Table of Contents

+ Add to Library

Previous Next

Chapter 3

  • 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.