Lord of the World
By Robert Hugh Benson
Public Domain Books
Oliver told them the explanation of the whole affair that evening at home, leaning back in his chair, with one arm bandaged and in a sling.
They had not been able to get near him at the time; the excitement in the square had been too fierce; but a messenger had come to his wife with the news that her husband was only slightly wounded, and was in the hands of the doctors.
“He was a Catholic,” explained the drawn-faced Oliver. “He must have come ready, for his repeater was found loaded. Well, there was no chance for a priest this time.”
Mabel nodded slowly: she had read of the man’s fate on the placards.
“He was killed–trampled and strangled instantly,” said Oliver. “I did what I could: you saw me. But–well, I dare say it was more merciful.”
“But you did what you could, my dear?” said the old lady, anxiously, from her corner.
“I called out to them, mother, but they wouldn’t hear me.”
Mabel leaned forward–-
“Oliver, I know this sounds stupid of me; but–but I wish they had not killed him.”
Oliver smiled at her. He knew this tender trait in her.
“It would have been more perfect if they had not,” she said. Then she broke off and sat back.
“Why did he shoot just then?” she asked.
Oliver turned his eyes for an instant towards his mother, but she was knitting tranquilly.
Then he answered with a curious deliberateness.
“I said that Braithwaite had done more for the world by one speech than Jesus and all His saints put together.” He was aware that the knitting-needles stopped for a second; then they went on again as before.
“But he must have meant to do it anyhow,” continued Oliver.
“How do they know he was a Catholic?” asked the girl again.
“There was a rosary on him; and then he just had time to call on his God.”
“And nothing more is known?”
“Nothing more. He was well dressed, though.”
Oliver leaned back a little wearily and closed his eyes; his arm still throbbed intolerably. But he was very happy at heart. It was true that he had been wounded by a fanatic, but he was not sorry to bear pain in such a cause, and it was obvious that the sympathy of England was with him. Mr. Phillips even now was busy in the next room, answering the telegrams that poured in every moment. Caldecott, the Prime Minister, Maxwell, Snowford and a dozen others had wired instantly their congratulations, and from every part of England streamed in message after message. It was an immense stroke for the Communists; their spokesman had been assaulted during the discharge of his duty, speaking in defence of his principles; it was an incalculable gain for them, and loss for the Individualists, that confessors were not all on one side after all. The huge electric placards over London had winked out the facts in Esperanto as Oliver stepped into the train at twilight.
“_Oliver Brand wounded.... Catholic assailant.... Indignation of the country.... Well-deserved fate of assassin.”
He was pleased, too, that he honestly had done his best to save the man. Even in that moment of sudden and acute pain he had cried out for a fair trial; but he had been too late. He had seen the starting eyes roll up in the crimson face, and the horrid grin come and go as the hands had clutched and torn at his throat. Then the face had vanished and a heavy trampling began where it had disappeared. Oh! there was some passion and loyalty left in England!
His mother got up presently and went out, still without a word; and Mabel turned to him, laying a hand on his knee.
“Are you too tired to talk, my dear?”
He opened his eyes.
“Of course not, my darling. What is it?”
“What do you think will be the effect?”
He raised himself a little, looking out as usual through the darkening windows on to that astonishing view. Everywhere now lights were glowing, a sea of mellow moons just above the houses, and above the mysterious heavy blue of a summer evening.
“The effect?” he said. “It can be nothing but good. It was time that something happened. My dear, I feel very downcast sometimes, as you know. Well, I do not think I shall be again. I have been afraid sometimes that we were losing all our spirit, and that the old Tories were partly right when they prophesied what Communism would do. But after this–-”
“Well; we have shown that we can shed our blood too. It is in the nick of time, too, just at the crisis. I don’t want to exaggerate; it is only a scratch–but it was so deliberate, and–and so dramatic. The poor devil could not have chosen a worse moment. People won’t forget it.”
Mabel’s eyes shone with pleasure.
“You poor dear!” she said. “Are you in pain?”
“Not much. Besides, Christ! what do I care? If only this infernal Eastern affair would end!”
He knew he was feverish and irritable, and made a great effort to drive it down.
“Oh, my dear!” he went on, flushed a little. “If they would not be such heavy fools: they don’t understand; they don’t understand.”
“They don’t understand what a glorious thing it all is Humanity, Life, Truth at last, and the death of Folly! But haven’t I told them a hundred times?”
She looked at him with kindling eyes. She loved to see him like this, his confident, flushed face, the enthusiasm in his blue eyes; and the knowledge of his pain pricked her feeling with passion. She bent forward and kissed him suddenly.
“My dear, I am so proud of you. Oh, Oliver!”
He said nothing; but she could see what she loved to see, that response to her own heart; and so they sat in silence while the sky darkened yet more, and the click of the writer in the next room told them that the world was alive and that they had a share in its affairs.
Oliver stirred presently.
“Did you notice anything just now, sweetheart–when I said that about Jesus Christ?”
“She stopped knitting for a moment,” said the girl.
“You saw that too, then.... Mabel, do you think she is falling back?”
“Oh! she is getting old,” said the girl lightly. “Of course she looks back a little.”
“But you don’t think–it would be too awful!”
She shook her head.
“No, no, my dear; you’re excited and tired. It’s just a little sentiment.... Oliver, I don’t think I would say that kind of thing before her.”
“But she hears it everywhere now.”
“No, she doesn’t. Remember she hardly ever goes out. Besides, she hates it. After all, she was brought up a Catholic.”
Oliver nodded, and lay back again, looking dreamily out.
“Isn’t it astonishing the way in which suggestion lasts? She can’t get it out of her head, even after fifty years. Well, watch her, won’t you?... By the way ...”
“There’s a little more news from the East. They say Felsenburgh’s running the whole thing now. The Empire is sending him everywhere– Tobolsk, Benares, Yakutsk–everywhere; and he’s been to Australia.”
Mabel sat up briskly.
“Isn’t that very hopeful?”
“I suppose so. There’s no doubt that the Sufis are winning; but for how long is another question. Besides, the troops don’t disperse.”
“Europe is arming as fast as possible. I hear we are to meet the Powers next week at Paris. I must go.”
“Your arm, my dear?”
“My arm must get well. It will have to go with me, anyhow.”
“Tell me some more.”
“There is no more. But it is just as certain as it can be that this is the crisis. If the East can be persuaded to hold its hand now, it will never be likely to raise it again. It will mean free trade all over the world, I suppose, and all that kind of thing. But if not–-”
“If not, there will be a catastrophe such as never has been even imagined. The whole human race will be at war, and either East or West will be simply wiped out. These new Benninschein explosives will make certain of that.”
“But is it absolutely certain that the East has got them?”
“Absolutely. Benninschein sold them simultaneously to East and West; then he died, luckily for him.”
Mabel had heard this kind of talk before, but her imagination simply refused to grasp it. A duel of East and West under these new conditions was an unthinkable thing. There had been no European war within living memory, and the Eastern wars of the last century had been under the old conditions. Now, if tales were true, entire towns would be destroyed with a single shell. The new conditions were unimaginable. Military experts prophesied extravagantly, contradicting one another on vital points; the whole procedure of war was a matter of theory; there were no precedents with which to compare it. It was as if archers disputed as to the results of cordite. Only one thing was certain–that the East had every modern engine, and, as regards male population, half as much again as the rest of the world put together; and the conclusion to be drawn from these premisses was not reassuring to England.
But imagination simply refused to speak. The daily papers had a short, careful leading article every day, founded upon the scraps of news that stole out from the conferences on the other side of the world; Felsenburgh’s name appeared more frequently than ever: otherwise there seemed to be a kind of hush. Nothing suffered very much; trade went on; European stocks were not appreciably lower than usual; men still built houses, married wives, begat sons and daughters, did their business and went to the theatre, for the mere reason that there was no good in anything else. They could neither save nor precipitate the situation; it was on too large a scale. Occasionally people went mad–people who had succeeded in goading their imagination to a height whence a glimpse of reality could be obtained; and there was a diffused atmosphere of tenseness. But that was all. Not many speeches were made on the subject; it had been found inadvisable. After all, there was nothing to do but to wait.