Lord of the World

by Robert Hugh Benson

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Book II - Chapter VII


It was nearly sixteen o'clock on the same day, the last day of the year, that Mabel went into the little church that stood in the street beneath her house.

The dark was falling softly layer on layer; across the roofs to westward burned the smouldering fire of the winter sunset, and the interior was full of the dying light. She had slept a little in her chair that afternoon, and had awakened with that strange cleansed sense of spirit and mind that sometimes follows such sleep. She wondered later how she could have slept at such a time, and above all, how it was that she had perceived nothing of that cloud of fear and fury that even now was falling over town and country alike. She remembered afterwards an unusual busy-ness on the broad tracks beneath her as she had looked out on them from her windows, and an unusual calling of horns and whistles; but she thought nothing of it, and passed down an hour later for a meditation in the church.

She had grown to love the quiet place, and came in often like this to steady her thoughts and concentrate them on the significance that lay beneath the surface of life—the huge principles upon which all lived, and which so plainly were the true realities. Indeed, such devotion was becoming almost recognised among certain classes of people. Addresses were delivered now and then; little books were being published as guides to the interior life, curiously resembling the old Catholic books on mental prayer.

She went to-day to her usual seat, sat down, folded her hands, looked for a minute or two upon the old stone sanctuary, the white image and the darkening window. Then she closed her eyes and began to think, according to the method she followed.

First she concentrated her attention on herself, detaching it from all that was merely external and transitory, withdrawing it inwards … inwards, until she found that secret spark which, beneath all frailties and activities, made her a substantial member of the divine race of humankind.

This then was the first step.

The second consisted in an act of the intellect, followed by one of the imagination. All men possessed that spark, she considered…. Then she sent out her powers, sweeping with the eyes of her mind the seething world, seeing beneath the light and dark of the two hemispheres, the countless millions of mankind—children coming into the world, old men leaving it, the mature rejoicing in it and their own strength. Back through the ages she looked, through those centuries of crime and blindness, as the race rose through savagery and superstition to a knowledge of themselves; on through the ages yet to come, as generation followed generation to some climax whose perfection, she told herself, she could not fully comprehend because she was not of it. Yet, she told herself again, that climax had already been born; the birthpangs were over; for had not He come who was the heir of time?…

Then by a third and vivid act she realised the unity of all, the central fire of which each spark was but a radiation—that vast passionless divine being, realising Himself up through these centuries, one yet many, Him whom men had called God, now no longer unknown, but recognised as the transcendent total of themselves—Him who now, with the coming of the new Saviour, had stirred and awakened and shown Himself as One.

And there she stayed, contemplating the vision of her mind, detaching now this virtue, now that for particular assimilation, dwelling on her deficiencies, seeing in the whole the fulfilment of all aspirations, the sum of all for which men had hoped—that Spirit of Peace, so long hindered yet generated too perpetually by the passions of the world, forced into outline and being by the energy of individual lives, realising itself in pulse after pulse, dominant at last, serene, manifest, and triumphant. There she stayed, losing the sense of individuality, merging it by a long sustained effort of the will, drinking, as she thought, long breaths of the spirit of life and love….

Some sound, she supposed afterwards, disturbed her, and she opened her eyes; and there before her lay the quiet pavement, glimmering through the dusk, the step of the sanctuary, the rostrum on the right, and the peaceful space of darkening air above the white Mother-figure and against the tracery of the old window. It was here that men had worshipped Jesus, that blood-stained Man of Sorrow, who had borne, even on His own confession, not peace but a sword. Yet they had knelt, those blind and hopeless Christians…. Ah! the pathos of it all, the despairing acceptance of any creed that would account for sorrow, the wild worship of any God who had claimed to bear it!

And again came the sound, striking across her peace, though as yet she did not understand why.

It was nearer now; and she turned in astonishment to look down the dusky nave.

It was from without that the sound had come, that strange murmur, that rose and fell again as she listened.

She stood up, her heart quickening a little—only once before had she heard such a sound, once before, in a square, where men raged about a point beneath a platform….

She stepped swiftly out of her seat, passed down the aisle, drew back the curtains beneath the west window, lifted the latch and stepped out.

* * * * *

The street, from where she looked over the railings that barred the entrance to the church, seemed unusually empty and dark. To right and left stretched the houses, overhead the darkening sky was flushed with rose; but it seemed as if the public lights had been forgotten. There was not a living being to be seen.

She had put her hand on the latch of the gate, to open it and go out, when a sudden patter of footsteps made her hesitate; and the next instant a child appeared panting, breathless and terrified, running with her hands before her.

"They're coming, they're coming," sobbed the child, seeing the face looking at her. Then she clung to the bars, staring over her shoulder.

Mabel lifted the latch in an instant; the child sprang in, ran to the door and beat against it, then turning, seized her dress and cowered against her. Mabel shut the gate.

"There, there," she said. "Who is it? Who are coming?"

But the child hid her face, drawing at the kindly skirts; and the next moment came the roar of voices and the trampling of footsteps.

* * * * *

It was not more than a few seconds before the heralds of that grim procession came past. First came a flying squadron of children, laughing, terrified, fascinated, screaming, turning their heads as they ran, with a dog or two yelping among them, and a few women drifting sideways along the pavements. A face of a man, Mabel saw as she glanced in terror upwards, had appeared at the windows opposite, pale and eager—some invalid no doubt dragging himself to see. One group—a well-dressed man in grey, a couple of women carrying babies, a solemn-faced boy—halted immediately before her on the other side of the railings, all talking, none listening, and these too turned their faces to the road on the left, up which every instant the clamour and trampling grew. Yet she could not ask. Her lips moved; but no sound came from them. She was one incarnate apprehension. Across her intense fixity moved pictures of no importance of Oliver as he had been at breakfast, of her own bedroom with its softened paper, of the dark sanctuary and the white figure on which she had looked just now.

They were coming thicker now; a troop of young men with their arms linked swayed into sight, all talking or crying aloud, none listening—all across the roadway, and behind them surged the crowd, like a wave in a stone-fenced channel, male scarcely distinguishable from female in that pack of faces, and under that sky that grew darker every instant. Except for the noise, which Mabel now hardly noticed, so thick and incessant it was, so complete her concentration in the sense of sight—except for that, it might have been, from its suddenness and overwhelming force, some mob of phantoms trooping on a sudden out of some vista of the spiritual world visible across an open space, and about to vanish again in obscurity. That empty street was full now on this side and that so far as she could see; the young men were gone—running or walking she hardly knew—round the corner to the right, and the entire space was one stream of heads and faces, pressing so fiercely that the group at the railings were detached like weeds and drifted too, sideways, clutching at the bars, and swept away too and vanished. And all the while the child tugged and tore at her skirts.

Certain things began to appear now above the heads of the crowd—objects she could not distinguish in the failing light—poles, and fantastic shapes, fragments of stuff resembling banners, moving as if alive, turning from side to side, borne from beneath.

Faces, distorted with passion, looked at her from time to time as the moving show went past, open mouths cried at her; but she hardly saw them. She was watching those strange emblems, straining her eyes through the dusk, striving to distinguish the battered broken shapes, half-guessing, yet afraid to guess.

Then, on a sudden, from the hidden lamps beneath the eaves, light leaped into being—that strong, sweet, familiar light, generated by the great engines underground that, in the passion of that catastrophic day, all men had forgotten; and in a moment all changed from a mob of phantoms and shapes into a pitiless reality of life and death.

Before her moved a great rood, with a figure upon it, of which one arm hung from the nailed hand, swinging as it went; an embroidery streamed behind with the swiftness of the motion.

And next after it came the naked body of a child, impaled, white and ruddy, the head fallen upon the breast, and the arms, too, dangling and turning.

And next the figure of a man, hanging by the neck, dressed, it seemed, in a kind of black gown and cape, with its black-capped head twisting from the twisting rope.


The same night Oliver Brand came home about an hour before midnight.

For himself, what he had heard and seen that day was still too vivid and too imminent for him to judge of it coolly. He had seen, from his windows in Whitehall, Parliament Square filled with a mob the like of which had not been known in England since the days of Christianity—a mob full of a fury that could scarcely draw its origin except from sources beyond the reach of sense. Thrice during the hours that followed the publication of the Catholic plot and the outbreak of mob-law he had communicated with the Prime Minister asking whether nothing could be done to allay the tumult; and on both occasions he had received the doubtful answer that what could be done would be done, that force was inadmissible at present; but that the police were doing all that was possible.

As regarded the despatch of the volors to Rome, he had assented by silence, as had the rest of the Council. That was, Snowford had said, a judicial punitive act, regrettable but necessary. Peace, in this instance, could not be secured except on terms of war—or rather, since war was obsolete—by the sternness of justice. These Catholics had shown themselves the avowed enemies of society; very well, then society must defend itself, at least this once. Man was still human. And Oliver had listened and said nothing.

As he passed in one of the Government volors over London on his way home, he had caught more than one glimpse of what was proceeding beneath him. The streets were as bright as day, shadowless and clear in the white light, and every roadway was a crawling serpent. From beneath rose up a steady roar of voices, soft and woolly, punctuated by cries. From here and there ascended the smoke of burning; and once, as he flitted over one of the great squares to the south of Battersea, he had seen as it were a scattered squadron of ants running as if in fear or pursuit…. He knew what was happening…. Well, after all, man was not yet perfectly civilised.

He did not like to think of what awaited him at home. Once, about five hours earlier, he had listened to his wife's voice through the telephone, and what he had heard had nearly caused him to leave all and go to her. Yet he was scarcely prepared for what he found.

As he came into the sitting-room, there was no sound, except that far-away hum from the seething streets below. The room seemed strangely dark and cold; the only light that entered was through one of the windows from which the curtains were withdrawn, and, silhouetted against the luminous sky beyond, was the upright figure of a woman, looking and listening….

He pressed the knob of the electric light; and Mabel turned slowly towards him. She was in her day-dress, with a cloak thrown over her shoulders, and her face was almost as that of a stranger. It was perfectly colourless, her lips were compressed and her eyes full of an emotion which he could not interpret. It might equally have been anger, terror or misery.

She stood there in the steady light, motionless, looking at him.

For a moment he did not trust himself to speak. He passed across to the window, closed it and drew the curtains. Then he took that rigid figure gently by the arm.

"Mabel," he said, "Mabel."

She submitted to be drawn towards the sofa, but there was no response to his touch. He sat down and looked up at her with a kind of despairing apprehension.

"My dear, I am tired out," he said.

Still she looked at him. There was in her pose that rigidity that actors simulate; yet he knew it for the real thing. He had seen that silence once or twice before in the presence of a horror—once at any rate, at the sight of a splash of blood on her shoe.

"Well, my darling, sit down, at least," he said.

She obeyed him mechanically—sat, and still stared at him. In the silence once more that soft roar rose and died from the invisible world of tumult outside the windows. Within here all was quiet. He knew perfectly that two things strove within her, her loyalty to her faith and her hatred of those crimes in the name of justice. As he looked on her he saw that these two were at death grips, that hatred was prevailing, and that she herself was little more than a passive battlefield. Then, as with a long-drawn howl of a wolf, there surged and sank the voices of the mob a mile away, the tension broke…. She threw herself forward towards him, he caught her by the wrists, and so she rested, clasped in his arms, her face and bosom on his knees, and her whole body torn by emotion.

For a full minute neither spoke. Oliver understood well enough, yet at present he had no words. He only drew her a little closer to himself, kissed her hair two or three times, and settled himself to hold her. He began to rehearse what he must say presently.

Then she raised her flushed face for an instant, looked at him passionately, dropped her head again and began to sob out broken words.

He could only catch a sentence here and there, yet he knew what she was saying….

It was the ruin of all her hopes, she sobbed, the end of her religion. Let her die, die and have done with it! It was all gone, gone, swept away in this murderous passion of the people of her faith … they were no better than Christians, after all, as fierce as the men on whom they avenged themselves, as dark as though the Saviour, Julian, had never come; it was all lost … War and Passion and Murder had returned to the body from which she had thought them gone forever…. The burning churches, the hunted Catholics, the raging of the streets on which she had looked that day, the bodies of the child and the priest carried on poles, the burning churches and convents. … All streamed out, incoherent, broken by sobs, details of horror, lamentations, reproaches, interpreted by the writhing of her head and hands upon his knees. The collapse was complete.

He put his hands again beneath her arms and raised her. He was worn out by his work, yet he knew he must quiet her. This was more serious than any previous crisis. Yet he knew her power of recovery.

"Sit down, my darling," he said. "There … give me your hands. Now listen to me."

* * * * *

He made really an admirable defence, for it was what he had been repeating to himself all day. Men were not yet perfect, he said; there ran in their veins the blood of men who for twenty centuries had been Christians…. There must be no despair; faith in man was of the very essence of religion, faith in man's best self, in what he would become, not in what at present he actually was. They were at the beginning of the new religion, not in its maturity; there must be sourness in the young fruit. … Consider, too, the provocation! Remember the appalling crime that these Catholics had contemplated; they had set themselves to strike the new Faith in its very heart….

"My darling," he said, "men are not changed in an instant. What if those Christians had succeeded!… I condemn it all as strongly as you. I saw a couple of newspapers this afternoon that are as wicked as anything that the Christians have ever done. They exulted in all these crimes. It will throw the movement back ten years…. Do you think that there are not thousands like yourself who hate and detest this violence?… But what does faith mean, except that we know that mercy will prevail? Faith, patience and hope—these are our weapons."

He spoke with passionate conviction, his eyes fixed on hers, in a fierce endeavour to give her his own confidence, and to reassure the remnants of his own doubtfulness. It was true that he too hated what she hated, yet he saw things that she did not…. Well, well, he told himself, he must remember that she was a woman.

The look of frantic horror passed slowly out of her eyes, giving way to acute misery as he talked, and as his personality once more began to dominate her own. But it was not yet over.

"But the volors," she cried, "the volors! That is deliberate; that is not the work of the mob."

"My darling, it is no more deliberate than the other. We are all human, we are all immature. Yes, the Council permitted it, … permitted it, remember. The German Government, too, had to yield. We must tame nature slowly, we must not break it."

He talked again for a few minutes, repeating his arguments, soothing, reassuring, encouraging; and he saw that he was beginning to prevail. But she returned to one of his words.

"Permitted it! And you permitted it."

"Dear; I said nothing, either for it or against. I tell you that if we had forbidden it there would have been yet more murder, and the people would have lost their rulers. We were passive, since we could do nothing."

"Ah! but it would have been better to die…. Oh, Oliver, let me die at least! I cannot bear it."

By her hands which he still held he drew her nearer yet to himself.

"Sweetheart," he said gravely, "cannot you trust me a little? If I could tell you all that passed to-day, you would understand. But trust me that I am not heartless. And what of Julian Felsenburgh?"

For a moment he saw hesitation in her eyes; her loyalty to him and her loathing of all that had happened strove within her. Then once again loyalty prevailed, the name of Felsenburgh weighed down the balance, and trust came back with a flood of tears.

"Oh, Oliver," she said, "I know I trust you. But I am so weak, and all is so terrible. And He so strong and merciful. And will He be with us to-morrow?"

* * * * *

It struck midnight from the clock-tower a mile away as they yet sat and talked. She was still tremulous from the struggle; but she looked at him smiling, still holding his hands. He saw that the reaction was upon her in full force at last.

"The New Year, my husband," she said, and rose as she said it, drawing him after her.

"I wish you a happy New Year," she said. "Oh help me, Oliver."

She kissed him, and drew back, still holding his hands, looking at him with bright tearful eyes.

"Oliver," she cried again, "I must tell you this…. Do you know what I thought before you came?"

He shook his head, staring at her greedily. How sweet she was! He felt her grip tighten on his hands.

"I thought I could not bear it," she whispered—"that I must end it all—ah! you know what I mean."

His heart flinched as he heard her; and he drew her closer again to himself.

"It is all over! it is all over," she cried. "Ah! do not look like that! I could not tell you if it was not."' As their lips met again there came the vibration of an electric bell from the next room, and Oliver, knowing what it meant, felt even in that instant a tremor shake his heart. He loosed her hands, and still smiled at her.

"The bell!" she said, with a flash of apprehension.

"But it is all well between us again?"

Her face steadied itself into loyalty and confidence.

"It is all well," she said; and again the impatient bell tingled. "Go, Oliver; I will wait here." A minute later he was back again, with a strange look on his white face, and his lips compressed. He came straight up to her, taking her once more by the hands, and looking steadily into her steady eyes. In the hearts of both of them resolve and faith were holding down the emotion that was not yet dead. He drew a long breath.

"Yes," he said in an even voice, "it is over."

Her lips moved; and that deadly paleness lay on her cheeks. He gripped her firmly.

"Listen," he said. "You must face it. It is over. Rome is gone. Now we must build something better."

She threw herself sobbing into his arms.

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