Lord of the World
By Robert Hugh Benson
Public Domain Books
There was one horrible instant before a clang of a bell, the answering scream, and a whirling motion showed that the steersman was alert. Then like a stone the car dropped, and Percy clutched at the rail before him to steady the terrible sensation of falling into emptiness. He could hear behind him the crash of crockery, the bumping of heavy bodies, and as the car again checked on its wide wings, a rush of footsteps broke out and a cry or two of dismay. Outside, but high and far away, the hooting went on; the air was full of it, and in a flash he recognised that it could not be one or ten or twenty cars, but at least a hundred that had answered the call, and that somewhere overhead were hooting and flapping. The invisible ravines and cliffs on all sides took up the crying; long wails whooped and moaned and died amid a clash of bells, further and further every instant, but now in every direction, behind, above, in front, and far to right and left. Once more the car began to move, sinking in a long still curve towards the face of the mountain; and as it checked, and began to sway again on its huge wings, he turned to the door, seeing as he did so, through the cloudy windows in the glow of light, a spire of rock not thirty feet below rising from the mist, and one smooth shoulder of snow curving away into invisibility.
Within, the car shewed brutal signs of the sudden check: the doors of the dining compartments, as he passed along, were flung wide; glasses, plates, pools of wine and tumbled fruit rolled to and fro on the heaving floors; one man, sitting helplessly on the ground, rolled vacant, terrified eyes upon the priest. He glanced in at the door through which he had come just now, and Father Corkran staggered up from his seat and came towards him, reeling at the motion underfoot; simultaneously there was a rush from the opposite door, where a party of Americans had been dining; and as Percy, beckoning with his head, turned again to go down to the stern-end of the ship, he found the narrow passage blocked with the crowd that had run out. A babble of talking and cries made questions impossible; and Percy, with his chaplain behind him, gripped the aluminium panelling, and step by step began to make his way in search of his friends.
Half-way down the passage, as he pushed and struggled, a voice made itself heard above the din; and in the momentary silence that followed, again sounded the far-away crying of the volors overhead.
“Seats, gentlemen, seats,” roared the voice. “We are moving immediately.”
Then the crowd melted as the conductor came through, red-faced and determined, and Percy, springing into his wake, found his way clear to the stern.
The Cardinal seemed none the worse. He had been asleep, he explained, and saved himself in time from rolling on to the floor; but his old face twitched as he talked.
“But what is it?” he said. “What is the meaning?”
Father Bechlin related how he had actually seen one of the troop of volors within five yards of the window; it was crowded with faces, he said, from stem to stern. Then it had soared suddenly, and vanished in whorls of mist.
Percy shook his head, saying nothing. He had no explanation.
“They are inquiring, I understand,” said Father Bechlin again. “The conductor was at his instrument just now.”
There was nothing to be seen from the windows now. Only, as Percy stared out, still dazed with the shock, he saw the cruel needle of rock wavering beneath as if seen through water, and the huge shoulder of snow swaying softly up and down. It was quieter outside. It appeared that the flock had passed, only somewhere from an infinite height still sounded a fitful wailing, as if a lonely bird were wandering, lost in space.
“That is the signalling volor,” murmured Percy to himself.
He had no theory–no suggestion. Yet the matter seemed an ominous one. It was unheard of that an encounter with a hundred volors should take place, and he wondered why they were going southwards. Again the name of Felsenburgh came to his mind. What if that sinister man were still somewhere overhead?
“Eminence,” began the old man again. But at that instant the car began to move.
A bell clanged, a vibration tingled underfoot, and then, soft as a flake of snow, the great ship began to rise, its movement perceptible only by the sudden drop and vanishing of the spire of rock at which Percy still stared. Slowly the snowfield too began to flit downwards, a black cleft, whisked smoothly into sight from above, and disappeared again below, and a moment later once more the car seemed poised in white space as it climbed the slope of air down which it had dropped just now. Again the wind-chord rent the atmosphere; and this time the answer was as faint and distant as a cry from another world. The speed quickened, and the steady throb of the screw began to replace the swaying motion of the wings. Again came the hoot, wild and echoing through the barren wilderness of rock walls beneath, and again with a sudden impulse the car soared. It was going in great circles now, cautious as a cat, climbing, climbing, punctuating the ascent with cry after cry, searching the blind air for dangers. Once again a vast white slope came into sight, illuminated by the glare from the windows, sinking ever more and more swiftly, receding and approaching–until for one instant a jagged line of rocks grinned like teeth through the mist, dropped away and vanished, and with a clash of bells, and a last scream of warning, the throb of the screw passed from a whirr to a rising note, and the note to stillness, as the huge ship, clear at last of the frontier peaks, shook out her wings steady once more, and set out for her humming flight through space.... Whatever it was, was behind them now, vanished into the thick night.
There was a sound of talking from the interior of the car, hasty, breathless voices, questioning, exclaiming, and the authoritative terse answer of the guard. A step came along outside, and Percy sprang to meet it, but, as he laid his hand on the door, it was pushed from without, and to his astonishment the English guard came straight through, closing it behind him.
He stood there, looking strangely at the four priests, with compressed lips and anxious eyes.
“Well?” cried Percy.
“All right, gentlemen. But I’m thinking you’d better descend at Paris. I know who you are, gentlemen–and though I’m not a Catholic–-”
He stopped again.
“For God’s sake, man–-” began Percy.
“Oh! the news, gentlemen. Well, it was two hundred cars going to Rome. There is a Catholic plot, sir, discovered in London–-”
“To wipe out the Abbey. So they’re going–-”
“Yes, sir–to wipe out Rome.”
Then he was gone again.