Issue 4, Vol. 1
Author(s): Maxwell Scott
Main story: The Phantom Dwarf - or, The Mystery of the Isle of Life (Maxwell Scott)
A small town on the Yorkshire coast called Sandy Wyke is being battered by a fierce hurricane-force storm as the story opens. Most residents are content to stay indoors (presuming thier roofs are not blown away), but the crew of the local lifeboat station remain on the promenade, looking out to sea to spot any ship in distress. Suddenly a ship rounds the nearby cliffs forming the edge of the bay, though there is no sign of life aboard her a crowd of willing helpers leave thier homes to help launch the lifeboat on it's dangerous mission. As the crew prepares the coxwain steps outside again to talk to a coastguard, who is watching the ship through a telescope. She is heavily damaged and a man is aboard, so the lifeboat, the Darby and Joan, is launched at once.
Remaining on the shore, is a "gentlemen of the truest type", Richard Ensor - or Dick, as the story comes to call him. He lives in nearby Dangrave Hall with his uncle, a former Colonel, and normally travels but has returned home for the present and wishes to watch the brave lifeboat crew in action.
The boat is rowed furiously out beyond the ship, and then allowed to drift towards her with the current. The bowman prepares to throw a rope to the ship so that the lifeboat can come alongside, when one of the ship's masts collapses, the upper part coming down upon the bowman and killing him instantly. The shocked crew are too stunned to move for a moment, and the boat is carried back to the slipway from which she had been launched moments before. The crew are unenthusiastic, but Dick leaps into the bow and encourages them to fresh effort, and once more the Darby and Joan is launched. This time reaching the sticken vessel, where Dick spots the survivor, an aristocratic looking man desperatley clinging to a brass-bound box. The line is thrown twice, but the man is hesitant to let go of the box and secure the rope. On a third attempt Dick uses a grappling iron instead, and after it grips he hoists himself aboard the ship and is soon bringing the stricken man and the box back to the boat.
Dick recieves attention in the press after the daring rescue, and he recieves many letters, however only one is important to him, it comes from Elsie Wilmott, a girl he is in love with. He would like to marry her but her father, the town doctor, forbids it. Dick doesnt know that this is because of trouble stirred up by Colonel Ensor, who would recieve the hall and all Dick's wealth if he was to die unmarried. The Colonel had originally tried to break up the young lovers, but after being threatened with eviction has adopted this more devious approach.
The story travels back to just after the rescue, when Dr Wilmott is called to attend to the man rescued from the ship, who is in a delirious state and speaking an unknown language. The doctor decides rest would be the best thing, and gives the man a sleeping draught. After this he travels to see Professor Marmaduke Saville, who knows why he is coming already - after having had a dream many years ago that he would one day be called to interpret the speech of "a man dragged from the brink of the grave". he says also that the propechy decreed the man would have a large affect on his life, though he didnt know if it would be for good or ill. Either way he decided to go to the hotel where the man is resting, and meet his fate.
At the hotel the lifeboat crew are being entertained by thier friends after the daring rescue, the professor heads to the upstairs room and meets the rescued man, whom he finds is an Italian of around 30 years of age. The man awakes and demands the box, which the professor fetches, asking what it contains. The Italian tells an amazing story - it contains Amrita, the elixir of eternal life! Given to him by an eastern mystic by the name of Abdallah-Sina, each drop of it confers 100 years immunity from death in any form, the Italian needs to take a new dose quickly or he will die! However, the cruel professor refuses to hand the amrita over, even when told the box also contains the formula for making more, so that both he and the Italian could live forever if they wished. The town clock strikes ten, marking 100 years and one hour since the Italian last took a dose of the formula, the man is convulsed with pain and shrivels into a blackened skeleton with a few scraps of brown, dried skin hanging off it. However, the spirit of the Italian lives on, as The Phantom Dwarf!, a similarly hideous spectre which bursts from the corpse and knocks the elixir of life from the professor's hand, breaking the bottle. The professor himself passes out, and when he comes around the room is dark, and the ghost has gone.
An inquest into the bizarre death is held, but the professor manages to conceal the important document, and claims the Italian merely called for the box repeatedly before his strange and sudden death. The professor, on his own, translates the formula and discovers that it primarily needs five ingredients, all of them are expensive and difficult to obtain. However the Italian happens to have had a flask containing them already, evidently collected over the 500 years of extra life he has been granted. The final ingredient is a precious stone hidden on a remote island and worshipped by natives. For the formula to be made the seventh daughter of a seventh child must dip the stone in the mixture seven times, at the end of which she will die and the formula will be complete. The professor finds the island on a map (it is in the north Pacific), and wonders what the Italian, Giovanni Borelli, was doing sailing to England. However this is answered when he discovers a charter for an Italian-crewed steamship which was to have made the voyage to the island proper. With this, he decides to impersonate Borelli himself, and make the voyage. All he needs is the seventh daughter of a seventh child... and he discovers one while in conversation with Dr Wilmott- namely, Elsie!
Cabling to the captain of the ship, the San Stefano, he has the captain bring her to a small bay near Sandy Wyke. Meanwhile he goes to the same church that Elsie attends and, catching her eye, hypnotises her to come to the ship at the end of the service. Dick meets her outside the church, and is hurt when she ignores him and walks in a trance-like state out of the town. Suspecting foul play, Dick follows, and is terrified by the sight of the Phantom Dwarf, which appears to be trying to tell Elsie to turn back. When this doesnt work it turns it's attention to Dick, but in his frightened state he simply backs away, before being hit by Saville and left in the road. By the time he regains consciousness the ship in the bay is far out at sea. Dick staggers home and is found by his Colonel uncle the following day, babbling about what he has seen, still in shock. The Colonel sends for an unscrupulous Doctor Witt, who, with the help of a conspiracy of similarly crooked medical men, has Dick declared insane. This plot involves a 'maddening draught', Dr Wilmott witnesses Dick after this has been administered too, and the plotters gain an impartial witness to aid thier story.
Dick is persuaded to travel to a nearby lunatic asylum, where he is told Elsie has been taken. The Colonel insists he travels in a carriage so that he doesn't catch a cold after his own recent "illness". The carriage travels along a cliff road, but the horses then inexplicably halt at a paticularly dangerous section. The Colonel and the driver both try to puzzle out what is wrong with the horses, when the Phantom Dwarf appears, the terrified animals bolt and the coach is plunged over a cliff with Dick inside! He manages to spring clear of the doomed vehicle and undress himself in the water, before attempting to swim to safety. However a current carries him out to sea and he is eventually picked up by a fishing boat from Sandy Wyke. A storm breaks over the small vessel, crewed by a father and two sons. A large wave breaks over the ship and the two sons are carried off, this drives thier father insane and he attempts to murder Dick. He knocks our hero down after a struggle, and raises a marlinspike, but this forms a lightning conductor and is struck, the current killing the fisherman and knocking Dick unconscious. He awakes later to find the storm has largely abated, but his memory is blank! It is in this state he is rescued by a screw-steamer named Scotia.
Meanwhile, Professor Saville reaches the Isle of Life, the location of the mystic stone which is nessescary to create the elixir. The San Stefano anchors in the mouth of a river on the island, and the professor takes Elsie, still in a trance, ashore alone, one of many eccentric acts he has performed on the voyage, which by now excites no interest in the crew. The Professor comes upon a tribe of Arabs in the jungle, who show him to his luxorious quarters inside a palace hidden within the crater of an extinct volcano. On the opposite side of the crater is a cave protected by a wall of fire. This is where a smaller, taller crater containing the place where the elixir is made can be found. The leader of the Arab tribe, Alsofi, tells the professor that the ritual can only be performed during a full moon, ten days away, and that he will instruct the San Stefano to moor in a safer place whilst they wait. Ten days later, and the ritual is ready to begin! Alsofi shows Saville and Elsie across to the cave, and has them immerse themselves in a pool which provides temporary protection from fire. This allows them to pass the flame barrier and enter the cavern where the elixir is made...
Dick, meanwhile, is hauled aboard the Scotia and taken care of by the captain's brother, a doctor who is paticularly interested in memory loss. The captain mentions that the bo'sun was himself picked up very close to the spot, the sole survivor of another wreck, a few weeks previously. The ship continues on her voyage to San Francisco, but a hurricane pushes her up to the north Pacific, and the captain has to proceed slowly as the region is unexplored. Meanwhile Dick has recovered well but has still lost his memory. On a dark night, when the moon is almost full but remains hidden behind a bank of cloud, the ship accidentally sails into the mouth of a river and runs aground, listing badly. Dick rushes to escape an inrush of water and jams his head in a port-hole. The ship lists slowly further, with Dick's head sticking out and drowning being threatened with every moment. The rest of the crew escape and are able to swim around and console him, but can do no more. Just as the water reaches Dick's chin, and he prepares to die "like an Englishman", the boilers of the ship explode violently, huge cracks forming, including one right through the porthole where Dick is trapped! he swims to the surface after being carried under a short distance by the sinking debris, and emerges to a scene of devastation - almost all the crew killed and all thier stores lost. They decide to camp on the island and see what day brings.
The morning finds the crew trekking inland, where they can hardly beleive thier eyes as they come across an anchored ship - The San Stefano! After a meal Dick passes the day wandering the ship, finally finding Elsie's cabin and a book of hers. This opens the floodgates of his memory, and he rushes to talk to the officers of the ship. After sketches are made and compared, the sailors realise "Signor Borelli" is an impostor - Marmaduke Saville - and agree to help rescue Elsie from him.
They take a boat and sail upriver, coming across and fighting the Arabs just outside the cave which leads to the crater. Dick chases the last arab through the cave and emerges into the crater just in time to see Marmaduke Saville and Elsie Wilmott pass the wall of fire! Fighting off the Arab, Dick then comes up against Alsofi, however a timely intervention of the Phantom Dwarf causes the chieftain to flee into the night. Dick is dropped, by luck, into the magic pool, climbs out and passes through the wall of fire. Professor Saville has already begun the dread ritual, having made Elsie take the precious stone from a state representing a woman who at first seems to be happy, but also seems weary - as if offering the beholder eternal life but warning him not to take it. Elsie is about to dip the stone in the liquid for the seventh and final time when Dick bursts in on the scene, his voice breaking the hypnotic spell and making her drop the stone. The angered professor goes to pick it up, but as it can only be touched safely by a seventh child of a seventh child, it bursts into flames and adheres to his hand. The Phantom Dwarf also appears to torment him, and he plunges into a hideous pit of black lava at the centre of the crater to escape his torment. This causes the volcano to begin to erupt! Dick leaps up onto the statue, taking Elsie with him, as the lava from the pit rises higher and higher, and the crater is filled with choking fumes. By the light of the phosphorecent scum on top of the black lava, Dick notices that the walls of the crater are rather jagged, and he and Elsie begin a desperate climb to escape. They are able to climb so far, but there are no more hand-holds and they find themselves awaiting death, when the lava rushes through the cave with the flame-barrier (that had collapsed at the start of the eruption), and the level is reduced. A violent explosion as the lava touches the river in the larger crater causes rock wall above Dick and Elsie to fall outwards, providing them with a way down the mountain-side to safety.
The two rush back to the San Stefano as she is preparing to leave, and the ship sails away from the Isle of Life as fast as possible, under a cloud of volcanic ash. When they are about five miles distant a further series of explosions blasts the island into dust. The ship arrives in San Francisco and Dick and Elsie, after cabling to Dick's uncle and Dr Wilmott, take the trans-continental railroad across to New York, where Dr Wilmott meets them. He then tells Dick that his uncle, upon recieving the cablegram after beleiving Dick dead, went mad and was confined to the very asylum he had tried to get Dick admitted to.
Other Stories: None
Notes: A complex and exciting story, though one that could not very well be written in these days of global positioning, imaging satellites and greater understanding of science. I actually read this a long time ago, but looking back through it to write the review, i can now see the similarities to the much-later Indiana Jones series, inspired by the same source (Rider Haggard), as this story was.
The editorial makes further mention of this famous author, pointing out that at the time his brand-new stories where issued at 2'/6, "a price beyond the reach of the general reading public" (that is, the working-class 'urchins' who would have bought the Union Jack for a halfpenny). So they endevoured to produce a story "after the style of Rider Haggard" for a cheaper price. They also make mention of the fact this story is firmly rooted in fiction and imagination, making the implication, as they did in issue 2, that most stories in the U.J and Halfpenny Marvel, are in fact based on real life (!).
The editor also mentions that he has "made an addition to our staff in the shape of a member of the interviewing fraternity" . This "Mr Union Jack" is planned to interview great statesmen and soldiers, live aboard a Navy ship, go down in a Diving-bell, become a Tommy Atkins etc etc, and write about his experiences. However in these 25 early issues i have the name is only mentioned once more (from what i've seen on a flick-through anyway, i havent read every issue yet!), so this feature does not seem to have taken off any further.
The next issue features a tale called "The White Slaver" by Harry Blyth - the real name of "Hal Meredith", creator of Sexton Blake!
Black Max & Adam Eterno triumphs
1 year ago