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Title: The Superman Author: Fred M White * A Project Gutenberg Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1201451h-01 Language: English Date first posted: February 2012 Date most recently updated: February 2012 This eBook was produced by: Roy Glashan Project Gutenberg Australia eBooks are created from printed editions which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular paper edition. Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this file. This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg Australia License which may be viewed online at http://gutenberg.net.au/licence.html
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NOW, given a palm-fringed beach in the brilliant sunshine, or in the soft light of the moon, for that matter, with Nature in her most melting and expansive mood in the background, one of three things might conceivably happen. It might be that here the poet had come with the intention of writing another "Lalla Rookh," or maybe a master of colour might have come there with the idea of painting a great picture; and, on the other hand, the whole thing might be regarded as the background for an unusually attractive scene in musical comedy. It all depends upon the point of view and the mood that you happen to be in. And certainly the palm-fringed beach on the island of Granta, in the Coral Seas, might easily have been adapted for any of these purposes, as it lay there that placid night, with the full moon shining as per contract from a glorious tropical night, powdered with stars and scented with subtle fragrance. It lay there, with the creamy sea fringing the long stretch of dazzling sand, with the palm forest stretching inland, and the deep green hills in the background, a vision of perfect poetry and a glancing loveliness, far enough removed apparently from human strife, a glorious jewel dropped into the heart of a sapphire sea, and glowing softly and tenderly in the mellow amber light.
So far there was no sign of the painter or the poet, and apparently the musical comedy suggestion was too remote to come within the range of practical politics. And yet presently, up the beach from the, lagoon on the left, there appeared a strange medley of human beings, as fantastic in that lonely spot as the figment of some amazing dream.
They came in single file across the sands, about a dozen of them altogether, led by a little man in evening-dress and a typical British sailor in white ducks and a yachting cap. The little man was small and slender, pale of face and fair of hair, parted mathematically in the middle, a little man, who surveyed the amazing picture before him through an eyeglass, which only seemed to accentuate the innocent bewilderment of his features.
The men in question were followed by a string of women, every one of them in evening-dress of the daintiest kind, Paris and Bond Street confections beyond the shadow of a doubt, lacy, diaphanous robes, that showed off gleaming arms and beautiful white necks to perfection, to say nothing of the perfect coruscations of jewels that shimmered alluringly in the moonlight. And here, therefore, was musical comedy in excelsis.
But these were no stage beauties gathered together to dazzle the eyes of the stalls and appeal irresistibly to gilded youth lolling on cotton velvet. Neither were they such things as dreams are made of, but palpitating beautiful flesh-and-blood Englishwomen, that represented collectively some of the very best blood in the kingdom. There they were, dazzling and shimmering and, sad to say, clucking like so many startled hens. And in the language of George III., when meditating over the apple in the dumpling, the wonder was how the deuce they got there. What were they doing in their full war-paint at that time of night on what might or might not have been a desert island in the ruby heart of the Coral Seas?
But everything is capable of an explanation—even musical comedy—and, as everybody knows, accidents will happen even in the best-regulated families. To go back a little while—a few months, as a matter of fact—the Duke of Grantham, that well-known sportsman, had married the only daughter of an American multi-millionaire, and on the strength of it had purchased the steam yacht Bendemeer, the very last word in luxurious ocean travel, and, at the end of his wife's first successful season in London, had set out on a voyage round the world, together with some of the choicest flowers culled from the garden of the British aristocracy. And in the course of time the Bendemeer had fetched up amongst a group of islands in the Coral Seas.
And there, on the night when this veracious story opens, every man of the party, with one exception, had left the yacht with the idea of hunting jaguars on the nearest island in the moonlight. It had been a happy inspiration on the part of some reckless sportsman, and had been taken up with enthusiasm.
"We shan't be more than an hour or two," the Duke had told the Duchess. "You can play bridge, or something of that kind, and we will leave Leckie to look after you. I don't suppose he feels like jaguars." The little pallid man in the eyeglass meekly responded that he didn't. He was no sportsman, or said he wasn't, and averred that the mere sight of a gun made him feel faint. He blinked at the Duke, and in his stammering way offered to take care of the ladies in the absence of the other men of the party. Whereat the women smiled audibly; for the idea of Bobby Leckie taking care of anything more festive than a rabbit struck them as being decidedly humorous. But Bobby Leckie took it all in good part and with a smiling good nature that rendered him a universal favourite even amongst sportsmen.
He sat on the moon-washed deck presently, basking in the smile of beauty and dazzled by jewels, until a sudden idea occurred to him. He propounded it eagerly.
"Tell you what," he said. "It's too fine to sit down there in the cabin playing bridge. Let's get out the steam pinnace and have a cruise round the islands. The moon will be up for hours yet, and the sea is like a sheet of glass. What do you people say?"
The suggestion was acclaimed with enthusiasm, and under the guidance of a reliable pilot, who rejoiced in the name of Bill Bradley, the expedition set forth. It really was a glorious night, and the steam pinnace, which really was a big petrol launch, scattered the knots under her forefoot until the yacht was lost to sight, and the boat was careering her way through uncharted seas in the hands of the blissful Bill Bradley, who was absolutely unconscious of the danger that he was running. They came under the lee of the island of Granta presently, within a mile or so of the beach, when, without warning, the boat bumped heavily on a hidden reef and slipped clumsily off again.
But the mischief was done, and it was only the speed of the motor boat that drove her up to the edge of the creaming sands before she began to fill, and the galaxy of beauty were safely landed. They were at least ten miles from the yacht on an unknown island, which might or might not have been inhabited, and they were naturally alarmed. Then, when the first feeling of fear had died away, they turned with one accord upon the unfortunate Leckie and tore him in pieces, figuratively.
He took it placidly enough, with that imperturbable good temper of his, but nothing could disturb him.
"Why blame me, dear girls?" he said. "I only made the suggestion. I didn't pile the boat up on a rock."
"But what are we to do?" the Duchess screamed.
"Oh, don't ask me," Leckie said. "We shall have to make the best of it till the men get back to the yacht and come out in search of us, which they are bound to do."
"They'll never find us," a fair-haired beauty in mauve and emeralds sobbed. "There are about a thousand of these islands here, and it would probably take the whole British Navy the best part of a year to rescue us. And, besides, what can we do in these clothes?"
"It's a warm night," Leckie stammered.
"Of course it is, idiot, or we shouldn't be here," the Marchioness of Somerfield said sarcastically. "Now, Bobby, here's a chance to show what sort of a man you are. Do you think you could play the hero, like the man in Barrie's delightful comedy? Do you think you could make fire by rubbing two sticks together, or cook turtle's eggs in hot ashes, or find water by twiddling a stick between your fingers? Could you build us huts made of grass? Because, if you can't, you are worse than useless. Still, we rely upon you."
"Dear lady, I c-couldn't," Leckie stammered forlornly. "If you gave me a t-turtle's egg, I shouldn't know what to do with the bally thing."
He sat down forlornly on the sand and looked about him so helplessly that the rest of the party forgot their misery for the moment and beamed on him almost affectionately.
"This reminds me of a toy theatre one of my brothers used to have," a girl in the party giggled. "He used to work it with pasteboard figures, and had a play, I think, called 'Alone in the Pirate's Lair.* Bobby, what on earth are we to do if the pirate suddenly appears from his lair?"
Leckie shook his head helplessiy. The heroic was not his line, and he frankly said so. There were those amongst the party who had not forgotten the fact that Leckie had gone to America at the outbreak of the Boer War and had stayed there for the best part of ten years, and there were those of his candid friends who averred that he might have been doing better work in South Africa. But, on the other hand, there were certain comrades who declared that Bobby had been sent out to Colorado by a London physician, either to die there of acute lung trouble or, at any rate, prolong a monotonous existence. But on this head Bobby had always been dumb—no gibe or sneer had ever drawn an explanation from him. It was as if he wanted the incident to be forgotten, a chapter in his life that he was ashamed of. Perhaps he was feeling his helplessness now, for he sat there on the sands playing irresolutely with a cigarette case. The sprightly girl in pink returned to the charge.
"Bobby, you haven't answered my question," she said. "What would you do for us if the pirate king appeared?"
"You had b-better ask him yourself," Bobby said, "because, if I am not mistaken, here the bounder is!"
There loomed across the sands in the moonlight a picturesque figure of a man in soiled white trousers and silk shirt, with a scarlet cummerbund round his waist, from which dangled a couple of holsters that palpably contained revolvers. He was a medium-sized man, with a black moustache and beard, and, indeed, he looked the musical comedy pirate to the life. He came forward and politely removed his cabbage hat.
"Good evening, ladies and gentlemen," he said in fairly good English. "What can I have the pleasure of doing for you? I am Don Jamie Rodgers, at your service."
Something like a groan seemed to escape from Leckie's lips, and certainly his cheeks grew paler. For the name of Rodgers was well known to him as a desperado of the Coral Seas who had a score or more of black records to his name. He was a pirate, a pearl stealer, a smuggler of opium, and worse. And out there in those waters, where supervision was practically unknown, and the British Navy had no jurisdiction, certain scum of the earth did much as they liked, and amongst that scum there was none whose name carried more terror than that of Rodgers.
Even as he stood there, leering with his malignant eyes on the huddled flower of the British aristocracy gathered together like so many frightened birds, he was appraising the jewels that they wore in that evil mind of his. Then Leckie rose to his feet and approached the rascal timidly.
"Am I mistaken, sir," he asked, "or is that the mast of a wireless station I can see yonder?"
"Something of the sort," Rodgers grinned. "A little installation of my own, but not a powerful one."
"Then perhaps you'll l-let me have the l-loan of it?" Leckie asked. "I—I want to c-communicate with our friends over at Granta Bar. Our yacht is there. And if you'll h-help us to g-get in touch with them, I am sure that the Duke will make it worth your while. What d-d'you say?"
Don Jamie beamed on the assembled company much as a giant might have beamed on a healthy gathering of young children destined to make him a hearty midday meal.
"Well," he said, "so far as that goes, it seems to me that I shan't want to trouble the Duke. You see, it's like this, mister—I have got all I want hanging round the necks of those young women yonder. D'you savvy, old boss?"
The old boss aforesaid savvied right enough—in fact, that is what he had been afraid of all along.
"Y-you mean r-r-robbery?" he protested.
"Well, that's as good a word as any other," the picturesque ruffian said cheerfully. "You see, when I tumbled just now to the fact that the stalls of the Garden Theatre in New York on an opera night had slopped itself all over this beach, it seemed to me as if it would have been flying in the face of Providence not to take the opportunity. And I don't mind telling you, pard, as me and my mates in the launch yonder have been having a pretty slim time lately, and when one of those American gunboats comes nosing around here, we've got to lie considerable close. And that's why I am going to borrow the few odds and ends belonging to them tony lady friends of yours."
As the cheery ruffian spoke, three other men appeared on the scene from the direction of a launch lying a little way off the beach. They were not quite, perhaps, so picturesque as their leader, but they were by no means the class of individual that the cautious man cares to meet in a lonely lane on a dark night, and from the grin on their faces it was evident that they had taken in the situation at a glance. It was in vain that Bobby Leckie stammered and protested, in vain that he threatened subsequent violence, for presently the whole party were hustled along the sands without ceremony to a half-dismantled hut on the beach, above which stood the rugged mast to which the primitive wireless installation was attached.
"Here, I say," Leckie said, " those l-louts of yours are frightening the ladies. They are afraid of those revolvers of yours. You might p-put them out of the way, because I and the other man are q-quite at your mercy."
"Call yourself a man?" the pirate said. "That other chap's hefty enough, but you —gee whiz! Here, Joe, this chap calls himself a man!"
The individual addressed as Joe grinned as he swept a bold, bleary eye over Leckie's slender proportions. He seemed to regard the joke as an excellent one. And so they went on in silence till they came to the hut, where the womenkind were swept without ceremony into a sort of stable in the basement, and Don Jamie, followed by his satellites, strode into the building where the wireless installation was situated. Evidently they seemed to have nothing to fear, for Leckie and the unhappy Bill Bradley brought up the rear, treading close on the heels of the man who had been addressed as Joe.
"I wish I had a revolver," Bradley whispered.
"S-so you will in a minute," Leckie replied. "K-keep close to me, Bill."
A moment later and Leckie trod, either by accident or by design, on the heels of the big ruffian in front of him. The pirate turned with an oath and the upraising of a fist as big as a shoulder of miitton. The little man with the eyeglass appeared to step back, then suddenly impelled himself forward like a shot from a catapult, and his fist crashed with a jolt. full on the point of his Antagonist's jaw. It was just as if a small and delicate piece of machinery, with all the weight of a big horse-power engine behind it, had been set in motion, for the big man went down on his back without a sound. A second later his revolvers were in Leckie's hand, and one of them was promptly shoved into Bradley's ready fist.
"Hands up, right away!" Leckie cried.
He spoke in a clear voice, with a ring of command in it and without the slightest suggestion of a stammer. His glass was still in his eye, but those pale features of his were set as grim as death, and the finger that he laid on the trigger of the revolver was steady as a rock. He seemed to have expanded as he stood there, quiet and immaculate, in his evening-dress, with the moonlight gleaming on the pearl studs in his shirt-front. Don Jamie turned and surveyed the scene with astonishment and a certain amused contempt.
"Here, drop that!" he cried. "Think yourself a hero in some stage play, perhaps. Oh, well, if you will have it, you little fool— why, you must!"
He whipped his hand behind him, and at the same moment Leckie pressed the trigger of his revolver. There was a little crack like a whiplash, a tiny spurt of flame, and the big man's right arm dangled helplessly at his side, for Leckie had shot him neatly and scientifically through the elbow joint.
"The next man who moves will get it through the brain," he said, in the same calm, even voice. "Now, I don't want to cause any more trouble than is possible, and I don't like murder, even when it comes to swine like you. Don Jamie, or whatever you call yourself, kindly step this way."
There was no help for it, there was nothing else to be done. The scoundrels were caught neatly enough in the little trap that Leckie had laid for them, and they were looking now quite uneasily into the rim of a pair of revolvers. With a scowl on his face and a muttered curse between his lips, the leader of the gang did as he was told.
"Now, then," Leckie said, "listen to me, if you please. You are not going to frighten those ladies any more, and you are not going to benefit by what a distinguished English statesman once called unearned increment. You will be good enough to send out a message for me to the Bendemeer, which you probably know is lying not very far off, and tell them on the yacht that we are safe. You will also tell them that you have been kind enough to place your launch at our disposal, of which offer we shall avail ourselves presently, and I have no doubt you will know how to get it back again. But that, my dear sir, will be your business. Have I made myself plain?"
Don Jamie nodded sulkily. Then a queer gleam flickered in his eye for a moment or two.
"Ah, I have thought of that!" Leckie said. "I see what is passing through your mind. But my friend, Mr. Bill Bradley here, will see to it that you send the correct message. He happens to be the handy-man of the yacht and, incidentally, the understudy of our wireless operator. He is also a man of exceedingly short temper, as humorists often are, and, if you try to fool him, you will probably be exceedingly sorry for it. Bill, you kindly escort this gentleman into the operating-room, and do the needful, keeping a careful eye on him at the same time. As he still has the use of his left hand, I should leave him to send the message. Now, you go on, and I will remain here and collect the rest of the weapons."
Bill Bradley grinned whole-heartedly, as a man does who is convinced that he has the best end of the joke, and, driving Don Jamie before him at the point of his revolver, disappeared into the hut. Leckie turned to the other men.
"Now, then," he said, "turn your backs on me and throw your guns in my direction over your shoulders. Thanks so much. So sorry to put you to the inconvenience. And now, having placed temptation beyond your reach, I am going to turn the key of this door on you, and sit here, enjoying a cigarette and contemplating the beauties of Nature, and if either of you try any little game on me, I fear that you will find the consequences exceedingly unpleasant."
Leckie sat there, in the tranquil enjoyment of his cigarette, and, perhaps, pleasantly conscious that the ladies, who were not far away, could see and hear all that had taken place. And this knowledge was not displeasing to him, especially when the fair-haired girl in mauve crept up to him presently and turned a pair of dazzling and admiring eyes upon him.
"Bobby," she whispered, "you are splendid! I really had no idea—I really hadn't. And I hope you will forgive me for laughing at you. Really, Bobby, if you look at me like that again, I shall have to k-kiss you!"
"I am quite defenceless," Bobby said blissfully. "R-rather bo kissed by you than anybody in the world."
It was fortunate, perhaps, at this moment that Mr. Bradley emerged from the hut with an intimation that the message had been sent and a reply received. Then, under the leadership of Leckie, the party went slowly in the direction of the beach, headed by the smiling boatswain and Don Jamie, who was thoughtfully prodded from time to time in the region of the liver by the point of the commandeered revolver. One by one the ladies were conveyed to the launch, and presently Leckie stood alone on the fringe of sand with the pirate chief, who regarded him with a mixture of concentrated rage and bewildered admiration.
"Well, you're a fair knock-out, you are," he said. "And me thinking all the time that you were no better than a scared jack-rabbit! Well, you can go back to your friends and boast that you are the first man who ever got the better of Jamie Rodgers. And that's a fact—yes, sir."
"Really?" Lepkie drawled. "Is that so? But I'm not worrying about it. Do you know, Mr. Rodgers, I hate getting my feet wet. And yet I don't see how I am going to get into that launch without ruining a pair of Court shoes and some silk socks that cost me a guinea in Bond Street. That's what's troubling me at the present moment. I give you my word of honour that I am not thinking about you at all."
In spite of his abject humiliation and the excruciating pain in his arm, Rodgers burst into a laugh.
"Well, I guess you're some boy," he said. "And I don't bear no malice. You've fairly held me up, and if I'd known—but, you see, I didn't. Say, stranger, ten or twelve years ago, before I started this game, I was up on the Yukon, gold prospecting with the very toughest crowd on the American Continent. There wasn't a crime in the, calendar that those boys weren't up to. But there was one chap, an Englishman, come up there, who was a fair terror to the whole bunch. I never saw him myself, but I heard of him often enough. From all accounts he was a little chap, about your size, an English swell, the boys said, as nobody could down. He wasn't a tough; he had an idea that he had come there to straighten matters out and turn the Yukon into a civilised community. It was some proposition, but he did his best to put the programme through—him without an ounce of strength, and weighing about a hundred and fifty pounds! They used to say he had come to America to die of some chest trouble, but decided to live and reform the States instead. Why, he'd go into the saloon amongst the toughs, with his glass in his eye and a revolver in his hand, and clear out the whole caboodle within five minutes."
"What was his name?" Leckie drawled. "Well, I don't rightly know, but I think the boys called him 'Little Billee with the Glass Eye.' Say, mister, I guess you must have been that man."
"I guess I was," Leckie said sweetly.
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