Caesar's Column, by Ignatius Donnelly

Chapter 35.

The Liberated Prisoner

About two o’clock that day Maximilian returned home. He was covered with dust and powder-smoke, but there was no blood upon him. I did not see him return; but when I entered the drawing-room I started back. There was a stranger present. I could not long doubt as to who he was. He was locked in the arms of Max’s mother. He was a pitiful sight. A tall, gaunt man; his short hair and stubby beard white as snow. He was prematurely aged — his back was stooped — his pallid complexion reminded one of plants grown in cellars; he had a dejected, timorous look, like one who had long been at the mercy of brutal masters; his hands were seamed and calloused with hard work; he was without a coat, and his nether garments had curious, tiger-like stripes upon them. He was sobbing like a child in the arms of his wife. He seemed very weak in body and mind. Maximilian gave him a chair, and his mother sat down by him, weeping bitterly, and holding the poor calloused hands in her own, and patting them gently, while she murmured words of comfort and rejoicing. The poor man looked bewildered, as if he could not quite collect his faculties; and occasionally he would glance anxiously at the door, as if he expected that, at any moment, his brutal masters would enter and take him back to his tasks.

“Gabriel,” said Maximilian — and his face was flushed and working — “this is — or was — my father.”

I took the poor hand in my own and kissed it, and spoke encouragingly to him. And this, I thought, was once a wealthy, handsome, portly, learned gentleman; a scholar and a philanthropist; and his only crime was that he loved his fellow-men! And upon how many such men have the prison doors of the world closed — never to open again?

They took him away to the bath; they fed him; they put upon him the clothes of a gentleman. He smiled in a childish way, and smoothed the fine cloth with his hands; and then he seemed to realize, for the first time, that he was, indeed, no longer a prisoner — that his jailers had gone out of his life forever.

“I must go now,” said Maximilian, hurriedly; “I will be back this evening. I have a duty to perform.”

He returned at nightfall. There was a terrible light in his eyes.

“I have avenged my father,” he said to me, in a hoarse whisper. “Come this way.”

He took me into the library, for he would not have the women hear the dreadful story. I shut the door. He said:

“I had made all the necessary arrangements to prevent the escape of the Count and his accomplices. I knew that he would fly, at the first alarm, to his yacht, which lies out in the harbor. He had ruined my father by bribery; so I brought his own instrument to bear upon him, and bribed, with a large sum, his confidential friend, who was in command of his vessel, to deliver him up to me. As I had anticipated, the cunning wretch fled to the yacht; they took him on board. Then they made him prisoner. He was shackled and chained to the mast. He begged for his life and liberty. He had brought a fortune with him in gold and jewels. He offered the whole of it to his friend, as a bribe, for he surmised what was coming. The faithful officer replied, as I had instructed him, that the Count could not offer that treasure, for he himself had already appropriated it to his own purposes. The miscreant had always had a lively sense of the power of money for evil; he saw it now in a new light — for he was penniless. After taking my father from the prison and bringing him home, I arranged as to the other prisoners and then went to the yacht. I introduced myself to the Count. I told him that I had deceived his spies — that I had led a double life; that I had joined the Brotherhood and had become one of its leading spirits, with but two objects:— to punish him and his villainous associates and to rescue my father. That, as they had destroyed my father for money, the same instruments should now destroy him, through fear. That they were all prisoners, and should die together a fearful death; but if they had a hundred lives they could not atone for the suffering they had caused one good and great-hearted man. They had compelled him, for years, to work in the society of the basest of his species — at work too hard for even a young and strong man; they had separated him from his family; they had starved his mind and heart and body; they had beaten and scourged him for the slightest offenses. He had suffered a thousand deaths. It would be no equivalent to simply kill them. They should die in prolonged agony. And as he — the Count — had always gone upon the principle that it was right to work upon the weaknesses of others to accomplish his purposes, I should imitate him. I should not touch him myself.

“I then ordered the captain and his men to put him in the boat and carry him ashore.

“He begged and pleaded and abased himself; he entreated and shrieked; but he addressed hearts as hard as his own.

“On the river-bank were a body of my men. In the midst of them they had the other prisoners — the corrupt judge, eight of the jurymen — four had died since the trial — and the four lying witnesses. They were all shackled together. A notary public was present, and they signed and acknowledged their confessions, that they had been bribed to swear against my father and convict him; and they even acknowledged, in their terror, the precise sums which they had received for their dreadful acts.

“‘Spare me! spare me!’ shrieked the Count, groveling on the ground; ‘only part of that money came from me. I was but the instrument of the government. I was commanded to do as I did.’

“‘The others have already gone to their account,’ I replied, ‘every man of them. You will overtake them in a little while.’

“I ordered the prisoners to chain him to a stout post which stood in the middle of one of the wharves. They were unshackled and did so with alacrity; my men standing around ready to shoot them down if they attempted to fly. The Count writhed and shrieked for help, but in a little while he was securely fastened to the post. There was a ship loaded with lumber lying beside the next wharf. I ordered them to bring the lumber; they quickly piled it up in great walls around him, within about ten feet of him; and then more and more was heaped around these walls. The Count began to realize the death that awaited him, and his screams were appalling. But I said to him:

“‘O Count, be calm. This is not as bad as a sentence of twenty years in the penitentiary for an honest and innocent man. And, remember, my dear Count, how you have enjoyed yourself all these years, while my poor father has been toiling in prison in a striped suit. Think of the roast beef you have eaten and the wine you have consumed! And, moreover, the death you are about to die, my dear Count, was once fashionable and popular in the world; and many a good and holy man went up to heaven from just such a death-bed as you shall have-a death-bed of fire and ashes. And see, my good Count, how willingly these honest men, whom you hired, with your damnable money, to destroy my father — see how willingly they work to prepare your funeral pile! What a supple and pliant thing, O Count, is human baseness. It has but one defect — it may be turned upon ourselves! And then, O my dear Count, it shocks us and hurts our feelings. But say your prayers, Count, say your prayers. Call upon God, for He is the only one likely to listen to you now.’

“‘Here,’ I said to the judge, ‘put a match to the pile.’

“The miserable wretch, trembling and hoping to save his own life by his superserviceable zeal, got down upon his knees, and lighted a match, and puffed and blew to make the fire catch. At last it started briskly, and in a few minutes the Count was screaming in the center of a roaring furnace.

“I gave a preconcerted signal to my men. In the twinkling of an eye each of the prisoners was manacled hand and foot, shrieking and roaring for mercy.

“‘It was a splendid joke, gentlemen,’ I said to them, ‘that you played on my father. To send that good man to prison, and to go home with the price of his honor and his liberty jingling in your pockets. It was a capital joke; and you will now feel the finest point of the witticism. In with them!’

“And high above the walls of fire they were thrown, and the briber and the bribed — the villain and his instruments — all perished howling together.”

I listened, awestruck, to the terrible story. There was a light in Max’s eyes which showed that long brooding over the wrongs of his father and the sight of his emaciated and wretched form had “worked like madness in his brain,” until he was, as I had feared, a monomaniac, with but one idea — revenge.

“Max, dear Max.” I said, “for Heaven’s sake never let Christina or your mother hear that dreadful story. It was a madman’s act! Never think of it again. You have wiped out the crime in blood; there let it end. And leave these awful scenes, or you will become a maniac.”

He did not answer me for a time, but looked down thoughtfully; and then he glanced at me, furtively, and said:

“Is not revenge right? Is it not simply justice?”

“Perhaps so, in some sense,” I replied; “and if you had killed those base wretches with your own hand the world could not have much blamed you. Remember, however, ‘Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord, and I will repay.’ But to send them out of life by such dreadful tortures! It is too terrible.”

“But death,” he said, “is nothing; it is the mere end of life — perhaps of consciousness; and that is no atonement for years of suffering, every day of which was full of more agony than death itself can wring from the human heart.”

“I will not argue with you, Max,” I replied, “for you are wrong, and I love you; but do you not see, when a heart, the kindest in the world, could conceive and execute such a terrible revenge, that the condition of the mind is abnormal? But let us change the gloomy subject. The dreadful time has put ‘tricks of desperation’ in your brain. And it is not the least of the crimes of the Oligarchy that it could thus pervert honest and gentle natures, and turn them into savages. And that is what it has done with millions. It has fought against goodness, and developed wickedness.”

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:53