Caesar's Column, by Ignatius Donnelly

Chapter 4.

The Under-World

My Dear Heinrich:

Since I wrote you last night I have been through dreadful scenes. I have traversed death in life. I have looked with my very eyes on Hell. I am sick at heart. My soul sorrows for humanity.

Max (for so I have come to call my new-found friend) woke me very early, and we breakfasted by lamp-light.

Yesterday he had himself dyed my fair locks of a dark brown, almost black hue, and had cut off some of my hair’s superfluous length. Then he sent for a tailor, who soon arrayed me in garments of the latest fashion and most perfect fit. Instead of the singular-looking mountaineer of the day before, for whom the police were diligently searching, and on whose head a reward of one thousand dollars had been placed (never before had my head been valued so highly), there was nothing in my appearance to distinguish me from the thousands of other gallant young gentlemen of this great city.

A carriage waited for us at the door. We chatted together as we drove along through the quiet streets.

I asked him:

“Are the degraded, and even the vicious, members of your Brotherhood?”

“No; not the criminal class,” he replied, “for there is nothing in their wretched natures on which you can build confidence or trust. Only those who have fiber enough to persist in labor, under conditions which so strongly tend to drive them into crime, can be members of our Brotherhood.”

“May I ask the number of your membership?”

“In the whole world they amount to more than one hundred millions.”

I started with astonishment.

“But amid such numbers,” I said, “there must certainly be some traitors?”

“True, but the great multitude have nothing to tell. They are the limbs and members, as it were, of the organization; the directing intelligence dwells elsewhere. The multitude are like the soldiers of an army; they will obey when the time comes; but they are not taken into the councils of war.”

A half hour’s ride brought us into the domain of the poor.

An endless procession of men and women with pails and baskets — small-sized pails and smaller baskets — streamed along the streets on their way to work. It was not yet six o’clock. I observed that both men and women were undersized, and that they all very much resembled each other; as if similar circumstances had squeezed them into the same likeness. There was no spring to their steps and no laughter in their eyes; all were spare of frame and stolid or hungry-looking. The faces of the middle-aged men were haggard and wore a hopeless expression. Many of them scowled at us, with a look of hatred, as we passed by them in our carriage. A more joyless, sullen crowd I never beheld. Street after street they unrolled before us; there seemed to be millions of them. They were all poorly clad, and many of them in rags. The women, with the last surviving instinct of the female heart, had tried to decorate themselves; and here and there I could observe a bit of bright color on bonnet or apron; but the bonnets represented the fashions of ten years past, and the aprons were too often frayed and darned, and relics of some former, more opulent owners. There were multitudes of children, but they were without the gambols which characterize the young of all animals; and there was not even the chirp of a winter bird about them; their faces were prematurely aged and hardened, and their bold eyes revealed that sin had no surprises for them. And every one of these showed that intense look which marks the awful struggle for food and life upon which they had just entered. The multitude seemed, so far as I could judge, to be of all nations commingled — the French, German, Irish, English — Hungarians, Italians, Russians, Jews, Christians, and even Chinese and Japanese; for the slant eyes of many, and their imperfect, Tartar-like features, reminded me that the laws made by the Republic, in the elder and better days, against the invasion of the Mongolian hordes, had long since become a dead letter.

What struck me most was their incalculable multitude and their silence. It seemed to me that I was witnessing the resurrection of the dead; and that these vast, streaming, endless swarms were the condemned, marching noiselessly as shades to unavoidable and everlasting misery. They seemed to me merely automata, in the hands of some ruthless and unrelenting destiny. They lived and moved, but they were without heart or hope. The illusions of the imagination, which beckon all of us forward, even over the roughest paths and through the darkest valleys and shadows of life, had departed from the scope of their vision. They knew that to-morrow could bring them nothing better than today — the same shameful, pitiable, contemptible, sordid struggle for a mere existence. If they produced children it was reluctantly or unmeaningly; for they knew the wretches must tread in their footsteps, and enter, like them, that narrow, gloomy, high-walled pathway, out of which they could never climb; which began almost in infancy and ended in a pauper’s grave — nay, I am wrong, not even in a pauper’s grave; for they might have claimed, perhaps, some sort of ownership over the earth which enfolded them, which touched them and mingled with their dust. But public safety and the demands of science had long ago decreed that they should be whisked off, as soon as dead, a score or two at a time, and swept on iron tram-cars into furnaces heated to such intense white heat that they dissolved, crackling, even as they entered the chamber, and rose in nameless gases through the high chimney. That towering structure was the sole memorial monument of millions of them. Their graveyard was the air. Nature reclaimed her own with such velocity that she seemed to grudge them the very dust she had lent them during their wretched pilgrimage. The busy, toiling, rushing, roaring, groaning universe, big with young, appeared to cry out: “Away with them! Away with them! They have had their hour! They have performed their task. Here are a billion spirits waiting for the substance we loaned them. The spirits are boundless in number; matter is scarce. Away with them!”

I need not tell you, my dear brother, of all the shops and factories we visited. It was the same story everywhere. Here we saw exemplified, in its full perfection, that “iron law of wages” which the old economists spoke of; that is to say, the reduction, by competition, of the wages of the worker to the least sum that will maintain life and muscular strength enough to do the work required, with such little surplus of vitality as might be necessary to perpetuate the wretched race; so that the world’s work should not end with the death of one starved generation. I do not know if there is a hell in the spiritual universe, but if there is not, one should certainly be created for the souls of the men who originated, or justified, or enforced that damnable creed. It is enough, if nothing else, to make one a Christian, when he remembers how diametrically opposite to the teaching of the grand doctrine of brotherly love, enunciated by the gentle Nazarene, is this devil’s creed of cruelty and murder, with all its steadily increasing world-horrors, before which to-day the universe stands appalled.

Oh! the pitiable scenes, my brother, that I have witnessed! Room after room; the endless succession of the stooped, silent toilers; old, young; men, women, children. And most pitiable of all, the leering, shameless looks of invitation cast upon us by the women, as they saw two well-dressed men pass by them. It was not love, nor license, nor even lust; it was degradation — willing to exchange everything for a little more bread. And such rooms — garrets, sheds — dark, foul, gloomy; overcrowded; with such a stench in the thick air as made us gasp when entering it; an atmosphere full of life, hostile to the life of man. Think, my brother, as you sit upon your mountain side; your gentle sheep feeding around you; breathing the exquisite air of those elevated regions; and looking off over the mysterious, ancient world, and the great river valleys leading down to the marvelous Nile-land afar — land of temples, ruins, pyramids — cradle of civilization, grave of buried empires — think, I say, of these millions condemned to live their brief, hopeless span of existence under such awful conditions! See them as they eat their mid-day meal. No delightful pause from pleasant labor; no brightly arrayed table; no laughing and loving faces around a plenteous board, with delicacies from all parts of the world; no agreeable interchange of wisdom and wit and courtesy and merriment. No; none of these. Without stopping in their work, under the eyes of sullen task-masters, they snatch bites out of their hard, dark bread, like wild animals, and devour it ravenously.

Toil, toil, toil, from early morn until late at night; then home they swarm; tumble into their wretched beds; snatch a few hours of disturbed sleep, battling with vermin, in a polluted atmosphere; and then up again and to work; and so on, and on, in endless, mirthless, hopeless round; until, in a few years, consumed with disease, mere rotten masses of painful wretchedness, they die, and are wheeled off to the great

I asked one of the foremen what wages these men and women received. He told me. It seemed impossible that human life could be maintained upon such a pittance. I then asked whether they ever ate meat. “No,” he said, “except when they had a rat or mouse” “A rat or mouse!” I exclaimed. “Oh yes,” he replied, “the rats and mice were important articles of diet — just as they had been for centuries in China. The little children, not yet able to work, fished for them in the sewers, with hook and line, precisely as they had done a century ago in Paris, during the great German siege. A dog,” he added, “was a great treat. When the authorities killed the vagrant hounds there was a big scramble among the poor for the bodies.”

I was shocked at these statements; and then I remembered that some philosopher had argued that cannibalism had survived almost to our own times, in the islands of the Pacific Ocean, because they had contained no animals of large size with which the inhabitants could satisfy the dreadful craving of the system for flesh-food; and hence they devoured their captives.

“Do these people ever marry?” I inquired.

“Marry!” he exclaimed, with a laugh; “why, they could not afford to pay the fee required by law. And why should they marry? There is no virtue among them. No,” he said, “they had almost gotten down to the condition of the Australian savages, who, if not prevented by the police, would consummate their animal-like nuptials in the public streets.”

Maximilian told me that this man was one of the Brotherhood. I did not wonder at it.

From the shops and mills of honest industry, Maximilian led me — it was still broad daylight — into the criminal quarters. We saw the wild beasts in their lairs; in the iron cages of circumstance which civilization has built around them, from which they too readily break out to desolate their fellow-creatures. But here, too, were the fruits of misgovernment. If it were possible we might trace back from yonder robber and murderer — a human hyena — the long ancestral line of brutality, until we see it starting from some poor peasant of the Middle Ages, trampled into crime under the feet of feudalism. The little seed of weakness or wickedness has been carefully nursed by society, generation after generation, until it has blossomed at last in this destructive monster. Civilization has formulated a new variety of the genus homo— and it must inevitably perpetuate its kind.

The few prey on the many; and in turn a few of the many prey upon all. These are the brutal violators of justice, who go to prison, or to the scaffold, for breaking through a code of laws under which peaceful but universal injustice is wrought. If there were enough of these outlaws they might establish a system of jurisprudence for the world under which it would be lawful to rob and murder by the rule of the strong right hand, but criminal to reduce millions to wretchedness by subtle and cunning arts; and, hoity-toity, the prisons would change their tenants, and the brutal plunderers of the few would give place to the cultured spoilers of the many.

And when you come to look at it, my brother, how shall we compare the conditions of the well-to-do-man, who has been merely robbed of his watch and purse, even at the cost of a broken head, which will heal in a few days, with the awful doom of the poor multitude, who from the cradle to the grave work without joy and live without hope? Who is there that would take back his watch and purse at the cost of changing places with one of these wretches?

And who is there that, if the choice were presented to him, would not prefer instant death, which is but a change of conditions, a flight from world to world, or at worst annihilation, rather than to be hurled into the living tomb which I have depicted, there to grovel and writhe, pressed down by the sordid mass around him, until death comes to his relief?

And so it seems to me that, in the final analysis of reason, the great criminals of the world are not these wild beasts, who break through all laws, whose selfishness takes the form of the bloody knife, the firebrand, or the bludgeon; but those who, equally selfish, corrupt the foundations of government and create laws and conditions by which millions suffer, and out of which these murderers and robbers naturally and unavoidably arise.

But I must bring this long letter to a conclusion, and subscribe myself, with love to all,

Your affectionate brother, Gabriel

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