Vignette Sunday: No Heaven Above

Updated: Jul 21

By Katherine Foy


On the Sea Lion Press Forums, we run a monthly Vignette Challenge. Contributors are invited to write vignettes on a specific theme (changed monthly).


The fifth theme was "Migration"


“By the grace of God man, we're freezing to death!”

Sir Henry Camerton had heard such intermittent appeals all through the night. The thin canvass of his tent afforded little more protection from intemperate language than it did from the harsh elements outside. It was all he could do now to lie on his bunk and listen. Ordinarily he'd have made attempts to sleep, and in doing so to pass the brief hours of darkness until the return of a sun that gave light but precious little heat. One might wonder as to the agency of appealing to God's grace at all, for was their precious situation not an indication that God himself had at last forsaken Man?

He shuffled onto his side, an attempt to banish both physical and theological discomfort. Sir Henry was an observant Anglican, as his family had been ever since the days of his namesake; and he'd closed his ears to outlandish pronouncements of other churches. Let them have their talk of last days; who knew what queer sects were now rising up across the world, in England, in his own Somerset no less?

He sunk into recollection, as he had unwillingly seemed to do every waking hour since their arrival. Since the enforced idleness that sapped at his spirit. He thought of Somerset, and of a land that might forever have been home. He thought of happier times – warm summer days, bountiful harvests, church fairs. The English constitution might have deprived the English gentleman of his meaningful role in affairs of state, but there would always be the affairs of the Parish. Or would there? What strange new world awaited them below Snæfellsjökull? What kind of world had the Men of Science and Technology created? He ought not to blame them really – for they had not been the cause of this unpleasantness, only the messengers. Perhaps yet they would be the salvation too.

It had begun maybe ten years previous, in the days of the late Queen-Empress. Man had been at his zenith, conqueror of the Earth and all her remote places. His weapons had been commerce and industry; steam had at last granted him freedom from the fickle power of wind and water, and across the globe, railways and steamships proved there was no frontier Man couldn't cross. The future was to be one of prosperity built upon technological advance. But, just as in scripture, there were to be seeds of downfall in triumph. They had barely noticed at first – a harsher winter here, with a dull overcast summer to follow. The mines of England could always produce the coal needed for homes and factories, in this new age where Man was not to be ruled by nature. But in the upland counties farmers struggled, and in the Highlands of Scotland it was noted with idle curiosity that the snowline on the high peaks was advancing with each season.

The telegraph that has spread the English language and English finance throughout the world now returned messages which, if seen as part of one whole, would be cause for greater alarm. Messages of crop failures in rainy countries, and of heavy snows in cold ones, of icebergs trespassing further south into shipping lanes and of migrating birds departing earlier and earlier in the calendar. But in Somerset, life had proceeded much as it had before, in the benevolent climate of southern England. Perhaps there had been the odd bitter wind off the Bristol channel, and a late frost or two to give concern to the arable farmer, but who in general gave much heed to such things in those prosperous times?

Reluctantly Sir Henry pulled himself up into a seating position. The appointed hour must have been near. Leaning forwards he massaged his toes through two pairs of woolen socks. Try as he might, he couldn't chastise himself for the indulgence. Eventually he managed to regain some sensation of blood flow. Satisfied that he was not yet doomed to frostbite, he made to stand.

Perhaps it had been too late, when they had finally been roused to act? What had been the tipping point? The blizzards of '95? The lead roof of the village church collapsing under heavy snow drifts? Or had it been the winter of '97 when those poor families up on the Mendips had frozen to death in their beds? Sir Henry had trekked up there himself, as part of the belated relief efforts. To see the green hills and levels beyond then transformed into Alpine slopes and lifeless tundra, all of it lying beneath the false security of a crystal blue sky... it was not a memory he would easily forget.

By that point the Government and the major statesmen had become concerned. Devonshire and Rockingham, Salisbury and Norfolk, they had all seen the deleterious effects of the changing climate on their own country estates. The Members of Parliament with their commercial interests, or else with their Radical sympathies for the rural upland worker; they too knew that something was amiss. So in the spirit of the age, an enquiry was called for, and men of science drafted to head it. The enquiry became a commission, and long meetings were held, while evidence from all sources was considered and deliberated over at great length. Meanwhile the country continued on much as it had before. People could be adaptable, and they made the best of things. The price of coal, and much else besides, began to rise, but only the pauper could be said to be truly inconvenienced. Who can be persuaded to care for the morrow, when he has the troubles of to-day?

The commission had reported back in the spring of '99, though it felt more like an overlong winter. Sir Henry could remember well the days when the phrase 'it was warmer than this last year' was a trite conversational filler, and not a grimly ironic piece of gallows humour. The commission had concluded beyond all doubt that the Earth was undergoing a terminal cooling. Lord Kelvin, the man naturally called upon to head the commission, advanced his own long-held theories as to the cause of this cooling. The Earth, several millions of years ago, had been a red-hot globe. Since that time it had cooled, such that life itself became possible, and in turn, civilisation. Extinct volcanoes across the globe were a testament to that fact. It was known too that the Earth had cooled even over the span of human existence, for the bones of elephants now confined to Africa and Asia had been found in Russia and across the far north. Classical documents showed that the Romans had cultivated vines in England, and that the practice of wine making had continued into Medieval times. It was also known that the tendency for the Thames in London to freeze in winter had only commenced at some point in the last few centuries.

Lord Kelvin could now claim with certainty that this cooling was occurring, and was now entering its terminal phase, as the last of the Earth's interior heat ebbed away. The Government of the day faced this reality with stoicism, and began to lay plans, though it was not to be long before they were brought low by the hysteria of their own members and the excitable panic of the money markets. When the Government fell, it was appropriate that Kelvin himself was called for, to head up a ministry of talented and exceptional men. They were scientists, engineers, experts. They would not be hindered by the impediments of democracy and populism.

Sir Henry stepped out from his tent, closing the canvas door flap behind him. What little heat he had exuded inside he was determined to retain for his return. All around him a howling wind bit at exposed skin, carrying away whatever warmth it could steal. He was surrounded by thousands, if not tens of thousands of other such tents, fashioned of uniform canvass and arranged in orderly rows which belied the disorderliness of their arrival and assembly. It was a vast tent city of his countrymen. He hesitated to call it a refugee camp. It was the queue to get into the refugee camp, and it dwarfed the Icelandic town of Reykjavik.

No one then had known how quickly the Earth would become permanently icebound, only that it would happen. Lord Kelvin argued that it would be within the decade, a hypothesis he aired with apparent disregard to global panic, for against global despair the Men of Science had a plan.

Much had been written about Professor Otto Lidenbrock in the thirty years since his discovery of the Inner Earth, but little else was known of the eccentric German geologist beyond that single account of his journey, as widely publicised by the sympathetic French journalist Jules Verne. Professor Lidenbrock had first returned to Hamburg a hero, and his discovery was widely celebrated, and yet in the years that followed he had disappeared entirely from the public eye. Many English scientists, bemoaning a lack of the usual international cooperation in such matters, ascribed this to a Prussian desire for secrecy and control. Soon afterwards war would poison relations between Germany and France, and Lidenbrock would be quietly forgotten even by Verne, the Professor's Inner Earth a curiosity to be discarded for the latest novel fad.

Sir Henry found his way to the line, as it snaked its way along the line of the tent rows. He'd been told to assemble here, at approximately this hour. That had been the reason for his sleeplessness tonight. That was what he told himself. He tried not to feel self-conscious of his higher quality clothes, though he knew it made him stick out like a sore thumb. He could only bring what he had, the same as any other man, and it wasn't his fault that these were his clothes.

With catastrophic cooling upon them, It didn't take long for nations to consider the possibilities of Lidenbrock's Inner Earth. Kelvin's government naturally had an advantage, as did the Germans who might be thought to have been considering just such a venture for many years before. If Earth, or at least her surface, was to cool past a point of habitability, ought not her inner realms be immune to this, or else still more habitable? The account of Lidenbrock's discovery had talked of vast open caverns of dense vegetation, herds of giant beasts and seas filled with fish. Could not man seek refuge here, just as he had found a new home once before? If the terrestrial Earth was to be their lost Eden, shouldn't they try to secure the Inner Earth for their salvation?

Lidenbrock's account talked of the mountain of Snæfellsjökull as the access to the Inner Earth. The mountain lay in the remote and sparsely populated island of Iceland, which at that time was under the Danish crown. If King Christian had sought to monopolise access to the Inner Earth, as his family had once monopolised the Icelandic fish trade, he was not to be successful, for his small country was too lacking in resources to make use of providence's blessing. Control of the mountain would instead fall to a joint administration shared between London and Berlin, as decided in the Anglo-German Agreement. British naval and mercantile power, German scientific brilliance, and the industrial strength of the two nations now worked together for the future hope of their peoples.

Sir Henry knew that his camp was entirely of English men – the Germans were themselves at the far side of Reykjavik, though he knew their own encampment to be smaller. Whether they had been more organised on arrival and proceeded swifter to Snæfellsjökull, or else had arrived in fewer number, he knew not. He did know that their camp was mixed sex, whereas on the English side men and women were kept separate. The thought made Sir Henry uncomfortable, as much as he missed his own wife. He realised that their separation was probably for the best. Were he and Elizabeth to be set up as man and wife here, it might arouse less pleasant emotions in some of the other men. Better that his sturdy clothes be the only thing to provoke their jealousy.

The occupation of Iceland had began that brief unhappy period of human history known as “The Scramble”. Once it became known that there was an earthly salvation, populations previously sunk into listless despair became excited, and then agitated, and then overcome with avaricious envy. At first it was assumed that Britain and Germany, having access to Snæfellsjökull held the only means of access to the Inner Earth. Soon after it was realised that this need not be the case, for had not Professor Lidenbrock emerged from the Inner Earth by way of a different volcanic chimney, that of Mount Stromboli in the Tyrrhenian Sea? Might not volcanic peaks in every nation and territory hold passageways to the Inner Earth?

It was to prove an entirely disorderly affair, as nations and people began to scramble over the Earth, half-blind in their urgency. It was the French, naturally piqued by the success of their two Germanic rivals, who first found another route. Taking the Italians as their junior partners, they succeeded in charting a route through a fissure on the slopes of Stromboli. In doing so they too secured a future for their people. French success in turn encouraged other nations to continue their own searchings more frantically than ever, though Sir Henry knew of no others who had yet found success. The Dutch and the Belgians, without volcanic – or indeed any other - mountains in their own lands, had each turned to their colonial possessions. The Russians had looked to the unmapped wastes of Siberia, and according to the ridiculous superstitious faith of their people, succeeded only in opening the very Gates of Hell itself. If Sir Henry had once been partial to dismissing a people for such credulousness, he thought better than to remember an incident closer to home. At the height of The Scramble a particularly charismatic salesman had appeared, proclaiming that another route into the Inner Earth could be found within the basalt plug beneath Edinburgh castle. The salesman further claimed that this route was being kept a secret so as to evacuation only the richest and most aristocratic subjects of the Empire. These claims were of course entirely false, but the events of the subsequent Edinburgh Massacre were tragically real.

There was only a distant rumour from the antipodes of one other successful venture. It was that of Mount Tongariro whose own secret passage had been discovered by the native people of New Zealand, and from which those people continued their rebellious war against the Crown.

The queue was moving forward now, and Sir Henry found himself getting close to the front. Registration was of course by occupation – the new home in the Inner Earth was a virgin colony, and a great deal of work was yet to come. He wondered uneasily at how much utility a country squire might be in this technocratic order.

It was only six months ago when the English exodus began in earnest, though by then the climate was unmistakably colder than it had been mid-century. It was widely understood that there would be a great need for digging and tunneling in the Inner Earth. Lidenbrook's narrow passages had to be widened and made safe for the people and goods to come, and new quarters and rooms would need to be excavated within these passages. Men who had worked as miners or quarrymen were in great demand, as were navvies until the latest Fenian scare. Government agents had scoured the coalfields of England, from the Clyde to Kent, in search of tunneling men. Soon enough they had come to the Somerset Coalfield. Sir Henry knew all the little villages which in the last century had been transformed by the springing up of collieries, railway halts, and little rows of workman's collages. He knew them because his family owned the land under which the coal lay, and which was as much a part of his inheritance as his baronetcy. The men who worked the narrow and broken coal seams which typified the Somerset coalfield were no less known to him – for they were his tenants and the men who sat in the pews behind him on Sundays.

When the Government agents came, Sir Henry knew just who to nominate. He knew who worked hard, and who was virtuous. He knew who could be trusted to ignore anarchist incitement. He knew the honest men, the men he would trust to preserve what he knew and loved of Somerset. They knew the rocks of the Secondary and Tertiary Periods better than any man since William Smith. If Lidenbrock's reports were to believed, then the strata of the Inner Earth were but a mirror image of those of the near-surface. The agents had compiled their lists, and all together it seemed like an awful lot of men.

“Won't there be a shortage of coal in these parts thereafter?” he'd asked.

They'd talked vaguely of stockpiles, and of the national interest, and of the seams of the Inner Earth which were said to be several feet thick and to extend for thousands of leagues. There would be no shortage of anything in the Inner Earth. They'd began speaking to him about numbers. They always spoken in terms of numbers. How many men, how many spaces they would need aboard the steamers, how many calories, how many tents...

“That's only the men though – what about their wives and families?”

But then they'd equivocated, before eventually admitting that only the men were to travel out on the first ships, with the women and families to come after. After all, there was so much work to do, it all had to be gotten right first. It wouldn't do to be bringing gentle country women to a primitive new colony, would it? No, things ought to be done in the right order. That was how it had always been done, in the time of Virginia as in that of Wakefield. He'd asked about morals – how could they be sure a colony comprised almost entirely of young men would not fall to vice? There were, he was told, a small number of young girls of unimpeachable virtue, brought from homes and ladies schools across the country. These, he could be assured, would see to it that the gentler side of society was maintained. And him – would they have need for him?

“Of course, Sir, we hope to maintain as much of our social order as possible – it is only right that a gentlemen such as yourself be brought along.”

He'd been reluctant at first, though he was ashamed to admit to shirking from his duty. The journey as they had described it seemed arduous, even when presented in the most positive light, and he'd always been the comfortable type. Further he'd recoiled at the idea of leaving his family behind, though they'd then said that this wouldn't be necessary, which had confused him further. But in the end, after long contemplation, he'd joined the voyage. These were his men, and they needed someone to look over them.

That winter, the Avon had frozen over down to the city of Bristol. Canals had never been used extensively around these parts, but they too became useless. Only Brunel's great railway struggled through, its wide gauge engines ploughing through the drifts. Sir Henry had embarked at Bath. The Regency pleasure town's best days were evidently long behind her, though he suspected that her hot springs still bubbled beneath the two feet of snow. The Avon valley had been desolate, with barely a man or beast to be seen. The harvest had failed the previous year, and even the hardiest livestock sickened if kept outside. From Bristol they had continued the journey in coaches, or on foot, as dictated by necessity, so congested had become the railway traffic and the centre. The waters of the Atlantic, so long Bristol's conduit of prosperity, now served to doom the mercantile city. Storms blowing in off the Irish sea battered the coast, and every tide brought fresh ice floes up the Severn, rendering it hazardous to all navigation.

At Avonmouth they had paused only briefly before boarding an assigned steamer, an older vessel now hastily refitted. Sir Henry had not asked too many questions, though he was curious as to the size of his quarters – with the number of men known to be aboard, how could there be such room to spare? He'd watched from a porthole as the cargo hold was filled. Stotherth & Pitt cranes, tools and machinery from the stone mines at Combe Down, countless miles of rope and shipping supplies. All of it apparently essential to their imminent subterranean venture. Of less obvious utility was the Renatus Harris organ he recognised as being formally from Bristol Cathedral; or the other crates and paraphernalia, bearing the insignia of Bristol Art Gallery and Museum, which he saw being discretely loaded from the more distant gangway. He wondered how this fit into the Government's technocratic vision.

When they had at last departed from Avonmouth it had proven to only be the beginning of the struggle. While Sir Henry and his men had by now endured extreme cold for many long years, they had not yet done so while at the mercy of the north Atlantic. Dark grey waves smashed into the deck, throwing icy shards ahead of them. In the foggy gloom of the Bristol Channel, icebergs lurked with sinister intent. About Lundy they were hailed by a smaller vessel, whose passengers at first presented themselves as stricken refugees from that island, all but forgotten by their countrymen. In short order, and with the appearance of firearms they proved instead to be pirates and kidnappers – hardship having apparently driven them to the ways of their forefathers. The men aboard the steamer had driven the pirates back, with considerable loss of life on both sides. There had been precious little time to mourn. The sea grew choppier still, and above black clouds rolled ever onwards, threatening to erupt in storm. Amidst the constant drizzle they'd come by the coast of Ireland, and learned soon enough that this country had slipped forever into the realms of barbarism. A great famine so widespread as to deprive that of '45-'52 of its definite article left not even devout papist faith as sufficient to prevent an outbreak of civic butchery, with all the horrors that followed.

Finally, Sir Henry's steamer had come to Anglesey, an island no more with ice choking the Menai. Whether the island was by now entirely depopulated, he could not tell. Perhaps the slate miners had come to join their English brothers in a new home? From Holyhead, long a vital calling point in the British Government's communications, Sir Henry's steamer had become joined to a convoy of similar such vessels, each filled with the workers of the industrial north. Afterwards, there was a security in numbers, even as the sea grew worse out into the open ocean. Many of their companion vessels, perhaps overladen, or else not entirely sea-worthy, were lost to the rolling waves in seas that, were it not for the obsolescence of the sail-powered vessel, should have proven impossible to traverse.

But they had arrived. Refugees from their home, and from the climate itself. Sir Henry reached the front of the queue now.

“Name?” the clerk asked rather brusquely. Sir Henry could see that he was caked in dirt and grime, and began to wonder just where he had acquired his schooling.

“Sir Henry Camerton, baronet.” he replied indignantly.

“Trade?”

“...Excuse me?”

“What is your trade?”

Sir Henry, unconsciously or otherwise, began to puff up his chest. “Sir, I am not a tradesman, I am the owner of the estate from which several hundreds of skilled mining men have come. I am a prominent figure in our local community, and it is to me that these men look to secure their future.”

The clerk looked at him blankly. After a moment he looked down at the form he was completing. “I'll just put 'foreman-landlord' then.”

Sir Henry didn't think he'd heard anyone pronounce a silent en-dash before. He decided that this clerk was an awfully utilitarian chap, and that he didn't much care for that kind of thing when actual utility seemed scarce on the ground.

“Look here – my men and I have been bivouacking out on the hard ground for the best part of three months. I suggest that we really ought to be instructed to proceed to Snæfellsjökull without delay. How else can we hope to complete our assignments promptly so that these men's families might hope to join them?”

The clerk gave a derisive snort – the sort that an unkind uncle might make at a nephew who still believed in fables.

“Oh, there really is no need for hurry, Mr Camerton-Baronet-” Sir Henry bristled, as the clerk continued, “- you see the Inner Earth is abundant with all the riches and resources we require, but have no fear that your men will be called through when they are needed.”

And with that, the clerk dismissed him. Sir Henry made to protest, but already the man stood behind was pushing forward, and there was a risk of the whole queue becoming disordered. Instead he trudged away the short distance back to his tent, resolving to try again the next week. A gust of icy air made him pull his greatcoat yet tighter around his shivering bones, as far above him clear skies set out the whole of the Milky Way. It really did feel as if every night was colder than the last.

But the Inner Earth, yes, they would prosper there – the men of Radstock, and Farrington Gurney, of High Littleton and Midsomer Norton. Veins of minerals and metals that could be safely worked. Huge forests of petrified wood for construction. Prehistoric beasts for food and sport. Magma and the heat of the Inner Earth for warmth. And electrified gas to cast fluorescent light over all of their industries. And then another fleet of ironclads would battle through the ice to bring across their wives and children too, to share in the bounty.

Yes, it would be a new paradise on Earth, Sir Henry reassured himself, a new paradise beneath the Earth.

As if in response, the wind howled through the tent city, and suddenly he felt very alone.

“But with no heaven above” he added aloud, to no-one in particular.


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