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The Master-christian by Marie Corelli

XXXIX. The night darkened steadily down over London, -- a chill dreary night of heavy fogà

The night darkened steadily down over London, -- a chill dreary night of heavy fog, half-melting into rain. Cardinal Bonpre, though left to himself, did not rest at once as Manuel had so tenderly bidden him to do, but moved by an impulse stronger than any worldly discretion or consideration, sat down and wrote a letter to the Supreme Pontiff, -- a letter every word of which came straight from his honest heart, and which he addressed to the Head of his Church directly and personally, without seeking the interposition of Lorenzo Moretti. And thus he wrote, in obedience to the dictate of his own soul --

|Most Holy Father! -- I have this day received through Monsignor Moretti the text of certain commands laid by Your Holiness upon me to fulfil if I would still serve the Church, as I have in all truth and devotion served it for so many years. These commands are difficult to realise, and still more difficult to obey, -- I would rather believe that Your Holiness has issued them in brief anger, than that they are the result of a reasonable conviction, or condition of your own heart and intellect. In no way can I admit that my conduct has been of a nature to give offence to you or to the Holy See, for I have only in all things sought to obey the teaching of our Lord Jesus Christ, upon whose memory our faith is founded. Your Holiness desires me, first, to cease every communication with the only relatives left to me on earth, -- my brother-in-law Pietro Sovrani and his daughter, the daughter of my dead sister, my niece Angela. You demand the severance of these bonds of nature, because my niece has produced a work of art, for which she alone is responsible. I venture most humbly to submit to Your Holiness that this can scarcely be called true Christian justice to me, -- for, whereas on the one side I cannot be made answerable for the thoughts or the work of a separately responsible individual, on the other hand I should surely not be prohibited from exercising my influence, if necessary, on the future career of those related to me by blood as well as endeared to me by duty and affection. My niece has suffered more cruelly than most women; and it is entirely owing to her refusal to speak, that the memory of Florian Varillo, her late affianced husband, is not openly branded as that of a criminal, instead of being as now, merely under the shadow of suspicion. For we know that he was her assassin, -- all Rome feels the truth, -- and yet being dead, his name is left open to the benefit of a doubt because she who was so nearly slain by him she loved, forgives and is silent. I submit to Your Holiness that this forgiveness and silence symbolise true Christianity, on the part of the poor child who has fallen under your displeasure, -- and that as the Christian Creed goes, your pity and consideration for her should somewhat soften the ban you have set against her on account of the work she has given to the world. As a servant of Holy Church I deeply deplore the subject of that work, while fully admitting its merit as a great conception of art, -- but even on this point I would most humbly point out to Your Holiness that genius is not always under the control of its possessor. For being a fire of most searching and persuasive quality it does so command the soul, and through the soul the brain and hand, that oftentimes it would appear as if the actual creator of a great work is the last unit to be considered in the scheme, and that it has been carried out by some force altogether beyond and above humanity. Therefore, speaking with all humility and sorrow, it may chance that Angela Sovrani's picture 'The Coming of Christ' may contain a required lesson to us of the Church as well as to certain sections of certain people, and that as all genius comes from God, it would be well to enquire earnestly whether we do not perhaps in these days need some hint or warning of the kind to recall us from ways of error, ere we wander too far. But, having laid this matter straightly before Your Holiness, I am nevertheless willing to accede to your desire, and see my young niece and her father no more. For truly there is very little chance of my so doing, as my age and health will scarcely permit me to travel far from my diocese again, if indeed I ever return to it. The same statement will apply with greater force to the friendship I have lately formed with him whom you call 'heretic,' -- Aubrey Leigh. Your Holiness is mistaken in thinking that I have assisted him in his work among the poor and desolate of London -- though I would it had been possible for me to do so! For I have seen such misery, such godlessness, such despair, such self-destruction in this great English city, the admitted centre of civilization, that I would give my whole life twice, ay, three times over again to be able to relieve it in ever so small a degree. The priests of our Church and of all Churches are here, -- they preach, but do very little in the way of practice, and few like Aubrey Leigh sacrifice their personal entity, their daily life, their sleep, their very thoughts, to help the suffering of their fellow-men. Holy Father, the people whom Aubrey Leigh works for, never believed in a God at all till this man came among them. Yet there are religious centres here, and teachers- -Sunday after Sunday, the message of the Gospel is pronounced to inattentive ears and callous souls, and yet all have remained in darkest atheism, in hopeless misery, till their earnest, patient, sympathising, tender brother, the so-called 'atheist,' came to persuade them out of darkness into light, and made the burdens of their living lighter to bear. And will you not admit him as a Christian? Surely he must be; for as our Lord Himself declares, 'Not every man that shall say unto Me Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven, but he that doeth the will of My Father which is in heaven.' And of a certainty, the will of the Father is that the lost should be found, the perishing saved, the despairing comforted, -- and all these things Aubrey Leigh has done, and is yet doing. But I do not work with him -- I am here to look on -- and looking on, to regret my lost youth!

|Touching the miracle attributed to me at Rouen, I have gone over this ground so often with Your Holiness, both by letter and personally while in Rome, that it seems but foolish to repeat the story of my complete innocence in the matter. I prayed for the crippled child, and laid my hands upon him in blessing. From that day I never saw him -- never have seen him again. I can bear no witness to his recovery, -- your news came from persons at Rouen, and not from me. I am as unconscious of having healed the child as I am innocent of having any part in the disappearance of the man Claude Cazeau. The whole thing is as complete a mystery to me as it is to Your Holiness or to any of those who have heard the story. I fully and freely admit, as I have always fully and freely admitted, that I condoned and forgave the sin of the Abbe Vergniaud, and this, not only because the man was dying, but because we are strictly commanded to forgive those who truly repent. And on this point, I cannot even to you, Most Holy Father, admit that I have been wrong.

|And now coming to the last part of Your Holiness' expressed desire, wherein you ask me to part from the boy I rescued, -- the child Manuel, who is all alone in the world, -- I cannot acknowledge it to be a Christian act to desert anyone whom we have once befriended. The boy is young, and far too gentle to fight the world or to meet with such love and consideration as his youth and simplicity deserve. I will not disguise, however, from Your Holiness that I have been often much troubled in mind regarding his companionship with me, -- for foolish as you may judge my words, I feel that there is something in him not altogether of earth, -- that he speaks at times as a wise prophet might speak, -- or as an Angel sent to warn the world of swiftly-coming disaster! Of the strangely daring spirit in which he addressed himself to Your Holiness at the Vatican it is not for me to discourse -- I cannot explain it or condone it, for I was overcome with amazement and fear, and realized the position no more than did Your Holiness at the time, or than did those of your confidants immediately around us. It was indeed a matter that went beyond us all.

|But the chief end of this letter is arrived at -- Your Holiness asks me to part with this boy. With the deepest regret at the rupture you threaten to cause between myself and Holy Church if I disobey this command, I must still utterly refuse to do so. So long as the child looks upon me as a friend, so long will I be one to him. So long as he will accept the shelter of my roof, so long shall he receive it. I would rather break with a dozen Churches, a dozen forms of creed, than be untrue to a child who trusts me! That is my answer to Your Holiness, and in giving it I add the sincere expression of my sorrow to cause you displeasure or pain. But I venture to pray you, Holy Father, to pause and consider deeply before you eject me from the Church for so simple and plain a matter. Let me as one who is nearing the grave in company with yourself -- as one who with yourself must soon stand on that dark brink of the Eternal from which we see the Light beyond -- let me most humbly yet most earnestly point out to you the far more serious things than my offence, which are threatening Rome to-day. The people of all lands are wandering away from faith, and wars and terrors are encompassing the land. The lust of gold and pride of life are now the chief objects of man's existence and desire, and there was hardly ever a time in history when utter indifference to the laws of God was more openly exhibited than it is just now. The sin of unbelief and all the evils attendant on that sin are steadily increasing, and the Church seems powerless to stop the approaching disaster. Is it, that knowing herself to be weak, she does not make the attempt to be strong? If this is so, she must fall, and not all the getting-in of gold will help her! But you, Holy Father -- you might arrest all this trouble if you would! If you would change the doctrines of Superstition for those of Science- -if you would purify our beautiful creed from pagan observances and incredible idolatries -- if you would raise the Church of Rome like a pure white Cross above the blackening strife, you might save the sinking ship of faith even now! So little is needed! -- simplicity instead of ostentation -- voluntary poverty instead of countless riches, spiritual power instead of the perpetual cry for temporal power, -- the doctrine of Christ instead of the doctrine of Church Councils -- and the glad welcoming and incorporation of every true, beautiful, wise and wonderful discovery of the age into the symbolic teaching of our Creed. Holy Father, if this is not done, then things old must disappear to make room for things new, -- and a new Church of Christ must rise from the ashes of Rome! We cannot but call to mind the words of St. John, 'Repent and do the first works, or else I will come quickly and remove thy candlestick from its place.' 'Do the first works.' Holy Father, those first works, as exemplified in Christ Himself, were love, charity, pity and pardon for all men! With all my heart I beseech Your Holiness to let these virtues simplify and sustain our Church, -- and so raise it a burning and shining light of loving-kindness and universal tolerance, -- so shall it be the true city set on a hill which shall draw all men to its shelter! But if unjust judgment, intolerance, cruelty and fanaticism, should again be allowed, as once before in history, to blot its fairness and blight its reputation, then there is not much time left to it, -- inasmuch as there is a force in the world to-day likely to prove too strong for many of us, -- a mighty combat for Truth, in which conflicting creeds will fight their questions out together with terrible passion and insistence, bringing many souls to grief and pitiful disaster. You, Holy Father, can arrest all this by making the Church of Rome, Christian rather than Pagan -- by removing every touch of idolatry, every recollection of paid prayers, and by teaching a lofty, pure and practical faith such as our Redeemer desired for us, so that it may be a refuge in the storm, a haven wherein all the world shall find peace. This is for you and for those who come after you to do, -- I, Felix Bonpre, shall not be here to see the change so wrought, for I shall have gone from hence to answer for my poor stewardship, -- God grant I may not be found altogether wanting in intention, though I may have been inadequate in deed! And so with my earnest prayer for your health and long continuance of life I bid you farewell, asking you nothing for myself at all but a reasonable judgment, -- unprejudiced and calm and Christlike, -- which will in good time persuade you that it would be but a cruelty to carry out your indignation against me by depriving me of that diocese where all my people know and love me, -- simply because I have befriended a child, and because having once befriended him I refuse to desert him. But if your mind should remain absolutely fixed to carry out your intentions I can only bow my head to your will and submit to the stroke of destiny, feeling it to be my Master's wish that I should suffer something for His sake, and knowing from His words that if I 'offend one of these little ones,' such as this friendless boy, 'it were better for me that a millstone were hung about my neck and I myself drowned in the depths of the sea!' Between the Church doctrine and Christ's own gospel, I choose the gospel; between Rome's discipline and Christ's command I choose Christ's command, -- and shall be content to be glad or sorrowful, fortunate or poor, as equally to live or die as my Master, and YOUR Master, shall bid. For we all are nothing but His creatures, bound to serve Him, and where we serve Him not there must be evil worse than death.

|So in all humbleness still awaiting a more reasonable decision at your hands, I am, Most Holy Father,

|Your faithful servant and brother in Christ,

|Felix Bonpre.|

This letter finished, signed and sealed, the Cardinal addressed it and enclosed it under cover to one of the secretaries at the Vatican who he knew might be trusted to deliver it personally into the Supreme Pontiff's own hands. Then stretching out his arms wearily he closed his eyes for a moment with a sigh of mingled relief and fatigue. The night was very cold, and though there had been a fire in the room all day, it had died down in the grate, and there were only a few little dull embers now glowing at the last bar. The chill of the air was deepening, and a shiver ran through the spare, fragile form of the venerable prelate as he rose at last from his chair and prepared to take his rest. His sleeping room was a very small one, adjoining that in which he now stood, and as he glanced at his watch and saw that time had gone on so rapidly that it was nearly eleven o'clock, he decided that he would only lie down for two or three hours.

|For there is much to do yet,| he mused. |This one letter to the Pope will not suffice. I must write to Angela, -- to say farewell to her, poor child! -- and give her once more my blessing -- and then I must prepare the way at home -- for myself, and also for Manuel.| He sighed again as the vision of his own house in the peaceful old- world French town far away, floated before his mental sight, -- almost he heard the sweet chiming of the bells in his own Cathedral tower; which like a pyramid of delicate lace-work, always seemed held up in the air by some invisible agency to let the shafts of sunlight glimmer through, -- once more he saw the great roses in his garden, pink and white and cream and yellow, clambering over the walls and up to the very roof of his picturesque and peaceful home -- the white doves nesting in the warm sun -- the ripe apples hanging on the gnarled boughs, the simple peasantry walking up his garden paths, coming to him with their little histories of pain and disappointment and sorrow; which were as great to them as any of the wider miseries of sufferers more beset with anguish than themselves. He thought of it all sorrowfully and tenderly, -- his habit was ever to think of others rather than himself, -- and he wondered sadly, as he considered all the bitterness and hardships of the poor human creatures who are forced into life on this planet, -- why life should be made so cruel and hard for them, -- why sudden and unprepared death should snap the ties of tenderest love -- why cruelty and treachery should blight the hopes of the faithful and the trusting -- why human beings should always be more ready to destroy each other than to help each other -- why, to sum all up, so merciful and divine a Being as Christ came at all into this world if it were not to make the world happier and bring it nearer to heaven!

|The ways of the Infinite Ordainment are dark and difficult to understand,| he said. |And I deserve punishment for daring to enquire into wisely-hidden mysteries! But, God knows it is not for myself that I would pierce the veil! Nothing that concerns myself at all matters, -- I am a straw on the wind, -- a leaf on the storm -- and whatever God's law provides for me, that I accept and understand to be best. But for many millions of sad souls it is not so -- and their way is hard! If they could fully understand the purpose of existence they would be happier -- but they cannot -- and we of the Church are too blind ourselves to help them, for if a little chink of light be opened to us, we obstinately refuse to see!|

He went to his sleeping room and threw himself down on his bed dressed as he was, too fatigued in body and mind to do more than utter his brief usual prayer, |If this should be the sleep of death, Lord Jesus receive my soul!| And as he closed his eyes he heard the rain drop on the roof in heavy slow drops that sounded like the dull ticking of a monstrous clock piecing away the time; -- and then he slept, deeply and dreamlessly, -- the calm and unconscious and refreshing slumber of a child.

How long he slept he did not know, but he was wakened suddenly by a touch and a voice he knew and loved, calling him. He sprang up with almost the alacrity of youth, and saw Manuel standing beside him.

|Did you call me, my child?|

|Yes, dear friend!| And Manuel smiled upon him with a look that conveyed the brightness of perfect love straight from the glance into the soul. |I need you for myself alone to-night! Come out with me!|

The Cardinal gazed at him in wonder that was half a fear.

|Come out with me!|

Those had been the words the boy had used to the Pope, the Head of the Church, when he had dared to speak his thoughts openly before that chiefest man of all in Rome!

|Come out with me!|

|Now, in the darkness and the rain?| asked the Cardinal wonderingly. |You wish it? Then I will come!|

Manuel said nothing further, but simply turned and led the way. They passed out of the little tenement house they inhabited into the dark cold street, -- and the door closed with a loud bang behind them, shut to by the angry wind. The rain began to fall more heavily, and the small slight figure of the waif and stray he had befriended seemed to the Cardinal to look more lonely and piteous than ever in the driving fog and darkness.

|Whither would you go, my child?| he asked gently. |You will suffer from the cold and storm -- |

|And you?| said Manuel. |Will you not also suffer? But you never think of yourself at all! -- and it is because you do not think of yourself that I know you will come with me to-night! -- even through a thousand storms! -- through all danger and darkness and pain and trouble, -- you will come with me! You have been my friend for many days -- you will not leave me now?|

|Neither now nor at any time,| answered Bonpre firmly and tenderly. |I will go with you where you will! Is it to some sad home you are taking me? -- some stricken soul to whom we may give comfort?|

Manuel answered not, -- but merely waved his small hand beckoningly, and passed along up the street through the drifting rain, lightly and aerially as though he were a spirit, -- and the Cardinal possessed by some strange emotion that gave swiftness to his movements and strength to his will, followed. They met scarcely a soul. One or two forlorn wayfarers crossed their path -- a girl in rags, -- then a man half-drunk and reeling foolishly from side to side. Manuel paused, looking at them.

|Poor sad souls!| he said. |If we could see all the history of their lives we should pity them and not condemn!|

|Who is it that condemns?| murmured Bonpre gently.

|No one save Man!| responded Manuel. |God condemns nothing -- because in everything there is a portion of Himself. And when man presumes to condemn and persecute his fellow-men, he is guilty of likewise condemning and persecuting his Maker, and outraging that Maker in his own perverted soul!|

The boy's voice rang out solemn and clear, -- and the heavy fog drifting densely through the street, seemed to the Cardinal's keenly awakened and perturbed senses as though it brightened into a golden vapour round that childish figure, and illumined it with a radiation of concealed light. But having thus spoken, Manuel turned and went on once more, -- and faithfully, in a mental ravishment which to himself was inexplicable, the venerable Felix followed. And presently they came to the plain and uncomely wooden edifice where Aubrey Leigh and his bride had plighted their vows that morning. The door was open -- Aubrey would always have it so, lest any poor suffering creature might need a moment's rest, and resting thankfully, might see the Cross and perchance find help in prayer.

|Do you remember,| said Manuel then, |when you found me outside the great Cathedral, how the doors were barred against me? This door is always open!|

He entered the building, and the Cardinal followed, wondering and deeply agitated. It should have been dark within, but instead of darkness, a soft light pervaded it from end to end, a warm and delicate radiance, coloured with a rose glory as of sunset -- and Bonpre seeing this stopped, seized with a sudden fear. He looked about him -- on either side the huge unadorned barn-like place was empty, -- he and Manuel stood alone together as it were in the cold vast void. Before them towered the Cross on its raised platform, and below that Cross was the sloping footway leading to it, where lay many of the buds and leaves and blossoms of Sylvie's bridal flowers given to her by the poor, and yet -- in this empty desolate shed there was a sense of warmth and consolation, and the light that illumined it was as the light of Heaven! Trembling in every limb, the Cardinal turned to his companion -- words were on his lips, but they faltered and refused to be spoken aloud. And Manuel gently touching him said- -

|Follow me!|

Straight up through the centre of this place hallowed by the prayers of the poor and the broken-hearted, the light child-figure moved, the old man following, -- till at the footway leading to the Cross he paused.

|Here will we pray together!| he said, -- and as he spoke a smile lighted his eyes and rested on his lips -- a smile which gave his fair face the aspect of a rapt angel of wisdom and beauty. |Here will we ask the Father which is in Heaven -- the Father of all worlds -- whether we shall part now one from the other, or still remain -- together!|

As he spoke a rush of music filled the air, -- and the Cardinal sank feebly on his knees, overcome by a great wave of awe and terror which engulfed his soul -- for it was the same divine, far-reaching, penetrative music which had once before enthralled his ears in the Cathedral at Rouen. Kneeling he clasped his worn hands, and in all the dizziness and confusion of his brain, raised his eyes for help to the great Cross, bare of all beauty, save for the flowers of Sylvie's strange bridal that lay at its foot. And as he looked he saw a marvellous Vision! -- a Dream of Angels standing on either side of that symbol of salvation! -- of angels tall and white and beautiful, whose towering pinions glowed with the radiant light of a thousand mornings! Amazed and awe-stricken at this great sight, he uttered a faint cry and turned to his child companion.


|I am here,| answered the clear young voice. |Be not afraid!|

And now the music of the unseen choir of sound seemed to grow deeper and fuller and grander, -- and Felix Bonpre, caught up, as it were, out of all earthly surroundings, and only made conscious of the growing ascendency of Spirit over Matter, saw the bare building around him beginning to wondrously change its aspect. Slowly, as though a wind should bend straight trees into an arching round, the plain walls took on themselves a form of perfect architectural beauty, -- like swaying stems of flowers or intertwisted branches, the lines formed symmetrically, and through the shadowy sculptured semblance came the gleam of |a light that never was on sea or land,| -- the dazzling light of thousands of shining wings! -- of thousands of lustrous watchful eyes! -- of thousands of dazzling faces, that shone like stars or were fair as flowers! The Vision grew more and more beautiful -- more and more full of light -- and through veils of golden vapour, great branching lilies seemed to grow and blossom out, filling the air with perfume, and in their flowering beauty perfected the airy semblance of this wondrous Place of Prayer built by spiritual hands -- and like a far-off echo of sweetness falling from unseen heights there came a musical whisper of the chorus sung by the poor --

|All God s angels will say, 'Well done!'
Whenever thy mortal race is run.
White and forgiven,
Thou'lt enter heaven,
And pass, unchallenged, the Golden Gate,
Where welcoming spirits watch and wait
To hail thy coming with sweet accord
To the Holy City of God the Lord!|

A convulsive trembling seized the Cardinal's mortal frame -- but the soul within him was strong and invincible. With hands outstretched he turned to Manuel, -- and lo! -- the boy was moving away from him -- moving slowly but resolutely up towards the Cross! Breathless, speechless, the aged Felix watched him with straining uplifted eyes, -- and as he watched, saw his garments grow white and glistening, and a great light began to shine about him -- till reaching the foot of the Cross He turned, -- and then -- He was no more a child! All the glory of the |Vision Beautiful| shone full upon the dying body and escaping soul of Christ's faithful servant! -- the Divine Head crowned with thorns! -- the Divine arms stretched out against the beams of the great Cross! -- the Divine look of love and welcome! -- and with a loud cry of ecstasy Felix Bonpre extended his trembling hands.

|Master! Master!| he murmured. |Did not my heart burn within me when Thou didst talk with me by the way!|

Yearning towards that Mystic Glory he clasped his hands, and in the splendour of the dream, and through the pulsations of the solemn music he heard a Voice -- the Voice of his child companion Manuel, but a Voice grown full of Divine authority while yet possessing all human tenderness.

|Well done, thou good and faithful servant! Because thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things! Enter thou into the joy of thy Lord!|

And at that Voice -- and in the inexplicable beauty of that Look of Love, Felix Bonpre, |Prince of the Roman Church,| whose faithfulness Rome called in question, gave up his mortal life, -- and with a trembling sigh of death and delight intermingled, fell face forward at the foot of the Cross, where the radiance of his Master's Presence shone like the sun in heaven! And as he passed from death to life, the Vision faded -- the light grew dim, -- the arches of the heavenly temple not made with hands melted away and rolled up like clouds of the night dispersing into space -- the last dazzling Angel face, the last branch of Heavenly flowers -- vanished -- and the music of the spheres died into silence. And when the morning sun shone through the narrow windows of that Place of Prayer dedicated only to the poor, its wintry beams encircled the peaceful form of the Dead Cardinal with a pale halo of gold, -- and when they came and found him there and turned his face to the light -- it was as the face of a glorified saint, whom God had greatly loved!

. . . . . . . . . .

And of the |Cardinal's foundling| -- what of Him? Many wondered and sought to trace Him, but no one ever heard where He had gone. Now, -- when the Cardinal himself has been laid to rest in the shadow of his own Cathedral spires -- and the roses which he loved so well are growing into a crimson and white canopy over his quiet grave, there are those who wonder who that lonely child wanderer was, -- and whether He ever will return? Some say He has never disappeared, -- but that in some form or manifestation of wisdom, He is ever with as, watching to see whether His work is well or ill done, -- whether His flocks are fed, or led astray to be devoured by wolves -- whether His straight and simple commands are fulfilled or disobeyed. And the days grow dark and threatening -- and life is more and more beset with difficulty and disaster -- and the world is moving more and more swiftly on to its predestined end -- and the Churches are as stagnant pools, from whence Death is far more often born than Life.

And may we not ask ourselves often in these days the question, --

|When the Son of Man cometh, think ye He shall find faith on earth?|

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