It was a brilliant, soft autumnal Sunday morning when Cardinal Bonpre, mindful of Abbe Vergniaud's request that he should be present to hear him preach, took his slow and thoughtful way to the church of the Lorette, accompanied by his niece Angela and Manuel. The building was crammed, and had not the Abbe been previously careful to reserve seats, and to mention the Cardinal's name to the custodian, he would have scarcely obtained admission. As it was, however, he passed slowly up the centre aisle without hindrance, followed by Manuel and Angela, and watched by a good many inquisitive persons, who wondered as they looked, who the boy was that walked after His Eminence with such easy self-possession, -- with such a noble and modest bearing, and with such a strangely thoughtful face. A few whispered and nudged each other as "the Sovrani" passed them, dressed in her usual quiet black, her head slightly bent and her eyes downcast. The Marquis Fontenelle, seated in an attitude which suggested a languid indifference to all persons and events, lifted his bright hazel eyes as she passed, -- and a sudden wave of consciousness swept over him, -- uneasy consciousness that perhaps this small slight woman despised him. This was not quite a pleasant reflection for a man and a Marquis to boot, -- one who could boast of an ancient and honourable family pedigree dating back to the fighting days of Coeur-de-Lion and whose coat-of-arms was distinguished by three white lilies of France on one of its quarterings. The lilies of France! -- emblems of honour, loyalty, truth, and chivalry! -- what smudged and trampled blossoms they seem to day! He frowned as this fancy crossed his mind, and turned his eyes away from the following of Angela's slight form up the aisle; and his glance fell instead on a face he detested, because it was almost the counterpart of his own, -- the face of the great French actor Miraudin. The same clean-shaven classic face and clustering hair, -- the same glittering, amorous hazel eyes; -- the same charming and kindly smile, -- all these attributes were in Miraudin's face, indefinably coarsened, while in Fontenelle's they remained refined and inicative of the highest breeding. The Marquis moved uneasily in his seat, -- he saw himself in the famous actor, -- himself as he would be, if he continued his career of self-indulgence, -- for Miraudin though gifted with a genius that could move all Paris to the wildest excesses of admiration, was in private life known as a man of detestable reputation, whose liaisons with women were endless, but who, in his extreme egotism and callousness had never been known to yield to the saving grace of a "grande passion," -- one of those faithful passions which sometimes make the greatness of both man and woman concerned, and adorn the pages of dull history with the brilliancy of deathless romance. Was he, Guy Beausire de Fontenelle no better, no nobler, no higher, in his desires and ambitions than Miraudin? What was he doing with the three lilies emblazoned on his escutcheon? He thought with a certain fretful impatience of Sylvie, of her captivating grace, her tender eyes, her sweet laughter, and sweeter smile. She had seemed to him a mere slight creation of the air and the moonbeams, -- something dainty that would have melted at a touch, and dropped into his mouth, as it were, like a French bon- bon. So he, man-like, had judged, and now lo! -- the little ethereal creature had suddenly displayed a soul of adamant -- hard and pure, and glittering as a diamond, -- which no persuasion could break or bend. She had actually kept her word! -- she had most certainly left Paris. The Marquis knew that, by the lamentable story of her dismissed maid who had come to him with hysterical tears, declaring that "Madame" had suddenly developed a "humeur incroyable" -- and had gone away alone, -- alone, save for a little dusky-skinned Arab boy whom she had once brought away from Biskra and had trained as an attendant, -- her "gouvernante" and companion, Madame Bozier, and her old butler who had known her from childhood. Fontenelle felt that the dismissal of the maid who had been such a convenient spy for him, was due to Angela Sovrani's interference, and though angry, he was conscious of feeling at the same time mean in himself, and miserable. To employ a servant to play the spy on her mistress, and report to him her actions and movements, might be worthy of a Miraudin, but was it quite the thing for a Marquis Fontenelle? Thinking over these things his handsome face grew flushed and anon pale again, as from time to time he stole a vexed side glance at the easy Miraudin, -- so like him in features and -- unfortunately so equally like him in morals! Meanwhile, the music of the Mass surged round him, in thunders of the organ, wailings of violins, groaning of 'cellos, and flutings of boys' and men's voices, -- and as the cloudy incense rose upon the air he began to weave strange fancies in his mind, and to see in the beams of sunlight falling through the stained glass windows a vision of the bright face of Sylvie looking down upon him with a half-tender, half-reproving smile, -- a smile that seemed to say, "If thou lovest me, set the grace of honour on thy love!" These were strange thoughts for him to entertain, and he was almost ashamed of them, -- but as long as the melodies of the Mass kept rolling on and reverberating around him he could not help thinking of them; so that he was relieved when a pause came, -- the interval for the sermon, -- and Abbe Vergniaud, leisurely mounting the steps of the pulpit, stood surveying the congregation with the composed yet quizzical air for which he was celebrated, and waiting till the rustling, fidgeting, coughing, snuffing, toe-scraping noises of the congregation had settled down into comparative silence. His attitude during this interval was suggestive. It implied contempt, wearied patience, resignation, and a curious touch of defiance. Holding himself very erect he rested his left hand on the elaborate sculptured edge of the pulpit, -- it was the hand on which he usually wore his ring, a diamond of purest lustre, -- but on this occasion the jewel had been removed and the white, firm fingers, outlined against the pulpit edge, looked as though they had just relaxed their grasp of something that had been more or less of a trouble to retain. Nothing perhaps is so expressive as a hand, -- the face can disguise itself, -- even the eyes can lie, -- but the hand never. Its shape, its movements, its attitude in repose, give a more certain clue to character and disposition than almost any other human feature. Thus, with the Abbe, while his left hand suggested a "letting go," his right hand, which held a small black-bound Testament implied defiance, grip, resolve and courage. And when the people seated immediately around the pulpit lifted their eyes expectantly to the popular preacher's face, several of the more observant noticed something in his look and manner which was unfamiliar and curiously disconcerting. If it be true, as there is every reason to believe it is, that each human being unconsciously gives out an "aura" of his interior personality which is made more or less powerful to attract or repel by the nature of his intentions, and which affects the "aura" of those with whom he is brought in contact, then Abbe Vergniaud was this morning creating all unawares to himself a very singular impression of uneasiness. Some of the persons thus uncomfortably influenced coughed violently in an instinctive attempt to divert or frustrate the preacher's mood, but even the most persistent cougher must cease coughing at some time or another -- and the Abbe was evidently determined to wait for an absolute silence before he spoke. At last silence came, and he opened the Testament. Holding it up to the view of the congregation, he began with all that easy eloquence which the French tongue gives to a cultured speaker, -- his voice full and sonorous, reaching distinctly to every part of the crowded church.
"This," he said, "is a small book which you all pretend to know. It is so small a book that it can easily be read through in an hour. It is the Testament; -- or the Last Will and Command to the world of one Jesus Christ, who was crucified on account of His Divinity more than eighteen hundred years ago. I mention the fact, in case any of you have forgotten it! It is generally understood that this book is the message of God and the key of Faith; -- upon it our churches and religious systems are founded; -- by its teaching we are supposed to order our conduct of life -- and yet, -- though as I have said, it is a very small book, and would not take you an hour to read it -- none of you know any thing about it! That is a strange thing, is it not?"
Here he leaned over the pulpit edge, and his bright eyes, coldly satiric, flashed a comprehensive glance over the whole congregation.
"Yes, it is a strange thing, but I affirm it true, -- that none of you know anything whatever about the contents of this small volume which is the foundation of the Christian Faith! You never read it yourselves, -- and if we priests read it to you, you never remember it! It is a locked Mystery, -- perhaps, for all we know, the greatest mystery in the world, -- and the one most worth probing! For the days seem to be coming, if they have not already come, which were prophesied by St. John the Divine, whom certain 'clever' men of the time have set down as mad; -- days which were described as 'shaking the powers of heaven and creating confusion on the earth.' St. John said some strange things; one thing in particular, concerning this very book, which reads thus; -- 'I saw in the right hand of Him that sat upon the throne a book sealed with seven seals. And I saw a strong angel proclaiming with a loud voice; Who is worthy to open and to loose the seals thereof? And no man in heaven or in earth was able to open the book neither to look thereon. And I wept much because no man was found worthy to open and to read the book, neither to look thereon.' But St. John the Divine was mad, we are told, -- madness and inspiration being judged as one and the same thing. Well, if in these statements he is supposed to prove his madness, I consider a doubt must be set upon everyone's sanity. For his words are an exact description of the present period of the world's existence and its attitude towards the Gospel of Christ, -- 'NO MAN IS FOUND WORTHY TO LOOSE THE SEALS OF THE BOOK OR TO LOOK THEREON.' But I am not going to talk to you about the seven seals. They adequately represent our favourite 'seven deadly sins,' which have kept the book closed since the days of the early martyrs; -- and are likely to keep it closed still. Nor shall I speak of our unworthiness to read what we have never taken the trouble to rightly understand, -- for all this would be waste of time. It is part of our social sham to pretend we know the Gospel, -- and it is a still greater sham to assume that we have ever tried in the smallest degree to follow its teaching. What we know of these teachings has influenced us unconsciously, but the sayings in the Gospel of Christ are in very truth as enveloped in mystery to each separate individual reader as the oracles of the ancient Egyptians were to the outside multitude. And why? Merely because, to comprehend the teaching of Jesus we should have to think, -- and we all hate thinking. It is too much exertion, -- and exertion itself is unpleasant. A quarter of an hour's hard thinking will convince each one of us that he or she is a very worthless and ridiculous person, and we strongly object to any process which will, in itself, bring us to that conclusion. I say 'we' object, -- that is, I and you; particularly I. I admit at once that to appear worthless and ridiculous to the world has always seemed to me a distressing position, and one to be avoided. Worthless and ridiculous in my own eyes I have always been, -- but that is not your affair. It is strictly mine! And though I feel I am not worthy 'to loose the seals of the book or look thereon,' there is one passage in it which strikes me as particularly applicable to the present day, and from it I will endeavour to draw a lesson for your instruction, though perhaps not for your entertainment."
Here he paused and glanced at his hearers with an indefinable expression of mingled scorn and humour.
"What an absurdity it is to talk of giving a 'lesson' to you! -- you who will barely listen to a friend's advice, -- you who will never take a hint for your mental education or improvement, you who are apt to fly into a passion, or take to the sulks when you are ever so slightly contradicted. Tiens, tiens! c'est drole! Now the words I am about to preach from, are supposed to have been uttered by Divine lips; and if you thoroughly believed this, you would of your own accord kneel down and pray that you might receive them with full comprehension and ready obedience. But you do not believe; -- so I will not ask you to kneel down in mockery, or feign to pray when you are ignorant of the very spirit of prayer! So take the words, -- without preparation, without thought, without gratitude, as you take everything God gives you, and see what you can make of them. 'The light of the body is the eye, -- if therefore thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light. But if thine eye be evil, thy whole body shall be full of darkness. If therefore the light that is in thee be darkness, how great is that darkness!'"
Here he closed the Testament, and rested it edgewise on the pulpit cushion, keeping one hand firmly clasped upon it as he turned himself about and surveyed the whole congregation.
"What is the exact meaning of the words, 'IF THINE EYE BE SINGLE'? It is an expressive term; and in its curt simplicity covers a profound truth. 'If thine eye,' namely, -- the ability to see, -- 'be single,' that is straight and clear, without dimness or obliquity, -- 'thy whole body shall be full of light.' Christ evidently did not apply this expression to the merely physical capability of sight, -- but to the moral and mental, or psychic vision. It matters nothing really to the infinite forces around us, whether physically speaking, we are able to see, or whether we are born blind; but spiritually, it is the chief necessity of our lives that we should be able to see straight morally. Yet that is what we can seldom or never do. Modern education, particularly education in France, provides us at once with a double psychic lens, and a side-squint into the bargain! Seeing straight would be too primitive and simple for us. But Christ says, 'If thine eye be evil, thy whole body shall be full of darkness.' Now this word 'evil,' as set in juxtaposition to the former term 'single,' evidently implies a double sight or perverted vision. With this 'evil,' or double sight, our whole body 'shall be full of darkness.' Very well, my friends, if this be true, -- (and you surely must believe it true, otherwise you would not support churches for the exposition of the truth as spoken by the Founder of our Faith; -- ) then we are children of the dark indeed! I doubt if one amongst us, -- for I include myself with you, -- can be said to see clearly with a straight psychic vision. The straight psychic vision teaches us that God is the Creator of all things, -- God is Light and Love, -- God desires good from us, and from every particle of his creation; -- but the double or perverted line of sight offers a different view and declares, 'This life is short and offers many pleasures. I cannot be sure of God because I have never seen Him; -- the Universe is certainly very majestic, and somewhat startling to me in its exact mathematical proportions; but I have no more to do with it than has a grain of sand; -- my lot is no more important than that of the midge in the sunbeam; -- I live, -- I breed -- I die; -- and it matters to no one but myself how I do these three things, provided I satisfy my nature.' This is the Philosophy of the Beast, and it is just now very fashionable. It is 'la haute mode' both in France, and England, Italy, and Spain. Only young America seem to be struggling for a Faith, -- a Christian Faith; -- it has almost, albeit faintly and with a touching indecision, asked for such a Faith from the Pope, -- who has however declared it to be impossible in these words addressed to Cardinal Gibbons, 'Discussion of the principles of the Church cannot be tolerated even in the United States. There can only be one interpreter, the Pope. In the matter of discipline, concessions may be allowed, but in doctrine none.' Mark the words, 'cannot be tolerated'! Consider what stability a Faith can have whose principles may not be discussed! Yet the authority of the Church is, we are told the authority of God Himself. How is this? We can discuss God and His principles. He 'tolerates' us while we search for His laws, and stand amazed and confounded before His marvellous creation. The more we look for Him the more He gives Himself gloriously to us; and Christ declares 'Seek and ye shall find,' -- the Church says 'Seek and ye shall not be tolerated'! How are we to reconcile these two assertions? We do not reconcile them; we cannot; it is a case of double sight, -- oblique and perverted psychic vision. Christ spoke plainly; -- the Church speaks obscurely. Christ gave straight commands, -- we fly in the face of them and openly disobey them. Truth can always be 'discussed,' and Truth MUST be 'tolerated' were a thousand Holy Fathers to say it nay! But note again the further words to America, 'There can only be one interpreter, -- the Pope. In the matter of discipline, concessions may be allowed, but in doctrine none.' Let us examine into this doctrine. It is the doctrine of Christ, plain and straightforward; enunciated in such simple words that even a child can understand them. But the Church announces with a strident voice that there can only be one interpreter, -- the Pope. Nevertheless Truth has a more resonant voice than even that of the Church. Truth cries out at this present day, 'Unless you will listen to Me who am the absolute utterance of God, who spake by the prophets, who spake through Christ, -- who speaks through Christ and all things still, -- your little systems, your uncertain churches, your inefficient creeds, your quarrelsome sects, shall crumble away into dust and ruins! For humanity is waiting for the true Church of Christ; the one pure House of Praise from which all sophistry, all superstition and vanity shall have fled, and only God in the Christ-Miracle and the perfection of His Creation shall remain!' And there is no more sure foundation for this much-needed House of Praise than the Catholic Church, -- the word 'catholic' being applied in its widest sense, meaning a 'Universal' answering to the needs of all; -- and I am willing to maintain that the ROMAN Catholic Church has within it the vital germ of a sprouting perfection. If it would utterly discard pomp and riches, if it would set its dignity at too high an estimate for any wish to meddle in temporal or political affairs, if it would firmly trample down all superstition, idolatry and bigotry, and 'use no vain repetition as the heathen do' -- to quote Christ's own words,- -if in place of ancient dogma and incredible legendary lore, it would open its doors to the marvels of science, the miracles and magnificence daily displayed to us in the wonderful work of God's Universe, then indeed it might obtain a lasting hold on mankind. It might conquer Buddhism, and Christianize the whole earth. But -- 'If thine eye be evil thy whole body shall be full of darkness,' -- and while the Church remains double-sighted we are bound also to see double. And so we listen with a complete and cynical atheism to the conventional statement that 'one man alone' shall interpret Christ's teaching to us of the Roman following, -- and this man an old frail teacher, whose bodily and intellectual powers are, in the course of nature, steadily on the decline. Why we ask, must an aged man be always elected to decide on the teaching of the ever-young and deathless Christ? -- to whom the burden of years was unknown, and whose immortal spirit, cased for a while in clay, saw ever the rapt vision of 'old things being made new'? In all other work but this of religious faith, men in the prime of life are selected to lead, -- men of energy, thought, action, and endeavour, -- but for the sublime and difficult task of lifting the struggling human soul out of low things to lofty, an old man, weak, and tottering on the verge of the grave, is set before us as our 'infallible' teacher! There is something appalling in the fact, that look where we may, no profession holds out much chance of power or authority to any man past sixty, but the Head of the Church may be so old that he can hardly move one foot before the other, yet he is permitted to be declared the representative of the ever-working, ever-helping, ever- comforting Christ, who never knew what it was to be old! Enough, however of this strange superstition which is only one of many in the Church, and which are all the result of double or perverted sight, -- I come to the last part of the text which runs, 'If therefore the light in thee be darkness how great is that darkness.' IF THEREFORE THE LIGHT IN THEE BE DARKNESS! My friends, that is exactly my condition, and has been my condition ever since I was twenty. The light in me has been darkness. The intellectual quality of my brain which has helped me to attain my present false position among you . . ."
Here he paused, for there was a distinct movement of surprise among his audience, which till now, had remained to a man so still that the buzz of a fly on the window-pane sounded almost as loud as the drone of a bag-pipe, -- then with a faint smile on his lips he resumed, --
"I hope you all heard my words distinctly! I said, the false position I have attained among you. I repeat it lest there should be any mistake. It IS a false position and always has been. I have never for an instant believed half what I have asked you to believe! And I have preached to you what I have never dreamed of practising! Yet I venture to say that I am not worse than most of my brethren. The intellectual men of France, whether clergy or laity, are in a difficult situation. Their brains are keen and clear; and, intellectually speaking, they are totally unable to accept the Church superstitions of the tenth and twelfth centuries. But in rejecting superstition it would have been quite possible to have held them fast to a sublime faith in God and an Immortal Future, had the Church caught them when slipping, and risen to the mental demand made upon her resources. But the old worn-out thunder of the Vatican, which lately made a feeble noise in America, has rolled through France with the same assertion, 'Discussion cannot be tolerated'; and what has been the result? Simply this, -- that all the intellectual force of the country is arrayed against priestcraft; -- and the spirit of an insolent, witty, domineering atheism and materialism rules us all. Even young children can be found by the score who laugh at the very idea of a God, and who fling a jeer at the story of the Crucifixion of Christ, -- while vice and crime are tolerated and often excused. Moral restraint is being less and less enforced, and the clamouring for sensual indulgence has become so incessant that the desire of the whole country, if put into one line, might be summed up in the impotent cry of the Persian voluptuary Omar Khayyam to his god, 'Reconcile the law to my desires'. This is as though a gnat should seek to build a cathedral, and ask for the laws of architecture to be altered in order to suit his gnat-like capacity. The Law is the Law; and if broken, brings punishment. The Law makes for good, -- and if we pull back for evil, destroys us in its outward course. Vice breeds corruption in body and in soul; and history furnishes us with more than sufficient examples of that festering disease. It is plainly demanded of us that we should assist God's universe in its way towards perfection; if we refuse, and set a drag on the majestic Wheel, we are ourselves crushed in its progress. Here is where our Church errs in the present generation. It is setting itself as a drag on the Wheel. Meanwhile, Truth advances every day, and with no uncertain voice proclaims the majesty of God. Heaven's gates are thrown open; -- the secrets of the stars are declared, -- the mysteries of light and sound are discovered; and we are approaching possibly to the time when the very graves shall give up their dead, and the secrets of all men's hearts shall be made manifest. Yet we go on lying, deceiving, cajoling, humbugging each other and ourselves; -- living a daily life of fraud and hypocrisy, with a sort of smug conviction in our souls that we shall never be found out. We make a virtue of animalism, and declare the Beast-Philosophy to be in strict keeping with the order of nature. We gloat over our secret sins, and face the world with a brazen front of assumed honour. Oh, we are excellent liars all! But somehow we never seem to think we are fools as well! We never remember that all we do and all we say, is merely the adding of figures to a sum which in the end must be made up to the grand total, and paid! Every figure tells; -- the figure 'nought' especially, puts an extra thousand on the whole quantity! But the light in us being darkness, how great is that darkness! So great that we refuse to look an inch before us! We will not see, we will not understand, -- we utterly decline to accept any teaching or advice which might inflict some slight inconvenience on our own Ego. And so we go on day after day, till all at once a reckoning is called and death stares us in the face. What! So soon finished? All over? Must we go at once, and no delay? Must we really and truly drop all our ridiculous lies and conventions and be sent away naked-souled into the Living Unknown? Not the Dead Unknown remember! -- for nothing is actually dead! The whole universe palpitates and burns with ever re- created life. What have we done with the past life? -- and what shall we do with this other life? Oh, but there is no time to ask questions now, -- we should have asked them before; the hour of departure is come, and there is not a moment's breathing time! Our dear friends (if we have any), and our paid doctors and servants stand around us awe-struck, -- they watch out last convulsive shudder- -and weep -- not so much for sorrow sometimes as terror, -- and then when all is over, they say we are 'gone'. Yes, -- we are gone -- but where? Well, we shall each of us find that out, my friends, when we pass away from Popes, Churches, Creeds, and Conventions to the majesty of the actual Glory! Shall we pray then? Shall we weep? Shall we talk of rituals? Shall we say this or that form of prayer was the true one? -- this or that creed was the 'only' one? Shall we complain of our neighbours? -- or shall we not suddenly realise that there never was but one way of life and progress through creation, -- the good and pure, the truthful and courageous, as taught with infinite patience by the God-Man, and that wheresoever we have followed our own inclinations rather than His counsel, then our OWN action, not God's punishment, condemns us, -- our OWN words, not God's, re-echo back our sins upon ourselves!"
He paused, looking everywhere around him, -- all his hearers were listening with an almost breathless attention.
"Oh, yes! I know the charm of sin!" he continued with mingled mockery and passion vibrating in his voice; -- "The singular fascination of pure devilry! All of you know it too, -- those of you who court the world's applause on the stage, or in the salons of art and literature, and who pretend that by your work you are elevating and assisting humanity, while in your own private lives you revel in such vice as the very dogs you keep might be ashamed of! There is no beast so bestial as man at his worst! And some of you whom I know, glory in being seen at your worst always. There are many among you here to-day whose sole excuse for a life of animalism is, that it is your nature, 'I live according to my temperament, -- my disposition, -- I do not wish to change myself -- you cannot change me; I am as I am made'! So might the thief argue as he steals his neighbour's money,- -so may the murderer console himself as he stabs his victim! 'It is my nature to stab and to steal -- it is my nature to live as a beast -- I do not wish to change; you cannot change me'. Now if these arguments were true, and hold good, man would be still where he begun, -- in the woods and caves, -- an uncouth savage with nothing save an animal instinct to lead him where he could find food. But even this earliest instinct, savage though it was, taught him that something higher than himself had made him, and so he began to creep on by slow degrees towards that higher at once; hence instinct led to reason, and reason to culture and civilization. And now having touched as high a point of experience and knowledge as the ancient Assyrians and Egyptians attained before their decline, he is beginning even as they did, to be weary and somewhat afraid of what lies beyond in the as yet unfathomed realms of knowledge; and he half wishes to creep back again on all-fours to the days when he was beast merely. The close contemplation of the Angel terrifies him, -- he dare not grow his wings! Further than life, as life appears to him on its material side, he is afraid to soar, -- what lies in the far distance he dare not consider! This is where the Pause comes in all progress, -- the hesitation, the doubt, the fear; -- the moment when the Creature draws so near to his Creator that he is dazzled and confounded. And it is a strange fact that he is always left alone, -- alone with his own Will, in every such grand crisis. He has been helped so much by divine influences, that he is evidently considered strong enough to decide his own fate. He is strong enough, -- he has sufficient reason and knowledge to decide it for the Highest, if he would. But, with national culture goes national luxury, -- the more civilised a community, the greater its bodily ease, -- the more numerous the temptations against which we are told we must fight. Spirit flies forward -- Body pulls back. But Spirit is one day bound to win! We have attained in this generation a certain knowledge of Soul-forces -- and we are on a verge, where, if we hesitate, we are lost, and must recoil upon our own Ego as the centre of all desire. But if we go on boldly and leave our own Ego behind, we shall see the gates of Heaven opening indeed, and all the Mysteries unveiled! How often we pause on the verge of better things, doubting whether to rise or grovel! The light in us is darkness, and how great is that darkness! Such is the state of mind in which I, your preacher, have found myself for many years! I do not know whether to rise or grovel, -- to sink or soar! To be absolutely candid with you, I am quite sure that I should not sink in your opinion for confessing myself to be as outrageous in my conceptions of mortality as many of you are. You would possibly pretend to be ashamed of me, but in your hearts you would like me all the better. The sinking or the soaring of my nature has therefore nothing whatever to do with you. It is a strictly personal question. But what I specially wish to advise you of this morning, -- taking myself as an example, -- is that none of you, whether inclined to virtue or to vice, should remain such arrant fools as to imagine that your sins will not find you out. They will, -- the instant they are committed, their sole mission is to start on your track, and hunt you down! I cannot absolutely vouch to you that there is a God, -- but I am positive there is a hidden process of mathematics going on in the universe which sums up our slightest human affairs with an exactitude which at the least is amazing. Twenty-five years ago I did a great wrong to a human creature who was innocent, and who absolutely trusted me. There is no crime worse than this, yet it seemed to me quite a trifling affair, -- an amusement -- a nothing! I was perfectly aware that by some excessively straightlaced people it might be termed a sin; but my ideas of sin were as easy and condoning as yours are. I never repented it, -- I can hardly say I ever thought of it, -- if I did I excused myself quickly, and assured my own conscience in the usual way, that the fault was merely the result of circumstances over which I had no control. Oh, those uncontrollable circumstances! How convenient they are! And what a weak creature they make of man, who at other times than those of temptation, is wont to assert himself master of this planet! Master of a planet and cannot control a vice! Excellent! Well, -- I never, as I say, thought of the wrong I had done, -- but if I forgot it, some One or some Thing remembered it! Yes -- remembered it! -- put it down -- chronicled it with precision as to time and place, -- and set it, a breathing fact, before me in my old age, -- a living witness of my own treachery."
He paused, the congregation stirred, -- the actor Miraudin looked up at him with a surprised half-smile. Angela Sovrani lifted her beautiful violet eyes towards him in amazed compassion, -- Cardinal Bonpre, recalling the Abbe previous confession to him, bent his head, deeply moved.
"Treachery," resumed Vergniaud determinedly, "Is always a covert thing. We betray each other in the dark, with silent foot-steps and sibilant voices. We whisper our lies. We concoct our intrigues with carefully closed doors. I did so. I was a priest of the Roman Church as I am now; it would never have done for a priest to be a social sinner! I therefore took every precaution to hide my fault; -- but out of my lie springs a living condemnation; from my carefully concealed hypocrisy comes a blazonry of truth, and from my secret sin comes an open vengeance . . ."
At the last words the loud report of a pistol sounded through the building . . . there was a puff of smoke, a gleam of flame, and a bullet whizzed straight at the head of the preacher! The congregation rose, en masse, uttering exclamations of terror, -- but before anyone could know exactly what had happened the smoke cleared, and the Abbe Vergniaud was seen leaning against the steps of the pulpit, pale but uninjured, and in front of him stood the boy Manuel with arms outstretched, and a smile on his face. The bullet had split the pulpit immediately above him. An excited group assembled round them immediately, and the Abbe was the first to speak.
"I am not hurt! -- " he said quickly -- "See to the boy! He sprang in front of me and saved my life."
But Manuel was equally unhurt, and waived aside all enquiries and compliments. And while eager questions were poured out and answered, a couple of gendarmes were seen struggling in the centre of the church with a man who seemed to have the power of a demon, so fierce and frantic were his efforts to escape.
"Ah, voila! The assassin!" cried Miraudin, hastening to give assistance.
"The assassin!" echoed a dozen other persons pressing in the same direction.
Vergniaud heard, and gave one swift glance at Cardinal Bonpre who, though startled by the rapidity and excitement of the scene that had occurred, was equal to the occasion, and understood his friend's appeal at once, even before he said hurriedly,
"Monseigneur! Tell them to let him go! -- or -- bring him face to face with me!"
The Cardinal endeavoured to pass through the crowd, but though some made way for him on account of his ecclesiastical dignity, others closed in, and he found it impossible to move more than a few steps. Then Vergniaud, moved by a sudden resolve, raised himself a little, and resting one hand on the shoulder of Manuel, who still remained on the steps of the pulpit in front of him, he called,
"Let Monsieur the assassin come here to me! I have a word to say to him!"
Through the swaying, tumultuous, murmuring throng came a sudden stillness, and everyone drew back as the gendarmes responding to Abbe Vergniaud's command, pushed their way along, dragging and hustling their prisoner between them, -- a young black-browed, black- eyed peasant with a handsome face and proud bearing, whose defiant manner implied that having made one fierce struggle for liberty and finding it in vain, he was now disdainfully resigned to the inevitable. When brought face to face with the Abbe he lifted his head, and flashed his dark eyes upon him with a look of withering contempt. His lips parted, -- he seemed about to speak when his glance accidentally fell upon Manuel, -- then something caused him to hesitate, -- he checked himself on the very verge of speech and remained silent. The Abbe surveyed him with something of a quizzical half-admiring smile, then addressing the gendarmes he said,
"Let him go!"
The men looked up astonished, doubting whether they had heard aright.
"Let him go!" repeated the Abbe firmly, "I have no accusation to make against him. Had he killed me he would have been perfectly justified! Let him go!"
"Cher Abbe!" remonstrated the Marquis Fontenelle, who had made himself one of the group immediately around the pulpit, "Is not this a mistake on your part? Let me advise you not to be so merciful . . ."
"'Blessed are the merciful for they shall obtain mercy'"! quoted the Abbe with a strange smile, while his breath came and went quickly, and his face grew paler as he spoke. "Set him free, messieurs, if you please! I decline to prosecute my own flesh and blood! I will be answerable for his future conduct, -- I am entirely answerable for his past! He is my son!"