― 188 ―

His Invisible Enemy.

“Douse glim!” The light was shut off and the two men remained motionless, the one kneeling before the open safe, the other crouching behind him with a lantern, their eyes straining on a profound darkness, their ears on a stillness like a dungeon's.

To one unaccustomed to prolonged and intent listening the beat of the heart would have appeared the only sound audible in the upper storey of the huge building, that stood massively out under the moonless sky, from among the narrow streets of chaotically designed warehouses, tumble-down offices, and crowded alleys of weather-stained, dilapidated human kennels. The rattle of some hurrying hansom had now and again disturbed the stillness of the low-lying levels, flinging a whirr of echoes over that towering wholesale emporium without once, however, arresting the two men at their work.

Despite the rustle of paper as his hands deftly whipped out of the safe its contents, the one on his knees had heard a faint crackling in the hosiery department below. The uncertainty of its meaning had pricked him into that abrupt injunction to his mate.

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Both men remained some minutes like inanimate objects, listening, peering.

“Rats,” was the brief, deep-throated comment of the man on his knees.

Again a narrow but keen shaft of light shot into the safe and the kneeling man continued his operations rapidly; his short thick frame bulking largely in the lamp gleam; his sunken black eyes scintillating; and his square bony chin jerking continually to his freckle-faced, sandy-haired companion, who kept murmuring gleefully to himself as he eagerly slid into a bag whatever was elbowed towards him.

“Here's a jollo, Bill,” the sandy-haired man ejaculated, his big, watery blue eyes a-glisten with suppressed excitement as he clutched a leather bag heavy with sovereigns, forgetting for the moment his instinctive fear of his saturnine companion, and that Bill kept sternly aloof from “carousing dens.”

The sight of gold affected him like the sound of the big drum in the Salvation Army when in one of his vacillating moods he had become a soldier for a few weeks after a lengthened period in “chokey.” He hummed, flapped an elbow, and was launching in a vibrating undertone on a ditty of strung words of mysterious meaning, when Bill swung his great head towards him, his heavily hewn countenance ploughed into lines like an enraged tiger's.

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“Stow it” he growled, his eyes like bits of fiery jet.

At once the other shrank into his habitual subserviency and the work went on in silence.

The sandy-haired one would have dared a constable with his “gun” up rather than have bearded Bill. The aloofness of the man, his reticence as to himself, his imperturbability in moments of danger, his sudden rages at trivial causes, his great physical strength, the secrecy of his life apart from his consultations and subsequent illegal operations with Harry, invested him with a mysterious awe-inspiring power in the eyes of that volatile mate. Harry knew nothing of Bill other than he was “a good worker.” He often pondered, however, over Bill's peculiar character.

The men had ransacked the office, distributed the loot into portable parcels, and stepped on to the landing, when a confused sound transfixed them. In another moment they made a rush for the staircase and were met by a current of hot, pungent air. A colossal hum, as of some powerful instrument vibrating, arose from the capacious body of the building. “Fire!” the word sprang from their lips unknowingly.

They rushed back to the office, tore off their shirts, saturated them from the half filled pitcher, bound them turban-like around their heads, and tossed on their coats again, buttoning them to the throat.

Though short their delay the pungency of the up-pouring

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air currents had increased, fretting their eyes and stinging their nostrils as they sped down the staircase. A swirl of sulphurous smoke coiled about them on their flight to the next landing and the colossal hum, now more predominant, was accompanied by multitudinous flappings. A draught of smoke and fiery particles discharged from the next staircase as from a funnel drove them back singed in places.

Harry hesitated, but Bill again faced it, and with desperate determination was crawling backward when a report like a cannon's, and the violent heaving of the steps warned him to retreat. He had barely reached the landing when a long flame was brandished like a sabre up the staircase.

By the light of the lamp strapped to Harry's waist they groped to one of the windows. Bill mounted his mate's shoulders and peeped through. He could see figures of men and women hurrying hither and thither as in a ruddy abyss. “To the roof,” he shouted in Harry's ear, dropping to his feet. They hastened to the topmost landing and flashing the lamp above them discerned a skylight.

They at length succeeded in reaching the roof, an oblong terrace with stone parapets. A cold breeze soothed their burnt hands and face. They inflated their lungs, and then with one accord stole to a parapet and peeped over.

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From their great height the narrow street appeared a slit swimming in a tremulous blood-red vapour. A row of fronting cottages seemed to be peeling away, to be actually melting before some terrific furnace glow. The beating fierceness of the fire had swept the street clean. It lay bare, naked, in that fiery crimson.

Without a word the two men hastened to the opposite parapet and peered over, with suddenly blanched faces. At first the awfulness of the scene appalled them, and they realised nothing but a dizzy blurr of tumultuous figures in a gulf of intolerable light. Though they only gazed a minute it seemed an eternity. Within those sixty seconds a vision as of hell had been outspread beneath them.

Down in that great depth the broad street was as a chasm of white uplifted faces extended in a quivering sea of roseate splendor, from which arose a roar as of billows breaking on a reef. The crowd had seen them. They sprang instinctively back, and at the same moment long lines of smoke drifted past. The fire was approaching, no time was to be lost. Already the tramping paean of the flames had made speech impossible. They rushed madly to and fro like caged animals, peering now over one part of the parapet, now over another, seeking some outlet of escape. The roof was isolated like an island in mid-ocean. There was no friendly shelter within access. The nearest building

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mocked them from a dizzy distance, and even on its roof their enemy had planted a banner of flame. They were utterly beyond the reach of human help. Whither could they flee? Whither?

Suddenly Bill stopped in mid career and seizing Harry by the wrist stared into his face. The other lifted a hand imploringly. Bill shook his head mournfully, and striding to the parapet gazed into the night. That significant act drove the already hysterical Harry to frenzy. He ran hither and thither, tossing his arms, now glancing piteously upward as though the sky might proffer assistance, now darting from parapet to parapet and coo-eeing through hollowed hands to the white sea of upward staring faces, now flinging himself before his mate, beseeching him in shrill cries that sometimes pierced the roaring revelry of the flames to save him. The last vestige of his self-control had vanished. His whole soul was fused into one overwhelming desire for life. Everything had become a hideous nightmare. Sometimes he fell prostrate, sobbing like a child, and words he had not uttered for years flew to his lips. “Mother! God! Jesus! Mercy!” were incoherently poured out. Once he endeavoured to pray, but his tongue stumbled over oaths, snatches of sentimental songs, slang phrases, bits of Salvation Army hymns. Yelling “save me!” with violent

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reiteration he again leaped to the parapet, craning his neck over the abyss with protruding eyes and working jaw. At last he sank exhausted, his fingers clawing at the floor and saliva trickling from his lips, daubed with sweat and grime.

Meanwhile his mate stands like a dark pillar, with folded arms, gazing into the night. Never once has his eye turned to his swooning mate. He appears scarce conscious of the flames flying upward, chorussing their furious song of victory. His mind is far away. He sees his young wife, the only being he had ever met who seemed to understand his slow unwieldy nature, lying in bed, an invalid, with a lamp beside her, waiting, listening for his return. A bitter wrath is raging in his soul. All his life had been a fight with an invisible enemy that had persecuted him when he was honest, and now at last had trapped him when, to obtain food for her, he threw in his lot with men too strong to starve, too weak to be martyrs. In his blind blundering way he had grasped the fact that something amiss infected the world. No work—no food. Ah! those cruel, cruel days he had trudged the wet streets, hung round wharves, searching, waiting, almost imploring for work. Everywhere his invisible enemy had thwarted him, had followed him here and was now mocking ere it destroyed him. Yon crowd could they save him from death would bundle him

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into gaol—for what? For daring to snatch food from one who had plenty for one who was without, and an invalid. He turned his eyes on the fire and to his outraged soul it appeared the visible manifestation of his invisible enemy. A fierce desire to taunt and mock at it, to shake his fist at it, to revile it as a coward, died away in an absorbing wonder at its magnificent and irresistible display.

Storey after storey had been captured by the flames and their contents converted into heaps of smouldering ashes, tempests of sparks, showers of flickering embers, all contributing to the voluminous clouds and volleys of smoke. In the street the huge crowd swayed and moved its great length like some phantasmagorial monster, venting every now and again its agonising intensity in a roar like the sea. From the roof he could discern the fire engines, diminished to curious toys, emitting vaporish threads into what seemed to the crowd in the street below a turbulent fire-bed rocking on columns like trunks of a blazing forest. The firemen moving about in an open space appeared from that great height like creatures of some strange species perceivable by glinting discs. The city for miles he could see—its tiers upon tiers of roofs branching in all directions, as under a flash of some gigantic limelight seemed to have been drawn into startling proximity to the fire, their long

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lines interrupted in places by some towering pile or church steeple, catching wavering reflections on its upper abutments, its flanks sunk in shadow. Overhead a flaring crimson flung over the city a canopy of dusky red. Frequently the glaring roofs in one direction would be plunged into a sea of darkness that dazzled his eye and immediately in another, streets of climbing houses, squares, terraces, flights of stone steps ascending to bridges, with here and there a space of open ground, would start vividly into sight, as the fire flung itself now into one wing, now into another. At intervals a hoarse roar from the crowd would precede a crash of falling timber and a whirlwind of spinning sparks, dust, and shreds of burnt cloth, would rush skyward, choking the air currents. The fitful breeze played on the fire as a harper on his harp, now with one sweep bringing out the full orchestral scale of infinite sounds, now lulling them to a deep, sonorous bass.

As the man awaits his end he has a sensation of sombre joy that his wife will never know what he had become for her sake. Since it was for that, and that alone, he had deliberately committed crime. His last thought, as the flames muster around, compelling him to retire into the centre of the roof, is of pity for her. There is no room in his soul for thoughts of himself. He has, perhaps, a passing sympathy for his

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mate, who has leaped to his feet and rushed to him, catching his hand with convulsed face.

Suddenly the terrace is fringed with fire. There is a harsh cracking, and the upper frontage splits, yawns into a chasm with cliffs of shaggy flame. The two men are seen for a moment as smoke belches from the top storey and spreads to the wind. Then the crowd heaves back with a dreadful shudder, as with a rending uproar the shattered roof tumbles in.