The Doom of London
THE DOOM OF LONDON
Six Stories by
Fred M. White
First published in Pearson's Magazine, London, 1903-4
TABLE OF CONTENTS.
A Tale of London in the Grip of an Arctic Winter—Showing the Danger AnyWinter might Bring from Famine, Cold, and Fire.
The editor of The Daily Chat wondered alittle vaguely why he had come down to theoffice at all. Here was the thermometerdown to 11į with every prospect of touchingzero before daybreak, and you can't fill amorning paper with weather reports. Besides,nothing was coming in from the North of theTrent beyond the curt information that alltelegraphic and telephonic communicationbeyond was impossible. There was a hugeblizzard, a heavy fall of snow nipped hardby the terrific frost and—silence.
To-morrow—January 25th—would see apretty poor paper unless America rousedup to a sense of her responsibility andsent something hot to go on with. TheLand's End cables often obliged in thatway. There was the next chapter of theBeef and Bread Trust, for instance. WasSilas X. Brett going to prove successful inhis attempt to corner the world's supply?That Brett had been a pawnbroker'sassistant a year ago mattered little. Thathe might at any time emerge a pennilessadventurer mattered less. From a presspoint of view he was good for threecolumns.
The chief "sub" came in, blowing hisfingers. The remark that he was frozen tothe 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 theThames impassable to craft—and well itmight be after a week of this Arctic weather.For days not a carcase or a sack of flourhas been brought in. Under the circumstanceswe were justified in prophesying a bread andmeat famine. And we've had our customarygibe 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 somethingturning up. It was a little aftermidnight when he began to catch the suggestionof excitement that seemed to be simmeringin the sub-editor's room. There was aclatter of footsteps outside. By magic the placebegan to hum like a hive.
"What have you struck, Gough?" theeditor cried.
Gough came tumbling in, a sheaf offlimsies in his hand.
"Brett's burst," he gasped. "It's a realgodsend, Mr. Fisher. I've got enough hereto make three columns. Brett's committedsuicide."
Fisher slipped out of his overcoat. Everythingcomes to the man who waits. He ranhis trained eyes over the flimsies; he couldsee his way to a pretty elaboration.
"The danger of the corner is over," hesaid, later, "but the fact remains that we arestill short of supplies; there are few provisionships on the seas, and if they wereclose at hand they couldn't get into port withall this ice about. Don't say that Londonis on the verge of a famine, but you canhint it."
Gough winked slightly and withdrew. Anhour later and the presses were kicking andcoughing away in earnest. There was aflaming contents bill, so that Fisher went offdrowsily through the driving snow BedfordSquare way with a feeling that there was notmuch the matter with the world after all.
It was piercingly cold, the wind had comeup from the east, the steely blue sky of thelast few days had gone.
Fisher doubled before the wind that seemedto grip his very soul. On reaching home heshuddered as he hung over the stove in the hall.
"My word," he muttered as he glanced atthe barometer. "Down half-an-inch sincedinner time. And a depression on topthat you could lie in. Don't ever recollectLondon under the lash of a real blizzard, butit's come now."
A blast of wind, as he spoke, shook thehouse like some unreasoning fury.
It was in the evening of the 24th of Januarythat the first force of the snowstorm sweptLondon. There had been no sign of any abatementin the gripping frost, but the windhad suddenly shifted to the east, and almostimmediately snow had commenced to fall. Butas yet there was no hint of the comingcalamity.
A little after midnight the full force of thegale was blowing. The snow fell in powderso fine that it was almost imperceptible, butgradually the mass deepened until at daybreakit lay some eighteen inches in thestreets. Some of the thoroughfares facingthe wind were swept bare as a newly reapedfield, in others the drifts were four or five feetin height.
A tearing, roaring, blighting wind was stillblowing as the grey day struggled in. Thefine snow still tinkled against glass and brick.By nine o'clock hundreds of telephone wireswere broken. The snow and the force ofthe wind had torn them away bodily. As faras could be ascertained at present the samething had happened to the telegraphic lines.At eleven o'clock nothing beyond local lettershad been delivered, and the postal authoritiesnotified that no telegrams could be guaranteedin any direction outside the radius.There was nothing from the Continent atall.
Still, there appeared to be no great causefor alarm. The snow must cease presently.There was absolutely no business doing inthe City, seeing that three-fourths of thesuburban residents had not managed toreach London by two o'clock. An hour later itbecame generally known that no main linetrain had been scheduled at a single Londonterminus since midday.
Deep cuttings and tunnels were alike renderedimpassable by drifted snow.
But the snow would cease presently; itcould not go on like this. Yet when dusk fellit was still coming down in the same greywhirling powder.
That night London was as a city of thedead. Except where the force of the gale hadswept bare patches, the drifts were high—sohigh in some cases that they reached to thefirst floor windows. A half-hearted attempthad been made to clear the roadways earlierin the day, but only two or three mainroads running north and south, and east andwest were at all passable.
Meanwhile the gripping frost never abateda jot. The thermometer stood steadily at15į below freezing even in the forenoon;the ordinary tweed clothing of the averageBriton was sorry stuff to keep out a windlike that. But for the piercing draught thecondition of things might have been tolerable.London had experienced colder weather sofar as degrees went, but never anything thatbattered and gripped like this. And still thefine white powder fell.
After dark, the passage from one mainroad to another was a real peril. Belatedstragglers fought their way along their ownstreets without the slightest idea of locality,the dazzle of the snow was absolutely blinding.In sheltered corners the authorities hadset up blazing fires for the safety of the policeand public. Hardly a vehicle had been seenin the streets for hours.
At the end of the first four and twenty hoursthe mean fall of snow had been four feet.Narrow streets were piled up with the whitepowder. Most of the thoroughfares on thesouth side of the Strand were mere greyramparts. Here and there people could beseen looking anxiously out of upper windowsand beckoning for assistance. Such was thespectacle that London presented at daybreakon the second day.
It was not till nearly midday of the 26th ofJanuary that the downfall ceased. For thirty-sixhours the gale had hurled its force mercilesslyover London. There had been nothinglike it in the memory of man, nothing like it onrecord. The thin wrack of cloud cleared andthe sun shone down on the brilliant scene.
A strange, still, weird London. A whitedeserted city with a hardy pedestrian here andthere, who looked curiously out of place in atown where one expects to see the usualtoiling millions. And yet the few people whowere about did not seem to fit into the picture.The crunch of their feet on the crispsnow was an offence, the muffled hoarsenessof their voices jarred.
London woke uneasily with a sense ofcoming disaster. By midday the continuousfrost rendered the snow quite firm enough fortraffic. The curious sight of people climbingout of their bedroom windows and slidingdown snow mountains into the streets excitedno wonder. As to the work-a-day side ofthings that was absolutely forgotten. For thenonce Londoners were transformed into Laplanders,whose first and foremost idea wasfood and warmth.
So far as could be ascertained the belt ofthe blizzard had come from the East in astraight line some thirty miles wide. BeyondSt. Albans there was very little snow, thesame remark applying to the South fromRedhill. But London itself lay in the centreof a grip of Arctic, ice-bound country, andwas almost as inaccessible to the outsideworld as the North Pole itself.
There was practically no motive powerbeyond that of the underground railways,and most of the lighting standards had beendamaged by the gale; last calamity of all,the frost affected the gas so that evening sawLondon practically in darkness.
But the great want of many thousands wasfuel. Coal was there at the wharfs, butgetting it to its destination was quite anotherthing. It was very well for a light sleigh andhorse to slip over the frozen snow, but aheavily laden cart would have found progressionan absolute impossibility. Somethingmight have been done with the electric trams,but all overhead wires were down.
In addition to this, the great grain wharfsalong the Thames were very low. Localcontractors and merchants had not been inthe least frightened by the vagaries of Mr.Silas X. Brett; they had bought "short,"feeling pretty sure that sooner or later theirforesight would be rewarded.
Therefore they had been trading from handto mouth. The same policy had beenpursued by the small "rings" of wholesalemeat merchants who supply pretty well thewhole of London with flesh food. Thegreat majority of the struggling classes paythe American prices and get Americanproduce, an enormous supply of which is indaily demand.
Here Silas X. Brett had come in again.Again the wholesale men had declinedto make contracts except from day today.
Last and worst of all, the Thames—thechief highway for supplies—was, for the onlytime in the memory of living man, chokedwith ice below Greenwich.
London was in a state of siege asclose and gripping as if a foreign armyhad been at her gates. Supplies were cutoff, and were likely to be for some days tocome.
The price of bread quickly advanced toninepence the loaf, and it was impossible topurchase the cheapest meat under two shillingsper pound. Bacon and flour, and such likeprovisions, rose in a corresponding ratio;coal was offered at £2 per ton, with theproviso that the purchaser must fetch it himself.
Meanwhile,there was nocheering newsfrom the outside—Londonseemed to be cutoff from the universe.It was asbad as bad couldbe, but the morethoughtful couldsee that there wasworse to follow.
The sight of afigure staggeringup a snow driftto a bedroomwindow inKeppel Streetaroused no astonishmentin the breast ofa stolid policeman. Itwas the only way of entryinto some of the houses inthat locality. Yet a little furtheron the pavements were clear andhard.
Besides, the figure was poundingon the window, and burglars don'tgenerally do that. Presently the sleeperwithin awoke. From the glow of his oil-stovehe could see that it was past twelve.
"Something gone wrong at the office?"Fisher muttered. "Hang the paper! Whybother about publishing Chat this weather?"
He rolled out of bed, and opened the window,draught of icy air caught his heart in a griplike death for the moment. Gough scrambled into theroom, and made haste to shut out themurderous air.
"Nearly five below zero," he said. "Youmust come down to the office, Mr. Fisher."
Fisher lit the gas. Just for the momenthe was lost in admiration of Gough's figure.His head was muffled in a rag torn from an old sealskin jacket. He was wrappedfrom head to foot in a sheepskin recently stripped from the carcase of an animal.
"Got the dodge from an old Arctic traveller," Gough explained. "It's pretty greasyinside, but it keeps that perishing cold out."
"I said I shouldn't come down to the office to-night," Fisher muttered. "This isthe only place where I can keep decently warm. A good paper is no good to us—weshan't sell five thousand copies to-morrow."
"Oh, yes, we shall," Gough put in eagerly;"Hampden, the member for East Battersea,is waiting for you. One of the smart citygangs has cornered the