"C'est un drame! Un veritable drame!" said Miraudin, pausing, as he found himself face to face with the Marquis Fontenelle.
Fontenelle stared haughtily.
"Did you speak to me, Monsieur?" he enquired, glancing the actor up and down with an air of supreme disdain.
Miraudin laughed carelessly.
"Yes, I spoke to you, Marquis!" he replied, "I said that the public confession of our dear priest Vergniaud was a veritable drame!"
"An unfortunate scandal in the Church!" said Fontenelle curtly.
"Yes!" went on the unabashed Miraudin, "If it were on the stage it would be taken as a matter of course. An actor's follies help to populate the world. But a priest's petite faute would seem to suggest the crushing down of a universe!"
"Custom and usage make the rule in these things," said Fontenelle turning away, "I have the honour to wish you good-day, Monsieur!"
"One moment!" said the actor smiling, "There is a curious personal resemblance between you and me, Monsieur le Marquis! Have you ever noticed it? We might almost be brothers by our looks -- and also I believe by our temperaments!"
Fontenelle's hazel eyes flashed angrily.
"I think not!" he said coldly, "A certain resemblance between totally unrelated persons is quite common. For the rest, we are absolutely different -- absolutely!"
Again Miraudin laughed.
"As you will, Marquis!" and he raised his hat with a light, half- mocking air, "Au revoir!"
Fontenelle scarcely acknowledged the salutation, -- he was too much annoyed. He considered it a piece of insolence on Miraudin's part to have addressed him at all without previous introduction. It was true that the famous actor was permitted a license not granted to the ordinary individual, -- as indeed most actors are. Even princes, who hedge themselves round with impassable barriers to certain of their subjects who are in all ways great and worthy of notice, unbend to the Mime who today takes the place of the Court-jester, and allow him to enter the royal presence, often bringing his newest wanton with him. And there was not the slightest reason for the Marquis Fontenelle to be at all particular in his choice of acquaintances. Yet somehow or other, he was. The fine and sensitive instincts of a gentleman were in him, and though in the very depths of his own conscience he knew himself to be as much of a social actor as Miraudin was a professional one, -- though he was aware that his passions were as sensual, and therefore as vulgar, (for sensuality is vulgarity), there was a latent pride in him which forbade him to set himself altogether on the same level. And now as he walked away haughtily, his fine aristocratic head lifted a little higher in air than usual, he was excessively irritated -- with everything and everybody, but with himself in particular. Abbe Vergniaud's sermon had stung him in several ways, and the startling FINALE had vexed him still more.
"What folly!" he thought, as he entered his luxuriously appointed flat, and threw himself into a chair with a kind of angry weariness, "How utterly stupid of Vergniaud to blazon the fact that he is no better than other men, in the full face of his congregation! He must be mad! A priest of the Roman Church publicly acknowledging a natural son! [Footnote: ROME, August 19, 1899 -- A grave scandal has just burst upon the world here. The Gazetta di Venezia having attacked the bishops attending the recent conclave of "Latin America," that is, Spanish-speaking America, as men of loose morality, the Osservatore Cattolico, the Vatican organ, replied declaring that the life of the bishops present at the conclave was above suspicion. The Gazetta di Venezia responds, affirming that the majority of the bishops brought with them to Rome their mistresses, and in some instances their children. The Gazetta offers to disclose the names of these bishops, and demands that the Pope shall satisfy the Catholic world by taking measures against them. -- Central News.] Has ever such a thing been heard of! And the result is merely to create scandal and invite his own disgrace! A quoi bon!"
He lit a cigarette and puffed at it impatiently. His particular "code" of morality had been completely upset; -- things seemed to have taken a turn for general offence, and the simplest thoughts became like bristles in his brain, pricking him uncomfortably in various sore and sensitive places. Then, added to his general sense of spleen was the unpleasant idea that he was really in love, where he had never meant to be in love. "In love", is a wide term nowadays, and covers a multitude of poor and petty passing emotions, -- and it is often necessary to add the word "really" to it, in order to emphasise the fact that the passion has perhaps, -- and even then it is only a perhaps, -- taken a somewhat lasting form. Why could not Sylvie Hermenstein have allowed things to run their natural course?- -this natural course being according to Fontenelle, to drop into his arms when asked, and leave those arms again with equal alacrity also when asked! It would have been quite pleasant and satisfactory to him, the Marquis; -- and for Sylvie -- well! -- for Sylvie, she would soon have got over it! Now there was all this fuss and pother about virtue! Virtue, quotha! In a woman, and in Paris! At this time of day! Could anything be more preposterous and ridiculous!
"One would imagine I had stumbled into a convent for young ladies," he grumbled to himself, "What with Sylvie actually gone, and that pretty pattern of chastity, Angela Sovrani, preaching at me with her big violet eyes, -- and now Vergniaud who used to be 'bon camarade et bon vivant', branding himself a social sinner -- really one would imagine that some invisible Schoolmaster was trying to whip me into order . . ."
"Peut-on entrer?" called a clear voice outside at this juncture, and without waiting for permission the speaker entered, a very pretty woman in an admirably fitting riding habit, which she held daintily up with one gloved hand, extending the other as she came to the Marquis who gracefully bent over it and kissed it.
"Charme de vous voir Princesse!" he murmured.
"Not at all! Spare me your falsehoods!" was the gay reply, accompanied by a dazzling smile, "You are not in the least charmed, nothing, -- nobody charms you, -- I least of all! Did you not see me in church? No! Where were your eyes? On the courageous Vergniaud, who so nearly gave us the melancholy task of arranging a 'Chapelle ardente' for him this afternoon?" She laughed, and her eyes twinkled maliciously, -- then she went on, "Do you know he is quite a delightful boy, -- the peasant son and assassin? I think of taking him to my Chateau and making something of him. I waited to see the whole play out, and bring you the news. Papa Vergniaud has gone home with his good-looking offspring -- then Cardinal Bonpre -- do you know the Cardinal Bonpre?"
"By reputation merely," replied the Marquis, setting a chair for his fair visitor, "And as the uncle of Donna Sovrani."
"Oh, reputation is nothing," laughed the lady, known as the Princesse D'Agramont, an independent beauty of great wealth and brilliant attainments, "Your butler can give you a reputation, or take it away from you! But the Cardinal's reputation is truly singular. It is goodness, merely! He is so good that he has become actually famous for it! Now I once thought that to become famous for goodness must surely imply that the person so celebrated had a very hypocritical nature, -- the worst of natures indeed; -- that of pretending to be what he was not, -- but I was mistaken. Cardinal Bonpre IS good. Absolutely sincere and noble -- therefore a living marvel in this age!"
"You are pleased to be severe, Princesse," said the Marquis, "Is sincerity so difficult to find?"
"The most difficult of virtues!" answered the Princesse, lightly tapping out a little tune with the jewelled handle of her riding whip on the arm of her chair, "That is why I like horses and dogs so much -- they are always honest. And for that reason I am now inclined to like Abbe Vergniaud whom I never liked before. He has turned honest! To-day indeed he has been as straightforward as if he were not a man at all! -- and I admire him for it. He and his son will be my guests at the Chateau D'Agramont."
"What a very strange woman you are!" said Fontenelle, with a certain languid admiration beginning to glimmer in his eyes, "You always do things that nobody else would dare do -- and yet . . . no lovers!"
She turned herself swiftly round and surveyed him with a bright scorn that swept him as with a lightning flash from head to heel.
"Lovers! Who would be bored by them! Such delightful company! So unselfish in their demands -- so tender and careful of a woman's feelings! Pouf! Cher ami! -- you forget! I was the wife of the late Prince D'Agramont!"
"That explains a great many of your moods certainly," said the Marquis smiling.
"Does it not? Le beau Louis! -- romantic Louis! -- poet Louis! -- musician Louis! -- Louis, who talked pretty philosophies by the hour, -- Louis who looked so beautiful by moonlight, -- who seemed fastidious and refined to a degree that was almost ethereal! -- Louis who swore, with passion flashing in his eyes, that I was the centre of the universe to him, and that no other woman had ever occupied, would ever occupy, or SHOULD ever occupy his thoughts! -- yes, he was an ideal lover and husband indeed!" said the Princesse smiling coldly, "I gave him all my life and love, till one day, when I found I was sharing his caresses with my plumpest dairymaid, who called him "HER Louis"! Then I thought it was time to put an end to romance. TIENS!" and she gave a little shrug and sigh, "It is sad to think he died of over-eating."
The Marquis laughed.
"You are incorrigible, belle Loyse!" he said, "You should write these things, not speak them."
"Really! And do I not write them? Yes, you know I do, and that you envy me my skill. The Figaro is indebted to me for many admirable essays. At the same time I do not give you permission to call me Loyse."
"Forgive me!" and the Marquis folded his hands with an air of mock penitence.
"Perhaps I will, presently," and she laughed, "But meanwhile I want you to do something for me."
"Toujours a votre service, madame!" and Fontenelle bowed profoundly.
"How theatrical you look! You are alarmingly like Miraudin; -- and one MUST draw the line at Miraudin! This is a day of truth according to the Abbe Vergniaud; how dare you say you are at my service when you do not mean it?"
"Princesse, I protest . . ."
"Oh, protest as much as you like, -- on the way to Rome!"
The Marquis started.
"Yes, to Rome. I am going, and I want someone to look after me. Will you come? All Paris will say we have eloped together." She laughed merrily.
The Marquis stood perplexed and silent.
"Well, what is it?" went on the Princesse gaily, "Is there some faint sense of impropriety stealing over you? Not possible! Dear me, your very muscles are growing rigid! You will not go?"
"Madame, if you will permit me to be frank with you, -- I would rather not!"
"A la bonheur! -- then I have you!" And the Princesse rose, a dazzling smile irradiating her features, "You have thrown open your heart! You have begun to reform! You love Sylvie Hermenstein -- yes! -- you positively LOVE her!"
"Princesse -- " began the Marquis, "I assure you -- "
"Assure me nothing!" and she looked him straight in the eyes, "I know all about it! You will not journey with me because you think the Comtesse Sylvie will hear of it, and put a wrong construction on your courtesy. You wish to try for once, to give her no cause for doubting you to be sans peur et sans reproche. You wish to make her think you something better than a sort of Miraudin whose amorous inclinations are not awakened by one woman, but by women! And so you will not do anything which, though harmless in itself, may seem equivocal. For this you refuse the friendly invitation of one of the best known 'society leaders' in Europe! CHER Marquis! -- it is a step in the right direction! Adieu!"
"You are not going so soon," he said hurriedly, "Wait till I explain . . ."
"There is nothing to explain!" and the pretty Princesse gave him her hand with a beneficent air, "I am very pleased with you. You are what the English call 'good boy'! Now I am going to see the Abbe and place the Chateau D'Agramont at his disposal while he is waiting to be excommunicated, -- for of course he will be excommunicated -- "
"What does it matter! -- Who cares?" said the Marquis recklessly.
"It does not matter, and nobody cares -- not in actual Paris. But very very nice people in the suburbs, who are morally much worse than the Abbe, will perhaps refuse to receive him. That is why my doors are open to him, and also to his son."
"Original, as usual!"
"Perfectly! I am going to write a column for the Figaro on the amazing little scene of this morning. Au revoir! My poor horse has been waiting too long already, -- I must finish my ride in the Bois, and then go to Angela Sovrani; for all the dramatis personae of to- day's melodrama are at her studio, I believe."
"Who is that boy with the Cardinal?" asked the Marquis suddenly.
"You have noticed him? I also. A wonderful face! A little acolyte, no doubt. And so you will not go to Rome with me?"
"I think not," and Fontenelle smiled.
"Comme il vous plaira! I will tell Sylvie."
"The Comtesse Hermenstein is not in Paris."
"No!" and the Princesse laughed mischievously, "She is in Rome! She must have arrived there this morning. Au revoir, Marquis!" Another dazzling smile, and she was gone.
Fontenelle stood staring after her in amazement. Sylvie was in Rome then? And he had just refused to accompany the Princesse D'Agramont thither! A sudden access of irritation came over him, and he paced the room angrily. Should he also go to Rome? Never! It would seem too close a pursuit of a woman who had by her actions distinctly shown that she wished to avoid him. Now he would prove to her that he also had a will of his own. HE would leave Paris; -- he would go -- yes, he would go to Africa! Everybody went to Africa. It was becoming a fashionable pasture-land for disappointed lives. He would lose himself in the desert, -- and then -- then Sylvie would be sorry when she did not know where he was or what he was doing! But also, -- he in his turn would not know where Sylvie was, or what she was doing! This was annoying. It was certain that she would not remain in Rome a day longer than she chose to, -- well! -- then where would she go? In Africa he would find some difficulty in tracing her movements. On second thoughts he resolved that he would lose himself in another fashion -- and would go to Rome to do it!
"She shall not know I am there!" he said to himself, with a kind of triumph in his own decision, "I shall amuse myself -- I shall see her- -but she shall not see me."
Satisfied with this as yet vague plan of entertainment, he began at once making his arrangements for departure; -- meanwhile, the Princesse D'Agramont riding gracefully through the Bois on her beautiful Arab, was amusing herself with her thoughts, and weighing the PROS and CONS of the different lives of her friends, without giving the slightest consideration to her own. Here was a strange nature, -- as a girl she had been intensely loving, generous and warm- hearted, and she had adored her husband with exceptional faith and devotion. But the handsome Prince's amours were legion, though he had been fairly successful in concealing them from his wife, till the unlucky day when she had found him making desperate love to a common servant, -- and after that her confidence, naturally, was at an end. One discovery led to another, -- and the husband around whom she had woven her life's romance, sank degraded in her sight, never to rise again. She was of far too dignified and proud a nature to allow her sense of outrage and wrong to be made public, and though she never again lived with D'Agramont as his wife, she carried herself through all her duties as mistress of the household and hostess of his guests, with a brave bright gaiety, which deceived even the closest observer, -- and the gossips of Paris used to declare that she did not know the extent of her husband's follies. But she did know,- -and while filled with utter disgust and loathing for his conduct she nevertheless gave him no cause of complaint against herself. And when he died of a fever brought on through over-indulgence in vice, she conformed to all the strictest usages of society, -- wore her solemn widow's black for more than the accustomed period, -- and then cast it off, -- not to dash into her fashionable "circle" again with a splurge of colour, but rather to glide into it gracefully, a vision of refinement, arrayed in such soft hues as may be seen in some rare picture; and she took complete possession of it by her own unaided charm. No one could really tell whether she grieved for D'Agramont's death or not; no one but herself knew how she had loved him, -- no one guessed what agonies of pain and shame she had endured for his sake, nor how she had wept herself half blind with despair when he died. All this she shut up in her own heart, but the working of the secret bitterness within her had made a great change in her disposition. Her nature, once as loving and confiding as that of a little child, had been so wronged in its tenderest fibres that now she could not love at all.
"Why is it," she would ask herself, "that I am totally unable to care for any living creature? That it is indifferent to me whether I see any person once, or often, or never? Why are all men like phantoms, drifting past my soul's immovability?"
The answer to her query would be, that having loved greatly once and been deceived, it was impossible to love again. Some women, -- the best, and therefore the unhappiest -- are born with this difficult temperament.
Now, as she rode quietly along, sometimes allowing her horse to prance upon the turf for the delight of its dewy freshness, she was weaving quite a brilliant essay on modern morals out of the scene she had witnessed at the Church of the Lorette that morning. She well knew how to use that dangerous weapon, the pen, -- she could wield it like a wand to waken tears or laughter with equal ease, and since her husband's death she had devoted a great deal of time to authorship. Two witty novels, published under a nom-de-plume had already startled the world of Paris, and she was busy with a third. Such work amused her, and distracted her from dwelling too much on the destroyed illusions of the past. The Figaro snatched eagerly at everything she wrote; and it was for the Figaro that she busied her brain now, considering what she should say of the Abbe Vergniaud's confession.
"It is wisest to be a liar and remain in the Church? or tell the truth and go out of the Church?" she mused, "Unfortunately, if all priests told the truth as absolutely as the Abbe did this morning we should have hardly any of them left."
She laughed a little, and stroked her horse's neck caressingly.
"Good Rex! You and your kind never tell lies; and yet you are said to have no souls. Now I wonder why we, who are mean and cunning and treacherous and hypocritical should have immortal souls, while horses and dogs who are faithful and kind and honest should be supposed to have none."
Rex gave a gay little prance forward as one who should say, "Yes, but it is only you silly human beings who suppose such nonsense. We know what WE know; -- we have our own secrets!"
"Now the Church," went on Loyse D'Agramont, pursuing the tenor of her thoughts, "is in a bad way all over the world. It is possible that God is offended with it. It is possible, that after nearly two thousand years of patience He is tired of having come down to us to teach us the path of Heaven in vain. Something out of the common has surely moved the Abbe Vergniaud to speak as he spoke to-day. He was quite unlike himself and beyond himself; if all our preachers were seized by the spirit of frankness in like manner -- "
Here she broke off for she had arrived at Angela Sovrani's door, and a servant coming out, assisted her to alight, and led her horse into the courtyard there to await her leisure. She was an old friend of Angela's and was accustomed to enter the house without announcement, but on this occasion she hesitated, and after ascending the first few steps leading to the studio paused and rang the bell. Angela herself answered the summons.
"Loyse! Is it you! Oh, I am so glad!" and Angela caught her by both hands, -- "You cannot imagine the confusion and trouble we have been in this morning!"
"Oh yes, I can!" answered the Princesse smiling, as she put an arm round her friend's waist and entered the studio, "You have certainly had an excitement! What of the courageous Abbe? Where is he?"
"Here!" And Angela's eyes expressed volumes, -- "Here, with my uncle. They are talking together -- and that young man -- Cyrillon -- the son, you know -- "
"Is that his name? -- Cyrillon?" queried the Princesse.
"Yes, -- he has been brought up as a peasant. But he is not ignorant. He has written books and music, so it appears -- yet he still keeps to his labour in the fields. He seems to be a kind of genius; another sort of Maeterlinck -- "
"Oh, capricious Destiny!" exclaimed the Princesse, "The dear Abbe scandalises the Church by acknowledging his son to all men, -- and lo! -- the son he was ashamed of all these years, turns out a prodigy! The fault once confessed, brings a blessing! Angela, there is something more than chance in this, if we could only fathom it!"
"This Cyrillon is all softness and penitence now,' Angela went on, "He is overcome with grief at his murderous attempt, -- and has asked his father's pardon. And they are going away together out of Paris till -- "
"Till excommunication is pronounced," said the Princesse, "Yes, I thought so! I came here to place my Chateau at the Abbe's disposal. I am myself going to Rome; so he and his son can be perfectly at home there. I admire the man's courage, and above all I admire his truthfulness. But I cannot understand why he was at such pains to keep silence all these years, and THEN to declare his fault? He must have decided on his confession very suddenly?"
Angela's eyes grew dark and wistful.
"Yes," she answered slowly, -- then with a sudden eagerness in her manner she added, "Do you know, Loyse, I feel as if some very strange influence had crept in among us! Pray do not think me foolish, but I assure you I have had the most curious sensations since my uncle, Cardinal Bonpre arrived from Rouen -- bringing Manuel- -"
"Manuel? Is that the boy I saw in the church this morning? The boy who threw himself as a shield between Verginaud and the flying shot? Yes? And do you not know who he is?"
"No," and Angela repeated the story of the way in which Manuel had been found and rescued by the Cardinal; "You see," she continued, "it is not possible to ask him any questions since he has declined to tell us more than we already know."
"Strange!" And the Princesse D'Agramont knitted her delicate brows perplexedly. "And you have had curious feelings since he came, you say? What sort of feelings?"
"Well, you will only laugh at me," replied Angela, her cheeks paling a little as she spoke, "but it really is as if some supernatural being were present who could see all my inward thoughts, -- and not only mine, but the thoughts of everyone else. Someone too who impels us to do what we have never thought of doing before -- "
The Princesse opened her eyes in amazement.
"My dear girl! You must have been over-working to get such strange fancies into your head! There is nothing supernatural left to us nowadays except the vague idea of a God, -- and even that we are rather tired of!"
Angela trembled and grew paler than usual.
"Do not speak in that way," she urged, "The Abbe talked in just such a light fashion until the other day here, -- yet this morning I think- -nay, I am sure he believes in something better than himself at last."
The Princesse was silent for a minute.
"Well, what is to happen next?" she queried, "Excommunication of course! All brave thinkers of every time have been excommunicated, and many of our greatest and most valuable scientific works are on the Index Expurgatorius. It is my ambition to get into that Index, -- I shall never rest till I win the honour of being beside Darwin's 'Origin of Species'!"
Angela smiled, but her thoughts were elsewhere.
"I hope the Abbe will go away at once," she said meditatively, "But you have no idea how happy and at ease he is! He seems to be ready for anything."
"What does Cardinal Bonpre think?" asked the Princesse.
"My uncle never thinks in any way except the way of Christ," replied Angela. "He says, 'Thy sins be forgiven thee; arise and walk', to every soul stricken with the palsy of pain and repentance. He helps the fallen; he does not strike them down more heavily."
"Ah, so! And is he fit to be a Cardinal?" queried the Princesse D'Agramont dubiously.
Angela gave her a quick look, but had no time to reply as at that moment a servant entered and announced, "Monsignor Moretti!"
Angela started nervously.
"Moretti!" she said in a low tone, "I thought he had left Paris!"
Before she had time to say any more the visitor himself entered, a tall spare priest with a dark narrow countenance of the true Tuscan type, -- a face in which the small furtive eyes twinkled with a peculiarly hard brilliancy as though they were luminous pebbles. He walked into the room with a kind of aggressive dignity common to many Italians, and made a slight sign of the cross in air as the two ladies saluted him.
"Pardon me, Mesdames, for this intrusion," he said in a harsh metallic voice, "But I hear that the Abbe Vergniaud is in this house, -- and that Cardinal Felix Bonpre has received him here SINCE" (and he emphasised the word "since") "the shameful scene of this morning. My business in Paris is ended for the moment; and I am returning to Italy to-night, -- but I wish to know if the Abbe has anything to say through me to His Holiness the Pope in extenuation of his conduct before I perform the painful duty of narrating this distressing affair at the Vatican."
"Will you see him for yourself, Monsignor?" said Angela quietly, offering to lead the way out of the studio, "You will no doubt obtain a more direct and explicit answer from the Abbe personally."
For a moment Moretti hesitated. Princesse D'Agramont saw his indecision, and her smile had a touch of malice in it as she said,
"It is a little difficult to know how to address the Abbe to-day, is it not, Monsignor? For of course he is no longer an Abbe -- no longer a priest of Holy Church! Helas! When anybody takes to telling the truth in public the results are almost sure to be calamitous!"
Moretti turned upon her with swift asperity.
"Madame, you are no true daughter of the Church," he said, "and my calling forbids me to enter into any discussion with you!"
The Princesse gave him a charming upward glance of her bright eyes, and curtsied demurely, but he paid no heed to her obeisance, and moving away, went at once with Angela towards the Cardinal's apartments. In the antechamber he paused, hearing voices.
"Is there anyone with His Eminence, besides Vergniaud?" he asked.
"The Abbe's son Cyrillon," replied Angela timidly.
"I will go in alone," he said, "You need not announce me. The Abbe knows me well, and -- " he added with a slight sneer, "he is likely to know me better!"
Without further words he signed to Angela to retire, and passing through the antechamber, he opened the door of the Cardinal's room and entered abruptly.