Lord of the World
By Robert Hugh Benson
Public Domain Books
As the five-minutes bell began, sounding like a continuous wind-note in the great vaults overhead, solemn and persistent, Mabel drew a long breath and leaned back in her seat from the rigid position in which for the last half-hour she had been staring out at the wonderful sight. She seemed to herself to have assimilated it at last, to be herself once more, to have drunk her fill of the triumph and the beauty. She was as one who looks upon a summer sea on the morning after a storm. And now the climax was at hand.
From end to end and side to side the interior of the Abbey presented a great broken mosaic of human faces; living slopes, walls, sections and curves. The south transept directly opposite to her, from pavement to rose window, was one sheet of heads; the floor was paved with them, cut in two by the scarlet of the gangway leading from the chapel of St. Faith–on the right, the choir beyond the open space before the sanctuary was a mass of white figures, scarved and surpliced; the high organ gallery, beneath which the screen had been removed, was crowded with them, and, far down beneath, the dim nave stretched the same endless pale living pavement to the shadow beneath the west window. Between every group of columns behind the choir-stalls, before her, to right, left, and behind, were platforms contrived in the masonry; and the exquisite roof, fan-tracery and soaring capital, alone gave the eye an escape from humanity. The whole vast space was full, it seemed, of delicate sunlight that streamed in from the artificial light set outside each window, and poured the ruby and the purple and the blue from the old glass in long shafts of colour across the dusty air, and in broken patches on the faces and dresses behind. The murmur of ten thousand voices filled the place, supplying, it seemed, a solemn accompaniment to that melodious note that now pulsed above it. And finally, more significant than all, was the empty carpeted sanctuary at her feet, the enormous altar with its flight of steps, the gorgeous curtain and the great untenanted sedilia.
Mabel needed some such reassurance, for last night, until the coming of Oliver, had passed for her as a kind of appalling waking dream. From the first shock of what she had seen outside the church, through those hours of waiting, with the knowledge that this was the way in which the Spirit of Peace asserted its superiority, up to that last moment when, in her husband’s arms, she had learned of the Fall of Rome, it had appeared to her as if her new world had suddenly corrupted about her. It was incredible, she told herself, that this ravening monster, dripping blood from claws and teeth, that had arisen roaring in the night, could be the Humanity that had become her God. She had thought revenge and cruelty and slaughter to be the brood of Christian superstition, dead and buried under the new-born angel of light, and now it seemed that the monsters yet stirred and lived. All the evening she had sat, walked, lain about her quiet house with the horror heavy about her, flinging open a window now and again in the icy air to listen with clenched hands to the cries and the roarings of the mob that raged in the streets beneath, the clanks, the yells and the hoots of the motor-trains that tore up from the country to swell the frenzy of the city–to watch the red glow of fire, the volumes of smoke that heaved up from the burning chapels and convents.
She had questioned, doubted, resisted her doubts, flung out frantic acts of faith, attempted to renew the confidence that she attained in her meditation, told herself that traditions died slowly; she had knelt, crying out to the spirit of peace that lay, as she knew so well, at the heart of man, though overwhelmed for the moment by evil passion. A line or two ran in her head from one of the old Victorian poets:
You doubt If any one Could think or bid it? How could it come about?... Who did it? Not men! Not here! Oh! not beneath the sun.... The torch that smouldered till the cup o’er-ran The wrath of God which is the wrath of Man!
She had even contemplated death, as she had told her husband–the taking of her own life, in a great despair with the world. Seriously she had thought of it; it was an escape perfectly in accord with her morality. The useless and agonising were put out of the world by common consent; the Euthanasia houses witnessed to it. Then why not she?... For she could not bear it!... Then Oliver had come, she had fought her way back to sanity and confidence; and the phantom had gone again.
How sensible and quiet he had been, she was beginning to tell herself now, as the quiet influence of this huge throng in this glorious place of worship possessed her once more–how reasonable in his explanation that man was even now only convalescent and therefore liable to relapse. She had told herself that again and again during the night, but it had been different when he had said so. His personality had once more prevailed; and the name of Felsenburgh had finished the work.
“If He were but here!” she sighed. But she knew He was far away.
It was not until a quarter to eleven that she understood that the crowds outside were clamouring for Him too, and that knowledge reassured her yet further. They knew, then, these wild tigers, where their redemption lay; they understood what was their ideal, even if they had not attained to it. Ah! if He were but here, there would be no more question: the sullen waves would sink beneath His call of peace, the hazy clouds lift, the rumble die to silence. But He was away–away on some strange business. Well; He knew His work. He would surely come soon again to His children who needed Him so terribly.
She had the good fortune to be alone in a crowd. Her neighbour, a grizzled old man with his daughters beyond, was her only neighbour, and a stranger. At her left rose up the red-covered barricade over which she could see the sanctuary and the curtain; and her seat in the tribune, raised some eight feet above the floor, removed her from any possibility of conversation. She was thankful for that: she did not want to talk; she wanted only to control her faculties in silence, to reassert her faith, to look out over this enormous throng gathered to pay homage to the great Spirit whom they had betrayed, to renew her own courage and faithfulness. She wondered what the preacher would say, whether there would be any note of penitence. Maternity was his subject–that benign aspect of universal life–tenderness, love, quiet, receptive, protective passion, the spirit that soothes rather than inspires, that busies itself with peaceful tasks, that kindles the lights and fires of home, that gives sleep, food and welcome....
The bell stopped, and in the instant before the music began she heard, clear above the murmur within, the roar of the crowds outside, who still demanded their God. Then, with a crash, the huge organ awoke, pierced by the cry of the trumpets and the maddening throb of drums. There was no delicate prelude here, no slow stirring of life rising through labyrinths of mystery to the climax of sight–here rather was full-orbed day, the high noon of knowledge and power, the dayspring from on high, dawning in mid-heaven. Her heart quickened to meet it, and her reviving confidence, still convalescent, stirred and smiled, as the tremendous chords blared overhead, telling of triumph full-armed. God was man, then, after all–a God who last night had faltered for an hour, but who rose again on this morning of a new year, scattering mists, dominant over his own passion, all-compelling and all-beloved. God was man, and Felsenburgh his Incarnation! Yes, she must believe that! She did believe that!
Then she saw how already the long procession was winding up beneath the screen, and by imperceptible art the light grew yet more acutely beautiful. They were coming, then, those ministers of a pure worship; grave men who knew in what they believed, and who, even if they did not at this moment thrill with feeling (for she knew that in this respect her husband for one did not), yet believed the principles of this worship and recognised their need of expression for the majority of mankind–coming slowly up in fours and pairs and units, led by robed vergers, rippling over the steps, and emerging again into the coloured sunlight in all their bravery of Masonic apron, badge and jewel. Surely here was reassurance enough.
The sanctuary now held a figure or two. Anxious-faced Mr. Francis, in his robes of office, came gravely down the steps and stood awaiting the procession, directing with almost imperceptible motions his satellites who hovered about the aisles ready to point this way and that to the advancing stream; and the western-most seats were already beginning to fill, when on a sudden she recognised that something had happened.
Just now the roaring of the mob outside had provided a kind of underbass to the music within, imperceptible except to sub-consciousness, but clearly discernible in its absence; and this absence was now a fact.
At first she thought that the signal of beginning worship had hushed them; and then, with an indescribable thrill, she remembered that in all her knowledge only one thing had ever availed to quiet a turbulent crowd. Yet she was not sure; it might be an illusion. Even now the mob might be roaring still, and she only deaf to it; but again with an ecstasy that was very near to agony she perceived that the murmur of voices even within the building had ceased, and that some great wave of emotion was stirring the sheets and slopes of faces before her as a wind stirs wheat. A moment later, and she was on her feet, gripping the rail, with her heart like an over-driven engine beating pulses of blood, furious and insistent, through every vein; for with great rushing surge that sounded like a sigh, heard even above the triumphant tumult overhead, the whole enormous assemblage had risen to its feet.
Confusion seemed to break out in the orderly procession. She saw Mr. Francis run forward quickly, gesticulating like a conductor, and at his signal the long line swayed forward, split, recoiled, and again slid swiftly forward, breaking as it did so into twenty streams that poured along the seats and filled them in a moment. Men ran and pushed, aprons flapped, hands beckoned, all without coherent words. There was a knocking of feet, the crash of an overturned chair, and then, as if a god had lifted his hand for quiet, the music ceased abruptly, sending a wild echo that swooned and died in a moment; a great sigh filled its place, and, in the coloured sunshine that lay along the immense length of the gangway that ran open now from west to east, far down in the distant nave, a single figure was seen advancing.