A CITY of the blind! Six millions of people suddenly deprived of sight! Th_isaster sounds impossible—a nightmare, the wild vapourings of a disease_magination—and yet why not? Given a favourable atmospheric condition, something colossal in the way of a fire, and there it is. And there, somewher_olded away in the book of Nature, is the simple remedy.
Such thoughts as these flashed through Hackness's mind as he stood under th_ortico 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 th_aint scratching of matches all around him, but there was no glimmer of ligh_nywhere. And the atmosphere was thick, stifling, greasy. Yet it was not quit_s stifling as perfervid imagination suggested. The very darkness suggeste_uffocation. Still, there was air, a sultry light breeze that set the murk i_otion, and mercifully brought from some purer area the oxygen that made lif_ossible. 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 t_hink that a few miles away the country might be sleeping under the clea_tars. It was terrible to think that hundreds of thousands of people must b_tanding 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 sh_as lost. An anxious mother called in reply. The little one had been forgotte_n the first flood of that awful darkness. By sheer good luck Hackness wa_nabled to locate the child. He could feel that her wraps were rich an_ostly, though the same fatty slime was upon them. He caught the child up i_is arms and yelled that he had got her. The mother was close by, yet ful_ive minutes elapsed before Hackness blundered upon her. Something was whinin_nd fawning about his feet.
He called upon Grimfern, and the latter answered in his ear. Cynthia wa_rying pitifully and helplessly. Some women there were past that.
"For Heaven's sake tell us what we are to do," Grimfern gasped. "I flatte_yself 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 _hance here. He tore his handkerchief in strips and knotted it together. On_nd he fastened to the little dog's collar.
"It's Kim," he explained. "Tell the dog 'home.' There's just a chance that h_ay lead you home. We're very wonderful creatures, but one sensible dog i_orth a million of us to-night. Try it."
"And where are you going?" Cynthia asked. She spoke high, for a babel o_oices had broken out. "What will become of you?"
"Oh, I am all right," Hackness said with an affected cheerfulness. "You see, _as fairly sure that this would happen sooner or later. So I pigeon-holed _ay of dealing with the difficulty. Scotland Yard listened, but thought me _ore 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 th_eash.
"It's all right," Grimfern cried. "Kim understands. That queer little pill-bo_f 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 stoo_here in the blackness the sense of suffocation was overwhelming. He essaye_o smoke a cigarette, but he hadn't the remotest idea whether the thing wa_light or not. It had no taste or flavour.
But it was idle to stand there. He must fight his way along to Scotland Yar_o persuade the authorities to listen to his ideas. There was not th_lightest danger of belated traffic, no sane man would have driven a horse i_uch dense night. Hackness blundered along without the faintest idea to whic_oint of the compass he was facing.
If he could only get his bearings he felt that he should be all right. H_ound his way into the Strand at length; he fumbled up against someone an_sked where he was. A hoarse voice responded that the owner fancied it wa_omewhere 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 t_eep the frayed senses together. The most fastidious clubman there would hav_hummed with the toughest Hooligan rather than have his own thoughts fo_ompany.
Hackness pushed his way along. If he got out of his bearings he adopted th_imple experiment of knocking at the first door he came to and asking where h_as. His reception was not invariably enthusiastic, but it was no time fo_ice 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 Inspecto_illiamson's office, stern officials grasped him by the arm and piloted him u_lights of stairs. He blundered over a chair and sat down. Out of the blac_avern of space Inspector Williamson spoke.
"I am thankful you have come. You are just the man I most wanted to see. _ant my memory refreshed over that scheme of yours," he said. "I didn't pa_ery much attention to it at the time."
"Of course you didn't. Did you ever know an original prophet who wasn'_aughed at? Still, I don't mind confessing that I hardly anticipated anythin_uite so awful as this. The very density of it makes some parts of my schem_mpossible. We shall have to shut our teeth and endure it. Nothing reall_ractical 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 face_s?"
Williamson had no reply. So long as the fog lasted, London was in a state o_iege, and, not only this, but every house in it was a fort, each dependin_pon itself for supplies. No bread could be baked, no meal could be carrie_ound, no milk or vegetables delivered so long as the fog remained. Given _ay or two of this and thousands of families would be on the verge o_tarvation. It was not a pretty picture that Hackness drew, but Williamson wa_ound to agree with every word of it.
These two men sat in the darkness till what should hare been the dawn, whils_cores of subordinates were setting some sort of machinery in motion t_reserve order.
Hackness stumbled home to his rooms about nine o'clock in the morning, withou_aving succeeded in persuading the officials to grant him permission t_xperiment. Mechanically he felt for his watch to see the time. The watch wa_one. Hackness smiled grimly. The predatory classes had not been quite blin_o the advantages of the situation.
There was no breakfast for Hackness for the simple reason that it had bee_ound 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 som_laborate thought and the asking of a question or two from another inmate o_he house, Hackness found to his horror that he had slept the clock roun_early twice. It was nine o'clock in the morning, twenty-three hours since h_ad fallen asleep! And, so far as Hackness could judge, there were no signs o_he fog's abatement.
He changed his clothes and washed the greasy slime off him so far as col_ater 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 i_he gutters. Progression was slow but the utter absence of traffic rendered i_afe and possible. Men spoke with bated breath, the weight of the grea_alamity upon them.
News that came from a few miles outside the radius spoke of clear skies an_right sunshine. There was a great deal of sickness, and the doctors had mor_han they could manage, especially with the young and the delicate.
And the calamity looked like getting worse. Six million people were breathin_hat oxygen there was. Hackness returned to his chambers to find Eldre_waiting 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 t_est 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 whe_ackness suggested that nothing less than a violent meteorological disturbanc_ould clear the deadly peril of the fog away. It was time for drasti_emedies, 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 ha_een ready for a long time. We could start after tomorrow midnight, or an_ime for that matter."
"Very well," Williamson sighed with the air of a man who realises that afte_ll the tooth must come out. "If this produces a calamity I shall be asked t_end in my resignation. If I refuse—"
"If you refuse there is more than a chance that you won't want anothe_ituation," 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 vitiate_tmosphere that seemed to take all the strength and energy away. At any othe_ime the walk to Clarence Terrace would have been a pleasure, now it was _enance. They found their objective after a deal of patience and trouble.
Hackness yelled in the doorway. There was a sound of footsteps and Cynthi_rimfern spoke.
"Ah, what a relief it is to know that you are all right," she said. "_ictured 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 i_enderly.
"We are going to try my great theory," he said. "Eldred is with me, and w_ave got Williamson's permission to operate with the aeroplane. Where is Si_dgar?"
Grimfern was in the big workshop in the garden. As best he could, he wa_umbling 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 ide_ere Bramley, the electrician, lent me. With that 1000-volt generator of your_ can get a light equal to 40,000 candles. There."
Flick went the switch, and the others staggered back with their hands to thei_yes. The great volume of light, impossible to face under ordinar_ircumstances, illuminated the workshop with a faint glow like a winter'_awn. It was sufficient for all practical purpose, but to eyes that had see_bsolutely nothing for two days and nights very painful.
Cynthia laughed hysterically. She saw the men grimed and dirty, blackened an_reasy, as if they were fresh from a stoker's hole in a tropical sea. They sa_ tall, graceful girl in the droll parody of a kitchen-maid who had wiped _earful 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, bu_apable of being turned in any direction. It seemed a problem to get thi_trange-looking monster out of the place, but as the whole of the end of th_orkshop was constructed to pull out, the difficulty was not great.
This was Sir Edgar Grimfern's aeroplane, built under his own eyes and with th_ssistance 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," Hacknes_emarked. "We shall have no difficulty in getting up, and as to the gettin_own, don't forget that the atmosphere a few miles beyond the outskirts o_ondon is quite clear. If only the explosives are strong enough!"
"Don't theorise," Eldred snapped. "We've got a good day's work before w_tart. And there is no time to be lost."
"Luncheon first," Sir Edgar suggested "served in here. It will be plain an_old; but, thank goodness, there is plenty of it. My word, after that awfu_arkness what a blessed thing light is once more!"
* * * * *
Two hours after midnight the doors of the workshop were pulled away and th_eroplane was dragged on its carriage into the garden. The faint glimmer o_ight only served to make the blackness all the thicker. The three men wave_heir hands silently to Cynthia and jumped in. A few seconds later and the_ere whirred and screwed away into the suffocating fog.