Oliver had passed the days since Mabel's disappearance in an indescribable horror. He had done all that was possible: he had traced her to the station and to Victoria, where he lost her clue; he had communicated with the police, and the official answer, telling him nothing, had arrived to the effect that there was no news: and it was not until the Tuesday following her disappearance that Mr. Francis, hearing by chance of his trouble, informed him by telephone that he had spoken with her on the Friday night. But there was no satisfaction to be got from him—indeed, the news was bad rather than good, for Oliver could not but be dismayed at the report of the conversation, in spite of Mr. Francis's assurances that Mrs. Brand had shown no kind of inclination to defend the Christian cause.
Two theories gradually emerged, in his mind; either she was gone to the protection of some unknown Catholic, or—and he grew sick at the thought—she had applied somewhere for Euthanasia as she had once threatened, and was now under the care of the Law; such an event was sufficiently common since the passing of the Release Act in 1998. And it was frightful that he could not condemn it.
* * * * *
On the Tuesday evening, as he sat heavily in his room, for the hundredth time attempting to trace out some coherent line through the maze of intercourse he had had with his wife during these past months, his bell suddenly rang. It was the red label of Whitehall that had made its appearance; and for an instant his heart leaped with hope that it was news of her. But at the first words it sank again.
"Brand," came the sharp fairy voice, "is that you?… Yes, I am Snowford. You are wanted at once—at once, you understand. There is an extraordinary meeting of the Council at twenty o'clock. The President will be there. You understand the urgency. No time for more. Come instantly to my room."
* * * * *
Even this message scarcely distracted him. He, with the rest of the world, was no longer surprised at the sudden descents of the President. He came and vanished again without warning, travelling and working with incredible energy, yet always, as it seemed, retaining his personal calm.
It was already after nineteen; Oliver supped immediately, and a quarter-of-an-hour before the hour presented himself in Snowford's room, where half a dozen of his colleagues were assembled.
That minister came forward to meet him, with a strange excitement in his face. He drew him aside by a button.
"See here, Brand, you are wanted to speak first—immediately after the President's Secretary who will open; they are coming from Paris. It is about a new matter altogether. He has had information of the whereabouts of the Pope…. It seems that there is one…. Oh, you will understand presently. Oh, and by the way," he went on, looking curiously at the strained face, "I am sorry to hear of your anxiety. Pemberton told me just now."
Oliver lifted a hand abruptly.
"Tell me," he said. "What am I wanted to say?"
"Well, the President will have a proposal, we imagine. You know our minds well enough. Just explain our attitude towards the Catholics."
Oliver's eyes shrank suddenly to two bright lines beneath the lids. He nodded.
Cartwright came up presently, an immense, bent old man with a face of parchment, as befitted the Lord Chief Justice.
"By the way, Brand, what do you know of a man called Phillips? He seems to have mentioned your name."
"He was my secretary," said Oliver slowly. "What about him?"
"I think he must be mad. He has given himself up to a magistrate, entreating to be examined at once. The magistrate has applied for instructions. You see, the Act has scarcely begun to move yet."
"But what has he done?"
"That's the difficulty. He says he cannot deny God, neither can he affirm Him.—He was your secretary, then?"
"Certainly. I knew he was inclined to Christianity. I had to get rid of him for that."
"Well, he is to be remanded for a week. Perhaps he will be able to make up his mind."
Then the talk shifted off again. Two or three more came up, and all eyed Oliver with a certain curiosity; the story was gone about that his wife had left him. They wished to see how he took it.
At five minutes before the hour a bell rang, and the door into the corridor was thrown open.
"Come, gentlemen," said the Prime Minister.
The Council Chamber was a long high room on the first floor; its walls from floor to ceiling were lined with books. A noiseless rubber carpet was underfoot. There were no windows; the room was lighted artificially. A long table, set round with armed chairs, ran the length of the floor, eight on either side; and the Presidential chair, raised on a dais, stood at the head.
Each man went straight to his chair in silence, and remained there, waiting.
* * * * *
The room was beautifully cool, in spite of the absence of windows, and was a pleasant contrast to the hot evening outside through which most of these men had come. They, too, had wondered at the surprising weather, and had smiled at the conflict of the infallible. But they were not thinking about that now: the coming of the President was a matter which always silenced the most loquacious. Besides, this time, they understood that the affair was more serious than usual.
At one minute before the hour, again a bell sounded, four times, and ceased; and at the signal each man turned instinctively to the high sliding door behind the Presidential chair. There was dead silence within and without: the huge Government offices were luxuriously provided with sound-deadening apparatus, and not even the rolling of the vast motors within a hundred yards was able to send a vibration through the layers of rubber on which the walls rested. There was only one noise that could penetrate, and that the sound of thunder. The experts were at present unable to exclude this.
Again the silence seemed to fall in one yet deeper veil. Then the door opened, and a figure came swiftly through, followed by Another in black and scarlet.
He passed straight up to the chair, followed by two secretaries, bowed slightly to this side and that, sat down and made a little gesture. Then they, too, were in their chairs, upright and intent. For perhaps the hundredth time, Oliver, staring upon the President, marvelled at the quietness and the astounding personality of Him. He was in the English judicial dress that had passed down through centuries—black and scarlet with sleeves of white fur and a crimson sash—and that had lately been adopted as the English presidential costume of him who stood at the head of the legislature. But it was in His personality, in the atmosphere that flowed from Him, that the marvel lay. It was as the scent of the sea to the physical nature—it exhilarated, cleansed, kindled, intoxicated. It was as inexplicably attractive as a cherry orchard in spring, as affecting as the cry of stringed instruments, as compelling as a storm. So writers had said. They compared it to a stream of clear water, to the flash of a gem, to the love of woman. They lost all decency sometimes; they said it fitted all moods, as the voice of many waters; they called it again and again, as explicitly as possible, the Divine Nature perfectly Incarnate at last….
Then Oliver's reflections dropped from him like a mantle, for the President, with downcast eyes and head thrown back, made a little gesture to the ruddy-faced secretary on His right; and this man, without a movement, began to speak like an impersonal actor repeating his part.
* * * * *
"Gentlemen," he said, in an even, resonant voice, "the President is come direct from Paris. This afternoon His Honour was in Berlin; this morning, early, in Moscow. Yesterday in New York. To-night His Honour must be in Turin; and to-morrow will begin to return through Spain, North Africa, Greece and the southeastern states."
This was the usual formula for such speeches. The President spoke but little himself now; but was careful for the information of his subjects on occasions like this. His secretaries were perfectly trained, and this speaker was no exception. After a slight pause, he continued:
"This is the business, gentlemen.
"Last Thursday, as you are aware, the Plenipotentaries signed the Test Act in this room, and it was immediately communicated all over the world. At sixteen o'clock His Honour received a message from a man named Dolgorovski—who is, it is understood, one of the Cardinals of the Catholic Church. This he claimed; and on inquiry it was found to be a fact. His information confirmed what was already suspected—namely, that there was a man claiming to be Pope, who had created (so the phrase is) other cardinals, shortly after the destruction of Rome, subsequent to which his own election took place in Jerusalem. It appears that this Pope, with a good deal of statesmanship, has chosen to keep his own name and place of residence a secret from even his own followers, with the exception of the twelve cardinals; that he has done a great deal, through the instrumentality of one of his cardinals in particular, and through his new Order in general, towards the reorganisation of the Catholic Church; and that at this moment he is living, apart from the world, in complete security.
"His Honour blames Himself that He did not do more than suspect something of the kind—misled, He thinks, by a belief that if there had been a Pope, news would have been heard of it from other quarters, for, as is well known, the entire structure of the Christian Church rests upon him as upon a rock. Further, His Honour thinks inquiries should have been made in the very place where now it is understood that this Pope is living.
"The man's name, gentlemen, is Franklin—-"
Oliver started uncontrollably, but relapsed again to bright-eyed intelligence as for an instant the President glanced up from his motionlessness.
"Franklin," repeated the secretary, "and he is living in Nazareth, where, it is said, the Founder of Christianity passed His youth.
"Now this, gentlemen, His Honour heard on Thursday in last week. He caused inquiries to be made, and on Friday morning received further intelligence from Dolgorovski that this Pope had summoned to Nazareth a meeting of his cardinals, and certain other officials, from all over the world, to consider what steps should be taken in view of the new Test Act. This His Honour takes to show an extreme want of statesmanship which seems hard to reconcile with his former action. These persons are summoned by special messengers to meet on Saturday next, and will begin their deliberations after some Christian ceremonies on the following morning.
"You wish, gentlemen, no doubt, to know Dolgorovski's motives in making all this known. His Honour is satisfied that they are genuine. The man has been losing belief in his religion; in fact, he has come to see that this religion is the supreme obstacle to the consolidation of the race. He has esteemed it his duty, therefore, to lay this information before His Honour. It is interesting as an historical parallel to reflect that the same kind of incident marked the rise of Christianity as will mark, it is thought, its final extinction—namely, the informing on the part of one of the leaders of the place and method by which the principal personage may be best approached. It is also, surely, very significant that the scene of the extinction of Christianity is identical with that of its inauguration….
"Well, gentlemen, His Honour's proposal is as follows, carrying out the Declaration to which you all acceded. It is that a force should proceed during the night of Saturday next to Palestine, and on the Sunday morning, when these men will be all gathered together, that this force should finish as swiftly and mercifully as possible the work to which the Powers have set their hands. So far, the comment of the Governments which have been consulted has been unanimous, and there is little doubt that the rest will be equally so. His Honour felt that He could not act in on grave a matter on His own responsibility; it is not merely local; it is a catholic administration of justice, and will have results wider than it is safe minutely to prophesy.
"It is not necessary to enter into His Honour's reasons. They are already well known to you; but before asking for your opinion, He desires me to indicate what He thinks, in the event of your approval, should be the method of action.
"Each Government, it is proposed, should take part in the final scene, for it is something of a symbolic action; and for this purpose it is thought well that each of the three Departments of the World should depute volors, to the number of the constituting States, one hundred and twenty-two all told, to set about the business. These volors should have no common meeting-ground, otherwise the news will surely penetrate to Nazareth, for it is understood that, this new Order of Christ Crucified has a highly organised system of espionage. The rendezvous, then, should be no other than Nazareth itself; and the time of meeting should be, it is thought, not later than nine o'clock according to Palestine reckoning. These details, however, can be decided and communicated as soon as a determination has been formed as regards the entire scheme.
"With respect to the exact method of carrying out the conclusion, His Honour is inclined to think it will be more merciful to enter into no negotiations with the persons concerned. An opportunity should be given to the inhabitants of the village to make their escape if they so desire it, and then, with the explosives that the force should carry, the end can be practically instantaneous.
"For Himself, His Honour proposes to be there in person, and further that the actual discharge should take place from His own car. It seems but suitable that the world which has done His Honour the goodness to elect Him to its Presidentship should act through His hands; and this would be at least some slight token of respect to a superstition which, however infamous, is yet the one and only force capable of withstanding the true progress of man.
"His Honour promises you, gentlemen, that in the event of this plan being carried out, we shall be no more troubled with Christianity. Already the moral effect of the Test Act has been prodigious. It is understood that, by tens of thousands, Catholics, numbering among them even members of this new fanatical Religious Order, have been renouncing their follies even in these few days; and a final blow struck now at the very heart and head of the Catholic Church, eliminating, as it would do, the actual body on which the entire organisation subsists, would render its resurrection impossible. It is a well-known fact that, granted the extinction of the line of Popes, together with those necessary for its continuance, there could be no longer any question amongst even the most ignorant that the claim of Jesus had ceased to be either reasonable or possible. Even the Order that has provided the sinews for this new movement must cease to exist.
"Dolgorovski, of course, is the difficulty, for it is not certainly known whether one Cardinal would be considered sufficient for the propagation of the line; and, although reluctantly, His Honour feels bound to suggest that at the conclusion of the affair, Dolgorovski, also, who will not, of course, be with his fellows at Nazareth, should be mercifully removed from even the danger of a relapse….
"His Honour, then, asks you, gentlemen, as briefly as possible, to state your views on the points of which I have had the privilege of speaking."
The quiet business-like voice ceased.
He had spoken throughout in the manner with which he had begun; his eyes had been downcast throughout; his voice had been tranquil and restrained. His deportment had been admirable.
There was an instant's silence, and all eyes settled steadily again upon the motionless figure in black and scarlet and the ivory face.
Then Oliver stood up. His face was as white as paper; his eyes bright and dilated.
"Sir," he said, "I have no doubt that we are all of one mind. I need say no more than that, so far as I am a representative of my colleagues, we assent to the proposal, and leave all details in your Honour's hands."
The President lifted his eyes, and ran them swiftly along the rigid faces turned to him.
Then, in the breathless hush, he spoke for the first time in his strange voice, now as passionless as a frozen river.
"Is there any other proposal?"
There was a murmur of assent as the men rose to their feet.
"Thank you, gentlemen," said the secretary.
It was a little before seven o'clock on the morning of Saturday that Oliver stepped out of the motor that had carried him to Wimbledon Common, and began to go up the steps of the old volor-stage, abandoned five years ago. It had been thought better, in view of the extreme secrecy that was to be kept, that England's representative in the expedition should start from a comparatively unknown point, and this old stage, in disuse now, except for occasional trials of new Government machines, had been selected. Even the lift had been removed, and it was necessary to climb the hundred and fifty steps on foot.
It was with a certain unwillingness that he had accepted this post among the four delegates, for nothing had been heard of his wife, and it was terrible to him to leave London while her fate was as yet doubtful. On the whole, he was less inclined than ever now to accept the Euthanasia theory; he had spoken to one or two of her friends, all of whom declared that she had never even hinted at such an end. And, again, although he was well aware of the eight-day law in the matter, even if she had determined on such a step there was nothing to show that she was yet in England, and, in fact, it was more than likely that if she were bent on such an act she would go abroad for it, where laxer conditions prevailed. In short, it seemed that he could do no good by remaining in England, and the temptation to be present at the final act of justice in the East by which land, and, in fact, it was more than likely that if she were to be wiped out, and Franklin, too, among them—Franklin, that parody of the Lord of the World—this, added to the opinion of his colleagues in the Government, and the curious sense, never absent from him now, that Felsenburgh's approval was a thing to die for if necessary—these things had finally prevailed. He left behind him at home his secretary, with instructions that no expense was to be spared in communicating with him should any news of his wife arrive during his absence.
It was terribly hot this morning, and, by the time that he reached the top he noticed that the monster in the net was already fitted into its white aluminium casing, and that the fans within the corridor and saloon were already active. He stepped inside to secure a seat in the saloon, set his bag down, and after a word or two with the guard, who, of course, had not yet been informed of their destination, learning that the others were not yet come, he went out again on to the platform for coolness' sake, and to brood in peace.
London looked strange this morning, he thought. Here beneath him was the common, parched somewhat with the intense heat of the previous week, stretching for perhaps half-a-mile—tumbled ground, smooth stretches of turf, and the heads of heavy trees up to the first house-roofs, set, too, it seemed, in bowers of foliage. Then beyond that began the serried array, line beyond line, broken in one spot by the gleam of a river-reach, and then on again fading beyond eyesight. But what surprised him was the density of the air; it was now, as old books related it had been in the days of smoke. There was no freshness, no translucence of morning atmosphere; it was impossible to point in any one direction to the source of this veiling gloom, for on all sides it was the same. Even the sky overhead lacked its blue; it appeared painted with a muddy brush, and the sun shewed the same faint tinge of red. Yes, it was like that, he said wearily to himself—like a second-rate sketch; there was no sense of mystery as of a veiled city, but rather unreality. The shadows seemed lacking in definiteness, the outlines and grouping in coherence. A storm was wanted, he reflected; or even, it might be, one more earthquake on the other side of the world would, in wonderful illustration of the globe's unity, relieve the pressure on this side. Well, well; the journey would be worth taking even for the interest of observing climatic changes; but it would be terribly hot, he mused, by the time the south of France was reached.
Then his thoughts leaped back to their own gnawing misery.
* * * * *
It was another ten minutes before he saw the scarlet Government motor, with awnings out, slide up the road from the direction of Fulham; and yet five minutes more before the three men appeared with their servants behind them—Maxwell, Snowford and Cartwright, all alike, as was Oliver, in white duck from head to foot.
They did not speak one word of their business, for the officials were going to and fro, and it was advisable to guard against even the smallest possibility of betrayal. The guard had been told that the volor was required for a three days' journey, that provisions were to be taken in for that period, and that the first point towards which the course was to lie was the centre of the South Downs. There would be no stopping for at least a day and a night.
Further instructions had reached them from the President on the previous morning, by which time He had completed His visitation, and received the assent of the Emergency Councils of the world. This Snowford commented upon in an undertone, and added a word or two as to details, as the four stood together looking out over the city.
Briefly, the plan was as follows, at least so far as it concerned England. The volor was to approach Palestine from the direction of the Mediterranean, observing to get into touch with France on her left and Spain on her right within ten miles of the eastern end of Crete. The approximate hour was fixed at twenty-three (eastern time). At this point she was to show her night signal, a scarlet line on a white field; and in the event of her failing to observe her neighbours was to circle at that point, at a height of eight hundred feet, until either the two were sighted or further instructions were received. For the purpose of dealing with emergencies, the President's car, which would finally make its entrance from the south, was to be accompanied by an aide-de-camp capable of moving at a very high speed, whose signals were to be taken as Felsenburgh's own.
So soon as the circle was completed, having Esdraelon as its centre with a radius of five hundred and forty miles, the volors were to advance, dropping gradually to within five hundred feet of sea-level, and diminishing their distance one from another from the twenty-five miles or so at which they would first find themselves, until they were as near as safety allowed. In this manner the advance at a pace of fifty miles an hour from the moment that the circle was arranged would bring them within sight of Nazareth at about nine o'clock on the Sunday morning.
* * * * *
The guard came up to the four as they stood there silent.
"We are ready, gentlemen," he said.
"What do you think of the weather?" asked Snowford abruptly.
The guard pursed his lips.
"A little thunder, I expect, sir," he said.
Oliver looked at him curiously.
"No more than that?" he asked.
"I should say a storm, sir," observed the guard shortly.
Snowford turned towards the gangway.
"Well, we had best be off: we can lose time further on, if we wish."
It was about five minutes more before all was ready. From the stern of the boat came a faint smell of cooking, for breakfast would be served immediately, and a white-capped cook protruded his head for an instant, to question the guard. The four sat down in the gorgeous saloon in the bows; Oliver silent by himself, the other three talking in low voices together. Once more the guard passed through to his compartment at the prow, glancing as he went to see that all were seated; and an instant later came the clang of the signal. Then through all the length of the boat—for she was the fastest ship that England possessed—passed the thrill of the propeller beginning to work up speed; and simultaneously Oliver, staring sideways through the plate-glass window, saw the rail drop away, and the long line of London, pale beneath the tinged sky, surge up suddenly. He caught a glimpse of a little group of persons staring up from below, and they, too, dropped in a great swirl, and vanished. Then, with a flash of dusty green, the Common had vanished, and a pavement of house-roofs began to stream beneath, the long lines of streets on this side and that turning like spokes of a gigantic wheel; once more this pavement thinned, showing green again as between infrequently laid cobble-stones; then they, too, were gone, and the country was open beneath.
Snowford rose, staggering a little.
"I may as well tell the guard now," he said. "Then we need not be interrupted again."