Lord of the World
By Robert Hugh Benson
Dover Publications, Inc. Copyright © 2015 Robert Hugh Benson
All rights reserved.
BOOK I — THE ADVENT
Oliver Brand, the new member for Croydon (4) sat in his study, looking out of the window over the top of his typewriter.
His house stood facing northwards at the extreme end of a spur of the Surrey Hills, now cut and tunnelled out of all recognition; only to a Communist the view was an inspiriting one. Immediately below the wide windows the embanked ground fell away rapidly for perhaps a hundred feet, ending in a high wall, and beyond that the world and works of men were triumphant as far as eye could see. Two vast tracks like streaked race-courses, each not less than a quarter of a mile in width, and sunk twenty feet below the surface of the ground, swept up to a meeting a mile ahead at the huge junction. Of those, that on his left was the First Trunk road to Brighton, inscribed in capital letters in the Railroad Guide, that to the right the Second Trunk to the Tunbridge and Hastings district. Each was divided lengthways by a cement wall, on one side of which, on steel rails, ran the electric trams, and on the other lay the motor-track itself again divided into three, on which ran, first the Government coaches at a speed of one hundred and fifty miles an hour, second the private motors at not more than sixty, third the cheap Government line at thirty, with stations every five miles. This was further bordered by a road confined to pedestrians, cyclists and ordinary cars on which no vehicle was allowed to move at more than twelve miles an hour.
Beyond these great tracks lay an immense plain of house-roofs, with short towers here and there marking public buildings, from the Caterham district on the left to Croydon in front, all clear and bright in smokeless air; and far away to the west and north showed the low suburban hills against the April sky.
There was surprisingly little sound, considering the pressure of the population; and, with the exception of the buzz of the steel rails as a train fled north or south, and the occasional sweet chord of the great motors as they neared or left the junction, there was little to be heard in this study except a smooth, soothing murmur that filled the air like the murmur of bees in a garden.
Oliver loved every hint of human life — all busy sights and sounds — and was listening now, smiling faintly to himself as he stared out into the clear air. Then he set his lips, laid his fingers on the keys once more, and went on speech-constructing.
He was very fortunate in the situation of his house. It stood in an angle of one of those huge spider-webs with which the country was covered, and for his purposes was all that he could expect. It was close enough to London to be extremely cheap, for all wealthy persons had retired at least a hundred miles from the throbbing heart of England; and yet it was as quiet as he could wish. He was within ten minutes of Westminster on the one side, and twenty minutes of the sea on the other; and his constituency lay before him like a raised map. Further, since the great London termini were but ten minutes away, there were at his disposal the First Trunk lines to every big town in England. For a politician of no great means, who was asked to speak at Edinburgh on one evening and in Marseilles on the next, he was as well placed as any man in Europe.
He was a pleasant-looking man, not much over thirty years old; black wire-haired, clean-shaven, thin, virile, magnetic, blue-eyed and white-skinned; and he appeared this day extremely content with himself and the world. His lips moved slightly as he worked, his eyes enlarged and diminished with excitement, and more than once he paused and stared out again, smiling and flushed.
Then a door opened; a middle-aged man came nervously in with a bundle of papers, laid them down on the table without a word, and turned to go out. Oliver lifted his hand for attention, snapped a lever, and spoke.
"Well, Mr. Phillips?" he said.
"There is news from the East, sir," said the secretary.
Oliver shot a glance sideways, and laid his hand on the bundle.
"Any complete message?" he asked.
"No, sir; it is interrupted again. Mr. Felsenburgh's name is mentioned."
Oliver did not seem to hear; he lifted the flimsy printed sheets with a sudden movement, and began turning them.
"The fourth from the top, Mr. Brand," said the secretary.
Oliver jerked his head impatiently, and the other went out as if at a signal.
The fourth sheet from the top, printed in red on green, seemed to absorb Oliver's attention altogether, for he read it through two or three times, leaning back motionless in his chair. Then he sighed, and stared again through the window.
Then once more the door opened, and a tall girl came in.
"Well, my dear?" she observed.
Oliver shook his head, with compressed lips.
"Nothing definite," he said. "Even less than usual. Listen."
He took up the green sheet and began to read aloud, as the girl sat down in a window-seat on his left.
She was a very charming-looking creature, tall and slender, with serious, ardent grey eyes, firm red lips, and a beautiful carriage of head and shoulders. She had walked slowly across the room as Oliver took up the paper, and now sat back in her brown dress in a very graceful and stately attitude. She seemed to listen with a deliberate kind of patience; but her eyes flickered with interest.
"'Irkutsk — April fourteen — Yesterday — as — usual — But — rumoured — defection — from — Sufi — party — Troops — continue — gathering — Felsenburgh — addressed — Buddhist — crowd — Attempt — on — Llama — last — Friday — work — of — Anarchists — Felsenburgh — leaving — for — Moscow — as — arranged — he....' There — that is absolutely all," ended Oliver dispiritedly. "It's interrupted as usual."
The girl began to swing a foot.
"I don't understand in the least," she said. "Who is Felsenburgh, after all?"
"My dear child, that is what all the world is asking. Nothing is known except that he was included in the American deputation at the last moment. The Herald published his life last week; but it has been contradicted. It is certain that he is quite a young man, and that he has been quite obscure until now."
"Well, he is not obscure now," observed the girl.
"I know: it seems as if he were running the whole thing. One never hears a word of the others. It's lucky he's on the right side."
"And what do you think?"
Oliver turned vacant eyes again out of the window.
"I think it is touch and go," he said. "The only remarkable thing is that here hardly anybody seems to realise it. It's too big for the imagination, I suppose. There is no doubt that the East has been preparing for a descent on Europe for these last five years. They have only been checked by America; and this is one last attempt to stop them. But why Felsenburgh should come to the front —" he broke off. "He must be a good linguist, at any rate. This is at least the fifth crowd he has addressed; perhaps he is just the American interpreter. Christ! I wonder who he is."
"Has he any other name?"
"Julian, I believe. One message said so."
"How did this come through?"
Oliver shook his head.
"Private enterprise," he said. "The European agencies have stopped work. Every telegraph station is guarded night and day. There are lines of volors strung out on every frontier. The Empire means to settle this business without us."
"And if it goes wrong?"
"My dear Mabel — if hell breaks loose —" he threw out his hands deprecatingly.
"And what is the Government doing?"
"Working night and day; so is the rest of Europe. It'll be Armageddon with a vengeance if it comes to war."
"What chance do you see?"
"I see two chances," said Oliver slowly: "one, that they may be afraid of America, and may hold their hands from sheer fear; the other that they may be induced to hold their hands from charity; if only they can be made to understand that cooperation is the one hope of the world. But those damned religions of theirs —"
The girl sighed, and looked out again on to the wide plain of house-roofs below the window.
The situation was indeed as serious as it could be. That huge Empire, consisting of a federalism of States under the Son of Heaven (made possible by the merging of the Japanese and Chinese dynasties and the fall of Russia), had been consolidating its forces and learning its own power during the last thirty-five years, ever since, in fact, it had laid its lean yellow hands upon Australia and India. While the rest of the world had learned the folly of war, ever since the fall of the Russian republic under the combined attack of the yellow races, the last had grasped its possibilities. It seemed now as if the civilisation of the last century was to be swept back once more into chaos. It was not that the mob of the East cared very greatly; it was their rulers who had begun to stretch themselves after an almost eternal lethargy, and it was hard to imagine how they could be checked at this point. There was a touch of grimness too in the rumour that religious fanaticism was behind the movement, and that the patient East proposed at last to proselytise by the modern equivalents of fire and sword those who had laid aside for the most part all religious beliefs except that in Humanity. To Oliver it was simply maddening. As he looked from his window and saw that vast limit of London laid peaceably before him, as his imagination ran out over Europe and saw everywhere that steady triumph of commonsense and fact over the wild fairy-stories of Christianity, it seemed intolerable that there should be even a possibility that all this should be swept back again into the barbarous turmoil of sects and dogmas; for no less than this would be the result if the East laid hands on Europe. Even Catholicism would revive, he told himself, that strange faith that had blazed so often as persecution had been dashed to quench it; and, of all forms of faith, to Oliver's mind Catholicism was the most grotesque and enslaving. And the prospect of all this honestly troubled him, far more than the thought of the physical catastrophe and bloodshed that would fall on Europe with the advent of the East. There was but one hope on the religious side, as he had told Mabel a dozen times, and that was that the Quietistic Pantheism which for the last century had made such giant strides in East and West alike, among Mohammedans, Buddhists, Hindus, Confucianists and the rest, should avail to check the supernatural frenzy that inspired their exoteric brethren. Pantheism, he understood, was what he held himself; for him "God" was the developing sum of created life, and impersonal Unity was the essence of His being; competition then was the great heresy that set men one against another and delayed all progress; for, to his mind, progress lay in the merging of the individual in the family, of the family in the commonwealth, of the commonwealth in the continent, and of the continent in the world. Finally, the world itself at any moment was no more than the mood of impersonal life. It was, in fact, the Catholic idea with the supernatural left out, a union of earthly fortunes, an abandonment of individualism on the one side, and of supernaturalism on the other. It was treason to appeal from God Immanent to God Transcendent; there was no God transcendent; God, so far as He could be known, was man.
Yet these two, husband and wife after a fashion — for they had entered into that terminable contract now recognised explicitly by the State — these two were very far from sharing in the usual heavy dullness of mere materialists. The world, for them, beat with one ardent life blossoming in flower and beast and man, a torrent of beautiful vigour flowing from a deep source and irrigating all that moved or felt. Its romance was the more appreciable because it was comprehensible to the minds that sprang from it; there were mysteries in it, but mysteries that enticed rather than baffled, for they unfolded new glories with every discovery that man could make; even inanimate objects, the fossil, the electric current, the far-off stars, these were dust thrown off by the Spirit of the World — fragrant with His Presence and eloquent of His Nature. For example, the announcement made by Klein, the astronomer, twenty years before, that the inhabitation of certain planets had become a certified fact — how vastly this had altered men's views of themselves. But the one condition of progress and the building of Jerusalem, on the planet that happened to be men's dwelling place, was peace, not the sword which Christ brought or that which Mahomet wielded; but peace that arose from, not passed, understanding; the peace that sprang from a knowledge that man was all and was able to develop himself only by sympathy with his fellows. To Oliver and his wife, then, the last century seemed like a revelation; little by little the old superstitions had died, and the new light broadened; the Spirit of the World had roused Himself, the sun had dawned in the west; and now with horror and loathing they had seen the clouds gather once more in the quarter whence all superstition had had its birth.
Mabel got up presently and came across to her husband.
"My dear," she said, "you must not be down-hearted. It all may pass as it passed before. It is a great thing that they are listening to America at all. And this Mr. Felsenburgh seems to be on the right side."
Oliver took her hand and kissed it.
Oliver seemed altogether depressed at breakfast, half-an-hour later. His mother, an old lady of nearly eighty, who never appeared till noon, seemed to see it at once, for after a look or two at him and a word, she subsided into silence behind her plate.
It was a pleasant little room in which they sat, immediately behind Oliver's own, and was furnished, according to universal custom, in light green. Its windows looked out upon a strip of garden at the back, and the high creeper-grown wall that separated that domain from the next. The furniture, too, was of the usual sort; a sensible round table stood in the middle, with three tall arm-chairs, with the proper angles and rests, drawn up to it; and the centre of it, resting apparently on a broad round column, held the dishes. It was thirty years now since the practice of placing the dining-room above the kitchen, and of raising and lowering the courses by hydraulic power into the centre of the dining-table, had become universal in the houses of the well-to-do. The floor consisted entirely of the asbestos cork preparation invented in America, noiseless, clean, and pleasant to both foot and eye.
Mabel broke the silence.
"And your speech to-morrow?" she asked, taking up her fork.
Oliver brightened a little, and began to discourse.
It seemed that Birmingham was beginning to fret. They were crying out once more for free trade with America: European facilities were not enough, and it was Oliver's business to keep them quiet. It was useless, he proposed to tell them, to agitate until the Eastern business was settled: they must not bother the Government with such details just now. He was to tell them, too, that the Government was wholly on their side; that it was bound to come soon.
"They are pig-headed," he added fiercely; "pigheaded and selfish; they are like children who cry for food ten minutes before dinner-time: it is bound to come if they will wait a little."
"And you will tell them so?"
"That they are pig-headed? Certainly."
Mabel looked at her husband with a pleased twinkle in her eyes. She knew perfectly well that his popularity rested largely on his outspokenness: folks liked to be scolded and abused by a genial bold man who danced and gesticulated in a magnetic fury; she liked it herself.
"How shall you go?" she asked.
"Volor. I shall catch the eighteen o'clock at Blackfriars; the meeting is at nineteen, and I shall be back at twenty-one."
He addressed himself vigorously to his entrée, and his mother looked up with a patient, old-woman smile.
Mabel began to drum her fingers softly on the damask.
"Please make haste, my dear," she said; "I have to be at Brighton at three."
Oliver gulped his last mouthful, pushed his plate over the line, glanced to see if all plates were there, and then put his hand beneath the table. (Continues...)
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