THE sky was as brass from the glowing East upwards, a stifling heat radiate_rom stone and wood and iron—a close, reeking heat that drove one back fro_he very mention of food. The five million odd people that go to make u_ondon, even in the cream of the holiday season, panted and gasped and praye_or the rain that never came. For the first three weeks in August the furnac_ires of the sun poured down till every building became a vapour bath with n_uspicion of a breeze to temper the fierceness of it. Even the cheap press ha_iven up sunstroke statistics. The heat seemed to have wilted up th_ournalists and their superlatives.
More or less the drought had lasted since April. Tales came up from th_rovinces of stagnant rivers and quick, fell spurts of zymotic diseases. For _ong time past the London water companies had restricted their supplies.
Still, there was no suggestion of alarm, nothing as yet looked like a wate_amine. The heat was almost unbearable but, people said, the wave must brea_oon, 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 hi_and, 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 the_verhead. And yet the atmosphere was hot and heavy. There was one solitar_ight in the dining-room—a room all sombre oak and dull red walls as befitte_ man of science—and a visiting card glistened on the table. Darbyshire rea_he 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 i_nly to put him off. Is it possible these confounded pressmen have got hold o_he story already?"
With just a suggestion of anxiety on his strong clean-shaven face, th_rofessor 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 whos_peciality is the fighting of disease in bulk. Darbyshire was the one man wh_ould grapple with an epidemic, the one man always sent for.
The constant pestering of newspaper men was no new thing. Doubtless Chas_fore-said was merely plunging around after sensations— journalistic curry fo_he hot weather. Still, the pushing little American might have stumbled on th_ruth. Darbyshire took down his telephone and churned the handle.
"Are you there? Yes, give me 30795, Kensington… That you, Longdale? Yes, it'_arbyshire. Step round here at once, will you? Yes, I know it's hot, and _ouldn'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. H_hen lighted a cigarette, and proceeded to con over some notes that he ha_aken from his pocket. These he elaborated in pencil in a small bu_arvellously clear handwriting. As he lay back in his chair he did not loo_uch like the general whose army is absolutely surrounded, but he was. An_hat square, lean head held a secret that would have set London almost mad a_ whisper.
Darbyshire laid the sheets down and fell into a reverie. He was rouse_resently 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 awfu_ay. 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 eye_airly 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 absolut_ertainty. Day by day for a month I have watched the sky and wondered wher_he black hand would show. And when these things do come they strike where yo_ost dread them. Still, in this case, the Thames—"
"Absolutely pregnant," Longdale exclaimed. "Roughly speaking, four-fifths o_ondon's water supply comes from the Thames. How many towns, villages drai_nto the river before it reaches Sunbury or thereabouts where most of th_ater companies have their intake? Why, scores of them. And for the best par_f a month the Thames has been little better than a ditch stagnating under _razen sunshine. Will our people ever learn anything, Darbyshire? Is Londo_nd 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 an_xford. It gets a grip before the thing is properly handled, the villag_ystem of drainage is a mere matter of percolation. In eight-and-forty hour_he Thames is one floating tank of deadly poison. And, mind you, this thing i_ound to happen sooner or later."
"It has happened," Darbyshire said quietly, "and in a worse form than yo_hink. 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, nea_ldenburgh, and quickly became a total wreck. The vessel was piled high on th_pur, and, the strong tide acting upon the worn-out hull, quickly beat it t_ieces. The crew of eight men presumably took to their boats, for nothing ha_een 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 presumedl_nbound for some foreign port and laden with oranges, thousands of which hav_een picked up at Aldenburgh lately. The coastguards presume the barque to b_ Portuguese.
"Naturally you want to know what this has to do with the Thames," Darbyshir_bserved. "I'm going to tell you. The Santa Anna was deliberately wrecked fo_ purpose which you will see later. The crew for the most part landed not fa_way and, for reasons of their own, sank their boat. It isn't far fro_ldenburgh 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 t_shchurch, which is on the river, and not far from Oxford. Being short o_oney, their idea was to tramp across to Cardiff and get a ship there. Bein_qually short of our language, they get out of their way to Ashchurch. The_hree of them are taken ill, and two of them die. The local practitioner send_or the medical officer of health. The latter gets frightened and sends fo_e. I have just got back. Look here."
Darbyshire produced a phial of cloudy fluid, some of which he proceeded to la_n the glass of a powerful microscope. Longdale fairly staggered back from th_yepiece. "Bubonic! The water reeks with the bacillus! I haven't seen it s_trongly marked since we were in New Orleans together. Darbyshire, you don'_ean to say that this sample came from—"
"The Thames? But I do. Ashchurch drains directly into the river. And for som_ew 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 th_rew died of plague, and the rest abandoned her. We won't go into the hideou_elfishness 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 whit_recipitate on a little water taken from the phial. He placed a small electri_attery on the table. "The great bulk of the London water supply comes fro_he Thames. Speaking from memory, only the New River and one other compan_raw their supply from the Lea. If the supply were cut off, places like Hoxto_nd Haggerstone and Battersea, in fact all the dense centres of populatio_here disease is held in on the slenderest of threads, would suffer fearfully.
And there is that deadly poison spreading and spreading hourly drawing neare_o the metropolis into which presently it will be ladled by the millio_allons. People will wash in it, drink it. Mayfair will take its chance wit_hitechapel."
"At any hazard the supply must be cut off!" Longdale cried.
"And deprive four-fifths of London with water altogether!" Darbyshire sai_rimly. "And London grilling like a furnace? No flushing of sewers, n_atering of roads, not even a drop to drink. In two days London would be _eeking, seething hell—try and picture it, Longdale."
"I have, often," Longdale said gloomily. "Sooner or later it had to come. No_s your chance, Darbyshire—that process of sterilisation of yours."
Darbyshire smiled. He moved in the direction of the velvet curtains. He wante_hose notes of his; he wanted to prove a startling new discovery to hi_olleague. The notes were there, but they seemed to have been disturbed. O_he floor lay a torn sheet from a notebook with shorthand cypher; thereo_arbyshire flew to the bell and rang it violently.
"Verity," he exclaimed, "has that infernal—I mean, has Mr Chase been her_gain?"
"Well, he have, sir," Verity said slowly, "he come just after Mr Longdale. S_ asked him to wait, which he did, then he come out again after a bit, sayin_s 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 h_ashed back into the inner room. "Here's a pretty thing; that confounde_merican journalist, Chase—you know him—has heard all we said and has helpe_imself 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 th_mpire 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 th_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 wa_ot quite so hopeless as it seemed on the face of it. There was a rattle o_heels outside and Darbyshire plunged hatless into the night.
"Offices of the _Telephone_ ," he cried. "A sovereign if I'm there in twent_inutes."
The cab plunged on headlong. The driver was going to earn that sovereign o_now the reason why. He drove furiously into Trafalgar Square, a motor ca_rossed him recklessly, and a moment later Darbyshire was shot out on to hi_ead from the cab. He lay there with no interest in mundane things. A langui_rowd 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 b_emoved to Charing Cross at once."