"Dr. Halliday Sutherland is a born writer, especially a born story-teller. Dr. Sutherland, who is distinguished in medicine, is an amateur in the sense that he only writes when he has nothing better to do. But when he does, it could hardly be done better” – G.K. Chesterton
This short story was among the typed manuscripts in Dr. Halliday Sutherland’s personal papers. It is headed Chapter XVII, but to my knowledge, it was not published in any of Dr Sutherland’s books.
One morning in a small hotel in London a newly married couple awoke, and spent some considerable time in ringing the bell. They could hear the bell ringing, but no one answered. On leaving their room to investigate they made the appalling discovery that all the other people in the hotel, proprietors, servants, and guests were dead in their beds. Then the man did a most sensible thing—he telephoned for the police. There was no reply from the Exchange. The two rushed into the street to summon aid, and found a milkman lying dead on the pavement. They ran to the main thoroughfare, and there found numbers of people dead on the pavements and in the streets. Motor vehicles were all stopped in collision with each other or with the buildings on either side. The only living things were a few horses aimlessly pulling along wagons and carts whose drivers were dead.
“I shall go mad,” cried the woman. “No,” said the man, “you will not. There is a natural explanation for everything. Some poisonous gas must have fallen on London, and we escaped. The animals also escaped. That is all. Let us go to the General Post Office and telephone to the provinces. This is a big affair.” He really meant that it was a little matter in comparison to his love for her.
Being sensible people they took possession of a horse van without a driver and drove to the Post Office. They passed thousands of dead in the streets, and now found numerous dead officials sitting at their desks. In the telephone room, discovered after an hour’s search, they rang up Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool. There was really no reply. The disaster was more serious that they had anticipated. In the room of Foreign Telephones, they rang up Paris. There was no answer. Berlin, no answer. New York, no answer. And then the man cried out: “My God, we are alone on the Earth. We own the World. It is all ours. All its wealth. Billions and Trillions. But what shall we do?”
There would be no instalments to pay on the little house at Chorley. No more instalments on the furniture. They might even afford to have a child. Then the Terror of the Thing came over him, and he old the woman. “We are very, very poor. All wealth in the world has lost its value. Of what use to use is a railroad? We can’t use it. We can’t sail an ocean liner. All the fresh food in the country will be rotten within a week. The tinned stuff may keep for two years. We must leave London at once. The air will be pestilential within three days. We shall have to grow food for ourselves.”
And they loaded their van with clothing, boots, and provisions taken out of a store, so that they might have supplies until such time as they could grow food and weave cloth for themselves. And out of a shop in Bond Street the woman took a diamond necklace valued the previous day at twenty thousand guineas. “What’s the use of taking a thing like that?” grumbled the man, and she answered: “My dear, it’s very pretty.”
And so the new Adam and Eve passed out of London and over the roads of England until they came to a farm beside a river and near to the sea. Here they stopped. Their first task was to bury the people who had lived in the farm-house, and at the end of two days their hands were raw and blistered. Their life was work from dawn to dusk. There was always something to be done, for in the beginning it was written – “In the sweat of thy brow thou shalt eat bread.” And yet they talked of children. Would not the coming of children increase the work and reduce what little comfort they had for themselves? But children would be companions and could help to keep back the weeds. All around the farm weeds, bushes and trees were taking root over fields, roads and railways. Wild vegetative Nature was the power that limited their means of subsistence, their standard of living and their level of comfort. The man and that silent Force were at war as to which should possess the earth and the fruits thereof. And he came to fear the weeds ever more than the howling of the Alsatian wolves in winter. The man and the woman never returned to London. They had no wish to do so. A few months after they came to the farm they had noticed in the south western sky great birds, larger than any they had ever seen before, slowly descending into what was once London. The scavengers of the Earth had arrived.
The man and the woman begat children, and they, like the children of Adam, intermarried amongst themselves. At the end of twenty-five years, there were twenty-five people on the farm. This population increased in geometrical progression, doubling itself every twenty-five years, and thus at the end of 200 years there was an agricultural community of 3,200 people. It was then that the Elders granted permission to the Head-Teacher to lead an expedition of twenty men to the British Museum. The main facts concerning the Lost Civilization were to be copied out on sheepskin parchments and preserved. Tradition had it that if a man walked ten miles west in the forest he would find a large embankment along which in the old days a machine driven by steam had rushed at great speed. If this embankment was followed south, it would lead to a place called Euston. Near that place there would be a large building, crowned by a dome, and in that building were books containing all the knowledge of the old world.
After four days of adventurous travelling the expedition arrived, thrusting their way through dense thickets of undergrowth growing breast high around the Museum. In the Reading Room the great dome had fallen, and the floor was covered with mounds of fallen masonry on which shrubs had taken root. Animals had been there, and as the party entered startled birds flew with shrill cries from the amphitheatre of book-shelves where they were nesting. It was spring-time.
On the ground level they found a door intact. This they forced and entered a smaller room which was well preserved because the windows were unbroken. In the centre was a long table on which lay many portions of faded yellow paper.
“In this room,” said the Head-Teacher, “they probably exposed for reading their most recent journals and magazines. And here we will begin our work.” He went to the table and gently turned over some of the faded leaves “Ah! It is as I surmised from my observations in the Farm Library. No print of later date than the 17th century has survived the test of Time. The total knowledge of two centuries has become obliterated, unless—and this, my brothers, is where scholarship comes in—we can decipher the marks of type. For example on this page the ink had vanished, but here and there the type had pressed hard into the paper. On this page I can make out fifteen words. Here they are: ‘the—only—way—the—standard—of—living—can—be—improved—is—by—reducing—the population.'”
They all laughed, but the Head-Teacher continued: “This is no laughing matter, my brothers. According to our tradition, certain journals of the lost civilization were devoted entirely to humour, and possibly I am no holding in my hand what was once the leading humorous journal of the 20th century. And,” the old man added with a grave smile “it is also possible that what I have just read to you was their Last Joke.”