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Title: The Four White Days
Author: Fred M. White
* A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook *
eBook No.: 0603541.txt
Language: English
Date first posted: July 2006
Date most recently updated: July 2006

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The Four White Days
Fred M. White


A Tale of London In the Grip of an Arctic Winter--Showing the Danger
Any Winter might Bring from Famine, Cold, and Fire.



I

THE editor of The Daily Chat wondered a little vaguely why he had come
down to the office at all. Here was the thermometer down to 110 with
every prospect of touching zero before daybreak, and you can't fill a
morning paper with weather reports. Besides, nothing was coming in
from the North of the Trent beyond the curt information that all
telegraphic and telephonic communication beyond was impossible. There
was a huge blizzard, a heavy fall of snow nipped hard by the terrific
frost and--silence.

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

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

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

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

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

"What have you struck, Gough?" the editor cried.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

II

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meanwhile the gripping frost never abated a jot. The thermometer stood
steadily at 150 below freezing even in the forenoon; the ordinary
tweed clothing of the average Briton was sorry stuff to keep out a
wind like that. But for the piercing draught the condition of things
might have been tolerable. London had experienced colder weather so
far as degrees went, but never anything that battered and gripped like
this. And still the fine white powder fell.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

III

The sight of a figure staggering up a snow drift to a bedroom window
in Keppel Street aroused no astonishment in the breast of a stolid
policeman. It was the only way of entry into some of the houses in
that locality. Yet a little further on the pavements were clear and
hard.

Besides, the figure was pounding on the window, and burglars don't
generally do that. Presently the sleeper within awoke. From the glow
of his oil stove he could see that it was past twelve.

"Something gone wrong at the office?" Fisher muttered. "Hang the
paper! Why bother about publishing Chat this weather?"

He rolled out of bed, and opened the window. A draught of icy air
caught his heart in a grip like death for the moment. Gough scrambled
into the room, and made haste to shut out the murderous air.

"Nearly five below zero," he said. "You must come down to the office,
Mr. Fisher."

Fisher lit the gas. Just for the moment he was lost in admiration of
Gough's figure. His head was muffled in a rag torn from an old
sealskin jacket. He was wrapped from 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 greasy inside, but it keeps that perishing cold out."

"I said I shouldn't come down to the office to-night," Fisher
muttered. "This is the only place where I can keep decently warm. A
good paper is no good to us--we shan'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 city gangs has
cornered the coal supply. There is about half a million tons in
London, but there is no prospect of more for days to come The whole
lot was bought up yesterday by a small syndicate, and the price to-
morrow is fixed at three pounds per ton--to begin with. Hampden is
furious."

Fisher shovelled his clothes on hastily. The journalistic instinct was
aroused.

At his door Fisher staggered back as the cold struck him. With two
overcoats, and a scarf round his head, the cold seemed to draw the
life out of him. A brilliant moon was shining in a sky like steel, the
air was filled with the fine frosty needles, a heavy hoar coated
Gough's fleecy breast. The gardens in Russell Square were one huge
mound, Southampton Row was one white pipe. It seemed to Gough and
Fisher that they had London to themselves.

They did not speak, speech was next to impossible. Fisher staggered
into his office and at length gasped for brandy. He declared that he
had no feeling whatever. His moustache hung painfully, as if two heavy
diamonds were dragging at the ends of it. The fine athletic figure of
John Hampden, M.P., raged up and down the office. Physical weakness or
suffering seemed to be strangers to him.

"I want you to rub it in thick," he shouted. "Make a picture of it in
to-morrow's Chat. It's exclusive information I am giving you. Properly
handled, there's enough coal in London to get over this crisis. If it
isn't properly handled, then some hundreds of families are going to
perish of cold and starvation. The State ought to have power to
commandeer these things in a crisis like this, and sell them at a fair
price--give them away if necessary. And now we have a handful of rich
men who mean to profit by a great public calamity. I mean Hayes and
Rhys-Smith and that lot. You've fallen foul of them before. I want you
to call upon the poorer classes not to stand this abominable outrage.
I want to go down to the House of Commons to-morrow afternoon with
some thousands of honest working-men behind me to demand that this
crime shall be stopped. No rioting, no violence, mind. The workman who
buys his coals by the hundredweight will be the worst off. If I have
my way, he won't suffer at all--he will just take what he wants."

Fisher's eves gleamed with the light of battle. He was warm now and
the liberal dose of brandy had done its work. Here was a good special
and a popular one to his hand. The calamity of the blizzard and the
snow and the frost was bad enough, but the calamity of a failing coal
supply would be hideous. Legally, there was no way of preventing those
City bandits from making the most of their booty. But if a few
thousand working-men in London made up their minds to have coal,
nothing could prevent them.

"I'll do my best," Fisher exclaimed. "I'll take my coat off to the
job--figuratively, of course. There ought to be an exciting afternoon
sitting of the House to-morrow. On the whole I'm glad that Gough
dragged me out."

The Chat was a little late to press, but seeing that anything like a
country edition was impossible, that made little difference Fisher and
Gough had made the most of their opportunity. The ears of Messrs.
Hayes Co. were likely to tingle over the Chat in the morning.

Fisher finished at length with a sigh of satisfaction. Huddled up in
his overcoat and scarf he descended to the street. The cold struck
more piercingly than ever. A belated policeman so starved as to be
almost bereft of his senses asked for brandy--anything to keep frozen
body and soul together. Gough, secure in his grotesque sheep skin, had
already disappeared down the street.

"Come in," Fisher gasped. "It's dreadful. I was going home, but upon
my word I dare not face it. I shall sleep by the side of my office
fire to-night."

The man in blue slowly thawed out. His teeth chattered, his face was
ghastly blue.

"An' I'll beg a shelter too, sir," he said. "I shall get kicked out of
the force. I shall lose my pension. But what's the good of a pension
to an officer what's picked up frozen in the Strand?"

"That's logic," Fisher said sleepily. "And as to burglars--"

"Burglars! A night like this! I wish that the streets of London were
always as safe. If I might be allowed to make up the fire, sir---"

But Fisher was already asleep ranged up close alongside the fender.

IV

The uneasy impression made by the Chat special was soon confirmed next
morning. No coal was available at the wharves under three shillings
per hundredweight. Some of the poorer classes bought at the price, but
the majority turned away, muttering of vengeance, and deeply
disappointed.

Whatever way they went the same story assailed them. The stereotyped
reply was given at King's Cross, Euston, St. Pancras and in the
Caledonian Road. The situation had suddenly grown dangerous and
critical. The sullen, grotesque stream flowed back westward with a
headway towards Trafalgar Square. A good many sheepskins were worn,
for Gough's idea had become popular.

In some mysterious way it got abroad that John Hampden was going to
address a mass meeting. By half past two Trafalgar Square and the
approaches thereto were packed.

It was a little later that Hampden appeared. There was very little
cheering or enthusiasm, for it was too cold. The crowd had no
disposition to riot, all they wanted was for the popular tribune to
show them some way of getting coal--their one great necessity--at a
reasonable price.

Hampden, too, was singularly quiet and restrained. There was none of
the wildness that usually accompanied his oratory. He counselled
quietness and prudence. He pledged the vast gathering that before
night he would show a way of getting the coal. All he required was a
vast orderly crowd outside St. Stephen's where he was going almost at
once to interrogate Ministers upon the present crisis. There was a
question on the paper of which he had given the President of the Board
of Trade private notice. If nothing came of that he would know how to
act.

There was little more, but that little to the point. An hour later a
dense mass of men had gathered about St. Stephen's. But the were grim
and silent and orderly.

For an ordinary afternoon sitting the House was exceeding full. As the
light fell on the square hard face of John Hampden a prosy bore
prating on some ubiquitous subject was howled down. A minute later and
Hampden rose.

He put his question clearly and to the point. Then he turned and faced
the modestly retiring forms of Mr. John Hayes and his colleague Rhys-
Smith, and for ten minutes they writhed under the lash of his bitter
invective. As far as he could gather from the very vague reply of the
Board of Trade representative, the Government were powerless to act in
the matter. A gang of financiers had deliberately chosen to put money
in their pockets out of the great misfortune that had befallen London.
Unless the new syndicate saw their way to bow to public opinion---

"It is a business transaction," Hayes stammered. "We shall not give
way. If the Government likes to make a grant to the poorer classes---"

A yell of anger drowned the sentence. All parts of the House took part
in the heated demonstration. The only two cool heads there were the
Speaker and John Hampden. The First Lord rose to throw oil on the
troubled waters.

"There is a way out of it," he said presently. "We can pass a short
bill giving Parliament powers to acquire all fuel and provisions for
the public welfare in the face of crises like these. It was done on
similar lines in the Dynamite Bill. In two days the bill would be in
the Statute Book---"

"And in the meantime the poorer classes will be frozen," Hampden
cried. "The Leader of the House has done his best, he will see that
the bill becomes law. After to-night the working-people in London will
be prepared to wait till the law gives them the power to draw their
supplies without fear of punishment. But you can't punish a crowd like
the one outside. I am going to show the world what a few thousands of
resolute men can accomplish. If the two honourable members opposite
are curious to see how it is done let them accompany me, and I will
offer them a personal guarantee of safety."

He flung his hand wide to the House; he quitted his place and strode
out. Hayes rose to speak, but nobody listened. The dramatic episode
was at an end, and Hampden had promised another. Within a few minutes
the House was empty. Outside was the dense mass of silent, patient,
shivering humanity.

"Wonderful man, Hampden," the First Lord whispered to the President of
the Board of Trade; "wonder what he's up to now. If those people
yonder only knew their power! I should have more leisure then."

V

Outside the House a great crowd of men, silent, grim, and determined,
waited for Hampden. A deep murmur floated over the mass as those in
front read from Hampden's face that he had failed so far as his
diplomacy was concerned.

His obstinate jaw was firmer, if possible, there was a gleam in his
deep-set eyes. So the greedy capitalists were going to have their
pound of flesh, they were not ashamed to grow fat on public
misfortune.

Hampden stood there by the railings of Palace Yard and explained
everything in a short, curt speech.

Only those who were in need of coal were present. But there would be
others to-morrow and the next day and so on. Then let them go and take
it. The thing must be done in a perfectly orderly fashion. There were
huge supplies at King's Cross, Euston, St. Pancras, in Caledonian
Road, amply sufficient to give a couple or so of hundredweight per
head and leave plenty over for the needs of others. Let them go and
take it. Let each man insist upon leaving behind him a voucher
admitting that he had taken away so much, or, if he had the money, put
it down there and then at the usual winter's rate per hundredweight.
The method would be of the rough rule of thumb kind, but it would be a
guarantee of honesty and respectability. There were but few military
in London, and against a force like that the police would be perfectly
powerless. It was to be a bloodless revolution and a vindication of
the rights of men.

A constable stepped forward and touched Hampden on the shoulder. Most
of those near at hand knew what had happened. Hampden had been
arrested for inciting the mob to an illegal act. He smiled grimly.
After all, the law had to be respected. With not the slightest sign of
hostility the great mass of people began to pass away. With one accord
they turned their faces to the North. The North--Western district was
to be invaded.

"Case for bail, I suppose?" Hampden asked curtly.

"Under certain conditions, sir," the inspector said. "I shall have
formally to charge you, and you will have to promise to take no
further part in this matter."

Hampden promised that readily enough. He had done his part of the work
so that the rest did not signify. He was looking tired and haggard
now, as well he might, seeing that he had been sitting up all night
with some scores of labour representatives planning this thing out. He
made a remark about it to Fisher who was standing by, mentally
photographing the great event.

Then he fastened upon Hampden eagerly, "I want all the details," he
said. "I wasn't so foolish as to regard this thing as quite
spontaneous. You must have worked like a horse."

"So we have," Hampden admitted. "Fact is, perils that might beset
Londoners have long been a favourite speculative study of mine. And
when a thing like this--be it famine, flood, or an Arctic winter--
comes we are certain to be the mark of the greedy capitalist. And I
knew that the Government would be powerless. Fuel, or the want of it,
was one of the very early ideas that occurred to me. I found out
where--the big supplies were kept, and pretty well what the normal
stock is. I pigeon-holed those figures. You can imagine how useful
they were last night. There are some two hundred officials of Trades
Unions with yonder orderly mob, and every one of them knows exactly
where to go. There will be very little crowding or rioting or
confusion. And before dark everybody will have his coal."

Fisher followed with the deepest interest.

"Then you are going to leave the rest to your lieutenants?" he asked.

"I'm bound to. In a few minutes I shall be on my way to Bow Street.
Inciting to robbery, you know. No, there is no occasion to trouble--a
hundred men here will be willing to go bail for me. If I were you I
should have been somewhere in the neighbourhood of King's Cross by
this time."

Fisher nodded and winked as he drew his sheepskin about him. He wore a
pair of grotesque old cavalry boots, the tops of which were stuffed
with cotton wool. A large woollen hood, such as old Highland women
wear, covered his head and ears. There were many legislators similarly
attired, but nobody laughed and nobody seemed to be in the least alive
to the humours of the situation.

"Come along," Fisher said to Gough, who was trying to warm the end of
his nose with a large cigar. "Seems a pity to waste all this album of
copy upon a paper without any circulation."

"What would have a circulation in this frost?" Gough growled. "How
deserted the place is! Seems shuddering to think that a man might fall
down in Trafalgar Square in the broad daylight and die of exposure,
but there it is. Hang me if the solitude isn't getting on my nerves."

Gough shivered as he pulled his sheepskin closer around him.

"This is getting a nightmare," he said. "We shall find ourselves
dodging Polar bears presently. It isn't gregarious enough for me.
Let's get along in the direction where Hampden's friends are."

VI

Meanwhile the vast mob of London's workers was steadily pressing
north. There were hundreds of carts without wheels, which necessarily
hampered the rate of progression, but would save time in the long run,
for there were any number up to a dozen with each conveyance, seeing
that various neighbours were working upon the co-operation system.

Gradually the force began to break and turn in certain directions. It
became like an army marching upon given points by a score or more of
avenues. It was pretty well known that there were a couple of hundred
men amongst the multitude who knew exactly where to go and who had
instructions as to certain grimy goals.

They were breaking away in all directions now, quiet, steady, and
determined, covering a wide area from Caledonian Road to Euston, and
from Finsbury Park to King's Cross. They were so quiet and orderly
that only the crunch of the snow and the sound of heavy breathing
could be heard.

Near Euston Station the first sign of resistance was encountered. A
force of eighty police barred the way. The mob closed in. There was no
hot blood, no more than grim determination with a dash of sardonic
humour in it. A head or two was broken by the thrashing staves, but
the odds were too great. In five minutes the whole posse of constables
was disarmed, made secure by their own handcuffs and taken along as
honoured prisoners of war. Perhaps their sympathies were with the mob,
for they made nothing like so fine a fight of it as is usually the
case.

Up by King's Cross Station a still larger force of police had massed,
and here there was some considerable amount of bloodshed. But there
were thousands of men within easy distance of the fray, and the white
silence of the place became black with swaying figures and the noise
of turmoil carried far. Finally the police were beaten back, squeezed
in between two vastly superior forces and surrendered at discretion.

The victory was easier than it seemed, for obviously the constables
had no heart for the work before them. Not a few of them were thinking
of their own firesides, and that they would be better off in the ranks
of their antagonists.

Meanwhile, many of the local municipalities were being urged to call
out the military. With one accord they declined to do anything of the
kind. It was the psychological moment when one touch of nature makes
the whole world akin. In the House of Commons, to the agonised appeal
of Hayes and his partner, the Secretary for War coldly preferred to be
unable to interfere unless the Mayor of this or that borough applied
for assistance after reading the Riot Act. The matter was in the hands
of the police, who would know how to act upon an emergency.

Hustled and bustled and pushed good-naturedly, Fisher and his
colleague found themselves at length beyond a pair of huge gates that
opened into a yard just beyond Euston Station. There was a large
square area and beyond three small mountains of coal, all carefully
stacked in the usual way. Before the welcome sight the stolid
demeanour of the two thousand men who had raided the yard fairly broke
down. They threw up their hands and laughed and cheered. They stormed
the office of the big coal company, who were ostensible owners of all
that black wealth, and dragged the clerks into the yard. From behind
came the crash and rattle of the wheel-less carts as they were dragged
forward.

"No cause to be frightened," the man in command explained. "We're here
to buy that coal, one or two or three hundredweight each, as the case
may be, and you can have your money in cash or vouchers, as you
please. But we're going to have the stuff and don't you forget it. You
just stand by the gates and check us out. You'll have to guess a bit,
but that won't be any loss to you. And the price is eighteen pence a
hundredweight."

The three clerks grinned uneasily. At the same moment the same strange
scene was being enacted in over a hundred other coalyards. Three or
four hundred men were already swarming over the big mound, there was a
crash and a rattle as the huge blocks fell, the air was filled with a
grimy, gritty black powder, every face was soon black with it.

Very soon there was a steady stream away from the radius of the coal
stacks. A big stream of coal carts went crunching over the hard,
frozen snow pulled by one or two or three men according to the load,
or how many had co-operated, and as they went along they sang and
shouted in their victory. It was disorderly, it was wrong, it was a
direct violation of the law, but man makes laws for man.

Gough and Fisher, passing down parallel with Euston Road, presently
found themselves suddenly in the thick of an excited mob. The doors of
a wharf had been smashed in, but in the centre of the yard stood a
resolute knot of men who had affixed a hose pipe to one of the water
mains and defied the marauders with vigorous invective. Just for a
moment there was a pause. The idea of being drenched from head to foot
with a thermometer verging upon zero was appalling. These men would
have faced fire, but the other death, for death it would mean, was
terrible.

"Does that chap want to get murdered?" Fisher exclaimed. "If he does
that, they will tear him to pieces. I say, sir, are you mad?"

He pressed forward impulsively. Mistaking his intention, the man with
the hosepipe turned on the cock vigorously. A howl of rage followed.
But the dramatic touch was absent, not one spot of water came. A
sudden yell of laughter arose in time to save the life of the amateur
fireman.

"The water is frozen in the mains," a voice cried.

It was even as the voice said. In a flash everything became
commonplace again. Fisher was very grave as he walked away.

"This is a calamity in itself," he said. "The water frozen in the
mains! By this time to-morrow there won't be a single drop available."

VII

Inside the House a hot debate was in progress on the following day.
Martial law for London had been suggested. It was a chance for the
handful of cranks and faddists not to be neglected. It was an
interference with the liberty of the subject and all the rest of it.
The debate was still on at ten o'clock when Fisher came back languidly
to the Press gallery. At eleven one of the champion bores was still
speaking. Suddenly an electric thrill ran through the House.

The dreary orator paused--perhaps he was getting a little tired of
himself. Something dramatic had happened. There was the curious tense
atmosphere that causes a tightening of the chest and a gripping of the
throat before actual knowledge comes. Heedless of all decorum, a
member stood behind the Speaker's chair, and called aloud:

"The Hotel Cecil is on fire!" he yelled. "The place is well a-blaze!"

Fisher darted from the gallery into the yard. Even the prosy
Demosthenes collapsed in the midst of his oration, and hurried out of
the House. There was no occasion to tell anybody what the magnitude of
the disaster meant. Everybody knew that in the face of such a disaster
the fire brigade would be useless.

In the Strand and along the approaches thereto, along the Embankment
and upon the bridges, a dense mass of humanity had gathered. They were
muffled in all sorts of strange and grotesque garments, but they did
not seem to heed the piercing cold.

In the Strand it was as light as day. A huge column of red and white
flame shot far into the sky, the steady roar of the blaze was like
surf on a stony beach. There was a constant crackle like musketry
fire.

The magnificent hotel, one of the boldest and most prominent features
of the Strand and the Thames Embankment, was absolutely doomed. Now
and then the great showers of falling sparks would flutter and catch
some adjacent woodwork but all the roofs around were covered with
firemen who beat out the flames at once. Tons of snow were conveyed up
the fire escapes and by means of hastily rigged up pullies, so that
gradually the adjacent buildings became moist and cool. But for this
merciful presence of the snow, the south side of the Strand from
Wellington Street to Charing Cross might have passed into history.

As it was now, unless something utterly unforeseen occurred, the great
calamity had been averted. There was still much for the firemen to do.

"Let's get back to the office," Fisher said, with chattering teeth. "I
would sell my kingdom for a little hot brandy. I hope the next
blizzard we get we shall be more prepared for. I suppose that out in
the States they would make nothing of this. And we haven't got a
single snow plough worthy of the name this side of Edinburgh."

"We are ready for nothing," Gough grumbled. "If there had been a wind
to-night, nothing could have saved the Strand. The disaster may occur
again; indeed, there is certain to be a fire, half-a-dozen fires,
before daybreak. Given a good stiff breeze and where would London be?
It makes one giddy to think of it."

Gough said nothing. It was too cold even to think. Gradually the two
of them thawed out before the office fire. A languid sub came in with
a pile of flimsies. Quite as languidly Gough turned them over. His
eyes gleamed.

"My word," he gasped. "I hope this is true. They've had two days'
deluge in New York. We are to keep our eyes open for strong Westerly
gales with a deep depression--"

For the next two hours Fisher bent over his desk. The room seemed
warmer. Perhaps it was the brandy. He took off his sheepskin and then
his overcoat below. Presently a little bead of moisture grew on his
forehead. He drew a little further from the fire. He felt stifling and
faint, a desire for air came over him.

A little doubtful of his own condition he almost shamefacedly opened
the window. The air was cold and fresh and revived him, but it was not
the steely, polished, murderous air of the last few days. Somebody
passing over the snow below slipped along with a peculiar soaking
soddened sound.

Fisher craned his head out of the window. Something moist fell on the
nape of his neck. He yelled for Gough almost hysterically. Gough also
was devoid of his overcoat.

"I thought it was fancy," he said unsteadily.

Fisher answered nothing. The strain was released, he breathed freely.
And outside the whole, white, silent world was dripping, dripping,
dripping---



THE END



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