BRITISH COMICS

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THE WONDER MAN

First episode (Fourth series) taken from The Rover issue: 1268 February 18th 1950.

What lies below Britain? Follow the amazing adventures of H.K. Rodd as he sets out to answer that intriguing question!

VIGIL IN THE PENSTONES

The sun was setting behind the wild Penstone Hills as Ted Davis, a newspaper correspondent who covered a wide district, bumped along the rough track towards the main road on his motor cycle. The bike bumped through a rut and came to the firmer surface of the main road. Davis picked up speed and rode for two miles before he stopped at a phone box. When he spoke, the telephone operator in the small Ridstock exchange recognised his voice. “Is there any news yet, Mr Davis?” she asked. “No good news, Miss Robbins,” said the reporter gruffly. “I couldn’t sleep a wink for thinking about the boy last night,” exclaimed the operator. “I’ve hardly had a wink of sleep in four days and nights,” said Davis. “Get me the London number again.” Two minutes later he heard John Cowper, the news editor, come on to the line. “I’m glad you’re through promptly, Davis,” he said briskly. “The story will be our splash again to-night and I want it for the early editions. What’s fresh?” “The boy has been heard again,” replied Davis. “It was about three o’clock this afternoon that he  was heard very faintly from somewhere under the three chimneys—three pinnacles at the east end of the ridge.” “He’s still alive then, thank goodness,” exclaimed Cowper. “Ay, but he can’t last much longer if they don’t get down to him,” said Davis. “The lad has been underground for nearly five days.” “What about the pot-holing experts from the Mendips? Haven’t they made any progress?” asked the news editor. “No,” said Davis. “I was talking to one of them just now. He’d tried to get through from the Third Cave on the west side, but he said the water was coming down an underground river with such force that even in his frogman’s suit he couldn’t make any headway against it.” “Digging seems to be the only hope then?” exclaimed Cowper. “Just as I was coming away an oil-boring crew arrived and were setting up their derrick by the Three Chimneys,” answered Davis. “The soldiers have brought a searchlight as well as the listening apparatus, so they’ll have light enough to work by.” “Right! I’ll get to work on this right away,” said Cowper. “It’s the biggest human interest story we’ve had in years.” Davis turned back to his motor cycle. He paused to light his pipe. He was dead tired. He had not been home since the news reached him that Jeb Edwards, a ten-year-old goat-herd, had crawled down a fissure in the Penstone Hills and had vanished. After three miles Davis reached a huddle of cottages in a dell. They formed the hamlet of Pentonbury and were the homes of shepherds and quarrymen. It was impossible for wheeled vehicles to go further, and fifty or sixty cars and lorries were parked in the rough fields. Among them was the van of a film unit and two big radio-transmitting cars of London and Manchester newspapers. As Davis dismounted he reflected that all Great Britain was waiting for news of the boy.

THE MAD AIRMAN

Jeb’s mother, shawl over her head, had a group of neighbours around her as she trudged towards her cottage. She had been on the hills all day. Now the kindly folk of the hamlet had persuaded her to return home for a while. Mrs Edwards, the widow of a soldier, had known Davis for a long time. He did not worry her as the horde of London newspaper reporters, sympathetic as they were, and looked appealingly towards him as if waiting for some reassuring message. “You go and have something to eat and a lie-down,” Davis said. “The soldiers and the oil-men will get your lad out.” “I was always telling him not to go crawling into those holes,” exclaimed Mrs Edwards, and she had said many times before. “He gave us a bad fright when he was missing all one afternoon.” “You can’t put old heads on young shoulders,” said Davis. “I warned him, too,” said Ezra Hobson, an old shepherd, in a voice gruff with emotion. “I told him about that dog of mine that went down a pot-hole and never came up. I told him about the sheep we’ve lost down these fissures.” “He was always talking about the things he’d seen in the caves,” remarked Jake Joplin, the old hill farmer whose goats Jeb looked after. “He’d chatter away about pictures drawn on the walls and such like.” “Ay, that lad was always romancing,” declared Hobson. “What he wanted was a stick across his pants to knock a bit of sense into him—all this worry he’s causing his mother!” Mrs Edwards dabbed at her eyes with a corner of her shawl. Davis shook his head sympathetically and left the village. He climbed the winding track up on to the high ground. He had walked about half a mile when the tall figure of Horace Cairns, a London reporter, loomed out of the dusk. “I don’t think there’ll be anything fresh for several hours, Ted,” he said. “The oil-men have got to drill going over the spot where the lad was heard, but it will take them hours to get down any distance. The Sappers are trying to drive a horizontal shaft into the hill, but they’re making slow progress. I’m going to have a meal and lie down for a bit.” Davis walked on towards the searchlight. In its glare the three great pinnacles of solid rock called the Three Chimneys, stood out boldly. Close by was the derrick. A motor was clattering as it drove a drill. From a hole farther down the slope three soldiers in steel helmets and overalls crawled out. A group of sightseers, warned to get back, ran hurriedly away. A detonator was fired. There was a muffled rumble and smoke poured from the hole. Almost immediately the Sappers went in again to remove the debris that the explosive had dislodged. Just as Davis reached the top of the hill, the motor driving the drill was throttled down. The husky-looking oil-men worked furiously to fix another length of pipe to the drill. The foreman shouted, the engine roared, and the boring restarted. The foreman told Davis they had reached a depth of twenty yards. “We think there’s a cave just below and we’re aiming to bore through it,” he said. “Once we’re through it will be easy to enlarge the hole.” “You’d be able to let food down,” remarked the reporter. “That’s the idea,” the foreman replied. “We think we’re in the right spot. It was right under our feet that the lad was last heard.” Davis kept a vigil until midnight. Then, like many other observers, he went down the hill. He slept on a truss of straw in a barn with many other reporters. By break of dawn he was making his way towards the summit. He was approaching the top when the clatter of the motor stopped. The shouts he heard spurred him into a run. “Are you through?” he called out. The foreman turned a gravely serious face towards him. “We’ve struck something so tough that the drill’s broken,” he said. “It will be hours before we can start boring again.” The morning was grey and misty. Faces were lined and haggard. Davis walked down to talk to Police Sergeant Clune, who had himself brought off a risky cave rescue during the summer, when a venturesome holiday maker had been trapped. “Between you and me, I think it’s all up with the lad,” Clune said. “I’d hate to tell his mother, but I’ve given up hope myself—” A  hoarse shout rang out. A soldier, covered with slime, staggered out of the gallery. Two other Sappers threw themselves into the open as, with a gurgle and splash, water roared out of the shaft and rushed down the slope in a cascade. It was a moment of disaster, a moment when both rescue efforts had failed. It was a moment when tired and dispirited men looked up angrily at the sound of aeroplane engines. “It’s some crazy photographer,” snarled Clune. “We’ve had their planes buzzing over our heads day in and day out. Look at him!” Out of the mist burst a plane, a Mosquito, flying so low that men ducked. Fists were shaken as the plane swung away. “My stars, he’s putting the wheels down,” roared Clune. “He’ll write himself off if he tries to land,” Davis gulped. The Mosquito came back. Its shadow passed over them. The spectators scattered as the wheels touched down. The aircraft raced forward towards the jagged rocks standing less than a cricket pitch apart. “He’s for it and serve him right,” cried the police officer in a choking voice. Almost before the words were out of his mouth the plane had passed cleanly between the rocks, slowed down, and stopped within a few strides of the Three Chimneys. The pilot climbed out and stood on the wing. He was far above average height and had broad, sloping shoulders. His hair gleamed like burnished gold and he had the keen features of a Viking. The angry men gathered round the plane. The pilot stooped. Out of the cockpit he lifted a frogman’s suit. He dropped it on the wing. He leaned into the cockpit again and fetched out a rope, an ice-pick, a piton hammer, and a small kit-bag. Horace Cairns stared at the newcomer and a gasp broke from him. “It’s H.K. Rodd,” he shouted. “H.K. Rodd—the Wonder Man!”

RODD GETS TO WORK

Sergeant Clune stared first at Rodd and then at the London journalist. “Is that the Rodd who licked the crook who was controlling the weather?” he gasped. “That’s him,” Cairns exclaimed. “Gosh, he’s the one man who might rescue Jeb Edwards now.” Rodd leapt down from the plane. He was the man who, as an infant, had been adopted by two of Britain’s greatest scientists and brought up according to their theories with astounding results. All his powers had been amazingly developed. Cairns ran up to him. “You’ve come to help in the search for the lad, Mr Rodd?” Rodd nodded briskly. “I’ve been in America. I only returned to London a few hours ago,” he said. “I heard the broadcast about the boy at midnight and I’ve come along to see if I can help.” Sergeant Clune glanced towards the rocks. “You took an awful chance landing here, sir,” he said. “Took a chance?” Rodd said. “Oh, no, sergeant! I must have had at least a foot to spare on either side of those rocks. Now—” He spoke with authority, “I can’t work in a crowd. I’d like your help, sergeant, and the help of one or two people who know the district.” Rodd’s hint was as good as a command. Soldiers, oilmen, and reporters stood back and watched as Rodd walked away with Clune and Davis. Two hundred yards away from the Three Chimneys, Clune stopped on a rough patch of grass. “This is where the lad was looking after the goats,” he said. “Just over there,” he pointed to an area of rocks and stones, “are several fissures. A man couldn’t squeeze down, but young Jeb might have wormed his way through.” Rodd strode across to the place where jagged cracks in the limestone were visible. He examined several of them quickly before stopping at a narrow hole in the rock. “This is where he went down,” he said. “I don’t think he did,” Clune replied. Rodd bent down. His finger and thumb removed a tiny wisp of cloth, just a thread or two, from a rough bit of rock. “He caught his shirt there,” he said. “I never noticed that,” muttered the policeman. Rodd lay down. He stretched himself flat with an ear to the ground just at the edge of the fissure. Clune and Davis stood silently, straining their ears for any sound. With an agile bound Rodd got to his feet again. He took twelve strides that seemed to be measured. He lay down and listened on what appeared to be solid rock. Again he stood up. He turned and looked towards the nearest of the Three Chimneys. His eyes were calculating. His gaze travelled from the spot on which he was standing to the pinnacle. With his eye he measured the distance. “One hundred and three feet—and six inches,” he muttered. “No doubt there’s a passage for the entire length.” Davis, standing behind him, pulled a large scale map from his pocket. He tugged a ruler from his pocket and laid it on the map. He shifted the ruler to the scale. “The nearest I can get it is a hundred and two feet,” he said. Rodd was quickly on the move again. He walked over to a stream that came trickling and bubbling down the slope until it vanished in a fissure. Davis saw he was keenly interested. “There must be a score of streams that run away underground, Mr Rodd,” he said. “They join together somewhere underneath us and run out into the River Trench. If you come across here you’ll see it far below.” Rodd strode to the edge of the plateau. He gazed down the hillside. At the bottom a river came swirling out of a tunnel into a rocky gorge. “Let me see, it’s nine hundred and seventy-five feet down the slope to the river,” he said swiftly. “If we could take a vertical line from down under our feet to water level it would be three hundred feet. That gives us two sides of the triangle. Now I want the distance from the tunnel mouth to directly below us—the third side of the triangle. He was silent for an instant. “That will be nine hundred and twenty-seven decimal six nine feet,” he rapped out. Sergeant Clune was staggered by the speed at which Rodd had solved that intricate mathematical problem. Davis, no mathematician, looked questioningly at Rodd. “Why did you want to calculate the distance?” he asked. Rodd started to walk towards the pile of articles he had taken out of the plane. “That’s the distance I shall have to go up the river from the tunnel mouth to get under this spot,” he said. “There’s no way through from the caves at the other side.” “Go up the river? You’ll never do it,” Clune gasped. “The water rushes out like a cataract. Others have tried it. They were washed back like corks.” “Perhaps I’ll be a bit luckier,” Rodd was saying when Mrs Edwards, with two or three of the villagers, hurried wildly towards him. “This is the lad’s mother,” whispered Davis. Mrs Edwards was in tears as she came towards the little group. “Are you going down after my Jeb?” she cried. “Yes, we’ll get him out,” said Rodd. Mrs Edwards clasped her hands together. “I dropped off to sleep for a little time,” she said and shuddered. “I dreamed he was dead.” Rodd’s voice rang out reassuringly. “No, the lad isn’t dead,” he said. “When I was listening just now I could hear him moving about. He’s very weak, but I’ll get to him in time.”

 

UNDERWATER APPROACH

Within a few minutes Rodd, carrying his equipment, walked down towards the gorge. A crowd followed him. Captain Richardson, who was in command of the sappers, was with him. “You have a sound-detection apparatus with you?” Rodd asked. “Yes, we used it before we started to make out tunnel,” replied Richardson. I’d like you to keep it manned,” Rodd said. “I may have to try to get a message through to you. It’s obvious I shan’t be able to bring the boy out the way I’m going in.” The sapper looked down at the water rushing out of the jagged hole in the limestone. “You’ll never get in,” he said bluntly. “It’s madness to try.” Rodd did not answer. He went into a small cave. When he reappeared he was wearing the suit of a frogman. On his back an oilskin haversack was strapped. Ice-pick and piton hammer were attached to his belt. For a few moments Rodd stood on the brink of the gorge. The startled onlookers saw him jump. He jumped down to a ledge of rock about twelve feet down the cliff and from there he dived into the swirling, turbulent water. He stayed under the surface, but Davis could make out his shape. He was coming to a point from which other swimmers, also equipped with frogman-suits, had whirled back like leaves. An astonished cry broke from the reporter. The dark shape under the water was not being forced back, but was going steadily forward with swift, measured strokes. A minute later the tunnel had swallowed him up. Rodd had a lamp fixed to a waterproofed battery with him, but he did not switch it on. He could see enough for his purpose and concentrated on his battle against the onrush of the water. He was using a crawl stroke with a fast, powerful beat that slowly but steadily drove him forward. The roar of the river grew louder. Rodd felt its force increase. The pressure grew until he was no more than holding his own. The blackness was complete, even to him. Even his eyes, that in ordinary darkness were like cat’s, could not penetrate the gloom from which even the faintest trace of light was shut out. He touched a switch and the lamp in his cap shone through the water. Rodd saw that the tunnel narrowed till it was little more than the span of his arms. The water rushing through it carried a colossal pressure. Rodd turned to the side of the tunnel. He dropped till his feet touched the bottom. In an upright position, huddling close to the rock, digging his fingers into crevices to give him hold, he edged along, made a few inches at a time till the force of the water lessened, and he shot to the surface of the cavern. The water filled the cave from side to side and from the far end came a thunderous roar. Rodd swam up to a waterfall that cascaded down into the cave and like a swimmer diving through a breaker at the sea, he knifed through the cascade. Now he was in the spray-filled space behind the waterfall, with the backwash surging round his waist. He grasped his piton hammer. From a pouch he took a piton—a metal spike used by climbers. He fitted the point to a crevice and drove it far enough in to stand the weight. He reached up to another cranny and hammered another piton home. Then he pulled himself up and started to climb up behind the torrent. Near the top he stopped and clung on. The water was roaring over the ledge and curving out just above his head. He saw that just at the edge a spur of rock diverted the water and that here it was flowing with slightly less force than in the centre. Rodd crouched on the topmost piton. Then he sprang and thrust arms and elbows over the ledge. The water swirled over him, tearing at him, threatening to whisk him away and hurl him back into the depths. He swung a knee up. He hugged the wall of the channel. He lay flat to reduce the resistance and he wriggled up the bed of the river until he felt the force of the current lessen. He stood up, and with the water swirling round his waist, waded along until he passed under an archway into an enormous cave. Here the river flowed through masses of shingle on either side. Rodd crawled out of the water on to the stones. He saw there was a faint gleam of light, light that filtered through some deep fissure. He took off his helmet and the frogman suit. Underneath he was wearing shirt, corduroy trousers, and socks. He opened the haversack, fetched out a pair of shoes with thick crepe rubber soles. After putting them on he shouldered the haversack, picked up his ice-pick, and stood gazing round. Three tunnels had their exits into the cave. Without hesitation Rodd selected the middle one. He had to use his lamp again for there was not a flicker of light. It was like a maze. The rock was full of holes of fissures of wider tunnels. As if he had a map of the area. Rodd strode on. With complete certainty he threaded his way through the tangle of passages. He emerged into a cave that at first sight appeared to be a cul-de-sac with only one way out. Rodd walked over the soaring rock face. He put his ear to the limestone and listened. He could hear a faint trickle of water and he gave a satisfied nod. “That’s the stream that I heard from the top,” he murmured. “I’m under the Three Chimneys.” He reached up, prised his fingers into a tiny crack in the rock and started to climb.

 

NEWS OF JEB EDWARDS

Sergeant Clune and Davis came plodding up the hill. Near the Three Chimneys a sergeant of the sappers was squatting on a chunk of rock. Ear-phones were clamped round his head. They were connected to the metal box containing sensitive coils and diaphragms of the listening apparatus. Captain Richardson walked to meet the police officer and the reporter. “Any trace of Rodd?” he asked. Clune shook his head grimly. “He’s been gone a couple of hours,” he said. “He’s drowned, no doubt about that. Ay, and he won’t be the first who’s gone underground never to be seen again.” There were sounds of hammering as the oil-men began to dismantle the derrick. “Tell them to stop that row!” It was the Sapper Sergeant M’Kenzie, who snapped these words. “Have you heard something?” Richardson demanded. “I can’t be sure,” said M’Kenzie. Clune put his whistle to his lips. His long blast attracted the attention of the oil-men. He signalled to them to stop making a noise. His whistle brought people hurrying towards the spot. Davis ran to a small pot-hole in a bare expanse of rock. He threw himself down, head over the hole, and listened. “I heard the boy, I’m sure I heard the boy,” he shouted. “That’s just about where we heard him before,” said Clune. Sergeant M’Kenzie jerked his head up. “There are two voices,” he exclaimed hoarsely. “The Wonder Man must have got to him.” Rodd had found the boy, found him in a small cave from which many galleries led out, found him in just the spot he had expected. Light filtered down through numerous tiny cracks and, at a glance, Rodd had seen how the lad had come to be imprisoned. There had been a fall of earth down the largest of the fissures, which had blocked it completely. Rodd looked down into the little white face. Jeb’s hair hung down over his forehead and ears. His clothes were in rags. Rodd opened his haversack. He took out a flask, unscrewed the cup, and filled it with tea that was half milk and very sweet. “I’ll hold the cup,” he said. “Your hand is a bit shaky isn’t it?” So far Jeb had been too overcome to speak. He sipped at the hot liquid and a little colour returned to his face. The cup was soon empty and Rodd filled it again. He gave the boy some biscuits and he crammed them ravenously into his mouth. Rodd picked up the ice-pick. He lifted it up and started to tap on the roof of the cave. “What are you doing?” whispered Jeb. “I’m signalling to the soldiers on the hill,” said Rodd. “I’m telling them where to dig. They’ll soon have you out.” “I’ll never come down here no more,” muttered the boy. “Why did you come down?” Rodd asked. “I came down to look at the pictures,” Jeb answered. “Pictures?” Rodd exclaimed. Jeb gave a quick little nod. He pointed to one of the passages. “Down there. That’s where they are,” he said. “Pictures of animals—painted on the walls.”

THE CAVE OF WHISPERS

Two hours later Sergeant M’Kenzie’s head appeared out of the fissure. He heaved himself up and threw his spade out on to the ground. Piled at the side was the soil that he and the other Sappers had excavated. “We’re through,” he said. “Rodd’s bringing the lad up now.” Even hardened reporters, some of them former war correspondents, cheered at the news. With tears trickling down her face Mrs Edwards eagerly awaited her son. Scraping sounds were heard, sounds that quickly grew louder. “Here he is!” roared Davis. Sergeant Clune grasped hold of Jeb and lifted him out of the hole as cameras clicked. Rodd looked up. He did not attempt to climb out. “I’m going back for a look round,” he called out. “You needn’t bother about me.” The reporters were racing away to get the news to the world. Mrs Edwards was still hugging her lad tightly to her as Rodd slid down again and vanished from view. From the cave in which he had found Jeb he worked his way down a passage, in places so low that he had to bend double to get along. He straightened his back and stood straight up on entering a cave. Light filtered in from a narrow crack. Rodd gazed in amazement at the pictures on the walls and on the roof. He stared at a painting of a great horned bull, at a long maned horse, at a fantastic bird in crude, but vivid, colours. Rodd knew he had slipped back in time, slipped back into an “art gallery” of fifteen to seventeen thousand years before. He was looking at the work of Cro-Magnon men, the race who existed when the last remnants of the Ice Age were receding from Europe. He put on his torch and shone it around. He saw that behind a large rock there was a gap large enough for a man to squeeze through. Further along the cave he discovered another such opening. Rodd picked one of the openings and plunged into it. The passage was so narrow that the sides brushed his broad shoulders. It followed a zig-zag course. He soon found himself in a bewildering maze of passages. They ran in all directions. To save his torch he put it out and lit a candle taken from his haversack. There was no draught to make the flame flicker. In and out of the cracks and passages, up and down as the levels varied, sometimes able to stand upright, at other times having to bend double, Rodd pressed on. He had to turn sideways to edge through a fissure. He took two or three more paces and stopped in the entrance to a great cavern lit by shafts of sunlight lit by shafts of sunlight from cracks high in the roof. On the wall facing him was a vast, crude painting of a red bull. Rodd walked forward slowly. His gaze fixed on a stone block, set like an altar in front of the picture. He came up to it and he looked down, looked at numerous footprints in the dusty ground round the altar. On the altar was laid a great flint knife. He was reaching out to pick it up when he saw gleaming red stains both on the altar and upon the knife, stains that were sticky to the touch and which he knew were fresh blood. He stood motionless. His acute senses warned him that he was not alone, that he was being watched. He listened and he became aware of whispers in the walls around him.

 

The Wonder Man (First Series) 13 episodes appeared in The Rover issues 1132 – 1144 (1946)                  

The Wonder Man (Second Series) 27 episodes appeared in The Rover issues 1145 - 1171 (1946)

Return of The Wonder Man (Third Series) 12 episodes appeared in The Rover issues 1227 – 1238 (1948)

The Wonder Man (Fourth Series) 9 episodes appeared in The Rover issues 1286 - 1294 (1950)

 

© D. C. Thomson & Co Ltd 

Vic Whittle 2007