Lord of the World
It seemed to Percy Franklin as he drew near Rome, sliding five hundred feet high through the summer dawn, that he was approaching the very gates of heaven, or, still better, he was as a child coming home. For what he had left behind him ten hours before in London was not a bad specimen, he thought, of the superior mansions of hell. It was a world whence God seemed to have withdrawn Himself, leaving it indeed in a state of profound complacency--a state without hope or faith, but a condition in which, although life continued, there was absent the one essential to well-being. It was not that there was not expectation--for London was on tip-toe with excitement. There were rumours of all kinds: Felsenburgh was coming back; he was back; he had never gone. He was to be President of the Council, Prime Minister, Tribune, with full capacities of democratic government and personal sacro-sanctity, even King--if not Emperor of the West. The entire constitution was to be remodelled, there was to be a complete rearrangement of the pieces; crime was to be abolished by the mysterious power that had killed war; there was to be free food--the secret of life was discovered, there was to be no more death--so the rumours ran ... Yet that was lacking, to the priest’s mind, which made life worth living...
In Paris, while the volor waited at the great station at Montmartre, once known as the Church of the Sacred Heart, he had heard the roaring of the mob in love with life at last, and seen the banners go past. As it rose again over the suburbs he had seen the long lines of trains streaming in, visible as bright serpents in the brilliant glory of the electric globes, bringing the country folk up to the Council of the Nation which the legislators, mad with drama, had summoned to decide the great question. At Lyons it had been the same. The night was as clear as the day, and as full of sound. Mid France was arriving to register its votes.
He had fallen asleep as the cold air of the Alps began to envelop the car, and had caught but glimpses of the solemn moonlit peaks below him, the black profundities of the gulfs, the silver glint of the shield-like lakes, and the soft glow of Interlaken and the towns in the Rhone valley. Once he had been moved in spite of himself, as one of the huge German volors had passed in the night, a blaze of ghostly lights and gilding, resembling a huge moth with antennae of electric light, and the two ships had saluted one another through half a league of silent air, with a pathetic cry as of two strange night-birds who have no leisure to pause. Milan and Turin had been quiet, for Italy was organised on other principles than France, and Florence was not yet half awake. And now the Campagna was slipping past like a grey-green rug, wrinkled and tumbled, five hundred feet beneath, and Rome was all but in sight. The indicator above his seat moved its finger from one hundred to ninety miles.
He shook off the doze at last, and drew out his office book; but as he pronounced the words his attention was elsewhere, and, when Prime was said, he closed the book once more, propped himself more comfortably, drawing the furs round him, and stretching his feet on the empty seat opposite. He was alone in his compartment; the three men who had come in at Paris had descended at Turin.
He had been remarkably relieved when the message had come three days before from the Cardinal-Protector, bidding him make arrangements for a long absence from England, and, as soon as that was done, to come to Rome. He understood that the ecclesiastical authorities were really disturbed at last.
He reviewed the last day or two, considering the report he would have to present. Since his last letter, three days before, seven notable apostasies had taken place in Westminster diocese alone, two priests and five important laymen. There was talk of revolt on all sides; he had seen a threatening document, called a “petition,” demanding the right to dispense with all ecclesiastical vestments, signed by one hundred and twenty priests from England and Wales. The “petitioners” pointed out that persecution was coming swiftly at the hands of the mob; that the Government was not sincere in the promises of protection; they hinted that religious loyalty was already strained to breaking-point even in the case of the most faithful, and that with all but those it had already broken.
And as to his comments Percy was clear. He would tell the authorities, as he had already told them fifty times, that it was not persecution that mattered; it was this new outburst of enthusiasm for Humanity--an enthusiasm which had waxed a hundredfold more hot since the coming of Felsenburgh and the publication of the Eastern news--which was melting the hearts of all but the very few. Man had suddenly fallen in love with man. The conventional were rubbing their eyes and wondering why they had ever believed, or even dreamed, that there was a God to love, asking one another what was the secret of the spell that had held them so long. Christianity and Theism were passing together from the world’s mind as a morning mist passes when the sun comes up. His recommendations--? Yes, he had those clear, and ran them over in his mind with a sense of despair.
For himself, he scarcely knew if he believed what he professed. His emotions seemed to have been finally extinguished in the vision of the white car and the silence of the crowd that evening three weeks before. It had been so horribly real and positive; the delicate aspirations and hopes of the soul appeared so shadowy when compared with that burning, heart-shaking passion of the people. He had never seen anything like it; no congregation under the spell of the most kindling preacher alive had ever responded with one-tenth of the fervour with which that irreligious crowd, standing in the cold dawn of the London streets, had greeted the coming of their saviour. And as for the man himself--Percy could not analyse what it was that possessed him as he had stared, muttering the name of Jesus, on that quiet figure in black with features and hair so like his own. He only knew that a hand had gripped his heart--a hand warm, not cold--and had quenched, it seemed, all sense of religious conviction. It had only been with an effort that sickened him to remember, that he had refrained from that interior act of capitulation that is so familiar to all who have cultivated an inner life and understand what failure means. There had been one citadel that had not flung wide its gates--all else had yielded. His emotions had been stormed, his intellect silenced, his memory of grace obscured, a spiritual nausea had sickened his soul, yet the secret fortress of the will had, in an agony, held fast the doors and refused to cry out and call Felsenburgh king.
Ah! how he had prayed during those three weeks! It appeared to him that he had done little else; there had been no peace. Lances of doubt thrust again and again through door and window; masses of argument had crashed from above; he had been on the alert day and night, repelling this, blindly, and denying that, endeavouring to keep his foothold on the slippery plane of the supernatural, sending up cry after cry to the Lord Who hid Himself. He had slept with his crucifix in his hand, he had awakened himself by kissing it; while he wrote, talked, ate, walked, and sat in cars, the inner life had been busy-making frantic speechless acts of faith in a religion which his intellect denied and from which his emotions shrank. There had been moments of ecstasy--now in a crowded street, when he recognised that God was all, that the Creator was the key to the creature’s life, that a humble act of adoration was transcendently greater than the most noble natural act, that the Supernatural was the origin and end of existence there had come to him such moments in the night, in the silence of the Cathedral, when the lamp flickered, and a soundless air had breathed from the iron door of the tabernacle. Then again passion ebbed, and left him stranded on misery, but set with a determination (which might equally be that of pride or faith) that no power in earth or hell should hinder him from professing Christianity even if he could not realise it. It was Christianity alone that made life tolerable.
Percy drew a long vibrating breath, and changed his position; for far away his unseeing eyes had descried a dome, like a blue bubble set on a carpet of green; and his brain had interrupted itself to tell him that this was Rome. He got up presently, passed out of his compartment, and moved forward up the central gangway, seeing, as he went, through the glass doors to right and left his fellow-passengers, some still asleep, some staring out at the view, some reading. He put his eye to the glass square in the door, and for a minute or two watched, fascinated, the steady figure of the steerer at his post. There he stood motionless, his hands on the steel circle that directed the vast wings, his eyes on the wind-gauge that revealed to him as on the face of a clock both the force and the direction of the high gusts; now and again his hands moved slightly, and the huge fans responded, now lifting, now lowering. Beneath him and in front, fixed on a circular table, were the glass domes of various indicators--Percy did not know the meaning of half--one seemed a kind of barometer, intended, he guessed, to declare the height at which they were travelling, another a compass. And beyond, through the curved windows, lay the enormous sky. Well, it was all very wonderful, thought the priest, and it was with the force of which all this was but one symptom that the supernatural had to compete.
He sighed, turned, and went back to his compartment.
It was an astonishing vision that began presently to open before him--scarcely beautiful except for its strangeness, and as unreal as a raised map. Far to his right, as he could see through the glass doors, lay the grey line of the sea against the luminous sky, rising and falling ever so slightly as the car, apparently motionless, tilted imperceptibly against the western breeze; the only other movement was the faint pulsation of the huge throbbing screw in the rear. To the left stretched the limitless country, flitting beneath, in glimpses seen between the motionless wings, with here and there the streak of a village, flattened out of recognition, or the flash of water, and bounded far away by the low masses of the Umbrian hills; while in front, seen and gone again as the car veered, lay the confused line of Rome and the huge new suburbs, all crowned by the great dome growing every instant. Around, above and beneath, his eyes were conscious of wide air-spaces, overhead deepening into lapis-lazuli down to horizons of pale turquoise. The only sound, of which he had long ceased to be directly conscious, was that of the steady rush of air, less shrill now as the speed began to drop down--down--to forty miles an hour. There was a clang of a bell, and immediately he was aware of a sense of faint sickness as the car dropped in a glorious swoop, and he staggered a little as he grasped his rugs together. When he looked again the motion seemed to have ceased; he could see towers ahead, a line of house-roofs, and beneath he caught a glimpse of a road and more roofs with patches of green between. A bell clanged again, and a long sweet cry followed. On all sides he could hear the movement of feet; a guard in uniform passed swiftly along the glazed corridor; again came the faint nausea; and as he looked up once more from his luggage for an instant he saw the dome, grey now and lined, almost on a level with his own eyes, huge against the vivid sky. The world span round for a moment; he shut his eyes, and when he looked again walls seemed to heave up past him and stop, swaying. There was the last bell, a faint vibration as the car grounded in the steel-netted dock; a line of faces rocked and grew still outside the windows, and Percy passed out towards the doors, carrying his bags.
He still felt a sense of insecure motion as he sat alone over coffee an hour later in one of the remote rooms of the Vatican; but there was a sense of exhilaration as well, as his tired brain realised where he was. It had been strange to drive over the rattling stones in the weedy little cab, such as he remembered ten years ago when he had left Rome, newly ordained. While the world had moved on, Rome had stood still; she had other affairs to think of than physical improvements, now that the spiritual weight of the earth rested entirely upon her shoulders. All had seemed unchanged--or rather it had reverted to the condition of nearly one hundred and fifty years ago. Histories related how the improvements of the Italian government had gradually dropped out of use as soon as the city, eighty years before, had been given her independence; the trains ceased to run; volors were not allowed to enter the walls; the new buildings, permitted to remain, had been converted to ecclesiastical use; the Quirinal became the offices of the “Red Pope”; the embassies, huge seminaries; even the Vatican itself, with the exception of the upper floor, had become the abode of the Sacred College, who surrounded the Supreme Pontiff as stars their sun.
It was an extraordinary city, said antiquarians--the one living example of the old days. Here were to be seen the ancient inconveniences, the insanitary horrors, the incarnation of a world given over to dreaming. The old Church pomp was back, too; the cardinals drove again in gilt coaches; the Pope rode on his white mule; the Blessed Sacrament went through the ill-smelling streets with the sound of bells and the light of lanterns. A brilliant description of it had interested the civilised world immensely for about forty-eight hours; the appalling retrogression was still used occasionally as the text for violent denunciations by the poorly educated; the well-educated had ceased to do anything but take for granted that superstition and progress were irreconcilable enemies.
Yet Percy, even in the glimpses he had had in the streets, as he drove from the volor station outside the People’s Gate, of the old peasant dresses, the blue and red-fringed wine carts, the cabbage-strewn gutters, the wet clothes flapping on strings, the mules and horses--strange though these were, he had found them a refreshment. It had seemed to remind him that man was human, and not divine as the rest of the world proclaimed--human, and therefore careless and individualistic; human, and therefore occupied with interests other than those of speed, cleanliness, and precision.
The room in which he sat now by the window with shading blinds, for the sun was already hot, seemed to revert back even further than to a century-and-a-half. The old damask and gilding that he had expected was gone, and its absence gave the impression of great severity. There was a wide deal table running the length of the room, with upright wooden arm chairs set against it; the floor was red-tiled, with strips of matting for the feet, the white, distempered walls had only a couple of old pictures hung upon them, and a large crucifix flanked by candles stood on a little altar by the further door. There was no more furniture than that, with the exception of a writing-desk between the windows, on which stood a typewriter. That jarred somehow on his sense of fitness, and he wondered at it.
He finished the last drop of coffee in the thick-rimmed white cup, and sat back in his chair.
Already the burden was lighter, and he was astonished at the swiftness with which it had become so. Life looked simpler here; the interior world was taken more for granted; it was not even a matter of debate. There it was, imperious and objective, and through it glimmered to the eyes of the soul the old Figures that had become shrouded behind the rush of worldly circumstance. The very shadow of God appeared to rest here; it was no longer impossible to realise that the saints watched and interceded, that Mary sat on her throne, that the white disc on the altar was Jesus Christ. Percy was not yet at peace after all, he had been but an hour in Rome; and air, charged with never so much grace, could scarcely do more than it had done. But he felt more at ease, less desperately anxious, more childlike, more content to rest on the authority that claimed without explanation, and asserted that the world, as a matter of fact, proved by evidences without and within, was made this way and not that, for this purpose and not the other. Yet he had used the conveniences which he hated; he had left London a bare twelve hours before, and now here he sat in a place which was either a stagnant backwater of life, or else the very mid-current of it; he was not yet sure which.
There was a step outside, a handle was turned; and the Cardinal-Protector came through.
Percy had not seen him for four years, and for a moment scarcely recognised him.
It was a very old man that he saw now, bent and feeble, his face covered with wrinkles, crowned by very thin, white hair, and the little scarlet cap on top; he was in his black Benedictine habit with a plain abbatial cross on his breast, and walked hesitatingly, with a black stick. The only sign of vigour was in the narrow bright slit of his eyes showing beneath drooping lids. He held out his hand, smiling, and Percy, remembering in time that he was in the Vatican, bowed low only as he kissed the amethyst.
“Welcome to Rome, father,” said the old man, speaking with an unexpected briskness. “They told me you were here half-an-hour ago; I thought I would leave you to wash and have your coffee.”
Percy murmured something.
“Yes; you are tired, no doubt,” said the Cardinal, pulling out a chair.
“Indeed not, your Eminence. I slept excellently.”
The Cardinal made a little gesture to a chair.
“But I must have a word with you. The Holy Father wishes to see you at eleven o’clock.”
Percy started a little.
“We move quickly in these days, father ... There is no time to dawdle. You understand that you are to remain in Rome for the present?”
“I have made all arrangements for that, your Eminence.”
“That is very well ... We are pleased with you here, Father Franklin. The Holy Father has been greatly impressed by your comments. You have foreseen things in a very remarkable manner.”
Percy flushed with pleasure. It was almost the first hint of encouragement he had had. Cardinal Martin went on.
“I may say that you are considered our most valuable correspondent--certainly in England. That is why you are summoned. You are to help us here in future--a kind of consultor: any one can relate facts; not every one can understand them ... You look very young, father. How old are you?”
“I am thirty-three, your Eminence.”
“Ah! your white hair helps you ... Now, father, will you come with me into my room? It is now eight o’clock. I will keep you till nine--no longer. Then you shall have some rest, and at eleven I shall take you up to his Holiness.”
Percy rose with a strange sense of elation, and ran to open the door for the Cardinal to go through.
At a few minutes before eleven Percy came out of his little white-washed room in his new ferraiuola, soutane and buckle shoes, and tapped at the door of the Cardinal’s room.
He felt a great deal more self-possessed now. He had talked to the Cardinal freely and strongly, had described the effect that Felsenburgh had had upon London, and even the paralysis that had seized upon himself. He had stated his belief that they were on the edge of a movement unparalleled in history: he related little scenes that he had witnessed--a group kneeling before a picture of Felsenburgh, a dying man calling him by name, the aspect of the crowd that had waited in Westminster to hear the result of the offer made to the stranger. He showed him half-a-dozen cuttings from newspapers, pointing out their hysterical enthusiasm; he even went so far as to venture upon prophecy, and to declare his belief that persecution was within reasonable distance.
“The world seems very oddly alive,” he said; “it is as if the whole thing was flushed and nervous.”
The Cardinal nodded.
“We, too,” he said, “even we feel it.”
For the rest the Cardinal had sat watching him out of his narrow eyes, nodding from time to time, putting an occasional question, but listening throughout with great attention.
“And your recommendations, father--” he had said, and then interrupted himself. “No, that is too much to ask. The Holy Father will speak of that.”
He had congratulated him upon his Latin then--for they had spoken in that language throughout this second interview; and Percy had explained how loyal Catholic England had been in obeying the order, given ten years before, that Latin should become to the Church what Esperanto was becoming to the world.
“That is very well,” said the old man. “His Holiness will be pleased at that.”
At his second tap the door opened and the Cardinal came out, taking him by the arm without a word; and together they turned to the lift entrance.
Percy ventured to make a remark as they slid noiselessly up towards the papal apartment.
“I am surprised at the lift, your Eminence, and the typewriter in the audience-room.”
“Why, all the rest of Rome is back in the old days.”
The Cardinal looked at him, puzzled.
“Is it? I suppose it is. I never thought of that.”
A Swiss guard flung back the door of the lift, saluted and went before them along the plain flagged passage to where his comrade stood. Then he saluted again and went back. A Pontifical chamberlain, in all the sombre glory of purple, black, and a Spanish ruff, peeped from the door, and made haste to open it. It really seemed almost incredible that such things still existed.
“In a moment, your Eminence,” he said in Latin. “Will your Eminence wait here?”
It was a little square room, with half-a-dozen doors, plainly contrived out of one of the huge old halls, for it was immensely high, and the tarnished gilt cornice vanished directly in two places into the white walls. The partitions, too, seemed thin; for as the two men sat down there was a murmur of voices faintly audible, the shuffling of footsteps, and the old eternal click of the typewriter from which Percy hoped he had escaped. They were alone in the room, which was furnished with the same simplicity as the Cardinal’s--giving the impression of a curious mingling of ascetic poverty and dignity by its red-tiled floor, its white walls, its altar and two vast bronze candlesticks of incalculable value that stood on the dais. The shutters here, too, were drawn; and there was nothing to distract Percy from the excitement that surged up now tenfold in heart and brain.