Selections from _The Last Man_ by Jean-Baptiste Cousin de Grainville

from Grainville, The Last Man, or Omergarus and Syderia,
A Romance in Futurity

[1806 London transl.]

[from Chapter I:]

NEAR the ruins of Palmyra is a solitary cavern, so much dreaded by the Syrians, that they denominated it the Cavern Death. No man had ever dared to enter it without instantly receiving the punishment of his temerity. It is said that some intrepid Frenchmen, venturing to penetrate this place with arms in their hands, were all slain, and at the returning dawn their limbs were found scattered about the desert. When the nights are peaceful and serene, dreadful groans and tumultuous shrieks issue from the cavern. Sometimes it vomits forth volumes of flame and smoke, the earth shakes, and the ruins of Palmyra are rocked about like the waves of the ocean.

I had travelled over Africa, visited the coasts of the Red Sea, and traversed Palestine. Influenced by some secret and unknown inspiration, I was desirous of beholding that superb city where Zenobia formerly reigned, and more particularly that awful cavern which was supposed to be the abode of Death. I repaired there, attended by several Syrians. Its aspect had nothing terrific: the entrance, shaded over by the thick foliage of the wild vine, invited the traveller to rest himself beneath its cooling shelter. No monster guarded the passage; the terror which it inspired had rendered it inaccessible. . . .

. . . Suddenly I lost the use of my external faculties; my feet denied their office, and became fixed to the ground, like a statue. The air I was inhaling failed, and I felt as if I had been in a void space, where, existing without the power of action, I enjoyed entire repose. A pleasure unknown to human nature, and so exquisite that it surpassed the softest voluptuousness, insensibly overcame me. In an instant after, the thick gloom by which I was enveloped vanished, the pure light of day burst upon my senses, and I beheld the various objects surrounding me.

I found myself in a circus erected with fragments of the hardest rock, opposite a sapphire throne, similar in form to the famous tripod of the priestesses of Apollo. This throne was canopied by gold and azure clouds, which some invisible power held suspended. A volatile flame, free from smoke, sparkled on an infinite number of tapers, and the walls were hung round with magic mirrors, wherein the eye discovered a boundless horizon. On the right, at the foot of an adamantine column, a robust old man was chained down; his shoulders were mutilated, and he looked with an expression of melancholy at the fragments of a broken clock and two bloody wings, lying on the ground.

Then, without the agency of voice, and by means incomprehensible to me, a Spirit who dwelt in the tripod said, "I have punished with death the rash mortals who, scorning the fear my dwelling almost universally inspires, have fancied their temerity could force its entrance. Fear not the same fate, thou whom I have called into my presence. I am the celestial Spirit to whom eternal futurity is known.-- All events are to me as if they were passed. Here Time is loaded with chains, and his empire destroyed.--In me behold the father of pre-science and dreams: I dictate oracles, and inspire celebrated politicians. The moment that a mortal has stained his hands with crime, I place before his sight the preparations of that chastisement which human justice has in store for the guilty, and, as an augmentation of his torment, I make him prophecy of his punishment and death.

"If I have conducted thy steps to this cavern, it was for the particular purpose of raising before thee the veil which conceals dark futurity from man, and to make thee a spectator of the scenes that terminate the destinies of the universe.-- In the magic mirrors thou beholdest around, the last man will stand revealed to thy sight. There, as on a stage, where the actors represent heroes who are no more, thou shalt hear him converse with the most illustrious personages of the last ages of the world, read in his soul his most secret thoughts, and be the witness and judge of his last actions.

"Think not that I intend by this spectacle merely to gratify the wishes of thy curiosity; --a nobler design actuates me. The last man will not have any posterity to know and admire him. I wish before his birth that he may live in memory: I desire to celebrate his struggles and victories over himself,--to tell what pains he will undergo to shorten those of human kind, to terminate the reign of time, and to hasten the day of everlasting recompence which the just have to expect; I wish to reveal to men this history, so deserving of their attention. . . . . But attend! The great representation now commences, and will pass rapidly before thee!"

The celestial Spirit having explained his intention, the air returned with a loud noise into the rotunda where I stood. I felt it again circulating through my veins, and restoring to my frame the motion it had lost. In a similar manner did every thing change and move around me. The flame of the tapers was agitated, the fine clouds which overshadowed the throne formed themselves into graceful shapes, the old man broke his chains, resumed his wings, and flew away.

Immediately in the magic mirror placed before me arose a superb palace, the work of the most powerful sovereigns on earth, but which the hand of Time was beginning to destroy. Under one of its peristyles, I beheld a woman advance slowly, whom, from her graceful motions and the charms of her heavenly form, I should not have taken for a mortal, had not the melancholy depicted on her countenance induced me to think that she was unhappy. A young man was walking by her side; his eyes were directed to the ground, and, like her, he appeared plunged in deep sorrow. A voice, which seemed to issue from the tripod, then spake thus:

"The young man thou seest is named Omegarus: Syderia is the appellation of the woman, whose beauty already interests thee. They are the last inhabitants of the universe. This is the pair thou art to celebrate. The enterprise will frequently confound thee, and, deeming it superior to thy powers, thou wilt be tempted to give it up. Meanwhile, do not despair.-- I will support thy courage; and, remember, there are no obstacles which may not be surmounted by perseverance."

As soon as the voice had informed me that in Omegarus and Syderia I beheld the precious remains of the last race of man, I felt myself affected like a traveller, who, under a heap of thorns and briars, discovers the ruins of a celebrated city. I gazed again on the last pair with avidity. While my attention was absorbed by Omegarus, I regretted that I could not bestow it on the enchanting Syderia, and I regretted that I could not combine both under the same glance. Already I conceived an interest in their fate; their sorrows affected my heart, and, anxious to learn the cause of their sadness, I invoked the celestial Spirit in these terms:

"O thou, who allowest me to contemplate the latter days of the earth, I give thee thanks for having selected me to celebrate Omegarus and Syderia. To this object will I devote the remainder of my days. Inspire me, therefore, with thy spirit, shed the illumination of prophecy into my soul, and bestow on my voice the fierce sound of the trumpet!--But what do I ask?--Shall I require thy assistance to command the attention of men, when I unfold to them what will be the destinies of the earth and of their descendants!

. . . . . . . . . . .

from CHAPTER II. [Omergarus speaks]

MY father Sprang from the most illustrious house in the world, and which might have been denominated the Family of Kings on earth. They sat on all the thrones raised in the two hemispheres. and governed at such remote periods, that history has not been able to preserve the names of that long list of sovereigns who have swayed the scepter in succession. My father inhabited this place, the abode of his ancestors. Towards the middle of his reign, he remained a king without subjects, and Europe declined till it became one vast solitude.

When I beheld the day, marriage had for the last twenty years ceased to procreate. Men, painfully advancing towards the term of their career, and not followed by a young posterity to fill up their place, imagined that in them the earth would behold its final race of inhabitants. My birth was a phenomenon that excited equal surprise and joy, and it was celebrated with the most splendid festivity. Women, it is said, came from the remotest extremities of Europe to obtain a sight of the Manchild, for thus I was named. My father took me up in his arms, exclaiming, in a tone of rapture, "The race of man will not yet be extinct!--O God!" continued he, offering me up to the Almighty, "if an error do not deceive me, this child will be the father of a new progeny!--To me thou hast not given him, but to the earth, to the universe, whose only hope he now becomes. Preserve his life; he is thine! To thee do I consecrate my son!"

That happiness continued but a short time. I remained the only son of the old age of Europe and her fecundity.-- I had scarcely attained the age when man begins to perfect himself, before I lost the parents who had given me life. Alone, in this place, I paid them the duties of sepulture, and dug with my own hands the grave wherein I deposited their cherished remains.

These rites over, I dragged on a solitary miserable existence, and experienced that a splendid palace, unenlivened by the charm of human society, is but a desolate waste. Weariness took possession of me, and my youth languished.

Tormented with the desire of imparting to my fellow-men my thoughts and sentiments, I resolved to abandon this solitude, and travel over Europe, to see if it yet contained a human being.