Lord of the World
By Robert Hugh Benson
Public Domain Books
At a few minutes before eleven Percy came out of his little white-washed room in his new ferraiuola, soutane and buckle shoes, and tapped at the door of the Cardinal’s room.
He felt a great deal more self-possessed now. He had talked to the Cardinal freely and strongly, had described the effect that Felsenburgh had had upon London, and even the paralysis that had seized upon himself. He had stated his belief that they were on the edge of a movement unparalleled in history: he related little scenes that he had witnessed–a group kneeling before a picture of Felsenburgh, a dying man calling him by name, the aspect of the crowd that had waited in Westminster to hear the result of the offer made to the stranger. He showed him half-a-dozen cuttings from newspapers, pointing out their hysterical enthusiasm; he even went so far as to venture upon prophecy, and to declare his belief that persecution was within reasonable distance.
“The world seems very oddly alive,” he said; “it is as if the whole thing was flushed and nervous.”
The Cardinal nodded.
“We, too,” he said, “even we feel it.”
For the rest the Cardinal had sat watching him out of his narrow eyes, nodding from time to time, putting an occasional question, but listening throughout with great attention.
“And your recommendations, father–-” he had said, and then interrupted himself. “No, that is too much to ask. The Holy Father will speak of that.”
He had congratulated him upon his Latin then–for they had spoken in that language throughout this second interview; and Percy had explained how loyal Catholic England had been in obeying the order, given ten years before, that Latin should become to the Church what Esperanto was becoming to the world.
“That is very well,” said the old man. “His Holiness will be pleased at that.”
At his second tap the door opened and the Cardinal came out, taking him by the arm without a word; and together they turned to the lift entrance.
Percy ventured to make a remark as they slid noiselessly up towards the papal apartment.
“I am surprised at the lift, your Eminence, and the typewriter in the audience-room.”
“Why, all the rest of Rome is back in the old days.”
The Cardinal looked at him, puzzled.
“Is it? I suppose it is. I never thought of that.”
A Swiss guard flung back the door of the lift, saluted and went before them along the plain flagged passage to where his comrade stood. Then he saluted again and went back. A Pontifical chamberlain, in all the sombre glory of purple, black, and a Spanish ruff, peeped from the door, and made haste to open it. It really seemed almost incredible that such things still existed.
“In a moment, your Eminence,” he said in Latin. “Will your Eminence wait here?”
It was a little square room, with half-a-dozen doors, plainly contrived out of one of the huge old halls, for it was immensely high, and the tarnished gilt cornice vanished directly in two places into the white walls. The partitions, too, seemed thin; for as the two men sat down there was a murmur of voices faintly audible, the shuffling of footsteps, and the old eternal click of the typewriter from which Percy hoped he had escaped. They were alone in the room, which was furnished with the same simplicity as the Cardinal’s–giving the impression of a curious mingling of ascetic poverty and dignity by its red-tiled floor, its white walls, its altar and two vast bronze candlesticks of incalculable value that stood on the dais. The shutters here, too, were drawn; and there was nothing to distract Percy from the excitement that surged up now tenfold in heart and brain.
It was Papa Angelicus whom he was about to see; that amazing old man who had been appointed Secretary of State just fifty years ago, at the age of thirty, and Pope nine years previously. It was he who had carried out the extraordinary policy of yielding the churches throughout the whole of Italy to the Government, in exchange for the temporal lordship of Rome, and who had since set himself to make it a city of saints. He had cared, it appeared, nothing whatever for the world’s opinion; his policy, so far as it could be called one, consisted in a very simple thing: he had declared in Epistle after Epistle that the object of the Church was to do glory to God by producing supernatural virtues in man, and that nothing at all was of any significance or importance except so far as it effected this object. He had further maintained that since Peter was the Rock, the City of Peter was the Capital of the world, and should set an example to its dependency: this could not be done unless Peter ruled his City, and therefore he had sacrificed every church and ecclesiastical building in the country for that one end. Then he had set about ruling his city: he had said that on the whole the latter-day discoveries of man tended to distract immortal souls from a contemplation of eternal verities–not that these discoveries could be anything but good in themselves, since after all they gave insight into the wonderful laws of God–but that at present they were too exciting to the imagination. So he had removed the trams, the volors, the laboratories, the manufactories–saying that there was plenty of room for them outside Rome–and had allowed them to be planted in the suburbs: in their place he had raised shrines, religious houses and Calvaries. Then he had attended further to the souls of his subjects. Since Rome was of limited area, and, still more because the world corrupted without its proper salt, he allowed no man under the age of fifty to live within its walls for more than one month in each year, except those who received his permit. They might live, of course, immediately outside the city (and they did, by tens of thousands), but they were to understand that by doing so they sinned against the spirit, though not the letter, of their Father’s wishes. Then he had divided the city into national quarters, saying that as each nation had its peculiar virtues, each was to let its light shine steadily in its proper place. Rents had instantly begun to rise, so he had legislated against that by reserving in each quarter a number of streets at fixed prices, and had issued an ipso facto excommunication against all who erred in this respect. The rest were abandoned to the millionaires. He had retained the Leonine City entirely at his own disposal. Then he had restored Capital Punishment, with as much serene gravity as that with which he had made himself the derision of the civilised world in other matters, saying that though human life was holy, human virtue was more holy still; and he had added to the crime of murder, the crimes of adultery, idolatry and apostasy, for which this punishment was theoretically sanctioned. There had not been, however, more than two such executions in the eight years of his reign, since criminals, of course, with the exception of devoted believers, instantly made their way to the suburbs, where they were no longer under his jurisdiction.
But he had not stayed here. He had sent once more ambassadors to every country in the world, informing the Government of each of their arrival. No attention was paid to this, beyond that of laughter; but he had continued, undisturbed, to claim his rights, and, meanwhile, used his legates for the important work of disseminating his views. Epistles appeared from time to time in every town, laying down the principles of the papal claims with as much tranquillity as if they were everywhere acknowledged. Freemasonry was steadily denounced, as well as democratic ideas of every kind; men were urged to remember their immortal souls and the Majesty of God, and to reflect upon the fact that in a few years all would be called to give their account to Him Who was Creator and Ruler of the world, Whose Vicar was John XXIV, P.P., whose name and seal were appended.
That was a line of action that took the world completely by surprise. People had expected hysteria, argument, and passionate exhortation; disguised emissaries, plots, and protests. There were none of these. It was as if progress had not yet begun, and volors were uninvented, as if the entire universe had not come to disbelieve in God, and to discover that itself was God. Here was this silly old man, talking in his sleep, babbling of the Cross, and the inner life and the forgiveness of sins, exactly as his predecessors had talked two thousand years before. Well, it was only one sign more that Rome had lost not only its power, but its common sense as well. It was really time that something should be done.
And this was the man, thought Percy, Papa Angelicus, whom he was to see in a minute or two.
The Cardinal put his hand on the priest’s knee as the door opened, and a purple prelate appeared, bowing.
“Only this,” he said. “Be absolutely frank.”
Percy stood up, trembling. Then he followed his patron towards the inner door.