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ROBERT DUNCAN MILNE

PLUCKED FROM THE BURNING

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(A SEQUEL TO "INTO THE SUN")


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First published in
The Argonaut, San Franciscso, California, 16 December 1882

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Version Date: 2019-10-27
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Illustration

Robert Duncan Milne (1844-1899)


THE Scottish-born author Robert Duncan Milne, who lived and worked in San Fransisco, may be considered as one of the founding-fathers of modern science-fiction. He wrote 60-odd stories in this genre before his untimely death in a street accident in 1899, publishing them, for the most part, in The Argonaut and San Francisco Examiner.

In its report on Milne's demise (he was struck by a cable-car while in a state of inebriation) The San Fransico Call of 17 December 1899 summarised his life as follows:


"Mr. Milne was the son of the late Rev. George Gordon Milne, M.A., F.R.S.A., for forty years incumbent of St. James Episcopal Church, Cupar-Fife. and nephew of Duncan James Kay, Esq., of Drumpark, J.P. and D.L. of the Stewartry of Kirkcudbright, through which side of the house, and by maternal ancestry (through the Breadalbane family), he was lineally descended from King Robert the Bruce.

"He received his primary education at Trinity College, Glenalmond, where he distinguished himself by gaining first the Skinner scholarship, which he held for a period of three years; second, the Knox prize for Latin verse, the competition for which is open to a number of public echools in England and Ireland, and thirdly, the Buccleuch gold medal as senior and captain of the school, of the eleven of which he was also captain.

"From Glenalmond Mr. Milne proceeded to Oxford, where he further distinguished himself by taking honors, also rowing in his college eight and playing in its eleven.

"After leaving the university he decided to visit California, a country then beginning to be more talked about than ever, and he afterward made the Pacific Coast his residence. In 1874 Mr. Milne invented and exhibited in the Mechanics' Fair at San Francisco a working model of a new type of rotary steam engine, which was pronounced to be the wonder of the fair.

"While in California Mr. Milne for a long time gained distinction as a writer of short stories and verse which appeared in current periodicals. The character of his work was well defined by Mrs. Gertrude Atherton, who said:

"'He has an extravagant imagination, but under it is a reassuring and scientific mind. He takes such a premise as a comet falling into the sun, and works out a terribly realistic series of results: or he will invent a drama for Saturn which might well have grown out of that planet's conditions. His style is so good and so convincing that one is apt to lay down such a story as the former, with an anticipation of nightmare, if comets are hanging about. His sense of humor and literary taste will always stop him the right side of the grotesque.'"


Illustration

A caricature showing Robert Duncan Milne and a San Francisco cable-car.


PLUCKED FROM THE BURNING

"WHERE am I?" I exclaimed, as I rubbed my eyes and looked around me, gazing with mingled curiosity and awe on the unaccustomed objects which I saw.

There responded a long-bearded and grey-serged man in an unknown tongue, as he bent over the pallet on which I was lying, and proceeded to anoint my skin (I perceived that I was naked) with an unguent that recalled the fancied perfume of some oriental nard that I had read of, but could not at the moment identify. I tried to raise my head from the pillow, but the muscles refused to respond to the action of the will.

Helplessly I dropped my eyes to the inferior portion of my frame and beheld, with sickening apprehension that I was scarred and blistered from neck to foot. At the same time I perceived that I was lying upon robes or sheets of the finest silk. Such extraordinary care contrasted strangely with the paltry surroundings of the chamber, and such luxury applied to myself—for the extent of it I could appreciate—strangely with the seemingly ascetic poverty of the person who stood beside me. I had no difficulty, however, in determining, from the architectural points of the chamber, and the features, dress, and intonation of my companion, that I was in some Mongolian settlement—how or where was an inconceivable mystery. Memory, for the moment, was a blank.

Suddenly a flood of thought surged through my brain. In an instant I recalled the events of that fearful day in San Francisco—the ascent in the balloon, the aspect of the ruined city, the tragic death of the doctor, and my own imminent destruction when I became senseless.

How long I had lain in a comatose condition, I, of course, do not know; but, judging from the extraordinary distance traversed in the interim, either the time must have been considerable, or I must have been hurled with inconceivable velocity, in the heart of the storm, to where I now lay.

To cross an ocean and hundreds of leagues of continent in a condition of insensibility does not fall to the lot of everyone, and my astonishment may be imagined when I at last discovered how I had been found by the monks of the Buddhist monastery of Badid upon the northern slope of the Himalayas, on a plateau near by, lying apparently dead, near the fragments of what had once been the balloon and the car.

My theory is that my balloon was caught up by a body of heated air of vast volume, when about to plunge into the fiery abyss, and that this body of air, naturally rising to an upper stratum, was, in its turn, pressed forward by an air-current of tremendous velocity, naturally following the westward course of the sun. My strange appearance and the extraordinary manner in which I had reached their neighborhood, coupled with the recent tremendous spectacle which they had witnessed in the nocturnal heavens—for by the time the sun had risen upon Central Asia the force of the comet's collision had been spent, and the heat experienced at this altitude had been barely sufficient to melt a few feet of the everlasting snows—the entire circumstances attending my advent among them, I repeat, had caused them to regard me with a certain superstitious awe, and to treat me with the consideration I have already referred to.

So far as this portion of our earth was concerned, the fierce and fiery cataclysm which had wrought such ruin upon those regions subjected to the full potency of the blazing orb had been represented only by the terrible auroral display, which, according to the monks, had traveled round the half circuit of the heavens from west to east in blood-red anger, but had faded away before the first beams of morning brightened the sky. They regarded it, I also learned, as a presage of the second coming of the original Buddha.


THE seclusion of the Tibetan highlanders is so great, and their intercourse with the outside world so limited and infrequent, that it was weeks before the vague and terrible rumors which were wafted faintly from the lowlands of China began to impress them more strongly with the possible truth of the terrible story which I had attempted to convey to them by signs and broken expressions.

Day by day the desire became more intense within me to revisit the haunts of men, and learn the worst regarding the catastrophe. I had already acquired, during my two months' sojourn at the monastery, a sufficient acquaintance with the Tibetan tongue to enable me to express myself upon ordinary topics with considerable fluency, and my representations exercised such an effect upon Dchiamdcham, one of the most enlightened of the monks, that he yielded to my solicitations and consented to persuade the rest to make a journey of exploration. As by degrees I gained greater command of the language, and Dchiamdcham and myself managed to reach the intellects of the monks, blinded as they were by ignorance and prejudice, and blurred by superstition, it became evident that their curiosity was becoming piqued as fast as their feelings were becoming interested. When the spring opened, and the snows melted away upon the surrounding slopes, they were ready to accompany me on an expedition to the plains.

Dchiamdcham had not in vain employed his arguments and exhausted his store of rhetoric in convincing his brethren that one of their main duties lay, in a case of this sort, in assisting mankind. Accordingly, a troop of thirty of the youngest members of the society were drafted for the expedition, the rest, including the older and weaker of the brethren, being left to guard the several interests of the fraternity. The villages and settlements we passed upon our way for the first two days were tenanted by natives who repeated the strange tales we had previously heard.

A day or two later, after crossing many spurs and mountain ranges, we debouched upon the Valley of the Kinsha Kiang, or, as it is called during its lower course, the Yang-tze Kiang. As we gradually descended from the higher plateaus we entered regions where the vegetation was parched and lifeless. Houses and villages were either desolate or tenanted only by half-famished creatures who answered our questions in a dazed and bewildered way. Despair seemed to have settled on them. Their flocks and herds seemed scarcely able to sustain existence upon the scant and desiccated herbage. A calamity which they were able neither to comprehend nor cope with had fallen upon them and deprived them of heart and courage.

We had remarked for the past few days that the climate had changed to a greater degree than would, under ordinary circumstances, have been the case. Humidity was its prevailing feature. Dense cloud-masses rolled over our heads and obscured the sun. As we neared the Chinese lowlands rain fell almost incessantly. The same scenes met our gaze which we had encountered in the more mountainous country, only intensified in their ghastly significance. Dead and decaying bodies of men, women, children, and domestic animals lay promiscuously about at every turn, and in every conceivable posture, as if they had been stricken by some fell pestilence.

As we gazed, the heavens shed sluggish rain-drops as though weeping. It was only too convincing, the awful thought that here, at the western limit of the vast realm of China, we stood at the gates of a tremendous cemetery, rich with the steaming remains of hundreds of millions of human creatures, and countless myriads of species of the animal and vegetable kingdom.


AFTER two weeks of travel we reached the plains. No living thing was there. The earth, however, was clad in verdure. In some mysterious manner it was evident that the germs of certain forms of vegetable life had survived. Wheat, rice, poppies, and weeds grew up together in luxurious confusion, as though sown broadcast over the land. The scene reminded me of some vast Western prairie. The croaking of frogs, heard by night, proved that, at all events, this form of amphibious life had survived the elemental crisis. Fish, too, abounded in the rivers.

It is needless to relate at length the details of our progress to the sea. In the course of six weeks we reached the seaport of Macao on the southern coast. Here everything was wrecked, ruined, and scorched, as though subjected to a blast-furnace. Merchandise and commodities of all sorts were baked into utter desiccation.

The shipping in the harbor, where it had not been absolutely wrecked or sunk, rose and fell with the pulsations of the waves, planks and timbers yawning and starting from their places. Still, this city had not experienced the same terrible fate that had befallen San Francisco. The force of the convulsion had been spent before its effects had reached this quarter of the globe, though so far as animal life was concerned the results had been identical in both cases.

An iron steamer was found in the harbor which it was possible to refit, and, after several weeks' work, she was rendered seaworthy, while her engines had not suffered materially from the heat. Having stocked this vessel with fuel from a coal-yard whose contents had been converted into excellent coke by the solar action, and a sufficent cargo of rice, also luckily found but little parched, in the month of September, about a year after the cometary crisis, the vessel, manned by this strange crew of amateur sailors, and under such singular auspices, steamed slowly out of the harbor of Macao with the determination of visiting other portions of the earth.


THE vessel was called the Euphemia, and her crew numbered thirty-one, all told. The monk Dchiamdcham, as was natural, was chosen captain of the expedition, while the control of the engine-room was assigned to myself. Luckily, for the first week or more we encountered no severe weather, by which time the monks had opportunity to acquire the use of their sea-legs, and to make themselves familiar with the unaccustomed duties of sailor-life. Their duties naturally consisted in keeping things clean, and attending to the furnaces rather than in seamanship, though Dchiamdcham's capacity, combined with such little instruction as I was able to offer, gradually taught them the use of the ropes and the management of the sails (some of which we had fortunately found uninjured), which was an essential requirement for the prosecution of our enterprise, as we could not tell when we might ever fall in with another supply of coal.

It had been a moot question in which direction we should travel after leaving Macao. Prudence had suggested to me that our wisest course would be westward, to those Asiatic countries which had presumably escaped the full effects of the elemental visitation. We accordingly steered, as nearly as I could calculate, in a southerly direction for the Indian Archipelago, hoping sooner or later to find the Straits of Anjer of the Gilolo Passage. But the fates had decreed otherwise.


FOR the first ten days we experienced mild and favorable weather, and our dead reckoning, as well as the increasing declination of the Pole Star, showed that we were approaching the Islands, when we encountered one of those typhoons which are of by no means rare occurrence on the China Sea. By the time that the violence of the gale was spent we had been driven far eastward, over the waters of the Pacific—how far, we had no means of ascertaining. In the absence of a chronometer and almanac, it was impossible to approximate the longitude.

From the sun's meridian altitude, I determined that we were about twenty degrees north of the equator; also, that, judging from an estimated dead reckoning, the nearest land in our proposed course was the Sandwich Islands.

The desire was strong within me to revisit California and learn the full extent of the catastrophe I had witnessed from the balloon. Not many days after, the eastern horizon resolved itself into a long line of cloud, and I had no difficulty in recognizing the contour of the Coast Range Mountains to the south of the town of Monterey. The aspect of the beech, of the headlands, of the white surf of the bay, was perfectly familiar, and the brown appearance of plain and highland was just as might have been expected at that season of the year.

The sea was destitute of ships. No sea-birds were to be seen; nor did the white and glistening houses at either extremity of the bay suggest the looks of Monterey and Santa Cruz. Instead of this, irregular ruins seemed to mark the sites of these well- known watering places. On the afternoon of the following day, we sighted the Golden Gate. It was a calm and cloudless day—such a day as, a year ago, would have called out innumerable vehicles to the ocean beach. We steamed slowly north, past the spot where the Ocean House had once been. The sudden turning of a point brought us in full view of the Cliff House, or rather the spot it had once occupied, for no building of any kind was to be seen. The outline of Sea Rock rose from the water, with the spray dashing white against its sides, but the glossy colony that had once sported there was gone.

No difference was apparent in the bare and russet aspect of the bluffs overlooking the entrance to the bay. It is true that there were no signs of living vegetation visible, but that was normal for California in summer time. Our vessel steamed onward to the harbor, and came abreast of Fort Point. No fierce bombardment could have produced a spectacle of completer ruin. The fiery heat which failed to melt rocks, could nevertheless crumble mortar and cement to powder, and a shapeless pile of brick, with here and there a mass or iron showing through it, was all that remained of that solid structure once bristling with heavy ordnance. The officers' quarters and the Presidio barracks presented a similar spectacle of desolation. Alcatraz was also dismantled, while of the houses and streets which covered the hills between the Presidio and the city scarce a vestige could be seen.

At length we steamed round Black Point and came in full view of the site of the city. The destruction that had fallen upon the ponderous brick fortifications had visited with redoubled force the wooden structures which composed the bulk of the streets. Only the lines of the broadest thoroughfares were defined. Those running east and west from the wharves to the hills were indistinguishable. Piles of charred timber demonstrated the extent and intensity of the conflagration. The wharves were burned nearly to the water's edge, the tops of the piles, however, showing that the tide was lower now than at the time of the catastrophe. The shipping seemed to have shared the general fate, as not a vessel was to be seen, though the bay, with its islands and the shores lining it, looked as normal as ever.

At sundown we cast anchor in the stream about a mile from what was once the city front, Dchiamdcham and myself determining to go ashore in the morning and inspect the ruined city. After dark I was pacing the deck, when a sight from the direction of the city arrested my attention. There, in the heart of it, among the ruins, shone and twinkled a light. I mentally endeavored to locate it, and came to the conclusion that it originated in the neighborhood of Montgomery or Kearny Streets, and in the line of California or Pine. My surprise was still further increased when I presently beheld a second, but much dimmer light, leaving the first and traveling slowly from it. Then this light stopped, shone for a few minutes, and finally disappeared. Evidently, I reasoned, those lights indicated the presence of human beings.


ACCORDINGLY, next morning, Dchiamdcham and myself left the ship's side in our only boat, and landed where the Oakland ferry depot, at the foot of Market Street, used to stand. After mooring the boat to the remnant of a pile formerly belonging to one of the slips, we clambered over the debris of the railroad offices and succeeded in gaining firm footing on the shore. The open area in front of the company's offices, where the various city cars converge to a terminus, presented a space comparatively free from debris, but the lines of all the streets running cityward, from Sacramento to Pacific, were literally choked and rendered impassable by charred and formless ruins. Market Street alone, by reason of its great breadth, was practicable for a pedestrian, though even on this wide thoroughfare, blocks of masonry from the lofty warehouses which had once adorned it, necessitated either climbing over or making a circuit around them.

We pushed on as best we could, Dchiamdcham and myself, till we reached the intersection of Montgomery Street. Here our farther progress was arrested by a gigantic mass of masonry which had once composed the Palace Hotel. Such a pile of awful and indescribable confusion as was here witnessed in the destruction of one of the largest edifices on earth struck dismay to the soul of even the philosophical Dchiamdcham. The material of the vast rectangle had toppled over an area of at least two acres, choking not only its own proper ground, but also the surrounding thoroughfares for many yards. Masses of charred furniture and rusty iron were dispersed through the heterogeneous pile, while here and there a ghastly skeleton seemed striving to free itself from its encumbering tomb, or a fleshless skull grinned mockingly through the environment of a blackened window-sash like a hideous painting from its frame. Even as we looked, the sudden lapse of a crumbling fragment frightened from their lairs a horde of sleek and whiskered rats, which glared at us with keen eyes, as though undecided whether to hazard an attack. Life, such as it was, had evidently survived in some of the forms best suited to the exigencies of the case—a terrible travesty on the doctrine of the survival of the fittest.

Sick at heart and shuddering at the spectacle, we turned abruptly to the right, and groped our way as best we could down the line of Montgomery Street. Past what I recognized as some mullions from the Masonic Temple at the corner of Post Street; past the spot where once stood the Lick House; past the shapeless piles of brick and stone which once belonged to the Occidental Hotel and Russ House blocks, we neared the intersection of Pine Street.

Here a peculiar sound arrested my attention. I stopped to listen. It was a regular, monotonous, dull, clinking sound. I had heard it thousands of times before, and it thrilled my soul to hear it. I clutched Dchiamdcham by the arm and dragged him on over a pile of rubbish that lay in front of what had once been Nevada Block. As we gained the top of the pile I beheld a sight so unaccountable, so utterly at variance with my surroundings and my preconceived notions of what I might expect, that I stood transfixed and speechless. There, directly on the ruins of the Nevada Bank, I saw two men in conventional miner's garb; one sitting on a convenient block and leaning on his pick, the other standing and wielding the same implement to the sound I had already heard.

An involuntary exclamation of surprise escaped me, at which the men looked up. Their astonishment was equal to our own, and mutual explanations were in order. It seemed that these men had been working on a shift in the fourteen-hundred-foot level of one of the Comstock mines on the day of the cometary catastrophe. At sunrise, when the heat became more oppressive, a signal had been given from the surface for the miners to ascend. These two men were working in an out-of-the-way drift at the time, and did not hear the signal. At noon they discovered the departure of their comrades, but could not divine the reason. Finding themselves alone in the mine, they signaled to be taken up. No notice was taken of their signal, and next day, becoming thoroughly alarmed, they had perilously climbed up the bucket-rope from level to level till they gained the surface. Nothing but corpses of the dead and ruined buildings met their gaze, nor could they account for the condition of things by any natural means. The very accident of having been forgotten in the mine saved them; for the heat there, always oppressive, had not been materially augmented at such a depth below the surface of the earth.

By the time they emerged the elemental crisis was over. Bewildered, they wandered forth to find the country ghastly with death. Instinctively they sought the mountains, and found upon the higher slopes of the Sierra Nevadas a hunter's hut that had survived the melting of the everlasting snows. They discovered, too, that a few more beings, like themselves, had survived what they now perceived to have been a natural convulsion, though they could not, of course, have any idea of its extent. They subsisted during the winter on roots and ground-animals which had been protected by snow. A potato patch similarly protected had luckily been found.

Early in the year they struck out for San Francisco where, in spite of the ghastly surroundings, the old mining passion seized them, and they determined to prospect the basement of the Nevada Bank, trusting to luck for the means of hereafter utilizing what they might acquire. But they could not live without food, and several months had now been expended in trips to the mountains to accomplish the result of a thriving potato patch in what had formerly been a millionaire's garden. They had scarcely commenced operations on our arrival, and immediately offered us equal shares in the recovered bullion if we would assist them and afterward carry them off.


THE extraordinary recital of these men convinced me that, after all, the destructive effects of the conflagration were not as wide-spread as, at first sight, they would seem to be. It would, however, be tedious to relate the explorations we made in this and other countries. The general result was the same, though details varied, of course, with conditions. Suffice it to say that to-day, at a distance of ten years from that disastrous day, in the summer of 1893, the earth smiles and blossoms once more, though they are the smiles and blossoms of a wilderness. Our men and our women are fewer, but they are simpler, handsomer, and hardier. Our domestic animals and our cultivated crops follow the same rule. We have no arts or sciences, for we have no use for them. Dchiamdcham and his brother monks have forsaken asceticism in view of the novel requirements of life, and though we follow no formulated religion, and have no laws, we are all good, because there is no interest in being bad.

UTOPIA, 1893.


THE END


Roy Glashan's Library
Non sibi sed omnibus
Administered by Matthias Kaether and Roy Glashan
Go to Home Page
This work is out of copyright in countries with a copyright
period of 70 years or less, after the year of the author's death.
If it is under copyright in your country of residence,
do not download or redistribute this file.
Original content added by RGL (e.g., introductions, notes,
RGL covers) is proprietary and protected by copyright.