“Colonel,” I said, “pray tell me what is this building.”
“This,” said he, “is the new state penitentiary. It is one of twelve, all alike.”
“You surprise me,” I replied. “Surely the criminal element must have increased enormously.”
“Yes, indeed,” he assented; “under the Reform regime, which began in your day, crime became so powerful, bold and fierce that arrests were no longer possible and the prisons then in existence were soon overcrowded. The state was compelled to erect others of greater capacity.”
“But, Colonel,” I protested, “if the criminals were too bold and powerful to be taken into custody, of what use are the prisons? And how are they crowded?”
He fixed upon me a look that I could not fail to interpret as expressing a doubt of my sanity. “What!” he said, “is it possible that the modern penology is unknown to you? Do you suppose we practice the antiquated and ineffective method of shutting up the rascals? Sir, the growth of the criminal element has, as I said, compelled the erection of more and larger prisons. We have enough to hold comfortably all the honest men and women of the state. Within these protecting walls they carry on all the necessary vocations of life excepting commerce. That is necessarily in the hands of the rogues, as before.”
“Venerated representative of Reform,” I exclaimed, wringing his hand with effusion, “you are Knowledge, you are History, you are the Higher Education! We must talk further. Come, let us enter this benign edifice; you shall show me your dominion and instruct me in the rules. You shall propose me as an inmate.”
I walked rapidly to the gate. When challenged by the sentinel, I turned to summon my instructor. He was nowhere visible. I turned again to look at the prison. Nothing was there: desolate and forbidding, as about the broken statue of Ozymandias.
The lone and level sands stretched far away.
The desire for life everlasting has commonly been affirmed to be universal—at least that is the view taken by those unacquainted with Oriental faiths and with Oriental character. Those of us whose knowledge is a trifle wider are not prepared to say that the desire is universal nor even general.
If the devout Buddhist, for example, wishes to “live always,” he has not succeeded in very clearly formulating the desire. The sort of thing that he is pleased to hope for is not what we should call life, and not what many of us would care for.
When a man says that everybody has “a horror of annihilation,” we may be very sure that he has not many opportunities for observation, or that he has not availed himself of all that he has. Most persons go to sleep rather gladly, yet sleep is virtual annihilation while it lasts; and if it should last forever the sleeper would be no worse off after a million years of it than after an hour of it. There are minds sufficiently logical to think of it that way, and to them annihilation is not a disagreeable thing to contemplate and expect.