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Master-Christian

9781465537201
pages
Library of Alexandria
Overview
I. All the bells were ringing the Angelus. The sun was sinking;—and from the many quaint and beautiful grey towers which crown the ancient city of Rouen, the sacred chime pealed forth melodiously, floating with sweet and variable tone far up into the warm autumnal air. Market women returning to their cottage homes after a long day’s chaffering disposal of their fruit, vegetable, and flower-wares in the town, paused in their slow trudge along the dusty road and crossed themselves devoutly,—a bargeman, lazily gliding down the river on his flat unwieldly craft, took his pipe from his mouth, lifted his cap mechanically, and muttered more from habit than reflection—Sainte Marie, Mere de Dieu, priez pour nous!—and some children running out of school, came to a sudden standstill, listening and glancing at each other, as though silently questioning whether they should say the old church-formula among themselves or no? Whether, for example, it might not be more foolish than wise to repeat it? Yes;—even though there was a rumour that the Cardinal-Archbishop of a certain small, half-forgotten, but once historically-famed Cathedral town of France had come to visit Rouen that day,—a Cardinal-Archbishop reputed to be so pure of heart and simple in nature, that the people of his far-off and limited diocese regarded him almost as a saint,—would it be right or reasonable for them, as the secularly educated children of modern Progress, to murmur an Angelus Domini, while the bells rang? It was a doubtful point;—for the school they attended was a Government one, and prayers were neither taught nor encouraged there, France having for a time put God out of her national institutions. Nevertheless, the glory of that banished Creator shone in the deepening glow of the splendid heavens,—and—from the silver windings of the Seine which, turning crimson in the light, looped and garlanded the time-honoured old city as with festal knots of rosy ribbon, up to the trembling tops of the tall poplar trees fringing the river banks,—the warm radiance palpitated with a thousand ethereal hues of soft and changeful colour, transfusing all visible things into the misty semblance of some divine dwelling of dreams. Ding-dong—ding dong! The last echo of the last bell died away upon the air—the last words enunciated by devout priests in their cloistered seclusion were said—In hora mortis nostrae! Amen!—the market women went on their slow way homeward,—the children scampered off in different directions, easily forgetful of the Old-World petition they had thought of, yet left unuttered,—the bargeman and his barge slipped quietly away together down the windings of the river out of sight;— the silence following the clangour of the chimes was deep and impressive—and the great Sun had all the heaven to himself as he went down. Through the beautiful rose-window of the Cathedral of Notre Dame, he flashed his parting rays, weaving bright patterns of ruby, gold and amethyst on the worn pavement of the ancient pile which enshrines the tomb of Richard the Lion-Hearted, as also that of Henry the Second, husband to Catherine de Medicis and lover of the brilliant Diane de Poitiers,—and one broad beam fell purpling aslant into the curved and fretted choir-chapel especially dedicated to the Virgin, there lighting up with a warm glow the famous alabaster tomb known as Le Mourant or The Dying One. A strange and awesome piece of sculpture truly, is this same Mourant!— showing, as it does with deft and almost appalling exactitude, the last convulsion of a strong man’s body gripped in the death-agony. No delicate delineator of shams and conventions was the artist of olden days whose ruthless chisel shaped these stretched sinews, starting veins, and swollen eyelids half-closed over the tired eyes!—he must have been a sculptor of truth,—truth downright and relentless,—truth divested of all graceful coverings, and nude as the Dying One thus realistically portrayed. Ugly truth too,— unpleasant to the sight of the worldly and pleasure-loving tribe who do not care to be reminded of the common fact that they all, and we all, must die. Yet the late sunshine flowed very softly on and over the ghastly white, semi-transparent form, outlining it with as much tender glory as the gracious figure of Mary Virgin herself, bending with outstretched hands from a grey niche, fine as a cobweb of old lace on which a few dim jewels are sewn. Very beautiful, calm and restful at this hour was Our Lady’s Chapel, with its high, dark intertwisting arches, mutilated statues, and ancient tattered battle-banners hanging from the black roof and swaying gently with every little breath of wind. The air, perfumed with incense-odours, seemed weighted with the memory of prayers and devotional silences,—and in the midst of it all, surrounded by the defaced and crumbling emblems of life and death, and the equally decaying symbols of immortality, with the splendours of the sinking sun shedding roseate haloes about him, walked one for whom eternal truths outweighed all temporal seemings,—Cardinal Felix Bonpre, known favourably, and sometimes alluded to jestingly at the Vatican, as Our good Saint Felix. Tall and severely thin, with fine worn features of ascetic and spiritual delicacy, he had the indefinably removed air of a scholar and thinker, whose life was not, and never could be in accordance with the latter-day customs of the world; the mild blue eyes, clear and steadfast, most eloquently suggested the peace of God that passeth all understanding;—and the sensitive intellectual lines of the mouth and chin, which indicated strength and determined will, at the same time declared that both strength and will were constantly employed in the doing of good and the avoidance of evil. No dark furrows of hesitation, cowardice, cunning, meanness or weakness marred the expressive dignity and openness of the Cardinal’s countenance,—the very poise of his straight spare figure and the manner in which he moved, silently asserted that inward grace of spirit without which there is no true grace of body,—and as he paused in his slow pacing to and fro to gaze half-wistfully, half-mournfully upon the almost ghastly artistic achievement of Le Mourant he sighed, and his lips moved as if in prayer. For the brief, pitiful history of human life is told in that antique and richly-wrought alabaster,—its beginning, its ambition, and its end. At the summit of the shrine, an exquisite bas-relief shows first of all the infant clinging to its mother’s breast,—a stage lower down is seen the boy in the eager flush of youth, speeding an arrow to its mark from the bent bow,—then, on a still larger, bolder scale of design is depicted the proud man in the zenith of his career, a noble knight riding forth to battle and to victory, armed cap-a-pie, his war-steed richly caparisoned, his lance in rest,—and finally, on the sarcophagus itself is stretched his nude and helpless form, with hands clenched in the last gasping struggle for breath, and every muscle strained and fighting against the pangs of dissolution. But, said the Cardinal half aloud, with the gentle dawning of a tender smile brightening the fine firm curve of his lips,—it is not the end! The end here, no doubt;—but the beginning—THERE! He raised his eyes devoutly, and instinctively touched the silver crucifix hanging by its purple ribbon at his breast. The orange-red glow of the sun encompassed him with fiery rings, as though it would fain consume his thin, black-garmented form after the fashion in which flames consumed the martyrs of old,—the worn figures of mediaeval saints in their half-broken niches stared down upon him stonily, as though they would have said,—So we thought,—even we!—and for our thoughts and for our creed we suffered willingly,—yet lo, we have come upon an age of the world in which the people know us not,—or knowing, laugh us all to scorn. But Cardinal Bonpre being only conscious of a perfect faith, discovered no hints of injustice or despair in the mutilated shapes of the Evangelists surrounding him,—they were the followers of Christ,—and being such, they were bound to rejoice in the tortures which made their glory. It was only the unhappy souls who suffered not for Christ at all, whom he considered were truly to be compassionated