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- Caesar's Column - 2/54 -


THE GREAT CITY

[This book is a series of letters, from Gabriel Weltstein, in New York, to his brother, Heinrich Weltstein, in the State of Uganda, Africa.]

NEW YORK, Sept. 10, 1988

My Dear Brother:

Here I am, at last, in the great city. My eyes are weary with gazing, and my mouth speechless with admiration; but in my brain rings perpetually the thought: Wonderful!--wonderful!--most wonderful!

What an infinite thing is man, as revealed in the tremendous civilization he has built up! These swarming, laborious, all-capable ants seem great enough to attack heaven itself, if they could but find a resting-place for their ladders. Who can fix a limit to the intelligence or the achievements of our species?

But our admiration may be here, and our hearts elsewhere. And so from all this glory and splendor I turn back to the old homestead, amid the high mountain valleys of Africa; to the primitive, simple shepherd-life; to my beloved mother, to you and to all our dear ones. This gorgeous, gilded room fades away, and I see the leaning hills, the trickling streams, the deep gorges where our woolly thousands graze; and I hear once more the echoing Swiss horns of our herdsmen reverberating from the snow-tipped mountains. But my dream is gone. The roar of the mighty city rises around me like the bellow of many cataracts.

New York contains now ten million inhabitants; it is the largest city that is, or ever has been, in the world. It is difficult to say where it begins or ends: for the villas extend, in almost unbroken succession, clear to Philadelphia; while east, west and north noble habitations spread out mile after mile, far beyond the municipal limits.

But the wonderful city! Let me tell you of it.

As we approached it in our air-ship, coming from the east, we could see, a hundred miles before we reached the continent, the radiance of its millions of magnetic lights, reflected on the sky, like the glare of a great conflagration. These lights are not fed, as in the old time, from electric dynamos, but the magnetism of the planet itself is harnessed for the use of man. That marvelous earth-force which the Indians called "the dance of the spirits," and civilized man designated "the aurora borealis," is now used to illuminate this great metropolis, with a clear, soft, white light, like that of the full moon, but many times brighter. And the force is so cunningly conserved that it is returned to the earth, without any loss of magnetic power to the planet. Man has simply made a temporary loan from nature for which he pays no interest.

Night and day are all one, for the magnetic light increases automatically as the day-light wanes; and the business parts of the city swarm as much at midnight as at high noon. In the old times, I am told, part of the streets was reserved for foot-paths for men and women, while the middle was given up to horses and wheeled vehicles; and one could not pass from side to side without danger of being trampled to death by the horses. But as the city grew it was found that the pavements would not hold the mighty, surging multitudes; they were crowded into the streets, and many accidents occurred. The authorities were at length compelled to exclude all horses from the streets, in the business parts of the city, and raise the central parts to a level with the sidewalks, and give them up to the exclusive use of the pedestrians, erecting stone pillars here and there to divide the multitude moving in one direction from those flowing in another. These streets are covered with roofs of glass, which exclude the rain and snow, but not the air. And then the wonder and glory of the shops! They surpass all description. Below all the business streets are subterranean streets, where vast trains are drawn, by smokeless and noiseless electric motors, some carrying passengers, others freight. At every street corner there are electric elevators, by which passengers can ascend or descend to the trains. And high above the house-tops, built on steel pillars, there are other railroads, not like the unsightly elevated trains we saw pictures of in our school books, but crossing diagonally over the city, at a great height, so as to best economize time and distance.

The whole territory between Broadway and the Bowery and Broome Street and Houston Street is occupied by the depot grounds of the great inter-continental air-lines; and it is an astonishing sight to see the ships ascending and descending, like monstrous birds, black with swarming masses of passengers, to or from England, Europe, South America, the Pacific Coast, Australia, China, India and Japan.

These air-lines are of two kinds: the anchored and the independent. The former are hung, by revolving wheels, upon great wires suspended in the air; the wires held in place by metallic balloons, fish-shaped, made of aluminium, and constructed to turn with the wind so as to present always the least surface to the air-currents. These balloons, where the lines cross the oceans, are secured to huge floating islands of timber, which are in turn anchored to the bottom of the sea by four immense metallic cables, extending north, south, east and west, and powerful enough to resist any storms. These artificial islands contain dwellings, in which men reside, who keep up the supply of gas necessary for the balloons. The independent air-lines are huge cigar-shaped balloons, unattached to the earth, moving by electric power, with such tremendous speed and force as to be as little affected by the winds as a cannon ball. In fact, unless the wind is directly ahead the sails of the craft are so set as to take advantage of it like the sails of a ship; and the balloon rises or falls, as the birds do, by the angle at which it is placed to the wind, the stream of air forcing it up, or pressing it down, as the case may be. And just as the old-fashioned steam-ships were provided with boats, in which the passengers were expected to take refuge, if the ship was about to sink, so the upper decks of these air-vessels are supplied with parachutes, from which are suspended boats; and in case of accident two sailors and ten passengers are assigned to each parachute; and long practice has taught the bold craftsmen to descend gently and alight in the sea, even in stormy weather, with as much adroitness as a sea-gull. In fact, a whole population of air-sailors has grown up to manage these ships, never dreamed of by our ancestors. The speed of these aerial vessels is, as you know, very great--thirty-six hours suffices to pass from New York to London, in ordinary weather. The loss of life has been less than on the old-fashioned steamships; for, as those which go east move at a greater elevation than those going west, there is no danger of collisions; and they usually fly above the fogs which add so much to the dangers of sea-travel. In case of hurricanes they rise at once to the higher levels, above the storm; and, with our increased scientific knowledge, the coming of a cyclone is known for many days in advance; and even the stratum of air in which it will move can be foretold.

I could spend hours, my dear brother, telling you of the splendor of this hotel, called _The Darwin_, in honor of the great English philosopher of the last century. It occupies an entire block from Fifth Avenue to Madison Avenue, and from Forty-sixth Street to Forty-seventh. The whole structure consists of an infinite series of cunning adjustments, for the delight and gratification of the human creature. One object seems to be to relieve the guests from all necessity for muscular exertion. The ancient elevator, or "lift," as they called it in England, has expanded until now whole rooms, filled with ladies and gentlemen, are bodily carried up from the first story to the roof; a professional musician playing the while on the piano--not the old-fashioned thing our grandmothers used, but a huge instrument capable of giving forth all sounds of harmony from the trill of a nightingale to the thunders of an orchestra. And when you reach the roof of the hotel you find yourself in a glass-covered tropical forest, filled with the perfume of many flowers, and bright with the scintillating plumage of darting birds; all sounds of sweetness fill the air, and many glorious, star-eyed maidens, guests of the hotel, wander half seen amid the foliage, like the houris in the Mohammedan's heaven.

But as I found myself growing hungry I descended to the dining-room. It is three hundred feet long: a vast multitude were there eating in perfect silence. It is considered bad form to interrupt digestion with speech, as such a practice tends to draw the vital powers, it is said, away from the stomach to the head. Our forefathers were expected to shine in conversation, and be wise and witty while gulping their food between brilliant passages. I sat down at a table to which I was marshaled by a grave and reverend seignior in an imposing uniform. As I took my seat my weight set some machinery in motion. A few feet in front of me suddenly rose out of the table a large upright mirror, or such I took it to be; but instantly there appeared on its surface a grand bill of fare, each article being numbered. The whole world had been ransacked to produce the viands named in it; neither the frozen recesses of the north nor the sweltering regions of the south had been spared: every form of food, animal and vegetable, bird, beast, reptile, fish; the foot of an elephant, the hump of a buffalo, the edible bird-nests of China; snails, spiders, shell-fish, the strange and luscious creatures lately found in the extreme depths of the ocean and fished for with dynamite; in fact, every form of food pleasant to the palate of man was there. For, as you know, there are men who make fortunes now by preserving and breeding the game animals, like the deer, the moose, the elk, the buffalo, the antelope, the mountain sheep and goat, and many others, which but for their care would long since have become extinct. They select barren regions in mild climates, not fit for agriculture, and enclosing large tracts with wire fences, they raise great quantities of these valuable game animals, which they sell to the wealthy gourmands of the great cities, at very high prices.

I was perplexed, and, turning to the great man who stood near me, I began to name a few of the articles I wanted. He smiled complacently at my country ignorance, and called my attention to the fact that the table immediately before me contained hundreds of little knobs or buttons, each one numbered; and he told me that these were connected by electric wires with the kitchen of the hotel, and if I would observe the numbers attached to any articles in the bill of fare which I desired, and would touch the corresponding numbers of the knobs before me, my dinner would be ordered on a similar mirror in the kitchen, and speedily served. I did as he directed. In a little while an electric bell near me rang; the bill of fare disappeared from the mirror; there was a slight clicking sound; the table parted in front of me, the electric knobs moving aside; and up through the opening rose my dinner carefully arranged, as upon a table, which exactly filled the gap caused by the recession of that part of the original table which contained the electric buttons. I need not say I was astonished. I commenced to eat, and immediately the same bell, which had announced the disappearance of the bill of fare, rang again. I looked up, and the mirror now contained the name of every state in the Republic, from Hudson's Bay to the Isthmus of Darien; and the names of all the nations of the world; each name being numbered. My attendant, perceiving my perplexity, called my attention to the fact that the sides of the table which had brought up my dinner contained another set of electric buttons, corresponding with


Caesar's Column - 2/54

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