Lord of the World
By Robert Hugh Benson
Public Domain Books
He still felt a sense of insecure motion as he sat alone over coffee an hour later in one of the remote rooms of the Vatican; but there was a sense of exhilaration as well, as his tired brain realised where he was. It had been strange to drive over the rattling stones in the weedy little cab, such as he remembered ten years ago when he had left Rome, newly ordained. While the world had moved on, Rome had stood still; she had other affairs to think of than physical improvements, now that the spiritual weight of the earth rested entirely upon her shoulders. All had seemed unchanged–or rather it had reverted to the condition of nearly one hundred and fifty years ago. Histories related how the improvements of the Italian government had gradually dropped out of use as soon as the city, eighty years before, had been given her independence; the trains ceased to run; volors were not allowed to enter the walls; the new buildings, permitted to remain, had been converted to ecclesiastical use; the Quirinal became the offices of the “Red Pope"; the embassies, huge seminaries; even the Vatican itself, with the exception of the upper floor, had become the abode of the Sacred College, who surrounded the Supreme Pontiff as stars their sun.
It was an extraordinary city, said antiquarians–the one living example of the old days. Here were to be seen the ancient inconveniences, the insanitary horrors, the incarnation of a world given over to dreaming. The old Church pomp was back, too; the cardinals drove again in gilt coaches; the Pope rode on his white mule; the Blessed Sacrament went through the ill-smelling streets with the sound of bells and the light of lanterns. A brilliant description of it had interested the civilised world immensely for about forty-eight hours; the appalling retrogression was still used occasionally as the text for violent denunciations by the poorly educated; the well-educated had ceased to do anything but take for granted that superstition and progress were irreconcilable enemies.
Yet Percy, even in the glimpses he had had in the streets, as he drove from the volor station outside the People’s Gate, of the old peasant dresses, the blue and red-fringed wine carts, the cabbage-strewn gutters, the wet clothes flapping on strings, the mules and horses–strange though these were, he had found them a refreshment. It had seemed to remind him that man was human, and not divine as the rest of the world proclaimed–human, and therefore careless and individualistic; human, and therefore occupied with interests other than those of speed, cleanliness, and precision.
The room in which he sat now by the window with shading blinds, for the sun was already hot, seemed to revert back even further than to a century-and-a-half. The old damask and gilding that he had expected was gone, and its absence gave the impression of great severity. There was a wide deal table running the length of the room, with upright wooden arm chairs set against it; the floor was red-tiled, with strips of matting for the feet, the white, distempered walls had only a couple of old pictures hung upon them, and a large crucifix flanked by candles stood on a little altar by the further door. There was no more furniture than that, with the exception of a writing-desk between the windows, on which stood a typewriter. That jarred somehow on his sense of fitness, and he wondered at it.
He finished the last drop of coffee in the thick-rimmed white cup, and sat back in his chair.
Already the burden was lighter, and he was astonished at the swiftness with which it had become so. Life looked simpler here; the interior world was taken more for granted; it was not even a matter of debate. There it was, imperious and objective, and through it glimmered to the eyes of the soul the old Figures that had become shrouded behind the rush of worldly circumstance. The very shadow of God appeared to rest here; it was no longer impossible to realise that the saints watched and interceded, that Mary sat on her throne, that the white disc on the altar was Jesus Christ. Percy was not yet at peace after all, he had been but an hour in Rome; and air, charged with never so much grace, could scarcely do more than it had done. But he felt more at ease, less desperately anxious, more childlike, more content to rest on the authority that claimed without explanation, and asserted that the world, as a matter of fact, proved by evidences without and within, was made this way and not that, for this purpose and not the other. Yet he had used the conveniences which he hated; he had left London a bare twelve hours before, and now here he sat in a place which was either a stagnant backwater of life, or else the very mid-current of it; he was not yet sure which.
There was a step outside, a handle was turned; and the Cardinal-Protector came through.
Percy had not seen him for four years, and for a moment scarcely recognised him.
It was a very old man that he saw now, bent and feeble, his face covered with wrinkles, crowned by very thin, white hair, and the little scarlet cap on top; he was in his black Benedictine habit with a plain abbatial cross on his breast, and walked hesitatingly, with a black stick. The only sign of vigour was in the narrow bright slit of his eyes showing beneath drooping lids. He held out his hand, smiling, and Percy, remembering in time that he was in the Vatican, bowed low only as he kissed the amethyst.
“Welcome to Rome, father,” said the old man, speaking with an unexpected briskness. “They told me you were here half-an-hour ago; I thought I would leave you to wash and have your coffee.”
Percy murmured something.
“Yes; you are tired, no doubt,” said the Cardinal, pulling out a chair.
“Indeed not, your Eminence. I slept excellently.”
The Cardinal made a little gesture to a chair.
“But I must have a word with you. The Holy Father wishes to see you at eleven o’clock.”
Percy started a little.
“We move quickly in these days, father.... There is no time to dawdle. You understand that you are to remain in Rome for the present?”
“I have made all arrangements for that, your Eminence.”
“That is very well.... We are pleased with you here, Father Franklin. The Holy Father has been greatly impressed by your comments. You have foreseen things in a very remarkable manner.”
Percy flushed with pleasure. It was almost the first hint of encouragement he had had. Cardinal Martin went on.
“I may say that you are considered our most valuable correspondent–certainly in England. That is why you are summoned. You are to help us here in future–a kind of consultor: any one can relate facts; not every one can understand them.... You look very young, father. How old are you?”
“I am thirty-three, your Eminence.”
“Ah! your white hair helps you.... Now, father, will you come with me into my room? It is now eight o’clock. I will keep you till nine–no longer. Then you shall have some rest, and at eleven I shall take you up to his Holiness.”
Percy rose with a strange sense of elation, and ran to open the door for the Cardinal to go through.