Lord of the World

by Robert Hugh Benson

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Book II - Chapter VIII


Long before dawn on the first morning of the New Year the approaches to the Abbey were already blocked. Victoria Street, Great George Street, Whitehall—even Millbank Street itself—were full and motionless. Broad Sanctuary, divided by the low-walled motor-track, was itself cut into great blocks and wedges of people by the ways which the police kept open for the passage of important personages, and Palace Yard was kept rigidly clear except for one island, occupied by a stand which was itself full from top to bottom and end to end. All roofs and parapets which commanded a view of the Abbey were also one mass of heads. Overhead, like solemn moons, burned the white lights of the electric globes.

It was not known at exactly what hour the tumult had steadied itself to definite purpose, except to a few weary controllers of the temporary turnstiles which had been erected the evening before. It had been announced a week previously that, in consideration of the enormous demand for seats, all persons who presented their worship-ticket at an authorised office, and followed the directions issued by the police, would be accounted as having fulfilled the duties of citizenship in that respect, and it was generally made known that it was the Government's intention to toll the great bell of the Abbey at the beginning of the ceremony and at the incensing of the image, during which period silence must be as far as possible preserved by all those within hearing.

London had gone completely mad on the announcement of the Catholic plot on the afternoon before. The secret had leaked out about fourteen o'clock, an hour after the betrayal of the scheme to Mr. Snowford; and practically all commercial activities had ceased on the instant. By fifteen-and-a-half all stores were closed, the Stock Exchange, the City offices, the West End establishments—all had as by irresistible impulse suspended business, and from within two hours after noon until nearly midnight, when the police had been adequately reinforced and enabled to deal with the situation, whole mobs and armies of men, screaming squadrons of women, troops of frantic youths, had paraded the streets, howling, denouncing, and murdering. It was not known how many deaths had taken place, but there was scarcely a street without the signs of outrage. Westminster Cathedral had been sacked, every altar overthrown, indescribable indignities performed there. An unknown priest had scarcely been able to consume the Blessed Sacrament before he was seized and throttled; the Archbishop with eleven priests and two bishops had been hanged at the north end of the church, thirty-five convents had been destroyed, St. George's Cathedral burned to the ground; and it was reported even, by the evening papers, that it was believed that, for the first time since the introduction of Christianity into England, there was not one Tabernacle left within twenty miles of the Abbey. "London," explained the New People, in huge headlines, "was cleansed at last of dingy and fantastic nonsense."

It was known at about fifteen-and-a-half o'clock that at least seventy volors had left for Rome, and half-an-hour later that Berlin had reinforced them by sixty more. At midnight, fortunately at a time when the police had succeeded in shepherding the crowds into some kind of order, the news was flashed on to cloud and placard alike that the grim work was done, and that Rome had ceased to exist. The early morning papers added a few details, pointing out, of course, the coincidence of the fall with the close of the year, relating how, by an astonishing chance, practically all the heads of the hierarchy throughout the world had been assembled in the Vatican which had been the first object of attack, and how these, in desperation, it was supposed, had refused to leave the City when the news came by wireless telegraphy that the punitive force was on its way. There was not a building left in Rome; the entire place, Leonine City, Trastevere, suburbs—everything was gone; for the volors, poised at an immense height, had parcelled out the City beneath them with extreme care, before beginning to drop the explosives; and five minutes after the first roar from beneath and the first burst of smoke and flying fragments, the thing was finished. The volors had then dispersed in every direction, pursuing the motor and rail-tracks along which the population had attempted to escape so soon as the news was known; and it was supposed that not less than thirty thousand belated fugitives had been annihilated by this foresight. It was true, remarked the Studio, that many treasures of incalculable value had been destroyed, but this was a cheap price to pay for the final and complete extermination of the Catholic pest. "There comes a point," it remarked, "when destruction is the only cure for a vermin-infested house," and it proceeded to observe that now that the Pope with the entire College of Cardinals, all the ex-Royalties of Europe, all the most frantic religionists from the inhabited world who had taken up their abode in the "Holy City" were gone at a stroke, a recrudescence of the superstition was scarcely to be feared elsewhere. Yet care must even now be taken against any relenting. Catholics (if any were left bold enough to attempt it) must no longer be allowed to take any kind of part in the life of any civilised country. So far as messages had come in from other countries, there was but one chorus of approval at what had been done.

A few papers regretted the incident, or rather the spirit which had lain behind it. It was not seemly, they said, that Humanitarians should have recourse to violence; yet not one pretended that anything could be felt but thanksgiving for the general result. Ireland, too, must be brought into line; they must not dally any longer.

* * * * *

It was now brightening slowly towards dawn, and beyond the river through the faint wintry haze a crimson streak or two began to burn. But all was surprisingly quiet, for this crowd, tired out with an all-night watch, chilled by the bitter cold, and intent on what lay before them, had no energy left for useless effort. Only from packed square and street and lane went up a deep, steady murmur like the sound of the sea a mile away, broken now and again by the hoot and clang of a motor and the rush of its passage as it tore eastwards round the circle through Broad Sanctuary and vanished citywards. And the light broadened and the electric globes sickened and paled, and the haze began to clear a little, showing, not the fresh blue that had been hoped for from the cold of the night, but a high, colourless vault of cloud, washed with grey and faint rose-colour, as the sun came up, a ruddy copper disc, beyond the river.

* * * * *

At nine o'clock the excitement rose a degree higher. The police between Whitehall and the Abbey, looking from their high platforms strung along the route, whence they kept watch and controlled the wire palisadings, showed a certain activity, and a minute later a police-car whirled through the square between the palings, and vanished round the Abbey towers. The crowd murmured and shuffled and began to expect, and a cheer was raised when a moment later four more cars appeared, bearing the Government insignia, and disappeared in the same direction. These were the officials, they said, going to Dean's Yard, where the procession would assemble.

At about a quarter to ten the crowd at the west end of Victoria Street began to raise its voice in a song, and by the time that was over, and the bells had burst out from the Abbey towers, a rumour had somehow made its entrance that Felsenburgh was to be present at the ceremony. There was no assignable reason for this, neither then nor afterwards; in fact, the Evening Star declared that it was one more instance of the astonishing instinct of human beings en masse; for it was not until an hour later that even the Government were made aware of the facts. Yet the truth remained that at half-past ten one continuous roar went up, drowning even the brazen clamour of the bells, reaching round to Whitehall and the crowded pavements of Westminster Bridge, demanding Julian Felsenburgh. Yet there had been absolutely no news of the President of Europe for the last fortnight, beyond an entirely unsupported report that he was somewhere in the East.

And all the while the motors poured from all directions towards the Abbey and disappeared under the arch into Dean's Yard, bearing those fortunate persons whose tickets actually admitted them to the church itself. Cheers ran and rippled along the lines as the great men were recognised—Lord Pemberton, Oliver Brand and his wife, Mr. Caldecott, Maxwell, Snowford, with the European delegates—even melancholy-faced Mr. Francis himself, the Government ceremoniarius, received a greeting. But by a quarter to eleven, when the pealing bells paused, the stream had stopped, the barriers issued out to stop the roads, the wire palisadings vanished, and the crowd for an instant, ceasing its roaring, sighed with relief at the relaxed pressure, and surged out into the roadways. Then once more the roaring began for Julian Felsenburgh.

The sun was now high, still a copper disc, above the Victoria Tower, but paler than an hour ago; the whiteness of the Abbey, the heavy greys of Parliament House, the ten thousand tints of house-roofs, heads, streamers, placards began to disclose themselves.

A single bell tolled five minutes to the hour, and the moments slipped by, until once more the bell stopped, and to the ears of those within hearing of the great west doors came the first blare of the huge organ, reinforced by trumpets. And then, as sudden and profound as the hush of death, there fell an enormous silence.


As the five-minutes bell began, sounding like a continuous wind-note in the great vaults overhead, solemn and persistent, Mabel drew a long breath and leaned back in her seat from the rigid position in which for the last half-hour she had been staring out at the wonderful sight. She seemed to herself to have assimilated it at last, to be herself once more, to have drunk her fill of the triumph and the beauty. She was as one who looks upon a summer sea on the morning after a storm. And now the climax was at hand.

From end to end and side to side the interior of the Abbey presented a great broken mosaic of human faces; living slopes, walls, sections and curves. The south transept directly opposite to her, from pavement to rose window, was one sheet of heads; the floor was paved with them, cut in two by the scarlet of the gangway leading from the chapel of St. Faith—on the right, the choir beyond the open space before the sanctuary was a mass of white figures, scarved and surpliced; the high organ gallery, beneath which the screen had been removed, was crowded with them, and, far down beneath, the dim nave stretched the same endless pale living pavement to the shadow beneath the west window. Between every group of columns behind the choir-stalls, before her, to right, left, and behind, were platforms contrived in the masonry; and the exquisite roof, fan-tracery and soaring capital, alone gave the eye an escape from humanity. The whole vast space was full, it seemed, of delicate sunlight that streamed in from the artificial light set outside each window, and poured the ruby and the purple and the blue from the old glass in long shafts of colour across the dusty air, and in broken patches on the faces and dresses behind. The murmur of ten thousand voices filled the place, supplying, it seemed, a solemn accompaniment to that melodious note that now pulsed above it. And finally, more significant than all, was the empty carpeted sanctuary at her feet, the enormous altar with its flight of steps, the gorgeous curtain and the great untenanted sedilia.

* * * * *

Mabel needed some such reassurance, for last night, until the coming of Oliver, had passed for her as a kind of appalling waking dream. From the first shock of what she had seen outside the church, through those hours of waiting, with the knowledge that this was the way in which the Spirit of Peace asserted its superiority, up to that last moment when, in her husband's arms, she had learned of the Fall of Rome, it had appeared to her as if her new world had suddenly corrupted about her. It was incredible, she told herself, that this ravening monster, dripping blood from claws and teeth, that had arisen roaring in the night, could be the Humanity that had become her God. She had thought revenge and cruelty and slaughter to be the brood of Christian superstition, dead and buried under the new-born angel of light, and now it seemed that the monsters yet stirred and lived. All the evening she had sat, walked, lain about her quiet house with the horror heavy about her, flinging open a window now and again in the icy air to listen with clenched hands to the cries and the roarings of the mob that raged in the streets beneath, the clanks, the yells and the hoots of the motor-trains that tore up from the country to swell the frenzy of the city—to watch the red glow of fire, the volumes of smoke that heaved up from the burning chapels and convents.

She had questioned, doubted, resisted her doubts, flung out frantic acts of faith, attempted to renew the confidence that she attained in her meditation, told herself that traditions died slowly; she had knelt, crying out to the spirit of peace that lay, as she knew so well, at the heart of man, though overwhelmed for the moment by evil passion. A line or two ran in her head from one of the old Victorian poets:

You doubt If any one Could think or bid it? How could it come about?… Who did it? Not men! Not here! Oh! not beneath the sun…. The torch that smouldered till the cup o'er-ran The wrath of God which is the wrath of Man!

She had even contemplated death, as she had told her husband—the taking of her own life, in a great despair with the world. Seriously she had thought of it; it was an escape perfectly in accord with her morality. The useless and agonising were put out of the world by common consent; the Euthanasia houses witnessed to it. Then why not she?… For she could not bear it!… Then Oliver had come, she had fought her way back to sanity and confidence; and the phantom had gone again.

How sensible and quiet he had been, she was beginning to tell herself now, as the quiet influence of this huge throng in this glorious place of worship possessed her once more—how reasonable in his explanation that man was even now only convalescent and therefore liable to relapse. She had told herself that again and again during the night, but it had been different when he had said so. His personality had once more prevailed; and the name of Felsenburgh had finished the work.

"If He were but here!" she sighed. But she knew He was far away.

* * * * *

It was not until a quarter to eleven that she understood that the crowds outside were clamouring for Him too, and that knowledge reassured her yet further. They knew, then, these wild tigers, where their redemption lay; they understood what was their ideal, even if they had not attained to it. Ah! if He were but here, there would be no more question: the sullen waves would sink beneath His call of peace, the hazy clouds lift, the rumble die to silence. But He was away—away on some strange business. Well; He knew His work. He would surely come soon again to His children who needed Him so terribly.

* * * * *

She had the good fortune to be alone in a crowd. Her neighbour, a grizzled old man with his daughters beyond, was her only neighbour, and a stranger. At her left rose up the red-covered barricade over which she could see the sanctuary and the curtain; and her seat in the tribune, raised some eight feet above the floor, removed her from any possibility of conversation. She was thankful for that: she did not want to talk; she wanted only to control her faculties in silence, to reassert her faith, to look out over this enormous throng gathered to pay homage to the great Spirit whom they had betrayed, to renew her own courage and faithfulness. She wondered what the preacher would say, whether there would be any note of penitence. Maternity was his subject—that benign aspect of universal life—tenderness, love, quiet, receptive, protective passion, the spirit that soothes rather than inspires, that busies itself with peaceful tasks, that kindles the lights and fires of home, that gives sleep, food and welcome….

The bell stopped, and in the instant before the music began she heard, clear above the murmur within, the roar of the crowds outside, who still demanded their God. Then, with a crash, the huge organ awoke, pierced by the cry of the trumpets and the maddening throb of drums. There was no delicate prelude here, no slow stirring of life rising through labyrinths of mystery to the climax of sight—here rather was full-orbed day, the high noon of knowledge and power, the dayspring from on high, dawning in mid-heaven. Her heart quickened to meet it, and her reviving confidence, still convalescent, stirred and smiled, as the tremendous chords blared overhead, telling of triumph full-armed. God was man, then, after all—a God who last night had faltered for an hour, but who rose again on this morning of a new year, scattering mists, dominant over his own passion, all-compelling and all-beloved. God was man, and Felsenburgh his Incarnation! Yes, she must believe that! She did believe that!

Then she saw how already the long procession was winding up beneath the screen, and by imperceptible art the light grew yet more acutely beautiful. They were coming, then, those ministers of a pure worship; grave men who knew in what they believed, and who, even if they did not at this moment thrill with feeling (for she knew that in this respect her husband for one did not), yet believed the principles of this worship and recognised their need of expression for the majority of mankind—coming slowly up in fours and pairs and units, led by robed vergers, rippling over the steps, and emerging again into the coloured sunlight in all their bravery of Masonic apron, badge and jewel. Surely here was reassurance enough.

* * * * *

The sanctuary now held a figure or two. Anxious-faced Mr. Francis, in his robes of office, came gravely down the steps and stood awaiting the procession, directing with almost imperceptible motions his satellites who hovered about the aisles ready to point this way and that to the advancing stream; and the western-most seats were already beginning to fill, when on a sudden she recognised that something had happened.

Just now the roaring of the mob outside had provided a kind of underbass to the music within, imperceptible except to sub-consciousness, but clearly discernible in its absence; and this absence was now a fact.

At first she thought that the signal of beginning worship had hushed them; and then, with an indescribable thrill, she remembered that in all her knowledge only one thing had ever availed to quiet a turbulent crowd. Yet she was not sure; it might be an illusion. Even now the mob might be roaring still, and she only deaf to it; but again with an ecstasy that was very near to agony she perceived that the murmur of voices even within the building had ceased, and that some great wave of emotion was stirring the sheets and slopes of faces before her as a wind stirs wheat. A moment later, and she was on her feet, gripping the rail, with her heart like an over-driven engine beating pulses of blood, furious and insistent, through every vein; for with great rushing surge that sounded like a sigh, heard even above the triumphant tumult overhead, the whole enormous assemblage had risen to its feet.

Confusion seemed to break out in the orderly procession. She saw Mr. Francis run forward quickly, gesticulating like a conductor, and at his signal the long line swayed forward, split, recoiled, and again slid swiftly forward, breaking as it did so into twenty streams that poured along the seats and filled them in a moment. Men ran and pushed, aprons flapped, hands beckoned, all without coherent words. There was a knocking of feet, the crash of an overturned chair, and then, as if a god had lifted his hand for quiet, the music ceased abruptly, sending a wild echo that swooned and died in a moment; a great sigh filled its place, and, in the coloured sunshine that lay along the immense length of the gangway that ran open now from west to east, far down in the distant nave, a single figure was seen advancing.


What Mabel saw and heard and felt from eleven o'clock to half-an-hour after noon on that first morning of the New Year she could never adequately remember. For the time she lost the continuous consciousness of self, the power of reflection, for she was still weak from her struggle; there was no longer in her the process by which events are stored, labelled and recorded; she was no more than a being who observed as it were in one long act, across which considerations played at uncertain intervals. Eyes and ear seemed her sole functions, communicating direct with a burning heart.

* * * * *

She did not even know at what point her senses told her that this was Felsenburgh. She seemed to have known it even before he entered, and she watched Him as in complete silence He came deliberately up the red carpet, superbly alone, rising a step or two at the entrance of the choir, passing on and up before her. He was in his English judicial dress of scarlet and black, but she scarcely noticed it. For her, too, no one else existed but, He; this vast assemblage was gone, poised and transfigured in one vibrating atmosphere of an immense human emotion. There was no one, anywhere, but Julian Felsenburgh. Peace and light burned like a glory about Him.

For an instant after passing he disappeared beyond the speaker's tribune, and the instant after reappeared once more, coming up the steps. He reached his place—she could see His profile beneath her and slightly to the left, pure and keen as the blade of a knife, beneath His white hair. He lifted one white-furred sleeve, made a single motion, and with a surge and a rumble, the ten thousand were seated. He motioned again and with a roar they were on their feet.

Again there was a silence. He stood now, perfectly still, His hands laid together on the rail, and His face looking steadily before Him; it seemed as if He who had drawn all eyes and stilled all sounds were waiting until His domination were complete, and there was but one will, one desire, and that beneath His hand. Then He began to speak….

* * * * *

In this again, as Mabel perceived afterwards, there was no precise or verbal record within her of what he said; there was no conscious process by which she received, tested, or approved what she heard. The nearest image under which she could afterwards describe her emotions to herself, was that when He spoke it was she who was speaking. Her own thoughts, her predispositions, her griefs, her disappointment, her passion, her hopes—all these interior acts of the soul known scarcely even to herself, down even, it seemed, to the minutest whorls and eddies of thought, were, by this man, lifted up, cleansed, kindled, satisfied and proclaimed. For the first time in her life she became perfectly aware of what human nature meant; for it was her own heart that passed out upon the air, borne on that immense voice. Again, as once before for a few moments in Paul's House, it seemed that creation, groaning so long, had spoken articulate words at last—had come to growth and coherent thought and perfect speech. Yet then He had spoken to men; now it was Man Himself speaking. It was not one man who spoke there, it was Man—Man conscious of his origin, his destiny, and his pilgrimage between, Man sane again after a night of madness—knowing his strength, declaring his law, lamenting in a voice as eloquent as stringed instruments his own failure to correspond. It was a soliloquy rather than an oration. Rome had fallen, English and Italian streets had run with blood, smoke and flame had gone up to heaven, because man had for an instant sunk back to the tiger. Yet it was done, cried the great voice, and there was no repentance; it was done, and ages hence man must still do penance and flush scarlet with shame to remember that once he turned his back on the risen light.

There was no appeal to the lurid, no picture of the tumbling palaces, the running figures, the coughing explosions, the shaking of the earth and the dying of the doomed. It was rather with those hot hearts shouting in the English and German streets, or aloft in the winter air of Italy, the ugly passions that warred there, as the volors rocked at their stations, generating and fulfilling revenge, paying back plot with plot, and violence with violence. For there, cried the voice, was man as he had been, fallen in an instant to the cruel old ages before he had learned what he was and why.

There was no repentance, said the voice again, but there was something better; and as the hard, stinging tones melted, the girl's dry eyes of shame filled in an instant with tears. There was something better—the knowledge of what crimes man was yet capable of, and the will to use that knowledge. Rome was gone, and it was a lamentable shame; Rome was gone, and the air was the sweeter for it; and then in an instant, like the soar of a bird, He was up and away—away from the horrid gulf where He had looked just now, from the fragments of charred bodies, and tumbled houses and all the signs of man's disgrace, to the pure air and sunlight to which man must once more set his face. Yet He bore with Him in that wonderful flight the dew of tears and the aroma of earth. He had not spared words with which to lash and whip the naked human heart, and He did not spare words to lift up the bleeding, shrinking thing, and comfort it with the divine vision of love….

Historically speaking, it was about forty minutes before He turned to the shrouded image behind the altar.

"Oh! Maternity!" he cried. "Mother of us all—-"

And then, to those who heard Him, the supreme miracle took place…. For it seemed now in an instant that it was no longer man who spoke, but One who stood upon the stage of the superhuman. The curtain ripped back, as one who stood by it tore, panting, at the strings; and there, it seemed, face to face stood the Mother above the altar, huge, white and protective, and the Child, one passionate incarnation of love, crying to her from the tribune.

"Oh! Mother of us all, and Mother of Me!"

So He praised her to her face, that sublime principle of life, declared her glories and her strength, her Immaculate Motherhood, her seven swords of anguish driven through her heart by the passion and the follies of her Son—He promised her great things, the recognition of her countless children, the love and service of the unborn, the welcome of those yet quickening within the womb. He named her the Wisdom of the Most High, that sweetly orders all things, the Gate of Heaven, House of Ivory, Comforter of the afflicted, Queen of the World; and, to the delirious eyes of those who looked on her it seemed that the grave face smiled to hear Him….

A great panting as of some monstrous life began to fill the air as the mob swayed behind Him, and the torrential voice poured on. Waves of emotion swept up and down; there were cries and sobs, the yelping of a man beside himself at last, from somewhere among the crowded seats, the crash of a bench, and another and another, and the gangways were full, for He no longer held them passive to listen; He was rousing them to some supreme act. The tide crawled nearer, and the faces stared no longer at the Son but the Mother; the girl in the gallery tore at the heavy railing, and sank down sobbing upon her knees. And above all the voice pealed on—and the thin hands blanched to whiteness strained from the wide and sumptuous sleeves as if to reach across the sanctuary itself.

It was a new tale He was telling now, and all to her glory. He was from the East, now they knew, come from some triumph. He had been hailed as King, adored as Divine, as was meet and right—He, the humble superhuman son of a Human Mother—who bore not a sword but peace, not a cross but a crown. So it seemed He was saying; yet no man there knew whether He said it or not—whether the voice proclaimed it, or their hearts asserted it. He was on the steps of the sanctuary now, still with outstretched hands and pouring words, and the mob rolled after him to the rumble of ten thousand feet and the sighing of ten thousand hearts…. He was at the altar; He was upon it. Again in one last cry, as the crowd broke against the steps beneath, He hailed her Queen and Mother.

The end came in a moment, swift and inevitable. And for an instant, before the girl in the gallery sank down, blind with tears, she saw the tiny figure poised there at the knees of the huge image, beneath the expectant hands, silent and transfigured in the blaze of light. The Mother, it seemed, had found her Son at last.

For an instant she saw it, the soaring columns, the gilding and the colours, the swaying heads, the tossing hands. It was a sea that heaved before her, lights went up and down, the rose window whirled overhead, presences filled the air, heaven flashed away, and the earth shook it ecstasy. Then in the heavenly light, to the crash of drums, above the screaming of the women and the battering of feet, in one thunder-peal of worship ten thousand voices hailed Him Lord and God.

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