BRITISH COMICS

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THE PERILOUS DAYS OF THE BLACK CLOUD

First episode, taken from The Rover issue: 1162 April 12th 1947.

A NEW HORROR FOR THE SOUTH COAST OF ENGLAND – A CLOUD THAT LEAVES BLINDNESS IN ITS WAKE!

THE BLINDING MENACE.

My name is Gregory Buchan and I never believed that I would be alive to-day to write this story of my adventures, which took place in a period that must go down in history as one of the most terrifying ever experienced by the people of south-west Britain. I am a special correspondent of the Daily Messenger, and my story starts on the day that I was recalled to Britain, after spending six months in America on a job for my newspaper. When I boarded the clipper in New York, I was in high spirits, for I was keen to see England again. Never did I think that it would lead me into the most astounding adventure of my life! The clipper was one of the latest craft used on the Atlantic route and I remember saying to myself as I took my seat along with the other 30-odd passengers. “Dinner in New York, breakfast in England.” That was how it was meant to be, for we were due to land at Portan aerodrome, in the south of England, at eight o’clock the next morning. The weather was perfect and the only wind following us came from the west. The aircraft flew smoothly, her engines purring over without a hitch. Everything was going well, without the least sign of disaster impending. I had been sleeping and when I awakened, I discovered it was six o’clock in the morning. Yawning sleepily, I looked through the window at my side. It was a glorious morning, without mist, and far below us the sea shimmered like mercury. I could hear some of my fellow-passengers murmuring. Not all of them had slept as well as I had done. Tom Tate, the steward, came past at that moment and asked if I would like an early morning cup of coffee. I said I would, and asked what time we would reach Portan. “Around eight,” he replied. “We’re right up to schedule.” Realising that some early-risers were already making for the washroom, I got into my dressing-gown and made my way to the men’s section. Every convenience had been provided, including an electric razor, but the first thing I heard was Old Man Whitaker’s complaints that he could not shave with one of these gadgets. Karl B. Whitaker, the oil millionaire, was always called “Old Man.” I never knew why. “All right for a schoolboy, but no use for a man with a good growth of beard!” he snorted, tossing down the razor on the end of its flex. A few minutes later I was running the instrument smoothly over my face, and getting good results. It was not a very easy face to shave, for like the rest of me, it was very long and thin. I have a very long, pointed nose, bushy eyebrows, and green eyes. After I had shaved, washed, and done my hair, I went back to my bunk, which would later be made into a comfortable chair. I at once noticed that the main cabin was darker. The sun seemed to be hidden. “A belt of cloud!” I thought, and paid no notice until I was dressed. By that time a number of people were peering excitedly out of their windows and pointing. Dr Rutherford, a Californian who had the next place to me, pulled at my arm. “Looks as though the good weather’s finished and we’re running into a stormbelt!” he said. I glanced at the instrument displayed for all to see. “N-no, the glass is still high. There’s no sign of any atmosphere change, and our speed is unaffected. It looks to me like smoke.” “Smoke, two hundred miles off the coast of Ireland!” muttered Rutherford, and I had to admit that it sounded silly, unless the British Navy or the R.A.F. had been carrying out tests with smoke clouds. On we sped, and the wall of black cloud loomed larger and larger. We were flying at ten thousand feet, but the cloud rose far above us, stretched north and south as far as one could see. The assistant pilot came aft at that moment. He looked puzzled, but not upset. “It seems to be dust or smoke,” he told us. “There is no atmospheric disturbance, and out radio reports do not warn us of any storm centres. The pilot thinks that it is only a mile or two deep, and intends to go slap through it rather than alter course. He wants the few outside ventilators closed, and the lights put on.” The cabins were practically hermetically sealed and air-conditioned, so there was no difficulty in closing the few openings. By this time we were right up against the dark cloud, and the lights were blazing over our heads. As far as I could make out, the black substance of which the cloud consisted was some form of vapour. It was particularly dense, and even the strong sunlight did not pierce it, but the massively built Clipper ploughed straight into it, and we did not even feel a shudder. It was like flying through the night, no more frightening or exciting. We looked at each other, and some of the passengers grinned. “First breakfast!” said Tom Tate, and we settled down to grape fruit and the items that followed. Then with startling suddenness, we came out into brilliant sunshine again. It was like coming out of a tunnel. The pilot had been right; the cloud had been no more than three miles thick. We had been in darkness less than a minute. Looking back curiously we could see the black cloud slowly moving after us, drifting with the wind. Ahead, all was bright and pleasant. Someone spotted the coast of Ireland away on our left, and glasses were turned on it. It was as I did this that I felt my eyes prickling a trifle, and imagined that the lenses of the glasses were dirty. I proceeded to clean them with a handkerchief, and as I did this I noticed that Dr Rutherford was cleaning his spectacles. “Funny!” he muttered. “They seem to be misting over. Maybe it’s the steam from the coffee.” But I noticed that he was rubbing his eyes with his knuckles, and then I was doing the same. The pricking persisted. Somewhat worried, I glanced down the passage, and caught Tom Tate in the act of doing the same thing. Furthermore, Karl B. Whitaker was grumbling as he dabbed at his eyes with a silk handkerchief. “The confounded engine-fumes are getting into the cabin, steward!” he shouted. “They’re affecting my eyes. Can’t something be done about it!” There was a murmur of approval from others. Everyone seemed to be troubled by their eyes. Some were watering tearfully, though I was not affected in this manner. The steward went forward, and presently returned looking worried. “The chief pilot says that no gases can possibly be escaping in here,” he reported, “but the crew’s complaining of the same eye trouble. It must be the sun.” We went on with our meal, and after a while the pricking in my eyes stopped. Then, five minutes later, a cup crashed to the floor as Whitaker lurched to his feet. “Doggone it, what’s happening?” he bellowed. “I’m going blind. Open the ventilators and let in more air. There’s something affecting my eyes!” At that there was a chorus of complaints, frightened comments, and shrill protests from women. Evidently everyone else had been worried in the same manner, but had not cared to mention the fact. Dr Rutherford again had his glasses in his hand, and was leaning towards me, rather paler than usual. “Buchan, aren’t you worried by your eyes? Can you see anything wrong with mine?” he demanded. I peered closely into his, and shock my head. “No, they’re neither red nor inflamed. I had a little pricking just now, but it’s all gone. There must be some gas present in the cabin, in spite of what the steward says.” The steward had his hands full with Whitaker, who refused to sit down, shouting that he was almost blind, and that something must be done about it. He was not the only passenger standing. Some were clinging to each other in terror, and I noticed that they blundered into the corners of the tables. Were they really going blind? Why was I suffering no inconvenience of this kind? Leaving Rutherford, I went to Tom Tate, and plucked him by the sleeve. “There really must be something leaking in here, steward. I think you ought to make another report to the pilots.” “I agree, sir, I agree!” he gasped, turning a dead-white face and blinking rapidly. “I would but—but I’ve gone quite blind, sir. I can’t even see you!” At that, horror gripped me, and I blundered through the group of shouting men and women, until I came to the door leading to the control-cabin. A notice ordered me to keep out, but I pushed straight through, and saw at once that something was wrong. A mechanic was crouching on the floor of the passage, rubbing at his eyes as he shouted something. The assistant pilot was leaning over him, trying to soothe him down, and at the same time turning his face from side to side like a blind man. Thorpe, the chief pilot, was at the controls, but I could see him rubbing his eyes with one hand. The radio-operator was frantically jabbing at his key, and seemed to be equally distressed.” “What’s wrong?” I shouted. “Everyone back there seems to be going blind. Is there a leak of some gas?” The chief pilot turned in his seat, and the plane rocked unpleasantly. “No, there’s no leak from aboard. But something is certainly wrong. I’m almost blind, too. It’s getting worse every moment. Can you see, whoever you are?” “Yes, I can see all right,” I told him. “Can you fly a plane? Could you take over?” he asked eagerly. “Me! Not me! I can’t fly at all.” Then goodness knows what will happen to us in a few minutes!” groaned Thorpe. “I believe that black cloud did the trick. It must have been some queer chemical compound, something unknown. I went slap through it, and I believe the vapour, or whatever it was, leaked in here and has affected our eyes.” The radio-operator  suddenly called out a series of figures which I took to be our position. Thorpe clutched at my arm and jabbed his finger on a dial. “I can’t see it!” he shouted. “What’s our altitude? What does it say?” I bent forward and looked. “Nine thousand five hundred feet,” I told him. “Then we’ve got plenty of altitude,” he grunted. “We shan’t crash just yet, but in half an hour’s time we ought to hit something. I can’t—can’t fly without being able to see! Isn’t there anyone aboard who can take over? All out lives depend on it.” But I was the only person on board who could see, so what was the point in asking any of the other passengers if they could fly a plane?

BLIND MAN’S EYES.

Back I went to the main cabin with the bad news. There was instant pandemonium  among the blinded passengers. For the next hour the scene aboard the Clipper was tragic. Everyone seemed to go half-crazy. They blamed their blindness on the pilot, the company, or the weather control people. Whitaker raged and stormed, offering one hundred thousand dollars to anyone who could save his life. The women wept or became hysterical. Some fainted. Dr Rutherford was the only calm person amongst those blind and he told me that he could not even see light now. I was still unaffected and it almost frightened me to be able to sit back in a corner and watch the pathetic scene being enacted by the blinded people. “You have some special reason for being immune, or else the stuff works more slowly on you than the others,” Rutherford told me. This set me back to wondering how long it would be before I, too, was affected. Fortunately, there was work to do and that kept my mind occupied. On several occasions I forced my way through the groping throng to the pilots’ cabin and did what I could for them. I told them the readings on certain instruments that they named, and on two occasions I was able to set bearings by the radio. I was also able to tell them that we had lost sight of Ireland and were heading towards Cornwall. “Five thousand dollars!” came the harsh voice of Karl B. Whitaker from the other cabin. “I’ll pay that to anyone who can save my life. Why can’t we radio for help?” But we had already done this. The radio man, although blind like the rest of his colleagues, had stuck to his post, working by sense of touch. He had reported our position and our condition, and received the reply that everything possible would be done for us. But what could be done? How could anyone on the ground help pilot down a huge machine with over thirty passengers aboard? Even if there had been one amateur pilot with good eyesight aboard the plane, we might have had a chance. Several times Thorpe asked me if the black cloud could be seen in the rear. But it had dropped right out of sight, owing to our superior speed. “Good!” he muttered. “I’m worried what will happen if and when it reaches some coast where people live. If the gas, or whatever it is, has this effect on our eyes, it will trouble everyone else in the same manner. We shall have whole towns going blind!” I chilled at the thought, which had not occurred to me before. If the wind remained as it was the dark cloud would be driven on to the coast of Cornwall! That hour after passing through the dark cloud, was the worst hour I ever experienced in my life and it was with a feeling of fear that I looked through one of the side windows. I wanted to see land, yet I dreaded it. It must appear soon. Then I saw it far ahead. As it came nearer, I judged it to be Carlogie, on the south-west tip of the English coast. I managed to enable the pilot to turn the nose of the plane sufficiently for us to make straight for a dark patch of the water. It would be too dangerous to fly over land. I did this by guiding Thorpe’s hands as he gripped the controls. It was a ticklish business. The motors roared on faultlessly, the sun shone as brightly as possible, and I could see some ships far below. Everything looked as peaceful as one could wish. None of those ships passing beneath us could guess the cargo of horror that this Clipper bore as it winged on its way towards Cornwall. “What does the altimeter say now?” gasped Thorpe. “Just over five thousand feet. We’re going down. Do you want more height?” “No, I want her down lower,” he snapped. “There’s only one chance. You’ll have to be my eyes, and we’ll try to alight on the water. Thank goodness it’s smooth! If we don’t turn over at once, the people ashore ought to be able to rush boats to us and rescue some of us. It means we’ll have to belly-flop not too far off shore. Think you can do it?” “I’ll try!” I muttered, with drying mouth. Cornwall was now becoming clearly visible. The extreme western tip was too rocky and rough for our purpose. The pilot came down to three thousand feet, so that I could see more clearly. “Pick a sheltered stretch of water not too far from a town or village,” he advised. “We shall want all the help we can get. Sweat trickled down my forehead as I realised the great responsibility that lay upon my shoulders. I was the only man in the plane with sight, and everyone, crew and passengers, depended on me. If I made a mistake, we all died!

CRASH-LANDING!

Thorpe had told me to try to pick a spot about five miles ahead, but I found it hard to guess how much five miles was from the air. Lower and lower we went, until it seemed that we must scrape the cliff-tops, and then I grabbed the pilot’s hands and forced them round a little to the right. “Down there!” I yelled. “If there are no hidden rocks, we ought to be all right. I’ll pull your hands upwards when I think we’re going to crash. Now—cut!” He cut the motors, and the silence that followed was almost uncanny as we glided down towards the water. The great moment had come, and there was no turning back. By gentle pressures, which he transferred into action, I guided Thorpe’s hands, so that the plane always nosed in the right direction. I had forgotten the size of the great craft that we had behind us, and had forgotten the people crouching there in the cabin. I knew only of that stretch of water ahead, and of the necessity for hitting it as gently as possible. Then, just when I was almost certain that we were no more than six feet from the water, and was about to pull Thorpe’s hands back, I saw a vessel immediately below us, passing inshore. It was a yacht, and its mast must have been fifty feet high. I had miscalculated. “Not yet!” I muttered. There were rowboats ahead, and they were scattering. All the seagulls in Cornwall appeared to be getting out of our way. It seemed to me that we were diving downwards like a falling bomb. “Now!” I yelled. “We’re only a few yards up—” The pilot thrust me away. Just what he did next, I do not know, but there was a splash, a tearing sound, a bounce, and then a mighty crash. Water squirted up somewhere in front, and drenched the sloping windscreen of the enclosed cockpit. “Not bad!” croaked Thorpe. “We’ve not overturned. Get those emergency doors open!” I had already been told where these were, and in spite of the howling of the passengers inside, who had been thrown in a heap, I fought my way through one of the doors. I gasped with relief as I looked around. There were at least some boats around us. “Help!” I roared. “Get us out! Everyone is blind!” There was another near panic inside the plane. Whitaker and some others forced themselves forward in the direction of my voice, hitting at anyone who got in their way. I drove my fist into the millionaire’s mouth, and he went back, snarling and spitting. The plane was settling forward, and her tail was coming up into the air. Water was pouring in from underneath, and I saw the crew scramble towards their own emergency exit. Hauling, heaving, lifting, I got half a dozen folk on top of the cabin. Fishing boats were now alongside. “Never mind about me, but get the others out before the plane sinks!” I gasped. “Every man and woman is blind and can’t help themselves.” A bearded fisherman looked at me as though I had gone mad. “Blind! How did that happen?” he growled. “I don’t know, but they are—the pilot as well. Get them out!” I roared. There must have been half a dozen fishing boats from the small village in the nearby cove, and the brawny Cornishman worked with a will. More than one of them dived into the water in his efforts to get someone transferred to his own boat. Everybody was so mixed up that it was impossible to deal with the women first. The first to be reached was the first to be hoisted to safety. I saw to it that Thorpe was brought from his precious position. Some of the fishermen had climbed aboard the Clipper and were heaving out baggage and mail-bags into the waiting boats. Not much was going to be lost, but I knew that the only thing these fellow-passengers of mine worried about was their sight. They would have willingly lost everything else they possessed if they had been given the power to see the blue sky and the sunshine again. Boats began to put ashore. I was in one of the first of these, and not long after I was sitting writing a report for my paper in the spotless kitchen of a fisherman not far from Broston Cove.

THE CLOUD COMES NEARER.

A couple of hours later I went down to the nearest post office to try to get in touch with my paper in London, but it proved impossible. The luckless postmistress was overwhelmed with telephone and telegraph messages for the air transport company, for numerous officials, and for relatives and friends of our passengers, all of whom wanted to let somebody know that they were alive. Most of the passengers were now housed in the tiny cottages of the kindly fishermen, though some had  been rushed already to nearby towns. Doctors and nurses had arrived from nowhere, and as I walked back to my billet, I was hailed by uniformed police and asked if I was the one survivor who had not lost his eyesight. “Apparently I am,” I replied, “and I don’t know why. I’d like some doctor to examine me and tell me if I’m likely to go blind later on.” “That’s impossible!” said a tall, red-faced man who was evidently a doctor. “We have examined dozens of the others and cannot even tell why they have gone blind or whether they will be blind permanently. Evidently some irritant caused the blindness, but something outside our knowledge. Everyone speaks of a black cloud through which you passed?” “Yes, and it seems obvious that this cloud caused the blindness. It must have contained an irritating gas, or particles of some acid. By the way, it was heading eastwards when we last saw it, and—” An inspector of the police broke in. “The latest reports, from planes and ships, is that it is still drifting towards our coast at the rate of about twenty miles an hour,” he said. “Inspector Cary!” A messenger had just appeared on a bicycle at the corner and was waving a white paper. “A report from the Naval signal station.” The inspector read through the messages, then scowled. “I’m afraid this confirms what you suspected about that cloud, sir. A radio message has been received from a British ship one hundred and fifty miles off the coast. She recently passed through a black wall of what appeared to be cloud, and now everybody on board is going blind!” There was a grunt from the doctor. “Then the stuff must be down to water level! If it ever reaches our shores—” “Exactly!” I muttered. “We thought of that when in the plane. Some sort of warning ought to be sent out.” Inspector Cary tugged at his moustache. “I must speak to the Chief Constable,” he said. “Perhaps you’ll come with me. Mr—er—Buchan.” He rushed me up the slope, past excited knots of people, and into a waiting police car. Which way we went, I had no time to notice, but we climbed and turned through the winding lanes, until we drove in at the entrance to a large country house. “Chief Constable Bittern lives here,” explained the inspector, and we soon saw that the household was awake. A tall military-looking man came running out to greet us. “Cary, what does all this mean?” he demanded. “I’ve been getting a host of contradictory messages about people being blinded. What is the true story?” “This gentleman can tell you the truth,” the inspector told him. “Everyone aboard an eastbound Clipper went blind, with the exception of Mr Buchan.” “Goodness me!” muttered the Chief Constable. “Come inside.” I did so, and in as short a time as possible I told him everything that had happened, but it was not until the inspector showed him the message received from the ship at sea, that Bittern showed concern. “Then this poison gas, or whatever it may be, is drifting towards the Cornish coast?” he said. “Apparently, sir. If it carries on at its present speed, it should reach Cornwall in ten to twelve hours. The Chief Constable hurriedly put on his coat. “I must see what is to be done. There is no time for delay. It may be necessary to evacuate certain zones. I’ll go and phone the Home Office.” He was gone nearly half an hour, and came back in a towering rage. “They don’t believe it. They refuse to make any move. Their experts say that there is no such gas. I am to see that peace and order is kept in my area while they send down some experts.” I was aghast at the slackness of the authorities, but there was nothing I could do about it except to get the best possible story for my paper. While the Chief Constable and the Inspector were talking over matters, I succeeded in borrowing the use of the Chief Constable’s phone, and was soon excitedly telling my story to the Daily Messenger in London. They had already heard rumours, but no details, and after I had repeated all I knew, I was asked to go as far west as possible and get eye-witness accounts of anything that happened. “If that gas affects my eyes, there’ll be no eye-witness accounts! I shall go blind like the others,” I told them rather grimly. “Then take precautions. Wear a gas mask.” I was told, then we were cut off. I wondered if an ordinary-type gas mask would serve any useful. Somehow I did not think it would, for the gas had penetrated into a sealed cabin. The Chief Constable and the Inspector were leaving immediately for Carlogie on the south-western tip of England, and I begged a passage with them. After some hesitation they agreed. At the last moment there came another report for the Chief Constable. His lips tightened, and he rustled the paper angrily. “I wish I’d had this proof for the Home Office when I phoned them,” he said. “An R.A.F. plane, sent out on reconnaissance, recently reported that it had gone too near the dark cloud one hundred and fifty miles west of Carlogie and that the pilot found his eyes at once affected. He said that he was going to try to get back before he went really blind, but since then no news has been heard of him.” The Chief Constable climbed into the car. I thought of that poor, lone pilot and of his feelings when he discovered that he could no longer see to control his machine. And then, as we sped westwards. I thought of what would happen in this pleasant, sunny land of Cornwall if the dark cloud swept over it.

 

THE PERILOUS DAYS OF THE BLACK CLOUD 13 episodes appeared in The Rover issues 1162 – 1174 (1947)

© D. C. Thomson & Co Ltd 

Vic Whittle 2007