"Strange? In what way do you find him so?" asked the Cardinal with a touch of anxiety.
The Abbe knitted his brows perplexedly, and took a short turn up and down the room. Then he laughed.
"Upon my word, I cannot tell you!" he declared, with one of those inimitable gestures common to Frenchmen, a gesture which may mean anything or nothing, -- "But he speaks too well, and, surely, thinks too much for his years. Is there nothing further to tell of him save what you have already said? Nothing that you know of him, beyond the plain bare fact of having found him weeping alone outside the doors of the Cathedral?"
"Nothing indeed!" replied the Cardinal bewildered. "What else should there be?"
The Abbe hesitated a moment, and when he spoke again it was in a softer and graver tone. "Forgive me! Of course there could be nothing else with you. You are so different to all other Churchmen I have ever known. Still, the story of your foundling is exceptional;- -you will own that it is somewhat out of the common course of things, for a Cardinal to suddenly constitute himself the protector and guardian of a small tramp -- for this boy is nothing else. Now, if it were any other Cardinal-Archbishop than yourself, I should at once say that His Eminence knew exactly where to find the mother of his protege!"
"Vergniaud!" exclaimed the Cardinal.
"Forgive me! I said 'forgive me' as a prelude to my remarks," resumed Vergniaud, "I am talking profanely, sceptically, and cynically, -- I am talking precisely as the world talks, and as it always will talk."
"The world may talk itself out of existence, before it can hinder me from doing what I conceive to be my duty," said Felix Bonpre, calmly, "The lad is alone and absolutely friendless, -- it is but fitting and right that I should do what I can for him."
Abbe Vergniaud sat down, and for a moment appeared absorbed in thought.
"You are a curious man;" he at length observed, "And a more than curious priest! Here you are, assuming the guardianship of a boy concerning whom you know nothing, -- when you might as well have handed him over to one of the orphanages for the poor, or have paid for his care and education with some of the monastic brethren established near Rouen, -- but no! -- you being eccentric, feel as if you were personally responsible to God for the child, simply because you found him lost and alone, and therefore you have him with you. It is very good of you, -- we will call it great of you -- but it is not usual. People will say you have a private motive; -- you must remember that the world never gives you credit for doing a good action simply for the pure sake of doing it, -- 'There must be something behind it all,' they say. When the worst cocotte of the age begins to lose her beauty, the prospect is so alarming that she thinks there may be a possible hell, after all, and she straightway becomes charitable and renowned for good works; -- precisely in the same way as our famous stage 'stars', knowing their lives to be less clean than the lives of their horses and their dogs, give subscriptions and altar-cloths and organs to the clergy. It is all very amusing! -- I assure you I have often laughed at it. It is as if they took Heaven by its private ear in confidence, and said, 'See now, I want to put things straight with you if I can! -- and if a few church-ornaments, and candlesticks will pacify you, why, take them and hold your tongue!'"
He paused, but the Cardinal was silent.
"I know," went on the Abbe, "that you think I am indulging in the worst kind of levity to talk in this way. It sounds horrible to you. And you perhaps think I cannot be serious. My dear Saint Felix, there never was a more serious man than I. I would give worlds -- universes -- to believe as you do! I have written books of religious discussion, -- not because I wanted the notice of the world for them,- -for that I do not care about, -- but for the sake of wrestling out the subject for myself, and making my pen my confidant. I tell you I envy the woman who can say her rosary with the simple belief that the Virgin Mary hears and takes delight in all those repetitions. Nothing would have given me greater pleasure than to have composed a volume of prayers, -- a 'Garland of Flowers' -- such as an innocent girl could hold in her hands, and bend her sweet eyes over. It would have been a taste of the sensual-spiritual, or the spiritual-sensual, -- which is the most exquisite of all human sensations."
"There is no taint of sensuality in the purely spiritual," said the Cardinal reprovingly.
"Not for your nature, -- no! You have made your body like a transparent scabbard through which the glitter of the soul-sword is almost visible. But I am different. I am so much of a materialist that I like to pull down Heaven to the warm bosom of Earth and make them mingle. You would lift up Earth to Heaven! Ah, that is difficult! Even Christ came down! It is the chief thing I admire in Him, that He 'descended from Heaven and was made Man'. TRES CHER Felix, I shall bewilder you to death with my specious and frivolous reasoning, -- and after all, I had much better come to the main fact of what I intended to tell you, -- a sort of confession out of church. You know I have already told you I am going to die soon, and that I am a bad man confessedly and hopelessly, -- but among other things is this, (and if you can give me any advice upon it I will take it,) that for the last four or five years I have been dodging about to escape being murdered, -- not because I particularly mind being murdered, because I probably deserve it, -- and one way of exit is as good as another, -- but because I want to save the would-be murderer from committing his crime. Is not that a good motive?"
Cardinal Bonpre gazed at him in astonishment. Vergniaud appeared to him in an entirely new light. He had always known him as a careless, cynical-tempered man; -- a close thinker, -- a clever writer, and a brilliant talker, -- and he had been inclined to consider him as a "society" priest, -- one of those amiable yet hypocritical personages, who, by the most jesuitical flatteries and studied delicacies of manner, succeed in influencing weak-minded persons of wealth, (especially women) to the end of securing vast sums of money to the Church, -- obtaining by these means such rank and favour for themselves as would otherwise never have been granted to them. But now the Abbe's frank admission of his own sins and failings seemed a proof of his inherent sincerity, -- and sincerity, whether found in orthodoxy or heterodoxy, always commanded the Cardinal's respect.
"Are you speaking in parables or in grave earnest?" he asked. "Do you really mean that you are shadowed by some would-be assassin? An assassin, too, whom you actually wish to protect?"
"Exactly!" And Vergniaud smiled with the air of one who admits the position to be curious but by no means alarming. "I want to save him from the guillotine; and if he murders me I cannot! It is a question of natural instinct merely. The would-be assassin is my son!"
Cardinal Bonpre raised his clear blue eyes and fixed them full on the Abbe.
"This is a very serious matter," he said gently, "Surely it is best to treat it seriously?"
"Oh, I am serious enough, God knows!" returned Vergniaud, with a heavy but impatient sigh, "I suppose there is, there must be, some terribly exact Mathematician concerned in the working of things, else a man's past sins and failings being done with and over, would not turn up any more. But they DO turn up, -- the unseen Mathematician counts every figure; -- and of course trouble ensues. My story is simply this; -- Some twenty-five years ago I was in Touraine; -- I was a priest as I am now -- Oh, yes! -- the sin is as black as the Church can make it! -- and one mid-summer evening I strolled into a certain quaint old church of a certain quaint old town, -- I need not name it- -and saw there a girl, as sweet as an apple blossom, kneeling in front of the altar. I watched her, -- I see her now! -- the late sunlight through the stained glass window fell like a glory on her pretty hair, and on the little white kerchief folded so daintily across her bosom, and on her small hands and the brown rosary that was twisted round her fingers. She was praying, so she told me afterwards, to her guardian angel, -- I wonder what that personage was about just then, Bonpre! Anyhow, to her petition came no answer but a devil, -- a devil personified in me, -- I made her love me, -- I tempted her by ever subtle and hellish persuasion I could think of, -- I can never even now think of that time without wondering where all the eloquent evil of my tongue came from -- and -- well! -- she never was able to ask the guardian angel any more favours! And I? -- I think I loved her for a while, -- but no, I am not sure; -- I believe there is no such good thing as absolute love in my composition. Anyway, I soon left Touraine, and had almost forgotten her when she wrote to tell me of the birth of her child -- a son. I gave her no reply, and then she wrote again, -- such a letter! -- such words! At the moment they burnt me, -- stabbed me -- positively hurt me, -- and I was not then easily hurt. She swore she would bring the boy up to curse his father, -- and, to put it quite briefly, -- she did. She died when he was twenty, and it now appears the lad took an oath by her death-bed that he would never rest till he had killed the man who had dishonoured his mother, and broken her heart, and brought him into the world with a stigma on his name. No filial respect, you see!" And Vergniaud tried to force a smile. "To do the boy justice, he apparently means to keep his oath, -- he has not rested; he has been at infinite pains to discover me; he has even been at the trouble to write me a warning letter, and is now in Paris watching me. I, in my turn, take care to protect myself; -- I am followed by detectives, and am at enormous pains to guard my life; not for my own sake but for his. An odd complication of circumstances, is it not? I cannot have him arrested because he would at once relate his history, and my name would be ruined. And that would be quite as good a vengeance for him as the other thing. You will admit that it is a very dramatic situation!"
"It is a retribution!" said the Cardinal in a low voice, "And a terrible one!"
"Yes, I suppose it is. I imagined you would consider it in that light," and Vergniaud half closed his eyes, leaning back in his chair languidly, "But here I am, willing to set things as straight as I can, and it really seems impossible to arrange matters. I am to die soon, according to the doctors; -- and so I have made my willleaving everything I possess to this ridiculous boy who wishes to kill me; and it is more than probable that he, -- considering how he has been brought up and educated -- will cast all the money into the dirt, and kick at my grave. But what can I do?"
"Nothing," said the Cardinal, "You can do nothing, Vergniaud! That is the worst of having inflicted a wrong upon the innocent, -- you can never by any means retrieve it. You can repent, -- and it is probable that your very repentance ensures your forgiveness at a higher tribunal than that of earth's judgment, -- but the results of wrong cannot be wiped out or done away with in this life; -- they continue to exist, and alas! -- often multiply. Even the harsh or unjust word cannot be recalled, and however much we may regret having uttered it, somehow it is never forgotten. But -- " here leaning forward, he laid one hand gently on Vergniaud's arm, "My dear friend -- my dear brother -- you have told me of your sin; -- it is a great sin, -- but God forbid that I should presume to judge you harshly when our Lord Himself declared that 'He came not to call the righteous but sinners to repentance'. It may be that I can find a way to help you. Arrange for me to see this misguided son of yours, -- and I will endeavour to find a means of restitution to him and to the memory of his mother before you pass away from us, -- if indeed you are to pass away so soon. Under the levity you assume I perceive you have deep feeling on this matter; -- you shall not die with a wrong on your soul, Vergniaud! -- you shall not if I can prevent it! For there undoubtedly is another life; you must go into it as purely as prayer and penitence can make you."
"I thought," said the Abbe, speaking somewhat unsteadily, "that you might when you heard all, hurl some of Rome's thunderous denunciations upon me . . ."
"What am I, and what is Rome, compared with the Master's own word?" said the Cardinal gently. "If our brothers sin against us seventy times seven we are still to forgive, and they are still our brothers! Denunciations, judgments and condemnations of one another are not any part of our Lord's commands."
Vergniaud rose up and held out his hand.
"Will you take it," he said, "as a pledge that I will faithfully do whatever you may see fitting and right to retrieve the past? -- and to clear my son's soul from the thirst of vengeance which is consuming it?"
Cardinal Bonpre clasped the extended hand warmly.
"There is your answer!" he said, with a smile which irradiated his fine countenance with an almost supernatural beauty and tenderness, "You have sinned against Heaven, and you have sinned against the Church and your own calling, -- but the greatest sinner can do no more than repent and strive to make amends. For I see you fully know and comprehend the extent of your sin."
"Yes, I know it," and Vergniaud's eyes were clouded and his brows knitted, "I know it only too well! Greater than any fault of Church- discipline is a wrong to human life, -- and I wronged and betrayed an innocent woman who loved me! Her soul was as sweet as the honey-cup of a flower, -- I poisoned it. That was as bad as poisoning the Sacrament! I should have kept it sweet and pure; I should have let the Church go, and been honest! I should have seen to it that the child of my love grew up to honour his father, -- not to merely live for the murder of him! Yes! -- I know what I should have done -- I know what I have not done -- and I am afraid I shall always know! Unless I can do something to atone I have a strange feeling that I shall pass from this world to the next -- and that the first thing I shall see will be her face! Her face as I saw it when the sunshine made a halo round her hair, and she prayed to her guardian angel."
He shuddered slightly, and his voice died away in a half whisper. The Cardinal pressed his hand again warmly and tenderly.
"Courage, courage!" he said. "It is true we cannot do away with our memories, -- but we can try and make them sweet. And who knows how much God may help us in the task? Never forget the words that tell us how 'the angels rejoice more over one sinner that repenteth than over ninety and nine just persons.'"
"Ah!" and the Abbe smiled, recovering somewhat of his usual manner, "And that is so faithfully enforced upon us, is it not? The Churches are all so lenient? And Society is so kind? -- so gentle in its estimate of its friends? Our Church, for example, has never persecuted a sinner? -- has never tortured an unbeliever? It has been so patient, and so unwearying in searching for stray sheep and bringing them back with love and tenderness and pity to the fold? And Churchmen never say anything which is slanderous or cruel? And we all follow Christ's teaching so accurately? Yes! -- Ah well -- I wonder! I wonder what will be the end! I wonder why we came into life at all -- I wonder why we go! Fortunately for me, by and by, there will be an end of all wondering, and you can write above my tomb, 'Implora pace'! The idea of commencing a new life is to me, horrible, -- I prefer 'Nirvana' or nothingness. Never have I read truer words than those of Byron,
'Count o'er the joys thine hours have seen,
"I cannot think that is either true or good philosophy," said the Cardinal, "It is merely the utterance of a disappointed man in a misanthropic mood. There is no 'not to be' in creation. Each morning that lights the world is an expression of 'to be'! And however much we may regret the fact, my dear Vergniaud, we find ourselves in a state of BEING and we must make the best of it, -- not the worst. Is that not so?"
His look was gentle and commanding, -- his voice soft yet firm, -- and the worldly Abbe felt somewhat like a chidden child as he met the gaze of those clear true eyes that were undarkened by any furtive hypocrisies or specious meanings.
"I suppose it is, but unfortunately I have made the worst of it," he answered, "and having made the worst I see no best. Who is that singing?"
He lifted his hand with a gesture of attention as a rich mezzo- soprano rang out towards them, --
"It is Angela," said the Cardinal, "She has a wonderfully sweet voice."
"Prendimi in mano,
murmured Abbe Vergniaud, still listening, "It is like the cry of a lost soul!"
"Or a strayed one," interposed the Cardinal gently, and rising, he took Vergniaud's arm, and leaned upon it with a kindly and familiar grace, an action which implied much more than the mere outward expression of confidence, -- "Nothing is utterly lost, my dear friend. 'The very hairs of our head are numbered,' -- not a drop of dew escapes to waste, -- how much more precious than a drop of dew is the spirit of a man!"
"It is not so unsullied," declared Vergniaud, who loved controversy, -- "Personally, I think the dew is more valuable than the soul, because so absolutely clean!"
"You must not bring every line of discussion to a pin's point," said Bonpre smiling, as he walked slowly across the room still leaning on the Abbe's arm. "We can reduce our very selves to the bodiless condition of a dream if we take sufficient pains first to advance a theory, and then to wear it threadbare. Nothing is so deceptive as human reasoning, -- nothing so slippery and reversible as what we have decided to call 'logic.' The truest compass of life is spiritual instinct."
"And what of those who have no spiritual instinct?" demanded Vergniaud.
"I do not think there are any such. To us it certainly often seems as if there were masses of human beings whose sole idea of living is to gratify their bodily needs, -- but I fancy it is only because we do not know them sufficiently that we judge them thus. Few, if any, are so utterly materialistic as never to have had some fleeting intuition of the Higher existence. They may lack the force to comprehend it, or to follow its teaching, -- but in my opinion, the Divine is revealed to all men once at least in their lives."
They had by this time passed out of the drawing-room, and now, ascending three steps, they went through a curtained recess into Angela Sovrani's studio, -- a large and lofty apartment made beautiful by the picturesque disorder and charm common to a great artist's surroundings. Here, at a grand piano sat Angela herself, her song finished, her white hands straying idly over the keys, -- and near her stood the gentleman whom the Abbe Vergniaud had called "a terrible reformer and Socialist" and who was generally admitted to be something of a remarkable character in Europe. Tall and fair, with very bright flashing eyes, and a wonderfully high bred air of concentrated pride and resolution, united to a grace and courtesy which exhaled from him, so to speak, with his every movement and gesture, he was not a man to pass by without comment, even in a crowd. A peculiar distinctiveness marked him, -- out of a marching regiment one would have naturally selected him as the commanding officer, and in any crisis of particular social importance or interest his very appearance would have distinguished him as the leading spirit of the whole. On perceiving the Cardinal he advanced at once to be presented, and as Angela performed the ceremony of introduction he slightly bent one knee, and bowed over the venerable prelate's extended hand with a reverence which had in it something of tenderness. His greeting of Abbe Vergniaud was, while perfectly courteous, not quite so marked by the grace of a strong man's submission.
"Ah, Mr. Leigh! So you have not left Paris as soon as you determined?" queried the Abbe with a smile, "I thought you were bound for Florence in haste?"
"I go to Florence to-morrow," answered Leigh briefly.
"So soon! I am indeed glad not to have missed you," said Cardinal Bonpre cordially. "Angela, my child, let me see what you have been doing. All your canvases are covered, or turned with their faces to the wall; -- are we not permitted to look at any of them?"
Angela immediately rose from the piano, and wheeled a large oaken chair with a carved and gilded canopy, into the centre of the studio.
"Well, if you want to see my sketches -- and they are only sketches," she said, -- "you must come and sit here. Now," as her uncle obeyed her, "you look enthroned in state, -- that canopy is just fitted for you, and you are a picture in yourself! -- Yes, you are, dearest uncle! And not all the artists in the world could ever do you justice I Monsieur l'Abbe, will you sit just where you please? -- And Mr. Leigh, you have seen everything, so it does not matter."
"It matters very much," said Leigh with a smile, "For I want to see everything again. If I may, I will stand here."
And he took up his position close to the Cardinal's chair.
"But where is the boy?" asked Vergniaud, "Where is the foundling of the Cathedral?"
"He left us some minutes ago," said Angela, "He went to your room, uncle."
"Was he pleased with the music?" asked the Cardinal.
"I think he enjoyed every note of it," said Leigh, "A thoughtful lad! He was very silent while I played, -- but silence is often the most eloquent appreciation."
"Are we to be silent then over the work of Donna Sovrani?" enquired the Abbe gaily. "Must we not express our admiration?"
"If you have any admiration to express," said Angela carelessly, setting, as she spoke, an easel facing the Cardinal; "but I am afraid you will greatly disapprove of me and condemn all my work this year. I should explain to you first that I am composing a very large picture, -- I began it in Rome some three years ago, and it is in my studio there, -- but I require a few French types of countenance in order to quite complete it. The sketches I have made here are French types only. They will all be reproduced in the larger canvas- -but they are roughly done just now. This is the first of them. I call it 'A Servant of Christ, at the Madeleine, Paris.'"
And she placed the canvas she held on the easel and stood aside, while all three men looked at it with very different eyes, -- one with poignant regret and pain, -- the other with a sense of shame, -- and the third with a thrill of strong delight in the power of the work, and of triumph in the lesson it gave.