Lord of the World
By Robert Hugh Benson
Public Domain Books
It was a little before seven o’clock on the morning of Saturday that Oliver stepped out of the motor that had carried him to Wimbledon Common, and began to go up the steps of the old volor-stage, abandoned five years ago. It had been thought better, in view of the extreme secrecy that was to be kept, that England’s representative in the expedition should start from a comparatively unknown point, and this old stage, in disuse now, except for occasional trials of new Government machines, had been selected. Even the lift had been removed, and it was necessary to climb the hundred and fifty steps on foot.
It was with a certain unwillingness that he had accepted this post among the four delegates, for nothing had been heard of his wife, and it was terrible to him to leave London while her fate was as yet doubtful. On the whole, he was less inclined than ever now to accept the Euthanasia theory; he had spoken to one or two of her friends, all of whom declared that she had never even hinted at such an end. And, again, although he was well aware of the eight-day law in the matter, even if she had determined on such a step there was nothing to show that she was yet in England, and, in fact, it was more than likely that if she were bent on such an act she would go abroad for it, where laxer conditions prevailed. In short, it seemed that he could do no good by remaining in England, and the temptation to be present at the final act of justice in the East by which land, and, in fact, it was more than likely that if she were to be wiped out, and Franklin, too, among them–Franklin, that parody of the Lord of the World–this, added to the opinion of his colleagues in the Government, and the curious sense, never absent from him now, that Felsenburgh’s approval was a thing to die for if necessary–these things had finally prevailed. He left behind him at home his secretary, with instructions that no expense was to be spared in communicating with him should any news of his wife arrive during his absence.
It was terribly hot this morning, and, by the time that he reached the top he noticed that the monster in the net was already fitted into its white aluminium casing, and that the fans within the corridor and saloon were already active. He stepped inside to secure a seat in the saloon, set his bag down, and after a word or two with the guard, who, of course, had not yet been informed of their destination, learning that the others were not yet come, he went out again on to the platform for coolness’ sake, and to brood in peace.
London looked strange this morning, he thought. Here beneath him was the common, parched somewhat with the intense heat of the previous week, stretching for perhaps half-a-mile–tumbled ground, smooth stretches of turf, and the heads of heavy trees up to the first house-roofs, set, too, it seemed, in bowers of foliage. Then beyond that began the serried array, line beyond line, broken in one spot by the gleam of a river-reach, and then on again fading beyond eyesight. But what surprised him was the density of the air; it was now, as old books related it had been in the days of smoke. There was no freshness, no translucence of morning atmosphere; it was impossible to point in any one direction to the source of this veiling gloom, for on all sides it was the same. Even the sky overhead lacked its blue; it appeared painted with a muddy brush, and the sun shewed the same faint tinge of red. Yes, it was like that, he said wearily to himself–like a second-rate sketch; there was no sense of mystery as of a veiled city, but rather unreality. The shadows seemed lacking in definiteness, the outlines and grouping in coherence. A storm was wanted, he reflected; or even, it might be, one more earthquake on the other side of the world would, in wonderful illustration of the globe’s unity, relieve the pressure on this side. Well, well; the journey would be worth taking even for the interest of observing climatic changes; but it would be terribly hot, he mused, by the time the south of France was reached.
Then his thoughts leaped back to their own gnawing misery.
It was another ten minutes before he saw the scarlet Government motor, with awnings out, slide up the road from the direction of Fulham; and yet five minutes more before the three men appeared with their servants behind them–Maxwell, Snowford and Cartwright, all alike, as was Oliver, in white duck from head to foot.
They did not speak one word of their business, for the officials were going to and fro, and it was advisable to guard against even the smallest possibility of betrayal. The guard had been told that the volor was required for a three days’ journey, that provisions were to be taken in for that period, and that the first point towards which the course was to lie was the centre of the South Downs. There would be no stopping for at least a day and a night.
Further instructions had reached them from the President on the previous morning, by which time He had completed His visitation, and received the assent of the Emergency Councils of the world. This Snowford commented upon in an undertone, and added a word or two as to details, as the four stood together looking out over the city.
Briefly, the plan was as follows, at least so far as it concerned England. The volor was to approach Palestine from the direction of the Mediterranean, observing to get into touch with France on her left and Spain on her right within ten miles of the eastern end of Crete. The approximate hour was fixed at twenty-three (eastern time). At this point she was to show her night signal, a scarlet line on a white field; and in the event of her failing to observe her neighbours was to circle at that point, at a height of eight hundred feet, until either the two were sighted or further instructions were received. For the purpose of dealing with emergencies, the President’s car, which would finally make its entrance from the south, was to be accompanied by an aide-de-campcapable of moving at a very high speed, whose signals were to be taken as Felsenburgh’s own.
So soon as the circle was completed, having Esdraelon as its centre with a radius of five hundred and forty miles, the volors were to advance, dropping gradually to within five hundred feet of sea-level, and diminishing their distance one from another from the twenty-five miles or so at which they would first find themselves, until they were as near as safety allowed. In this manner the advance at a pace of fifty miles an hour from the moment that the circle was arranged would bring them within sight of Nazareth at about nine o’clock on the Sunday morning.
The guard came up to the four as they stood there silent.
“We are ready, gentlemen,” he said.
“What do you think of the weather?” asked Snowford abruptly.
The guard pursed his lips.
“A little thunder, I expect, sir,” he said.
Oliver looked at him curiously.
“No more than that?” he asked.
“I should say a storm, sir,” observed the guard shortly.
Snowford turned towards the gangway.
“Well, we had best be off: we can lose time further on, if we wish.”
It was about five minutes more before all was ready. From the stern of the boat came a faint smell of cooking, for breakfast would be served immediately, and a white-capped cook protruded his head for an instant, to question the guard. The four sat down in the gorgeous saloon in the bows; Oliver silent by himself, the other three talking in low voices together. Once more the guard passed through to his compartment at the prow, glancing as he went to see that all were seated; and an instant later came the clang of the signal. Then through all the length of the boat–for she was the fastest ship that England possessed–passed the thrill of the propeller beginning to work up speed; and simultaneously Oliver, staring sideways through the plate-glass window, saw the rail drop away, and the long line of London, pale beneath the tinged sky, surge up suddenly. He caught a glimpse of a little group of persons staring up from below, and they, too, dropped in a great swirl, and vanished. Then, with a flash of dusty green, the Common bad vanished, and a pavement of house-roofs began to stream beneath, the long lines of streets on this side and that turning like spokes of a gigantic wheel; once more this pavement thinned, showing green again as between infrequently laid cobble-stones; then they, too, were gone, and the country was open beneath.
Snowford rose, staggering a little.
“I may as well tell the guard now,” he said. “Then we need not be interrupted again.”