Lord of the World
By Robert Hugh Benson
Public Domain Books
The same night Oliver Brand came home about an hour before midnight.
For himself, what he had heard and seen that day was still too vivid and too imminent for him to judge of it coolly. He had seen, from his windows in Whitehall, Parliament Square filled with a mob the like of which had not been known in England since the days of Christianity–a mob full of a fury that could scarcely draw its origin except from sources beyond the reach of sense. Thrice during the hours that followed the publication of the Catholic plot and the outbreak of mob-law he had communicated with the Prime Minister asking whether nothing could be done to allay the tumult; and on both occasions he had received the doubtful answer that what could be done would be done, that force was inadmissible at present; but that the police were doing all that was possible.
As regarded the despatch of the volors to Rome, he had assented by silence, as had the rest of the Council. That was, Snowford had said, a judicial punitive act, regrettable but necessary. Peace, in this instance, could not be secured except on terms of war–or rather, since war was obsolete–by the sternness of justice. These Catholics had shown themselves the avowed enemies of society; very well, then society must defend itself, at least this once. Man was still human. And Oliver had listened and said nothing.
As he passed in one of the Government volors over London on his way home, he had caught more than one glimpse of what was proceeding beneath him. The streets were as bright as day, shadowless and clear in the white light, and every roadway was a crawling serpent. From beneath rose up a steady roar of voices, soft and woolly, punctuated by cries. From here and there ascended the smoke of burning; and once, as he flitted over one of the great squares to the south of Battersea, he had seen as it were a scattered squadron of ants running as if in fear or pursuit.... He knew what was happening.... Well, after all, man was not yet perfectly civilised.
He did not like to think of what awaited him at home. Once, about five hours earlier, he had listened to his wife’s voice through the telephone, and what he had heard had nearly caused him to leave all and go to her. Yet he was scarcely prepared for what he found.
As he came into the sitting-room, there was no sound, except that far-away hum from the seething streets below. The room seemed strangely dark and cold; the only light that entered was through one of the windows from which the curtains were withdrawn, and, silhouetted against the luminous sky beyond, was the upright figure of a woman, looking and listening....
He pressed the knob of the electric light; and Mabel turned slowly towards him. She was in her day-dress, with a cloak thrown over her shoulders, and her face was almost as that of a stranger. It was perfectly colourless, her lips were compressed and her eyes full of an emotion which he could not interpret. It might equally have been anger, terror or misery.
She stood there in the steady light, motionless, looking at him.
For a moment he did not trust himself to speak. He passed across to the window, closed it and drew the curtains. Then he took that rigid figure gently by the arm.
“Mabel,” he said, “Mabel.”
She submitted to be drawn towards the sofa, but there was no response to his touch. He sat down and looked up at her with a kind of despairing apprehension.
“My dear, I am tired out,” he said.
Still she looked at him. There was in her pose that rigidity that actors simulate; yet he knew it for the real thing. He had seen that silence once or twice before in the presence of a horror–once at any rate, at the sight of a splash of blood on her shoe.
“Well, my darling, sit down, at least,” he said.
She obeyed him mechanically–sat, and still stared at him. In the silence once more that soft roar rose and died from the invisible world of tumult outside the windows. Within here all was quiet. He knew perfectly that two things strove within her, her loyalty to her faith and her hatred of those crimes in the name of justice. As he looked on her he saw that these two were at death grips, that hatred was prevailing, and that she herself was little more than a passive battlefield. Then, as with a long-drawn howl of a wolf, there surged and sank the voices of the mob a mile away, the tension broke.... She threw herself forward towards him, he caught her by the wrists, and so she rested, clasped in his arms, her face and bosom on his knees, and her whole body torn by emotion.
For a full minute neither spoke. Oliver understood well enough, yet at present he had no words. He only drew her a little closer to himself, kissed her hair two or three times, and settled himself to hold her. He began to rehearse what he must say presently.
Then she raised her flushed face for an instant, looked at him passionately, dropped her head again and began to sob out broken words.
He could only catch a sentence here and there, yet he knew what she was saying....
It was the ruin of all her hopes, she sobbed, the end of her religion. Let her die, die and have done with it! It was all gone, gone, swept away in this murderous passion of the people of her faith ... they were no better than Christians, after all, as fierce as the men on whom they avenged themselves, as dark as though the Saviour, Julian, had never come; it was all lost ... War and Passion and Murder had returned to the body from which she had thought them gone forever.... The burning churches, the hunted Catholics, the raging of the streets on which she had looked that day, the bodies of the child and the priest carried on poles, the burning churches and convents. ... All streamed out, incoherent, broken by sobs, details of horror, lamentations, reproaches, interpreted by the writhing of her head and hands upon his knees. The collapse was complete.
He put his hands again beneath her arms and raised her. He was worn out by his work, yet he knew he must quiet her. This was more serious than any previous crisis. Yet he knew her power of recovery.
“Sit down, my darling,” he said. “There ... give me your hands. Now listen to me.”
He made really an admirable defence, for it was what he had been repeating to himself all day. Men were not yet perfect, he said; there ran in their veins the blood of men who for twenty centuries had been Christians.... There must be no despair; faith in man was of the very essence of religion, faith in man’s best self, in what he would become, not in what at present he actually was. They were at the beginning of the new religion, not in its maturity; there must be sourness in the young fruit. ... Consider, too, the provocation! Remember the appalling crime that these Catholics had contemplated; they had set themselves to strike the new Faith in its very heart....
“My darling,” he said, “men are not changed in an instant. What if those Christians had succeeded!... I condemn it all as strongly as you. I saw a couple of newspapers this afternoon that are as wicked as anything that the Christians have ever done. They exulted in all these crimes. It will throw the movement back ten years.... Do you think that there are not thousands like yourself who hate and detest this violence?... But what does faith mean, except that we know that mercy will prevail? Faith, patience and hope–these are our weapons.”
He spoke with passionate conviction, his eyes fixed on hers, in a fierce endeavour to give her his own confidence, and to reassure the remnants of his own doubtfulness. It was true that he too hated what she hated, yet he saw things that she did not.... Well, well, he told himself, he must remember that she was a woman.
The look of frantic horror passed slowly out of her eyes, giving way to acute misery as he talked, and as his personality once more began to dominate her own. But it was not yet over.
“But the volors,” she cried, “the volors! That is deliberate; that is not the work of the mob.”
“My darling, it is no more deliberate than the other. We are all human, we are all immature. Yes, the Council permitted it, ... permitted it, remember. The German Government, too, had to yield. We must tame nature slowly, we must not break it.”
He talked again for a few minutes, repeating his arguments, soothing, reassuring, encouraging; and he saw that he was beginning to prevail. But she returned to one of his words.
“Permitted it! And you permitted it.”
“Dear; I said nothing, either for it or against. I tell you that if we had forbidden it there would have been yet more murder, and the people would have lost their rulers. We were passive, since we could do nothing.”
“Ah! but it would have been better to die.... Oh, Oliver, let me die at least! I cannot bear it.”
By her hands which he still held he drew her nearer yet to himself.
“Sweetheart,” he said gravely, “cannot you trust me a little? If I could tell you all that passed to-day, you would understand. But trust me that I am not heartless. And what of Julian Felsenburgh?”
For a moment he saw hesitation in her eyes; her loyalty to him and her loathing of all that had happened strove within her. Then once again loyalty prevailed, the name of Felsenburgh weighed down the balance, and trust came back with a flood of tears.
“Oh, Oliver,” she said, “I know I trust you. But I am so weak, and all is so terrible. And He so strong and merciful. And will He be with us to-morrow?”
It struck midnight from the clock-tower a mile away as they yet sat and talked. She was still tremulous from the struggle; but she looked at him smiling, still holding his hands. He saw that the reaction was upon her in full force at last.
“The New Year, my husband,” she said, and rose as she said it, drawing him after her.
“I wish you a happy New Year,” she said. “Oh help me, Oliver.”
She kissed him, and drew back, still holding his hands, looking at him with bright tearful eyes.
“Oliver,” she cried again, “I must tell you this.... Do you know what I thought before you came?”
He shook his head, staring at her greedily. How sweet she was! He felt her grip tighten on his hands.
“I thought I could not bear it,” she whispered–"that I must end it all–ah! you know what I mean.”
His heart flinched as he heard her; and he drew her closer again to himself.
“It is all over! it is all over,” she cried. “Ah! do not look like that! I could not tell you if it was not."’
As their lips met again there came the vibration of an electric bell from the next room, and Oliver, knowing what it meant, felt even in that instant a tremor shake his heart. He loosed her hands, and still smiled at her.
“The bell!” she said, with a flash of apprehension.
“But it is all well between us again?”
Her face steadied itself into loyalty and confidence.
“It is all well,” she said; and again the impatient bell tingled. “Go, Oliver; I will wait here.”
A minute later he was back again, with a strange look on his white face, and his lips compressed. He came straight up to her, taking her once more by the hands, and looking steadily into her steady eyes. In the hearts of both of them resolve and faith were holding down the emotion that was not yet dead. He drew a long breath.
“Yes,” he said in an even voice, “it is over.”
Her lips moved; and that deadly paleness lay on her cheeks. He gripped her firmly.
“Listen,” he said. “You must face it. It is over. Rome is gone. Now we must build something better.”
She threw herself sobbing into his arms.