Lord of the World
By Robert Hugh Benson
Public Domain Books
There was great talk that night at dinner among the priests as to the extraordinary spread of Freemasonry. It had been going on for many years now, and Catholics perfectly recognised its dangers, for the profession of Masonry had been for some centuries rendered incompatible with religion through the Church’s unswerving condemnation of it. A man must choose between that and his faith. Things had developed extraordinarily during the last century. First there had been the organised assault upon the Church in France; and what Catholics had always suspected then became a certainty in the revelations of 1918, when P. Gerome, the Dominican and ex-Mason, had made his disclosures with regard to the Mark-Masons. It had become evident then that Catholics had been right, and that Masonry, in its higher grades at least, had been responsible throughout the world for the strange movement against religion. But he had died in his bed, and the public had been impressed by that fact. Then came the splendid donations in France and Italy–to hospitals, orphanages, and the like; and once more suspicion began to disappear. After all, it seemed–and continued to seem–for seventy years and more that Masonry was nothing more than a vast philanthropical society. Now once more men had their doubts.
“I hear that Felsenburgh is a Mason,” observed Monsignor Macintosh, the Cathedral Administrator. “A Grand-Master or something.”
“But who is Felsenburgh?” put in a young priest.
Monsignor pursed his lips and shook his head. He was one of those humble persons as proud of ignorance as others of knowledge. He boasted that he never read the papers nor any book except those that had received the imprimatur; it was a priest’s business, he often remarked, to preserve the faith, not to acquire worldly knowledge. Percy had occasionally rather envied his point of view.
“He’s a mystery,” said another priest, Father Blackmore; “but he seems to be causing great excitement. They were selling his ’Life’ to-day on the Embankment.”
“I met an American senator,” put in Percy, “three days ago, who told me that even there they know nothing of him, except his extraordinary eloquence. He only appeared last year, and seems to have carried everything before him by quite unusual methods. He is a great linguist, too. That is why they took him to Irkutsk.”
“Well, the Masons–-” went on Monsignor. “It is very serious. In the last month four of my penitents have left me because of it.”
“Their inclusion of women was their master-stroke,” growled Father Blackmore, helping himself to claret.
“It is extraordinary that they hesitated so long about that,” observed Percy.
A couple of the others added their evidence. It appeared that they, too, had lost penitents lately through the spread of Masonry. It was rumoured that a Pastoral was a-preparing upstairs on the subject.
Monsignor shook his head ominously.
“More is wanted than that,” he said.
Percy pointed out that the Church had said her last word several centuries ago. She had laid her excommunication on all members of secret societies, and there was really no more that she could do.
“Except bring it before her children again and again,” put in Monsignor. “I shall preach on it next Sunday.”
Percy dotted down a note when he reached his room, determining to say another word or two on the subject to the Cardinal-Protector. He had mentioned Freemasonry often before, but it seemed time for another remark. Then he opened his letters, first turning to one which he recognised as from the Cardinal.
It seemed a curious coincidence, as he read a series of questions that Cardinal Martin’s letter contained, that one of them should be on this very subject. It ran as follows:
“What of Masonry? Felsenburgh is said to be one. Gather all the gossip you can about him. Send any English or American biographies of him. Are you still losing Catholics through Masonry?”
He ran his eyes down the rest of the questions. They chiefly referred to previous remarks of his own, but twice, even in them, Felsenburgh’s name appeared.
He laid the paper down and considered a little.
It was very curious, he thought, how this man’s name was in every one’s mouth, in spite of the fact that so little was known about him. He had bought in the streets, out of curiosity, three photographs that professed to represent this strange person, and though one of them might be genuine they all three could not be. He drew them out of a pigeon-hole, and spread them before him.
One represented a fierce, bearded creature like a Cossack, with round staring eyes. No; intrinsic evidence condemned this: it was exactly how a coarse imagination would have pictured a man who seemed to be having a great influence in the East.
The second showed a fat face with little eyes and a chin-beard. That might conceivably be genuine: he turned it over and saw the name of a New York firm on the back. Then he turned to the third. This presented a long, clean-shaven face with pince-nez, undeniably clever, but scarcely strong: and Felsenburgh was obviously a strong man.
Percy inclined to think the second was the most probable; but they were all unconvincing; and he shuffled them carelessly together and replaced them.
Then he put his elbows on the table, and began to think.
He tried to remember what Mr. Varhaus, the American senator, had told him of Felsenburgh; yet it did not seem sufficient to account for the facts. Felsenburgh, it seemed, had employed none of those methods common in modern politics. He controlled no newspapers, vituperated nobody, championed nobody: he had no picked underlings; he used no bribes; there were no monstrous crimes alleged against him. It seemed rather as if his originality lay in his clean hands and his stainless past–that, and his magnetic character. He was the kind of figure that belonged rather to the age of chivalry: a pure, clean, compelling personality, like a radiant child. He had taken people by surprise, then, rising out of the heaving dun-coloured waters of American socialism like a vision–from those waters so fiercely restrained from breaking into storm over since the extraordinary social revolution under Mr. Hearst’s disciples, a century ago. That had been the end of plutocracy; the famous old laws of 1914 had burst some of the stinking bubbles of the time; and the enactments of 1916 and 1917 had prevented their forming again in any thing like their previous force. It had been the salvation of America, undoubtedly, even if that salvation were of a dreary and uninspiring description; and now out of the flat socialistic level had arisen this romantic figure utterly unlike any that had preceded it.... So the senator had hinted.... It was too complicated for Percy just now, and he gave it up.
It was a weary world, he told himself, turning his eyes homewards. Everything seemed so hopeless and ineffective. He tried not to reflect on his fellow-priests, but for the fiftieth time he could not help seeing that they were not the men for the present situation. It was not that he preferred himself; he knew perfectly well that he, too, was fully as incompetent: had he not proved to be so with poor Father Francis, and scores of others who had clutched at him in their agony during the last ten years? Even the Archbishop, holy man as he was, with all his childlike faith–was that the man to lead English Catholics and confound their enemies? There seemed no giants on the earth in these days. What in the world was to be done? He buried his face in his hands....
Yes; what was wanted was a new Order in the Church; the old ones were rule-bound through no fault of their own. An Order was wanted without habit or tonsure, without traditions or customs, an Order with nothing but entire and whole-hearted devotion, without pride even in their most sacred privileges, without a past history in which they might take complacent refuge. They must be franc-tireurs of Christ’s Army; like the Jesuits, but without their fatal reputation, which, again, was no fault of their own. ... But there must be a Founder–Who, in God’s Name? –a Founder nudus sequens Christum nudum.... Yes–Franc-tireurs–priests, bishops, laymen and women–with the three vows of course, and a special clause forbidding utterly and for ever their ownership of corporate wealth.–Every gift received must be handed to the bishop of the diocese in which it was given, who must provide them himself with necessaries of life and travel. Oh!–what could they not do?... He was off in a rhapsody.
Presently he recovered, and called himself a fool. Was not that scheme as old as the eternal hills, and as useless for practical purposes? Why, it had been the dream of every zealous man since the First Year of Salvation that such an Order should be founded!... He was a fool....
Then once more he began to think of it all over again.
Surely it was this which was wanted against the Masons; and women, too.–Had not scheme after scheme broken down because men had forgotten the power of women? It was that lack that had ruined Napoleon: he had trusted Josephine, and she had failed him; so he had trusted no other woman. In the Catholic Church, too, woman had been given no active work but either menial or connected with education: and was there not room for other activities than those? Well, it was useless to think of it. It was not his affair. If Papa Angelicus who now reigned in Rome had not thought of it, why should a foolish, conceited priest in Westminster set himself up to do so?
So he beat himself on the breast once more, and took up his office-book.
He finished in half an hour, and again sat thinking; but this time it was of poor Father Francis. He wondered what he was doing now; whether he had taken off the Roman collar of Christ’s familiar slaves? The poor devil! And how far was he, Percy Franklin, responsible?
When a tap came at his door presently, and Father Blackmore looked in for a talk before going to bed, Percy told him what had happened.
Father Blackmore removed his pipe and sighed deliberately.
“I knew it was coming,” he said. “Well, well.”
“He has been honest enough,” explained Percy. “He told me eight months ago he was in trouble.”
Father Blackmore drew upon his pipe thoughtfully.
“Father Franklin,” he said, “things are really very serious. There is the same story everywhere. What in the world is happening?”
Percy paused before answering.
“I think these things go in waves,” he said.
“Waves, do you think?” said the other.
Father Blackmore looked at him intently.
“It is more like a dead calm, it seems to me,” he said. “Have you ever been in a typhoon?”
Percy shook his head.
“Well,” went on the other, “the most ominous thing is the calm. The sea is like oil; you feel half-dead: you can do nothing. Then comes the storm.”
Percy looked at him, interested. He had not seen this mood in the priest before.
“Before every great crash there comes this calm. It is always so in history. It was so before the Eastern War; it was so before the French Revolution. It was so before the Reformation. There is a kind of oily heaving; and everything is languid. So everything has been in America, too, for over eighty years.... Father Franklin, I think something is going to happen.”
“Tell me,” said Percy, leaning forward.
“Well, I saw Templeton a week before he died, and he put the idea in my head.... Look here, father. It may be this Eastern affair that is coming on us; but somehow I don’t think it is. It is in religion that something is going to happen. At least, so I think.... Father, who in God’s name is Felsenburgh?”
Percy was so startled at the sudden introduction of this name again, that he stared a moment without speaking.
Outside, the summer night was very still. There was a faint vibration now and again from the underground track that ran twenty yards from the house where they sat; but the streets were quiet enough round the Cathedral. Once a hoot rang far away, as if some ominous bird of passage were crossing between London and the stars, and once the cry of a woman sounded thin and shrill from the direction of the river. For the rest there was no more than the solemn, subdued hum that never ceased now night or day.
“Yes; Felsenburgh,” said Father Blackmore once more. “I cannot get that man out of my head. And yet, what do I know of him? What does any one know of him?”
Percy licked his lips to answer, and drew a breath to still the beating of his heart. He could not imagine why he felt excited. After all, who was old Blackmore to frighten him? But old Blackmore went on before he could speak.
“See how people are leaving the Church! The Wargraves, the Hendersons, Sir James Bartlet, Lady Magnier, and then all the priests. Now they’re not all knaves–I wish they were; it would be so much easier to talk of it. But Sir James Bartlet, last month! Now, there’s a man who has spent half his fortune on the Church, and he doesn’t resent it even now. He says that any religion is better than none, but that, for himself, he just can’t believe any longer. Now what does all that mean?... I tell you something is going to happen. God knows what! And I can’t get Felsenburgh out of my head.... Father Franklin–-”
“Have you noticed how few great men we’ve got? It’s not like fifty years ago, or even thirty. Then there were Mason, Selborne, Sherbrook, and half-a-dozen others. There was Brightman, too, as Archbishop: and now! Then the Communists, too. Braithwaite is dead fifteen years. Certainly he was big enough; but he was always speaking of the future, not of the present; and tell me what big man they have had since then! And now there’s this new man, whom no one knows, who came forward in America a few months ago, and whose name is in every one’s mouth. Very well, then!”
Percy knitted his forehead.
“I am not sure that I understand,” he said.
Father Blackmore knocked his pipe out before answering.
“Well, this,” he said, standing up. “I can’t help thinking Felsenburgh is going to do something. I don’t know what; it may be for us or against us. But he is a Mason, remember that.... Well, well; I dare say I’m an old fool. Good-night.”
“One moment, father,” said Percy slowly. “Do you mean–? Good Lord! What do you mean?” He stopped, looking at the other.
The old priest stared back under his bushy eyebrows; it seemed to Percy as if he, too, were afraid of something in spite of his easy talk; but he made no sign.
Percy stood perfectly still a moment when the door was shut. Then he moved across to his prie-dieu.