Lord of the World
By Robert Hugh Benson
Public Domain Books
The Cardinal said very little to Percy when they met again that evening, beyond congratulating him on the way he had borne himself with the Pope. It seemed that the priest had done right by his extreme frankness. Then he told him of his duties.
Percy was to retain the couple of rooms that had been put at his disposal; he was to say mass, as a rule, in the Cardinal’s oratory; and after that, at nine, he was to present himself for instructions: he was to dine at noon with the Cardinal, after which he was to consider himself at liberty till Ave Maria: then, once more he was to be at his master’s disposal until supper. The work he would principally have to do would be the reading of all English correspondence, and the drawing up of a report upon it.
Percy found it a very pleasant and serene life, and the sense of home deepened every day. He had an abundance of time to himself, which he occupied resolutely in relaxation. From eight to nine he usually walked abroad, going sedately through the streets with his senses passive, looking into churches, watching the people, and gradually absorbing the strange naturalness of life under ancient conditions. At times it appeared to him like an historical dream; at times it seemed that there was no other reality; that the silent, tense world of modern civilisation was itself a phantom, and that here was the simple naturalness of the soul’s childhood back again. Even the reading of the English correspondence did not greatly affect him, for the stream of his mind was beginning to run clear again in this sweet old channel; and he read, dissected, analysed and diagnosed with a deepening tranquillity.
There was not, after all, a great deal of news. It was a kind of lull after storm. Felsenburgh was still in retirement; he had refused the offers made to him by France and Italy, as that of England; and, although nothing definite was announced, it seemed that he was confining himself at present to an unofficial attitude. Meanwhile the Parliaments of Europe were busy in the preliminary stages of code-revision. Nothing would be done, it was understood, until the autumn sessions.
Life in Rome was very strange. The city had now become not only the centre of faith but, in a sense, a microcosm of it. It was divided into four huge quarters–Anglo-Saxon, Latin, Teutonic and Eastern–besides Trastevere, which was occupied almost entirely by Papal offices, seminaries, and schools. Anglo-Saxondom occupied the southwestern quarter, now entirely covered with houses, including the Aventine, the Celian and Testaccio. The Latins inhabited old Rome, between the Course and the river; the Teutons the northeastern quarter, bounded on the south by St. Laurence’s Street; and the Easterns the remaining quarter, of which the centre was the Lateran. In this manner the true Romans were scarcely conscious of intrusion; they possessed a multitude of their own churches, they were allowed to revel in narrow, dark streets and hold their markets; and it was here that Percy usually walked, in a passion of historical retrospect. But the other quarters were strange enough, too. It was curious to see how a progeny of Gothic churches, served by northern priests, had grown up naturally in the Anglo-Saxon and Teutonic districts, and how the wide, grey streets, the neat pavements, the severe houses, showed how the northerns had not yet realised the requirements of southern life. The Easterns, on the other hand, resembled the Latins; their streets were as narrow and dark, their smells as overwhelming, their churches as dirty and as homely, and their colours even more brilliant.
Outside the walls the confusion was indescribable. If the city represented a carved miniature of the world, the suburbs represented the same model broken into a thousand pieces, tumbled in a bag and shot out at random. So far as the eye could see, on all sides from the roof of the Vatican, there stretched an endless plain of house-roofs, broken by spires, towers, domes and chimneys, under which lived human beings of every race beneath the sun. Here were the great manufactories, the monster buildings of the new world, the stations, the schools, the offices, all under secular dominion, yet surrounded by six millions of souls who lived here for love of religion. It was these who had despaired of modern life, tired out with change and effort, who had fled from the new system for refuge to the Church, but who could not obtain leave to live in the city itself. New houses were continually springing up in all directions. A gigantic compass, fixed by one leg in Rome, and with a span of five miles, would, if twirled, revolve through packed streets through its entire circle. Beyond that too houses stretched into the indefinite distance.
But Percy did not realise the significance of all that he saw, until the occasion of the Pope’s name-day towards the end of August.
It was yet cool and early, when he followed his patron, whom he was to serve as chaplain, along the broad passages of the Vatican towards the room where the Pope and Cardinals were to assemble. Through a window, as he looked out into the Piazza, the crowd was yet more dense, if that were possible, than it had been an hour before. The huge oval square was cobbled with heads, through which ran a broad road, kept by papal troops for the passage of the carriages; and up the broad ribbon, white in the eastern light, came monstrous vehicles, a blaze of gilding and colour and cream tint; slow cheers swelled up and died, and through all came the rush and patter of wheels over the stones, like the sound of a tide-swept pebbly beach.
As they waited in an ante-chamber, halted by the pressure in front and behind–a pack of scarlet and white and purple–he looked out again, and realised what he had known only intellectually before, that here before his eyes was the royalty of the old world assembled–and he began to perceive its significance.
Round the steps of the basilica spread a great fan of coaches, each yoked to eight horses–the white of France and Spain, the black of Germany, Italy and Russia, and the cream-coloured of England. Those stood out in the near half-circle, and beyond was the sweep of the lesser powers: Greece, Norway, Sweden, Roumania and the Balkan States. One, the Turk, was alone wanting, he reminded himself. The emblems of some were visible–eagles, lions, leopards–guarding the royal crown above the roof of each. From the foot of the steps to the head ran a broad scarlet carpet, lined with soldiers.
Percy leaned against the shutter, and began to meditate. Here was all that was left of Royalty. He had seen their palaces before, here and there in the various quarters, with standards flying, and scarlet-liveried men lounging on the steps. He had raised his hat a dozen times as a landau thundered past him up the Course; be had even seen the lilies of France and the leopards of England pass together in the solemn parade of the Pincian Hill. He had read in the papers every now and again during the last five years that family after family had made its way to Rome, after papal recognition had been granted; he had been told by the Cardinal on the previous evening that William of England, with his Consort, had landed at Ostia in the morning and that the tale of the Powers was complete. But he had never before realised the stupendous, overwhelming fact of the assembly of the world’s royalty under the shadow of Peter’s Throne, nor the appalling danger that its presence constituted in the midst of a democratic world. That world, he knew, affected to laugh at the folly and the childishness of it all–at the desperate play-acting of Divine Right on the part of fallen and despised families; but the same world, he knew very well, had not yet lost quite all its sentiment; and if that sentiment should happen to become resentful–-
The pressure relaxed; Percy slipped out of the recess, and followed in the slow-moving stream.
Half-an-hour later he was in his place among the ecclesiastics, as the papal procession came out through the glimmering dusk of the chapel of the Blessed Sacrament into the nave of the enormous church; but even before he had entered the chapel he heard the quiet roar of recognition and the cry of the trumpets that greeted the Supreme Pontiff as he came out, a hundred yards ahead, borne on the sedia gestatoria, with the fans going behind him. When Percy himself came out, five minutes later, walking in his quaternion, and saw the sight that was waiting, he remembered with a sudden throb at his heart that other sight he had seen in London in a summer dawn three months before....
Far ahead, seeming to cleave its way through the surging heads, like the poop of an ancient ship, moved the canopy beneath which sat the Lord of the world, and between him and the priest, as if it were the wake of that same ship, swayed the gorgeous procession–Protonotaries Apostolic, Generals of Religious Orders and the rest–making its way along with white, gold, scarlet and silver foam between the living banks on either side. Overhead hung the splendid barrel of the roof, and far in front the haven of God’s altar reared its monstrous pillars, beneath which burned the seven yellow stars that were the harbour lights of sanctity. It was an astonishing sight, but too vast and bewildering to do anything but oppress the observers with a consciousness of their own futility. The enormous enclosed air, the giant statues, the dim and distant roofs, the indescribable concert of sound–of the movement of feet, the murmur of ten thousand voices, the peal of organs like the crying of gnats, the thin celestial music–the faint suggestive smell of incense and men and bruised bay and myrtle–and, supreme above all, the vibrant atmosphere of human emotion, shot with supernatural aspiration, as the Hope of the World, the holder of Divine Vice-Royalty, passed on his way to stand between God and man–this affected the priest as the action of a drug that at once lulls and stimulates, that blinds while it gives new vision, that deafens while it opens stopped ears, that exalts while it plunges into new gulfs of consciousness. Here, then, was the other formulated answer to the problem of life. The two Cities of Augustine lay for him to choose. The one was that of a world self-originated, self-organised and self-sufficient, interpreted by such men as Marx and Herve, socialists, materialists, and, in the end, hedonists, summed up at last in Felsenburgh. The other lay displayed in the sight he saw before him, telling of a Creator and of a creation, of a Divine purpose, a redemption, and a world transcendent and eternal from which all sprang and to which all moved. One of the two, John and Julian, was the Vicar, and the other the Ape, of God.... And Percy’s heart in one more spasm of conviction made its choice....
But the summit was not yet reached.
As Percy came at last out from the nave beneath the dome, on his way to the tribune beyond the papal throne, he became aware of a new element.
A great space was cleared about the altar and confession, extending, as he could see at least on his side, to the point that marked the entrance to the transepts; at this point ran rails straight across from side to side, continuing the lines of the nave. Beyond this red-hung barrier lay a gradual slope of faces, white and motionless; a glimmer of steel bounded it, and above, a third of the distance down the transept, rose in solemn serried array a line of canopies. These were of scarlet, like cardinalitial baldachini, but upon the upright surface of each burned gigantic coats supported by beasts and topped by crowns. Under each was a figure or two–no more–in splendid isolation, and through the interspaces between the thrones showed again a misty slope of faces.
His heart quickened as he saw it–as he swept his eyes round and across to the right and saw as in a mirror the replica of the left in the right transept. It was there then that they sat–those lonely survivors of that strange company of persons who, till half-a-century ago, had reigned as God’s temporal Vicegerents with the consent of their subjects. They were unrecognised, now, save by Him from whom they drew their sovereignty–pinnacles clustering and hanging from a dome, from which the walls had been withdrawn. These were men and women who had learned at last that power comes from above, and their title to rule came not from their subjects but from the Supreme Ruler of all–shepherds without sheep, captains without soldiers to command. It was piteous–horribly piteous, yet inspiring. The act of faith was so sublime; and Percy’s heart quickened as he understood it. These, then, men and women like himself, were not ashamed to appeal from man to God, to assume insignia which the world regarded as playthings, but which to them were emblems of supernatural commission. Was there not mirrored here, he asked himself, some far-off shadow of One Who rode on the colt of an ass amid the sneers of the great and the enthusiasm of children?...
It was yet more kindling as the mass went on, and he saw the male sovereigns come down to do their services at the altar, and to go to and fro between it and the Throne. There they went bareheaded, the stately silent figures. The English king, once again Fidei Defensor, bore the train in place of the old king of Spain, who, with the Austrian Emperor, alone of all European sovereigns, had preserved the unbroken continuity of faith. The old man leaned over his fald-stool, mumbling and weeping, even crying out now and again in love and devotion, as, like Simeon, he saw his Salvation. The Austrian Emperor twice administered the Lavabo; the German sovereign, who had lost his throne and all but his life upon his conversion four years before, by a new privilege placed and withdrew the cushion, as his Lord kneeled before the Lord of them both. So movement by movement the gorgeous drama was enacted; the murmuring of the crowds died to a stillness that was but one wordless prayer as the tiny White Disc rose between the white hands, and the thin angelic music pealed in the dome. For here was the one hope of these thousands, as mighty and as little as once within the Manger. There was none other that fought for them but only God. Surely then, if the blood of men and the tears of women could not avail to move the Judge and Observer of all from His silence, surely at least here the bloodless Death of His only Son, that once on Calvary had darkened heaven and rent the earth, pleaded now with such sorrowful splendour upon this island of faith amid a sea of laughter and hatred–this at least must avail! How could it not?
Percy had just sat down, tired out with the long ceremonies, when the door opened abruptly, and the Cardinal, still in his robes, came in swiftly, shutting the door behind him.
“Father Franklin,” he said, in a strange breathless voice, “there is the worst of news. Felsenburgh is appointed President of Europe.”