The Black Grippe

The Black Grippe  (1920) 
by Edgar Wallace

Extracted from Popular magazine, 7 Nov 1920, pp. 184-190.

The Black Grippe

By Edgar Wallace

Author of “The Daffodil Enigma,” “The Million-Dollar Story.," Etc.

Here is a tale of what has never happened, but which might happen to a whole city any time. There is no need to tell you how well Mr. Wallace knows how to write.

DOCTOR HEREFORD BEVAN was looking thoughtfully at a small Cape rabbit; the rabbit took not the slightest notice of Doctor Hereford Bevan. It crouched on a narrow bench, nibbling at a mess of crushed mealies, and seemed perfectly content with its lot, in spite of the fact that the bench was situate in the experimental laboratory of the Jackson Institute of Topical Medicines.

In the young principal’s hand was a long porcelain rod, with which, from time to time, he menaced the unconscious feeder, without, however, producing so much as a single shiver of apprehension. For the third time in a quarter of an hour Bevan raised the rod, as though to strike the animal across the nose, and for the third time lowered the rod again. Then, with a sigh, he lifted the little beast by the ears and carried him, struggling and squirming, to a small hutch, put him in very gently, and closed the wire-netted door.

He stood staring at the tiny inmate and fetched a long sigh. Then he left the laboratory and walked down to the staff study. Stuart Gold, his assistant, sat at a big desk, pipe in mouth, checking some calculations. He looked up as Bevan came in.

“Well,” he said, “what has bunny done?”

“Bunny is feeding like a pig,” said Bevan irritably.

“No change?”

Bevan shook his head, and looked at his watch.

“What time——” he began.

“The boat train was in, ten minutes ago,” said Stuart Gold. “I have been on the phone to Waterloo. He may be here at any minute, now.”

Bevan walked to the window and looked out at the busy street—one of the busiest thoroughfares in the West End of London. As he looked, a taxi drew up, opposite the door, and a man sprang out with all the agility of youth, though the iron-gray whiskers about his chin and the seamed red face placed him among the sixties.

Bevan dashed from the room to welcome the visitor, taking the portmanteau from his hand. “It is awfully good of you to come, professor,” he said, shaking the traveler warmly by the hand.

“Nonsense,” said the elder man sharply, “I was coming to Europe anyway, and I merely advanced my date of sailing.”

Professor van der Bergh was one of those elderly men who never grow old. His blue eye was as clear as it had been on his twentieth birthday. A professor of pathology, a great anatomist, and one of the fore most bacteriologists in the United States, Bevan was relieved to discover that he had merely accelerated the great man’s departure from New York, and was not wholly responsible for a trip which might end in disappointment.

“Now,” said Van der Bergh, when they were in the study, spreading his coat tails and drawing his chair to the little fire, “just give me a second to light my pipe and tell me all your troubles.” He puffed vigorously. Then: “I presume that the epidemic of January has scared you?”

Hereford Bevan nodded.

“Well,” said the professor reflectively, “I don’t wonder. The 1918 epidemic was bad enough. I am not calling it influenza, because I think very few of us are satisfied to affix that mild label to a devastating disease which appeared in the most mysterious fashion, took its toll, and disappeared as rapidly and mysteriously.

“I haven’t heard any theory about that epidemic which has wholly satisfied me. People talk glibly of ‘carriers’ of ‘infection,’ but who infected the wild tribes in the center of Africa, on the very day that whole communities of Eskimos were laid low in parts of the arctic regions?”

“That is the mystery that I have never solved,” said Bevan, “and never hope to.”

“I wouldn’t say that,” said the professor, shaking his head. “I am always hoping to get on the track of first causes, however baffling they may be. But, now, let’s get down to the epidemic of this year. I should like to compare notes with you. I suppose it has been suggested to you that the investigation of this particular disease is outside the province of Topical Medicines?”

Stuart Gold laughed.

“We are reminded of that every day,” he said dryly.

“Now, just tell me what happened in January of this year,” said the professor.

“I’ll tell you briefly,” said Bevan, “and without attempting to produce statistics. On the eighteenth of January, near three o’clock in the afternoon, the second manifestation of this disease attacked this country, and, so far as can be ascertained, the whole of the Continent.”

“What were the symptoms?” asked the professor.

“People began to cry, that is to say, their eyes filled with water and they felt extremely uncomfortable for about a quarter of an hour.”

The professor nodded.

“That is what happened in New York,” he said, “and this symptom was followed, about six hours later, by a slight rise of temperature, shivering, and a desire for sleep.”

“Just the same sort of thing happened here,” said Bevan, “and in the morning everybody was as well as they had been the previous morning, and the fact that it had occurred might have been overlooked, but for the observation made in various hospitals. Gold and I were both stricken at the same time. We both took blood, and succeeded in isolating the germs.”

The professor jumped up.

“Then you are the only people who have it,” he said. “Nobody else in the world seems to have taken that precaution.”

Stuart Gold lifted a big bell-shaped glass cover from a microscope, took from a locked case a thin microscopic slide and inserted it in the holder. He adjusted the lens, switched on a shaded light behind the instrument, and beckoned the professor forward. Professor van der Bergh glued his eye to the instrument, and looked for a long time.

“Perfect,” he said, “I have never seen this fellow before. It looks rather like a Trypnasome. It is like and it is unlike. Of course, it is absurd to suggest that you’ve all had an attack of sleeping sickness, which you undoubtedly would have had, if this had been a Trypnasome. But this bug is a new one to me!”

He walked back to his chair, puffing thoughtfully at his pipe. “What did you do?”

“I made a culture,” said Bevan, “and infected six South African rabbits. Their eyes watered for the prescribed time, their temperature rose six hours later, and in the morning they were all well. When I wired to you, though, I had no idea there was going to be any further developments. I merely wanted to make you acquainted with the bug.”

The professor looked up sharply. “Have there been further developments?”

“Five days ago,” said Bevan, speaking slowly, “the second symptoms appeared. These rabbits develop symptoms twice as fast as does the human being. I will show you.”

He led the way back to the laboratory, went to the little hutch, and lifted the twisting, struggling rabbit to the bench under a blaze of electric light. The professor felt the animal gingerly.

“He has no temperature,” he said, “and looks perfectly normal. What is the matter with him?”

Bevan lifted the little beast, and held his head toward the light. “Do you notice anything?” he asked.

“Good God!” said Van der Bergh, “he’s blind!”

“He’s been blind for five days.”

“But——” Van der Bergh stared at him.

“It means,” said Bevan, “that when the secondary symptom comes, and it should come in a fortnight from to-day——

He stopped, and replaced the animal upon the bench. Then he put out his hand to stroke its ears, and suddenly the rabbit groped back from him. Again he reached out his hand, and again the animal made a frantic attempt to escape.

“He sees, now!” exclaimed the professor.

Bevan took down a board, to which a paper was pinned, looked at his watch, and jotted a note. “Thank God for that,” he said. “The blindness lasts for exactly one hundred and twenty hours.”

“But, do you mean,” asked Van der Bergh with an anxious little frown, “that the whole world is going blind, for five days?”

“That is my theory.”

The professor mopped his face, with a large and gaudy handkerchief.

They went back, without another word, to the study, and Van der Bergh began his technical test. For his information, sheet after sheet of data were placed before him. Records of temperature, of diet and the like, were scanned and compared, while Bevan made his way to another laboratory, to examine the remaining rabbits. He returned as the professor finished.

“They can all see,” he said. “I inspected them this morning, and they were as blind as bats.”

Presently the professor finished.

“I am going down to our embassy,” he said, “and the best thing you boys can do is to see some representative of your government. Let me see, Sir Douglas Sexton is your big man, isn’t he?”

Bevan made a wry face. “He is the medical gentleman who has the ear of the government,” he said. “But he is rather an impossible person. He’s one of the old school of——

“I know that school,” said the professor grimly, “it’s a school where you learn, nothing, and forget nothing. Still, it’s your duty to warn him.”

Bevan nodded, and turned to Stuart Gold.

“Will you cancel my lecture, Gold?” he said. “I’ll go down and see Sexton, though he wither me!”

Sir Douglas Sexton had a large house in a very large square. He was so well off that he could afford a shabby butler. That shrunken man shook his head, when Doctor Bevan made his inquiry.

“I don’t think Sir Douglas will see you, sir,” he said. “He has a consultation in half an hour’s time.”

“I simply must see Sir Douglas,” said Bevan firmly. “Tell him.”

The butler presently returned to usher the caller into a large and gloomy room, where Sir Douglas sat surrounded by open books.

“Really, it is most inconvenient, doctor, for you to see me at this moment,” he complained. “I suppose you want to ask about the government grant to the Jackson Institute.”

“I haven’t come about the grant, Sir Douglas,” replied Bevan, “but a matter of much greater importance.”

In as few words as possible, he gave the result of his experiment, and on the face of Sir Douglas Sexton was undisguised incredulity.

“Come, come,” he said, when Doctor Bevan had finished, and permitted his heavy features to relax into a smile. “That sort of stuff is all very well for the press, if you want to make a sensation and advertise your name, but surely you are not coming to me, a medical man, and a medical man, more over, in the confidence of the government and the ministry of health, with a story of that kind!”

“Believe it or not,” said Bevan patiently, “I am merely giving you, Sir Douglas, my own belief of what form the second epidemic will take.”

“And do you expect me,” smiled Sir Douglas, “to go to the prime minister of England and tell him that in fourteen days the whole of the world is going blind? My dear good man, if you published that sort of story, you would scare the people to death, and set back the practice of medicine a hundred years!”

“Do you think that, if I saw the prime minister——” began Bevan, and Sir Douglas stiffened.

“If you know the prime minister, or have any friends who could introduce you,” he said shortly, “I have not the slightest objection to your seeing him. I can only warn you that the prime minister is certain to send for me and that I should give an opinion which would be contrary to yours.”

“The opinion of Doctor van der Bergh——” began Bevan, and Sir Douglas snorted.

“I really cannot allow Doctor van der Bergh to teach me my business,” he said. “And now, doctor, if you will excuse——” He turned pointedly to his books, and Bevan went out.

For seven days, three men worked most earnestly to enlist the attention of the authorities. They might have given the story to the press, and created a sensation, but neither Bevan nor Van der Bergh favored this method. Eminent doctors, who were consulted, took views which were extraordinarily different. Some came to the laboratories to examine the records. Others “pooh-poohed” the whole idea.

“Have you any doubt on the matter yourself?” asked the professor, and Bevan hesitated.

“The only doubt I have, sir,” he said, “is whether my calculations as to the time are accurate. I have noticed in previous experiments with these rabbits, the disease develops about twice as fast as in the human body; but I am far from satisfied that this rule is invariable.”

Van der Bergh nodded.

“My embassy has wired the particulars to Washington,” he said, “and Washington takes a very serious view of your discovery. They are making whatever preparations they can.”

He slept, that night, in his room at the institute. He awoke with the subconscious feeling that he had slept his usual allowance and was curiously alive and awake. The room was in pitch darkness, and he remembered with a frown that, because of his work, he had not gone to bed until four o’clock in the morning. He could not have slept two hours. He put out his hand and switched on the light, to discover the time. Apparently the light was not working.

On his bedside table was a box of matches, his cigarette holder and his cigarettes. He took the box, struck a light, but nothing happened. He threw away the match and struck another—still nothing happened. He held the faithless match in his hand, and suddenly felt a strange warmth at his finger tips. Then with a cry he dropped the match. It had burned his fingers.

Slowly, he put his legs over the edge of the bed, and stood up, groping his way to the window, and releasing the spring blind. The darkness was still complete. He strained his eyes but could not even see the silhouette of the window frame against the night. Then a church bell struck the hour. Nine, ten, eleven, twelve!

It was impossible that it could be twelve o’clock at night Twelve midday and dark!

He searched for his clothes, and began to dress. His window was open, yet, from outside, came no sound of traffic. London was silent—as silent as the grave. His window looked out upon the busy thorough fare in which the Jackson Institute was situated, but there was not so much as the clink of a wheel or the sound of a pedestrian’s footsteps.

He dressed awkwardly, slipping on his boots and lacing them quickly, then groped his way to the door, and opened it. A voice outside greeted him. It was the voice of Gold. “Is that you, Bevan?”

“Yes, it is I, what the dickens——” And then the realization of the catastrophe which had fallen upon the world came to him. “Blind!” he whispered. “We’re all blind!”

Gold had been shell-shocked, in the war, and was subject to nerve storms. Presently, Bevan heard his voice whimpering hysterically.

“Blind!” he repeated. “God Almighty! What a horrible thing!”

“Steady yourself!” said Bevan sternly. “It has come! But it’s only for five days, Gold. Come down to the study! There are twenty-four steps, Gold. Count ’em!”

He was halfway down the stairs, when he heard somebody sobbing at the foot, and recognized the voice of the old housekeeper who attended to the resident staff. She was whimpering and wailing.

“Oh, sir,” she moaned. “I can’t see! I can’t see!”

“Nobody can see, or will see, for five days!” said Bevan. “Keep your nerve, Mrs. Moreland.” He found his way to the study. He had scarcely reached the room before he heard a thumping on the door which led from the street to the staff quarters.

“Hello!” said a cheery voice, outside. “Is this the Jackson Institute?”

“Thank God, you’re safe, professor,” cried Bevan, having maneuvered around to let him in. “You took a risk in coming round.”

The professor entered, with slow, halting footsteps, and Bevan shut the door behind him, and led the way to the study.

“I’ve been two hours getting here,” said the professor. “Ouch!”

“Are you hurt?” asked Bevan.

“I ran against an infernal motor bus in the middle of the street. It had been left stranded,” said the professor. “I think the blindness is general.”

Stuart had stumbled into the room soon after them, had found a chair, and sat down upon it.

“Now,” said Van der Bergh briskly, “you’ve got to find your way to your government offices and interview somebody in authority. There’s going to be hell, in the world, for the next five days!”

“It is very awkward!” It was Gold’s quivering voice that spoke. “But of course, it’ll be all right, in a day or two.”

“I hope so,” said the professor’s grim voice. “If it’s for five days, little harm will be done, but—but if it’s for ten days!”

“If it’s for ten days?” Bevan repeated.

“The whole world will be dead,” said the professor solemnly.

“Dead?” whispered Gold, and Van der Bergh swung round toward the voice. The old man’s voice took on a softer note.

“Not all of us, perhaps,” he said, “but the least intelligent. Don’t you realize what has happened, and what will happen? We are a blind world and how shall we find food?”

A thrill of horror crept up Bevan’s spine, as he realized, for the first time, just what world blindness meant.

“All the trains have stopped,” the professor went on. “I’ve been figuring it out in my room, this morning, just what it means. There are blind men in the signal boxes and blind men on the engines. All transport has come to a standstill. How are you going to get the food to the people? In a day’s time, the shops, if the people can reach them, will be sold out, and it will be impossible to replenish the local stores. You can neither milk nor reap. All the great power stations are at a standstill. There is no coal being got out of the mines. Wait, where is your telephone?”

Bevan fumbled for the instrument, and passed it in the direction of the professor’s voice. A pause, then:

“Take it back,” said the professor. “Of course, that will not be working. The exchange cannot see!”

Bevan rose unsteadily to his feet. “Put your hand on my shoulder, professor, and Gold, take hold of the professor’s coat or something. We go to the kitchen, for food.”

The meal consisted in the main of dry bread, biscuits, and cheese washed down by water. Then Hereford Bevan began his remarkable pilgrimage.

He left the house, and, keeping touch with the railings on his right, reached, first, Cockspur Street, and then, Whitehall. Halfway along the latter thoroughfare he thumped into a man, and putting out his hand felt embossed buttons.

“Hello,” he said, “a policeman?”

“That’s right, sir,” said a voice, “I’ve been here since the morning. You’re in Whitehall. What has happened, sir?”

“It is a temporary blindness which has come upon everybody,” said Bevan, speaking quickly. “I am a doctor. Now, constable, you are to tell your friends if you meet them, and everybody you do meet, that it is only temporary. What time did it happen?”

“About ten o’clock, as near as I can remember,” said the policeman.

Bevan continued his pilgrimage. Two hours’ diligent search, two hours of groping and of stumbling, two hours of discussing with frantic men and women, whom he met on the way, brought him to Downing Street. That journey along Whitehall would remain in his mind a horrible memory for all his days. He heard oaths and sobbings. He heard the wild jabberings of somebody—whether it was man or woman he could not say—who had gone mad under the stress of the calamity, and he came to Downing Street as the clock struck three.

He might have passed the prime minister’s house, but he heard voices, and recognized one as that of Sexton. The great man was moaning his trouble to somebody, who spoke in a quiet, unemotional voice. It proved to be the prime minister himself. Bevan stumbled toward and collided with the great physician.

“Who is it?” said Sexton.

“It is Hereford Bevan.”

“This is the man, sir—the doctor I spoke to you about,” explained Sexton.

A cool hand took Bevan’s. “Come this way,” said the voice. “You had better stay, Sexton. You’ll never find your way back.” Bevan found himself led through what he judged to be a large hall, and then suddenly his feet struck a heavy carpet.

“I think there’s a chair behind you,” said the new voice. “Sit down and tell me all about it.”

Doctor Bevan spoke for ten minutes, his host merely interjecting a question here and there.

“It can last for only five days,” said the voice with a quiver of emotion, “and we can last out only that five days. Can you make a suggestion?”

“Yes, sir,” said Bevan. “There are a number of blind institutes throughout the country. Get in touch with them, and let their trained men organize the business of industry.”

“It might be done,” said the voice. “Happily the telegraphs are working satisfactorily as messages can be taken by sound.”

The days that followed were days of nightmare, days when men groped and stumbled in an unknown world, shrieking for food. On the evening of the second day the water failed. The pumping stations had ceased to work. Happily it rained, and people were able to collect water in their mackintosh coats.

Dr. Bevan made several excursions a day, and in one of these he met another bold adventurer, who told him that part of the Strand was on fire. Somebody had overset a lamp, without noticing the fact. The doctor made his way toward the Strand, but was forced to turn back by the clouds of pungent smoke which met him. He and his informant—he was a butcher from Smithfield—locked arms and made their way back to the institute. By some mischance they took a wrong turning, and might have been irretrievably lost, but they found a guardian angel, in the shape of a woman against whom they blundered.

“The Jackson Institue?” she said. “Oh, yes, I can lead you there.”

She walked with unfaltering footsteps, and with such decision, that the doctor thought she had been spared the supreme affliction. He asked her this and she laughed.

“Oh, no,” she said cheerfully. “You see, I’ve been blind all my life. The government has put us on point duty, at various places, to help people who have lost their way.”

She told them that, according to her information, big fires were raging in half a dozen parts of London. She had heard of no railway collisions, and the prime minister told her——

“Told you?” said Bevan in surprise, and again she laughed.

“I’ve met him before, you see,” she said. “I am Lord Selbury’s daughter, Lillian Selbury.”

Bevan remembered the name. It is curious that he had pictured her, for all the beauty of her voice, as a sad, middle-aged woman. She took his hand in hers, and they walked slowly toward his house.

“You’ll think I’m horrid if I say I am enjoying this,” she said, “and yet I am. It’s so lovely to be able to pity others! Of course, it is very dreadful, and it is beginning to frighten me a little, and then there’s nobody to tell me how pretty I am, because nobody can see. That is rather a drawback, isn’t it?” and she laughed again.

“What does the government think about this?”

“They are terribly upset,” she said in a graver tone. “You see, they cannot get at the people—they are so used to depending on the newspapers. We are crossing Whitehall Gardens, now. Government has wonderful faith in this doctor, Bevan, by the way.”

“I hope their faith is justified,” said Bevan grimly. “I happen to be the wonderful doctor.”

“Are you really?” she said with a new note of interest. “Listen!” They stopped, and he heard the tinkle of a bell. “That is one of our people from St. Mildred’s,” she said. “The government is initiating a system of town criers. It is the only way we can get news to the people.”

The girl led him to his house and there left him. Old Professor van der Bergh roared a greeting as he came into the room.

“Is that you, Bevan?” he asked. “I’ve got a knuckle of cold ham here, but be careful how you cut it, otherwise you’re going to slice your fingers.” He and Stuart Gold had spent the day feeding the various specimens in the laboratory. The fourth day dawned, and in the afternoon came a knock at the door. It was the girl.

“I’ve been ordered to place myself at your disposal, Doctor Bevan,” she said. “The government may need you.”

He spent that day wandering through the deserted streets, with the girl at his side, and as the hundred and twentieth hour approached he found himself looking forward not so much to the end of the tragic experience which he shared with the world, but to seeing, with his own eyes, the face of this guide of his. He had slept the clock round, and just before ten struck, he made his way to the street. He heard Big Ben boom the hour, and waited for light. But no light came. Another hour passed, and yet another, and his soul was seized with blind panic. Suppose sight never returned, suppose his experiments were altogether wrong, and that what happened in the case of the rabbits did not happen to man! Suppose the blindness was permanent! He groaned at the thought.

The girl was with him, her arm in his, throughout that day. His nerves were breaking, and somehow she sensed this fact, and comforted him as a mother might comfort a child. She led him into the park, with sure footsteps, and walked him up and down trying to distract his mind from the horror with which it was oppressed.

In the afternoon he was sent for, by the cabinet council, and again told the story of his experiments.

“The hundred and twenty hours are passed, are they not, doctor?” said the premier’s voice.

“Yes, sir,” replied Bevan in a low voice. “But it is humanly impossible to be sure that that is the exact time.”

No other question was asked him, but the terror of his audience came back to him, like an aura, and shriveled his very heart. He did not lie down, as was his wont, that night, but wandered out alone into the streets of London. It must have been two o’clock in the morning, when he came back to find the girl standing on the step, talking with Van der Bergh. She came toward him at the sound of his voice.

“There is another cabinet meeting, doctor,” she said. “Will you come with me?”

“I hope I haven’t kept you long,” he said brokenly. His voice was husky and so unlike his own that she was startled.

“You’re not to take this to heart, Doctor Bevan,” she said severely, as they began their pilgrimage to Whitehall. “There’s a terrible task waiting for the world, which has to be faced.”

“Wait, wait!” he said hoarsely, and gripped the rail with one hand, and her arm with the other.

Was it imagination? It was still dark. A fine drizzle of rain was falling, but the blackness was dappled with tones of less blackness. There was a dark, straight thing before him; something that seemed to hang in the center of his eye; and a purple shape beyond; and he knew that he was looking at a London street, at a London lamp-post, with eyes that saw. Black London, London devoid of light, London whose streets were packed with motionless vehicles that stood just where they had stopped on the day the darkness fell, London with groping figures, half mad with joy, shrieking and sobbing their relief. He drew a long breath.

“What is it? What is it?” said the girl, in a frightened voice.

“I can see! I can see!” said Bevan in a whisper.

“Can you?” she said wistfully. “I—I am so glad. And now——

He was near to tears, and his arms went about her. He fumbled in his pocket for a match, and struck a light. That blessed light he saw, and saw, too, the pale, spiritual face turned up to his.

“I can see you,” he whispered again. “My God! You’re the most beautiful thing I have ever seen—— My dear—guide me always!”

She drew closer to him.

“Always!” she whispered.

London slept, from sheer force of habit, and woke with the gray dawn to see—to look out upon a world that had been lost for five and a half day?. But, in the night, all the forces of the law and the crown had been working at feverish pace; railways had dragged their drivers from their beds; carriers and stokers had been collected by the police, and slowly the wheels of life were turning again, and a humble world, grateful for the restoration of its greatest gift, hungered in patience and was happy.

Other stories by Mr. Wallace will follow soon.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1927.

The author died in 1932, so this work is in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 89 years or less. This work may be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.