Caesar's Column, by Ignatius Donnelly

Chapter 1

The Great City

[This book is a series of letters, from Gabriel Weltstein, in New York, to his brother, Heinrich Weltstein, in the State of Uganda, Africa.]

NEW YORK, Sept. 10, 1988

My Dear Brother:

Here I am, at last, in the great city. My eyes are weary with gazing, and my mouth speechless with admiration; but in my brain rings perpetually the thought: Wonderful! — wonderful! — most wonderful!

What an infinite thing is man, as revealed in the tremendous civilization he has built up! These swarming, laborious, all-capable ants seem great enough to attack heaven itself, if they could but find a resting-place for their ladders. Who can fix a limit to the intelligence or the achievements of our species?

But our admiration may be here, and our hearts elsewhere. And so from all this glory and splendor I turn back to the old homestead, amid the high mountain valleys of Africa; to the primitive, simple shepherd-life; to my beloved mother, to you and to all our dear ones. This gorgeous, gilded room fades away, and I see the leaning hills, the trickling streams, the deep gorges where our woolly thousands graze; and I hear once more the echoing Swiss horns of our herdsmen reverberating from the snow-tipped mountains. But my dream is gone. The roar of the mighty city rises around me like the bellow of many cataracts.

New York contains now ten million inhabitants; it is the largest city that is, or ever has been, in the world. It is difficult to say where it begins or ends: for the villas extend, in almost unbroken succession, clear to Philadelphia; while east, west and north noble habitations spread out mile after mile, far beyond the municipal limits.

But the wonderful city! Let me tell you of it.

As we approached it in our air-ship, coming from the east, we could see, a hundred miles before we reached the continent, the radiance of its millions of magnetic lights, reflected on the sky, like the glare of a great conflagration. These lights are not fed, as in the old time, from electric dynamos, but the magnetism of the planet itself is harnessed for the use of man. That marvelous earth-force which the Indians called “the dance of the spirits,” and civilized man designated “the aurora borealis,” is now used to illuminate this great metropolis, with a clear, soft, white light, like that of the full moon, but many times brighter. And the force is so cunningly conserved that it is returned to the earth, without any loss of magnetic power to the planet. Man has simply made a temporary loan from nature for which he pays no interest.

Night and day are all one, for the magnetic light increases automatically as the day-light wanes; and the business parts of the city swarm as much at midnight as at high noon. In the old times, I am told, part of the streets was reserved for foot-paths for men and women, while the middle was given up to horses and wheeled vehicles; and one could not pass from side to side without danger of being trampled to death by the horses. But as the city grew it was found that the pavements would not hold the mighty, surging multitudes; they were crowded into the streets, and many accidents occurred. The authorities were at length compelled to exclude all horses from the streets, in the business parts of the city, and raise the central parts to a level with the sidewalks, and give them up to the exclusive use of the pedestrians, erecting stone pillars here and there to divide the multitude moving in one direction from those flowing in another. These streets are covered with roofs of glass, which exclude the rain and snow, but not the air. And then the wonder and glory of the shops! They surpass all description. Below all the business streets are subterranean streets, where vast trains are drawn, by smokeless and noiseless electric motors, some carrying passengers, others freight. At every street corner there are electric elevators, by which passengers can ascend or descend to the trains. And high above the house-tops, built on steel pillars, there are other railroads, not like the unsightly elevated trains we saw pictures of in our school books, but crossing diagonally over the city, at a great height, so as to best economize time and distance.

The whole territory between Broadway and the Bowery and Broome Street and Houston Street is occupied by the depot grounds of the great inter-continental air-lines; and it is an astonishing sight to see the ships ascending and descending, like monstrous birds, black with swarming masses of passengers, to or from England, Europe, South America, the Pacific Coast, Australia, China, India and Japan.

These air-lines are of two kinds: the anchored and the independent. The former are hung, by revolving wheels, upon great wires suspended in the air; the wires held in place by metallic balloons, fish-shaped, made of aluminium, and constructed to turn with the wind so as to present always the least surface to the air-currents. These balloons, where the lines cross the oceans, are secured to huge floating islands of timber, which are in turn anchored to the bottom of the sea by four immense metallic cables, extending north, south, east and west, and powerful enough to resist any storms. These artificial islands contain dwellings, in which men reside, who keep up the supply of gas necessary for the balloons. The independent air-lines are huge cigar-shaped balloons, unattached to the earth, moving by electric power, with such tremendous speed and force as to be as little affected by the winds as a cannon ball. In fact, unless the wind is directly ahead the sails of the craft are so set as to take advantage of it like the sails of a ship; and the balloon rises or falls, as the birds do, by the angle at which it is placed to the wind, the stream of air forcing it up, or pressing it down, as the case may be. And just as the old-fashioned steam-ships were provided with boats, in which the passengers were expected to take refuge, if the ship was about to sink, so the upper decks of these air-vessels are supplied with parachutes, from which are suspended boats; and in case of accident two sailors and ten passengers are assigned to each parachute; and long practice has taught the bold craftsmen to descend gently and alight in the sea, even in stormy weather, with as much adroitness as a sea-gull. In fact, a whole population of air-sailors has grown up to manage these ships, never dreamed of by our ancestors. The speed of these aerial vessels is, as you know, very great — thirty-six hours suffices to pass from New York to London, in ordinary weather. The loss of life has been less than on the old-fashioned steamships; for, as those which go east move at a greater elevation than those going west, there is no danger of collisions; and they usually fly above the fogs which add so much to the dangers of sea-travel. In case of hurricanes they rise at once to the higher levels, above the storm; and, with our increased scientific knowledge, the coming of a cyclone is known for many days in advance; and even the stratum of air in which it will move can be foretold.

I could spend hours, my dear brother, telling you of the splendor of this hotel, called The Darwin, in honor of the great English philosopher of the last century. It occupies an entire block from Fifth Avenue to Madison Avenue, and from Forty-sixth Street to Forty-seventh. The whole structure consists of an infinite series of cunning adjustments, for the delight and gratification of the human creature. One object seems to be to relieve the guests from all necessity for muscular exertion. The ancient elevator, or “lift,” as they called it in England, has expanded until now whole rooms, filled with ladies and gentlemen, are bodily carried up from the first story to the roof; a professional musician playing the while on the piano — not the old-fashioned thing our grandmothers used, but a huge instrument capable of giving forth all sounds of harmony from the trill of a nightingale to the thunders of an orchestra. And when you reach the roof of the hotel you find yourself in a glass-covered tropical forest, filled with the perfume of many flowers, and bright with the scintillating plumage of darting birds; all sounds of sweetness fill the air, and many glorious, star-eyed maidens, guests of the hotel, wander half seen amid the foliage, like the houris in the Mohammedan’s heaven.

But as I found myself growing hungry I descended to the dining-room. It is three hundred feet long: a vast multitude were there eating in perfect silence. It is considered bad form to interrupt digestion with speech, as such a practice tends to draw the vital powers, it is said, away from the stomach to the head. Our forefathers were expected to shine in conversation, and be wise and witty while gulping their food between brilliant passages. I sat down at a table to which I was marshaled by a grave and reverend seignior in an imposing uniform. As I took my seat my weight set some machinery in motion. A few feet in front of me suddenly rose out of the table a large upright mirror, or such I took it to be; but instantly there appeared on its surface a grand bill of fare, each article being numbered. The whole world had been ransacked to produce the viands named in it; neither the frozen recesses of the north nor the sweltering regions of the south had been spared: every form of food, animal and vegetable, bird, beast, reptile, fish; the foot of an elephant, the hump of a buffalo, the edible bird-nests of China; snails, spiders, shell-fish, the strange and luscious creatures lately found in the extreme depths of the ocean and fished for with dynamite; in fact, every form of food pleasant to the palate of man was there. For, as you know, there are men who make fortunes now by preserving and breeding the game animals, like the deer, the moose, the elk, the buffalo, the antelope, the mountain sheep and goat, and many others, which but for their care would long since have become extinct. They select barren regions in mild climates, not fit for agriculture, and enclosing large tracts with wire fences, they raise great quantities of these valuable game animals, which they sell to the wealthy gourmands of the great cities, at very high prices.

I was perplexed, and, turning to the great man who stood near me, I began to name a few of the articles I wanted. He smiled complacently at my country ignorance, and called my attention to the fact that the table immediately before me contained hundreds of little knobs or buttons, each one numbered; and he told me that these were connected by electric wires with the kitchen of the hotel, and if I would observe the numbers attached to any articles in the bill of fare which I desired, and would touch the corresponding numbers of the knobs before me, my dinner would be ordered on a similar mirror in the kitchen, and speedily served. I did as he directed. In a little while an electric bell near me rang; the bill of fare disappeared from the mirror; there was a slight clicking sound; the table parted in front of me, the electric knobs moving aside; and up through the opening rose my dinner carefully arranged, as upon a table, which exactly filled the gap caused by the recession of that part of the original table which contained the electric buttons. I need not say I was astonished. I commenced to eat, and immediately the same bell, which had announced the disappearance of the bill of fare, rang again. I looked up, and the mirror now contained the name of every state in the Republic, from Hudson’s Bay to the Isthmus of Darien; and the names of all the nations of the world; each name being numbered. My attendant, perceiving my perplexity, called my attention to the fact that the sides of the table which had brought up my dinner contained another set of electric buttons, corresponding with the numbers on the mirror; and he explained to me that if I would select any state or country and touch the corresponding button the news of the day, from that state or country, would appear in the mirror. He called my attention to, the fact that every guest in the room had in front of him a similar mirror, and many of them were reading the news of the day as they ate. I touched the knob corresponding with the name of the new state of Uganda, in Africa, and immediately there appeared in the mirror all the doings of the people of that state — its crimes, its accidents, its business, the output of its mines, the markets, the sayings and doings of its prominent men; in fact, the whole life of the community was unrolled before me like a panorama. I then touched the button for another African state, Nyanza; and at once I began to read of new lines of railroad; new steam-ship fleets upon the great lake; of large colonies of white men, settling new States, upon the higher lands of the interior; of their colleges, books, newspapers; and particularly of a dissertation upon the genius of Chaucer, written by a Zulu professor, which had created considerable interest among the learned societies of the Transvaal. I touched the button for China and read the important news that the Republican Congress of that great and highly civilized nation had decreed that English, the universal language of the rest of the globe, should be hereafter used in the courts of justice and taught in all the schools. Then came the news that a Manchurian professor, an iconoclast, had written a learned work, in English, to prove that George Washington’s genius and moral greatness had been much over-rated by the partiality of his countrymen. He was answered by a learned doctor of Japan who argued that the greatness of all great men consisted simply in opportunity, and that for every illustrious name that shone in the pages of history, associated with important events, a hundred abler men had lived and died unknown. The battle was raging hotly, and all China and Japan were dividing into contending factions upon this great issue.

Our poor ignorant ancestors of a hundred years ago drank alcohol in various forms, in quantities which the system could not consume or assimilate, and it destroyed their organs and shortened their lives. Great agitations arose until the manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages was prohibited over nearly all the world. At length the scientists observed that the craving was based on a natural want of the system; that alcohol was found in small quantities in nearly every article of food; and that the true course was to so increase the amount of alcohol in the food, without gratifying the palate, as to meet the real necessities of the system, and prevent a decrease of the vital powers.

It is laughable to read of those days when men were drugged with pills, boluses and powders. Now our physic is in our food; and the doctor prescribes a series of articles to be eaten or avoided, as the case may be. One can see at once by consulting his “vital-watch,” which shows every change in the magnetic and electric forces of the body, just how his physical strength wanes or increases; and he can modify his diet accordingly; he can select, for instance, a dish highly charged with quinine or iron, and yet perfectly palatable; hence, among the wealthier classes, a man of one hundred is as common now-a-days as a man of seventy was a century ago; and many go far beyond that point, in full possession of all their faculties.

I glanced around the great dining-room and inspected my neighbors. They all carried the appearance of wealth; they were quiet, decorous and courteous. But I could not help noticing that the women, young and old, were much alike in some particulars, as if some general causes had molded them into the same form. Their brows were all fine — broad, square, and deep from the ear forward; and their jaws also were firmly developed, square like a soldier’s; while the profiles were classic in their regularity, and marked by great firmness. The most peculiar feature was their eyes. They had none of that soft, gentle, benevolent look which so adorns the expression of my dear mother and other good women whom we know. On the contrary, their looks were bold, penetrating, immodest, if I may so express it, almost to fierceness: they challenged you; they invited you; they held intercourse with your soul.

The chief features in the expression of the men were incredulity, unbelief, cunning, observation, heartlessness. I did not see a good face in the whole room: powerful faces there were, I grant you; high noses, resolute mouths, fine brows; all the marks of shrewdness and energy; a forcible and capable race; but that was all. I did not see one, my dear brother of whom I could say, “That man would sacrifice himself for another; that man loves his fellow man.”

I could not but think how universal and irresistible must have been the influences of the age that could mold all these Men and women into the same soulless likeness. I pitied them. I pitied mankind, caught in the grip of such wide-spreading tendencies. I said to myself: “Where is it all to end? What are we to expect of a race without heart or honor? What may we look for when the powers of the highest civilization supplement the instincts of tigers and wolves? Can the brain of man flourish when the heart is dead?”

I rose and left the room.

I had observed that the air of the hotel was sweeter, purer and cooler than that of the streets outside. I asked one of the attendants for an explanation. He took me out to where we could command a view of the whole building, and showed me that a great canvas pipe rose high above the hotel, and, tracing it upwards, far as the eye could reach, he pointed out a balloon, anchored by cables, so high up as to be dwarfed to a mere speck against the face of the blue sky. He told me that the great pipe was double; that through one division rose the hot, exhausted air of the hotel, and that the powerful draft so created operated machinery which pumped down the pure, sweet air from a higher region, several miles above the earth; and, the current once established, the weight of the colder atmosphere kept up the movement, and the air was then distributed by pipes to every part of the hotel. He told me also that the hospitals of the city were supplied in the same manner; and the result had been, be said, to diminish the mortality of the sick one-half; for the air so brought to them was perfectly free from bacteria and full of all life-giving properties. A company had been organized to supply the houses of the rich with his cold, pure air for so much a thousand feet, as long ago illuminating gas was furnished.

I could not help but think that there was need that some man should open connection with the upper regions of God’s charity, and bring down the pure beneficent spirit of brotherly love to this afflicted earth, that it might spread through all the tainted hospitals of corruption for the healing of the hearts and souls of the people.

This attendant, a sort of upper-servant, I suppose, was quite courteous and polite, and, seeing that I was a stranger, he proceeded to tell me that the whole city was warmed with hot water, drawn from the profound depths of the earth, and distributed as drinking water was distributed a century ago, in pipes, to all the houses, for a fixed and very reasonable charge. This heat-supply is so uniform and so cheap that it has quite driven out all the old forms of fuel — wood, coal, natural gas, etc.

And then he told me something which shocked me greatly. You know that according to our old-fashioned ideas it is unjustifiable for any person to take his own life, and thus rush into the presence of his Maker before he is called. We are of the opinion of Hamlet that God has “fixed his canon ‘gainst self-slaughter.” Would you believe it, my dear brother, in this city they actually facilitate suicide! A race of philosophers has arisen in the last fifty years who argue that, as man was not consulted about his coming into the world, he has a perfect right to leave it whenever it becomes uncomfortable. These strange arguments were supplemented by the economists, always a powerful body in this utilitarian land, and they urged that, as men could not be prevented from destroying themselves, if they had made up their minds to do so, they might just as well shuffle off the mortal coil in the way that would give least trouble to their surviving fellow-citizens. That, as it was, they polluted the rivers, and even the reservoirs of drinking-water, with their dead bodies, and put the city to great expense and trouble to recover and identify them. Then came the humanitarians, who said that many persons, intent on suicide, but knowing nothing of the best means of effecting their object, tore themselves to pieces with cruel pistol shots or knife wounds, or took corrosive poisons, which subjected them to agonizing tortures for hours before death came to their relief; and they argued that if a man had determined to leave the world it was a matter of humanity to help him out of it by the pleasantest means possible. These views at length prevailed, and now in all the public squares or parks they have erected hand some houses, beautifully furnished, with baths and bedrooms. If a man has decided to die, he goes there. He is first photographed; then his name, if he sees fit to give it, is recorded, with his residence; and his directions are taken as to the disposition of his body. There are tables at which he can write his farewell letters to his friends. A doctor explains to him the nature and effect of the different poisons, and he selects the kind he prefers. He is expected to bring with him the clothes in which he intends to be cremated. He swallows a little pill, lies down upon a bed, or, if he prefers it, in his coffin; pleasant music is played for him; he goes to sleep, and wakes up on the other side of the great line. Every day hundreds of people, men and women, perish in this way; and they are borne off to the great furnaces for the dead, and consumed. The authorities assert that it is a marked improvement over the old-fashioned methods; but to my mind it is a shocking combination of impiety and mock-philanthropy. The truth is, that, in this vast, over-crowded city, man is a drug — a superfluity — and I think many men and women end their lives out of an overwhelming sense of their own insignificance; — in other words, from a mere weariness of feeling that they are nothing, they become nothing.

I must bring this letter to an end, but before retiring I shall make a visit to the grand parlors of the hotel. You suppose I will walk there. Not at all, my dear brother. I shall sit down in a chair; there is an electric magazine in the seat of it. I touch a spring, and away it goes. I guide it with my feet. I drive into one of the great elevators. I descend to the drawing-room floor. I touch the spring again, and in a few moments I am moving around the grand salon, steering myself clear of hundreds of similar chairs, occupied by fine-looking men or the beautiful, keen-eyed, unsympathetic women I have described. The race has grown in power and loveliness — I fear it has lost in lovableness.

Good-by. With love to all, I remain your affectionate brotherly

Gabriel Weltstein.

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