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Charles Kingsley: Tyrannising it luxuriously over all nations, she had sat upon the mystic beast

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Anti-war essays, poems, short stories and literary excerpts

Charles Kingsley: Empire, a system of world-wide robbery, and church

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Charles Kingsley
From Hypatia (1853)

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He toiled on, every now and then stepping across a dead body, or clambering a wall out of the road, to avoid some plunging, shrieking horse, or obscene knot of prowling camp followers, who were already stripping and plundering the slain…At last, in front of a large villa, now a black and smoking skeleton, he leaped a wall, and found himself landed on a heap of corpses…They were piled up against the garden fence for many yards. The struggle had been fierce there some three hours before.

‘Put me out of my misery! In mercy kill me!’ moaned a voice beneath his feet.

Raphael looked down; the poor wretch was slashed and mutilated beyond all hope.

‘Certainly, friend, if you wish it,’ and he drew his dagger. The poor fellow stretched out his throat, and awaited the stroke with a ghastly smile. Raphael caught his eye; his heart failed him, and he rose.

‘What do you advise, Bran?’ But the dog was far ahead, leaping and barking impatiently.

‘I obey,’ said Raphael; and he followed her, while the wounded man called piteously and upbraidingly after him.

‘He will not have long to wait. Those plunderers will not be as squeamish as I…Strange, now! From Armenian reminiscences I should have fancied myself as free from such tender weakness as any of my Canaanite-slaying ancestors…And yet by some mere spirit of contradiction, I couldn’t kill that fellow, exactly because he asked me to do it…There is more in that than will fit into the great inverted pyramid of “I am I.” Never mind, let me get the dog’s lessons by heart first. What next, Bran? Ah! Could one believe the transformation? Why, this is the very trim villa which I passed yesterday morning, with the garden-chairs standing among the flower-beds, just as the young ladies had left them, and the peacocks and silver pheasants running about, wondering why their pretty mistresses did not come to feed them. And here is a trampled mass of wreck and corruption for the girls to find, when they venture back from Rome, and complain how horrible war is for breaking down all their shrubs, and how cruel soldiers must be to kill and cook all their poor dear tame turtle-doves! Why not? Why should they lament over other things – which they can just as little mend – and which perhaps need no more mending? Ah! there lies a gallant fellow underneath that fruit-tree!’

Raphael walked up to a ring of dead, in the midst of which lay, half-sitting against the trunk of the tree, a tall and noble officer in the first bloom of manhood. His casque and armour, gorgeously inlaid with gold, were hewn and battered by a hundred blows; his shield was cloven through and through; his sword broken in the stiffened hand which grasped it still. Cut off from his troop, he had made his last stand beneath the tree, knee-deep in the gay summer flowers, and there he lay, bestrewn, as if by some mockery – or pity – of mother nature, with faded roses, and golden fruit, shaken from off the boughs in that last deadly struggle. Raphael stood and watched him with a sad sneer.

‘Well! – you have sold your fancied personality dear! How many dead men?…Nine…Eleven! Conceited fellow! Who told you that your one life was worth the eleven which you have taken?’

Bran went up to the corpse – perhaps from its sitting posture fancying it still living – smelt the cold cheek, and recoiled with a mournful whine.

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And as he followed, careless where he went, he continued talking to himself aloud after the manner of restless self-discontented men.

…’And then man talks big about his dignity and his intellect, and his heavenly parentage, and his aspirations after the unseen, and the beautiful, and the infinite – and everything else unlike himself. How can he prove it? Why, these poor blackguards lying about are very fair specimens of humanity. – And how much have they been bothered since they were born with aspirations after anything infinite, except infinite sour wine? To eat, to drink; to destroy a certain number of their species; to reproduce a certain number of the same, two-thirds of whom will die in infancy, a dead waste of pain to their mothers and of expense to their putative sires…and then – what says Solomon? What befalls them befalls beasts. As one dies, so dies the other; so that they have all one breath, and a man has no pre-eminence over a beast; for all is vanity. All go to one place; all are of the dust, and turn to dust again. Who knows that the breath of man goes upward, and that the breath of the beast goes downward to the earth? Who, indeed, my most wise ancestor? Not I, certainly. Raphael Aben-Ezra, how art thou better than a beast? What pre-eminence hast thou, not merely over this dog, but over the fleas whom thou so wantonly cursest? Man must painfully win house, clothes, fire…A pretty proof of his wisdom, when every flea has the wit to make my blanket, without any labour of his own, lodge him a great deal better than it lodges me! Man makes clothes, and the fleas live in them…Which is the wiser of the two?…

‘Ah, but man is fallen…Well – and the flea is not. So much better he than the man; for he is what he was intended to be, and so fulfils the very definition of virtue, which no one can say of us of the red-ochre vein. And even if the old myth be true, and the man only fell, because he was set to do higher work than the flea, what does that prove – but that he could not do it?

‘But his arts and his sciences?…Apage! The very sound of those grown-children’s rattles turns me sick..One conceited ass in a generation increasing labour and sorrow, and dying after all even as the fool dies, and ten million brutes and slaves, just where their fore-fathers were, and where their children will be after them, to the end of the farce…The thing that has been, it is that which shall be; and there is no new thing under the sun….

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The last blue headland of Sardinia was fading fast on the north-west horizon, and a steady breeze bore before it innumerable ships, the wrecks of Heraclian’s armament, plunging and tossing impatiently in their desperate homeward race toward the coast of Africa. Far and wide, under a sky of cloudless blue, the white sails glittered on the glittering sea, as gaily now, above their loads of shame and disappointment terror and pain, as when, but one short month before, they bore with them only wild hopes and gallant daring. Who can calculate the sum of misery in that hapless flight?…And yet it was but one, and that one of the least known and most trivial, of the tragedies of that age of woe; one petty death-spasm among the unnumbered throes which were shaking to dissolution the Babylon of the West. Her time had come. Even as Saint John beheld her in his vision, by agony after agony, she was rotting to her well-earned doom. Tyrannising it luxuriously over all nations, she had sat upon the mystic beast – building her power on the brute animal appetites of her dupes and slaves: but she had duped herself even more than them. She was finding out by bitter lessons that it was ‘to the beast’, and not to her, that her vassal kings of the earth had been giving their power and strength; and the ferocity and lust which she had pampered so cunningly in them, had become her curse and her destruction…Drunk with the blood of the saints; blinded by her own conceit and jealousy to the fact that she had been crushing and extirpating out of her empire for centuries past all which was noble, purifying, regenerative, divine, she sat impotent and doting, the prey of every fresh adventurer, the slave of her own slaves…’And the kings of the earth, who had sinned with her, hated the harlot, and made her desolate and naked, and devoured her flesh, and burned her with fire. For God had put into their hearts to fulfil His will, and to agree, and to give their kingdom to the beast, until the words of God should be fulfilled.’…Everywhere sensuality, division, hatred, treachery, cruelty, uncertainty, terror; the vials of God’s wrath poured out. Where was to be the end of it all? asked every man of his neighbour, generation after generation; and received for answer only, ‘It is better to die than to live.’

And yet in one ship out of that sad fleet, there was peace; peace amid shame and terror; amid the groans of the wounded, and the sighs of the starving; amid all but blank despair. The great triremes and quinqueremes rushed onward past the lagging transports, careless, in the mad race for safety, that they were leaving the greater number of their comrades defenceless in the rear of the flight; but from one little fishing-craft alone no base entreaties, no bitter execrations greeted the passing flash and roll of their mighty oars. One after another, day by day, they came rushing up out of the northern offing, each like a huge hundred-footed dragon, panting and quivering, as if with terror, at every loud pulse of its oars, hurling the wild water right and left with the mighty share of its beak, while from the bows some gorgon or chimaera, elephant or boar, stared out with brazen eyes toward the coast of Africa, as if it, too, like the human beings which it carried, was dead to every care but that of dastard flight…

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