The Invisible Force by Fred Merrick White Follow story

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A Story of What Might Happen In the Days to Come, When Underground London is Tunnelled In all Directions for Electric Railways, If an Explosion Should Take Place In One of the Tubes. A short story in the "Doom of London" series.


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The Invisible Force

A Story of What Might Happen In the Days to Come, when Underground

London is Tunnelled In all Directions for Electric Railways, If an

Explosion Should Take Place In One of the Tubes.

I

IT seemed as if London had solved one of her great problems at last.

The communication difficulty was at an end. The first-class ticket-

holders no longer struggled to and from business with fourteen fellow-

sufferers in a third-class carriage. There were no longer any

particularly favoured suburbs, nor were there isolated localities

where it took as long getting to the City as an express train takes

between London and Swindon. The pleasing paradox of a man living at

Brighton because it was nearer to his business than Surbiton had

ceased to exist. The tubes had done away with all that.

There were at least a dozen hollow cases running under London in all

directions. They were cool and well ventilated, the carriages were

brilliantly lighted, the various loops were properly equipped and

managed.

All day long the shining funnels and bright platforms were filled with

passengers. Towards midnight the traffic grew less, and by half-past

one o'clock the last train had departed. The all-night service was not

yet.

It was perfectly quiet now along the gleaming core that lay buried

under Bond Street and St. James's Street, forming the loop running

below the Thames close by Westminster Bridge Road and thence to the

crowded Newington and Walworth districts. Here a portion of the roof

was under repair.

The core was brilliantly lighted; there was no suggestion of fog or

gloom. The general use of electricity had disposed of a good deal of

London's murkiness; electric motors were applied now to most

manufactories and workshops. There was just as much gas consumed as

ever, but it was principally used for heating and culinary purposes.

Electric radiators and cookers had not yet reached the multitude; that

was a matter of time.

In the flare of the blue arc lights a dozen men were working on the

dome of the core. Something had gone wrong with a water-main overhead,

the concrete beyond the steel belt had cracked, and the moisture had

corroded the steel plates, so that a long strip of the metal skin had

been peeled away, and the friable concrete had fallen on the rails. It

had brought part of the crown with it, so that a maze of large and

small pipes was exposed to view.

"They look like the reeds of an organ," a raw engineer's apprentice

remarked to the foreman. "What are they?"

"Gas mains, water, electric light, telephone, goodness knows what,"

the foreman replied. "They branch off here, you see."

"Fun to cut them," the apprentice grinned. The foreman nodded

absently. He had once been a mischievous boy, too. The job before him

looked a bigger thing than he had expected. It would have to be

patched up till a strong gang could be turned on to the work. The raw

apprentice was still gazing at the knot of pipes. What fun it would be

to cut that water-main and flood the tunnels!

In an hour the scaffolding was done and the debris cleared away. To-

morrow night a gang of men would come and make the concrete good and

restore the steel rim to the dome. The tube was deserted. It looked

like a polished, hollow needle, lighted here and there by points of

dazzling light.

It was so quiet and deserted that the falling of a big stone

reverberated along the tube with a hollow sound. There was a crack,

and a section of piping gave way slightly and pressed down upon one of

the electric mains. A tangled skein of telephone wires followed. Under

the strain the electric cable parted and snapped. There was a long,

sliding, blue flame, and instantly the tube was in darkness. A short

circuit had been established somewhere. Not that it mattered, for

traffic was absolutely suspended now, and would not be resumed again

before daylight. Of course, there were the workmen's very early

trains, and the Covent Garden market trains, but they did not run over

this section of the line. The whole darkness reeked with the whiff of

burning indiarubber. The moments passed on drowsily.

Along one side of Bond Street the big lamps were out. All the lights

on one main switch had gone. But it was past one o'clock now, and the

thing mattered little. These accidents occurred sometimes in the best

regulated districts, and the defect would be made good in the morning.

It was a little awkward, though, for a great State ball was in

progress at Buckingham Palace. Supper was over, the magnificent

apartments were brilliant with light dresses and gay uniforms. The

shimmer and fret of diamonds flashed back to lights dimmer than

themselves. There was a slide of feet over the polished floors. Then,

as if some unseen force had cut the bottom of creation, light and

gaiety ceased to be, and darkness fell like a curtain.

There were a few cries of alarm from the swift suddenness of it. To

eyes accustomed to that brilliant glow the gloom was Egyptian. It

seemed as if some great catastrophe had happened. But common-sense

reasserted itself, and the brilliant gathering knew that the electric

light had failed.

There were quick commands, and spots of yellow flame sprang out here

and there in the great desert of the night. How faint and feeble, and

yellow and flaring, the lights looked! The electrician down below was

puzzled, for, so far as he could see, the fuses in the meters were

intact. There was no short circuit so far as the Palace was concerned.

In all probability there had been an accident at the generating

stations; in a few minutes the mischief would be repaired.

But time passed, and there was no welcome return of the flood of

crystal light.

"It is a case for all the candles," the Lord Chamberlain remarked;

"fortunately the old chandeliers are all fitted. Light the candles."

It was a queer, grotesque scene, with all that wealth of diamonds and

glitter of uniforms and gloss of satins, under the dim suggestion of

the candles. And yet it was enjoyable from the very novelty of it.

Nothing could be more appropriate for the minuet that was in progress.

"I feel like one of my own ancestors," a noble lord remarked. "When

they hit upon that class of candle I expect they imagined that the

last possibility in the way of lighting had been accomplished. Is it

the same outside, Sir George?"

Sir George Egerton laughed. He was fresh from the gardens.

"It's patchwork," he said. "So far as I can judge, London appears to

be lighted in sections. I expect there is a pretty bad breakdown. My

dear chap, do you mean to say that clock is right?"

"Half-past four, sure enough, and mild for the time of year. Did you

notice a kind of rumbling under--Merciful Heavens, what is that?"


II

There was a sudden splitting crack as if a thousand rifles had been

discharged in the ballroom. The floor rose on one side to a perilous

angle, considering the slippery nature of its surface. Such a shower

of white flakes fell from the ceiling that dark dresses and naval

uniforms looked as if their wearers had been out in a snowstorm.

Cracks and fissures started in the walls with pantomimic effect, on

all sides could be heard the rattle and splinter of falling glass. A

voice suddenly uprose in a piercing scream, a yell proclaimed that one

of the great crystal chandeliers was falling. There was a rush and a

rustle of skirts, and a quick vision of white, beautiful faces, and

with a crash the great pendant came to the floor.

The whole world seemed to be oscillating under frightened feet, the

palace was humming and thrumming like a harpstring. The panic was so

great, the whole mysterious tragedy so sudden, that the bravest there

had to battle for their wits. Save for a few solitary branches of

candles, the big room was in darkness.

There were fifteen hundred of England's bravest, and fairest, and

best, huddled together in what might be a hideous deathchamber for all

they knew to the contrary. Women were clinging in terror to the men,

the fine lines of class distinction were broken down. All were poor

humanity now in the presence of a common danger.

In a little time the earth ceased to sway and rock, the danger was

passing. A little colour was creeping back to the white faces again.

Men and women were conscious that they could hear the beating of their

own hearts. Nobody broke the silence yet, for speech seemed to be out

of place.

"An earthquake," somebody said at length. "An earthquake, beyond

doubt, and a pretty bad one at that. That accounts for the failure of

the electric light. There will be some bad accidents if the gas mains

are disturbed."

The earth grew steady underfoot again, the white flakes ceased to

fall. Amongst the men the spirit of adventure was rising; the idea of

standing quietly there and doing nothing was out of the question.

Anyway, there could be no further thought of pleasure that night.

There were many mothers there, and their uppermost thought was for

home. Never, perhaps, in the history of royalty had there been so

informal a breaking up of a great function. The King and Queen had

retired some little time before--a kindly and thoughtful act under the

circumstances. The women were cloaking and shawling hurriedly; they

crowded out in search of their carriages with no more order than would

have been obtained outside a theatre.

But there were remarkably few carriages in waiting. An idiotic footman

who had lost his head in the sudden calamity sobbed out the

information that Oxford Street and Bond Street were impassable, and

that houses were down in all directions. No vehicles could come that

way; the road was destroyed. As to the rest, the man knew nothing; he

was frightened out of his life.

There was nothing for it but to walk. It wanted two good hours yet

before dawn, but thousands of people seemed to be abroad. For a space

of a mile or more there was not a light to be seen. Round Buckingham

Palace the atmosphere reeked with a fine irritating dust, and was

rendered foul and poisonous by the fumes of coal gas. There must have

been a fearful leakage somewhere.

Nobody seemed to know what was the matter, and everybody was asking

everybody else. And in the darkness it was very hard to locate the

disaster. Generally, it was admitted, that London had been visited by

a dreadful earthquake. Never were the daylight hours awaited more

eagerly.

"The crack of doom," Sir George Egerton remarked to his companion,

Lord Barcombe.

They were feeling their way across the park in the direction of the

Mall.

"It's like a shuddering romance that I read a little time since. But I

must know something about it before I go to bed. Let's try St. James's

Street--if there's any St. James Street left."

"All right," Lord Barcombe agreed, "I hope the clubs are safe. Is it

wise to strike a match with all this gas reeking in the air?"

"Anything's better than the gas," Sir George said tersely.

The vesta flared out in a narrow, purple circle. Beyond it was a

glimpse of a seat with two or three people huddled on it. They were

outcasts and companions in the grip of misfortune, but they were all

awake now.

"Can any of you say what's happened?" Lord Barcombe asked.

"The world's come to an end, sir, I believe," was the broken reply.

"You may say what you like, but it was a tremendous explosion. I saw a

light like all the world ablaze over to the north, and then all the

lights went out, and I've been waiting for the last trump to sound

ever since."

"Then you didn't investigate?" Lord Barcombe asked.

"Not me, sir. I seem to have struck a bit of solid earth where I am.

And then it rained stones and pieces of brick and vestiges of

creation. There's the half of a boiler close to you that dropped out

of the sky. You stay where you are, sir."

But the two young men pushed on. They reached what appeared to be St.

James's Street at length, but only by stumbling and climbing over

heaps of debris.

The roadway was one mass of broken masonry. The fronts of some of the

clubs had been stripped off as if a titanic knife had sliced them. It

was like looking into one of the upholsterers' smart shops, where they

display rooms completely furnished. There were gaps here and there

where houses had collapsed altogether. Seeing that the road had ceased

to exist, it seemed impossible that an earthquake could have done this

thing. A great light flickered and roared a little way down the road.

At an angle a gas main was tilted up like the spout of a teapot,

upheaved and snapped from its twin pipes. This had caught fire in some

way, so that for a hundred yards or so each way the thoroughfare was

illuminated by a huge flare lamp.

It was a thrilling sight focused in that blue glare. It looked as if

London had been utterly destroyed by a siege--as if thousands of well-

aimed shells had exploded. Houses looked like tattered banners of

brick and mortar. Heavy articles of furniture had been hurled into the

street; on the other hand, little gimcrack ornaments still stood on

tiny brackets.

A scared-looking policeman came staggering along.

"My man," Lord Barcombe cried, "what has happened?"

The officer pulled himself together and touched his helmet.

"It's dreadful, sir," he sobbed. "There has been an accident in the

tubes; and they have been blown all to pieces."


III

The constable, for the moment, had utterly lost his nerve. He stood

there in the great flaring roar of the gas mains with a dazed

expression that was pitiful.

"Can you tell us anything about it?" Lord Barcombe asked.

"I was in Piccadilly," was the reply. "Everything was perfectly quiet.

and so far as I could see not a soul was in sight. Then I heard a

funny rushing sound, just like the tear of an express train through a

big, empty station. Yes, it was for all the world like a ghostly

express train that you could hear and not see. It came nearer and

nearer; the whole earth trembled just as if the train had gone mad in

Piccadilly. It rushed past me down St. James's Street, and after that

there was an awful smash and a bang, and I was lying on my back in the

middle of the road. All the lights that remained went out, and for a

minute or two I was in that railway collision. Then, when I got my

senses back, I blundered down here because of that big flaring light

there; and I can't tell you, gentlemen, any more, except that the tube

has blown up."

Of that fact there was no question. There were piles of debris thrown

high in one part and a long deep depression in another like a ruined

dyke. A little further on the steel core of the tube lay bare with

rugged holes ripped in it.

"Some ghastly electric catastrophe," Sir George Egerton murmured.

It was getting light by this time, and it was possible to form some

idea of the magnitude of the disaster. Some of the clubs in St James's

Street still appeared to be intact, but others had suffered terribly.

The heaps of tumbled masonry were powdered and glittering with broken

glass and a few walls hung perilously over the pavement. And still the

gas main roared on until the flame grew from purple to violet, and to

straw colour before the coming dawn. If this same thing had happened

all along the network of tubes London would be more or less a hideous

ruin.

For the better part of Piccadilly things were brighter. Evidently the

explosion had had a straight run here, for the road had been raised

like some mighty zigzag molehill for many yards. The wood pavement

scattered all over the place suggested a gigantic box of child's

bricks strewn over a nursery floor. The tube had been forced up, its

outer envelope of concrete broken so that the now twisted steel core

might have been a black snake crawling down Piccadilly. Doubtless the

expanding air had met with some obstacle in the tube under St. James's

Street, hence the terrible force of the explosion there.

There was quite a large crowd in Oxford Street. The whole roadway was

wet; the gutters ran with the water from the broken pipes. The air was

full of the odour of gas. All the clocks in the streets seemed to have

gone mad. Lord Barcombe glanced at his own watch, to find that it was

racing furiously.

"By Jove!" he whispered excitedly, "we're in danger here. The air is

full of electricity. I went over some works once and neglected to

leave my watch behind me, and it played me the same prank. It affects

the mainspring, you know."

There were great ropes and coils of electric wire of high voltage

cropping out of the ground here and there; coils attached to huge

accumulators, and discharging murderous current freely. A dog, picking

his way across the sopping street, trod on one of the wires, and

instantly all that remained of the dog was what looked like a twisted

bit of burnt skin and bone. It appealed to Sir George Egerton's

imagination strongly.

"Poor little brute!" he murmured. "It might have happened to you or

me. Don't you know that a force that only gives a man a bad shock when

he is standing on dry ground often kills him when the surface is wet?

I wonder if we can get some indiarubber gloves and galoshes

hereabouts. After that gruesome sight, I shall be afraid to put one

foot before the other."

Indeed, the precaution was a necessary one. A horse attached to a cab

came creeping over the blocked streets; the animal slipped on a

grating connected with the ventilation of the drains, and a fraction

of a second later there was no horse in existence. The driver sat on

his perch, white and scared.

"The galoshes," Lord Barcombe said hoarsely. "Don't you move till we

come back again, my man. And everybody keep out of the roadway."

The cry ran along that the roadway meant instant death. The cabman sat

there gibbering with terror. A little way further down was a rubber

warehouse, with a fine selection of waders' and electricians' gloves

in the window. With a fragment of concrete Sir George smashed in the

window, and took what he and Lord Barcombe required. They knew that

they would be quite safe now.

More dead than alive the cabman climbed down from his seat and was

carried to the pavement on Lord Barcombe's shoulder. The left side of

his face was all drawn up and puckered, the left arm was useless.

"Apoplexy from the fright," Sir George suggested.

"Not a bit of it," Lord Barcombe exclaimed, "It's a severe electric

shock. Hold up."

Gradually the man's face and arm ceased to twitch.

"If that's being struck by lightning," he said, "I don't want another

dose. It was as if something had caught hold of me and frozen my heart

in my body. I couldn't do a thing. And look at my coat."

All up the left side the coat was singed so that at a touch the whole

cloth fell to pieces. It was a strange instance of the freakishness of

the invisible force. A great fear fell on those who saw. This

intangible, unseen danger, with its awful swiftness, was worse than

the worse that could be seen.

"Let's get home," Lord Barcombe suggested. "It's getting on my nerves.

It's dreadful when all the terror is left to the imagination."


IV

Meanwhile no time was lost in getting to the root of the mischief.

The danger could not be averted by switching off the power altogether

at the various electrical stations of the metropolis. At intervals

along the tubes were immense accumulators which for the present could

not be touched. It was these accumulators that rendered the streets

such a ghastly peril.

It was the electrical expert to the County Council--Alton Rossiter--

who first got on the track of the disaster. More than once before, the

contact between gas and electricity had produced minor troubles of

this kind. Gas that had escaped into man-holes and drains had been

fired from the sparks caused by a short-circuit current wire. For some

time, even as far back as 1895, instances of this kind had been

recorded.

But how could the gas have leaked into the tube, seeing that it was a

steel core with a solid bedding of concrete beyond? Unless an accident

had happened when the tube was under repair, this seemed impossible.

The manager of the associated tubes was quite ready to afford every

information to Mr. Rossiter. The core had corroded in Bond Street in

consequence of a settling of the earth caused by a leaky water-main.

The night before, this had been located and the steel skin stripped

off for the necessary repairs.

Mr. Alton Rossiter cut the speaker short.

"Will you come to Bond Street with me, Mr. Fergusson?" he said; "we

may be able to get into the tunnel there."

Fergusson was quite ready. The damage in Bond Street was not so great,

though the lift shaft was filled with debris, and it became necessary

to cut a way into the station before the funnel was reached.

For a couple of hundred yards the tube was intact; beyond that point

the fumes of gas were overpowering. A long strip of steel hung from

the roof. Just where it was, a round, clean hole in the roadway

rendered it possible to work and breathe there in spite of the gas

fumes.

"We shall have to manage as best we can," Rossiter muttered. "For a

little time at any rate, the gas of London must be cut of entirely.

With broken mains all over the place the supply is positively

dangerous. Look here."

He pointed to the spot where the gas main had trended down and where a

short-circuit wire had fused it. Here was the whole secret in a

nutshell. A roaring gas main had poured a dense volume into the tube

for hours; mixed with the air it had become one of the most powerful

and deadly of explosives.

"What time does your first train start?" Rossiter asked.

"For the early markets, four o'clock," Fergusson replied. "In other

words, we switch on the current from the accumulator stations at

twenty minutes to four."

"And this is one of your generating stations?"

"Yes. Of course I see exactly what you are driving at. Practically the

whole circuit of tubes was more or less charged with a fearful

admixture of gas and air. As soon as the current was switched on a

spark exploded the charge. I fear, I very much fear, that you are

right. If we can only find the man in charge here! But that would be

nothing else than a miracle."

All the same the operator in charge of the switches was close by.

Fortunately for him the play of the current in the tube had carried

the gases towards St. James's Street. The explosion had lifted him out

of his box, and for a time he lay stunned. Dazed and confused, he had

climbed to the street and staggered into the shop of a chemist who was

just closing the door upon a customer who had rung him up for a

prescription.

But he could say very little. There had been an explosion directly he

pulled down the first of the switches, and his memory was a blank

after that.

Anyway, the cause of the disaster was found. To prevent further

catastrophe notice was immediately given to the various gas companies

to cut off the supplies at once. In a little time the whole disastrous

length of the tube was free from that danger.

* * * * *

By the afternoon a committee had gone over the whole route.

At the first blush it looked as if London had been half ruined. It was

impossible yet to estimate the full extent of the damage. In St.

James's Street alone the loss was pretty certain to run into millions.

Down in Whitehall and Parliament Street, and by Westminster Bridge,

the damage was terrible. Here sharp curves and angles had checked the

rush of expanding air with the most dire results. Huge holes and ruts

had been made in the earth, and houses had come down bodily.

Most of the people out in the streets by this time were properly

equipped in indiarubber shoes and gloves. It touched the imagination

strongly to know that between a man and hideous death was a thin sheet

of rubber no thicker than a shilling. It was like walking over the

crust of a slumbering volcano; like skating at top speed over very

thin ice.

Towards the evening a thrilling whisper ran round. From Deptford two

early specials had started to convey an annual excursion of five

hundred men and their wives to Paddington, whence they were going to

Windsor. It seemed impossible, incredible, that these could have been

overlooked; but by five o'clock the dreadful truth was established.

Those two specials had started; but what oblivion they had found--how

lingering, swift, or merciful, nobody could tell.

V

There was a new horror. The story of those early special trains gave

the final terror to the situation. Probably they had been blown to

eternity. There was just one chance in a million that anybody had

escaped. All the same something would have to be done to put the

matter at rest.

Nobody knew what to do; everybody had lost their heads for the moment.

It seemed hopeless from the very start. Naturally, the man that

everybody looked to at the moment was Fergusson of the associated

tubes. With him was Alton Rossiter, representing the County Council.

"But how to make a start?" the latter asked.

"We will start from Deptford," said Fergusson. "We must first

ascertain the exact time that the train left Deptford, and the precise

moment when the first explosion took place. Mind you, I believe there

was a series of explosions. You see, there is always a fair amount of

air in the tubes. When the inflowing gas met the cross currents of

air, it would be diverted, or pocketed, so to speak. We should have a

big pocket of the explosive, followed by a clear space.

"When the switches were turned on there would be sparks here and there

all along the tubes. This means that practically simultaneously the

mines would be fired; fired so quickly that the series of reports

would sound like one big bang. That this must be so can be seen by the

state of some of the streets. In some spots the tube has been wrenched

bodily from the earth as easily as if it had been a gaspipe. And then,

again, you have streets that do not show the slightest damage. You

must agree with me that my theory is a correct one."

"I do. But what are you driving at?"

"Well, I am afraid that my theory is a very forlorn one, but I give it

for what it is worth. It's just possible, faintly possible, that those

trains ran into a portion of the tube where there was no explosion at

all. There were explosions behind them and in front of them, and of

course the machinery would have been rendered useless instantly, so

that the trains may be trapped with no ingress or outlet. I'm not in

the least sanguine of finding anything, but the aftermath of a fearful

tragedy. Anyway, our duty is pretty plainly before us--we must go to

Deptford. Come along."

The journey to Deptford was no easy one. There were so many streets up

that locomotion was a difficult matter. And where the streets were

damaged there was danger. It was possible to use cycles, seeing that

the rubber tires formed non-conductors, and indiarubber gloves and

shoes allowed extra protection. But the mere suggestion of a spill was

thrilling. It might mean the tearing of a glove or the loss of a shoe,

and then--well, that did not bear thinking about.

"I never before properly appreciated the feelings of the man that

Blondin used to carry on his back," Rossiter said as the pair pushed

steadily through Bermondsey, "but I can understand his emotions now."

The roads, even where there was no danger, were empty. A man or woman

would venture timidly out and look longingly to the other side of the

road and then give up the idea of moving altogether. As a matter of

fact there was more of it safe than otherwise, but the risks were too

awful.


VI

Meanwhile something like an organised attempt was being made to

grapple with the evil: Days must, of necessity, elapse before a proper

estimate of the damage could be made, to say nothing of the loss of

life.

Nothing very great could be accomplished, however, until the huge

accumulators ha been cleared and the deadly current switched off. So

far as the London area proper was concerned, Holborn Viaduct was the

point to aim at. In big vaults there, underground, were some of the

largest accumulators in the world. These would have to be rendered

harmless at any cost.

But the work was none so easy, seeing that the tube here was crushed

and twisted, and all about it was a knot of high-pressure cables

deadly to the touch. There was enough power here running to waste to

destroy a city. There were spaces that it was impossible to cross; and

unfortunately the danger could not be seen. There was no warning, no

chance of escape for the too hardy adventurer; he would just have

stepped an inch beyond the region of safety, and there would have been

an end of him. No wonder that the willing workers hesitated.

There was nothing for it but the blasting of the tube. True, this

might be attended with danger to such surrounding buildings as had

weathered the storm, but it was the desperate hour for desperate

remedies. A big charge of dynamite rent a long slit in the exposed

length of tube, and a workman taking his life in his hands entered the

opening. There were few spectators watching. It was too gruesome and

horrible to stand there with the feeling that a slip either way might

mean sudden death.

The workman, swathed from head to foot in indiarubber, disappeared

from sight. It seemed a long time before he returned, so long that his

companions gave him up for lost. Those strong able men who were ready

to face any ordinary danger looked at one another askance. Fire, or

flood, or gas, they would have endured, for under those circumstances

the danger was tangible. But here was something that appealed horribly

to the imagination. And such a death! The instantaneous fusion of the

body to a dry charcoal crumb!

But presently a grimed head looked out of the funnel. The face was

white behind the dust, but set and firm. The pioneer called for

lights.

So far he had been successful. He had found the accumulators buried

under a heap of refuse. They were built into solid concrete below the

level of the tube so that they had not suffered to any appreciable

extent.

There was no longer any holding back. The party swung along the tube

with lanterns, and candles flaring, they reached the vault where the

great accumulators were situated. Under the piled rails and fragments

of splintered wood, the shining marble switchboard could be seen.

But to get to it was quite another matter.

Once this was accomplished, one of the greatest dangers and horrors

that paralysed labour would be removed. It was too much to expect that

the average labourer would toil willingly, or even toil at all when

the moving of an inch might mean instant destruction. And it was such

a little thing to do after all. A child could have accomplished it;

the pressure of a finger or two, the tiny action that disconnects a

wire from the live power, and the danger would be no more, and the

automatic accumulators rendered harmless.

But here were a few men, at any rate, who did not mean to be defeated.

They toiled on willingly, and yet with the utmost caution; for the

knots of cable wire under their feet and over their heads were like

brambles in the forest. If one of these had given way, all of them

might be destroyed. It was the kind of work that causes the scalp to

rise and the heart to beat and the body to perspire even on the

coldest day. Now and then a cable upheld by some debris would slip;

there would be a sudden cry, and the workmen would skip back,

breathing heavily.

It was like working a mine filled with rattlesnakes asleep; but

gradually the mass of matter was cleared away and the switchboard

disclosed. A few light touches, and a large area of London was free

from a terrible danger. It was possible now to handle the big cables

with impunity, for they were perfectly harmless.

There was no word spoken for a long time. The men were trembling with

the reaction. One of them produced a large flask of brandy and handed

it round. Not till they had all drunk did the leader of the expedition

speak.

"How many years since yesterday morning?" he asked.

"Makes one feel like an old man," another muttered.

They climbed presently into the street again, for there was nothing to

be done here for the present. A few adventurous spectators heard the

news that the streets were free from danger once more. The tidings

spread in the marvellous way that such rumour carries, and in a little

time the streets were packed with people.


VII

When the two cyclists came to Deptford, they found that comparatively

little damage had been done to the station there, beyond that the

offices and platforms had been wrecked. A wounded man was found, who

described how a mighty hurricane had roared down the tube ten minutes

after the excursion trains had departed. Fergusson made a rapid

calculation from the figures that the man supplied.

"The trains must have been near to Park Road Station," he said, "when

the explosion occurred. There is just a chance that they may have run

into a space free from gas, and that the explosion passed them

altogether. Let us make for Park Road Station without delay, and we

must try to pick up some volunteers as we go along."

When they arrived at the scene they found that a big crowd had

gathered. A rumour had spread that feeble voices had been heard down

one of the ventilation gratings, calling for help. Fergusson and

Rossiter reached the spot with difficulty.

"Get our fellows together," whispered Fergusson. "We can work now with

impunity; and if any of those poor people down below are alive, we

shall have them out in half-an-hour. If we only had some lights! Beg,

borrow, or steal all the lanterns you can get."

The nearest police-station solved that problem fast enough. A small

gang of special experts moved upon Park Road Station whilst the mob

was still struggling about the ventilation shaft, and in a little time

the entrance was forced.

The station was a veritable wreck; but for two hundred yards the

tunnel was clear before them. Then came a jammed wall of timber, the

end of a railway carriage standing on end. The timbers were twisted,

huge baulks of wood were bent like a bow. A way was soon made through

the debris, and Fergusson yelled aloud.

To his delight a hoarse voice answered him. He yelled again and waved

his lantern. Out of the velvety darkness of the tube a man staggered

into the lane of light made by the lantern. He was a typical, thick-

set workman, in his best clothes.

"So you've found us at last," he said dully.

He appeared to be past all emotions. His eyes showed no gratitude, no

delight. The horrors of the dark hours had numbed his senses.

"Is--is it very bad?" asked Rossiter.

"Many were killed," the new comer said in the same wooden voice. "But

the others are sitting in the carriages waiting for the end to come.

The lights in the carriages helped us a bit, but after the first hour

they went out. Then one or two of us went up the line till it seemed

to rise and twist as if it was going to climb into the sky, and by

that we guessed that there had been a big explosion of some kind. So

we tried the other way, and that was all blocked up with timber; and

we knew then. The electricity was about, and--well, it wasn't a pretty

sight, so we went back to the trains. When the lights went out we were

all mad for a time, and--and---"

The speaker's lips quivered and shook--he burst into a torrent of

tears. Rossiter patted him on the back approvingly. Those tears

probably staved off stark insanity. The light of the lanterns went

swinging on ahead now, and the trains began to pour out their freight

of half-dead people. There were some with children, who huddled back

fearfully in their corners and refused to face the destruction which

they were sure lay before them. They were all white and trembling,

with quivering lips and eyes that twitched strangely. Heaven only

knows how long an eternity those hours of darkness had seemed.

They were all out at last, and were gently led to blessed light again.

There were doctors on the spot by this time with nourishing food and

stimulants. For the most part, the women sat down and cried, quietly

hugging their children to their breasts. Some of the men were crying

in the same dull way, but a few were violent. The dark horror of it

had driven them mad for the time. But there was a darker side to it;

of the pleasure-seekers the dead were numbered at more than half.

Rut there was one man here and there who had kept his head throughout

the crisis. A cheerful-looking sailor gave the best account of the

adventure.

"Not that there is much to say," he remarked. "We got on just as usual

for the first ten minutes or so, the train running smoothly and plenty

of light. Then all at once we came to a sudden stop that sent us

flying across the carriage. We seemed to have gone headlong into the

stiffest tempest I ever met. You could hear the wind go roaring past

the carriages, and then it stopped as soon as it had begun.

"The rattle of broken glass was like musketry. The first thing I saw

when I got out was the dead body of the engine-driver with the stoker

close by. It was just the same with the train in front. Afterwards, I

tried to find a way out, but couldn't. There was a man with me who

trod on some of them cables as you call 'em, and the next instant

there was no man--but I don't want to talk of that."

"It means months upon months," Fergusson said sadly.

"Not months--years," Rossiter replied. "Yet I dare say that in the

long run we shall benefit by the calamity, great communities do. As to

calculating the damage, my imagination only goes as far as fifty

millions, and then stops. And yet if anybody had suggested this to me

yesterday morning, I should have laughed."

"It would have seemed impossible."

"Absolutely impossible. And yet now that it has come about, how easy

and natural it all seems! Come, let us get to work and try to forget."

THE END

July 24, 2016, 5:29 p.m. 0 Report Embed 0
The End

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