Lord of the World
By Robert Hugh Benson
Public Domain Books
Percy Franklin’s correspondence with the Cardinal-Protector of England occupied him directly for at least two hours every day, and for nearly eight hours indirectly.
For the past eight years the methods of the Holy See had once more been revised with a view to modern needs, and now every important province throughout the world possessed not only an administrative metropolitan but a representative in Rome whose business it was to be in touch with the Pope on the one side and the people he represented on the other. In other words, centralisation had gone forward rapidly, in accordance with the laws of life; and, with centralisation, freedom of method and expansion of power. England’s Cardinal-Protector was one Abbot Martin, a Benedictine, and it was Percy’s business, as of a dozen more bishops, priests and laymen (with whom, by the way, he was forbidden to hold any formal consultation), to write a long daily letter to him on affairs that came under his notice.
It was a curious life, therefore, that Percy led. He had a couple of rooms assigned to him in Archbishop’s House at Westminster, and was attached loosely to the Cathedral staff, although with considerable liberty. He rose early, and went to meditation for an hour, after which he said his mass. He took his coffee soon after, said a little office, and then settled down to map out his letter. At ten o’clock he was ready to receive callers, and till noon he was generally busy with both those who came to see him on their own responsibility and his staff of half-a-dozen reporters whose business it was to bring him marked paragraphs in the newspapers and their own comments. He then breakfasted with the other priests in the house, and set out soon after to call on people whose opinion was necessary, returning for a cup of tea soon after sixteen o’clock. Then he settled down, after the rest of his office and a visit to the Blessed Sacrament, to compose his letter, which though short, needed a great deal of care and sifting. After dinner he made a few notes for next day, received visitors again, and went to bed soon after twenty-two o’clock. Twice a week it was his business to assist at Vespers in the afternoon, and he usually sang high mass on Saturdays.
It was, therefore, a curiously distracting life, with peculiar dangers.
It was one day, a week or two after his visit to Brighton, that he was just finishing his letter, when his servant looked in to tell him that Father Francis was below.
“In ten minutes,” said Percy, without looking up.
He snapped off his last lines, drew out the sheet, and settled down to read it over, translating it unconsciously from Latin to English.
“WESTMINSTER, May 14th.
“EMINENCE: Since yesterday I have a little more information. It appears certain that the Bill establishing Esperanto for all State purposes will be brought in in June. I have had this from Johnson. This, as I have pointed out before, is the very last stone in our consolidation with the continent, which, at present, is to be regretted.... A great access of Jews to Freemasonry is to be expected; hitherto they have held aloof to some extent, but the ’abolition of the Idea of God’ is tending to draw in those Jews, now greatly on the increase once more, who repudiate all notion of a personal Messiah. It is ’Humanity’ here, too, that is at work. To-day I heard the Rabbi Simeon speak to this effect in the City, and was impressed by the applause he received.... Yet among others an expectation is growing that a man will presently be found to lead the Communist movement and unite their forces more closely. I enclose a verbose cutting from the New People to that effect; and it is echoed everywhere. They say that the cause must give birth to one such soon; that they have had prophets and precursors for a hundred years past, and lately a cessation of them. It is strange how this coincides superficially with Christian ideas. Your Eminence will observe that a simile of the ’ninth wave’ is used with some eloquence.... I hear to-day of the secession of an old Catholic family, the Wargraves of Norfolk, with their chaplain Micklem, who it seems has been busy in this direction for some while. The Epoch announces it with satisfaction, owing to the peculiar circumstances; but unhappily such events are not uncommon now.... There is much distrust among the laity. Seven priests in Westminster diocese have left us within the last three months; on the other hand, I have pleasure in telling your Eminence that his Grace received into Catholic Communion this morning the ex-Anglican Bishop of Carlisle, with half-a-dozen of his clergy. This has been expected for some weeks past. I append also cuttings from the Tribune, the London Trumpet, and the Observer, with my comments upon them. Your Eminence will see how great the excitement is with regard to the last.
“_Recommendation. That formal excommunication of the Wargraves and these eight priests should be issued in Norfolk and Westminster respectively, and no further notice taken.”
Percy laid down the sheet, gathered up the half dozen other papers that contained his extracts and running commentary, signed the last, and slipped the whole into the printed envelope that lay ready.
Then he took up his biretta and went to the lift.
The moment he came into the glass-doored parlour he saw that the crisis was come, if not passed already. Father Francis looked miserably ill, but there was a curious hardness, too, about his eyes and mouth, as he stood waiting. He shook his head abruptly.
“I have come to say good-bye, father. I can bear it no more.”
Percy was careful to show no emotion at all. He made a little sign to a chair, and himself sat down too. “It is an end of everything,” said the other again in a perfectly steady voice. “I believe nothing. I have believed nothing for a year now.”
“You have felt nothing, you mean,” said Percy.
“That won’t do, father,” went on the other. “I tell you there is nothing left. I can’t even argue now. It is just good-bye.”
Percy had nothing to say. He had talked to this man during a period of over eight months, ever since Father Francis had first confided in him that his faith was going. He understood perfectly what a strain it had been; he felt bitterly compassionate towards this poor creature who had become caught up somehow into the dizzy triumphant whirl of the New Humanity. External facts were horribly strong just now; and faith, except to one who had learned that Will and Grace were all and emotion nothing, was as a child crawling about in the midst of some huge machinery: it might survive or it might not; but it required nerves of steel to keep steady. It was hard to know where blame could be assigned; yet Percy’s faith told him that there was blame due. In the ages of faith a very inadequate grasp of religion would pass muster; in these searching days none but the humble and the pure could stand the test for long, unless indeed they were protected by a miracle of ignorance. The alliance of Psychology and Materialism did indeed seem, looked at from one angle, to account for everything; it needed a robust supernatural perception to understand their practical inadequacy. And as regards Father Francis’s personal responsibility, he could not help feeling that the other had allowed ceremonial to play too great a part in his religion, and prayer too little. In him the external had absorbed the internal.
So he did not allow his sympathy to show itself in his bright eyes.
“You think it my fault, of course,” said the other sharply.
“My dear father,” said Percy, motionless in his chair, “I know it is your fault. Listen to me. You say Christianity is absurd and impossible. Now, you know, it cannot be that! It may be untrue–I am not speaking of that now, even though I am perfectly certain that it is absolutely true–but it cannot be absurd so long as educated and virtuous people continue to hold it. To say that it is absurd is simple pride; it is to dismiss all who believe in it as not merely mistaken, but unintelligent as well–-”
“Very well, then,” interrupted the other; “then suppose I withdraw that, and simply say that I do not believe it to be true.”
“You do not withdraw it,” continued Percy serenely; “you still really believe it to be absurd: you have told me so a dozen times. Well, I repeat, that is pride, and quite sufficient to account for it all. It is the moral attitude that matters. There may be other things too–-”
Father Francis looked up sharply.
“Oh! the old story!” he said sneeringly.
“If you tell me on your word of honour that there is no woman in the case, or no particular programme of sin you propose to work out, I shall believe you. But it is an old story, as you say.”
“I swear to you there is not,” cried the other.
“Thank God then!” said Percy. “There are fewer obstacles to a return of faith.”
There was silence for a moment after that. Percy had really no more to say. He had talked to him of the inner life again and again, in which verities are seen to be true, and acts of faith are ratified; he had urged prayer and humility till he was almost weary of the names; and had been met by the retort that this was to advise sheer self-hypnotism; and he had despaired of making clear to one who did not see it for himself that while Love and Faith may be called self-hypnotism from one angle, yet from another they are as much realities as, for example, artistic faculties, and need similar cultivation; that they produce a conviction that they are convictions, that they handle and taste things which when handled and tasted are overwhelmingly more real and objective than the things of sense. Evidences seemed to mean nothing to this man.
So he was silent now, chilled himself by the presence of this crisis, looking unseeingly out upon the plain, little old-world parlour, its tall window, its strip of matting, conscious chiefly of the dreary hopelessness of this human brother of his who had eyes but did not see, ears and was deaf. He wished he would say good-bye, and go. There was no more to be done.
Father Francis, who had been sitting in a lax kind of huddle, seemed to know his thoughts, and sat up suddenly.
“You are tired of me,” he said. “I will go.”
“I am not tired of you, my dear father,” said Percy simply. “I am only terribly sorry. You see I know that it is all true.”
The other looked at him heavily.
“And I know that it is not,” he said. “It is very beautiful; I wish I could believe it. I don’t think I shall be ever happy again–but–but there it is.”
Percy sighed. He had told him so often that the heart is as divine a gift as the mind, and that to neglect it in the search for God is to seek ruin, but this priest had scarcely seen the application to himself. He had answered with the old psychological arguments that the suggestions of education accounted for everything.
“I suppose you will cast me off,” said the other.
“It is you who are leaving me,” said Percy. “I cannot follow, if you mean that.”
“But–but cannot we be friends?”
A sudden heat touched the elder priest’s heart.
“Friends?” he said. “Is sentimentality all you mean by friendship? What kind of friends can we be?”
The other’s face became suddenly heavy.
“I thought so.”
“John!” cried Percy. “You see that, do you not? How can we pretend anything when you do not believe in God? For I do you the honour of thinking that you do not.”
Francis sprang up.
“Well–-” he snapped. “I could not have believed–I am going.”
He wheeled towards the door.
“John!” said Percy again. “Are you going like this? Can you not shake hands?”
The other wheeled again, with heavy anger in his face.
“Why, you said you could not be friends with me!”
Percy’s mouth opened. Then he understood, and smiled. “Oh! that is all you mean by friendship, is it?–I beg your pardon. Oh! we can be polite to one another, if you like.”
He still stood holding out his hand. Father Francis looked at it a moment, his lips shook: then once more he turned, and went out without a word.