Lord of the World
By Robert Hugh Benson
Public Domain Books
“Tell me again,” said the old Cardinal, when the two were settled down opposite to one another, and the chaplains were gone to another compartment. “Who is this man?”
“This man? He was secretary to Oliver Brand, one of our politicians. He fetched me to old Mrs. Brand’s death bed, and lost his place in consequence. He is in journalism now. He is perfectly honest. No, he is not a Catholic, though he longs to be one. That is why they confided in him.”
“I know nothing of them, except that they are a desperate set. They have enough faith to act, but not enough to be patient.... I suppose they thought this man would sympathise. But unfortunately he has a conscience, and he also sees that any attempt of this kind would be the last straw on the back of toleration. Eminence, do you realise how violent the feeling is against us?”
The old man shook his head lamentably.
“Do I not?” he murmured. “And my Germans are in it? Are you sure?”
“Eminence, it is a vast plot. It has been simmering for months. There have been meetings every week. They have kept the secret marvellously. Your Germans only delayed that the blow might be more complete. And now, to-morrow–-” Percy drew back with a despairing gesture.
“And the Holy Father?”
“I went to him as soon as mass was over. He withdrew all opposition, and sent for you. It is our one chance, Eminence.”
“And you think our plan will hinder it?”
“I have no idea, but I can think of nothing else. I shall go straight to the Archbishop and tell him all. We arrive, I believe, at three o’clock, and you in Berlin about seven, I suppose, by German time. The function is fixed for eleven. By eleven, then, we shall have done all that is possible. The Government will know, and they will know, too, that we are innocent in Rome. I imagine they will cause it to be announced that the Cardinal-Protector and the Archbishop, with his coadjutors, will be present in the sacristies. They will double every guard; they will parade volors overhead–and then–well! in God’s hands be the rest.”
“Do you think the conspirators will attempt it?”
“I have no idea,” said Percy shortly.
“I understand they have alternative plans.”
“Just so. If all is clear, they intend dropping the explosive from above; if not, at least three men have offered to sacrifice themselves by taking it into the Abbey themselves.... And you, Eminence?”
The old man eyed him steadily.
“My programme is yours,” he said. “Eminence, have you considered the effect in either case? If nothing happens–-”
“If nothing happens we shall be accused of a fraud, of seeking to advertise ourselves. If anything happens–well, we shall all go before God together. Pray God it may be the second,” he added passionately.
“It will be at least easier to bear,” observed the old man.
“I beg your pardon, Eminence. I should not have said that.”
There fell a silence between the two, in which no sound was heard but the faint untiring vibration of the screw, and the sudden cough of a man in the next compartment. Percy leaned his head wearily on his hand, and stared from the window.
The earth was now dark beneath them–an immense emptiness; above, the huge engulfing sky was still faintly luminous, and through the high frosty mist through which they moved stars glimmered now and again, as the car swayed and tacked across the wind.
“It will be cold among the Alps,” murmured Percy. Then he broke off. “And I have not one shred of evidence,” he said; “nothing but the word of a man.”
“And you are sure?”
“I am sure.”
“Eminence,” said the German suddenly, staring straight into his face, “the likeness is extraordinary.”
Percy smiled listlessly. He was tired of bearing that.
“What do you make of it?” persisted the other.
“I have been asked that before,” said Percy. “I have no views.”
“It seems to me that God means something,” murmured the German heavily, still staring at him.
“A kind of antithesis–a reverse of the medal. I do not know.”
Again there was silence. A chaplain looked in through the glazed door, a homely, blue-eyed German, and was waved away once more.
“Eminence,” said the old man abruptly, “there is surely more to speak of. Plans to be made.”
Percy shook his head.
“There are no plans to be made,” he said. “We know nothing but the fact–no names–nothing. We–we are like children in a tiger’s cage. And one of us has just made a gesture in the tiger’s face.”
“I suppose we shall communicate with one another?”
“If we are in existence.”
It was curious how Percy took the lead. He had worn his scarlet for about three months, and his companion for twelve years; yet it was the younger who dictated plans and arranged. He was scarcely conscious of its strangeness, however. Ever since the shocking news of the morning, when a new mine had been sprung under the shaking Church, and he had watched the stately ceremonial, the gorgeous splendour, the dignified, tranquil movements of the Pope and his court, with a secret that burned his heart and brain–above all, since that quick interview in which old plans had been reversed and a startling decision formed, and a blessing given and received, and a farewell looked not uttered–all done in half-an-hour–his whole nature had concentrated itself into one keen tense force, like a coiled spring. He felt power tingling to his finger-tips–power and the dulness of an immense despair. Every prop had been cut, every brace severed; he, the City of Rome, the Catholic Church, the very supernatural itself, seemed to hang now on one single thing–the Finger of God. And if that failed–well, nothing would ever matter any more....
He was going now to one of two things–ignominy or death. There was no third thing–unless, indeed, the conspirators were actually taken with their instruments upon them. But that was impossible. Either they would refrain, knowing that God’s ministers would fall with them, and in that case there would be the ignominy of a detected fraud, of a miserable attempt to win credit. Or they would not refrain; they would count the death of a Cardinal and a few bishops a cheap price to pay for revenge–and in that case well, there was Death and Judgment. But Percy had ceased to fear. No ignominy could be greater than that which he already bore–the ignominy of loneliness and discredit. And death could be nothing but sweet–it would at least be knowledge and rest. He was willing to risk all on God.
The other, with a little gesture of apology, took out his office book presently, and began to read.
Percy looked at him with an immense envy. Ah! if only he were as old as that! He could bear a year or two more of this misery, but not fifty years, he thought. It was an almost endless vista that (even if things went well) opened before him, of continual strife, self-repression, energy, misrepresentation from his enemies. The Church was sinking further every day. What if this new spasm of fervour were no more than the dying flare of faith? How could he bear that? He would have to see the tide of atheism rise higher and more triumphant every day; Felsenburgh had given it an impetus of whose end there was no prophesying. Never before had a single man wielded the full power of democracy. Then once more he looked forward to the morrow. Oh! if it could but end in death!... Beati mortui qui in Domino moriuntur! ...
It was no good; it was cowardly to think in this fashion. After all, God was God–He takes up the isles as a very little thing.
Percy took out his office book, found Prime and St. Sylvester, signed himself with the cross, and began to pray. A minute later the two chaplains slipped in once more, and sat down; and all was silent, save for that throb of the screw, and the strange whispering rush of air outside.