Caesar's Column, by Ignatius Donnelly

Chapter 38.

The Flight

“Yes,” I replied, “we cannot remain here another night. Think what would be the effect if a fire broke out anywhere in this block!”

He looked at me in a startled way.

“True,” he said; “we must fly. I would cheerfully give my life if its sacrifice would arrest these horrors; but it would not.”

Christina came and stood beside him. He wrote a letter to General Quincy. He made three copies of it. Selecting three of his best men, he gave each a copy, and told them to make their way together, well armed, to the armory of the airships. It was a perilous journey, but if either of them reached his destination, he was to deliver his copy of the letter to the general. In it Max asked General Quincy to send him one of the “Demons,” as promised, that night at eight o’clock; and he also requested, as a signal that the messengers had reached him and that the air-ship would come, that he would send up a single Demon, high in the air, at once on receiving the letter.

We went to the roof with our field-glasses. In two hours, we thought, the messengers, walking rapidly, would reach the armory. Two hours passed. Nothing was visible in the heavens in the direction of the armory, although we swept the whole region with our glasses. What if our messengers had all been slain? What if General Quincy refused to do as he had agreed, for no promises were likely to bind a man in such a dreadful period of anarchy? Two hours and a quarter — two hours and a half passed, and no signal. We began to despair. Could we survive another night of horrors? At last

Estella, who had been quietly looking to the west with her glass, cried out:

“See! there is something rising in the air.”

We looked. Yes, thank heaven! it was the signal. The Demon rose like a great hawk to a considerable height, floated around for awhile in space, and then slowly descended.

It would come!

All hands were set at work. A line was formed from the roof to the rooms below; and everything of value that we desired to carry with us was passed from hand to hand along the line and placed in heaps, ready for removal. Even the women joined eagerly in the work. We did not look for our messengers; they were to return to us in the air-ship.

The afternoon was comparatively quiet. The mobs on the street seemed to be looking for food rather than treasure. They were, however, generally resting, worn out; they were sleeping — preparing for the evening. With nightfall the saturnalia of death would begin again with redoubled force.

We ate our dinner at six; and then Mr. Phillips suggested that we should all join in family prayers. We might never have another opportunity to do so, he said. He prayed long and earnestly to God to save the world and protect his dear ones; and we all joined fervently in his supplications to the throne of grace.

At half past seven, equipped for the journey, we were all upon the roof, looking out in the direction of the west for the coming of the Demon. A little before eight we saw it rise through the twilight above the armory. Quincy, then, was true to his pledge. It came rapidly toward us, high in the air; it circled around, and at last began to descend just over our heads. It paused about ten feet above the roof, and two ladders were let down. The ladies and Mr. Phillips were first helped up to the deck of the vessel; and the men began to carry up the boxes, bales, trunks, money, books and instruments we had collected together.

Just at this moment a greater burst of tumult reached my ears. I went to the parapet and looked down. Up the street, to the north, came a vast concourse of people. It stretched far back for many blocks. My first notion was that they were all drunk, their outcries were so vociferous. They shouted, yelled and screamed. Some of them bore torches, and at their head marched a ragged fellow with a long pole, which he carried upright before him. At the top of it was a black mass, which I could not make out in the twilight. At this instant they caught sight of the Demon, and the uproar redoubled; they danced like madmen, and I could hear Max’s name shouted from a hundred lips.

“What does it mean?” I asked him.

“It means that they are after me. Hurry up, men,” he continued, “hurry up.”

We all sprang to work; the women stood at the top and received the smaller articles as a line of men passed them up.

Then came a thunderous voice from below:

“Open the door, or we will break it down.”

Max replied by casting a bomb over the parapet. It exploded, killing half a dozen men. But this mob was not to be intimidated like the thieves. The bullets began to fly; fortunately the gathering darkness protected us. The crowd grew blacker, and more dense and turbulent. Then a number of stalwart fellows appeared, bearing a long beam, which they proposed to use as a battering-ram, to burst open the door, which had resisted all previous attacks.

“Bring down one of the death bombs,” said Max to the men in the Demon.

Two stout fellows, belonging to the air-ship, carried down, carefully, between them, a great black sphere of iron.

“Over with it!” cried Max.

There was a crash, an explosion; the insurgents caught a whiff of the poisoned air; the men dropped the beam; there was a rush backward amid cries of terror, and the street was clear for a considerable space around the house.

“Hurry, men, hurry!” cried Max.

I peeped over the parapet. A number of the insurgents were rushing into a house three doors distant. In a few moments they poured out again, looking behind them as they ran.

“I fear they have fired that house,” I said to Max.

“I expected as much,” he replied, quietly.

“Hurry, men, hurry,” he again cried.

The piles on the roof were diminishing rapidly. I turned to pass up bundles of my precious books. Another sound broke on my ears; a roaring noise that rapidly increased — it was the fire. The mob cheered. Then bursts of smoke poured out of the windows of the doomed house; then great arms and hands of flame reached out and snapped and clutched at the darkness, as if they would drag down ancient Night itself, with all its crown of stars, upon the palpitating breast of the passionate conflagration. Then the roof smoked; then it seemed to burst open, and vast volumes of flame and smoke and showers of sparks spouted forth. The blaze brought the mob into fearful relief, but fortunately it was between us and the great bulk of our enemies.

“My God,” said Max, “it is Cæsar’s head!”

I looked, and there, sure enough, upon the top of the long pole I had before noticed, was the head of the redoubtable giant. It stood out as if it had been painted in gory characters by the light of the burning house upon that background of darkness. I could see the glazed and dusty eyes; the protruding tongue; the great lower jaw hanging down in hideous fashion; and from the thick, bull-like neck were suspended huge gouts of dried and blackened blood.

“It is the first instinct of such mobs,” said Max, quietly, to suspect their leaders and slay them. They killed Cæsar, and then came after me. When they saw the air-ship they were confirmed in their suspicions; they believe that I am carrying away their treasure.”

I could not turn my eyes from that ferocious head. It fascinated me. It waved and reeled with the surging of the mob. It seemed to me to be executing a hideous dance in mid-air, in the midst of that terrible scene; it floated over it like a presiding demon. The protruding tongue leered at the blazing house and the unspeakable horrors of that assemblage, lit up, as it was, in all its awful features, by the towering conflagration.

The crowd yelled and the fire roared. The next house was blazing now, and the roof of the one nearest us was smoking. The mob, perceiving that we did not move, concluded that the machinery of the air-ship was broken, and screamed with joy as the flames approached us.

Up, up, went bundle and package and box; faster, and faster, and faster. We were not to be intimidated by fire or mobs! The roof of the house next us was now blazing, and we could hear the fire, like a furnace, roaring within it.

The work is finished; every parcel is safe.

“Up, up, men!”

Max and I were the last to leave the roof; it had become insufferably hot. We stood on the deck; the engineer touched the lever of the electric engine; the great bird swayed for an instant, and then began to rise, like a veritable Phoenix from its nest of flame, surrounded by cataracts of sparks. As the mob saw us ascend, veiled dimly, at first, by that screen of conflagration, they groaned with dismay and disappointment. The bullets flew and hissed around us, but our metallic sides laughed them to scorn. Up, up, straight and swift as an arrow we rose. The mighty city lay unrolled below us, like a great map, starred here and there with burning houses. Above the trees of Union Square, my glass showed me a white line, lighted by the bon-fires, where Cæsar’s Column was towering to the skies, bearing the epitaph of the world.

I said to Max:

“What will those millions do to-morrow?”

“Starve,” he said.

“What will they do next week?”

“Devour each other,” he replied.

There was silence for a time.

“Will not civil government rise again out of this ruin?” I asked.

“Not for a long time,” he replied. “Ignorance, passion, suspicion, brutality, criminality, will be the lions in the path. Men who have such dreadful memories of labor can scarcely be forced back into it. And who is to employ them? After about three-fourths of the human family have died of hunger, or been killed, the remainder, constituting, by the law of the survival of the fittest, the most powerful and brutal, will find it necessary, for self-defense against each other, to form squads or gangs. The greatest fighter in each of these will become chief, as among all savages. Then the history of the world will be slowly repeated. A bold ruffian will conquer a number of the adjacent squads, and become a king. Gradually, and in its rudest forms, labor will begin again; at first exercised principally by slaves. Men will exchange liberty for protection. After a century or two a kind of commerce may arise. Then will follow other centuries of wars, between provinces or nations. A new aristocracy will spring up. Culture will lift its head. A great power, like Rome in the old world, may arise. Some vast superstition may take possession of the world; and Alfred, Victoria and Washington may be worshiped, as Saturn, Juno and Hercules were in the past; with perhaps dreadful and bloody rites like those of the Carthaginians and ancient Mexicans. And so, step by step, mankind will re-enact the great human drama, which begins always with a tragedy, runs through a comedy, and terminates in a catastrophe.”

The city was disappearing — we were over the ocean — the cool salt breeze was refreshing. We both looked back.

“Think,” I said, “what is going on yonder.”

Max shuddered. There was a sullen light in his eyes. He looked at his father, who was on his knees praying.

“I would destroy the world,” he said, “to save him from a living death.”

He was justifying himself unto himself.

“Gabriel,” he said, after a pause, “if this outbreak had not occurred now, yet would it certainly have come to pass. It was but a question of time. The breaking-strain on humanity was too great. The world could not have gone on; neither could it have turned back. The crash was inevitable. It may be God’s way of wiping off the blackboard. It may be that the ancient legends of the destruction of our race by flood and fire are but dim remembrances of events like that which is now happening.”

“It may be so, Max,” I replied; and we were silent.

Even the sea bore testimony to the ruin of man. The lighthouses no longer held up their fingers of flame to warn the mariner from the treacherous rocks. No air-ship, brilliant with many lights shining like innumerable eyes, and heavy with passengers, streamed past us with fierce swiftness, splitting the astonished and complaining air. Here and there a sailing vessel, or a steamer, toiled laboriously along, little dreaming that, at their journey’s end, starving creatures would swarm up their sides to kill and devour.

How still and peaceful was the night — the great, solemn, patient night! How sweet and pure the air! How delightful the silence to ears that had rung so lately with the clamors of that infuriated mob! How pleasant the darkness to eyeballs seared so long by fire and flame and sights of murder! Estella and Christina came and sat down near us. Their faces showed the torture they had endured — not so much from fear as from the shock and agony with which goodness contemplates terrific and triumphant evil.

I looked into the grand depths of the stars above us; at that endless procession of shining worlds; at that illimitable expanse of silence. And I thought of those vast gaps and lapses of manless time, when all these starry hosts unrolled and marshaled themselves before the attentive eyes of God, and it had not yet entered into his heart to create that swarming, writhing, crawling, contentious mass we call humanity. And I said to myself, “Why should a God condescend to such a work as man?”

And yet, again, I felt that one grateful heart, that darted out the living line of its love and adoration from this dark and perturbed earth, up to the shining throne of the Great Intelligence, must be of more moment and esteem in the universe than millions of tons of mountains — yea, than a wilderness of stars. For matter is but the substance with which God works; while thought, love, conscience and consciousness are parts of God himself. We think; therefore we are divine: we pray; therefore we are immortal.

Part of God! The awful, the inexpressible, the incomprehensible God. His terrible hand swirls, with unresting power, yonder innumerable congregation of suns in their mighty orbits, and yet stoops, with tender touch, to build up the petals of the anemone, and paint with rainbow hues the mealy wings of the butterfly.

I could have wept over man; but I remembered that God lives beyond the stars.

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