Caesar's Column, by Ignatius Donnelly

Chapter 39.

Europe

The next day we were flying over the ocean. The fluctuous and changeable waves were beneath us, with their multitudinous hues and colors, as light and foam and billows mingled. Far as the eye could reach, they seemed to be climbing over each other forever, like the endless competitions of men in the arena of life. Above us was the panorama of the clouds — so often the harbingers of terror; for even in their gentlest forms they foretell the tempest, which is ever gathering the mists around it like a garment, and, however slow-paced, is still advancing.

A whale spouted. Happy nature! How cunningly were the wet, sliding waves accommodated to that smooth skin and those nerves which rioted in the play of the tumbling waters. A school of dolphins leaped and gamboled, showing their curved backs to the sun in sudden glimpses; a vast family; merry, social, jocund, abandoned to happiness. The gulls flew about us as if our ship was indeed a larger bird; and I thought of the poet’s lines wherein he describes —

“The gray gull, balanced on its bow-like wings,

Between two black waves, seeking where to dive.”

And here were more kindly adjustments. How the birds took advantage of the wind and made it lift them or sink them, or propel them forward; tacking, with infinite skill, right in the eye of the gale, like a sailing-vessel. It was not toil — it was delight, rapture — the very glory and ecstasy of living. Everywhere the benevolence of God was manifest: light, sound, air, sea, clouds, beast, fish and bird; we were in the midst of all; we were a part of all; we rejoiced in all.

And then my thoughts reverted to the great city; to that congregation of houses; to those streets swarming with murderers; to that hungry, moaning multitude.

Why did they not listen to me? Why did rich and poor alike mock me? If they had not done so, this dreadful cup might have been averted from their lips. But it would seem as if faith and civilization were incompatible. Christ was only possible in a barefooted world; and the few who wore shoes murdered him. What dark perversity was it in the blood of the race that made it wrap itself in misery, like a garment, while all nature was happy?

Max told me that we had had a narrow escape. Of the three messengers we had sent forth to General Quincy, but one reached him; the others had been slain on the streets. And when the solitary man fought his way through to the armory he found the Mamelukes of the Air full of preparations for a flight that night to the mountain regions of South America. Had we delayed our departure for another day, or had all three of our messengers been killed by the marauders, we must all have perished in the midst of the flames of the burning building. We joined Mr. Phillips, therefore, with unwonted heartiness in the morning prayers.

The next day we came in sight of the shores of Europe. As we drew near, we passed over multitudes of open boats, river steamers and ships of all kinds, crowded with people. Many of these vessels were unfitted for a sea voyage, but the horrors they fled from were greater than those the great deep could conjure up. Their occupants shouted to us, through speaking-trumpets, to turn back; that all Europe was in ruins. And we, in reply, warned them of the condition of things in America, and advised them to seek out uncivilized lands, where no men dwelt but barbarians.

As we neared the shore we could see that the beaches, wharves and tongues of sand were everywhere black with people, who struggled like madmen to secure the few boats or ships that remained. With such weapons as they had hurriedly collected they fought back the better-armed masses of wild and desperate men who hung upon their skirts, plying the dreadful trade of murder. Some of the agonized multitude shrieked to us for help. Our hearts bled for them, but we could do nothing. Their despairing hands were held up to us in supplication as the air-ship darted over them.

But why dilate upon the dreadful picture that unrolled beneath us? Hamlets, villages, towns, cities, blackened and smoking masses of ruin. The conflicts were yet raging on every country road and city street; we could hear the shrieks of the flying, the rattle of rifles and pistols in the hands of the pursuers. Desolation was everywhere. Some even rushed out and fired their guns viciously at us, as if furious to see anything they could not destroy. Never before did I think mankind was so base. I realized how much of the evil in human nature had been for ages suppressed and kept in subjection by the iron force of law and its terrors. Was man the joint product of an angel and a devil? Certainly in this paroxysm of fate he seemed to be demoniacal.

We turned southward over the trampled gardens and vineyards of France. A great volcanic lava field of flame and ashes — burning, smoking — many miles in extent — showed where Paris had been. Around it ragged creatures were prowling, looking for something to eat, digging up roots in the fields. At one place, in the open country, I observed, ahead of us, a tall and solitary tree in a field; near it were the smouldering ruins of a great house. I saw something white moving in the midst of the foliage, near the top of the tree. I turned my glass upon it. It was a woman, holding something in her arms.

“Can we not take her up?” I asked the captain of the airship.

“We cannot stop the vessel in that distance — but we might return to it,” he replied.

“Then do so, for God’s sake,” I said.

We swooped downward. We passed near the tree. The woman screamed to us to stop, and held up an infant. Christina and Estella and all the other women wept. We passed the tree — the despairing cries of the woman were dreadful to listen to. But she takes courage; sees us sweep about; we come slowly back; we stop; a rope ladder falls; I descend; I grasp the child’s clothes between my teeth; I help the woman up the ladder. She falls upon the deck of the ship, and cries out in French: “Spare my child!” Dreadful period! when every human being is looked upon as a murderer. The women comfort her. Her clothes are in rags, but upon her fingers are costly jewels. Her babe is restored to her arms; she faints with hunger and exhaustion. For three days, she tells us, she has been hidden in that tree, without food or drink; and has seen all dear to her perish — all but her little François. And with what delight Estella and Christina and the rest cuddle and feed the pretty, chubby, hungry little stranger!

Thank God for the angel that dwells in human nature. And woe unto him who bids the devil rise to cast it out!

Max, during all this day, is buried in profound thought. He looks out at the desolated world and sighs. Even Christina fails to attract his attention. Why should he be happy when there is so much misery? Did he not help to cause it?

But, after a time, we catch sight of the blue and laughing waters of the Mediterranean, with its pleasant, bosky islands. This is gone, and in a little while the yellow sands of the great desert stretch beneath us, and extend ahead of us, far as the eye can reach. We pass a toiling caravan, with its awkward, shuffling, patient camels, and its dark attendants. They have heard nothing, in these solitudes, of the convulsions that rend the world. They pray to Allah and Mahomet and are happy. The hot, blue, cloudless sky rises in a great dome above their heads; their food is scant and rude, but in their veins there burn not those wild fevers of ambition which have driven mankind to such frenzies and horrors. They live and die as their ancestors did, ten thousand years ago — unchangeable as the stars above their heads; and these are even as they shone clear and bright when the Chaldean shepherds first studied the outlines of the constellations, and marked the pathways of the wandering planets.

Before us, at last, rise great blue masses, towering high in air, like clouds, and extending from east to west; and these, in a little while, as we rush on, resolve themselves into a mighty mountain range, snow-capped, with the yellow desert at its feet, stretching out like a Persian rug.

I direct the pilot, and in another hour the great ship begins to abate its pace; it sweeps in great circles. I see the sheep flying terrified by our shadow; then the large, roomy, white-walled house, with its broad verandas, comes into view; and before it, looking up at us in surprise, are my dear mother and brothers, and our servants.

The ship settles down from its long voyage. We are at home. We are at peace.

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