"Thank God!" he said. "They are safe for the present! England is a free country!"
"Is it?" And Vergniaud smiled a little. "Are you sure? England cannot dispute the authority of the Vatican over its own sworn servants. Are you not yourself contending against the power of Rome in Great Britain?"
"Not only against Rome do I contend," replied Aubrey. "My battle is against all who seek to destroy the true meaning and intention of Christianity. But so far as Romanism is concerned, -- we have a monarch whose proudest title is Defender of the Faith -- that is Defender of the Faith against Papal interference."
"Yes? And yet her bishops pander to Rome? Ah, my dear friend! -- your monarch is kept in ignorance of the mischief being worked in her realm by the Papal secret service! Cardinal Bonpre in London is as much under the jurisdiction of the Pope as if he still remained in Rome, and though he may be able to delay the separation between himself and the boy he cherishes, he will scarcely avert it!"
"Why should they wish to part that child from him I wonder!" said Aubrey musingly.
Cyrillon shrugged his shoulders.
"Who can tell! They have their reasons, no doubt. Why should they wish to excommunicate Tolstoi? But they do! Believe me, there is a time of terror coming for the religious world -- especially in your great English Empire. And when your good Queen dies, the trouble will begin!"
Aubrey was silent for some minutes.
"We must work, Cyrillon!" he said at last, laying a hand on his friend's shoulder. "We must work and we must never leave off working! One man may do much, -- all history proves the conquering force of one determined will. You, young as you are, have persuaded France to listen to you, -- I am doing my best to persuade England to hear me. We are only two -- but others will follow. I know it is difficult! -- it is harassing and often heartbreaking to insist on Truth when the whole world's press is at work bolstering up false gods, false ideals, false art, false sentiment, -- but if we are firm- -if we hold an unflinching faith, we shall conquer!"
"You are brave!" said Cyrillon with a glance of mingled trust and admiration. "But you are an exception to the majority of men. The majority are cruel and treacherous, and stupid as well. Dense stupidity is hard to fight against! Who for example, do you suppose, will understand the lesson of Donna Sovrani's great picture?"
"All the New World!" said Aubrey, with enthusiasm, -- "It is for the New World -- not the Old. And that reminds me to-day the picture is on view to the art-critics and experts for the first time. I prophesy it will be sold at once!"
"That would make her father happy," said Cyrillon slowly. "But she -- she will not care!"
Aubrey looked at him attentively.
"Have you seen her?"
"Yes. For a moment only. I called at the Sovrani Palace and her father received me. We talked for some time together. I think he knows who dealt the murderous blow at his daughter, but he says nothing positive. He showed me the picture. It is great -- sublime! I could have knelt before it! Then he took me to see Her -- and I would have knelt still more readily! But -- she is changed!"
"And -- are you?" asked Aubrey with a slight smile.
"Changed? I? No -- I shall never change. I loved her at first sight -- I love her still more now. Yet I see the truth -- she is broken- hearted!"
"Time and great tenderness will heal the wound," said Aubrey gently. "Meanwhile have patience!"
Cyrillon gave him a look more eloquent than speech, and by mutual consent they said no more on the subject of Angela just then.
Next morning at the American Consulate, Sylvie, Comtesse Hermenstein, was quietly married by civil law to Aubrey Leigh. The ceremony took place in the presence of the Princesse D'Agramont, Madame Bozier, and Cyrillon Vergniaud. When it was over the wedded lovers and their friends returned to the Sovrani Palace, there to join Angela who had come down from her sick room to grace the occasion. She looked as fair and fragile as the delicate "Killmeny" of the poet's legend, just returned from wondrous regions of "faery," though the land poor Angela had wandered away from was the Land of Sweet Delusion, which enchanted garden she would never enter again. Pale and thin, with her beautiful eyes drooping wearily under their dreamy tired lids, she was the very ghost of her former self;- -and the child-like way in which she clung to her father, and kept near her father always, was pathetic in the extreme. When Sylvie and Aubrey entered, with their three companions, she advanced to greet them, smiling bravely, though her lips quivered.
"All happiness be with you, dear!" she said softly, and she slipped a chain of fine pearls round Sylvie's neck. "These were my mother's pearls, -- wear them for my sake!"
Sylvie kissed her in silence, -- she could not say anything, even by the way of thanks, -- her heart was too full.
"We shall be very lonely without you, darling," went on Angela. "Shall we not, father?" Prince Pietro came to her side, and taking her hand patted it consolingly -- "But we shall know you are happy in England -- and we shall try and come and see you as soon as I get strong, -- I want to join my uncle and Manuel. I miss Manuel very much, -- he and my father are everything to me now!"
She stretched out her hand to Aubrey, who bent over it and kissed it tenderly.
"You are happy now, Mr. Leigh?" she said smiling.
"Very happy!" said Aubrey. "May you be as happy soon!"
She shook her head, and the smile passed from her eyes and lips, leaving her face very sorrowful.
"I must work," she said. "Work brings content -- if it does not insure joy." Her gaze involuntarily wandered to her great picture, "The Coming of Christ," which now, unveiled in all its splendour, occupied one end of her studio, filling it with a marvellous colour and glow of light. "Yes, I must work! That big canvas of mine will not sell I fear! My father was right. It was a mistake" -- and she sighed -- "a mistake altogether, -- in more ways than one! And what is the use of painting a picture for the world if there is no chance to let the world see it?"
Prince Pietro looked at her benevolently.
"Your father was right, you think? Well, Angela mia, I think I had better be the first to own that your father was wrong! The picture is already sold; -- that is if you consent to sell it!"
Angela turned very white. "If I consent to sell it? Sell it -- to whom?"
Sylvie put a caressing arm around her. "Your father had the news this morning," she said, "and we all decided to tell it to you as soon as we came back from the Consulate. A wedding-surprise on our parts, Angela! You know the picture was on view for the first time yesterday to some of the critics and experts in Rome?"
Angela made a faint sign of assent. Her wistful eyes were full of wonder and anxiety.
"Well, among them was a purchaser for America -- Oh, you need not look at me, my dear! -- I have nothing to do with it! You shall see the letter your father received -- and you shall decide; but the end of the whole matter is, Angela, that if you consent, the picture will be bought, not by any private purchaser, but by the American nation."
"The American nation!" repeated Angela. "Are you really, really sure of this?"
"Quite sure!" said Sylvie joyously. "And you must say good-bye to it and let it go across the wide ocean -- out to the New World all alone with its grand and beautiful message, -- unless you go with it and show the Americans something even more perfect and beautiful in yourself than the picture! -- and you must be content to take twenty thousand pounds for it, and be acknowledged as the greatest painter of the age as well! This will be hard work, Angela! -- but you must resign yourself!"
She laughed for pure delight in her friend's triumph, -- but Angela turned at once to her father.
"Dearest father!" she said softly. "I am glad -- for your sake!"
He folded her in his arms, too deeply moved to speak, and then as he felt her trembling, he led her to a chair and beckoned to Cyrillon Vergniaud who had stood apart, watching the little scene in silence.
"Come and talk to this dear girl!" he said. "She is not at all a good hostess to-day! She ought to entertain the bride and bridegroom here, -- but it seems as if she needed to be entertained herself!" And then, as Cyrillon obeyed him, and drew near the idol of his thoughts with such hesitating reverence as might befit a pilgrim approaching the shrine of a beloved saint, he turned away and was just about to speak to the Princesse D'Agramont when a servant entered and said hurriedly --
"Monsignor Gherardi desires to see Cardinal Bonpre!"
There was a dead pause. The group of friends looked at one another in embarrassment. Angela rose from her chair trembling and glanced instinctively at her picture -- and for a moment no one seemed quite certain what should be done next. The Princesse D'Agramont was the first to recover her self-possession.
"Angela must not be here," she said. "She is not strong enough to stand a scene. And no doubt Gherardi has come to make one! We will leave him to you, Mr. Leigh -- and to Gys Grandit!"
She withdrew at once with Angela, and in another moment Gherardi was ushered in. He glanced quickly around him as he made his formal salutation, -- his eyes rested for a moment on Sylvie and Aubrey Leigh -- then he addressed himself to Prince Pietro.
"I am sorry to intrude upon you, Prince!" he said. "I have an urgent matter to discuss with Cardinal Bonpre, and must see him at once."
"I regret that it is not in my power to gratify your desire, Monsignor," said Prince Sovrani with stiff courtesy. "My brother-in- law the Cardinal left Rome last night"
"Left Rome! Left Rome!" exclaimed Gherardi. "Who gave him permission to leave Rome!"
"Was permission necessary?" asked Aubrey, stepping forward.
"I did not address you, sir," returned Gherardi haughtily. "I spoke to Prince Sovrani."
"Prince Sovrani might well decline to answer you," said Aubrey undauntedly. "Were I to make him acquainted with the fiendish plot you have contrived against his daughter's fame and honour, he would scarcely allow you to cross his threshold!"
Gherardi stood still, breathing quickly, but otherwise unmoved.
"Plot?" he echoed. "You must be mad! I have no plot against anyone. My business is to uphold the cause of truth and justice, and I shall certainly defend the name of the great artist who painted that picture" -- and he pointed to Angela's canvas -- "Florian Varillo! Dead as he is, his memory shall live!"
"Dead!" cried Prince Sovrani, springing forward. "Dead! Make me sure of that, and I will praise God even for your lying tongue, if it could for once speak such a welcome truth!"
Gherardi drew back amazed, instinctively recoiling from the flashing eyes and threatening figure of the irate nobleman.
"Speak!" cried Sovrani again. "Tell me that the murderer of my child's youth and joy is dead and gone to hell -- and I will sing a Laus Deo at St. Peter's! I will pay you a thousand pounds in masses to keep his soul safe with the devil to whom it has gone!"
"Prince Sovrani, you are in ignorance of the facts," said Gherardi coldly. "And you speak in an anger, which if what you suspect were true, would be natural enough, but which under present circumstances is greatly misplaced. The unfortunate Florian Varillo has been ill for many days at a Trappist monastery on the Campagna. He had gone out towards Frascati on a matter connected with some business before starting for Naples, and as he was returning, he was suddenly met by the news of the assassination of his betrothed wife -- "
"And he knew nothing of it -- " interposed Sovrani grimly. "Of course- -he knew nothing!"
"He knew nothing -- how should he know!" responded Gherardi calmly -- "The terrible shock threw him into a delirium and fever -- he was found in a dead swoon and taken into the monastery for shelter. I saw him there only yesterday."
He paused. No one spoke.
"He was to have come to Rome to-day, and a full explanation of his absence would have been given. But last night the monastery was set on fire -- "
"Thank God!" said Sovrani.
Gherardi looked at him with an air of admirably affected sorrowful reproach.
"I grieve for your injustice and cruelty, Prince!" he said -- "Some natural regret there should surely be in your mind at the tragic end of one so highly gifted -- one whom you had accepted as your future son-in-law. He met with a terrible death! The monastery was set on fire, as I have told you -- but the doors had all been previously locked within, it is supposed by one of the monks named Ambrosio, who was subject to fits of insanity -- with the tragic result that he and Varillo perished in the flames, there being no possibility of rescue."
"Then the guillotine is saved unnecessary soiling," said Sovrani fiercely. "And you, Monsignor Gherardi, should have a special 'Jubilate' sung for the world being well-rid of an exceptionally damned and damnable villain!"
There was something terrific in the aspect of Sovrani's face and threatening attitude, and for a moment Gherardi hesitated to go on with his prepared sequence of lies. Rallying his forces at last with an effort he made a very good assumption of his most authoritative manner.
"Prince, I must ask you to be good enough to hear me patiently," he said. "Your mind has been grossly abused, and you are not aware of the true position of affairs. You imagine with some few gossips in Rome, that Florian Varillo, your daughter's betrothed husband, was guilty of the murderous attack upon her life -- you are mistaken!"
"Mistaken!" Prince Pietro laughed scornfully. "Prove my mistake! -- prove it!"
"I give you my word!" said Gherardi. "And I also swear to you that the picture yonder, which, though offensive to the Church and blasphemous in its teaching, is nevertheless a great masterpiece of painting, is the work of the unfortunate dead man you so greatly wrong!"
"Liar!" And Cyrillon Vergniaud sprang forward, interposing himself between Sovrani and the priest. "Liar!"
Gherardi turned a livid white.
"Who is this ruffian?" he demanded, drawing his tall form up more haughtily than before. "A servant of yours?"
"Ay, a servant of his, and of all honest men!" returned Cyrillon. "I am one whom your Church has learned to fear, but who has no fear of you! -- one whom you have heard of to your cost, and will still hear of, -- Gys Grandit!"
Gherardi glanced him up and down, and then turned from him in disgust as from something infected by a loathly disease.
"Prince Sovrani!" he said. "I cannot condescend to converse with a street ranter, such as this misguided person, who has most regrettably obtained admission to your house and society! I came to see your brother-in-law Cardinal Bonpre, -- who has left Rome, you tell me -- therefore my business must be discussed with you alone. I must ask you for a private audience."
Sovrani looked at him steadily.
"And I must refuse it, Monsignor! If in private audience you wish to repeat the amazing falsehood you have just uttered respecting my daughter's work -- I am afraid I should hardly keep my hands off you! Believe me you are safest in company!"
Monsignor Gherardi paused a moment, -- then turned towards Sylvie.
"Contessa," he said very deliberately. "You can perhaps arrange this matter better than I can. Florian Varillo is dead -- as I have told you; and for stating what I believe to be the truth regarding him I have been subjected to insult in your presence. I have known you for many years and I knew your father before you, -- I have no wish to either distress or offend you, -- do you understand? I am in your hands!"
Sylvie looked him full in the face. "My husband will answer you, Monsignor," she said. "I am in his hands!" Gherardi turned as crimson as he had before been pale. "Your husband!" He strode forward with a threatening movement -- then stopped short, as he confronted Aubrey Leigh. "Your husband! So! You are married then!" -- and he laughed fiercely -- "Married by the law, and excommunicated by the Church! A pleasant position for the last of the Hermensteins! Contessa, by your own act you have ruined the fortunes of your friends! I would have held my peace at your will, -- but now all Rome shall know the truth!" "The truth according to the convenience of papal Rome?" queried Aubrey Leigh -- "The truth, as expounded to the Comtesse Hermenstein in your interview with her yesterday?"
Gherardi looked him over with superb indifference.
"My interview with the Comtesse Hermenstein was a private one" -- he said, -- "And if a spy was present, he must prove himself a spy. And we of the Church do not accept a spy's testimony!"
White with indignation Aubrey sprang forward, -- but Cyrillon Vergniaud restrained him. "Patience!" he said in a low tone -- "Let him have his way for the moment -- it will then be my turn!"
"My word is law in Rome!" -- went on Gherardi -- "Whatsoever I choose to say will be confirmed and ratified by the greatest authority in the world -- the Pope! I am ready to swear that Florian Varillo painted that picture, -- and the Pope is ready to believe it! Who will admit such a masterpiece to be a woman's work? No one! Each member of the house of Sovrani can bear witness to the fact that no one ever saw Angela Sovrani painting it! But I know the whole story -- I was the last to see Florian Varillo before his death -- and he confessed the truth -- that he had worked for his betrothed wife in order to give her the greater fame! So that he was not, and could not have been her assassin -- "
"Then her assassin must be found!" said Prince Pietro suddenly. "And the owner of this sheath -- the sheath of the dagger with which she was stabbed -- must claim his property!" And holding up the sheath in question before Gherardi he continued --
"This I found! This I traced! Varillo's servant admitted it to be his master's -- Varillo's mistress recognised it as her lover's -- a slight thing, Monsignor! -- but an uncomfortable witness! And if you dare to promulgate your lie against my daughter and her work, I will accuse you in the public courts of complicity in an attempted murder! And I doubt whether the Pope will judge it politic, or a part of national diplomacy, to support you then!"
For a moment Gherardi was baffled. His dark brows met in a frown of menace and his lips tightened with his repressed fury. Then, -- still managing to speak with the utmost composure, he said,
"You will permit me to look at this dagger-sheath -- this proof on which you place so much reliance?"
In the certainty of his triumph, old Sovrani was ready to place it in the priest's extended hand, when young Vergniaud interposed and prevented him.
"No! You can admire it from a distance, Monsignor! You are capable in your present humour of tearing it to atoms and so destroying evidence! As the 'servant' of Prince Sovrani, it is my business to defend him from this possibility!"
Gherardi raised his dark eyes and fixed them, full of bitterest scorn, on the speaker.
"So YOU are Gys Grandit!" he said in accents which thrilled with an intensity of hatred. "You are the busy Socialist, the self- advertising atheist, who, like a yelping cur, barks impotently under the wheels of Rome! You -- Vergniaud's bastard -- "
"Give that name to your children at Frascati!" cried Cyrillon passionately. "And own them as yours publicly, as my father owned me before he died!"
With a violent start, Gherardi reeled back as though he had been dealt a sudden blow, and over his face came a terrible change, like the grey pallor of creeping paralysis. White to the lips, he struggled for breath . . . he essayed to speak, -- then failing, made a gesture with his hands as though pushing away some invisible foe. Slowly his head drooped on his breast, and he shivered like a man struck suddenly with ague. Startled and awed, everyone watched him in fascinated silence. Presently words came slowly and with difficulty between his dry lips.
"You have disgraced me!" he said hoarsely -- "Are you satisfied?" He took a step or two close up to the young man. "I ask you -- are you satisfied? Or -- do you mean to go on -- do you want to ruin me? -- " Here, moved by uncontrollable passion he threw up his hands with a gesture of despair. "God! That it should come to this! That I should have to ask you -- you, the enemy of the Church I serve, for mercy! Let it be enough I say! -- and I -- I also will be silent!"
Cyrillon looked at him straightly.
"Will you cease to persecute Cardinal Bonpre?" he demanded. "Will you admit Varillo's murderous treachery?"
Gherardi bent his head.
"I will!" he answered slowly, "because I must! Otherwise -- " He clenched his fist and his eyes flashed fire-then he went on -- "But beware of Lorenzo Moretti! He will depose the Cardinal from office, and separate him from that boy who has affronted the Pope. He is even now soliciting the Holy Father to intervene and stop the marriage of the Comtesse Sylvie Hermenstein with Aubrey Leigh, -- and- -they are married! No more -- no more! -- I cannot speak -- let me go -- let me go -- you have won your way! -- I give you my promise!"
"What is your promise worth?" said Vergniaud with disdain.
"Nothing!" replied Gherardi bitterly. "Only in this one special instance it is worth all my life! -- all my position! You -- even you, the accursed Gys Grandit! -- you have me in your power!"
He raised his head as he said this, -- his face expressed mingled agony and fury; but meeting Cyrillon's eyes he shrank again as if he were suddenly whipped by a lash, and with one quick stride, reached the door, and disappeared.
There was a moment's silence after his departure. Then Aubrey Leigh spoke.
"My dear Grandit! You are a marvellous man! How came you to know Gherardi's secrets?"
"Through a section of the Christian-Democratic party here" -- replied Cyrillon -- "You must not forget that I, like you, have my disciples! They keep me informed of all that goes on in Rome, and they have watched Domenico Gherardi for years. We all know much -- but we have little chance to speak! If England knew of Rome what France knows, what Spain knows, -- what Italy knows, she would pray to be given a second Cromwell! For the time is coming when she will need him!"