Lord of the World
By Robert Hugh Benson
Public Domain Books
Oliver had passed the days since Mabel’s disappearance in an indescribable horror. He had done all that was possible: he had traced her to the station and to Victoria, where he lost her clue; he had communicated with the police, and the official answer, telling him nothing, had arrived to the effect that there was no news: and it was not until the Tuesday following her disappearance that Mr. Francis, hearing by chance of his trouble, informed him by telephone that he had spoken with her on the Friday night. But there was no satisfaction to be got from him–indeed, the news was bad rather than good, for Oliver could not but be dismayed at the report of the conversation, in spite of Mr. Francis’s assurances that Mrs. Brand had shown no kind of inclination to defend the Christian cause.
Two theories gradually emerged, in his mind; either she was gone to the protection of some unknown Catholic, or–and he grew sick at the thought–she had applied somewhere for Euthanasia as she had once threatened, and was now under the care of the Law; such an event was sufficiently common since the passing of the Release Act in 1998. And it was frightful that he could not condemn it.
On the Tuesday evening, as he sat heavily in his room, for the hundredth time attempting to trace out some coherent line through the maze of intercourse he had had with his wife during these past months, his bell suddenly rang. It was the red label of Whitehall that had made its appearance; and for an instant his heart leaped with hope that it was news of her. But at the first words it sank again.
“Brand,” came the sharp fairy voice, “is that you?... Yes, I am Snowford. You are wanted at once–at once, you understand. There is an extraordinary meeting of the Council at twenty o’clock. The President will be there. You understand the urgency. No time for more. Come instantly to my room.”
Even this message scarcely distracted him. He, with the rest of the world, was no longer surprised at the sudden descents of the President. He came and vanished again without warning, travelling and working with incredible energy, yet always, as it seemed, retaining his personal calm.
It was already after nineteen; Oliver supped immediately, and a quarter-of-an-hour before the hour presented himself in Snowford’s room, where half a dozen of his colleagues were assembled.
That minister came forward to meet him, with a strange excitement in his face. He drew him aside by a button.
“See here, Brand, you are wanted to speak first–immediately after the President’s Secretary who will open; they are coming from Paris. It is about a new matter altogether. He has had information of the whereabouts of the Pope.... It seems that there is one.... Oh, you will understand presently. Oh, and by the way,” he went on, looking curiously at the strained face, “I am sorry to hear of your anxiety. Pemberton told me just now.”
Oliver lifted a hand abruptly.
“Tell me,” he said. “What am I wanted to say?”
“Well, the President will have a proposal, we imagine. You know our minds well enough. Just explain our attitude towards the Catholics.”
Oliver’s eyes shrank suddenly to two bright lines beneath the lids. He nodded.
Cartwright came up presently, an immense, bent old man with a face of parchment, as befitted the Lord Chief Justice.
“By the way, Brand, what do you know of a man called Phillips? He seems to have mentioned your name.”
“He was my secretary,” said Oliver slowly. “What about him?”
“I think he must be mad. He has given himself up to a magistrate, entreating to be examined at once. The magistrate has applied for instructions. You see, the Act has scarcely begun to move yet.”
“But what has he done?”
“That’s the difficulty. He says he cannot deny God, neither can he affirm Him.–He was your secretary, then?”
“Certainly. I knew he was inclined to Christianity. I had to get rid of him for that.”
“Well, he is to be remanded for a week. Perhaps he will be able to make up his mind.”
Then the talk shifted off again. Two or three more came up, and all eyed Oliver with a certain curiosity; the story was gone about that his wife had left him. They wished to see how he took it.
At five minutes before the hour a bell rang, and the door into the corridor was thrown open.
“Come, gentlemen,” said the Prime Minister.
The Council Chamber was a long high room on the first floor; its walls from floor to ceiling were lined with books. A noiseless rubber carpet was underfoot. There were no windows; the room was lighted artificially. A long table, set round with armed chairs, ran the length of the floor, eight on either side; and the Presidential chair, raised on a dais, stood at the head.
Each man went straight to his chair in silence, and remained there, waiting.
The room was beautifully cool, in spite of the absence of windows, and was a pleasant contrast to the hot evening outside through which most of these men had come. They, too, had wondered at the surprising weather, and had smiled at the conflict of the infallible. But they were not thinking about that now: the coming of the President was a matter which always silenced the most loquacious. Besides, this time, they understood that the affair was more serious than usual.
At one minute before the hour, again a bell sounded, four times, and ceased; and at the signal each man turned instinctively to the high sliding door behind the Presidential chair. There was dead silence within and without: the huge Government offices were luxuriously provided with sound-deadening apparatus, and not even the rolling of the vast motors within a hundred yards was able to send a vibration through the layers of rubber on which the walls rested. There was only one noise that could penetrate, and that the sound of thunder. The experts were at present unable to exclude this.
Again the silence seemed to fall in one yet deeper veil. Then the door opened, and a figure came swiftly through, followed by Another in black and scarlet.