Jack Morris went to look for work at the Red Lion. There he met that genial comrade, Joe Hollends, who had been reformed, and who had backslid twice since Jack had foregathered with him before. It is but fair to Joe to admit that he had never been optimistic about his own reclamation, but being an obliging man, even when he was sober, he was willing to give the Social League every chance. Jack was deeply grieved at the death of his son, although he had said no word to his wife that would show it. It therefore took more liquor than usual to bring him up to the point of good comradeship that reigned at the Red Lion. When he and Joe left the tavern that night it would have taken an expert to tell which was the more inebriated. They were both in good fighting trim, and were both in the humor for a row. The police, who had reckoned on Joe alone, suddenly found a new element in the fight that not only upset their calculations but themselves as well. It was a glorious victory, and, as both fled down a side street, Morris urged Hollends to come along, for the representatives of law and order have the habit of getting reinforcements which often turn a victory into a most ignominious defeat.
"I can't," panted Hollends. "The beggars have hurt me."
"Come along. I know a place where we are safe."
Drunk as he was, Jack succeeded in finding the hole in the wall that allowed him to enter a vacant spot behind the box factory. There Hollends lay down with a groan, and there Morris sank beside him in a drunken sleep. The police were at last revenged, and finally.
When the grey daylight brought Morris to a dazed sense of where he was, he found his companion dead beside him. He had a vague fear that he would be tried for murder, but it was not so. From the moment that Hollends, in his fall, struck his head on the curb, the Providence which looks after the drunken deserted him.
But the inquest accomplished one good object. It attracted the attention of the Social League to Jack Morris, and they are now endeavoring to reclaim him.
Whether they succeed or not, he was a man that was certainly once worth saving.
THE TYPE-WRITTEN LETTER.
When a man has battled with poverty all his life, fearing it as he fought it, feeling for its skinny throat to throttle it, and yet dreading all the while the coming of the time when it would gain the mastery and throttle him—when such a man is told that he is rich, it might be imagined he would receive the announcement with hilarity. When Richard Denham realized that he was wealthy he became even more sobered than usual, and drew a long breath as if he had been running a race and had won it. The man who brought him the news had no idea he had told Denham anything novel.
He merely happened to say, "You are a rich man, Mr. Denham, and will never miss it."
Denham had never before been called a rich man, and up to that moment he had not thought of himself as wealthy. He wrote out the check asked of him, and his visitor departed gratefully, leaving the merchant with something to ponder over. He was as surprised with the suddenness of the thing as if someone had left him a legacy. Yet the money was all of his own accumulating, but his struggle had been so severe, and he had been so hopeless about it, that from mere habit he exerted all his energies long after the enemy was overcome—just as the troops at New Orleans fought a fierce battle not knowing that the war was over. He had sprung from such a hopelessly poor family. Poverty had been their inheritance from generation to generation. It was the invariable legacy that father had left to son in the Denham family. All had accepted their lot with uncomplaining resignation, until Richard resolved he would at least have a fight for it. And now the fight had been won. Denham sat in his office staring at the dingy wall-paper so long, that Rogers, the chief clerk, put his head in and said in a deferential voice:
"Anything more to-night, Mr. Denham?"
Denham started as if that question in that tone had not been asked him every night for years.
"What's that, what's that?" he cried.
Rogers was astonished, but too well trained to show it.
"Anything more to-night, Mr. Denham?"
"Ah, quite so. No, Rogers, thank you, nothing more."
"Good-night, Mr. Denham."
"Eh? Oh, yes. Good-night, Rogers, good-night."
When Mr. Denham left his office and went out into the street everything had an unusual appearance to him. He walked along, unheeding the direction. He looked at the fine residences and realized that he might have a fine residence if he wanted it. He saw handsome carriages; he too might set up an equipage. The satisfaction these thoughts produced was brief. Of what use would a fine house or an elegant carriage be to him? He knew no one to invite to the house or to ride with him in the carriage. He began to realize how utterly alone in the world he was. He had no friends, no acquaintances even. The running dog, with its nose to the ground, sees nothing of the surrounding scenery. He knew men in a business way, of course, and doubtless each of them had a home in the suburbs somewhere, but he could not take a business man by the shoulders and say to him, "Invite me to your house; I am lonely; I want to know people."
If he got such an invitation, he would not know what to do with himself. He was familiar with the counting-room and its language, but the drawing-room was an unexplored country to him, where an unknown tongue was spoken. On the road to wealth he had missed something, and it was now too late to go back for it. Only the day before, he had heard one of the clerks, who did not know he was within earshot, allude to him as "the old man." He felt as young as ever he did, but the phrase, so lightly spoken, made him catch his breath.
As he was now walking through the park, and away from the busy streets, he took off his hat and ran his fingers through his grizzled hair, looking at his hand when he had done so, as if the grey, like wet paint, might have come off. He thought of a girl he knew once, who perhaps would have married him if he had asked her, as he was tempted to do. But that had always been the mistake of the Denhams. They had all married young except himself, and so sunk deeper into the mire of poverty, pressed down by a rapidly-increasing progeny. The girl had married a baker, he remembered. Yes, that was a long time ago. The clerk was not far wrong when he called him an old man. Suddenly, another girl arose before his mental vision—a modern girl—very different indeed to the one who married the baker. She was the only woman in the world with whom he was on speaking terms, and he knew her merely because her light and nimble fingers played the business sonata of one note on his office typewriter. Miss Gale was pretty, of course— all typewriter girls are—and it was generally understood in the office that she belonged to a good family who had come down in the world. Her somewhat independent air deepened this conviction and kept the clerks at a distance. She was a sensible girl who realized that the typewriter paid better than the piano, and accordingly turned the expertness of her white fingers to the former instrument. Richard Denham sat down upon a park bench. "Why not?" he asked himself. There was no reason against it except that he felt he had not the courage. Nevertheless, he formed a desperate resolution.
Next day, business went on as usual. Letters were answered, and the time arrived when Miss Gale came in to see if he had any further commands that day. Denham hesitated. He felt vaguely that a business office was not the proper place for a proposal; yet he knew he would be at a disadvantage anywhere else. In the first place, he had no plausible excuse for calling upon the young woman at home, and, in the second place, he knew if he once got there he would be stricken dumb. It must either be at his office or nowhere.
"Sit down a moment, Miss Gale," he said at last; "I wanted to consult you about a matter—about a business matter."
Miss Gale seated herself, and automatically placed on her knee the shorthand writing-pad ready to take down his instructions. She looked up at him expectantly. Denham, in an embarrassed manner, ran his fingers through his hair.
"I am thinking," he began, "of taking a partner. The business is very prosperous now. In fact, it has been so for some time."
"Yes?" said Miss Gale interrogatively.
"Yes. I think I should have a partner. It is about that I wanted to speak to you."
"Don't you think it would be better to consult with Mr. Rogers? He knows more about business than I. But perhaps it is Mr. Rogers who is to be the partner?"
"No, it is not Rogers. Rogers is a good man. But—it is not Rogers."
"Then I think in an important matter like this Mr. Rogers, or someone who knows the business as thoroughly as he does, would be able to give you advice that would be of some value."
"I don't want advice exactly. I have made up my mind to have a partner, if the partner is willing."
Denham mopped his brow. It was going to be even more difficult than he had anticipated.
"Is it, then, a question of the capital the partner is to bring in?" asked Miss Gale, anxious to help him.
"No, no. I don't wish any capital. I have enough for both. And the business is very prosperous, Miss Gale—and—and has been."
The young woman raised her eyebrows in surprise.
"You surely don't intend to share the profits with a partner who brings no capital into the business?"
"Yes—yes, I do. You see, as I said, I have no need for more capital."
"Oh, if that is the case, I think you should consult Mr. Rogers before you commit yourself."
"But Rogers wouldn't understand."
"I'm afraid I don't understand either. It seems to me a foolish thing to do—that is, if you want my advice."
"Oh, yes, I want it. But it isn't as foolish as you think. I should have had a partner long ago. That is where I made the mistake. I've made up my mind on that."
"Then I don't see that I can be of any use—if your mind is already made up."
"Oh, yes, you can. I'm a little afraid that my offer may not be accepted."
"It is sure to be, if the man has any sense. No fear of such an offer being refused! Offers like that are not to be had every day. It will be accepted."
"Do you really think so, Miss Gale? I am glad that is your opinion. Now, what I wanted to consult you about, is the form of the offer. I would like to put it—well—delicately, you know, so that it would not be refused, nor give offence."
"I see. You want me to write a letter to him?"
"Exactly, exactly," cried Denham with some relief. He had not thought of sending a letter before. Now, he wondered why he had not thought of it. It was so evidently the best way out of a situation that was extremely disconcerting.
"Have you spoken to him about it?"
"To him? What him?"
"To your future partner, about the proposal?"
"No, no. Oh, no. That is—I have spoken to nobody but you."
"And you are determined not to speak to Mr. Rogers before you write?"
"Certainly not. It's none of Roger's business."
"Oh, very well," said Miss Gale shortly, bending over her writing-pad.
It was evident that her opinion of Denham's wisdom was steadily lowering. Suddenly, she looked up.
"How much shall I say the annual profits are? Or do you want that mentioned?"
"I—I don't think I would mention that. You see, I don't wish this arrangement to be carried out on a monetary basis—not altogether."
"On what basis then?"
"Well—I can hardly say. On a personal basis, perhaps. I rather hope that the person—that my partner—would, you know, like to be associated with me."
"On a friendly basis, do you mean?" asked Miss Gale, mercilessly.
"Certainly. Friendly, of course—and perhaps more than that."
Miss Gale looked up at him with a certain hopelessness of expression.
"Why not write a note inviting your future partner to call upon you here, or anywhere else that would be convenient, and then discuss the matter?"
Denham looked frightened.
"I thought of that, but it wouldn't do. No; it wouldn't do. I would much rather settle everything by correspondence."
"I am afraid I shall not be able to compose a letter that will suit you. There seem to be so many difficulties. It is very unusual."
"That is true, and that is why I knew no one but you could help me, Miss Gale. If it pleases you, it will please me."
Miss Gale shook her head, but, after a few moments, she said, "How will this do?"
"Wait a moment," cried Mr. Denham; "that seems rather a formal opening, doesn't it? How would it read if you put it 'Dear friend'?"
"If you wish it so." She crossed out the "sir" and substituted the word suggested. Then, she read the letter:
"Dear Friend,—I have for some time past been desirous of taking a partner, and would be glad if you would consider the question and consent to join me in this business. The business is, and has been for several years, very prosperous, and, as I shall require no capital from you, I think you will find my offer a very advantageous one. I will——"
"I—I don't think I would put it quite that way." said Denham, with some hesitation. "It reads as if I were offering everything, and that my partner—well, you see what I mean."
"It's the truth," said Miss Gale, defiantly.
"Better put it on the friendly basis, as you suggested a moment ago."
"I didn't suggest anything, Mr. Denham. Perhaps it would be better if you would dictate the letter exactly as you want it. I knew I could not write one that would please you."
"It does please me, but I'm thinking of my future partner. You are doing first-rate—better than I could do. But just put it on the friendly basis."
A moment later she read:
"... join me in this business. I make you this offer entirely from a friendly, and not from a financial, standpoint, hoping that you like me well enough to be associated with me."
"Anything else, Mr. Denham?"
"No. I think that covers the whole ground. It will look rather short, type-written, won't it? Perhaps you might add something to show that I shall be exceedingly disappointed if my offer is not accepted."
"No fear," said Miss Gale. "I'll add that though. 'Yours truly,' or 'Yours very truly'?"
"You might end it 'Your friend.'"
The rapid click of the typewriter was heard for a few moments in the next room, and then Miss Gale came out with the completed letter in her hand.
"Shall I have the boy copy it?" she asked.
"Oh, bless you, no!" answered Mr. Denham, with evident trepidation.
The young woman said to herself, "He doesn't want Mr. Rogers to know, and no wonder. It is a most unbusiness-like proposal."
Then she said aloud, "Shall you want me again to-day?"
"No, Miss Gale; and thank you very much."
Next morning, Miss Gale came into Mr. Denham's office with a smile on her face.
"You made a funny mistake last night, Mr. Denham," she said, as she took off her wraps.
"Did I?" he asked, in alarm.
"Yes. You sent that letter to my address. I got it this morning. I opened it, for I thought it was for me, and that perhaps you did not need me to-day. But I saw at once that you put it in the wrong envelope. Did you want me to-day?"
It was on his tongue to say, "I want you every day," but he merely held out his hand for the letter, and looked at it as if he could not account for its having gone astray.
The next day Miss Gale came late, and she looked frightened. It was evident that Denham was losing his mind. She put the letter down before him and said:
"You addressed that to me the second time, Mr. Denham."
There was a look of haggard anxiety about Denham that gave color to her suspicions. He felt that it was now or never.
"Then why don't you answer it, Miss Gale?" he said gruffly.
She backed away from him.
"Answer it?" she repeated faintly.
"Certainly. If I got a letter twice, I would answer it."
"What do you mean?" she cried, with her hand on the door-knob.
"Exactly what the letter says. I want you for my partner. I want to marry you, and d—n financial considerations——"
"Oh!" cried Miss Gale, in a long-drawn, quivering sigh. She was doubtless shocked at the word he had used, and fled to her typewriting room, closing the door behind her.
Richard Denham paced up and down the floor for a few moments, then rapped lightly at her door, but there was no response. He put on his hat and went out into the street. After a long and aimless walk, he found himself again at his place of business. When he went in, Rogers said to him:
"Miss Gale has left, sir."
"Yes, and she has given notice. Says she is not coming back, sir."
He went into his own room and found a letter marked "personal" on his desk. He tore it open, and read in neatly type-written characters:
"I have resigned my place as typewriter girl, having been offered a better situation. I am offered a partnership in the house of Richard Denham. I have decided to accept the position, not so much on account of its financial attractions, as because I shall be glad, on a friendly basis, to be associated with the gentleman I have named. Why did you put me to all that worry writing that idiotic letter, when a few words would have saved ever so much bother? You evidently need a partner. My mother will be pleased to meet you any time you call. You have the address,—Your friend,
"Rogers!" shouted Denham, joyfully.
"Yes, sir," answered that estimable man, putting his head into the room.
"Advertise for another typewriter girl, Rogers."
"Yes, sir," said Rogers.
THE DOOM OF LONDON.
I.—THE SELF-CONCEIT OF THE 20TH CENTURY.
I trust I am thankful my life has been spared until I have seen that most brilliant epoch of the world's history—the middle of the 20th century. It would be useless for any man to disparage the vast achievements of the past fifty years, and if I venture to call attention to the fact, now apparently forgotten, that the people of the 19th century succeeded in accomplishing many notable things, it must not be imagined that I intend thereby to discount in any measure the marvellous inventions of the present age. Men have always been somewhat prone to look with a certain condescension upon those who lived fifty or a hundred years before them. This seems to me the especial weakness of the present age; a feeling of national self-conceit, which, when it exists, should at least be kept as much in the background as possible. It will astonish many to know that such also was a failing of the people of the 19th century. They imagined themselves living in an age of progress, and while I am not foolish enough to attempt to prove that they did anything really worth recording, yet it must be admitted by any unprejudiced man of research that their inventions were at least stepping-stones to those of to-day. Although the telephone and telegraph, and all other electrical appliances, are now to be found only in our national museums, or in the private collections of those few men who take any interest in the doings of the last century, nevertheless, the study of the now obsolete science of electricity led up to the recent discovery of vibratory ether which does the work of the world so satisfactorily. The people of the 19th century were not fools, and although I am well aware that this statement will be received with scorn where it attracts any attention whatever, yet who can say that the progress of the next half-century may not be as great as that of the one now ended, and that the people of the next century may not look upon us with the same contempt which we feel toward those who lived fifty years ago?
Being an old man, I am, perhaps, a laggard who dwells in the past rather than the present; still, it seems to me that such an article as that which appeared recently in Blackwood from the talented pen of Prof. Mowberry, of Oxford University, is utterly unjustifiable. Under the title of "Did the People of London Deserve their Fate?" he endeavors to show that the simultaneous blotting out of millions of human beings was a beneficial event, the good results of which we still enjoy. According to him, Londoners were so dull-witted and stupid, so incapable of improvement, so sodden in the vice of mere money- gathering, that nothing but their total extinction would have sufficed, and that, instead of being an appalling catastrophe, the doom of London was an unmixed blessing. In spite of the unanimous approval with which this article has been received by the press, I still maintain that such writing is uncalled for, and that there is something to be said for the London of the 19th century.
II.—WHY LONDON, WARNED, WAS UNPREPARED.
The indignation I felt in first reading the article alluded to still remains with me, and it has caused me to write these words, giving some account of what I must still regard, in spite of the sneers of the present age, as the most terrible disaster that ever overtook a portion of the human race. I shall not endeavor to place before those who read, any record of the achievements pertaining to the time in question. But I would like to say a few words about the alleged stupidity of the people of London in making no preparations for a disaster regarding which they had continual and ever-recurring warning. They have been compared with the inhabitants of Pompeii making merry at the foot of a volcano. In the first place, fogs were so common in London, especially in winter, that no particular attention was paid to them. They were merely looked upon as inconvenient annoyances, interrupting traffic and prejudicial to health, but I doubt if anyone thought it possible for a fog to become one vast smothering mattress pressed down upon a whole metropolis, extinguishing life as if the city suffered from hopeless hydrophobia. I have read that victims bitten by mad dogs were formerly put out of their sufferings in that way, although I doubt much if such things were ever actually done, notwithstanding the charges of savage barbarity now made against the people of the 19th century.
Probably, the inhabitants of Pompeii were so accustomed to the eruptions of Vesuvius that they gave no thought to the possibility of their city being destroyed by a storm of ashes and an overflow of lava. Rain frequently descended upon London, and if a rainfall continued long enough it would certainly have flooded the metropolis, but no precautions were taken against a flood from the clouds. Why, then, should the people have been expected to prepare for a catastrophe from fog, such as there had never been any experience of in the world's history? The people of London were far from being the sluggish dolts present-day writers would have us believe.
III.—THE COINCIDENCE THAT CAME AT LAST.
As fog has now been abolished both on sea and land, and as few of the present generation have even seen one, it may not be out of place to give a few lines on the subject of fogs in general, and the London fogs in particular, which through local peculiarities differed from all others. A fog was simply watery vapor rising from the marshy surface of the land or from the sea, or condensed into a cloud from the saturated atmosphere. In my day, fogs were a great danger at sea, for people then travelled by means of steamships that sailed upon the surface of the ocean.
London at the end of the 19th century consumed vast quantities of a soft bituminous coal for the purpose of heating rooms and of preparing food. In the morning and during the day, clouds of black smoke were poured forth from thousands of chimneys. When a mass of white vapor arose in the night these clouds of smoke fell upon the fog, pressing it down, filtering slowly through it, and adding to its density. The sun would have absorbed the fog but for the layer of smoke that lay thick above the vapor and prevented the rays reaching it. Once this condition of things prevailed, nothing could clear London but a breeze of wind from any direction. London frequently had a seven days' fog, and sometimes a seven days' calm, but these two conditions never coincided until the last year of the last century. The coincidence, as everyone knows, meant death—death so wholesale that no war the earth has ever seen left such slaughter behind it. To understand the situation, one has only to imagine the fog as taking the place of the ashes at Pompeii, and the coal-smoke as being the lava that covered it. The result to the inhabitants in both cases was exactly the same.
IV.—THE AMERICAN WHO WANTED TO SELL.
I was at the time confidential clerk to the house of Fulton, Brixton & Co., a firm in Cannon Street, dealing largely in chemicals and chemical apparatus. Fulton I never knew; he died long before my time. Sir John Brixton was my chief, knighted, I believe, for services to his party, or because he was an official in the City during some royal progress through it; I have forgotten which. My small room was next to his large one, and my chief duty was to see that no one had an interview with Sir John unless he was an important man or had important business. Sir John was a difficult man to see, and a difficult man to deal with when he was seen. He had little respect for most men's feelings, and none at all for mine. If I allowed a man to enter his room who should have been dealt with by one of the minor members of the company, Sir John made no effort to conceal his opinion of me. One day, in the autumn of the last year of the century, an American was shown into my room. Nothing would do but he must have an interview with Sir John Brixton. I told him that it was impossible, as Sir John was extremely busy, but that if he explained his business to me I would lay it before Sir John at the first favorable opportunity. The American demurred at this, but finally accepted the inevitable. He was the inventor, he said, of a machine that would revolutionize life in London, and he wanted Fulton, Brixton & Co. to become agents for it. The machine, which he had in a small handbag with him, was of white metal, and it was so constructed that by turning an index it gave out greater or less volumes of oxygen gas. The gas, I understood, was stored in the interior in liquid form under great pressure, and would last, if I remember rightly, for six months without recharging. There was also a rubber tube with a mouthpiece attached to it, and the American said that if a man took a few whiffs a day, he would experience beneficial results. Now, I knew there was not the slightest use in showing the machine to Sir John, because we dealt in old-established British apparatus, and never in any of the new- fangled Yankee contraptions. Besides, Sir John had a prejudice against Americans, and I felt sure this man would exasperate him, as he was a most cadaverous specimen of the race, with high nasal tones, and a most deplorable pronunciation, much given to phrases savoring of slang; and he exhibited also a certain nervous familiarity of demeanor towards people to whom he was all but a complete stranger. It was impossible for me to allow such a man to enter the presence of Sir John Brixton, and when he returned some days later I explained to him, I hope with courtesy, that the head of the house regretted very much his inability to consider his proposal regarding the machine. The ardor of the American seemed in no way dampened by this rebuff. He said I could not have explained the possibilities of the apparatus properly to Sir John; he characterized it as a great invention, and said it meant a fortune to whoever obtained the agency for it. He hinted that other noted London houses were anxious to secure it, but for some reason not stated he preferred to deal with us. He left some printed pamphlets referring to the invention, and said he would call again.
V.—THE AMERICAN SEES SIR JOHN.
Many a time I have since thought of that persistent American, and wondered whether he left London before the disaster, or was one of the unidentified thousands who were buried in unmarked graves. Little did Sir John think when he expelled him with some asperity from his presence, that he was turning away an offer of life, and that the heated words he used were, in reality, a sentence of death upon himself. For my own part, I regret that I lost my temper, and told the American his business methods did not commend themselves to me. Perhaps he did not feel the sting of this; indeed, I feel certain he did not, for, unknowingly, he saved my life. Be that as it may, he showed no resentment, but immediately asked me out to drink with him, an offer I was compelled to refuse. But I am getting ahead of my story. Indeed, being unaccustomed to writing, it is difficult for me to set down events in their proper sequence. The American called upon me several times after I told him our house could not deal with him. He got into the habit of dropping in upon me unannounced, which I did not at all like, but I gave no instructions regarding his intrusions, because I had no idea of the extremes to which he was evidently prepared to go. One day, as he sat near my desk reading a paper, I was temporarily called from the room. When I returned I thought he had gone, taking his machine with him, but a moment later I was shocked to hear his high nasal tones in Sir John's room alternating with the deep notes of my chief's voice, which apparently exercised no such dread upon the American as upon those who were more accustomed to them. I at once entered the room, and was about to explain to Sir John that the American was there through no connivance of mine, when my chief asked me to be silent, and, turning to his visitor, gruffly requested him to proceed with his interesting narration. The inventor needed no second invitation, but went on with his glib talk, while Sir John's frown grew deeper, and his face became redder under his fringe of white hair. When the American had finished, Sir John roughly bade him begone, and take his accursed machine with him. He said it was an insult for a person with one foot in the grave to bring a so-called health invention to a robust man who never had a day's illness, I do not know why he listened so long to the American, when he had made up his mind from the first not to deal with him, unless it was to punish me for inadvertently allowing the stranger to enter. The interview distressed me exceedingly, as I stood there helpless, knowing Sir John was becoming more and more angry with every word the foreigner uttered, but, at last, I succeeded in drawing the inventor and his work into my own room and closing the door. I sincerely hoped I would never see the American again, and my wish was gratified. He insisted on setting his machine going, and placing it on a shelf in my room. He asked me to slip it into Sir John's room come foggy day and note the effect. The man said he would call again, but he never did.
VI.—HOW THE SMOKE HELD DOWN THE FOG.
It was on a Friday that the fog came down upon us. The weather was very fine up to the middle of November that autumn. The fog did not seem to have anything unusual about it. I have seen many worse fogs than that appeared to be. As day followed day, however, the atmosphere became denser and darker, caused, I suppose, by the increasing volume of coal- smoke poured out upon it. The peculiarity about those seven days was the intense stillness of the air. We were, although we did not know it, under an air-proof canopy, and were slowly but surely exhausting the life-giving oxygen around us, and replacing it by poisonous carbonic acid gas. Scientific men have since showed that a simple mathematical calculation might have told us exactly when the last atom of oxygen would have been consumed; but it is easy to be wise after the event. The body of the greatest mathematician in England was found in the Strand. He came that morning from Cambridge. During the fog there was always a marked increase in the death rate, and on this occasion the increase was no greater than usual until the sixth day. The newspapers on the morning of the seventh were full of startling statistics, but at the time of going to press the full significance of the alarming figures was not realized. The editorials of the morning papers on the seventh day contained no warning of the calamity that was so speedily to follow their appearance. I lived then at Ealing, a Western suburb of London, and came every morning to Cannon Street by a certain train. I had up to the sixth day experienced no inconvenience from the fog, and this was largely due, I am convinced, to the unnoticed operations of the American machine.
On the fifth and sixth days Sir John did not come to the City, but he was in his office on the seventh. The door between his room and mine was closed. Shortly after ten o'clock I heard a cry in his room, followed by a heavy fall. I opened the door, and saw Sir John lying face downwards on the floor. Hastening towards him, I felt for the first time the deadly effect of the deoxygenized atmosphere, and before I reached him I fell first on one knee and then headlong. I realized that my senses were leaving me, and instinctively crawled back to my own room, where the oppression was at once lifted, and I stood again upon my feet, gasping. I closed the door of Sir John's room, thinking it filled with poisonous fumes, as, indeed, it was. I called loudly for help, but there was no answer. On opening the door to the main office I met again what I thought was the noxious vapor. Speedily as I closed the door, I was impressed by the intense silence of the usually busy office, and saw that some of the clerks were motionless on the floor, and others sat with their heads on their desks as if asleep. Even at this awful moment I did not realize that what I saw was common to all London, and not, as I imagined, a local disaster, caused by the breaking of some carboys in our cellar. (It was filled with chemicals of every kind, of whose properties I was ignorant, dealing as I did with the accountant, and not the scientific side of our business.) I opened the only window in my room, and again shouted for help. The street was silent and dark in the ominously still fog, and what now froze me with horror was meeting the same deadly, stifling atmosphere that was in the rooms. In falling I brought down the window, and shut out the poisonous air. Again I revived, and slowly the true state of things began to dawn upon me.
I was in an oasis of oxygen. I at once surmised that the machine on my shelf was responsible for the existence of this oasis in a vast desert of deadly gas. I took down the American's machine, fearful in moving it that I might stop its working. Taking the mouthpiece between my lips I again entered Sir John's room, this time without feeling any ill effects. My poor master was long beyond human help. There was evidently no one alive in the building except myself. Out in the street all was silent and dark. The gas was extinguished, but here and there in shops the incandescent lights were still weirdly burning, depending, as they did, on accumulators, and not on direct engine power. I turned automatically towards Cannon Street Station, knowing my way to it even if blindfolded, stumbling over bodies prone on the pavement, and in crossing the street I ran against a motionless 'bus, spectral in the fog, with dead horses lying in front, and their reins dangling from the nerveless hand of a dead driver. The ghostlike passengers, equally silent, sat bolt upright, or hung over the edge boards in attitudes horribly grotesque.
VII.—THE TRAIN WITH ITS TRAIL OF THE DEAD.
If a man's reasoning faculties were alert at such a time (I confess mine were dormant), he would have known there could be no trains at Cannon Street Station, for if there was not enough oxygen in the air to keep a man alive, or a gas-jet alight, there would certainly not be enough to enable an engine fire to burn, even if the engineer retained sufficient energy to attend to his task. At times instinct is better than reason, and it proved so in this case. The railway from Ealing in those days came under the City in a deep tunnel. It would appear that in this underground passage the carbonic acid gas would first find a resting-place on account of its weight; but such was not the fact. I imagine that a current through the tunnel brought from the outlying districts a supply of comparatively pure air that, for some minutes after the general disaster, maintained human life. Be this as it may, the long platforms of Cannon Street Underground Station presented a fearful spectacle. A train stood at the down platform. The electric lights burned fitfully. This platform was crowded with men, who fought each other like demons, apparently for no reason, because the train was already packed as full as it could hold. Hundreds were dead under foot, and every now and then a blast of foul air came along the tunnel, whereupon hundreds more would relax their grips, and succumb. Over their bodies the survivors fought, with continually thinning ranks. It seemed to me that most of those in the standing train were dead. Sometimes a desperate body of fighters climbed over those lying in heaps and, throwing open a carriage door, hauled out passengers already in, and took their places, gasping. Those in the train offered no resistance, and lay motionless where they were flung, or rolled helplessly under the wheels of the train. I made my way along the wall as well as I could to the engine, wondering why the train did not go. The engineer lay on the floor of his cab, and the fires were out.
Custom is a curious thing. The struggling mob, fighting wildly for places in the carriages, were so accustomed to trains arriving and departing that it apparently occurred to none of them that the engineer was human and subject to the same atmospheric conditions as themselves. I placed the mouthpiece between his purple lips, and, holding my own breath like a submerged man, succeeded in reviving him. He said that if I gave him the machine he would take out the train as far as the steam already in the boiler would carry it. I refused to do this, but stepped on the engine with him, saying it would keep life in both of us until we got out into better air. In a surly manner he agreed to this and started the train, but he did not play fair. Each time he refused to give up the machine until I was in a fainting condition with holding in my breath, and, finally, he felled me to the floor of the cab. I imagine that the machine rolled off the train as I fell and that he jumped after it. The remarkable thing is that neither of us needed the machine, for I remember that just after we started I noticed through the open iron door that the engine fire suddenly became aglow again, although at the time I was in too great a state of bewilderment and horror to understand what it meant. A western gale had sprung up—an hour too late. Even before we left Cannon Street those who still survived were comparatively safe, for one hundred and sixty-seven persons were rescued from that fearful heap of dead on the platforms, although many died within a day or two after, and others never recovered their reason. When I regained my senses after the blow dealt by the engineer, I found myself alone, and the train speeding across the Thames near Kew. I tried to stop the engine, but did not succeed. However, in experimenting, I managed to turn on the air brake, which in some degree checked the train, and lessened the impact when the crash came at Richmond terminus. I sprang off on the platform before the engine reached the terminal buffers, and saw passing me like a nightmare the ghastly trainload of the dead. Most of the doors were swinging open, and every compartment was jammed full, although, as I afterwards learned, at each curve of the permanent way, or extra lurch of the train, bodies had fallen out all along the line. The smash at Richmond made no difference to the passengers. Besides myself, only two persons were taken alive from the train, and one of these, his clothes torn from his back in the struggle was sent to an asylum, where he was never able to tell who he was; neither, as far as I know, did anyone ever claim him.
THE PREDICAMENT OF DE PLONVILLE.
This story differs from others in having an assortment of morals. Most stories have one moral; here are several. The moral usually appears at the end—in this case a few are mentioned at the beginning, so that they may be looked out for as the reading progresses. First: it is well for a man—especially a young man—to attend to his own business. Second: in planning a person's life for some little distance ahead, it will be a mistake if an allowance of ten per cent. at least, is not made for that unknown quantity—woman. Third: it is beneficial to remember that one man rarely knows everything. Other morals will doubtless present themselves, and at the end the cynically-inclined person may reflect upon the adage about the frying-pan and the fire.
Young M. de Plonville of Paris enjoyed a most enviable position. He had all the money he needed, which is quite a different thing from saying he had all the money he wanted. He was well educated, and spoke three languages, that is, he spoke his own well and the other two badly, but as a man always prides himself on what he is least able to do, De Plonville fancied himself a linguist. His courage in speaking English to Englishmen and German to Germans showed that he was, at least, a brave man. There was a great deal of good and even of talent in De Plonville. This statement is made at the beginning, because everyone who knows De Plonville will at once unhesitatingly contradict it. His acquaintances thought him one of the most objectionable young men in Paris, and naval officers, when his name was mentioned, usually gave themselves over to strong and unjustifiable language. This was all on account of De Plonville's position, which, although enviable had its drawbacks.
His rank in the navy was such that it entitled him to no consideration whatever, but, unfortunately for his own popularity, De Plonville had a method of giving force to his suggestions. His father was a very big man in the French Government. He was so big a man that he could send a censure to the commander of a squadron in the navy, and the commander dare not talk back. It takes a very big man indeed to do this, and that was the elder De Plonville's size. But then it was well known that the elder De Plonville was an easy-going man who loved comfort, and did not care to trouble himself too much about the navy in his charge, and so when there was trouble, young De Plonville got the credit of it; consequently, the love of the officers did not flow out to him.
Often young De Plonville's idiotic impetuosity gave color to these suspicions. For instance, there is the well-known Toulon incident. In a heated controversy young De Plonville had claimed that the firing of the French ironclads was something execrable, and that the whole fleet could not hold their own at the cannon with any ten of the British navy. Some time after, the naval officers learned that the Government at Paris was very much displeased with the inaccurate gun practice of the fleet, and the hope was expressed that the commander would see his way to improving it. Of course, the officers could do nothing but gnash their teeth, try to shoot better, and hope for a time to come when the Government then in power would be out, and they could find some tangible pretence for hanging young De Plonville from the yard-arm.
All this has only a remote bearing upon this story, but we now come to a matter on which the story sinks or swims. De Plonville had a secret— not such a secret as is common in Parisian life, but one entirely creditable to him. It related to an invention intended to increase the efficiency of the French army. The army being a branch of the defences of his country with which De Plonville had nothing whatever to do, his attention naturally turned towards it. He spoke of this invention, once, to a friend, a lieutenant in the army. He expected to get some practical suggestions. He never mentioned it again to anyone.
"It is based on the principle of the umbrella," he said to his friend; "in fact, it was the umbrella that suggested it to me. If it could be made very light so as not to add seriously to the impedimenta at present carried by the soldier, it seems to me it would be exceedingly useful. Instead of being circular as an umbrella is, it must be oblong with sharp ends. It would have to be arranged so as to be opened and closed quickly, with the cloth thin, but impervious to water. When the army reached a river each soldier could open this, place it in the water, enter it with some care, and then paddle himself across with the butt-end of his gun, or even with a light paddle, if the carrying of it added but little to the weight, thus saving the building of temporary bridges. It seems to me such an invention ought to be of vast use in a forced march. Then at night it might be used as a sort of tent, or in a heavy rain it would form a temporary shelter. What do you think of the idea?" His friend had listened with half-closed eyes. He blew a whiff of cigarette smoke from his nostrils and answered:
"It is wonderful, De Plonville," he said drawlingly. "Its possibilities are vast—more so than even you appear to think. It would be very useful in our Alpine corps as well."
"I am glad you think so. But why there?"
"Well, you see, if the army reached a high peak looking into a deep valley, only to be reached over an inaccessible precipice, all the army would have to do would be to spread out your superb invention and use it as a parachute. The sight of the army of France gradually floating down into the valley would be so terrifying to the nations of Europe, that I imagine no enemy would wait for a gun to be fired. De Plonville, your invention will immortalize you, and immortalize the French army."
Young De Plonville waited to hear no more, but turned on his heel and strode away.
This conversation caused young De Plonville to make two resolutions; first, to mention his scheme to no one; second, to persevere and perfect his invention, thus causing confusion to the scoffer. There were several sub-resolutions dependent on these two. He would not enter a club, he would abjure society, he would not speak to a woman—he would, in short, be a hermit until his invention stood revealed before an astonished world.
All of which goes to show that young De Plonville was not the conceited, meddlesome fop his acquaintances thought him. But in the large and small resolutions he did not deduct the ten per cent. for the unknown quantity.
Where? That was the question. De Plonville walked up and down his room, and thought it out. A large map of France was spread on the table. Paris and the environs thereof were manifestly impossible. He needed a place of seclusion. He needed a stretch of water. Where then should be the spot to which coming generations would point and say, "Here, at this place, was perfected De Plonville's celebrated parachute-tent- bateau invention."
No, not parachute. Hang the parachute! That was the scoffing lieutenant's word. De Plonville paused for a moment to revile his folly in making a confidant of any army man.
There was a sufficiency of water around the French coast, but it was too cold at that season of the year to experiment in the north and east. There was left the Mediterranean. He thought rapidly of the different delightful spots along the Riviera—Cannes, St. Raphael, Nice, Monte Carlo,—but all of these were too public and too much thronged with visitors. The name of the place came to him suddenly, and, as he stopped his march to and fro, De Plonville wondered why it had not suggested itself to him at the very first. Hyeres! It seemed to have been planned in the Middle Ages for the perfecting of just such an invention. It was situated two or three miles back from the sea, the climate was perfect, there was no marine parade, the sea coast was lonely, and the bay sheltered by the islands. It was an ideal spot.
De Plonville easily secured leave of absence. Sons of fathers high up in the service of a grateful country seldom have any difficulty about a little thing like that. He purchased a ticket for that leisurely train which the French with their delicious sense of humor call the "Rapide," and in due time found himself with his various belongings standing on the station platform at Hyeres.
Few of us are as brave as we think ourselves. De Plonville flinched when the supreme moment came, and perhaps that is why the Gods punished him. He had resolved to go to one of the country inns at Carqueyranne on the coast, but this was in a heroic mood when the lieutenant had laughed at his project. Now in a cooler moment he thought of the cuisine of Carqueyranne and shuddered. There are sacrifices which no man should be called upon to endure, so the naval officer hesitated, and at last directed the porter to put his luggage on the top of the Costebelle Hotel "bus." There would be society at the hotel it is true, but he could avoid it, while if he went to the rural tavern he could not avoid the cooking. Thus he smothered his conscience. Lunch at Costebelle seemed to justify his choice of an abiding-place. The surroundings of the hotel were dangerously charming to a man whose natural inclination was towards indolent enjoyment. It was a place to "Loaf and invite your soul," as Walt Whitman phrases it. Plonville, who was there incognito, for he had temporarily dropped the "De," strolled towards the sea in the afternoon, with the air of one who has nothing on his mind. No one to see him would have suspected he was the future Edison of France. When he reached the coast at the ruins of the ancient Roman naval station called Pomponiana, he smote his thigh with joy. He had forgotten that at this spot there had been erected a number of little wooden houses, each larger than a bathing-machine and smaller than a cottage, which were used in summer by the good people of Hyeres, and in winter were silently vacant. The largest of these would be exactly the place for him, and he knew he would have no difficulty in renting it for a month or two. Here, he could bring down his half- finished invention; here, work at it all day unmolested; and here test its sailing qualities with no onlookers.
He walked up the road, and hailed the ancient bus which jogs along between Toulon and Hyeres by way of the coast; mounted beside the driver, and speedily got information about the owner of the cottages at Pomponiana.
As he expected, he had no difficulty in arranging with the proprietor for the largest of the little cottages, but he thought he detected a slight depression on the right eyelid as that person handed him the key. Had the owner suspected his purpose? he asked himself anxiously, as he drove back from the town to Costebelle. Impossible. He felt, however, that he could not be too secret about his intentions. He had heard of inventors being forestalled just at the very moment of success.
He bade the driver wait, and placed that part of his luggage in the cab which consisted of his half-finished invention and the materials for completing it. Then he drove to the coast, and after placing the packages on the ground, paid and dismissed the man. When the cab was out of sight, he carried the things to the cottage and locked them in. His walk up the hill to the hotel rendered the excellent dinner provided doubly attractive.
Next morning he was early at work, and speedily began to realize how many necessary articles he had forgotten at Paris. He hoped he would be able to get them at Hyeres, but his remembrance of the limited resources of the town made him somewhat doubtful. The small windows on each side gave him scarcely enough light, but he did not open the door, fearing the curiosity of a chance passer-by. One cannot be too careful in maturing a great invention.
Plonville had been at work for possibly an hour and a half, when he heard someone singing, and that very sweetly. She sang with the joyous freedom of one who suspected no listener. The song came nearer and nearer. Plonville standing amazed, dropped his implements, and stole to the somewhat obscure little window. He saw a vision of fresh loveliness dressed in a costume he never before beheld on a vision. She came down the bank with a light, springy step to the next cottage, took a key that hung at her belt, and threw open the door. The song was hushed, but not silenced, for a moment, and then there came from out the cottage door the half of a boat that made Plonville gasp. Like the costume, he had never before seen such a boat. It was exactly the shape in which he had designed his invention, and was of some extra light material, for the sylph-like girl in the extraordinary dress pushed it forth without even ceasing her song. Next moment, she came out herself and stood there while she adjusted her red head-gear. She drew the boat down to the water, picked out of it a light, silver-mounted paddle, stepped deftly aboard, and settled down to her place with the airy grace of a thistle-down. There was no seat in the boat, Plonville noted with astonishment. The sea was very smooth, and a few strokes of the paddle sent girl and craft out of sight along the coast. Plonville drew a deep breath of bewilderment. It was his first sight of a Thames boating costume and a canoe.
This, then, was why the man winked when he gave him the key. Plonville was in a quandary. Should he reveal himself when she returned? It did not seem to be quite the thing to allow the girl to believe she had the coast to herself when in fact she hadn't. But then there was his invention to think of. He had sworn allegiance to that. He sat down and pondered. English, evidently. He had no idea English girls were so pretty, and then that costume! It was very taking. The rich, creamy folds of the white flannel, so simple, yet so complete, lingered in his memory. Still, what was he there for? His invention certainly. The sneer of the lieutenant stung his memory. That Miss Whatever-her- name-might-be had rented the next box was nothing to him; of course not. He waved her aside and turned to his work. He had lost enough of time as it was; he would lose no more.
Although armed with this heroic resolution, his task somehow did not seem so interesting as before, and he found himself listening now and then for the siren's song. He dramatized imaginary situations, which is always bad for practical work. He saw the frail craft shattered or overturned, and beheld himself bravely buffeting the waves rescuing the fair girl in white. Then he remembered with a sigh that he was not a good swimmer. Possibly she was more at home in the waves than he was. Those English seemed on such terms of comradeship with the sea.
At last, intuition rather than hearing told him she had returned. He walked on tip-toe to the dingy window. She was pulling the light canoe up from the water. He checked his impulse to offer assistance. When the girl sprang lightly up the bank, Plonville sighed and concluded he had done enough work for the day. As he reached the road, he noticed that the white figure in the distance did not take the way to the hotel, but towards one of the neighboring Chateaux.
In the afternoon, Plonville worked long at his invention, and made progress. He walked back to his hotel with the feeling of self- satisfaction which indolent men have on those rare occasions when they are industrious. He had been uninterrupted, and his resolutions were again heroic. What had been done one afternoon might be done all afternoons. He would think no more of the vision he had seen and he would work only after lunch, thus avoiding the necessity of revealing himself, or of being a concealed watcher of her actions. Of course she came always in the morning, for the English are a methodical people, and Plonville was so learned in their ways that he knew what they did one day they were sure to do the next. An extraordinary nation, Plonville said to himself with a shrug of his shoulders, but then of course, we cannot all be French.
It is rather a pity that temptation should step in just when a man has made up his mind not to deviate from a certain straight line of conduct. There was to be a ball that night at the big hotel. Plonville had refused to have anything to do with it. He had renounced the frivolities of life. He was there for rest, quiet, and study. He was adamant. That evening the invitation was again extended to him, the truth being that there was a scarcity of young men, as is usually the case at such functions. Plonville was about to re-state his objections to frivolity when through the open door he caught a glimpse of two of the arriving guests ascending the stair. The girl had on a long opera cloak with some fluffy white material round the neck and down the front. A filmy lace arrangement rested lightly on her fair hair. It was the lady of the canoe—glorified. Plonville wavered and was lost. He rushed to his room and donned his war paint. Say what you like, evening dress improves the appearance of a man. Besides this, he had resumed the De once more, and his back was naturally straighter. De Plonville looked well.
They were speedily introduced, of course. De Plonville took care of that, and the manager of the ball was very grateful to him for coming, and for looking so nice. There was actually an air of distinction about De Plonville. She was the Hon. Margaret Stansby, he learned. Besides being unfair, it would be impossible to give their conversation. It would read like a section from Ollendorf's French-English exercises. De Plonville, as has been said, was very proud of his English, and, unfortunately, the Hon. Margaret had a sense of humor. He complimented her by saying that she talked French even better than he talked English, which, while doubtless true, was not the most tactful thing De Plonville might have said. It was difficult to listen to such a statement given in his English, and refrain from laughing. Margaret, however, scored a great victory and did not laugh. The evening passed pleasantly, she thought; delightfully, De Plonville thought.
It was hard after this to come down to the prosaic work of completing a cloth canoe-tent, but, to De Plonville's credit, he persevered. He met the young lady on several occasions, but never by the coast. The better they became acquainted the more he wished to have the privilege of rescuing her from some deadly danger; but the opportunity did not come. It seldom does, except in books, as he bitterly remarked to himself. The sea was exasperatingly calm, and Miss Margaret was mistress of her craft, as so many charming women are. He thought of buying a telescope and watching her, for she had told him that one of her own delights was looking at the evolutions of the ironclads through a telescope on the terrace in front of the Chateau.
At last, in spite of his distractions, De Plonville added the finishing touches to his notable invention, and all that remained was to put it to a practical test. He chose a day when that portion of the French navy which frequents the Rade d'Hyeres was not in sight, for he did not wish to come within the field of the telescope at the Chateau terrace. He felt that he would not look his best as he paddled his new-fangled boat. Besides, it might sink with him.
There was not a sail in sight as he put forth. Even the fishing boats of Carqueyranne were in shelter. The sea was very calm, and the sun shone brightly. He had some little difficulty in getting seated, but he was elated to find that his invention answered all expectations. As he went further out he noticed a great buoy floating a long distance away. His evil genius suggested that it would be a good thing to paddle out to the buoy and back. Many men can drink champagne and show no sign, but few can drink success and remain sober. The eccentric airs assumed by noted authors prove the truth of this. De Plonville was drunk, and never suspected it. The tide, what little there is of it in the Mediterranean, helped him, and even the gentle breeze blew from the shore. He had some doubts as to the wisdom of his course before he reached the gigantic red buoy, but when he turned around and saw the appalling distance to the coast, he shuddered.
The great buoy was of iron, apparently boiler plate, and there were rings fastened to its side. It was pear-shaped with the point in the water, fastened to a chain that evidently led to an anchor. He wondered what it was for. As he looked up it was moved by some unseen current, and rolled over as if bent on the destruction of his craft. Forgetting himself, he sprang up to ward it off, and instantly one foot went through the thin waterproof that formed the bottom and sides of his boat. He found himself struggling in the water almost before he realized what had happened. Kicking his foot free from the entanglement that threatened to drag him under, he saw his invention slowly settle down through the clear, green water. He grasped one of the rings of the buoy, and hung there for a moment to catch his breath and consider his position. He rapidly came to the conclusion that it was not a pleasant one, but further than that he found it difficult to go. Attempting to swim ashore would be simply one form of suicide. The thing to do was evidently to get on top of the buoy, but he realized that if he tried to pull himself up by the rings it would simply roll him under. He was surprised to find, however, that such was not the case. He had under- estimated both its size and its weight.
He sat down on top of it and breathed heavily after his exertions, gazing for a few moments at the vast expanse of shimmering blue water. It was pretty, but discouraging. Not even a fishing-boat was in sight, and he was in a position where every prospect pleases, and only man is in a vile situation. The big iron island had an uncomfortable habit every now and then of lounging partly over to one side or the other, so that De Plonville had to scramble this way or that to keep from falling off. He vaguely surmised that his motions on these occasions lacked dignity. The hot sun began to dry the clothes on his back, and he felt his hair become crisp with salt. He recollected that swimming should be easy here, for he was on the saltest portion of the saltest open sea in the world. Then his gaze wandered over the flat lands about Les Salins where acres of ground were covered artificially with Mediterranean water so that the sun may evaporate it, and leave the coarse salt used by the fishermen of the coast. He did not yet feel hungry, but he thought with regret of the good dinner which would be spread at the hotel that evening, when, perhaps, he would not be there.
He turned himself around and scanned the distant Islands of Gold, but there was as little prospect of help from that quarter as from the mainland. Becoming more accustomed to the swayings of the big globe, he stood up. What a fool he had been to come so far, and he used French words between his teeth that sounded terse and emphatic. Still there was little use thinking of that. Here he was, and here he would stay, as a President of his country had once remarked. The irksomeness and restraint of his position began to wear on his nerves, and he cried aloud for something—anything—to happen rather than what he was enduring.
From between the Islands, there slowly appeared a great modern French ship of war, small in the distance. Hope lighted up the face of De Plonville. She must pass near enough to enable his signalling to be seen by the lookout. Heavens! how leisurely she moved! Then a second war vessel followed the first into view, and finally a third. The three came slowly along in stately procession. De Plonville removed his coat and waved it up and down to attract attention. So intent was he upon this that he nearly lost his footing, and, realizing that the men-of- war were still too far away, he desisted. He sat down as his excitement abated, and watched their quiet approach. Once it seemed to him they had stopped, and he leaned forward, shading his eyes with his hand, and watched them eagerly. They were just moving—that was all.
Suddenly, from the black side of the foremost battle-ship, there rolled upward a cloud of white smoke, obscuring the funnels and the rigging, thinning out into the blue sky over the top-masts. After what seemed a long interval the low, dull roar of a cannon reached him, followed by the echo from the high hills of the island, and later by the fainter re-echo from the mountains on the mainland. This depressed De Plonville, for, if the ships were out for practice, the obscuring smoke around them would make the seeing of his signalling very improbable; and then that portion of the fleet might return the way it came, leaving him in his predicament. From the second ironclad arose a similar cloud, and this time far to his left there spurted up from the sea a jet of water, waving in the air like a plume for a moment, then dropping back in a shower on the ruffled surface.
The buoy was a target!
As De Plonville realized its use, he felt that uncomfortable creeping of the scalp which we call, the hair standing on end. The third cannon sent up its cloud, and De Plonville's eyes extended at what they saw. Coming directly towards him was a cannon ball, skipping over the water like a thrown pebble. His experience in the navy—at Paris—had never taught him that such a thing was possible. He slid down flat on the buoy, till his chin rested on the iron, and awaited the shock. A hundred yards from him the ball dipped into the water and disappeared. He found that he had ineffectually tried to drive his nails into the boiler plate, until his fingers' ends were sore. He stood up and waved his arms, but the first vessel fired again, and the ball came shrieking over him so low that he intuitively ducked his head. Like a pang of physical pain, the thought darted through his brain that he had instigated a censure on the bad firing of these very boats. Doubtless they saw a man on the buoy, but as no man had any business there, the knocking of him off by a cannon ball would be good proof of accuracy of aim. The investigation which followed would be a feather in the cap of the officer in charge, whatever the verdict. De Plonville, with something like a sigh, more than suspected that his untimely death would not cast irretrievable gloom over the fleet.
Well, a man has to die but once, and there is little use in making a fuss over the inevitable. He would meet his fate calmly and as a Frenchman should, with his face to the guns. There was a tinge of regret that there would be no one to witness his heroism. It is always pleasant on such occasions to have a war correspondent, or at least a reporter, present. It is best to be as comfortable as possible under any circumstances, so De Plonville sat down on the spheroid and let his feet dangle toward the water. The great buoy for some reason floated around until it presented its side to the ships. None of the balls came so near as those first fired—perhaps because of the accumulated smoke. New features of the situation continued to present themselves to De Plonville as he sat there. The firing had been going on for some time before he reflected that if a shot punctured the buoy it would fill and sink. Perhaps their orders were to fire until the buoy disappeared. There was little comfort in this suggestion.
Firing had ceased for some minutes before he noticed the fact. A bank of thinning smoke rested on the water between the buoy and the ships. He saw the ironclads move ponderously around and steam through this bank turning broadside on again in one, two, three, order. He watched the evolution with his chin resting on his hands, not realizing that the moment for signalling had come. When the idea penetrated his somewhat dazed mind, he sprang to his feet, but his opportunity had gone. The smoke of the first gun rose in the air, there was a clang of iron on iron, and De Plonville found himself whirling in space: then sinking in the sea. Coming breathless to the surface, he saw the buoy revolving slowly, and a deep dinge in its side seemed to slide over its top and disappear into the water, showing where the shot had struck. The second boat did not fire, and he knew that they were examining the buoy with their glasses. He swam around to the other side, intending to catch a ring and have it haul him up where he could be seen. Before he reached the place the buoy was at rest again, and as he laboriously climbed on top more dead than alive, the second ship opened fire. He lay down at full length exhausted, and hoped if they were going to hit they would hit quick. Life was not worth having on these conditions. He felt the hot sun on his back, and listened dreamily to the cannon. Hope was gone, and he wondered at himself for feeling a remote rather than an active interest in his fate. He thought of himself as somebody else, and felt a vague impersonal pity. He criticised the random firing, and suspected the hit was merely a fluke. When his back was dry he rolled lazily over and lay gazing up at the cloudless sky. For greater comfort he placed his hands beneath his head. The sky faded, and a moment's unconsciousness intervened.
"This won't do," he cried, shaking himself. "If I fall asleep I shall roll off."
He sat up again, his joints stiff with his immersion, and watched the distant ironclads. He saw with languid interest a ball strike the water, take a new flight, and plunge into the sea far to the right. He thought that the vagaries of cannon-balls at sea would make an interesting study.
"Are you injured?" cried a clear voice behind him.
"Mon Dieu!" shouted the young man in a genuine fright, as he sprang to his feet.
"Oh, I beg pardon," as if a rescuer need apologize, "I thought you were M. De Plonville."
"I am De Plonville."
"Your hair is grey," she said in an awed whisper; then added, "and no wonder."
"Mademoiselle," replied the stricken young man, placing his hand on his heart, "it is needless to deny—I do not deny—that I was frightened— but—I did not think—not so much as that, I regret. It is so—so— theatrical—I am deeply sorrowful."
"Please say no more, but come quickly. Can you come down? Step exactly in the middle of the canoe. Be careful—it is easily upset—and sit down at once. That was very nicely done."
"Mademoiselle, allow me at least to row the boat."
"It is paddling, and you do not understand it. I do. Please do not speak until we are out of range. I am horribly frightened."
"You are very, very brave."
Miss Stansby wielded the double-bladed paddle in a way a Red Indian might have envied. Once she uttered a little feminine shriek as a cannon ball plunged into the water behind them; but as they got further away from the buoy those on the iron-clads appeared to notice that a boat was within range, and the firing ceased.
Miss Stansby looked fixedly at the solemn young man sitting before her; then placed her paddle across the canoe, bent over it, and laughed. De Plonville saw the reaction had come. He said sympathetically:—
"Ah, Mademoiselle, do not, I beg. All danger is over, I think."
"I am not frightened, don't think it," she cried, flashing a look of defiance at him, and forgetting her admission of fear a moment before. "My father was an Admiral. I am laughing at my mistake. It is salt."
"What is?" asked her astonished passenger.
"In your hair."
He ran his fingers through his hair, and the salt rattled down to the bottom of the canoe. There was something of relief in his laugh.
* * * * *
De Plonville always believes the officers on board the gunboats recognized him. When it was known in Paris that he was to be married to the daughter of an English Admiral, whom rumor said he had bravely saved from imminent peril, the army lieutenant remarked that she could never have heard him speak her language—which, as we know, is not true.
A NEW EXPLOSIVE.
The French Minister of War sat in his very comfortable chair in his own private yet official room, and pondered over a letter he had received. Being Minister of War, he was naturally the most mild, the most humane, and least quarrelsome man in the Cabinet. A Minister of War receives many letters that, as a matter of course, he throws into his waste basket, but this particular communication had somehow managed to rivet his attention. When a man becomes Minister of War he learns for the first time that apparently the great majority of mankind are engaged in the manufacture or invention of rifles, gunpowders, and devices of all kinds for the destruction of the rest of the world.
That morning, the Minister of War had received a letter which announced to him that the writer of it had invented an explosive so terrible that all known destructive agencies paled before it. As a Frenchman, he made the first offer of his discovery to the French Government. It would cost the Minister nothing, he said, to make a test which would corroborate his amazing claims for the substance, and the moment that test was made, any intelligent man would recognize the fact that the country which possessed the secret of this destructive compound would at once occupy an unassailable position in a contentious world.
The writer offered personally to convince the Minister of the truth of his assertions, provided they could go to some remote spot where the results of the explosion would do no damage, and where they would be safe from espionage. The writer went on very frankly to say that if the Minister consulted with the agents of the police, they would at once see in this invitation a trap for the probable assassination of the Minister. But the inventor claimed that the Minister's own good sense should show him that his death was desired by none. He was but newly appointed, and had not yet had time to make enemies. France was at peace with all the world, and this happened before the time of the Anarchist demonstrations in Paris. It was but right, the letter went on, that the Minister should have some guarantee as to the bona fides of the inventor. He therefore gave his name and address, and said if the Minister made inquiries from the police, he would find nothing stood in their books against him. He was a student, whose attention, for years, had been given to the subject of explosives. To further show that he was entirely unselfish in this matter, he added that he had no desire to enrich himself by his discovery. He had a private income quite sufficient for his needs, and he intended to give, and not to sell, his secret to France. The only proviso he made was that his name should be linked with this terrible compound, which he maintained would secure universal peace to the world, for, after its qualities were known, no nation would dare to fight with another. The sole ambition of the inventor, said the letter in conclusion, was to place his name high in the list of celebrated French scientists. If, however, the Minister refused to treat with him he would go to other Governments until his invention was taken up, but the Government which secured it would at once occupy the leading position among nations. He entreated the Minister, therefore, for the sake of his country, to make at least one test of the compound.
It was, as I have said, before the time of the Paris explosions, and ministers were not so suspicious then as they are now. The Minister made inquiries regarding the scientist, who lived in a little suburb of Paris, and found that there was nothing against him on the books of the police. Inquiry showed that all he had said about his own private fortune was true. The Minister therefore wrote to the inventor, and named an hour at which he would receive him in his private office.
The hour and the man arrived together. The Minister had had some slight doubts regarding his sanity, but the letter had been so straightforwardly written, and the appearance of the man himself was so kindly and benevolent and intelligent that the doubts of the official vanished.
"I beg you to be seated," said the Minister. "We are entirely alone, and nothing you say will be heard by any one but myself."
"I thank you, Monsieur le Ministre," replied the inventor, "for this mark of confidence; for I am afraid the claims I made in the letter were so extraordinary that you might well have hesitated about granting me an interview."
The Minister smiled. "I understand," he said, "the enthusiasm of an inventor for his latest triumph, and I was enabled thus to take, as it were, some discount from your statements, although I doubt not that you have discovered something that may be of benefit to the War Department."
The inventor hesitated, looking seriously at the great official before him.
"From what you say," he began at last, "I am rather afraid that my letter misled you, for, fearing it would not be credited I was obliged to make my claims so mild that I erred in under-estimating rather than in over-stating them. I have the explosive here in my pocket."
"Ah!" cried the Minister, a shade of pallor coming over his countenance, as he pushed back his chair. "I thought I stated in my note that you were not to bring it."
"Forgive me for not obeying. It is perfectly harmless while in this state. This is one of the peculiarities—a beneficent peculiarity if I may so term it—of this terrible agent. It may be handled with perfect safety, and yet its effects are as inevitable as death," saying which, he took out of his pocket and held up to the light a bottle filled with a clear colorless liquid like water.
"You could pour that on the fire," he said, "with no other effect than to put out the blaze. You might place it under a steam hammer and crush the bottle to powder, yet no explosion would follow. It is as harmless as water in its present condition."
"How, then," said the Minister, "do you deal with it?"
Again the man hesitated.
"I am almost afraid to tell you," he said; "and if I could not demonstrate to your entire satisfaction that what I say is true, it would be folly for me to say what I am about to say. If I were to take this bottle and cut a notch in the cork, and walk with it neck downwards along the Boulevard des Italiens, allowing this fluid to fall drop by drop on the pavement, I could walk in that way in safety through every street in Paris. If it rained that day nothing would happen. If it rained the next or for a week nothing would happen, but the moment the sun came out and dried the moisture, the light step of a cat on any pavement over which I had passed would instantly shatter to ruins the whole of Paris."
"Impossible!" cried the Minister, an expression of horror coming into his face.
"I knew you would say that. Therefore I ask you to come with me to the country, where I can prove the truth of what I allege. While I carry this bottle around with me in this apparently careless fashion, it is corked, as you see with the utmost security. Not a drop of the fluid must be left on the outside of the cork or of the bottle. I have wiped the bottle and cork most thoroughly, and burned the cloth which I used in doing so. Fire will not cause this compound, even when dry, to explode, but the slightest touch will set it off. I have to be extremely careful in its manufacture, so that not a single drop is left unaccounted for in any place where it might evaporate."
The Minister, with his finger-tips together and his eyes on the ceiling, mused for a few moments on the amazing statement he had heard.
"If what you say is true," he began at last, "don't you think it would be more humane to destroy all traces of the experiments by which you discovered this substance, and to divulge the secret to no one? The devastation such a thing would cause, if it fell into unscrupulous hands, is too appalling even to contemplate."
"I have thought of that," said the inventor; "but some one else—the time may be far off or it may be near—is bound to make the discovery. My whole ambition, as I told you in my letter, is to have my name coupled with this discovery. I wish it to be known as the Lambelle Explosive. The secret would be safe with the French Government."
"I am not so sure of that," returned the Minister. "Some unscrupulous man may become Minister of War, and may use his knowledge to put himself in the position of Dictator. An unscrupulous man in the possession of such a secret would be invincible."
"What you say," replied the inventor, "is undoubtedly true; yet I am determined that the name of Lambelle shall go down in history coupled with the most destructive agent the world has ever known, or will know. If the Government of France will build for me a large stone structure as secure as a fortress, I will keep my secret, but will fill that building with bottles like this, and then——"
"I do not see," said the Minister, "that that would lessen the danger, if the unscrupulous man I speak of once became possessed of the keys; and, besides, the mere fact that such a secret existed would put other inventors upon the track, and some one else less benevolent than yourself would undoubtedly make the discovery. You admitted a moment ago that the chances were a future investigator would succeed in getting the right ingredients together, even without the knowledge that such an explosive existed. See what an incentive it would be to inventors all over the world, if it were known that France had in its possession such a fearful explosive! No Government has ever yet been successful in keeping the secret of either a gun or a gunpowder."
"There is, of course," said Lambelle, "much in what you say; but, equally of course, all that you say might have been said to the inventor of gunpowder, for gunpowder in its day was as wonderful as this is now."
Suddenly the Minister laughed aloud.
"I am talking seriously with you on this subject," he exclaimed, "as if I really believed in it. Of course, I may say I do nothing of the kind. I think you must have hypnotized me with those calm eyes of yours into crediting your statements for even a few moments."
"All that I say," said the inventor quietly, "can be corroborated to- morrow. Make an appointment with me in the country, and if it chances to be a calm and sunny day you will no longer doubt the evidence of your own eyes."
"Where do you wish the experiment to be made?" asked the Minister.
"It must be in some wild and desolate region, on a hill-top for preference. There should be either trees or old buildings there that we can destroy, otherwise the full effects can hardly be estimated."
"I have a place in the country," said the Minister, "which is wild and desolate and unprofitable enough. There are some useless stone buildings, not on a hill-top, but by the edge of a quarry which has been unworked for many years. There is no habitation for several miles around. Would such a spot be suitable?"
"Perfectly so. When would it be convenient for you to go?"
"I will leave with you to-night," said the Minister, "and we can spend the day to-morrow experimenting."
"Very well," answered Lambelle, rising when the Minister had told him the hour and the railway station at which they should meet.
That evening, when the Minister drove to the railway station in time for his train, he found Lambelle waiting for him, holding, by a leash, two sorry-looking dogs.
"Do you travel with such animals as these?" asked the Minister.
"The poor brutes," said Lambelle, with regret in his voice, "are necessary for our experiments. They will be in atoms by this time to- morrow."
The dogs were put into the railway-van, and the inventor brought his portmanteau with him into the private carriage reserved for the use of the Minister.
The place, as the Minister of War had said, was desolate enough. The stone buildings near the edge of the deserted quarry were stout and strong, although partly in ruins.
"I have here with me in my portmanteau," said Lambelle, "some hundreds of metres of electric wire. I will attach one of the dogs by this clip, which we can release from a distance by pressing an electric button. The moment the dog escapes he will undoubtedly explode the compound."
The insulated wire was run along the ground to a distant elevation. The dog was attached by the electric clip, and chained to a doorpost of one of the buildings. Lambelle then carefully uncorked his bottle, holding it at arm's length from his person. The Minister looked on with strange interest as Lambelle allowed the fluid to drip in a semicircular line around the chained dog. The inventor carefully re-corked the bottle, wiped it thoroughly with a cloth he had with him, and threw the cloth into one of the deserted houses.