Lord of the World

by Robert Hugh Benson

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Book I - Chapter IV


On the same afternoon Percy received a visitor.

There was nothing exceptional about him; and Percy, as he came downstairs in his walking-dress and looked at him in the light from the tall parlour-window, came to no conclusion at all as to his business and person, except that he was not a Catholic.

"You wished to see me," said the priest, indicating a chair.

"I fear I must not stop long."

"I shall not keep you long," said the stranger eagerly. "My business is done in five minutes."

Percy waited with his eyes cast down.

"A—a certain person has sent me to you. She was a Catholic once; she wishes to return to the Church."

Percy made a little movement with his head. It was a message he did not very often receive in these days.

"You will come, sir, will you not? You will promise me?"

The man seemed greatly agitated; his sallow face showed a little shining with sweat, and his eyes were piteous.

"Of course I will come," said Percy, smiling.

"Yes, sir; but you do not know who she is. It—it would make a great stir, sir, if it was known. It must not be known, sir; you will promise me that, too?"

"I must not make any promise of that kind," said the priest gently. "I do not know the circumstances yet."

The stranger licked his lips nervously.

"Well, sir," he said hastily, "you will say nothing till you have seen her? You can promise me that."

"Oh! certainly," said the priest.

"Well, sir, you had better not know my name. It—it may make it easier for you and for me. And—and, if you please, sir, the lady is ill; you must come to-day, if you please, but not until the evening. Will twenty-two o'clock be convenient, sir?"

"Where is it?" asked Percy abruptly.

"It—it is near Croydon junction. I will write down the address presently. And you will not come until twenty-two o'clock, sir?"

"Why not now?"

"Because the—the others may be there. They will be away then; I know that."

This was rather suspicious, Percy thought: discreditable plots had been known before. But he could not refuse outright.

"Why does she not send for her parish-priest?" he asked.

"She she does not know who he is, sir; she saw you once in the Cathedral, sir, and asked you for your name. Do you remember, sir?—an old lady?"

Percy did dimly remember something of the kind a month or two before; but he could not be certain, and said so.

"Well, sir, you will come, will you not?"

"I must communicate with Father Dolan," said the priest. "If he gives me permission—-"

"If you please, sir, Father—Father Dolan must not know her name. You will not tell him?"

"I do not know it myself yet," said the priest, smiling.

The stranger sat back abruptly at that, and his face worked.

"Well, sir, let me tell you this first. This old lady's son is my employer, and a very prominent Communist. She lives with him and his wife. The other two will be away to-night. That is why I am asking you all this. And now, you till come, sir?"

Percy looked at him steadily for a moment or two. Certainly, if this was a conspiracy, the conspirators were feeble folk. Then he answered:

"I will come, sir; I promise. Now the name."

The stranger again licked his lips nervously, and glanced timidly from side to side. Then he seemed to gather his resolution; he leaned forward and whispered sharply.

"The old lady's name is Brand, sir—the mother of Mr. Oliver Brand."

For a moment Percy was bewildered. It was too extraordinary to be true. He knew Mr. Oliver Brand's name only too well; it was he who, by God's permission, was doing more in England at this moment against the Catholic cause than any other man alive; and it was he whom the Trafalgar Square incident had raised into such eminent popularity. And now, here was his mother—-

He turned fiercely upon the man.

"I do not know what you are, sir—whether you believe in God or not; but will you swear to me on your religion and your honour that all this is true?"

The timid eyes met his, and wavered; but it was the wavering of weakness, not of treachery.

"I—I swear it, sir; by God Almighty."

"Are you a Catholic?"

The man shook his head.

"But I believe in God," he said. "At least, I think so."

Percy leaned back, trying to realise exactly what it all meant. There was no triumph in his mind—that kind of emotion was not his weakness; there was fear of a kind, excitement, bewilderment, and under all a satisfaction that God's grace was so sovereign. If it could reach this woman, who could be too far removed for it to take effect? Presently he noticed the other looking at him anxiously.

"You are afraid, sir? You are not going back from your promise?"

That dispersed the cloud a little, and Percy smiled.

"Oh! no," he said. "I will be there at twenty-two o'clock. … Is death imminent?"

"No, sir; it is syncope. She is recovered a little this morning."

The priest passed his hand over his eyes and stood up.

"Well, I will be there," he said. "Shall you be there, sir?"

The other shook his head, standing up too.

"I must be with Mr. Brand, sir; there is to be a meeting to-night; but I must not speak of that…. No, sir; ask for Mrs. Brand, and say that she is expecting you. They will take you upstairs at once."

"I must not say I am a priest, I suppose?"

"No, sir; if you please."

He drew out a pocket-book, scribbled in it a moment, tore out the sheet, and handed it to the priest.

"The address, sir. Will you kindly destroy that when you have copied it? I—I do not wish to lose my place, sir, if it can be helped." Percy stood twisting the paper in his fingers a moment.

"Why are you not a Catholic yourself?" he asked.

The man shook his head mutely. Then he took up his hat, and went towards the door.

* * * * *

Percy passed a very emotional afternoon.

For the last month or two little had happened to encourage him. He had been obliged to report half-a-dozen more significant secessions, and hardly a conversion of any kind. There was no doubt at all that the tide was setting steadily against the Church. The mad act in Trafalgar Square, too, had done incalculable harm last week: men were saying more than ever, and the papers storming, that the Church's reliance on the supernatural was belied by every one of her public acts. "Scratch a Catholic and find an assassin" had been the text of a leading article in the New People, and Percy himself was dismayed at the folly of the attempt. It was true that the Archbishop had formally repudiated both the act and the motive from the Cathedral pulpit, but that too had only served as an opportunity hastily taken up by the principal papers, to recall the continual policy of the Church to avail herself of violence while she repudiated the violent. The horrible death of the man had in no way appeased popular indignation; there were not even wanting suggestions that the man had been seen coming out of Archbishop's House an hour before the attempt at assassination had taken place.

And now here, with dramatic swiftness, had come a message that the hero's own mother desired reconciliation with the Church that had attempted to murder her son.

* * * * *

Again and again that afternoon, as Percy sped northwards on his visit to a priest in Worcester, and southwards once more as the lights began to shine towards evening, he wondered whether this were not a plot after all—some kind of retaliation, an attempt to trap him. Yet he had promised to say nothing, and to go.

He finished his daily letter after dinner as usual, with a curious sense of fatality; addressed and stamped it. Then he went downstairs, in his walking-dress, to Father Blackmore's room.

"Will you hear my confession, father?" he said abruptly.


Victoria Station, still named after the great nineteenth-century Queen, was neither more nor less busy than usual as he came into it half-an-hour later. The vast platform, sunk now nearly two hundred feet below the ground level, showed the double crowd of passengers entering and leaving town. Those on the extreme left, towards whom Percy began to descend in the open glazed lift, were by far the most numerous, and the stream at the lift-entrance made it necessary for him to move slowly.

He arrived at last, walking in the soft light on the noiseless ribbed rubber, and stood by the door of the long car that ran straight through to the Junction. It was the last of a series of a dozen or more, each of which slid off minute by minute. Then, still watching the endless movement of the lifts ascending and descending between the entrances of the upper end of the station, he stepped in and sat down.

He felt quiet now that he had actually started. He had made his confession, just in order to make certain of his own soul, though scarcely expecting any definite danger, and sat now, his grey suit and straw hat in no way distinguishing him as a priest (for a general leave was given by the authorities to dress so for any adequate reason). Since the case was not imminent, he had not brought stocks or pyx—Father Dolan had wired to him that he might fetch them if he wished from St. Joseph's, near the Junction. He had only the violet thread in his pocket, such as was customary for sick calls.

He was sliding along peaceably enough, fixing his eyes on the empty seat opposite, and trying to preserve complete collectedness when the car abruptly stopped. He looked out, astonished, and saw by the white enamelled walks twenty feet from the window that they were already in the tunnel. The stoppage might arise from many causes, and he was not greatly excited, nor did it seem that others in the carriage took it very seriously; he could hear, after a moment's silence, the talking recommence beyond the partition.

Then there came, echoed by the walls, the sound of shouting from far away, mingled with hoots and chords; it grew louder. The talking in the carriage stopped. He heard a window thrown up, and the next instant a car tore past, going back to the station although on the down line. This must be looked into, thought Percy: something certainly was happening; so he got up and went across the empty compartment to the further window. Again came the crying of voices, again the signals, and once more a car whirled past, followed almost immediately by another. There was a jerk—a smooth movement. Percy staggered and fell into a seat, as the carriage in which he was seated itself began to move backwards.

There was a clamour now in the next compartment, and Percy made his way there through the door, only to find half-a-dozen men with their heads thrust from the windows, who paid absolutely no attention to his inquiries. So he stood there, aware that they knew no more than himself, waiting for an explanation from some one. It was disgraceful, he told himself, that any misadventure should so disorganise the line.

Twice the car stopped; each time it moved on again after a hoot or two, and at last drew up at the platform whence it had started, although a hundred yards further out.

Ah! there was no doubt that something had happened! The instant he opened the door a great roar met his ears, and as he sprang on to the platform and looked up at the end of the station, he began to understand.

* * * * *

From right to left of the huge interior, across the platforms, swelling every instant, surged an enormous swaying, roaring crowd. The flight of steps, twenty yards broad, used only in cases of emergency, resembled a gigantic black cataract nearly two hundred feet in height. Each car as it drew up discharged more and more men and women, who ran like ants towards the assembly of their fellows. The noise was indescribable, the shouting of men, the screaming of women, the clang and hoot of the huge machines, and three or four times the brazen cry of a trumpet, as an emergency door was flung open overhead, and a small swirl of crowd poured through it towards the streets beyond. But after one look Percy looked no more at the people; for there, high up beneath the clock, on the Government signal board, flared out monstrous letters of fire, telling in Esperanto and English, the message for which England had grown sick. He read it a dozen times before he moved, staring, as at a supernatural sight which might denote the triumph of either heaven or hell.





* * * * *


It was not until nearly two hours later that Percy was standing at the house beyond the Junction.

He had argued, expostulated, threatened, but the officials were like men possessed. Half of them had disappeared in the rush to the City, for it had leaked out, in spite of the Government's precautions, that Paul's House, known once as St. Paul's Cathedral, was to be the scene of Felsenburgh's reception. The others seemed demented; one man on the platform had dropped dead from nervous exhaustion, but no one appeared to care; and the body lay huddled beneath a seat. Again and again Percy had been swept away by a rush, as he struggled from platform to platform in his search for a car that would take him to Croydon. It seemed that there was none to be had, and the useless carriages collected like drift-wood between the platforms, as others whirled up from the country bringing loads of frantic, delirious men, who vanished like smoke from the white rubber-boards. The platforms were continually crowded, and as continually emptied, and it was not until half-an-hour before midnight that the block began to move outwards again.

Well, he was here at last, dishevelled, hatless and exhausted, looking up at the dark windows.

He scarcely knew what he thought of the whole matter. War, of course, was terrible. And such a war as this would have been too terrible for the imagination to visualise; but to the priest's mind there were other things even worse. What of universal peace—peace, that is to say, established by others than Christ's method? Or was God behind even this? The questions were hopeless.

Felsenburgh—it was he then who had done this thing—this thing undoubtedly greater than any secular event hitherto known in civilisation. What manner of man was he? What was his character, his motive, his method? How would he use his success?… So the points flew before him like a stream of sparks, each, it might be, harmless; each, equally, capable of setting a world on fire. Meanwhile here was an old woman who desired to be reconciled with God before she died….

* * * * *

He touched the button again, three or four times, and waited. Then a light sprang out overhead, and he knew that he was heard.

"I was sent for," he exclaimed to the bewildered maid. "I should have been here at twenty-two: I was prevented by the rush."

She babbled out a question at him.

"Yes, it is true, I believe," he said. "It is peace, not war. Kindly take me upstairs."

He went through the hall with a curious sense of guilt. This was Brand's house then—that vivid orator, so bitterly eloquent against God; and here was he, a priest, slinking in under cover of night. Well, well, it was not of his appointment.

At the door of an upstairs room the maid turned to him.

"A doctor, sir?" she said.

"That is my affair," said Percy briefly, and opened the door.

* * * * *

A little wailing cry broke from the corner, before he had time to close the door again.

"Oh! thank God! I thought He had forgotten me. You are a priest, father?"

"I am a priest. Do you not remember seeing me in the Cathedral?"

"Yes, yes, sir; I saw you praying, father. Oh! thank God, thank God!"

Percy stood looking down at her a moment, seeing her flushed old face in the nightcap, her bright sunken eyes and her tremulous hands. Yes; this was genuine enough.

"Now, my child," he said, "tell me."

"My confession, father."

Percy drew out the purple thread, slipped it over his shoulders, and sat down by the bed.

* * * * *

But she would not let him go for a while after that.

"Tell me, father. When will you bring me Holy Communion?"

He hesitated.

"I understand that Mr. Brand and his wife know nothing of all this?"

"No, father."

"Tell me, are you very ill?"

"I don't know, father. They will not tell me. I thought I was gone last night."

"When would you wish me to bring you Holy Communion? I will do as you say."

"Shall I send to you in a day or two? Father, ought I to tell him?"

"You are not obliged."

"I will if I ought."

"Well, think about it, and let me know…. You have heard what has happened?"

She nodded, but almost uninterestedly; and Percy was conscious of a tiny prick of compunction at his own heart. After all, the reconciling of a soul to God was a greater thing than the reconciling of East to West.

"It may make a difference to Mr. Brand," he said. "He will be a great man, now, you know."

She still looked at him in silence, smiling a little. Percy was astonished at the youthfulness of that old face. Then her face changed.

"Father, I must not keep you; but tell me this—Who is this man?"



"No one knows. We shall know more to-morrow. He is in town to-night."

She looked so strange that Percy for an instant thought it was a seizure. Her face seemed to fall away in a kind of emotion, half cunning, half fear.

"Well, my child?"

"Father, I am a little afraid when I think of that man. He cannot harm me, can he? I am safe now? I am a Catholic—?"

"My child, of course you are safe. What is the matter? How can this man injure you?"

But the look of terror was still there, and Percy came a step nearer.

"You must not give way to fancies," he said. "Just commit yourself to our Blessed Lord. This man can do you no harm."

He was speaking now as to a child; but it was of no use. Her old mouth was still sucked in, and her eyes wandered past him into the gloom of the room behind.

"My child, tell me what is the matter. What do you know of Felsenburgh? You have been dreaming." She nodded suddenly and energetically, and Percy for the first time felt his heart give a little leap of apprehension. Was this old woman out of her mind, then? Or why was it that that name seemed to him sinister? Then he remembered that Father Blackmore had once talked like this. He made an effort, and sat down once more.

"Now tell me plainly," he said. "You have been dreaming. What have you dreamt?"

She raised herself a little in bed, again glancing round the room; then she put out her old ringed hand for one of his, and he gave it, wondering.

"The door is shut, father? There is no one listening?"

"No, no, my child. Why are you trembling? You must not be superstitious."

"Father, I will tell you. Dreams are nonsense, are they not? Well, at least, this is what I dreamt.

"I was somewhere in a great house; I do not know where it was. It was a house I have never seen. It was one of the old houses, and it was very dark. I was a child, I thought, and I was … I was afraid of something. The passages were all dark, and I went crying in the dark, looking for a light, and there was none. Then I heard a voice talking, a great way off. Father—-"

Her hand gripped his more tightly, and again her eyes went round the room.

With great difficulty Percy repressed a sigh. Yet he dared not leave her just now. The house was very still; only from outside now and again sounded the clang of the cars, as they sped countrywards again from the congested town, and once the sound of great shouting. He wondered what time it was.

"Had you better tell me now?" he asked, still talking with a patient simplicity. "What time will they be back?"

"Not yet," she whispered. "Mabel said not till two o'clock. What time is it now, father?"

He pulled out his watch with his disengaged hand.

"It is not yet one," he said.

"Very well, listen, father…. I was in this house; and I heard that talking; and I ran along the passages, till I saw light below a door; and then I stopped…. Nearer, father."

Percy was a little awed in spite of himself. Her voice had suddenly dropped to a whisper, and her old eyes seemed to hold him strangely.

"I stopped, father; I dared not go in. I could hear the talking, and I could see the light; and I dared not go in. Father, it was Felsenburgh in that room."

From beneath came the sudden snap of a door; then the sound of footsteps. Percy turned his head abruptly, and at the same moment heard a swift indrawn breath from the old woman.

"Hush!" he said. "Who is that?"

Two voices were talking in the hall below now, and at the sound the old woman relaxed her hold.

"I—I thought it to be him," she murmured.

Percy stood up; he could see that she did not understand the situation.

"Yes, my child," he said quietly, "but who is it?"

"My son and his wife," she said; then her face changed once more. "Why—why, father—-" Her voice died in her throat, as a step vibrated outside. For a moment there was complete silence; then a whisper, plainly audible, in a girl's voice.

"Why, her light is burning. Come in, Oliver, but softly."

Then the handle turned.

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