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The River of Death: A Tale of London In Peril

The River of Death: A Tale of London In Peril

Fred Merrick White

Update: 2020-04-22

Chapter 1

  • 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."