I have said—or perhaps I have not said, for my memory plays me sad trick_hese days—that I glowed with pride when three such men as my comrades thanke_e for having saved, or at least greatly helped, the situation. As th_oungster of the party, not merely in years, but in experience, character, knowledge, and all that goes to make a man, I had been overshadowed from th_irst. And now I was coming into my own. I warmed at the thought. Alas! fo_he pride which goes before a fall! That little glow of self-satisfaction, that added measure of self-confidence, were to lead me on that very night t_he most dreadful experience of my life, ending with a shock which turns m_eart sick when I think of it.
It came about in this way. I had been unduly excited by the adventure of th_ree, and sleep seemed to be impossible. Summerlee was on guard, sittin_unched over our small fire, a quaint, angular figure, his rifle across hi_nees and his pointed, goat-like beard wagging with each weary nod of hi_ead. Lord John lay silent, wrapped in the South American poncho which h_ore, while Challenger snored with a roll and rattle which reverberate_hrough the woods. The full moon was shining brightly, and the air was crispl_old. What a night for a walk! And then suddenly came the thought, "Why not?"
Suppose I stole softly away, suppose I made my way down to the central lake, suppose I was back at breakfast with some record of the place— would I not i_hat case be thought an even more worthy associate? Then, if Summerlee carrie_he day and some means of escape were found, we should return to London wit_irst-hand knowledge of the central mystery of the plateau, to which I alone, of all men, would have penetrated. I thought of Gladys, with her "There ar_eroisms all round us." I seemed to hear her voice as she said it. I though_lso of McArdle. What a three column article for the paper! What a foundatio_or a career! A correspondentship in the next great war might be within m_each. I clutched at a gun—my pockets were full of cartridges—and, parting th_horn bushes at the gate of our zareba, quickly slipped out. My last glanc_howed me the unconscious Summerlee, most futile of sentinels, still noddin_way like a queer mechanical toy in front of the smouldering fire.
I had not gone a hundred yards before I deeply repented my rashness. I ma_ave said somewhere in this chronicle that I am too imaginative to be a reall_ourageous man, but that I have an overpowering fear of seeming afraid. Thi_as the power which now carried me onwards. I simply could not slink back wit_othing done. Even if my comrades should not have missed me, and should neve_now of my weakness, there would still remain some intolerable self-shame i_y own soul. And yet I shuddered at the position in which I found myself, an_ould have given all I possessed at that moment to have been honorably free o_he whole business.
It was dreadful in the forest. The trees grew so thickly and their foliag_pread so widely that I could see nothing of the moon-light save that here an_here the high branches made a tangled filigree against the starry sky. As th_yes became more used to the obscurity one learned that there were differen_egrees of darkness among the trees—that some were dimly visible, whil_etween and among them there were coal-black shadowed patches, like the mouth_f caves, from which I shrank in horror as I passed. I thought of th_espairing yell of the tortured iguanodon—that dreadful cry which had echoe_hrough the woods. I thought, too, of the glimpse I had in the light of Lor_ohn's torch of that bloated, warty, blood-slavering muzzle. Even now I was o_ts hunting-ground. At any instant it might spring upon me from th_hadows—this nameless and horrible monster. I stopped, and, picking _artridge from my pocket, I opened the breech of my gun. As I touched th_ever my heart leaped within me. It was the shot-gun, not the rifle, which _ad taken!
Again the impulse to return swept over me. Here, surely, was a most excellen_eason for my failure—one for which no one would think the less of me. Bu_gain the foolish pride fought against that very word. I could not—mus_ot—fail. After all, my rifle would probably have been as useless as a shot- gun against such dangers as I might meet. If I were to go back to camp t_hange my weapon I could hardly expect to enter and to leave again withou_eing seen. In that case there would be explanations, and my attempt would n_onger be all my own. After a little hesitation, then, I screwed up my courag_nd continued upon my way, my useless gun under my arm.
The darkness of the forest had been alarming, but even worse was the white, still flood of moonlight in the open glade of the iguanodons. Hid among th_ushes, I looked out at it. None of the great brutes were in sight. Perhap_he tragedy which had befallen one of them had driven them from their feeding- ground. In the misty, silvery night I could see no sign of any living thing.
Taking courage, therefore, I slipped rapidly across it, and among the jungl_n the farther side I picked up once again the brook which was my guide. I_as a cheery companion, gurgling and chuckling as it ran, like the dear ol_rout-stream in the West Country where I have fished at night in my boyhood.
So long as I followed it down I must come to the lake, and so long as _ollowed it back I must come to the camp. Often I had to lose sight of it o_ccount of the tangled brush-wood, but I was always within earshot of it_inkle and splash.
As one descended the slope the woods became thinner, and bushes, wit_ccasional high trees, took the place of the forest. I could make goo_rogress, therefore, and I could see without being seen. I passed close to th_terodactyl swamp, and as I did so, with a dry, crisp, leathery rattle o_ings, one of these great creatures—it was twenty feet at least from tip t_ip—rose up from somewhere near me and soared into the air. As it passe_cross the face of the moon the light shone clearly through the membranou_ings, and it looked like a flying skeleton against the white, tropica_adiance. I crouched low among the bushes, for I knew from past experienc_hat with a single cry the creature could bring a hundred of its loathsom_ates about my ears. It was not until it had settled again that I dared t_teal onwards upon my journey.
The night had been exceedingly still, but as I advanced I became conscious o_ low, rumbling sound, a continuous murmur, somewhere in front of me. Thi_rew louder as I proceeded, until at last it was clearly quite close to me.
When I stood still the sound was constant, so that it seemed to come from som_tationary cause. It was like a boiling kettle or the bubbling of some grea_ot. Soon I came upon the source of it, for in the center of a small clearin_ found a lake—or a pool, rather, for it was not larger than the basin of th_rafalgar Square fountain—of some black, pitch-like stuff, the surface o_hich rose and fell in great blisters of bursting gas. The air above it wa_himmering with heat, and the ground round was so hot that I could hardly bea_o lay my hand on it. It was clear that the great volcanic outburst which ha_aised this strange plateau so many years ago had not yet entirely spent it_orces. Blackened rocks and mounds of lava I had already seen everywher_eeping out from amid the luxuriant vegetation which draped them, but thi_sphalt pool in the jungle was the first sign that we had of actual existin_ctivity on the slopes of the ancient crater. I had no time to examine i_urther for I had need to hurry if I were to be back in camp in the morning.
It was a fearsome walk, and one which will be with me so long as memory holds.
In the great moonlight clearings I slunk along among the shadows on th_argin. In the jungle I crept forward, stopping with a beating heart wheneve_ heard, as I often did, the crash of breaking branches as some wild beas_ent past. Now and then great shadows loomed up for an instant and wer_one—great, silent shadows which seemed to prowl upon padded feet. How often _topped with the intention of returning, and yet every time my pride conquere_y fear, and sent me on again until my object should be attained.
At last (my watch showed that it was one in the morning) I saw the gleam o_ater amid the openings of the jungle, and ten minutes later I was among th_eeds upon the borders of the central lake. I was exceedingly dry, so I la_own and took a long draught of its waters, which were fresh and cold. Ther_as a broad pathway with many tracks upon it at the spot which I had found, s_hat it was clearly one of the drinking-places of the animals. Close to th_ater's edge there was a huge isolated block of lava. Up this I climbed, and, lying on the top, I had an excellent view in every direction.
The first thing which I saw filled me with amazement. When I described th_iew from the summit of the great tree, I said that on the farther cliff _ould see a number of dark spots, which appeared to be the mouths of caves.
Now, as I looked up at the same cliffs, I saw discs of light in ever_irection, ruddy, clearly-defined patches, like the port-holes of a liner i_he darkness. For a moment I thought it was the lava-glow from some volcani_ction; but this could not be so. Any volcanic action would surely be down i_he hollow and not high among the rocks. What, then, was the alternative? I_as wonderful, and yet it must surely be. These ruddy spots must be th_eflection of fires within the caves—fires which could only be lit by the han_f man. There were human beings, then, upon the plateau. How gloriously m_xpedition was justified! Here was news indeed for us to bear back with us t_ondon!
For a long time I lay and watched these red, quivering blotches of light. _uppose they were ten miles off from me, yet even at that distance one coul_bserve how, from time to time, they twinkled or were obscured as someon_assed before them. What would I not have given to be able to crawl up t_hem, to peep in, and to take back some word to my comrades as to th_ppearance and character of the race who lived in so strange a place! It wa_ut of the question for the moment, and yet surely we could not leave th_lateau until we had some definite knowledge upon the point.
Lake Gladys—my own lake—lay like a sheet of quicksilver before me, with _eflected moon shining brightly in the center of it. It was shallow, for i_any places I saw low sandbanks protruding above the water. Everywhere upo_he still surface I could see signs of life, sometimes mere rings and ripple_n the water, sometimes the gleam of a great silver-sided fish in the air, sometimes the arched, slate-colored back of some passing monster. Once upon _ellow sandbank I saw a creature like a huge swan, with a clumsy body and _igh, flexible neck, shuffling about upon the margin. Presently it plunged in, and for some time I could see the arched neck and darting head undulating ove_he water. Then it dived, and I saw it no more.
My attention was soon drawn away from these distant sights and brought back t_hat was going on at my very feet. Two creatures like large armadillos ha_ome down to the drinking-place, and were squatting at the edge of the water, their long, flexible tongues like red ribbons shooting in and out as the_apped. A huge deer, with branching horns, a magnificent creature whic_arried itself like a king, came down with its doe and two fawns and dran_eside the armadillos. No such deer exist anywhere else upon earth, for th_oose or elks which I have seen would hardly have reached its shoulders.
Presently it gave a warning snort, and was off with its family among th_eeds, while the armadillos also scuttled for shelter. A new-comer, a mos_onstrous animal, was coming down the path.
For a moment I wondered where I could have seen that ungainly shape, tha_rched back with triangular fringes along it, that strange bird-like head hel_lose to the ground. Then it came back, to me. It was the stegosaurus—the ver_reature which Maple White had preserved in his sketch-book, and which ha_een the first object which arrested the attention of Challenger! There h_as—perhaps the very specimen which the American artist had encountered. Th_round shook beneath his tremendous weight, and his gulpings of wate_esounded through the still night. For five minutes he was so close to my roc_hat by stretching out my hand I could have touched the hideous waving hackle_pon his back. Then he lumbered away and was lost among the boulders.
Looking at my watch, I saw that it was half-past two o'clock, and high time, therefore, that I started upon my homeward journey. There was no difficult_bout the direction in which I should return, for all along I had kept th_ittle brook upon my left, and it opened into the central lake within _tone's-throw of the boulder upon which I had been lying. I set off, therefore, in high spirits, for I felt that I had done good work and wa_ringing back a fine budget of news for my companions. Foremost of all, o_ourse, were the sight of the fiery caves and the certainty that som_roglodytic race inhabited them. But besides that I could speak fro_xperience of the central lake. I could testify that it was full of strang_reatures, and I had seen several land forms of primeval life which we had no_efore encountered. I reflected as I walked that few men in the world coul_ave spent a stranger night or added more to human knowledge in the course o_t.
I was plodding up the slope, turning these thoughts over in my mind, and ha_eached a point which may have been half-way to home, when my mind was brough_ack to my own position by a strange noise behind me. It was something betwee_ snore and a growl, low, deep, and exceedingly menacing. Some strang_reature was evidently near me, but nothing could be seen, so I hastened mor_apidly upon my way. I had traversed half a mile or so when suddenly the soun_as repeated, still behind me, but louder and more menacing than before. M_eart stood still within me as it flashed across me that the beast, whateve_t was, must surely be after me. My skin grew cold and my hair rose at th_hought. That these monsters should tear each other to pieces was a part o_he strange struggle for existence, but that they should turn upon modern man, that they should deliberately track and hunt down the predominant human, was _taggering and fearsome thought. I remembered again the blood-beslobbered fac_hich we had seen in the glare of Lord John's torch, like some horrible visio_rom the deepest circle of Dante's hell. With my knees shaking beneath me, _tood and glared with starting eyes down the moonlit path which lay behind me.
All was quiet as in a dream landscape. Silver clearings and the black patche_f the bushes—nothing else could I see. Then from out of the silence, imminen_nd threatening, there came once more that low, throaty croaking, far loude_nd closer than before. There could no longer be a doubt. Something was on m_rail, and was closing in upon me every minute.
I stood like a man paralyzed, still staring at the ground which I ha_raversed. Then suddenly I saw it. There was movement among the bushes at th_ar end of the clearing which I had just traversed. A great dark shado_isengaged itself and hopped out into the clear moonlight. I say "hopped"
advisedly, for the beast moved like a kangaroo, springing along in an erec_osition upon its powerful hind legs, while its front ones were held bent i_ront of it. It was of enormous size and power, like an erect elephant, bu_ts movements, in spite of its bulk, were exceedingly alert. For a moment, a_ saw its shape, I hoped that it was an iguanodon, which I knew to b_armless, but, ignorant as I was, I soon saw that this was a very differen_reature. Instead of the gentle, deer-shaped head of the great three-toe_eaf-eater, this beast had a broad, squat, toad-like face like that which ha_larmed us in our camp. His ferocious cry and the horrible energy of hi_ursuit both assured me that this was surely one of the great flesh-eatin_inosaurs, the most terrible beasts which have ever walked this earth. As th_uge brute loped along it dropped forward upon its fore-paws and brought it_ose to the ground every twenty yards or so. It was smelling out my trail.
Sometimes, for an instant, it was at fault. Then it would catch it up agai_nd come bounding swiftly along the path I had taken.
Even now when I think of that nightmare the sweat breaks out upon my brow.
What could I do? My useless fowling-piece was in my hand. What help could _et from that? I looked desperately round for some rock or tree, but I was i_ bushy jungle with nothing higher than a sapling within sight, while I kne_hat the creature behind me could tear down an ordinary tree as though it wer_ reed. My only possible chance lay in flight. I could not move swiftly ove_he rough, broken ground, but as I looked round me in despair I saw a well- marked, hard-beaten path which ran across in front of me. We had seen severa_f the sort, the runs of various wild beasts, during our expeditions. Alon_his I could perhaps hold my own, for I was a fast runner, and in excellen_ondition. Flinging away my useless gun, I set myself to do such a half-mil_s I have never done before or since. My limbs ached, my chest heaved, I fel_hat my throat would burst for want of air, and yet with that horror behind m_ ran and I ran and ran. At last I paused, hardly able to move. For a moment _hought that I had thrown him off. The path lay still behind me. And the_uddenly, with a crashing and a rending, a thudding of giant feet and _anting of monster lungs the beast was upon me once more. He was at my ver_eels. I was lost.
Madman that I was to linger so long before I fled! Up to then he had hunted b_cent, and his movement was slow. But he had actually seen me as I started t_un. From then onwards he had hunted by sight, for the path showed him where _ad gone. Now, as he came round the curve, he was springing in great bounds.
The moonlight shone upon his huge projecting eyes, the row of enormous teet_n his open mouth, and the gleaming fringe of claws upon his short, powerfu_orearms. With a scream of terror I turned and rushed wildly down the path.
Behind me the thick, gasping breathing of the creature sounded louder an_ouder. His heavy footfall was beside me. Every instant I expected to feel hi_rip upon my back. And then suddenly there came a crash—I was falling throug_pace, and everything beyond was darkness and rest.
As I emerged from my unconsciousness—which could not, I think, have laste_ore than a few minutes—I was aware of a most dreadful and penetrating smell.
Putting out my hand in the darkness I came upon something which felt like _uge lump of meat, while my other hand closed upon a large bone. Up above m_here was a circle of starlit sky, which showed me that I was lying at th_ottom of a deep pit. Slowly I staggered to my feet and felt myself all over.
I was stiff and sore from head to foot, but there was no limb which would no_ove, no joint which would not bend. As the circumstances of my fall came bac_nto my confused brain, I looked up in terror, expecting to see that dreadfu_ead silhouetted against the paling sky. There was no sign of the monster, however, nor could I hear any sound from above. I began to walk slowly round, therefore, feeling in every direction to find out what this strange plac_ould be into which I had been so opportunely precipitated.
It was, as I have said, a pit, with sharply-sloping walls and a level botto_bout twenty feet across. This bottom was littered with great gobbets o_lesh, most of which was in the last state of putridity. The atmosphere wa_oisonous and horrible. After tripping and stumbling over these lumps o_ecay, I came suddenly against something hard, and I found that an uprigh_ost was firmly fixed in the center of the hollow. It was so high that I coul_ot reach the top of it with my hand, and it appeared to be covered wit_rease.
Suddenly I remembered that I had a tin box of wax-vestas in my pocket.
Striking one of them, I was able at last to form some opinion of this plac_nto which I had fallen. There could be no question as to its nature. It was _rap—made by the hand of man. The post in the center, some nine feet long, wa_harpened at the upper end, and was black with the stale blood of th_reatures who had been impaled upon it. The remains scattered about wer_ragments of the victims, which had been cut away in order to clear the stak_or the next who might blunder in. I remembered that Challenger had declare_hat man could not exist upon the plateau, since with his feeble weapons h_ould not hold his own against the monsters who roamed over it. But now it wa_lear enough how it could be done. In their narrow-mouthed caves the natives, whoever they might be, had refuges into which the huge saurians could no_enetrate, while with their developed brains they were capable of setting suc_raps, covered with branches, across the paths which marked the run of th_nimals as would destroy them in spite of all their strength and activity. Ma_as always the master.
The sloping wall of the pit was not difficult for an active man to climb, bu_ hesitated long before I trusted myself within reach of the dreadful creatur_hich had so nearly destroyed me. How did I know that he was not lurking i_he nearest clump of bushes, waiting for my reappearance? I took heart, however, as I recalled a conversation between Challenger and Summerlee upo_he habits of the great saurians. Both were agreed that the monsters wer_ractically brainless, that there was no room for reason in their tiny crania_avities, and that if they have disappeared from the rest of the world it wa_ssuredly on account of their own stupidity, which made it impossible for the_o adapt themselves to changing conditions.
To lie in wait for me now would mean that the creature had appreciated wha_ad happened to me, and this in turn would argue some power connecting caus_nd effect. Surely it was more likely that a brainless creature, acting solel_y vague predatory instinct, would give up the chase when I disappeared, and, after a pause of astonishment, would wander away in search of some other prey?
I clambered to the edge of the pit and looked over. The stars were fading, th_ky was whitening, and the cold wind of morning blew pleasantly upon my face.
I could see or hear nothing of my enemy. Slowly I climbed out and sat for _hile upon the ground, ready to spring back into my refuge if any dange_hould appear. Then, reassured by the absolute stillness and by the growin_ight, I took my courage in both hands and stole back along the path which _ad come. Some distance down it I picked up my gun, and shortly afterward_truck the brook which was my guide. So, with many a frightened backwar_lance, I made for home.
And suddenly there came something to remind me of my absent companions. In th_lear, still morning air there sounded far away the sharp, hard note of _ingle rifle-shot. I paused and listened, but there was nothing more. For _oment I was shocked at the thought that some sudden danger might hav_efallen them. But then a simpler and more natural explanation came to m_ind. It was now broad daylight. No doubt my absence had been noticed. The_ad imagined, that I was lost in the woods, and had fired this shot to guid_e home. It is true that we had made a strict resolution against firing, bu_f it seemed to them that I might be in danger they would not hesitate. It wa_or me now to hurry on as fast as possible, and so to reassure them.
I was weary and spent, so my progress was not so fast as I wished; but at las_ came into regions which I knew. There was the swamp of the pterodactyls upo_y left; there in front of me was the glade of the iguanodons. Now I was i_he last belt of trees which separated me from Fort Challenger. I raised m_oice in a cheery shout to allay their fears. No answering greeting came bac_o me. My heart sank at that ominous stillness. I quickened my pace into _un. The zareba rose before me, even as I had left it, but the gate was open.
I rushed in. In the cold, morning light it was a fearful sight which met m_yes. Our effects were scattered in wild confusion over the ground; m_omrades had disappeared, and close to the smouldering ashes of our fire th_rass was stained crimson with a hideous pool of blood.
I was so stunned by this sudden shock that for a time I must have nearly los_y reason. I have a vague recollection, as one remembers a bad dream, o_ushing about through the woods all round the empty camp, calling wildly fo_y companions. No answer came back from the silent shadows. The horribl_hought that I might never see them again, that I might find myself abandone_ll alone in that dreadful place, with no possible way of descending into th_orld below, that I might live and die in that nightmare country, drove me t_esperation. I could have torn my hair and beaten my head in my despair. Onl_ow did I realize how I had learned to lean upon my companions, upon th_erene self-confidence of Challenger, and upon the masterful, humorou_oolness of Lord John Roxton. Without them I was like a child in the dark, helpless and powerless. I did not know which way to turn or what I should d_irst.
After a period, during which I sat in bewilderment, I set myself to try an_iscover what sudden misfortune could have befallen my companions. The whol_isordered appearance of the camp showed that there had been some sort o_ttack, and the rifle- shot no doubt marked the time when it had occurred.
That there should have been only one shot showed that it had been all over i_n instant. The rifles still lay upon the ground, and one of them—Lor_ohn's—had the empty cartridge in the breech. The blankets of Challenger an_f Summerlee beside the fire suggested that they had been asleep at the time.
The cases of ammunition and of food were scattered about in a wild litter, together with our unfortunate cameras and plate-carriers, but none of the_ere missing. On the other hand, all the exposed provisions—and I remembere_hat there were a considerable quantity of them—were gone. They were animals, then, and not natives, who had made the inroad, for surely the latter woul_ave left nothing behind.
But if animals, or some single terrible animal, then what had become of m_omrades? A ferocious beast would surely have destroyed them and left thei_emains. It is true that there was that one hideous pool of blood, which tol_f violence. Such a monster as had pursued me during the night could hav_arried away a victim as easily as a cat would a mouse. In that case th_thers would have followed in pursuit. But then they would assuredly hav_aken their rifles with them. The more I tried to think it out with m_onfused and weary brain the less could I find any plausible explanation. _earched round in the forest, but could see no tracks which could help me to _onclusion. Once I lost myself, and it was only by good luck, and after a_our of wandering, that I found the camp once more.
Suddenly a thought came to me and brought some little comfort to my heart. _as not absolutely alone in the world. Down at the bottom of the cliff, an_ithin call of me, was waiting the faithful Zambo. I went to the edge of th_lateau and looked over. Sure enough, he was squatting among his blanket_eside his fire in his little camp. But, to my amazement, a second man wa_eated in front of him. For an instant my heart leaped for joy, as I though_hat one of my comrades had made his way safely down. But a second glanc_ispelled the hope. The rising sun shone red upon the man's skin. He was a_ndian. I shouted loudly and waved my handkerchief. Presently Zambo looked up, waved his hand, and turned to ascend the pinnacle. In a short time he wa_tanding close to me and listening with deep distress to the story which _old him.
"Devil got them for sure, Massa Malone," said he. "You got into the devil'_ountry, sah, and he take you all to himself. You take advice, Massa Malone, and come down quick, else he get you as well."
"How can I come down, Zambo?"
"You get creepers from trees, Massa Malone. Throw them over here. I make fas_o this stump, and so you have bridge."
"We thought of that. There are no creepers here which could bear us."
"Send for ropes, Massa Malone."
"Who can I send, and where?"
"Send to Indian villages, sah. Plenty hide rope in Indian village. Indian dow_elow; send him."
"Who is he?
"One of our Indians. Other ones beat him and take away his pay. He come bac_o us. Ready now to take letter, bring rope,—anything."
To take a letter! Why not? Perhaps he might bring help; but in any case h_ould ensure that our lives were not spent for nothing, and that news of al_hat we had won for Science should reach our friends at home. I had tw_ompleted letters already waiting. I would spend the day in writing a third, which would bring my experiences absolutely up to date. The Indian could bea_his back to the world. I ordered Zambo, therefore, to come again in th_vening, and I spent my miserable and lonely day in recording my ow_dventures of the night before. I also drew up a note, to be given to an_hite merchant or captain of a steam-boat whom the Indian could find, imploring them to see that ropes were sent to us, since our lives must depen_pon it. These documents I threw to Zambo in the evening, and also my purse, which contained three English sovereigns. These were to be given to th_ndian, and he was promised twice as much if he returned with the ropes.
So now you will understand, my dear Mr. McArdle, how this communicatio_eaches you, and you will also know the truth, in case you never hear agai_rom your unfortunate correspondent. To-night I am too weary and too depresse_o make my plans. To-morrow I must think out some way by which I shall keep i_ouch with this camp, and yet search round for any traces of my unhapp_riends.