Lord of the World
By Robert Hugh Benson
Public Domain Books
Six days later, Percy rose as usual, said his mass, breakfasted, and sat down to say office until his servant should summon him to vest for the Pontifical mass.
He had learned to expect bad news now so constantly–of apostasies, deaths, losses–that the lull of the previous week had come to him with extraordinary refreshment. It appeared to him as if his musings in St. Anastasia had been truer than he thought, and that the sweetness of the old feast had not yet wholly lost its power even over a world that denied its substance. For nothing at all had happened of importance. A few more martyrdoms had been chronicled, but they had been isolated cases; and of Felsenburgh there had been no tidings at all. Europe confessed its ignorance of his business.
On the other hand, to-morrow, Percy knew very well, would be a day of extraordinary moment in England and Germany at any rate; for in England it was appointed as the first occasion of compulsory worship throughout the country, while it was the second in Germany. Men and women would have to declare themselves now.
He had seen on the previous evening a photograph of the image that was to be worshipped next day in the Abbey; and, in a fit of loathing, had torn it to shreds. It represented a nude woman, huge and majestic, entrancingly lovely, with head and shoulders thrown back, as one who sees a strange and heavenly vision, arms downstretched and hands a little raised, with wide fingers, as in astonishment–the whole attitude, with feet and knees pressed together, suggestive of expectation, hope and wonder; in devilish mockery her long hair was crowned with twelve stars. This, then, was the spouse of the other, the embodiment of man’s ideal maternity, still waiting for her child....
When the white scraps lay like poisonous snow at his feet, he had sprung across the room to his prie-dieu, and fallen there in an agony of reparation.
“Oh! Mother, Mother!” he cried to the stately Queen of Heaven who, with Her true Son long ago in Her arms, looked down on him from Her bracket–no more than that.
But he was still again this morning, and celebrated Saint Silvester, Pope and Martyr, the last saint in the procession of the Christian year, with tolerable equanimity. The sights of last night, the throng of officials, the stately, scarlet, unfamiliar figures of the Cardinals who had come in from north, south, east and west–these helped to reassure him again–unreasonably, as he knew, yet effectually. The very air was electric with expectation. All night the piazza had been crowded by a huge, silent mob waiting till the opening of the doors at seven o’clock. Now the church itself was full, and the piazza full again. Far down the street to the river, so far as he could see as he had leaned from his window just now, lay that solemn motionless pavement of heads. The roof of the colonnade showed a fringe of them, the house-tops were black–and this in the bitter cold of a clear, frosty morning, for it was announced that after mass and the proceeding of the members of the Order past the Pontifical Throne, the Pope would give Apostolic Benediction to the City and the World.
Percy finished Terce, closed his book and lay back; his servant would be here in a minute now.
His mind began to run over the function, and he reflected that the entire Sacred College (with the exception of the Cardinal-Protector of Jerusalem, detained by sickness), numbering sixty-four members, would take part. This would mean an unique sight by and bye. Eight years before, he remembered, after the freedom of Rome, there had been a similar assembly; but the Cardinals at that time amounted to no more than fifty-three all told, and four had been absent.
Then he heard voices in his ante-room, a quick step, and a loud English expostulation. That was curious, and he sat up.
Then he heard a sentence.
“His Eminence must go to vest; it is useless.”
There was a sharp answer, a faint scuffle, and a snatch at the handle. This was indecent; so Percy stood up, made three strides of it to the door, and tore it open.
A man stood there, whom at first he did not recognise, pale and disordered.
“Why–-” began Percy, and recoiled.
“Mr. Phillips!” he said.
The other threw out his hands.
“It is I, sir–your Eminence–this moment arrived. It is life and death. Your servant tells me–-”
“Who sent you?”
“Good news or bad?”
The man rolled his eyes towards the servant, who still stood erect and offended a yard away; and Percy understood.
He put his hand on the other’s arm, drawing him through the doorway.
“Tap upon this door in two minutes, James,” he said.
They passed across the polished floor together; Percy went to his usual place in the window, leaned against the shutter, and spoke.
“Tell me in one sentence, sir,” he said to the breathless man.
“There is a plot among the Catholics. They intend destroying the Abbey to-morrow with explosives. I knew that the Pope–-”
Percy cut him short with a gesture.