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Title: The Doom of London - The Four Days' Night - The Dust of Death - The Four White - Days - The Invisible Force - The River of Death - A Bubble - Burst
Author: White, Fred M. (Fred Merrick)
Language: English
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Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

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(Images generously made available by the Hathi Trust)



THE DOOM OF LONDON


Six Stories by

Fred M. White


Illustrated by

Warwick Goble


First published in Pearson's Magazine, London, 1903-4

[Illustration: The Hotel Cecil in flames--a realistic picture of an
unlikely contingency, pictured in the "Four White Days."]



TABLE OF CONTENTS.


 THE FOUR WHITE DAYS.

 THE FOUR DAYS' NIGHT.

 THE DUST OF DEATH.

 A BUBBLE BURST.

 THE INVISIBLE FORCE.

 THE RIVER OF DEATH.



[Illustration: The Four White Days.]


THE FOUR WHITE DAYS.

A Tale of London in the Grip of an Arctic Winter--Showing the Danger
Any Winter might Bring from Famine, Cold, and Fire.


I.


The editor of _The Daily Chat_ wondered a little vaguely why he had
come down to the office at all. Here was the thermometer down to 11°
with every prospect of touching zero before daybreak, and you can't
fill a morning paper with weather reports. Besides, nothing was coming
in from the North of the Trent beyond the curt information that all
telegraphic and telephonic communication beyond was impossible. There
was a huge blizzard, a heavy fall of snow nipped hard by the terrific
frost and--silence.

To-morrow--January 25th--would see a pretty poor paper unless America
roused up to a sense of her responsibility and sent something hot to
go on with. The Land's End cables often obliged in that way. There
was the next chapter of the Beef and Bread Trust, for instance. Was
Silas X. Brett going to prove successful in his attempt to corner the
world's supply? That Brett had been a pawnbroker's assistant a year
ago mattered little. That he might at any time emerge a penniless
adventurer mattered less. From a press point of view he was good for
three columns.

The chief "sub" came in, blowing his fingers. The remark that he was
frozen to the marrow caused no particular sympathy.

"Going to be a funeral rag to-morrow," the editor said curtly.

"That's so," Gough admitted cheerfully. "We've drawn a thrilling
picture of the Thames impassable to craft--and well it might be after
a week of this Arctic weather. For days not a carcase or a sack of
flour has been brought in. Under the circumstances we were justified in
prophesying a bread and meat famine. And we've had our customary gibe
at Silas X. Brett. But still, it's poor stuff."

The editor thought he would go home. Still he dallied, on the off
chance of something turning up. It was a little after midnight when he
began to catch the suggestion of excitement that seemed to be simmering
in the sub-editor's room. There was a clatter of footsteps outside. By
magic the place began to hum like a hive.

"What have you struck, Gough?" the editor cried.

Gough came tumbling in, a sheaf of flimsies in his hand.

"Brett's burst," he gasped. "It's a real godsend, Mr. Fisher. I've got
enough here to make three columns. Brett's committed suicide."

Fisher slipped out of his overcoat. Everything comes to the man who
waits. He ran his trained eyes over the flimsies; he could see his way
to a pretty elaboration.

"The danger of the corner is over," he said, later, "but the fact
remains that we are still short of supplies; there are few provision
ships on the seas, and if they were close at hand they couldn't get
into port with all this ice about. Don't _say_ that London is on the
verge of a famine, but you can hint it."

Gough winked slightly and withdrew. An hour later and the presses were
kicking and coughing away in earnest. There was a flaming contents
bill, so that Fisher went off drowsily through the driving snow Bedford
Square way with a feeling that there was not much the matter with the
world after all.

It was piercingly cold, the wind had come up from the east, the steely
blue sky of the last few days had gone.

Fisher doubled before the wind that seemed to grip his very soul. On
reaching home he shuddered as he hung over the stove in the hall.

"My word," he muttered as he glanced at the barometer. "Down
half-an-inch since dinner time. And a depression on top that you could
lie in. Don't ever recollect London under the lash of a real blizzard,
but it's come now."

A blast of wind, as he spoke, shook the house like some unreasoning
fury.


II.


It was in the evening of the 24th of January that the first force of
the snowstorm swept London. There had been no sign of any abatement in
the gripping frost, but the wind had suddenly shifted to the east, and
almost immediately snow had commenced to fall. But as yet there was no
hint of the coming calamity.

A little after midnight the full force of the gale was blowing. The
snow fell in powder so fine that it was almost imperceptible, but
gradually the mass deepened until at daybreak it lay some eighteen
inches in the streets. Some of the thoroughfares facing the wind were
swept bare as a newly reaped field, in others the drifts were four or
five feet in height.

A tearing, roaring, blighting wind was still blowing as the grey day
struggled in. The fine snow still tinkled against glass and brick. By
nine o'clock hundreds of telephone wires were broken. The snow and
the force of the wind had torn them away bodily. As far as could be
ascertained at present the same thing had happened to the telegraphic
lines. At eleven o'clock nothing beyond local letters had been
delivered, and the postal authorities notified that no telegrams could
be guaranteed in any direction outside the radius. There was nothing
from the Continent at all.

Still, there appeared to be no great cause for alarm. The snow must
cease presently. There was absolutely no business doing in the City,
seeing that three-fourths of the suburban residents had not managed to
reach London by two o'clock. An hour later it became generally known
that no main line train had been scheduled at a single London terminus
since midday.

Deep cuttings and tunnels were alike rendered impassable by drifted
snow.

But the snow would cease presently; it could not go on like this. Yet
when dusk fell it was still coming down in the same grey whirling
powder.

That night London was as a city of the dead. Except where the force
of the gale had swept bare patches, the drifts were high--so high in
some cases that they reached to the first floor windows. A half-hearted
attempt had been made to clear the roadways earlier in the day, but
only two or three main roads running north and south, and east and west
were at all passable.

Meanwhile the gripping frost never abated a jot. The thermometer stood
steadily at 15° below freezing even in the forenoon; the ordinary tweed
clothing of the average Briton was sorry stuff to keep out a wind like
that. But for the piercing draught the condition of things might have
been tolerable. London had experienced colder weather so far as degrees
went, but never anything that battered and gripped like this. And still
the fine white powder fell.

After dark, the passage from one main road to another was a real peril.
Belated stragglers fought their way along their own streets without
the slightest idea of locality, the dazzle of the snow was absolutely
blinding. In sheltered corners the authorities had set up blazing fires
for the safety of the police and public. Hardly a vehicle had been seen
in the streets for hours.

At the end of the first four and twenty hours the mean fall of snow had
been four feet. Narrow streets were piled up with the white powder.
Most of the thoroughfares on the south side of the Strand were mere
grey ramparts. Here and there people could be seen looking anxiously
out of upper windows and beckoning for assistance. Such was the
spectacle that London presented at daybreak on the second day.

It was not till nearly midday of the 26th of January that the downfall
ceased. For thirty-six hours the gale had hurled its force mercilessly
over London. There had been nothing like it in the memory of man,
nothing like it on record. The thin wrack of cloud cleared and the sun
shone down on the brilliant scene.

A strange, still, weird London. A white deserted city with a hardy
pedestrian here and there, who looked curiously out of place in a town
where one expects to see the usual toiling millions. And yet the few
people who were about did not seem to fit into the picture. The crunch
of their feet on the crisp snow was an offence, the muffled hoarseness
of their voices jarred.

London woke uneasily with a sense of coming disaster. By midday the
continuous frost rendered the snow quite firm enough for traffic. The
curious sight of people climbing out of their bedroom windows and
sliding down snow mountains into the streets excited no wonder. As
to the work-a-day side of things that was absolutely forgotten. For
the nonce Londoners were transformed into Laplanders, whose first and
foremost idea was food and warmth.

So far as could be ascertained the belt of the blizzard had come from
the East in a straight line some thirty miles wide. Beyond St. Albans
there was very little snow, the same remark applying to the South from
Redhill. But London itself lay in the centre of a grip of Arctic,
ice-bound country, and was almost as inaccessible to the outside world
as the North Pole itself.

There was practically no motive power beyond that of the underground
railways, and most of the lighting standards had been damaged by the
gale; last calamity of all, the frost affected the gas so that evening
saw London practically in darkness.

But the great want of many thousands was fuel. Coal was there at the
wharfs, but getting it to its destination was quite another thing. It
was very well for a light sleigh and horse to slip over the frozen
snow, but a heavily laden cart would have found progression an absolute
impossibility. Something might have been done with the electric trams,
but all overhead wires were down.

In addition to this, the great grain wharfs along the Thames were
very low. Local contractors and merchants had not been in the least
frightened by the vagaries of Mr. Silas X. Brett; they had bought
"short," feeling pretty sure that sooner or later their foresight would
be rewarded.

Therefore they had been trading from hand to mouth. The same policy
had been pursued by the small "rings" of wholesale meat merchants who
supply pretty well the whole of London with flesh food. The great
majority of the struggling classes pay the American prices and get
American produce, an enormous supply of which is in daily demand.

Here Silas X. Brett had come in again. Again the wholesale men had
declined to make contracts except from day to day.

Last and worst of all, the Thames--the chief highway for supplies--was,
for the only time in the memory of living man, choked with ice below
Greenwich.

London was in a state of siege as close and gripping as if a foreign
army had been at her gates. Supplies were cut off, and were likely to
be for some days to come.

The price of bread quickly advanced to ninepence the loaf, and it was
impossible to purchase the cheapest meat under two shillings per pound.
Bacon and flour, and such like provisions, rose in a corresponding
ratio; coal was offered at £2 per ton, with the proviso that the
purchaser must fetch it himself.

Meanwhile, there was no cheering news from the outside--London seemed
to be cut off from the universe. It was as bad as bad could be, but the
more thoughtful could see that there was worse to follow.


III.

The sight of a figure staggering up a snow drift to a bedroom window
in Keppel Street aroused no astonishment in the breast of a stolid
policeman. It was the only way of entry into some of the houses in that
locality. Yet a little further on the pavements were clear and hard.

[Illustration: The sight of a figure staggering up a snowdrift to a
bedroom window in Keppel Street aroused no astonishment in the breast
of a stolid policeman.]

Besides, the figure was pounding on the window, and burglars don't
generally do that. Presently the sleeper within awoke. From the glow of
his oil-stove he could see that it was past twelve.

"Something gone wrong at the office?" Fisher muttered. "Hang the paper!
Why bother about publishing _Chat_ this weather?"

He rolled out of bed, and opened the window, draught of icy air caught
his heart in a grip like death for the moment. Gough scrambled into the
room, and made haste to shut out the murderous air.

"Nearly five below zero," he said. "You must come down to the office,
Mr. Fisher."

Fisher lit the gas. Just for the moment he was lost in admiration of
Gough's figure. His head was muffled in a rag torn from an old sealskin
jacket. He was wrapped from head to foot in a sheepskin recently
stripped from the carcase of an animal.

"Got the dodge from an old Arctic traveller," Gough explained. "It's
pretty greasy inside, but it keeps that perishing cold out."

"I said I shouldn't come down to the office to-night," Fisher muttered.
"This is the only place where I can keep decently warm. A good paper is
no good to us--we shan't sell five thousand copies to-morrow."

"Oh, yes, we shall," Gough put in eagerly; "Hampden, the member for
East Battersea, is waiting for you. One of the smart city gangs has
cornered the coal supply. There is about half a million tons in London,
but there is no prospect of more for days to come. The whole lot was
bought up yesterday by a small syndicate, and the price to-morrow is
fixed at three pounds per ton--to begin with. Hampden is furious."

Fisher shovelled his clothes on hastily. The journalistic instinct was
aroused.

At his door Fisher staggered back as the cold struck him. With two
overcoats, and a scarf round his head, the cold seemed to drag the life
out of him. A brilliant moon was shining in a sky like steel, the air
was filled with the fine frosty needles, a heavy hoar coated Gough's
fleecy breast. The gardens in Russell Square were one huge mound,
Southampton Row was one white pipe. It seemed to Gough and Fisher that
they had London to themselves.

They did not speak, speech was next to impossible. Fisher staggered
into his office and at length gasped for brandy. He declared that he
had no feeling whatever. His moustache hung painfully, as if two heavy
diamonds were dragging at the ends of it. The fine athletic figure of
John Hampden, M.P., raged up and down the office. Physical weakness or
suffering seemed to be strangers to him.

"I want you to rub it in thick," he shouted. "Make a picture of it
in to-morrow's _Chat_. It's exclusive information I am giving you.
Properly handled, there's enough coal in London to get over this
crisis. If it isn't properly handled, then some hundreds of families
are going to perish of cold and starvation. The State ought to have
power to commandeer these things in a crisis like this, and sell them
at a fair price--give them away if necessary. And now we have a handful
of rich men who mean to profit by a great public calamity. I mean Hayes
and Rhys-Smith and that lot. You've fallen foul of them before. I
want you to call upon the poorer classes not to stand this abominable
outrage. I want to go down to the House of Commons to-morrow afternoon
with some thousands of honest working-men behind me to demand that this
crime shall be stopped. No rioting, no violence, mind. The workman who
buys his coals by the hundredweight will be the worst off. If I have my
way, he won't suffer at all--he will just take what he wants."

Fisher's eyes gleamed with the light of battle. He was warm now and
the liberal dose of brandy had done its work. Here was a good special
and a popular one to his hand. The calamity of the blizzard and the
snow and the frost was bad enough, but the calamity of a failing coal
supply would be hideous. Legally, there was no way of preventing those
City bandits from making the most of their booty. But if a few thousand
working-men in London made up their minds to have coal, nothing could
prevent them.

"I'll do my best," Fisher exclaimed. "I'll take my coat off to the
job--figuratively, of course. There ought to be an exciting afternoon
sitting of the House to-morrow. On the whole I'm glad that Gough
dragged me out."

The _Chat_ was a little late to press, but seeing that anything like a
country edition was impossible, that made little difference. Fisher and
Gough had made the most of their opportunity. The ears of Messrs. Hayes
& Co. were likely to tingle over the _Chat_ in the morning.

Fisher finished at length with a sigh of satisfaction. Huddled up in
his overcoat and scarf he descended to the street. The cold struck more
piercingly than ever. A belated policeman so starved as to be almost
bereft of his senses asked for brandy--anything to keep frozen body and
soul together. Gough, secure in his grotesque sheepskin, had already
disappeared down the street.

"Come in," Fisher gasped. "It's dreadful. I was going home, but upon my
word I dare not face it. I shall sleep by the side of my office fire
to-night."

The man in blue slowly thawed out. His teeth chattered, his face was
ghastly blue.

"An' I'll beg a shelter too, sir," he said. "I shall get kicked out of
the force. I shall lose my pension. But what's the good of a pension to
an officer what's picked up frozen in the Strand?"

"That's logic," Fisher said sleepily. "And as to burglars----"

"Burglars! A night like this! I wish that the streets of London were
always as safe. If I might be allowed to make up the fire, sir----"

But Fisher was already asleep ranged up close alongside the fender.


IV.

The uneasy impression made by the _Chat_ special was soon confirmed
next morning. No coal was available at the wharves under three
shillings per hundredweight. Some of the poorer classes bought at the
price, but the majority turned away, muttering of vengeance, and deeply
disappointed.

Whatever way they went the same story assailed them. The stereotyped
reply was given at King's Cross, Euston, St. Pancras and in the
Caledonian Road. The situation had suddenly grown dangerous and
critical. The sullen, grotesque stream flowed back westward with a
headway towards Trafalgar Square. A good many sheepskins were worn, for
Gough's idea had become popular.

In some mysterious way it got abroad that John Hampden was going to
address a mass meeting. By half-past two Trafalgar Square and the
approaches thereto were packed. It was a little later that Hampden
appeared. There was very little cheering or enthusiasm, for it was too
cold. The crowd had no disposition to riot, all they wanted was for the
popular tribune to show them some way of getting coal--their one great
necessity--at a reasonable price.

Hampden, too, was singularly quiet and restrained. There was none
of the wildness that usually accompanied his oratory. He counselled
quietness and prudence. He pledged the vast gathering that before night
he would show a way of getting the coal. All he required was a vast
orderly crowd outside St. Stephen's where he was going almost at once
to interrogate Ministers upon the present crisis. There was a question
on the paper of which he had given the President of the Board of Trade
private notice. If nothing came of that he would know how to act.

There was little more, but that little to the point. An hour later a
dense mass of men had gathered about St. Stephen's. But they were grim
and silent and orderly.

For an ordinary afternoon sitting the House was exceeding full. As the
light fell on the square hard face of John Hampden a prosy bore prating
on some ubiquitous subject was howled down. A minute later and Hampden
rose.

He put his question clearly and to the point. Then he turned and
faced the modestly retiring forms of Mr. John Hayes and his colleague
Rhys-Smith, and for ten minutes they writhed under the lash of his
bitter invective. As far as he could gather from the very vague reply
of the Board of Trade representative, the Government were powerless to
act in the matter. A gang of financiers had deliberately chosen to put
money in their pockets out of the great misfortune that had befallen
London. Unless the new syndicate saw their way to bow to public
opinion----

"It is a business transaction," Hayes stammered. "We shall not give
way. If the Government likes to make a grant to the poorer classes----"

A yell of anger drowned the sentence. All parts of the House took
part in the heated demonstration. The only two cool heads there were
the Speaker and John Hampden. The First Lord rose to throw oil on the
troubled waters.

"There is a way out of it," he said presently. "We can pass a short
bill giving Parliament powers to acquire all fuel and provisions for
the public welfare in the face of crises like these. It was done on
similar lines in the Dynamite Bill. In two days the bill would be in
the Statute Book----"

"And in the meantime the poorer classes will be frozen," Hampden
cried. "The Leader of the House has done his best, he will see that
the bill becomes law. After to-night the working-people in London will
be prepared to wait till the law gives them the power to draw their
supplies without fear of punishment. But you can't punish a crowd like
the one outside. I am going to show the world what a few thousands of
resolute men can accomplish. If the two honourable members opposite are
curious to see how it is done let them accompany me, and I will offer
them a personal guarantee of safety."

He flung his hand wide to the House; he quitted his place and strode
out. Hayes rose to speak, but nobody listened. The dramatic episode
was at an end, and Hampden had promised another. Within a few minutes
the House was empty. Outside was the dense mass of silent, patient,
shivering humanity.

"Wonderful man, Hampden," the First Lord whispered to the President of
the Board of Trade; "wonder what he's up to now. If those people yonder
only knew their power! I should have more leisure then."


V.


Outside the House a great crowd of men, silent, grim, and determined,
waited for Hampden. A deep murmur floated over the mass as those
in front read from Hampden's face that he had failed so far as his
diplomacy was concerned.

His obstinate jaw was firmer, if possible; there was a gleam in his
deep-set eyes. So the greedy capitalists were going to have their pound
of flesh, they were not ashamed to grow fat on public misfortune.

Hampden stood there by the railings of Palace Yard and explained
everything in a short, curt speech.

[Illustration: Hampden stood there by the railings of Palace Yard and
explained everything in a short, curt speech.]

Only those who were in need of coal were present. But there would be
others to-morrow and the next day and so on. Then let them go and take
it. The thing must be done in a perfectly orderly fashion. There were
huge supplies at King's Cross, Euston, St. Pancras, in Caledonian Road,
amply sufficient to give a couple or so of hundredweight per head and
leave plenty over for the needs of others. Let them go and take it. Let
each man insist upon leaving behind him a voucher admitting that he had
taken away so much, or, if he had the money, put it down there and then
at the usual winter's rate per hundredweight. The method would be of
the rough rule of thumb kind, but it would be a guarantee of honesty
and respectability. There were but few military in London, and against
a force like that the police would be perfectly powerless. It was to be
a bloodless revolution and a vindication of the rights of men.

A constable stepped forward and touched Hampden on the shoulder. Most
of those near at hand knew what had happened. Hampden had been arrested
for inciting the mob to an illegal act. _He_ smiled grimly. After all,
the law had to be respected. With not the slightest sign of hostility
the great mass of people began to pass away. With one accord they
turned their faces to the North. The North-Western district was to be
invaded.

"Case for bail, I suppose?" Hampden asked curtly.

"Under certain conditions, sir," the inspector said. "I shall have
formally to charge you, and you will have to promise to take no further
part in this matter."

Hampden promised that readily enough. He had done his part of the work
so that the rest did not signify. He was looking tired and haggard now,
as well he might, seeing that he had been sitting up all night with
some scores of labour representatives planning this thing out. He made
a remark about it to Fisher who was standing by, mentally photographing
the great event.

Then he fastened upon Hampden eagerly.

"I want all the details," he said. "I wasn't so foolish as to regard
this thing as quite spontaneous. You must have worked like a horse."

"So we have," Hampden admitted. "Fact is, perils that might beset
Londoners have long been a favourite speculative study of mine. And
when a thing like this--be it famine, flood, or an Arctic winter--comes
we are certain to be the mark of the greedy capitalist. And I knew
that the Government would be powerless. Fuel, or the want of it, was
one of the very early ideas that occurred to me. I found out where
the big supplies were kept, and pretty well what the normal stock is.
I pigeon-holed those figures. You can imagine how useful they were
last night. There are some two hundred officials of Trades Unions with
yonder orderly mob, and every one of them knows exactly where to go.
There will be very little crowding or rioting or confusion. And before
dark everybody will have his coal."

Fisher followed with the deepest interest.

"Then you are going to leave the rest to your lieutenants?" he asked.

"I'm bound to. In a few minutes I shall be on my way to Bow Street.
Inciting to robbery, you know. No, there is no occasion to trouble--a
hundred men here will be willing to go bail for me. If I were _you_ I
should have been somewhere in the neighbourhood of King's Cross by this
time."

Fisher nodded and winked as he drew his sheepskin about him. He wore
a pair of grotesque old cavalry boots, the tops of which were stuffed
with cotton wool. A large woollen hood, such as old Highland women
wear, covered his head and ears. There were many legislators similarly
attired, but nobody laughed and nobody seemed to be in the least alive
to the humours of the situation.

"Come along," Fisher said to Gough, who was trying to warm the end of
his nose with a large cigar. "Seems a pity to waste all this album of
copy upon a paper without any circulation."

"What would have a circulation in this frost?" Gough growled. "How
deserted the place is! Seems shuddering to think that a man might fall
down in Trafalgar Square in the broad daylight and die of exposure, but
there it is. Hang me if the solitude isn't getting on my nerves."

Gough shivered as he pulled his sheepskin closer around him.

"This is getting a nightmare," he said. "We shall find ourselves
dodging Polar bears presently. It isn't gregarious enough for me. Let's
get along in the direction where Hampden's friends are."


VI.


Meanwhile the vast mob of London's workers was steadily pressing north.
There were hundreds of carts without wheels, which necessarily hampered
the rate of progression, but would save time in the long run, for there
were any number up to a dozen with each conveyance, seeing that various
neighbours were working upon the co-operation system.

Gradually the force began to break and turn in certain directions. It
became like an army marching upon given points by a score or more of
avenues. It was pretty well known that there were a couple of hundred
men amongst the multitude who knew exactly where to go and who had
instructions as to certain grimy goals.

They were breaking away in all directions now, quiet, steady, and
determined, covering a wide area from Caledonian Road to Euston, and
from Finsbury Park to King's Cross. They were so quiet and orderly that
only the crunch of the snow and the sound of heavy breathing could be
heard.

Near Euston Station the first sign of resistance was encountered. A
force of eighty police barred the way. The mob closed in. There was
no hot blood, no more than grim determination with a dash of sardonic
humour in it. A head or two was broken by the thrashing staves, but
the odds were too great. In five minutes the whole posse of constables
was disarmed, made secure by their own handcuffs and taken along as
honoured prisoners of war. Perhaps their sympathies were with the mob,
for they made nothing like so fine a fight of it as is usually the case.

Up by King's Cross Station a still larger force of police had massed,
and here there was some considerable amount of bloodshed. But there
were thousands of men within easy distance of the fray, and the white
silence of the place became black with swaying figures and the noise of
turmoil carried far. Finally the police were beaten back, squeezed in
between two vastly superior forces and surrendered at discretion.

The victory was easier than it seemed, for obviously the constables had
no heart for the work before them. Not a few of them were thinking of
their own firesides, and that they would be better off in the ranks of
their antagonists.

Meanwhile, many of the local municipalities were being urged to call
out the military. With one accord they declined to do anything of the
kind. It was the psychological moment when one touch of nature makes
the whole world akin. In the House of Commons, to the agonised appeal
of Hayes and his partner, the Secretary for War coldly preferred to be
unable to interfere unless the Mayor of this or that borough applied
for assistance after reading the Riot Act. The matter was in the hands
of the police, who would know how to act upon an emergency.

Hustled and bustled and pushed good-naturedly, Fisher and his colleague
found themselves at length beyond a pair of huge gates that opened
into a yard just beyond Euston Station. There was a large square area
and beyond three small mountains of coal, all carefully stacked in the
usual way. Before the welcome sight the stolid demeanour of the two
thousand men who had raided the yard fairly broke down. They threw up
their hands and laughed and cheered. They stormed the office of the big
coal company, who were ostensible owners of all that black wealth, and
dragged the clerks into the yard. From behind came the crash and rattle
of the wheel-less carts as they were dragged forward.

"No cause to be frightened," the man in command explained. "We're
here to buy that coal, one or two or three hundredweight each, as the
case may be, and you can have your money in cash or vouchers, as you
please. But we're going to have the stuff and don't you forget it. You
just stand by the gates and check us out. You'll have to guess a bit,
but that won't be any loss to you. And the price is eighteen pence a
hundredweight."

The three clerks grinned uneasily. At the same moment the same strange
scene was being enacted in over a hundred other coal-yards. Three or
four hundred men were already swarming over the big mound, there was a
crash and a rattle as the huge blocks fell, the air was filled with a
grimy, gritty black powder, every face was soon black with it.

Very soon there was a steady stream away from the radius of the coal
stacks. A big stream of coal carts went crunching over the hard, frozen
snow pulled by one or two or three men according to the load, or how
many had co-operated, and as they went along they sang and shouted
in their victory. It was disorderly, it was wrong, it was a direct
violation of the law, but man makes laws for man.

Gough and Fisher, passing down parallel with Euston Road, presently
found themselves suddenly in the thick of an excited mob. The doors
of a wharf had been smashed in, but in the centre of the yard stood a
resolute knot of men who had affixed a hose pipe to one of the water
mains and defied the marauders with vigorous invective. Just for a
moment there was a pause. The idea of being drenched from head to foot
with a thermometer verging upon zero was appalling. These men would
have faced fire, but the other death, for death it would mean, was
terrible.

[Illustration: In the centre of the yard stood a resolute knot of men
who had affixed a hose pipe to one of the water mains and defied the
marauders with vigorous invective.]

"Does that chap want to get murdered?" Fisher exclaimed. "If he does
that, they will tear him to pieces. I say, sir, are you mad?"

He pressed forward impulsively. Mistaking his intention, the man with
the hosepipe turned on the cock vigorously. A howl of rage followed.
But the dramatic touch was absent, not one spot of water came. A sudden
yell of laughter arose in time to save the life of the amateur fireman.

"The water is frozen in the mains," a voice cried.

It was even as the voice said. In a flash everything became commonplace
again. Fisher was very grave as he walked away.

"This is a calamity in itself," he said. "The water frozen in the
mains! By this time to-morrow there won't be a single drop available."


VII.


Inside the House a hot debate was in progress on the following day.
Martial law for London had been suggested. It was a chance for
the handful of cranks and faddists not to be neglected. It was an
interference with the liberty of the subject and all the rest of it.
The debate was still on at ten o'clock when Fisher came back languidly
to the Press gallery. At eleven one of the champion bores was still
speaking. Suddenly an electric thrill ran through the House.

The dreary orator paused--perhaps he was getting a little tired of
himself. Something dramatic had happened. There was the curious tense
atmosphere that causes a tightening of the chest and a gripping of the
throat before actual knowledge comes. Heedless of all decorum, a member
stood behind the Speaker's chair, and called aloud:

[Illustration: The Hotel Cecil in flames.]

"The Hotel Cecil is on fire!" he yelled. "The place is well ablaze!"

Fisher darted from the gallery into the yard. Even the prosy
Demosthenes collapsed in the midst of his oration, and hurried out of
the House. There was no occasion to tell anybody what the magnitude of
the disaster meant. Everybody knew that in the face of such a disaster
the fire brigade would be useless.

In the Strand and along the approaches thereto, along the Embankment
and upon the bridges, a dense mass of humanity had gathered. They were
muffled in all sorts of strange and grotesque garments, but they did
not seem to heed the piercing cold.

In the Strand it was as light as day. A huge column of red and white
flame shot far into the sky, the steady roar of the blaze was like surf
on a stony beach. There was a constant crackle like musketry fire.

The magnificent hotel, one of the boldest and most prominent features
of the Strand and the Thames Embankment, was absolutely doomed. Now and
then the great showers of falling sparks would flutter and catch some
adjacent woodwork but all the roofs around were covered with firemen
who beat out the flames at once. Tons of snow were conveyed up the fire
escapes and by means of hastily rigged up pullies, so that gradually
the adjacent buildings became moist and cool. But for this merciful
presence of the snow, the south side of the Strand from Wellington
Street to Charing Cross might have passed into history.

As it was now, unless something utterly unforeseen occurred, the great
calamity had been averted. There was still much for the firemen to do.

"Let's get back to the office," Fisher said, with chattering teeth. "I
would sell my kingdom for a little hot brandy. I hope the next blizzard
we get we shall be more prepared for. I suppose that out in the States
they would make nothing of this. And we haven't got a single snow
plough worthy of the name this side of Edinburgh."

"We are ready for nothing," Gough grumbled. "If there had been a wind
to-night, nothing could have saved the Strand. The disaster may occur
again; indeed, there is certain to be a fire, half-a-dozen fires,
before daybreak. Given a good stiff breeze and where would London be?
It makes one giddy to think of it."

Gough said nothing. It was too cold even to think. Gradually the two of
them thawed out before the office fire. A languid sub came in with a
pile of flimsies. Quite as languidly Gough turned them over. His eyes
gleamed.

"My word," he gasped. "I hope this is true. They've had two days'
deluge in New York. We are to keep our eyes open for strong Westerly
gales with a deep depression----"

For the next two hours Fisher bent over his desk. The room seemed
warmer. Perhaps it was the brandy. He took off his sheepskin and then
his overcoat below. Presently a little bead of moisture grew on his
forehead. He drew a little further from the fire. He felt stifling and
faint, a desire for air came over him.

A little doubtful of his own condition he almost shamefacedly opened
the window. The air was cold and fresh and revived him, but it was not
the steely, polished, murderous air of the last few days. Somebody
passing over the snow below slipped along with a peculiar soaking
soddened sound.

Fisher craned his head out of the window. Something moist fell on the
nape of his neck. He yelled for Gough almost hysterically. Gough also
was devoid of his overcoat.

"I thought it was fancy," he said unsteadily.

Fisher answered nothing. The strain was released, he breathed freely.
And outside the whole, white, silent world was dripping, dripping,
dripping----


 (_Next month Mr. White will tell the story of the "Four Days' Night."
 He will depict London under the pall of a frightful fog. It is
 another of the dangers that at any time might come upon London._)



[Illustration]


THE FOUR DAYS' NIGHT.

The Story of a London Fog that turned Daylight into Darkness for Four
Days.


I.

The weather forecast for London and the Channel was "light airs, fine
generally, milder." Further down the fascinating column Hackness read
that "the conditions over Europe generally favoured a continuance
of the large anti-cyclonic area, the barometer steadily rising over
Western Europe, sea smooth, readings being unusually high for this time
of the year."

Martin Hackness, B.Sc., London, thoughtfully read all this and more.
The study of the meteorological reports was part of his religion
almost. In the laboratory at the back of his sitting-room were all
kinds of weird-looking instruments for measuring sunshine and wind
pressure, the weight of atmosphere and the like. Hackness trusted
before long to be able to foretell a London fog with absolute
accuracy, which, when you come to think of it, would be an exceedingly
useful matter. In his queer way Hackness described himself as a fog
specialist. He hoped some day to prove himself a fog-disperser, which
is another word for a great public benefactor.

The chance he was waiting for seemed to have come at last. November had
set in, mild and dull and heavy. Already there had been one or two of
the dense fogs under which London periodically groans and does nothing
to avert. Hackness was clear-sighted enough to see a danger here that
might some day prove a hideous national disaster. So far as he could
ascertain from his observations and readings, London was in for another
dense fog within the next four-and-twenty hours. Unless he was greatly
mistaken, the next fog was going to be a particularly thick one. He
could see the yellow mists gathering in Gower Street, as he sat at his
breakfast.

The door flew open and a man rushed in without even an apology. He was
a little man, with sharp, clean-shaven features, an interrogative nose
and assertive _pince-nez_. He was not unlike Hackness, minus his calm
ruminative manner. He fluttered a paper in his hand like a banner.

"It's come, Hackness," he cried. "It was bound to come sometime. It's
all here in a late edition of the Telegraph. We must go and see it."

He flung himself into an armchair.

"Do you remember," he said, "the day in the winter of 1898, the day
that petroleum ship exploded? You and I were playing golf together on
the Westgate links."

Hackness nodded eagerly.

"I shall never forget it, Eldred," he said, "though I have forgotten
the name of the ship. She was a big iron boat, and she caught fire
about daybreak. Of her captain and her crew not one fragment was ever
found."

"It was perfectly still and the effect of that immense volume of dense
black smoke was marvellous. Do you recollect the scene at sunset? It
was like looking at half-a-dozen Alpine ranges piled one on the top of
the other. The spectacle was not only grand, it was appalling, awful.
Do you happen to recollect what you said at the time?"

There was something in Eldred's manner that roused Hackness.

"Perfectly well," he cried. "I pictured that awful canopy of sooty,
fatty matter suddenly shut down over a great city by a fog. A fog would
have beaten it down and spread it. We tried to imagine what might
happen if that ship had been in the Thames, say at Greenwich."

"Didn't you prophesy a big fog for to-day?"

"Certainly I did. And a recent examination of my instruments merely
confirms my opinion. Why do you ask?"

"Because early this morning a fire broke out in the great petroleum
storage tanks, down the river. Millions of gallons of oil are bound
to burn themselves out--nothing short of a miracle can quench the
fire, which will probably rage all through to-day and to-morrow. The
fire-brigades are absolutely powerless--in the first place the heat is
too awful to allow them to approach; in the second, water would only
make things worse. It's one of the biggest blazes ever known. Pray
Heaven, your fog doesn't settle down on the top of the smoke."

Hackness turned away from his unfinished breakfast and struggled into
an overcoat. There was a peril here that London little dreamt of. Out
in the yellow streets newsboys were yelling of the conflagration down
the Thames. People were talking of the disaster in a calm frame of mind
between the discussion of closer personal matters.

"There's always the chance of a breeze springing up," Hackness
muttered. "If it does, well and good, if not--but come along. We'll
train it from Charing Cross."

A little way down the river the mist curtain lifted. A round magnified
sun looked down upon a dun earth. Towards the South-east a great black
column rose high in the sky. The column appeared to be absolutely
motionless; it broadened from an inky base like a grotesque mushroom.

"Fancy trying to breathe _that_," Eldred muttered. "Just think of
the poison there. I wonder what that dense mass would weigh in tons.
And it's been going on for five hours now. There's enough there to
suffocate all London."

Hackness made no reply. On the whole he was wishing himself well
out of it. That pillar of smoke would rise for many more hours yet.
At the same time here was his great opportunity. There were certain
experiments that he desired to make and for which all things were ready.

They reached the scene of the catastrophe. Within a radius of five
hundred yards the heat was intense. Nobody seemed to know the cause of
the disaster beyond the general opinion that the oil gases had ignited.
And nothing could be done. No engine could approach near enough to do
any good. Those mighty tanks and barrels filled with petroleum would
have to burn themselves out.

The sheets of flame roared and sobbed. Above the flames rose the column
of thick black smoke, with just the suspicion of a slight stagger
to the westward. The inky vapour spread overhead like a pall. If
Hackness's fog came now it meant a terrible disaster for London.

Further out in the country, where the sun was actually shining, people
watched that great cloud with fearsome admiration. From a few miles
beyond the radius it looked as if all the ranges of the world had been
piled atop of London. The fog was gradually spreading along the South
of the Thames, and away as far as Barnet to the North.

There was something in the stillness and the gloom that London did not
associate with ordinary fogs.

Hackness turned away at length, conscious of his sketchy breakfast and
the fact that he had been watching this thrilling spectacle for two
hours.

"Have you thought of a way out?" Eldred asked. "What are you going to
do?"

"Lunch," Hackness said curtly. "After that I propose to see to my
arrangements in Regent's Park. I've got Grimfern's aeroplane there, and
a pretty theory about high explosives. The difficulty is to get the
authorities to consent to the experiments. The police have absolutely
forbidden experiments with high explosives, fired in the air above
London. But perhaps I shall frighten them into it this time. Nothing
would please me better than to see a breeze spring up, and yet on the
other hand----"

"Then you are free to-night?" Eldred asked.

"No, I'm not. Oh, there will be plenty of time. I'm going with Sir
Edgar Grimfern, and his daughter to see Irving, that is if it is
possible for anyone to _see_ Irving to-night. I've got the chance of a
lifetime at hand, but I wish that it was well over, Eldred my boy. If
you come round about midnight----"

"I'll be sure to," Eldred said eagerly. "I'm going to be in this thing.
And I want to know all about that explosive idea."


II.


Martin Hackness dressed with less than his usual care that evening. He
even forgot that Miss Cynthia Grimfern had a strong prejudice in favour
of black evening ties, and, usually, he paid a great deal of deference
to her opinions. But he was thinking of other matters now.

There was no sign of anything abnormal as Hackness drove along in the
direction of Clarence Terrace. The night was more than typically yellow
for the time of year, but there was no kind of trouble with the traffic
though down the river the fairway lay under a dense bank of cloud.

Hackness sniffed the air eagerly. He detected or thought he detected
a certain acrid suggestion in the atmosphere. As the cab approached
Trafalgar Square Hackness could hear shouts and voices raised high in
protestation. Suddenly his cab seemed to be plunged into a wall of
darkness.

It was so swift and unexpected that it came with the force of a blow.
The horse appeared to have trotted into a bank of dense blackness. The
wall had shut down so swiftly, blotting out a section of London, that
Hackness could only gaze at it with mouth wide open.

Hackness hopped out of his cab hurriedly. So sheer and stark was the
black wall that the horse was out of sight. Mechanically the driver
reined back. The horse came back to the cab with the dazzling swiftness
of a conjuring trick. A thin stream of breeze wandered from the
direction of Whitehall. It was this air finding its way up the funnel
formed by the sheet that cut off the fog to a razor edge.

"Been teetotal for eighteen years," the cabman muttered, "so _that's_
all right. And what do you please to make of it, sir?"

Hackness muttered something incoherent. As he stood there, the black
wall lifted like a stage curtain, and he found himself under the lee of
an omnibus. In a dazed kind of way he patted the cabhorse on the flank.
He looked at his hand. It was greasy and oily and grimy as if he had
been in the engine-room of a big liner.

"Get on as fast as you can," he cried. "It was fog, just a little
present from the burning petroleum. Anyway, it's gone now."

True, the black curtain had lifted, but the atmosphere reeked with
the odour of burning oil. The lamps and shop windows were splashed
and mottled with something that might have passed for black snow.
Traffic had been brought to a standstill for the moment, eager knots
of pedestrians were discussing the situation with alarm and agitation,
a man in evening dress was busily engaged in a vain attempt to remove
sundry black patches from his shirt front.

Sir Edgar Grimfern was glad to see his young friend. Had Grimfern been
comparatively poor, and less addicted to big game shooting, he would
doubtless have proved a great scientific light. Anything with a dash of
adventure fascinated him. He was enthusiastic on flying machines and
aeroplanes generally. There were big work-shops at the back of 119,
Clarence Terrace, where Hackness put in a good deal of his spare time.
Those two were going to startle the world presently.

Hackness shook hands thoughtfully with Cynthia Grimfern. There was a
slight frown on her pretty intellectual face as she noted his tie.

"There's a large smut on it," she remarked, "and it serves you right."

Hackness explained. He had a flattering audience. He told of the
strange happening in Trafalgar Square and the majestic scene on the
river. He gave a graphic account of the theory that he had built upon
it. There was an animated discussion all through dinner.

"The moral of which is that we are going to be plunged into Cimmerian
darkness," Cynthia said, "that is, _if_ the fog comes down. If you
think you are going to frighten me out of my evening's entertainment
you are mistaken."

All the same it had grown much darker and thicker as the trio drove
off in the direction of the Lyceum Theatre. There were patches of
dark acrid fog here and there like ropes of smoke into which figures
passed and disappeared only to come out on the other side choking
and coughing. So local were these swathes of fog that in a wide
thoroughfare it was possible to partially avoid them. Festoons of
vapour hung from one lamp-post to another, the air was filled with a
fatty sickening odour.

"How nasty," Cynthia exclaimed. "Mr. Hackness, please close that
window. I am almost sorry that we started. What's that?"

There was a shuffling movement under the seat of the carriage, the
quick bark of a dog; Cynthia's little fox terrier had stolen into the
brougham. It was a favourite trick of his, the girl explained.

"He'll go back again," she said. "Kim knows that he has done wrong."

That Kim was forgotten and discovered later on coiled up under the
stall of his mistress was a mere detail. Hackness was too preoccupied
to feel any uneasiness. He was only conscious that the electric lights
were growing dim and yellow, and that a brown haze was coming between
the auditorium and the stage. When the curtain fell on the third act it
was hardly possible to see across the theatre. Two or three large heavy
blots of some greasy matter fell on to the white shoulders of a lady in
the stalls to be hastily wiped away by her companion. They left a long
greasy smear behind.

"I can hardly breathe," Cynthia gasped. "I wish I had stopped at home.
Surely those electric lights are going out."

But the lights were merely being wrapped in a filament that every
moment grew more and more dense. As the curtain went up again there was
just the suspicion of a draught from the back of the stage, and the
whole of it was smothered in a small brown cloud that left absolutely
nothing to the view. It was impossible now to make out a single word of
the programme, even when it was held close to the eyes.

"Hackness was right," Grimfern growled. "We had far better have stayed
at home."

Hackness said nothing. He had no pride in the accuracy of his forecast.
Perhaps he was the only man in London who knew what the full force of
this catastrophe meant. It grew so dark now that he could see no more
than the mere faint suggestion of his fair companion, something was
falling out of the gloom like black ragged snow. As the pall lifted
just for an instant he could see the dainty dresses of the women
absolutely smothered with the thick oily smuts. The reek of petroleum
was stifling.

There was a frightened scream from behind, and a yell out of the ebony
wall to the effect that somebody had fainted. Someone was speaking from
the stage with a view to stay what might prove to be a dangerous panic.
Another sombre wave filled the theatre and then it grew absolutely
black, so black that a match held a foot or so from the nose could not
be seen. One of the plagues of Egypt with all its horrors had fallen
upon London.

"Let us try and make our way out," Hackness suggested. "Go quietly."

Others seemed to be moved by the same idea. It was too black and
dark for anything like a rush, so that a dangerous panic was out of
the question. Slowly but surely the fashionable audience reached the
vestibule, the hall, and the steps.

Nothing to be seen, no glimmer of anything, no sound of traffic. The
destroying angel might have passed over London and blotted out all
human life. The magnitude of the disaster had frightened London's
millions as it fell.


III.


A city of the blind! Six millions of people suddenly deprived of sight!

The disaster sounds impossible--a nightmare, the wild vapourings of a
diseased imagination--and yet why not? Given a favourable atmospheric
condition, something colossal in the way of a fire, and there it is.
And there, somewhere folded away in the book of Nature, is the simple
remedy.

Such thoughts as these flashed through Hackness's mind as he stood
under the portico of the Lyceum Theatre, quite helpless and inert for
the moment.

But the darkness was thicker and blacker than anything he had ever
imagined. It was absolutely the darkness that could be felt. Hackness
could hear the faint scratching of matches all around him, but there
was no glimmer of light anywhere. And the atmosphere was thick,
stifling, greasy. Yet it was not quite as stifling as perfervid
imagination suggested. The very darkness suggested suffocation. Still,
there was air, a sultry light breeze that set the murk in motion, and
mercifully brought from some purer area the oxygen that made life
possible. There was always air, thank God, to the end of the Four Days'
Night.

Nobody spoke for a time. Not a sound of any kind could be heard. It was
odd to think that a few miles away the country might be sleeping under
the clear stars. It was terrible to think that hundreds of thousands of
people must be standing lost in the streets and yet near to home.

A little way off a dog whined, a child in a sweet refined voice cried
that she was lost. An anxious mother called in reply. The little one
had been forgotten in the first flood of that awful darkness. By sheer
good luck Hackness was enabled to locate the child. He could feel that
her wraps were rich and costly, though the same fatty slime was upon
them. He caught the child up in his arms and yelled that he had got
her. The mother was close by, yet full five minutes elapsed before
Hackness blundered upon her. Something was whining and fawning about
his feet.

He called upon Grimfern, and the latter answered in his ear. Cynthia
was crying pitifully and helplessly. Some women there were past that.

"For Heaven's sake tell us what we are to do," Grimfern gasped. "I
flatter myself that I know London well, but I couldn't find my way home
in this."

Something was licking Hackness's hand. It was the dog Kim. There was
just a chance here. He tore his handkerchief in strips and knotted it
together. One end he fastened to the little dog's collar.

"It's Kim," he explained. "Tell the dog 'home.' There's just a chance
that he may lead you home. We're very wonderful creatures, but one
sensible dog is worth a million of us to-night. Try it."

"And where are you going?" Cynthia asked. She spoke high, for a babel
of voices had broken out. "What will become of you?"

"Oh, I am all right," Hackness said with an affected cheerfulness.
"You see, I was fairly sure that this would happen sooner or later.
So I pigeon-holed a way of dealing with the difficulty. Scotland Yard
listened, but thought me a bore all the same. This is the situation
where I come in."

Grimfern touched the dog and urged him forward.

Kim gave a little bark and a whine. His muscular little body strained
at the leash.

"It's all right," Grimfern cried. "Kim understands. That queer little
pill-box of a brain of his is worth the finest intellect in England
to-night."

Cynthia whispered a faint good-night, and Hackness was alone. As he
stood there in the blackness the sense of suffocation was overwhelming.
He essayed to smoke a cigarette, but he hadn't the remotest idea
whether the thing was alight or not. It had no taste or flavour.

But it was idle to stand there. He must fight his way along to Scotland
Yard to persuade the authorities to listen to his ideas. There was not
the slightest danger of belated traffic, no sane man would have driven
a horse in such dense night. Hackness blundered along without the
faintest idea to which point of the compass he was facing.

If he could only get his bearings he felt that he should be all right.
He found his way into the Strand at length; he fumbled up against
someone and asked where he was. A hoarse voice responded that the owner
fancied it was somewhere in Piccadilly. There were scores of people
in the streets standing about talking desperately, absolute strangers
clinging to one another for sheer craving for company to keep the
frayed senses together. The most fastidious clubman there would have
chummed with the toughest Hooligan rather than have his own thoughts
for company.

Hackness pushed his way along. If he got out of his bearings he adopted
the simple experiment of knocking at the first door he came to and
asking where he was. His reception was not invariably enthusiastic, but
it was no time for nice distinctions. And a deadly fear bore everybody
down.

At last he came to Scotland Yard, as the clocks proclaimed that it
was half-past one. Ghostly official voices told Hackness the way to
Inspector Williamson's office, stern officials grasped him by the arm
and piloted him up flights of stairs. He blundered over a chair and sat
down. Out of the black cavern of space Inspector Williamson spoke.

"I am thankful you have come. You are just the man I most wanted to
see. I want my memory refreshed over that scheme of yours," he said. "I
didn't pay very much attention to it at the time."

"Of course you didn't. Did you ever know an original prophet who wasn't
laughed at? Still, I don't mind confessing that I hardly anticipated
anything quite so awful as this. The very density of it makes some
parts of my scheme impossible. We shall have to shut our teeth and
endure it. Nothing really practical can be done so long as this fog
lasts."

"But, man alive, how long _will_ it last?"

"Perhaps an hour or perhaps a week. Do you grasp what an awful calamity
faces us?"

Williamson had no reply. So long as the fog lasted, London was in a
state of siege, and, not only this, but every house in it was a fort,
each depending upon itself for supplies. No bread could be baked, no
meal could be carried round, no milk or vegetables delivered so long as
the fog remained. Given a day or two of this and thousands of families
would be on the verge of starvation. It was not a pretty picture that
Hackness drew, but Williamson was bound to agree with every word of it.

These two men sat in the darkness till what should have been the dawn,
whilst scores of subordinates were setting some sort of machinery in
motion to preserve order.

Hackness stumbled home to his rooms about nine o'clock in the morning,
without having succeeded in persuading the officials to grant him
permission to experiment. Mechanically he felt for his watch to see the
time. The watch was gone. Hackness smiled grimly. The predatory classes
had not been quite blind to the advantages of the situation.

There was no breakfast for Hackness for the simple reason that it had
been found impossible to light the kitchen fire. But there was a loaf
of bread, some cheese, and a knife. Hackness fumbled for his bottled
beer and a glass. There were many worse breakfasts in London that
morning.

He woke presently, conscious that a clock was striking nine. After some
elaborate thought and the asking of a question or two from another
inmate of the house, Hackness found to his horror that he had slept
the clock round nearly twice. It was nine o'clock in the morning,
twenty-three hours since he had fallen asleep! And, so far as Hackness
could judge, there were no signs of the fog's abatement.

He changed his clothes and washed the greasy slime off him so far as
cold water and soap would allow. There were plenty of people in the
streets, hunting for food for the most part; there were tales of people
found dead in the gutters. Progression was slow, but the utter absence
of traffic rendered it safe and possible. Men spoke with bated breath,
the weight of the great calamity upon them.

News that came from a few miles outside the radius spoke of clear
skies and bright sunshine. There was a great deal of sickness, and the
doctors had more than they could manage, especially with the young and
the delicate.

And the calamity looked like getting worse. Six million people were
breathing what oxygen there was. Hackness returned to his chambers to
find Eldred awaiting him.

"This can't go on, you know," the latter said tersely.

"Of course it can't," Hackness replied. "All the air is getting
exhausted. Come with me down to Scotland Yard and help to try and
persuade Williamson to test my experiment."

"What! Do you mean to say he is still obstinate?"

"Well, perhaps he feels different to-day. Come along."

Williamson was in a chastened frame of mind. He had no optimistic words
when Hackness suggested that nothing less than a violent meteorological
disturbance would clear the deadly peril of the fog away. It was time
for drastic remedies, and if they failed things would be no worse than
before.

"But can you manage it?" Williamson asked.

"I fancy so," Hackness replied. "It's a risk, of course, but everything
has been ready for a long time. We could start after to-morrow
midnight, or any time for that matter."

"Very well," Williamson sighed with the air of a man who realises that
after all the tooth must come out. "If this produces a calamity I shall
be asked to send in my resignation. If I refuse----"

"If you refuse there is more than a chance that you won't want another
situation," Hackness said grimly. "Let's get the thing going, Eldred."

They crawled along through the black suffocating darkness, feeble,
languid, and sweating at every pore. There was a murky closeness in the
vitiated atmosphere that seemed to take all the strength and energy
away. At any other time the walk to Clarence Terrace would have been a
pleasure, now it was a penance. They found their objective after a deal
of patience and trouble. Hackness yelled in the doorway. There was a
sound of footsteps and Cynthia Grimfern spoke.

"Ah, what a relief it is to know that you are all right," she said. "I
pictured all sorts of horrors happening to you. Will this never end,
Martin?"

She cried softly in her distress. Hackness felt for her hand and
pressed it tenderly.

"We are going to try my great theory," he said. "Eldred is with me,
and we have got Williamson's permission to operate with the aerophane.
Where is Sir Edgar?"

Grimfern was in the big workshop in the garden. As best he could, he
was fumbling over some machinery for the increase of power in electric
lighting. Hackness took a queer-looking lamp with double reflectors
from his pocket.

"Shut off that dynamo," he said, "and give me the flex. I've got a
little idea here Bramley, the electrician, lent me. With that 1000-volt
generator of yours I can get a light equal to 40,000 candles. There."

Flick went the switch, and the others staggered back with their hands
to their eyes. The great volume of light, impossible to face under
ordinary circumstances, illuminated the workshop with a faint glow
like a winter's dawn. It was sufficient for all practical purpose, but
to eyes that had seen absolutely nothing for two days and nights very
painful.

[Illustration: The great volume of light, impossible to face under
ordinary circumstances, illuminated the workshop with a faint glow.]

Cynthia laughed hysterically. She saw the men grimed and dirty,
blackened and greasy, as if they were fresh from a stoker's hole in a
tropical sea. They saw a tall, graceful girl in the droll parody of a
kitchen-maid who had wiped a tearful face with a blacklead brush.

But they could _see_. Along the whole floor of the workshop lay a
queer, cigar-shaped instrument with grotesque wings and a tail like
that of a fish, but capable of being turned in any direction. It seemed
a problem to get this strange-looking monster out of the place, but as
the whole of the end of the workshop was constructed to pull out, the
difficulty was not great.

This was Sir Edgar Grimfern's aerophane, built under his own eyes and
with the assistance of Hackness and Eldred.

"It will be a bit of risk in the dark," Sir Edgar said thoughtfully.

"It will, sir, but I hope it will mean the saving of a great city,"
Hackness remarked. "We shall have no difficulty in getting up, and
as to the getting down, don't forget that the atmosphere a few miles
beyond the outskirts of London is quite clear. If only the explosives
are strong enough!"

"Don't theorise," Eldred snapped. "We've got a good day's work before
we start. And there is no time to be lost."

"Luncheon first," Sir Edgar suggested, "served in here. It will be
plain and cold; but, thank goodness, there is plenty of it. My word,
after that awful darkness what a blessed thing light is once more!"

       *       *       *       *       *

Two hours after midnight the doors of the workshop were pulled away and
the aerophane was dragged on its carriage into the garden. The faint
glimmer of light only served to make the blackness all the thicker.
The three men waved their hands silently to Cynthia and jumped in.
A few seconds later and they were whirred and screwed away into the
suffocating fog.


IV.


London was holding out doggedly and stolidly. Scores of houses watched
and waited for missing ones who would never return, the streets and the
river had taken their toll, in open spaces, in the parks, and on the
heaths many were shrouded. But the long black night held its secret
well. There had been some ruffianism and plundering at first. But what
was the use of plunder to the thief who could not dispose of his booty,
who could not exchange a rare diamond for so much as a mouthful of
bread? Some of them could not even find their way home, they had to
remain in the streets where there was the dread of the lifting blanket
and the certainty of punishment with the coming of the day.

But if certain houses mourned the loss of inmates, some had more than
their share. Belated women, frightened business girls, caught in the
fog had sought the first haven at hand, and there they were free to
remain. There were sempstresses in Mayfair, and delicately-nurtured
ladies in obscure Bloomsbury boarding-houses. Class distinction seemed
to be remote as the middle ages.

Scotland Yard, the local authorities, and the County Council had worked
splendidly together. Provisions were short, though a good deal of bread
and milk had with greatest difficulty been imported from outside the
radius of the scourge. Still the poor were suffering acutely, and the
cries of frightened children were heard in every street. A few days
more and the stoutest nerves must give way. Nobody could face such a
blackness and retain their senses for long. London was a city of the
blind. Sleep was the only panacea for the creeping madness.

There were few deeds of violence done. The most courageous, the most
bloodthirsty man grew mild and gentle before the scourge. Desperate
men prowled about in search of food, but they wanted nothing else.
Certainly they would not have attempted violence to get it.

Alarmists predicted that in a few hours life in London would be
impossible. For once they had reason on their side. Every hour the air,
or what passed for air, grew more poisonous. Men fancied a city with
six million corpses!

The calamity would kill big cities altogether. No great mass of people
would ever dare to congregate together again where manufacturers made
a hideous atmosphere overhead. It would be a great check upon the race
for gold. There was much justification for this morbid condition of
public feeling.

So the third long weary day dragged to an end, and people went to bed
in the old mechanical fashion hoping for better signs in the morning.
How many weary years since they had last seen the sunshine, colour,
anything?

There was a change from the black monotony some time after dawn. Most
people had nearly lost all sense of time when dawn ought to have been.
People were struggling back to their senses again, trying to pierce the
thick curtain that held everything in bondage. Doors were opened and
restless ones passed into the street.

Suddenly there was a smiting shock from somewhere, a deafening
splitting roar in the ears, and central London shivered. It was as if
some mighty explosion had taken place in space, and as if the same
concussion had been followed by a severe shock of earthquake.

Huge buildings shook and trembled, furniture was overturned, and from
every house came the smash of glass. Was this merely a fog or some
thick curtain that veiled the approaching dissolution of the world?
People stood still, trembling and wondering. And before the question
was answered, a strange thing, a modern miracle happened. A great arc
of the blackness peeled off and stripped the daylight bare before their
startled eyes.


V.


The work was full of a real live peril, but the aerophane was cast
loose at length. Its upward motion was slow, perhaps owing to the
denseness of the atmosphere.

For some time nobody spoke. Something seemed to oppress their
breathing. They were barely conscious of the faint upward motion. If
they only rose perfectly straight all would be well.

"That's a fine light you had in the workshop," said Eldred. "But why
not have established a few hundreds of them----"

"All over London," Hackness cut in. "For the simple reason that the
lamp my friend lent me is the only one in existence. It is worked at a
dangerous voltage too."

The upward motion continued. The sails of the aerophane rustled
slightly. Grimfern drew a deep breath.

"Air," he gasped, "real pure fresh air! Do you notice it?"

The cool sweetness of it filled their lungs. The sudden effect was
almost intoxicating. A wild desire to laugh and shout and sing came
over them. Then gradually three human faces and a ghostly shaped
aerophane emerged out of nothingness. They could see one another
plainly now; they felt the upward rush; they were passing through a
misty envelope that twisted and curled like live ropes. Another minute
and they were beyond the fog belt.

They looked at one another and laughed. All three of them were
blackened and grimed and greasy, smothered from head to foot in fatty
soot flakes. Three more disreputable looking ruffians it would have
been hard to imagine. There was something grotesque in the reflection
that every Londoner was the same.

It was light now, broad daylight, with a round globe of sun climbing up
out of the pearly mists in the East. They revelled in the brightness
and the light. Below them lay the thick layers of fog that would be a
shroud in earnest if nothing came to dispel it.

"We're a thousand feet above the city," Eldred said presently. "We had
better pay out five hundred feet of cable."

To a hook at the end of a flexible wire Hackness attached a large
bomb filled with a certain high explosive. Through the eye of the
hook another wire--an electric one--was attached. The whole thing was
carefully lowered to the full extent of the cable. Two anxious faces
peered from the car. Grimfern appeared to be playing carelessly with a
polished switch spliced into the wire. But his hands were shaking.

Eldred nodded. He had no words to spare just then.

Grimfern's forefinger pressed the polished button, there was a snap
and almost immediately a roar and a rush of air that set the aerophane
rocking violently. All about them the clouds were spinning, below the
foggy envelope was twisted and torn as smoke is blown away from a huge
stack by a high wind.

"Look," Hackness yelled. "Look at that!"

[Illustration: The brilliant light of day shone through down into
London as from a gigantic skylight.]

He pointed downwards. The force of the explosion had literally torn
a hole in the dense foggy curtain. The brilliant light of day shone
through down into London as from a gigantic skylight.

This is what the amazed inhabitants of central London saw as they
rushed out of their houses after what they imagined to be a shock of
earthquake. The effect was weird, wonderful, one never to be forgotten.
From a radius of half a mile from St. Paul's, London was flooded with
brilliant light. People rubbed their eyes, unable to face the sudden
and blinding glare. They gasped and thrilled with exultation as a
column of fresh sweet air rushed to fill the vacuum. As yet they knew
nothing of the cause. That brilliant shaft of light showed strange
things. Every pavement was black as ink, the fronts of the houses
looked as if they had been daubed over with pitch. The roads were dark
with fatty soot. On Ludgate Hill were dozens of vehicles from which the
horses had been detached. There were numerous motor cars apparently
lacking owners. A pickpocket sat in the gutter with a pile of costly
trinkets about him, gems that glittered in the mud. These things had
been collected before the fog grew beyond endurance. Now they were
about as useful to the thief as an elephant might have been.

At the end of five minutes the curtain fell again. The flying,
panic-stricken pickpocket huddled down once more with a frightened
curse.

But London was no longer alarmed. A passing glimpse of the aerophane
had been seen, and better informed folks knew what was taking place.
Presently another explosion followed, tearing the curtain away over
Hampstead; for the next two hours the explosions continued at short
intervals. There were tremendous outbursts of cheering whenever the
relief came.

Presently a little light seemed to be coming. Ever and again it was
possible for a man to see his hands before his face. Above the fog
banks a wrack of cloud had gathered, the aerophane was coated with a
glittering mist. An hour before it had been perfectly fair overhead.
Then it began to rain in earnest. The constant explosions had summoned
up and brought down the rain as the heavy discharge of artillery used
to do in the days of the Boer War.

It came down in a drenching stream that wetted the occupants of the
aerophane to the skin. They did not seem to mind. The exhilaration of
the fresh sweet air was still in their veins, they worked on at their
bombs till the last ounce of the high explosives was exhausted.

And the rain was falling over London. Wherever a hole was torn in the
curtain, the rain was seen to fall--black rain as thick as ink and
quite as disfiguring. The whole city wore a suit of mourning.

[Illustration: Wherever a hole was torn in the curtain, the rain was
seen to fall.]

"The cloud is passing away." Eldred cried. "I can see the top of St.
Paul's."

Surely enough, the cross seemed to lift skyward. Bit by bit and inch by
inch the panorama of London slowly unfolded itself. Despite the sooty
flood--a flood gradually growing cleaner and sweeter every moment--the
streets were filled with people gazing up in fascination at the
aerophane.

The tumult of their cheers came upwards. It was their thanks for
the forethought and scientific knowledge that had proved to be the
salvation of London. As a matter of fact, the high explosives had only
been the indirect means of preserving countless lives. The conjuring
up of that heavy rain had been the real salvation. It had condensed
the fog and beaten it down to earth in a sooty flow of water. It was a
heavy, sloppy, gloomy day, such as London ever enjoys the privilege of
grumbling over, but nobody grumbled now. The blessed daylight had come
back, it was possible to fill the lungs with something like pure air
once more, and to realise the simple delight of living.

Nobody minded the rain, nobody cared an atom for the knowledge that
he was a little worse and a little more grimy than the dirtiest sweep
alive. What did it matter so long as everybody was alike? Looking down,
the trio in the aerophane could see London grow mad, grave men skipping
about in the rain like school-boys at the first fall of snow.

"We had better get down," said Grimfern. "Otherwise we shall have an
ovation ready for us, and, personally, I should prefer a breakfast. In
a calm like this we need not have any difficulty in making Regent's
Park safely."

The valve was opened and the great car dropped like a flashing bird.
They saw the rush in the streets, they could hear the tramp of feet
now. They dropped at length in what looked like a yelling crowd of
demented Hottentots.


VI.


The aerophane was safely housed once more, the yelling mob had
departed. London was bent upon one of its occasional insane holidays.
The pouring rain did not matter one jot--had not the rain proved to be
the salvation of the great city? What did it matter that the streets
were black and the people blacker still? The danger was averted.
"We will go out and explore presently," said Grimfern. "Meanwhile,
breakfast. A thing like this must never occur again, Hackness."

Hackness sincerely hoped not. Cynthia Grimfern came out to meet them. A
liberal application of soap and water had rendered her sweet and fair,
but it was impossible to keep clean for long. Everywhere lay evidences
of the fog.

"It's lovely to be able to see and breathe once more," she said. "Last
night every moment I felt as if I must be suffocated. To-day it is like
suddenly finding Paradise."

"A sooty paradise," Grimfern growled.

Cynthia laughed a little hopelessly.

"It's dreadful," she said. "I have had no table-cloth laid, it is
useless. But the table itself is clean, and that is something. I don't
think London will ever be perfectly clean again."

The reek was still upon the great city, the taint of it hung upon
the air. By one o'clock it had ceased raining and the sky cleared.
A startled sun looked down on strange things. There was a curious
thickness about the trees in Regent's Park, they were as black as if
they had been painted. The pavements were greasy and dangerous to
pedestrians in a hurry.

There was a certain jubilation still to be observed, but the black
melancholy desolation was bound to depress the most exuberant spirits.
For the last three days everything had been at a standstill.

In the thickly populated districts the mortality amongst little
children had been alarmingly high. Those who had any tendency to lung
or throat or chest troubles died like flies before the first breath
of frost. The evening papers, coming out as usual, a little late in
the day, had many a gruesome story to tell. It was the harvest of the
scare-line journalist, and he lost no chance. He scented his gloomy
copy and tracked it down unerringly.

Over two thousand children--to say nothing of elderly people--had died
in the East End. The very small infants had had no chance at all.

The Lord Mayor promptly started a Mansion House fund. There would be
work and to spare presently. Meanwhile tons upon tons of machinery
stood idle until it could be cleaned; all the trade of London was
disorganised.

The river and the docks had taken a dreadful toll. Scores of labourers
and sailors, overtaken by the sudden scourge, had blundered into the
water to be seen no more. The cutting off of the railways and other
communications that brought London its daily bread had produced a
temporary, but no less painful lack of provisions.

"It's a lamentable state of things," Grimfern said moodily as the two
trudged back to Regent's Park later in the evening. It was impossible
to get a cab for the simple reason that there was not one in London
fit to be used. "But I don't see how we are going to better it. We can
dispel the fogs, but not before they have done terrible damage."

"There is an easy way out of the difficulty," Eldred said quietly. The
others turned eagerly to listen. As a rule Eldred did not speak until
he had thought the matter deliberately out.

"Abolish all fires throughout the Metropolitan area," he said. "In time
it will _have_ to be done. All London must warm itself and cook its
food and drive all its machinery by electric power. Then it will be one
of the healthiest towns in the universe. Everything done by electric
power. No thousands of chimneys belching forth black poisonous smoke,
but a clear, pure atmosphere. In towns like Brighton, where the local
authorities have grappled the question in earnest, electric power is
half the cost of gas.

"If only London combined it would be less than that. No dirt, no dust,
no smell, no smoke! The magnificent system at Brighton never cost the
ratepayers anything, indeed a deal of the profit has gone to the relief
of the local burdens. Perhaps this dire calamity will rouse London to a
sense of its dangers--but I doubt it."

Eldred shook his head despondingly at the dark chaos of the park.
Perhaps he was thinking of the victims that the disaster had claimed.
The others had followed sadly, and Grimfern, leading the way into his
house, banged the door on the darkening night.


 (_Next month Mr. F. M. White will tell the story of a terrible London
 water famine, entitled "The River of Death."_)

[Transcriber's Note: In the event "The Dust of Death" was the next
story to appear in _Pearson's Magazine_. "The River of Death" would be
the last.]



THE DUST OF DEATH.

The Story of the Great Plague of the Twentieth Century.


The front door bell tinkled impatiently; evidently somebody was in a
hurry. Alan Hubert answered the call, a thing that even a distinguished
physician might do, seeing that it was on the stroke of midnight. The
tall, graceful figure of a woman in evening dress stumbled into the
hall. The diamonds in her hair shimmered and trembled, her face was
full of terror.

"You are Dr. Hubert," she gasped. "I am Mrs. Fillingham, the artist's
wife, you know. Will you come with me at once.... My husband.... I had
been dining out. In the studio.... Oh, please come!"

Hubert asked no unnecessary questions. He knew Fillingham, the
great portrait painter, well enough by repute and by sight also, for
Fillingham's house and studio were close by. There were many artists in
the Devonshire Park district--that pretty suburb which was one of the
triumphs of the builder's and landscape gardener's art. Ten years ago
it had been no more than a swamp; to-day people spoke complacently of
the fact that they lived in Devonshire Park.

Hubert walked up the drive and past the trim lawns with Mrs. Fillingham
hanging on his arm, and in at the front door. Mrs. Fillingham pointed
to a door on the right. She was too exhausted to speak. There were
shaded lights gleaming everywhere, on old oak and armour and on a large
portrait of a military-looking man propped up on an easel. On a lay
figure was a magnificent foreign military uniform.

Hubert caught all this in a quick mental flash. But the vital interest
to him was a human figure lying on his back before the fireplace. The
clean-shaven, sensitive face of the artist had a ghastly, purple-black
tinge, there was a large swelling in the throat.

"He--he is not dead?" Mrs. Fillingham asked in a frozen whisper.

Hubert was able to satisfy the distracted wife on that head. Fillingham
was still breathing. Hubert stripped the shade from a reading lamp and
held the electric bulb at the end of its long flex above the sufferer's
mouth, contriving to throw the flood of light upon the back of the
throat.

[Illustration: "Diphtheria!" he exclaimed.]

"Diphtheria!" he exclaimed. "Label's type unless I am greatly mistaken.
Some authorities are disposed to scoff at Dr. Label's discovery. I was
an assistant of his for four years and I know better. Fortunately I
happen to know what the treatment--successful in two cases--was."

He hurried from the house and returned a few minutes later
breathlessly. He had some strange-looking, needle-like instruments in
his hands. He took an electric lamp from its socket and substituted a
plug on a flex instead. Then he cleared a table without ceremony and
managed to hoist his patient upon it.

"Now please hold that lamp steadily thus," he said. "Bravo, you are a
born nurse! I am going to apply these electric needles to the throat."

Hubert talked on more for the sake of his companion's nerves than
anything else. The still figure on the table quivered under his touch,
his lungs expanded in a long, shuddering sigh. The heart was beating
more or less regularly now. Fillingham opened his eyes and muttered
something.

"Ice," Hubert snapped, "have you got any ice in the house?"

It was a well-regulated establishment and there was plenty of ice in
the refrigerator. Not until the patient was safe in bed did Hubert's
features relax.

"We'll pull him through yet," he said. "I'll send you a competent nurse
round in half-an-hour. I'll call first thing in the morning and bring
Dr. Label with me. He must not miss this on any account."

Half-an-hour later Hubert was spinning along in a hansom towards Harley
Street. It was past one when he reached the house of the great German
savant. A dim light was burning in the hall. A big man with an enormous
shaggy head and a huge frame attired in the seediest of dress coats
welcomed Hubert with a smile.

"So, my young friend," Label said, "your face promises excitement."

"Case of Label's diphtheria," Hubert said crisply. "Fillingham, the
artist, who lives close by me. Fortunately they called me in. I have
arranged for you to see my patient the first thing in the morning."

The big German's jocular manner vanished. He led Hubert gravely to a
chair in his consulting-room and curtly demanded details. He smiled
approvingly as Hubert enlarged upon his treatment of the case.

"Undoubtedly your diagnosis was correct," he said, puffing furiously at
a long china pipe. "You have not forgotten what I told you of it. The
swelling--which is caused by violent blood poisoning--yielded to the
electric treatment. I took the virus from the cases in the north and I
tried them on scores of animals. And they all died.

"I find it is the virus of what is practically a new disease, one of
the worst in the wide world. I say it recurs again, and it does. So I
practise, and practise to find a cure. And electricity is the cure.
I inoculate five dogs with the virus and I save two by the electric
current. You follow my plans and you go the first stage of the way to
cure Fillingham. Did you bring any of that mucous here?"

Hubert produced it in a tiny glass tube. For a little time Label
examined it under his microscope. He wanted to make assurance doubly
sure.

"It is the same thing," he said presently. "I knew that it was bound
to recur again. Why, it is planted all over our big cities. And
electricity is the only way to get rid of it. It was the best method of
dealing with sewage, only corporations found it too expensive. Wires in
the earth charged to say 10,000 volts. Apply this and you destroy the
virus that lies buried under hundreds of houses in London. They laughed
at me when I suggested it years ago."

"Underground," Hubert asked vaguely.

"Ach, underground, yes. Don't you recollect that in certain parts of
England cancer is more common than in other places? The germs have
been turned up in fields. I, myself, have proved their existence.
In a little time, perhaps, I shall open the eyes of your complacent
Londoners. You live in a paradise, ach Gott! And what was that paradise
like ten years ago? Dreary pools and deserted brickfields. And how do
you fill it up and level it to build houses upon?"

"By the carting of hundreds of thousands of loads of refuse, of course."

"Ach, I will presently show you what that refuse was and is. Now go
home to bed."

       *       *       *       *       *

Mrs. Fillingham remained in the studio with Hubert whilst Label was
making his examination overhead. The patient had had a bad night; his
symptoms were very grave indeed. Hubert listened more or less vaguely;
his mind had gone beyond the solitary case. He was dreading what might
happen in the future.

"Your husband has a fine constitution," he said soothingly.

"He has overtried it lately," Mrs. Fillingham replied. "At present he
is painting a portrait of the Emperor of Asturia. His Majesty was to
have sat to-day; he spent the morning here yesterday."

But Hubert was paying no attention.

The heavy tread of Label was heard as he floundered down the stairs.
His big voice was booming. What mattered all the portraits in the world
so long as the verdict hung on the German doctor's lips!

"Oh, there is a chance," Label exclaimed. "Just a chance. Everything
possible is being done. This is not so much diphtheria as a new
disease. Diphtheria family, no doubt, but the blood poisoning makes a
difficult thing of it."

Label presently dragged Hubert away after parting with Mrs. Fillingham.
He wanted to find a spot where building or draining was going on.

They found some men presently engaged in connecting a new house with
the main drainage--a deep cutting some forty yards long by seven or
eight feet deep. There was the usual crust of asphalt on the road,
followed by broken bricks and the like, and a more or less regular
stratum of blue-black rubbish, soft, wet, and clinging, and emitting an
odour that caused Hubert to throw up his head.

"You must have broken into a drain somewhere here," he said.

"We ain't, sir," the foreman of the gang replied. "It's nout but
rubbidge as they made up the road with here ten years ago. Lord knows
where it came from, but it do smell fearful in weather like this."

The odour indeed was stifling. All imaginable kinds of rubbish and
refuse lay under the external beauties of Devonshire Park in strata
ranging from five to forty feet deep. It was little wonder that
trees and flowers flourished here. And here--wet, and dark, and
festering--was a veritable hotbed of disease. Contaminated rags, torn
paper, road siftings, decayed vegetable matter, diseased food, fish and
bones all were represented here.

"Every ounce of this ought to have gone through the destructor,"
Label snorted. "But no, it is used for the foundations of a suburban
paradise. My word, we shall see what your paradise will be like
presently. Come along."

Label picked up a square slab of the blue stratum, put it in a tin, and
the tin in his pocket. He was snorting and puffing with contempt.

[Illustration: Label picked up a square slab of the blue strata, put it
in a tin, and the tin in his pocket.]

"Now come to Harley Street with me and I will show you things," he said.

He was as good as his word. Placed under a microscope, a minute portion
of the subsoil from Devonshire Park proved to be a mass of living
matter. There were at least four kinds of bacillus here that Hubert had
never seen before. With his superior knowledge Label pointed out the
fact that they all existed in the mucous taken from Fillingham on the
previous evening.

"There you are!" he cried excitedly. "You get all that wet sodden
refuse of London and you dump it down here in a heap. You mix with it a
heap of vegetable matter so that fermentation shall have every chance.
Then you cover it over with some soil, and you let it boil, boil, boil.
Then, when millions upon millions of death-dealing microbes are bred
and bred till their virility is beyond the scope of science, you build
good houses on the top of it. For years I have been prophesying an
outbreak of some new disease--or some awful form of an old one--and
here it comes. They called me a crank because I asked for high electric
voltage to kill the plague--to destroy it by lightning. A couple of
high tension wires run into the earth and there you are. See here."

He took his cube of the reeking earth and applied the battery to it.
The mass showed no outward change. But once under the microscope a
fragment of it demonstrated that there was not the slightest trace of
organic life.

"There!" Label cried. "Behold the remedy. I don't claim that it will
cure in every case, because we hardly touch the diphtheretic side of
the trouble. When there has been a large loss of life we shall learn
the perfect remedy by experience. But this thing is coming, and your
London is going to get a pretty bad scare. You have laid it down like
port wine, and now that the thing is ripe you are going to suffer from
the consequence. I have written articles in the _Lancet_, I have warned
people, but they take not the slightest heed."

Hubert went back home thoughtfully. He found the nurse who had
Fillingham's case in hand waiting for him in his consulting-room.

"I am just back from my walk," she said. "I wish you would call at
Dr. Walker's at Elm Crescent. He has two cases exactly like Mr.
Fillingham's, and he is utterly puzzled."

Hubert snatched his hat and his electric needles, and hurried away
at once. He found his colleague impatiently waiting for him. There
were two children this time in one of the best appointed houses in
Devonshire Park, suffering precisely as Fillingham had done. In each
instance the electric treatment gave the desired result. Hubert hastily
explained the whole matter to Walker.

"It's an awful business," the latter said. "Personally, I have a great
respect for Label, and I feel convinced that he is right. If this thing
spreads, property in Devonshire Park won't be worth the price of slum
lodgings."

By midday nineteen cases of the so-called diphtheria had been notified
within the three miles area known as Devonshire Park. Evidently some
recent excavations had liberated the deadly microbe. But there was no
scare as yet. Label came down again hot-foot with as many assistants as
he could get, and took up his quarters with Hubert. They were going to
have a busy time.

It was after two before Hubert managed to run across to Fillingham's
again. He stood in the studio waiting for Mrs. Fillingham. His mind
was preoccupied and uneasy, yet he seemed to miss something from the
studio. It was strange, considering that he had only been in the room
twice before.

"Are you looking for anything?" Mrs. Fillingham asked.

"I don't know," Hubert exclaimed. "I seem to miss something. I've got
it--the absence of the uniform."

"They sent for it," Mrs. Fillingham said vaguely. She was dazed for
want of sleep. "The Emperor had to go to some function, and that was
the only uniform of the kind he happened to have. He was to have gone
away in it after his sitting to-day. My husband persuaded him to leave
it when it was here yesterday, and----"

Hubert had cried out suddenly as if in pain.

"He was here yesterday--here, with your husband, and your husband with
the diphtheria on him?"

Then the weary wife understood.

"Good heavens----"

But Hubert was already out of the room. He blundered on until he came
to a hansom cab creeping along in the sunshine.

"Buckingham Palace," he gasped. "Drive like mad. A five-pound note for
you if you get me there by three o'clock!"

       *       *       *       *       *

Already Devonshire Park was beginning to be talked about. It was
wonderful how the daily press got to the root of things. Hubert caught
sight of more than one contents bill as he drove home that alluded to
the strange epidemic.

Dr. Label joined Hubert presently in Mrs. Fillingham's home, rubbing
his huge hands together. He knew nothing of the new dramatic
developments. He asked where Hubert had been spending his time.

"Trying to save the life of your friend, the Emperor of Asturia,"
Hubert said. "He was here yesterday with Fillingham, and, though he
seems well enough at present, he may have the disease on him now. What
do you think of that?"

Hubert waited to see the great man stagger before the blow. Label
smiled and nodded as he proceeded to light a cigarette.

"Good job too," he said. "I am honorary physician to the Court of
Asturia. I go back, there, as you know, when I finish my great work
here. The Emperor I have brought through four or five illnesses, and if
anything is wrong he always sends for me."

"But he might get the awful form of diphtheria!"

"Very likely," Label said coolly. "All these things are in the hands of
Providence. I know that man's constitution to a hair, and if he gets
the disease I shall pull him through for certain. I should like him to
have it."

"In the name of all that is practical, why?"

"To startle the public," Label cried. He was mounted on his hobby
now. He paced up and down the room in a whirl of tobacco smoke. "It
would bring the matter home to everybody. Then perhaps something will
be done. I preach and preach in vain. Only the _Lancet_ backs me up
at all. Many times I have asked for a quarter of a million of money,
so that I can found a school for the electrical treatment of germ
diseases. I want to destroy all malaria. All dirt in bulk, every bit of
refuse that is likely to breed fever and the like, should be treated by
electricity. I would take huge masses of deadly scourge and mountains
of garbage, and render them innocent by the electric current. But no;
that costs money, and your poverty-stricken Government cannot afford
it. Given a current of 10,000 volts a year or two ago, and I could have
rendered this one of the healthiest places in England. You only wanted
to run those high voltage wires into the earth here and there, and
behold the millions are slain, wiped out, gone for ever. Perhaps I will
get it _now_."

       *       *       *       *       *

London was beginning to get uneasy. There had been outbreaks before,
but they were of the normal type. People, for instance, are not so
frightened of smallpox as they used to be. Modern science has learnt to
grapple with the fell disease and rob it of half its terrors. But this
new and virulent form of diphtheria was another matter.

Hubert sat over his dinner that night, making mental calculations.
There were nearly a thousand houses of varying sizes in Devonshire
Park. Would it be necessary to abandon these? He took down a large
scale map of London, and hastily marked in blue pencil those areas
which had developed rapidly of recent years. In nearly all of these
a vast amount of artificial ground had been necessary. Hubert was
appalled as he calculated the number of jerry-built erections in these
districts.

A servant came in and laid _The Evening Wire_ upon the table. Hubert
glanced at it. Nothing had been lost in the way of sensation. The story
of the Emperor's visit to the district had been given great prominence.
An inquiry at Buckingham Palace had elicited the fact that the story
was true.

Well, perhaps no harm would come of it. Hubert finished a cigar and
prepared to go out. As he flung the paper aside a paragraph in the stop
press column--a solitary paragraph like an inky island in a sea of
white--caught his eye.

"No alarm need be experienced as to the danger encountered by the
Emperor of Asturia, but we are informed that His Majesty is prevented
from dining at Marlborough House to-night owing to a slight cold and
sore throat caught, it is stated, in the draughts at Charing Cross
Station. The Emperor will go down to Cowes as arranged to-morrow."

Hubert shook his head doubtfully. The slight cold and sore throat were
ominous. His mind dwelt upon the shadow of trouble as he made his way
to the hospital. There had been two fresh cases during the evening
and the medical staff were looking anxious and worried. They wanted
assistance badly, and Hubert gave his to the full.

It was nearly eleven before Hubert staggered home. In the main business
street of the suburb a news-shop was still open.

A flaming placard attracted the doctor's attention. It struck him like
a blow.

"Alarming illness of the Asturian Emperor. His Majesty stricken down by
the new disease. Latest bulletin from Buckingham Palace."

Almost mechanically Hubert bought a paper. There was not much beyond
the curt information that the Emperor was dangerously ill.

Arrived home Hubert found a telegram awaiting him. He tore it open. The
message was brief but to the point.

"Have been called in to Buckingham Palace, Label's diphtheria certain.
Shall try and see you to-morrow morning. Label."

London was touched deeply and sincerely. A great sovereign had come
over here in the most friendly fashion to show his good feeling for
a kindred race. On the very start of a round of pleasure he had been
stricken down like this.

The public knew all the details from the progress of that fateful
uniform to the thrilling eight o'clock bulletin when the life of
Rudolph III. was declared to be in great danger. They knew that Dr.
Label had been sent for post haste. The big German was no longer
looked upon as a clever crank, but the one man who might be able to
save London from a terrible scourge. And from lip to lip went the news
that over two hundred cases of the new disease had now broken out in
Devonshire Park.

People knew pretty well what it was and what was the cause now. Label's
warning had come home with a force that nobody had expected. He had
stolen away quite late for half-an-hour to his own house and there had
been quite free with the pressmen. He extenuated nothing. The thing was
bad, and it was going to be worse. So far as he could see, something of
this kind was inevitable. If Londoners were so blind as to build houses
on teeming heaps of filth, why, London must be prepared to take the
consequences.

Hubert knew nothing of this. He had fallen back utterly exhausted in
his chair with the idea of taking a short rest--for nearly three hours
he had been fast asleep. Somebody was shaking him roughly. He struggled
back to the consciousness that Label was bending over him.

"Well, you are a nice fellow," the German grumbled.

"I was dead beat and worn out," Hubert said apologetically. "How is the
Emperor?"

"His Majesty is doing as well as I can expect. It is a very bad case,
however. I have left him in competent hands, so that I could run down
here. They were asking for you at the hospital, presuming that you
were busy somewhere. The place is full, and so are four houses in the
nearest terrace."

"Spreading like that?" Hubert exclaimed.

"Spreading like that! By this time to-morrow we shall have a thousand
cases on our hands. The authorities are doing everything they can to
help us, fresh doctors and nurses and stores are coming in all the
time."

"You turn people out of their houses to make way then?"

Label smiled grimly. He laid his hand on Hubert's shoulder, and piloted
him into the roadway. The place seemed to be alive with cabs and
vehicles of all kinds. It was as if all the inhabitants of Devonshire
Park were going away for their summer holidays simultaneously. The
electric arcs shone down on white and frightened faces where joyous
gaiety should have been. Here and there a child slept peacefully, but
on the whole it was a sorry exodus.

[Illustration: It was if all the inhabitants of Devonshire Park were
going away for their summer holidays simultaneously.]

"There you are," Label said grimly. "It is a night flight from the
plague. It has been going on for hours. It would have been finished
now but for the difficulty in getting conveyances. Most of the cabmen
are avoiding the place as if it were accursed. But money can command
everything, hence the scene that you see before you."

Hubert stood silently watching the procession. There was very little
luggage on any of the cabs or conveyances. Families were going
wholesale. Devonshire Park for the most part was an exceedingly
prosperous district, so that the difficulties of emigration were not
great. In their panic the people were abandoning everything in the wild
flight for life and safety.

Then he went in again to rest before the unknown labours of to-morrow.
Next morning he anxiously opened his morning paper.

It was not particularly pleasant reading beyond the information that
the health of the Emperor of Asturia was mentioned, and that he had
passed a satisfactory night. As to the rest, the plague was spreading.
There were two hundred and fifty cases in Devonshire Park. Label's
sayings had come true at last; it was a fearful vindication of his
prophecy. And the worst of it was that no man could possibly say where
it was going to end.

       *       *       *       *       *

Strange as it may seem, London's anxiety as to the welfare of one man
blinded all to the great common danger. For the moment Devonshire Park
was forgotten. The one centre of vivid interest was Buckingham Palace.

For three days crowds collected there until at length Label and his
colleagues were in a position to issue a bulletin that gave something
more than hope. The Emperor of Asturia was going to recover. Label was
not the kind of man to say so unless he was pretty sure of his ground.

It was not till this fact had soaked itself into the public mind that
attention was fully turned to the danger that threatened London.
Devonshire Park was practically in quarantine. All those who could get
away had done so, and those who had remained were confined to their own
particular district, and provisioned on a system. The new plague was
spreading fast.

In more than one quarter the suggestion was made that all houses in
certain localities should be destroyed, and the ground thoroughly
cleansed and disinfected. It would mean a loss of millions of money,
but in the scare of the moment London cared nothing for that.

At the end of a week there were seven thousand cases of the new form
of diphtheria under treatment. Over one thousand cases a day came in.
Devonshire Park was practically deserted save for the poorer quarters,
whence the victims came. It seemed strange to see fine houses abandoned
to the first comer who had the hardihood to enter. Devonshire Park was
a stricken kingdom within itself, and the Commune of terror reigned.

Enterprising journalists penetrated the barred area and wrote articles
about it. One of the fraternity bolder than the rest passed a day
and night in one of these deserted palatial residences, and gave his
sensations to the Press. Within a few hours most of the villas were
inhabited again! There were scores of men and women in the slums who
have not the slightest fear of disease--they are too familiar with it
for that--and they came creeping westward in search of shelter. The
smiling paradise had become a kind of Tom Tiddler's ground, a huge
estate in Chancery.

Nobody had troubled, the tenants were busy finding pure quarters
elsewhere, the owners of the property were fighting public opinion to
save what in many cases was their sole source of income. If Devonshire
Park had to be razed to the ground many a wealthy man would be ruined.

It was nearly the end of the first week before this abnormal state of
affairs was fully brought home to Hubert. He had been harassed and
worried and worn by want of sleep, but tired as he was he did not fail
to notice the number of poorer patients who dribbled regularly into the
terrace of houses that now formed the hospital. There was something
about them that suggested any district rather than Devonshire Park.

"What does it mean, Walker?" he asked one of his doctors.

Walker had just come in from his hour's exercise, heated and excited.

"It's a perfect scandal," he cried. "The police are fighting shy of us
altogether. I've just been up to the station and they tell me it is a
difficult matter to keep competent officers in the district. All along
Frinton Hill and Eversley Gardens the houses are crowded with outcasts.
They have drifted here from the East End and are making some of those
splendid residences impossible."

Hubert struggled into his hat and coat, and went out. It was exactly as
Walker had said. Here was a fine residence with stables and greenhouses
and the like, actually occupied by Whitechapel at its worst. A group
of dingy children played on the lawn, and a woman with the accumulated
grime of weeks on her face was hanging something that passed for
washing out of an upper window. The flower beds were trampled down, a
couple of attenuated donkeys browsed on the lawn.

[Illustration: Here was a fine residence actually occupied by
Whitechapel at its worst.]

Hubert strolled up to the house fuming. Two men were sprawling on a
couple of morocco chairs smoking filthy pipes. They looked up at the
newcomer with languid curiosity. They appeared quite to appreciate the
fact that they were absolutely masters of the situation.

"What are you doing here?" Hubert demanded.

"If you're the owner well and good," was the reply. "If not, you take
an' 'ook it. We know which side our bread's buttered."

There was nothing for it but to accept this philosophical suggestion.
Hubert swallowed his rising indignation and departed. There were other
evidences of the ragged invasion as he went down the road. Here and
there a house was closed and the blinds down; but it was an exception
rather than the rule.

Hubert walked away till he could find a cab, and was driven off to
Scotland Yard in a state of indignation. The view of the matter rather
startled the officials there.

"We have been so busy," the Chief Inspector said; "but the matter shall
be attended to. Dr. Label was here yesterday, and at his suggestion we
are having the whole force electrically treated--a kind of electrical
hardening of the throat. The doctor claims that his recent treatment
is as efficacious against the diphtheria as vaccination is against
smallpox. It is in all the papers to-day. All London will be going mad
over the new remedy to-morrow."

Hubert nodded thoughtfully. The electric treatment seemed the right
thing. Label had shown him what an effect the application of the
current had had on the teeming mass of matter taken from the road
cutting. He thought it over until he fell asleep in his cab on the way
back to his weary labours.

       *       *       *       *       *

London raged for the new remedy. The electric treatment for throat
troubles is no new thing. In this case it was simple and painless, and
it had been guaranteed by one of the popular heroes of the hour. A week
before Label had been regarded as a crank and a faddist; now people
were ready to swear by him. Had he not prophesied this vile disease for
years, and was he not the only man who had a remedy? And the Emperor of
Asturia was mending rapidly.

Had Label bidden the people to stand on their heads for an hour a day
as a sovereign specific they would have done so gladly. Every private
doctor and every public institution was worked to death. At the end of
ten days practically all London had been treated. There was nothing for
it now but to wait patiently for the result.

Another week passed and then suddenly the inrush of cases began to
drop. The average at the end of the second week was down to eighty per
day. On the seventeenth and eighteenth days there were only four cases
altogether and in each instance they proved to be patients who had not
submitted themselves to the treatment.

The scourge was over. Two days elapsed and there were no fresh cases
whatever. Some time before a strong posse of police had swamped down
upon Devonshire Park and cleared all the slum people out of their
luxurious quarters. One or two of the bolder dwellers in that once
favoured locality began to creep back. Now that they were inoculated
there seemed little to fear.

But Label had something to say about that. He felt that he was free
to act now, he had his royal patient practically off his hands. A
strong Royal Commission had been appointed by Parliament to go at once
thoroughly into the matter.

"And I am the first witness called," he chuckled to Hubert as the
latter sat with the great German smoking a well-earned cigar. "I shall
be able to tell a few things."

He shook his big head and smiled. The exertion of the last few weeks
did not seem to have told upon him in the slightest.

"I also have been summoned," Hubert said. "But you don't suggest that
those fine houses should be destroyed?"

"I don't suggest anything. I am going to confine myself to facts.
One of your patent medicine advertisements says that electricity is
life. Never was a truer word spoken. What has saved London from a
great scourge? Electricity. What kills this new disease and renders it
powerless? Electricity. And what is the great agent to fight dirt and
filth with whenever it exists in great quantities? Always electricity.
It has not been done before on the ground of expense, and look at the
consequences! In one way and another it will cost London £2,000,000 to
settle this matter. It was only a little over a third of that I asked
for. Wait till you hear me talk!"

       *       *       *       *       *

Naturally the greatest interest was taken in the early sittings of the
Commission. A somewhat pompous chairman was prepared to exploit Label
for his own gratification and self-glory. But the big German would have
none of it. From the very first he dominated the Committee, he would
give his evidence in his own way, he would speak of facts as he found
them. And, after all, he was the only man there who had any practical
knowledge of the subject of the inquiry.

"You would destroy the houses?" an interested member asked.

"Nothing of the kind," Label growled. "Not so much as a single pig-sty.
If you ask me what electricity is I cannot tell you. It is a force in
nature that as yet we don't understand. Originally it was employed as a
destroyer of sewage, but it was abandoned as too expensive. You are the
richest country in the world, and one of the most densely populated.
Yet you are covering the land with jerry-built houses, the drainages of
which will frequently want looking to. And your only way of discovering
this is when a bad epidemic breaks out. Everything is too expensive.
You will be a jerry-built people in a jerry-built empire. And your
local authorities adopt some cheap system and then smile at the
ratepayers and call for applause. Electricity will save all danger. It
is dear at first, but it is far cheaper in the long run."

"If you will be so good as to get to the point," the chairman suggested.

Label smiled pityingly. He was like a schoolmaster addressing a form of
little boys.

"The remedy is simple," he said. "I propose to have a couple of 10,000
volts wires discharging their current into the ground here and there
over the affected area. Inoculation against the trouble is all very
well, but it is not permanent and there is always danger whilst the
source of it remains. I propose to remove the evil. Don't ask me what
the process is, don't ask me what wonderful action takes place. All
I know is that some marvellous agency gets to work and that a huge
mound of live disease is rendered safe and innocent as pure water. And
I want these things now, I don't want long sittings and reports and
discussions. Let me work the cure and you can have all the talking and
sittings you like afterwards."

Label got his own way, he would have got anything he liked at that
moment. London was quiet and humble and in a mood to be generous.

       *       *       *       *       *

Label stood over the cutting whence he had procured the original
specimen of all the mischief. He was a little quiet and subdued, but
his eyes shone and his hand was a trifle unsteady. His fingers trembled
as he took up a fragment of the blue grey stratum and broke it up.

"Marvellous mystery," he cried. "We placed the wires in the earth and
that great, silent, powerful servant has done the rest. Underground the
current radiates, and, as it radiates, the source of the disease grows
less and less until it ceases to be altogether. Only try this in the
tainted areas of all towns and in a short time disease of all kinds
would cease for ever."

"You are sure that stuff is wholesome, now?" Hubert asked.

"My future on it," Label cried. "Wait till we get it under the
microscope. I am absolutely confident that I am correct."

And he was.



A BUBBLE BURST.

How a Stock Exchange Scare Dislocated the Life of the Empire for Two
Days.


The era of peace which seemed to be well begun in 1906 was naturally
marked by an extraordinary commercial and financial activity; an amount
of world-wide speculations never equalled in intensity, even in the
mad times of the South Sea Bubble, or when Hudson, the Railway King,
flourished. The countless millions piled up in English banks earning
a 2½ per cent. interest were lavishly withdrawn, new mines had been
started, everybody was going to be rich. On the face of it people
had good ground for their sanguine expectations. The Rand with its
forty square miles of rich gold-bearing reefs containing an untold
number of immense fortunes--the richest region on earth--was properly
administered for the first time. From the highest to the lowest
everybody was investing their savings in South Africa.

In other words, there was a tremendous "boom." Nothing like it had ever
been seen in the history of commerce. It was the golden hour of the
promoter. Yet, for the most part, the schemes promised well. There was,
however, an enormous amount of rubbish in the market. Some of the more
thoughtful financiers scented danger ahead, but they were not listened
to. The roar of the Kaffir circus resounded in men's ears and made them
mad. Park Lane would never be able to hold the new millionaires.

All England was in the grip of the mania. _Bona fide_ speculation
and business had become gambling pure and simple. London thought of
nothing else. The City was crammed with excited buyers and operators,
the little outside broker of yesterday came down to his offices behind
a pair of blood horses, and his diamonds were a solid sign of his new
prosperity.

A busy day was drawing to a close. Carl Ericsson sat in his office
smoking a cigarette. Ericsson yesterday had been waiter in an
unimportant restaurant. To-day he had a fine set of offices and a small
mansion at Hampstead. He had "arrived" on the crest of the wave as many
far less astute adventurers had done. There was a peculiarly uneasy
grin on his dark features, a curious twitching of the lips, and he had
the tired eyes of the sleepless.

His partner sat opposite him behind a big cigar. He was a fat man with
a big jaw and a merciless mouth. Six months before Eli Smith had been
a fairly well-to-do suburban butcher. Now he was E. Asherton-Smith,
the big financial agent. He boasted, with truth, that he could sign a
cheque for £40,000 and be none the worse for it. In the area of the
City it would have been difficult to find two choicer specimens of
rascality than the partners in Ericsson & Co.

"Got a big card to play, eh?" Asherton-Smith asked.

Ericsson grinned nervously. His lithe little body was quivering with
excitement. There was a furtive look in his drooping eyes.

"The ace of trumps," he gurgled; "the coup of the century. Eli, my boy,
how much money could we make if we could scare South Africans down five
or six points for a week?"

Mr. Asherton-Smith's diamonds heaved with emotion.

"Millions," he said. "Just as many millions as we could stagger under.
Makes my mouth like sawdust to think of it. But pass out a bottle of
champagne."

Ericsson did so, rose from his seat and peeped into the outer office;
the clerks had all gone for the day. He closed the door gently.

"I'm going to tell you," he said. "If I don't tell somebody I shall
go mad. I can't sleep at nights for thinking of it. When I do doze
off I'm swimming in a river of sovereigns. With a bit of luck, it's a
certainty."

"Get on, Carlo. You're just playing with my feelings."

"Well, it's just this way"--Ericsson's voice dropped to a whisper.
"There are two lines of cable by which South Africa can communicate
with the outside world--the East and West Africa cables. The West Coast
line isn't to be relied upon; it breaks down at least once a week. At
a time like this a breakdown is a serious matter. The directors have
taken the bull by the horns, so at the present moment the West Coast
line is out of our calculations. It's under repair, and it's likely to
remain so for some time to come. I've ascertained that communication
with South Africa by the Western line is impossible. For the next
fortnight no message can come or go by that route. This leaves us
only the Eastern line to grapple with. If that kindly breaks down for
four-and-twenty hours, our fortunes are safe."

"Is it likely?" Asherton-Smith asked.

"Why, yes. It has happened three times during this year. I tell you I
have followed this thing pretty keenly. It's more than on the cards.
Suppose the breakdown did come, Eli, and we had the last message
through? Look at this."

Ericsson took from a safe a sheet of paper--a cablegram message, in
fact, sent cut from the office of the East Africa company. It was a
genuine document enough, with the date and the hour showing that it had
been dispatched from Cape Town on the afternoon of the same day. There
were words upon it to the effect that "Bertha has lost her aunt, and
the water has been packed in the matchbox."

[Illustration: "That isn't our cypher," Asherton-Smith said.]

"That isn't our cypher," Asherton-Smith said.

"Quite right; it's the cypher used by _The Messenger. The Messenger_,
my boy, enjoys as high a reputation as _The Times_. If a cablegram
appeared in _The Messenger_ to-morrow saying that there had been an
earthquake on the Rand, and that the Johannesburg water-works had
overflowed into the deep levels everybody could take it for gospel.
That's why I managed to get hold of and learn _The Messenger_ cypher.

"On the off-chance of the Eastern cable breaking down, I've had a cable
sent to me every day from a friend in South Africa saying that there
has been an earthquake in Johannesburg, and that the mines are flooded
out. The cable comes to me in the cypher used by _The Messenger_
people. That's what all that gibberish about Bertha and the water and
the matchbox means.

"Suppose you were to walk into the office and say the Eastern line
of cable had broken down. As the Western line is under repair that
tells me that communication with South Africa is impossible for a day
or more. Probably the lines would be unavailable for nearly a week.
I've got a spare envelope or two used by the Eastern Company for their
messages; I put this flimsy inside and alter my own address 'Bonan' to
'Bonanza'--which is the registered cable address of _The Messenger_--by
the addition of two letters, and there you are. That's why I thought of
'Bonan' and that little office of mine in Long Lane, where I am known
as James Jones.

"I've had this scheme in my mind for years. A boy drops into _The
Messenger_ office and hands over the cablegram, and there you are. The
thing looks perfectly in order; it is the private cypher of the big
newspaper, and, moreover, it is quite up-to-date. If the cable breaks
down no questions can be asked, and the thing goes into the paper.
We've only got to get the same message sent to me every day, and sooner
or later our chance comes."

Asherton-Smith was breathing heavily. The prospect was dazzling.
Somebody was tapping at the outer door. A large man in a big fur coat
entered.

"What are you beggars conspiring about?" he asked. "Got something extra
special from down below? Egad, I'd give something for a private wire
of my own! We'll get a rest for a day or two. The East Africa cable is
bust up south of Mauritius."

The intruder helped himself to a glass of champagne that he obviously
didn't want, and drifted out again. The partners glanced at one another
without speaking. Perhaps they were just a little frightened.

       *       *       *       *       *

The thing appeared to be absolutely certain. So far as they could
see, the story would be believed implicitly, for _The Messenger_ was
absolutely reliable.

The great beauty of the whole scheme was its conclusiveness. There
never had been an earthquake on the Rand, but there was no reason why
there shouldn't be. And an earthquake would assuredly destroy the
Johannesburg water-works, which would mean the washing away of half the
place and the flooding of some of the richest mines below the town.

The West Coast cable was under repair and incapable of use. But that
frequently happened, as most people interested in South Africa know.
There was no chance of the truth trickling back to London _viâ_
Australia or New York. And now the Eastern line had broken down also,
as all deep sea cables do on occasion.

"Upon my word, I can't see a flaw anywhere," Ericsson remarked, in a
voice that trembled. "If the Eastern line is repaired by morning we
shall be none the worse off. Our _coup_ will have miscarried, a few
inquiries will be made, and James Jones will never be seen in Long Lane
Office again."

Asherton-Smith went home and dined and drank; but sleep was not for his
pillow that night. The papers were late in the morning, and that did
not lessen his irritability. The breakfast stood untouched, beyond a
little dry toast, and some brandy and soda water. Just for the moment
the prosperous Asherton-Smith regretted the day when he had been the
oily and irresponsible Eli Smith, butcher.

The papers came at last--a whole pile of them: but Asherton-Smith only
desired to see _The Messenger_. He fluttered it open with fingers that
trembled. There it was--the news that he sought. He drew a deep breath.

Usually _The Messenger_ avoided sensation; but here was a "scoop" that
no human editor could possibly resist. The headlines danced before the
reader's eyes.

"Earthquake at Johannesburg! Destruction of the Water Works and
the Flooding of the Mines. Great loss of life and property." _The
Messenger_, alone of all the papers, contained this news.

[Illustration: _The Messenger_, alone of all the papers, contained this
news.]

A map of Johannesburg, right away from the water-works to the five-mile
belt, where the world-renowned mines lay, only served to make the story
more convincing. The water would have swept over the city, from the
aristocratic suburb of Dornfontein to the auriferous belt that held the
wealthy mines.

There were hundreds of millions of money invested here. The news of the
disaster would have a depressing effect upon the Stock Exchange. Weak
holders would be pretty certain to lose their heads, and the markets
would be flooded with shares. Asherton-Smith trembled as he thought of
his forthcoming fortune.

A little after ten o'clock he was in the City. In the train and in the
streets people were talking about nothing but the great disaster in
South Africa. Nobody doubted the story, though only _The Messenger_
contained it. Unfortunately the Eastern line had broken down at a
critical moment, and no details were forthcoming for the time being.
_The Messenger's_ cable had been the last to come through.

       *       *       *       *       *

"Going all right, eh?" Asherton-Smith asked. His teeth were chattering,
but not with cold. "Pretty satisfied, eh?"

Ericsson nodded and grinned. He looked white and uneasy.

"I've started the machinery," he said. "When prices have dropped five
or six points we are going to buy quietly. Mind you, I'm going to
make no secret of it. I'm going to pose as the saviour of the market,
the one man who refuses to bow to the panic--shall swagger about the
stuff being there in spite of a dozen earthquakes. I shall boast that
at bed rock prices we can afford to buy to hold. That line will avert
suspicion from us when the cat is out of the bag and our fortunes made.
And you'll have to back me up in this. What a row there will be when
the truth comes to be told!"

Ericsson and his partner pushed their way past inquisitive spectators
who had nothing to lose, and therefore enjoyed the strange scene; they
elbowed wealthy-looking men in all the garb of prosperity whose haggard
faces gave the lie to their outer air.

Everybody was constrained and alert. The big financiers who usually
controlled the markets were getting frightened. They assumed that there
must be no panic, they desired that nothing should be done till the
full magnitude of the disaster could be verified.

But people believed in the integrity of _The Messenger_ which had never
played them false yet. The great men of the exchanges and the marts
had forgotten their human nature for the moment. They were asking poor
humanity to put aside greed and self interest and love of money, the
father to forget his savings, and the widow to ignore her dividends.
They might just as well have appealed to the common sense of a flood
tide swept by the gale.

Two of the big men were penned on the pavement on Cornhill. Their
names were good on "'Change" for any amount in reason; they reckoned
themselves rich and comfortable. But the strain of the situation was
getting on their nerves.

"I'd give £50,000 to have my way here for a few hours, Henderson," said
one.

"I'd give twice that to feel that I had what I deemed myself to possess
yesterday," said Sir James Henderson. "What would you like to do,
Kingsley?"

"Clear the streets," the great bullion broker replied. "Get some
troops and Maxims, and declare the City in a state of siege for
eight-and-forty hours. Pass a short Act of Parliament prohibiting
people from dealing in stocks and shares for a week. By that time the
panic would have allayed itself and folks regained their sanity. As it
is, thousands are going to be ruined. Every share in the South African
market is absurdly inflated, and, even if the disaster is small, prices
must keep low. But there is worse coming than that, my friend."

Already rumours were spreading far and wide as to the fall of certain
shares. Mines that yesterday stood high in the estimation of the public
were publicly offered at a reduction of from eight to ten points; even
the gilt-edged securities were suffering.

The feeling grew that nothing was safe. It is the easiest thing in the
world to shake public assurance where money is concerned. With one
accord the thousands of large and small speculators had set out for the
City to get rid of their liability on the earliest possible occasion.
They asked for no profits, they demanded no margin--they would have
been content to get out at a loss.

It never occurred to the individual that the same brilliant idea might
strike a million brains simultaneously. With one accord they rushed to
the line of action that might be the ruin of one-third of them. Just
for the time purchases by a few bold speculators stopped the rush; but
presently they got filled up or frightened, so that by two o'clock some
of the best paper in the market was begging at a few shillings the £1
share. When the fact struck New York and reacted on the London market,
nobody knew what might happen.

It was fortunate that sellers could not unload at once. Sheaves of
telegrams tumbled into brokers' offices, the floors were littered with
orange envelopes, the City was musical with the tinkle of telephones.
The heads of firms, half mad with worry and anxiety, were offering the
girls in the telephone exchange large sums to connect them with this
office and the other. The usually sane City of London was as mad now as
it had been in the days of the South Sea Bubble.

By three o'clock, however, business on the Stock Exchange had
practically come to a standstill. It was useless to deal with waste
paper. To-morrow the crowd would doubtless be augmented by thousands
of provincial speculators. Already the foreign Bourses were suffering
under the strain. Early in the afternoon there were rumours and signs
of an excited struggle in Lothbury.

What had happened now? People were straining their ears to listen. The
news came in presently. There was a run on the South African Industrial
Bank!

When the crowd began to clamour at the doors of the South African
Industrial, the manager slipped out by a side entrance and made the
best pace he could in the direction of the Bank of England. Once there,
all his self-possession deserted him. He asked wildly to see the chief
cashier, the general manager, the governors, anybody who might help him
for the moment.

But the officials had other things to occupy their attention. From
all parts of the country intelligence had arrived to the effect that
the panic was at its height. It was only now that the big financiers
realised what a large amount of fanatical gambling there had been in
South Africans. Everybody had been going to make their fortunes, from
humble clerks up to the needy aristocrats. Every penny that could be
raked together had gone that way.

And now the country had taken it into its head that the Rand was
lost. Wild appeals had been made to the Eastern Cable Company to do
something, but they could only reply that their line had broken down
somewhere beyond Mauritius, and that, until it could be fished up and
spliced. South Africa might as well be in the moon. People were acting
as if the Rand had been swallowed up altogether.

The Bank of England was full of great financiers at their wits' ends
for some means of allaying the panic and restoring public confidence.
The great houses, Rothschild, and Coutts, and the rest, were
represented in the governor's parlour.

The presiding genius of the South African Industrial found his way
into the meeting. He was sorry to trouble them: he would not have come
unless he had been absolutely bound to. But there was a run on his
bank, and he wanted £2,000,000 immediately. As to security----

One of the grave financiers laughed aloud. It seemed an awful thing to
do in that solemn and decorous parlour, but nobody seemed to notice.
But there was a general consensus of opinion that the money must be
forthcoming. If one sound bank was allowed to topple over, goodness
only knew where the catastrophe might end.

"You will have to do with £500,000 for the present," the chairman
said. "There are sure to be applications. You must be diplomatic;
_festina lente_, you know."

"If I could keep open straight away until----"

"Madness. Keep to your regulations. Close at four o'clock. Delay is
everything."

The big clock in the room boomed the hour of four. It was as if some
long-drawn mental agony had suddenly ceased.

The manager of the South African Industrial fought his way back to the
offices with a little comfort at the back of his mind.

There was a lull in the roar as he appeared. He took advantage of it.
His courage had come back to him now.

"Close the doors," he said sharply. "It is past four o'clock."

[Illustration: A cashier whipped a revolver out from a drawer.]

The mob yelled its protest. A big man climbed over the trellis along
the counter. Just for a moment it looked like a lawless riot, but a
cashier whipped a revolver out from a drawer, and as the big man looked
down the blue bore his courage failed him. There was no further rush,
but at, the same time there was no disposition on the part of the crowd
to retire.

"We are closed for the day," the manager said with considerable
coolness. "You can't expect me to stay here all night merely because
you have taken it into your heads to want your money all at once. Come
to-morrow and you shall all be paid."

A derisive howl followed. The manager whispered something to one of
the clerks and the latter slipped out. Presently there was a commotion
at the doors, and half-a-dozen helmets topped the crowd. There was a
swaying movement till the long counter creaked again, an oath or two,
uplifted sticks and the smashing of a policeman's helmet.

For the next few minutes there was something in the nature of a free
fight; blows were freely exchanged, and more than one face bore traces
of blood. But there is always something besides physical force behind
law and order, and gradually the mob turned back. Gradually the
counting-house was cleared and the iron shutters let down.

But the City did not clear. The wildest rumours were in the air. Other
banks, doing a more or less large business in the way of withdrawals,
had followed the example of the South African Industrial, and this had
not tended to restore public confidence. It was pretty clear that every
house would have to face a similar run on the morrow.

At eight o'clock the streets were still crowded. It was fairly warm:
there was little or no traffic after dusk, and it became evident
that thousands of people had all tacitly resolved to do the same
thing--remain in the streets all night outside their particular offices
or business houses, and wait so that they might have the first chance
in the morning. People sat on the paths and in the roadway. Every City
house of refreshment had been depleted of food long since.

Under the big electric lamps people reclined, reading the evening
papers. It was a gigantic picnic, with tragedy to crown the feast.
There was no laughter, nothing but grim determination of purpose.

The papers were full of bad news from the provinces. Everywhere public
credit was shaken to breaking point. There had been runs on scores of
local banks.

In the West End there was only one topic of conversation. But the
theatres and restaurants were open, and life was going on much the
same. In a private room at the Savoy Ericsson and his partner in guilt
were dining. The waiters had gone, the wine and cigars stood on the
table.

There was a subdued look about both of them, a furtive cast of the eyes
and just a suggestion of slackness in their hands not due entirely to
the champagne. It was a long time before either of them spoke.

"Pretty warm day, Eli," Ericsson suggested.

Asherton-Smith wiped his red damp forehead.

"Rather," he said. "I'm not so sharp as you, I know, but I'd forfeit a
few thousands to be well out of this."

Ericsson was not so contemptuous of his thick-witted partner as usual.

"I should like to know what you are driving at," he muttered.

"Well, we've been too sharp. We've played the game too far. Shares were
only to drop a few points, and we were to buy for the rise. We've laid
out every penny that we could rake together for the rise. And what have
we got? Some hundreds of thousands of shares a few points below par?
Not a bit of it. If this panic waits two days longer we shall have
exchanged all our own cash and our own credit for a ton or two of waste
paper."

"It will all come back again," Ericsson said uneasily.

"Ah, but when? The bogey has been too big for the public. We've given
them a scare that they will not get over in a hurry for many a day.
We've shown them what _might_ happen. And they tumble to the fact that
things are far too inflated. The fall of a few points would have put
millions into our pockets. As it is, we shall have to hold on perhaps
for months. And we're not strong enough to do that."

"If the cable works again to-morrow." Ericsson said hoarsely after a
pause, "it----"

"Yes, and if it doesn't? And if the thing goes on, what then? And if
there should be a run to-morrow on the Bank of England!"

"I never thought of that," Ericsson groaned. "Pass the brandy. If only
to-morrow were Saturday instead of Thursday! A pretty black Thursday
it's going to be."

Ericsson and Asherton-Smith were still sipping their brandy, but they
were no longer gloating over their prey with shining eyes--they no
longer counted their prospective millions. Like the greedy fox they had
dropped the substance for the shadow. They were going to be ruined with
their victims.

With moody, furtive, bloodshot eyes they looked at each other.

"I suppose we can't drop a hint," Ericsson suggested.

"Drop a hint," Asherton-Smith sneered. "You're a clever chap, you
are--too clever by half. But if that's all the idea you've got you'd
better shut up. Perhaps you'd like to go and tell the story to the Lord
Mayor?"

Ericsson's fine turn for repartee seemed to have deserted him.

"Who could have anticipated anything like this?" he groaned. "And
the worst of it is that we dare not say a word. The merest hint would
invite suspicion, and you may be pretty sure that they would make the
punishment fit the crime. We'll just have to grin and bear it."

Asherton-Smith shook his fist in the speaker's face.

"You miserable swindler!" he yelled. "But for you I should have been a
rich man to-day. And now I am ruined--ruined!"

Ericsson bent his head meekly with never a word to say.

       *       *       *       *       *

The City was awake earlier than usual next morning; indeed, for once,
it had not slept. By nine o'clock in the morning the streets were
packed. The haggard-eyed, sleepless ones gained nothing by their
tenacity, for they were pushed from pillar to post by others, fresh for
the fray.

The provincial trains from an early hour had commenced to pour fresh
forces into London. A great many business men had slept as best they
could in their offices, feeling pretty sure that it was the only way to
be on the spot in the morning. They looked tired and worn out.

It was a quiet, persistent, grim crowd. There was no hustling or
horse-play, or anything of that kind; even the ubiquitous humourist was
absent. They pushed on persistently, a denser crowd round the large
banks. As soon as the shutters were down and the doors opened the human
tide streamed in.

The run on the banks had set in grimly. Clerks and cashiers from
distant branches had been brought up to meet the pressure. There was a
confidence in the way they bustled about and handled and paid out the
money that was not without its effect. More than one man eyed the pile
of notes in his hand and passed them back over the counter again. Here
and there people were bewailing the loss of their money.

It was the golden hour of the light-fingered fraternity. They were
absolutely covered by the dense crowd so that they could pursue their
vocation with impunity. They had only to mark down some rich prize and
plunder. Individuals shrieked that they had been robbed, but nobody
took any notice.

A burly, red-faced farmer yelled that he had been robbed of £800 in
Bank of England notes. Someone by him retorted that it was no loss,
seeing that there was a run on the great National Bank.

[Illustration: It was the thrilling moment of the day! A run on the
Bank of England!]

It was the thrilling moment of the day! A run on the Bank of England!
And yet it seemed in the light of new circumstances to be the most
natural thing in the world. Would the bank be able to cash its own
notes? If not--well, if not--nobody could foresee the end.

There were thousands of curious people in the crowd who had no business
there whatever. Not that there was any business properly so called
done in London that day. There was a surging rush in the direction of
Threadneedle Street. It would be something in after life to say that
one had seen a run on the Bank of England.

Inside the paying departments huge piles of gold and silver glittered
in the sunshine. It was a curious and thrilling contrast between the
grave decorum of the clerks and the wild, fierce rush of the public.

The piles of gold and the easy unconcern of the officials satisfied a
good many people who pushed to the counters and then fell back again
muttering uncomfortably; but, in real truth, the bank managers were
becoming a little anxious.

Lord Fairchild, the great capitalist, with his houses in every big city
of the world, contrived at length to reach the bank parlour. There was
a full meeting of the chairman and governors. A cheerful tone prevailed.

"I sincerely hope we may weather the storm," the chairman said
anxiously. "We have had no signal of distress from anyone; but I shall
be glad when it is over."

Everybody looked tired and worn out. One or two of the governors had
fallen asleep in their chairs. There was a litter of lunch on the
table. But very few of those assembled there seemed to care anything
for food.

"I calculate that we can last another day," Lord Fairchild said. "By
to-morrow I hope we shall have contact with Cape Town again."

Every effort was being made to bring about this desirable consummation.
The broken line might be repaired at any moment. News had come from
the Mauritius that the broken cable had been fished up, but there was
no further information since midnight. Possibly, when contact could
be made again, the disaster would prove to be much less than the last
message had forecasted.

"It must come," one of the governors sighed. "It must come soon, or
Parliament will have to deal with this question. Another two days----"

"I prefer not to think of another two days," Lord Fairchild replied.
"If the worst comes to the worst, Government must guarantee our paper.
We shall have to issue Treasury bills to make up our deficit. We----"

An excited individual burst without ceremony into the room. His hat was
off; his smart frock coat was torn to ribands.

"I am from the office of the East Cable Company," he gasped. "I was
told to come here at once. My Lord, I have the most extraordinary news.
The great disaster at Johannesburg is--is--is----"

"Get on, man; we are all impatience."

"Is--is no disaster at all. We have verified it. Our agent at Cape
Town says he has heard nothing of it. Johannesburg stands where it
did. There are four messages through and--well, there has been a cruel
fraud, and we are doing our best to get to the bottom of it."

A rousing cheer echoed through the bank parlour. The governors yelled
and shook each other by the hand like school-boys. Probably the decorum
of that room had never been so grossly violated before.

Lord Fairchild passed into the great office where the public were still
pushing and struggling. He stood on a table, his spare and striking
figure standing out conspicuously. There were hundreds present who
recognised that noble figure.

"Gentlemen," Lord Fairchild cried, "I have just received the most
authentic information that Johannesburg stands intact to-day. There has
been trickery somewhere, but, thank Heaven, the panic is over."

A perfect yell followed. Men went frantic with delight. When Lord
Fairchild said a thing it was accepted as gospel. Hats went high in the
air, people shook hands with perfect strangers, there was a rush to pay
gold back and take notes instead.

The news spread in the marvellous magnetic way common to the ear of
a huge multitude. It ran with lightning speed through the streets.
Everybody seemed to know like magic that Lord Fairchild had made a
short speech in the Bank of England to the effect that the scare was
over. In less than ten minutes the various bank officials were deeply
engaged in taking back again the piles of gold they had so recently
paid out. The mob roared out patriotic songs, there was a rush in all
directions. For the next hour or so the telegraph lines fairly hummed
with messages. Within an hour the City had regained much of its usual
busy decorum, save for the long stream of people who were getting rid
of their gold once more.

With a view to prevent any further exploiting and financial uneasiness
on the part of the speculating fraternity, the committee of the Stock
Exchange met and formally closed the House till Monday. Under the
circumstances the step was an exceedingly wise one.

In the seclusion of the bank parlour Lord Fairchild was closeted with
the editor of _The Messenger_. He had come down post haste to the City
to vindicate his character. The famous cablegram lay on the table.

"I need not say, my lord," he began, "that I----"

"You need not say anything about yourself," Lord Fairchild said kindly.
"We are quite convinced that you have been made a victim. But how?"

"I can only theorise at present," the _Messenger_ editor replied.
"And you, gentlemen, will understand, a great newspaper like ours has
correspondents everywhere. We also have a special cypher known only to
ourselves. Our man at the Cape is absolutely reliable. Now somebody
must have stolen our cypher or possessed himself of the key. Cables
come to us addressed to 'Bonanza.' Such was the cable that reached
us on the day that the Eastern line broke down. Seeing that it was
absolutely in order and apparently delivered in the usual way, we used
it, under the impression that we had a great piece of news and one that
possibly our rivals did not possess.

"There was nothing in the appearance of the cablegram to excite our
suspicions, but since the news of its falseness has come through I have
had it examined by an expert who reports that the original telegram had
been directed to 'Bonan,' and not to 'Bonanza.' The last two letters
had been cleverly forged, but under a very strong glass the forgery is
clear. Now you can see the trap. I have been to the office of the Cable
Company, and, as I expected, I find that a message was sent on the day
in question from Cape Town to a registered 'Bonan.' This 'Bonan' turns
out to be one James Jones who has an office in Long Lane. Of course
that office was taken for the express purpose of getting that message,
so that in case the Eastern line broke down the paper could be forced
upon us. Unfortunately it was forced upon us with dire results. We find
that the message was repeated day by day in the hopes of a breakdown.

"Now, lots of big houses down South cable quotations, lists of prices,
finds of gold-dust and the like every day. All these are in cypher,
and perhaps a fortnight might pass without any fluctuations, which
would mean practically the receipt of an identical message for days.
Nothing but a close search of the records could have aroused suspicion.
Besides, the line had broken down, and all the energies of the company
were devoted to that.

"If any of you gentlemen like to call at the Cable Company's offices
and see the scores of duplicate cypher messages, all more or less
alike, you will be convinced that the employés there are not in the
least at fault. We have been the victims of a clever conspiracy. We can
safely leave the rest to the police."

The City was becoming normal again. By four o'clock it was practically
deserted. The offices of the various banks were bursting with the
repaid gold. Many clerks were closing up the books and looking forward
to a good night's rest.

It was almost impossible to believe that these were the same streets of
a few hours before.

Meantime, Ericsson and his partner in the inner room of their offices
were gloating over a bewildering array of figures; their gains from
the gigantic hoax they had played on the public promised to run into
millions.

Rejoicing in the sudden turn in affairs, the two guilty men were
building castles in the air with their ill-gotten wealth, when heavy
footsteps came up from the office stairs; there was a knocking at the
door. The two men started up. Their nerves were humming still from the
strain of the past day and night.

"Come in," Asherton-Smith cried unsteadily.

A couple of men entered. One of them had a paper in his hand.

"Mr. Asherton-Smith and Mr. Carl Ericsson, _alias_ James Jones," he
said, "I have a warrant for your arrest which I will read to you
presently. I warn you not to say too much. Your accomplice, Jacob
Peters, has been arrested at Cape Town, and I am instructed by cable
that he has made a full confession."

The snarling oath died away on Ericsson's lips.

"It's all up," he said hoarsely, "but it was a chance. Curse Peters for
a white-livered fool. But for him I should be worth fifty millions."



THE INVISIBLE FORCE.

A Story of What Might Happen in the Days to Come, when Underground
London is Tunnelled in all Directions for Electric Railways, if an
Explosion Should Take Place in One of the Tubes.


I.


It seemed as if London had solved one of her great problems at
last. The communication difficulty was at an end. The first-class
ticket-holders no longer struggled to and from business with fourteen
fellow-sufferers in a third-class carriage. There were no longer any
particularly favoured suburbs, nor were there isolated localities where
it took as long getting to the City as an express train takes between
London and Swindon. The pleasing paradox of a man living at Brighton
because it was nearer to his business than Surbiton had ceased to
exist. The tubes had done away with all that.

There were at least a dozen hollow cases running under London in all
directions. They were cool and well ventilated, the carriages were
brilliantly lighted, the various loops were properly equipped and
managed.

All day long the shining funnels and bright platforms were filled with
passengers. Towards midnight the traffic grew less, and by half-past
one o'clock the last train had departed. The all-night service was not
yet.

It was perfectly quiet now along the gleaming core that lay buried
under Bond Street and St. James's Street, forming the loop running
below the Thames close by Westminster Bridge Road and thence to the
crowded Newington and Walworth districts. Here a portion of the roof
was under repair.

The core was brilliantly lighted; there was no suggestion of fog or
gloom. The general use of electricity had disposed of a good deal
of London's murkiness; electric motors were applied now to most
manufactories and work-shops. There was just as much gas consumed as
ever, but it was principally used for heating and culinary purposes.
Electric radiators and cookers had not yet reached the multitude; that
was a matter of time.

In the flare of the blue arc lights a dozen men were working on the
dome of the core. Something had gone wrong with a water-main overhead,
the concrete beyond the steel belt had cracked, and the moisture had
corroded the steel plates, so that a long strip of the metal skin had
been peeled away, and the friable concrete had fallen on the rails.
It had brought part of the crown with it, so that a maze of large and
small pipes was exposed to view.

"They look like the reeds of an organ," a raw engineer's apprentice
remarked to the foreman. "What are they?"

"Gas mains, water, electric light, telephone, goodness knows what," the
foreman replied. "They branch off here, you see."

"Fun to cut them," the apprentice grinned.

The foreman nodded absently. He had once been a mischievous boy, too.
The job before him looked a bigger thing than he had expected. It would
have to be patched up till a strong gang could be turned on to the
work. The raw apprentice was still gazing at the knot of pipes. What
fun it would be to cut that water-main and flood the tunnels!

In an hour the scaffolding was done and the _débris_ cleared away.
To-morrow night a gang of men would come and make the concrete good and
restore the steel rim to the dome. The tube was deserted. It looked
like a polished, hollow needle, lighted here and there by points of
dazzling light.

It was so quiet and deserted that the falling of a big stone
reverberated along the tube with a hollow sound. There was a crack,
and a section of piping gave way slightly and pressed down upon one
of the electric mains. A tangled skein of telephone wires followed.
Under the strain the electric cable parted and snapped. There was a
long, sliding, blue flame, and instantly the tube was in darkness. A
short circuit had been established somewhere. Not that it mattered,
for traffic was absolutely suspended now, and would not be resumed
again before daylight. Of course, there were the work-men's very early
trains, and the Covent Garden market trains, but they did not run over
this section of the line. The whole darkness reeked with the whiff of
burning indiarubber. The moments passed on drowsily.

Along one side of Bond Street the big lamps were out. All the lights
on one main switch had gone. But it was past one o'clock now, and the
thing mattered little. These accidents occurred sometimes in the best
regulated districts, and the defect would be made good in the morning.

It was a little awkward, though, for a great State ball was in progress
at Buckingham Palace. Supper was over, the magnificent apartments were
brilliant with light dresses and gay uniforms. The shimmer and fret of
diamonds flashed back to lights dimmer than themselves. There was a
slide of feet over the polished floors. Then, as if some unseen force
had cut the bottom of creation, light and gaiety ceased to be, and
darkness fell like a curtain.

There were a few cries of alarm from the swift suddenness of it. To
eyes accustomed to that brilliant glow the gloom was Egyptian. It
seemed as if some great catastrophe had happened. But common-sense
reasserted itself, and the brilliant gathering knew that the electric
light had failed.

There were quick commands, and spots of yellow flame sprang out here
and there in the great desert of the night. How faint and feeble, and
yellow and flaring, the lights looked! The electrician down below was
puzzled, for, so far as he could see, the fuses in the meters were
intact. There was no short circuit so far as the Palace was concerned.
In all probability there had been an accident at the generating
stations; in a few minutes the mischief would be repaired.

But time passed, and there was no welcome return of the flood of
crystal light.

"It is a case for all the candles," the Lord Chamberlain remarked;
"fortunately the old chandeliers are all fitted. Light the candles."

It was a queer, grotesque scene, with all that wealth of diamonds and
glitter of uniforms and gloss of satins, under the dim suggestion of
the candles. And yet it was enjoyable from the very novelty of it.
Nothing could be more appropriate for the minuet that was in progress.

"I feel like one of my own ancestors," a noble lord remarked. "When
they hit upon that class of candle I expect they imagined that the last
possibility in the way of lighting had been accomplished. Is it the
same outside, Sir George?"

Sir George Egerton laughed. He was fresh from the gardens.

"It's patchwork," he said. "So far as I can judge, London appears to be
lighted in sections. I expect there is a pretty bad breakdown. My dear
chap, do you mean to say that clock is right?"

"Half-past four, sure enough, and mild for the time of year. Did you
notice a kind of rumbling under--Merciful Heavens, what is that?"


II.


There was a sudden splitting crack as if a thousand rifles had been
discharged in the ballroom. The floor rose on one side to a perilous
angle, considering the slippery nature of its surface. Such a shower of
white flakes fell from the ceiling that dark dresses and naval uniforms
looked as if their wearers had been out in a snowstorm.

Cracks and fissures started in the walls with pantomimic effect, on all
sides could be heard the rattle and splinter of falling glass. A voice
suddenly uprose in a piercing scream, a yell proclaimed that one of the
great crystal chandeliers was falling. There was a rush and a rustle of
skirts, and a quick vision of white, beautiful faces, and with a crash
the great pendant came to the floor.

[Illustration: A yell proclaimed that one of the great crystal
chandeliers was falling.]

The whole world seemed to be oscillating under frightened feet, the
palace was humming and thrumming like a harpstring. The panic was so
great, the whole mysterious tragedy so sudden, that the bravest there
had to battle for their wits. Save for a few solitary branches of
candles, the big room was in darkness.

There were fifteen hundred of England's bravest, and fairest, and
best, huddled together in what might be a hideous deathchamber for all
they knew to the contrary. Women were clinging in terror to the men,
the fine lines of class distinction were broken down. All were poor
humanity now in the presence of a common danger.

In a little time the earth ceased to sway and rock, the danger was
passing. A little colour was creeping back to the white faces again.
Men and women were conscious that they could hear the beating of their
own hearts. Nobody broke the silence yet, for speech seemed to be out
of place.

"An earthquake," somebody said at length. "An earthquake, beyond doubt,
and a pretty bad one at that. That accounts for the failure of the
electric light. There will be some bad accidents if the gas mains are
disturbed."

The earth grew steady underfoot again, the white flakes ceased to
fall. Amongst the men the spirit of adventure was rising; the idea of
standing quietly there and doing nothing was out of the question.

Anyway, there could be no further thought of pleasure that night.
There were many mothers there, and their uppermost thought was for
home. Never, perhaps, in the history of royalty had there been so
informal a breaking up of a great function. The King and Queen had
retired some little time before--a kindly and thoughtful act under the
circumstances. The women were cloaking and shawling hurriedly; they
crowded out in search of their carriages with no more order than would
have been obtained outside a theatre.

But there were remarkably few carriages in waiting. An idiotic footman
who had lost his head in the sudden calamity sobbed out the information
that Oxford Street and Bond Street were impassable, and that houses
were down in all directions. No vehicles could come that way; the road
was destroyed. As to the rest, the man knew nothing; he was frightened
out of his life.

There was nothing for it but to walk. It wanted two good hours yet
before dawn, but thousands of people seemed to be abroad. For a space
of a mile or more there was not a light to be seen. Round Buckingham
Palace the atmosphere reeked with a fine irritating dust, and was
rendered foul and poisonous by the fumes of coal gas. There must have
been a fearful leakage somewhere.

Nobody seemed to know what was the matter, and everybody was asking
everybody else. And in the darkness it was very hard to locate the
disaster. Generally, it was admitted that London had been visited by a
dreadful earthquake. Never were the daylight hours awaited more eagerly.

"The crack of doom," Sir George Egerton remarked to his companion, Lord
Barcombe.

They were feeling their way across the park in the direction of the
Mall.

"It's like a shuddering romance that I read a little time since. But I
must know something about it before I go to bed. Let's try St. James's
Street--if there's any St. James's Street left."

"All right," Lord Barcombe agreed, "I hope the clubs are safe. Is it
wise to strike a match with all this gas reeking in the air?"

"Anything's better than the gas," Sir George said tersely.

The vesta flared out in a narrow, purple circle. Beyond it was a
glimpse of a seat with two or three people huddled on it. They were
outcasts and companions in the grip of misfortune, but they were all
awake now.

"Can any of you say what's happened?" Lord Barcombe asked.

"The world's come to an end, sir, I believe," was the broken reply.
"You may say what you like, but it was a tremendous explosion. I saw
a light like all the world ablaze over to the north, and then all the
lights went out, and I've been waiting for the last trump to sound ever
since."

"Then you didn't investigate?" Lord Barcombe asked.

"Not me, sir. I seem to have struck a bit of solid earth where I am.
And then it rained stones and pieces of brick and vestiges of creation.
There's the half of a boiler close to you that dropped out of the sky.
You stay where you are, sir."

But the two young men pushed on. They reached what appeared to be St.
James's Street at length, but only by stumbling and climbing over
heaps of _débris_.

The roadway was one mass of broken masonry. The fronts of some of the
clubs had been stripped off as if a titanic knife had sliced them. It
was like looking into one of the upholsterers' smart shops, where they
display rooms completely furnished. There were gaps here and there
where houses had collapsed altogether. Seeing that the road had ceased
to exist, it seemed impossible that an earthquake could have done
this thing. A great light flickered and roared a little way down the
road. At an angle a gas main was tilted up like the spout of a teapot,
upheaved and snapped from its twin pipes. This had caught fire in some
way, so that for a hundred yards or so each way the thoroughfare was
illuminated by a huge flare lamp.

It was a thrilling sight focussed in that blue glare. It looked as
if London had been utterly destroyed by a siege--as if thousands of
well-aimed shells had exploded. Houses looked like tattered banners of
brick and mortar. Heavy articles of furniture had been hurled into the
street; on the other hand, little gimcrack ornaments still stood on
tiny brackets.

A scared-looking policeman came staggering along.

"My man," Lord Barcombe cried, "what has happened?"

The officer pulled himself together and touched his helmet.

"It's dreadful, sir," he sobbed. "There has been an accident in the
tubes; and they have been blown all to pieces."


III.


The constable, for the moment, had utterly lost his nerve. He stood
there in the great flaring roar of the gas mains with a dazed
expression that was pitiful.

"Can you tell us anything about it?" Lord Barcombe asked.

"I was in Piccadilly," was the reply. "Everything was perfectly quiet,
and so far as I could see not a soul was in sight. Then I heard a funny
rushing sound, just like the tear of an express train through a big,
empty station. Yes, it was for all the world like a ghostly express
train that you could hear and not see. It came nearer and nearer; the
whole earth trembled just as if the train had gone mad in Piccadilly.
It rushed past me down St. James's Street, and after that there was an
awful smash and a bang, and I was lying on my back in the middle of the
road. All the lights that remained went out, and for a minute or two
I was _in_ that railway collision. Then, when I got my senses back,
I blundered down here because of that big flaring light there; and I
can't tell you, gentlemen, any more, except that the tube has blown up."

Of that fact there was no question. There were piles of _débris_ thrown
high in one part, and a long deep depression in another like a ruined
dyke. A little further on the steel core of the tube lay bare with
rugged holes ripped in it.

"Some ghastly electric catastrophe," Sir George Egerton murmured.

It was getting light by this time, and it was possible to form some
idea of the magnitude of the disaster. Some of the clubs in St. James's
Street still appeared to be intact, but others had suffered terribly.
The heaps of tumbled masonry were powdered and glittering with broken
glass and a few walls hung perilously over the pavement. And still the
gas main roared on until the flame grew from purple to violet, and to
straw colour before the coming dawn. If this same thing had happened
all along the network of tubes, London would be more or less a hideous
ruin.

[Illustration: The explosion had had a straight run here, for the road
had been raised like some gigantic zigzag molehill.]

For the better part of Piccadilly things were brighter. Evidently the
explosion had had a straight run here, for the road had been raised
like some mighty zigzag molehill for many yards. The wood pavement
scattered all over the place suggested a gigantic box of child's
bricks strewn over a nursery floor. The tube had been forced up, its
outer envelope of concrete broken so that the now twisted steel core
might have been a black snake crawling down Piccadilly. Doubtless the
expanding air had met with some obstacle in the tube under St. James's
Street, hence the terrible force of the explosion there.

There was quite a large crowd in Oxford Street. The whole roadway was
wet; the gutters ran with the water from the broken pipes. The air was
full of the odour of gas. All the clocks in the streets seemed to have
gone mad. Lord Barcombe glanced at his own watch, to find that it was
racing furiously.

"By Jove!" he whispered excitedly, "we're in danger here. The air is
full of electricity. I went over some works once, and neglected to
leave my watch behind me, and it played me the same prank. It affects
the mainspring, you know."

There were great ropes and coils of electric wire of high voltage
cropping out of the ground here and there; coils attached to huge
accumulators, and discharging murderous current freely. A dog, picking
his way across the sopping street, trod on one of the wires, and
instantly all that remained of the dog was what looked like a twisted
bit of burnt skin and bone. It appealed to Sir George Egerton's
imagination strongly.

"Poor little brute!" he murmured. "It might have happened to you or me.
Don't you know that a force that only gives a man a bad shock when he
is standing on dry ground often kills him when the surface is wet? I
wonder if we can get some indiarubber gloves and galoshes hereabouts.
After that gruesome sight, I shall be afraid to put one foot before the
other."

Indeed, the precaution was a necessary one. A horse attached to a cab
came creeping over the blocked streets; the animal slipped on a grating
connected with the ventilation of the drains, and a fraction of a
second later there was no horse in existence. The driver sat on his
perch, white and scared.

"The galoshes," Lord Barcombe said hoarsely. "Don't you move till we
come back again, my man. And everybody keep out of the roadway."

The cry ran along that the roadway meant instant death. The cabman sat
there gibbering with terror. A little way further down was a rubber
warehouse, with a fine selection of waders' and electricians' gloves
in the window. With a fragment of concrete Sir George smashed in the
window, and took what he and Lord Barcombe required. They knew that
they would be quite safe now.

More dead than alive the cabman climbed down from his seat and was
carried to the pavement on Lord Barcombe's shoulder. The left side of
his face was all drawn up and puckered, the left arm was useless.

"Apoplexy from the fright," Sir George suggested.

"Not a bit of it," Lord Barcombe exclaimed, "It's a severe electric
shock. Hold up."

Gradually the man's face and arm ceased to twitch.

"If that's being struck by lightning," he said, "I don't want another
dose. It was as if something had caught hold of me and frozen my heart
in my body. I couldn't do a thing. And look at my coat."

All up the left side the coat was singed so that at a touch the whole
cloth fell to pieces. It was a strange instance of the freakishness
of the invisible force. A great fear fell on those who saw. This
intangible, unseen danger, with its awful swiftness, was worse than
the worst that could be seen.

"Let's get home," Lord Barcombe suggested. "It's getting on my nerves.
It's dreadful when all the terror is left to the imagination."


IV.


Meanwhile no time was lost in getting to the root of the mischief.

The danger could not be averted by switching off the power altogether
at the various electrical stations of the metropolis. At intervals
along the tubes were immense accumulators which for the present could
not be touched. It was these accumulators that rendered the streets
such a ghastly peril.

It was the electrical expert to the County Council--Alton Rossiter--who
first got on the track of the disaster. More than once before, the
contact between gas and electricity had produced minor troubles of this
kind. Gas that had escaped into man-holes and drains had been fired
from the sparks caused by a short-circuit current wire. For some time,
even as far back as 1895, instances of this kind had been recorded.

But how could the gas have leaked into the tube, seeing that it was a
steel core with a solid bedding of concrete beyond? Unless an accident
had happened when the tube was under repair, this seemed impossible.

The manager of the associated tubes was quite ready to afford every
information to Mr. Rossiter. The core had corroded in Bond Street in
consequence of a settling of the earth caused by a leaky water-main.
The night before, this had been located and the steel skin stripped off
for the necessary repairs.

Mr. Alton Rossiter cut the speaker short.

"Will you come to Bond Street with me, Mr. Fergusson?" he said; "we may
be able to get into the tunnel there."

Fergusson was quite ready. The damage in Bond Street was not so great,
though the lift shaft was filled with _débris_, and it became necessary
to cut a way into the station before the funnel was reached.

For a couple of hundred yards the tube was intact; beyond that point
the fumes of gas were overpowering. A long strip of steel hung from the
roof. Just where it was, a round, clean hole in the roadway rendered it
possible to work and breathe there in spite of the gas fumes.

"We shall have to manage as best we can," Rossiter muttered. "For a
little time, at any rate, the gas of London must be cut off entirely.
With broken mains all over the place the supply is positively
dangerous. Look here."

He pointed to the spot where the gas main had trended down and where
a short-circuit wire had fused it. Here was the whole secret in a
nutshell. A roaring gas main had poured a dense volume into the tube
for hours; mixed with the air it had become one of the most powerful
and deadly of explosives.

"What time does your first train start?" Rossiter asked.

"For the early markets, four o'clock," Fergusson replied. "In other
words, we switch on the current from the accumulator stations at twenty
minutes to four."

"And this is one of your generating stations?"

"Yes. Of course I see exactly what you are driving at. Practically
the whole circuit of tubes was more or less charged with a fearful
admixture of gas and air. As soon as the current was switched on a
spark exploded the charge. I fear, I very much fear, that you are
right. If we can only find the man in charge here! But that would be
nothing else than a miracle."

All the same the operator in charge of the switches was close by.
Fortunately for him the play of the current in the tube had carried
the gases towards St. James's Street. The explosion had lifted him out
of his box, and for a time he lay stunned. Dazed and confused, he had
climbed to the street and staggered into the shop of a chemist who
was just closing the door upon a customer who had rung him up for a
prescription.

But he could say very little. There had been an explosion directly he
pulled down the first of the switches, and his memory was a blank after
that.

Anyway, the cause of the disaster was found. To prevent further
catastrophe notice was immediately given to the various gas companies
to cut off the supplies at once. In a little time the whole disastrous
length of the tube was free from that danger.

       *       *       *       *       *

By the afternoon a committee had gone over the whole route. At the
first blush it looked as if London had been half ruined. It was
impossible yet to estimate the full extent of the damage. In St.
James's Street alone the loss was pretty certain to run into millions.

Down in Whitehall and Parliament Street, and by Westminster Bridge, the
damage was terrible. Here sharp curves and angles had checked the rush
of expanding air with the most dire results. Huge holes and ruts had
been made in the earth, and houses had come down bodily.

Most of the people out in the streets by this time were properly
equipped in indiarubber shoes and gloves. It touched the imagination
strongly to know that between a man and hideous death was a thin sheet
of rubber no thicker than a shilling. It was like walking over the
crust of a slumbering volcano; like skating at top speed over very thin
ice.

Towards the evening a thrilling whisper ran round. From Deptford two
early specials had started to convey an annual excursion of five
hundred men and their wives to Paddington, whence they were going to
Windsor. It seemed impossible, incredible, that these could have been
overlooked; but by five o'clock the dreadful truth was established.
Those two specials had started; but what oblivion they had found--how
lingering, swift, or merciful, nobody could tell.


V.


There was a new horror. The story of those early special trains gave
the final terror to the situation. Probably they had been blown to
eternity. There was just one chance in a million that anybody had
escaped. All the same, something would have to be done to put the
matter at rest.

Nobody knew what to do; everybody had lost their heads for the moment.
It seemed hopeless from the very start. Naturally, the man that
everybody looked to at the moment was Fergusson of the associated
tubes. With him was Alton Rossiter, representing the County Council.

"But how to make a start?" the latter asked.

"We will start from Deptford," said Fergusson. "We must first ascertain
the exact time that the train left Deptford, and the precise moment
when the first explosion took place. Mind you, I believe there was a
series of explosions. You see, there is always a fair amount of air
in the tubes. When the inflowing gas met the cross currents of air,
it would be diverted, or pocketed, so to speak. We should have a big
pocket of the explosive, followed by a clear space. When the switches
were turned on there would be sparks here and there all along the
tubes. This means that practically simultaneously the mines would be
fired; fired so quickly that the series of reports would sound like
one big bang. That this must be so can be seen by the state of some of
the streets. In some spots the tube has been wrenched bodily from the
earth as easily as if it had been a gaspipe. And then, again, you have
streets that do not show the slightest damage. You must agree with me
that my theory is a correct one."

"I do. But what are you driving at?"

"Well, I am afraid that my theory is a very forlorn one, but I give it
for what it is worth. It's just possible, faintly possible, that those
trains ran into a portion of the tube where there was no explosion at
all. There were explosions behind them and in front of them, and of
course the machinery would have been rendered useless instantly, so
that the trains may be trapped with no ingress or outlet. I'm not in
the least sanguine of finding anything, but the aftermath of a fearful
tragedy. Anyway, our duty is pretty plainly before us--we must go to
Deptford. Come along."

The journey to Deptford was no easy one. There were so many streets
up that locomotion was a difficult matter. And where the streets were
damaged there was danger. It was possible to use cycles, seeing that
the rubber tires formed non-conductors, and indiarubber gloves and
shoes allowed extra protection. But the mere suggestion of a spill was
thrilling. It might mean the tearing of a glove or the loss of a shoe,
and then--well, that did not bear thinking about.

"I never before properly appreciated the feelings of the man that
Blondin used to carry on his back." Rossiter said as the pair pushed
steadily through Bermondsey, "but I can understand his emotions now."

The roads, even where there was no danger, were empty. A man or woman
would venture timidly out and look longingly to the other side of the
road and then give up the idea of moving altogether. As a matter of
fact there was more of it safe than otherwise, but the risks were too
awful.


VI.


Meanwhile something like an organised attempt was being made to grapple
with the evil. Days must, of necessity, elapse before a proper estimate
of the damage could be made, to say nothing of the loss of life.

Nothing very great could be accomplished, however, until the huge
accumulators had been cleared and the deadly current switched off. So
far as the London area proper was concerned, Holborn Viaduct was the
point to aim at. In big vaults there, underground, were some of the
largest accumulators in the world. These would have to be rendered
harmless at any cost.

But the work was none so easy, seeing that the tube here was crushed
and twisted, and all about it was a knot of high-pressure cables
deadly to the touch. There was enough power here running to waste to
destroy a city. There were spaces that it was impossible to cross;
and unfortunately the danger could not be seen. There was no warning,
no chance of escape for the too hardy adventurer; he would just have
stepped an inch beyond the region of safety, and there would have been
an end of him. No wonder that the willing workers hesitated.

There was nothing for it but the blasting of the tube. True, this might
be attended with danger to such surrounding buildings as had weathered
the storm, but it was the desperate hour for desperate remedies. A big
charge of dynamite rent a long slit in the exposed length of tube, and
a workman taking his life in his hands entered the opening. There were
few spectators watching. It was too gruesome and horrible to stand
there with the feeling that a slip either way might mean sudden death.

[Illustration: The workman, swathed from head to foot in indiarubber,
disappeared from sight.]

The workman, swathed from head to foot in indiarubber, disappeared from
sight. It seemed a long time before he returned, so long that his
companions gave him up for lost. Those strong able men who were ready
to face any ordinary danger looked at one another askance. Fire, or
flood, or gas, they would have endured, for under those circumstances
the danger was tangible. But here was something that appealed horribly
to the imagination. And such a death! The instantaneous fusion of the
body to a dry charcoal crumb!

But presently a grimed head looked out of the funnel. The face was
white behind the dust, but set and firm. The pioneer called for lights.

So far he had been successful. He had found the accumulators buried
under a heap of refuse. They were built into solid concrete below the
level of the tube, so that they had not suffered to any appreciable
extent.

There was no longer any holding back. The party swung along the tube
with lanterns, and candles flaring, they reached the vault where the
great accumulators were situated. Under the piled rails and fragments
of splintered wood, the shining marble switchboard could be seen.

But to get to it was quite another matter. Once this was accomplished,
one of the greatest dangers and horrors that paralysed labour would be
removed. It was too much to expect that the average labourer would toil
willingly, or even toil at all when the moving of an inch might mean
instant destruction. And it was such a little thing to do after all. A
child could have accomplished it; the pressure of a finger or two, the
tiny action that disconnects a wire from the live power, and the danger
would be no more, and the automatic accumulators rendered harmless.

But here were a few men, at any rate, who did not mean to be defeated.
They toiled on willingly, and yet with the utmost caution: for the
knots of cable wire under their feet and over their heads were like
brambles in the forest. If one of these had given way, all of them
might be destroyed. It was the kind of work that causes the scalp to
rise and the heart to beat and the body to perspire even on the coldest
day. Now and then a cable upheld by some _débris_ would slip; there
would be a sudden cry, and the workmen would skip back, breathing
heavily.

It was like working a mine filled with rattlesnakes asleep; but
gradually the mass of matter was cleared away and the switchboard
disclosed. A few light touches, and a large area of London was free
from a terrible danger. It was possible now to handle the big cables
with impunity, for they were perfectly harmless.

There was no word spoken for a long time. The men were trembling with
the reaction. One of them produced a large flask of brandy and handed
it round. Not till they had all drunk did the leader of the expedition
speak.

"How many years since yesterday morning?" he asked.

"Makes one feel like an old man," another muttered.

They climbed presently into the street again, for there was nothing
to be done here for the present. A few adventurous spectators heard
the news that the streets were free from danger once more. The tidings
spread in the marvellous way that such rumour carries, and in a little
time the streets were packed with people.


VII.


When the two cyclists came to Deptford, they found that comparatively
little damage had been done to the station there, beyond that the
offices and platforms had been wrecked. A wounded man was found, who
described how a mighty hurricane had roared down the tube ten minutes
after the excursion trains had departed. Fergusson made a rapid
calculation from the figures that the man supplied.

"The trains must have been near to Park Road Station," he said, "when
the explosion occurred. There is just a chance that they may have
run into a space free from gas, and that the explosion passed them
altogether. Let us make for Park Road Station without delay, and we
must try to pick up some volunteers as we go along."

When they arrived at the scene they found that a big crowd had
gathered. A rumour had spread that feeble voices had been heard down
one of the ventilation gratings, calling for help. Fergusson and
Rossiter reached the spot with difficulty.

"Get our fellows together," whispered Fergusson. "We can work now with
impunity; and if any of those poor people down below are alive, we
shall have them out in half-an-hour. If we only had some lights! Beg,
borrow, or steal all the lanterns you can get."

The nearest police-station solved that problem fast enough. A small
gang of special experts moved upon Park Road Station whilst the mob was
still struggling about the ventilation shaft, and in a little time the
entrance was forced.

The station was a veritable wreck; but for two hundred yards the tunnel
was clear before them. Then came a jammed wall of timber, the end of a
railway carriage standing on end. The timbers were twisted, huge baulks
of wood were bent like a bow. A way was soon made through the _débris_,
and Fergusson yelled aloud.

[Illustration: Out of the velvety darkness of the tube a man staggered
into the lane of light.]

To his delight a hoarse voice answered him. He yelled again and waved
his lantern. Out of the velvety darkness of the tube a man staggered
into the lane of light made by the lantern. He was a typical, thick-set
workman, in his best clothes.

"So you've found us at last," he said dully.

He appeared to be past all emotions. His eyes showed no gratitude, no
delight. The horrors of the dark hours had numbed his senses.

"Is--is it very bad?" asked Rossiter.

"Many were killed," the new comer said in the same wooden voice. "But
the others are sitting in the carriages waiting for the end to come.
The lights in the carriages helped us a bit, but after the first hour
they went out. Then one or two of us went up the line till it seemed to
rise and twist as if it was going to climb into the sky, and by that we
guessed that there had been a big explosion of some kind. So we tried
the other way, and that was all blocked up with timber; and we knew
then. The electricity was about, and--well, it wasn't a pretty sight,
so we went back to the trains. When the lights went out we were all mad
for a time, and--and--"

The speaker's lips quivered and shook--he burst into a torrent of
tears. Rossiter patted him on the back approvingly. Those tears
probably staved off stark insanity. The light of the lanterns went
swinging on ahead now, and the trains began to pour out their freight
of half-dead people. There were some with children, who huddled back
fearfully in their corners and refused to face the destruction which
they were sure lay before them. They were all white and trembling, with
quivering lips and eyes that twitched strangely. Heaven only knows how
long an eternity those hours of darkness had seemed.

They were all out at last, and were gently led to blessed light again.
There were doctors on the spot by this time with nourishing food and
stimulants. For the most part, the women sat down and cried, quietly
hugging their children to their breasts. Some of the men were crying in
the same dull way, but a few were violent. The dark horror of it had
driven them mad for the time. But there was a darker side to it; of the
pleasure-seekers the dead were numbered at more than half.

But there was one man here and there who had kept his head throughout
the crisis. A cheerful-looking sailor gave the best account of the
adventure.

"Not that there is much to say," he remarked. "We got on just as usual
for the first ten minutes or so, the train running smoothly and plenty
of light. Then all at once we came to a sudden stop that sent us flying
across the carriage. We seemed to have gone headlong into the stiffest
tempest I ever met. You could hear the wind go roaring past the
carriages, and then it stopped as soon as it had begun.

"The rattle of broken glass was like musketry. The first thing I saw
when I got out was the dead body of the engine-driver with the stoker
close by. It was just the same with the train in front. Afterwards, I
tried to find a way out, but couldn't. There was a man with me who trod
on some of them cables as you call 'em, and the next instant there was
no man--but I don't want to talk of that."

"It means months upon months," Fergusson said sadly.

"Not months--years," Rossiter replied. "Yet I dare say that in the
long run we shall benefit by the calamity, great communities do. As
to calculating the damage, my imagination only goes as far as fifty
millions, and then stops. And yet if anybody had suggested this to me
yesterday morning, I should have laughed."

"It would have seemed impossible."

"Absolutely impossible. And yet now that it has come about, how easy
and natural it all seems! Come, let us get to work and try to forget."



THE RIVER OF DEATH: A TALE OF LONDON IN PERIL.


I.

The sky was as brass from the glowing East upwards, a stifling heat
radiated from stone and wood and iron--a close, reeking heat that drove
one back from the very mention of food. The five million odd people
that go to make up London, even in the cream of the holiday season,
panted and gasped and prayed for the rain that never came. For the
first three weeks in August the furnace fires of the sun poured down
till every building became a vapour bath with no suspicion of a breeze
to temper the fierceness of it. Even the cheap press had given up
sunstroke statistics. The heat seemed to have wilted up the journalists
and their superlatives.

More or less the drought had lasted since April. Tales came up
from the provinces of stagnant rivers and quick, fell spurts of
zymotic diseases. For a long time past the London water companies
had restricted their supplies. Still, there was no suggestion of
alarm, nothing as yet looked like a water famine. The heat was almost
unbearable but, people said, the wave must break soon, and the
metropolis would breathe again.

Professor Owen Darbyshire shook his head as he looked at the brassy,
star-powdered sky. He crawled homewards towards Harley Street with
his hat in his hand, and his grey frock coat showing a wide expanse
of white shirt below. There was a buzz of electric fans in the hall
of No. 411, a murmur of them overhead. And yet the atmosphere was hot
and heavy. There was one solitary light in the dining-room--a room
all sombre oak and dull red walls as befitted a man of science--and a
visiting card glistened on the table. Darbyshire read the card with a
gesture of annoyance:

 James P. Chase
 _Morning Telephone_

"I'll have to see him," the Professor groaned, "I'll have to see the
man if only to put him off. Is it possible these confounded pressmen
have got hold of the story already?"

With just a suggestion of anxiety on his strong clean-shaven face,
the professor parted the velvet curtains leading to a kind of
study-laboratory, the sort of place you would expect to find in the
house of a man whose speciality is the fighting of disease in bulk.
Darbyshire was the one man who could grapple with an epidemic, the one
man always sent for.

The constant pestering of newspaper men was no new thing.
Doubtless Chase aforesaid was merely plunging around after
sensations--journalistic curry for the hot weather. Still, the pushing
little American might have stumbled on the truth. Darbyshire took down
his telephone and churned the handle.

"Are you there? Yes, give me 30795, Kensington.... That you, Longdale?
Yes, it's Darbyshire. Step round here at once, will you? Yes, I know
it's hot, and I wouldn't ask you to come if it wasn't a matter of the
last importance."

A small thin voice promised as desired and Darbyshire hung up his
receiver. He then lighted a cigarette, and proceeded to con over some
notes that he had taken from his pocket. These he elaborated in pencil
in a small but marvellously clear handwriting. As he lay back in his
chair he did not look much like the general whose army is absolutely
surrounded, but he was. And that square, lean head held a secret that
would have set London almost mad at a whisper.

Darbyshire laid the sheets down and fell into a reverie. He was roused
presently by the hall bell and Dr Longdale entered. The professor
brightened.

"That's right," he said. "Good to see somebody, Longdale. I've had an
awful day. Verity, if Mr. Chase comes again ask him in here."

"Mr. Chase said he would return in an hour, sir," the large butler
replied. "And I'm to show him in here? Yes, Sir."

But already Darbyshire had hustled his colleague beyond the velvet
curtains. Longdale's small clear figure was quivering with excitement.
His dark eyes fairly blazed behind a pair of gold-rimmed spectacles.

"Well," he gasped, "I suppose it's come at last?"

"Of course it has," Darbyshire replied, "Sooner or later it was an
absolute certainty. Day by day for a month I have watched the sky and
wondered where the black hand would show. And when these things do
come they strike where you most dread them. Still, in this case, the
Thames----"

"Absolutely pregnant," Longdale exclaimed. "Roughly speaking,
four-fifths of London's water supply comes from the Thames. How many
towns, villages drain into the river before it reaches Sunbury or
thereabouts where most of the water companies have their intake? Why,
scores of them. And for the best part of a month the Thames has been
little better than a ditch stagnating under a brazen sunshine. Will our
people ever learn anything, Darbyshire? Is London and its six million
people always to groan under the tyranny of a monopoly? Say there's an
outbreak of typhoid somewhere up the river between here and Oxford. It
gets a grip before the thing is properly handled, the village system of
drainage is a mere matter of percolation. In eight-and-forty hours the
Thames is one floating tank of deadly poison. And, mind you, this thing
is bound to happen sooner or later."

"It has happened," Darbyshire said quietly, "and in a worse form
than you think. Just listen to this extract from an eastern counties
provincial paper:

                   "'STRANGE AFFAIR AT ALDENBURGH

 "'A day or two ago the barque Santa Anna came ashore at Spur, near
 Aldenburgh, and quickly became a total wreck. The vessel was piled
 high on the Spur, and, the strong tide acting upon the worn-out hull,
 quickly beat it to pieces. The crew of eight men presumably took to
 their boats, for nothing has been seen of them since. How the Santa
 Anna came to be wrecked on a clear, calm night remains a mystery
 for the present. The barque was presumedly inbound for some foreign
 port and laden with oranges, thousands of which have been picked up
 at Aldenburgh lately. The coastguards presume the barque to be a
 Portuguese.'

"Naturally you want to know what this has to do with the Thames,"
Darbyshire observed. "I'm going to tell you. The Santa Anna was
deliberately wrecked for a purpose which you will see later. The crew
for the most part landed not far away and, for reasons of their own,
sank their boat. It isn't far from Aldenburgh to London: in a short
time the Portuguese were in the Metropolis. Two or three of them
remained there, and five of them proceeded to tramp to Ashchurch,
which is on the river, and not far from Oxford. Being short of money,
their idea was to tramp across to Cardiff and get a ship there. Being
equally short of our language, they get out of their way to Ashchurch.
Then three of them are taken ill, and two of them die. The local
practitioner sends for the medical officer of health. The latter gets
frightened and sends for me. I have just got back. Look here."

Darbyshire produced a phial of cloudy fluid, some of which he proceeded
to lay on the glass of a powerful microscope. Longdale fairly staggered
back from the eyepiece. "Bubonic! The water reeks with the bacillus!
I haven't seen it so strongly marked since we were in New Orleans
together. Darbyshire, you don't mean to say that this sample came
from----"

"The Thames? But I do. Ashchurch drains directly into the river. And
for some few days those sailors have been suffering from a gross form
of bubonic fever. Now you see why they ran the Santa Anna ashore and
deserted her. One of the crew died of plague, and the rest abandoned
her. We won't go into the hideous selfishness of it; it was a case of
the devil take the hindmost."

"It's an awful thing," Longdale groaned.

"Frightful," Darbyshire murmured. He was vaguely experimenting with
some white precipitate on a little water taken from the phial. He
placed a small electric battery on the table. "The great bulk of the
London water supply comes from the Thames. Speaking from memory, only
the New River and one other company draw their supply from the Lea.
If the supply were cut off, places like Hoxton and Haggerstone and
Battersea, in fact all the dense centres of population where disease is
held in on the slenderest of threads, would suffer fearfully. And there
is that deadly poison spreading and spreading, hourly drawing nearer to
the metropolis into which presently it will be ladled by the million
gallons. People will wash in it, drink it. Mayfair will take its chance
with Whitechapel."

"At any hazard the supply must be cut off!" Longdale cried.

"And deprive four-fifths of London of water altogether!" Darbyshire
said grimly. "And London grilling like a furnace! No flushing of
sewers, no watering of roads, not even a drop to drink. In two days
London would be a reeking, seething hell--try and picture it, Longdale."

"I have, often," Longdale said gloomily. "Sooner or later it had to
come. Now is your chance, Darbyshire--that process of sterilisation of
yours."

Darbyshire smiled. He moved in the direction of the velvet curtains. He
wanted those notes of his; he wanted to prove a startling new discovery
to his colleague. The notes were there, but they seemed to have been
disturbed. On the floor lay a torn sheet from a notebook with shorthand
cypher; thereon Darbyshire flew to the bell and rang it violently.

"Verity," he exclaimed, "has that infernal--I mean, has Mr Chase been
here again?"

"Well, he have, sir," Verity said slowly, "he come just after Mr
Longdale. So I asked him to wait, which he did, then he come out again
after a bit, saying as you seemed to be busily engaged he would call
again."

"Um! Did he seem to be excited, Verity?"

"Well, he did, sir; white and very shiny about the eyes, and----"

"That will do. Go and call me a hansom, at once," Darbyshire cried,
as he dashed back into the inner room. "Here's a pretty thing; that
confounded American journalist, Chase--you know him--has heard all
we said and has helped himself to my notes; the whole thing will be
blazing in the _Telephone_ to-morrow, and perhaps half-a-dozen papers
besides. Those fellows would wreck the empire for what they call a
'scoop.'"

"Awful!" Longdale groaned. "What are you going to do?"

Derbyshire responded that he was going to convince the editor of the
_Telephone_ that no alarmist article was to appear on the morrow.

He would be back again in an hour and Longdale was to wait. The
situation was not quite so hopeless as it seemed on the face of it.
There was a rattle of wheels outside and Darbyshire plunged hatless
into the night.

"Offices of the _Telephone_," he cried. "A sovereign if I'm there in
twenty minutes."

The cab plunged on headlong. The driver was going to earn that
sovereign or know the reason why. He drove furiously into Trafalgar
Square, a motor car crossed him recklessly, and a moment later
Darbyshire was shot out on to his head from the cab. He lay there with
no interest in mundane things. A languid crowd gathered, a doctor in
evening dress appeared.

"Concussion of the brain," he said in a cool matter of fact tone. "By
Jove, it's Dr. Derbyshire. Here, police; hurry up with the ambulance;
he must be removed to Charing Cross at once."


II.


With no spiritual indigestion troubling him, Mr. James Chase, late of
the _New York Chanticleer_, now of the _Morning Telephone_, lighted a
cigarette at the corner of Harley Street. The night was young and there
was plenty of time for him to mature his plans. He had got what he
called an "almighty scoop" in his pocket, indeed in the whole history
of yellow journalism he could remember no greater. London dried up
like a withered sponge and absolutely devoid of water! London with the
liquid plague bursting from every subterranean pipe and fountain! The
whirling headlines were revolving in Chase's close-cropped head.

He reached the offices of the _Telephone_ at length and crawled up
a dingy flight of stairs. Without knocking he passed the barrier
of a door marked "strictly private." The controlling genius of the
_Telephone_ sat limp and bereft of coat and vest. His greeting of Chase
was not burdened with flattering politeness. He merely asked what the
blazes he wanted. Chase nodded sweetly and drew a large sheet of paper
before him. After a little thought he dashed in half-a-dozen vigorous
lines with a blue pencil.

"Things pretty slack lately," he remarked amicably. "So hot that even
the East End can't rise to its weekly brutal murder. Still you get on
to a pearl sometimes. Grady, my boy, what do you think of that for a
contents bill?"

He held the white sheet aloft so that the flare of the gas should fall
upon it. The tired look faded from Grady's eyes; he sat up alert and
vigorous. Here was the tonic that his fretted soul craved for.

"Chapter and Verse?" he said, speaking fast as if he had run far.

[Illustration: "I overheard a conversation between him and Doctor
Langdale."]

"Got it all from Derbyshire," Chase replied. "I overheard a
conversation between him and Doctor Longdale in his own house. Also I
managed to get hold of some notes to copy."

"It wants pluck," Grady remarked, "A scare like that might ruin the
Empire; if----"

"None of that," Chase cut in. "Take it or leave it. If you haven't got
the grit, Sutton of the _Flashlight_ will jump at the chance."

He held the contents bill up to the light again and Grady nodded.
He was going to do this thing deliberately, once he was sure of his
ground. He remarked cynically that it sounded like a fairy story.

"Not a bit of it," Chase, said briskly. "The plague breaks out on this
barque and the crew know it. There's no ceremony with sailors of that
class. They just lose their vessel and strike for the nearest land.
Knowing something of our quarantine laws they make themselves scarce as
soon as they can. A local doctor calls the plague English cholera, too
much bad fruit in very hot weather, and there you are."

Grady nodded again. The sweltering heat of the place no longer affected
him. Down below the presses were already beginning to clang and boom.
There was a constant clatter of feet along the passages.

"Sit down right away," Grady snapped. "Make two columns of it. I'll get
some statistics out for you."

Chase peeled off his coat and got to work at once. Grady found the book
he required and proceeded to compile his facts therefrom.

The further he dived into the volume the more terribly grave the
situation appeared.

The upper waters of the Thames were poisoned beyond doubt. And the
Thames for some time past had been little better than a stagnant ditch
under a fiery sun. Let that water only find its way into the pipes
under London and who could forecast the magnitude of the disaster?
Nearly all London derived its supply from the Thames.

So far as Grady could see from a swift examination of Dr. Richard
Siskey's valuable book, there were only two London water companies did
not derive their stock from the Thames--the New River Company with
its 40,000,000 gallons per diem, and the Kent Company with 20,000,000
gallons a day were the favoured ones.

But what of the other six sources of supply? Chelsea, East London, West
Middlesex, Grand Junction, Southwark, and Vauxhall and Lambeth were
all dependent upon the Thames. Some 250,000,000 gallons of water daily
were a matter of necessity for the areas supplied by the above-named
companies. Fancy that liquid poison flowing like a flood into the Fast
End from Limehouse to West Ham, and from Bow to Walthamstow, and nobody
dreaming of the hideous danger! Why, the Great Plague of London would
be nothing to it.

And the West End would be no better off. From Sunbury to Mayfair those
connected with the Grand Junction supply would suffer. So far as London
proper was concerned, only those fortunate ones who were joined to the
New River mains would be exempt from peril, and, even then, what chance
has a sanitary area surrounded by pestilent districts? If it were not
already too late, the only chance was to cut off the contaminated
water supply, and then leave four-fifths of the population of London
absolutely without water under a heat that seemed to deprive one of
vital power.

The further Grady read on the more he was impressed. If he could get
this dread information into the hands of the people before it was
too late, he felt that he would be playing the part of a benefactor.
Desperate as the situation looked, the _Telephone_ might yet save it.
Professor Darbyshire had no right to hold up such a secret when he
should have been taking measures to avert the threatened danger. It
never occurred to Grady that Darbyshire had had this calamity before
his eyes for years, and that his genius had found a way to nullify the
evil.

"The figures are pretty bad," Grady muttered. "Upon my word, it makes
me creepy to think about it. Got your stuff ready? Want anything?"

"Anything in the way of food, you mean?" Chase asked.

"That's it. No? So much the better; because when that copy goes
upstairs not a soul leaves the premises till the paper has gone to bed."

An hour later the presses were roaring: presently huge parcels of damp
sheets were vomited into the street. Under the glare of the arc lamps
perspiring porters ghostly blue and spectral vans waited. The whole
street was busy with the hum of high noon. And all the while, a little
way beyond the radius of purple arcs, London slept....

London awoke presently and prepared for the day's work. There was no
sign of fear or panic yet. A copy of the _Telephone_ lay on a hundred
thousand odd breakfast tables, news in tabloid form for busy men to
read. As the sheets were more or less carelessly opened the eye was
arrested by the scare heads on page 5. Nothing else seemed to be
visible:--

                 THE POISONED THAMES

 Millions of plague germs flowing down into London. Bacillus of bubonic
 plague in the river. New River and Kent Companies alone can supply
 pure water. Stupendous discovery by Professor Darbyshire. Death in
 your breakfast cup to-day. Shun it as you would poison. If you are
 not connected with either of the above companies, or if you have no
 private supply.

               CUT OFF YOUR WATER AT THE MAIN AT ONCE!

What did it all mean? Nobody seemed to know. At eight o'clock in the
morning London's pulse was calm and regular. An hour later it was
writhing like some great reptile in the throes of mortal pain.


III.


By ten o'clock the authorities had taken the matter in hand. By
some mishap the one man who could have done most to help was lying
unconscious at Charing Cross Hospital with no chance of his throwing
any light on the subject for some days to come. Darbyshire's hurt was
not dangerous, but his recovery was a matter of time.

Meanwhile Dr. Longdale was the man of the hour. But he could not allay
the panic that had gripped London. A deadly fear had taken possession
of everybody. Longdale could hold out no hope, he could only give his
conversation with Darbyshire and declare that the bubonic microbe had
impregnated the Thames. Did he think seriously of the danger? The
answer was not reassuring. For his part Longdale would far rather see a
million of troops and a siege train battering London than hear of such
a thing as this.

There was only one thing for it. It was no time for kid glove remedies.
Six of the great London Water Companies had their supply cut off within
an hour. It is almost impossible to sit down and realise what this
means, and that under a sky like brass and the thermometer at 97° in
the shade.

Try and imagine it for a moment, and try and wonder why the thing has
not happened before. Think of two-thirds of two millions deprived
suddenly of the element which is almost as vital to existence as food.
Try and realise that these two-thirds of six millions derive their
water supply from an open stream that at any moment by the accident of
chance might be turned into a hideous poison-cup.

Under a blazing sunshine after days of heat and dust the packed East
End was suddenly deprived of every drop of water. For an hour or two
no great hardship was felt, but after that every moment added to the
agony. Before long the railway termini were packed with people eager to
be away from the metropolis.

[Illustration: Well-dressed business men could be seen proceeding in
cabs to the favoured area with buckets and water cans.]

By midday business was at a standstill. There was not a water cart to
be seen from Kensington to the Mansion House. Every cart and tank that
could be raked together had been despatched into the New River and Kent
Water area with instructions to convey a supply as speedily as possible
to the congested districts East and South-east of the Thames. By lunch
time the City presented a strange spectacle. Well-dressed business men
could be seen proceeding in cabs to the favoured area with buckets and
water cans with the avowed object of taking a supply forthwith. Cabmen
were commanding their own prices.

Fairly early in the morning came the announcement that mineral waters
had gone up two hundred per cent. in price. By midday the supply for
the time being had ceased. Men of means with an eye to the future
had bought up the whole stock. The streets were crowded with people
anxiously waiting developments.

For the time being the scare was kept well in hand. What men were most
anxious to know, though they dared hardly whisper the question, was
whether any disease had broken out as yet. It was a little after two
o'clock that the _Evening Flashlight_ settled the question. A boy came
yelling down the Strand with a flapping of papers on his shoulders.

"The plague broke out," he cried; "two cases of bubonic fever at
Limehouse. Dr. Longdale's analysis. Speshull."

There was a rush for the lad and his papers were gone in a twinkling of
an eye. He looked down dazed at the pile of silver and coppers in the
palm of his grimy hand.

Yes, there it was right enough. Two cases of bubonic plague had been
located in a crowded corner of Limehouse, and Dr. Longdale had been
called in to verify them. He had not the slightest hesitation in so
doing. Perhaps if the readers of the _Flashlight_ had known these two
cases were renegades from the Santa Anna, the panic might have been
allayed. But nobody knew.

There was terror in the mere suggestion of the plague. Doubtless,
people said, these two poor fellows had drunk of the polluted flood and
paid the penalty. But no fever breaks out quite so soon as that and
within a few hours nine-tenths of the white-face multitude had drunk of
the same stream. Man turned to friend and stranger to stranger with the
same dread question in his eye. It might be the turn of any one of them
next. There were those who shrugged their shoulders stolidly, others
that crept in bars and restaurants and asked furtively for brandy.

The streets were still packed with people waiting for fresh
information. By this time there was something like method in the
conveyance of water to the affected parts. But after all the New River
and Kent companies could not do everything. At the utmost they could
supply no more than 60,000,000 gallons per day and now they were
suddenly called upon for water for the whole of London. Just enough to
drink and keep body and soul together was all that could be expected.

In some crowded districts where great breweries and the like had been
established much was accomplished by private enterprise. There were
scores of artesian wells in East and South London and these were
generously given over at once to the requirements of the people. Even
private houses known to possess pumps were besieged and strangers of
all classes were accommodated. The situation was dreadful enough but it
would be worse if a real panic broke out.

Presently people began to press in dense masses along the Strand and
the avenues leading to Trafalgar Square where fountains by Nelson's
column were spurting high and clear. There was a continuous rush in the
direction of the Square where placards announced the fact that there
was no suggestion of contamination here. People danced and raved about
the fountain, they fought for the water, they carried it away only to
lose it again in the crush, they bent down and lifted the precious
fluid to their lips in the hollow of their hands.

Still, there was no sign of panic as yet, no more cases of fever
reported. As night fell the streets cleared and something like a normal
condition of things was restored.


IV.


It seemed indeed as if serious disaster would now be averted. All night
long a willing band of firemen and volunteers were engaged in bringing
the precious fluid to the famine stricken district. But, including
private and other wells, the available supply was little more than
70,000,000 gallons per day and this had to be divided amongst 6,000,000
people over an area of some thirty square miles.

And this, after all, was only a proper precaution. The New River and
Kent Companies had a face supply of 50,000,000 gallons per diem, but
this was an absolute maximum and far over the average demand.

Moreover, the drought had been a long one, and the reserve reservoirs
had been freely called upon. In a day or two the allowance would have
to be halved.

Again in the hospitals and sick households water for domestic purposes
was absolutely necessary. Meanwhile scores of the main line trains had
been knocked off to make way for trains of tanks bringing water from
the country. The Spring Gardens officials were working with superhuman
efforts.

All night long a stream of people were coming and going between
Trafalgar Square and such other open supplies as were available.
Morning came at length, with the promise of another sweltering day.
A few people turned vaguely to Parliament to do something. Two days
before the House of Commons had looked forward to prorogation on
Saturday, but there was no talk of that any longer.

The streets began to be busy again. There were smartly-dressed men
here and there with grimy chins and features frankly dirty. It seemed
strange to see individuals with good coats and spotless linen grimed
and lined with the dust of yesterday. A steady breeze was blowing so
that in a little time the dust in the streets became intolerable. The
air was full of a fine dry powder that penetrated lungs and throat, and
produced a painful thirst. It was impossible to water the roads, so
that the evil had to be endured.

There was one question on every lip, and that was whether there had
been any further spread of the plague. The authorities were exceedingly
happy to announce that no further cases had been reported. There
was comfort in the knowledge, and London breathed a little easier.
Evidently the prompt measures taken had averted all danger of a
disastrous epidemic. Gradually it became known who the sufferers were.
It was an awful price that London had to pay for the casting away of
the Santa Anna.

But that was only the spark to the powder, after all. Extraordinary
apathy and criminal carelessness were the causes of the disaster. The
knowledge a century hence that London derived its water supply from an
open river into which many towns conveyed its sewage will be recorded
with pitiful amazement. For the present we have the plain unmitigated
fact.

The yellow press made the most of it. The _Red Banner_ pointed to
corruption and apathy on the part of the ruling powers; the _Red
Banner_ also asked if it were not a fact that our bloated legislators
had a private water supply of their own, and that, whilst the common
people were allowanced, our law makers were sipping their coffee and
tea and whiskey and water as usual?

It was the usual coarse gibe to be expected from a paper of that type,
an arrow at venture. But for once the thing was true, seeing that the
House of Commons has a private supply of water drawn from a well of
its own. As a rule, the _Banner_ carried very little weight, but the
question got into the people's mouths and became a catchword. A man had
only to pass a standpipe without a struggle in its direction, to be
dubbed a member of the House of Commons, i.e., the public want did not
touch him at all.

The blazing, panting day wore on. People were beginning faintly to
understand what a water famine might mean. Everybody was grimy and
tired; in the East and West alike dingy features could be seen. As
night fell small riots broke out here and there, people were robbed
of their precious fluid as they carried it along the streets. It had
leaked out that sundry shops in different parts of London had wells,
and these establishments were stormed and looted of their contents by
thieves who took advantage of the confusion. It was only by dint of the
most strenuous exertion that the police managed to keep the upper hand.

Another day or two of this and what would become of London? At
nightfall it became absolutely necessary to release some millions of
gallons of the condemned water for the flushing of the sewers. There
was danger here, but, on the whole, the danger was less than a wide
epidemic of diphtheria and fever. And there were people thirsty and
reckless enough to drink this water heedless of the consequences. With
characteristic imprudence, the East End had exhausted its dole early in
the day, and wild-eyed men raved through the streets yelling for more.

From time to time the police raided and broke up these dangerous
commandoes. A well-known democratic agitator came with a following over
Westminster Bridge and violently harangued a knot of his followers in
Palace Yard. The police were caught napping for the moment. The burly
red-faced demagogue looked round the swelling sea of sullen features
and pointed to the light in the clock tower. He started spouting the
froth of his tribe.

It was all the fault of the governing body, of course. They managed
things much better on the Continent.

"If you were men," he yelled, "you'd drag them out of yonder. You'd
make them come and work like the rest of us. What said the _Banner_
to-day? Your bloated rulers are all right; they don't want for
anything. At the present moment they have plenty of the water that
you'd sell your souls for."

"If you'll lead the way, we'll follow," said a voice hoarsely.

The orator glanced furtively around. There was not a single police
helmet to be seen, nothing but five or six hundred desperate men ready
for anything.

"Then come along," he yelled. "We'll make history to-night."

He strode towards the House followed by a yelling mob. The few police
inside were tossed here and there like dry leaves in a flood; the quiet
decorum of the lobby was broken up, a white-faced member fled into
the chamber and declared that London was in riot and that a mob of
desperadoes were here bent on wrecking the mother of parliaments.

An interminable debate on some utterly useless question was in
progress, the Speaker nodded wearily under the weight of his robes and
wig, the green benches were dotted with members all utterly overcome
with the stifling heat. There was to be a big division about midnight,
so that the smoking-room and bars and terraces were full of members.

[Illustration: The mob filled the chamber, yelling and shouting. It was
in vain that the Speaker tried to make his voice heard above the din.]

The Speaker looked up sharply. A stinging reproof was on the tip of
his tongue. He had scarcely uttered a word, before, as if by magic,
the green benches were swarming with the mob. It filled the chamber,
yelling and shouting. It was in vain that the Speaker tried to make his
voice heard above the din.

A glass of water and a bottle stood on the table before him. One of
the intruders more audacious than the rest snatched up the glass and
emptied it. A mighty roar of applause followed the audacious act. As
yet the mob was fairly good-humoured, though there was no knowing what
their mood would be presently.

"It's that confounded _Banner_," one member of the government groaned
to another. "They have come after our private supply. Can't one of you
get to the telephone and call up Scotland Yard?"

Meanwhile the mob were inclined to be sportive. They surged forward to
the table driving the Speaker back behind the chair, they overturned
the table and scattered books and papers in all directions. The foreign
element in the company started singing the _Marseillaise_ in strident
tones. The martial spirit of it fired the blood of the others.

"We are wasting time here," someone cried. "There are bars and
dining-rooms. As we came in I heard the rattle of glasses. This way."

The crowd reeled back as if one motion controlled them all. There was
still the same note of laughter in the roar and all might have been
well yet, but for the advent of a small, but determined body of police.
They charged fiercely into the mob, and in the twinkling of an eye
farces gave way to tragedy.

In less time than it takes to tell the police were beaten back with one
or two of their number badly hurt, whilst the forefront of the visitors
had not come off any better. The popular chamber had become a wreck;
outside in the lobby broken furniture was scattered about everywhere.

Then the tide of humanity surged into the bars and dining-rooms. A few
frightened attendants and waiters still stuck to their posts. The sight
of the glasses and bottles of water about seemed to madden the mob.
They demanded that all the taps should be turned on, the fittings were
wrenched away amidst a perfect tornado of applause, soon the floors
were swimming with the element that all London was clamouring for
outside.

The rooms were strewn with broken glass and china, the floors were damp
and soppy with the wasted water. Here and there men were feasting on
looted food. Never had anything like this been seen in any parliament
before. A few courageous members vainly trying to stop the din wondered
where were the police.

But they were coming. They did come presently, two hundred of them,
steady, stern, and disciplined, and before them the rioters fled like
chaff before the wind. Five more minutes and the House was cleared.
But the damage was great.

Outside a dense mass of people had gathered, attracted by the news of
the riot. They were in no mood to take the side of law and order and it
was with great difficulty that the ring-leaders of the late affray were
got away safely. A thin high voice a long way off in the back of the
crowd was shouting something which seemed to at once arrest attention.
A sullen murmur came up to Palace Yard. The loose jeers of the mob
ceased as if by magic.

"What are they saying?" an Irish member asked.

"I can't quite catch it," another member said, "but it's something
about water in Trafalgar Square. I shouldn't wonder if----"

Just for an instant the roar broke out again. There was a note of fear
in it this time. The babel of voices yelled one against the other.
Gradually it was possible to make something out of it.

"By Jove, it's as I feared," the Irish member said. "The spring under
the Trafalgar Square fountain has given out. It's a public calamity.
See, they are all off. No more row to-night."

The great crowd was melting away with marvellous rapidity. Each man
there wanted to verify this new disaster for himself. The mob streamed
along towards the Square as if life and death hung in the balance. If
fortune had lain there they could not have fought or struggled harder.
In the heat and the strife many fell by the way, but they lay there
unheeded.

The cool fountain no longer played. People who had come from afar with
vessels for the precious fluid cast them on the ground passionately and
cursed aloud. The disaster was so great, it appeared so overwhelming
that the cruel mood of the mob was held in check for the time.
Taking advantage, the police shepherded the mob here and there until
comparative quiet was restored. Dr. Longdale, on his way home, paused
to contemplate the scene.

"'Blucher or night,'" he murmured, "Darbyshire or morning, rather. I'd
give my practice to have a few words with Darbyshire now. I'll just
call at the Charing Cross Hospital and see how he is."

It was comparatively quiet in the Strand by this time. Four or five
stalwart constables stood on the steps of the hospital as a safeguard,
for there was no lack of water there. A house-surgeon came hurrying out.

"I am very glad to see you," he said. "I was just going to send for
you. Dr. Darby----"

"Good heaven, you don't mean to say he is worse!"

"On the contrary, much better; quite sensible, in fact; and he declines
to think about sleep until he has seen you."


V.


If the sweltering heat that hung over London added in one way to the
terror of the hour, it was not without a beneficent effect in another
direction. Under such a sky, and with a barometer somewhere in the
nineties, it was impossible for rioting to last long at a stretch.

The early hours of dawn saw London comparatively quiet again. Perhaps
it was no more than the sleep of exhaustion and sullen despair, perhaps
the flame might break out again with the coming of the day. Down in the
East End a constant struggle was maintained, a struggle between the
industrious and prudent and those who depended upon luck or the power
of the strong arm.

The day came again with the promise of another round of blazing hours.
At first there were no signs of lawlessness, nothing more than an eager
jostling stream of people pushing impatiently towards the districts
where water could be obtained. These were the folks who preferred to
get their own instead of waiting for the carts or tanks to visit them.

Naturally, the Press was full of good advice. Thousands of
correspondents had rushed into print with many a grotesque suggestion
for getting rid of the difficulty. Amongst these ingenious inventions
was one that immediately arrested popular attention. The writer pointed
out that there were other things to quench thirst besides water. There
were hundred of tons of fruit in London, it came up from the provinces
by the trainload every day, foreign vessels brought consignments to the
Thames and the Mersey. Let the Government pour all this into London and
distribute it free in a systematic way.

This letter appeared in three popular papers. The thing was talked
about from one end of London to the other. It was discussed in
Whitechapel and eagerly debated in the West End clubs.

Instantly the whole metropolis had a wild longing for fruit. Some of
the shops were cleared out directly at extraordinary prices. Grapes
usually sold at a shilling or two the pound now fetched twenty times
their value. A costermonger in the Strand with a barrow of oranges
suddenly found himself a comparatively rich man. Towards midday crowds
began to gather before the big fruit stores, and in the neighbourhood
of Covent Garden traffic was impossible.

Prices went leaping up as if fruit had become as extinct as the dodo.

Still the stuff came pouring in in response to urgent telegrams. It
looked as if the dealers were bent upon making a fortune out of the
public mood. Like lightning the news of what was happening flashed over
London, and gradually the approaches to Covent Garden were packed with
people.

[Illustration: Another man, amidst the yells of the crowd, sprang to
the top of the load and whirled a basket of apples far and wide.]

Presently curiosity was followed by a sullen resentment. Who were these
men that they should be allowed to fatten on public misfortune? These
things ought to have been given away if only on the ground of mere
public policy. Through the crush came a waggon-load of baskets and
boxes. A determined-looking mechanic stopped the horses whilst another
man, amidst the yells of the crowd, sprang to the top of the load and
whirled a basket of apples far and wide.

"You've got too heavy a load, matey," he said grimly to the driver.

The man grinned meaningly. He was benefiting nothing by the new order
of things. He took an apple and began to eat it himself. In a few
minutes every speck of fruit had disappeared.

The thing was done spontaneously and in perfect order. One moment the
market had been absolutely crammed with fruit of all kinds, an hour
afterwards it was empty.

It was a fairly good-humoured crowd, if a little grim, as yet. But the
authorities had serious faces, whilst quite half the police in streets
looked shy and out of place as well they might be seeing that several
thousand of them had been drafted into London from all parts of the
country. Towards midday a sport was added to the amusement of the great
mobs that packed the main streets. There was not the slightest reason
why all London should not be at work as usual, but, by mutual consent,
the daily toil had come to a standstill. It was grilling hot with a sun
that made the pavement gleam and tremble in the shimmering haze and
there was little to quench the thirst of the multitude. But then did
not London teem from end to end with places of public entertainment
where thirsts were specially catered for?

Already sections of the crowd had begun to enter them and call loudly
for sundry liquids. Why should the hotel proprietors get off scot free?
Mysteriously as the sign that called up the Indian Mutiny, the signal
went round to raid the public houses. There was no call to repeat it
twice.

Everybody suffered alike. The bars were choked and packed with
perspiring humanity yelling for liquid refreshment, the men who were
wise bowed to the inevitable and served out their stock till it was
exhausted and said so with cheerful faces. In the Strand the cellars of
certain famous restaurants were looted and one proprietor proclaimed
that Whitechapel and Shoreditch had taken from him wines to the value
of £30,000. Men were standing in the Strand with strange dusty bottles
in their hands, the necks of which they knocked off without ceremony
to reach the precious liquid within. For the most part they were
disappointed. There were murmurs of disgust and wry faces at the stored
juice of the grape that a connoisseur would have raved over.

Fortunately there was little or no drunkenness. The crowd was too vast
and the supply too limited for that. And practically there was no
rioting where the unfortunate license holders were discreet enough to
bow to the inevitable. One or two places were gutted under the eyes
of the police who could do no more than keep a decent show of order
and bustle about certain suspicious characters who were present for
something more than curiosity.

About one o'clock in the afternoon the early edition of the evening
papers began to appear. They were eagerly bought up with a view to
the latest news. Presently the name of the _Mirror_ seemed to rise
spontaneously to every lip. Nobody knew whence it came or why, but
there it was. With one accord everybody was calling for the _Mirror_.
There was pregnant news within. Yet none of the papers could be seen in
the streets. There was a rush to the office of the paper.

A large flag floated on the top of the building. Across the front was a
white sheet with words upon it that thrilled the heart of the spectator.

"The panic is at an end. London to use its full water supply again. Dr.
Darbyshire saves the situation. The mains turned on everywhere. See the
_Mirror_."

What could it mean? In the sudden silence the roar of the _Mirror_
printing presses could be heard. Presently the big doors in the
basement burst open and hundreds of copies of the paper were pitched
into the street. No payment was asked and none was expected. A white
sea of rustling sheets fluttered over men's heads as far as the Strand.
Up there the turncocks were busy flushing the gutters with standpipes,
a row of fire engines was proceeding to wash the streets down from the
mains. The whole thing was so sudden and unexpected that it seemed like
a dream.

Who was this same Dr. Darbyshire who had brought this miracle about?
But it was all in the _Mirror_ for everyone to see who could read.

 "Very late last night Dr. Longdale the well-known hygienic specialist
 was called to Charing Cross Hospital to see Dr. Darbyshire who the
 night before had been taken to that institution with concussion of the
 brain. It may not be generally known that Dr. Darbyshire discovered
 the bubonic plague bacillus in the Thames which led to the wholesale
 cutting off of the London Water Supply.

 "Unfortunately the only man who might have been able to grapple
 with the difficulty was placed _hors de combat_. We know now that if
 nothing had happened to him there would have been no scare at all.
 Unfortunately the bacillus story found its way to the office of a
 contemporary, who did not hesitate to make capital out of the dreadful
 discovery. The dire result that followed on the publication of the
 _Telephone_ we already know to our cost.

 "To obviate that calamity Dr. Darbyshire was on his way to the
 _Telephone_ office when he met with his accident. Late last night the
 learned gentleman had so far recovered as to ask full particulars of
 what had happened and also to see Dr. Longdale without delay.

 "Judge of the surprise and delight of the latter to know that
 matters had been already remedied. It appears that for years past
 Dr. Darbyshire has been experimenting upon contaminated water with
 a view to making the same innocuous to human life. Quite recently
 the discovery has been perfectly and successfully tried with water
 impregnated with the germs of every known disease. So long as so many
 great towns draw their water supply from open streams liable to all
 kinds of contamination, Dr. Darbyshire felt sure there would be no
 public safety till the remedy was found.

 "The remedy had been found and would have been made public directly,
 when there came the now historic case of the Santa Anna and the
 alarming outbreak of bubonic fever at Ashchurch.

 "On reaching the village in question and on verifying his suspicions,
 Dr. Darbyshire found that the waters of the Thames were strongly
 impregnated with the germs of that fell disease. As a matter of fact,
 the sterilising process was applied at once, and an examination of the
 water of the Thames a few miles lower down gave the result of absolute
 purity.

 "This part of the story Dr. Darbyshire had no time to tell his
 colleague Dr. Longdale. He was only too anxious to get away and
 prevent the issue of a scare leader by the _Telephone_.

 "Accident prevented this design, and when Dr. Longdale was questioned
 he was bound to admit that he had seen the Thames water strongly
 impregnated with the bubonic bacillus. After that there was no
 alternative but to cut off the supply from the Thames. Let us hope the
 severe lesson has not been in vain.

 "Once these facts came to Dr. Longdale's notice, he lost no time.
 A special train was dispatched to Ashchurch, and returned quickly,
 bringing specimens of water from the Thames.

 "These, after investigation, a small body of leading specialists drank
 without the slightest hesitation. The new process of sterilisation
 discovered by Dr. Darbyshire has saved the situation. Otherwise it
 would have been impossible to magnify the disaster."

Did ever a quiet and dignified newspaper paragraph produce such a
sensational outbreak in the history of journalism? Nobody needed to
be convinced of the truth of the statement--truth was on the face of
it. Men shook one another by the hand, hats were cast into the air
and forgotten heedless of the blazing sun; up in the Strand where
fire-engines were sluicing the streets with water people stood under
the beating drip of the precious fluid until they were soaked to the
skin; well-dressed men laved themselves in the clear running gutters
with an eagerness that the pursuit of gold never surpassed. London was
saved from disaster, and Dr. Darbyshire was the hero of the hour.

The great man was sitting up in bed and modestly listening to the story
that Longdale had to tell. Darbyshire was blaming himself severely.

"I ought to have told you," he said. "When I asked you to come round to
me the other night I had a dramatic surprise for you. I told you all
about the fever and the state of the Thames. From the condition of the
germs I knew that the trouble had not gone far. Here was a chance to
test my sterilisation on a big scale. I tried it with perfect success.
I'll show you the whole process the first time I get back home."

"Yes, do," said Longdale grimly. "It's all right as it is, but if you
meet with another accident and another such scourge comes along and we
don't know----"

"I quite understand. When I had worked upon your feelings, I was going
to show you the whole thing. Then I found out what that fellow Chase
had got hold of, and I had to fly off post haste and see his editor. I
didn't mind the paper having its 'scare' so long as I came in at the
finish with the assurance that there was no need for alarm.

"Hence my hurry, and hence my accident. All the same, it was a mean
thing, Longdale. Some day perhaps the country will realise what a debt
it owes to its men of science."

Longdale looked at the yelling joyous mob outside heedless of the
sunshine and reckless in the hysteria of the moment.

"And perhaps the country will foster them a little more," he said.
"Nothing but science could have prevented a calamity that would have
multiplied ten-fold the horrors of the Great Plague, and destroyed, not
thousands, but tens of thousands."

Darbyshire nodded thoughtfully.

"One of the things that might have been," he said.

"Might have been! We have had a lesson, but I doubt if we shall profit
by it. England never seems to profit by anything. It is one of the
things that may be. And there is more difference than meets the eye."


THE END.





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