Lord of the World

by Robert Hugh Benson

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Book II - Chapter V


Percy Franklin, the new Cardinal-Protector of England, came slowly along the passage leading from the Pope's apartments, with Hans Steinmann, Cardinal-Protector of Germany, blowing at his side. They entered the lift, still in silence, and passed out, two splendid vivid figures, one erect and virile, the other bent, fat, and very German from spectacles to flat buckled feet.

At the door of Percy's suite, the Englishman paused, made a little gesture of reverence, and went in without a word.

A secretary, young Mr. Brent, lately from England, stood up as his patron came in.

"Eminence," he said, "the English papers are come."

Percy put out a hand, took a paper, passed on into his inner room, and sat down.

There it all was—gigantic headlines, and four columns of print broken by startling title phrases in capital letters, after the fashion set by America a hundred years ago. No better way even yet had been found of misinforming the unintelligent.

He looked at the top. It was the English edition of the Era. Then he read the headlines. They ran as follows:


He ran his eyes down the page, reading the vivid little phrases, and drawing from the whole a kind of impressionist view of the scenes in the Abbey on the previous day, of which he had already been informed by the telegraph, and the discussion of which had been the purpose of his interview just now with the Holy Father.

There plainly was no additional news; and he was laying the paper down when his eye caught a name.

"It is understood that Mr. Francis, the ceremoniarius (to whom the thanks of all are due for his reverent zeal and skill), will proceed shortly to the northern towns to lecture on the Ritual. It is interesting to reflect that this gentleman only a few months ago was officiating at a Catholic altar. He was assisted in his labours by twenty-four confreres with the same experience behind them."

"Good God!" said Percy aloud. Then he laid the paper down.

But his thoughts had soon left this renegade behind, and once more he was running over in his mind the significance of the whole affair, and the advice that he had thought it his duty to give just now upstairs.

Briefly, there was no use in disputing the fact that the inauguration of Pantheistic worship had been as stupendous a success in England as in Germany. France, by the way, was still too busy with the cult of human individuals, to develop larger ideas. But England was deeper; and, somehow, in spite of prophecy, the affair had taken place without even a touch of bathos or grotesqueness. It had been said that England was too solid and too humorous. Yet there had been extraordinary scenes the day before. A great murmur of enthusiasm had rolled round the Abbey from end to end as the gorgeous curtains ran back, and the huge masculine figure, majestic and overwhelming, coloured with exquisite art, had stood out above the blaze of candles against the tall screen that shrouded the shrine. Markenheim had done his work well; and Mr. Brand's passionate discourse had well prepared the popular mind for the revelation. He had quoted in his peroration passage after passage from the Jewish prophets, telling of the City of Peace whose walls rose now before their eyes.

"Arise, shine, for thy light is come, and the glory of the Lord is risen upon thee…. For behold I create new heavens and a new earth; and the former shall not be remembered nor come into mind…. Violence shall no more be heard in thy land, wasting nor destruction within thy borders. O thou so long afflicted, tossed with tempest and not comforted; behold I will lay thy stones with fair colours, and thy foundations with sapphires…. I will make thy windows of agates and thy gates of carbuncles, and all thy borders of pleasant stones. Arise, shine, for thy light is come."

As the chink of the censer-chains had sounded in the stillness, with one consent the enormous crowd had fallen on its knees, and so remained, as the smoke curled up from the hands of the rebel figure who held the thurible. Then the organ had begun to blow, and from the huge massed chorus in the transepts had rolled out the anthem, broken by one passionate cry, from some mad Catholic. But it had been silenced in an instant….

It was incredible—utterly incredible, Percy had told himself. Yet the incredible had happened; and England had found its worship once more—the necessary culmination of unimpeded subjectivity. From the provinces had come the like news. In cathedral after cathedral had been the same scenes. Markenheim's masterpiece, executed in four days after the passing of the bill, had been reproduced by the ordinary machinery, and four thousand replicas had been despatched to every important centre. Telegraphic reports had streamed into the London papers that everywhere the new movement had been received with acclamation, and that human instincts had found adequate expression at last. If there had not been a God, mused Percy reminiscently, it would have been necessary to invent one. He was astonished, too, at the skill with which the new cult had been framed. It moved round no disputable points; there was no possibility of divergent political tendencies to mar its success, no over-insistence on citizenship, labour and the rest, for those who were secretly individualistic and idle. Life was the one fount and centre of it all, clad in the gorgeous robes of ancient worship. Of course the thought had been Felsenburgh's, though a German name had been mentioned. It was Positivism of a kind, Catholicism without Christianity, Humanity worship without its inadequacy. It was not man that was worshipped but the Idea of man, deprived of his supernatural principle. Sacrifice, too, was recognised—the instinct of oblation without the demand made by transcendent Holiness upon the blood-guiltiness of man…. In fact,—in fact, said Percy, it was exactly as clever as the devil, and as old as Cain.

The advice he had given to the Holy Father just now was a counsel of despair, or of hope; he really did not know which. He had urged that a stringent decree should be issued, forbidding any acts of violence on the part of Catholics. The faithful were to be encouraged to be patient, to hold utterly aloof from the worship, to say nothing unless they were questioned, to suffer bonds gladly. He had suggested, in company with the German Cardinal, that they two should return to their respective countries at the close of the year, to encourage the waverers; but the answer had been that their vocation was to remain in Rome, unless something unforeseen happened.

As for Felsenburgh, there was little news. It was said that he was in the East; but further details were secret. Percy understood quite well why he had not been present at the worship as had been expected. First, it would have been difficult to decide between the two countries that had established it; and, secondly, he was too brilliant a politician to risk the possible association of failure with his own person; thirdly, there was something the matter with the East.

This last point was difficult to understand; it had not yet become explicit, but it seemed as if the movement of last year had not yet run its course. It was undoubtedly difficult to explain the new President's constant absences from his adopted continent, unless there was something that demanded his presence elsewhere; but the extreme discretion of the East and the stringent precautions taken by the Empire made it impossible to know any details. It was apparently connected with religion; there were rumours, portents, prophets, ecstatics there.

* * * * *

Upon Percy himself had fallen a subtle change which he himself was recognising. He no longer soared to confidence or sank to despair. He said his mass, read his enormous correspondence, meditated strictly; and, though he felt nothing he knew everything. There was not a tinge of doubt upon his faith, but neither was there emotion in it. He was as one who laboured in the depths of the earth, crushed even in imagination, yet conscious that somewhere birds sang, and the sun shone, and water ran. He understood his own state well enough, and perceived that he had come to a reality of faith that was new to him, for it was sheer faith—sheer apprehension of the Spiritual—without either the dangers or the joys of imaginative vision. He expressed it to himself by saying that there were three processes through which God led the soul: the first was that of external faith, which assents to all things presented by the accustomed authority, practises religion, and is neither interested nor doubtful; the second follows the quickening of the emotional and perceptive powers of the soul, and is set about with consolations, desires, mystical visions and perils; it is in this plane that resolutions are taken and vocations found and shipwrecks experienced; and the third, mysterious and inexpressible, consists in the re-enactment in the purely spiritual sphere of all that has preceded (as a play follows a rehearsal), in which God is grasped but not experienced, grace is absorbed unconsciously and even distastefully, and little by little the inner spirit is conformed in the depths of its being, far within the spheres of emotion and intellectual perception, to the image and mind of Christ.

So he lay back now, thinking, a long, stately, scarlet figure, in his deep chair, staring out over Holy Rome seen through the misty September haze. How long, he wondered, would there be peace? To his eyes even already the air was black with doom.

He struck his hand-bell at last.

"Bring me Father Blackmore's Last report," he said, as his secretary appeared.


Percy's intuitive faculties were keen by nature and had been vastly increased by cultivation. He had never forgotten Father Blackmore's shrewd remarks of a year ago; and one of his first acts as Cardinal-Protector had been to appoint that priest on the list of English correspondents. Hitherto he had received some dozen letters, and not one of them had been without its grain of gold. Especially he had noticed that one warning ran through them all, namely, that sooner or later there would be some overt act of provocation on the part of English Catholics; and it was the memory of this that had inspired his vehement entreaties to the Pope this morning. As in the Roman and African persecutions of the first three centuries, so now, the greatest danger to the Catholic community lay not in the unjust measures of the Government but in the indiscreet zeal of the faithful themselves. The world desired nothing better than a handle to its blade. The scabbard was already cast away.

When the young man had brought the four closely written sheets, dated from Westminster, the previous evening, Percy turned at once to the last paragraph before the usual Recommendations.

"Mr. Brand's late secretary, Mr. Phillips, whom your Eminence commended to me, has been to see me two or three times. He is in a curious state. He has no faith; yet, intellectually, he sees no hope anywhere but in the Catholic Church. He has even begged for admission to the Order of Christ Crucified, which of course is impossible. But there is no doubt he is sincere; otherwise he would have professed Catholicism. I have introduced him to many Catholics in the hope that they may help him. I should much wish your Eminence to see him."

Before leaving England, Percy had followed up the acquaintance he had made so strangely over Mrs. Brand's reconciliation to God, and, scarcely knowing why, had commended him to the priest. He had not been particularly impressed by Mr. Phillips; he had thought him a timid, undecided creature, yet he had been struck by the extremely unselfish action by which the man had forfeited his position. There must surely be a good deal behind.

And now the impulse had come to send for him. Perhaps the spiritual atmosphere of Rome would precipitate faith. In any case, the conversation of Mr. Brand's late secretary might be instructive.

He struck the bell again.

"Mr. Brent," he said, "in your next letter to Father Blackmore, tell him that I wish to see the man whom he proposed to send—Mr. Phillips."

"Yes, Eminence."

"There is no hurry. He can send him at his leisure."

"Yes, Eminence."

"But he must not come till January. That will be time enough, unless there is urgent reason."

"Yes, Eminence."

* * * * *

The development of the Order of Christ Crucified had gone forward with almost miraculous success. The appeal issued by the Holy Father throughout Christendom had been as fire among stubble. It seemed as if the Christian world had reached exactly that point of tension at which a new organisation of this nature was needed, and the response had startled even the most sanguine. Practically the whole of Rome with its suburbs—three millions in all—had run to the enrolling stations in St. Peter's as starving men run to food, and desperate to the storming of a breach. For day after day the Pope himself had sat enthroned below the altar of the Chair, a glorious, radiant figure, growing ever white and weary towards evening, imparting his Blessing with a silent sign to each individual of the vast crowd that swarmed up between the barriers, fresh from fast and Communion, to kneel before his new Superior and kiss the Pontifical ring. The requirements had been as stringent as circumstances allowed. Each postulant was obliged to go to confession to a specially authorised priest, who examined sharply into motives and sincerity, and only one-third of the applicants had been accepted. This, the authorities pointed out to the scornful, was not an excessive proportion; for it was to be remembered that most of those who had presented themselves had already undergone a sifting fierce as fire. Of the three millions in Rome, two millions at least were exiles for their faith, preferring to live obscure and despised in the shadow of God rather than in the desolate glare of their own infidel countries.

On the fifth evening of the enrolment of novices an astonishing incident had taken place. The old King of Spain (Queen Victoria's second son), already on the edge of the grave, had just risen and tottered before his Ruler; it seemed for an instant as if he would fall, when the Pope himself, by a sudden movement, had risen, caught him in his arms and kissed him; and then, still standing, had spread his arms abroad and delivered a fervorino such as never had been heard before in the history of the basilica.

"Benedictus Dominus!" he cried, with upraised face and shining eyes. "Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for He hath visited and redeemed His people. I, John, Vicar of Christ, Servant of Servants, and sinner among sinners, bid you be of good courage in the Name of God. By Him Who hung on the Cross, I promise eternal life to all who persevere in His Order. He Himself has said it. To him that overcometh I will give a crown of life.

"Little children; fear not him that killeth the body. There is no more that he can do. God and His Mother are amongst us…."

So his voice had poured on, telling the enormous awe-stricken crowd of the blood that already had been shed on the place where they stood, of the body of the Apostle that lay scarcely fifty yards away, urging, encouraging, inspiring. They had vowed themselves to death, if that were God's Will; and if not, the intention would be taken for the deed. They were under obedience now; their wills were no longer theirs but God's; under chastity—for their bodies were bought with a price; under poverty, and theirs was the kingdom of heaven.

He had ended by a great silent Benediction of the City and the World: and there were not wanting a half-dozen of the faithful who had seen, they thought, a white shape in the form of a bird that hung in the air while he spoke white as a mist, translucent as water….

The consequent scenes in the city and suburbs had been unparalleled, for thousands of families had with one consent dissolved human ties. Husbands had found their way to the huge houses on the Quirinal set apart for them; wives to the Aventine; while the children, as confident as their parents, had swarmed over to the Sisters of St. Vincent who had received at the Pope's orders the gift of three streets to shelter them in. Everywhere the smoke of burning went up in the squares where household property, rendered useless by the vows of poverty, were consumed by their late owners; and daily long trains moved out from the station outside the walls carrying jubilant loads of those who were despatched by the Pope's delegates to be the salt of men, consumed in their function, and leaven plunged in the vast measures of the infidel world. And that infidel world welcomed their coming with bitter laughter.

From the rest of Christendom had poured in news of success. The same precautions had been observed as in Rome, for the directions issued were precise and searching; and day after day came in the long rolls of the new Religious drawn up by the diocesan superiors.

Within the last few days, too, other lists had arrived, more glorious than all. Not only did reports stream in that already the Order was beginning its work and that already broken communications were being re-established, that devoted missioners were in process of organising themselves, and that hope was once more rising in the most desperate hearts; but better than all this was the tidings of victory in another sphere. In Paris forty of the new-born Order had been burned alive in one day in the Latin quarter, before the Government intervened. From Spain, Holland, Russia had come in other names. In Dusseldorf eighteen men and boys, surprised at their singing of Prime in the church of Saint Laurence, had been cast down one by one into the city-sewer, each chanting as he vanished:

"Christi Fili Dei vivi miserere nobis,"

and from the darkness had come up the same broken song till it was silenced with stones. Meanwhile, the German prisons were thronged with the first batches of recusants. The world shrugged its shoulders, and declared that they had brought it on themselves, while yet it deprecated mob-violence, and requested the attention of the authorities and the decisive repression of this new conspiracy of superstition. And within St. Peter's Church the workmen were busy at the long rows of new altars, affixing to the stone diptychs the brass-forged names of those who had already fulfilled their vows and gained their crowns.

It was the first word of God's reply to the world's challenge.

* * * * *

As Christmas drew on it was announced that the Sovereign pontiff would sing mass on the last day of the year, at the papal altar of Saint Peter's, on behalf of the Order; and preparations began to be made.

It was to be a kind of public inauguration of the new enterprise; and, to the astonishment of all, a special summons was issued to all members of the Sacred College throughout the world to be present, unless hindered by sickness. It seemed as if the Pope were determined that the world should understand that war was declared; for, although the command would not involve the absence of any Cardinal from his province for more than five days, yet many inconveniences must surely result. However, it had been said, and it was to be done.

* * * * *

It was a strange Christmas.

Percy was ordered to attend the Pope at his second mass, and himself said his three at midnight in his own private oratory. For the first time in his life he saw that of which he had heard so often, the wonderful old-world Pontifical procession, lit by torches, going through the streets from the Lateran to St. Anastasia, where the Pope for the last few years had restored the ancient custom discontinued for nearly a century-and-a-half. The little basilica was reserved, of course, in every corner for the peculiarly privileged; but the streets outside along the whole route from the Cathedral to the church—and, indeed, the other two sides of the triangle as well, were one dense mass of silent heads and flaming torches. The Holy Father was attended at the altar by the usual sovereigns; and Percy from his place watched the heavenly drama of Christ's Passion enacted through the veil of His nativity at the hands of His old Angelic Vicar. It was hard to perceive Calvary here; it was surely the air of Bethlehem, the celestial light, not the supernatural darkness, that beamed round the simple altar. It was the Child called Wonderful that lay there beneath the old hands, rather than the stricken Man of Sorrows.

Adeste fideles sang the choir from the tribune.—Come, let us adore, rather than weep; let us exult, be content, be ourselves like little children. As He for us became a child, let us become childlike for Him. Let us put on the garments of infancy and the shoes of peace. For the Lord hath reigned; He is clothed with beauty: the Lord is clothed with strength and hath girded Himself. He hath established the world which shall not be moved: His throne is prepared from of old. He is from everlasting. Rejoice greatly then, O daughter of Zion, shout for joy, O daughter of Jerusalem; behold thy King cometh, to thee, the Holy One, the Saviour of the world. It will be time, then, to suffer by and bye, when the Prince of this world cometh upon the Prince of Heaven.

So Percy mused, standing apart in his gorgeousness, striving to make himself little and simple. Surely nothing was too hard for God! Might not this mystic Birth once more do what it had done before—bring into subjection through the might of its weakness every proud thing that exalts itself above all that is called God? It had drawn wise Kings once across the desert, as well as shepherds from their flocks. It had kings about it now, kneeling with the poor and foolish, kings who had laid down their crowns, who brought the gold of loyal hearts, the myrrh of desired martyrdom, and the incense of a pure faith. Could not republics, too, lay aside their splendour, mobs be tamed, selfishness deny itself, and wisdom confess its ignorance?…

Then he remembered Felsenburgh; and his heart sickened within him.


Six days later, Percy rose as usual, said his mass, breakfasted, and sat down to say office until his servant should summon him to vest for the Pontifical mass.

He had learned to expect bad news now so constantly—of apostasies, deaths, losses—that the lull of the previous week had come to him with extraordinary refreshment. It appeared to him as if his musings in St. Anastasia had been truer than he thought, and that the sweetness of the old feast had not yet wholly lost its power even over a world that denied its substance. For nothing at all had happened of importance. A few more martyrdoms had been chronicled, but they had been isolated cases; and of Felsenburgh there had been no tidings at all. Europe confessed its ignorance of his business.

On the other hand, to-morrow, Percy knew very well, would be a day of extraordinary moment in England and Germany at any rate; for in England it was appointed as the first occasion of compulsory worship throughout the country, while it was the second in Germany. Men and women would have to declare themselves now.

He had seen on the previous evening a photograph of the image that was to be worshipped next day in the Abbey; and, in a fit of loathing, had torn it to shreds. It represented a nude woman, huge and majestic, entrancingly lovely, with head and shoulders thrown back, as one who sees a strange and heavenly vision, arms downstretched and hands a little raised, with wide fingers, as in astonishment—the whole attitude, with feet and knees pressed together, suggestive of expectation, hope and wonder; in devilish mockery her long hair was crowned with twelve stars. This, then, was the spouse of the other, the embodiment of man's ideal maternity, still waiting for her child….

When the white scraps lay like poisonous snow at his feet, he had sprung across the room to his prie-dieu, and fallen there in an agony of reparation.

"Oh! Mother, Mother!" he cried to the stately Queen of Heaven who, with Her true Son long ago in Her arms, looked down on him from Her bracket—no more than that.

* * * * *

But he was still again this morning, and celebrated Saint Silvester, Pope and Martyr, the last saint in the procession of the Christian year, with tolerable equanimity. The sights of last night, the throng of officials, the stately, scarlet, unfamiliar figures of the Cardinals who had come in from north, south, east and west—these helped to reassure him again—unreasonably, as he knew, yet effectually. The very air was electric with expectation. All night the piazza had been crowded by a huge, silent mob waiting till the opening of the doors at seven o'clock. Now the church itself was full, and the piazza full again. Far down the street to the river, so far as he could see as he had leaned from his window just now, lay that solemn motionless pavement of heads. The roof of the colonnade showed a fringe of them, the house-tops were black—and this in the bitter cold of a clear, frosty morning, for it was announced that after mass and the proceeding of the members of the Order past the Pontifical Throne, the Pope would give Apostolic Benediction to the City and the World.

Percy finished Terce, closed his book and lay back; his servant would be here in a minute now.

His mind began to run over the function, and he reflected that the entire Sacred College (with the exception of the Cardinal-Protector of Jerusalem, detained by sickness), numbering sixty-four members, would take part. This would mean an unique sight by and bye. Eight years before, he remembered, after the freedom of Rome, there had been a similar assembly; but the Cardinals at that time amounted to no more than fifty-three all told, and four had been absent.

Then he heard voices in his ante-room, a quick step, and a loud English expostulation. That was curious, and he sat up.

Then he heard a sentence.

"His Eminence must go to vest; it is useless."

There was a sharp answer, a faint scuffle, and a snatch at the handle. This was indecent; so Percy stood up, made three strides of it to the door, and tore it open.

A man stood there, whom at first he did not recognise, pale and disordered.

"Why—-" began Percy, and recoiled.

"Mr. Phillips!" he said.

The other threw out his hands.

"It is I, sir—your Eminence—this moment arrived. It is life and death. Your servant tells me—-" "Who sent you?"

"Father Blackmore."

"Good news or bad?"

The man rolled his eyes towards the servant, who still stood erect and offended a yard away; and Percy understood.

He put his hand on the other's arm, drawing him through the doorway.

"Tap upon this door in two minutes, James," he said.

They passed across the polished floor together; Percy went to his usual place in the window, leaned against the shutter, and spoke.

"Tell me in one sentence, sir," he said to the breathless man.

"There is a plot among the Catholics. They intend destroying the Abbey to-morrow with explosives. I knew that the Pope—-"

Percy cut him short with a gesture.

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