Lord of the World

by Robert Hugh Benson

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Book III - Chapter II


At twenty-three o'clock that night the Syrian priest went out to watch for the coming of the messenger from Tiberias. Nearly two hours previously he had heard the cry of the Russian volor that plied from Damascus to Tiberias, and Tiberias to Jerusalem, and even as it was the messenger was a little late.

These were very primitive arrangements, but Palestine was out of the world—a slip of useless country—and it was necessary for a man to ride from Tiberias to Nazareth each night with papers from Cardinal Corkran to the Pope, and to return with correspondence. It was a dangerous task, and the members of the New Order who surrounded the Cardinal undertook it by turns. In this manner all matters for which the Pope's personal attention was required, and which were too long and not too urgent, could be dealt with at leisure by him, and an answer returned within the twenty-four hours.

It was a brilliant moonlit night. The great golden shield was riding high above Thabor, shedding its strange metallic light down the long slopes and over the moor-like country that rose up from before the house-door—casting too heavy black shadows that seemed far more concrete and solid than the brilliant pale surfaces of the rock slabs or even than the diamond flashes from the quartz and crystal that here and there sparkled up the stony pathway. Compared with this clear splendour, the yellow light from the shuttered house seemed a hot and tawdry thing; and the priest, leaning against the door-post, his eyes alone alight in his dark face, sank down at last with a kind of Eastern sensuousness to bathe himself in the glory, and to spread his lean, brown hands out to it.

This was a very simple man, in faith as well as in life. For him there were neither the ecstasies nor the desolations of his master. It was an immense and solemn joy to him to live here at the spot of God's Incarnation and in attendance upon His Vicar. As regarded the movements of the world, he observed them as a man in a ship watches the heaving of the waves far beneath. Of course the world was restless, he half perceived, for, as the Latin Doctor had said, all hearts were restless until they found their rest in God. Quare fremuerunt gentes?… Adversus Dominum, et adversus Christum ejus! As to the end—he was not greatly concerned. It might well be that the ship would be overwhelmed, but the moment of the catastrophe would be the end of all things earthly. The gates of hell shall not prevail: when Rome falls, the world falls; and when the world falls, Christ is manifest in power. For himself, he imagined that the end was not far away. When he had named Megiddo this afternoon it had been in his mind; to him it seemed natural that at the consummation of all things Christ's Vicar should dwell at Nazareth where His King had come on earth—and that the Armageddon of the Divine John should be within sight of the scene where Christ had first taken His earthly sceptre and should take it again. After all, it would not be the first battle that Megiddo had seen. Israel and Amalek had met here; Israel and Assyria; Sesostris had ridden here and Sennacherib. Christian and Turk had contended here, like Michael and Satan, over the place where God's Body had lain. As to the exact method of that end, he had no clear views; it would be a battle of some kind, and what field could be found more evidently designed for that than this huge flat circular plain of Esdraelon, twenty miles across, sufficient to hold all the armies of the earth in its embrace? To his view once more, ignorant as he was of present statistics, the world was divided into two large sections, Christians and heathens, and he supposed them very much of a size. Something would happen, troops would land at Khaifa, they would stream southwards from Tiberias, Damascus and remote Asia, northwards from Jerusalem, Egypt and Africa; eastwards from Europe; westwards from Asia again and the far-off Americas. And, surely, the time could not be far away, for here was Christ's Vicar; and, as He Himself had said in His gospel of the Advent, Ubicumque fuerit corpus, illie congregabuntur et aquilae. Of more subtle interpretations of prophecy he had no knowledge. For him words were things, not merely labels upon ideas. What Christ and St. Paul and St. John had said—these things were so. He had escaped, owing chiefly to his isolation from the world, that vast expansion of Ritschlian ideas that during the last century had been responsible for the desertion by so many of any intelligible creed. For others this had been the supreme struggle—the difficulty of decision between the facts that words were not things, and yet that the things they represented were in themselves objective. But to this man, sitting now in the moonlight, listening to the far-off tap of hoofs over the hill as the messenger came up from Cana, faith was as simple as an exact science. Here Gabriel had descended on wide feathered wings from the Throne of God set beyond the stars, the Holy Ghost had breathed in a beam of ineffable light, the Word had become Flesh as Mary folded her arms and bowed her head to the decree of the Eternal. And here once more, he thought, though it was no more than a guess—yet he thought that already the running of chariot-wheels was audible—the tumult of the hosts of God gathering about the camp of the saints—he thought that already beyond the bars of the dark Gabriel set to his lips the trumpet of doom and heaven was astir. He might be wrong at this time, as others had been wrong at other times, but neither he nor they could be wrong for ever; there must some day be an end to the patience of God, even though that patience sprang from the eternity of His nature. He stood up, as down the pale moonlit path a hundred yards away came a pale figure of one who rode, with a leather bag strapped to his girdle.


It would be about three o'clock in the morning that the priest awoke in his little mud-walled room next to that of the Holy Father's, and heard a footstep coming up the stairs. Last evening he had left his master as usual beginning to open the pile of letters arrived from Cardinal Corkran, and himself had gone straight to his bed and slept. He lay now a moment or two, still drowsy, listening to the pad of feet, and an instant later sat up abruptly, for a deliberate tap had sounded on the door. Again it came; he sprang out of bed in his long night-tunic, drew it up hastily in his girdle, went to the door and opened it.

The Pope was standing there, with a little lamp in one hand, for the dawn had scarcely yet begun, and a paper in the other.

"I beg your pardon, Father; but there is a message I must have sent at once to his Eminence."

Together they went out through the Pope's room, the priest, still half-blind with sleep, passed up the stairs, and emerged into the clear cold air of the upper roof. The Pope blew out His lamp, and set it on the parapet.

"You will be cold, Father; fetch your cloak."

"And you, Holiness?"

The other made a little gesture of denial, and went across to the tiny temporary shed where the wireless telegraphic instrument stood.

"Fetch your cloak, Father," He said again over His shoulder. "I will ring up meanwhile."

When the priest came back three minutes later, in his slippers and cloak, carrying another cloak also for his master, the Pope was still seated at the table. He did not even move His head as the other came up, but once more pressed on the lever that, communicating with the twelve-foot pole that rose through the pent-house overhead, shot out the quivering energy through the eighty miles of glimmering air that lay between Nazareth and Damascus.

This simple priest had scarcely even by now become accustomed to this extraordinary device invented a century ago and perfected through all those years to this precise exactness—that device by which with the help of a stick, a bundle of wires, and a box of wheels, something, at last established to be at the root of all matter, if not at the very root of physical life, spoke across the spaces of the world to a tiny receiver tuned by a hair's breadth to the vibration with which it was set in relations.

The air was surprisingly cold, considering the heat that had preceded and would follow it, and the priest shivered a little as he stood clear of the roof, and stared, now at the motionless figure in the chair before him, now at the vast vault of the sky passing, even as he looked, from a cold colourless luminosity to a tender tint of yellow, as far away beyond Thabor and Moab the dawn began to deepen. From the village half-a-mile away arose the crowing of a cock, thin and brazen as a trumpet; a dog barked once and was silent again; and then, on a sudden, a single stroke upon a bell hung in the roof recalled him in an instant, and told him that his work was to begin.

The Pope pressed the lever again at the sound, twice, and then, after a pause, once more—waited a moment for an answer, and then when it came, rose and signed to the priest to take his place.

The Syrian sat down, handing the extra cloak to his master, and waited until the other had settled Himself in a chair set in such a position at the side of the table that the face of each was visible to the other. Then he waited, with his brown fingers poised above the row of keys, looking at the other's face as He arranged himself to speak. That face, he thought, looking out from the hood, seemed paler than ever in this cold light of dawn; the black arched eyebrows accentuated this, and even the steady lips, preparing to speak, seemed white and bloodless. He had His paper in His hand, and His eyes were fixed upon this.

"Make sure it is the Cardinal," he said abruptly.

The priest tapped off an enquiry, and, with moving lips, raid off the printed message, as like magic it precipitated itself on to the tall white sheet of paper that faced him.

"It is his Eminence, Holiness," he said softly. "He is alone at the instrument."

"Very well. Now then; begin."

"We have received your Eminence's letter, and have noted the news…. It should have been forwarded by telegraphy—why was that not done?"

The voice paused, and the priest who had snapped off the message, more quickly than a man could write it, read aloud the answer.

"'I did not understand that it was urgent. I thought it was but one more assault. I had intended to communicate more so soon as I heard more."'

"Of course it was urgent," came the voice again in the deliberate intonation that was used between these two in the case of messages for transmission. "Remember that all news of this kind is always urgent."

"'I will remember,' read the priest. 'I regret my mistake.'"

"You tell us," went on the Pope, His eyes still downcast on the paper, "that this measure is decided upon; you name only three authorities. Give me, now, all the authorities you have, if you have more."

There was a moment's pause. Then the priest began to read off the names.

"Besides the three Cardinals whose names I sent, the Archbishops of Thibet, Cairo, Calcutta and Sydney have all asked if the news was true, and for directions if it is true; besides others whose names I can communicate if I may leave the table for a moment.'"

"Do so," said the Pope.

Again there was a pause. Then once more the names began.

"'The Bishops of Bukarest, the Marquesas Islands and Newfoundland. The Franciscans in Japan, the Crutched Friars in Morocco, the Archbishops of Manitoba and Portland, and the Cardinal-Archbisbop of Pekin. I have despatched two members of Christ Crucified to England.'" "Tell us when the news first arrived, and how."

"'I was called up to the instrument yesterday evening at about twenty o'clock. The Archbishop of Sydney was asking, through our station at Bombay, whether the news was true. I replied I had heard nothing of it. Within ten minutes four more inquiries had come to the same effect; and three minutes later Cardinal Ruspoli sent the positive news from Turin. This was accompanied by a similar message from Father Petrovski in Moscow. Then—- '"

"Stop. Why did not Cardinal Dolgorovski communicate it?"

"'He did communicate it three hours later.'"

"Why not at once?"

"'His Eminence had not heard it.'"

"Find out at what hour the news reached Moscow—not now, but within the day."

"'I will.'"

"Go on, then."

"'Cardinal Malpas communicated it within five minutes of Cardinal Ruspoli, and the rest of the inquiries arrived before midnight. China reported it at twenty-three.'"

"Then when do you suppose the news was made public?"

"'It was decided first at the secret London conference, yesterday, at about sixteen o'clock by our time. The Plenipotentiaries appear to have signed it at that hour. After that it was communicated to the world. It was published here half an hour past midnight.'"

"Then Felsenburgh was in London?"

"'I am not yet sure. Cardinal Malpas tells me that Felsenburgh gave his provisional consent on the previous day.'"

"Very good. That is all you know, then?"

"'I was called up an hour ago by Cardinal Ruspoli again. He tells me that he fears a riot in Florence; it will be the first of many revolutions, he says.'"

"Does he ask for anything?"

"'Only for directions.'"

"Tell him that we send him the Apostolic Benediction, and will forward directions within the course of two hours. Select twelve members of the Order for immediate service."

"'I will.'"

"Communicate that message also, as soon as we have finished, to all the Sacred College, and bid them communicate it with all discretion to all metropolitans and bishops, that priests and people may know that We bear them in our heart."

"'I will, Holiness.'"

"Tell them, finally, that We had foreseen this long ago; that We commend them to the Eternal Father without Whose Providence no sparrow falls to the ground. Bid them be quiet and confident; to do nothing, save confess their faith when they are questioned. All other directions shall be issued to their pastors immediately!"

"'I will, Holiness.'"

* * * * *

There was again a pause.

The Pope had been speaking with the utmost tranquillity as one in a dream. His eyes were downcast upon the paper, His whole body as motionless as an image. Yet to the priest who listened, despatching the Latin messages, and reading aloud the replies, it seemed, although so little intelligible news had reached him, as if something very strange and great was impending. There was the sense of a peculiar strain in the air, and although he drew no deductions from the fact that apparently the whole Catholic world was in frantic communication with Damascus, yet he remembered his meditations of the evening before as he had waited for the messenger. It seemed as if the powers of this world were contemplating one more step—with its nature he was not greatly concerned.

The Pope spoke again in His natural voice.

"Father," he said, "what I am about to say now is as if I told it in confession. You understand?—Very well. Now begin."

Then again the intonation began.

"Eminence. We shall say mass of the Holy Ghost in one hour from now. At the end of that time, you will cause that all the Sacred College shall be in touch with yourself, and waiting for our commands. This new decision is unlike any that have preceded it. Surely you understand that now. Two or three plans are in our mind, yet We are not sure yet which it is that our Lord intends. After mass We shall communicate to you that which He shall show Us to be according to His Will. We beg of you to say mass also, immediately, for Our intention. Whatever must be done must be done quickly. The matter of Cardinal Dolgorovski you may leave until later. But we wish to hear the result of your inquiries, especially in London, before mid-day. Benedicat te Omnipotens Deus, Pater et Filius et Spiritus Sanctus."

"'Amen!'" murmured the priest, reading it from the sheet.


The little chapel in the house below was scarcely more dignified than the other rooms. Of ornaments, except those absolutely essential to liturgy and devotion, there were none. In the plaster of the walls were indented in slight relief the fourteen stations of the Cross; a small stone image of the Mother of God stood in a corner, with an iron-work candlestick before it, and on the solid uncarved stone altar, raised on a stone step, stood six more iron candlesticks and an iron crucifix. A tabernacle, also of iron, shrouded by linen curtains, stood beneath the cross; a small stone slab projecting from the wall served as a credence. There was but one window, and this looked into the court, so that the eyes of strangers might not penetrate.

It seemed to the Syrian priest as he went about his business—laying out the vestments in the little sacristy that opened out at one side of the altar, preparing the cruets and stripping the covering from the altar-cloth—that even that slight work was wearying. There seemed a certain oppression in the air. As to how far that was the result of his broken rest he did not know, but he feared that it was one more of those scirocco days that threatened. That yellowish tinge of dawn had not passed with the sun-rising; even now, as he went noiselessly on his bare feet between the predella and the prie-dieu where the silent white figure was still motionless, he caught now and again, above the roof across the tiny court, a glimpse of that faint sand-tinged sky that was the promise of beat and heaviness.

He finished at last, lighted the candles, genuflected, and stood with bowed head waiting for the Holy Father to rise from His knees. A servant's footstep sounded in the court, coming across to hear mass, and simultaneously the Pope rose and went towards the sacristy, where the red vestments of God who came by fire were laid ready for the Sacrifice.

* * * * *

Silvester's bearing at mass was singularly unostentatious. He moved as swiftly as any young priest, His voice was quite even and quite low, and his pace neither rapid nor pompous. According to tradition, He occupied half-an-hour ab amictu ad amictum; and even in the tiny empty chapel He observed to keep His eyes always downcast. And yet this Syrian never served His mass without a thrill of something resembling fear; it was not only his knowledge of the awful dignity of this simple celebrant; but, although he could not have expressed it so, there was an aroma of an emotion about the vestmented figure that affected him almost physically—an entire absence of self-consciousness, and in its place the consciousness of some other Presence, a perfection of manner even in the smallest details that could only arise from absolute recollection. Even in Rome in the old days it had been one of the sights of Rome to see Father Franklin say mass; seminary students on the eve of ordination were sent to that sight to learn the perfect manner and method.

To-day all was as usual, but at the Communion the priest looked up suddenly at the moment when the Host had been consumed, with a half impression that either a sound or a gesture had invited it; and, as he looked, his heart began to beat thick and convulsive at the base of his throat. Yet to the outward eyes there was nothing unusual. The figure stood there with bowed head, the chin resting on the tips of the long fingers, the body absolutely upright, and standing with that curious light poise as if no weight rested upon the feet. But to the inner sense something was apparent the Syrian could not in the least formulate it to himself; but afterwards he reflected that he had stared expecting some visible or audible manifestation to take place. It was an impression that might be described under the terms of either light or sound; at any instant that delicate vivid force, that to the eyes of the soul burned beneath the red chasuble and the white alb, might have suddenly welled outwards under the appearance of a gush of radiant light rendering luminous not only the clear brown flesh seen beneath the white hair, but the very texture of the coarse, dead, stained stuffs that swathed the rest of the body. Or it might have shown itself in the strain of a long chord on strings or wind, as if the mystical union of the dedicated soul with the ineffable Godhead and Humanity of Jesus Christ generated such a sound as ceaselessly flows out with the river of life from beneath the Throne of the Lamb. Or yet once more it might have declared itself under the guise of a perfume—the very essence of distilled sweetness—such a scent as that which, streaming out through the gross tabernacle of a saint's body, is to those who observe it as the breath of heavenly roses….

The moments passed in that hush of purity and peace; sounds came and went outside, the rattle of a cart far away, the sawing of the first cicada in the coarse grass twenty yards away beyond the wall; some one behind the priest was breathing short and thick as under the pressure of an intolerable emotion, and yet the figure stood there still, without a movement or sway to break the carved motionlessness of the alb-folds or the perfect poise of the white-shod feet. When He moved at last to uncover the Precious Blood, to lay His hands on the altar and adore, it was as if a statue had stirred into life; to the server it was very nearly as a shock.

Again, when the chalice was empty, that first impression reasserted itself; the human and the external died in the embrace of the Divine and Invisible, and once more silence lived and glowed…. And again as the spiritual energy sank back again into its origin, Silvester stretched out the chalice.

With knees that shook and eyes wide in expectation, the priest rose, adored, and went to the credence.

* * * * *

It was customary after the Pope's mass that the priest himself should offer the Sacrifice in his presence, but to-day so soon as the vestments had been laid one by one on the rough chest, Silvester turned to the priest.

"Presently," he said softly. "Go up, father, at once to the roof, and tell the Cardinal to be ready. I shall come in five minutes."

It was surely a scirocco-day, thought the priest, as he came up on to the flat roof. Overhead, instead of the clear blue proper to that hour of the morning, lay a pale yellow sky darkening even to brown at the horizon. Thabor, before him, hung distant and sombre seen through the impalpable atmosphere of sand, and across the plain, as he glanced behind him, beyond the white streak of Nain nothing was visible except the pale outline of the tops of the hills against the sky. Even at this morning hour, too, the air was hot and breathless, broken only by the slow-stifling lift of the south-western breeze that, blowing across countless miles of sand beyond far-away Egypt, gathered up the heat of the huge waterless continent and was pouring it, with scarcely a streak of sea to soften its malignity, on this poor strip of land. Carmel, too, as he turned again, was swathed about its base with mist, half dry and half damp, and above showed its long bull-head running out defiantly against the western sky. The very table as he touched it was dry and hot to the hand, by mid-day the steel would be intolerable.

He pressed the lever, and waited; pressed it again, and waited again. There came the answering ring, and he tapped across the eighty miles of air that his Eminence's presence was required at once. A minute or two passed, and then, after another rap of the bell, a line flicked out on the new white sheet.

"'I am here. Is it his Holiness?'"

He felt a hand upon his shoulder, and turned to see Silvester, hooded and in white, behind his chair.

"Tell him yes. Ask him if there is further news."

The Pope went to the chair once more and sat down, and a minute later the priest, with growing excitement, read out the answer.

"'Inquiries are pouring in. Many expect your Holiness to issue a challenge. My secretaries have been occupied since four o'clock. The anxiety is indescribable. Some are denying that they have a Pope. Something must be done at once.'"

"Is that all?" asked the Pope.

Again the priest read out the answer. "'Yes and no. The news is true. It will be inforced immediately. Unless a step is taken immediately there will be widespread and final apostasy.'"

"Very good," murmured the Pope, in his official voice. "Now listen carefully, Eminence." He was silent for a moment, his fingers joined beneath his chin as just now at mass. Then he spoke.

"We are about to place ourselves unreservedly in the hands of God. Human prudence must no longer restrain us. We command you then, using all discretion that is possible, to communicate these wishes of ours to the following persons under the strictest secrecy, and to no others whatsoever. And for this service you are to employ messengers, taken from the Order of Christ Crucified, two for each message, which is not to be committed to writing in any form. The members of the Sacred College, numbering twelve; the metropolitans and Patriarchs through the entire world, numbering twenty-two; the Generals of the Religious Orders: the Society of Jesus, the Friars, the Monks Ordinary, and the Monks Contemplative four. These persons, thirty-eight in number, with the chaplain of your Eminence, who shall act as notary, and my own who shall assist him, and Ourself—forty-one all told—these persons are to present themselves here at our palace of Nazareth not later than the Eve of Pentecost. We feel Ourselves unwilling to decide the steps necessary to be taken with reference to the new decree, except we first hear the counsel of our advisers, and give them an opportunity of communicating freely one with another. These words, as we have spoken them, are to be forwarded to all those persons whom we have named; and your Eminence will further inform them that our deliberations will not occupy more than four days.

"As regards the questions of provisioning the council and all matters of that kind, your Eminence will despatch to-day the chaplain of whom we have spoken, who with my own chaplain will at once set about preparations, and your Eminence will yourself follow, appointing Father Marabout to act in your absence, not later than four days hence.

"Finally, to all who have asked explicit directions in the face of this new decree, communicate this one sentence, and no more.

"Lose not your confidence which hath a great reward. For yet a little while, and, He that is to come will come and will not delay.—Silvester the Bishop, Servant of the Servants of God."

Return to the Lord of the World Summary Return to the Robert Hugh Benson Library

Anton Chekhov
Nathaniel Hawthorne
Susan Glaspell
Mark Twain
Edgar Allan Poe
Mary E. Wilkins Freeman
Herman Melville
Stephen Leacock
Kate Chopin
Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson