Lord of the World
By Robert Hugh Benson
Public Domain Books
Mabel remembered her husband’s advice to watch, and for a few days did her best. But there was nothing that alarmed her. The old lady was a little quiet, perhaps, but went about her minute affairs as usual. She asked the girl to read to her sometimes, and listened unblenching to whatever was offered her; she attended in the kitchen daily, organised varieties of food, and appeared interested in all that concerned her son. She packed his bag with her own hands, set out his furs for the swift flight to Paris, and waved to him from the window as he went down the little path towards the junction. He would be gone three days, he said.
It was on the evening of the second day that she fell ill; and Mabel, running upstairs, in alarm at the message of the servant, found her rather flushed and agitated in her chair.
“It is nothing, my dear,” said the old lady tremulously; and she added the description of a symptom or two.
Mabel got her to bed, sent for the doctor, and sat down to wait.
She was sincerely fond of the old lady, and had always found her presence in the house a quiet sort of delight. The effect of her upon the mind was as that of an easy-chair upon the body. The old lady was so tranquil and human, so absorbed in small external matters, so reminiscent now and then of the days of her youth, so utterly without resentment or peevishness. It seemed curiously pathetic to the girl to watch that quiet old spirit approach its extinction, or rather, as Mabel believed, its loss of personality in the reabsorption into the Spirit of Life which informed the world. She found less difficulty in contemplating the end of a vigorous soul, for in that case she imagined a kind of energetic rush of force back into the origin of things; but in this peaceful old lady there was so little energy; her whole point, so to speak, lay in the delicate little fabric of personality, built out of fragile things into an entity far more significant than the sum of its component parts: the death of a flower, reflected Mabel, is sadder than the death of a lion; the breaking of a piece of china more irreparable than the ruin of a palace.
“It is syncope,” said the doctor when he came in. “She may die at any time; she may live ten years.”
“There is no need to telegraph for Mr. Brand?”
He made a little deprecating movement with his hands.
“It is not certain that she will die–it is not imminent?” she asked.
“No, no; she may live ten years, I said.”
He added a word or two of advice as to the use of the oxygen injector, and went away.
The old lady was lying quietly in bed, when the girl went up, and put out a wrinkled hand.
“Well, my dear?” she asked.
“It is just a little weakness, mother. You must lie quiet and do nothing. Shall I read to you?”
“No, my dear; I will think a little.”
It was no part of Mabel’s idea to duty to tell her that she was in danger, for there was no past to set straight, no Judge to be confronted. Death was an ending, not a beginning. It was a peaceful Gospel; at least, it became peaceful as soon as the end had come.
So the girl went downstairs once more, with a quiet little ache at her heart that refused to be still.
What a strange and beautiful thing death was, she told herself–this resolution of a chord that had hung suspended for thirty, fifty or seventy years–back again into the stillness of the huge Instrument that was all in all to itself. Those same notes would be struck again, were being struck again even now all over the world, though with an infinite delicacy of difference in the touch; but that particular emotion was gone: it was foolish to think that it was sounding eternally elsewhere, for there was no elsewhere. She, too, herself would cease one day, let her see to it that the tone was pure and lovely.
Mr. Phillips arrived the next morning as usual, just as Mabel had left the old lady’s room, and asked news of her.
“She is a little better, I think,” said Mabel. “She must be very quiet all day.”
The secretary bowed and turned aside into Oliver’s room, where a heap of letters lay to be answered.
A couple of hours later, as Mabel went upstairs once more, she met Mr. Phillips coming down. He looked a little flushed under his sallow skin.
“Mrs. Brand sent for me,” he said. “She wished to know whether Mr. Oliver would be back to-night.”
“He will, will he not? You have not heard?”
“Mr. Brand said he would be here for a late dinner. He will reach London at nineteen.”
“And is there any other news?”
He compressed his lips.
“There are rumours,” he said. “Mr. Brand wired to me an hour ago.”
He seemed moved at something, and Mabel looked at him in astonishment.
“It is not Eastern news?” she asked.
His eyebrows wrinkled a little.
“You must forgive me, Mrs. Brand,” he said. “I am not at liberty to say anything.”
She was not offended, for she trusted her husband too well; but she went on into the sick-room with her heart beating.
The old lady, too, seemed excited. She lay in bed with a clear flush in her white cheeks, and hardly smiled at all to the girl’s greeting.
“Well, you have seen Mr. Phillips, then?” said Mabel.
Old Mrs. Brand looked at her sharply an instant, but said nothing.
“Don’t excite yourself, mother. Oliver will be back to-night.”
The old lady drew a long breath.
“Don’t trouble about me, my dear,” she said. “I shall do very well now. He will be back to dinner, will he not?”
“If the volor is not late. Now, mother, are you ready for breakfast?”
Mabel passed an afternoon of considerable agitation. It was certain that something had happened. The secretary, who breakfasted with her in the parlour looking on to the garden, had appeared strangely excited. He had told her that he would be away the rest of the day: Mr. Oliver had given him his instructions. He had refrained from all discussion of the Eastern question, and he had given her no news of the Paris Convention; he only repeated that Mr. Oliver would be back that night. Then he had gone of in a hurry half-an-hour later.
The old lady seemed asleep when the girl went up afterwards, and Mabel did not like to disturb her. Neither did she like to leave the house; so she walked by herself in the garden, thinking and hoping and fearing, till the long shadow lay across the path, and the tumbled platform of roofs was bathed in a dusty green haze from the west.
As she came in she took up the evening paper, but there was no news there except to the effect that the Convention would close that afternoon.
Twenty o’clock came, but there was no sign of Oliver. The Paris volor should have arrived an hour before, but Mabel, staring out into the darkening heavens had seen the stars come out like jewels one by one, but no slender winged fish pass overhead. Of course she might have missed it; there was no depending on its exact course; but she had seen it a hundred times before, and wondered unreasonably why she had not seen it now. But she would not sit down to dinner, and paced up and down in her white dress, turning again and again to the window, listening to the soft rush of the trains, the faint hoots from the track, and the musical chords from the junction a mile away. The lights were up by now, and the vast sweep of the towns looked like fairyland between the earthly light and the heavenly darkness. Why did not Oliver come, or at least let her know why he did not?
Once she went upstairs, miserably anxious herself, to reassure the old lady, and found her again very drowsy.
“He is not come,” she said. “I dare say he may be kept in Paris.”
The old face on the pillow nodded and murmured, and Mabel went down again. It was now an hour after dinner-time.
Oh! there were a hundred things that might have kept him. He had often been later than this: he might have missed the volor he meant to catch; the Convention might have been prolonged; he might be exhausted, and think it better to sleep in Paris after all, and have forgotten to wire. He might even have wired to Mr. Phillips, and the secretary have forgotten to pass on the message.
She went at last, hopelessly, to the telephone, and looked at it. There it was, that round silent month, that little row of labelled buttons. She half decided to touch them one by one, and inquire whether anything had been heard of her husband: there was his club, his office in Whitehall, Mr. Phillips’s house, Parliament-house, and the rest. But she hesitated, telling herself to be patient. Oliver hated interference, and he would surely soon remember and relieve her anxiety.
Then, even as she turned away, the bell rang sharply, and a white label flashed into sight.–WHITEHALL.
She pressed the corresponding button, and, her hand shaking so much that she could scarcely hold the receiver to her ear, she listened.
“Who is there?”
Her heart leaped at the sound of her husband’s voice, tiny and minute across the miles of wire.
“I–Mabel,” she said. “Alone here.”
“Oh! Mabel. Very well. I am back: all is well. Now listen. Can you hear?”
“The best has happened. It is all over in the East. Felsenburgh has done it. Now listen. I cannot come home to-night. It will be announced in Paul’s House in two hours from now. We are communicating with the Press. Come up here to me at once. You must be present.... Can you hear?”
“Come then at once. It will be the greatest thing in history. Tell no one. Come before the rush begins. In half-an-hour the way will be stopped.”
“Mother is ill. Shall I leave her?”
“Oh, no immediate danger. The doctor has seen her.”
There was silence for a moment.
“Yes; come then. We will go back to-night anyhow, then. Tell her we shall be late.”
” ... Yes, you must come. Felsenburgh will be there.”