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Title: The Sodium Lines (The Day the World Stopped)
Author: Edgar Wallace
* A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook *
eBook No.: 1306051h.html
Language: English
Date first posted:  Nov 2013
Most recent update: Nov 2013

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The Sodium Lines
(The Day the World Stopped)


Edgar Wallace

Cover Image

First published The Lyons Mail, December 1923
Reprinted as "The Day the World Stopped" in
The Death Room, William Kimber & Co. Ltd., London, 1986


The Lyons Mail was the in-house magazine of of the now defunct J. Lyons & Co., a British restaurant-chain, food-manufacturing, and hotel conglomerate founded in 1887 as a spin-off from the Salmon & Gluckstein tobacco company. Edgar Wallace wrote several stories for this magazine. Copies of most issues of The Lyons Mail are stored at the London Metropolitan Archives, 40 Northampton Road, London. EC1R 0HB. A few sample covers can be viewed at the web site

MR HERBERT FALLOWILL made his final entry on a square card almost covered with his neat and microscopic writing, took up the dead end of his cigar from the edge of the ash-tray and lit it. He was a square-built man, clean-shaven, except for a fiery moustache, and his reddish hair ran back from a forehead that was high and bald.

'You leave for Queenstown to-night?' he said, and the thin-lipped woman who bore his name nodded.

'The passports?'

'Yours is in the name of "Clancy",' he said. 'Mine is fixed. I shall leave as arranged by the Aquitania. You'll meet me at the apartment on 44th Street—I shall be there at eleven-fifteen. This is the time-table—'

He fixed a pair of pince-nez on his thick nose and consulted the card.

'At nine o'clock Dorford will give me the cheque; at nine- thirty it will be cashed, and I shall move to Southampton—quick! I have relay cars waiting at Guildford and Winchester. The Aquitania leaves dock at twelve-thirty—I shall make it, with time to spare. The old man will not expect to see me again on the Saturday or Sunday because I've told him I'm going away. Monday is a holiday and the banks are closed. The earliest he can discover anything is by Tuesday morning.'

She took out the cigarette she was smoking and blew a cloud to the ceiling.

'That old man is certainly dippy!' she said, shaking her head.

Mr Fallowill smiled indulgently.

'There never was a pure scientist that wasn't,' he said. 'Only so very few of 'em have the stuff.'

Professor Dorford had no illusions about himself. Business of all kinds worried him, and he accounted himself fortunate that, after a succession of incompetents, heaven had sent him a most capable middle-aged secretary, who combined an exceptional knowledge of finance with a capacity for knowing just what the Professor would say in answer to people who pester a rich man with requests for subscriptions or charitable assistance.

He would have gone farther and favoured his secretary with a power of attorney which would enable him to draw small cheques for the tradespeople, but here Gwenn Dorford, a nineteen-year-old graduate, put her small foot down very firmly.

'My dear lamb!' she said, and when the Professor was addressed as a dear lamb in that tone of voice, he invariably shivered.

'Fallowill is a most excellent man,' he protested feebly.

'I don't like Mr Fallowill, and I loathe his wife,' said Gwenn, 'but I realize that I may be prejudiced—and, after all, a woman can be a good wife and still be a cat to everybody else. Mr Spooner, the bank manager, says—'

'Spooner is an interfering jackanapes,' said the Professor testily. 'I am seriously thinking of taking my account away from the Gresham Bank. To—er—impugn Fallowill's—er—honour is monstrous! He had letters from eminent people in Australia and the United States.'

Nobody knew better than Gwenn Dorford that her father had not verified these excellent references, but she did not press the matter to an argument.

She did, however, tell Johnny Brest for the fortieth time, and for the fortieth time Johnny sympathised with her. But then, Johnny would. He was tactful, as became an officer in the Public Prosecutor's department and a lawyer at that; he was sympathetic, because—Gwenn was very pretty and he carried her portrait in his cigarette case.

'He may be all right,' he said. 'I went over to New Scotland yard and tried to find out whether anything was known about him—he is quite a stranger to police headquarters.'

'I don't wish him to become acquainted through us,' she said firmly. 'He may be the nicest man in the world, but the way daddy trusts him makes my hair stand up! And now, Johnny, you can take me a long drive in your pot boiler.'

Johnny Brest was the owner of a steam car, because that was the only kind of car he could afford to buy. Not that such machines are cheap. They were certainly rare in England—so rare that, when one was offered for sale by auction, Johnny, who had drifted into the rooms out of curiosity, heard the car offered at so ridiculously low a figure that, in a moment of recklessness, he bid, and found himself the proprietor of a machine that nobody understood. It was only then that he discovered the secret of its propulsion.

Mr Fallowill watched the noiseless white car slip down the drive and disappear from view, as he had watched it scores of times. He felt easier in his mind when the antagonistic daughter of his employer was away from the house, and more especially was he relieved that afternoon.

Returning to his desk, he cleared off his correspondence and went in search of Professor Dorford. The Professor looked up as his secretary entered. He was a grey, bent man with a vague manner and a trick of ignoring the immediate. Fallowill said of him, with truth, that he lived from three days to ten years behind his time, and certainly it was the fact that most days were gone before John Dorford was aware that they had arrived.

'Ah, Fallowill! Come in, come in, please. Will you get on to Sir Roland Field—Cambridge 99 or 999—or perhaps it is some other number—'

'Cambridge 9714,' said the secretary.

'Of course! I was sure you would remember. Will you be so good as to ask him if I am—er—mad in supposing that the sodium lines disappeared from the spectrum this morning? It is an extraordinary fact, my dear Fallowill, that when I was making a very superficial examination of the sun's spectrum, those lines appeared and disappeared, and finally vanished altogether for the space of twelve minutes!'

Fallowill inclined his head and adopted the requisite expression of amazement. The peculiarities of the sun's spectrum meant nothing to him. Inwardly he cursed his employer's dislike of the telephone, for he knew his own limitations, and a scientific discussion on a long-distance wire was beyond him.

'Certainly, sir. Did you think any more about the matter I mentioned to you?'

The Professor scratched his head in perplexity.

'The matter—now what was that, Fallowill?'

'The question of transferring your balance to the Wales and Western bank.'

Professor Dorford sighed—he always sighed when money was a subject of discussion.

'Yes, yes, of course, Fallowill. I quite agree, and I shall certainly act on your advice. I will make the transfer—when?'

'Saturday is the end of the month!' suggested Fallowill.

Even Gwenn paid a grudging acknowledgement to Mr Fallowill's financial genius, and justly so. For, in various names and in divers countries, he had so manipulated the finances of confiding investors that it had been necessary from time to time to make startling changes in his appearance. And now he had rendered the Professor an immense service. Foreseeing the industrial slump, he had induced his employer to turn all but his government stock into money.

'Saturday? Yes,' said the Professor. 'When is Saturday?'

'To-morrow,' replied the other. 'Brighton Rails are down to three. We got out of those in time! I was calculating to-day that, if you hadn't started selling when I suggested, you would have been eight thousand to the bad. You can't make a mistake by holding the cash instead. Short term loans pay very little interest, but you have the money to jump into the market when it strikes bottom.'

'Exactly,' murmured Mr Dorford agreeably. 'I'm greatly obliged to you, Fallowill. And now will you get Sir Roland?'

Waiting for the call to come through, the sturdy secretary marshalled his knowledge of the spectrum. He knew that when the rays of the sun passed through a prism it threw bands of variegated light on a screen. He knew that there was a more complicated apparatus which showed in the rainbow hue bright and dark lines which indicated the presence in the sun of certain elements. To keep pace with his employer's requirements, he had struggled through various text-books on the subject, and knew, therefore, that sodium was one of the more important of the solar elements.

It was some time before he got his call through to Sir Roland, and that aged gentleman, who shared his fellow scientist's dislike of the telephone, was in his most irritable mood.

'What's that? Sodium—who wants sodium? Is it Dorford himself? What do you want, my good fellow?'

'The Professor wishes to know if you have observed the absence of sodium lines in the spectrum,' said the patient Fallowill.

'No, I haven't,' snapped the other. 'Nor has he! You've made a mistake. Get back and tell him to write!'

Crash! went the telephone receiver, and Fallowill went back to his employer to report the result of the conversation. Professor Dorford rubbed his chin nervously.

'Perhaps I was wrong,' he said. 'It may have been some trick of eyesight, but certainly the sodium lines disappeared at eleven-sixteen this morning.'

'Remarkable, sir,' said Fallowill politely.

He lived in West Kensington, and travelled home by tube. His mind was so occupied with the possibilities which to-morrow held that, although he read his evening newspaper, he did not comprehend a single word until his eye was held by a headline: 'Extraordinary Traffic Block.' And then the figures '11.15' arrested him.

At 11.15 this morning a most extraordinary traffic block occurred in the heart of the City. By an amazing coincidence, three motor-buses stopped of their own accord in the narrowest part of Cheapside, and could not be moved for a quarter of an hour. As it was the rush hour, the street was soon filled with stationary cars. This in itself might not have been remarkable, but the same phenomenon was witnessed in the Strand, on Ludgate Hill and in other parts of the City.

He was waiting on the platform for the car to slow into South Kensington Station when the conductor, whom he knew by sight, looked at the paper he was carrying.

`Queer thing, that traffic stoppage,' he said. 'It happened down here.'

'On the tubes?' asked Fallowill in surprise, and the man nodded.

'Yes, we slowed down and all the lights went out. Somebody told me that it was a magnetic storm. I know the telegraph lines weren't working.'

'Queer,' agreed Fallowill, and went home to help his wife pack.

* * * * *

GWENN DORFORD did not as a rule see her father before the lunch hour. He was an early riser, and usually closeted himself in his study until midday, and it was a rule of the establishment that he should not be interrupted. She was passing his room an hour before lunch and, seeing the door open, looked in. The Professor was standing at the window, his hands in his pockets, staring moodily into the sunlit street.

'Good morning, daddy. Aren't you working?'

He looked round with a start.

'No, no, my dear,' he said a little nervously. 'I'm—er—not working. I'm going out. Who is that?' He stared past her. 'Oh, it is you, Johnny—Come in, come in. Are you staying to lunch?'

'I'm taking Gwenn to Hampton Court,' said Johnny Brest.

'So you are! Of course, I remember.'

Dorford looked at his watch, and for some remarkable reason the girl felt a little twinge of alarm.

'Where is Mr Fallowill?' she asked.

'Gone to the bank,' said the Professor a little huskily. 'And, Gwenn, the sodium lines are gone again. Remarkable! Sodium has disappeared from the sun!'

'Why has Mr Fallowill gone to the bank?' she asked, not interested for the moment in sodium and its eccentricities.

The Professor looked appealingly to the young man.

'I think I have been rather a fool, Gwenn. It is extraordinary that I should think so, but I do. Though I'm sure Fallowill is as honest as the day, but—'

'What have you done?' she asked quickly.

'I've given him—er—a cheque for eighty-four thousand pounds—he is transferring my account,' said the Professor, and the hand that went up to his mouth was shaking. 'You see, I have a whole lot of fluid capital, and Fallowill thought that it would be better in another bank.'

She gasped.

'You've given him the cheque? But will Mr Spooner pay?'

'I wrote a letter also. Spooner telephoned up to ask if it was all right, and I said yes.'

'To what bank was it to be paid, Mr Dorford?'

'The Wales and Western.'

'We can easily find out,' said Johnny, and took up the telephone. He jerked the hook for a long rime, and then: 'Your phone is out of order.'

'I know.' The Professor nodded. 'I tried to get the bank five minutes ago.'

He was still looking out of the window, his mind apparently concentrated on the fruitless efforts of a chauffeur to start a car on the opposite side of the road.

'That is strange,' he said.

'But, father, why don't you drive round to the bank and ask?'

'I thought of doing that,' he said. 'In fact, I've sent Mary to get a taxi, and here she is.'

A hot and flustered housemaid appeared in the doorway.

'None of the taxis are going, sir,' she gasped.

'Going? What do you mean?'

'The street's full of cabs and cars and they're all standing still! They can't move them, sir. And if you please, sir, none of the telephones are working... a man told me the electric lights have gone too...'

* * * * *

WITH a large wad of American bills in his inside pocket, Mr Fallowill moved out of town, exercising that caution which experience had taught him was profitable. An annoyed traffic policeman might make all the difference between the success and failure of his scheme. Once beyond Barnes and out of Kingston, he stepped on the accelerator and the big car roared along the Portsmouth road at sixty miles an hour. Beyond Cobham there was a hill to negotiate, and, reaching the crest, he turned the car at full speed down the steep slope.

And then he heard something and frowned. The engine had stopped, and the car was running downhill under its own weight and impetus. If he had any doubt, it was settled when he came to the foot of the slope. A slight rise a hundred yards along slowed the car, and he had to put on the brakes to prevent the machine from running backwards. Fortunately, there was a wayside inn within a hundred yards, and, after making an ineffectual effort to restart the machine, he walked to the hostel.

To his relief, he saw a telephone wire connecting the house with the main lines.

'I want to telephone to Guildford—' he began.

The landlord shook his head.

'The 'phone is out of order,' he said. 'At least, it was a minute or two ago when I tried to get a call through to Esher.'

Fallowill's heart sank.

'Where is the nearest?' he asked.

'There isn't one within six miles,' said the landlord. 'What is the matter?'

'My car has broken down, and it is absolutely necessary that I should be in Southampton in two hours,' said Fallowill.

He was desperate, but he must risk giving a clue to the police that would lead them eventually to Southampton. Then, to his relief:

'I have an old flivver here that'll run you into Guildford. You will be able to hire a car from there,' said the landlord, and Fallowill could have fallen on his neck. At Guildford the relief car was waiting, thanks to his foresight.

He followed his host out into the yard, where a dilapidated machine stood underneath a shed, and together they pushed the car into the stable yard, whilst a hastily summoned youth struggled into his coat.

'Take this gentleman to Guildford. Where did you leave your machine, sir?'

'At the bottom of the hill.'

'I'll have it brought up,' said the landlord. 'You can call for it on your way back.'

The youth dropped into the driver's seat and Fallowill followed.

'I can't get her to start!' said the surprised chauffeur a few minutes later.

Neither self-starter nor handle had the slightest effect, and after a quarter of an hour Fallowill, white-faced and shaken, stepped to the ground.

* * * * *

MANY strange things happened that day. The streets and roads of England were littered with useless motor-cars. Every electric train, above and below ground, had come to a standstill, and from the black tunnels of darkened tube stations poured processions of frightened passengers.

Johnny Brest drove his steam car along Whitehall. The sight was amazing. Motor-cars, motor-buses, great lorries, tiny motor-cycles, stood derelict, and the pavements were crowded with their passengers.

Nowhere was there a telephone or telegraph working, he learnt from the technical expert, who, with the police chiefs, had been summoned to a conference at the Home Office.

And then Johnny saw on his chief's table a big magnet, and wondered who had brought it there.

'Look at this!' said the chief, and, picking up the magnet, held it against a little desk-knife.

'What is the matter?' asked Johnny in perplexity. 'It doesn't seem to be attracting the steel.'

'It has lost its properties, for some extraordinary reason,' said the chief. 'That is why the streets are filled with standing cars. Every piece of metal in the world has become demagnetized!'

For a long time the young man could not grasp the significance of this simple statement.

'We have had electric storms before,' said the technical expert. 'Storms which, for some reason or other, have disorganised telegraphic communication. But this is something worse. Electricity, as created and applied by man for his service, has ceased to exist. Communication throughout the country has practically stopped.'

'But the railways are working.'

The other smiled.

'They are certainly working,' he said drily. 'Trains are being flagged from station to station, and since the telegraph service is out of order, trains will be restricted to two or three a day on the main lines until we can organise some method of signalling by semaphore. There isn't an aeroplane in the sky—the London-Paris service went out of action at ten- forty- five, and we can only hope that the London-Paris machines got down without mishap—there is no means of knowing.'

Later, they were to learn that ships were feeling their way into port, their compasses having ceased to function. Even the gyroscope compass, which depended upon a little electric motor, was valueless under the new and strange conditions.

On the Sunday the Cabinet, which had dispersed for the week- end, reached town, the Premier coming down from Yorkshire by a special train, which took twenty-six hours to do the journey. The Home Secretary, more fortunately placed, came up from Devizes on a steam trolley.

No newspapers appeared on the Sunday—everybody depended upon electric current for its motive power, and the great power works were out of action. Only the streets which were lit by gas had any illumination. On the Monday morning a steam-driven press issued the momentous tidings.

The scientists have discovered that an extraordinary revolution is taking place in the sun. The sodium lines have disappeared from the spectrum, and it is an astonishing fact that, for some reason which cannot be understood by the cleverest brains in the world, sodium has been absorbed by some other element, the sun's spectrum revealing amazing chemical changes in the sun's composition. A limited mail service will be carried on by steam tractors, and the Minister of Transport is mobilising all the horses in the country to augment the main railroads, and every effort is being made to secure the food supply. The country must, however, reconcile itself to the possibility that what we know and call electricity, as applied to the service of mankind, may never return to use during the lifetime of the present generation. Fortunately, very few of our collieries are equipped for electric hauling, and all, with the exception of a dozen, are working at full speed to cope with the increased demands of the gas plants.

On the Monday, when the Stock Exchange was opened, scenes of the wildest excitement were witnessed. The oil market suffered the most extraordinary collapse in its history, despite the warnings which were displayed, that all heavy locomotion was practically unaffected by the sun's eccentricity. Rail shares jumped on the rumour that a new method of light signalling had been successfully adopted on the Western region. But the most sensational advance of all was in the gas market. Here stocks soared to undreamt-of prices.

It was humanly impossible to learn what was happening in other parts of the globe. Cable and radio communication were suspended.

* * * * *

PROFESSOR DORFORD was a beggar. Before him stretched such a vista as would have reduced an ordinary man to despair, but in the new world problem his own personal misfortune was so insignificant that it was lost to sight.

On the fourth night of the solar disaster, Johnny Brest called to give the latest news.

'Fallowill is still in the country,' he said. 'A car was stranded on the Portsmouth Road, near the Red Lion, on the day the juice went west, and the landlord identified the man—luckily, I stopped at the inn to get water for my magnificent machine—I was offered a thousand pounds for it to-day, by the way.'

'You think he will be found?' asked the girl quickly.

'Certain—he is hiding in the neighbourhood of Guildford. I suppose it will make a big difference to the Professor if the money cannot be recovered?'

She nodded.

'At present he is so absorbed in that wretched sodium that he doesn't realise that he is ruined,' she said. 'Listen!'

From the study came the sound of a booming voice.

`Sir Roland Field,' she said. He came—don't laugh, Johnny—by steam-roller! There are no trains from Cambridge.'

'There is no doubt,' Professor Dorford was saying at that moment with some satisfaction, 'that the only places unaffected by this solar disturbance are the wild villages of Africa.'

'But why sodium?' boomed Sir Roland.

He was an irascible old man, who regarded this phenomenon of nature as a direct affront to himself.

'Why sodium, my good friend? If the iron had gone from the sun, or the magnesium, or any other infernal element, I could understand, but why sodium? What the devil has sodium got to do with electrical energy?'

'I don't know,' admitted Dorford.

'Of course you don't know!' roared the old gentleman. 'It's an absurdity! There isn't a scientist in the world who will not tell you that it is an absurdity! Now, if it were iron or nickel...'

'Is it not possible,' interrupted Professor Dorford, 'that the disappearance of sodium brought about through, let us say, such a chemical conversion as we see every day in our laboratories, may have—'

'No, sir, it isn't possible!' bellowed Sir Roland.

Johnny listened and grinned. He was a busy man. His steam car was one of the most popular means of locomotion in the country. Attached by his chief to the Intelligence Department of the War Office—for the troops were under arms everywhere, guarding the food markets, and augmenting the police, on whom the darkened towns of England threw an additional burden—he had little leisure.

The next day he was on his way to Winchester with despatches to the officer commanding the troops. It was a glorious afternoon, and, peering up at the unclouded brilliance of the sun, he found it hard to believe that that bright friend of the world had played so low a trick upon humanity.

Eight miles from Winchester he saw the gleam of a little river on his right and a huddle of squat factory buildings, and wondered who had laid down an industrial plant in the heart of the smiling countryside. And then he saw a figure walking in the shade of a hedge. It might have been a tramp, so dusty and begrimed was Mr Fallowill, for the fear of detection had kept him to the woods and the hedges.

As he had realised the immense advantages which the failure of the telegraph and mechanical propulsion gave to him, he had grown bolder. No message could warn the police of the towns through which he passed, no swift cars could overtake him. His wife, he guessed, was on the seas and safe; he himself was sufficiently ingenious to devise methods of escape. He touched the pad of crisp papers in his breast pocket and smiled.

And then he heard the soft purr of the steam car and whipped round. As Johnny jumped to the ground, the man turned and, leaping a hedge, ran across the fields toward the little river.

Instantly John Brest was in pursuit. He was younger, more athletic, but the man out-distanced him rapidly. Fallowill reached the river's edge and looked round for some method of crossing. He could not swim, and there was no boat. Hesitating, he looked around. A few hundred yards along the river was some sort of factory building, and, crossing the stream a little way down, was a thick cable supported on either bank by iron trestles.

Darting along the tow-path he gained the first support, climbed, and, catching the cable, went hand over hand across the river.

By the time the pursuer reached the trestle, Fallowill was across. Johnny watched him; saw him reach out his hand to grip the second trestle.

There was no scream, no sound, only a flicker of white light, and Fallowill dropped to the ground a bundle of smoking clothes.

When John Brest, swimming the stream, came up to him, he was dead, and the packet of notes in his pocket was singed brown. For he had crossed by a power cable at the very moment that scientists the world over saw the sodium lines come back to the spectrum of the sun.


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