Lord of the World
By Robert Hugh Benson
Public Domain Books
It would be about three o’clock in the morning that the priest awoke in his little mud-walled room next to that of the Holy Father’s, and heard a footstep coming up the stairs. Last evening he had left his master as usual beginning to open the pile of letters arrived from Cardinal Corkran, and himself had gone straight to his bed and slept. He lay now a moment or two, still drowsy, listening to the pad of feet, and an instant later sat up abruptly, for a deliberate tap had sounded on the door. Again it came; he sprang out of bed in his long night-tunic, drew it up hastily in his girdle, went to the door and opened it.
The Pope was standing there, with a little lamp in one hand, for the dawn had scarcely yet begun, and a paper in the other.
“I beg your pardon, Father; but there is a message I must have sent at once to his Eminence.”
Together they went out through the Pope’s room, the priest, still half-blind with sleep, passed up the stairs, and emerged into the clear cold air of the upper roof. The Pope blew out His lamp, and set it on the parapet.
“You will be cold, Father; fetch your cloak.”
“And you, Holiness?”
The other made a little gesture of denial, and went across to the tiny temporary shed where the wireless telegraphic instrument stood.
“Fetch your cloak, Father,” He said again over His shoulder. “I will ring up meanwhile.”
When the priest came back three minutes later, in his slippers and cloak, carrying another cloak also for his master, the Pope was still seated at the table. He did not even move His head as the other came up, but once more pressed on the lever that, communicating with the twelve-foot pole that rose through the pent-house overhead, shot out the quivering energy through the eighty miles of glimmering air that lay between Nazareth and Damascus.
This simple priest had scarcely even by now become accustomed to this extraordinary device invented a century ago and perfected through all those years to this precise exactness–that device by which with the help of a stick, a bundle of wires, and a box of wheels, something, at last established to be at the root of all matter, if not at the very root of physical life, spoke across the spaces of the world to a tiny receiver tuned by a hair’s breadth to the vibration with which it was set in relations.
The air was surprisingly cold, considering the heat that had preceded and would follow it, and the priest shivered a little as he stood clear of the roof, and stared, now at the motionless figure in the chair before him, now at the vast vault of the sky passing, even as he looked, from a cold colourless luminosity to a tender tint of yellow, as far away beyond Thabor and Moab the dawn began to deepen. From the village half-a-mile away arose the crowing of a cock, thin and brazen as a trumpet; a dog barked once and was silent again; and then, on a sudden, a single stroke upon a bell hung in the roof recalled him in an instant, and told him that his work was to begin.
The Pope pressed the lever again at the sound, twice, and then, after a pause, once more–waited a moment for an answer, and then when it came, rose and signed to the priest to take his place.
The Syrian sat down, handing the extra cloak to his master, and waited until the other had settled Himself in a chair set in such a position at the side of the table that the face of each was visible to the other. Then he waited, with his brown fingers poised above the row of keys, looking at the other’s face as He arranged himself to speak. That face, he thought, looking out from the hood, seemed paler than ever in this cold light of dawn; the black arched eyebrows accentuated this, and even the steady lips, preparing to speak, seemed white and bloodless. He had His paper in His hand, and His eyes were fixed upon this.
“Make sure it is the Cardinal,” he said abruptly.
The priest tapped off an enquiry, and, with moving lips, raid off the printed message, as like magic it precipitated itself on to the tall white sheet of paper that faced him.
“It is his Eminence, Holiness,” he said softly. “He is alone at the instrument.”
“Very well. Now then; begin.”
“We have received your Eminence’s letter, and have noted the news.... It should have been forwarded by telegraphy–why was that not done?”
The voice paused, and the priest who had snapped off the message, more quickly than a man could write it, read aloud the answer.
“’I did not understand that it was urgent. I thought it was but one more assault. I had intended to communicate more so soon as I heard more."’
“Of course it was urgent,” came the voice again in the deliberate intonation that was used between these two in the case of messages for transmission. “Remember that all news of this kind is always urgent.”
“’I will remember,’ read the priest. “ `I regret my mistake.’”
“You tell us,” went on the Pope, His eyes still downcast on the paper, “that this measure is decided upon; you name only three authorities. Give me, now, all the authorities you have, if you have more.”
There was a moment’s pause. Then the priest began to read off the names.
“Besides the three Cardinals whose names I sent, the Archbishops of Thibet, Cairo, Calcutta and Sydney have all asked if the news was true, and for directions if it is true; besides others whose names I can communicate if I may leave the table for a moment.’”
“Do so,” said the Pope.
Again there was a pause. Then once more the names began.
“’The Bishops of Bukarest, the Marquesas Islands and Newfoundland. The Franciscans in Japan, the Crutched Friars in Morocco, the Archbishops of Manitoba and Portland, and the Cardinal-Archbisbop of Pekin. I have despatched two members of Christ Crucified to England.’”
“Tell us when the news first arrived, and how.”
“’I was called up to the instrument yesterday evening at about twenty o’clock. The Archbishop of Sydney was asking, through our station at Bombay, whether the news was true. I replied I had heard nothing of it. Within ten minutes four more inquiries had come to the same effect; and three minutes later Cardinal Ruspoli sent the positive news from Turin. This was accompanied by a similar message from Father Petrovski in Moscow. Then–- ’”
“Stop. Why did not Cardinal Dolgorovski communicate it?”
“’He did communicate it three hours later.’”
“Why not at once?”
“’His Eminence had not heard it.’”
“Find out at what hour the news reached Moscow–not now, but within the day.”
“Go on, then.”
“’Cardinal Malpas communicated it within five minutes of Cardinal Ruspoli, and the rest of the inquiries arrived before midnight. China reported it at twenty-three.’”
“Then when do you suppose the news was made public?”
“’It was decided first at the secret London conference, yesterday, at about sixteen o’clock by our time. The Plenipotentiaries appear to have signed it at that hour. After that it was communicated to the world. It was published here half an hour past midnight.’”
“Then Felsenburgh was in London?”
“’I am not yet sure. Cardinal Malpas tells me that Felsenburgh gave his provisional consent on the previous day.’”
“Very good. That is all you know, then?”
“’I was called up an hour ago by Cardinal Ruspoli again. He tells me that he fears a riot in Florence; it will be the first of many revolutions, he says.’”
“Does he ask for anything?”
“’Only for directions.’”
“Tell him that we send him the Apostolic Benediction, and will forward directions within the course of two hours. Select twelve members of the Order for immediate service.”
“Communicate that message also, as soon as we have finished, to all the Sacred College, and bid them communicate it with all discretion to all metropolitans and bishops, that priests and people may know that We bear them in our heart.”
“’I will, Holiness.’”
“Tell them, finally, that We had foreseen this long ago; that We commend them to the Eternal Father without Whose Providence no sparrow falls to the ground. Bid them be quiet and confident; to do nothing, save confess their faith when they are questioned. All other directions shall be issued to their pastors immediately!”
“’I will, Holiness.’”
There was again a pause.
The Pope had been speaking with the utmost tranquillity as one in a dream. His eyes were downcast upon the paper, His whole body as motionless as an image. Yet to the priest who listened, despatching the Latin messages, and reading aloud the replies, it seemed, although so little intelligible news had reached him, as if something very strange and great was impending. There was the sense of a peculiar strain in the air, and although he drew no deductions from the fact that apparently the whole Catholic world was in frantic communication with Damascus, yet he remembered his meditations of the evening before as he had waited for the messenger. It seemed as if the powers of this world were contemplating one more step–with its nature he was not greatly concerned.
The Pope spoke again in His natural voice.
“Father,” he said, “what I am about to say now is as if I told it in confession. You understand?–Very well. Now begin.”
Then again the intonation began.
“Eminence. We shall say mass of the Holy Ghost in one hour from now. At the end of that time, you will cause that all the Sacred College shall be in touch with yourself, and waiting for our commands. This new decision is unlike any that have preceded it. Surely you understand that now. Two or three plans are in our mind, yet We are not sure yet which it is that our Lord intends. After mass We shall communicate to you that which He shall show Us to be according to His Will. We beg of you to say mass also, immediately, for Our intention. Whatever must be done must be done quickly. The matter of Cardinal Dolgorovski you may leave until later. But we wish to hear the result of your inquiries, especially in London, before mid-day. Benedicat te Omnipotens Deus, Pater et Filius et Spiritus Sanctus.“
“’Amen!’” murmured the priest, reading it from the sheet.