With The Great War over, Colonel ‘Mad Jack’ Ruscombe-Green was finding civilian life a frightful bore. He and his batman, Private William Ebley, had been demobilised after the cessation of hostilities and while Ebley was content to spend his remaining days in London as the colonel’s valet, Mad Jack himself still ached for adventure.
When an invitation to yet another country-house party arrived by post the colonel’s immediate reaction was less than joyful. He knew that if he accepted he would be rubbing shoulders with the same dreary set of people, most of whom he despised. The prospect of a long-weekend in the company of minor aristocracy and various eccentrics made the memories of the trenches seem almost cheerful. However, this invitation had been from his old C.O. and he felt duty-bound to accept. Bill Ebley, on the other hand, relished these diversions and took little persuasion to pack the colonel’s bags and load the car.
The partygoers turned out to be as tedious as the colonel had predicted, save for one guest. An American gentleman of Norwegian descent named Frank Samuelsen was a breath of fresh air. Here was a fellow adventurer who revealed, in the course of conversation, that he and his late friend, George Harbo, had rowed the Atlantic some twenty-five years earlier. The story fired the colonel’s imagination. That would be just the ticket. Two months on the open ocean and then the vast continent of North America to explore. He took it for granted that Ebley would be his number two. After all, they had been through a great deal together.
Just a few weeks later the colonel was the proud owner of an eighteen-foot long oak rowboat. Following Samuelsen’s advice the craft had been fitted with a water-resistant cedar sheathing and kitted out with a compass, a sextant, a copy of the Nautical Almanac, oilskins and three spare sets of oars. And so it was that they set out from Falmouth with the eternal optimism of every explorer who ever lived. New York was just over three thousand nautical miles away. This would be a trip to remember.
Fifty five days later they were adrift and totally lost. The storm had raged for three days and nights, taking the little boat far off-course. Both men had suffered horribly from sea-sickness, their supplies had almost run out and the last set of oars were floating free somewhere miles away. The two adventurers were completely at the mercy of the Atlantic Ocean and all hope had perished when they suddenly found themselves in the middle of a fog bank. It was as thick as either man had ever encountered. So thick, in fact, that they failed to see the reef that ripped the hole in their hull until they were upon it. With the sounds of splintering timbers and raging seas filling their ears the two were hurled onto the rocks and into the oblivion of unconsciousness.
Bill Ebley was used to waking up in odd places. His duties as batman to the colonel, and then, after the war, his valet, had deposited him in some strange surroundings but none to equal these. The room was conventional enough but he could have sworn that the trio of strange ornaments on the dressing table seemed to be moving ever so slightly. They were rum, that was for sure; they looked like socks with big glowing eyes, loads of tentacles and spoons for legs. It must be something to do with this Dadaism thing that he had heard about during the war. Blooming madness, in his opinion.
Blooming madness blossomed into full-flowered madness a minute or so later when the three ornaments decided to scamper across the dressing table and disappear through a hole in the skirting board. Ebley, never a man to knowingly panic under fire, screamed involuntarily. A second later a burly, middle-aged man dashed into the room.
“ You alright, guv’nor?”
Ebley was ghostly white.
‘What was that?” He gasped, then after a short pause. “You’re English! Am I in England? Or dead, maybe?”
“ Neither, my friend. You’re on an island off the coast of Maine, and I’m Sebastian Lypiatt, landlord of The Squid and Teapot.”
Sebastian revealed to Ebley that he had been discovered on the rocks by a foraging party and brought to the inn, which, incidentally, was occasionally plagued by creatures called Spoonwalkers. When the valet enquired about the well-being of Colonel Ruscombe-Green he was met with a blank stare and told that no one else had been found.
“We’ll organise a search,” promised Sebastian. “We’re used to folks going missing on Hopeless.”
He didn’t mention that the chances of anyone actually being found were not so much slim as positively emaciated.
If Bill Ebley was taken aback by the creatures who shared his billet, Colonel Ruscombe-Green had been frog-marched to edge of reason, allowed to peep into the abyss and encouraged to wave at the demons. It took all of his mental resources to come to terms with his new reality. He found himself in a vast subterranean cavern, illuminated by a thin, sickly-green light. The air was filled with shrieks and screams, human beyond a doubt, that sounded like souls in torment. Just a few paces away from him an assortment of ghastly, cadaverous creatures wandered, apparently aimlessly, around the cavern. They might have been people once but, except for a slight physical resemblance, all traces of their humanity had gone. They were sniffing the air and drooling like rabid dogs. Occasionally one would drift into the shadows and its leaving would invariably precede a heart-rending cry of abject agony and misery. If this was not Hell then where was it? And what were these monsters?
As if in answer one of them came up to him, drool hanging from its slavering chops. Had Ruscombe-Green known it, this was the very individual who had dragged him to the cavern, having found him unconscious on the rocks.
“Get back you Blighter …”
The creature, unsurprisingly indifferent to mild epithets, extended a bony arm and prodded him with a finger that was badly in need of a manicure. Then it drew back slightly, sniffing the air. It bared its teeth.
The colonel soon realised why it had recoiled. He tried not to gag as the air was filled with the foulest reek. Suddenly the cavern was alive with firelight and leaping shadows. A lone figure, smelling to high heaven, burst upon the scene brandishing a flaming torch.
“You heard what the gentleman said, now get away.”
The other creatures quailed against the cavern walls, as far away from the light and stench as they were able.
Reluctant to let go its prize, the aforementioned Blighter shielded its eyes and tried to grab the colonel’s arm, only to find itself much closer to the torch than, on reflection, it might have considered as being healthy.
Its skin and flesh was as dry as tinder and within seconds its body was engulfed in flames. Despite the revulsion the creature had instilled into both men, neither was prepared for the full horror of the writhing conflagration before them; its screams, as the flames consumed it, were unearthly and terrible to hear. The cavern, now filled with light, quickly emptied as the other fiends scuttled into the darkest depths like cockroaches.
“Quick, follow me,”
As they made their way out into the cold night air, the Colonel noticed that his malodorous rescuer had a tightly-lidded bucket strapped to his back.
“The fact is,” said the Night-soil man, “I’m safe enough around most things on the island. Nothing much will come near me. It’s the stink, see.”
The Colonel nodded in agreement. He didn’t dare risk opening his mouth.
“I saw that devil drag you in. Sorry I couldn’t have been quicker.”
The other man shrugged and waved reassuringly.
“I’ll get you to The Squid. Seb’ll get you right.”
Although he had no idea what the Night-Soil man meant, and despite the smell, the Colonel was grateful for whatever help he was about to get.
Some hours later, after Ruscombe-Green and his valet had apprised each other fully on their adventures of the day, the colonel said,
“You know, this is a damn rum place but these chaps have been good to us. We should reward them somehow.”
“Reward them sir?” Ebley looked confused. “With what? All we have are the clothes we’re standing up in and a boat that’s been reduced to not much more than matchwood.”
“So we have.” said the colonel. “But, one never knows, we might be able to salvage something from that.”
He paused, then a look of sudden inspiration spread across his face. Ebley had seen that look before; it usually meant work of some description.
“By Jove, I’ve just had a cracking idea. We’ll give our new friends the gift of civilization.”
Ebley gave him another confused look. The colonel looked triumphant.
“We’ll jolly well teach them how to play cricket”
And that, dear reader, is a tale for another day.
Art by Clifford Cumber