« ПредыдущаяПродолжить »
these gelid monsters were anciently as unknown as snow on the burning sand. Rivers once fluent as the winds, and as untameable by frost as the plunging cataract, are now bound in fetters of indissoluble ice. Numerous families of birds and beasts, which formerly spread themselves over the temperate latitudes, have been compelled to migrate, and are huddling under the equator; while various species, which required a glowing climate, have perished for lack of warmth. Let savage Winter thus continue to extend his sway, and the time may eventually arrive when
"Ocean itself no longer can resist
The binding fury; but, in all its rage
And then, if not previously, the few survivors of the human race may encounter a fate like that of Sir Hugh Willoughby and his comrades, whom the cold of the northern main
"Froze into statues; to the cordage glued
But still, may not man contrive to keep the enemy at bay for some period at least, and at the same time find compensation for the sun's waning lustre in the use of artificial fires and flames? Alas! another symptom of decrepitude has supervened. What is combustion ? Simply the union of some fuel element with another substance, mostly oxygen; but a union effected so energetically, that heat and light are freely disengaged. Let the combination, however, be lazily accomplished, and in that case no sensible caloric is evolved; still less is any visible flame exhibited. Now, considering that chemical action implies the exertion of force, not only at the moment when a change occurs, but also at every instant during which the connection continues, ought we to be astonished if we discovered that this same force was gradually decaying in vigour? Why should two substances rush together with as much intensity now as they did thousands of years ago? Oxygen, in particular, is the hardest-used element on the face of the globe. It combines with almost everything in creation. It forms a large part of the sea, the atmosphere, the solid rock, the metallic ore, the fruitful soil, the succulent vegetable, the living animal. It is wanted in almost every process in art and nature. It is called for whenever a creature breathes, a plant grows, a taper burns, or a weed decays. We might almost fancy that its atoms would long ago have been worked to death, or that, if not altogether exhausted of vigour, at any rate their powers would be seriously enfeebled after centuries of incessant service.
And just such a result we will suppose to have occurred. The oxygen of the air now combines so languidly with most combustibles, that the heat which the process affords is scarcely felt, and the light
which it ought to supply is still more rarely seen. If a common candle requires a week to consume, what sort of illumination can we expect from such an attenuated flame? If a bushel of coals, thrown upon a common fire will last for months, is it not vain to expect that the caloric engendered will yield the same quantity of comfort which it would have done when poured out in a concentrated form in the compass of a few hours? Small profit, indeed, can those who are destined to live in the earth's declining years, derive from the splendid felony of Prometheus! In an era when gunpowder burns as sluggishly as small coal, many arts must necessarily be crippled; for how can glass be fused, copper melted, or iron cast? And if all the operations of cookery must be conducted over a slow fire, and demand many weary waiting hours for their achievement, can we imagine that a sirloin of beef will be particularly tender when roasted, or a plum pudding remarkably dainty when boiled?
In many other ways, too, this decay of chemical force has led to melancholy results. Why is it that both men and beasts are constantly gasping for breath, and that the lungs appear to heave with such frightful labour? Why this universal asthma which seems to prevail? It is because the absorbent power of the blood for the vital oxygen of the atmosphere has been considerably reduced. The competency of this gas to combine with the effete carbon of the tissues has been so far diminished that longer and larger inspirations are needed, in order to secure the requisite amount of aëration. The balance once so happily established between man's pulmonary work and his physical resources --a balance so beautifully maintained that his organs played unconsciously under all ordinary circumstances, though any undue exertion instantly told upon his frame-has now been broken, and consequently much additional duty is thrown upon the lungs. These extra drafts upon the fountains of energy must of course tend to drain them at a premature age. The traveller who has quartered himself for a short time on the top of a high mountain, or who has simply slept on the Grands Mûlets for a night, knows how the toiling organs of respiration suffer whilst foraging for additional supplies of the life-sustaining element which the thin air so grudgingly affords. Besides, the blood when imperfectly ventilated, produces a mischievous effect upon the brain and the system at large. Stop the flow of oxygen to the lungs altogether, and the venous current, loaded with carbon, would poison the individual as certainly as if the heart were a reservoir of prussic acid or serpent's venom. Precisely to the same extent that the process of vital aëration is obstructed, must the delicate adjustments of body and mind be vitiated by the change. Hence, in the races who people the earth when its latter days have arrived, one prominent feature is
Some persons are painfully affected on these occasions. M. Forneret, who ascended Mont Blanc in 1802, said that the agony he endured "could only be compared to that of a man whose lungs were being violently torn from his chest."
the dreamy, drunken look they exhibit, the staggering gait they assume, and the sense of stupefaction which appears to becloud the brain.
Then, too, the atmosphere is labouring under another species of disorder. It has become well-nigh stagnant. The winds that blow are few and feeble. Instead of the bluff healthy breezes of olden times, there are only languid, timid zephyrs. And what is the result? The smoke collects over such large towns as still survive, increasing in density, until the air becomes almost opaque, and the flakes of soot are drawn into the lungs with every breath. Fogs, also, hang over the place of their birth for days or weeks together. The carbonic acid exhaled from the respiratory organs, or developed by means of combustion and in other processes, rests like a deadly pall over the spot, or tumbles to the ground in a mephitic sheet. Whatever noxious odours or emanations may arise, whatever elements of pestilence may make their appearance in the air, will cling like the shirt of Nessus to the doomed locality, and probably sweep away its inhabitants by the hundred. No longer churned by the winds which kept the atmosphere in a state of salubrity, the foreign materials poured into the aerial sea, soon engender a host of evils; and though the law of diffusion still operates to some extent, yet, as the force of chemical action is also declining, it cannot counteract the mischiefs which those great scavengers of the air, the breeze and the tempest, were intended to prevent. Nor does the ocean suffer much less than the land from the failure of ventilating power. Without gales to plough up its surface, the waters grow torpid, and in quarters where currents do not exist, "the very deep" appears "to rot "
"A thousand thousand, slimy things
I looked upon the rotting sea,
And drew my eyes away;
I looked upon the rotting deck,
And the vapour, also, which formerly supplied the land with the great element of fertility when hurried away by the winds, and deposited on the soil in pleasant showers, now falls idly back into the reservoir from which it was scantily lifted.
The means of irrigation being thus abridged, it follows that the desert tracts of our globe must constantly increase. Like spots of baldness appearing on the head of age, these patches enlarge until they overrun whole kingdoms, and threaten to convert the planet into a herbless wilderness. Besides, vegetation has already sickened under the decay of light and decrease of temperature. Tropical plants like the palm and sugar cane, have been expelled by the cold, and the natives of each zone are crawling up towards the Line in concentric ranks, leaving the higher latitudes wholly denuded of botanic life. In our own country corn is never reaped from the open field,
and in the once sunny South of Europe the grapes no longer hang in purple clusters from the trellised vine. The noble oaks and elms which formerly adorned our glades have been displaced by the shivering pines and puny birches of Northern climes.
And man, too, how does he fare in a world over which the snows of age are falling fast? Declining light, declining heat, declining vegetation, declining resources generally, have told upon the once lordly being who walked the earth with pride in his port and defiance in his Wan in countenance and shrunken in muscle, his frame has become stunted like that of the children of Frost. Let this degeneracy be prolonged, as it must if the race is perpetuated, and may not the world be ultimately occupied by a tribe of pigmies? The length of individual life has also greatly diminished. Amongst the Buddhists there is a tradition that the duration of existence has been constantly lowering from a period of 80,000 years, at which it originally stood, down to its modern span, and that it will continue to contract until it reaches seven years; whilst in point of stature men will gradually dwindle away until they are no larger than your thumb.
The intellect, as well, has kept pace with the body in its decay. Suffering not only from the cramped physique with which it is now associated, but also from the adverse external conditions under which men exist, and withering, too, under the decline of arts and social comforts, it has become so dwarfish in its development that little of its civilized brilliancy still survives. No more Platos, Miltons, Bunyans, Newtons, Davys, Humboldts, are born. No great books are composed. Not a single discovery is effected in the course of a year. The Houses of Parliament are occupied by small statesmen, whose sublimest efforts are not equal to the eloquence of an African Palaver. Royal Academies and National Operas have become extinct institutions. In the pulpits, sermons are heard which would not have done credit to a sixyear-old schoolboy when the race was in its prime. The writings and the inventions of former ages are becoming quite unintelligible. Youths at school get as far as vulgar fractions in arithmetic, or the pons asinorum in geometry, and then pull up under the impression that their education is complete. To master a single language fully is deemed a sufficient occupation for a whole life. And when poor fallen humanity casts its eye upon some relic of bygone grandeur-a ruined railway, a crumbling cathedral, a dilapidated picture, a mouldering volume which tells of the great feats the race has performed-it might well parody Swift's melancholy exclamation upon opening the "Tale of a Tub," as the shadows of lunacy were falling around him,— "What a genius I must have had when I wrote that work!"
Let us not prolong this sombre speculation, however, by picturing the unhappy results which would ensue were the principle of decay admitted into other departments of nature. If, for example, the magnetism of the earth were to become so feeble that the needle responded but faintly to its calls, or so eccentric that no dependence could be placed upon its movements, it is enough to ask how commerce would
languish when ships were deprived of their trusty guides across the deep. If the electric force were now so superannuated that it. could not even produce a few flashes of mild sheet lightning such as we are accustomed to witness on a summer's eve, or if its stormiest manifestations were as delicate as the tremulous pulses of the Aurora Borealis,-who can tell how the earth would suffer from the change in her vegetative processes and in a variety of important phenomena ? Were the cohesive properties of matter to alter, would it not be miserable to know that iron was becoming brittle as glass, marble soft as clay or putty, and that ultimately granite itself would crumble into dust? Or, perhaps, the gravitating tendencies of the earth towards the sun might be slackening, and, in that case, provided the primitive impulse continued unabated, our planet would recede in space, and travel round its primary in a larger and drearier orbit than we could afford to pursue.
This, however, or something like this, might have been the appointed destiny of our planet. Doomed to decay, like the beings by whom it is inhabited, all its great agencies might now be suffering from the infirmities of senescence. Why they are not so we cannot comprehend. To keep them in ceaseless activity for it must be remembered that they are "perpetual motions"-implies an inexhaustible stock of energy which none but a power that is truly divine could supply. If some of them, at least, had flagged in their labours-if, after undergoing the drudgeries of innumerable years, they had grown tired of their tasks-what could we have expected but that the machinery of Nature should break down, and all her phenomena fall into irreparable confusion? But it is not so. Ransack the whole creation, and not a single symptom of unquestionable decay, not a single token of absolute death, can be detected. The "greater light" still sparkles in the firmament with "unsuffering splendour," for, fortunately,—
"It is no task for suns to shine."
The atmosphere has not become turbid with the fumes it constantly receives, nor fetid with the noisome effluvia which are emptied into it incessantly, as if it were a huge cesspool. Far above our heads the clouds are continually conveying the rich moisture from the sea, and dropping it upon the needy land. Yet these fleets of vapour have not lessened in number, nor have the showers they discharge been reduced in quantity. The soil has not deteriorated in its produce, still less has it sullenly refused to yield its fruits. Thousands of crops have been extracted from its bosom, millions of men have fed on its corn, myriads of animals have fattened on its herbage. Forests, with tons of timber in many of its trees, and green leaves countless as the sands on the shore, have risen and fallen, and yet the ground has gone to its work as gladly as if the toil of rearing oaks or banyans were nothing but simple play. Fire burns as cheerfully as ever, and the mean temperature of the earth continues precisely the same, for aught we know, as