IF the sweltering heat that hung over London added in one way to the terror o_he hour, it was not without a beneficent effect in another direction. Unde_uch a sky, and with a barometer somewhere in the nineties, it was impossibl_or rioting to last long at a stretch.
The early hours of dawn saw London comparatively quiet again. Perhaps it wa_o more than the sleep of exhaustion and sullen despair, perhaps the flam_ight break out again with the coming of the day. Down in the East End _onstant struggle was maintained, a struggle between the industrious an_rudent 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. A_irst there were no signs of lawlessness, nothing more than an eager jostlin_tream of people pushing impatiently towards the districts where water coul_e obtained. These were the folks who preferred to get their own instead o_aiting for the carts or tanks to visit them.
Naturally, the Press was full of good advice. Thousands of correspondents ha_ushed into print with many a grotesque suggestion for getting rid of th_ifficulty. Amongst these ingenious inventions was one that immediatel_rrested popular attention. The writer pointed out that there were othe_hings to quench thirst besides water. There were hundred of tons of fruit i_ondon, it came up from the provinces by the trainload every day, foreig_essels brought consignments to the Thames and the Mersey. Let the Governmen_our all this into London and distribute it free in a systematic way.
This letter appeared in three popular papers. The thing was talked about fro_ne end of London to the other. It was discussed in Whitechapel and eagerl_ebated in the West End clubs.
Instantly the whole metropolis had a wild longing for fruit. Some of the shop_ere cleared out directly at extraordinary prices. Grapes usually sold at _hilling or two the pound now fetched twenty times their value. A costermonge_n the Strand with a barrow of oranges suddenly found himself a comparativel_ich man. Towards mid-day 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 a_f the dealers were bent upon making a fortune out of the public mood. Lik_ightning the news of what was happening flashed over London, and graduall_he approaches to Covent Garden were packed with people.
Presently curiosity was followed by a sullen resentment. Who were these me_hat they should be allowed to fatten on public misfortune? These things ough_o have been given away if only on the ground of mere public policy. Throug_he crush came a waggon-load of baskets and boxes. A determined-lookin_echanic stopped the horses whilst another man, amidst the yells of the crow_prang 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 o_hings. He took an apple and began to eat it himself. In a few minutes ever_peck of fruit had disappeared.
The thing was done spontaneously and in perfect order. One moment the marke_ad been absolutely crammed with fruit of all kinds, an hour afterwards it wa_mpty.
It was a fairly good-humoured crowd, if a little grim, as yet. But th_uthorities had serious faces, whilst quite half the police in streets looke_hy and out of place as well they might be seeing that several thousand o_hem had been drafted into London from all parts of the country. Toward_idday a sport was added to the amusement of the great mobs that packed th_ain streets. There was not the slightest reason why all London should not b_t work as usual, but, by mutual consent, the daily toil had come to _tandstill. It was grilling hot with a sun that made the pavement gleam an_remble in the shimmering haze and there was little to quench the thirst o_he multitude. But then did not London teem from end to end with places o_ublic entertainment where thirsts were specially catered for?
Already sections of the crowd had begun to enter them and call loudly fo_undry liquids. Why should the hotel proprietors get off scot free?
Mysteriously as the sign that called up the Indian Mutiny, the signal wen_ound to raid the public houses. There was no call to repeat it twice.
Everybody suffered alike. The bars were choked and packed with perspirin_umanity yelling for liquid refreshment, the men who were wise bowed to th_nevitable and served out their stock till it was exhausted and said so wit_heerful faces. In the Strand the cellars of certain famous restaurants wer_ooted and one proprietor proclaimed that Whitechapel and Shoreditch had take_rom him wines to the value of £30,000. Men were standing in the Strand wit_trange dusty bottles in their hands, the necks of which they knocked of_ithout ceremony to reach the precious liquid within. For the most part the_ere disappointed, There were murmurs of disgust and wry faces at the store_uice of the grape that a connoisseur would have raved over.
Fortunately there was little or no drunkenness. The crowd was too vast and th_upply too limited for that. And practically there was no rioting where th_nfortunate license holders were discreet enough to bow to the inevitable. On_r two places were gutted under the eyes of the police who could do no mor_han keep a decent show of order and bustle about certain suspiciou_haracters who were present for something more than curiosity.
About one o'clock in the afternoon the early edition of the evening paper_egan 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 everybod_as calling for the Mirror. There was pregnant news within. Yet none of th_apers could be seen in the streets. There was a rush to the office of th_aper.
A large flag floated on the top of the building. Across the front was a whit_heet 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 th_irror."
What could it mean? In the sudden silence the roar of the Mirror printin_resses could be heard. Presently the big doors in the basement burst open an_undreds of copies of the paper were pitched into the street. No payment wa_sked and none was expected. A white sea of rustling sheets fluttered ove_en's heads as far as the Strand. Up there the turncocks were busy flushin_he gutters with standpipes, a row of fire engines was proceeding to wash th_treets down from the mains. The whole thing was so sudden and unexpected tha_t seemed like a dream.
Who was this same Dr. Darbyshire who had brought this miracle about? But i_as all in the Mirror for everyone to see who could read.
"Very late last night Dr. Longdale the well-known hygienic specialist wa_alled to Charing Cross Hospital to see Dr. Darbyshire who the night befor_ad been taken to that institution with concussion of the brain. It may not b_enerally known that Dr. Darbyshire discovered the bubonic plague bacillus i_he 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 th_ifficulty was placed hors de combat. We know now that if nothing had happene_o him there would have been no scare at all. Unfortunately the bacillus stor_ound its way to the office of a contemporary, who did not hesitate to mak_apital out of the dreadful discovery. The dire result that followed on th_ublication of the _Telephone_ we already know to our cost.
"To obviate that calamity Dr. Darbyshire was on his way to the _Telephone_ffice when he met with his accident. Late last night the learned gentlema_ad so far recovered as to ask full particulars of what had happened and als_o see Dr. Longdale without delay.
"Judge of the surprise and delight of the latter to know that matters had bee_lready remedied. It appears that for years past Dr. Darbyshire has bee_xperimenting upon contaminated water with a view to making the same innocuou_o human life. Quite recently the discovery has been perfectly an_uccessfully tried with water impregnated with the germs of every know_isease. So long as so many great towns draw their water supply from ope_treams liable to all kinds of contamination, Dr. Darbyshire felt sure ther_ould be no public safety till the remedy was found.
"The remedy had been found and would have been made public directly, whe_here came the now historic case of the Santa Anna and the alarming outbrea_f 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 wit_he germs of that fell disease. As a matter of fact, the sterilising proces_as applied at once, and an examination of the water of the Thames a few mile_ower 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 scar_eader by the _Telephone_.
"Accident prevented this design, and when Dr. Longdale was questioned he wa_ound to admit that he had seen the Thames water strongly impregnated with th_ubonic bacillus. After that there was no alternative but to cut off th_upply 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 specia_rain was dispatched to Ashchurch, and returned quickly, bringing specimens o_ater from the Thames.
"These, after investigation, a small body of leading specialists drank withou_he slightest hesitation. The new process of sterilisation discovered by Dr.
Darbyshire has saved the situation. Otherwise it would have been impossible t_agnify the disaster."
Did ever a quiet and dignified newspaper paragraph produce such a sensationa_utbreak in the history of journalism? Nobody needed to be convinced of th_ruth of the statement—truth was on the face of it. Men shook one another b_he hand, hats were cast into the air and forgotten heedless of the blazin_un; up in the Strand where fire-engines were sluicing the streets with wate_eople stood under the beating drip of the precious fluid until they wer_oaked to the skin; well-dressed men laved themselves in the clear runnin_utters with an eagerness that the pursuit of gold never surpassed. London wa_aved 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 tha_ongdale 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 th_ther night I had a dramatic surprise for you. I told you all about the feve_nd the state of the Thames. From the condition of the germs I knew that th_rouble had not gone far. Here was a chance to test my sterilisation on a bi_cale. I tried it with perfect success. I'll show you the whole process th_irst time I get back home."
"Yes, do," said Longdale grimly. "It's all right as it is, but if you mee_ith 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 sho_ou 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 pape_aving its 'scare' so long as I came in at the finish with the assurance tha_here 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 it_en of science."
Longdale looked at the yelling joyous mob outside heedless of the sunshine an_eckless in the hysteria of the moment.
"And perhaps the country will foster them a little more," he said. "Nothin_ut science could have prevented a calamity that would have multiplied ten- fold the horrors of the Great Plague, and destroyed, not thousands, but ten_f 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 ma_e. And there is more difference than meets the eye."