A Thrilling Yarn by Frank Key


I. September 1894

I had been marooned on the island for eleven weeks when I discovered the gigantic Bolivian architectural diagrams, rolled into a metal canister and wedged in a narrow crevice between two rocks. Taking a swig from my bag of turtle's blood, I squatted on the ground and removed the diagrams from the canister. There were about a dozen large sheets, rather frayed around the edges but perfectly legible. The top left corner of each sheet had been stamped with an official device of the Bolivian administration, showing an escutcheon, a ziggurat, the helmet of a conquistador, the hand of God, and abbreviations in neat italic lettering. The signature of what I supposed to be a petty official had been scratched across each of the stamps in mauve ink.

Munching a whelk, I turned my attentions to the diagrams themselves. They were fearfully complicated. I am no architect, and at first all I could make out were miriad lines meeting at angles and criss-crossing each other seemingly at random. Most of the diagrams had been subjected to revision, and there was much evidence of erasure, overprinting and churlish emendation. My studies were interrupted by a sudden and ferocious thunderstorm. Shoving the diagrams hastily back into the canister, unfortunately tearing one of them, I hobbled back to my shelter, where my viper was busy biting the head off an unidentified rodent. Tossing my crutches into the corner, I lay back on my pallet and spent a profitable hour mucking about with bits of wire and driftwood to make a trap for bats.

The life of a maroon, on an island such as this, is not unpleasing. Food is plentiful and easily gathered, or slaughtered. The vegetation is lush and the animals are slow-witted and trusting. On my very first day I was able to bash out the brains of a badger which trundled innocently towards me as I sat on the beach idling with my club. Quite what a badger was doing on the island is beyond me. I have not come across any others. But I am ever vigilant. I will not risk boring you by listing the stupendous array of equipment I managed to salvage from the wreck of the HMS Tot of Magnesium. Suffice to say the club was not my only weapon; nor am I at a loss for a change of trousers.

I have told you that I am not an architect. The truth is, I cannot remember what I am, what trade or business I followed on dry land. Perhaps I was a jolly jack tar; but I think it unlikely. I like to think that I was aboard the Tot of Magnesium as a supernumerary passenger, a merchant of sorts, my cabin crammed with samples of tea, or silk, or mustard. In the final desperate moments, as the ship pitched and rolled and smashed against gleaming rocks, I received a blow to the head which has impaired my memory. It was not the only injury I received. My right leg is only just recovering. I was thankful that among the first items from the ship washed up on the beach was a wooden box of sinapisms from the surgeon's casket. In the first days of my marooning, the lifeless bodies of my shipmates were washed up on shore, white, puffed, gruesome. I ticked off the dead in an impromptu ledger, which I have since mislaid. The bodies did not lie there long. Enormous birds swooped out of the sky, hooked the dead in their vicious beaks, and bore them off. Their nests are not on this island; I have searched every inch of it. The gigantic Bolivian architectural diagrams came to light on one of my earliest searches. For the first few weeks I was so sure of being rescued by a passing smack or schooner that I could barely bring myself to move. I sprawled on the beach, knocking out the brains of a variety of curious animals, applying sinapisms to my wounds and gashes, and covering myself with an old bit of sailcloth at night, or during rainfall. At last a ship hove into view. I hopped about like a mad thing, shouting and raving in Latin, following the advice of my Jesuit mentors. Eventually I realised that the craft I was hailing was none other than what was left of the Tot of Magnesium, seen from an advantageous angle. If, dear reader, you were expert in tides and currents, in the pleasingly complex science of the movement of seas, I would ask you how it was that this broken wreck of a ship sailed about for nine or ten weeks without sinking, only to return to the spot where razor-sharp rocks hidden beneath the waves had pierced its fabric and brought about its doom. But I suspect you are not.

It was at this stage that I conquered my indolence and set to work. In forty-eight hours, I salvaged everything I could carry from the ship, constructed a raft, knocked up a shelter from planks and sail-cloth, knocked up another shelter when the first one collapsed on top of me, this time shoring up the sides with some sort of metal, killed eight turtles, made a store for buckets, dug some holes, lost my death-ledger, ate a pickled wren I found in the surgeon's casket, and hardly paused for sleep. The next day I began my search of the island. I found a mulberry bush and some gemstones. On the second day I found bauxite deposits, a waterfall, big grains of sand and what looked like the bones of a horse. On the third day I found the gigantic Bolivian architectural diagrams. On the fourth day I found a crushed encampment of beetles, and a cave full of the most loathsome bats I had ever seen. So it went on, day after day. In two weeks I had covered the island. All the while I had been making careful notes, and now I rested and spent my days drawing an exquisitely detailed map. I tacked this up above my pallet. As night fell, and my blubber candles spluttered, I lay back and considered my island home. With nary a smack or schooner in sight, I could remain marooned for years on end. My shelter may not last, buffeted as it was by howling winds and freezing rain. I decided that the best place for me to live would be the cave. I declared war on the bats.


II. January 1911

I had been marooned on the island for just two days when I discovered the gigantic Bolivian architectural diagrams. They were spattered with blood, rolled up and jammed into a rotting wooden casket. I carried them back to my hut to examine them. There were about a dozen large sheets, rather frayed around the edges but perfectly legible. The top left corner of each sheet had been stamped with an official device of the Bolivian administration, showing an escutcheon, a ziggurat, the helmet of a conquistador, the hand of God and abbreviations in neat italic lettering. The signature of what I supposed to be a petty official had been scratched across each of the stamps in mauve ink. I could not understand why they were in such good condition. I tacked them up on the walls of my hut, where they rapidly grew so familiar that I no longer noticed them. I am no architect, and I had more urgent matters to attend to.

I have never forgiven myself for my stupidity. I had been warned not to row my skiff into uncharted waters near the Antarctic Circle. Oh, but did I listen as Captain Peabody harangued me? "You d----'d fool!" he shouted, his frosty whiskers twitching in the cold morning light. I turned for one last look at the ship as I guided my skiff into oblivion. I have not seen a human face since that day. Within minutes I was overwhelmed by chilling, poisonous mists. The hideous stench of crocuses made me sick to my stomach. I let fall the oars. The tholes, tampered with by my enemies, Glubb and Mufton, fell to pieces, and the oars floated away, out of reach. I drifted for hours. My anorak, with its hood of reindeer hide, froze solid, encasing me so that I was unable to move an inch. An auk, or some such feathery ingrate, shat on me repeatedly, hovering above my head like a malign shade. I could not move to shoo it away. Eventually - mercifully - I passed out.

When I came to I was surrounded by members of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. One of them, with icicles forming on the brim of his hat, was solicitously offering me a tin mug of brandy. I took a grateful swig, then noticed that his colleagues did not seem so friendly. They were glaring at me menacingly. One brandished a rather archaic halberd in the air and shouted horrifying words. All of a sudden I became aware that I was aboard a huge, shiny boat, its sails billowing, its decks scrubbed clean. I turned to look again at the Mountie with the tin mug. For the first time I took in his features. It was Mufton! My deadly enemy....

There were other hallucinations, other dreams. I shall not repeat them here. Hours, days, perhaps weeks after I had set out in my skiff, I came at last to dry land again when I woke to find myself sprawled on the beach of this island. Was it yet another phantasm? There were a number of ways to find out. I tried three of them. First, I beat my head upon some boulders. This caused what seemed like real pain. Then I shovelled handfuls of coarse sand into my mouth and attempted to swallow. This caused me to retch uncontrollably for some minutes. Almost satisfied, I conducted a third test. Taking from the breast pocket of my anorak a small phial, I poured a minuscule quantity of a decoction of sandalwood, cresol, gutta percha and pitch into the palm of my hand, held it aloft in the salty air, and mumbled incantations and gibberish. Sparks crackled in my hair, shot up into the sky, and brought tiny jewels of hail pinging down around me. Within seconds they evaporated, and were gone. But now I knew for certain that I was wide awake, no longer prey to visions and vapours. Being a resourceful sort, I managed to provide myself with adequate food, drink, warmth and shelter within a few hours. I began to search my temporary home, and found the gigantic Bolivian architectural diagrams. That was over a month ago. I found the remains of my skiff, crushed and broken, swept up on some rocks on the northern coast, which seems to be the wildest. I have been working hard at my almanack, and at keeping my beacons lit.

Last night, as I hurled dried and matted vegetation upon my northern beacon, I was attacked by a swarm of bats. They swooped at me one after another, squealing horribly, pecking at my flesh. I fought them off with a burning stick, but I was shaken. I ran back to my hut, and blocked up the doorway and some of the holes in the walls with mulberry paste. Tonight the bats are back, chewing their way frenziedly through the walls. I have on my rickety home-made desk a small bag of sulphur bombs with which I hope to fight them off. But timing will be crucial. I do not intend to perish.


III. October 1928

We docked at 0800 hours. Bingle, Carg, Linnet, Frack and Pinmouth were detailed to search the northern half of the island, while Bewg, Shimm, Jabber, Thurp and myself took the south. I left Wicket and Birdhole aboard the ship, with strict instructions. I cannot remember what the instructions were, but they were strict, make no mistake about that.

The five of us who comprised the southern party set out. It rapidly became apparent that the boulders and rocks on the island were giving off violent magnetic discharges. The tension was oppressive. We saw what looked like ball lightning far in the distance. I instructed Bewg to make sketches in his little pad, but he complained that his pencil was blunt. Between us we could not muster a pencil sharpener. I was loth to have Bewg return to the ship alone to fetch the required implement, so I instructed Jabber to accompany him. I pressed on with Shimm and Thurp, the latter carefully scraping rock and mud samples into our canister. The path ahead was burned and scorched - by what agency was not clear to us.

At 0950 hours Birdhole joined our party. She brought with her the ship's pencil sharpener. Apparently Bewg had suffered an attack of the seeds, and was having a lie down in his cabin. I made a mental note to tick him off later. I remember that clearly, because at the very moment I thought it a mighty crevasse opened in the ground directly in front of us. Thurp was swallowed up, as the earth cracked apart. The rest of us staggered backwards. I am glad that I had the presence of mind to tell Birdhole to execute a quick sketch in Bewg's pad. She complained that she had not yet had a chance to sharpen the pencil, but I cut her short with a screech of blood-curdling ferocity. One is taught to do that sort of thing at officer school.

Shimm put down her accordion and made an impromptu bridge across the crevasse using all our footwear tied together. We clambered across, and pressed on, although not before Birdhole had insisted upon holding a commemorative service for the sadly departed Thurp. Why I allowed it I do not know. I can be a sentimental old buzzard. While Birdhole was ululating, we were joined by the northern party, who had completed their investigations. Other than some extremely fascinating magnetic readings, ornithological discoveries, amateur geological observations, a net full of moths and a worm count, they had nothing to report. I commanded Frack or Pinmouth - I never could tell them apart - to return to the ship, but I cannot remember why. Whichever one it was sent Jabber back to us. I had suspected her of idling around like Bewg, but she made haste to tell me that she had cast a Mackenzie Beam from the ship. I patted her on the head, not without some misgivings, as I do not think she had ever washed her hair. At last Birdhole stopped howling, and we pressed on. We passed an enormous heap of skeletons - bat and human, according to Bingle's eagle-eyed diagnosis - and various other manifestations of what Lamouche calls la flaque de la mort. I have Jabber to thank for that quotation. Birdhole wanted to delay further to give the two human skeletons a decent Christian burial, but I cuffed her on the temples and snarled at her.

The ground over which we passed became rough and spiky, and we had to tread carefully in our socks. We would retrieve our tough adventurer's boots on our return trip, when we would be able to dismantle Shimm's bridge. Frack or Pinmouth handed around some custard-balls for sustenance. Then, as we hacked our way through some overhanging foliage, we suddenly came face to face with the building. It was smaller than we expected, like a scale model of a typical nineteenth century Bolivian civic hall, and it had all the hallmarks of having been constructed out of bat droppings. I removed my hat in awe. The others did likewise, except for Shimm, who was not wearing a hat, Linnet, whose hat had snagged on the branch of a dunstable tree a few hundred yards back, and Birdhole, whose hat had been glued to her head for the duration of the expedition for some obscure religious purpose. I had interrogated her on this point back at Tantarabim, and will publish the documents separately.

Of course, we could not stand around like a bunch of clots all day. I jammed my hat back on my head and commanded my team to get to work. I was heartened to see that they set to it with such gusto. Within minutes, the instruments had been unpacked, the music stands set up, sheet music distributed, and everyone was at their post ready to tune up. The band was as follows: Bingle on bugle, Carg on bassoon, Shimm on accordion, Jabber on sackbut, Linnet on harmonium, Frack or Pinmouth on castanets, and Birdhole on handbells. I myself conducted and played the cornet. We ran through a few bars of Bring Me Your Winding-Sheet, Oh Mother Of Mine before settling down to the concert proper. Macaws shrieked but we drowned them out. We played my arrangements of Die sieben letzten Worte des Erlösers am Kreuze (Haydn), Sonatine Bureaucratique (Satie) and The Anti-Abolitionist Riots (Ives). For an encore, we performed a rousing version of The Consumptive's Vest (Jabber, arr. Birdhole). Then we packed up. I ordered Birdhole to make some detailed sketches of the building in Bewg's little pad, and we also took measurements and poked about the place a bit. But night would soon be falling, and there was no let up in the magnetic activity of this accursed island. The sooner we returned to the ship the better. The journey back passed without incident. We collected our boots after re-crossing Shimm's bridge over the chasm. Thurp's body had fallen so far it was not visible. We did not tarry. Wicket and Pinmouth or Frack were on duty on the bridge. They had received warnings of volcanic activity over the radio. Before we set sail, I went into Bewg's cabin and told him I would brook no further nonsense from him. I presented him with a rag and told him to go and polish everything on the ship. Back on deck, I found Linnet mucking about with the Mackenzie Beam. I let it pass; I was a tired woman. We weighed anchor, and headed home at last. Only later did I discover I had left my cornet on the island. I cannot bear to go back there to retrieve it.