The Doom of London - Fred M. White - ebook

The Doom of London ebook

Fred M White

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A terrible story that can cause goose bumps after reading. The story of The Doom of London describes the disasters that befell Victorian London. One of the largest cities is shocked by life threatening circumstances. Here there are underground explosions, poisoning, aplague of diphtheria. London is on the verge of death.

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Contents

THE FOUR WHITE DAYS

THE FOUR DAYS’ NIGHT

THE DUST OF DEATH

A BUBBLE BURST

THE INVISIBLE FORCE

THE RIVER OF DEATH A TALE OF LONDON IN PERIL

THE FOUR WHITE DAYS

A tale of London in the grip of an Arctic winter– showing the danger any winter might bring from famine, cold, and fire.

I

THE editor of The Daily Chat wondered a little vaguely why he had come down to the office at all. Here was the thermometer down to 11O with every prospect of touching zero before daybreak, and you can’t fill a morning paper with weather reports. Besides, nothing was coming in from the North of the Trent beyond the curt information that all telegraphic and telephonic communication beyond was impossible. There was a huge blizzard, a heavy fall of snow nipped hard by the terrific frost and–silence.

To-morrow–January 25th–would see a pretty poor paper unless America roused up to a sense of her responsibility and sent something hot to go on with. The Land’s End cables often obliged in that way. There was the next chapter of the Beef and Bread Trust, for instance. Was Silas X. Brett going to prove successful in his attempt to corner the world’s supply? That Brett had been a pawnbroker’s assistant a year ago mattered little. That he might at any time emerge a penniless adventurer mattered less. From a press point of view he was good for three columns.

The chief “sub” came in, blowing his fingers. The remark that he was frozen to the marrow caused no particular sympathy.

“Going to be a funeral rag to-morrow,” the editor said curtly.

“That’s so,” Gough admitted cheerfully. “We’ve drawn a thrilling picture of the Thames impassable to craft–and well it might be after a week of this Arctic weather. For days not a carcase or a sack of flour has been brought in. Under the circumstances we were justified in prophesying a bread and meat famine. And we’ve had our customary gibe at Silas X. Brett. But still, it’s poor stuff.”

The editor thought he would go home. Still he dallied, on the off chance of something turning up. It was a little after midnight when he began to catch the suggestion of excitement that seemed to be simmering in the sub-editor’s room. There was a clatter of footsteps outside. By magic the place began to hum like a hive.

“What have you struck, Gough?” the editor cried.

Gough came tumbling in, a sheaf of flimsies in his hand.

“Brett’s burst,” he gasped. “It’s a real godsend, Mr. Fisher. I’ve got enough here to make three columns. Brett’s committed suicide.”

Fisher slipped out of his overcoat. Everything comes to the man who waits. He ran his trained eyes over the flimsies; he could see his way to a pretty elaboration.

“The danger of the corner is over,” he said, later, “but the fact remains that we are still short of supplies; there are few provision ships on the seas, and if they were close at hand they couldn’t get into port with all this ice about. Don’t say that London is on the verge of a famine, but you can hint it.”

Gough winked slightly and withdrew. An hour later and the presses were kicking and coughing away in earnest. There was a flaming contents bill, so that Fisher went off drowsily through the driving snow Bedford Square way with a feeling that there was not much the matter with the world after all.

It was piercingly cold, the wind had come up from the east, the steely blue sky of the last few days had gone.

Fisher doubled before the wind that seemed to grip his very soul. On reaching home he shuddered as he hung over the stove in the hall.

“My word,” he muttered as he glanced at the barometer. “Down half-an-inch since dinner time. And a depression on top that you could lie in. Don’t ever recollect London under the lash of a real blizzard, but it’s come now.”

A blast of wind, as he spoke, shook the house like some unreasoning fury.

II

IT WAS in the evening of the 24th of January that the first force of the snowstorm swept London. There had been no sign of any abatement in the gripping frost, but the wind had suddenly shifted to the east, and almost immediately snow had commenced to fall. But as yet there was no hint of the coming calamity.

A little after midnight the full force of the gale was blowing. The snow fell in powder so fine that it was almost imperceptible, but gradually the mass deepened until at daybreak it lay some eighteen inches in the streets. Some of the thoroughfares facing the wind were swept bare as a newly reaped field, in others the drifts were four or five feet in height.

A tearing, roaring, blighting wind was still blowing as the grey day struggled in. The fine snow still tinkled against glass and brick. By nine o’clock hundreds of telephone wires were broken. The snow and the force of the wind had torn them away bodily. As far as could be ascertained at present the same thing had happened to the telegraphic lines. At eleven o’clock nothing beyond local letters had been delivered, and the postal authorities notified that no telegrams could be guaranteed in any direction outside the radius. There was nothing from the Continent at all.

Still, there appeared to be no great cause for alarm. The snow must cease presently. There was absolutely no business doing in the City, seeing that three-fourths of the suburban residents had not managed to reach London by two o’clock. An hour later it became generally known that no main line train had been scheduled at a single London terminus since midday.

Deep cuttings and tunnels were alike rendered impassable by drifted snow.

But the snow would cease presently; it could not go on like this. Yet when dusk fell it was still coming down in the same grey whirling powder.

That night London was as a city of the dead. Except where the force of the gale had swept bare patches, the drifts were high–so high in some cases that they reached to the first floor windows. A half-hearted attempt had been made to clear the roadways earlier in the day, but only two or three main roads running north and south, and east and west were at all passable.

Meanwhile the gripping frost never abated a jot. The thermometer stood steadily at 15O below freezing even in the forenoon; the ordinary tweed clothing of the average Briton was sorry stuff to keep out a wind like that. But for the piercing draught the condition of things might have been tolerable. London had experienced colder weather so far as degrees went, but never anything that battered and gripped like this. And still the fine white powder fell.

After dark, the passage from one main road to another was a real peril. Belated stragglers fought their way along their own streets without the slightest idea of locality, the dazzle of the snow was absolutely blinding. In sheltered corners the authorities had set up blazing fires for the safety of the police and public. Hardly a vehicle had been seen in the streets for hours.

At the end of the first four and twenty hours the mean fall of snow had been four feet. Narrow streets were piled up with the white powder. Most of the thoroughfares on the south side of the Strand were mere grey ramparts. Here and there people could be seen looking anxiously out of upper windows and beckoning for assistance. Such was the spectacle that London presented at daybreak on the second day.

It was not till nearly midday of the 26th of January that the downfall ceased. For thirty six hours the gale had hurled its force mercilessly over London. There had been nothing like it in the memory of man, nothing like it on record. The thin wrack of cloud cleared and the sun shone down on the brilliant scene.

A strange, still, weird London. A white deserted city with a hardy pedestrian here and there, who looked curiously out of place in a town where one expects to see the usual toiling millions. And yet the few people who were about did not seem to fit into the picture. The crunch of their feet on the crisp snow was an offence, the muffled hoarseness of their voices jarred.

London woke uneasily with a sense of coming disaster. By midday the continuous frost rendered the snow quite firm enough for traffic. The curious sight of people climbing out of their bedroom windows and sliding down snow mountains into the streets excited no wonder. As to the work-a-day side of things that was absolutely forgotten. For the nonce Londoners were transformed into Laplanders, whose first and foremost idea was food and warmth.

So far as could be ascertained the belt of the blizzard had come from the East in a straight line some thirty miles wide. Beyond St. Albans there was very little snow, the same remark applying to the South from Redhill. But London itself lay in the centre of a grip of Arctic, ice-bound country; and was almost as inaccessible to the outside world as the North Pole itself.

There was practically no motive power beyond that of the underground railways, and most of the lighting standards had been damaged by the gale; last calamity of all, the frost affected the gas so that evening saw London practically in darkness.

But the great want of many thousands was fuel. Coal was there at the wharfs, but getting it to its destination was quite another thing. It was very well for a light sleigh and horse to slip over the frozen snow, but a heavily laden cart would have found progression an absolute impossibility. Something might have been done with the electric trams, but all overhead wires were down.

In addition to this, the great grain wharfs along the Thames were very low. Local contractors and merchants had not been in the least frightened by the vagaries of Mr. Silas X. Brett; they had bought “short,” feeling pretty sure that sooner or later their foresight would be rewarded.

Therefore they had been trading from hand to mouth. The same policy had been pursued by the small “rings” of wholesale meat merchants who supply pretty well the whole of London with flesh food. The great majority of the struggling classes pay the American prices and get American produce, an enormous supply of which is in daily demand.

Here Silas X. Brett had come in again. Again the wholesale men had declined to make contracts except from day to day.

Last and worst of all, the Thames–the chief highway for supplies– was, for the only time in the memory of living man, choked with ice below Greenwich.

London was in a state of siege as close and gripping as if a foreign army had been at her gates. Supplies were cut off, and were likely to be for some days to come.

The price of bread quickly advanced to ninepence the loaf, and it was impossible to purchase the cheapest meat under two shillings per pound. Bacon and flour, and such like provisions, rose in a corresponding ratio; coal was offered at “2 per ton, with the proviso that the purchaser must fetch it himself.

Meanwhile, there was no cheering news from the outside–London seemed to be cut off from the universe. It was as bad as bad could be, but the more thoughtful could see that there was worse to follow.

III

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