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The Master-christian by Marie Corelli

XXXVII. A few days later the fashionable world of Europe was startled by the announcement ofà

A few days later the fashionable world of Europe was startled by the announcement of two things. One was the marriage of Sylvie, Countess Hermenstein, to the |would-be reformer of the clergy,| Aubrey Leigh, coupled with her renunciation of the Church of her fathers. There was no time for that Church to pronounce excommunication, inasmuch as she renounced it herself, of her own free will and choice, and made no secret of having done so. Some of her Hungarian friends were, or appeared to be, scandalized at this action on her part, but the majority of them treated it with considerable leniency, and in some cases with approval, on the ground that a wife's religion ought to be the same as that of her husband. If love is love at all, it surely means complete union; and one cannot imagine a perfect marriage where there is any possibility of wrangling over different forms of creed. The other piece of news, which created even more sensation than the first, was the purchase of Angela Sovrani's great picture, |The Coming of Christ,| by the Americans. As soon as this was known, the crowd of visitors to the artist's studio assumed formidable proportions, and from early morning till late afternoon, the people kept coming and going in hundreds, which gradually swelled to thousands. For by-and-by the history of the picture got about in disjointed morsels of information and gossip which soon formed a consecutive and fairly correct narration. Experts criticized it, -- critics |explained| it -- and presently nothing was talked of in the art world but |The Coming of Christ| and the artist who painted it, Angela Sovrani. A woman! -- only a woman! It seemed incredible -- impossible! For why should a woman think? Why should a woman dare to be a genius? It seemed very strange! How much more natural for her to marry some decent man of established position and be content with babies and plain needlework! Here was an abnormal prodigy in the ways of womanhood, -- a feminine creature who ventured to give an opinion of her own on something else than dress, -- who presumed as it were, to set the world thinking hard on a particular phase of religious history! Then, as one after the other talked and whispered and commented, the story of Angela's own private suffering began to eke out bit by bit, -- how she had been brutally stabbed m her own studio in front of her own picture by no other than her own betrothed husband Florian Varillo, who was moved to his murderous act by a sudden impulse of jealousy, -- and how that same Varillo had met with his deserts in death by fire in the Trappist monastery on the Campagna. And the excitement over the great picture became more and more intense -- especially when it was known that it would soon be taken away from Rome never to be seen there again. Angela herself knew little of her rapidly extending fame, -- she was in Paris with the Princesse D'Agramont who had taken her there immediately after Monsignor Gherardi's visit to her father. She was not told of Florian Varillo's death till she had been some days in the French capital, and then it was broken to her as gently as possible. But the result was disastrous. The strength she had slowly regained seemed now to leave her altogether, and she was stricken with a mute despair which was terrible to witness. Hour after hour, she lay on a couch, silent and motionless, -- her large eyes fixed on vacancy, her little white hands clasped close together as though in a very extremity of bodily and mental anguish, and the Princesse D'Agramont, who watched her and tended her with the utmost devotion, was often afraid that all her care would be of no avail, and that her patient would slip through her hands into the next world before she had time to even attempt to save her. And Cyrillon Vergmaud, unhappy and restless, wandered up and down outside the house, where this life, so secretly dear to him, was poised as it were on the verge of death, not daring to enter, or even enquire for news, lest he should hear the worst.

One cold dark afternoon however, as he thus paced to and fro, he saw the Princesse D'Agramont at a window beckoning him, and with a sickening terror at his heart, he obeyed the signal.

|I wish you would come and talk to her!| said the Princesse as she greeted him, with tears in her bright eyes. |She must be roused from this apathy. I can do nothing with her. But I think YOU might do much if you would!|

|I will do anything -- anything in the wide world!| said Cyrillon earnestly. |Surely you know that!|

|Yes -- but you must not be too gentle with her! I do not mean that you should be rough -- God forbid! -- but if you would speak to her with authority -- if you could tell her that she owes her life and her work to the world -- to God -- |

She broke off, not trusting herself to say more. Cyrillon raised her hand to his lips.

|I understand!| he said. |You know I have hesitated -- because -- I love her! I cannot tell her not to grieve for her dead betrothed, when I myself am longing to take his place!|

The Princesse smiled through her tears.

|The position is difficult I admit!| she said, with a returning touch of playfulness -- |But the very fact of your love for her should give you the force to command her back to life. Come!|

She took him into the darkened room where Angela lay -- inert, immovable, with always the same wide-open eyes, blank with misery and desolation, and said gently,

|Angela, will you speak to Gys Grandit?|

Angela turned her wistful looks upon him, and essayed a poor little ghost of a smile. Very gently Cyrillon advanced and sat down beside her, -- and with equal gentleness, the Princesse D'Agramont withdrew. Cyrillon's heart beat fast; if he could have lifted that frail little form of a woman into his arms and kissed away the sorrow consuming it, he would have been happy, -- but his mission was that of a friend, not lover, and his own emotions made it hard for him to begin. At last he spoke

|When are you going to make up your mind to get well, dear friend?|

She looked at him piteously.

|Make up my mind to get well? I shall never be well again!|

|You will if you resolve to be,| said Cyrillon. |It rests with you!|

She was silent.

|Have you heard the latest news from Rome?| he asked after a pause.

She made a faint sign in the negative.

Cyrillon smiled.

|The Church has with all due solemnity anathematized your picture as an inspiration of the Evil One! But it is better that it should be so anathematized than that it should be reported as not your own work. Between two lies, the emissaries of the Vatican have chosen the one least dangerous to themselves.|

Angela sighed wearily.

|You do not care?| queried Cyrillon. |Neither anathema nor lie has any effect on you?|

She raised her left hand and looked dreamily at the circlet of rubies on it -- Florian Varillo's betrothal ring.

|I care for nothing,| she said slowly. |Nothing -- now he is gone!|

A bitter pang shot through Cyrillon's heart. He was quite silent. Presently she turned her eyes wistfully towards him.

|Please do not think me ungrateful for all your kindness! -- but -- I cannot forget!|

|Dear Donna Sovrani, may I speak to you fully and, frankly -- as a friend? May I do so without offence?|

She looked at him and saw how pale he was, how his lips trembled, and the consciousness that he was unhappy moved her to a faint sense of compunction.

|Of course you may!| she answered gently. |I know you do not hate me.|

|Hate you!| Cyrillon paused, his eyes softening with a great tenderness as they rested upon her. |Who could hate you?|

|Florian hated me,| she said. |Not always, -- no! He loved me once! Only when he saw my picture, then his love perished. Ah, my Florian! Had I known, I would have destroyed all my work rather than have given him a moment's pain!|

|And would that have been right?| asked Cyrillon earnestly. |Would not such an act have been one of selfishness rather than sacrifice?|

A faint color crept over her pale cheeks.

|Selfishness? -- |

|Yes! Your love for him was quite a personal matter, -- but your work is a message to the world. You would have sacrificed the world for his sake, even though he had murdered you!|

|I would!| she answered, and her eyes shone like stars as she spoke. |The world is nothing to me; love was everything!|

|That is your way of argument,| said Cyrillon. |But it is not God's way!|

She was silent, but her looks questioned him.

|Genius like yours,| he went on, |is not given to you for yourself alone. You cannot tamper with it, or play with it, for the sake of securing a little more temporal happiness or peace for yourself. Genius is a crown of thorns, -- not a wreath of flowers to be worn at a feast of pleasure! You wished your life to be one of love, -- God has chosen to make it one of suffering. You say the world is nothing to you, -- then my dear friend, God insists that it shall be something to you! Have you the right -- I ask you, have you the right to turn away from all your fellow mortals and say -- 'No -- because I have been disappointed in my hope and my love, then I will have nothing to do with life -- I will turn away from all who need my help -- I will throw back the gifts of God with scorn to the Giver, and do nothing simply because I have lost what I myself specially valued!'|

Her eyes fell beneath his straight clear regard, and she moved restlessly.

|Ah you do not know -- you do not understand!| she said. |I am not thinking of myself -- indeed I am not! But I feel as if my work -- my picture -- had killed Florian! I hate myself! -- I hate everything I have ever done, or could ever possibly do. I see him night and day in those horrible flames! -- Oh God! those cruel flames! -- he seems to reproach me, -- even to curse me for his death!|

She shuddered and turned her face away. Cyrillon ventured to take her hand.

|That is not like you, dear friend!| he said, his rich voice trembling with the pity he felt for her. |That is not like your brave spirit! You look only at one aspect of grief -- you see the darkness of the cloud, but not its brighter side. If I were to say that he whom you loved so greatly has perhaps been taken to save him from even a worse fate, you would be angry with me. You loved him -- yes; and whatever he did or attempted to do, even to your injury, you would have loved him still had he lived! That is the angel half of woman's nature. You would have given him your fame had he asked you for it, -- you would have pardoned him a thousand times over had he sought your pardon, -- you would have worked for him like a slave and been content to die with your genius unrecognized if that would have pleased him. Yes I know! But God saw your heart -- and his -- and with God alone rests the balance of justice. You must not set yourself in opposition to the law; you, -- such a harmonious note in work and life, -- must not become a discord!|

She did not speak. Her hand lay passively in his, and he went on.

|Death is not the end of life. It is only the beginning of a new school of experience. Your very grief, -- your present inaction, may for all we know, be injuring the soul of the man whose loss you mourn!|

She sighed.

|Do you think that possible -- ?|

|I do think it very possible,| he answered. |Natural sorrow is not forbidden to us, -- but a persistent dwelling on cureless grief is a trespass against the law. Moreover you have been endowed with a great talent, -- it is not your own -- it is lent to you to use for others, and you have no right to waste it. The world has taken your work with joy, with gratitude, with thanksgiving; will you say that you do not care for the world? -- that you will do nothing more for it? -- Because one love -- one life, has been taken from you, will you discard all love, all life? Dear friend, that will not be reasonable, -- not right, nor just, nor brave!|

A wistful longing filled her eyes.

|I wish Manuel were here!| she said plaintively. |He would understand!|

|Manuel is with Cardinal Bonpre in London,| replied Cyrillon. |I heard from Aubrey yesterday that they are going about together among the poor, doing good everywhere. Would you like to join them? Your friend Sylvie would be glad to have you stay with her, I am sure.|

She gave a hopeless gesture.

|I am not strong enough to go -- | she began.

|You will be strong enough when you determine to be,| said Cyrillon. |Your frightened soul is making a coward of your body!|

She started and drew her hand away from his gentle clasp.

|You are harsh!| she said, looking at him straightly. |I am not frightened -- I never was a coward!|

Something of the old steady light came back to her eyes, and Cyrillon inwardly rejoiced to see it.

|My words seem rough,| he said, |but truly they are not so. I repeat, your soul is frightened -- yes! frightened at the close approach of God! God is never so near to us as in a great sorrow; and when we feel His presence almost within sight and touch, we are afraid. But we must not give way to fear; we must not grovel in the dust and hide ourselves as if we were ashamed! We must rise up and grow accustomed to His glory, and let Him lead us where He will!|

He paused, for Angela was weeping. The sound of her low sobbing smote him to the heart.

|Angela -- Angela!| he whispered, more to himself than to her. |Have I hurt you so much?|

|Yes, yes!| she murmured between her tears. |You have hurt me! -- but you are right -- you are quite right! I am selfish -- weak -- cowardly -- ungrateful too; -- but forgive me, -- have patience with me! -- I will try -- I will try to bear it all more bravely -- I will indeed!|

He rose from her side and paced the room, not trusting himself to speak. She looked at him anxiously and endeavoured to control her sobs.

|You are angry?|

|Angry!| He came back, and lifting her suddenly, but gently like a little child, he placed her in an easy sitting position, leaning cosily among her pillows. |Come!| he said smiling, as the colour flushed her cheeks at the swiftness of his action -- |Let the Princesse D'Agramont see that I am something of a doctor! You will grow weaker and weaker lying down all day -- I want to make you strong again! Will you help me?|

He looked into her eyes, and her own fell before his earnest, reverent, but undisguisedly tender glance.

|I will try to do what you wish,| she said. |If I fail you must forgive me -- but I will honestly try!|

|If you try, you will succeed| -- said Cyrillon, and bending down, he kissed the trembling little hands -- |Ah! forgive me! If you knew how dear your life is -- to -- to many, you would not waste it in weeping for what cannot be remedied by all your tears! I will not say one word against the man you loved -- for YOU do not say it, and you are the most injured; -- he is dead -- let him rest; -- but life claims you, -- claims me for the moment; -- our fellow-men and women claim our attention, our work, our doing for the best and greatest while we can, -- our duty is to them, -- not to ourselves! Will you for your father's sake -- for the world's sake -- if I dared say, for MY sake! -- will you throw off this torpor of sorrow? Only you can do it, -- only you yourself can command the forces of your own soul! Be Angela once more! -- the guiding angel of more lives than you know of! -- |

His voice sank to a pleading whisper.

|I will try!| she answered in a low voice -- |I promise! -- |

And when the Princess D'Agramont entered she was surprised and overjoyed to find her patient sitting up on her couch for the first time in many days, talking quietly with the Perseus she had sent to rescue the poor Andromeda from the jaws of a brooding Melancholia which might have ended in madness or death. With her presence the conversation took a lighter tone -- and by-and-by Angela found herself listening with some interest to the reading of her father's last letter addressed to her kind hostess.

|Angela's picture is gone out of Rome| -- he wrote -- |It was removed from the studio in the sight of an enormous crowd which had assembled to witness its departure. The Voce Della Verita has described it as a direct inspiration of the devil, and suggests the burning-down of the studio in which it was painted, as a means of purifying the Sovrani Palace from the taint of sulphur and brimstone. La Croix demands the excommunication of the artist, which by the way is very likely to happen. The Osservatore Romano wishes that the ship specially chartered to take it to America, may sink with all on board. All of which kind and charitable wishes on the part of the Vatican press have so augmented the fame of 'The Coming of Christ' that the picture could hardly be got through the crush of people craning their necks to get a glimpse of it. It is now en route via Bordeaux for London, where it is to be exhibited for six weeks. As soon as I have finished superintending the putting by of a few home treasures here, I shall join you in Paris, when I hope to find my dear girl nearly restored to her usual self. It will please her to know that her friend the charming Sylvie is well and very happy. She was married for the second time before a Registrar in London, and is now, as she proudly writes, 'well and truly' Mrs. Aubrey Leigh, having entirely dropped her title in favour of her husband's plainer, but to her more valuable designation. Of course spiteful people will say she ceased to be Countess Hermenstein in order not to be recognized too soon as the 'renegade from the Roman Church,' but that sort of thing is to be expected. Society never gives you credit for honest motives, but only for dishonest ones. We who know Sylvie, also know what her love for her husband is, and that it is love alone which inspires all her actions in regard to him. Her chief anxiety at present seems to be about Angela's health, and she tells me she telegraphs to you every day for news -- |

-- |Is that true?| asked Angela, interrupting the reading of her father's letter. |Does Sylvie in all her new happiness, actually think of me so much and so often?|

|Indeed she does!| replied the Princess D'Agramont. |Chere enfant, you must not look at a |My father would not have wished me to keep it after his public confession,| he said. |And I will not possess more than should have been spared in common justice to aid my mother's life and mine. The rest shall be used for the relief of those in need. And I know, -- if I told Angela -- she would not wish it otherwise!|

So he had his way. And while his prompt help and personal supervision of the distribution of his wealth brought happiness to hundreds of homes, he was rewarded by seeing Angela grow stronger every day. The hue of health came gradually back to her fair cheeks, -- her eyes once more recovered their steadfast brightness and beauty, and as from time to time he visited her and watched her with all the secret passion and tenderness he felt, his heart grew strong within him.

|She will love me one day if I try to deserve her love,| he thought. |She will love me as she has never loved yet! No woman can understand the true worth of love, unless her lover loves her more than himself! This is a joy my Angela has not yet been given, -- it will be for me to give it to her!|

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