THE DOOM OF THE GREAT CITY
BEING THE NARRATIVE OF A SURVIVOR WRITTEN A.D. 1942
WILLIAM DELISLE HAY
"— How can I
Repress the horror of my thoughts, which fly
The sad remembrance?"
Sir J. Denham
All killed! The words went to my heart like a knife. Can you fancy the very extravagance of dread? It was mine then. Can you imagine the utmost, climax of terror? I knew it at that moment. How I looked, what I said or did, what I thought even, these things I know not. The awful pang had shot into my heart and brain, had benumbed my inmost soul.
Fear! It was scarcely such a sense: I had no thought of personal danger, hardly a recollection even of the too possible fate of those dear ones who were more to me than life; the agony that held me then, that has pursued me through sixty years of time to hold me now, was no common sense of fear. It was that overwhelming, all-mastering dread which men alone can know who are on a sudden taught their own immeasurable littleness; who are witnesses of some stupendous event, whose movement shows the hand sublime of Nature, the supremacy of Nature, the supremacy of offended God.
Yes, you know now, though I knew not then, the full, extent of that hideous catastrophe: how, like the sudden overflow of Vesuvius upon the town below; like of yore the wings of the angel of death had overshadowed the sleeping hosts of Assyria, or like that yet older tale a world had sunk beneath the waters, so, in like manner, the fog had drawn over midnight London an envelope of murky death, within whose awful fold all that had life had died.
Can you understand now the train of reasoning which led your, grandfather to expatiate on all that was vile and wicked in the once-entitled "Modern Babylon"? Do you not see why I rather recall the evil and forget the good? Else were not my grief multiplied a thousand- fold, my anguish of pity more absorbing? And thus reflecting, may I not look up to Heaven still reverencing Just God; still dwelling in earnest faith on the love and mercy of Him Who is the Father of His creatures?
Although our knowledge of what had actually taken place was as yet extremely vague and limited, still we were sensible that the "Great City" beyond us lay stupefied, paralysed, to all seeming devoid of life, and that at an hour — it was now approaching noon — when it was usually busiest. This was alone unparalleled and horrifying, and as minute chased minute by and still no news relieved prevailing fears, and still the horrid fever of suspense made things seem darker, so the first consternation spread and deepened until a vast wave of awful, unheard-of terror rushed back from the outskirts of London. By this time every vehicle that could be put in motion was loaded with goods and with women and children, while crowds of people of all stations and sexes were hurrying along the roads which led to the country. Whither, none knew or cared; their only anxiety was to get away beyond the influence of the LONDON FOG, which their magnified panic believed was steadily advancing outward from the town. I cannot think that my own faculties had remained unshaken amid the frenzy of fear that boiled up around me; yet the deep sense of awe that fell upon me seemed to banish all merely personal fears. By-and-by, soon after noon I think, I noticed a sensible alteration in the fog; it became lighter around us, while puffs of wind were now to be felt at short intervals. The line of mansions along the crest of Champion Hill, previously invisible from the lower ground where we were, now came out into view. O was pretty sure that the fog was becoming more tenuous — "lifting," in short. The recollection of my mother and sister came before my mind so strongly that I resolved instantly to make my way to them. I intimated my resolution to the Forresters, my companions. They did not attempt to dissuade me, but the old man wrung my hand and said, "Come back to us, my lad, if — " and he nodded and turned away. Then I passed on my road into London.
It was but a step away from the remaining groups of people collected about the railway station and the last houses of East Dulwich, and I was at once alone. My way at first lay up Champion Hill, along a road bordered by fields and gardens belonging to the mansions higher up. .Once these were passed, rows of smaller dwellings lined the road which passed along the crest of the high ground to Denmark Hill, whence the streets were continuous and part of London. As I came down the street that emerged upon Denmark Hill, I began to be dreadfully affected by the fog, that seemed to become worse at every step. It was very thick and dark upon the Camberwell side of the hill., and appeared to have a peculiar irritating pungency which made me cough incessantly, until. I found that by muffling my nose and mouth in my woollen wrapper I was able to endure it better. After a while, either the density of the fog had greatly decreased or my throat became more callous to it, for I was able to breathe without any difficulty. At this time I was still oppressed by a feeling of unutterable awe; which absorbing presence seemed to leave no room for any other sentiment. Added to this there now came over me a terrible sense of loneliness, indescribably horrible indeed in such a situation. I traversed the foggy street, seeing objects but indistinctly at ten yards distance. I saw no living being, no faces at the shrouded windows, no passers by, no children playing in the gardens or the road; not even a sparrow fluttered past to convey to me the sense of companionship. And then the frightful, muffled stillness that seemed to hold me down in a nightmare trance; not a sound of traffic, no rattle of carriages and carts, no scream and rumble of trains, no clamour of children or costermongers, no distant hum of the midday city, no voice or whisper of a wind; not the rustling of a leaf, not the echo of a foot-fall, nothing to break the deathly stillness but the panting of my laboured chest and the beating of my trembling heart. Below the brow of Denmark Hill, in the street leading into Camberwell, I stumbled over something in the path. It was the body of a policeman lying stretched across the pavement. Horrified, I stooped beside him, striving to find a spark of life, but he was cold and dead. There he lay, as he had probably been struck down upon his beat, the face fixed and set, the skin of a mottled bluish cast, some black moisture hanging about the nose and lips and on the beard. It seemed to me the first realization of some horrible dream; I would have shouted for aid, but my voice sank back upon my lips and I dared not cry aloud. Hastily I fled on upon my way. Alas! horror lay thick before me, and thicker yet. As I came out into the open square called Camberwell Green I saw three cabs standing on the rank; the horses had fallen and were lying dead between the shafts, while at a little distance an indistinct mass upon the sidewalk was probably the bodies of the drivers; I ventured not to approach them. I faced the road leading to London Bridge, meaning to take it; some huge object loomed up before me through the fog. Approaching, I found this to be an omnibus; but, O God! did ever man before me witness such a sight? I supposed subsequently that this was some belated car from the Middlesex side of the river, that with its load of passengers had struggled bravely on through the gathering gloom of the preceding night to this point, where it had been overtaken by the death-dealing acceleration of fog. We know from the printed accounts that there was abundant evidence discovered to prove that the crisis occurred at different hours in several localities. This was the object that barred my road, seen indistinctly and weirdly in the misty light, as I suddenly came upon it. Drawn across the roadway, probably by the plunging of the horses in their last suffocative agony, it presented a spectacle more appallingly hideous than the most distempered imagination could easily picture to itself. Ah! I can see it yet, in all the vivid ghastliness that was burnt indelibly into my remembrance. The driver, and those who occupied the front seats, still sat, but not as they sat in life. The attitudes of the corpses showed the sudden agony and spasm of their deaths. The driver hung forward sustained by the belted apron, his clenched hands thrown out before him, and in one he still clutched a portion of his whip that he had broken possibly in the final struggle. On either side of him were other bodies showing too plainly the effects of the convulsion that had overpowered them. One sat still upright, his arms thrown back and grasping at the rail, his head, supported from behind, was erect and left the face in view. Oh, the insupportable horror of that dead man's look! The staring eyes, the gasping mouth, the livid skin, the strained and tortured whole. Below them lay the horses, dead in their harness; above and behind, the roof of the vehicle that had been full-occupied with men, was now loaded with their bodies. One or two had dropped from the top and lay upon the ground below, while one hung head-downwards over the side. I could see the interior of the car where women had chiefly sat. Poor creatures! they had been coming home, perhaps, after their day's work or evening's pleasure, and now I saw them entwined together in a twisted, contorted heap, that made me fancy I could even behold the writhing, the piteous interlacing of hands, the convulsive catching at each other, and hear the choking shrieks and cries for succour that too surely here had made more dreadful the spasm and terror of sudden death.
Oh, pitying heaven! For sixty years I have prayed unceasingly that the hideous memories of that awful day might be blotted from my mind.
I turned in an excess of horror from that grim load of dead, and rather than pass by it I took another road. So great was the effect of these horrors upon my mind, so terrible was the emotion I experienced, that I pursued my way with difficulty. Sometimes I fell upon my face or upon my knees in a very frenzy of agitation, while my mind kept working in a voiceless prayer to the Supreme. Tottering and shaking in every limb I went on my way, swaying and staggering with the palsy and delirium of abject dread. Scarcely knowing what I did, I followed the tramway rails in the centre of the road, caring little in which direction they led me. But the fog, unmerciful before, had mercy to me then; its loathsome mantle shrouded numberless deadly horrors from my view, and veiled a veritable Valley of the Shadow of Death as I passed through it. Gradually I recovered in some degree from the first intensity of my emotions, and walked on, still. trembling, but calmer. I kept my eyes bent upon the ground, and held along the tramway, not daring to look up in case my eyes might again encounter some fearful spectacle. Often I passed by dark object of whose dismal character I was but too well convinced, though I avoided their inspection.. Several times I saw the body of a man or of a woman lying close to the track. At length I came to a bridge; it was Vauxhall Bridge, and here I lingered for a while, listening to the sound of the waters beneath. The plashing of the river was a friendly sound in my ears, the first sound that had broken the deep stillness of the fog-hound region since I had entered it; it cheered me up in some indescribable way. I passed across the bridge and again took my way onward through the streets of the silent city.
Not far from the bridge, upon the Middlesex side, I came upon another awful sign of the impartiality and completeness of the tremendous catastrophe. Close to the edge of the pavement there stood a carriage — one of those elegant and voluptuously-appointed vehicles which the wealthiest people were wont to use. The spot I had now reached was no great distance from the fashionable quarter of London, where every night one might see numbers of such carriages conveying aristocratic parties to and from their residences. It seemed as though this equipage must have missed its way in the obscurity, and been brought to a stand, for one of the gorgeously-liveried flunkeys lay prone beside the door, while his fellow had fallen from his perch behind. The mailman, huddled up upon his seat, appeared as though watching his horses, which lay in a confused heap below him, their smooth and silken coats still handsome beneath the bravery of silver harness. I noticed a coronet upon the, emblazoned panels, and as I looked through the window of this splendid carriage my eye was caught by the glitter of jewellery, the gleam of white skins, and the flash of bright colours. O sad, heartrending spectacle! An elderly lady reclined in a corner, while stretching forward, with arms encircling her as though imploring help, were two fair girls. The piteous agony and terror that distorted those once lovely faces was rendered more fearfully startling by the magnificence of their dress and adornments. Weak and unstrung in nerve as I was, my tears flowed at the sight of these patrician beauties, fresh from the tender frivolities of the Court or the ball-room, lying out here, the victims of that clammy, relentless fog. Again I turned and fled, but not for far, till once more my steps were arrested. And here was a strange and woeful antithesis to the last picture — one of those sights too common to be noticeable in living London, yet how infinitely, solemnly mournful in the city of the dead! Two miserable little bodies in the gutter, two poor little ragged urchins, barefooted, filthy, half-naked outcasts of the stony streets, their meagre limbs cuddled round each other in a last embrace, their poor pinched faces pressed together and upturned to heaven. To them, perhaps, death had been but release from life. What a contrast to the occupants of that carriage, not a stone's-throw off! One common doom, one common sepulchre of gloomy fog, there was for the richest and the poorest, the best and the worst alike.
I went hurriedly on, my faculties whirling confusedly with these accumulating shocks. I felt as though I were left alone on earth, and indeed I was the only living creature amid multitudes of dead that but a few hours ago had filled the houses and the streets around me with life. Why had I been left to live when Death had garnered such a mighty harvest? O London! surely, great and manifold as were thy wickednesses, thy crimes, thy faults, who stayed to think of these in the hour of thy awful doom, who dared at that terrible moment to say thy sentence was deserved? And I, a lingering survivor of thy slain, oh, pity that it should have been my task to tell of thy CORRUPTION, to bear witness to thy PUNISHMENT!
It was strange that all this while I had not felt any distinct apprehension for my mother and sister. I had not connected them in my mind with the idea of death. I had yearned to be with them when danger and alarm was all around. I longed intensely to see their dear faces, to hear their dear voices, and to lead them beyond the bounds of the ghastly metropolis; but I had somehow no realised sense of the approach of danger to them personally. But now the first shadowy suspicion of what might be came into my mind; vague, it may be yet sufficient to spur my footsteps more quickly onward. The thought that the all-pervading death could seize upon my treasures had not definitely come before my mind; such a fear was too monstrous, too appalling for me to entertain; for you know, my grandchildren, that those two darling women were all the ties I had in the world; on them my whole affections were centred; they were the sum and substance of my life. Now that I had conceived the dim possibility of the approach of evil to them I was instantly overwhelmed by the desire to be with them. These thoughts were mingled with those terrifying emotions that I have told you were evoked by the scenes I was witnessing. Pressing my hands over my eyes to try and shut out the now more frequently recurring spectacles of death, I staggered forward till at length I came beneath the wall of Buckingham Palace. There was a slight stir in the air, and a perceptible lightening of the grimy vapours, as I turned into the space before the palace. I saw the outline of the trees in St. James's Park, and above the high facade of the palace I caught a glimpse of the flagstaff, with the drooping standard hanging almost motionless. I passed the gates a sudden dazzle of scarlet caused me to start; it was the sentry in his box. Standing upright as though in life, propped against the wall of the sentry-box, his rifle resting butt-end upon the ground, his hands crossed upon the barrel, the heavy bearskin oil his brows adding to the look of stern, resolved despair that was expressed in his set and staring eyes. There he remained, steadfast in death — a dead sentinel watching the dead. Not far in front of the gate lay the body of a woman — God knows who or what! She lay there upon her face with extended arms, her rich furs and silks dabbled in the mud, her delicately-gloved and jewelled hands vainly grasping at the stones, her painted cheek and yellow hair pressed into the mire of the gutter. Bethink you, was it not enough to unman me to pass through these familiar places in the hours of daylight, and. to see nothing but a dreadful series of deaths spread out into a continuous panorama of horror before me? Aye! do you wonder now that sixty years have failed to efface these awful details from my mind? Imprinted, burnt upon my memory, such recollections must remain with me till I, too, am claimed by Death!
I think that at this juncture some kind of madness came over me. For some time past my brain had seemed to reel, sickened with its terrible impressions; yet still striving with outstretched hands to blind my sense of sight, unsteadily yet frantically I hurried forward. Down the Mall, behind terraces of palatial mansions, and through Trafalgar Square, I reached the Strand. Scarcely can I portray in words the dire and dismal scenes that met my vision here. From Charing Cross and onwards, I crept along, one solitary shuddering wretch, amid such a hecatomb of deathly woe, as may well defy the power of man to truthfully describe. For here, where on the previous night had throbbed hot and high the flood-tide of London's evening gaiety, was now presented to my poor fevered sight, the worst, most awful features of the whole terrific calamity. I had entered into the very heart and home of Horror itself.
Somewhere near the middle of the Strand, an impulse I can scarcely define drove me to seek refuge from the piled horrors of the street. Although it was so central a thoroughfare as to have gained for itself the cant name of "High Street, London," yet I had but little personal acquaintance with it. One place I knew slightly, a tavern-restaurant, where I had occasionally dined or supped with acquaintances. Thither I bent my steps, picking my way in shivering dread among the corpses that strewed the way — aye! strewed the pavement and the roadway so thickly, O God! so thickly! Somehow I think I must have hoped to find there friendly, sympathizing, living faces; I know not else why I, a lonely wanderer among those thousand mute, stricken victims, should have been seized with another soul-shaking shock, another paroxysm of maddening fear. I had entered the half-open doors of the restaurant, and passed within the bar, where still many of the gas-lamps burnt brightly, mixing with the murky daylight and adding a baleful ghastliness to the scene. No voice, no sound were there to welcome or to check me. I stood unheeded in a house of the dead. Behind the bar a heap of women's clothes huddled in a corner caught my eye: I needed not to look more closely to see that it was a barmaid, for nearer to me was another, drawn down as though by some unseen force from behind, her hands still grasping the handles of the beer-engine, her head fallen back upon her shoulders, her body half-hanging, half-crouched upon the floor. Poor girls! The last time I had seen them only a few days before they had stood there in all the vanity of youth and beauty, decked with flowers, cheap jewellery, and flashy clothes, smiling on the customers they supplied, bandying "chaff " with their admirers, and listening greedily to the vapid compliments of the boozy dandies, some of whose bodies now lay prostrate at my feet. So had they been occupied up to the sudden awful moment when the FOG-KING had closed down upon his prey. I dared not pass beyond the threshold of the house, yet the one rapid glance that my eye took of the scene within sufficiently impressed its details on my memory. There were the half-empty glasses upon the counter, those who had been drinking from them lying stark upon the floor men in all the frippery of evening dress, the cigar or cigarette just fallen from their twisted lips; men in less conspicuous attire; here and there a woman or two; most of them, alas! showing too plainly by the garish ostentation of their garments the class to which they belonged; further on, in the supper-room behind, I could see the dishes and supper equipage upon the tables, while, in the chairs around them, on the floor below, and leaning across the tables themselves, in all the dreadful confusion of sudden death, in all the hideous contortion of paralyzed panic, were the mortal remains of those who had been sitting there joyously supping, when the hour of doom had struck. Ah! and there was one sad group that struck me more than all the rest, from which, too, they seemed to differ strangely; it was a, man and a woman boy and girl, perhaps I should rather say —who occupied the corner of a couch close to the door. Her arms were thrown around his neck, her face was pressed down into his bosom, and he, holding her to him with convulsive embrace, lay back in his seat, his strangled face upturned with such a yearning agony of entreaty for aid where aid there was none, with such expression in the glassy eye, in the parted lips, from which. I fancied I could still hear issue the hoarse accents of despairing prayer and frenzied supplication. that the sight seemed to congeal the remaining life-current within me. Dizzy with aright, my whirling brain drew some strange analogy between that young man and myself, between the dead girl he clasped in his dead arms and my sister.
Again I was in the Strand, striving to pass a hideous barrier of carriages and cabs, interlocked, overturned and confounded in one still medley of death; the bodies of horses, of men, and of women intermixed in the horrible confusion. I crossed the street the better to avoid it, and came under the portals of one of the principal theatres. The doors stood open and the gas-lights were flaming within; but few bodies lay about the entrance as I stepped inside, impelled by a swift fascination I was powerless to resist. I passed down the gay and glittering corridor that led into this temple of pleasure; becoming in some degree accustomed to the sight of death, I walked unheeding past the silent, crouching forms of those who had been the guardians of the place. Proceeding, I opened a swing door, drew aside a curtain and stood within the theatre. Pity me, my grandchildren, pity me. Oh, if you have hearts that feel — and I know you have you will pity your miserable grandfather. Of all the awful sights imprinted on these eyes that day, relentlessly impressed upon a too-faithful memory, I witnessed then the most horrible, the most gruesome, the most ghostly and unutterably terrific of all. I stood upon the floor of the theatre, close to the stage, within the portion of the house then called "the stalls," and from that point I had a full and instant view of the whole interior. The gas still burnt, and threw a light upon the scene more brilliant than perhaps it had been on the previous night; and the people no, not the people, the DEAD! — there under the glaring light they sat, they lay, they hung over the benches, the galleries, the boxes, in one tremendous picture of catastrophe! Beside me were soft and delicate women with their shimmering silks and dainty dresses, with jewels 'sparkling on their necks and arms, with bouquets and fans and other frivolous etcetera, still emanating the perfume and rich odours of the toilette; and with them were men in their sombre garments and starched courtliness, all huddled in their places in every attitude of frantic woe. Behind them stretched the "pit," filled with its crowd of commoner folk, mingled and inextricably involved in a chaos of heads and limbs and bodies, writhed'and knotted together into one great mass of dead men, dead women, and dead children, too. Overhead, tier above tier, rose the galleries, loaded with a ghastly freight of occupants, some of whose bodies hung forward across the front. And the orchestra and stage had also their grim array of horrors. The scenery was set to represent some ancient palace hall, and the stage was open to its furthest limit. Piled upon the boards in fantastic heaps were the bodies of numbers of ballet girls, whose spangled, thousand-hued and tinselled costumes, and all the gorgeous effects of spectacle and ballet, made infinitely more fearful that still and silent scene. Right in the centre and front of the stage there lay one corpse, still fair in death, with streaming hair and jewelled arms, with royal robes and diadem, the queen and sovereign of the pageant; and she — oh, mercy! had fallen prone upon the footlights. The dull, low flames had scorched and burned some of her drapery, and a sickening smoke, still rose from the spot where a once white and rounded bosom pressed down upon the jets, now charred and — oh, why was reason left me to remember these sights? I turned to hasten out once more into the only less terrible street, and as I moved I stumbled over the body of a man. He had passed for youthful, possibly, the night before, but death had lifted the mask that art had made, and I saw the wrinkled face beneath the cracking paint, the false teeth half ejected from the drawn lips in their last fearful gasp, the claw-like hands clutching desperately at the chair, and the whole false roundness of the form lost in a shrunken, huddled heap. Sickened almost to death at the horrors before me, like a drunken man I reeled out into the street again.
What boots it to recall the long succession of frightful sights I witnessed by the way? All up the Strand bodies lay thick as on some battle-field, save that never battle-field was so grimly terrible as this. Here was a part of the town that had been thronged with pleasure-seekers and with those who catered for them, when the crisis came. Cabs, carriages, and omnibuses were numerous here, some overturned in the struggle of their horses, some grouped together or standing singly in all directions, but all silent and motionless, with dead horses fallen from their shafts, with dead men and dead women upon and within them. Oh, appalling and doleful memory, why cannot I fly the remembrance? And bodies of men, of women, and even of children, gaily-dressed and ragged intermixed, were piled upon the pavements. Yes, there they lay, the old, the young, the rich, the poor ; of all ranks, and stations, and qualities, all huddled in one cold and hideous death; while open eyes, piteous faces, distorted limbs, and strange, unnatural attitudes, told the tremendous tale of that sudden midnight agony.
At length. I reached our home; I entered the house and descended to the basement where we dwelt. Impatiently and fearfully I opened the door and passed into the sitting-room. Yes, there they were. The fire was cold and gray, but the cat lay curled upon the rug in her accustomed place. In the armchair sat my mother, and beside her, on a stool, my sister, just as they often loved to sit, with arms embracing each other. Was it my voice that broke the horrid stillness of the room — so hoarse, so changed? "Mother! sister! darlings!" No answer. Nearer I went, treading slowly and tremblingly. Again my hoarse accents jarred the heavy air as I knelt and took my mother's hand. "Mother! sister awake! " Ah! God of mercy! The horrid truth came home tome at last. Dead! dead!!
* * * * *
Children, I can write no more. I am shaken unutterably shaken by these recollections. Much more I saw and knew, but, in pity's sake, press me not to tell you of it. And when you read elsewhere, or others tell you of THE DOOM of that GREAT CITY, think with tender sorrow of the awful load of memory that has so long been borne by YOUR GRANDFATHER.
"The rich, the poor, one common bed
Shall find in the unhonour'd grave
Where weeds shall crown alike the head
Of tyrant and of slave."
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