send to her, -- lilies were for dead maidens always, -- and he had sent the flowers and his love letter together. Then surely it must have been about half-past six? He tried to fix the hour, but could not, and again his thoughts went rambling on. After sending the lilies, he had returned to his own house, and Pon-Pon had prepared a |petit cafe| for him, and he had partaken of it, and had smoked a couple of cigarettes with her, and then had said a leisurely good-bye, and had started for the railway-station en route for Naples. What train had he intended to go by? The eight o'clock express. He remembered that. But on the way, he had discovered that loss of the dagger-sheath, -- an unforeseen fatality that had turned him back, and brought him to where he now stood meditating. How long did the driver of that fiacre he hired, take to bring him to the wayside inn on the road to Frascati? This he could not determine, -- but to his uncertain memory it seemed to have been an unusually tedious and tiresome journey. And now -- here he was -- with no habitation in sight save the solitary building whose walls loomed darkly through the eucalyptus trees. He went towards it after a while, walking slowly and almost mechanically; -- he was extremely tired, and an oppressive sense of heat and weariness combined made him anxious to obtain a night's lodging somewhere, -- no matter in what sort of place. Anything would be better than sleeping out on the Campagna, an easy prey to the worst form of fever. As he approached more nearly to the house among the trees, he saw that it was surrounded by a very high, closely intertwisted iron railing, -- and when he came within a few paces of what appeared to be the entrance, he was startled by the sudden heavy clang of a bell, which, striking through the still air, created such harsh clamour that he instinctively shivered at the sound. He paused, -- and again the dismal boom crashed on his ears, -- then as its echo died away another deep monotone, steadily persistent, began to stir the silence with words, -- words, which to Florian Varillo in his nervous excitation of mind sounded hellish and horrible.

|Libera me Domine, de morte aeterna!|
|In die ilia tremenda!|
|Quando coeli movendi suntet terra!|
|Dum veneris judicare saeculum per ignem!|

He listened, and a cold sweat broke out on his forehead. With that strange weakness and effeminacy which often distinguishes the artistic, and particularly the Italian artistic temperament, he was excessively superstitious, and this unexpected chanting of a psalm of death seemed to him at the moment, of supernatural and predetermined origin, devised on purpose to intensify the growing terrors of his coward conscience.

|Tremens factus sum ego!|
|Et timeo, dum discussio venerit, atque venerit ira!|

Once more the great bell tolled heavily, and its discordant tone seemed to tear his brain. He uttered an involuntary cry, -- every weak impulse in his soul was aroused, -- and in the excess of a miserable self-pity he longed to excuse himself for his crime of treachery and cruelty to the innocent woman who loved him, -- to throw the blame on someone else, -- if he could only find that someone else! Anything rather than own himself to be the mean wretch and traitor that he was. For he was a cultured and clever man, -- a scholar, -- an artist, -- a poet; -- these things were not consistent with murder! A man who painted beautiful pictures, -- a man who wrote exquisite verses, -- he could never be suspected of stabbing a helpless trusting woman in the back out of sheer jealousy, like a common hired assassin! No no! He could never be suspected! Why had he not thought of his intellectual gifts, -- his position in the world of art, before? No one in their senses could possibly accuse him in the way he had imagined! -- and even if the dagger-sheath were found, some explanation might be given, -- someone else might be found guilty . . .

|Quando coeli movendi sunt et terra;
Dum veneris judicare saeculum per ignem!|

Again that horrible bell! Moved by a sudden desperate determination to find out what this mysterious chanting was, and where it came from, he braced himself up and walked resolutely and quickly on to a great gateway, cross-barred and surmounted with tall spikes, -- and there seized by fresh panic, he clung to the grating for support and stared through it affrightedly, his teeth chattering and his whole frame shaking as with an ague fit. What were those dark terrible figures he saw? Were they phantoms or men? Gaunt and black and tall, they swayed to and fro, now bending, now rising, in the misty splendour of the moonlight, -- they were busy with the ground, digging it and casting out shovels full of earth in heaps beside them. Each ghostly figure stood by itself apart from its companions, -- each one worked at its task alone, -- and only their voices mingled in harsh dismal unison as, with the next stroke of the solemn bell, they chanted

|Dies ilia dies irae,
Calamitatis et miseriae!|

|No!| shrieked Varillo suddenly, shaking the gateway like an infuriated madman -- |What are you doing in there? Who told you to sing my mass or prepare my grave? I am not ready, I tell you! Not ready! I have done nothing to deserve death -- nothing! -- I have not been tried! -- you must wait -- you must wait till you know all -- you must wait! . . .|

His voice choked in utterance, and thrusting one hand through the grating he made frantic gesticulations to the spectral figure nearest him. It paused in its toil and lifted its head, -- and from the dark folds of a drooping cowl, two melancholy deep-set eyes glittered out like the eyes of a famished beast. The other spectres paused also, but only for a moment, -- the bell boomed menacingly over their heads once more, and again they dug and delved, and again they chanted in dreary monotone --

|Dies magna et amara valde,
Dum veneris judicare!
Libera nos Domine, de morte aeterna, in die illa tremenda!|

Wild with terror Varillo shook the gate more furiously than before.

|Stop I tell you!| he cried -- |It is too soon! You are burying me before my time. You have no proof against me -- none! I am young, -- full of life and strength -- the world loves me -- wants me! -- and I -- I will not die! -- no I will not! -- not yet! Not yet -- I am not ready! Stop -- stop! You do not know what you are doing -- stop! You are driving me mad with your horrible singing!| And he shrieked aloud. |Mad, I tell you! -- mad!|

For one hazy moment he saw some of the dark figures begin to move towards him -- he clutched at them -- fought with them -- tore at their garments, -- he would have killed them all, he thought, if the moonlight had not come in between him and them, and shut him up in a cold silver circle of ice from which he could not escape, -- yet he went on struggling and talking and shrieking, contending sometimes, as he fancied, with swords and daggers, and trying to find his way through strange storms of mingled fire and snow -- till all at once some strong invisible force swooped down upon him, lifted him up and carried him away -- and he remembered no more.

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