To an observer from a distant planet the whole movement would have appeared trivial. There was probably no point at which land either sank or rose to one five-thousandth of the earth's diameter. But water and land were so nearly at one level that the slightest tremor was sufficient either to drain or to flood them.
The surface trembled, and was still, and the Himalayas were untroubled, and the great tableland of Central Asia was still behind them, but the tides lapped the foothills to the south, and India was no more, and China a forgotten dream.
Once before the earth had trembled along the volcanic fissure which was then the fertile Eden of the human race, and a hundred legends and the Mediterranean were its mementoes.
Now it sank again, slightly and gently, along the same path. It was as though it breathed in its sleep, but scarcely turned, and Southern Europe was gone, and Germany a desolation that the seas had swept over.
Ocean covered the plain of the Mississippi, and broke against the barrier of the Rockies. The next day it receded, leaving the naked wrecks of a civilization that a night had ended.
There were different changes southward, where the Saharan desert wrinkled into the greatest mountain range that the world had seen, and the sea creatures of the West Atlantic learnt in bewildered death that the ocean had failed them.
In the Indian tropics a hundred leagues of sea-slime that had known the weight of mile-deep waters steamed naked to a torrid sun.
The subsidence of the first night must have been comparatively local. It was nothing more than an extension of the Mediterranean basin, which had flooded the lower lands of Spain and Italy and part of France.
In England, as in Europe generally, the intervening day had been used in such attempts at escape as may be made by a cockroach in the middle floor when the lantern finds it.
The sea offered nothing, for the western coast was piled with the wreckage of the North Atlantic and the Irish Sea. There were no ships coming to the southern ports that day. There had been none in sight when its dawn had risen. The night-wind had swept the Channel clear, and if any had outlived the gale, which is not to be reasonably supposed, they must have been hurried far to south, where wind and water poured into the vortex.
The air offered a slight hope for the few who could avail themselves of its possibility. When the wind lessened, during the day, there were those who tried it, and may have lived, if they were able to find a place of safety before the storm resumed, but at best they could not have been many, and their hope was slender.
To most there came the blind instinct of northward flight, and as the pressure of the gale slackened, it had crowded many of the main roads with burdened stumbling crowds, or jammed them with motor vehicles which could make little progress against uprooted trees, and fallen poles, and blown wreckage, which confronted every mile of the smooth surfaces on which they had been accustomed to the high speed for which they paid so frequently in the deaths of their drivers, and in the slaughter of their fellow-men.
Now, when they felt that speed would have been their salvation, they could not gain it; but it would have availed them nothing. When the horror of the next night was over, Scotland, Wales, and all the heights of Northern England had disappeared forever. Only, by some freak of fate, the cause of which is beyond knowing, some portions of the midland plain were still above the ocean level, with unimpaired fertility, and some life upon them. Larger portions had been drowned by the wild floods that receded when all life had ended, and the salt-soaked fields could only return in the course of gradual years to a reduced fertility. There was little of human life that remained, even on the higher ground; for those whom fire and storm had spared fled northward, to their own undoing, and few from the pasture-country to southward (one of the least populated portions of the England of that time) had had the good fortune to come so far, and no farther; but life there was, both of beast and of man—life equally released from its accustomed slavery, lawless, confused, and incompetent.
The wild creatures of the woods adapted themselves the more readily to the new conditions. The change was only one of reduced caution, or of an added boldness. Man had ceased to count for the moment, and the fox walked where he would. To the rabbit it meant only that, if he had one foe the less, the others slaughtered with an assured impunity. To his undrowsing watchfulness it made no change at all.
Rats increased in the deserted ruins, and the owls fed freely.
The domesticated animals adjusted themselves more easily than their tyrants. The cat hunted now for food, as she had done for sport before. Sheep broke out from ruined fences, or where a tree fell in the hedgerow, and gathered into larger flocks, and rams fought for their leadership. The lambs were grown, and the roaming dogs had not yet combined to molest the flocks. Within a week, the sheep had collected on the high open fields; and a herd of horses had gathered in the meadows of a river which still flowed on its shortened course—horses that wheeled with a flash of sudden hooves if a strange sound startled, or a strange object stirred in the grass as the wind found it, and came round in a galloped arc with tossing necks and lifted tails, to face the cause of their flurry. They were a strangely assorted troop of mare and gelding, of every size and color, from shire horse to pony, absurdly led by a bright-eyed, half-grown yearling, who took the unchallenged right of the only male among them.
Herds of cattle lurked in the woods, and splashed in shady pools; the pigs, too, were in the woods, to which the sows that roamed loosely round the farm buildings, finding that the morning meal was no more forthcoming, had led their hungry litters. They lay also in the potato fields, and would find their way later into the corn and to the acorn harvest, so that they ran no risk of scarcity, and before the winter came they would have worn the rings from their noses, and be able to burrow for a score of succulent roots that the woods could offer, as their free-roaming ancestors had done in the England of an earlier millennium.
Men fared more hardly. It was upon their artificial environment that the storm spent its force. There were many thousands whom this environment destroyed, quite literally, beneath its falling débris. Those who escaped from such catastrophe were less capable than the beasts they despised, either to find a temporary security, or to provide for their bodily necessities when the storm subsided. They had used their boasted intelligence to evade the natural laws of their beings, and they were to reap the fruits of their folly. They had degraded their purblind and toothless bodies, until even those which were still reasonably sound in heart and lungs, in liver and kidneys, were incapable of sustained exertion without continual food, or of retaining warmth without the clumsy encumbrance of the skins of superior animals, or by the weaving of various vegetable substances.
Every natural law that their lives had denied and their lips derided was now released to scourge them. They had despised the teaching of the earth that bore them, and her first care was given to her more obedient offspring.
It was not only that they were physically ill-adapted for life on the earth's surface, but the minds of most of them were empty of the most elementary knowledge of their physical environment.
Released in a day from the most elaborate system of mutual slavery that the world has known, they were unused to the exercise of mental initiative, or to independent action. They were accustomed to settle every issue of life, not by the application of any basic rules, or instinctive preferences, or by the exercise of reason, but under the blind guidance of their specialized fellow-men, or by assiduous imitation of the procedure of those around them. The great majority of them were engaged in repetition work which had not originated in their own minds, and made no call upon them for analysis, decision, or judgment.
Their perceptions were blinded by physical deficiency. They were incapable of clear thought, or of decisive action.
They were under a further disadvantage, which was not less serious because of a less obvious kind.
They had been restrained from many evil (and some admirable) courses, not by experience of their probable consequences, nor by observation, nor tradition, but by laws which exacted utterly illogical penalties. When the fear of these penalties was removed, they reacted variously to instincts undisciplined except by a restraint which no longer operated.
It had been a natural correlative of such conditions that where there had been no law to coerce them they (or at least many among them) had lacked the self-control needed for the dignity or even the decencies of physical existence, and had developed communally concealed habits which would have appalled the instincts of any cleanly beast. The bodies of many of them were rotten from the contagious horrors of the degradation in which they had lived, and the deluge did no more than hasten them to a swifter and more seemly end than they would otherwise have experienced.
The bodies of many others had been mutilated by expert practitioners, who had removed portions of decayed or diseased organs, or glands, or other parts, of the uses of which they were ignorant. Their enfeebled vitality had been subjected to the attacks of various kinds of external and internal parasites, from the effects of which many thousands died every year. But the warnings of these endemic diseases had been unheeded, or misread, and they had either striven to defeat them by operation or inoculation, or resigned themselves to them, as to the effect of a natural law, rather than attempt to recapture the conditions of life and health which would render them superior to the attacks of such vermin.
Even the evidence supplied by their domesticated animals, which developed a corresponding series of diseases and infirmities, as their conditions of life were approximated to those of their masters, was disregarded. The pain and danger without which the degenerate bodies of their women were incapable of procreation was accepted as an unavoidable evil, although a study of the experiences of the various breeds of their domestic sheep would have supplied them with knowledge of the conditions under which these dangers or discomforts would have been largely avoided, even under the conditions of existence to which they had descended.
There was scarcely a man of all their millions who was not warned of these evils in a parable which had reached them from an earlier world, but they had united to deride it, some as a literal episode of primeval history, and others as an idle tale.
It remained to discover what would be brought to birth from the wrecks of such a civilization, when the fallen girders of its erections had rusted, and the coal-smoke cleared, and the fresh sea-air blew over the recovered greenness of the fields that they had once polluted.