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The Master-christian by Marie Corelli

XXXIII. The chain of circumstance had lengthened by several links round the radiant life of Sylvieà

The chain of circumstance had lengthened by several links round the radiant life of Sylvie Hermenstem since that bright winter morning when she had been startled out of her reverie, in the gardens of the Villa Borghese, by the unexpected appearance of Monsignor Gherardi. The untimely deaths of the Marquis Fontenelle and the actor Miraudin in the duel over her name, had caused so much malicious and cruel gossip, that she had withdrawn herself almost entirely from Roman society, which had, with one venomous consent, declared that she was only marrying Aubrey Leigh to shield herself from her esclandre with the late Marquis. And then the murderous attack on her friend Angela Sovrani, which occurred almost immediately after her engagement to Aubrey was announced, had occupied all her thoughts -- so that she had almost forgotten the promise she had made to grant a private interview to Gherardi whenever he should seek it. And she was not a little vexed one morning when she was talking to her betrothed concerning the plans which were now in progress for their going to England as soon as possible, to receive a note reminding her of that promise, and requesting permission to call upon her that very afternoon.

|How very unfortunate and tiresome!| said Sylvie, with a charming pout and upward look at her lover, who promptly kissed the lips that made such a pretty curve of disdain -- |I suppose he wants to give me a serious lecture on the responsibilities of marriage! Shall I receive him, Aubrey? I remember when I met him last that he had something important to say about Cardinal Bonpre.|

|Then you must certainly give him an audience,| answered Aubrey -- |You may perhaps find out what has happened to bring the good Cardinal into disfavour at the Vatican, for there is no doubt that he is extremely worried and anxious. He is strongly desirous of leaving Rome at once with that gentle lad Manuel, who, from all I can gather, has said something to displease the Pope. Angela is out of danger now -- and I am trying to persuade the Cardinal to accompany us to England, and be present at our marriage.|

|That would be delightful!| said Sylvie with a smile, -- |But my Aubrey, where are we going to be married?|

|In England, as I said -- not here!| said Aubrey firmly -- |Not here, where evil tongues have spoken lies against my darling!| He drew her into his arms and looked at her fondly. |I want you to start for England soon, Sylvie -- and if possible, I should like you to go, not only with the faithful Bozier, but also in the care of the Cardinal. I will precede you by some days, and arrange everything for your reception. And then we will be married -- in MY way!|

Sylvie said nothing -- she merely nestled like a dove in the arms of her betrothed, and seemed quite content to accept whatever ordinance he laid down for the ruling of her fate.

|I think you must see Gherardi,| he resumed -- |Write a line and say you will be happy to receive him at the hour he appoints.|

Sylvie obeyed -- and despatched the note at once to the Vatican by her man-servant.

Aubrey looked at her intently.

|I wonder -- Sylvie, I wonder -- | he began, and then stopped.

She met his earnest eyes with a smile in her own.

|You wonder what, caro mio?| she enquired.

|I wonder whether you could endure a very great trial -- or make a very great sacrifice for my sake!| he said, -- then as he saw her expression, he took her little hand and kissed it.

|There! Forgive me! Of course you would! -- only you look such a slight thing -- such a soft flower of a woman -- like a rose-bud to be worn next the heart always -- that it seems difficult to picture you as an inflexible heroine under trying circumstances. Yet of course you would be.|

|I make no boast, my Aubrey!| she said gently.

He kissed her tenderly, -- reverently, -- studying her sweet eyes and delicate colouring with all the fond scrutiny of a love which cannot tire of the thing it loves.

|Are you going round to see Angela this morning?| he asked.

|Yes, I always go. She is much better -- she sits up a little every day now.|

|She says nothing of her assassin?|

|Nothing. But I know him!|

|We all know him!| said Aubrey sternly -- |But she will never speak -- she will never let the world know!|

|Ah, but the world will soon guess!| said Sylvie -- |For everyone is beginning to ask where her fiance is -- why he has shown no anxiety -- why he has not been to see her -- and a thousand other questions.|

|That does not matter! While she is silent, no one dare accuse him. What a marvellous spirit of patience and forgiveness she has!|

|Angela is like her name -- an angel!| declared Sylvie impulsively, the tears springing to her eyes -- |I could almost worship her, when I see her there in her sickroom, looking so white and frail and sad, -- quiet and patient -- thanking us all for every little service done -- and never once mentioning the name of Florian -- the man she loved so passionately. Sometimes the dear old Cardinal sits beside her and talks -- sometimes her father, -- Manuel is nearly always with her, and she is quite easy and content, one would almost say happy when he is there, he is so very gentle with her. But you can see through it all the awful sorrow that weighs upon her heart, -- you can see she has lost something she can never find again, -- her eyes look so wistful -- her smile is so sad -- poor Angela!|

Aubrey was silent a moment. |What of the Princesse D'Agramont?|

|Oh, she is simply a treasure!| said Sylvie enthusiastically -- |She and my dear old Bozier are never weary in well-doing! As soon as Angela can be moved, the Princesse wants to take her back to Paris,- -because then Rome can be allowed to pour into her studio to see her great picture.|

|What does Angela say to that?|

|Angela seems resigned to anything!| answered Sylvie. |The only wish she ever expresses is that Manuel should not leave her.|

|There is something wonderful about that boy,| said Aubrey slowly -- |From the first time I saw him he impressed me with a sense of something altogether beyond his mere appearance. He is a child -- yet not a child -- and I have often felt that he commands me without my realising that I am so commanded.|

|Aubrey! How strange!|

|Yes, it is strange! -- | and Aubrey's eyes grew graver with the intensity of his thought -- |There is some secret -- but -- | he broke off with a puzzled air -- |I cannot explain it, so it is no use thinking about it! I went to Varillo's studio yesterday and asked if there had been any news of him -- but there was none. I wonder where the brute has gone!|

|It would be well if he had made exit out of the world altogether,| said Sylvie -- |But he is too vain of himself for that! However, his absence creates suspicion -- and even if Angela does not speak, people will guess for themselves what she does not say. He will never dare to show himself in Rome!|

Their conversation was abruptly terminated here by the entrance of Madame Bozier with a quantity of fresh flowers which she had been out to purchase, for Sylvie to take as usual on her morning visit to her suffering friend; and Aubrey took his leave, promising to return later in the afternoon, after Monsignor Gherardi had been and gone.

But he had his own ideas on the subject of Gherardi's visit to his fair betrothed, -- ideas which he kept to himself, for if his surmises were correct, now was the time to put Sylvie's character to the test. He did not doubt her stability in the very least, but he could never quite get away from her mignonne child-like appearance of woman, to the contemplation of the spirit behind the pretty exterior. Her beauty was so riante, so dazzling, so dainty, that it seemed to fire the very air as a sunbeam fires it, -- and there was no room for any more serious consideration than that of purely feminine charm. Walking dreamily, almost unseeingly through the streets, he thought again and yet again of the sweet face, the rippling hair, the laughing yet tender eyes, the sunny smile. Behind that beautiful picture or earth-phantom of womanhood, is there that sword of flame, the soul? -- the soul that will sweep through shams, and come out as bright and glittering at the end of the fight as at the beginning? -- he mused; -- or is it not almost too much to expect of a mere woman that she can contend against the anger of a Church?

He was still thinking on this subject, when someone walking quickly came face to face with him, and said --

|Aubrey!| He started and stared, -- then uttered a cry of pleasure.

|Gys Grandit!|

The two men clasped each other's hands in a warm, strong grasp -- and for a moment neither could speak.

|My dear fellow!| said Aubrey at last -- |This is indeed an unexpected meeting! How glad I am to see you! When did you arrive in Rome?|

|This morning only,| said Cyrillon, recovering his speech and his equanimity together -- |And as soon as I arrived, I found that my hopes had not betrayed me -- she is not dead!|

|She?| Aubrey started -- |My dear Grandit! Or rather I must call you Vergniaud now -- who is the triumphant 'she' that has brought you thus post haste to Rome?|

Cyrillon flushed -- then grew pale.

|I should not have spoken!| he said -- |And yet, why not! You were my first friend! -- you found me working in the fields, a peasant lad, untrained and sullen, burning up my soul with passionate thoughts which, but for you, might never have blossomed into action, -- you rescued me -- you made me all I am! So why should I not confess to you at once that there is a woman I love! -- yes, love with all my soul, though I have seen her but once! -- and she is too far off, too fair and great for me: she does not know I love her -- but I heard she had been murdered -- that she was dead -- |

|Angela Sovrani!| cried Aubrey.

Cyrillon bent his head as a devotee might at the shrine of a saint.

|Yes -- Angela Sovrani!|

Aubrey looked at his handsome face glowing with enthusiasm, and saw the passion, the tenderness, the devotion of a life flashing in his fine eyes.

|Love at first sight!| he said with a smile -- |I believe it is the only true fire! A glance ought to be enough to express the recognition of one soul to its mate. Well! Angela Sovrani is a woman among ten thousand -- the love of her alone is sufficient to make a man better and nobler in every way -- and if you can win her -- |

|Ah, that is impossible! She is already affianced -- |

Aubrey took his arm.

|Come with me, and I will tell you all I know,| he said -- |For there is much to say, -- and when you have heard everything, you may not be altogether without hope.|

They turned, and went towards the Corso, which they presently entered, and where numbers of passers-by paused involuntarily to look at the two men who offered such a marked contrast to each other, -- the one brown-haired and lithe, with dark, eager eyes, -- the other with the slim well set up figure of an athlete, and the fair head of a Saxon king. And of the many who so looked after them, none guessed that the one was destined in a few years' time to create a silent and bloodless French Revolution, which should give back to France her white lilies of faith and chivalry, -- or that the other was the upholder of such a perfect form of Christianity as should soon command the following of thousands in all parts of the world.

And while they thus walked through the Roman crowd, the two women they severally loved were talking of them. In Angela's sick-room, softly shaded from the light, with a cheery wood fire burning, Sylvie sat by her friend, telling her all she could think of that would interest her, and rouse her from the deep gravity of mood in which she nearly always found her. The weary days of pain and illness had given Angela a strange, new beauty, -- her face, delicate and pale, seemed transfigured by the working of the soul within, -- and her eyes, tired as they were and often heavy with tears, had a serenity in their depths which was not of earth, but all of Heaven. She was able now to move from her bed, and lie on a couch near the fire, -- and her little white hands moved caressingly and with loving care among the bunches of beautiful flowers which Sylvie had laid on her coverlet, -- daffodils, anemones, narcissi, violets, jonquils, and all the sweet-scented flowers of early spring which come to Rome in December from the blossoming fields of Sicily.

|How sweet they are!| she said with a half sigh, -- |They almost make me in love with life again!|

Sylvie said nothing, but only kissed her.

|How good you are to me, dearest Sylvie!| she then said -- |You deserve to be very happy!|

|Not half so much as you do!| responded Sylvie tenderly -- |I am of no use at all to the world; and you are! The world would not miss me a bit, but it would not find an Angela Sovrani again in a hurry!|

Angela raised a cluster of narcissi and inhaled their fine and delicate perfume. There were tears in her eyes, but she hid them with a spray of the flowers.

|Ah, Sylvie, you think too well of me! To be famous is nothing. To be loved is everything!|

Sylvie looked at her earnestly.

|You are loved,| she said.

|No, no!| she said -- |No, I am not loved. I am hated! Hush, Sylvie! -- do not say one word of what is in your mind, for I will not hear it!|

She spoke agitatedly, and her cheeks flushed a sudden feverish red.

Sylvie made haste to try and soothe her.

|My darling girl, I would not say anything to vex you for the world! You must not excite yourself -- |

|I am not excited,| said Angela, putting her arms round her friend and drawing her fair head down till it was half hidden against her own bosom -- |No -- but I must speak -- bear with me for a minute, dear! We all have our dreams, we women, and I have had mine! I dreamt there was such a beautiful thing in the world as a great, unselfish love, -- I fancied that a woman, if gifted with a little power and ability above the rest of her sex, could make the man she loved proud of her -- not jealous! -- I thought that a lover delighted in the attainments of his beloved -- I thought there was nothing too high, too great, too glorious to attempt for the sake of proving oneself worthy to be loved! And now -- I have found out the truth, Sylvie! -- a bitter truth, but no doubt good for me to know, -- that men will kill what they once caressed out of a mere grudge of the passing breath called Fame! Thus, Love is not what I dreamed it; and I, who was so foolishly glad to think that I was loved, have wakened up to know that I am hated! -- hated to the very extremity of hate, for a poor gift of brair and hand which I wish -- I wish I had never had!|

Sylvie raised her head and gently put aside the weak trembling little hands that embraced her.

|Angela, Angela! You must not scorn the gifts of the gods! No, No! -- you will not let me say anything -- you forbid me to express my thoughts fully, and I know you are not well enough to hear me yet -- but one day you WILL know! -- you will hear, -- you will even be thankful for all the sorrow you have passed through, -- and meanwhile, dear, dearest Angela, do not be ungrateful!|

She said the word boldly yet hesitatingly, bending over the couch tenderly, her eyes full of light, and a smile on her lips. And taking up a knot of daffodils she swept their cool blossoms softly across Angela's burning forehead, murmuring --

|Do not be ungrateful!|

|Ungrateful -- !| echoed Angela, -- and she moved restlessly.

|Yes, darling! Do not say you wish you never had received the great gifts God has given you. Do not judge of things by Sorrow's measurement only. I repeat -- you ARE loved -- though not perhaps where you most relied on love. Your father loves you -- your uncle loves you -- Manuel loves you . . .|

Angela interrupted her with a protesting gesture.

|Yes -- I know,| she murmured, |but -- |

|But you think all this love is worthless, as compared with a love that was no love at all?| said Sylvie. |There! We will not speak about it any more just now, -- you are not strong, and you see things in their darkest light. Shall I talk to you about Aubrey?|

|Ah! That is a subject you are never tired of!| said Angela with a faint smile. |Nor am I.|

|Well, you ought to be,| answered Sylvie gaily, |for I am too blindly, hopelessly in love to know when to stop! I see nothing else and know nothing else -- it is Aubrey, Aubrey all the time. The air, the sunlight, the whole world, seem only an admirable exposition of Aubrey!|

|Then how would you feel if he did not love you any more?| asked Angela.

|But that is not possible!| said Sylvie. |Aubrey could not change. It is not in him. He is not like our poor friend Fontenelle.|

|Ah! That love of yours was only fancy, Sylvie!|

|We all have our fancies!| answered the pretty Comtesse, looking very earnestly into Angela's eyes. |We are not always sure that what we first call love is love. But I had much more than a fancy for the Marquis Fontenelle. If he had loved me -- as I think he did at the last -- I should certainly have married him. But during all the time I knew him he had a way of relegating all women to the same level -- servants, actresses, ballet-dancers, and ladies alike, -- he would never admit that there is as much difference between one woman and another as between one man and another. And this is a mistake many men make. Fontenelle wished to treat me as Miraudin would have treated his 'leading lady'; -- he judged that quite sufficient for happiness. Now Aubrey treats me as his comrade, -- his friend as well as his love, and that makes our confidence perfect. By the way, he spoke to me a great deal yesterday about the Abbe Vergniaud, and told me all he knew about his son Cyrillon.|

|Ah, the poor Abbe!| said Angela. |They are angry with him still at the Vatican -- angry now with his dead body! But 'Gys Grandit' is not of the Catholic faith, so they can do nothing with him.|

|No. He is what they call a 'free-lance,'| said Sylvie. |And a wonderful personage he is! I You have seen him?|

A faint colour crept over Angela's pale cheeks.

|Yes. Once. Just once, in Paris, on the day his father publicly acknowledged him. But I wrote to him long before I knew who he realty was.|

|Angela! You wrote to him?|

|Yes. I admired the writings of Gys Grandit -- I used to buy all his books as they came out, and study them. I wrote to him -- as many people will write to a favourite author -- not in my own name of course -- to express my admiration, and he answered. And so we corresponded for about two years, not knowing each other's identity till that scene in Paris brought us together -- |

|How VERY curious, -- ve -- ry!| said Sylvie, with a little mischievous smile. |And so you are quite friends?|

|I think so -- I believe so -- | answered Angela -- |but since we met, he has ceased to write to me.|

Sylvie made a mental note of that fact in her own mind, very much to the credit of |Gys Grandit,| but said nothing further on the subject. Time was hastening on, and she had to return to the Casa D'Angeli to receive Monsignor Gherardi.

|I am going to be lectured I suppose,| she said laughingly. |I have not seen the worthy Domenico since my engagement to Aubrey was announced!|

Angela looked at her intently.

|Are you at all prepared for what he will say?|

|Not in the least. What CAN he say?|

|Much that may vex you,| said Angela. |Considering Aubrey Leigh's theories, he may perhaps reproach you for your intended marriage -- or he may bring you information of the Pope's objection.|

|Well! What of that?| demanded Sylvie.

|But you are a devout Catholic -- |

|And you? With a great Cardinal for your uncle you paint 'The Coming of Christ'! Ah! -- I have seen that picture, Angela!|

|But I am different, -- I am a worker, and I fear nothing,| said Angela, her eyes beginning to shine with the latent force in her that was gradually resuming its dominion over her soul -- |I thought long and deeply before I put my thought into shape -- |

|And I thought long and deeply before I decided to be the companion of Aubrey's life and work!| said Sylvie resolutely. |And neither the Pope or a whole college of Cardinals will change my love or prevent my marriage. A riverderci!|

|A riverderci!| echoed Angela, raising herself a little to receive the kiss her friend tenderly pressed on her cheeks. |I shall be anxious to know the result of your interview!|

|I will come round early to-morrow and tell you all,| promised Sylvie, |for I mean to find out, if I can, what happened at the Vatican when Cardinal Bonpre last went there with Manuel.|

|My uncle is most anxious to leave Rome,| said Angela musingly.

|I know. And if there is any plot against him he MUST leave Rome -- he SHALL leave it! And we will help him!|

With that she went her way, and an hour or so later stood, a perfect picture of grace and beauty, in the grand old rooms of the Casa D'Angeli, waiting to receive Gherardi. She had taken more than the usual pains with her toilette this afternoon, and had chosen to wear a |creation| of wonderful old lace, with knots of primrose and violet velvet caught here and there among its folds. It suited her small lissom figure to perfection, and her only ornaments were a cluster of fresh violets, and one ring sparkling on her left hand, -- a star of rose brilliants and rubies, the sign of her betrothal.

Punctual to the hour appointed, Gherardi arrived, and was at once shown into her presence. There was a touch of aggressiveness and irony in his manner as he entered with his usual slow and dignified step, and though he endeavoured to preserve that suavity and cold calmness for which he was usually admired and feared by women, his glance was impatient, and an occasional biting of his lips showed suppressed irritation. The first formal greetings over, he said --

|I have wished for some time to call upon you, Contessa, but the pressure of affairs at the Vatican -- |

He stopped abruptly, looking at her. How provokingly pretty she was! -- and how easily indifferent she seemed to the authoritative air he had chosen to assume.

|I should, I know, long ere this have offered you my felicitations on your approaching marriage -- |

Sylvie smiled bewitchingly, and gave him a graceful curtsey.

|Will you not sit down, Monsignor?| she then said. |We can talk more at our ease, do you not think?|

She seated herself, with very much the air of a queen taking possession of a rightful throne, and Gherardi was vexedly aware that he had not by any means the full possession of his ordinary dignity or self-control. He took a chair opposite to her and sat for a moment perplexed as to his next move. Sylvie did not help him at all. Ruffling the violets among the lace at her neck, she looked at him attentively from under her long golden-brown lashes, but maintained a perfect silence.

|The news has been received by the Holy Father with great pleasure,| he said at last. |His special benediction will grace your wedding- day.|

Sylvie bent her head.

|The Holy Father is most gracious!| she replied quietly. |And he is also more liberal than I imagined, if he is willing to bestow his special benediction on my marriage with one who is considered a heretic by the Church.|

He flashed a keen glance at her, -- then forced a smile. |Mr. Leigh's heresy is of the past,| he said -- |We welcome him -- with you -- as one of us!|

Sylvie was silent. He waited, inwardly cursing her tranquillity. Then, as she still did not speak, he went on in smooth accents --

|The Church pardons all who truly repent. She welcomes all who come to her in confidence, no matter how tardy or hesitating their approach. We shall receive the husband of our daughter Sylvie Hermenstein, with such joy as the prodigal son was in old time received -- and of his past mistakes and follies there shall be neither word nor memory!|

Then Sylvie looked up and fixed her deep blue eyes steadily upon him.

|Caro Monsignor!| she said very sweetly. |Why talk all this nonsense to me? Do you not realise that as the betrothed wife of Aubrey Leigh I am past the Church counsel or command?|

Gherardi still smiled.

|Past Church counsel or command?| he murmured with an indulgent air, as though he were talking to a very small child. |Pardon me if I am at a loss to understand -- |

|Oh, you understand very well!| said Sylvie. |You know perfectly -- or you should -- that a wife's duty is to obey her husband, -- and that in future HIS Church, -- not yours, -- must be hers also.|

|Surely you speak in riddles?| said Gherardi, preserving his suave equanimity. |Mr. Leigh is (or was) a would-be ardent reformer, but he has no real Church.|

|Then I have none!| replied Sylvie.

There was a moment's silence. A black rage began to kindle in Gherardi's soul, -- rage all the more intense because so closely suppressed.

|I am still at a loss to follow you, Contessa,| he said coldly. |Surely you do not mean to imply that your marriage will sever you from the Church of your fathers?|

|Monsignor, marriage for me means an oath before God to take my husband for better or for worse, and to be true to him under all trial and circumstances,| said Sylvie. |And I assuredly mean to keep that oath! Whatever his form of faith, I intend to follow it, -- as I intend to obey his commands, whatever they may be, or wherever they may lead. For this, to me, is the only true love, -- this to me, is the only possible 'holy' estate of matrimony. And for the Church -- a Church which does not hesitate to excommunicate a dying man, and persecute a good one, -- I will leave the possibility of its wrath, together with all other consequences of my act -- to God!|

For one moment Gherardi felt that he could have sprung upon her and throttled her. The next, he had mastered himself sufficiently to speak, -- this woman, so slight, so beautiful, so insolent should not baffle him, he resolved! -- and bending his dark brows menacingly, he addressed her in his harshest and most peremptory manner.

|You talk of God,| he said, |as a child talks of the sun and moon, with as little meaning, and less comprehension! What impertinence it is for a woman like yourself, -- vain, weak and worldly, -- to assert your own will -- your own thought and opinion -- in the face of the Most High! What! YOU will desert the Church? YOU whose ancestors have for ages been devout servants of the faith? YOU, the last descendant of the Counts Hermenstein, a noble and loyal family, will degrade your birth by taking up with the rags and tags of humanity -- the scarecrows of life? And by your sheer stupidity and obstinacy, you will allow your husband's soul to be dragged to perdition with your own! You call it love -- to keep him an infidel? You call it marriage- -to be united to him without the blessings of Holy Church? Where is your reason? -- Where is your judgment? -- Where your faith?|

|Not in my bank, Monsignor!| replied Sylvie coldly. |Though that is the place where you would naturally expect to find these virtues manifested, and the potency of their working substantially proved! Pardon! -- I have no wish to offend -- but your manner to ME is offensive, and unless you are disposed to discuss this matter temperately, I must close our interview!|

Gherardi flushed a dark red, then grew pale. After all, the Countess Hermenstein was in her own house, -- she had the right to command his exit if she chose. Small and slight as she was, she had a dignity and power as great as his own, and if anything was to be gained from her it was necessary to temporize. Among many other qualifications for the part he had to play in life, he was an admirable actor, and would have made his fortune on the legitimate stage, -- and this |quick change| ability served him in good stead now. He rose from his chair as though moved by uncontrollable agitation, and walked to the window, then turned again and came slowly and with bent head towards her.

|Forgive me!| he said simply. |I was wrong!|

Sylvie, easily moved to kindness, was touched by this apparent humility on the part of a man so renowned for unflinching hauteur, and she at once gave him her hand.

|I shall forget your words!| she said gently. |So there is nothing to pardon.|

|Thank you for your generosity,| he said, still standing before her and preserving his grave and quiet demeanour. |In my zeal for Holy Church, my tongue frequently outruns my prudence. I confess you have hurt me, -- cruelly! You are a mere child to me -- young, beautiful, beloved, -- and I am growing old; I have sacrificed all the joys of life for the better serving of the faith -- but I have kept a few fair dreams -- and one of the fairest was my belief in YOU!|

Sylvie looked at him searchingly, but his eyes did not flinch in meeting hers.

|I am sorry you are disappointed, Monsignor,| she began, when he raised his hand deprecatingly.

|No -- I am not disappointed as yet!| he said, with an affectation of great kindness. |Because I do not permit myself to believe that you will allow me to be disappointed! Just now you made a passing allusion -- and I venture to say a hasty and unworthy one -- to your 'bank,' as if my whole soul were set on retaining you as a daughter of the Church for your great wealth's sake only! Contessa, you are mistaken! Give me credit for higher and nobler motives! Grant me the right to be a little better -- a little more disinterested, than perhaps popular rumour describes me, -- believe me to be at least your friend -- |

He paused -- his voice apparently broken by emotion, and turning away his head he paced the room once more and finally sat down, covering his eyes with one hand, in an admirably posed attitude of fatigue and sorrow.

Sylvie was perplexed, and somewhat embarrassed. She had never seen him in this kind of humour before. She was accustomed to a certain domineering authority in his language, rendered all the more difficult to endure by the sarcasm with which he sometimes embittered his words, as though he had dipped them in gall before pronouncing them, -- but this apparent abandonment of reserve, this almost touching assumption of candour, were phases of his histrionical ability which he had never till now displayed in her presence.

|Monsignor,| she said after a little silence, |I sincerely ask your pardon if I have wronged you, even in a thought! I had no real intention of doing so, and if anything I have said has seemed to you unduly aggressive or unjust, I am sorry! But you yourself began to scold| -- and she smiled -- |and I am not in the humour to be scolded! Though, to speak quite frankly, I have always been more or less prepared for a little trouble on the subject of my intended marriage with Mr. Aubrey Leigh, -- I have felt and known all along that it would incur the Pope's displeasure . . .|

Here Gherardi uncovered his eyes and looked at her fully.

|But there you are mistaken!| he said gently, with a smile that was almost paternal. |I know of nothing in recent years that has given the Holy Father greater satisfaction!|

She glanced at him quickly but said nothing, whereat he was secretly annoyed. Why did she not express her wonder and delight at the Pope's lenity, as almost any other woman in her position would have done? Her outward appearance was that of child-like ultra- femininity, -- how was it then that he felt as if she were mentally fencing with him, and that her intellectual sword-play threatened to surpass his own?

|Nothing,| he repeated suavely, |has given the Holy Father greater satisfaction! For very naturally, he looks upon you as one of his most faithful children, and rejoices that by the power of perfect love -- love which is an emanation of the Divine Spirit in itself -- you have been chosen by our Lord to draw so gifted and brilliant a man as Aubrey Leigh out of the error of his ways and bring him into the true fold!|

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