Excerpt of The Great Stink by Clare Clark
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Where the channel snaked to the right it was no longer possible to
stand upright, despite the abrupt drop in the gradient. The crown of
William's hat grazed the slimed roof as he stooped, holding his
lantern before him, and the stink of excrement pressed into his
nostrils. His hand was unsteady and the light shuddered and jumped in
the darkness. Rising and rushing through the narrower gully, the
stream pressed the greased leather of his high boots hard against the
flesh of his calves, the surge of the water muffling the clatter of
hooves and iron-edged wheels above him. Of course he was deeper now.
Between him and the granite-block road was at least twenty feet of
heavy London clay. The weight of it deepened the darkness. Beneath his
feet the rotten bricks were treacherous, soft as crumbled cheese, and
with each step the thick layer of black sludge sucked at the soles of
his boots. Although his skin bristled with urgency, William forced
himself to walk slowly and deliberately the way the flushers had shown
him, pressing his heel down hard into the uncertain ground before
unrolling his weight forward on to the ball of his foot, scanning the
surface of the water for rising bubbles. The sludge hid pockets of
gas, slop gas the flushers called it, the faintest whiff of which they
claimed could cause a man to drop unconscious, sudden as if he'd been
shot. From the little he knew of the toxic effects of sulphuretted
hydrogen, William had every reason to believe them.
The pale light
of his lantern sheered off the black crust of the water and threw a
villain's shadow up the curved wall. Otherwise there was no relief
from the absolute darkness, not even in the first part of the tunnel
where open gratings led directly up into the street. All day the fog
had crouched low over London, a chocolate-coloured murk that reeked of
sulphur and defied the certainty of dawn. In vain the gas-lamps
pressed their circles of light into its upholstered interior.
Carriages loomed out of the darkness, the stifled skitters and
whinnies of horses blurring with the warning shouts of coachmen.
Pedestrians, their faces obscured by hats and collars, slipped into
proximity and as quickly out again. On the river the hulking outlines
of the penny steamers resembled a charcoal scrawl over which a child
had carelessly drawn a sleeve. Now, at nearly six o'clock in the
evening, the muddy brown of afternoon had been smothered into night.
William was careful to close the shutter of his lantern off beneath
the open gratings, as furtive as a sewer-hunter. It was bad enough
that he was alone, without a look-out at ground level, in direct
contravention of the Board's directives. It would be even harder to
explain his presence here, in a section of the channel recently
declared unsafe and closed off until extensive repair work could be
undertaken. William could hardly protest to be innocent of the
decision. He had written the report requiring it himself, his first
official report to the Board:
Within the southern section of the King-street branch deterioration
to interior brickwork is severe, with the shoulder of the arch
particularly suffering from extensive decomposition. While tidal scour
can be relied upon to prevent undue accumulation of deposits, the high
volumes of floodwater sustained within the tunnel during periods of
full tide and heavy rainfall pose a grave threat to the stability of
the interior structure. Underpinning of the crown is urgently required
to prevent subsidence. DANGER.
The precision of the words had satisfied him. Within them was
contained the evidence of a world where method and reason strapped
down chaos. On their very first day as assistants to the Commission
the group of young men had been taken to meet Mr Bazalgette himself.
One of their number, eager to ingratiate himself with the master, had
begged him to disclose what he considered the characteristics of a
successful engineer. Bazalgette had paused, his fingers against his
lips. When he spoke it was quietly, almost to himself. The great
engineer, he said, was a pragmatist made conservative by the
conspicuous failures of structures and machines hastily contrived. He
was regular in his habits, steady, disciplined, methodical in his
problem-solving. He was equable and law-abiding. Carelessness,
self-indulgence, untidiness and fits of temper were foreign to him.
From the turmoil of his natural instincts he brought order.
Copyright © Clare Clark, 2005. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher. Requests for permission to make copies of any part of the work should be mailed to the following address: Permissions Department, Harcourt, Inc., 6277 Sea Harbor Drive, Orlando, Florida 32887-6777.