Lord of the World
By Robert Hugh Benson
Public Domain Books
It was about nineteen o’clock that the ruddy English conductor looked in at the doorway, waking Percy from his doze.
“Dinner will be served in half-an-hour, gentlemen,” he said (speaking Esperanto, as the rule was on international cars). “We do not stop at Turin to-night.”
He shut the door and went out, and the sound of closing doors came down the corridor as he made the same announcement to each compartment.
There were no passengers to descend at Turin, then, reflected Percy; and no doubt a wireless message had been received that there were none to come on board either. That was good news: it would give him more time in London. It might even enable Cardinal Steinmann to catch an earlier volor from Paris to Berlin; but he was not sure bow they ran. It was a pity that the German had not been able to catch the thirteen o’clock from Rome to Berlin direct. So he calculated, in a kind of superficial insensibility.
He stood up presently to stretch himself. Then he passed out and along the corridor to the lavatory to wash his hands.
He became fascinated by the view as he stood before the basin at the rear of the car, for even now they were passing over Turin. It was a blur of light, vivid and beautiful, that shone beneath him in the midst of this gulf of darkness, sweeping away southwards into the gloom as the car sped on towards the Alps. How little, he thought, seemed this great city seen from above; and yet, how mighty it was! It was from that glimmer, already five miles behind, that Italy was controlled; in one of these dolls’ houses of which he had caught but a glimpse, men sat in council over souls and bodies, and abolished God, and smiled at His Church. And God allowed it all, and made no sign. It was there that Felsenburgh bad been, a month or two ago–Felsenburgh, his double! And again the mental sword tore and stabbed at his heart.
A few minutes later, the four ecclesiastics were sitting at their round table in a little screened compartment of the dining-room in the bows of the air-ship. It was an excellent dinner, served, as usual, from the kitchen in the bowels of the volor, and rose, course by course, with a smooth click, into the centre of the table. There was a bottle of red wine to each diner, and both table and chairs swung easily to the very slight motion of the ship. But they did not talk much, for there was only one subject possible to the two cardinals, and the chaplains had not yet been admitted into the full secret.
It was growing cold now, and even the hot-air foot-rests did not quite compensate for the deathly iciness of the breath that began to stream down from the Alps, which the ship was now approaching at a slight incline. It was necessary to rise at least nine thousand feet from the usual level, in order to pass the frontier of the Mont Cenis at a safe angle; and at the same time it was necessary to go a little slower over the Alps themselves, owing to the extreme rarity of the air, and the difficulty in causing the screw to revolve sufficiently quickly to counteract it.
“There will be clouds to-night,” said a voice clear and distinct from the passage, as the door swung slightly to a movement of the car.
Percy got up and closed it.
The German Cardinal began to grow a little fidgety towards the end of dinner.
“I shall go back,” he said at last. “I shall be better in my fur rug.”
His chaplain dutifully went after him, leaving his own dinner unfinished, and Percy was left alone with Father Corkran, his English chaplain lately from Scotland.
He finished his wine, ate a couple of figs, and then sat staring out through the plate-glass window in front.
“Ah!” he said. “Excuse me, father. There are the Alps at last.”
The front of the car consisted of three divisions, in the centre of one of which stood the steersman, his eyes looking straight ahead, and his hands upon the wheel. On either side of him, separated from him by aluminium walls, was contrived a narrow slip of a compartment, with a long curved window at the height of a man’s eyes, through which a magnificent view could be obtained. It was to one of these that Percy went, passing along the corridor, and seeing through half-opened doors other parties still over their wine. He pushed the spring door on the left and went through.
He had crossed the Alps three times before in his life, and well remembered the extraordinary effect they had had on him, especially as he had once seen them from a great altitude upon a clear day–an eternal, immeasurable sea of white ice, broken by hummocks and wrinkles that from below were soaring peaks named and reverenced; and, beyond, the spherical curve of the earth’s edge that dropped in a haze of air into unutterable space. But this time they seemed more amazing than ever, and he looked out on them with the interest of a sick child.
The car was now ascending; rapidly towards the pass up across the huge tumbled slopes, ravines, and cliffs that lie like outworks of the enormous wall. Seen from this great height they were in themselves comparatively insignificant, but they at least suggested the vastness of the bastions of which they were no more than buttresses. As Percy turned, he could see the moonless sky alight with frosty stars, and the dimness of the illumination made the scene even more impressive; but as he turned again, there was a change. The vast air about him seemed now to be perceived through frosted glass. The velvet blackness of the pine forests had faded to heavy grey, the pale glint of water and ice seen and gone again in a moment, the monstrous nakedness of rock spires and slopes, rising towards him and sliding away again beneath with a crawling motion–all these had lost their distinctness of outline, and were veiled in invisible white. As he looked yet higher to right and left the sight became terrifying, for the giant walls of rock rushing towards him, the huge grotesque shapes towering on all sides, ran upward into a curtain of cloud visible only from the dancing radiance thrown upon it by the brilliantly lighted car. Even as he looked, two straight fingers of splendour, resembling horns, shot out, as the bow searchlights were turned on; and the car itself, already travelling at half-speed, dropped to quarter-speed, and began to sway softly from side to side as the huge air-planes beat the mist through which they moved, and the antennae of light pierced it. Still up they went, and on–yet swift enough to let Percy see one great pinnacle rear itself, elongate, sink down into a cruel needle, and vanish into nothingness a thousand feet below. The motion grew yet more nauseous, as the car moved up at a sharp angle preserving its level, simultaneously rising, advancing and swaying. Once, hoarse and sonorous, an unfrozen torrent roared like a beast, it seemed within twenty yards, and was dumb again on the instant. Now, too, the horns began to cry, long, lamentable hootings, ringing sadly in that echoing desolation like the wail of wandering souls; and as Percy, awed beyond feeling, wiped the gathering moisture from the glass, and stared again, it appeared as if he floated now, motionless except for the slight rocking beneath his feet, in a world of whiteness, as remote from earth as from heaven, poised in hopeless infinite space, blind, alone, frozen, lost in a white hell of desolation.
Once, as he stared, a huge whiteness moved towards him through the veil, slid slowly sideways and down, disclosing, as the car veered, a gigantic slope smooth as oil, with one cluster of black rock cutting it like the fingers of a man’s hand groping from a mountainous wave.
Then, as once more the car cried aloud like a lost sheep, there answered it, it seemed scarcely ten yards away, first one windy scream of dismay, another and another; a clang of bells, a chorus broke out; and the air was full of the beating of wings.