From Supernatural Stories 53 - 1962
BY BRON FANE
Copyright © R. Lionel Fanthorpe
Used with permission
“They had no boat . . . but the island hated people.”
The storm broke with unbelievable savagery and fury. It was a storm to end all storms. It came out of the night like a malevolent, savage, living thing.
The radio picked up gale and storm warnings, but the original path of the unleashed monster had not appeared to be intercepting their own navigational course. And now it had struck.
It struck with unparalleled violence. The liner was not enormous — some five or six thousand tons at most, but she was a fair sized vessel and solidly built. Now, however, she was bucking and reeling like an untamed horse. Mountainous seas crashed against her plates and sent sickening shudders through ship, crew, and passengers.
Everyone was already at emergency stations. The Captain — a dour, bearded, old sea-dog — as barnacle-encrusted and as salt-caked as his ship, was watching the storm as though it was a personal enemy. The mate was tall, and as wiry as whipcord. In the distance they looked like a bulldog and a greyhound, each in its own way strong, powerful, dependable.
“Do you think we’ll come through, Number One?” asked the Captain in a dour, Scots accent.
“I wouldn’t like to forecast!” The mate was a Cornishman, and the blood of men who had sailed with Drake coursed in his veins. Neither the Scot nor the Southerner knew the meaning of fear, but they were practical, sensible men.
“How much chance do you think the boats would have in those seas?” asked the Captain. The mate shook his head.
“Capsize like cockle-shells!”
“That’s, just what I thought,” admitted the Captain.
“They’d capsize like cockle-shells,” repeated the mate, shaking his head. “If she once starts to break we’re in the hands of God.”
The Captain nodded, as he looked down from the bridge, at the passengers. They looked odd and bulky encased in their life-jackets.
One couple seemed to stand out particularly as the Captain watched. Something about them was very striking. Something that was illuminated in the occasional flashes of forked savage lightning that lit up the boiling cauldron of the sea.
The man was big and broad shouldered, and as far as the Captain could see, his strong granite-like face was surmounted by crisp, iron-grey, curly hair. The woman was strangely poised, serene and splendid, and somehow, queenly amid the fury of the storm. There was a proud grace about her, which even the wind, the rain and the life-jacket could not conceal.
“Yon lady has the look o’ Cleopatra,” said the Captain suddenly.
“Her man would not make a bad Mark Anthony,” answered the Cornishman.
“Do ye no ken who they are?” asked the Captain.
“You should remember that well,” replied the Cornishman, “seeing they dined with us, two nights back.”
The Captain nodded.
“I thocht ye’d remember. They say many a strange, wild end has been forecast for them, but I didn’t think it would be anything as commonplace as —” he left the sentence unfinished. No man, despite the width and the depth of his courage likes to say ‘lost at sea’ when his ship is shaking, quivering beneath him like a living thing on the rack.
Val Stearman, as though somehow sensing that he was the subject of the Captain’s conversation, glanced up towards the bridge, and waved an encouraging hand.
MacGregor waved back in the lightning that lit up the tragedy. The thunder crashed and roared around the heavens like the terrible laughter of some insane god of war. It was as though great Poseidon himself had hurled his stormy breath against the ship, as though his great trident was stirring the water.
“I reckon Davy Jones has got his locker open,” said Val Stearman, grimly. “Afraid?”
La Noire, his beautiful, raven-haired wife, the woman whom MacGregor had so recently described as ‘Cleopatra’, shook her head.
“Not really,” she said. Val looked at her in wonderment and admiration.
“Think there’ll be a chance?”
“The ship is doomed,” she said softly, “I knew that from the moment the storm broke. I have already seen it in my mind, going down.”
“And what about us? What about the passengers? The crew?”
“There will be some survivors.” She said it almost casually.
“Is that all you’ve seen?” persisted Val.
“That is all I was allowed to see,” replied his wife. ‘”The vision was not clear,” she explained. Val nodded. He already knew what strange gifts La Noire possessed. He had seen them demonstrated a hundred times, or maybe it was a thousand times. He couldn’t remember. There had been so many occasions. He thought back over the years. Tempestuous years. Years of furious adventure. When he had first rescued La Noire from the clutches of a coven of Black Magicians, wizards, necromancers, witches, and warlocks, one murderous attempt after another had been made upon them by the coven, until there had been no coven left! He thought of the sinister Dr. Jules, the deadly Professor von Haak, and the dangerous hunchback. He remembered how they had struggled time and time again against foul hideous creatures of the night. The ghoul that they had destroyed in a quiet country churchyard: the creature in the Voskag Valley: the things that they had seen so long ago in the secret room. Oh, yes, there had been many adventures so many strange, psychic, other-worldly adventures. It seemed that they had lived a hundred life-times during how long? Seven? Ten? He had lost count of the years. After all, he decided, life was not measured in years but in events.
The storm redoubled its intensity and the dying ship gave a shrieking dying groan of tortured metal that could stand no more. Plates buckled and ripped; storm-lashed waves flooded into the hold. MacGregor roared out the order to abandon ship, and they did — magnificently! There was no panic, no terror, no blind, animal selfishness. No fighting for boats.
Val, and the crew, and several of the other men stood on the cracking plates, trying to launch the flimsy, clinker-built cockle-shells into the boiling hell beneath. As he looked at them heaving, swirling and bobbing in the trough below the dying ship, he thought:
“We’re not saving them, we’re only postponing the end.” He saw one boatload of women and children do a sickening nose-drive and fail to right itself. He heard cries of anguish. Valiantly, the officer of the second boat pulled back into that cauldron to pick up what survivors he could, his own boat was already badly overloaded. Val and La Noire stayed until the last possible moment. Twice he had asked her to leave, but twice she had adamantly refused, and Val knew it was useless to ask further.
Three of the boats were safely away, as far as anything could be safe in such mountainous seas. At least they were far enough away from the liner not to be pulled down by the undertow when she finally went, and as far as those still on the liner could see, they had not yet gone down. But at any moment it seemed that those tiny cockle-shells must capsize, flinging their precious human cargo into the all-engulfing waves.
“There is only a small raft left,” said the Captain. Trelawney, the Cornish mate, MacGregor, the Captain, Val Stearman and La Noire were the last to leave. The raft was small, and somehow flimsy. It seemed like an insult, a sneer at that mountainous sea, to throw so puny a thing into the foaming cauldron. It was like trying to appease a hungry lion with a pork chop. Or like tossing a biscuit to a roaring carnivore, bent on pulling down a buffalo. But try as it would, the carnivorous water could not swallow the ‘biscuit’. Try as it would, the roaring water lion could not gorge itself upon the ‘pork chop’; the raft floated. The ship was listing at a fantastic angle.
“We’ve got about a minit,” said MacGregor. He said it with about as much panic as he would have announced that dinner would be ready in a minute’s time, or that they would be coming into sight of land any minute. It was just a simple, straightforward statement, as far as the dour Scot was concerned. He had done his duty by the sea for fifty years — man and boy, and as far as he was concerned the sea could go to the devil!
To-night it appeared to have done just that . . . Clasping La Noire tightly to him, Val leapt first. They landed five or six yards from the raft. Icy water closed over their heads. It seemed an infinity before they could break surface again. Then MacGregor and the mate jumped simultaneously.
Val had reached the raft by the time MacGregor and Trelawney hit the water. The steel-hard sinews of his left arm locked on to one of the ropes at the raft’s edge, and with an even more powerful right, he lifted La Noire clear of the water and sat her on the tossing square of life which stood between them and the devilish depths. . . .
Trelawney broke surface first and struck out towards the raft with all the power of the tough Cornishman that he was, but the trough held him, dragged him away. . . . Above the noise of the crashing waves. and the thunder and the sheets of stinging rain Stearman yelled to La Noire.
“Hang on! Both hands and feet as well!” She clung tenaciously to the raft, as Val let go his hold and struck out in the direction of the Cornishman. Tom Trelawney had seen strong men swim before, but he had never seen a man swim as Stearman could swim. The big journalist-adventurer was as powerful as a sea lion. He swam like a whale, like a dolphin, like some prehistoric reptile of the deep. He swam like Leviathan. Somehow, against every law of chance, against fantastically heavy odds, Stearman smashed and battered his way through that surging water until he closed the gap between the powerful Cornishman and himself.
“Grab hold!” he shouted. Tom locked his arms under the back of Stearman’s life jacket.
MacGregor had been rather more fortunate. The Captain had landed in a down-surge trough that had hauled him, not away from the raft, but towards it. One of his powerful hands had snatched at the loop nearest to him as he had been swirled past, had snatched — and held! Against the battering of those seas he could not haul himself on board, but already La Noire was bravely edging her way towards him.
“Keep still!” roared the Captain, “Don’t lose your own hold!” But she ignored him.
Val and Tom were making progress towards the raft and the great ship was shuddering — as it prepared to take its final dive to the bottom.
“Better leave me,” said the Cornishman.
“Not after getting this dam’ far!” said Stearman, spluttering for breath. The two men lashed out together with redoubled fury, and after seconds that seemed like eternity they made it to the edge of the raft.
By the time they reached it, La Noire had helped MacGregor haul himself on board.
“Ye should no ha’ done it, lass!” said the Captain, “You might ha’ bin washed ower yourself!” but his eyes glowed with gratitude.
“It needs two of us to haul them on,” said La Noire practically.
“Aye, I guess you’re right,” agreed MacGregor. It was the work of an instant for La Noire and the tough Scot to haul Stearman and Tom out of the water.
Val lay back sucking in great lungfuls of air. He was a man of steel, superbly strong and tremendously fit, but the exertion had told heavily upon even his massive reserves of strength.
“Don’t want to do that again tonight!” he grunted, as he finally hauled himself into a sitting position.
“Hold tight!” cried the Captain. “There she goes!” The liner — his liner — was heading for the bottom. Like a witch’s broomstick poking up from a cauldron, she stood proud and almost erect, and then, with a slipping sound and the noise of the displacement of many waters, she was gone.
The Captain wiped his eyes with the back of his hand.
“Damn the rain!” he said, but Stearman knew that it wasn’t only rain he was wiping away. Jock MacGregor had been with that liner a long time. He had seen her through perils and dangers. She had been his pride and his joy. More of a friend than a ship.
“Well, I’ve got a smaller command now,” said MacGregor, as he looked at the raft, and grinned. “Wonder if the provisions are intact, this was one of the rafts we didn’t check last time we had a safety drill. Thought we’d never need this one!”
They opened the hermetically sealed provision hatches.
“Six tins biscuits, six gallons drinking water,” said MacGregor, “We’re all right for a few days then. Three tins bully beef, with openers. Doesn’t sound very appetising, but at least we shallna’ starve!”
“Any idea where we are?” asked Val.
“I should hope so!” answered the Captain, “I knew where the liner was!” He grinned good naturedly.
“I didn’t mean it that way,” laughed Stearman.
“No — I know you didn’t, laddie,” answered the Captain. That, thought Val, was a comforting thought. To a man who is the wrong side of thirty-five, when somebody else calls you ‘laddie’ that was very comforting indeed!
“We’re somewhere in mid-Atlantic,” said MacGregor. “I’m just trying to remember the last chart bearing we took. We’re a fair way from Liverpool! I reckon we’re something like five hundred miles north-east of the Azores, if that’s near enough!”
“Ye gods!” said Val,” No wonder the water was cold!”
“That’s only an approximation,” said the Captain.
“Five hundred miles north-east of the Azores,” said Val thoughtfully, “I’m no sailor, Captain MacGregor, but I know my shipping lanes. Any chance of land around here where we could try and make for?”
“Och, aye! But you’re an optimist — how the devil are we going to steer this thing?”
“I reckon we could maybe rig up a sail or something in the morning, when the storm dies down.”
“And who’s going to volunteer to be the mast?” asked the Scotsman.
“We could take that in turn,” answered Stearman, “stand up one each side and hold it!”
“Your name is not ‘Nelson’ by any chance, is it?” asked the Scotsman, “or Captain Bligh?”
Val appreciated MacGregor’s humour, and grinned.
“I did have an uncle named ‘Ceasar’ he landed on the south coast, a little while before my time! 55 BC I think it was. . . .”
Everybody laughed, and to laugh in those circumstances took guts.
They lashed themselves down, to sleep, for although the storm was beginning to abate, the raft was still tilting at crazy angles.
“You know,” said Val as he closed his eyes and put his arms around La Noire. “I was just thinking about those chaps on the Kon Tiki expedition. They spent weeks on a raft — voluntarily! — for scientific research. They should all have had medals! We’ve only been adrift for three hours, and I’ve had enough already!”
* * *
When they awoke the storm had abated, completely and utterly. A warm sun was shining in a cloudless blue sky.
“You’re sure this is the Atlantic?” asked Val “It’s more like the South Pacific! Ugh,” he shuddered, “clothes are still damp though!”
“Take ‘em off and dry them!” said La Noire,
“Be a jolly sight colder still, then!” replied Val. They drifted on; hour after hour, day after day . . . while the biscuits and the water and the bully beef got lower and lower, and every day MacGregor and the Cornishman looked optimistically for a ship, and every night they had seen nothing. . .
“I’ve never known the blasted Atlantic to be so empty!” said MacGregor. “You’re usually bumping nose to tail with all the ships on the Herring Pond!”
“Aye, it’s funny! I’ve never known it as quiet as this, Skipper,” said the Cornishman.
“I’ve sailed the Atlantic a number of times, and I’ve never known it as quiet as this,” agreed Val. “We must have got caught in some fantastic current, something that has pulled us way off the shipping lines.”
“We’ve been drifting for days. God knows where we are now!”
“We’re travelling at a pretty fair speed, too. It’s as if we were in the grip of some current that’s taking us straight into the,” — he shrugged his shoulders — “I don’t know where!”
Their clothing had practically given out. Val, Tom and Jock were unshaven, yet, miraculously, there was something about La Noire’s beauty that even salt water and the total absence of cosmetics could not hide. There was about her a radiance that was just as poised and serene as if she had stepped out of a beauty salon in Fifth Avenue.
“I don’t know how you do it,” said Val admiringly, “but you do it!”
“You’re good for our morale, Mrs. Stearman,” said the Captain.
“Very good indeed,” agreed Tom. “We have no hesitation in appointing you the ship’s ‘pin-up’.”
La Noire smiled, appreciatively.
“Well, in view of the terribly strong competition,” she said, “I think that’s awfully decent of you!” she broke off suddenly, pointing away to the east, “Look! What’s that?”
They saw it; although on the evening horizon it looked only a small, dark something, just higher than the waves.
“It’s an island,” said Val. “God be thanked, it’s an island!”
They paddled with the empty tins. They cut and blistered their hands on them, but they kept on paddling — the four of them. La Noire worked as strenuously as the men. They put all they had into it. There is not much energy in a low calory diet of water, biscuits and bully beef, but what energy they had left they gave nobly. And slowly they got a little ‘way’ on the raft. Slowly, painfully slowly, they kept her moving in the direction of that darker dot. . . .
“I can hear surf and breakers,” said Val. “It is land! It is; it is!”
“Keep paddling,” urged MacGregor.
Their muscles cracked, and ached . . . They felt physically sick with exhaustion, but they kept on reducing that gap.
“If we don’t reach it before nightfall we’ll lose it,” said the Scot, “Come on now, come on!” They struck out again and again, and at last, just when it seemed flesh and blood could take no more, that they could go no further, it was then they reached a dark, rocky promontory . . . the craggy shore of the island; if island it was.
“The saints be praised!” gasped the Cornishman, “We’ve done it!”
“Don’t speak too soon, laddie,” said MacGregor, “we havna’ landed yet!”
With muscles that had already passed the point of final exhaustion, they somehow paddled the clumsy raft around the island looking for a possible landing place, but there was nothing. . . . Nothing but craggy, basalt cliffs rising thirty or forty feet out of the water.
“It’s like a fortress,’ said Val. “It looks impregnable!” Even his optimism was flagging. “How the devil do we land on a place like that?”
“I don’t know,” answered MacGregor, “But there’s got to be a way.”
“Look, up there,” said Tom, “a ledge, or cave, ten or twenty feet out of the water. Maybe if we could bring the raft in close, cut the loops round the edge and join ‘em to make a rope, one of us could climb up there. . . .”
“One of us — but who?” asked MacGregor.
“Me!” said Stearman.
“Do you think you could do it?”
“I don’t know, but it looks like being our only chance of landing.”
“Be careful,” whispered La Noire. “Oh, darling, be careful.” He embraced her warmly, while the others started to prepare the rope, and as the raft rolled and bobbed beneath that tantalising hole in the basalt, he turned to study it carefully for foot and hand holds. He kicked off the pathetic remains of his shoes, flexed his powerful, muscular feet experimentally. Stearman was a strong man but he needed every ounce of his strength because of his weight. He weighed all of fifteen stone and although none of it was fat, fifteen stone takes a lot of hauling up a cliff, particularly a wet, basalt cliff with roaring waves and an unplumbed Atlantic beneath it!
The most difficult task of all was to get from the raft to the first hand hold, but somehow Stearman made it. He had no idea how — he just knew that it had to be done and he did it. Then inch by painful inch. he clawed his way up the cliff. It was one of the most arduous tasks he had ever undertaken, but somehow he made it. He reached the cave on the verge of collapse, and flung himself down, relaxing every muscle in his body completely, while his valiant heart sent strength surging back into his exhausted sinews. He uncoiled the rope from around his body and lowered it. How big the cave was he wasn’t sure, but at the far end he could see a pale wisp of grey, evening light. It came out somewhere on the other side of the cliff and that was all that mattered.
He raised La Noire first, and then the two of them took the strain while MacGregor and Tom Trelawney clambered up. MacGregor had stuffed the last of the bully beef and biscuits into the tattered remains of his shirt, Trelawney had the last gallon of water.
They watched the raft drift away, and then slumped down on the floor of the cave and slept.
When they awoke, the wisp of daylight that had gone from the far end of the cave when they arrived, was now a bright shaft of sunlight that seemed to be the light of hope and faith, and of courage.
Almost as one they rose to their feet and made towards that light. When they finally reached it they could have cried their disappointment to the heavens. The gap was about nine inches wide and two feet long. It was a single fissure in the solid rock.
“Maybe in a thousand years that will have eroded into a big enough hole to allow us to get through!” commented Stearman.
“Maybe I could make it,” said La Noire.
She tried, she tried bravely, she tried until her shoulders were grazed.
“It’s no good,” she said at last, “even I can’t get through there.”
“Never mind,” said Val. They looked at their rations, “How long to you reckon that lot will last, Mac?” MacGregor rubbed salt out of his beard and looked at the bully beef.
“Four of us,” he said, “maybe at the, most, three days! At the most! And that’s starvation ration. . . .”
“Pretty well what I figured,” said Val. “So if we don’t see a ship in three days we’re dead!”
“It would last a week for two,” said MacGregor.
“What are you suggesting?” asked Val.
“Suggesting that we draw lots!”
“Oh, no!” answered Stearman. “We’re in this together! I’m having no gallant sacrifices made on my behalf, thanks. I didn’t climb that cliff just to see two of us jump deliberately down into the sea again! We’re in this together, and we’re going to stick together. There’s got to be an answer to it, somehow!”
“Maybe we could chisel those rocks away. . . .?”
“Ever tried chiselling basalt?”
“Maybe we could find something to use,” said the Captain, hopefully. There were numerous small boulders on the floor of the cave, and for three days while the food grew lower and lower, they worked incessantly at the narrow entrance to their prison. . . . Slowly, painful fractions of an inch at a time, they chipped and chiselled the rock away. It was painful work, their hands grew sore, and were already blistered from paddling with the tin lids of the biscuit containers, but they kept on, for life itself was at stake.
They had eaten the very last of the food by mid-day on the third day, when the hole was finally large enough for La Noire to squeeze through.
“If we find the rest of this island is barren rock,” said Tom, “we shan’t be any better off than we were — but at least we’ve tried. . . .”
In an agony of suspense the starving men sat down to wait while La Noire went in search of life-giving food and water.
The island, she could now see, was one of Nature’s miracles. A fantastically shaped cliff ran around the four sides of it, like the walls of a great, natural fortress. But inside there was abundant vegetation, apparently planted by sea birds and among the vegetation a small stream.
La Noire was carrying the water carrier, and pausing to look neither to right nor to left she ran towards the stream, stooped down, and filled it swiftly. Spilling water haphazardly in her eagerness to return to the cave she retraced her steps just as swiftly, taking little interest in the flora, fauna or terrain of the island’s interior. Reaching the small aperture through which she had escaped from the cave, she handed the container through.
The taste of that cool, fresh, clear water after the stale H2O which had been sufficing them for so long, gave them new heart. It was like the mythical Eau de Vie or Water of Life, itself. It was as though they had discovered the Fountain of Perennial Youth and Energy,
With renewed vigour they struck and struck again at the ever-widening confines of the cave that had begun as their shelter, and then become a prison. Every chip of flying basalt increased the size of the aperture. Their thirst remedied, La Noire set off in search of food.
She came back very soon with handfuls of pleasant-tasting orange and purple berries.
“I don’t know what they are,” she said, “but they taste all right.”
“Let me try them,” said Val. In his own way, Stearman was something of an amateur naturalist and a botanist of no mean repute.
“They’re all right,” he pronounced, “there’s nothing toxic in there.”
“Thank goodness for that,” said La Noire, “I’ve already eaten some!”
Val looked at her sternly.
“Shouldn’t have done!” he said. “Should have let us all try them. They’re O.K., anyway, thank heavens. Can you find any more?”
“Yes, there are plenty, quite close at hand!” She ran to a clump of nearby bushes and picked industriously for several moments. The berries were somewhat lacking in substance, but nevertheless, after an all-too-thin and vitamin-free diet of beef and biscuits, they tasted like nectar itself to the men in the cave.
MacGregor tried his broad shoulders in the aperture, now considerably enlarged, through which La Noire had escaped.
“It’s no good,” he said. “I canna do it. It’ll be weeks before I can get through.”
“Well, so long as La Noire is on the other side to feed us,” said Val, “it won’t matter how long it takes.” He looked at the slim, wiry Cornishman. “Here Tom, you have a go!”
The Cornishman exhaled to the maximum extent and succeeded in getting his head and one shoulder through the hole. He paused to take breath.
“A bit more wriggling and perhaps I can do it — then I could pick away from the other side.”
Five minutes of heaving and wriggling and Tom Trelawney had joined La Noire on the other side.
“I’ll go and see if I can find something to use as a weapon on the other side of this basalt,” he said. “Something that will do as a tool or an implement . . . Ah, this will do nicely! Stand back, you lads, I think I can do more damage from out here.” He had found a big basalt slab. “Stand well clear, I’m going to see if I can crack a big bit off! You stand back too, lady.” La Noire obediently moved away.
Tom Trelawney hurled the basalt slab at the edge of the rock opening. A large fragment broke away.
“Lovely,” cried Val from the far side of the cave. “There’s a piece as big as a writing table fallen in here. I think we can do it now.”
“Large enough to get an elephant through there now,” said Tom, “What do you say, Mrs. Stearman?” He broke off suddenly. “Quick.” he cried. “Quick!”
Val leapt through the hole like an angry buffalo, “What’s the matter. Tom?”
“Your wife, Stearman! She was here a minute ago! I suddenly heard a noise behind me in the bushes and she’d disappeared!”
Val plunged into the bushes like a madman, scattering leaves and berries in all directions. . .
A few yards ahead of him he heard La Noire screaming and struggling. The bushes tore before him like paper.
She was in the grip of the wildest, most savage looking brute that Stearman had seen for a long time. He was taller than Stearman himself and covered in shaggy, matted hair that made him look more like an ape than a man. Bone ridges projected above the eyes in ugly, Simian fashion. The ears were disproportionately large and jutted from the craggy head at an idiotic angle. The eyes themselves beneath those beetling brows and bone ridges were rheumy, and glared in a savage redness. The left eye was horribly blemished as though it retained very little vision. Those parts of the face that were not disfigured by a matted beard were scarred and calloused. It was the most revolting visage that Stearman had seen in years.
The ape man — for such he appeared to be — had seized La Noire by the arms and was dragging her off into the bushes with savage enthusiasm. Anger and revulsion vied with one another for top place in Val’s emotions. But there was only a split second to vie in . . . then the time for thought and emotion was gone — it was the time for action.
Stearman waded into the brute like a fury from hell. It was a scene of unparalleled savagery. The big journalist adventurer, with his crop of iron grey curls: in the tattered remains of his civilised clothing, and with steel-hard muscles, mixing it in fury with a creature that looked older than time. . . . A thousand questions were hammering at the back of Stearman’s mind but he thrust them back into the subconscious recesses of memory. The questions would have to wait. The thing was as puzzling as it was horrible. But the first job was to deal with it.
If it had not been for the prolonged malnutrition which he had endured on the raft and in the cave, Stearman’s victory would have been swift, but he was fighting with his will power as much as with his body, and he knew that he had been living on his reserves of strength for so long that they would not sustain him through a particularly drawn-out struggle. He was determined to win, and he was practical enough to know that if victory was to be his, it would have to be swift.
At first the creature was taken by surprise. It released its hold on La Noire; she sprang away from it like a gazelle. Trelawney and MacGregor were crashing through the bushes in the direction of the sounds, which Stearman and the brute man were making. This was no occasion for the Queensberry rules, and Val had no intention of bothering with them. His first rush sent the creature backwards towards the edge of the small clearing in the bushes. It had fetched up sharply against a stubby tree with a resounding thud that had knocked some of the breath from its body. But now, the surprise had been replaced by anger. Its savage, though rheumy, eyes glared at Stearman with their impaired vision, and a ‘hand’ more like the claw of an animal than a human extremity, raked through the air and caught the big castaway round the back of the neck.
He could feel the foul talons sinking into his flesh, and he felt like a bull elephant being savaged by a tiger.
He grabbed for the creature’s leg, and his other arm encircled its neck. With a swift heave he lifted the brute off the ground and brought him down with a tremendous slam on to the rock hard earth surrounding the tree. It would have broken many a back, but the ape man was apparently almost indestructible. It lay grunting for a second, and then scrambled to its feet again, and its anger was a hundred times more furious.
Stearman backed away, keeping well clear of the reach of those murderous talons. The thing came in close, looking for a grip.
Stearman landed a straight left and a right hook. Both punches connected with a satisfying ‘clack’ and just for an instant the thing’s eyes seemed to glaze, but it was only a momentary respite. Val backed away again, avoiding those raking talons, and then, feeling that further retreat was blocked by the same tree against which he had originally hurled his antagonist — for they had been circling — Val supported himself against the trunk and swung both feet up in a savage drop kick that put the creature staggering back, but Stearman was astounded to find it could retain its balance under such a terrific impact. He was breathing heavily now, and knew that he wasn’t going to last more than five or ten minutes. Those weeks on the raft and the days in the cave had brought even his magnificent physique to a low ebb. There had to be a weakness in the brute somewhere — if he could only find it! He looked at the arms, each one as thick as a normal man’s leg — there was no weakness there! No flying mare or hammerlock would have much effect upon a brute like that.
The throat? Again, apparently no sign of weakness, for the great chin was carried low on the chest and the neck was as thick as a bull’s.
The legs? Stearman looked at the legs. They, too, matched the arms in proportion. The creature might have been standing on two hairy tree trunks! That only left the head, and by the thickness of the protruding bone ridges above the eyes, that skull looked as though it was thick enough to withstand a blow from a sledge hammer. But there had to be a weakness, thought Stearman, there had to be! He had already tried the back, and found that lifting and throwing the creature had been a complete waste of strength. Might as well try to break a concrete slab by lifting it and dropping it on sand. . . Might as well try to break a log by hauling it above your head and dropping it on to a beach. As far as the expenditure of energy was concerned, that was a very expensive process.
Stearman looked at the brute’s paunchy abdomen. Maybe that would do. Perhaps that was the one weakness. Perhaps his first drop kick had been too high. He had aimed for the chest and the head — catch it in the stomach, he decided, knock the wind out of the brute! Maybe it was soft in the belly.
The thing was clawing at him again. He dropped swiftly from the tree, ducked under the outflung arms and rushed to the other side of the clearing. He came for it again and grabbed for that leg and neck lift, but this time, as he flung the creature down he twisted it, and dropped on one knee. The brute landed like a great bag of leather, with its solar plexus in the geometric centre of Stearman’s iron hard knee.
There was the sound of air being driven from a leather sack . . . the eyeballs bulged, the body convulsed, and writhed, semi-speechless and paralysed, on the ground. Stearman had succeeded in hitting the vital point. His tactics had been correct. But there was no time to be lost in self-congratulation. He called to Tom and the Captain.
“Your belts, quick!”
MacGregor was already unfastening the thick leather belt that suspended the tattered remains of his trousers.
The three men had just strapped the brute when it began to recover its wind. Stearman picked up a broken branch, with a heavy, clubbed end, about three feet long. The thing writhed in its bonds and strained desperately to snap them. Stearman raised the branch threateningly. The rheumy eyes looked from it to him, filled with frustrated rage and hatred. The wriggling stopped. Stearman nodded his approval.
MacGregor was looking for a piece of flexible vine with which to suspend his trousers.
“I wonder if there are any more of those brutes on the island?” wondered Tom Trelawney.
“No — he’s the only one,” said a thick Devonshire voice, an almost perfect match of Trelawney’s own.
“Who the devil said that?” demanded MacGregor, almost forgetting to keep a hold on his precariously suspended trousers. The bushes parted to the left of them, and a grey-bearded stranger with shoulder-length hair and twinkling grey eyes stood smiling at them.
“Long time since I heard a Cornish voice,” said the stranger. “Where’re you from, then?”
“St. Austell.” said Tom, “where are you from?”
“Not far away — Bugle,” replied the stranger. “It’s a long time since I set sail!”
Something about the man, despite his obvious friendliness, seemed unusual, bizarre . . . his clothing was so old and tattered as to be scarcely of any use at all. Bits of it looked as though they had been patched with a kind of crude cloth similar to that which the natives of certain tropical islands manufacture from bark. There was an awkward silence, during which the four castaways and the grey-haired Cornishman looked at one another. . .
“I bin ‘ere a long time,” he volunteered, “I never thought I’d hear a Cornish voice again.” He was repeating himself, as if he could think of nothing else to say.
“How long have you been here?” asked Val, breaking the uneasy silence.
“I lost count after the first forty years. . . .”
“Forty years!” gasped Stearman, “Are you sure?”
“Ah, there’s a lot more than forty years passed since I lost count. . . .”
Stearman looked at the man incredulously.
“You can’t have been here over eighty years!” Poor old fellow, he thought, perhaps his mind has gone. But whatever else the stranger looked, he didn’t look insane. He looked cool, level-headed, self-possessed, self-assured. A man who had found himself in a difficult situation and had made the best of it.
“You’re thinking I’m maybe mistaken?” said the Cornishman euphemistically.
“I didn’t say so,” answered Val, “Well — you don’t look old enough to have been here eighty years!”
“Ah — that’s a funny thing,” said the Cornishman. “I was over fifty when my ship went down. And I haven’t grown a day older since I bin ‘ere! Not a day, not an hour!”
“You were fifty when you were marooned?” echoed Stearman. “And that was well ever eighty years ago! Good God, man, are you telling me you’re a hundred and thirty years old?”
“I’m likely several times more’n that! I’m — I’m — I dunno — can tell ‘ee if ye can tell me the date.”
“It’s nineteen sixty-two,” answered Stearman.
“Arr,’ said the Cornishman. “Arr, nineteen sixty-two, is it? My word? Time does fly! Seventeen forty-nine my ship went down. The ‘Maid o’ Plymouth’ — went down wi’ all hands — bar me. I wish to God, now, I’d gone down with her! This is a mortal small island when you’ve been here over two hundred years!”
“Are you seriously trying to say,” stammered MacGregor “that you are two hundred and fifty years old?”
“I’m not saying anything,” returned the Cornishman blandly. “I’m telling you that it’s the living Gospel truth that my ship, the ‘Maid o’ Plymouth,’ went down in 1749, and I’ve been on this island ever since! I remember — aye, it was one of those savage storms that come up off Tahiti. . . .”
“That what?” gasped MacGregor.
“One of those savage storms that come up off Tahiti, you’ve heard of Tahiti? It hadn’t long been discovered in my day. We were sailing there with a cargo of trinkets for the natives — tradin’ in for spices we were, and native produce. Bread fruit trees. . . .”
“Yes, I’ve heard of Tahiti,” said MacGregor, “only this happens to be the North Atlantic!”
They stared at one another in shocked silence.
“The Atlantic?” said the Cornishman at last, “I don’t believe ‘un!”
“That’s no more incredible than the fact that you are two hundred and fifty years old,” returned Stearman.
“I don’t believe ‘un’,” said the Cornishman. He sat down, hand to forehead, “I know it were Tahiti! Not thirty mile from the island, not thirty mile! I’ll swear it!”
“How do you account for the fact, then, that we are now in the north-western Atlantic?” said Jock MacGregor.
“Are you sure you didn’t make a mistake?” asked the old Cornishman.
“Me?” said MacGregor. For a second his seaman’s pride was injured but he saw the humour of the situation and his anger abated. “Me!” he repeated. “Listen, friend, we’ve got navigational aids that were undreamed of in your century. Ships don’t get lost any more, and I’ve been sailing the sea, man and boy, for well over forty years. When I’m in north-west Atlantic, I know!”
“Do you think,” said La Noire, softly, “that the island could have moved?”
“Moved?” said Val. La Noire was nodding.
“Moved,” she answered.
“I doan’ know about that,” said the Cornishman, “Though, of course there are seagoing legends of islands that move. . . .”
“There’s a terrible atmosphere here,” said La Noire, “an atmosphere of fear, loathing and hatred, as though the whole island is charged with evil.”
“I doan’ like the place,” agreed the old Cornishman, “I haven’t liked it since the day I came. But I can’t get off.”
“Have you tried?” asked Val.
“Built a boat two or three times — you can see the wreckage of ‘em lying against the rocks when the tide is low. I haven’t tried now for ten, twenty years or more. I’ve given it up! There’s labour enough for one man in getting a boat down over these cliffs, even at high tide, then when the tide turns it only washes it back, no matter how hard you may row.”
“I see,” said Val. “Have you ever seen an aeroplane overhead?”
“Never,” said the Cornishman. “What’s an aeroplane?”
“It’s a flying machine that carries men,” explained Val
“A flying machine? No — I never seen one o’ they, but I’ve heard talk of ‘em.”
“Have you never seen a boat?” persisted Stearman.
“Never seen a boat. Can’t see anything through they cliffs.”
“What about a signal fire?”
“Got no means o’ makin’ fire,” said the Cornishman.
“What about striking two rocks together?” said Val. “Sparks?”
“I once tried till my hands were red and raw, and I couldn’t get a spark. It’s as though the island didn’t want no fire to be lit.”
“You talk about the island as though it was a living thing,” said Val.
“To me it is,” answered the Cornishman.
Stearman turned his attention again to the brute man.
“What about him?” he asked suddenly, “How did he get here?”
“He’s like some of the others, he was here before I came. . . .”
“Some of the others?” echoed Stearman.
“I’m not the only one here,” said the Cornishman, “None of us can get off. I tried to get them to help me with boats once, but they’d all tried long before I come.”
“Long before you came!” said Stearman. “You mean you’re the last?”
“No, I’m not the last! There’s one or two bin since me! You’ll find them about the place. . . .”
“Well, don’t you live and work together? For company?” asked Stearman.
“Oh, I reckon that’s nigh on forty-odd year since the last man came,” said the Cornishman. “Forty-odd year. We talk for a little while, then we forget. It’s the law of the island, you know. That’s why I wasn’t so surprised as I might have been when you said it was 1962. I knew it were 19 — something. But I’d forgotten. That all come back to me then. There’s a fella — doan’ know where he is now — over on the other side o’ the island somewhere, among the bushes. We all keep to ourselves pretty much, you see. That’s the law of the island.” he repeated. His grey eyes clouded over, looked sad and troubled.
“The law o’ the island, musn’t be broken! This island hates people. Hates us! But it won’t let us get away!”
“What are you talking about? This other man who came?” asked Stearman.
“The last one to come said something about being torpedoed by an E boat.”
“God! He must have been sunk in the ‘14-18 war,” said MacGregor.
“Said something about he got ‘em. He was on a ‘Q’ ship. He did tell me the whole story.”
“‘Q’ ship,” said MacGregor. “Well I’m damned! They were timber-filled ships, with secret gun hatches. Used to act as decoys for German subs. In the first World War. Gerry ‘ud slap a torpedo in, and because she was timber filled she wouldn’t go down, for at least an hour. Most of the crew would apparently abandon ship. Then Gerry would surface to take a look at his prize and as soon as he had surfaced the hatches would drop and the skeleton gun crew that were left on board the ‘Q’ ship would let him have it with everything.”
Stearman was nodding, “I know the technique.” he said.
He looked at the bound. writhing captive again.
“He was here when you came?” he asked the Cornishman once more.
“Aye, he was here before any of us came, poor devil.” The Cornishman went up to him and stroked the matted hair on the creature’s great head, and said something that was more like a series of grunts, pointing to La Noire and making negative noises. Some of the fury abated from the creature’s eyes. A look of infinite sadness and longing replaced the anger, and the violence.
“You can let him go now, he won’t do no more ‘arm,” said the Cornishman. “Poor old fella! God knows, he may have been here a thousand years? Two thousand . . . maybe men was all like him years ago! I doan’ understand much about that. Maybe he was here before the Vikings . . . that reminds me, we got a Viking! A big, tall, fair-haired fella — still got his old helmet! That’s nearly rusted off his head!”
“You’ve got a Viking on this island?” gasped Stearman
“Aye, a real one! Took years for us to learn one another’s language. We used to tell each other tales o’ the sea, until he’d told me every story he knew a hundred times over, and I’d told him every story I knew. Now we just keep to our own little part of the island, and wander about and pick berries. Sometimes we carve little wooden figures. Sometimes we climb the cliffs.”
A sudden thought occurred to La Noire, “Has anyone ever attempted suicide?”
“Only once, since I bin ‘ere,” answered the Cornishman, “that was La Farge, the French pirate — poor old La Farge! Used to go mad at times! Mad for rum and he couldn’t get it! Said he’d give his arms, his legs, and all he had and all he was for a glass o’ rum! Swore he’d do away with himself if he couldn’t get rescued. Oh, he was here a hundred years a-fore me. . . .”
“You speak of it all so casually,” said Stearman, “yet you seemed overcome just now when I said it was 1962.”
“It was just the thought o’ the last forty years slippin’ past,” said the Cornishman, “and as I said, I’d partly forgotten time, because that was the law o’ the island. Now, you’ve brought it all back, you waken up the memories again. After some new people come, we just sit — and forget. After the excitement of your coming is over, in a few years’ time you’ll just sit and forget too. The island will get you like it’s got the rest of us. You’ll never get away. You got no hope. The island hates people, and we got no boat. If you ‘ad it wouldn’t let you get far.”
“What about the man who committed suicide — La Farge?” persisted La Noire.
“Poor old La Farge,” repeated the Cornishman, “fell off the cliff on to the rocks below at low tide. Broke very near every bone in his body, I should think; lay there covered with salt water for hours. The flesh seemed to rot from his bones. You never saw such a horrible sight.”
“But he escaped, didn’t he,” asked La Noire.
“He was alive through it all. We knew he was alive, we could hear him moanin’ and groanin’. We couldn’t reach ‘im. We couldn’t get down to ‘im. If we had a’ done there was nothin’ we could do for ‘im. He was like a dead man. The sea ‘ud cover him for eight or nine hours at a stretch. Once or twice the body was washed away, but it was always washed back again. And then gradually he began to mend. He got so as he’d swim for some o’ the time. Then he’d sink and go down again. Then he’d come up . . . At last he came crawlin’ up the cliff . . . he fell as often as not then he’d lie on the rocks for another week or two. But he didn’t die. All that pain and agony, and he couldn’t die. Nobody ever tried it after that. . . .”
“Do you mean to say that we are all immortal?” asked Stearman, “All of us, here on the island?”
“You’re immortal as long as the island wants you to be,” answered the Cornishman. “If you can’t believe me you must find it out for yourselves. Come and meet some of the others. Then you’ll know I’m tellin’ the truth.”
“This is fantastic, incredible,” said MacGregor. “It makes no kind of sense at all.”
They moved through the bushes in the old Cornishman’s wake. His shoulder-length hair made him look like some venerable old prophet leading a band of the faithful to the place of sacrifice.
“You’ll see them all ‘ere,” he said, “every one of ‘em. There’s Thurgeld the Viking, see how his old helmet has nearly rusted away? But he cherishes it. It’s a symbol to ‘im. It’s a last link with the things that are gone. . . . Nearby to ‘im, that strange-looking, wild-eyed man, his skin all a queer colour from the terrible sea-water, that’s La Farge; Scourge of the Spanish Main, he was. Over there Spanish Conquistadores — out for gold and great empires. So much for ‘im! And there’s meself — we’ve already met!” He grinned into his beard, “and there’s the man you’ll have most in common with. This is George Clancy. George — there’s some new ones come!”
Clancy wore the threadbare remains of a 1917 naval uniform. He saluted MacGregor, for enough of the Captain’s tattered fragments remained on him to show that he had once held rank. MacGregor saluted back.
“You can’t tell from these pieces,” he said, “but it was Merchant Navy!”
“Still worth a salute, sir!” said Clancy.
“Thanks,” said MacGregor, “Thank you very much. I’d like you to meet my first mate, Tom Trelawney.”
Tom and Clancy shook hands,
“This gentleman told us how you came to be here,” said Stearman, to Clancy.
“Oh, Tregarth.” said Clancy, “he’s a good sort.”
“I can’t understand why you don’t get together more,” said Stearman. “Can’t we all make some sort of a plan to get away from the island?”
“What’s the use?” Clancy shrugged his shoulders. “We all know too much to attempt suicide, that living dead thing that used to be La Farge taught us that. He suffered for months on those rocks. The island wouldn’t let him die! And yet, by all the laws of Nature, he couldn’t live! The result is what you see there!”
“What about a boat? There are trees . . . Surely there are enough of us now to make a boat!”
“We’d only get washed back to the island and maybe half-killed on the rocks like La Farge was. It’s been tried! It’s been tried!” said Clancy. “Everything’s been tried!”
“And you never see a ship?”
“Never!” Clancy spat out the word as though it had a poisonous taste.
“Not an aeroplane?’
“Nor an aeroplane!” affirmed Clancy. Tregarth frowned.
“I remember now! Years back you talked of aeroplanes, Clancy! I couldn’t fully understand you. They talk of aeroplanes, too.”
“One of the most common forms of transport, now, Clancy,” said Stearman. “Flying over the Atlantic many times a day. Gigantic jets that travel at hundreds of miles an hour. You’d hardly recognise them from the old string and wire planes of your day.”
“Do they still have Zeppelins?” asked Clancy with interest.
“No — occasional meteorological balloons, that sort of thing. The airship has completely given ground to the plane,” said Stearman.
“That’s interesting,” said Clancy, but his eyes didn’t look interested.
“There’s one of the boys you haven’t met, over there,” said Tregarth. “Says he was with Julius Caesar. And there’s a Phoenician about here somewhere — used to trade for tin — probably came to Cornwall. I’d love to see Cornwall again.”
“So would I!” said Tom Trelawney, “and I very much hope I shall!”
Clancy shook his head.
“We’ll none of us get off here none of us! It’s hopeless! Absolutely hopeless. The island hates us too much to let us go. . . .”
* * *
Hours turned into days, and the days began turning into weeks. The four new castaways found themselves slipping slowly but surely into the enervating, lethargic routine of the dreadful island.
As the weeks turned into months they found themselves taking less and less interest in the conversation of their fellow castaways.
It was after almost half a year had passed that Val Stearman began to see the first faint flickerings of daylight. No plane passed overhead, no ships had come into sight. None of them seemed to have aged by even a moment. The cave man, the Roman, the Viking, the pirate, the Spanish Conquistadore, Tregarth the old Cornishman from the 18th century. The man who had been sunk in 1917 — all of them, exactly as they were.
Among his many other pursuits, Stearman knew something of geology, and he decided that if, in some fantastic way, the island could, in any sense of the term, be said to be alive, then a clue to its sentience would lie in its geological strata and structure. But how to go about it?
The only course open to him, as far as he could see, in the entire absence of any scientific geological equipment, was a kind of general survey. He talked his plan over with MacGregor
“Aye.” said the Scot, “It’s as good an idea as any, Val, but” — he shrugged his shoulders — “I’ll admit that this place has as near as matters got me! There’s really very little that I feel like doing. I’ve lost all interest. There’s no escape. There’s no hope, even of death. I’d never have believed that this kind of thing was possible. But I know now what Tregarth meant when he said ‘It’s the law of the island’. There’s some kind of strange isolastionism that comes up out of the very rock — like some foul, poison gas that we’re all breathing. It saps our vitality, takes our strength and our energy and our initiative. All I want to do is sit, and watch the bushes waving in the wind, and listen to the lapping of the waves against the rocks. Like a strain of unwritten music that plays for ever and for ever. And yet, part of me is still fighting against it. Part of me is still saying, ‘Jock MacGregor, be a man, You’ve fought all your life. Get up and fight now.’ It’s like the island of the lotus eaters — only there are no lotuses here.”
Val Stearman was nodding his sympathetic agreement and understanding.
“If we don’t make a move soon, Jock, we’ll never make a move,” he said, “We’re stuck — fast. This blasted island has got us.”
“That geological survey ye have in mind,” said the Scot. “I’ll come wi’ ye. We’ve walked the blasted island over a thousand times in the last six months. It’s not so very big, is it?”
“Yes — but we’ve been walking aimlessly,” said Stearman, “we don’t notice anything except bushes and berries, the rocks have just been rocks. Now, that basalt cliff that surrounds the place, like a wall. It’s almost like the shell of the island. The external skeleton if you like to put it that way.”
“Aye, if we’re trying to think of anatomical similes,” said the Scot, “you could say that it was like a kind of shell. and the island is almost like a hermit crab — a soft, vulnerable thing, living inside its basalt case. You know we must be mad. Stearman, talking as if the island was alive!”
“It is alive,” said La Noire, breaking in on the conversation, “like a brooding presence, like a dark, saturnine mind, all about us, listening to our very thoughts. It’s alive all right.”
“Let’s pool what geological knowledge we have,” said Stearman. “In the first place, we know that there are two different kinds of rock, the bed rocks, which are in parallel layers — or, as they are sometimes known, strata — which are distinct from one another.”
“They were formed,” said La Noire, “by the hardening of sediment which had accumulated at the bottom or on the shores, of a great stretch of water, maybe the sea, or which had been heaped together by the wind.”
“And distinct from them,” said the Captain, “there were igneous or massive rocks. They show no trace of bedded structure, and I know perfectly well that they were formed by the cooling and the hardening of molten material, that was forced up from within the earth —”
“Igneous rocks, and sedimentary rocks, then,” said Stearman.
“What are rocks themselves made of?” asked La Noire thoughtfully.
“Minerals,” said Tom Trelawney the mate. “Minerals, me dear. Minerals, and substances of definite chemical composition.”
“Aye — that’s true,” agreed the Scot.
“Some rocks,” put in Val, “consist almost entirely of one mineral. Let’s take chalk, for example. That is a rather impure form of calcite.”
“Others,” said the Cornishman, “contain several minerals. I come from an old Cornish mining family. I know a lot about the rocks, although I don’t know all the scientific terms. I’ve shown several geologists around the Cornish mines before I took to sea. Granite, now, granite’s formed o’ three different things — quartz, felspar and mica. Then, o’ course, there’s fossils. Now very interestin’ they are! Strange to think when you hold a fossil in your hand that’s really the hardened remains of some extinct animal or plant, maybe thousands o’ years old. The ways o’ God are wonderful, but the ways o’ God are strange. The biggest question I ever had in all my life to answer was whether or not to believe the Book o’ Genesis as it stands, or whether there’s something in this ‘ere evolution business. I’d like to be a thinkin’ man. What do you think, Mr. Stearman?”
Val shrugged his shoulders.
“I believe in evolution,” he said, “I don’t see any real difficulty.”
“But how can you believe in God and believe in evolution?” demanded the old Cornishman.
“Well, I certainly believe in God,” said Stearman “but I reconcile the fact of evolution as a kind of tool that the Supreme Craftsman used. If you know a man who’s a fine carpenter or a fine sail-maker, you don’t say that he’s any less a craftsman because he has to use tools to turn a piece of wood into a table or to turn a piece of canvas into a sail.”
“You mean,” said the Cornishman, “that the slow processes of evolution were the tool that God used.”
“Yes, and you’ve also got to bear translation points in mind. Just because an ancient Hebrew talks of the six-day creation, how do we know that the word ‘day’ might not have been better translated as ‘age’, or ‘eon’, or ‘epoch’, or anything like that.”
“Ah, six ‘ages’ — timeless ages,” said the Cornishman, “that would make some kind of sense. It would at that, you’ve given me food for thought there, sir.” Val smiled.
“Let’s get back to the geology,” he said.
“This all started because we were talking about fossils,” said the Cornishman.
“What I want to do,” said Val, “is to make a really scientific survey. If we could look carefully all over the island and see what lies beneath the soil, once we get away from that basalt shell that seems to protect it, we should be a long way towards finding the heart of the thing, and once we’ve found its vital spot — then we can do some damage.”
“You mean tackle it in the same way as you tackled the prehistoric friend, who must have paddled here on a log in five thousand B.C.,” said MacGregor.
“That’s pretty well it,” said Val “I had to find his weak spot, and find it fast. I will say one thing for this diet of berries and island water — it doesn’t appear on the surface to be very nutritious, but I feel a devil of a lot better than I did when we first came off that raft.”
“It reminds me of an old story,” said MacGregor, “about a Chinaman who wandered up to a cave in the mountains, somewhere on the Mongolian border, and discovered, sitting up in this cave, almost on the snow line, were two old Mandarins, playing chess and eating berries, which were growing on a bush near the mouth of the cave. He stopped to watch them and he, too, ate an occasional berry as the time passed.
“When he finally bade them farewell and walked back to his village, five hundred years had passed.”
“There are certain parallels there,” agreed Val, “one often wonders where legend ends and truth begins. When a myth stops being a myth and becomes merely a cloak for some of the fantastic secrets of the dim dawn of history. Something that has come to us from the mighty dark rearward and abyss of the fathomless past.”
They began their survey using stone to chip stone, and one rock as a hammer with which to investigate another rock, scraping away soil, pulling up bushes, investigating, measuring.
Twenty-four hours later they had enough semi-scientific geological information to reach a decision, to arrive at a conclusion.
“Limestone,” said Val, and made the announcement as though it rather surprised him. Inside the basalt ring was limestone. As a geological formation it was fantastic. . .
“A basalt cylinder with a limestone interior . . . like a skull and a number of brain cells. Let’s think of all that we know about limestone. Pool our knowedge. Think about pot-holes and caves. This place must be riddled with them. Think how they are formed.”
“Trickling down through crevices in the chalk, what does the rain water do?” asked MacGregor.
“Dissolves the rock, naturally,” said Val.
“Aye, it dissolves the rock,” answered the Scot.
“And as it goes on descending, what happens?”
“Well, from what chemistry I remember,” said La Noire, “it becomes a saturated solution.”
“Aye,” said the Scot, “so it does! It becomes a saturated solution. It’s saturated with calcite. It’s got as much calcite in it as it’s able to dissolve. What happens then?”
“Well — the dissolving action must stop, I suppose,” said Stearman.
“Right!” said MacGregor. “The dissolving action stops, so we have a saturated solution, the dissolving action stopped — but another process is still continuing. . . The rainwater from above is still seeping its way through. It is this continued dissolving away of the calcite by the reinforcing water from above that produces potholes, and swallow holes vertically, and ultimately produces horizontal caverns or caves. . .”
“The cave I suppose,” said Stearman “would naturally tend to run along the strata of the rock, wouldn’t it?”
“It would indeed.” answered MacGregor, “and for that reason caves very often have level floors. They vary a great deal in height and width, of course. . .”
“Some caves are just a little cranny in the rock, and others are gigantic, vaulted places . . .” said Val.
“And what happens to the water that’s running along the strata floor?” said the Scot thoughtfully.
“Well, I suppose it finds another weak place in the floor,” said Stearman, “and this underground water would cut yet another vertical chasm. Then it would resume another horizontal course . . . and so on, so you’d find layers of caves one above the other!”
“I’m trying to think of places where I’ve spent holidays in the land o’ the Sassenach,” said the old Scots captain. “Now there’s Cheddar Gorge — hard limestone, upper layers of rocks solid enough to remain intact when they were undermined by a complicated series of caverns until finally they collapsed. Old Cheddar Gorge is the nearest thing we’ve got to a canyon in Great Britain.”
“There are two schools of thought about Cheddar Gorge,” said Val, “one set of geological experts believes that it is the remains of an immense cave the roof of which collapsed in prehistoric times; on the other hand it may simply be the valley of a river, the waters of which are now underground.”
“Aye, there are two schools of thought,” said the Scot, “I agree. Think of those wonderful caves up in the Mendips, and what about the Ingleborough district? It’s lovely up there, absolutely lovely.”
“So what we’re faced with,” said Val, “coming back to the island, is the very strong probability that if we can only find a pot hole, or swallow hole, we shall be able to make our way underground into a labyrinth of limestone caves. If, in some fantastic way, this island does think, if it really is sentient, as we believe it to be, then we will have got inside the skull, into the brain material itself. The caves will be the brain cells, the thought chambers where that sentience lives, and moves and has its being. If we can once get into the interior of the thing we can very likely destroy it.”
“Aye,” agreed MacGregor, “we can!”
They spent the next few days in preparations, weaving tough ropes from the fibrous vines, collecting vegetable fat from trees and bushes, and making it into lamp fuel — crude, primitive candles . . . with wicks made from strips of tattered clothing.
A few days more and they were ready to look for the hole.
“If the island knows what we’re doing,” said Val, “then provided it has got some kind of sentient control, it will increase the lethargy that seeks to overwhelm us, and at the same time do everything in its power to make it impossible for us to find the entrance. There must be entrances, but they will be covered with bushes, and grass, and a thin layer of soil, in all probability. But find them we must!”
The battle against the mental power of the island was exhausting, enervating, debilitating, but they kept on the struggle.
It was Stearman’s vigour and remorseless initiative, drive and energy that kept them going.
And at last they found a pothole! Carefully concealed by scrub and bush, and overhanging, matted grasses . . . Val knelt and cleared away the soil, fastening the vine rope around him he began descending, into the labyrinthine darkness of the caves that formed the centre of the rock structure of the island.
The darkness seemed to go on interminably, and he was beginning to doubt the adequacy of the vine rope when his feet finally touched the hard floor of the cavern.
It had been arranged for La Noire and the Cornishman to remain at the pothole to assist in the reascent, while Val and MacGregor did the actual exploration, and if possible, the destruction. They descended for hour after hour in the damp, dark, dripping tunnels of limestone. Here and there they escaped danger and death by a hair’s breadth. Dreadful, vertical shafts opened unexpectedly at their feet, camouflaged and concealed from their unaccustomed eyes by the flickering shadows which their crude, vegetable oil candles were able to cast.
They kept on with dogged determination, down, down, lower and yet lower into the very bowels of the island. Through the labyrinthine passages they continued, now crawling, now standing upright, now squeezing through tiny apertures scarcely large enough to admit the passage of men of their stature. On and on and on. . . It began to grow markedly colder. There was a strange, almost terrifying, other-worldliness about the cold. It was not a purely physical cold, not a mere negation of heat, not solely a drop in temperature, but it was a cold that seemed to blow from some weird psychic region, a cold that froze the very soul of man. A cold that came as though from ‘out some other bourne of Time and Space,’ a transcendental coldness, a fearful coldness. It gripped not only their bodies but their brains and their minds; their hearts, their very souls. They were like men turned to ice. They were men turned to stone. Neither moved a muscle. They stood a few feet apart, staring like statues, frozen in some ancient Greek tableau.
In the cavern around them a weird, greenish-yellow light began to appear. Fluctuating, fading, becoming brighter, fading again. The light persisted. Its faltering, flickering quality departed. A strange opalescent glow, a pearly mist, seemed to fill the entire cavern. Slowly at first, then when his volition regained control of his icy sinews, more quickly, Val Stearman came back to life. He drew a slow, shuddering breath. There was an acrid, putrescent odour about that yellow-green, misty light. He was able to move once more. He stepped quickly across the cave — and shook MacGregor. It was like taking hold of a dead man, but at last MacGregor’s eyelids flickered open. Val Stearman’s energy had broken the spell. The tough, dour Scot looked at his friend with dawning understanding.
“The light!” said Stearman, “the way it’s pulsating! What we’re looking at is the life of this island! That thing is life. A foul, evil, metabolism. God alone knows how to express it in words that would be comprehensible to either science or medicine. Not good life, but evil life. That thing has knowledge. That thing is able to say ‘I am’ and that thing has made the island what it is. It is that which has permeated its hate through the rocks of the strata, through the soil, and the vegetation and the basalt cliffs, and the rocks below the waves. That is the evil soul of the island. . . .”
“We must destroy it,” said MacGregor, “or it will destroy us.”
“How?’ asked Stearman, “How — for the love of God?’
“How do you destroy a thing that isn’t physical?” asked the Scot. The question was rhetorical. Stearman and MacGregor glanced at one another again, and then their eyes flashed back to the floating grey-green, yellow mist cloud.
“I don’t think we can kill it,” said Stearman, “but wait, wait! I’ve thought of a parallel!” He clapped a hand to his forehead, “if I ever believed in inspiration, it’s now,” he said. “I’m sure this thought came from somewhere, for it’s not an original one. Perhaps our guardian angels are looking after us, even in this dreadful place! Imagine that the mind of a man is like the driver of a car. The physical brain is the dashboard, or control panel. His body is the car itself. Mind, body, brain, Soul, the same as mind. Mind, body and brain, driver, control panel, vehicle.”
MacGregor was nodding in the strange grey-green light. “Aye, I see that.”
“If the soul or mind of man is non-physical,” said Stearman, “and the brain is an intricate labyrinthine network, a reticulation of nerve endings.” Stearman was thinking at a fantastic speed. “When a surgeon performs a lobotomy on a patient he is able to change that patient’s personality, not because his scalpel can cut into the psychic part of a man — that’s beyond the reach of cold steel — but what it can do is to effect the physical brain, the control-panel, by which the mind directs the body. Although the mind itself may remain unchanged, to all intents and purposes the habits and reactions of the body can be radically altered, because the psychic consciousness, or mind, is in the same position as a driver whose clutch and accelerator have been reversed, whose choke has been attached to his dip-switch, and whose windscreen wipers come on when he tries to switch on the lights.”
“I see the parallel,” affirmed MacGregor.
“Now,” went on Stearman, “if the basalt cliff of this island is the outside skeleton or shell, if the vegetation and top-soil represents the dermis and the epidermis, shall we say, and if the actual brain, the physical brain of the island, is this labyrinth of limestone caves, then the veins of various minerals running through the strata must represent some kind of nerve endings. Must represent parts of the great brain cells. Look at these stalactites, meeting with the stalagmites to form columns and pillars, it is through them that the thought, the sentience of the island, is able to operate. We cannot destroy the soul of the island — that is beyond our power, but we can perform a lobotomy, so to speak, by smashing through the stalactites, the stalagmites, and the pillars. . . .”
“Do you really think that’s possible?” asked MacGregor.
“Sure, I do.”
“But how are we to break them? We have nothing except a few ropes and these candles. . . .”
“They’re not as hard as they look,” said Val, “stalactites and stalacmites arc delicate, very brittle — even the thick ones. Now, we must choose carefully. Which is the most vital part of the island’s brain, I wonder. I suggest this cavern, because it is here that the consciousness lives.” Val backed away a few paces from the nearest of the colonnaded stalactite-stalagmite pillars, and with a jarring crash he flung his shoulder against the delicate stone tracery of the column. It shattered and crashed to the floor.
There was a low moaning sound through the corridors of stone, as though the island was aware of the doom that was overtaking it.
Again and again Stearman and MacGregor crashed their fists and their arms, until they were raw and bleeding, against stone pillar after stone pillar, snapping the stalactites from the roof, kicking over the thicker, more gently graduated, hump-like stalagmites of the floor. The green glow which permeated the room moved about them, angry, but helpless. . .
Finally battered, bleeding and exhausted, the two castaways made their way back to the surface. As Val and the Captain finally climbed through the tiny pothole, La Noire and Trelawney embraced them unashamedly. The four of them executed one of those crazy war dances of joy that can usually only be seen among home team supporters when the local heroes have topped the League, or won the Cup.
“I didn’t think we were going to see you again,” said Trelawney.
“Oh, we’re pretty well indestructible,” said Stearman with a grin, “aren’t we, Mac?”
“Aye, as near as dam’ it,” agreed the Captain. Trelawney’s face fell suddenly.
“The others weren’t,” he said.
“The others?” echoed Stearman.
“Whatever it was that ye did that’s affected the island, the power has gone — look! Look all round ye!”
“What’s that heap of dust,” said Stearman, “there? Dust, and rags, and hair?”
“That heap of dust was the cave man — that thing like a gorilla that you fought. And ye see that dry, brittle skeleton beneath a rusting, horned helmet? That was the Viking. And there — he must have been the Roman —”
“They’re all dead,” said Stearman.
“Aye, when the island’s power went,” said, Trelawney, “it seemed that time caught up wi them, all of a sudden; they collapsed where they stood. All except Clancy, he died slowly, from age, before my eyes. From a man of forty he looked seventy — eighty — ninety. I don’t know how old he looked, then he clutched at his chest and fell dead. It was horrible. There’s his body.”
“My God, is that Clancy?” said Stearman.
“Aye. I can just recognise him.” said MacGregor.
“And that skeleton there,” said Trelawney, “that’s Tregarth from Bugle, see the white hair still lying beside the skull. There’s the pirate, the Conquistadore, every one on this island. Time stood still, but once the power of the island went, Time demanded that its debts be paid. They have paid in full. . . .”
* * *
An hour later they were waving to the Air-Sea rescue helicopter. The pilot was waving wildly back, and making preparations to land. . . .
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