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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesMarzio's Crucifix - Chapter 11
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Marzio's Crucifix - Chapter 11 Post by :jbintj Category :Long Stories Author :F. Marion Crawford Date :May 2011 Read :2575

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Marzio's Crucifix - Chapter 11


Marzio, in ignorance of all that was happening at the church, continued to work in the solitude of his studio, and the current of his thoughts flowed on in the same channel. He tried to force his attention upon the details of the design he meditated against his brother's life, and for some time he succeeded. But another influence had begun to work upon his brain, since the moment when he had been frightened by the sound behind him while he was examining the hole beneath the strong box. He would not own to himself that such a senseless fear could have produced a permanent impression on him, and yet he felt disturbed and unsettled, unaccountably discomposed, and altogether uncomfortable. He could not help looking round from time to time at the door, and more than once his eyes rested for several seconds upon the safe, while a slight shiver ran through his body and seemed to chill his fingers.

But he worked on in spite of all this. The habit of the chisel was not to be destroyed by the fancied scare of a moment, and though his eyes wandered now and then, they came back to the silver statue as keen as ever. A little touch with the steel at one point, a little burnishing at another, the accentuation of a line, the deepening of a shadow--he studied every detail with a minute and scrupulous care which betrayed his love for the work he was doing.

And yet the uneasiness grew upon him. He felt somehow as though Paolo were present in the room with him, watching him over his shoulder, suggesting improvements to be made, in that voice of his which now rang distinctly in the artist's ear. His imagination worked morbidly, and he thought of Paolo standing beside him, ordering him to do this or that against his will, until he began to doubt his own judgment in regard to what he was doing. He wondered whether he should feel the same thing when Paolo was dead. Again he looked behind him, and the idea that he was not alone gained force. Nevertheless the room was bright, brighter indeed in the afternoon than it ever was in the morning, for the window was towards the south, and though the first rays of the sun reached it at about eleven in the morning, the buildings afterwards darkened it again until the sun was in the west. Moreover to-day, the weather had been changeable, and it had rained a little about noon. Now the air was again clear, and the workshop was lit up so that the light penetrated even to the ancient cobwebs in the corners, and touched the wax models and casts on the shelves, and gilded the old wood of the door opposite with rich brown gold. Marzio had a curtain of dusty grey linen which he drew across the lower part of the window to keep the sunshine off his work.

He was impatient with himself, and annoyed by the persistency of the impression that Paolo was in some way present in the place. As though to escape from it by braving it he set himself resolutely to consider the expediency of destroying his brother. The first quick impulse in the morning had developed to a purpose in the afternoon. He had constructed the probable occurrences out of the materials of his imagination, and had done it so vividly as to frighten himself. The fright had in some measure cooled his intention, and had been now replaced by a new element in his thoughts, by the apprehension for the future if the deed were accomplished. He began to speculate upon what would happen afterwards, wondering whether by any means the murder could be discovered, and if in that case it could ever be traced to him.

At the first faint suggestion that such a thing as he was devising could possibly have another issue than he had supposed, Marzio felt a cold sensation in his heart, and his thoughts took a different direction. It was all simple enough. To get Paolo into the workshop alone--a blow--the concealment of the dead body until night--then the short three hundred yards with the hand-cart--it seemed very practicable. Yes, but if by any chance he should meet a policeman under those low trees in the Piazza de' Branca, what would happen? A man with a hand-cart, and with something shapeless upon the hand-cart, in the dark, hurrying towards the river--such a man would excite the suspicions of a policeman. Marzio might be stopped and asked what he was taking away. He would answer--what would he answer in such a case? The hand-cart would be examined and found to contain a dead priest. Besides, he reflected that the wheels would make a terrible clatter in the silent streets at night. Of course he might go out and walk down to the river first and see if there was anybody in the way, but even then he could not be sure of finding no one when he returned with his burden.

But there was the cellar, after all. He could go down in the night and bury his brother's body there. No one ever went down, not even he himself. Who would suspect the place? It would be a ghastly job, the chiseller thought. He fancied how it would be in the cold, damp vault with a lantern--the white face of the murdered man. No, he shrank from thinking of it. It was too horrible to be thought of until it should be absolutely necessary. But the place was a good one.

And then when Paolo was buried deep under the damp stones, who would be the first to ask for him? For two or three days no one would be much surprised if he did not come to the house. Marzio would say that he had met him in the street, and that Paolo had excused himself for not coming, on the ground of extreme pressure of work. But the Cardinal, whom he served as secretary, would ask for the missing man. He would be the first. The Cardinal would be told that Paolo had not slept at home, in his lodging high up in the old palace, and he would send at once to Marzio's house to know where his secretary was. Well, he might send, Marzio would answer that he did not know, and the matter would end there.

It would be hard to sit calmly at the bench all day with Gianbattista at his side. He would probably look very often at the iron-bound box. Gianbattista would notice that, and in time he would grow curious, and perhaps explore the cellar. It would be a miserable ending to such a drama to betray himself by his own weakness after it was all done, and Paolo was gone for ever--a termination unworthy of Marzio, the strong-minded freethinker. To kill a priest, and then be as nervous and conscious as a boy in a scrape! The chiseller tried to laugh aloud in his old way, but the effort was ineffectual, and ended in a painful twisting of the lips, accompanied by a glance at the corner. It would not do; he was weak, and was forced to submit to the humiliation of acknowledging the fact to himself. With a bitter scorn of his incapacity, he began to wonder whether he could ever get so far as to kill Paolo in the first instance. He foresaw that if he did kill him, he could never get rid of him afterwards.

Where do people go when they die? The question rose suddenly in the mind of the unbeliever, and seemed to demand an answer. He had answered often enough over a pint of wine at the inn, with Gaspare Carnesecchi the lawyer and the rest of his friends. Nowhere. That was the answer, clear enough. When a man dies he goes to the ground, as a slaughtered ox to the butcher's stall, or a dead horse to the knacker's. That is the end of him, and it is of no use asking any more questions. You might as well ask what becomes of the pins that are lost by myriads of millions, to the weight of many tons in a year. You might as well inquire what becomes of anything that is old, or worn out, or broken. A man is like anything else, an agglomeration of matter, capable of a few more tricks than a monkey, and capable of a few less than a priest. He dies, and is swallowed up by the earth and gives no more trouble. These were the answers Marzio was accustomed to give to the question, "Where do people go to when they die?" Hitherto they had satisfied him, as they appear to satisfy a very small minority of idiots.

But what would became of Paolo when Marzio had killed him? Well, in time his body would become earth, that was all. There was something else, however. Marzio was conscious to certainty that Paolo would in some way or other be at his elbow ever afterwards, just as he seemed to feel his presence this afternoon in the workshop. What sort of presence would it be? Marzio could not tell, but he knew he should feel it. It did not matter whether it were real to others or not, it would be too real to him. He could never get rid of the sensation; it would haunt him and oppress him for the rest of his life, and he should have no peace.

How could it, if it were not a real thing? Even the priests said that the spirits of dead men did not come back to earth; how much more impossible must it be in Marzio's view, since he denied that man had a soul. It would then only be the effect of his imagination recalling constantly the past deed, and a thing which only existed in imagination did not exist at all. If it did not exist, it could not be feared by a sensible man. Consequently there was nothing to fear.

The conclusion contradicted the given facts from which he had argued, and the chiseller was puzzled. For the first time his method of reasoning did not satisfy him, and he tried to find out the cause. Was it, he asked to himself, because there lingered in his mind some early tradition of the wickedness of doing murder? Since there was no soul, there was no absolute right and wrong, and everything must be decided by the standard of expediency. It was a mistake to allow people to murder each other openly, of course, because people of less intellectual capacity would take upon themselves to judge such cases in their own way. But provided that public morality, the darling of the real freethinker, were not scandalised, there would be no inherent wrong in doing away with Paolo. On the contrary, his death would be a benefit to the community at large, and an advantage to Marzio in particular. Not a pecuniary advantage either, for in Marzio's strange system there would have been an immorality in murdering Paolo for his money if he had ever had any, though it seemed right enough to kill him for an idea. That is, to a great extent, the code of those persons who believe in nothing but what they call great ideas. The individuals who murdered the Czar would doubtless have scrupled to rob a gentleman in the street of ten francs. The same reasoning developed itself in Marzio's brain. If his brothel had been rich, it would have been a crime to murder him for his wealth. It was no crime to murder him for an idea. Marzio said to himself that to get rid of Paolo would be to emancipate himself and his family from the rule and interference of a priest, and that such a proceeding was only the illustration on a small scale of what he desired for his country; consequently it was just, and therefore it ought to be done.

Unfortunately for his logic, the continuity of his deductions was blocked by a consideration which he had not anticipated. That consideration could only be described as fear for the future, and it had been forcibly thrust upon him by the fright he had received while he was examining the hole in the floor. In order to neutralise it, Marzio had tried the experiment of braving what he considered to be a momentary terror by obstinately studying the details of the plan he intended to execute. To his surprise he found that he returned to the same conclusion as before. He came back to that unaccountable fear of the future as surely as a body thrown upwards falls again to the earth. He went over it all in his mind again, twice, three times, twenty times. As often as he reached the stage at which he imagined Paolo dead, hidden, and buried in a cellar, the same shiver passed through him as he glanced involuntarily behind him. Why? What power could a dead body possibly exercise over a living man in the full possession of his senses?

Here was something which Marzio could not understand, but of which he was made aware by his own feelings. The difficulty only increased in magnitude as he faced it, considered it, and tried to view it from all its horrible aspects. But he could not overcome it. He might laugh at the existence of the soul and jest about the future state after death; he could not escape from the future in this life if he did the deed he contemplated. He should see the dead man's face by day and night as long as he lived.

This forced conclusion was in logical accordance with his original nature and developed character, for it was the result of that economical, cautious disposition which foresees the consequences of action and guides itself accordingly. Even in the moment when he had nearly killed Paolo that morning he had not been free from this tendency. In the instant when he had raised the tool to strike he had thought of the means of disposing of the body and of hindering suspicion. The panorama of coming circumstances had presented itself to his mind with the rapidity of a flash of lightning, but in that infinitesimal duration of time Paolo had turned round, and the opportunity was gone. His mind had worked quickly, but it had not gone to the end of its reasoning. Now in the solitude of his studio he had found leisure to follow out the results to the last link of the chain. He saw clearly that even if he eluded discovery after the crime, he could never escape from the horror of his dead brother's presence.

He laid the silver figure of the Christ straight before him upon the leathern pad, and looked intently at it, while his hands played idly with the tools upon the table. His deep-set, heavy eyes gazed fixedly at the wonderful face, with an expression which had not yet been there. There was no longer any smile upon his thin lips, and his dark emaciated features were restful and quiet, almost solemn in their repose.

"I am glad I did not do it," he said aloud after some minutes.

Still he gazed at his work, and the impression stole over him that but for a slight thing he might yet have killed his brother. If he had left the figure more securely propped upon the pad, it could not have slipped upon the bench; it could not have made that small distinct sound just as he was examining the place which was to have been his brother's grave; he would not have been suddenly frightened; he would not have gone over the matter in his mind as he had done, from the point of view of a future fear; he would have waited anxiously for another opportunity, and when it presented itself he would have struck the blow, and Paolo would have been dead, if not to-day, to-morrow. There would have been a search which might or might not have resulted in the discovery of the body. Then there would have been, the heartrending grief of his wife, of Lucia, and the black suspicious looks of Gianbattista. The young man had heard him express a wish that Paolo might disappear. His home would have been a hell, instead of being emancipated from tyranny as he had at first imagined. Discovery and conviction would have come at last, the galleys for life for himself, dishonour and contempt for his family.

He remembered Paolo's words as he stood contemplating the crucifix just before that moment which had nearly been his last. _Qui propter nos homines et propter nostram salutem_--"Who for us men and for our salvation came down from Heaven." In a strange revulsion of feeling Marzio applied the words to himself, with an odd simplicity that was at once pathetic and startling.

"If Christ had not died," he said to himself, "I should not have made this crucifix. If I had not made it, it would not have frightened me. I should have killed my brother. It has saved me. 'For us men and for our salvation'--those are the words--for my salvation, it is very strange. Poor Paolo! If he knew to what he owed his life he would be pleased. Who can believe such things? Who would have believed this if I had told it? And yet it is true."

For some minutes still he gazed at the figure. Then he shook himself as though to rouse his mind from a trance, and took up his tools. He did not glance behind him again, and, for the time at least, his nervous dislike of the box in the corner seemed to have ceased. He laboured with patient care, touching and re-touching, believing that each tap of the hammer should be the last, and yet not wholly satisfied.

The light waned, and he took down the curtain to admit the last glows of the evening. He could do no more, art itself could have done no more to beautify and perfect the masterpiece that lay upon the cushion before him. The many hours he had spent in putting the last finish upon the work had produced their result. His hand had imparted something to the features of the dying head which had not been there before, and as he stood over the bench he knew that he had surpassed his greatest work. He went and fetched the black cross from the shelf, and polished its smooth surface carefully with a piece of silk. Then he took the figure tenderly in his hands and laid it in its position. The small screws turned evenly in the threads, fitting closely into their well-concealed places, and the work was finished. Marzio placed the whole crucifix upon the bench and sat down to look at it.

It made a strong impression upon him, this thing of his own hands, and again he remained a long time resting his chin upon his folded fingers and gazing up at the drooping lids. The shadows lay softly on the modelled silver, so softly that the metal itself seemed to tremble and move, and in his reverie Marzio could almost have expected the divine eyes to open and look into his face. And gradually the shadows deepened more and more, and gathered into gloom till in the dark the black arms of the cross scarcely stood out from the darkness, and in the last lingering twilight he could see only the clear outline of the white head and outstretched hands, that seemed to emit a soft radiance gathered from the brightness of the departed day.

Marzio struck a match and lit his lamp. His thoughts were so wholly absorbed that he had not remembered the workmen, nor wondered why they had not come back. After all, most of them lived in the direction of the church, and if they had finished their work late they would very probably go home without returning to the shop. The chiseller wrapped the crucifix in the old white cloth, and laid it in its plain wooden box, but he did not screw the cover down, merely putting it on loosely so that it could be removed in a moment. He laid his tools in order, mechanically, as he did every evening, and then he extinguished the light and made his way to the door, carrying the box under his arm.

The boy who alone had remained at work had lighted a tallow candle, and was sitting dangling his heels from his stool as Marzio came out.

"Still here!" exclaimed the artist.

"Eh! You did not tell me to go," answered the lad.

Marzio locked the heavy outer door and crossed over to his house, while the boy went whistling down the street in the dusk. Slowly the artist mounted the stairs, pondering, as he went, on the many emotions of the day, and at last repeating his conclusion, that he was glad that he had not killed Paolo.

By a change of feeling which he did not wholly realise, he felt for the first time in many years that he would be glad to see his brother alive and well. He had that day so often fancied him dead, lying on the floor of the workshop, or buried in a dark corner of the cellar, that the idea of meeting him, calm and well as ever, had something refreshing in it. It was like the waking from a hideous dream of evil to find that the harm is still undone, to experience that sense of unutterable relief which every one knows when the dawn suddenly touches the outlines of familiar objects in the room, and dispels in an instant the visions of the night.

Paolo might not come that evening, but at least Maria Luisa and Lucia would speak of him, and it would be a comfort to hear his name spoken aloud. Marzio's step quickened with the thought, and in another moment he was at the door. To his surprise it was opened before he could ring, and old Assunta came forward with her wrinkled fingers raised to her lips.

"Hist! hist!" she whispered. "It goes a little better--or at least--"

"What? Who?" asked Marzio, instinctively whispering also.

"Eh! You have not heard? Don Paolo--they have killed him!"

"Paolo!" exclaimed Marzio, staggering and leaning against the door-post.

"He is not dead--not dead yet at least," went on the old woman in low, excited tones. "He was in the church with Tista--a ladder--"

Marzio did not stop to hear more, but pushed past Assunta with his burden under his arm, and entered the passage. The door at the end was open, and he saw his wife standing in the bright light in the sitting-room, anxiously looking towards him as though she had heard his coming.

"For God's sake, Gigia," he said, addressing her by her old pet name, "tell me quickly what has happened!"

The Signora Pandolfi explained as well as she could, frequently giving way to her grief in passionate sobs. She was incoherent, but the facts were so simple that Marzio understood them. He was standing by the table, his hand resting upon the wooden case he had brought, and his face was very pale.

"Let me understand," he said at last. "Tista was on the ladder. The ladder slipped, Paolo ran to catch it, and it fell on him. He is badly hurt, but not dead; is that it, Gigia?"

Maria Luisa nodded in the midst of a fit of weeping.

"The surgeon has been, you say? Yes. And where is Paolo lying?"

"In Tista's room," sobbed his wife. "They are with him now."

Marzio stood still and hesitated. He was under the influence of the most violent emotion, and his face betrayed something of what he felt. The idea of Paolo's death had played a tremendous part in his thoughts during the whole day, and he had firmly believed that he had got rid of that idea, and was to realise in meeting his brother that it had all been a dream. The news he now heard filled him with horror. It seemed as if the intense wish for Paolo's death had in some way produced a material result without his knowledge; it was as though he had killed his brother by a thought--as though he had had a real share in his death.

He could hardly bear to go and see the wounded man, so strong was the impression that gained possession of him. His fancy called up pictures of Paolo lying wounded in bed, and he dreaded to face the sight. He turned away from the table and began to walk up and down the little room. In a corner his foot struck against something--the drawing board on which he had begun to sketch the night before. Marzio took it up and brought it to the light. Maria Luisa stared at him sorrowfully, as though reproaching him with indifference in the general calamity. But Marzio looked intently at the drawing. It was only a sketch, but it was very beautifully done. He saw that his ideal was still the same, and that upon the piece of paper he had only reproduced the features he had chiselled ten years ago, with an added beauty of expression, with just those additions which to-day he had made upon the original. The moment he was sure of the fact he laid aside the board and opened the wooden case.

Maria Luisa, who was very far from guessing what an intimate connection existed between the crucifix and Paolo in her husband's mind, looked on with increasing astonishment as he took out the beautiful object and Bet it upon the table in the light. But when she saw it her admiration overcame her sorrow for one moment.

"_Dio mio! What a miracle!" she exclaimed.

"A miracle?" repeated her husband, with a strange expression. "Who knows? Perhaps!"

At that moment Gianbattista and Lucia entered through the open door, and stood together watching the scene without understanding what was passing. The young girl recognised the crucifix at once. She supposed that her father did not realise Paolo's condition, and was merely showing the masterpiece to her mother.

"That is the one I saw," she whispered to Gianbattista. The young man said nothing, but fixed his eyes upon the cross.

"Papa," said Lucia timidly, "do you know?"

"Yes. Is he alone?" asked Marzio in a tone which was not like his own.

"There is Assunta," answered the young girl.

"I will go to him," said the artist, and without further words he lifted the crucifix from the table and went out. His face was very grave, and his features had something in them that none of the three had seen before--something almost of grandeur. Gianbattista and Lucia followed him.

"I will be alone with him," said Marzio, looking back at the pair as he reached the door of the sick chamber. He entered and a moment afterwards old Assunta came out and shuffled away, holding her apron to her eyes.

Marzio went in. There was a small shaded lamp on the deal table, which illuminated the room with a soft light. Marzio felt that he could not trust himself at first to look at his brother's face. He set the crucifix upon the old chest of drawers, and put the lamp near it. Then he remained standing before it with his back to the bed, and his hands in the pockets of his blouse. He could hear the regular breathing which told that Paolo was still alive. For a long time he could not turn round; it was as though an unseen power held him motionless in his position. He looked at the crucifix.

"If he wakes," he thought, "he will see it. It will comfort him if he is going to die!"

With his back still turned towards the bed, he moved to one side, until he thought that Paolo could see what he had brought, if consciousness returned. Very slowly, as though fearing some horrible sight, he changed his position and looked timidly in the direction of the sick man. At last he saw the pale upturned face, and was amazed that such an accident should have produced so little change in the features. He came and stood beside the bed.

Paolo had not moved since the surgeon had left; he was lying on his back, propped by pillows so that his face was towards the light. He was pale now, for the flush that had been in his cheeks had subsided; his eyelids, which had been half open, had dropped and closed, so that he seemed to be sleeping peacefully, ready to wake at the slightest sound.

Marzio stood and looked at him. This was the man he had hated through so many years of boyhood and manhood--the man who had faced him and opposed him at every step--who had stood up boldly before him in his own house to defend what he believed to be right. This was Paolo, whom he had nearly killed that morning. Marzio's right hand felt the iron tool in the pocket of his blouse, and his fingers trembled as he touched it, while his long arms twitched nervously from the shoulder to the elbow. He took it out, looked at it, and at the sick man's face. He asked himself whether he could think of using it as he had meant to, and then he let it fall upon the bit of green drugget by the bedside.

That was Paolo--it would not need any sharpened weapon to kill him now. A little pressure on the throat, a pillow held over his face for a few moments, and it would all be over. And what for? To be pursued for ever by that same white face? No. It was not worth while, it had never been worth while, even were that all. But there was something else to be considered. Paolo might now die of his accident, in his bed. There would be no murder done in that case, no haunting horror of a presence, no discovery to be feared, since there would have been no evil. Let him die, if he was dying!

But that was not all either. What would it be when Paolo should be dead? Well, he had his ideas, of course. They were mistaken ideas. Were they? Perhaps, who could tell? But he was not a bad man, this Paolo. He had never tried to wring money out of Marzio, as some people did. On the contrary, Marzio still felt a sense of humiliation when he thought how much he owed to the kindness of this man, his brother, lying here injured to death, and powerless to help himself or to save himself. Powerless? yes--utterly so. How easy it would be, after all, to press a pillow on the unconscious face. There would probably not even be a struggle. Who should save him, or who could know of it? And yet Marzio did not want to do it, as he had wished to a few hours ago. As he looked down on the pale head he realised that he did not want Paolo to die. Standing on the sharp edge of the precipice where life ends and breaks off, close upon the unfathomable depths of eternity, himself firmly standing and fearing no fall, but seeing his brother slipping over the brink, he would put out his hand to save him, to draw him back. He would not have Paolo die.

He gazed upon the calm features, and he knew that he feared lest they should be still for ever. The breath came more softly, more and more faintly. Marzio thought. He bent down low and tried to feel the warm air as it issued from the lips. His fears grew to terror as the life seemed to ebb away from the white face. In the agony of his apprehension, Marzio inadvertently laid his hand upon the injured shoulder, unconsciously pressing his weight upon the place.

With a faint sigh the priest's eyes opened and seemed to gaze for a moment on the crucifix standing in the bright light of the lamp. An expression of wonderful gentleness and calm overspread the refined features.

"_Qui propter nos homines et propter nostram salutem descendit de coelis_."

The words came faintly from the dying man's lips, the last syllables scarcely audible in the intense stillness. A deathly pallor crept quickly over the smooth forehead and thin cheeks. Marzio looked for one instant more, and then with a loud cry fell upon his knees by the bedside, his long arms extended across his brother's body. The strong hot tears fell upon the bed coverings, and his breast heaved with passionate sobbing.

He did not see that Paolo opened his eyes at the sound. He did not notice the rush of feet in the passage without, as Maria Luisa and Lucia and Gianbattista ran to the door, followed by old Assunta holding up her apron to her eyes.

"Courage, Sor Marzio," said Gianbattista, drawing the artist back from the bed. "You will disturb him. Do you not see that he is conscious at last?"

Lucia was arranging the pillows under Paolo's head, and Maria Luisa was crying with joy. Marzio sprang to his feet and stared as though he could not believe what he saw. Paolo turned his head and looked kindly at his brother.

"Courage, Marzio," he said, "I have been asleep, I believe--what has happened to me? Why are you all crying?"

Marzio's tears broke out again, mingled with incoherent words of joy. In his sudden happiness he clasped the two persons nearest to him, and hugged them and kissed them. These two chanced to be Lucia and Gianbattista. Paolo smiled, but the effort of speaking had tired him.

"Well," said Marzio at last, with a kinder smile than had been on his face for many a day--"very well, children. For Paolo's sake you shall have your own way."

Half an hour later the surgeon made his visit and assured them all that there was no serious injury, nor any further danger to be feared. The patient had been very badly stunned, that was all. Marzio remained by his brother's side.

"You see, Tista," said Lucia when they were in the sitting-room, "I was quite right about the crucifix and the rest."

"Of course," assented the Signora Pandolfi, though she did not understand the allusion in the least. "Of course you are all of you right. But what a day this has been, _cari miei_! What a day! Dear, dear!" She spread out her fat hands upon her knees, looking the picture of solid contentment.


(F Marion Crawford's Novel: Marzio's Crucifix)

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