Lord of the World

by Robert Hugh Benson

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Book III - Chapter IV


A week later Mabel awoke about dawn; and for a moment or two forgot where she was. She even spoke Oliver's name aloud, staring round the unfamiliar room, wondering what she did here. Then she remembered, and was silent….

It was the eighth day she had spent in this Home; her probation was finished: to-day she wits at liberty to do that for which she had come. On the Saturday of the previous week she had gone through her private examination before the magistrate, stating under the usual conditions of secrecy her name, age and home, as well as her reasons for making the application for Euthanasia; and all had passed off well. She had selected Manchester as being sufficiently remote and sufficiently large to secure her freedom from Oliver's molestation; and her secret had been admirably kept. There was not a hint that her husband knew anything of her intentions; for, after all, in these cases the police were bound to assist the fugitive. Individualism was at least so far recognised as to secure to those weary of life the right of relinquishing it. She scarcely knew why she had selected this method, except that any other seemed impossible. The knife required skill and resolution; firearms were unthinkable, and poison, under the new stringent regulations, was hard to obtain. Besides, she seriously wished to test her own intentions, and to be quite sure that there was no other way than this….

Well, she was as certain as ever. The thought had first come to her in the mad misery of the outbreak of violence on the last day of the old year. Then it had gone again, soothed away by the arguments that man was still liable to relapse. Then once more it had recurred, a cold and convincing phantom, in the plain daylight revealed by Felsenburgh's Declaration. It had taken up its abode with her then, yet she controlled it, hoping against hope that the Declaration would not be carried into action, occasionally revolting against its horror. Yet it had never been far away; and finally when the policy sprouted into deliberate law, she had yielded herself resolutely to its suggestion. That was eight days ago; and she had not had one moment of faltering since that.

Yet she had ceased to condemn. The logic had silenced her. All that she knew was that she could not bear it; that she had misconceived the New Faith; that for her, whatever it was for others, there was no hope…. She had not even a child of her own. * * * * *

Those eight days, required by law, had passed very peacefully. She had taken with her enough money to enter one of the private homes furnished with sufficient comfort to save from distractions those who had been accustomed to gentle living: the nurses had been pleasant and sympathetic; she had nothing to complain of.

She had suffered, of course, to some degree from reactions. The second night after her arrival had been terrible, when, as she lay in bed in the hot darkness, her whole sentient life had protested and struggled against the fate her will ordained. It had demanded the familiar things—the promise of food and breath and human intercourse; it had writhed in horror against the blind dark towards which it moved so inevitably; and, in the agony had been pacified only by the half-hinted promise of some deeper voice suggesting that death was not the end. With morning light sanity had come back; the will had reassumed the mastery, and, with it, had withdrawn explicitly the implied hope of continued existence. She had suffered again for an hour or two from a more concrete fear; the memory came back to her of those shocking revelations that ten years ago had convulsed England and brought about the establishment of these Homes under Government supervision—those evidences that for years in the great vivisection laboratories human subjects had been practised upon—persons who with the same intentions as herself had cut themselves off from the world in private euthanasia-houses, to whom had been supplied a gas that suspended instead of destroying animation…. But this, too, had passed with the return of light. Such things were impossible now under the new system—at least, in England. She had refrained from making an end upon the Continent for this very reason. There, where sentiment was weaker, and logic more imperious, materialism was more consistent. Since men were but animals—the conclusion was inevitable.

There had been but one physical drawback, the intolerable heat of the days and nights. It seemed, scientists said, that an entirely unexpected heat-wave had been generated; there were a dozen theories, most of which were mutually exclusive one of another. It was humiliating, she thought, that men who professed to have taken the earth under their charge should be so completely baffled. The conditions of the weather had of course been accompanied by disasters; there had been earthquakes of astonishing violence, a ripple had wrecked not less than twenty-five towns in America; an island or two had disappeared, and that bewildering Vesuvius seemed to be working up for a denouement. But no one knew really the explanation. One man had been wild enough to say that some cataclysm had taken place in the centre of the earth…. So she had heard from her nurse; but she was not greatly interested. It was only tiresome that she could not walk much in the garden, and had to be content with sitting in her own cool shaded room on the second floor.

There was only one other matter of which she had asked, namely, the effect of the new decree; but the nurse did not seem to know much about that. It appeared that there had been an outrage or two, but the law had not yet been enforced to any great extent; a week, after all, was a short time, even though the decree had taken effect at once, and magistrates were beginning the prescribed census.

* * * * *

It seemed to her as she lay awake this morning, staring at the tinted ceiling, and out now and again at the quiet little room, that the heat was worse than ever. For a minute she thought she must have overslept; but, as she touched her repeater, it told her that it was scarcely after four o'clock. Well, well; she would not have to bear it much longer; she thought that about eight it would be time to make an end. There was her letter to Oliver yet to be written; and one or two final arrangements to be made.

As regarded the morality of what she was doing-the relation, that is to say, which her act bore to the common life of man—she had no shadow of doubt. It was her belief, as of the whole Humanitarian world, that just as bodily pain occasionally justified this termination of life, so also did mental pain. There was a certain pitch of distress at which the individual was no longer necessary to himself or the world; it was the most charitable act that could be performed. But she had never thought in old days that that state could ever be hers; Life had been much too interesting. But it had come to this: there was no question of it.

* * * * *

Perhaps a dozen times in that week she had thought over her conversation with Mr. Francis. Her going to him had been little more than instinctive; she did just wish to hear what the other side was—whether Christianity was as ludicrous as she had always thought. It seemed that it was not ludicrous; it was only terribly pathetic. It was just a lovely dream—an exquisite piece of poetry. It would be heavenly to believe it, but she did not. No—a transcendent God was unthinkable, although not quite so unthinkable as a merely immeasurable Man. And as for the Incarnation—well, well!

There seemed no way out of it. The Humanity-Religion was the only one. Man was God, or at least His highest manifestation; and He was a God with which she did not wish to have anything more to do. These faint new instincts after something other than intellect and emotion were, she knew perfectly well, nothing but refined emotion itself.

She had thought a great deal of Felsenburgh, however, and was astonished at her own feelings. He was certainly the most impressive man she had ever seen; it did seem very probable indeed that He was what He claimed to be—the Incarnation of the ideal Man the first perfect product of humanity. But the logic of his position was too much for her. She saw now that He was perfectly logical—that He had not been inconsistent in denouncing the destruction of Rome and a week later making His declaration. It was the passion of one man against another that He denounced—of kingdom against kingdom, and sect against sect—for this was suicidal for the race. He denounced passion, too, not judicial action. Therefore, this new decree was as logical as Himself—it was a judicial act on the part of an united world against a tiny majority that threatened the principle of life and faith: and it was to be carried out with supreme mercy; there was no revenge or passion or partisan spirit in it from beginning to end; no more than a man is revengeful or passionate when he amputates a diseased limb—Oliver had convinced her of that.

Yes, it was logical and sound. And it was because it was so that she could not bear it…. But ah! what a sublime man Felsenburgh was; it was a joy to her even to recall his speeches and his personality. She would have liked to see him again. But it was no good. She had better be done with it as tranquilly as possible. And the world must go forward without her. She was just tired out with Facts.

* * * * *

She dozed off again presently, and it seemed scarcely five minutes before she looked up to see a gentle smiling face of a white-capped nurse bending over her.

"It is nearly six o'clock, my dear—the time you told me. I came to see about breakfast."

Mabel drew a long breath. Then she sat up suddenly, throwing back the sheet.


It struck a quarter-past six from the little clock on the mantel-shelf as she laid down her pen. Then she took up the closely written sheets, leaned back in her deep chair, and began to read.



"MY DEAR: I am very sorry, but it has come back to me. I really cannot go on any longer, so I am going to escape in the only way left, as I once told you. I have had a very quiet and happy time here; they have been most kind and considerate. You see, of course, from the heading on this paper, what I mean….

"Well, you have always been very dear to me; you are still, even at this moment. So you have a right to know my reasons so far as I know them myself. It is very difficult to understand myself; but it seems to me that I am not strong enough to live. So long as I was pleased and excited it was all very well—especially when He came. But I think I had expected it to be different; I did not understand as I do now how it must come to this—how it is all quite logical and right. I could bear it, when I thought that they had acted through passion, but this is deliberate. I did not realise that Peace must have its laws, and must protect itself. And, somehow, that Peace is not what I want. It is being alive at all that is wrong.

"Then there is this difficulty. I know how absolutely in agreement you are with this new state of affairs; of course you are, because you are so much stronger and more logical than I am. But if you have a wife she must be of one mind with you. And I am not, any more, at least not with my heart, though I see you are right…. Do you understand, my dear?

"If we had had a child, it might have been different. I might have liked to go on living for his sake. But Humanity, somehow—Oh! Oliver! I can't—I can't.

"I know I am wrong, and that you are right—but there it is; I cannot change myself. So I am quite sure that I must go.

"Then I want to tell you this—that I am not at all frightened. I never can understand why people are—unless, of course, they are Christians. I should be horribly frightened if I was one of them. But, you see, we both know that there is nothing beyond. It is life that I am frightened of—not death. Of course, I should be frightened if there was any pain; but the doctors tell me there is absolutely none. It is simply going to sleep. The nerves are dead before the brain. I am going to do it myself. I don't want any one else in the room. In a few minutes the nurse here—Sister Anne, with whom I have made great friends—will bring in the thing, and then she will leave me.

"As regards what happens afterwards, I do not mind at all. Please do exactly what you wish. The cremation will take place to-morrow morning at noon, so that you can be here if you like. Or you can send directions, and they will send on the urn to you. I know you liked to have your mother's urn in the garden; so perhaps you will like mine. Please do exactly what you like. And with all my things too. Of course I leave them to you.

"Now, my dear, I want to say this—that I am very sorry indeed now that I was so tiresome and stupid. I think I did really believe your arguments all along. But I did not want to believe them. Do you see now why I was so tiresome?

"Oliver, my darling, you have been extraordinarily good to me…. Yes, I know I am crying, but I am really very happy. This is such a lovely ending. I wish I hadn't been obliged to make you so anxious during this last week: but I had to—I knew you would persuade me against it, if you found me, and that would have been worse than ever. I am sorry I told you that lie, too. Indeed, it is the first I ever did tell you.

"Well, I don't think there is much more to say. Oliver, my dear, good-bye. I send you my love with all my heart.


* * * * *

She sat still when she had read it through, and her eyes were still wet with tears. Yet it was all perfectly true. She was far happier than she could be if she had still the prospect of going back. Life seemed entirely blank: death was so obvious an escape; her soul ached for it, as a body for sleep.

She directed the envelope, still with a perfectly steady hand, laid it on the table, and leaned back once more, glancing again at her untasted breakfast.

Then she suddenly began to think of her conversation with Mr. Francis; and, by a strange association of ideas, remembered the fall of the volor in Brighton, the busy-ness of the priest, and the Euthanasia boxes….

When Sister Anne came in a few minutes later, she was astonished at what she saw. The girl crouched at the window, her hands on the sill, staring out at the sky in an attitude of unmistakable horror.

Sister Anne came across the room quickly, setting down something on the table as she passed. She touched the girl on the shoulder.

"My dear, what is it?"

There was a long sobbing breath, and Mabel turned, rising as she turned, and clutched the nurse with one shaking hand, pointing out with the other.

"There!" she said. "There—look!"

"Well, my dear, what is it? I see nothing. It is a little dark!"

"Dark!" said the other. "You call that dark! Why, why, it is black—black!"

The nurse drew her softly backwards to the chair, turning her from the window. She recognised nervous fear; but no more than that. But Mabel tore herself free, and wheeled again.

"You call that a little dark," she said. "Why, look, sister, look!"

Yet there was nothing remarkable to be seen. In front rose up the feathery hand of an elm, then the shuttered windows across the court, the roof, and above that the morning sky, a little heavy and dusky as before a storm; but no more than that.

"Well, what is it, my dear? What do you see?"

"Why, why … look! look!—There, listen to that."

A faint far-away rumble sounded as the rolling of a waggon—so faint that it might almost be an aural delusion. But the girl's hands were at her ears, and her face was one white wide-eyed mask of terror. The nurse threw her arms round her.

"My dear," she said, "you are not yourself. That is nothing but a little heat-thunder. Sit down quietly."

She could feel the girl's body shaking beneath her hands, but there was no resistance as she drew her to the chair.

"The lights! the lights!" sobbed Mabel.

"Will you promise me to sit quietly, then?"

She nodded; and the nurse went across to the door, smiling tenderly; she had seen such things before. A moment later the room was full of exquisite sunlight, as she switched the handle. As she turned, she saw that Mabel had wheeled herself round in the chair, and with clasped hands was still staring out at the sky above the roofs; but she was plainly quieter again now. The nurse came back, and put her hand on her shoulder.

"You are overwrought, my dear…. Now you must believe me. There is nothing to be frightened of. It is just nervous excitement…. Shall I pull down the blind?"

Mabel turned her face…. Yes, certainly the light had reassured her. Her face was still white and bewildered, but the steady look was coming back to her eyes, though, even as she spoke, they wandered back more than once to the window.

"Nurse," she said more quietly, "please look again and tell me if you see nothing. If you say there is nothing I will believe that I am going mad. No; you must not touch the blind."

No; there was nothing. The sky was a little dark, as if a blight were coming on; but there was hardly more than a veil of cloud, and the light was scarcely more than tinged with gloom. It was just such a sky as precedes a spring thunderstorm. She said so, clearly and firmly.

Mabel's face steadied still more.

"Very well, nurse…. Then—-"

She turned to the little table by the side on which Sister Anne had set down what she had brought into the room.

"Show me, please."

The nurse still hesitated.

"Are you sure you are not too frightened, my dear? Shall I get you anything?"

"I have no more to say," said Mabel firmly. "Show me, please."

Sister Anne turned resolutely to the table.

There rested upon it a white-enamelled box, delicately painted with flowers. From this box emerged a white flexible tube with a broad mouthpiece, fitted with two leather-covered steel clasps. From the side of the box nearest the chair protruded a little china handle.

"Now, my dear," began the nurse quietly, watching the other's eyes turn once again to the window, and then back—"now, my dear, you sit there, as you are now. Your head right back, please. When you are ready, you put this over your mouth, and clasp the springs behind your head…. So…. it works quite easily. Then you turn this handle, round that way, as far as it will go. And that is all."

Mabel nodded. She had regained her self-command, and understood plainly enough, though even as she spoke once again her eyes strayed away to the window.

"That is all," she said. "And what then?"

The nurse eyed her doubtfully for a moment.

"I understand perfectly," said Mabel. "And what then?"

"There is nothing more. Breathe naturally. You will feel sleepy almost directly. Then you close your eyes, and that is all."

Mabel laid the tube on the table and stood up. She was completely herself now.

"Give me a kiss, sister," she said.

The nurse nodded and smiled to her once more at the door. But Mabel hardly noticed it; again she was looking towards the window.

"I shall come back in half-an-hour," said Sister Anne.

Then her eyes caught a square of white upon the centre table. "Ah! that letter!" she said.

"Yes," said the girl absently. "Please take it."

The nurse took it up, glanced at the address, and again at Mabel. Still she hesitated.

"In half-an-hour," she repeated. "There is no hurry at all. It doesn't take five minutes…. Good-bye, my dear."

But Mabel was still looking out of the window, and made no answer.


Mabel stood perfectly still until she heard the locking of the door and the withdrawal of the key. Then once more she went to the window and clasped the sill.

From where she stood there was visible to her first the courtyard beneath, with its lawn in the centre, and a couple of trees growing there—all plain in the brilliant light that now streamed from her window, and secondly, above the roofs, a tremendous pall of ruddy black. It was the more terrible from the contrast. Earth, it seemed, was capable of light; heaven had failed.

It appeared, too, that there was a curious stillness. The house was, usually, quiet enough at this hour: the inhabitants of that place were in no mood for bustle: but now it was more than quiet; it was deathly still: it was such a hush as precedes the sudden crash of the sky's artillery. But the moments went by, and there was no such crash: only once again there sounded a solemn rolling, as of some great wain far away; stupendously impressive, for with it to the girl's ears there seemed mingled a murmur of innumerable voices, ghostly crying and applause. Then again the hush settled down like wool.

She had begun to understand now. The darkness and the sounds were not for all eyes and ears. The nurse had seen and heard nothing extraordinary, and the rest of the world of men saw and heard nothing. To them it was no more than the hint of a coming storm.

Mabel did not attempt to distinguish between the subjective and the objective. It was nothing to her as to whether the sights and sounds were generated by her own brain or perceived by some faculty hitherto unknown. She seemed to herself to be standing already apart from the world which she had known; it was receding from her, or, rather, while standing where it had always done, it was melting, transforming itself, passing to some other mode of existence. The strangeness seemed no more strange than anything else than that … that little painted box upon the table.

Then, hardly knowing what she said, looking steadily upon that appalling sky, she began to speak….

"O God!" she said. "If You are really there really there—-"

Her voice faltered, and she gripped the sill to steady herself. She wondered vaguely why she spoke so; it was neither intellect nor emotion that inspired her. Yet she continued….

"O God, I know You are not there—of course You are not. But if You were there, I know what I would say to You. I would tell You how puzzled and tired I am. No—No—I need not tell You: You would know it. But I would say that I was very sorry for all this. Oh! You would know that too. I need not say anything at all. O God! I don't know what I want to say. I would like You to look after Oliver, of course, and all Your poor Christians. Oh! they will have such a hard time…. God. God—You would understand, wouldn't You?" …

* * * * *

Again came the heavy rumble and the solemn bass of a myriad voices; it seemed a shade nearer, she thought…. She never liked thunderstorms or shouting crowds. They always gave her a headache …

"Well, well," she said. "Good-bye, everything—-"

Then she was in the chair. The mouthpiece—yes; that was it….

She was furious at the trembling of her hands; twice the spring slipped from her polished coils of hair…. Then it was fixed … and as if a breeze fanned her, her sense came back….

She found she could breathe quite easily; there was no resistance—that was a comfort; there would be no suffocation about it…. She put out her left hand and touched the handle, conscious less of its sudden coolness than of the unbearable heat in which the room seemed almost suddenly plunged. She could hear the drumming pulses in her temples and the roaring of the voices…. She dropped the handle once more, and with both hands tore at the loose white wrapper that she had put on this morning….

Yes, that was a little easier; she could breathe better so. Again her fingers felt for and found the handle, but the sweat streamed from her fingers, and for an instant she could not turn the knob. Then it yielded suddenly….

* * * * *

For one instant the sweet languid smell struck her consciousness like a blow, for she knew it as the scent of death. Then the steady will that had borne her so far asserted itself, and she laid her hands softly in her lap, breathing deeply and easily.

She had closed her eyes at the turning of the handle, but now opened them again, curious to watch the aspect of the fading world. She had determined to do this a week ago: she would at least miss nothing of this unique last experience.

It seemed at first that there was no change. There was the feathery head of the elm, the lead roof opposite, and the terrible sky above. She noticed a pigeon, white against the blackness, soar and swoop again out of sight in an instant….

… Then the following things happened….

There was a sudden sensation of ecstatic lightness in all her limbs; she attempted to lift a hand, and was aware that it was impossible; it was no longer hers. She attempted to lower her eyes from that broad strip of violet sky, and perceived that that too was impossible. Then she understood that the will had already lost touch with the body, that the crumbling world had receded to an infinite distance—that was as she had expected, but what continued to puzzle her was that her mind was still active. It was true that the world she had known had withdrawn itself from the dominion of consciousness, as her body had done, except, that was, in the sense of hearing, which was still strangely alert; yet there was still enough memory to be aware that there was such a world—that there were other persons in existence; that men went about their business, knowing nothing of what had happened; but faces, names, places had all alike gone. In fact, she was conscious of herself in such a manner as she had never been before; it seemed as if she had penetrated at last into some recess of her being into which hitherto she had only looked as through clouded glass. This was very strange, and yet it was familiar, too; she had arrived, it seemed, at a centre, round the circumference of which she had been circling all her life; and it was more than a mere point: it was a distinct space, walled and enclosed…. At the same instant she knew that hearing, too, was gone….

Then an amazing thing happened—yet it appeared to her that she had always known it would happen, although her mind had never articulated it. This is what happened.

The enclosure melted, with a sound of breaking, and a limitless space was about her—limitless, different to everything else, and alive, and astir. It was alive, as a breathing, panting body is alive—self-evident and overpowering—it was one, yet it was many; it was immaterial, yet absolutely real—real in a sense in which she never dreamed of reality….

Yet even this was familiar, as a place often visited in dreams is familiar; and then, without warning, something resembling sound or light, something which she knew in an instant to be unique, tore across it….

* * * * *

Then she saw, and understood….

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