The Black Fog
THE black fog has come. Over all the city it lies intact and deep. An absolute midnight reigns. Almost material, almost tangible, almost massive, seems this envelope of sulphurous gloom. It invests the city like a flood; within the streets, within the houses, and within the lungs of all its denizens, it lies intrenched and pitiless. The chimneys pour forth their smoke, but the leaden air oppresses and repels it, and it sinks to the ground, making the darkness denser. The gloom seems to have risen from the shores of those streams of wailing and lamentation, baleful Acheron and Cocytus environing Tartarus, where the thin shades cluster and move, like those who are now pent in this city on the Thames.
The darkness is not black, but of a deep brown. It is as though one walked at the bottom of a muddy sea. The farther wall of this chamber is almost invisible — at ten o’clock in the morning. Above this dreadful pall that hides his rays, the life-giving sun, bursting with useless fire, now beats upon the surface of the sea of shadow, but his baffled light is repelled or smothered in the misty deeps. Difficult is it for him who walks in an unlifted night to believe that the sun still shines.
Let us forth into the streets so still and sorrowful. With our hands we grope our way past garden-railings, feeling with adventurous foot for the steps or curbs. A glowing patch appears above us; it seems incredibly far away. We put forth our hand and touch the dank iron of a lamp-post. Not even fire and light avail against the almighty fog. Footsteps resound about us, but they are the footsteps of ghosts, for one beholds no body. Now and then some human being brushes by — a woman, announced, perhaps, by rustling skirts or by some perfume cast from her clothes; perhaps a man, declared by the thud of a cane on the flagstones or the dull glow of a cigar.
Upon the main thoroughfares, a weird and muffled pandemonium prevails. From out the heart of the yellow-reddish murk resounds the beat of horses’ hoofs; now and then a spark flies close from their iron shoes. Hoarse warning cries are heard from everywhere, and sometimes, where the fog for a moment is thinned, exaggerated shapes and monstrous figures loom up and creep along, great trucks, wains, and omnibuses with lanterns lit and the drivers leading the horses. Then again strange man-shaped spots appear, like demons come from infernal corridors; they swell out of the darkness surrounded by faint red haloes. These are pedestrians preceded by link-boys, bearing their flaming torches to guide their patrons on their way. The lofty and powerful electric arc-lights, so keenly radiant when the air is clear, now sputter dismally, invisible save at a few yards. From directly below the iron standards, the fierce white arc is dimmed to the luminosity of a red-hot ember. Before some of the railway stations wave great gasoline flambeaux, and fires in iron cressets struggle with the fog — like beacons before the sea-castle of some mediæval robber-lord. The detonators, placed upon the railway tracks in place of light signals, incessantly rend the air. The curbs are cumbered with useless hackney and hansom cabs, the horses unharnessed, the drivers disconsolate. The crawling omnibuses, blundering along the indistinguishable streets, often meet or mount upon the sidewalks amidst cries and wild confusion, and there they remain, like ships becalmed at night. Those huge Behemoths and cars of Juggernaut, the gigantic, double-decked motor-omnibuses, with their two lurid yellow eyes and little sparks of red and green, stand trembling and snorting with impatience, immersed and obliterated in the fog. Universal night enthralls the worldmetropolis; its currents of commerce stagnate in its veins, its mighty plans and purposes are frustrated or delayed, and this central heart of the trade of the whole earth is standing still in a dark paralysis.
Onward into the night, into the mists, into the unknown! We see not and are not seen. We pass and repass, all of us shrouded in the all-enveloping gloom, along the daily walks where life roared in the sunlight of yesterday; we pass, — lovers may almost touch each other, each unknown to each, wives may pass their husbands and mothers their sons, mortal enemies may walk side by side and feel no stir of rage, the outcast and pariah may jostle with the peer of golden millions, for all are blind, helplessly blind! Eerie is this fog-life; London lies beneath its spectral pall like a doomed state whose hope and whose daylight are wrecked by the thick shadows of war or insurrection.
Swiftly we move along beside a stone wall surmounted by an iron rail which serves as a guide. We recoil as a vast apparition looms up before us and our hands touch its cold, graven sides. It is the Marble Arch, rising like a pale transparent stain out of the dunnest blankness of the fog. One might imagine it the vision of a Cyclopean tomb of some long-buried Cæsar lifted up out of the vistas of fading time.
A great policeman stands before us not a yard away, yet ghostly and insubstantial to the eye. To him there comes a little girl, terror-stricken and in tears, who, straying from her mother, has been swallowed up in the mists.
“I’ve lost my mother, where is my mother?” she cries.
“Where do you live, little girl ?” asks the tall spectre of the constable.
“I live in Fulham, sir,” she replies. “Please, sir, which is the way to Fulham ? ”
The policeman points into the darkening wastes.
“You cannot find it now,” he says. “Better wait here, then come to the station with me.”
“Where are you, little girl?” says a voice, and a bent figure with outstretched hands emerges through the walls of obscurity, “Where are you? I’ll show you the way to Fulham. Come with me.”
It is an old man; his beard is white as snow; a placard glimmers faintly on his breast. He is blind. The little maid places her hand in his; they make two steps and the next instant are effaced in the fog. Only the blind know the way through this city that is blind.
Does the sun still move on overhead and the hours with him, or are time and the earth standing still ? After a long time we at last wander along the Strand, which is smitten with an unusual silence. The close current of its traffic is stayed and disorganized; its thousands of pedestrians have shrunk to hundreds groping through the choking miasma and the channels of tenebrous smoke.
How in the blindness that encompasses them do these dark-flitting shapes of men and women hurry on! They are as shadows lost and dissolved in night. They are the searchers and the symbols of the never-ending quest for light, for happiness, for peace. Something of the same feeling comes upon me as once came upon me when I walked through the empty streets of the dead Pompeii and only my footfall echoed on its sunswept stones. Here each is by and to himself complete, a little animated fire in the heart, a little light in the brain, in the veins a little warm red blood that keeps the breathing mechanism astir so long as the fire burns. Out of the darkness they came, in darkness they walk, into the darkness they shall go. The Black Fog, like Death itself, is a great leveler. All these beings are but phantoms to the eye, phantoms of human lives, dusky moths storm-driven to and fro on the gusts of existence, each on its own quest, which is that dream of the unattainable that will not come to pass.
Now we are close to Saint Paul’s Churchyard. Here the mausolean night is lifted for a space, and out of the blankness of an umber-tinted vast swells forth a vague and mystic bulk of gray, a shadow without shading or relief. It is the immense cupola of the cathedral rising like a mountain above the streets. The sun does battle with the flying mists about the dome and melts them to a dull and sullen gold, wherein the star of day hangs like a quivering globe of blood. It is a spectacle of soft yet sombre sublimity, such as only the towering imaginations of a Turner, a Doré, or a John Martin, expressed by brushes of opulent wealth and daring power, could conceive or execute. The drifting scud grows thinner and ever thinner in the upper air, and unfolds to him who gazes upward from the deep streets the gilded symbol of Christianity glowing softly in the golden haze, invested with a mild irradiance from the feeble light of the sun. There it lifts and gleams above the shadows like the sweet smile of the gentle Galilean whose sorrow and burthen it was and whose symbol it has remained. Below rolls the world, swart-black with its crime and misery; above, the titanic cross stretches wide its golden arms as with an imploring appeal from the Son of Man to the Love of Man. Pillars and cornices and angles of carven stone emerge faintly from the turbid chaos, like dim suggestions in a dream, or halfheard whispers out of midnight, all under the towering rood throbbing to the sky. It is high noon; a burst of bells suddenly breaks forth from the gossamer towers, a clanging chorus, loud, vibrant, and metallic. These violent voices are the chimes that utter every day with their iron tongues the beloved national hymn, “God save the King.” Now the strong glooms darken about the dome once more; the lustre fades, and the great cross blurs dimly back into the crowding ocean of fog that overpowers it. Few of the thousands pressing along the paves have seen it, and had their eyes beheld it for a space, this apparition of the sign of human love, it would but have called forth ideas of the olden agony or a slight, subconscious tremble of reverence in those of religious blood. We repeat again the eternal interrogations: What is Truth ? and — Where may Peace be found ?
Is it here, perchance, where we now stand, upon the cold stone arches of London Bridge, above the ghostly rushing Thames whose clashing waves lap and swish against the stolid stone ? Whence comes or goes this river, plunging out of darkness into darkness, broad and vast with the mystery of existence, and the constant cry of ever-recurrent life? Down from the hills to the sea, we say, up from the sea to the cloud, then down to the hills again, and again onward to the sea. It is the known and visible obedience to some iron law. But seldom we venture to pierce beneath the surfaces of semblance, lest we alight upon truths unknown, horrors negative to Hope, and see the old guides through life, blind and decrepit now, fall dead at our feet, or lest, cowering in our creeds, we fear, like savages in the storm-swept woods, that the hand that lifts the veil will be withered by some bolt from the furious heavens. Mantled in the palls of this everlasting ignorance, we stalk upon the highways of life like shadows drowned in shadow. Upon this ignorance the human heart builds its dreams as with inspiration, and draws hope from the very truth that this life seems so ill a recompense for all that tears and torments the baffled mind, adrift on the desert seas of mere conjecture. Yet all nature about us is content, and the sojourn in the sunshine of all other living things is full of beauty and joy. But to-day the city mourns in sackcloth and ashes.
Darkly the waters gurgle through this murky night-in-day. Perhaps Peace is there, upon their bosom or within their depths, to be borne onward in some oarless, rudderless boat, past the muffled thunder of the metropolis, past fields filled with the mystery of things that live and grow and die, past the river’s mouth where its lips of land speak a great farewell, out into the wastes of the infinite sea. Lovingly its breast would open and merge one again into the elements of its mighty vase, to be formed anew in the unceasing ferment of processes of creation.
Over the bridge the breathing spectres move; below, indistinct and long-drawn shapes fare by, silent and immense, past all the pride of the city, — bearing what burthens ? steered by what ghostly helmsman ? So the barge of dolor must cross the lamenting currents of the infernal river. The shadow of another boat, with sweeps groaning in their locks, glides by beneath. Within its ribs lie piled
Perchance it is a Fate-appointed hearse,
Bearing away to some mysterious tomb
Or Limbo of the scornful universe
The joy, the peace, the life-hope, the abortions
Of all things good which should have been our portions
But have been strangled by that City’s curse.