Sunday, 14 April 2013


A sensational story of the 20th century. By Edmund Boisgilbert, M.D.—Pp. 242. Ward, Lock, and Co.

 That social changes of a very thorough and wide-spreading nature are impending seems to be felt though reluctantly admitted by earnest observers in all countries. The development of human genius as shown in the multiplication of mechanical appliances for economising human labour, the spread of education, the increase of wealth and its wider diffusion in spite of exceptional cases of concentration—all these forces have combined to stimulate thought, and to lead men to delve beneath the encrustation that has overlaid and retarded intellectual progress through the past centuries. Labour, long despised and too often oppressed, has at length become qualified to speak, and its voice has startled the world. It has modified customs, changed opinions, ameliorated laws, and given a new turn to literature. Not only does the new philosophy permeate the newspaper and the serial press, but appealing to the imagination, it has largely contributed to swell the general volume of literary effort, and frequently in a way that has rendered the subject interesting and even fascinating. To this class belong such books as Bellamy's "Looking Backward" and  "Cæsar's Column"—the former describing what the author thinks should be, the latter recording what the writer fears will be. "Cæsar's Column" professes to be a story of the latter part of the twentieth century, the events delineated occurring in 1988, the scene being laid in the city of New York.
The object of the author is clearly set out in a brief but touching preface. "I seek to preach," he says, "into the ears of the able and rich and powerful the great truth that the neglect of the sufferings of their fellows, indifference to the great bond of brotherhood which lies at the base of Christianity, and blind, brutal, and degrading worship of mere wealth must—given time and pressure enough—eventuate in the overthrow of society and the destruction of civilisation. I come to the churches with my heart filled with the profoundest respect for the essentials of religion; I seek to show them why they have lost their hold upon the poor—upon that vast multitude, the best beloved of God's Kingdom—and I point out to them how they may regain it. I tell them that if religion is to re-assume her ancient station, as crowned mistress of the souls of women, she must stand in shining armour bright, with the Serpent beneath her feet, the champion and defender of mankind against all its oppressors. The world to-day clamours for deeds, not creeds ; for bread, not dogma ; for charity, not ceremony; for love, not intellect." In this spirit the writer has projected his prophetic vision a hundred years into the future. He sees New York, the largest city that ever has been in the world, with ten millions of inhabitants—the streets covered in with glass, night turned into day by the electric light, underground railways worked by electric motors, flying machines that carry their living cargoes to and from all parts of the globe—in a word, a city of inconceivable wealth and luxury, but the inhabitants given up to selfish and sensual indulgence—unjust, impure, cruel. All power is represented as grasped by a purse-proud oligarchy before whom the masses of half-starved and wretched toilers cringe with abject servility, and yet cherishing in their inmost souls a deadly hatred the bitter fruit of ages of oppression. Even the church had allied itself to the dominant class, and a specimen of pulpit teaching is given, in which the preacher descanted on the progress of scientific discovery in which he professed to see that nature had indicated how the poor should be dealt with, namely, that they should be left to perish ; and he went on to say, "Let us rejoice that out of the misery of the universe we are reserved for happiness,"
Much more follows in the same strain, with much that is even worse in its sensuous and demoralising tone. But though down-trodden and treated with scorn, the proletariat are preparing for their revenge. Despairing of any amelioration of their wretched lot from an improvement in the existing state of things, they resolve to overthrow the whole fabric of civilisation, hoping that out of the chaos thus produced something better may eventually be evolved. For this object a secret society of immense proportions is formed, embracing no less than a hundred million members, distributed through out America and Europe, who have taken the suggestive title of the Brotherhood of Destruction. All are secretly armed with the most deadly weapons, and are eagerly waiting for the signal to plunge the world into darkness and death. The ruling class in New York obtain a hint that evil is brooding, but they have a squadron of aerial ships equipped with bombs charged with a terrible poison which, dropped amongst a crowd, would produce immediate death. On those aerial ships, or "Demons," as they are called, the oligarchy principally depend as a means of quelling insurrection; and they rather rejoiced than otherwise to learn that the populace intended to erect barricades across the streets, because these would prevent the masses from escaping from the suffocating fumes of the bombs to be dropped from the Demons, and which they were quite willing should destroy ten millions of people rather than that the privileges and possessions they had unrighteously usurped should be imperilled. But they had reckoned without their host. They did not allow for the use by others of the system of bribery by means of which they had acquired so much power and influence. Agents of the Brotherhood had successfully intrigued with the men in charge of the Demons, the Mamelukes of the air, whose hearty co-operation was secured. Every preparation had been made for a simultaneous uprising throughout Europe and America. The mid-night hour struck, and in a few minutes afterwards New York was in flames, furious multitudes poured through the streets bent on pillage and slaughter. Death shrieks rent the air. Barricades were erected, and the Government troops marched down thinking to enclose the insurgents in so many rat-traps in which they might be destroyed by poison bombs from the Demons. But these tactics were countervailed. The Brotherhood formed an outer cordon, and the soldiers were themselves placed in a trap, and the conductors of the Demons, turned from their allegiance by bribery, discharged their deadly hailstorms upon their erstwhile friends. A period of awful debauchery and rapine followed. Fire and the sword were rampant, and Cæsar, the giant leader of the insurrection, raged like a fiend from the nether world. The ruined streets were choked with the dead, but how to dispose of them was the problem. It was solved at last by Cæsar in one of his drunken orgies. He ordered a monument to be built by piling up the bodies in layers and pouring over them liquid cement, thus solidifying them into a mass of stone. Hence the title of the book.
But the story does not terminate here. Chaos reigns for three or four days, during which some of the most violent denouncers of the oligarchy for its oppression of the poor, seized favourable opportunities to secure treasure with which they absconded to enjoy it in some tranquil spot of earth, if such could be found. One after another the "friends of the people", and the chief leaders of the insurrection quarrelled amongst themselves, were distrusted and assassinated by the demoralised mob. Caesar himself fell a victim to popular fickleness, and his head was paraded through the streets elevated on the point of a pole. Fearful for their wives and themselves, the narrator of these terrible events and his friend had secured a Demon to be in readiness for them should it be required. They freighted it with necessary food, furniture, books, and all the scientific instruments they could collect, and by means of which they hoped to preserve a living germ of past civilisation from which, in its distant home in the highlands of Africa, it might again be propagated in more peaceful times. The occasion was not long in coming. The mob that carried the giant's head, furious with drink, rapine, and blood, made an attack upon the house in which the writer and his friends were assembled. The latter hurried their preparations for departure, and when all was ready the engineer of the Demon "touched the lever of the electric engine; the great bird swayed for an instant, and then began to rise like a veritable phœnix 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 will 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 before 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 bonfires, where Cesar's column was towering to the skies, bearing the epitaph of the world. I said to Max—' What will those millions do tomorrow ?' 'Starve,' he said. 'What will they do next week?' 'Devour each other,' he replied." Five years later we get a glimpse of the new society that has sprung into being on that high African plateau—a society in which there is a perfect Government perfectly administered and one that is therefore entrusted to do everything for the people—educating the children, fixing the rate of wages, owning the land, and abolishing interest—the latter, perhaps, being the fruit borne by Mr Martin's efforts a hundred years previous, but which he was not permitted to behold !
 Such is an outline of this very readable and certainly sensational little volume. We have given the merest outline of the plot and incidents which are depicted in vigorous and pleasing language. Of course there is a golden thread of love running through the narrative which culminates satisfactorily at last. There are many seeming improbabilities, but with the rapid changes of modern thought and practice these may soon come to be regarded as quite common place. If the writer's views are too pessimistic, we have no doubt of his sincerity or his desire to avert the tremendous woes that he imagines to be impending if the oppression and wrongs that have so long prevailed under existing social institutions are continued. Whether such conditions of social life as he has sketched are practicable, or if practicable whether they would bring about any real improvement, are questions about which opinions are likely to differ ; but good will result from getting men to look at the subject from various standpoints, and causing them to realise increasingly their mutual interdependence, and that in a sense that is absolutely true, each is his brother's keeper.

 Launceston Examiner 27 August 1891,

No comments: