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Title: The Thames Valley Catastrophe
Author: Grant Allen
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Title: The Thames Valley Catastrophe
Author: Grant Allen




It can scarcely be necessary for me to mention, I suppose, at this
time of day, that I was one of the earliest and fullest observers of
the sad series of events which finally brought about the transference
of the seat of Government of these islands from London to Manchester.
Nor need I allude here to the conspicuous position which my narrative
naturally occupies in the Blue-book on the Thames Valley Catastrophe
(vol. ii., part vii), ordered by Parliament in its preliminary Session
under the new regime at Birmingham. But I think it also incumbent upon
me, for the benefit of posterity, to supplement that necessarily dry
and formal statement by a more circumstantial account of my personal
adventures during the terrible period.

I am aware, of course, that my poor little story can possess little
interest for our contemporaries, wearied out as they are with details
of the disaster, and surfeited with tedious scientific discussions as
to its origin and nature. But in after years, I venture to believe,
when the crowning calamity of the nineteenth century has grown
picturesque and, so to speak, ivy-clad, by reason of its remoteness
(like the Great Plague or the Great Fire of London with ourselves),
the world may possibly desire to hear how this unparalleled convulsion
affected the feelings and fortunes of a single family in the middle
rank of life, and in a part of London neither squalid nor fashionable.

It is such personal touches of human nature that give reality to
history, which without them must become, as a great writer has finely
said, nothing more than an old almanac. I shall not apologize,
therefore, for being frankly egoistic and domestic in my reminiscences
of that appalling day: for I know that those who desire to seek
scientific information on the subject will look for it, not in vain,
in the eight bulky volumes of the recent Blue-book. I shall concern
myself here with the great event merely as it appeared to myself, a
Government servant of the second grade, and in its relations to my own
wife, my home, and my children.

On the morning of the 21st of August, in the memorable year of the
calamity, I happened to be at Cookham, a pleasant and pretty village
which then occupied the western bank of the Thames just below the spot
where the Look-out Tower of the Earthquake and Eruption Department now
dominates the whole wide plain of the Glassy Rock Desert. In place of
the black lake of basalt which young people see nowadays winding its
solid bays in and out among the grassy downs, most men still living
can well remember a gracious and smiling valley, threaded in the midst
by a beautiful river.

I had cycled down from London the evening before (thus forestalling my
holiday), and had spent the night at a tolerable inn in the village.
By a curious coincidence, the only other visitor at the little hotel
that night was a fellow-cyclist, an American, George W. Ward by name,
who had come over with his "wheel," as he called it, for six weeks in
England, in order to investigate the geology of our southern counties
for himself, and to compare it with that of the far western cretaceous
system. I venture to describe this as a curious coincidence, because,
as it happened, the mere accident of my meeting him gave me my first
inkling of the very existence of that singular phenomenon of which we
were all so soon to receive a startling example. I had never so much
as heard before of fissure-eruptions; and if I had not heard of them
from Ward that evening, I might not have recognised at sight the
actuality when it first appeared, and therefore I might have been
involved in the general disaster. In which case, of course, this
unpretentious narrative would never have been written.

As we sat in the little parlour of the White Hart, however, over our
evening pipe, it chanced that the American, who was a pleasant,
conversable fellow, began talking to me of his reasons for visiting
England. I was at that time a clerk in the General Post Office (of
which I am now secretary), and was then no student of science; but his
enthusiastic talk about his own country and its vastness amused and
interested me. He had been employed for some years on the Geological
Survey in the Western States, and he was deeply impressed by the
solemnity and the colossal scale of everything American. "Mountains!"
he said, when I spoke of Scotland; "why, for mountains, your Alps
aren't in it! and as for volcanoes, your Vesuviuses and Etnas just
spit fire a bit at infrequent intervals; while ours do things on a
scale worthy of a great country, I can tell you. Europe is a
circumstance: America is a continent."

"But surely," I objected, "that was a pretty fair eruption that
destroyed Pompeii!"

The American rose and surveyed me slowly. I can see him to this day,
with his close-shaven face and his contemptuous smile at my European
ignorance. "Well," he said, after a long and impressive pause, "the
lava-flood that destroyed a few acres about the Bay of Naples was what
we call a trickle: it came from a crater; and the crater it came from
was nothing more than a small round vent-hole; the lava flowed down
from it in a moderate stream over a limited area. But what do you say
to the earth opening in a huge crack, forty or fifty miles long--say,
as far as from here right away to London, or farther--and lava pouring
out from the orifice, not in a little rivulet as at Etna or Vesuvius,
but in a sea or inundation, which spread at once over a tract as big
as England? That's something like volcanic action, isn't it? And
that's the sort of thing we have out in Colorado."

"You are joking," I replied, "or bragging. You are trying to astonish
me with the familiar spread eagle."

He smiled a quiet smile. "Not a bit of it," he answered. "What I tell
you is at least as true as Gospel. The earth yawns in Montana. There
are fissure-eruptions, as we call them, in the Western States, out of
which the lava has welled like wine out of a broken skin--welled up in
vast roaring floods, molten torrents of basalt, many miles across, and
spread like water over whole plains and valleys."

"Not within historical times!" I exclaimed.

"I'm not so sure about that," he answered, musing. "I grant you, not
within times which are historical right there--for Colorado is a very
new country: but I incline to think some of the most recent fissure
eruptions took place not later than when the Tudors reigned in
England. The lava oozed out, red-hot--gushed out--was squeezed out--
and spread instantly everywhere; it's so comparatively recent that the
surface of the rock is still bare in many parts, unweathered
sufficiently to support vegetation. I fancy the stream must have been
ejected at a single burst, in a huge white-hot dome, and then flowed
down on every side, filling up the valleys to a certain level, in and
out among the hills, exactly as water might do. And some of these
eruptions, I tell you, by measured survey, would have covered more
ground than from Dover to Liverpool, and from York to Cornwall."

"Let us be thankful," I said, carelessly, "that such things don't
happen in our own times."

He eyed me curiously. "Haven't happened, you mean," he answered. "We
have no security that they mayn't happen again to-morrow. These
fissure-eruptions, though not historically described for us, are
common events in geological history--commoner and on a larger scale in
America than elsewhere. Still, they have occurred in all lands and at
various epochs; there is no reason at all why one shouldn't occur in
England at present."

I laughed, and shook my head. I had the Englishman's firm conviction--
so rudely shattered by the subsequent events, but then so universal--
that nothing very unusual ever happened in England.

Next morning I rose early, bathed in Odney Weir (a picturesque pool
close by), breakfasted with the American, and then wrote a hasty line
to my wife, informing her that I should probably sleep that night at
Oxford; for I was off on a few days' holiday, and I liked Ethel to
know where a letter or telegram would reach me each day, as we were
both a little anxious about the baby's teething. Even while I pen
these words now, the grim humour of the situation comes back to me
vividly. Thousands of fathers and mothers were anxious that morning
about similar trifles, whose pettiness was brought home to them with
an appalling shock in the all-embracing horror of that day's calamity.

About ten o'clock I inflated my tyres and got under way. I meant to
ride towards Oxford by a leisurely and circuitous route, along the
windings of the river, past Marlow and Henley; so I began by crossing
Cookham Bridge, a wooden or iron structure, I scarcely remember which.
It spanned the Thames close by the village: the curious will find its
exact position marked in the maps of the period.

In the middle of the bridge, I paused and surveyed that charming
prospect, which I was the last of living men perhaps to see as it then
existed. Close by stood a weir; beside it, the stream divided into
three separate branches, exquisitely backed up by the gentle green
slopes of Hedsor and Cliveden. I could never pass that typical English
view without a glance of admiration; this morning, I pulled up my
bicycle for a moment, and cast my eye down stream with more than my
usual enjoyment of the smooth blue water and the tall white poplars
whose leaves showed their gleaming silver in the breeze beside it. I
might have gazed at it too long--and one minute more would have
sufficed for my destruction--had not a cry from the tow-path a little
farther up attracted my attention.

It was a wild, despairing cry, like that of a man being overpowered
and murdered.

I am confident this was my first intimation of danger. Two minutes
before, it is true, I had heard a faint sound like distant rumbling of
thunder; but nothing else. I am one of those who strenuously maintain
that the catastrophe was not heralded by shocks of earthquake.

I turned my eye up stream. For half a second I was utterly bewildered.
Strange to say, I did not perceive at first the great flood of fire
that was advancing towards me. I saw only the man who had shouted--a
miserable, cowering, terror-stricken wretch, one of the abject
creatures who used to earn a dubious livelihood in those days (when
the river was a boulevard of pleasure) by towing boats up stream. But
now, he was rushing wildly forward, with panic in his face; I could
see he looked as if close pursued by some wild beast behind him. "A
mad dog!" I said to myself at the outset; "or else a bull in the
meadow!"

I glanced back to see what his pursuer might be; and then, in one
second, the whole horror and terror of the catastrophe burst upon me.
Its whole horror and terror, I say, but not yet its magnitude. I was
aware at first just of a moving red wall, like dull, red-hot molten
metal. Trying to recall at so safe a distance in time and space the
feelings of the moment and the way in which they surged and succeeded
one another, I think I can recollect that my earliest idea was no more
than this: "He must run, or the moving wall will overtake him!" Next
instant, a hot wave seemed to strike my face. It was just like the
blast of heat that strikes one in a glasshouse when you stand in front
of the boiling and seething glass in the furnace. At about the same
point in time, I was aware, I believe, that the dull red wall was
really a wall of fire. But it was cooled by contact with the air and
the water. Even as I looked, however, a second wave from behind seemed
to rush on and break: it overlaid and outran the first one. This
second wave was white, not red--at white heat, I realized. Then, with
a burst of recognition, I knew what it all meant. What Ward had spoken
of last night--a fissure eruption!

I looked back. Ward was coming towards me on the bridge, mounted on
his Columbia. Too speechless to utter one word, I pointed up stream
with my hand He nodded and shouted back, in a singularly calm voice:
"Yes; just what I told you. A fissure-eruption!"

They were the last words I heard him speak. Not that he appreciated
the danger less than I did, though his manner was cool; but he was
wearing no clips to his trousers, and at that critical moment he
caught his leg in his pedals. The accident disconcerted him; he
dismounted hurriedly, and then, panic-stricken as I judged, abandoned
his machine. He tried to run. The error was fatal. He tripped and
fell. What became of him afterward I will mention later.

But for the moment I saw only the poor wretch on the tow-path. He was
not a hundred yards off, just beyond the little bridge which led over
the opening to a private boat-house. But as he rushed forwards and
shrieked, the wall of fire overtook him. I do not think it quite
caught him. It is hard at such moments to judge what really happens;
but I believe I saw him shrivel like a moth in a flame a few seconds
before the advancing wall of fire swept over the boat-house. I have
seen an insect shrivel just so when flung into the midst of white-hot
coals. He seemed to go off in gas, leaving a shower or powdery ash to
represent his bones behind him. But of this I do not pretend to be
positive; I will allow that my own agitation was far too profound to
permit of my observing anything with accuracy.

How high was the wall at that time? This has been much debated. I
should guess, thirty feet (though it rose afterwards to more than two
hundred), and it advanced rather faster than a man could run down the
centre of the valley. (Later on, its pace accelerated greatly with
subsequent outbursts.) In frantic haste, I saw or felt that only one
chance of safety lay before me: I must strike up hill by the field
path to Hedsor.

I rode for very life, with grim death behind me. Once well across the
bridge, and turning up the hill, I saw Ward on the parapet, with his
arms flung up, trying wildly to save himself by leaping into the
river. Next instant he shrivelled I think, as the beggar had
shrivelled; and it is to this complete combustion before the lava
flood reached them that I attribute the circumstance (so much
commented upon in the scientific excavations among the ruins) that no
cast of dead bodies, like those at Pompeii, have anywhere been found
in the Thames Valley Desert. My own belief is that every human body
was reduced to a gaseous condition by the terrific heat several
seconds before the molten basalt reached it.

Even at the distance which I had now attained from the central mass,
indeed, the heat was intolerable. Yet, strange to say, I saw few or no
people flying as yet from the inundation. The fact is, the eruption
came upon us so suddenly, so utterly without warning or premonitory
symptoms (for I deny the earthquake shocks), that whole towns must
have been destroyed before the inhabitants were aware that anything
out of the common was happening. It is a sort of alleviation to the
general horror to remember that a large proportion of the victims must
have died without even knowing it; one second, they were laughing,
talking, bargaining; the next, they were asphyxiated or reduced to
ashes as you have seen a small fly disappear in an incandescent gas
flame.

This, however, is what I learned afterward. At that moment, I was only
aware of a frantic pace uphill, over a rough, stony road, and with my
pedals working as I had never before worked them; while behind me, I
saw purgatory let loose, striving hard to overtake me. I just knew
that a sea of fire was filling the valley from end to end, and that
its heat scorched my face as I urged on my bicycle in abject terror.

All this time, I will admit, my panic was purely personal. I was too
much engaged in the engrossing sense of my own pressing danger to be
vividly alive to the public catastrophe. I did not even think of Ethel
and the children. But when I reached the hill by Hedsor Church--a
neat, small building, whose shell still stands, though scorched and
charred, by the edge of the desert--I was able to pause for half a
minute to recover breath, and to look back upon the scene of the first
disaster.

It was a terrible and yet I felt even then a beautiful sight--
beautiful with the awful and unearthly beauty of a great forest fire,
or a mighty conflagration in some crowded city. The whole river
valley, up which I looked, was one sea of fire. Barriers of red-hot
lava formed themselves for a moment now and again where the outer edge
or vanguard of the inundation had cooled a little on the surface by
exposure: and over these temporary dams, fresh cataracts of white-hot
material poured themselves afresh into the valley beyond it. After a
while, as the deeper portion of basalt was pushed out all was white
alike. So glorious it looked in the morning sunshine that one could
hardly realize the appalling reality of that sea of molten gold; one
might almost have imagined a splendid triumph of the scene painter's
art, did one not know that it was actually a river of fire,
overwhelming, consuming, and destroying every object before it in its
devastating progress.

I tried vaguely to discover the source of the disaster. Looking
straight up stream, past Bourne End and Marlow, I descried with
bleared and dazzled eyes a whiter mass than any, glowing fiercely in
the daylight like an electric light, and filling up the narrow gorge
of the river towards Hurley and Henley. I recollected at once that
this portion of the valley was not usually visible from Hedsor Hill,
and almost without thinking of it I instinctively guessed the reason
why it had become so now: it was the centre of disturbance--the
earth's crust just there had bulged upward slightly, till it cracked
and gaped to emit the basalt.

Looking harder, I could make out (though it was like looking at the
sun) that the glowing white dome-shaped mass, as of an electric light,
was the molten lava as it gurgled from the mouth of the vast fissure.
I say vast, because so it seemed to me, though, as everybody now
knows, the actual gap where the earth opened measures no more than
eight miles across, from a point near what was once Shiplake Ferry to
the site of the old lime-kilns at Marlow. Yet when one saw the
eruption actually taking place, the colossal scale of it was what most
appalled one. A sea of fire, eight to twelve miles broad, in the
familiar Thames Valley, impressed and terrified one a thousand times
more than a sea of fire ten times as vast in the nameless wilds of
Western America.

I could see dimly, too, that the flood spread in every direction from
its central point, both up and down the river. To right and left,
indeed, it was soon checked and hemmed in by the hills about Wargrave
and Medmenham; but downward, it had filled the entire valley as far as
Cookham and beyond; while upward, it spread in one vast glowing sheet
towards Reading and the flats by the confluence of the Kennet. I did
not then know, of course, that this gigantic natural dam or barrier
was later on to fill up the whole low-lying level, and so block the
course of the two rivers as to form those twin expanses of inland
water, Lake Newbury and Lake Oxford. Tourists who now look down on
still summer evenings where the ruins of Magdalen and of Merton may be
dimly descried through the pale green depths, their broken masonry
picturesquely overgrown with tangled water-weeds, can form but little
idea of the terrible scene which that peaceful bank presented while
the incandescent lava was pouring forth in a scorching white flood
towards the doomed district. Merchants who crowd the busy quays of
those mushroom cities which have sprung up with greater rapidity than
Chicago or Johannesburg on the indented shore where the new lakes abut
upon the Berkshire Chalk Downs have half forgotten the horror of the
intermediate time when the waters of the two rivers rose slowly,
slowly, day after day, to choke their valleys and overwhelm some of
the most glorious architecture in Britain. But though I did not know
and could not then foresee the remoter effects of the great fire-flood
in that direction, I saw enough to make my heart stand still within
me. It was with difficulty that I grasped my bicycle, my hands
trembled so fiercely. I realized that I was a spectator of the
greatest calamity which had befallen a civilized land within the ken
of history.

I looked southward along the valley in the direction of Maidenhead. As
yet it did not occur to me that the catastrophe was anything more than
a local flood, though even as such it would have been one of
unexampled vastness. My imagination could hardly conceive that London
itself was threatened. In those days one could not grasp the idea of
the destruction of London. I only thought just at first, "It will go
on towards Maidenhead!" Even as I thought it, I saw a fresh and
fiercer gush of fire well out from the central gash, and flow still
faster than ever down the centre of the valley, over the hardening
layer already cooling on its edge by contact with the air and soil.
This new outburst fell in a mad cataract over the end or van of the
last, and instantly spread like water across the level expanse between
the Cliveden hills and the opposite range at Pinkneys. I realized with
a throb that it was advancing towards Windsor. Then a wild fear
thrilled through me. If Windsor, why not Staines and Chertsey and
Hounslow? If Hounslow, why not London?

In a second I remembered Ethel and the children. Hitherto, the
immediate danger of my own position alone had struck me. The fire was
so near; the heat of it rose up in my face and daunted me. But now I
felt I must make a wild dash to warn--not London--no, frankly, I
forgot those millions; but Ethel and my little ones. In that thought,
for the first moment, the real vastness of the catastrophe came home
to me. The Thames Valley was doomed! I must ride for dear life if I
wished to save my wife and children!

I mounted again, but found my shaking feet could hardly work the
pedals. My legs were one jelly. With a frantic effort, I struck off
inland in the direction of Burnham. I did not think my way out
definitely; I hardly knew the topography of the district well enough
to form any clear conception of what route I must take in order to
keep to the hills and avoid the flood of fire that was deluging the
lowlands. But by pure instinct, I believe, I set my face Londonwards
along the ridge of the chalk downs. In three minutes I had lost sight
of the burning flood, and was deep among green lanes and under shadowy
beeches. The very contrast frightened me. I wondered if I was going
mad. It was all so quiet. One could not believe that scarce five miles
off from that devastating sheet of fire, birds were singing in the sky
and men toiling in the fields as if nothing had happened.

Near Lambourne Wood I met a brother cyclist, just about to descend the
hill. A curve in the road hid the valley from him I shouted aloud:

"For Heaven's sake, don't go down! There is danger, danger!"

He smiled and looked back at me. "I can take any hill in England," he
answered.

"It's not the hill," I burst out. "There has been an eruption--a
fissure-eruption at Marlow--great floods of fire--and all the valley
is filled with burning lava!"

He stared at me derisively. Then his expression changed of a sudden. I
suppose he saw I was white-faced and horror-stricken. He drew away as
if alarmed. "Go back to Colney Hatch!" he cried, pedalling faster and
rode hastily down the hill, as if afraid of me. I have no doubt he
must have ridden into the very midst of the flood, and been scorched
by its advance, before he could check his machine on so sudden a
slope.

Between Lambourne Wood and Burnham I did not see the fire-flood. I
rode on at full speed among green fields and meadows. Here and there I
passed a labouring man on the road. More than one looked up at me and
commented on the oppressive heat, but none of them seemed to be aware
of the fate that was overtaking their own homes close by, in the
valley. I told one or two, but they laughed and gazed after me as if I
were a madman. I grew sick of warning them. They took no heed of my
words, but went on upon their way as if nothing out of the common were
happening to England.

On the edge of the down, near Burnham, I caught sight of the valley
again. Here, people were just awaking to what was taking place near
them. Half the population was gathered on the slope, looking down with
wonder on the flood of fire, which had now just turned the corner of
the hills by Taplow. Silent terror was the prevailing type of
expression. But when I told them I had seen the lava bursting forth
from the earth in a white dome above Marlow, they laughed me to scorn;
and when I assured them I was pushing forward in hot haste to London,
they answered, "London! It won't never get as far as London!" That was
the only place on the hills, as is now well known, where the flood was
observed long enough beforehand to telegraph and warn the inhabitants
of the great city; but nobody thought of doing it; and I must say,
even if they had done so, there is not the slightest probability that
the warning would have attracted the least attention in our ancient
Metropolis. Men on the Stock Exchange would have made jests about the
slump, and proceeded to buy and sell as usual.

I measured with my eye the level plain between Burnham and Slough,
calculating roughly with myself whether I should have time to descend
upon the well-known road from Maidenhead to London by Colnbrook and
Hounslow. (I advise those who are unacquainted with the topography of
this district before the eruption to follow out my route on a good map
of the period.) But I recognised in a moment that this course would be
impossible. At the rate that the flood had taken to progress from
Cookham Bridge to Taplow, I felt sure it would be upon me before I
reached Upton, or Ditton Park at the outside. It is true the speed of
the advance might slacken somewhat as the lava cooled; and strange to
say, so rapidly do realities come to be accepted in one's mind, that I
caught myself thinking this thought in the most natural manner, as if
I had all my life long been accustomed to the ways of fissure-
eruptions. But on the other hand, the lava might well out faster and
hotter than before, as I had already seen it do more than once; and I
had no certainty even that it would not rise to the level of the hills
on which I was standing. You who read this narrative nowadays take it
for granted, of course, that the extent and height of the inundation
was bound to be exactly what you know it to have been; we at the time
could not guess how high it might rise and how large an area of the
country it might overwhelm and devastate. Was it to stop at the
Chilterns, or to go north to Birmingham, York, and Scotland?

Still, in my trembling anxiety to warn my wife and children, I debated
with myself whether I should venture down into the valley, and hurry
along the main road with a wild burst for London. I thought of Ethel,
alone in our little home at Bayswater, and almost made up my mind to
risk it. At that moment, I became aware that the road to London was
already crowded with carriages, carts, and cycles, all dashing at a
mad pace unanimously towards London. Suddenly a fresh wave turned the
corner by Taplow and Maidenhead Bridge, and began to gain upon them
visibly. It was an awful sight. I cannot pretend to describe it. The
poor creatures on the road, men and animals alike, rushed wildly,
despairingly on; the fire took them from behind, and, one by one,
before the actual sea reached them, I saw them shrivel and melt away
in the fierce white heat of the advancing inundation. I could not look
at it any longer. I certainly could not descend and court instant
death. I felt that my one chance was to strike across the downs, by
Stoke Poges and Uxbridge, and then try the line of northern heights to
London.

Oh, how fiercely I pedalled! At Farnham Royal (where again nobody
seemed to be aware what had happened) a rural policeman tried to stop
me for frantic riding. I tripped him up, and rode on. Experience had
taught me it was no use telling those who had not seen it of the
disaster. A little beyond, at the entrance to a fine park, a
gatekeeper attempted to shut a gate in my face, exclaiming that the
road was private. I saw it was the only practicable way without
descending to the valley, and I made up my mind this was no time for
trifling. I am a man of peace, but I lifted my fist and planted it
between his eyes. Then, before he could recover from his astonishment,
I had mounted again and ridden on across the park, while he ran after
me in vain, screaming to the men in the pleasure-grounds to stop me.
But I would not be stopped; and I emerged on the road once more at
Stoke Poges.

Near Galley Hill, after a long and furious ride, I reached the descent
to Uxbridge. Was it possible to descend? I glanced across, once more
by pure instinct, for I had never visited the spot before, towards
where I felt the Thames must run. A great white cloud hung over it. I
saw what that cloud must mean: it was the steam of the river, where
the lava sucked it up and made it seethe and boil suddenly. I had not
noticed this white fleece of steam at Cookham, though I did not guess
why till afterwards. In the narrow valley where the Thames ran between
hills, the lava flowed over it all at once, bottling the steam
beneath; and it is this imprisoned steam that gave rise in time to the
subsequent series of appalling earthquakes, to supply forecasts of
which is now the chief duty of the Seismologer Royal; whereas, in the
open plain, the basalt advanced more gradually and in a thinner
stream, and therefore turned the whole mass of water into white cloud
as soon as it reached each bend of the river.

At the time, however, I had no leisure to think out all this. I only
knew by such indirect signs that the flood was still advancing, and,
therefore, that it would be impossible for me to proceed towards
London by the direct route via Uxbridge and Hanwell. If I meant to
reach town (as we called it familiarly), I must descend to the valley
at once, pass through Uxbridge streets as fast as I could, make a dash
across the plain, by what I afterwards knew to be Hillingdon (I saw it
then as a nameless village), and aim at a house-crowned hill which I
only learned later was Harrow, but which I felt sure would enable me
to descend upon London by Hampstead or Highgate.

I am no strategist; but in a second, in that extremity, I picked out
these points, feeling dimly sure they would lead me home to Ethel and
the children.

The town of Uxbridge (whose place you can still find marked on many
maps) lay in the valley of a small river, a confluent of the Thames.
Up this valley it was certain that the lava-stream must flow; and,
indeed, at the present day, the basin around is completely filled by
one of the solidest and most forbidding masses of black basalt in the
country. Still, I made up my mind to descend and cut across the low-
lying ground towards Harrow. If I failed, I felt, after all, I was but
one unit more in what I now began to realize as a prodigious national
calamity.

I was just coasting down the hill, with Uxbridge lying snug and
unconscious in the glen below me, when a slight and unimportant
accident occurred which almost rendered impossible my further
progress. It was past the middle of August; the hedges were being cut;
and this particular lane, bordered by a high thorn fence, was strewn
with the mangled branches of the may-bushes. At any other time, I
should have remembered the danger and avoided them; that day, hurrying
down hill for dear life and for Ethel, I forgot to notice them. The
consequence was, I was pulled up suddenly by finding my front wheel
deflated; this untimely misfortune almost unmanned me. I dismounted
and examined the tyre; it had received a bad puncture. I tried
inflating again, in hopes the hole might be small enough to make that
precaution sufficient. But it was quite useless. I found I must submit
to stop and doctor up the puncture. Fortunately, I had the necessary
apparatus in my wallet.

I think it was the weirdest episode of all that weird ride--this sense
of stopping impatiently, while the fiery flood still surged on towards
London, in order to go through all the fiddling and troublesome little
details of mending a pneumatic tyre. The moment and the operation
seemed so sadly out of harmony. A countryman passed by on a cart,
obviously suspecting nothing; that was another point which added
horror to the occasion--that so near the catastrophe, so very few
people were even aware what was taking place beside them. Indeed, as
is well known, I was one of the very few who saw the eruption during
its course, and yet managed to escape from it. Elsewhere, those who
tried to run before it, either to escape themselves or to warn others
of the danger, were overtaken by the lava before they could reach a
place of safety. I attribute this mainly to the fact that most of them
continued along the high roads in the valley, or fled instinctively
for shelter towards their homes, instead of making at once for the
heights and the uplands.

The countryman stopped and looked at me.

"The more haste the less speed!" he said, with proverbial wisdom.

I glanced up at him, and hesitated. Should I warn him of his doom, or
was it useless? "Keep up on the hills," I said, at last. "An
unspeakable calamity is happening in the valley. Flames of fire are
flowing down it, as from a great burning mountain. You will be cut off
by the eruption."

He stared at me blankly, and burst into a meaningless laugh. "Why,
you're one of them Salvation Army fellows," he exclaimed, after a
short pause. "You're trying to preach to me. I'm going to Uxbridge."
And he continued down the hill towards certain destruction.

It was hours, I feel sure, before I had patched up that puncture,
though I did it by the watch in four and a half minutes. As soon as I
had blown out my tyre again I mounted once more, and rode at a
breakneck pace to Uxbridge. I passed down the straggling main street
of the suburban town, crying aloud as I went, "Run, run, to the downs!
A flood of lava is rushing up the valley! To the hills, for your
lives! All the Thames bank is blazing!" Nobody took the slightest
heed; they stood still in the street for a minute with open mouths:
then they returned to their customary occupations. A quarter of an
hour later, there was no such place in the world as Uxbridge.

I followed the main road through the village which I have since
identified as Hillingdon; then I diverged to the left, partly by roads
and partly by field paths of whose exact course I am still uncertain,
towards the hill at Harrow. When I reached the town, I did not strive
to rouse the people, partly because my past experience had taught me
the futility of the attempt, and partly because I rightly judged that
they were safe from the inundation; for as it never quite covered the
dome of St. Paul's, part of which still protrudes from the sea of
basalt, it did not reach the level of the northern heights of London.
I rode on through Harrow without one word to any body. I did not
desire to be stopped or harassed as an escaped lunatic.

From Harrow I made my way tortuously along the rising ground, by the
light of nature, through Wembley Park, to Willesden. At Willesden, for
the first time, I found to a certainty that London was threatened.
Great crowds of people in the profoundest excitement stood watching a
dense cloud of smoke and steam that spread rapidly over the direction
of Shepherd's Bush and Hammersmith. They were speculating as to its
meaning, but laughed incredulously when I told them what it portended.
A few minutes later, the smoke spread ominously towards Kensington and
Paddington. That settled my fate. It was clearly impossible to descend
into London; and indeed, the heat now began to be unendurable. It
drove us all back, almost physically. I thought I must abandon all
hope. I should never even know what had become of Ethel and the
children.

My first impulse was to lie down and await the fire-flood. Yet the
sense of the greatness of the catastrophe seemed somehow to blunt
one's own private grief. I was beside myself with fear for my
darlings; but I realized that I was but one among hundreds of
thousands of fathers in the same position. What was happening at that
moment in the great city of five million souls we did not know, we
shall never know; but we may conjecture that the end was mercifully
too swift to entail much needless suffering. All at once, a gleam of
hope struck me. It was my father's birthday. Was it not just possible
that Ethel might have taken the children up to Hampstead to wish their
grandpa many happy returns of the day? With a wild determination not
to give up all for lost, I turned my front wheel in the direction of
Hampstead Hill, still skirting the high ground as far as possible. My
heart was on fire within me. A restless anxiety urged me to ride my
hardest. As all along the route, I was still just a minute or two in
front of the catastrophe. People were beginning to be aware that
something was taking place; more than once as I passed they asked me
eagerly where the fire was. It was impossible for me to believe by
this time that they knew nothing of an event in whose midst I seemed
to have been living for months; how could I realize that all the
things which had happened since I started from Cookham Bridge so long
ago were really compressed into the space of a single morning?--nay,
more, of an hour and a half only?

As I approached Windmill Hill, a terrible sinking seized me. I seemed
to totter on the brink of a precipice. Could Ethel be safe? Should I
ever again see little Bertie and the baby? I pedalled on as if
automatically; for all life had gone out of me. I felt my hip-joint
moving dry in its socket. I held my breath; my heart stood still. It
was a ghastly moment.

At my father's door I drew up, and opened the garden gate. I hardly
dared to go in. Though each second was precious, I paused and
hesitated.

At last I turned the handle. I heard somebody within. My heart came up
in my mouth. It was little Bertie's voice: "Do it again, Granpa; do it
again; it amooses Bertie!"

I rushed into the room. "Bertie, Bertie!" I cried. "Is Mammy here?"

He flung himself upon me. "Mammy, Mammy, Daddy has comed home." I
burst into tears. "And Baby?" I asked, trembling.

"Baby and Ethel are here, George," my father answered, staring at me.
"Why, my boy, what's the matter?"

I flung myself into a chair and broke down. In that moment of relief,
I felt that London was lost, but I had saved my wife and children.

I did not wait for explanations. A crawling four-wheeler was loitering
by. I hailed it and hurried them in. My father wished to discuss the
matter, but I cut him short. I gave the driver three pounds--all the
gold I had with me. "Drive on!" I shouted, "drive on! Towards
Hatfield--anywhere!"

He drove as he was bid. We spent that night, while Hampstead flared
like a beacon, at an isolated farm-house on the high ground in
Hertfordshire. For, of course, though the flood did not reach so high,
it set fire to everything inflammable in its neighbourhood.

Next day, all the world knew the magnitude of the disaster. It can
only be summed up in five emphatic words: There was no more London.

I have one other observation alone to make. I noticed at the time how,
in my personal relief, I forgot for the moment that London was
perishing. I even forgot that my house and property had perished.
Exactly the opposite, it seemed to me, happened with most of those
survivors who lost wives and children in the eruption. They moved
about as in a dream, without a tear, without a complaint, helping
others to provide for the needs of the homeless and houseless. The
universality of the catastrophe made each man feel as though it were
selfishness to attach too great an importance at such a crisis to his
own personal losses. Nay, more; the burst of feverish activity and
nervous excitement, I might even say enjoyment, which followed the
horror, was traceable, I think, to this self-same cause. Even grave
citizens felt they must do their best to dispel the universal gloom;
and they plunged accordingly into around of dissipations which other
nations thought both unseemly and un-English. It was one way of
expressing the common emotion. We had all lost heart and we flocked to
the theatres to pluck up our courage. That, I believe, must be our
national answer to M. Zola's strictures on our untimely levity. "This
people," says the great French author, "which took its pleasures sadly
while it was rich and prosperous, begins to dance and sing above the
ashes of its capital--it makes merry by the open graves of its wives
and children. What an enigma! What a puzzle! What chance of an
OEdipus!"


THE END



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