Lord of the World
By Robert Hugh Benson
Public Domain Books
The Syrian awoke from a dream that a myriad faces were looking into his own, eager, attentive and horrible, in his corner of the roof-top, and sat up sweating and gasping aloud for breath. For an instant he thought that he was really dying, and that the spiritual world was about him. Then, as he struggled, sense came back, and he stood up, drawing long breaths of the stifling night air.
Above him the sky was as the pit, black and empty; there was not a glimmer of light, though the moon was surely up. He had seen her four hours before, a red sickle, swing slowly out from Thabor. Across the plain, as he looked from the parapet, there was nothing. For a few yards there lay across the broken ground a single crooked lance of light from a half-closed shutter; and beneath that, nothing. To the north again, nothing; to the west a glimmer, pale as a moth’s wing, from the house-roofs of Nazareth; to the east, nothing. He might be on a tower-top in space, except for that line of light and that grey glimmer that evaded the eye.
On the roof, however, it was possible to make out at least outlines, for the dormer trap had been left open at the head of the stairs, and from somewhere within the depths of the house there stole up a faint refracted light.
There was a white bundle in that corner; that would be the pillow of the Benedictine abbot. He had seen him lay himself down there some time–was it four hours or four centuries ago? There was a grey shape stretched along that pale wall–the Friar, he thought; there were other irregular outlines breaking the face of the parapet, here and there along the sides.
Very softly, for he knew the caprices of sleep, he stepped across the paved roof to the opposite parapet and looked over, for there yet hung about him a desire for reassurance that he was still in company with flesh and blood. Yes, indeed he was still on earth; for there was a real and distinct light burning among the tumbled rocks, and beside it, delicate as a miniature, the head and shoulders of a man, writing. And in the circle of light were other figures, pale, broken patches on which men lay; a pole or two, erected with the thought of a tent to follow; a little pile of luggage with a rug across it; and beyond the circle other outlines and shapes faded away into the stupendous blackness.
Then the writing man moved his head, and a monstrous shadow fled across the ground; a yelp as of a strangling dog broke out suddenly close behind him, and, as he turned, a moaning figure sat up on the roof, sobbing itself awake. Another moved at the sound, and then as, sighing, the former relapsed heavily against the wall, once more the priest went back to his place, still doubtful as to the reality of all that he saw, and the breathless silence came down again as a pall.
He woke again from dreamless sleep, and there was a change. From his corner, as he raised his heavy eyes, there met them what seemed an unbearable brightness; then, as he looked, it resolved itself into a candle-flame, and beyond it a white sleeve, and higher yet a white face and throat. He understood, and rose reeling; it was the messenger come to fetch him as had been arranged.
As he passed across the space, once he looked round him, and it seemed that the dawn must have come, for that appalling sky overhead was visible at last. An enormous vault, smoke-coloured and opaque, seemed to curve away to the ghostly horizons on either side where the far-away hills raised sharp shapes as if cut in paper. Carmel was before him; at least he thought it was that–a bull head and shoulders thrusting itself forward and ending in an abrupt descent, and beyond that again the glimmering sky. There were no clouds, no outlines to break the huge, smooth, dusky dome beneath the centre of which this house-roof seemed poised. Across the parapet, as he glanced to the right before descending the steps, stretched Esdraelon, sad-coloured and sombre, into the metallic distance. It was all as unreal as some fantastic picture by one who had never looked upon clear sunlight. The silence was complete and profound.
Straight down through the wheeling shadows he went, following the white-hooded head and figure down the stairs, along the tiny passage, stumbling once against the feet of one who slept with limbs tossed loose like a tired dog; the feet drew back mechanically, and a little moan broke from the shadows. Then he went on, passing the servant who stood aside, and entered.
There were half-a-dozen men gathered here, silent, white figures standing apart one from the other, who genuflected as the Pope came in simultaneously through the opposite door, and again stood white-faced and attentive. He ran his eyes over them as he stopped, waiting behind his master’s chair–there were two he knew, remembering them from last night–dark-faced Cardinal Ruspoli, and the lean Australian Archbishop, besides Cardinal Corkran, who stood by his chair at the Pope’s own table, with papers laid ready.
Silvester sat down, and with a little gesture caused the others to sit too. Then He began at once in that quiet tired voice that his servant knew so well.
“Eminences-we are all here, I think. We need lose no more time, then.... Cardinal Corkran has something to communicate–-” He turned a little. “Father, sit down, if you please. This will occupy a little while.”
The priest went across to the stone window-seat, whence he could watch the Pope’s face in the light of the two candles that now stood on the table between him and the Cardinal-Secretary. Then the Cardinal began, glancing up from his papers.
“Holiness. I had better begin a little way back. Their Eminences have not heard the details properly....
“I received at Damascus, on last Friday week, inquiries from various prelates in different parts of the world, as to the actual measure concerning the new policy of persecution. At first I could tell them nothing positively, for it was not until after twenty o’clock that Cardinal Ruspoli, in Turin, informed me of the facts. Cardinal Malpas confirmed them a few minutes later, and the Cardinal Archbishop of Pekin at twenty-three. Before mid-day on Saturday I received final confirmation from my messengers in London.
“I was at first surprised that Cardinal Dolgorovski did not communicate it; for almost simultaneously with the Turin message I received one from a priest of the Order of Christ Crucified in Moscow, to which, of course, I paid no attention. (It is our rule, Eminences, to treat unauthorised communications in that way.) His Holiness, however, bade me make inquiries, and I learned from Father Petrovoski and others that the Government placards published the news at twenty o’clock–by our time. It was curious, therefore, that the Cardinal had not seen it; if he had seen it, it was, of course, his duty to acquaint me immediately.
“Since that time, however, the following facts have come out. It is established beyond a doubt that Cardinal Dolgorovski received a visitor in the course of the evening. His own chaplain, who, your Eminences are perhaps aware, has been very active in Russia on behalf of the Church, informs me of this privately. Yet the Cardinal asserts, in explanation of his silence, that he was alone during those hours, and had given orders that no one was to be admitted to his presence without urgent cause. This, of course, confirmed His Holiness’s opinion, but I received orders from Him to act as if nothing had happened, and to command the Cardinal’s presence here with the rest of the Sacred College. To this I received an intimation that he would be present. Yesterday, however, a little before mid-day, I received a further message that his Eminency had met with a slight accident, but that he yet hoped to present himself in time for the deliberations. Since then no further news has arrived.”
There was a dead silence.
Then the Pope turned to the Syrian priest.
“Father,” he said, “it was you who received his Eminency’s messages. Have you anything to add to this?”
He turned again.
“My son,” he said, “report to Us publicly what you have already reported to Us in private.”
A small, bright-eyed man moved out of the shadows.
“Holiness, it was I who conveyed the message to Cardinal Dolgorovski. He refused at first to receive me. When I reached his presence and communicated the command he was silent; then he smiled; then he told me to carry back the message that he would obey.”
Again the Pope was silent.
Then suddenly the tall Australian stood up.
“Holiness,” he said, “I was once intimate with that man. It was partly through my means that he sought reception into the Catholic Church. This was not less than fourteen years ago, when the fortunes of the Church seemed about to prosper.... Our friendly relations ceased two years ago, and I may say that, from what I know of him, I find no difficulty in believing–-”
As his voice shook with passion and he faltered, Silvester raised his hand.
“We desire no recriminations. Even the evidence is now useless, for what was to be done has been done. For ourselves, we have no doubt as to its nature.... It was to this man that Christ gave the morsel through our hands, saying Quod faces, fac cities. Cum ergo accepisset Me buccellam, exivit continuo. Erat autem nox.“
Again fell the silence, and in the pause sounded a long half-vocal sigh from without the door. It came and went as a sleeper turned, for the passage was crowded with exhausted men–as a soul might sigh that passed from light to darkness.
Then Silvester spoke again. And as He spoke He began, as if mechanically, to tear up a long paper, written with lists of names, that lay before Him.
“Eminences, it is three hours after dawn. In two hours more We shall say mass in your presence, and give Holy Communion. During those two hours We commission you to communicate this news to all who are assembled here; and further, We bestow on each and all of you jurisdiction apart from all previous rules of time and place; we give a Plenary Indulgence to all who confess and communicate this day. Father–” he turned to the Syrian–"Father, you will now expose the Blessed Sacrament in the chapel, after which you will proceed to the village and inform the inhabitants that if they wish to save their lives they had best be gone immediately–immediately, you understand.”
The Syrian started from his daze.
“Holiness,” he stammered, stretching out a hand, “the lists, the lists!”
(He had seen what these were.)
But Silvester only smiled as He tossed the fragments on to the table. Then He stood up.
“You need not trouble, my son.... We shall not need these any more....
“One last word, Eminences.... If there is one heart here that doubts or is afraid, I have a word to say.”
He paused, with an extraordinarily simple deliberateness, ran the eyes round the tense faces turned to Him.
“I have had a Vision of God,” He said softly. “I walk no more by faith, but by sight.”