Chapter 20 [Out of the Silence, by Erle Cox]

[Editor: This is a chapter from Out of the Silence (1947 edition) by Erle Cox (1873-1950).]

Chapter XX

“If I tell you the history of the three statues you will have an outline of the history of the race.” Earani spoke in answer to a question from Dundas. “Those three men left the greatest marks on its development of all who ever lived, and each in an entirely different way.”

“Faith, Earani,” said Barry, “from the look of the old gentleman in the rags, I should say the race left some marks on him in return.”

“We own it to our shame, Dick.” They were standing in the great vestibule before the sculptured group, and from where they stood the face of the statue stared over their heads with its frozen expression of misery and pride. The master hand that had wrought the stone had given all but life to the figure, with its bowed shoulders, weighed down with intolerable wrong and suffering. “Yes,” Earani went on, “he was judged and condemned as the greatest criminal our world had ever produced.” They turned together, and she led the way to the “temple,” and there went on with her story.

“His name was Odi, and until he committed the deed that altered the whole course of humanity he lived unknown as a poor schoolmaster. At the time he lived (you must remember it was about three thousand years before the great disaster) our world had advanced even then beyond what yours is now in development. To a certain extent it was, however, much as yours is to-day. We were far more advanced in art and science than you are now. We had commenced as you did in ignorance, pestilence, and war. We had been split into groups and nations with as many languages. The groups and nations gradually coalesced, and with them grew up a common language. War had practically ceased, and from that cause and also from the advance of medical science the increase of the population of the world came to be a serious factor in our history for more reasons than one. The great problem, however, was the problem of the coloured races. Mentally and in everything but physical endurance they were beneath us. They could imitate, but not create. They multiplied far more rapidly than we did, and, led by ambitious men, they threatened to exterminate the white races by sheer force of numbers. In some places, where the two races lived side by side, the position became acute, and everywhere they demanded as a right an equality they were unfitted for. Perhaps you know faintly what I mean.”

“We understand, Earani. The problem is not unknown to us,” put in Barry.

Earani nodded. “I have read of your problem, Dick, but it was as nothing compared with the one the world had to face then and the one Odi solved. There were at the time over three thousand millions of people on the globe, of whom more than four-fifths were of the lower race. They had all the benefits of our science, and were protected by our laws, but as time went on the bitterness grew on both sides beyond all endurance. They learned the power of numbers, and grew arrogant and overbearing. In one place the mutual jealousy flashed up into a short but fierce and bloody war, the first that had happened for over two hundred years. It was a quarrel over territory; territory that meant existence to one race or the other. That fight resulted in the obliteration of a white outpost of over two million people. Strange as it may seem, very few, except those in actual contact with the coloured races, realised even then the danger to the white.”

Dundas smiled a little, and interrupted. “I suppose, Earani, there were plenty who preached the doctrine of uplifting the coloured races and treating them as brothers?”

Earani nodded. “That was as it happened, Alan, mostly through the teaching of the priest class; those not directly in contact with them opposed reprisals. They talked evolution, education, and brotherly love, and, I have no doubt, meant it. They argued that it would lower them in their own eyes and in the eyes of the coloured people if they inflicted punishment. ‘Why plunge the world again into the crime of war?’ shouted the priest class. ‘Example on our part will teach them better.’

“But there was one man who read the signs aright. He was Odi, the obscure schoolmaster, living on the fringe of the white nations. All his life he had studied the question in silence. Then it fell out that some of his inventions brought him enough wealth to enable him to live at his ease, and he gave the whole of his time to research.

“It has never been finally decided whether his great discovery was the result of accident or of deliberate experiments with the one object in view. Practically everything he possessed was afterwards destroyed, and his name and the secret of his power alone survived. The secret was afterwards known as the ‘Death Ray.’” Earani broke the thread of her story. “What you know as electricity we knew more of then than you would dream now.”

“We know precious little about it, anyhow,” said Barry.

She laughed and went on:— “That’s an honest confession, Dick. There are a few links missing in your chain that I can supply in good time. But to return to the ‘Death Ray.’ I have often thought of that man, with his terrible secret locked in his heart, and setting about his work absolutely unmoved by the thought of the consequences of his actions to himself or the millions of other lives it involved.”

“The first knowledge the world had of his power was that an unknown and appalling disease had broken out amongst the coloured races in the most thickly populated part of the world. At first it started in one city, and from that centre spread in an ever-widening stain. Almost from the first it was noticed that the whites were absolutely immune. But that this was from design never entered even remotely into the speculations of the horde of workers who gathered to fight the plague. Remember that when it once started the disease was no matter of months or weeks in action. It was a question of days. The coloured people, old and young, went down before it with appalling certainty. The unseen death missed none. It swept through the country in an ever-widening wave, the course of which could be marked in a clearly-defined line as it advanced. In vain the whole world fought the growing terror. Every nerve was strained, and every resource of science was used to the uttermost. Fight as the scientists would, the death defeated them. There was not one single instance where a person attacked recovered, and inside the line of the advancing tide there was not one single instance of a coloured person escaping or a white man being affected. I can only make you understand the awful magnitude of the blow that fell by the records of mortality. In the first eight weeks from the outbreak, over one hundred and twenty millions had perished.”

The two, who had been listening intently, looked incredulously at Earani. “Why, Earani, apart from anything else, the disposal of such a multitude of dead should be impossible, and delay must have meant an epidemic through the world as bad as the disease that killed the blacks,” said Barry.

“That is so, Dick,” she answered grimly. “The records of the time showed how fully alive the people were to the danger. Indeed, they left the coloured race in the end to fight for its own salvation in order to cope with the new horror that threatened. Indeed, there were a few small outbreaks, but the world was prepared, and beat them out before they obtained any hold. You must remember, too, that our race was better equipped to deal with such a crisis than yours is now.

“Then a strange thing happened. Just as suddenly as it appeared, the plague stopped, and the world breathed in relief. It seemed as if the danger had passed. There was a month of respite, and then, to the horror of all, it commenced again with redoubled violence in a new quarter. This time in the heart of the territory of the coloured races. What had gone before was as nothing to the fresh outbreak. It swept everything before it, but in the densely-populated districts it killed more swiftly, and spread more widely than formerly. Even now it is difficult to think of that time without a shudder. Five times it ceased and broke out again, and towards the end the word ran through the coloured races that the whites were exterminating them. No vows of innocence, no attempts to reassure the terror-racked multitude, were of any avail, and the horror was added to by a bloody internecine upheaval, in which the doomed race fell as swiftly before the arms of the whites as before the destroying disease.

“The sixteen months that the terror lasted are on record as the most awful period in our history, and when they were passed the coloured races had ceased to exist. Out of two thousand millions, not half a million were left scattered amongst the extreme northern and southern parts of the world, where the disease had not penetrated.”

“Good heavens, Earani!” exclaimed Alan. “Do you mean to tell us that this appalling thing was the work of the man Odi?”

“Just so, Alan; his work alone, and even in the end his part might have gone undiscovered but for the determination of a few scientists to probe the matter to the bottom.

“Several remarkable features were recorded apart from the disease itself. In each instance the disease started from a common centre and spread rapidly outwards. When the records were made up it was noticed that in charts of the affected countries its boundaries were a clearly defined circle, except in the later outbreaks where the edges of the circles were broken by already ravaged country. Then again, it was noticed that the intervals between the outbreaks were subject to some regularity. It was by summing up slight details that the investigators came to the conclusion that the intervals would just permit of the perpetuator of the tragedy moving from centre to centre. Even then it seemed a far-fetched hypothesis to assume deliberate human action. Gradually, however, the evidence piled up, and the question became from ‘Was it the work of a man?’ to ‘Who is he?’

“Then Odi spoke up. Openly and fearlessly he announced himself the perpetrator of the deed. Even then the world was incredulous, but in the end there was no room for doubt. He proved to the astonished investigators beyond all chance of contradiction the means he had used. He had discovered an electrical ray that passed the white skin, and only acted through the pigmented skin of the coloured people. After only a short exposure to its influence, a general paralysis of the nervous system set in, and death ensued in from twenty-four to thirty-six hours. The gradual spreading of the havoc from its centre was caused by a proportionate weakness, according to the distance from the power itself. When he had exterminated all within reach, he simply moved his plant to another site and repeated the process. You see the ray was silent and invisible, and passed through all natural obstacles as if they had been non-existent. It did its work swiftly, silently and undetected.”

Earani paused in her story, and Barry broke in: “That was a hellish deed, an infamous act, and yet you say that your people honoured him as a benefactor. Earani, they could not do it.”

The woman smiled her soft, slow, unemotional smile, looking at Barry as an elder would look at an angry child. “Not at first Dick. No, they did not honour him. They looked on Odi’s deed in the same light as you do now. That is, when they had time. At first they were too busy seizing the vast vacant territories. The few great national confederations were on the verge of flying at one another’s throats to see which could seize the most, until they realised that there was plenty even for their voracious desires.”

“But Odi!” asked Alan. “What became of him?”

“The fate of the daring reformer,” she answered. “What else? From one end of the world to the other the priest class raised the outcry against him. We had ceased to punish crime. We cursed the criminal. He was outcast and branded. The very children baited him in the street. He was shunned, excommunicated in the true sense of the word. His goods were declared forfeit. His name was held up as one accursed. At first he answered his accusers boldly and justified his deed on the ground of the good of humanity. He pointed out that the confederations where the priest caste held the greatest power were those that had benefited most largely already, and in time to come would benefit more. Aye! it was true, but none the less they howled him down — spat upon him. In spite of all they did he held his head high. Poverty and outrage were his lot until the end, but they did not break his spirit.”

“And the end?” asked Barry.

“A fitting one for the stormy life. One day he penetrated to a gathering of the priest class and their followers, and there he stood before them and spoke his mind to them. Aye! but it was a speech. Some day I will read it to you; we have it word for word in our archives, an inspired prophecy, and when he had spoken the children of the peace took the apostle of death and stoned him before their temple. That statue in the vestibule was wrought from the only picture we had of him, and that was taken as he spoke his last words.

“Look, my friends, even as he had said, it happened. After about two hundred years here and there arose an apologist. The world was infinitely more prosperous and infinitely more peaceful. The locked-up treasures of Nature that had gone to nourish the unfit were directed into proper channels. There was room to breathe in what had been an overburdened world, and the world knew and recognised it. At first shame-facedly, and then openly and honestly it was acknowledged that the deed of Odi was the salvation of the civilised races.”

Barry rose to his feet and commenced to pace slowly to and fro. The uneasiness in his mind had taken definite shape during the story. “It may be as you say, Earani,” he said, “but to my mind the means could never justify the end — no matter if the result were all you say, and more. The crime would be unpardonable.”

Earani watched him quietly with her elbow on the arm of the chair and her chin cupped in her palm. Looking at Barry she spoke to Dundas. “Alan, tell Dick what you do with weeds that grow up amongst your vines — the weeds that draw the nourishment from the soil, that would undo the work of your hands, and cramp the development of the fruit. What do you do with them, Alan?”

“Plough them under,” said Alan briefly.

“Just so, plough them under,” repeated Earani. “Dick, has your world not yet recognised that there are weeds of humanity as well as of vegetation?”

“That is no parallel, Earani. I say it was a crime — a hideous crime. There is no more justification for it than there would be for killing a man to steal his money. The fact that it was done on a colossal scale only makes it so many million times worse.”

“You can find no palliation?” Her statuesque calm was a strange contrast to Barry’s agitation.

“None. It is unthinkable.”

Still unmoved, Earani said quietly, “Tell me, Dick, this country of yours you are so proud of — who owned it before your people came here, if I remember rightly, not much more than a hundred years ago?”

Barry stopped abruptly in his restless pacing as though the question had petrified him. Earani sat upright, and pointing an accusing finger at him. “Answer me honestly, Dick. Have you ever once in your life given a single thought of remorse for the thousands of helpless, if useless, aborigines that were exterminated by the ruthless white invasion? Yet can you honestly declare that you think they should have been left in undisturbed possession? Morally, your fathers and you are on the same plane with Odi.”

Barry threw back his head and answered defiantly, “Again, Earani, the parallel is not just. In this case it was the survival of the fittest.”

“Sophistry, Dick, sophistry. The Death Ray, or rum and disease — aye! or firearms — what difference? The result is the same. Your people are in undisturbed possession of their land, and they are exterminated. Read your own world’s histories. Your international morals are the morals of the jungle. Brute strength and nothing but brute strength, spells safety. Alan, what do you say?”

“’Pon my word,” said Dundas, who had listened half-amused and half-serious, “I don’t think we in Australia can throw any stones at Odi, neither can anyone in North America, for that matter. The fact that the people of the United States imported a worse problem doesn’t affect the fact that they settled their first one a la Odi, although they were more gradual about it.”

“Do you support the theory of the Death Ray, Dun?” asked Barry, perturbed by Alan’s defection.

Dundas drove his hands deep into his pockets and leaned back in his chair. “Dick, honest Injun! I feel that the world would be better and cleaner if some of its races were to become extinct. Take, for instance, the gentle Turk. I’ll say this, that if I knew of an impending catastrophe that would wipe the whole of that race off the face of the earth, and could prevent it, I wouldn’t.”

“You mean you think you wouldn’t,” put in Barry, “whereas if it came to the point you would probably do it if it cost you your life.”

“I’ll be hanged if I would, Dick. No, I mean it absolutely. I would think no more of it than you would of cutting into a malignant growth. You talk of parallels. Well, the Turk is a cancer on humanity, and nothing else. He would have been wiped out fifty years ago if the big nations were not afraid of one another.”

Here Earani interrupted. “Can you tell me the present proportion of black to white, Dick?”

Barry shrugged his shoulders. “Afraid I can’t,” and he looked inquiringly at Alan.

Dundas rose from his chair. “I can’t say, but I expect ‘Whittaker’ can. I had to get a copy to satisfy Earani’s appetite for facts and figures.” He took a volume from a casket and turned its pages rapidly. “Humph — here we are!” Then with his pencil he jotted figures on the margin of the page. “Here’s what I make of it. Total estimate of human races — One thousand six hundred millions approximately. Caucasian, six hundred and fifty millions, leaving a balance of about nine hundred and fifty millions coloured. Roughly five to three against the whites.”

Earani looked up. “You see, Dick, even now it is five to three, and the odds will go on increasing.”

Barry looked at her in dismay. “Earani, for God’s sake, say what is in your mind.”

She answered calmly. “Nothing as yet, Dick — but think — were Odi’s deed to be done again, would it better be done now or when those numbers were double, and when you think, remember too, Dick, there is no place in the world for the unfit.”

Barry shook his head. “My profession is saving life, not destroying it. Are there none amongst the whites who are unfit? If you follow your theory to its conclusion where does it stop?”

“We found the means to eradicate the unfit, even amongst the white races,” came the answer serenely. “But it took a man who could stamp his will on the world before it could be done. Dick, your ideas strike me as being absurd. You would hold in honour as the greatest of your citizens a soldier who would lead his countrymen to kill another people by hundreds of thousands and send as many of his own to their death, merely on account of an international squabble, right or wrong. He is a hero. A national demigod almost. But is he any better than Odi, or any different from him, who dared to save a civilisation? To my mind Odi is the better man. He had a reason for his death ray. As often as not your soldier is wrong in the cause he fights for. Even putting the best construction on his deeds he frees the world of an overburdening population, only the worst of it is that the finest type of man is killed in warfare, and the weeds are left to breed. Pity you couldn’t form your armies of the unfit.”

“Earani, I don’t surrender, I merely won’t argue with you any more,” and Barry sat down, pursing his lips sourly.

The woman walked to his side, and laid her hand lightly on his shoulder. “Wise boy, Dick,” she said gently. “Come, I must put you in a better humor. Why should we quarrel because millions of years ago some people died? Listen to this and forget your worries.” She moved to the keyboard, and a moment later a burst of heavenly music throbbed through the great gallery. It held the listening group spell-bound while it lasted, and when the last grand notes had echoed away there were tears in the eyes of the two men. There was a long silence, as though no one cared to break the spell, until Earani spoke. “That was one of our greatest choirs and the work of one of our master musicians. Tell me, Dick, was the price we paid for that, and all it means, too great? That is but an infinitesimal part of what we owe Odi?”

Barry made no answer, but rose to leave, and at a gesture from Earani, Alan followed his example.

When they walked from the shed to the homestead that evening Dick spoke very soberly. “Dun, God send we have not done an evil thing for the world. If I could read her mind my own might be easier.”

“I don’t think we have cause to worry, Dick, though I’ll admit she looks at things from a different point of view. Earani would be influenced by us in her actions.”

“I’m not thinking so much of Earani as of that cold-blooded devil in the Himalayas. How far is he likely to be influenced by us?”

“Sufficient to the day — let us hope that Andax can’t be found. It seems a pretty tall order to me.”

Barry shook his head. “Dun, if Earani says she can do a thing, she can do it, and I’m perfectly certain that she can and will resurrect that damned friend of her youth, and, what’s more, we can’t stop her.”

Erle Cox, Out of the Silence, Melbourne: Robertson and Mullens, 1947 (first published 1925), pages 240-253

[Editor: Replaced the double quotation mark before “Was it the work” with a single quotation mark. Added a quotation mark after “salvation of the civilised races.”.]

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