Lord of the World
By Robert Hugh Benson
Public Domain Books
It was late that night before Percy returned, completely exhausted by his labours. For hour after hour he had sat with the Cardinal, opening despatches that poured into the electric receivers from all over Europe, and were brought in one by one into the quiet sitting-room. Three times in the afternoon the Cardinal had been sent for, once by the Pope and twice to the Quirinal.
There was no doubt at all that the news was true; and it seemed that Felsenburgh must have waited deliberately for the offer. All others he had refused. There had been a Convention of the Powers, each of whom had been anxious to secure him, and each of whom had severally failed; these private claims had been withdrawn, and an united message sent. The new proposal was to the effect that Felsenburgh should assume a position hitherto undreamed of in democracy; that he should receive a House of Government in every capital of Europe; that his veto of any measure should be final for three years; that any measure he chose to introduce three times in three consecutive years should become law; that his title should be that of President of Europe. From his side practically nothing was asked, except that he should refuse any other official position offered him that did not receive the sanction of all the Powers. And all this, Percy saw very well, involved the danger of an united Europe increased tenfold. It involved all the stupendous force of Socialism directed by a brilliant individual. It was the combination of the strongest characteristics of the two methods of government. The offer had been accepted by Felsenburgh after eight hours’ silence.
It was remarkable, too, to observe how the news had been accepted by the two other divisions of the world. The East was enthusiastic; America was divided. But in any case America was powerless: the balance of the world was overwhelmingly against her.
Percy threw himself, as he was, on to his bed, and lay there with drumming pulses, closed eyes and a huge despair at his heart. The world indeed had risen like a giant over the horizons of Rome, and the holy city was no better now than a sand castle before a tide. So much he grasped. As to how ruin would come, in what form and from what direction, he neither knew nor cared. Only he knew now that it would come.
He had learned by now something of his own temperament; and he turned his eyes inwards to observe himself bitterly, as a doctor in mortal disease might with a dreadful complacency diagnose his own symptoms. It was even a relief to turn from the monstrous mechanism of the world to see in miniature one hopeless human heart. For his own religion he no longer feared; he knew, as absolutely as a man may know the colour of his eyes, that it was secure again and beyond shaking. During those weeks in Rome the cloudy deposit had run clear and the channel was once more visible. Or, better still, that vast erection of dogma, ceremony, custom and morals in which he had been educated, and on which he had looked all his life (as a man may stare upon some great set-piece that bewilders him), seeing now one spark of light, now another, flare and wane in the darkness, had little by little kindled and revealed itself in one stupendous blaze of divine fire that explains itself. Huge principles, once bewildering and even repellent, were again luminously self-evident; he saw, for example, that while Humanity-Religion endeavoured to abolish suffering the Divine Religion embraced it, so that the blind pangs even of beasts were within the Father’s Will and Scheme; or that while from one angle one colour only of the web of life was visible–material, or intellectual, or artistic–from another the Supernatural was as eminently obvious. Humanity-Religion could only be true if at least half of man’s nature, aspirations and sorrows were ignored. Christianity, on the other hand, at least included and accounted for these, even if it did not explain them. This ... and this ... and this ... all made the one and perfect whole. There was the Catholic Faith, more certain to him than the existence of himself: it was true and alive. He might be damned, but God reigned. He might go mad, but Jesus Christ was Incarnate Deity, proving Himself so by death and Resurrection, and John his Vicar. These things were as the bones of the Universe–facts beyond doubting–if they were not true, nothing anywhere was anything but a dream.
Difficulties?–Why, there were ten thousand. He did not in the least understand why God had made the world as it was, nor how Hell could be the creation of Love, nor how bread was transubstantiated into the Body of God but–well, these things were so. He had travelled far, he began to see, from his old status of faith, when he had believed that divine truth could be demonstrated on intellectual grounds. He had learned now (he knew not how) that the supernatural cried to the supernatural; the Christ without to the Christ within; that pure human reason indeed could not contradict, yet neither could it adequately prove the mysteries of faith, except on premisses visible only to him who receives Revelation as a fact; that it is the moral state, rather than the intellectual, to which the Spirit of God speaks with the greater certitude. That which he had both learned and taught he now knew, that Faith, having, like man himself, a body and a spirit–an historical expression and an inner verity–speaks now by one, now by another. This man believes because he sees–accepts the Incarnation or the Church from its credentials; that man, perceiving that these things are spiritual facts, yields himself wholly to the message and authority of her who alone professes them, as well as to the manifestation of them upon the historical plane; and in the darkness leans upon her arm. Or, best of all, because he has believed, now he sees.
So he looked with a kind of interested indolence at other tracts of his nature.
First, there was his intellect, puzzled beyond description, demanding, Why, why, why? Why was it allowed? How was it conceivable that God did not intervene, and that the Father of men could permit His dear world to be so ranged against Him? What did He mean to do? Was this eternal silence never to be broken? It was very well for those that had the Faith, but what of the countless millions who were settling down in contented blasphemy? Were these not, too, His children and the sheep of His pasture? What was the Catholic Church made for if not to convert the world, and why then had Almighty God allowed it, on the one side, to dwindle to a handful, and, on the other, the world to find its peace apart from Him?
He considered his emotions, but there was no comfort there, no stimulus. Oh! yes; he could pray still, by mere cold acts of the will, and his theology told him that God accepted such. He could say ’Adveniat regnum tuum. ... Fiat voluntas tua,” five thousand times a day, if God wanted that; but there was no sting or touch, no sense of vibration through the cords that his will threw up to the Heavenly Throne. What in the world then did God want him to do? Was it just then to repeat formulas, to lie still, to open despatches, to listen through the telephone, and to suffer?
And then the rest of the world–the madness that had seized upon the nations; the amazing stories that had poured in that day of the men in Paris, who, raving like Bacchantes, had stripped themselves naked in the Place de Concorde, and stabbed themselves to the heart, crying out to thunders of applause that life was too enthralling to be endured; of the woman who sang herself mad last night in Spain, and fell laughing and foaming in the concert hall at Seville; of the crucifixion of the Catholics that morning in the Pyrenees, and the apostasy of three bishops in Germany.... And this ... and this ... and a thousand more horrors were permitted, and God made no sign and spoke no word....
There was a tap, and Percy sprang up as the Cardinal came in.
He looked horribly worn; and his eyes had a kind of sunken brilliance that revealed fever. He made a little motion to Percy to sit down, and himself sat in the deep chair, trembling a little, and gathering his buckled feet beneath his red-buttoned cassock.
“You must forgive me, father,” he said. “I am anxious for the Bishop’s safety. He should be here by now.”
This was the Bishop of Southwark, Percy remembered, who had left England early that morning.
“He is coming straight through, your Eminence?”
“Yes; he should have been here by twenty-three. It is after midnight, is it not?”
As he spoke, the bells chimed out the half-hour.
It was nearly quiet now. All day the air had been full of sound; mobs had paraded the suburbs; the gates of the City had been barred, yet that was only an earnest of what was to be expected when the world understood itself.
The Cardinal seemed to recover himself after a few minutes’ silence.
“You look tired out, father,” he said kindly.
“And your Eminence?” he said.
The old man smiled too.
“Why, yes,” he said. “I shall not last much longer, father. And then it will be you to suffer.”
Percy sat up, suddenly, sick at heart.
“Why, yes,” said the Cardinal. “The Holy Father has arranged it. You are to succeed me, you know. It need be no secret.”
Percy drew a long trembling breath.
“Eminence,” he began piteously.
The other lifted a thin old hand.
“I understand all that,” he said softly. “You wish to die, is it not so?–and be at peace. There are many who wish that. But we must suffer first. Et pati et mori. Father Franklin, there must be no faltering.”
There was a long silence.
The news was too stunning to convey anything to the priest but a sense of horrible shock. The thought had simply never entered his mind that he, a man under forty, should be considered eligible to succeed this wise, patient old prelate. As for the honour–Percy was past that now, even had he thought of it. There was but one view before him–of a long and intolerable journey, on a road that went uphill, to be traversed with a burden on his shoulders that he could not support.
Yet he recognised its inevitability. The fact was announced to him as indisputable; it was to be; there was nothing to be said. But it was as if one more gulf had opened, and he stared into it with a dull, sick horror, incapable of expression.
The Cardinal first broke the silence.
“Father Franklin,” he said, “I have seen to-day a picture of Felsenburgh. Do you know whom I at first took it for?”
Percy smiled listlessly.
“Yes, father, I took it for you. Now, what do you make of that?”
“I don’t understand, Eminence.”
“Why–-” He broke off, suddenly changing the subject.
“There was a murder in the City to-day,” he said. “A Catholic stabbed a blasphemer.”
Percy glanced at him again.
“Oh! yes; he has not attempted to escape,” went on the old man. “He is in gaol.”
“He will be executed. The trial will begin to-morrow.... It is sad enough. It is the first murder for eight months.”
The irony of the position was evident enough to Percy as he sat listening to the deepening silence outside in the starlit night. Here was this poor city pretending that nothing was the matter, quietly administering its derided justice; and there, outside, were the forces gathering that would put an end to all. His enthusiasm seemed dead. There was no thrill from the thought of the splendid disregard of material facts of which this was one tiny instance, none of despairing courage or drunken recklessness. He felt like one who watches a fly washing his face on the cylinder of an engine–the huge steel slides along bearing the tiny life towards enormous death–another moment and it will be over; and yet the watcher cannot interfere. The supernatural thus lay, perfect and alive, but immeasurably tiny; the huge forces were in motion, the world was heaving up, and Percy could do nothing but stare and frown. Yet, as has been said, there was no shadow on his faith; the fly he knew was greater than the engine from the superiority of its order of life; if it were crushed, life would not be the final sufferer; so much he knew, but how it was so, he did not know.
As the two sat there, again came a step and a tap; and a servant’s face looked in.
“His Lordship is come, Eminence,” he said.
The Cardinal rose painfully, supporting himself by the table. Then he paused, seeming to remember something, and fumbled in his pocket.
“See that, father,” he said, and pushed a small silver disc towards the priest. “No; when I am gone.”
Percy closed the door and came back, taking up the little round object.
It was a coin, fresh from the mint. On one side was the familiar wreath with the word “fivepence” in the midst, with its Esperanto equivalent beneath, and on the other the profile of a man, with an inscription. Percy turned it to read: