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Sermon Podcast | Audio | Video : Christian Books : XXXV. During these various changes in the lives of those with whom he had been moreà

The Master-christian by Marie Corelli

XXXV. During these various changes in the lives of those with whom he had been moreà

During these various changes in the lives of those with whom he had been more or less connected, Florian Varillo lay between life and death in the shelter of a Trappist monastery on the Campagna. When he had been seized by the delirium and fever which had flung him, first convulsed and quivering, and then totally insensible, at the foot of the grim, world-forgotten men who passed the midnight hours in digging their own graves, he had been judged by them as dying or dead, and had been carried into a sort of mortuary chapel, cold and bare, and lit only by the silver moonbeams and the flicker of a torch one of the monks carried. Waking in this ghastly place, too weak to struggle, he fell a-moaning like a tortured child, and was, on showing this sign of life, straight-way removed to one of the cells. Here, after hours of horrible suffering, of visions more hideous than Dante's Hell, of stupors and struggles, of fits of strong shrieking, followed by weak tears, he woke one afternoon calm and coherent, -- to find himself lying on a straight pallet bed in a narrow stone chamber, dimly lighted by a small slit of window, through which a beam of the sun fell aslant, illumining the blood- stained features of a ghastly Christ stretched on a black crucifix directly opposite him. He shuddered as he saw this, and half-closed his eyes with a deep sigh.

|Tired -- tired!| said a thin clear voice beside him. |Always tired! It is only God who is never weary!|

Varillo opened his eyes again languidly, and turned them on a monk sitting beside him, -- a monk whose face was neither old nor young, but which presented a singular combination of both qualities. His high forehead, white as marble, had no furrows to mar its smoothness, and from under deep brows a pair of wondering wistful brown eyes peered like the eyes of a lost and starving child. The cheeks were gaunt and livid, the flesh hanging in loose hollows from the high and prominent bones, yet the mouth was that of a youth, firm, well-outlined and sweet in expression, and when he smiled as he did now, he showed an even row of small pearly teeth which might have been envied by many a fair woman.

|Only God who is never weary!| he said, nodding his head slowly, |but we -- you and I -- we are soon tired!|

Varillo looked at him dubiously; and a moment's thought decided him to assume a certain amount of meekness and docility with this evident brother of some religious order, so that he might obtain both sympathy and confidence from him, and from all whom he might be bound to serve. Ill and weak as he was, the natural tendency of his brain to scheme for his own advantage, was not as yet impaired.

|Ah, yes!| he sighed, |I am very tired! -- very ill! I do not know what has happened to me -- nor even where I am. What place is this?|

|It is a place where the dead come!| responded the monk. |The dead in heart! the dead in soul -- the dead in sin! They come to bury themselves, lest God should find them and crush them into dust before they have time to say a prayer! Like Adam and his wife, they hide themselves 'from the presence of the Lord among the trees of the garden.'|

Varillo raised himself on one elbow, and stared at the pale face and smiling mouth of the speaker in fear and wonder.

|'A place where the dead come!'| he echoed. |But you are alive -- and so am I!|

|You may be -- I am not,| said the monk quietly. |I died long ago! People who are alive say we are men, though we know ourselves to be ghosts merely. This place is called by the world a Trappist monastery, -- you will go out of it if indeed you are alive -- you must prove that first! But we shall never come out, because we are dead. One never comes out of the grave!|

With an effort Varillo tried to control the tremor of his nerves, and to understand and reason out these enigmatical sentences of his companion. He began to think -- and then to remember, -- and by and by was able to conjure up the picture of himself as he had last been conscious of existence, -- himself standing outside the gates of a great building on the Campagna, and shaking the iron bars to and fro. It was a Trappist monastery then? -- and he was being taken charge of by the Trappist Order? This fact might possibly be turned to his account if he were careful. He lay down once more on his pillow and closed his eyes, and under this pretence of sleep, pondered his position. What were they saying of him in Rome? Was Angela buried? And her great picture? What had become of it?

|How long have I been here?| he asked suddenly.

The monk gave a curious deprecatory gesture with his hands.

|Since you died! So long have you been dead!|

Varillo surveyed him with a touch of scorn.

|You talk in parables -- like your Master!| he said with a feeble attempt at a laugh. |I am not strong enough to understand you! And if you are a Trappist monk, why do you talk at all? I thought one of your rules was perpetual silence?|

|Silence? Yes -- everyone is silent but me!| said the monk -- |I may talk -- because I am only Ambrosio, -- mad Ambrosio! -- something wrong here!| And he touched his forehead. |A little teasing demon lives always behind my eyes, piercing my brain with darts of fire. And he obliges me to talk; he makes me say things I should not -- and for all the mischief he works upon me I wear this -- see!| -- And springing up suddenly he threw aside the folds of his garment, and displayed his bare chest, over which a coarse rope was crossed and knotted so tightly, that the blood was oozing from the broken flesh on either side of it. |For every word I say, I bleed!|

Varillo gave a nervous cry and covered his eyes.

|Do not be afraid!| said Ambrosio, drawing his robe together again, |It is only flesh -- not spirit -- that is wounded! Flesh is our great snare, -- it persuades us to eat, to sleep, to laugh, to love -- the spirit commands none of these things. The spirit is of God -- it wants neither food nor rest, -- it is pure and calm, -- it would escape to Heaven if the flesh did not cramp its wings!|

Varillo took his hand from his eyes and tossed himself back on his pillow with a petulant moan.

|Can they do nothing better for me than this?| he ejaculated. |To place me here in this wretched cell alone with a madman!|

Ambrosio stood by the pallet bed looking down upon him with a sort of child-like curiosity.

|No better than this?| he echoed. |Would you have anything better? Safe -- safe from the world, -- no one can find you or follow you -- no one can discover your sin -- |

|Sin! What sin!| demanded Varillo fiercely. |You talk like a fool -- as you own yourself to be! I have committed no sin!|

|Good -- good!| said Ambrosio. |Then you must be canonized with all the rest of the saints! And St. Peter's shall be illuminated, and the Pope shall be carried in to see you and to lay his hands upon you, and they shall shout to him, 'Tu es Petrus!' and no one will remember what kind of a bruised, bleeding, tortured, broken-down Head of the Church stood before the multitude when Pilate cried 'Ecce homo!'|

Varillo stared at him in unwilling fascination. He seemed carried beyond himself, -- it was as though some other force spoke through him, and though he scarcely raised his voice, its tone was so clear, musical, and penetrative that it seemed to give light and warmth to the cold dullness of the cell.

|You must not mind me!| he went on softly, |My thoughts have all gone wrong, they tell me, -- so have my words. I was young once -- and in that time I used to study hard and try to understand what it was that God wished me to do with my life. But there were so many things -- so much confusion -- so much difficulty -- and the end is -- here!| He smiled. |Well! It is a quiet end, -- they say the devil knocks at the gate of the monastery often at midnight, but he never enters in, -- never -- unless perchance you are he!|

Varillo turned himself about pettishly.

|If I were he, I should not trouble you long,| he said. |Even the devil might be glad to make exit from such a hole as this! Who is your Superior?|

|We have only one Superior, -- God!| replied Ambrosio. |He who never slumbers or sleeps -- He who troubles Himself to look into everything, from the cup of a flower to the heart of a man! Who shall escape the lightning of His glance, or think to cover up a hidden vileness from the discovery of the Most High?|

|I did not ask you for pious jargon,| said Varillo, beginning to lose temper, yet too physically weak to contend with the wordy vagaries of this singular personage who had evidently been told off to attend upon him. |I asked you who is the Head or Ruler of this community? Who gives you the daily rule of conduct which you all obey?|

Ambrosio's brown eyes grew puzzled, and he shook his head.

|I obey no one,| he said. |I am mad Ambrosio! -- I walk about in my grave, and speak, and sing, while others remain silent. I would tell you if I knew of anyone greater than God, -- but I do not!|

Varillo uttered an impatient groan. It was no good asking this creature anything, -- his answers were all wide of the mark.

|God,| went on Ambrosio, turning his head towards the light that came streaming in through the narrow window of the cell, |is in that sunbeam! He can enter where He will, and we never know when we shall meet Him face to face! He may possess with His spirit the chaste body of a woman, as in our Blessed Lady, -- or He may come to us in the form of a child, speaking to the doctors in the temple and arguing with them on the questions of life and death. He is in all things; and the very beggar at our gates who makes trial of our charity, may for all we know, be our Lord disguised! Shall I tell you a strange story?|

Varillo gave a weary sign of assent, half closing his eyes. It was better this crazed fool should talk, he thought, than that he should lie there and listen, as it were, to the deadly silence which in the pauses of the conversation could be felt, like the brooding heaviness of a thick cloud hanging over the monastery walls.

|It happened long ago,| said Ambrosio. |There was a powerful prince who thought that to be rich and strong was sufficient to make all the world his own. But the world belongs to God, -- and He does not always give it over to the robber and spoiler. This prince I tell you of, had been the lover of a noble lady, but he was false- hearted; and the false soon grow weary of love! And so, tiring of her beauty and her goodness, he stabbed her mortally to death, and thought no one had seen him do the deed. For the only witness to it was a ray of moonlight falling through the window -- just as the sunlight falls now! -- see!| And he pointed to the narrow aperture which lit the cell, while Florian Varillo, shuddering in spite of himself, lay motionless. |But when the victim was dead, this very ray of moonlight turned to the shape of a great angel, and the angel wore the semblance of our Lord, -- and the glory and the wonder of that vision was as the lightning to slay and utterly destroy! And from that hour for many years, the murderer was followed by a ray of light, which never left him; all day he saw it flickering in his path, -- all night it flashed across his bed, driving sleep from his eyes and rest from his brain! -- till at last maddened by remorse he confessed his crime to a priest, and was taken into a grave like this, a monastery, -- where he died, so they say, penitent. But whether he was forgiven, the story does not say!|

|It is a stupid story!| said Varillo, opening his eyes, and smiling in the clear, candid way he always assumed when he had anything to hide. |It has neither point nor meaning.|

|You think not?| said Ambrosio. |But perhaps you are not conscious of God. If you were, that sunbeam we see now should make you careful, lest an angel should be in it!|

|Careful? Why should I be careful?| Varillo half raised himself on the bed. |I have nothing to hide!|

At this Ambrosio began to laugh.

|Oh, you are happy -- happy!| he exclaimed. |You are the first I ever heard say that! Nothing to hide! Oh, fortunate, fortunate man! Then indeed you should not be here -- for we all have something to hide, and we are afraid even of the light, -- that is why we make such narrow holes for it; we are always praying God not to look at our sins, -- not to uncover them and show us what vile souls we are -- we men who could be as gods in life, if we did not choose to be devils- -|

Here he suddenly broke off, and a curious grey rigidity stole over his features, as if some invisible hand were turning him into stone. His eyes sparkled feverishly, but otherwise his face was the lace of the dead. The horrible fixity of his aspect at that moment, so terrified Varillo that he gave a loud cry, and almost before he knew he had uttered it, another monk entered the cell. Varillo gazed at him affrightedly, and pointed to Ambrosio. The monk said nothing, but merely took the rigid figure by its arm and shook it violently. Then, as suddenly as he had lost speech and motion, Ambrosio recovered both, and went on talking evenly, taking up the sentence he had broken off -- |If we did not choose to be as devils, we might be as gods!| Then looking around him with a smile, he added, |Now you are here, Filippo, you will explain!|

The monk addressed as Filippo remained silent, still holding him by the arm, and presently quietly guiding him, led him out of the cell. When the two brethren had disappeared, Varillo fell back on his pillows exhausted.

|What am I to do now?| he thought. |I must have been here many days! -- all Rome must know of Angela's death -- all Rome must wonder at my absence -- all Rome perhaps suspects me of being her murderer! And yet -- this illness may be turned to some account. I can say that it was caused by grief at hearing the sudden news of her death -- that I was stricken down by my despair -- but then -- I must not forget -- I was to have been in Naples. Yes -- the thing looks suspicious -- I shall be tracked! -- I must leave Italy. But how?|

Bathed in cold perspiration he lay, wondering, scheming, devising all sorts of means of escape from his present surroundings, when he became suddenly aware of a tall dark figure in the cell, -- a figure muffled nearly to its eyes, which had entered with such stealthy softness and silence as to give almost the impression of some supernatural visitant. He uttered a faint exclamation -- the figure raised one hand menacingly.

|Be silent!| These words were uttered in a harsh whisper. |If you value your life, hold your peace till I have said what I come to say!|

Moving to the door of the cell, the mysterious visitor bolted it across and locked it -- then dropped the disguising folds of his heavy mantle and monk's cowl, and disclosed the face and form of Domenico Gherardi. Paralysed with fear Varillo stared at him, -- every drop of blood seemed to rush from his heart to his brain, turning him sick and giddy, for in the dark yet fiery eyes of the priest, there was a look that would have made the boldest tremble.

|I knew that you were here,| he said, his thin lips widening at the corners in a slight disdainful smile. |I saw you at the inn on the road to Frascati, and watched you shrink and tremble as I spoke of the murder of Angela Sovrani! You screened your face behind a paper you were reading, -- that was not necessary, for your hand shook, -- and so betrayed itself as the hand of the assassin!|

With a faint moan, Varillo shudderingly turned away and buried his head in his pillow.

|Why do you now wish to hide yourself?| pursued Gherardi. |Now when you are an honest man at last, and have shown yourself in your true colors? You were a liar hitherto, but now you have discovered yourself to be exactly as the devil made you, why you can look at me without fear -- we understand each other!|

Still Varillo hid his eyes and moaned, and Gherardi thereupon laid a rough hand on his shoulder.

|Come, man! You are not a sick child to lie cowering there as though seized by the plague! What ails you? You have done no harm! You tried to kill something that stood in your way, -- I admire you for that! I would do the same myself at any moment!|

Slowly Varillo lifted himself and looked up at the dark strong face above him.

|A pity you did not succeed!| went on Gherardi, |for the world would have been well rid of at least one feminine would-be 'genius,' whose skill puts that of man to shame! But perhaps it may comfort you to know that your blow was not strong enough or deep enough, and that your betrothed wife yet lives to wed you -- if she will!|

|Lives!| cried Florian. |Angela lives!|

|Ay, Angela lives!| replied Gherardi coldly. |Does that give you joy? Does your lover's heart beat with ecstasy to know that she -- twenty times more gifted than you, a hundred times more famous than you, a thousand times more beloved by the world than you -- lives, to be crowned with an immortal fame, while you are relegated to scorn and oblivion! Does that content you?|

A dull red flush crept over Varillo's cheeks, -- his hand flenched the coverlet of his bed convulsively.

|Lives!| He muttered. |She lives! Then it must be by a miracle! For I drove the steel deep . . . deep home!|

Gherardi looked at him curiously, with the air of a scientist watching some animal writhing under vivisection.

|Perhaps Cardinal Felix prayed for her!| he said mockingly, |and even as he healed the crippled child in Rouen he may have raised his niece from the dead! But miracle or no miracle, she lives. That is why I am here!|

|Why -- you -- are -- here?| repeated Varillo mechanically.

|How dull you are!| said Gherardi tauntingly. |A man like you with a dozen secret intrigues in Rome, should surely be able to grasp a situation better! Angela Sovrani lives, I tell you, -- I am here to help you to kill her more surely! Your first attempt was clumsy, -- and dangerous to yourself, but -- murder her reputation, amico, murder her reputation! -- and so build up your own!|

Slowly Varillo turned his eyes upon him. Gherardi met them unflinchingly, and in that one glance the two were united in the spirit of their evil intention.

|You are a man,| went on Gherardi, watching him closely. |Will you permit yourself to be baffled and beaten in the race for fame by a woman? Shame on you if you do! Listen! I am prepared to swear that you are innocent of having attempted the murder of your affianced wife, and I will also assert that the greater part of her picture was painted by you, though you were, out of generosity and love for her, willing to let her take the credit of the whole conception!|

Varillo started upright.

|God!| he cried. |Is it possible! Will you do this for me?|

|Not for you -- No,| said Gherardi contemptuously. |I will do nothing for you! If I saw you lying in the road at my feet dying for want of a drop of water, I would not give it to you! What I do, I do for myself -- and the Church!|

By this time Varillo had recovered his equanimity. A smile came readily to his lips as he said --

|Ah, the Church! Excellent institution! Like charity, it covers a multitude of sins!|

|It exists for that object,| answered Gherardi with a touch of ironical humor. |Its own sins it covers, -- and shows up the villainies of those who sin outside its jurisdiction. Angela Sovrani is one of these, -- her uncle the Cardinal is another, -- Sylvie Hermenstein -- |

|What of her?| cried Varillo, his eyes sparkling. |Is her marriage broken off?|

|Broken off!| Gherardi gave a fierce gesture. |Would that it were! No! She renounces the Church for the sake of Aubrey Leigh -- she leaves the faith of her fathers -- |

|And takes the wealth of her fathers with her!| finished Varillo, maliciously. |I see! I understand! The Church has reason for anger!|

|It has reason!| echoed Gherardi. |And we of the Church choose you as the tool wherewith to work our vengeance. And why? Because you are a born liar! -- because you can look straight in the eyes of man or woman, and swear to a falsehood without flinching! -- because you are an egotist, and will do anything to serve yourself -- because you have neither heart nor conscience -- nor soul nor feeling, -- because you are an animal in desires and appetite,-because of this, I say, we yoke you to our chariot wheels, knowing you may be trusted to drive over and trample down the creatures that might be valuable to you if they did not stand in your way!|

Such bitterness, such scorn, such loathing were in his accents, that even the callous being he addressed was stung, and made a feeble gesture of protest.

|You judge me harshly,| he began --

Gherardi laughed.

|Judge you! Not I! No judgment is wanted. I read you like a book through and through, -- a book that should be set on Nature's Index Expurgatorius, as unfit to meet the eyes of the faithful! You are a low creature, Florian Varillo, -- and unscrupulous as I am myself, I despise you for meanness greater than even I am capable of! But you are a convenient tool, ready to hand, and I use you for the Church's service! If you were to refuse to do as I bid you, I would brand you through the world as the murderer you are! So realize to the full how thoroughly I have you in my power. Now understand me, -- you must leave this place to-morrow. I will send my carriage for you, and you shall come at once to me, to me in Rome as my guest, -- my HONOURED guest!| And he emphasized the word sarcastically. |You are weak and ill yet, they tell me here, -- so much the better for you. It will make you all the more interesting! You will find it easier to play the part of injured innocence! Do you understand?|

|I understand,| answered Varillo with a faint shudder, for the strong and relentless personality of Gherardi overpowered him with a sense of terror which he could not wholly control.

|Good! Then we will say no more. Brief words are best on such burning matters. To-morrow at six in the afternoon I will send for you. Be ready! Till then -- try to rest -- try to sleep without dreaming of a scaffold!|

He folded his mantle around him again and prepared to depart.

|Sleep,| he repeated. |Sleep with a cold heart and quiet mind! Think that it is only a woman's name -- a woman's work -- a woman's honour, that stand in your way, -- and congratulate yourself with the knowledge that the Church and her Divine authority will help you to remove all three! Farewell!|

He turned, and unlocked the door of the cell. As he threw it open, he was confronted by the monk Ambrosio, who was outside on the very threshold.

|What are you doing here?| he demanded suspiciously. |I had a permit from the Superior to speak to your charge alone.|

|And were you not alone?| returned Ambrosio smiling. |I was not with you! I was here as sentinel, to prevent anyone disturbing you. Poor Ambrosio -- mad Ambrosio! He is no good at all except to guard the dead!|

Gherardi looked at him scrutinizingly, and noted the lack-lustre eyes, the helpless childish expression, of the half-young, half-old face confronting his own.

|Guard the dead as much as you please,| he said harshly. |But take heed how you spy on the living! Be careful of the sick man lying yonder -- we want him back with us in Rome to-morrow.|

Ambrosio nodded.

|Back in Rome -- good -- good!| he said. |Then he is living after all! I thought he was dead in his sins as I am, -- but you tell me he lives, and will go back to Rome! -- Oh yes -- I will take care of him -- good care! -- do not fear! I know how to guard him so that he shall not escape you!|

Gherardi looked at him again sharply, but he was playing with his long rosary and smiling foolishly, and there seemed no use in wasting further speech upon him. So, muffling himself in his cloak, he strode away, and Ambrosio entered the cell.

|You shall have meat and wine presently,| he said, approaching the bed where Florian lay. |The devil has given orders that you shall be well fed!|

Varillo looked up and smiled kindly. He could assume any expression at command, and it suited his purpose just now to be all gentleness.

|My poor friend!| he said compassionately. |Your wits are far astray! Devil? Nay -- he who has just left us is more of a saint!|

Ambrosio's brown eyes flashed, but he maintained a grave and immovable aspect.

|The devil has often mocked us in saint's disguise,| he said slowly. |I tell the porter here every night to keep the gates well locked against him, -- but this time it was no use; he has entered in. And now we shall have great work to get him out!|

Varillo resting his head on one arm, studied him curiously.

|You must have lived a strange life in the world!| he said. |That is if you were ever in the world at all. Were you?|

|Oh yes, I was in the world,| replied Ambrosio calmly. |I was in the midst of men and women who passed their whole lives in acts of cruelty and treachery to one another. I never met a man who was honest; I never saw a woman who was true! I wondered where God was that He permitted such vile beings to live and take His name in vain. He seemed lost and gone, -- I could not find Him!|

|Ah!| ejaculated Florian languidly. |And did yon discover Him here? In this monastery?|

|No -- He is not here, for we are all dead men,| said Ambrosio. |And God is the God of the living, not the God of the dead! Shall I tell you where I found him?| And he advanced a step or two, raising one hand warningly as though he were entrusted with some message of doom -- |I found Him in sin! I tried to live a life of truth in a world of lies, but the lies were too strong for me, -- they pulled me down! I fell -- into a black pit of crime -- reckless, determined, conscious wickedness, -- and so found God -- in my punishment!|

He clasped his hands together with an expression of strange ecstasy.

|Down into the darkness!| he said. |Down through long vistas of shadow and blackness you go, glad and exultant, delighting in evil, and thinking 'God sees me not!' And then suddenly at the end, a sword of fire cuts the darkness asunder, -- and the majesty of the Divine Law breaks your soul on the wheel!|

He looked steadfastly at Varillo.

|So you will find, -- so you must find, if you ever go down into the darkness.|

|Ay, if I ever go,| said Florian gently. |But I shall not.|

|No? -- then perhaps you are there already?| said Ambrosio smiling, and playing with his rosary. |For those who say they will never sin have generally sinned!|

Varillo held the same kind look of compassion in his eyes. He was fond of telling his fellow-artists that he had a |plastic| face, -- and this quality served him well just now. He might have been a hero and martyr, from the peaceful and patient expression of his features, and he so impressed by his manner a lay-brother who presently entered to give him his evening meal, that he succeeded in getting rid of Ambrosio altogether.

|You are sure you are strong enough to be left without an attendant?| asked the lay-brother solicitously, quite captivated by the gentleness of his patient. |There is a special evening service to-night in the chapel, and Ambrosio should be there to play the organ -- for he plays well -- but this duty had been given to Fra Filippo -- |

|Nay, but let Ambrosio fulfil his usual task,| said Varillo considerately. |I am much better -- much stronger, -- and as my good friend Monsignor Gherardi desires me to be in Rome to-morrow, and to stay with him till I am quite restored to health, I must try to rest as quietly as I can till my hour of departure.|

|You must be a great man to have Domenico Gherardi for a friend!| said the lay-brother wistfully.

Here Ambrosio suddenly burst into a loud laugh.

|You are right! He is a great man! -- one of the greatest in Rome, or for that matter in the world! And he means to be yet greater!| And with that he turned on his heel and left the cell abruptly.

Varillo, languidly sipping the wine that had been brought to him with his food, looked after him with a pitying smile.

|Poor soul!| he said gently.

|He was famous once,| said the lay-brother, lowering his voice as he spoke. |One of the most famous sculptors in Europe. But something went wrong with his life, and he came here. It is difficult to make him understand orders, or obey them, but the Superior allows him to remain on account of his great skill in music. On that point at least he is sane.|

|Indeed!| said Varillo indifferently. He was beginning to weary of the conversation, and wished to be alone. |It is well for him that he is useful to you in some regard. And now, my friend, will you leave me to rest awhile? If it be possible I shall try to sleep now till morning.|

|One of us will come to you at daybreak,| said the lay-brother. |You are still very weak -- you will need assistance to dress. Your clothes are here at the foot of the bed. I hope you will sleep well.|

|Thank you!| said Varillo, conveying an almost tearful look of gratitude into his eyes -- |You are very good to me! God bless you!|

The lay-brother made a gentle deprecatory gesture of his hands and retired, and Varillo was left to his own reflections. He lay still, thinking deeply, and marvelling at the unexpected rescue out of his difficulties so suddenly afforded him.

|With Gherardi to support me, I can say anything!| he mused, his heart beating quickly and exultingly. |I can say anything and swear anything! And even if the sheath of my dagger has been found, it will be no proof, for I can say it is not mine. Any lie I choose to tell will have Gherardi's word to warrant it! -- so I am safe -- unless Angela speaks!|

He considered this possibility for a moment, then smiled.

|But she never will! She is one of those strange women who endure without complaint, -- she is too lofty and pure for the ways of the world, and the world naturally takes vengeance upon her. There is not a man born that does not hate too pure a woman; it is his joy to degrade her if he can! This is the way of Nature; what is a woman made for except to subject herself to her master! And when she rises superior to him -- superior in soul, intellect, heart and mind, he sees in her nothing but an abnormal prodigy, to be stared at, laughed at, despised -- but never loved! The present position of affairs is Angela's fault, not mine. She should not have concealed the work she was doing from her lover, who had the right to know all her secrets!|

He laughed, -- a low malicious laugh, and then lay tranquilly on his pillows gazing at the gradually diminishing light. Day was departing -- night was coming on, -- and as the shadows lengthened, the solemn sound of the organ began to vibrate through the walls of the monastery like far-off thunder growing musical. With a certain sensuous delight in the beautiful, Varillo listened to it with pleasure; he had no mind to probe the true meaning of music, but the mere sound was soothing and sublime, and seemed in its gravity, to match the |tone| of the light that was gradually waning. So satisfied was he with that distant pulse of harmony that he began weaving some verses in his head to |His Absent Lady,| -- and succeeded in devising quite a charming lyric to her whose honour and renown he was ready to kill. So complex, so curious, so callous, yet sensuous, and utterly egotistical was his nature, that had Angela truly died under his murderous blow, he would have been ready now to write such exquisite verses in the way of a lament for her loss, as should have made a world of sentimental women weep, not knowing the nature of the man.

The last glimpse of day vanished, and the cell was only illuminated by a flickering gleam which crept through the narrow crevice of the door from the oil lamp outside in the corridor. The organ music ceased -- to be followed by the monotonous chanting of the monks at their evening orisons, -- and in turn, these too came to an end, and all was silent. Easily and restfully Florian Varillo, calling himself in his own mind poet, artist, and lover of all women rather than one, turned on his pillow and slept peacefully, -- a calm deep sleep such as is only supposed to visit the innocent and pure of conscience, but which in truth just as often refreshes the senses of the depraved and dissolute, provided they are satisfied with evil as their good. How many hours he slept he did not know, but he was wakened at last by a terrible sense of suffocation, and he sat up gasping for breath, to find the cell full of thick smoke and burning stench. The flickering reflection of the lamp was gone, and as he instinctively leaped from his bed and grasped his clothes, he heard the monastery bell above him swinging to and fro, with a jarring heavy clang. Weak from the effects of his illness, and scarcely able to stand, he dragged on some of his garments, and rushing to the door threw it open, to be met with dense darkness and thick clouds of smoke wreathing towards him in all directions. He uttered a loud shriek.


The bell clanged on slowly over his head, but otherwise there was no response. Stumbling along, blinded, suffocated, not knowing at any moment whether he might not be precipitated down some steep flight of stairs or over some high gallery in the building, he struggled to follow what seemed to be a cooling breath of air which streamed through the smoke as though blowing in from some open door, and as he felt his way with his hands on the wall he suddenly heard the organ.

|Thank God!| he thought, |I am near the chapel! The fire has broken out in this part of the building -- the monks do not know and are still at prayer. I shall be in time to save them all! . . .|

A small tongue of red flame flashed upon his eyes -- he recoiled -- then pressed forward again, seeing a door in front of him. The organ music sounded nearer and nearer; he rushed to the door, half choked and dizzy, and pushing it open, reeled into the organ loft, where at the organ, sat the monk Ambrosio, shaking out such a storm of music as might have battered the gates of Heaven or Hell. Varillo leaped forward -- then, as he saw the interior of the chapel, uttered one agonized shriek, and stood as though turned to stone. For the whole place was in flames! -- everything from the altar to the last small statue set in a niche, was ablaze, and only the organ, raised like a carven pinnacle, appeared to be intact, set high above the blazing ruin. Enrapt in his own dreams, Ambrosio sat, pouring thunderous harmony out of the golden-tubed instrument which as yet, with its self-acting machinery, was untouched by the flames, and Varillo half-mad with terror, sprang at him like a wild beast

|Stop!| he cried |Stop, fool! Do you not see -- can you not understand -- the monastery is on fire!|

Ambrosio shook him off, his brown eyes were clear and bright, -- his whole expression stern and resolved.

|I know it,| he replied. |And we shall burn -- you and I -- together!|

'Oh, mad brute!| cried Varillo. |Tell me which way to go! -- where are the brethren?|

|Outside!| he answered |Safe! -- away at the farther end of the garden, digging their own graves, as usual! Do you not hear the bell? We are alone in the building! -- I have locked the doors, -- the fire is kindled inside! We shall be dead before the flames burst through!|

|Madman!| shrieked Varillo, recoiling as the thick volumes of smoke rolled up from the blazing altar. |Die if you must! -- but I will not! Where are the windows? -- the doors? -- |

|Locked and bolted fast,| said Ambrosio, with a smile of triumph. |There is no loophole of escape for you! The world might let you go free to murder and betray, -- but I -- Ambrosio, -- a scourge in the Lord's hand -- I will never let you go! Pray -- pray before it is too late! I heard the devil tempt you -- I heard you yield to his tempting! You were both going to ruin a woman -- that is devil's work. And God told me what to do -- to burn the evil out by flame, and purify your soul! Pray, brother, pray! -- for in the searching and tormenting fire it will be too late! Pray! Pray!|

And pressing his hands again upon the organ he struck out a passage of chords like the surging of waves upon the shore or storm-winds in the forest, and began to sing,

|Confutatis maledictis
Flammis acribus addictis
Voci me cum benedictis!|

Infuriated to madness but too physically weak to struggle with one who, though wandering in brain, was sound in body, Varillo tried to drag him from his seat, -- but the attempt was useless. Ambrosio seemed possessed by a thousand electric currents of force and resolution combined. He threw off Varillo as though he were a mere child, and went on singing --

|Oro supplex et acclinis
Cor contritum quasi cinis:
Gere curam mei finis.
. . . .
Lacrymosa dies illa, -- |

Driven to utter desperation, Varillo stood for a moment inert, -- then, suddenly catching sight of a rope hanging from one of the windows close at hand, he rushed to it and pulled it furiously. The top of the window yielded, and fell open on its hinge -- the smoke rushed up to the aperture, and Florian, still clinging to the rope, shouted, |Help! -- Help!| with all the force he could muster. But the air blowing strongly against the smoke fanned the flames in the body of the chapel, -- they leaped higher and higher, -- and -- seeing the red glow deepening about him, Ambrosio smiled. -- |Cry your loudest, you will never be heard!| he said -- |Those who are busy with graves have done with life! You had best pray while you have time -- let God take you with His name on your lips!|

And as the smoke and flame climbed higher and higher and began to wreathe itself about the music gallery, he resumed his solemn singing.

|Lacrymosa dies illa,
Qua resurgat ex favilla
Judicandus homo reus
Huic ergo parce, Deus:
Pie Jesu Domine
Dona eis requiem!|

But Varillo still shrieked |Help!| and his frenzied cries were at last answered. The great bell overhead ceased ringing suddenly, -- and its cessation created an effect of silence even amid the noise of the crackling fire and the continued grave music of the organ. Then came a quick tramp of many feet -- a hubbub of voices -- and loud battering knocks at the chapel door. Ambrosio laughed triumphantly.

|We are at prayers!| he cried -- |We admit no one! The devil and I are at prayers!|

Varillo sprang at him once more.

|Madman! Show me the way!| he screamed. |Show me the way down from this place or I will strangle you!|

|Find your own way!| answered Ambrosio -- |Make it -- as you have always made it! -- and follow it -- to Hell!|

As he spoke the gallery rocked to and fro, and a tall flame leaped at the organ like a living thing ready to seize and devour. Still the knocking and hammering continued, and still Ambrosio played wild music -- till all at once the chapel door was broken open and a group of pale spectral faces in monk's cowls peered through the smoke, and then retreated again.

|Help!| shrieked Varillo -- |Help!|

But the air rushing through the door and meeting with that already blowing through the window raised a perfect pyramid of flame which rose straight up and completely encircled the organ. With a frightful cry Varillo rushed to Ambrosio's side, and cowering down, clung to his garments.

|Oh, God! -- Oh, God! Have mercy! -- |

|He will have mercy!| said Ambrosio, still keeping his hands on the organ-keys and drawing out strange plaintive chords of solemn harmony -- |He will have mercy -- be sure of it! Ambrosio will ask Him to be merciful! -- Ambrosio has saved you from crime worse than death, -- Ambrosio has cleansed you by fire! Ambrosio will help you to find God in the darkness!|

Smoke and flame encircled them, -- for one moment more their figures were seen like black specks in the wreathing columns of fire -- for one moment more the music of the organ thundered through the chapel, -- then came a terrific crash -- a roar of the victorious flames as they sprang up high to the roof of the building, and then -- then nothing but a crimson glare on the Campagna, seen for miles and miles around, and afterwards described to the world by the world's press as the |Burning Down of a Trappist Monastery| in which no lives had been lost save those of one Fra Ambrosio, long insane, who was supposed to have kindled the destructive blaze in a fit of mania, -- and of a stranger, sick of malarial fever, whom the monks had sheltered, name unknown.

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