Astounding Stories of Super-Science June 1931, by Astounding Stories is part of HackerNoon’s Book Blog Post series. You can jump to any chapter in this book here. Manape the Mighty - Chapter I: Castaway
A COMPLETE NOVELETTE
By Arthur J. Burks
There, the words were written.
Lee Bentley never knew how many others, if any, lived on after the Bengal Queen struck the hidden reef and sank like a stone. He had only a hazy memory of the catastrophe, and recalled that when she had struck and the alarm had gone rocketing through the great passenger boat—though no alarm was really necessary because she went to pieces so fast—that he had leaped far over the rail and swam straight out, fast, in order to escape being dragged down by the suction of the sinking liner.
The screaming of frightened women and children would ring in his ears until the day the grave closed over him—screaming that was made all the more terrible by the crashing roar of the raging black seas which came out of the darkness to make the affair all the more hideous,and to bear down beneath them into the sea the feeble struggling ones who had no chance for their lives. Lifeboats had been smashed in their davits.
Bentley swam straight away after he was satisfied at last that he could do nothing more. He had helped men and women reach bits of wreckage until he could scarcely any longer keep his wearied arms to the task of keeping his own head above water. He knew even as he helped the white-faced ones that few of them would ever live through it, but he was doing the best he knew—a man's job.
When absolutely sure that he could do nothing further, when he could no longer hear cries of distress, or discover struggling forms in the sea which he might aid, he had turned his back on the graveyard of the Bengal Queen and had struck for shore. He remembered the direction, for before sunset that evening, in company with several ship's under officers, he had studied the navigation charts upon which each day's run of the Bengal Queen was shown. Ahead of him now was the coast of Africa, though what part of it he knew but in the haziest way. He might not guess within a hundred miles.
One thing only he remembered exactly. The second officer had said, apropos of nothing in particular:
"This wouldn't be a happy place to be shipwrecked. This section of the coast is a regular hangout of the great anthropoid apes. You know, those babies that can pick a man apart as a man would pluck the legs off a fly."
Bentley had merely grinned. The second officer's remarks had sounded to him as though the fellow had been reading more than his fair share of lurid fiction of the South African jungles.
However, apes or no apes, the shore would look good to Lee Bentley now. And he fully intended making it. He knew he could swim for hours if it became necessary, and he refused to think of the possibility of sharks. If one got him, well, that was one of the chances one had to take when one was shipwrecked against one's will.
So he alternately swam toward where he expected to find land, and floated on his back to rest.
"A swell ending to a great life, if I don't make it," he told himself. "I wonder how the old man will take it when the world reads that the Bengal Queen went down with all on board? He'll be relieved, maybe, for he was about ready to wash his hands of me if I can read signs at all."
It might be said that Bentley was his own worst critic, for he really was not a bad sort of a fellow. He was a good American, over-educated perhaps, with a yen to delve into forbidden places usually avoided by his own kind, and of digging into books which were better left with the pages unturned. There were strange ruins in Africa, he knew. He had gathered a weird fund of information from such books as he could unearth relative to ancient ruins and vanished races, to the lurid accounts of strange deaths of the various scientists who had taken active part in the opening of the tomb of Tutankhamen.
There were queer things in the heart of darkest Africa, and such things intrigued him. He could take whatever chances with his life he saw fit, for his only relative was a father, and he had never attached himself to any woman nor permitted any woman to attach herself to him—because he could never be sure that her interest might not primarily be in his bank account.
"If, as, and when," he told himself as he rode the waves through the night, "I reach the coast I'll be tossed into black Africa in a way I was not expecting. Anyway, if I live through, I can at least go about my work without the governor interfering. I only hope it won't be hard on the old fellow. He isn't a bad egg at all, and I guess I have given him plenty to think about and worry over."
He turned on his stomach again and struck out. He had managed to rid himself of all of his clothing except his underwear. They had only weighed him down, and he recalled, with a wry grin, that Africa as a whole went in but little for the latest in men's sport wear.
"Help, for God's sake!"
He listened for a repetition of the call, minded to believe that his ears had tricked him. He fancied it had been a woman's voice, but no woman could have lived so long in those raging seas, in which any moment Bentley himself expected to be overwhelmed. For himself he regarded death more or less philosophically, but a woman out there, crying for help, was a different matter entirely. It tore at his heartstrings, mostly because he realized his inability to be of material assistance.
He was sure that he had been mistaken about the cry, when it came again.
"For God's sake, help!"
It came from his left and this time it was unmistakable, piteous and unnerving. Lee Bentley had the horrible fear that he would never reach her in time to help—though what help he could give, when he could barely manage to keep himself afloat, he could not forsee.
He was swimming down the side of a monster wave. He could see something white in the trough, and he struggled manfully to make headway, while the angry waters tossed him about like a bit of cork and seemed bent on defeating his most furious efforts. He saw the bit of white ride high on the next wave, pass over it and vanish. He dived straight through the wave as it towered over him. He came up, gasping, his hands all but clutching at a pair of hands that reached out of the waters and grasped with a last desperate effort at the sky.
Ahead of the hands was a broken piece of oar. Those hands had just despairingly relinquished their grip on the one chance of safety, if any chance there could possibly be in that mad midnight waste.
He pulled on the wrists and a white face came to view. Wild, staring eyes looked into his. Black hair flowed back from a face whose lips were blue and thin.
"Take it easy," he counseled. "Turn on your back and rest while I see if I can get back your life-boat."
He captured the oar, and found it practically useless to sustain any appreciable weight, but he clung to it because it was at least better than nothing at all. It had held the girl afloat for over an hour and might be made to serve again somehow. With his left hand under the woman's head and his right grasping the oar he turned on his back to regain his breath. He was deep in the water because the woman was now almost on top of him; but her face was above water. He knew instinctively that she had fainted, and he was a little glad. If she were the usual hysterical woman her fighting would drown them both. As a dead weight she was easier to handle.
They drifted on, and hope began to mount high in the heart of Lee Bentley—the hope that they might yet reach land. When, hours later, he could hear the roaring of breakers he was sure of it—if the breakers could be passed in safety. After that their fate was in the lap of the gods.
The girl too must have heard, for she turned at last in Bentley's arms and began to swim for herself. She was a strong swimmer and the period during which she had been out of things had revived her amazingly. She even managed a smile as she swam beside Bentley into the creamy breakers behind which they could make out the blackness of shore.
They were so close together that at times their hands touched as they swam, and could make themselves heard by dint of shouting, though they both husbanded their strength and their breathing for swimming.
It was then that her lips twisted into a smile.
"I wouldn't even allow my maid into my stateroom if I were dressed as I am at the moment," she answered strongly, "but we're both grown up I think, and there are times when conventions go by the board. We'll pretend it doesn't matter!"
Then mutually helping each other they fought through the breakers into the calmer water behind, and managed at last to stand in water hip deep, with the undertow dragging at their limbs. They looked at each other and clasped hands without a word. They strode to the sandy beach beyond which the jungle reached away to some invisible horizon, and continued on until they were at last beyond the reach of the waves.
They did not look at each other again, though Bentley did notice that her garb was as scanty almost as his own, consisting mostly of a slip which the water had pasted fast against her flesh. Beyond noting that she seemed to be young, Bentley did not intrude. Nor did he think of the future. It was enough for the moment that they had escaped the might of angry Neptune, god of the seas.
They dropped to the sands side by side, and the sands were warm. That the jungle behind them might be alive with wild beasts they did not pause to consider. Bentley had gazed at the jungle a moment before dropping down.
He had noticed but one thing—a moving light somewhere among the tangled mass, a light as of a monster firefly erratically darting through the deeper gloom.
The girl—he had noted she was as much girl as woman—dropped to the sand and stretched herself out. Bentley looked about him for a moment, just now realizing what he had been through. Then he dropped down beside the girl, and put one arm over her protectively, an instinctive movement. The two were alone in an alien world, and even this slight contact gave Bentley a feeling of companionship he found at the time peculiarly appealing.
The girl was in a drugged sort of sleep, but she stirred at the touch of his arm, and her hand came up so that her fingertips touched his cheek.
He slept heavily, while outside on the raging deep the storm swept on along the coast, bearing with it the secret of the rest of those who only last night had looked forward to a pleasant voyage aboard the Bengal Queen.
The last thought in Bentley's mind was of that flickering light he had seen. It was not important, but memory of it clung, and followed him into his sleep with his dreams—in which he seemed to be following a darting, erratic light through a jungle without end.
He wakened with the sun burning his face and torso, and turned on his stomach with a groan. The heat ate into his back unbearably and he finally sat up, rubbed his eyes and stared out to sea. Then it all came back and he looked about him for the girl. She had disappeared.
He rose to his feet and shouted.
An answering cry came back to him, and after a moment the girl appeared around a bend in a shoreline where she had been masked by a wall of the jungle and came toward him. She was carrying something in her hands. When she stood at last before him he noted that she carried a bundle of cloth that was dripping wet.
"We need something to cover us," she said simply. "I was tempted to garb myself, but I did not wish to seem like a simpering prudish female, which I'm not at all. So I brought my findings here so that we could get together and fix up something to protect us from the sun."
"You're a sensible woman," said Bentley. "I've never understood why people should be so sensitive about their bodies. Mine isn't bad and yours, if you'll pardon me, is superb. That's not a compliment, just a statement of fact—which will help us to understand each other better. I've a hunch we're going to be some time in each other's company and we may as well know things about each other. My name's Lee Bentley."
"Mine is Ellen Estabrook."
Solemnly they shook hands. And their hands clung convulsively, for as though their handshake had been a signal there came a strange sound from the jungle behind them.
A burst of laughter that was plainly human—and another sound which caused the short hair at the base of Bentley's skull to rise, shift oddly, and settle back again.
The sound was like the beating of a skin-tight drumhead by the fists of a jungle savage. But if such it was the drum was a mighty drum, and the savage was a giant, for the sound went rolling through the jungle like an invisible tidal wave of sound.
Both the laughter and the drumming ceased as suddenly as they had sounded.
The man and woman laughed jerkily, dropped to the sand side by side and considered the necessity of clothes.
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Various. 2010. Astounding Stories of Super-Science, June 1931. Urbana, Illinois: Project Gutenberg. Retrieved May 2022 from https://www.gutenberg.org/files/31893/31893-h/31893-h.htm#Manape_the_Mighty
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