Caesar's Column, by Ignatius Donnelly

Chapter 2.

My Adventure

My Dear Heinrich:

I little supposed when I wrote you yesterday that twenty four hours could so completely change my circumstances. Then I was a dweller in the palatial Darwin Hotel, luxuriating in all its magnificence. Now I am hiding in a strange house and trembling for my liberty; — but I will tell you all.

Yesterday morning, after I had disposed by sample of our wool, and had called upon the assayer of ores, but without finding him, to show him the specimens of our mineral discoveries, I returned to the hotel, and there, after obtaining directions from one of the clerks at the “Bureau of Information,” I took the elevated train to the great Central Park.

I shall not pause to describe at length the splendors of this wonderful place; the wild beasts roaming about among the trees, apparently at dangerous liberty, but really inclosed by fine steel wire fences, almost invisible to the eye; the great lakes full of the different water fowl of the world; the air thick with birds distinguished for the sweetness of their song or the brightness of their plumage; the century-old trees, of great size and artistically grouped; beautiful children playing upon the greensward, accompanied by nurses and male servants; the whole scene constituting a holiday picture. Between the trees everywhere I saw the white and gleaming statues of the many hundreds of great men and women who have adorned the history of this country during the last two hundred years — poets, painters, musicians, soldiers, philanthropists, statesmen.

After feasting my eyes for some time upon this charming picture of rural beauty, I left the Park. Soon after I had passed through the outer gate,-guarded by sentinels to exclude the ragged and wretched multitude, but who at the same time gave courteous admission to streams of splendid carriages — I was startled by loud cries of “Look out there!” I turned and saw a sight which made my blood run cold. A gray-haired, hump-backed beggar, clothed in rags, was crossing the street in front of a pair of handsome horses, attached to a magnificent open carriage. The burly, ill-looking flunkey who, clad in gorgeous livery, was holding the lines, had uttered the cry of warning, but at the same time had made no effort to check the rapid speed of his powerful horses. In an instant the beggar was down under the hoofs of the steeds. The flunkey laughed! I was but a few feet distant on the side-walk, and, quick as thought, I had the horses by their heads and pushed them back upon their haunches. At this moment the beggar, who had been under the feet of the horses, crawled out close to the front wheels of the carriage; and the driver, indignant that anything so contemptible should arrest the progress of his magnificent equipage, struck him a savage blow with his whip, as he was struggling to his feet. I saw the whip wind around his neck; and, letting go the horses’ heads, who were now brought to a stand-still, I sprang forward, and as the whip descended for a second blow I caught it, dragged it from the hand of the miscreant, and with all my power laid it over him. Each blow where it touched his flesh brought the blood, and two long red gashes appeared instantaneously upon his face. He dropped his lines and shrieked in terror, holding his hands up to protect his face. Fortunately a crowd had assembled, and some poorly dressed men had seized the horses’ heads, or there would have been a run-away. As I raised my hand to lash the brute again, a feminine shriek reached my ears, and I became aware that there were ladies in the open barouche. My sense of politeness overcame in an instant my rage, and I stepped back, and, taking off my hat, began to apologize and explain the cause of the difficulty. As I did so I observed that the occupants of the carriage were two young ladies, both strikingly handsome, but otherwise very unlike in appearance. The one nearest me, who had uttered the shrieks, was about twenty years of age, I should think, with aquiline features, and black eyes and hair; every detail of the face was perfect, but there was a bold, commonplace look out of the bright eyes. Her companion instantly arrested all my attention. It seemed to me I had never beheld a more beautiful. and striking countenance. She was younger, by two or three years, than her companion; her complexion was fairer; her long golden hair fell nearly to her waist, enfolding her like a magnificent, shining garment; her eyes were blue and large and set far apart; and there was in them, and in the whole contour of the face, a look of honesty and dignity, and calm intelligence, rarely witnessed in the countenance of woman. She did not appear to be at all alarmed; and when I told my story of the driver lashing the aged beggar, her face lighted up, and she said, with a look that thrilled me, and in a soft and gentle voice: “We are much obliged to you, sir; you did perfectly right.”

I was about to reply, when I felt some one tugging fiercely at my coat, and turning around, I was surprised to find that the beggar was drawing me away from the carriage by main force. I was astonished also at the change in his appearance. The aspect of decrepitude had disappeared, a green patch that I had noticed covering one of his eyes had fallen off, and his black eyes shone with a look of command and power that was in marked contrast with his gray hair, his crooked back, and his rags.

“Come,” he said, in a hoarse whisper, “come quickly, or you will be arrested and cast into prison.”

“What for?” I asked.

“I will tell you hereafter — look!”

I looked around me and saw that a great crowd had collected as if by magic, for this city of ten millions of people so swarms with inhabitants that the slightest excitement will assemble a multitude in a few minutes. I noticed, too, in the midst of the mob, a uniformed policeman. The driver saw him also, and, recovering his courage, cried out, “Arrest him — arrest him.” The policeman seized me by the collar. I observed that at that instant the beggar whispered something in his ear: the officer’s hand released its hold upon my coat. The next moment the beggar cried out, “Back! Back! Look out! Dynamite!” The crowd crushed back on each other in great confusion; and I felt the beggar dragging me off, repeating his cry of warning —“Dynamite! Dynamite!”— at every step, until the mob scattered in wild confusion, and I found myself breathless in a small alley. “Come, come,” cried my companion, “there is no time to lose. Hurry, hurry!” We rushed along, for the manner of the beggar inspired me with a terror I could not explain, until, after passing through several back streets and small alleys, with which the beggar seemed perfectly familiar, we emerged on a large street and soon took a corner elevator up to one of the railroads in the air which I have described. After traveling for two or three miles we exchanged to another train, and from that to still another, threading our way backward and forward over the top of the great city. At length, as if the beggar thought we had gone far enough to baffle pursuit, we descended upon a bustling business street, and paused at a corner; and the beggar appeared to be looking out for a hack. He permitted a dozen to pass us, however, carefully inspecting the driver of each. At last he hailed one, and we took our seats. He gave some whispered directions to the driver, and we dashed off.

“Throw that out of the window,” he said.

I followed the direction of his eyes and saw that I still held in my hand the gold-mounted whip which I had snatched from the hand of the driver. In my excitement I had altogether forgotten its existence, but had instinctively held on to it.

“I will send it back to the owner,” I said.

“No, no; throw it away: that is enough to convict you of highway robbery.”

I started, and exclaimed:

“Nonsense; highway robbery to whip a blackguard?”

“Yes. You stop the carriage of an aristocrat; you drag a valuable whip out of the hand of his coachman; and you carry it off. If that is not highway robbery, what is it? Throw it away.”

His manner was imperative. I dropped the whip out of the window and fell into a brown study. I occasionally stole a glance at my strange companion, who, with the dress of extreme poverty, and the gray hair of old age, had such a manner of authority and such an air of promptitude and decision.

After about a half-hour’s ride we stopped at the corner of two streets in front of a plain but respectable-looking house. It seemed to be in the older part of the town. My companion paid the driver and dismissed him, and, opening the door, we entered.

I need not say that I began to think this man was something more than a beggar. But why this disguise? And who was he?

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