Lord of the World

by Robert Hugh Benson

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Book III - Chapter III


Oliver Brand stepped out from the Conference Hall in Westminster on the Friday evening, so soon as the business was over and the Plenipotentiaries had risen from the table, more concerned as to the effect of the news upon his wife than upon the world. He traced the beginning of the change to the day five months ago when the President of the World had first declared the development of his policy, and while Oliver himself had yielded to that development, and from defending it in public had gradually convinced himself of its necessity, Mabel, for the first time in her life, had shown herself absolutely obstinate.

The woman to his mind seemed to him to have fallen into some kind of insanity. Felsenburgh's declaration had been made a week or two after his Acclamation at Westminster, and Mabel had received the news of it at first with absolute incredulity.

Then, when there was no longer any doubt that he had declared the extermination of the Supernaturalists to be a possible necessity, there had been a terrible scene between husband and wife. She had said that she had been deceived; that the world's hope was a monstrous mockery; that the reign of universal peace was as far away as ever; that Felsenburgh had betrayed his trust and broken his word. There had been an appalling scene. He did not even now like to recall it to his imagination. She had quieted after a while, but his arguments, delivered with infinite patience, seemed to produce very little effect. She settled down into silence, hardly answering him. One thing only seemed to touch her, and that was when he spoke of the President himself. It was becoming plain to him that she was but a woman after all at the mercy of a strong personality, but utterly beyond the reach of logic. He was very much disappointed. Yet he trusted to time to cure her.

The Government of England had taken swift and skilful steps to reassure those who, like Mabel, recoiled from the inevitable logic of the new policy. An army of speakers traversed the country, defending and explaining; the press was engineered with extraordinary adroitness, and it was possible to say that there was not a person among the millions of England who had not easy access to the Government's defence.

Briefly, shorn of rhetoric, their arguments were as follows, and there was no doubt that, on the whole, they had the effect of quieting the amazed revolt of the more sentimental minds.

Peace, it was pointed out, had for the first time in the world's history become an universal fact. There was no longer one State, however small, whose interests were not identical with those of one of the three divisions of the world of which it was a dependency, and that first stage had been accomplished nearly half-a-century ago. But the second stage—the reunion of these three divisions under a common head—an infinitely greater achievement than the former, since the conflicting interests were incalculably more vast—this had been consummated by a single Person, Who, it appeared, had emerged from humanity at the very instant when such a Character was demanded. It was surely not much to ask that those on whom these benefits had come should assent to the will and judgment of Him through whom they had come. This, then, was an appeal to faith.

The second main argument was addressed to reason. Persecution, as all enlightened persons confessed, was the method of a majority of savages who desired to force a set of opinions upon a minority who did not spontaneously share them. Now the peculiar malevolence of persecution in the past lay, not in the employment of force, but in the abuse of it. That any one kingdom should dictate religious opinions to a minority of its members was an intolerable tyranny, for no one State possessed the right to lay down universal laws, the contrary to which might be held by its neighbour. This, however, disguised, was nothing else than the Individualism of Nations, a heresy even more disastrous to the commonwealth of the world than the Individualism of the Individual. But with the arrival of the universal community of interests the whole situation was changed. The single personality of the human race had succeeded to the incoherence of divided units, and with that consummation—which might be compared to a coming of age, an entirely new set of rights had come into being. The human race was now a single entity with a supreme responsibility towards itself; there were no longer any private rights at all, such as had certainly existed, in the period previous to this. Man now possessed dominion over every cell which composed His Mystical Body, and where any such cell asserted itself to the detriment of the Body, the rights of the whole were unqualified.

And there was no religion but one that claimed the equal rights of universal jurisdiction—and that the Catholic. The sects of the East, while each retained characteristics of its own, had yet found in the New Man the incarnation of their ideals, and had therefore given in their allegiance to the authority of the whole Body of whom He was Head. But the very essence of the Catholic Religion was treason to the very idea of man. Christians directed their homage to a supposed supernatural Being who was not only—so they claimed—outside of the world but positively transcended it. Christians, then—leaving aside the mad fable of the Incarnation, which might very well be suffered to die of its own folly—deliberately severed themselves from that Body of which by human generation they had been made members. They were as mortified limbs yielding themselves to the domination of an outside force other than that which was their only life, and by that very act imperilled the entire Body. This madness, then, was the one crime which still deserved the name. Murder, theft, rape, even anarchy itself, were as trifling faults compared to this monstrous sin, for while these injured indeed the Body they did not strike at its heart—individuals suffered, and therefore those minor criminals deserved restraint; but the very Life was not struck at. But in Christianity there was a poison actually deadly. Every cell that became infected with it was infected in that very fibre that bound it to the spring of life. This, and this alone, was the supreme crime of High Treason against man—and nothing but complete removal from the world could be an adequate remedy.

These, then, were the main arguments addressed to that section of the world which still recoiled from the deliberate utterance of Felsenburgh, and their success had been remarkable. Of course, the logic, in itself indisputable, had been dressed in a variety of costumes gilded with rhetoric, flushed with passion, and it had done its work in such a manner that as summer drew on Felsenburgh had announced privately that he proposed to introduce a bill which should carry out to its logical conclusion the policy of which he had spoken.

Now, this too, had been accomplished.


Oliver let himself into his house, and went straight upstairs to Mabel's room. It would not do to let her hear the news from any but his own lips. She was not there, and on inquiry he heard that she had gone out an hour before.

He was disconcerted at this. The decree had been signed half-an-hour earlier, and in answer to an inquiry from Lord Pemberton it had been stated that there was no longer any reason for secrecy, and that the decision might be communicated to the press. Oliver had hurried away immediately in order to make sure that Mabel should hear the news from him, and now she was out, and at any moment the placards might tell her of what had been done.

He felt extremely uneasy, but for another hour or so was ashamed to act. Then he went to the tube and asked another question or two, but the servant had no idea of Mabel's movements; it might be she had gone to the church; sometimes she did at this hour. He sent the woman off to see, and himself sat down again in the window-seat of his wife's room, staring out disconsolately at the wide array of roofs in the golden sunset light, that seemed to his eyes to be strangely beautiful this evening. The sky was not that pure gold which it had been every night during this last week; there was a touch of rose in it, and this extended across the entire vault so far as he could see from west to east. He reflected on what he had lately read in an old book to the effect that the abolition of smoke had certainly changed evening colours for the worse…. There had been a couple of severe earthquakes, too, in America—he wondered whether there was any connection…. Then his thoughts flew back to Mabel….

It was about ten minutes before he heard her footstep on the stairs, and as he stood up she came in.

There was something in her face that told him that she knew everything, and his heart sickened at her pale rigidity. There was no fury there—nothing but white, hopeless despair, and an immense determination. Her lips showed a straight line, and her eyes, beneath her white summer hat, seemed contracted to pinpricks. She stood there, closing the door mechanically behind her, and made no further movement towards him.

"Is it true?" she said.

Oliver drew one steady breath, and sat down again.

"Is what true, my dear?"

"Is it true," she said again, "that all are to be questioned as to whether they believe in God, and to be killed if they confess it?"

Oliver licked his dry lips.

"You put it very harshly," he said. "The question is, whether the world has a right—-"

She made a sharp movement with her head.

"It is true then. And you signed it?"

"My dear, I beg you not to make a scene. I am tired out. And I will not answer that until you have heard what I have to say."

"Say it, then."

"Sit down, then."

She shook her head.

"Very well, then…. Well, this is the point. The world is one now, not many. Individualism is dead. It died when Felsenburgh became President of the World. You surely see that absolutely new conditions prevail now—there has never been anything like it before. You know all this as well as I do."

Again came that jerk of impatience.

"You will please to hear me out," he said wearily. "Well, now that this has happened, there is a new morality; it is exactly like a child coming to the age of reason. We are obliged, therefore, to see that this continues—that there is no going back—no mortification—that all the limbs are in good health. 'If thy hand offend thee, cut it off,' said Jesus Christ. Well, that is what we say…. Now, for any one to say that they believe in God—I doubt very much whether there is any one who really does believe, or understand what it means—but for any one even to say so is the very worst crime conceivable: it is high treason. But there is going to be no violence; it will all be quite quiet and merciful. Why, you have always approved of Euthanasia, as we all do. Well, it is that that will be used; and—-"

Once more she made a little movement with her hand. The rest of her was like an image.

"Is this any use?" she asked.

Oliver stood up. He could not bear the hardness of her voice.

"Mabel, my darling—-"

For an instant her lips shook; then again she looked at him with eyes of ice.

"I don't want that," she said. "It is of no use.. Then you did sign it?"

Oliver had a sense of miserable desperation as he looked back at her. He would infinitely have preferred that she had stormed and wept. "Mabel—-" he cried again.

"Then you did sign it?"

"I did sign it," he said at last.

She turned and went towards the door. He sprang after her.

"Mabel, where are you going?"

Then, for the first time in her life, she lied to her husband frankly and fully.

"I am going to rest a little," she said. "I shall see you presently at supper."

He still hesitated, but she met his eyes, pale indeed, but so honest that he fell back.

"Very well, my dear…. Mabel, try to understand."

* * * * *

He came down to supper half-an-hour later, primed with logic, and even kindled with emotion. The argument seemed to him now so utterly convincing; granted the premises that they both accepted and lived by, the conclusion was simply inevitable.

He waited a minute or two, and at last went to the tube that communicated with the servants' quarters.

"Where is Mrs. Brand?" he asked.

There was an instant's silence, and then the answer came:

"She left the house half-an-hour ago, sir. I thought you knew."


That same evening Mr. Francis was very busy in his office over the details connected with the festival of Sustenance that was to be celebrated on the first of July. It was the first time that the particular ceremony had taken place, and he was anxious that it should be as successful as its predecessors. There were a few differences between this and the others, and it was necessary that the ceremoniarii should be fully instructed.

So, with his model before him—a miniature replica of the interior of the Abbey, with tiny dummy figures on blocks that could be shifted this way and that, he was engaged in adding in a minute ecclesiastical hand rubrical notes to his copy of the Order of Proceedings.

When the porter therefore rang up a little after twenty-one o'clock, that a lady wished to see him, he answered rather brusquely down the tube that it was impossible. But the bell rang again, and to his impatient question, the reply came up that it was Mrs. Brand below, and that she did not ask for more than ten minutes' conversation. This was quite another matter. Oliver Brand was an important personage, and his wife therefore had significance, and Mr. Francis apologised, gave directions that she was to come to his ante-room, and rose, sighing, from his dummy Abbey and officials.

She seemed very quiet this evening, he thought, as he shook hands with her a minute later; she wore her veil down, so that he could not see her face very well, but her voice seemed to lack its usual vivacity.

"I am so sorry to interrupt you, Mr. Francis," she said. "I only want to ask you one or two questions."

He smiled at her encouragingly.

"Mr. Brand, no doubt—-"

"No," she said, "Mr. Brand has not sent me. It is entirely my own affair. You will see my reasons presently. I will begin at once. I know I must not keep you."

It all seemed rather odd, he thought, but no doubt he would understand soon.

"First," she said, "I think you used to know Father Franklin. He became a Cardinal, didn't he?"

Mr. Francis assented, smiling.

"Do you know if he is alive?"

"No," he said. "He is dead. He was in Rome, you know, at the time of its destruction."

"Ah! You are sure?"

"Quite sure. Only one Cardinal escaped—Steinmann. He was hanged in Berlin; and the Patriarch of Jerusalem died a week or two later." "Ah! very well. Well, now, here is a very odd question. I ask for a particular reason, which I cannot explain, but you will soon understand…. It is this—Why do Catholics believe in God?"

He was so much taken aback that for a moment he sat staring.

"Yes," she said tranquilly, "it is a very odd question. But—-" she hesitated. "Well, I will tell you," she said. "The fact is, that I have a friend who is—is in danger from this new law. I want to be able to argue with her; and I must know her side. You are the only priest—I mean who has been a priest—whom I ever knew, except Father Franklin. So I thought you would not mind telling me."

Her voice was entirely natural; there was not a tremor or a falter in it. Mr. Francis smiled genially, rubbing his hands softly together.

"Ah!" he said. "Yes, I see…. Well, that is a very large question. Would not to-morrow, perhaps—-?" "I only want just the shortest answer," she said. "It is really important for me to know at once. You see, this new law comes into force—-"

He nodded.

"Well—very briefly, I should say this: Catholics say that God can be perceived by reason; that from the arrangements of the world they can deduce that there must have been an Arranger—a Mind, you understand. Then they say that they deduce other things about God—that He is Love, for example, because of happiness—-"

"And the pain?" she interrupted.

He smiled again.

"Yes. That is the point—that is the weak point."

"But what do they say about that?"

"Well, briefly, they say that pain is the result of sin—-"

"And sin? You see, I know nothing at all, Mr. Francis."

"Well, sin is the rebellion of man's will against God's."

"What do they mean by that?"

"Well, you see, they say that God wanted to be loved by His creatures, so He made them free; otherwise they could not really love. But if they were free, it means that they could if they liked refuse to love and obey God; and that is what is called Sin. You see what nonsense—-"

She jerked her head a little.

"Yes, yes," she said. "But I really want to get at what they think…. Well, then, that is all?" Mr. Francis pursed his lips.

"Scarcely," he said; "that is hardly more than what they call Natural Religion. Catholics believe much more than that." "Well?"

"My dear Mrs. Brand, it is impossible to put it in a few words. But, in brief, they believe that God became man—that Jesus was God, and that He did this in order to save them from sin by dying—-"

"By bearing pain, you mean?"

"Yes; by dying. Well, what they call the Incarnation is really the point. Everything else flows from that. And, once a man believes that, I must confess that all the rest follows—even down to scapulars and holy water."

"Mr. Francis, I don't understand a word you're saying."

He smiled indulgently.

"Of course not," he said; "it is all incredible nonsense. But, you know, I did really believe it all once." "But it's unreasonable," she said.

He made a little demurring sound.

"Yes," he said, "in one sense, of course it is—utterly unreasonable. But in another sense—-" She leaned forward suddenly, and he could catch the glint of her eyes beneath her white veil.

"Ah!" she said, almost breathlessly. "That is what I want to hear. Now, tell me how they justify it."

He paused an instant, considering.

"Well," he said slowly, "as far as I remember, they say that there are other faculties besides those of reason. They say, for example, that the heart sometimes finds out things that the reason cannot—intuitions, you see. For instance, they say that all things such as self-sacrifice and chivalry and even art—all come from the heart, that Reason comes with them—in rules of technique, for instance—but that it cannot prove them; they are quite apart from that."

"I think I see."

"Well, they say that Religion is like that—in other words, they practically confess that it is merely a matter of emotion." He paused again, trying to be fair. "Well, perhaps they would not say that—although it is true. But briefly—-"


"Well, they say there is a thing called Faith—a kind of deep conviction unlike anything else—supernatural—which God is supposed to give to people who desire it—to people who pray for it, and lead good lives, and so on—-"

"And this Faith?"

"Well, this Faith, acting upon what they call Evidences—this Faith makes them absolutely certain that there is a God, that He was made man and so on, with the Church and all the rest of it. They say too that this is further proved by the effect that their religion has had in the world, and by the way it explains man's nature to himself. You see, it is just a case of self-suggestion."

He heard her sigh, and stopped.

"Is that any clearer, Mrs. Brand?"

"Thank you very much," she said, "it certainly is clearer. … And it is true that Christians have died for this Faith, whatever it is?"

"Oh! yes. Thousands and thousands. Just as Mohammedans have for theirs."

"The Mohammedans believe in God, too, don't they?"

"Well, they did, and I suppose that a few do now. But very few: the rest have become esoteric, as they say."

"And—and which would you say were the most highly evolved people—East or West?"

"Oh! West undoubtedly. The East thinks a good deal, but it doesn't act much. And that always leads to confusion—even to stagnation of thought."

"And Christianity certainly has been the Religion of the West up to a hundred years ago?"

"Oh! yes."

She was silent then, and Mr. Francis had time again to reflect how very odd all this was. She certainly must be very much attached to this Christian friend of hers.

Then she stood up, and he rose with her.

"Thank you so much, Mr. Francis…. Then that is the kind of outline?"

"Well, yes; so far as one can put it in a few words."

"Thank you…. I mustn't keep you."

He went with her towards the door. But within a yard of it she stopped.

"And you, Mr. Francis. You were brought up in all this. Does it ever come back to you?"

He smiled.

"Never," he said, "except as a dream."

"How do you account for that, then? If it is all self-suggestion, you have had thirty years of it."

She paused; and for a moment he hesitated what to answer.

"How would your old fellow-Catholics account for it?"

"They would say that I had forfeited light—that Faith was withdrawn."

"And you?"

Again he paused.

"I should say that I had made a stronger self-suggestion the other way."

"I see…. Good-night, Mr. Francis."

* * * * *

She would not let him come down the lift with her, so when he had seen the smooth box drop noiselessly below the level, he went back again to his model of the Abbey and the little dummy figures. But, before he began to move these about again, he sat for a moment or two with pursed lips, staring.

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