BRITISH COMICS

(Rover Homepage)

THE SCHOOL IN THE SCARLET FOG

This episode, taken from The Rover issue: 1335 January 27th 1951.

SICKNESS AT HILLSBURY

The sun was setting over the ridge behind Hillsbury School when Dick Carr came jogging across the sports field, an easy first in the annual cross-country run. Nearly six feet tall, fair-haired, broad shouldered, Dick had been captain of the school for more than nine months, and Hillsbury had never had a better head boy.

Just now he was covered with mud, and his shorts and singlet stuck to his body. He was longing for a bath and a change of clothes. As he turned past the gymnasium, and followed the fringe of shrubbery, he suddenly frowned. High up on the side of the building, balanced on a narrow ledge, was a small boy with a camera. Dick Carr recognised him at once. It was Gabriel Smith, a newcomer to the school, a slim, pale boy who never mixed with his class-mates in the Third Form, and who had narrow slanting eyes which reminded everyone of the Chinese. In addition he had a very wide mouth, and it was natural that he should be called Gabby. He had only been at Hillsbury for one term, but Dick had heard that he was astonishingly brilliant at his lessons. Apparently he had taken advantage of the fact that everyone else was either running or watching the runners, and was letting his love of photography run riot. He was in an extremely dangerous position. If he leaned too far, he would fall at least fifty feet. Dick Carr quickly turned in at the eastern door of the school and raced up the stairs. He swung down the corridor that led to the Fourth Form dormitory, and came to the line of windows overlooking the shrubbery. Gabby Smith was inching past one of them. Dick ducked, passed him, and arrived at the window ahead. It was partly opened. He waited a few seconds, and a slim shape came into his line of vision. As quick as sight he threw up the window, grabbed the startled junior and hauled him inside. The camera fell with a crash. “You young idiot! What do you think you’re doing? Trying to kill yourself?” roared the angry school captain. Just for a moment the boy within his grasp stiffened as if he were going to resist, then Gabby Smith relaxed, and he looked frightened. “S-S-Sorry, Carr, b-but I didn’t mean any harm. I was quite safe really – I’ve got a good head for heights. I was trying to photograph that corner against the sky. I hope – hope you haven’t broken my camera!” Dick’s face darkened. “Broken your camera!” he roared. “I’ve probably saved your neck. The camera doesn’t matter. You ought to get a dozen of the best for climbing out there. Don’t let me catch you there again. Thank your lucky stars that nobody else saw you. Here’s your camera.” He stooped to pick it up, and discovered that it had burst open during the fall. Three thin slides had dropped out, and as he gently lifted them, he saw to his astonishment that they were not ordinary dark-room slides, as he expected, but finished photos on some form of thin metal. There was the side and corner of the school in extra-ordinary detail, and in natural colour. He whistled, and had a closer look at one of the slides. Immediately it seemed to change to a three dimension picture. Not only had it got length and breadth, but depth as well. “That’s amazing!” he remarked, and staggered back as the Third Former snatched the plate from him and gave him a push. “Hey, I like your cheek!” Gabby Smith’s face was distorted with fury. “Leave my camera alone!” he screeched, and added some words in a foreign language. Dick Carr frowned. He was not used to this sort of thing. He grabbed for the boy’s collar, and shook him slightly. ”Listen, Smith, you’re new here, so I shan’t lam you, but watch what you’re doing. This is a strange camera you’ve got. Where did you get it from?” Gabby Smith relaxed, and seemed on the verge of tears. “My father gave it to me. I-I’m sorry, Carr. I didn’t mean to be cheeky.” “That’s all right,” said the school captain, gruffly, and just then he heard shouts from below. Others were arriving. “But watch yourself in future.” He turned towards the window to see the rest of the “field” coming in. It was a small turn-out for one of their mid-term cross-country runs, but that was because a strange sickness had come to Hillsbury. During the past week, over fifty boys and two masters had gone down with a form of illness which had puzzled the school-doctor so much that he had called in two of the local medical men to help him diagnose the trouble. The victims had been afflicted with a form of sleeping-sickness and high temperatures. Dick Carr ran down the stairs to meet Hughes of the Sixth, who was leading the pack. Hughes was very excited. “Have you heard about Henderson and the others? Over twenty of ‘em fell asleep during the race, and are being brought in by ambulance. Old Moore himself has come out in his car to help.” He was referring to the headmaster, Dr Leslie Moore. A very pompous man, it was difficult to imagine him dealing with boys who had fallen asleep on a cross-country run. “But what’s it all about?” asked Dick. “Dunno, but I did hear someone say they were going to call in a specialist!” He ran on to the bathroom, where Dick soon followed him, and there they found quite a commotion, for Williams, of the Fifth Form, had dropped unconscious on the floor. By the time a master had been summoned, and Williams had been put to bed, everyone was ready for tea. Not many of them saw a car arrive with a tall, dark man whose beetling eyebrows almost hid his eyes. A few minutes later the new arrival was being introduced as Dr Henry Richards, a specialist in nervous disorders, and he was being taken around by the headmaster to see the sick boys. At six o’clock, a notice was put up on the board in the hall. The school had been put in quarantine. Henceforth, no boy would be allowed out of the school, and no visitors would be admitted. School life was to go on as usual. All messages would be left at the gates. This caused great excitement. There was talk of little else during the rest of the evening, but eventually all the boys went to their beds.

THE MEN IN RED

Dick Carr was usually a very heavy sleeper, but on this night he tossed and turned a dozen times. Even when he slept, he had vivid dreams. He felt that he had wakened and seen a strange man standing by his bedside, a tall, thin man with a peculiar red suit which glowed in the dark.

It seemed to him that the man bent over him, raised his eyelids, lowered them again, then went away. Dick sat up and got out of bed, slipped on his dressing-gown, and went down the corridor as far as the Fourth Form dormitory. Whenever there was trouble it was usually in the Fourth Form dormitory. When he arrived in the doorway, he saw the room filled with a strange red light. It was not very bright, and what he saw was not clear, but he was sure there were at least a dozen strange men moving between the beds. They were lifting each boy in turn, and rolling him inside what seemed to be a sheet of thick cellophane. There were fasteners on this cellophane, and the men in red sealed down each human bundle and passed it out of the nearest window to someone outside. It was a stupid sort of dream, decided Dick Carr as he found himself back in his own cubicle, and in bed. He had not been there very long before the room was filled with a red light, and it seemed to him that Dr Richards, the tall, dark doctor with the beetling eyebrows, came to his bedside and lifted his eyelids. “He’ll do!” said Richards, whereupon two men in red arrived and rolled Dick inside a cellophane cover. He must have dozed off after that, for when next he thought he was awake he was looking at a blank ceiling. It seemed to him that he was on a shelf, and that there were others on either side of him. He could not sit up or shout out, but he managed to roll his eyes to one side, and he distinctly saw Benny Wilson, a small, red-haired boy in the Fourth Form. When he turned his eyes the other way he saw Nick Dobson, another Fourth Former. Both these boys were wrapped in cellophane. “It’s a nightmare!” decided Dick Carr. “I had too many sausages for supper.” He tried to sleep again, but could not help feeling that he was moving. He seemed to be moving at a tremendous pace, as though tied to a rocket. Stars and planets flashed by in a blur of speed. It was all very stupid and he willed himself to sleep once more. When he awakened he was in his own bed, the sun was shining through the window and the rising-bell was clanging, and he groaned as 300 other boys were groaning all over the building. Another day was beginning. He got up and dressed, hustled along to the bathroom to see that the juniors were washing, then went down to breakfast. The first thing he noticed was that all those who had been sufferers from the strange sickness were present at the long tables. They all looked perfectly well, and were eating with good appetites. Someone touched his arm. It was Mr Digby, the junior English master, a short-sighted little man who reminded the boys of an owl. His voice was high-pitched and thin. “Isn’t it strange, Carr, that Samson, Hopkins, and Walters are all at breakfast this morning? They have not been here for days. That new doctor must be remarkably good.” He blinked behind his glasses. Dick Carr could see that he was worried. “Yes, sir,!” he said, and hurried to his place for he was hungry that morning. Tom Hughes was in his usual place, eating with gusto. “Have some of those fishcakes, Dick. They’re not bad this morning. Funny thing is they’re all the same size and exactly the same colour. You’d think they’d been made in a machine!” Dick helped himself to fishcakes and found them good. There was a rapping on the upper table. The headmaster had put in one of his rare appearances. Short, stout, with gold rimmed spectacles, Dr Moore was always on his dignity. When he had secured silence he said: “Boys! You all know that this past week we have been afflicted with a strange complaint which has baffled our medical advisers. I am happy to say that to-day there is a marked improvement in our patients, although the school will still remain in quarantine for a time. I do hope that everyone will co-operate with the staff in dealing with this difficult situation. Dr Richards is going to remain in residence with us until the trouble is past. He indicated the man at his side, and Dick Carr saw that it was the tall, dark doctor of his dreams. The boys murmured politely, and the Headmaster sat down. Over at the other end of the hall, Benny Walton was saying to Nick Dobson, his pal: “Just my luck! They’ve shifted these tables around since yesterday.” “What’s the trouble?” asked Nick. “I stuck a piece of chewing gum under this edge, and it isn’t here this morning,” grumbled Benny. “Yes, it’s a different table,” agreed his pal. “There used to be the initials ‘B.H.’ just here beside my plate, and now there’s nothing, but it’s just one of these things. I suppose they had nothing else to do, so they shifted the tables. But these fish-cakes are better than usual, aren’t they?” Breakfast finished just then, and they knew they had only a quarter of an hour to go before first lessons. Being active youngsters, they decided to spend ten minutes of this in the open air. There was a crowd of boys around the porter in the hall, but he was saying the same to all of them. “No post this morning! I don’t know what’s happened, but no post has come in. Maybe it will come later.” Boys who had been expecting letters grumbled and went away. Amongst them was Gabby Smith, the strange Third Former who was so crazy on photography. Nobody saw him go into one of the bathrooms and lock the door. Once there, he took from his pocket a small apparatus no larger than a watch, flicked open the cover, and revealed a tiny mouthpiece. He pressed a switch, and there was a faint buzzing. He bent to the mouthpiece and whispered in English: “You have made one mistake! You have forgotten to arrange for the post to be delivered this morning. Be careful, or they will suspect something!” He held the instrument to his ear, and the reply he got was audible only to himself. Meantime, Benny Walton and Nick Dobson had gone out into the grounds for a ten minutes’ stroll. They headed down the drive towards the main gates. There was a lodge on the right hand side of these gates and old Bill Ovens was the lodge-keeper. They found him staring through the closed gates into the distance. He was muttering to himself. “What’s the matter, Bill?” asked Benny. “Seen a ghost?” The lodge-keeper turned his face. “I don’t want no cheek from you! I don’t see nothin’, that’s what’s the matter. I can’t even see the village. There’s some queer red mist hangin’ over the countryside, an’ I can’t see a thing. “Red mist!” exclaimed Nick. “I’ve never heard of a red mist.” He looked through the bars of the gate. “Yes, you’re right. It’s a red haze. It shuts out everything fifty yards away.” Just then the first class-bell sounded, and they sprinted back towards the building, but as they turned the bend in the drive they collided with a burly young man in corduroy trousers and flannel shirt, who was standing in the middle of the path with his hands on his hips. He was gazing up at one of the elm trees. He caught them both to prevent them falling, and set them on their feet again. “Beats me!” he said. “What beats you?” demanded Nick, for Pete Cooper, the assistant-gardener, was a great favourite of theirs. He had quite a name locally as a boxer, and had several times sneaked into the gym and given the boys a few tips about boxing. Pete Cooper pointed upwards. “Yesterday there was an old rooks’ nest in the fork of that tree, but this morning it’s gone. I can’t find any traces of it on the ground. Where’s it gone?” “Maybe it blew away in the night!” suggested Benny, and started to run. Pete Cooper slowly turned, and there was a frown on his face. Out from the nearby bushes came Gabby Smith. His face was solemn. He looked up at the tree, then after the retreating boys. For about a minute he stood considering, then he went back behind the bushes and took from his pocket the small, watch-like apparatus into which he had previously spoken. He pressed the switch, started the low humming, and spoke again. “Goldran, I wish to speak to Goldran! Is that you Goldran? Things have gone well so far, but I am finding many faults. There are no rooks’ nests in the trees in the drive. The fish-cakes at breakfast were all the same size. The post did not come through. A boy’s chewing gum stuck under a table was not in the copy. If this sort of thing goes on there will be trouble.” He put the instrument to his ear as someone answered, but hurriedly changed over when he heard the clanging of a bell. “I must go! That means classes are beginning. I will communicate with you another time – I must run!”

OVER THE WALL

In the headmaster’s study, Dr Moore took up the telephone and dialed the operator at the local exchange. A rather shrill voice answered him: “Doctor Moore, of Hillsbury School, speaking!” he said “Will you kindly connect me with Parkside 82259.

“Sorry, sir, but owing to the magnetic storm last night all outside lines are at the moment disengaged.” He was told. “The engineers are doing their best to make repairs as quickly as possible. We will advise you when things are in working order.” “Thank you,” murmured Dr Moore, and as he hung up he murmured to himself: “Strange that I did not hear any storm last night.” There was a knock at the door. “Come in!” It was Dick Carr, the school captain, and he seemed worried. “Excuse me, sir, but can I speak to you for a few moments?” Dr Moore beamed. He prided himself on being accessible to everyone. “Certainly, Carr, you are always at liberty to speak to me. What is the trouble?” Dick Carr looked uncomfortable. “I hardly know how to explain it, sir, but – but I feel that something is very wrong.” “Wrong where? You mean you are having trouble with the prefects?” snapped the Headmaster. ”No, sir, but –” Again Dick Carr seemed at a loss for words. “Well, sir, I am responsible for checking the rain-gauge in the mornings. “I’m perfectly well aware of that, Carr,” replied the Doctor, folding his hands across his stomach. “What about it?” “I went to the roof, sir, just after breakfast, to make the check, and to record the overnight temperature on the maximum and minimum thermometer, and naturally I looked out across country. There is usually a magnificent view from there.” “Yes, yes, don’t keep on stating the obvious, Carr. What is the trouble?” “There is nothing to be seen, sir. I can’t see the hills. I can’t see even the village. Beyond the walls there is – not exactly a mist. There is nothing! I wondered if you had looked over the countryside this morning. Dr Moore frowned, and clicked his tongue with irritation. “Carr, I am surprised at you. Because there is a morning mist -” “There is no mist, sir” “Then it must be a haze, or something!” snapped the headmaster. “Because you can’t see as far as the hills you begin to think the end of the world is coming, or something! What do you expect me to do – phone the Weather Clerk?” Dick flushed. “No, sir, but if you would come to the roof with me and see for yourself - ” Dr Moore stood up. “I will do nothing of the kind. I fear you have got the prevailing ailment, Carr. Go to Dr Richards and have your temperature taken. You are a little feverish.” Dick bit his lip. When the headmaster was in that mood it was useless to argue with him. “Very good, sir!” he said, and turned on his heel, but twice as he passed along the upper corridor he looked out of the window with a worried frown. His own class, in higher maths, lasted until mid-day, and it was not until then that he was free to think of other things. He walked round to the kitchen garden and there found Pete Cooper leaning on his spade and looking up at the tops of the elm trees. Cooper was one of Dick’s special friends, for they were both fond of boxing, and often sparred together. “I say have you looked at the hills this morning, Pete?” asked the school captain. “Can’t say I have. These walls shut us in, and I haven’t had any reason to go out,” replied the assistant-gardener. “Then, let’s take a look over the wall near the end of the yew hedge,” suggested Dick. “I see you’ve got a ladder handy.” The young gardener looked somewhat surprised, but did as Dick requested. As they came round the end of the high hedge there was a scuffling noise, and two figures perched on the wall hurriedly tried to hide themselves under an overhanging branch. They were Benny Walton and Nick Dobson, of the Fourth, and they looked flushed and excited. “What are you chaps doing up there?” asked Dick Carr sternly. “J-just looking at the view, Carr. There’s something funny about it,” quavered Benny. “I spotted it first from the corner bathroom window, and -” Dick Carr did not listen to him any further, but made sure the ladder was firmly placed and climbed to the top. He could feel Pete Cooper coming up behind him, and they looked over the wall together. Since Dick had viewed this landscape from the roof of the school when reading the weather-gauge, it had become clearer and brighter. There was still a red haze around but they could see some distance through it, and what they saw was something so unusual that for some minutes both the school captain and the gardener were left speechless. Hillsbury School stood on high ground, and there was a gentle slope all the way to the river Avor. Halfway down this slope was the village of Hillsbury, with its tall old church-tower dating back to Saxon times. But when Dick and his companion looked out they saw a strange, unfamiliar landscape. The slope was there, but there was no village. There was no river. Instead of green or brown fields there were ridges of eroded rock, with bare patches of dust in between. G-gosh!” exploded Dick Carr. “What’s happened overnight? This was all right  yesterday. I went down to the village myself. Can you see this too, Pete?” “I can!” snorted the under-gardener. I don’t like it. It’s not natural. I knew when I had that dream last night that somethin’ queer was goin’ to happen.” Dick looked at him sharply. “You had a dream?” “Yes, I dreamt that someone rolled me up in a sort o’ cellophane wrapper an’ took me away in a rocket. I -” “So did we!” shouted Benny Walton and Nick Dobson. “We both had the same dream and didn’t dare tell anyone.” Dick Carr swallowed hard. “And so did I! What’s more, I dreamt that I went to your Dorm and saw you chaps being rolled up in cellophane. Just what does it mean?” “Ahem!” Someone cleared his throat, and when they looked they saw Mr Digby, the English master, perched in the nearby tree, his spectacles on the end of his nose. “It is a most extraordinary thing, but I had the same ridiculous dream. I thought I got up and looked out of the window and saw a space-ship in the quad. I was so impressed by the idea that things were different this morning that I – er – climbed the wall to look over. I did not have the advantage of the use of the ladder. One thing is very certain, there has been a radical alteration in the landscape. I am so glad you are all here, for I feared that I was going mad, but if we all see it, it must be so.” They looked at each other in blank astonishment. There were five of them, and the same question burned in their brains. Where were they? What had happened to them and to the school during the night?

The School in the Scarlet Fog 8 episodes appeared in The Rover issues 1335 – 1342 (1951)

© D. C. Thomson & Co Ltd 

Vic Whittle 2003