THE dim shadow of the thing was but a blur against the dim shadows of the woo_ehind it. The young man could distinguish no outline that might mark th_resence as either brute or human.
He could see no eyes, yet he knew that somewhere from out of that noiseles_ass stealthy eyes were fixed upon him.
This was the fourth time that the think had crept from out the wood a_arkness was settling — the fourth time during those three horrible week_ince he had been cast upon that lonely shore that he had watched, terror- stricken, while night engulfed the shadowy form that lurked at the forest’_dge.
It had never attacked him, but to his distorted imagination it seemed to slin_loser and closer as night fell — waiting, always waiting for the moment tha_t might find him unprepared.
Waldo Emerson Smith-Jones was not overly courageous. He had been reared amon_urroundings of culture plus and ultra-intellectuality in the exclusive Bac_ay home of his ancestors.
He had been taught to look with contempt upon all that savored of muscula_uperiority — such things were gross, brutal, primitive.
It had been a giant intellect only that he had craved — he and a fond mother — and their wishes had been fulfilled. At twenty-one Waldo was an animate_ncyclopedia — and about as muscular as a real one.
Now he slunk shivering with fright at the very edge of the beach, as far fro_he grim forest as he could get.
Cold sweat broke from every pore of his long, lank, six-foot-two body. Hi_kinny arms and legs trembled as with palsy. Occasionally he coughed — it ha_een the cough that had banished him upon this ill-starred sea voyage.
As he crouched in the sand, staring with wide, horror-dilated eyes into th_lack night, great tears rolled down his thin, white cheeks.
It was with difficulty that he restrained an overpowering desire to shriek.
His mind was filled with forlorn regrets that he had not remained at home t_eet the wasting death that the doctor had predicted — a peaceful death a_east — not the brutal end which faced him now.
The lazy swell of the South Pacific lapped his legs, stretched upon the sand, for he had retreated before that menacing shadow as far as the ocean woul_ermit. As the slow minutes dragged into age-long hours, the nervous strai_old so heavily upon the weak boy that toward midnight he lapsed into mercifu_nconsciousness.
The warm sun awoke him the following morning, but it brought with it but _aint renewal of courage. Things could not creep to his side unseen now, bu_till they could come, for the sun would not protect him. Even now some savag_east might be lurking just within the forest.
The thought unnerved him to such an extent that he dared not venture to th_oods for the fruit that had formed the major portion of his sustenance. Alon_he beach he picked up a few mouthfuls of sea-food, but that was all.
The day passed, as had the other terrible days which had preceded it, i_canning alternately the ocean and the forest’s edge — the one for a ship an_he other for the cruel death which he momentarily expected to see stalk ou_f the dreary shades to claim him.
A more practical and a braver man would have constructed some manner o_helter in which he might have spent his nights in comparative safety an_omfort, but Waldo Emerson’s education had been conducted along lines o_ndiluted intellectuality — pursuits and knowledge which were practical wer_ommonplace, and commonplaces were vulgar. It was preposterous that a Smith- Jones should ever have need of vulgar knowledge.
For the twenty-second time since the great wave had washed him from th_teamer’s deck and hurled him, choking and sputtering, upon this inhospitabl_hore, Waldo Emerson saw the sun sinking rapidly toward the western horizon.
As it descended the young man’s terror increased, and he kept his eyes glue_pon the spot from which the shadow had emerged the previous evening.
He felt that he could not endure another night of the torture he had passe_hrough four times before. That he should go mad he was positive, and h_ommenced to tremble and whimper even while daylight yet remained. For a tim_e tried turning his back to the forest, and then he sat huddled up gazing ou_pon the ocean; but the tears which rolled down his cheeks so blurred his eye_hat he saw nothing.
Finally he could endure it no longer, and with a sudden gasp of horror h_heeled toward the wood. There was nothing visible, yet he broke down an_obbed like a child, for loneliness and terror.
When he was able to control his tears for a moment he took the opportunity t_can the deepening shadows once more.
The first glance brought a piercing shriek from his white lips.
The thing was there!
The young man did not fall groveling to the sand this time — instead, he stoo_taring with protruding eyes at the vague form, while shriek after shrie_roke from his grinning lips.
Reason was tottering.
The thing, whatever it was, halted at the first blood-curdling cry, and the_hen the cries continued it slunk back toward the wood.
With what remained of his ebbing mentality Waldo Emerson realized that it wer_etter to die at once than face the awful fears of the black night. He woul_ush to meet his fate, and thus end this awful agony of suspense.
With the thought came action, so that, still shrieking, he rushed headlon_oward the thing at the wood’s rim. As he ran it turned and fled into th_orest, and after it went Waldo Emerson, his long, skinny legs carrying hi_maciated body in great leaps and bounds through the tearing underbrush.
He emitted shriek after shriek — ear-piercing shrieks that ended in long draw_ut wails, more wolfish than human. And the thing that fled through the nigh_efore him was shrieking, too, now.
Time and again the young man stumbled and fell. Thorns and brambles tore hi_lothing and his soft flesh. Blood smeared him from head to feet. Yet on an_n he rushed through the semi-darkness of the now moonlit forest.
At first impelled by the mad desire to embrace death and wrest the peace o_blivion from its cruel clutch, Waldo Emerson had come to pursue the screamin_hadow before him from an entirely different motive. Now it was fo_ompanionship. He screamed now because of a fear that the thing would elud_im and that he should be left alone in the depth of this weird wood.
Slowly but surely it was drawing away from him, and as Waldo Emerson realize_he fact he redoubled his efforts to overtake it. He had stopped screamin_ow, for the strain of his physical exertion found his weak lungs barel_dequate to the needs of his gasping respiration.
Suddenly the pursuit emerged from the forest to cross a little moonli_learing, at the opposite side of which towered a high and rocky cliff. Towar_his the fleeing creature sped, and in an instant more was swallowed, apparently, by the face of the cliff.
Its disappearance was as mysterious and awesome as its identity had been, an_eft the young man in blank despair.
With the object of pursuit gone, the reaction came, and Waldo Emerson san_rembling and exhausted at the foot of the cliff. A paroxysm of coughin_eized him, and thus he lay in an agony of apprehension, fright, and miser_ntil from very weakness he sank into a deep sleep.
It was daylight when he awoke — stiff, lame, sore, hungry, and miserable — but, withal, refreshed and sane. His first consideration was prompted by th_raving of a starved stomach; yet it was with the utmost difficulty that h_rged his cowardly brain to direct his steps toward the forest, where hun_ruit in abundance.
At every little noise he halted in tense silence, poised to flee.
His knees trembled so violently that they knocked together; but at length h_ntered the dim shadows, and presently was gorging himself with ripe fruits.
To reach some of the more luscious viands he had picked from the ground _iece of fallen limb, which tapered from a diameter of four inches at one en_o a trifle over an inch at the other. It was the first practical thing tha_aldo Emerson had done since he had been cast upon the shore of his new home — in fact, it was, in all likelihood, the nearest approximation to a practica_hing which he had ever done in all his life.
Waldo had never been allowed to read fiction, nor had he ever cared to s_aste his time or impoverish his brain, and nowhere in the fund of dee_rudition which he had accumulated could he recall any condition analogous t_hose which now confronted him.
Waldo, of course, knew that there were such things as step-ladders, and had h_ad one he would have used it as a means to reach the fruit above his hand’_each; but that he could knock the delicacies down with a broken branch seeme_ndeed a mighty discovery — a valuable addition to the sum total of huma_nowledge. Aristotle himself had never reasoned more logically.
Waldo had taken the first step in his life toward independent mental action — heretofore his ideas, his thoughts, his acts, even, had been borrowed from th_usty writing of the ancients, or directed by the immaculate mind of hi_uperior mother. And he clung to his discovery as a child clings to a new toy.
When he emerged from the forest he brought his stick with him.
He determined to continue the pursuit of the creature that had eluded him th_ight before. It would, indeed, be curious to look upon a thing that feare_im. In all his life he had never imagined it possible that any creature coul_lee from him in fear. A little glow suffused the young man as the ide_imorously sought to take root.
Could it be that there was a trace of swagger in that long, bony figure a_aldo directed his steps toward the cliff? Perish the thought! Pride in vulga_hysical prowess! A long line of Smith-Joneses would have risen in thei_raves and rent their shrouds at the veriest hint of such an idea.
For a long time Waldo walked back and forth along the foot of the cliff, searching for the avenue of escape used by the fugitive of yesternight. _ozen times he passed a well-defined trail that led, winding, up the cliff’_ace; but Waldo knew nothing of trails — he was looking for a flight of step_r a doorway.
Finding neither, he stumbled by accident into the trail; and, although th_vident signs that marked it as such revealed nothing to him, yet he followe_t upward for the simple reason that it was the only place upon the cliff sid_here he could find a foothold.
Some distance up he came to a narrow cleft in the cliff into which the trai_ed. Rocks dislodged from above had fallen into it, and, becoming wedged a fe_eet from the bottom, left only a small cavelike hole, into which Wald_eered.
There was nothing visible, but the interior was dark and forbidding. Wald_elt cold and clammy. He began to tremble.
Then he turned and looked back toward the forest.
The thought of another night spent within sight of that dismal place almos_vercame him. No! A thousand times no! Any fate were better than that, and s_fter several futile efforts he forced his unwilling body through the smal_perture.
He found himself on a path between two rocky walls — a path that rose befor_im at a steep angle. At intervals the blue sky was visible above throug_penings that had not been filled with debris.
To another it would have been apparent that the cleft had been kept open b_uman beings — that it was a thoroughfare which was used, if not frequently, at least sufficiently often to warrant considerable labor having been expende_pon it to keep it free from the debris which must be constantly falling fro_bove.
Where the path led, or what he expected to find at the other end, Waldo ha_ot the remotest idea. He was not an imaginative youth. But he kept on up th_scent in the hope that at the end he would find the creature which ha_scaped him the night before.
As it had fled for a brief instant across the clearing beneath the moon’s sof_ays, Waldo had thought that it bore a remarkable resemblance to a huma_igure; but of that he could not be positive.
At last his path broke suddenly into the sunlight. The walls on either sid_ere but little higher than his head, and a moment later he emerged from th_left onto a broad and beautiful plateau.
Before him stretched a wide, grassy plain, and beyond towered a range o_ighty hills. Between them and him lay a belt of forest.
A new emotion welled in the breast of Waldo Emerson Smith-Jones. It was aki_o that which Balboa may have felt when he gazed for the first time upon th_ighty Pacific from the Sierra de Quarequa. For the moment, as he contemplate_his new and beautiful scene of rolling meadowland, distant forest, an_errated hilltops, he almost forgot to be afraid. And on the impulse of th_nstant he set out across the tableland to explore the unknown which la_eyond the forest.
Well it was for Waldo Emerson’s peace of mind that no faint conception of wha_ay there entered his unimaginative mind.
To him a land without civilization — without cities and towns peopled b_umans with manners and customs similar to those which obtain in Boston — wa_eyond belief.
As he walked he strained his eyes in every direction for some indication o_uman habitation — a fence, a chimney — anything that would be man-built; bu_is efforts were unrewarded.
At the verge of the forest he halted, fearing to enter; but at last, when h_aw that the wood was more open than that near the ocean, and that there wa_ut little underbrush, he mustered sufficient courage to step timidly within.
On careful tiptoe he threaded his way through the parklike grove, stoppin_very few minutes to listen, and ready at the first note of danger to fl_creaming toward the open plain.
Notwithstanding his fears, he reached the opposite boundary of the fores_ithout seeing or hearing anything to arouse suspicion, and, emerging from th_ool shade, found himself a little distance from a perpendicular white cliff, the face of which was honeycombed with the mouths of many caves.
There was no living creature in sight, nor did the very apparent artificialit_f the caves suggest to the impractical Waldo that they might be th_abitations of perhaps savage human beings.
With the spell of discovery still upon him, he crossed the open toward th_liffs; but he had by no means forgotten his chronic state of abject fear.
Ears and eyes were alert for hidden dangers; every few steps were punctuate_y a timid halt and a searching survey of his surroundings.
It was during one of these halts, when he had crossed half the distanc_etween the forest and the cliff, that he discerned a slight movement in th_ood behind him.
For an instant he stood staring and frozen, unable to determine whether he ha_een mistaken or really had seen a creature moving in the forest.
He had about decided that he had but imagined a presence when a great, hair_rute of a man stepped suddenly from behind the bole of a tree.