The volor-stage was comparatively empty this afternoon, as the little party of six stepped out on to it from the lift. There was nothing to distinguish these from ordinary travellers. The two Cardinals of Germany and England were wrapped in plain furs, without insignia of any kind; their chaplains stood near them, while the two men-servants hurried forward with the bags to secure a private compartment.
The four kept complete silence, watching the busy movements of the officials on board, staring unseeingly at the sleek, polished monster that lay netted in steel at their feet, and the great folded fins that would presently be cutting the thin air at a hundred and fifty miles an hour.
Then Percy, by a sudden movement, turned from the others, went to the open window that looked over Rome, and leaned there with his elbows on the sill, looking.
* * * * *
It was a strange view before him.
It was darkening now towards sunset, and the sky, primrose-green overhead, deepened to a clear tawny orange above the horizon, with a sanguine line or two at the edge, and beneath that lay the deep evening violet of the city, blotted here and there by the black of cypresses and cut by the thin leafless pinnacles of a poplar grove that aspired without the walls. But right across the picture rose the enormous dome, of an indescribable tint; it was grey, it was violet—it was what the eye chose to make it—and through it, giving its solidity the air of a bubble, shone the southern sky, flushed too with faint orange. It was this that was supreme and dominant; the serrated line of domes, spires and pinnacles, the crowded roofs beneath, in the valley dell' Inferno, the fairy hills far away—all were but the annexe to this mighty tabernacle of God. Already lights were beginning to shine, as for thirty centuries they had shone; thin straight skeins of smoke were ascending against the darkening sky. The hum of this Mother of cities was beginning to be still, for the keen air kept folks indoors; and the evening peace was descending that closed another day and another year. Beneath in the narrow streets Percy could see tiny figures, hurrying like belated ants; the crack of a whip, the cry of a woman, the wail of a child came up to this immense elevation like details of a murmur from another world. They, too, would soon be quiet, and there would be peace.
A heavy bell beat faintly from far away, and the drowsy city turned to murmur its good-night to the Mother of God. From a thousand towers came the tiny melody, floating across the great air spaces, in a thousand accents, the solemn bass of St. Peter's, the mellow tenor of the Lateran, the rough cry from some old slum church, the peevish tinkle of convents and chapels—all softened and made mystical in this grave evening air—it was the wedding of delicate sound and clear light. Above, the liquid orange sky; beneath, this sweet, subdued ecstasy of bells.
"Alma Redemptoris Mater," whispered Percy, his eyes wet with tears. "Gentle Mother of the Redeemer—the open door of the sky, star of the sea—have mercy on sinners. The Angel of the Lord announced it to Mary, and she conceived of the Holy Ghost…. Pour, therefore, Lord, Thy grace into our hearts. Let us, who know Christ's incarnation, rise through passion and cross to the glory of Resurrection—through the same Christ our Lord."
Another bell clanged sharply close at hand, calling him down to earth, and wrong, and labour and grief; and he turned to see the motionless volor itself one blaze of brilliant internal light, and the two priests following the German Cardinal across the gangway.
It was the rear compartment that the men had taken; and when he had seen that the old man was comfortable, still without a word he passed out again into the central passage to see the last of Rome.
The exit-door had now been snapped, and as Percy stood at the opposite window looking out at the high wall that would presently sink beneath him, throughout the whole of the delicate frame began to run the vibration of the electric engine. There was the murmur of talking somewhere, a heavy step shook the floor, a bell clanged again, twice, and a sweet wind-chord sounded. Again it sounded; the vibration ceased, and the edge of the high wall against the tawny sky on which he had fixed his eyes sank suddenly like a dropped bar, and he staggered a little in his place. A moment later the dome rose again, and itself sank, the city, a fringe of towers and a mass of dark roofs, pricked with light, span like a whirlpool; the jewelled stars themselves sprang this way and that; and with one more long cry the marvellous machine righted itself, beat with its wings, and settled down, with the note of the flying air passing through rising shrillness into vibrant silence, to its long voyage to the north.
Further and further sank the city behind; it was a patch now: greyness on black. The sky seemed to grow more huge and all-containing as the earth relapsed into darkness; it glowed like a vast dome of wonderful glass, darkening even as it glowed; and as Percy dropped his eyes once more round the extreme edge of the car the city was but a line and a bubble—a line and a swelling—a line, and nothingness.
He drew a long breath, and went back to his friends.
"Tell me again," said the old Cardinal, when the two were settled down opposite to one another, and the chaplains were gone to another compartment. "Who is this man?"
"This man? He was secretary to Oliver Brand, one of our politicians. He fetched me to old Mrs. Brand's death bed, and lost his place in consequence. He is in journalism now. He is perfectly honest. No, he is not a Catholic, though he longs to be one. That is why they confided in him."
"I know nothing of them, except that they are a desperate set. They have enough faith to act, but not enough to be patient…. I suppose they thought this man would sympathise. But unfortunately he has a conscience, and he also sees that any attempt of this kind would be the last straw on the back of toleration. Eminence, do you realise how violent the feeling is against us?"
The old man shook his head lamentably.
"Do I not?" he murmured. "And my Germans are in it? Are you sure?"
"Eminence, it is a vast plot. It has been simmering for months. There have been meetings every week. They have kept the secret marvellously. Your Germans only delayed that the blow might be more complete. And now, to-morrow—-" Percy drew back with a despairing gesture.
"And the Holy Father?"
"I went to him as soon as mass was over. He withdrew all opposition, and sent for you. It is our one chance, Eminence."
"And you think our plan will hinder it?"
"I have no idea, but I can think of nothing else. I shall go straight to the Archbishop and tell him all. We arrive, I believe, at three o'clock, and you in Berlin about seven, I suppose, by German time. The function is fixed for eleven. By eleven, then, we shall have done all that is possible. The Government will know, and they will know, too, that we are innocent in Rome. I imagine they will cause it to be announced that the Cardinal-Protector and the Archbishop, with his coadjutors, will be present in the sacristies. They will double every guard; they will parade volors overhead—and then—well! in God's hands be the rest."
"Do you think the conspirators will attempt it?"
"I have no idea," said Percy shortly.
"I understand they have alternative plans."
"Just so. If all is clear, they intend dropping the explosive from above; if not, at least three men have offered to sacrifice themselves by taking it into the Abbey themselves…. And you, Eminence?"
The old man eyed him steadily.
"My programme is yours," he said. "Eminence, have you considered the effect in either case? If nothing happens—-"
"If nothing happens we shall be accused of a fraud, of seeking to advertise ourselves. If anything happens—well, we shall all go before God together. Pray God it may be the second," he added passionately.
"It will be at least easier to bear," observed the old man.
"I beg your pardon, Eminence. I should not have said that."
There fell a silence between the two, in which no sound was heard but the faint untiring vibration of the screw, and the sudden cough of a man in the next compartment. Percy leaned his head wearily on his hand, and stared from the window.
The earth was now dark beneath them—an immense emptiness; above, the huge engulfing sky was still faintly luminous, and through the high frosty mist through which they moved stars glimmered now and again, as the car swayed and tacked across the wind.
"It will be cold among the Alps," murmured Percy. Then he broke off. "And I have not one shred of evidence," he said; "nothing but the word of a man."
"And you are sure?"
"I am sure."
"Eminence," said the German suddenly, staring straight into his face, "the likeness is extraordinary."
Percy smiled listlessly. He was tired of bearing that.
"What do you make of it?" persisted the other.
"I have been asked that before," said Percy. "I have no views."
"It seems to me that God means something," murmured the German heavily, still staring at him.
"A kind of antithesis—a reverse of the medal. I do not know."
Again there was silence. A chaplain looked in through the glazed door, a homely, blue-eyed German, and was waved away once more.
"Eminence," said the old man abruptly, "there is surely more to speak of. Plans to be made."
Percy shook his head.
"There are no plans to be made," he said. "We know nothing but the fact—no names—nothing. We—we are like children in a tiger's cage. And one of us has just made a gesture in the tiger's face."
"I suppose we shall communicate with one another?"
"If we are in existence."
It was curious how Percy took the lead. He had worn his scarlet for about three months, and his companion for twelve years; yet it was the younger who dictated plans and arranged. He was scarcely conscious of its strangeness, however. Ever since the shocking news of the morning, when a new mine had been sprung under the shaking Church, and he had watched the stately ceremonial, the gorgeous splendour, the dignified, tranquil movements of the Pope and his court, with a secret that burned his heart and brain—above all, since that quick interview in which old plans had been reversed and a startling decision formed, and a blessing given and received, and a farewell looked not uttered—all done in half-an-hour—his whole nature had concentrated itself into one keen tense force, like a coiled spring. He felt power tingling to his finger-tips—power and the dulness of an immense despair. Every prop had been cut, every brace severed; he, the City of Rome, the Catholic Church, the very supernatural itself, seemed to hang now on one single thing—the Finger of God. And if that failed—well, nothing would ever matter any more….
He was going now to one of two things—ignominy or death. There was no third thing—unless, indeed, the conspirators were actually taken with their instruments upon them. But that was impossible. Either they would refrain, knowing that God's ministers would fall with them, and in that case there would be the ignominy of a detected fraud, of a miserable attempt to win credit. Or they would not refrain; they would count the death of a Cardinal and a few bishops a cheap price to pay for revenge—and in that case well, there was Death and Judgment. But Percy had ceased to fear. No ignominy could be greater than that which he already bore—the ignominy of loneliness and discredit. And death could be nothing but sweet—it would at least be knowledge and rest. He was willing to risk all on God.
The other, with a little gesture of apology, took out his office book presently, and began to read.
Percy looked at him with an immense envy. Ah! if only he were as old as that! He could bear a year or two more of this misery, but not fifty years, he thought. It was an almost endless vista that (even if things went well) opened before him, of continual strife, self-repression, energy, misrepresentation from his enemies. The Church was sinking further every day. What if this new spasm of fervour were no more than the dying flare of faith? How could he bear that? He would have to see the tide of atheism rise higher and more triumphant every day; Felsenburgh had given it an impetus of whose end there was no prophesying. Never before had a single man wielded the full power of democracy. Then once more he looked forward to the morrow. Oh! if it could but end in death!… Beati mortui qui in Domino moriuntur! …
It was no good; it was cowardly to think in this fashion. After all, God was God—He takes up the isles as a very little thing.
Percy took out his office book, found Prime and St. Sylvester, signed himself with the cross, and began to pray. A minute later the two chaplains slipped in once more, and sat down; and all was silent, save for that throb of the screw, and the strange whispering rush of air outside.
It was about nineteen o'clock that the ruddy English conductor looked in at the doorway, waking Percy from his doze.
"Dinner will be served in half-an-hour, gentlemen," he said (speaking Esperanto, as the rule was on international cars). "We do not stop at Turin to-night." He shut the door and went out, and the sound of closing doors came down the corridor as he made the same announcement to each compartment.
There were no passengers to descend at Turin, then, reflected Percy; and no doubt a wireless message had been received that there were none to come on board either. That was good news: it would give him more time in London. It might even enable Cardinal Steinmann to catch an earlier volor from Paris to Berlin; but he was not sure bow they ran. It was a pity that the German had not been able to catch the thirteen o'clock from Rome to Berlin direct. So he calculated, in a kind of superficial insensibility.
He stood up presently to stretch himself. Then he passed out and along the corridor to the lavatory to wash his hands.
He became fascinated by the view as he stood before the basin at the rear of the car, for even now they were passing over Turin. It was a blur of light, vivid and beautiful, that shone beneath him in the midst of this gulf of darkness, sweeping away southwards into the gloom as the car sped on towards the Alps. How little, he thought, seemed this great city seen from above; and yet, how mighty it was! It was from that glimmer, already five miles behind, that Italy was controlled; in one of these dolls' houses of which he had caught but a glimpse, men sat in council over souls and bodies, and abolished God, and smiled at His Church. And God allowed it all, and made no sign. It was there that Felsenburgh had been, a month or two ago—Felsenburgh, his double! And again the mental sword tore and stabbed at his heart.
* * * * *
A few minutes later, the four ecclesiastics were sitting at their round table in a little screened compartment of the dining-room in the bows of the air-ship. It was an excellent dinner, served, as usual, from the kitchen in the bowels of the volor, and rose, course by course, with a smooth click, into the centre of the table. There was a bottle of red wine to each diner, and both table and chairs swung easily to the very slight motion of the ship. But they did not talk much, for there was only one subject possible to the two cardinals, and the chaplains had not yet been admitted into the full secret.
It was growing cold now, and even the hot-air foot-rests did not quite compensate for the deathly iciness of the breath that began to stream down from the Alps, which the ship was now approaching at a slight incline. It was necessary to rise at least nine thousand feet from the usual level, in order to pass the frontier of the Mont Cenis at a safe angle; and at the same time it was necessary to go a little slower over the Alps themselves, owing to the extreme rarity of the air, and the difficulty in causing the screw to revolve sufficiently quickly to counteract it.
"There will be clouds to-night," said a voice clear and distinct from the passage, as the door swung slightly to a movement of the car.
Percy got up and closed it.
The German Cardinal began to grow a little fidgety towards the end of dinner.
"I shall go back," he said at last. "I shall be better in my fur rug."
His chaplain dutifully went after him, leaving his own dinner unfinished, and Percy was left alone with Father Corkran, his English chaplain lately from Scotland.
He finished his wine, ate a couple of figs, and then sat staring out through the plate-glass window in front.
"Ah!" he said. "Excuse me, father. There are the Alps at last."
The front of the car consisted of three divisions, in the centre of one of which stood the steersman, his eyes looking straight ahead, and his hands upon the wheel. On either side of him, separated from him by aluminium walls, was contrived a narrow slip of a compartment, with a long curved window at the height of a man's eyes, through which a magnificent view could be obtained. It was to one of these that Percy went, passing along the corridor, and seeing through half-opened doors other parties still over their wine. He pushed the spring door on the left and went through.
He had crossed the Alps three times before in his life, and well remembered the extraordinary effect they had had on him, especially as he had once seen them from a great altitude upon a clear day—an eternal, immeasurable sea of white ice, broken by hummocks and wrinkles that from below were soaring peaks named and reverenced; and, beyond, the spherical curve of the earth's edge that dropped in a haze of air into unutterable space. But this time they seemed more amazing than ever, and he looked out on them with the interest of a sick child.
The car was now ascending; rapidly towards the pass up across the huge tumbled slopes, ravines, and cliffs that lie like outworks of the enormous wall. Seen from this great height they were in themselves comparatively insignificant, but they at least suggested the vastness of the bastions of which they were no more than buttresses. As Percy turned, he could see the moonless sky alight with frosty stars, and the dimness of the illumination made the scene even more impressive; but as he turned again, there was a change. The vast air about him seemed now to be perceived through frosted glass. The velvet blackness of the pine forests had faded to heavy grey, the pale glint of water and ice seen and gone again in a moment, the monstrous nakedness of rock spires and slopes, rising towards him and sliding away again beneath with a crawling motion—all these had lost their distinctness of outline, and were veiled in invisible white. As he looked yet higher to right and left the sight became terrifying, for the giant walls of rock rushing towards him, the huge grotesque shapes towering on all sides, ran upward into a curtain of cloud visible only from the dancing radiance thrown upon it by the brilliantly lighted car. Even as he looked, two straight fingers of splendour, resembling horns, shot out, as the bow searchlights were turned on; and the car itself, already travelling at half-speed, dropped to quarter-speed, and began to sway softly from side to side as the huge air-planes beat the mist through which they moved, and the antennae of light pierced it. Still up they went, and on—yet swift enough to let Percy see one great pinnacle rear itself, elongate, sink down into a cruel needle, and vanish into nothingness a thousand feet below. The motion grew yet more nauseous, as the car moved up at a sharp angle preserving its level, simultaneously rising, advancing and swaying. Once, hoarse and sonorous, an unfrozen torrent roared like a beast, it seemed within twenty yards, and was dumb again on the instant. Now, too, the horns began to cry, long, lamentable hootings, ringing sadly in that echoing desolation like the wail of wandering souls; and as Percy, awed beyond feeling, wiped the gathering moisture from the glass, and stared again, it appeared as if he floated now, motionless except for the slight rocking beneath his feet, in a world of whiteness, as remote from earth as from heaven, poised in hopeless infinite space, blind, alone, frozen, lost in a white hell of desolation.
Once, as he stared, a huge whiteness moved towards him through the veil, slid slowly sideways and down, disclosing, as the car veered, a gigantic slope smooth as oil, with one cluster of black rock cutting it like the fingers of a man's hand groping from a mountainous wave.
Then, as once more the car cried aloud like a lost sheep, there answered it, it seemed scarcely ten yards away, first one windy scream of dismay, another and another; a clang of bells, a chorus broke out; and the air was full of the beating of wings.
There was one horrible instant before a clang of a bell, the answering scream, and a whirling motion showed that the steersman was alert. Then like a stone the car dropped, and Percy clutched at the rail before him to steady the terrible sensation of falling into emptiness. He could hear behind him the crash of crockery, the bumping of heavy bodies, and as the car again checked on its wide wings, a rush of footsteps broke out and a cry or two of dismay. Outside, but high and far away, the hooting went on; the air was full of it, and in a flash he recognised that it could not be one or ten or twenty cars, but at least a hundred that had answered the call, and that somewhere overhead were hooting and flapping. The invisible ravines and cliffs on all sides took up the crying; long wails whooped and moaned and died amid a clash of bells, further and further every instant, but now in every direction, behind, above, in front, and far to right and left. Once more the car began to move, sinking in a long still curve towards the face of the mountain; and as it checked, and began to sway again on its huge wings, he turned to the door, seeing as he did so, through the cloudy windows in the glow of light, a spire of rock not thirty feet below rising from the mist, and one smooth shoulder of snow curving away into invisibility.
Within, the car shewed brutal signs of the sudden check: the doors of the dining compartments, as he passed along, were flung wide; glasses, plates, pools of wine and tumbled fruit rolled to and fro on the heaving floors; one man, sitting helplessly on the ground, rolled vacant, terrified eyes upon the priest. He glanced in at the door through which he had come just now, and Father Corkran staggered up from his seat and came towards him, reeling at the motion underfoot; simultaneously there was a rush from the opposite door, where a party of Americans had been dining; and as Percy, beckoning with his head, turned again to go down to the stern-end of the ship, he found the narrow passage blocked with the crowd that had run out. A babble of talking and cries made questions impossible; and Percy, with his chaplain behind him, gripped the aluminium panelling, and step by step began to make his way in search of his friends.
Half-way down the passage, as he pushed and struggled, a voice made itself heard above the din; and in the momentary silence that followed, again sounded the far-away crying of the volors overhead.
"Seats, gentlemen, seats," roared the voice. "We are moving immediately."
Then the crowd melted as the conductor came through, red-faced and determined, and Percy, springing into his wake, found his way clear to the stern.
The Cardinal seemed none the worse. He had been asleep, he explained, and saved himself in time from rolling on to the floor; but his old face twitched as he talked.
"But what is it?" he said. "What is the meaning?"
Father Bechlin related how he had actually seen one of the troop of volors within five yards of the window; it was crowded with faces, he said, from stem to stern. Then it had soared suddenly, and vanished in whorls of mist.
Percy shook his head, saying nothing. He had no explanation.
"They are inquiring, I understand," said Father Bechlin again. "The conductor was at his instrument just now."
There was nothing to be seen from the windows now. Only, as Percy stared out, still dazed with the shock, he saw the cruel needle of rock wavering beneath as if seen through water, and the huge shoulder of snow swaying softly up and down. It was quieter outside. It appeared that the flock had passed, only somewhere from an infinite height still sounded a fitful wailing, as if a lonely bird were wandering, lost in space.
"That is the signalling volor," murmured Percy to himself.
He had no theory—no suggestion. Yet the matter seemed an ominous one. It was unheard of that an encounter with a hundred volors should take place, and he wondered why they were going southwards. Again the name of Felsenburgh came to his mind. What if that sinister man were still somewhere overhead?
"Eminence," began the old man again. But at that instant the car began to move.
A bell clanged, a vibration tingled underfoot, and then, soft as a flake of snow, the great ship began to rise, its movement perceptible only by the sudden drop and vanishing of the spire of rock at which Percy still stared. Slowly the snowfield too began to flit downwards, a black cleft, whisked smoothly into sight from above, and disappeared again below, and a moment later once more the car seemed poised in white space as it climbed the slope of air down which it had dropped just now. Again the wind-chord rent the atmosphere; and this time the answer was as faint and distant as a cry from another world. The speed quickened, and the steady throb of the screw began to replace the swaying motion of the wings. Again came the hoot, wild and echoing through the barren wilderness of rock walls beneath, and again with a sudden impulse the car soared. It was going in great circles now, cautious as a cat, climbing, climbing, punctuating the ascent with cry after cry, searching the blind air for dangers. Once again a vast white slope came into sight, illuminated by the glare from the windows, sinking ever more and more swiftly, receding and approaching—until for one instant a jagged line of rocks grinned like teeth through the mist, dropped away and vanished, and with a clash of bells, and a last scream of warning, the throb of the screw passed from a whirr to a rising note, and the note to stillness, as the huge ship, clear at last of the frontier peaks, shook out her wings steady once more, and set out for her humming flight through space…. Whatever it was, was behind them now, vanished into the thick night.
There was a sound of talking from the interior of the car, hasty, breathless voices, questioning, exclaiming, and the authoritative terse answer of the guard. A step came along outside, and Percy sprang to meet it, but, as he laid his hand on the door, it was pushed from without, and to his astonishment the English guard came straight through, closing it behind him.
He stood there, looking strangely at the four priests, with compressed lips and anxious eyes.
"Well?" cried Percy.
"All right, gentlemen. But I'm thinking you'd better descend at Paris. I know who you are, gentlemen—and though I'm not a Catholic—-"
He stopped again.
"For God's sake, man—-" began Percy.
"Oh! the news, gentlemen. Well, it was two hundred cars going to Rome. There is a Catholic plot, sir, discovered in London—-" "Well?"
"To wipe out the Abbey. So they're going—-"
"Yes, sir—to wipe out Rome."
Then he was gone again.