HILAIRE BELLOC wrote of Luther "His hatred was not directed against the Catholic Church nor against Italians nor against this or that but simply against anyone who put up the back of Martin Luther. It was a good straightforward honest human motive which we express in idiomatic English by the expression I'll lam you!"
This admiration for Luther, and his reasons for it, are most revealing; and they should be borne in mind when we read his intemperate comments about the
yids, or when he calls down "the curse of the crucified God" upon the dons. He curses from a demonic inner energy, "the long majestic march and energy divine".
It was the diminution of this energy which so shocked his friends when he grew old. The classic description of Belloc in old age is that of Evelyn Waugh in September 1952, when he and his wife paid their last visit to the great man.
"Sounds of shuffling. Enter old man, shaggy white beard .. . Thinner than 1 last saw him, with benevolent gleam. Like an old peasant or fisherman in a French film. We went to greet him at a door. Smell like fox. He kissed Laura's hand. I have known him quite well for nearly 20 years. It was slightly disconcerting to be greeted with a deep bow and the words: 'It is a great pleasure to make your acquaintance, sir'. Shuffled to chair by fire. During whole visit he was occupied with unsuccessful attempts to light an empty pipe.
"He wore black broad cloth garnished with garbage, enormous labourers' boots and an open collar. I in rather smart and conventional tweeds. He squinted at me for some time and said: 'We all wear exactly the same clothes nowadays . .` "He noticed my stick near the door and told the boys to put it away. Also a leaf that had blown in, which he had expelled. He looked hard at Laura and said: 'You are very like your mother, are you not'.
'She is taller'.
''English women are enormous. So are the men — giants'.
"1 am short'.
"Are you sir I am no judge'. He could not follow anything said to him but enjoyed pronouncing the great truths which presumably he ponders There was now less than a year to pass before his death. Sunday, July 12, 1953, was an overcast day. Although summer had returned, Belloc had not resumed his normal custom, in the warmer months, of urinating on the lawn; instead, he made the journey down the dark corridor to the lavatory in preparation for luncheon.
There were not many people in the house. Reginald Jebb was staying in London. There were only Eleanor Jebb, and her youngest child Julian, home from his first year at Cambridge with an old school friend, James Affleck. Frank Sheed's daughter Rosemary was also staying at King's Land; and that was all.
In all the years that Belloc had lived in that house, there had never been an accidental fire, though there was always an unspoken fear of it, based on the certainty that its wodden beams and panelled rooms could have gone up like a tinder-box with the greatest ease as someone with inebriated step carried a paraffin lamp down a darkened corridor, or turned over in bed and upset the candle on the table beside them.
The smell of smoke on that Sunday before luncheon therefore awakened a very immediate response. Julian Jebb, who was with his mother in the kitchen, said at once, "I think there's a fire in grandpapa's study", and they rushed to see what had happened.
The room was full of smoke. Julian Jebb made to open the window, but his mother told him not to, for if the fire was
extensive, it would be encouraged by the draught.
Belloc was lying with his head on the fender. It would seem that a coal or log had fallen from the fire while he was out in the lavatory, and, stooping to pick it up, he had fallen into the grate. His head was not in the fire, and he was not disfigured, but his hair was a little scorched, and he was pale. As his grandson and his daughter propped him up with a pillow by the fender and covered him with a blanket, he murmured, "This must be an awful bore for you."
James Affleck and Rosemary Sheed, profoundly embarrassed to be attendant on this scene of intense family importance, hovered tactfully in the background. Julian Jebb knelt for a while and held his grandfather's hand. Mrs. Jebb dispatched James Affleck and Rosemary Sheed to ring for the ambulance. She gave them strict instructions not to summon the local hospital, but to take her father to the Mount Alvernia nursing-home of the Franciscan Missionaries in Guildford.
Belloc was peaceful and his eyes were closed while this was done. The only thing to do was to wait, and Julian Jebb went to join his mother in the drawing
room. She said, "Poor darling: well, he has had a long and happy life." There was no question but that this was the end, and when the ambulance came, she went with her father to Guildford.
With the exaggerated courtesy which seemed so anachronistic, Mr. Belloc lingered three days in the nursing home at Guildford, giving his family and friends time to assemble for a conventional nineteenth-century death-bed scene. Even in the most slap-dash of his biographies, he was always good at describing his subject's death; and he was good at his own.
His son Hilary arrived from California. Elizabeth Belloc materialised from nowhere, painfully thin, cigarette-stained and crowned in a blue cloche hat, thick with dust. Peter Belloc's widow Stella came, and her sister. James Hall came on the Wednesday and persuaded the Matron to allow Belloc to drink a glass of wine.
On the next day, Thursday, July 16, 1953, he became unconscious, and some of his closest family and friends — J. B. Morton and his wife, Elizabeth Reline, Reginald and Eleanor Jebb, Frances Phipps, and his old cook Edith Rance — knelt around the bed and recited the Rosary. Philip Jebb read prayers for a departing soul. Mr. Belloc had already received last rites.
It was a summer evening, still light, and upstairs in the chapel the nuns were singing "0 salutaris hostia", the Benediction hymn, whose final words moved him more than any other, with their prayer that we may enjoy eternal life in our true homeland with God.
Outside the window, of that Franciscan house, the silence was broken with the song of a thrush.
This extract is adapted from Hilaire Belloc by A. N. Wilson (Hamish Hamilton, £12.95).