A Strange Manuscript Found in a Copper Cylinder, by James De Mille

Chapter XXVII

Oxenden Preaches a Sermon

“Magones,” said the doctor, “is clearly a volcanic island, and, taken in connection with the other volcanoes around, shows how active must be the subterranean fires at the South Pole. It seems probable to me that the numerous caves of the Kosekin were originally fissures in the mountains, formed by convulsions of nature; and also that the places excavated by man must consist of soft volcanic rock, such as pumice-stone, or rather tufa, easily worked, and remaining permanently in any shape into which it may be fashioned. As to Magones, it seems another Iceland; for there are the same wild and hideous desolation, the same impassable wildernesses, and the same universal scenes of ruin, lighted up by the baleful and tremendous volcanic fires.”

“But what of that little island on which they landed?” asked Featherstone. “That, surely, was not volcanic.”

“No,” said the doctor; “that must have been a coral island.”

“By-the-bye, is it really true,” asked Featherstone, “that these coral islands are the work of little insects?”

“Well, they may be called insects,” replied the doctor; “they are living zoophytes of most minute dimensions, which, however, compensate for their smallness of size by their inconceivable numbers. Small as these are they have accomplished infinitely more than all that ever was done by the ichthyosaurus, the plesiosaurus, the pterodactyl, and the whole tribe of monsters that once filled the earth. Immense districts and whole mountains have been built up by these minute creatures. They have been at work for ages, and are still at work. It is principally in the South Seas that their labors are carried on. Near the Maldive Islands they have formed a mass whose volume is equal to the Alps. Around New Caledonia they have built a barrier of reefs four hundred miles in length, and another along the northeast coast of Australia a thousand miles in length. In the Pacific Ocean, islands, reefs, and islets innumerable have been constructed by them, which extend for an immense distance.

“The coral islands are called ‘atolls.’ They are nearly always circular, with a depression in the centre. They are originally made ring-shaped, but the action of the ocean serves to throw fragments of rock into the inner depression, which thus fills up; firm land appears; the rock crumbles into soil; the winds and birds and currents bring seeds here, and soon the new island is covered with verdure. These little creatures have played a part in the past quite as important as in the present. All Germany rests upon a bank of coral; and they seem to have been most active during the Oolitic Period.”

“How do the creatures act?” asked Featherstone.

“Nobody knows,” replied the doctor.

A silence now followed, which was at last broken by Oxenden.

“After all,” said he, “these monsters and marvels of nature form the least interesting feature in the land of the Kosekin. To me the people themselves are the chief subject of interest. Where did they get that strange, all-pervading love of death, which is as strong in them as love of life is in us?”

“Why, they got it from the imagination of the writer of the manuscript,” interrupted Melick.

“Yes, it’s easy to answer it from your point of view; yet from my point of view it is more difficult. I sometimes think that it may be the strong spirituality of the Semitic race, carried out under exceptionally favorable circumstances to the ultimate results; for the Semitic race more than all others thought little of this life, and turned their affections to the life that lives beyond this. The Kosekin may thus have had a spiritual development of their own, which ended in this.

“Yet there may be another reason for it, and I sometimes think that the Kosekin may be nearer to the truth than we are. We have by nature a strong love of life — it is our dominant feeling — but yet there is in the minds of all men a deep underlying conviction of the vanity of life, and the worthlessness. In all ages and among all races the best, the purest, and the wisest have taught this truth — that human life is not a blessing; that the evil predominates over the good; and that our best hope is to gain a spirit of acquiescence with its inevitable ills. All philosophy and all religions teach us this one solemn truth, that in this life the evil surpasses the good. It has always been so. Suffering has been the lot of all living things, from the giant of the primeval swamps down to the smallest zoophyte. It is far more so with man. Some favored classes in every age may furnish forth a few individuals who may perhaps lead lives of self-indulgence and luxury; but to the mass of mankind life has ever been, and must ever be, a prolonged scene of labor intermingled with suffering. The great Indian religions, whether Brahmanic or Buddhistic, teach as their cardinal doctrine that life is an evil. Buddhism is more pronounced in this, for it teaches more emphatically than even the Kosekin that the chief end of man is to get rid of the curse of life and gain the bliss of Nirvana, or annihilation. True, it does not take so practical a form as among the Kosekin, yet it is believed by one-third of the human race as the foundation of the religion in which they live and die. We need not go to the Kosekin, however, for such maxims as these. The intelligent Hindoos, the Chinese, the Japanese, with many other nations, all cling firmly to this belief. Sakyamoum Gautama Buddha, the son and heir of a mighty monarch, penetrated with the conviction of the misery of life, left his throne, embraced a life of voluntary poverty, want, and misery, so that he might find his way to a better state — the end before him being this, that he might ultimately escape from the curse of existence. He lived till old age, gained innumerable followers, and left to them as a solemn legacy the maxim that not to exist is better than to exist; that death is better than life. Since his day millions of his followers have upheld his principles and lived his life. Even among the joyous Greeks we find this feeling at times bursting forth it comes when we least expect it, and not even a Kosekin poet could express this view more forcibly than Sophocles in the OEdipus at Colonus:

“‘Not to be born surpasses every lot;

And the next best lot by far, when one is born

Is to go back whence he came as soon as possible;

For while youth is present bringing vain follies,

What woes does it not have, what ills does it not bear —

Murders, factions, strife, war, envy,

But the extreme of misery is attained by loathsome old age —

Old age, strengthless, unsociable, friendless,

Where all evils upon evils dwell together.’”

“I’ll give you the words of a later poet,” said Melick, “who takes a different view of the case. I think I’ll sing them, with your permission.”

Melick swallowed a glass of wine and then sang the following:

“‘They may rail at this life: from the hour I began it

    I found it a life full of kindness and bliss,

And until they can show me some happier planet,

    More social and bright, I’ll content me with this.

As long as the world has such lips and such eyes

    As before me this moment enraptured I see,

They may say what they will of their orbs in the skies,

    But this earth is the planet for you, love, and me.’

“What a pity it is,” continued Melick, “that the writer of this manuscript had not the philological, theological, sociological, geological, palaeological, ontological, ornithological, and all the other logical attainments of yourself and the doctor! He could then have given us a complete view of the nature of the Kosekin, morally and physically; he could have treated of the geology of the soil, the ethnology of the people, and could have unfolded before us a full and comprehensive view of their philosophy and religion, and could have crammed his manuscript with statistics. I wonder why he didn’t do it even as it was. It must have been a strong temptation.”

“More,” said Oxenden, with deep impressiveness, “was a simple-minded though somewhat emotional sailor, and merely wrote in the hope that his story might one day meet the eyes of his father. I certainly should like to find some more accurate statements about the science, philosophy, and religion of the Kosekin; yet, after all, such things could not be expected.”

“Why not?” said Melick; “it was easy enough for him.”

“How?” asked Oxenden.

“Why, he had only to step into the British Museum, and in a couple of hours he could have crammed up on all those points in science, philosophy, ethnology, and theology, about which you are so anxious to know.”

“Well,” said Featherstone, “suppose we continue our reading? I believe it is my turn now. I sha’n’t be able to hold out so long as you did, Oxenden, but I’ll do what I can.”

Saying this, Featherstone took the manuscript and went on to read.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/d/de_mille/james/strange/chapter27.html

Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:37