A dreadful thing has happened to us. Who could have foreseen it? I canno_oresee any end to our troubles. It may be that we are condemned to spend ou_hole lives in this strange, inaccessible place. I am still so confused that _an hardly think clearly of the facts of the present or of the chances of th_uture. To my astounded senses the one seems most terrible and the other a_lack as night.
No men have ever found themselves in a worse position; nor is there any use i_isclosing to you our exact geographical situation and asking our friends fo_ relief party. Even if they could send one, our fate will in all huma_robability be decided long before it could arrive in South America.
We are, in truth, as far from any human aid as if we were in the moon. If w_re to win through, it is only our own qualities which can save us. I have a_ompanions three remarkable men, men of great brain-power and of unshake_ourage. There lies our one and only hope. It is only when I look upon th_ntroubled faces of my comrades that I see some glimmer through the darkness.
Outwardly I trust that I appear as unconcerned as they. Inwardly I am fille_ith apprehension.
Let me give you, with as much detail as I can, the sequence of events whic_ave led us to this catastrophe.
When I finished my last letter I stated that we were within seven miles fro_n enormous line of ruddy cliffs, which encircled, beyond all doubt, th_lateau of which Professor Challenger spoke. Their height, as we approache_hem, seemed to me in some places to be greater than he had stated—running u_n parts to at least a thousand feet—and they were curiously striated, in _anner which is, I believe, characteristic of basaltic upheavals. Something o_he sort is to be seen in Salisbury Crags at Edinburgh. The summit showe_very sign of a luxuriant vegetation, with bushes near the edge, and farthe_ack many high trees. There was no indication of any life that we could see.
That night we pitched our camp immediately under the cliff—a most wild an_esolate spot. The crags above us were not merely perpendicular, but curve_utwards at the top, so that ascent was out of the question. Close to us wa_he high thin pinnacle of rock which I believe I mentioned earlier in thi_arrative. It is like a broad red church spire, the top of it being level wit_he plateau, but a great chasm gaping between. On the summit of it there gre_ne high tree. Both pinnacle and cliff were comparatively low—some five or si_undred feet, I should think.
"It was on that," said Professor Challenger, pointing to this tree, "that th_terodactyl was perched. I climbed half-way up the rock before I shot him. _m inclined to think that a good mountaineer like myself could ascend the roc_o the top, though he would, of course, be no nearer to the plateau when h_ad done so."
As Challenger spoke of his pterodactyl I glanced at Professor Summerlee, an_or the first time I seemed to see some signs of a dawning credulity an_epentance. There was no sneer upon his thin lips, but, on the contrary, _ray, drawn look of excitement and amazement. Challenger saw it, too, an_eveled in the first taste of victory.
"Of course," said he, with his clumsy and ponderous sarcasm, "Professo_ummerlee will understand that when I speak of a pterodactyl I mean _tork—only it is the kind of stork which has no feathers, a leathery skin, membranous wings, and teeth in its jaws." He grinned and blinked and bowe_ntil his colleague turned and walked away.
In the morning, after a frugal breakfast of coffee and manioc—we had to b_conomical of our stores—we held a council of war as to the best method o_scending to the plateau above us.
Challenger presided with a solemnity as if he were the Lord Chief Justice o_he Bench. Picture him seated upon a rock, his absurd boyish straw hat tilte_n the back of his head, his supercilious eyes dominating us from under hi_rooping lids, his great black beard wagging as he slowly defined our presen_ituation and our future movements.
Beneath him you might have seen the three of us—myself, sunburnt, young, an_igorous after our open-air tramp; Summerlee, solemn but still critical, behind his eternal pipe; Lord John, as keen as a razor-edge, with his supple, alert figure leaning upon his rifle, and his eager eyes fixed eagerly upon th_peaker. Behind us were grouped the two swarthy half-breeds and the littl_not of Indians, while in front and above us towered those huge, ruddy ribs o_ocks which kept us from our goal.
"I need not say," said our leader, "that on the occasion of my last visit _xhausted every means of climbing the cliff, and where I failed I do not thin_hat anyone else is likely to succeed, for I am something of a mountaineer. _ad none of the appliances of a rock-climber with me, but I have taken th_recaution to bring them now. With their aid I am positive I could climb tha_etached pinnacle to the summit; but so long as the main cliff overhangs, i_s vain to attempt ascending that. I was hurried upon my last visit by th_pproach of the rainy season and by the exhaustion of my supplies. Thes_onsiderations limited my time, and I can only claim that I have surveye_bout six miles of the cliff to the east of us, finding no possible way up.
What, then, shall we now do?"
"There seems to be only one reasonable course," said Professor Summerlee. "I_ou have explored the east, we should travel along the base of the cliff t_he west, and seek for a practicable point for our ascent."
"That's it," said Lord John. "The odds are that this plateau is of no grea_ize, and we shall travel round it until we either find an easy way up it, o_ome back to the point from which we started."
"I have already explained to our young friend here," said Challenger (he has _ay of alluding to me as if I were a school child ten years old), "that it i_uite impossible that there should be an easy way up anywhere, for the simpl_eason that if there were the summit would not be isolated, and thos_onditions would not obtain which have effected so singular an interferenc_ith the general laws of survival. Yet I admit that there may very well b_laces where an expert human climber may reach the summit, and yet a cumbrou_nd heavy animal be unable to descend. It is certain that there is a poin_here an ascent is possible."
"How do you know that, sir?" asked Summerlee, sharply.
"Because my predecessor, the American Maple White, actually made such a_scent. How otherwise could he have seen the monster which he sketched in hi_otebook?"
"There you reason somewhat ahead of the proved facts," said the stubbor_ummerlee. "I admit your plateau, because I have seen it; but I have not a_et satisfied myself that it contains any form of life whatever."
"What you admit, sir, or what you do not admit, is really of inconceivabl_mall importance. I am glad to perceive that the plateau itself has actuall_btruded itself upon your intelligence." He glanced up at it, and then, to ou_mazement, he sprang from his rock, and, seizing Summerlee by the neck, h_ilted his face into the air. "Now sir!" he shouted, hoarse with excitement.
"Do I help you to realize that the plateau contains some animal life?"
I have said that a thick fringe of green overhung the edge of the cliff. Ou_f this there had emerged a black, glistening object. As it came slowly fort_nd overhung the chasm, we saw that it was a very large snake with a peculia_lat, spade-like head. It wavered and quivered above us for a minute, th_orning sun gleaming upon its sleek, sinuous coils. Then it slowly dre_nwards and disappeared.
Summerlee had been so interested that he had stood unresisting whil_hallenger tilted his head into the air. Now he shook his colleague off an_ame back to his dignity.
"I should be glad, Professor Challenger," said he, "if you could see your wa_o make any remarks which may occur to you without seizing me by the chin.
Even the appearance of a very ordinary rock python does not appear to justif_uch a liberty."
"But there is life upon the plateau all the same," his colleague replied i_riumph. "And now, having demonstrated this important conclusion so that it i_lear to anyone, however prejudiced or obtuse, I am of opinion that we canno_o better than break up our camp and travel to westward until we find som_eans of ascent."
The ground at the foot of the cliff was rocky and broken so that the going wa_low and difficult. Suddenly we came, however, upon something which cheere_ur hearts. It was the site of an old encampment, with several empty Chicag_eat tins, a bottle labeled "Brandy," a broken tin-opener, and a quantity o_ther travelers' debris. A crumpled, disintegrated newspaper revealed itsel_s the Chicago Democrat, though the date had been obliterated.
"Not mine," said Challenger. "It must be Maple White's."
Lord John had been gazing curiously at a great tree-fern which overshadowe_he encampment. "I say, look at this," said he. "I believe it is meant for _ign-post."
A slip of hard wood had been nailed to the tree in such a way as to point t_he westward.
"Most certainly a sign-post," said Challenger. "What else? Finding himsel_pon a dangerous errand, our pioneer has left this sign so that any part_hich follows him may know the way he has taken. Perhaps we shall come upo_ome other indications as we proceed."
We did indeed, but they were of a terrible and most unexpected nature.
Immediately beneath the cliff there grew a considerable patch of high bamboo, like that which we had traversed in our journey. Many of these stems wer_wenty feet high, with sharp, strong tops, so that even as they stood the_ade formidable spears. We were passing along the edge of this cover when m_ye was caught by the gleam of something white within it. Thrusting in my hea_etween the stems, I found myself gazing at a fleshless skull. The whol_keleton was there, but the skull had detached itself and lay some feet neare_o the open.
With a few blows from the machetes of our Indians we cleared the spot and wer_ble to study the details of this old tragedy. Only a few shreds of clothe_ould still be distinguished, but there were the remains of boots upon th_ony feet, and it was very clear that the dead man was a European. A gol_atch by Hudson, of New York, and a chain which held a stylographic pen, la_mong the bones. There was also a silver cigarette-case, with "J. C., from A.
E. S.," upon the lid. The state of the metal seemed to show that th_atastrophe had occurred no great time before.
"Who can he be?" asked Lord John. "Poor devil! every bone in his body seems t_e broken."
"And the bamboo grows through his smashed ribs," said Summerlee. "It is _ast-growing plant, but it is surely inconceivable that this body could hav_een here while the canes grew to be twenty feet in length."
"As to the man's identity," said Professor Challenger, "I have no doub_hatever upon that point. As I made my way up the river before I reached yo_t the fazenda I instituted very particular inquiries about Maple White. A_ara they knew nothing. Fortunately, I had a definite clew, for there was _articular picture in his sketch-book which showed him taking lunch with _ertain ecclesiastic at Rosario. This priest I was able to find, and though h_roved a very argumentative fellow, who took it absurdly amiss that I shoul_oint out to him the corrosive effect which modern science must have upon hi_eliefs, he none the less gave me some positive information. Maple Whit_assed Rosario four years ago, or two years before I saw his dead body. He wa_ot alone at the time, but there was a friend, an American named James Colver, who remained in the boat and did not meet this ecclesiastic. I think, therefore, that there can be no doubt that we are now looking upon the remain_f this James Colver."
"Nor," said Lord John, "is there much doubt as to how he met his death. He ha_allen or been chucked from the top, and so been impaled. How else could h_ome by his broken bones, and how could he have been stuck through by thes_anes with their points so high above our heads?"
A hush came over us as we stood round these shattered remains and realized th_ruth of Lord John Roxton's words. The beetling head of the cliff projecte_ver the cane-brake. Undoubtedly he had fallen from above. But had he fallen?
Had it been an accident? Or—already ominous and terrible possibilities bega_o form round that unknown land.
We moved off in silence, and continued to coast round the line of cliffs, which were as even and unbroken as some of those monstrous Antarctic ice- fields which I have seen depicted as stretching from horizon to horizon an_owering high above the mast-heads of the exploring vessel.
In five miles we saw no rift or break. And then suddenly we perceive_omething which filled us with new hope. In a hollow of the rock, protecte_rom rain, there was drawn a rough arrow in chalk, pointing still to th_estwards.
"Maple White again," said Professor Challenger. "He had some presentiment tha_orthy footsteps would follow close behind him."
"He had chalk, then?"
"A box of colored chalks was among the effects I found in his knapsack. _emember that the white one was worn to a stump."
"That is certainly good evidence," said Summerlee. "We can only accept hi_uidance and follow on to the westward."
We had proceeded some five more miles when again we saw a white arrow upon th_ocks. It was at a point where the face of the cliff was for the first tim_plit into a narrow cleft. Inside the cleft was a second guidance mark, whic_ointed right up it with the tip somewhat elevated, as if the spot indicate_ere above the level of the ground.
It was a solemn place, for the walls were so gigantic and the slit of blue sk_o narrow and so obscured by a double fringe of verdure, that only a dim an_hadowy light penetrated to the bottom. We had had no food for many hours, an_ere very weary with the stony and irregular journey, but our nerves were to_trung to allow us to halt. We ordered the camp to be pitched, however, and, leaving the Indians to arrange it, we four, with the two half-breeds, proceeded up the narrow gorge.
It was not more than forty feet across at the mouth, but it rapidly close_ntil it ended in an acute angle, too straight and smooth for an ascent.
Certainly it was not this which our pioneer had attempted to indicate. We mad_ur way back—the whole gorge was not more than a quarter of a mile deep—an_hen suddenly the quick eyes of Lord John fell upon what we were seeking. Hig_p above our heads, amid the dark shadows, there was one circle of deepe_loom. Surely it could only be the opening of a cave.
The base of the cliff was heaped with loose stones at the spot, and it was no_ifficult to clamber up. When we reached it, all doubt was removed. Not onl_as it an opening into the rock, but on the side of it there was marked onc_gain the sign of the arrow. Here was the point, and this the means by whic_aple White and his ill-fated comrade had made their ascent.
We were too excited to return to the camp, but must make our first exploratio_t once. Lord John had an electric torch in his knapsack, and this had t_erve us as light. He advanced, throwing his little clear circlet of yello_adiance before him, while in single file we followed at his heels.
The cave had evidently been water-worn, the sides being smooth and the floo_overed with rounded stones. It was of such a size that a single man coul_ust fit through by stooping. For fifty yards it ran almost straight into th_ock, and then it ascended at an angle of forty-five. Presently this inclin_ecame even steeper, and we found ourselves climbing upon hands and knee_mong loose rubble which slid from beneath us. Suddenly an exclamation brok_rom Lord Roxton.
"It's blocked!" said he.
Clustering behind him we saw in the yellow field of light a wall of broke_asalt which extended to the ceiling.
"The roof has fallen in!"
In vain we dragged out some of the pieces. The only effect was that the large_nes became detached and threatened to roll down the gradient and crush us. I_as evident that the obstacle was far beyond any efforts which we could mak_o remove it. The road by which Maple White had ascended was no longe_vailable.
Too much cast down to speak, we stumbled down the dark tunnel and made our wa_ack to the camp.
One incident occurred, however, before we left the gorge, which is o_mportance in view of what came afterwards.
We had gathered in a little group at the bottom of the chasm, some forty fee_eneath the mouth of the cave, when a huge rock rolled suddenly downwards—an_hot past us with tremendous force. It was the narrowest escape for one or al_f us. We could not ourselves see whence the rock had come, but our half-bree_ervants, who were still at the opening of the cave, said that it had flow_ast them, and must therefore have fallen from the summit. Looking upwards, w_ould see no sign of movement above us amidst the green jungle which toppe_he cliff. There could be little doubt, however, that the stone was aimed a_s, so the incident surely pointed to humanity—and malevolent humanity—upo_he plateau.
We withdrew hurriedly from the chasm, our minds full of this new developmen_nd its bearing upon our plans. The situation was difficult enough before, bu_f the obstructions of Nature were increased by the deliberate opposition o_an, then our case was indeed a hopeless one. And yet, as we looked up at tha_eautiful fringe of verdure only a few hundreds of feet above our heads, ther_as not one of us who could conceive the idea of returning to London until w_ad explored it to its depths.
On discussing the situation, we determined that our best course was t_ontinue to coast round the plateau in the hope of finding some other means o_eaching the top. The line of cliffs, which had decreased considerably i_eight, had already begun to trend from west to north, and if we could tak_his as representing the arc of a circle, the whole circumference could not b_ery great. At the worst, then, we should be back in a few days at ou_tarting-point.
We made a march that day which totaled some two-and-twenty miles, without an_hange in our prospects. I may mention that our aneroid shows us that in th_ontinual incline which we have ascended since we abandoned our canoes we hav_isen to no less than three thousand feet above sea-level. Hence there is _onsiderable change both in the temperature and in the vegetation. We hav_haken off some of that horrible insect life which is the bane of tropica_ravel. A few palms still survive, and many tree-ferns, but the Amazonia_rees have been all left behind. It was pleasant to see the convolvulus, th_assion-flower, and the begonia, all reminding me of home, here among thes_nhospitable rocks. There was a red begonia just the same color as one that i_ept in a pot in the window of a certain villa in Streatham—but I am driftin_nto private reminiscence.
That night—I am still speaking of the first day of our circumnavigation of th_lateau—a great experience awaited us, and one which for ever set at rest an_oubt which we could have had as to the wonders so near us.
You will realize as you read it, my dear Mr. McArdle, and possibly for th_irst time that the paper has not sent me on a wild-goose chase, and tha_here is inconceivably fine copy waiting for the world whenever we have th_rofessor's leave to make use of it. I shall not dare to publish thes_rticles unless I can bring back my proofs to England, or I shall be hailed a_he journalistic Munchausen of all time. I have no doubt that you feel th_ame way yourself, and that you would not care to stake the whole credit o_he Gazette upon this adventure until we can meet the chorus of criticism an_cepticism which such articles must of necessity elicit. So this wonderfu_ncident, which would make such a headline for the old paper, must still wai_ts turn in the editorial drawer.
And yet it was all over in a flash, and there was no sequel to it, save in ou_wn convictions.
What occurred was this. Lord John had shot an ajouti—which is a small, pig- like animal—and, half of it having been given to the Indians, we were cookin_he other half upon our fire. There is a chill in the air after dark, and w_ad all drawn close to the blaze. The night was moonless, but there were som_tars, and one could see for a little distance across the plain. Well, suddenly out of the darkness, out of the night, there swooped something with _wish like an aeroplane. The whole group of us were covered for an instant b_ canopy of leathery wings, and I had a momentary vision of a long, snake-lik_eck, a fierce, red, greedy eye, and a great snapping beak, filled, to m_mazement, with little, gleaming teeth. The next instant it was gone—and s_as our dinner. A huge black shadow, twenty feet across, skimmed up into th_ir; for an instant the monster wings blotted out the stars, and then i_anished over the brow of the cliff above us. We all sat in amazed silenc_ound the fire, like the heroes of Virgil when the Harpies came down upo_hem. It was Summerlee who was the first to speak.
"Professor Challenger," said he, in a solemn voice, which quavered wit_motion, "I owe you an apology. Sir, I am very much in the wrong, and I be_hat you will forget what is past."
It was handsomely said, and the two men for the first time shook hands. S_uch we have gained by this clear vision of our first pterodactyl. It wa_orth a stolen supper to bring two such men together.
But if prehistoric life existed upon the plateau it was not superabundant, fo_e had no further glimpse of it during the next three days. During this tim_e traversed a barren and forbidding country, which alternated between ston_esert and desolate marshes full of many wild-fowl, upon the north and east o_he cliffs. From that direction the place is really inaccessible, and, were i_ot for a hardish ledge which runs at the very base of the precipice, w_hould have had to turn back. Many times we were up to our waists in the slim_nd blubber of an old, semi-tropical swamp. To make matters worse, the plac_eemed to be a favorite breeding-place of the Jaracaca snake, the mos_enomous and aggressive in South America. Again and again these horribl_reatures came writhing and springing towards us across the surface of thi_utrid bog, and it was only by keeping our shot-guns for ever ready that w_ould feel safe from them. One funnel-shaped depression in the morass, of _ivid green in color from some lichen which festered in it, will always remai_s a nightmare memory in my mind. It seems to have been a special nest o_hese vermins, and the slopes were alive with them, all writhing in ou_irection, for it is a peculiarity of the Jaracaca that he will always attac_an at first sight. There were too many for us to shoot, so we fairly took t_ur heels and ran until we were exhausted. I shall always remember as w_ooked back how far behind we could see the heads and necks of our horribl_ursuers rising and falling amid the reeds. Jaracaca Swamp we named it in th_ap which we are constructing.
The cliffs upon the farther side had lost their ruddy tint, being chocolate- brown in color; the vegetation was more scattered along the top of them, an_hey had sunk to three or four hundred feet in height, but in no place did w_ind any point where they could be ascended. If anything, they were mor_mpossible than at the first point where we had met them. Their absolut_teepness is indicated in the photograph which I took over the stony desert.
"Surely," said I, as we discussed the situation, "the rain must find its wa_own somehow. There are bound to be water-channels in the rocks."
"Our young friend has glimpses of lucidity," said Professor Challenger, patting me upon the shoulder.
"The rain must go somewhere," I repeated.
"He keeps a firm grip upon actuality. The only drawback is that we hav_onclusively proved by ocular demonstration that there are no water channel_own the rocks."
"Where, then, does it go?" I persisted.
"I think it may be fairly assumed that if it does not come outwards it mus_un inwards."
"Then there is a lake in the center."
"So I should suppose."
"It is more than likely that the lake may be an old crater," said Summerlee.
"The whole formation is, of course, highly volcanic. But, however that may be, I should expect to find the surface of the plateau slope inwards with _onsiderable sheet of water in the center, which may drain off, by som_ubterranean channel, into the marshes of the Jaracaca Swamp."
"Or evaporation might preserve an equilibrium," remarked Challenger, and th_wo learned men wandered off into one of their usual scientific arguments, which were as comprehensible as Chinese to the layman.
On the sixth day we completed our first circuit of the cliffs, and foun_urselves back at the first camp, beside the isolated pinnacle of rock. W_ere a disconsolate party, for nothing could have been more minute than ou_nvestigation, and it was absolutely certain that there was no single poin_here the most active human being could possibly hope to scale the cliff. Th_lace which Maple White's chalk-marks had indicated as his own means of acces_as now entirely impassable.
What were we to do now? Our stores of provisions, supplemented by our guns, were holding out well, but the day must come when they would nee_eplenishment. In a couple of months the rains might be expected, and w_hould be washed out of our camp. The rock was harder than marble, and an_ttempt at cutting a path for so great a height was more than our time o_esources would admit. No wonder that we looked gloomily at each other tha_ight, and sought our blankets with hardly a word exchanged. I remember tha_s I dropped off to sleep my last recollection was that Challenger wa_quatting, like a monstrous bull-frog, by the fire, his huge head in hi_ands, sunk apparently in the deepest thought, and entirely oblivious to th_ood-night which I wished him.
But it was a very different Challenger who greeted us in the morning—_hallenger with contentment and self-congratulation shining from his whol_erson. He faced us as we assembled for breakfast with a deprecating fals_odesty in his eyes, as who should say, "I know that I deserve all that yo_an say, but I pray you to spare my blushes by not saying it." His bear_ristled exultantly, his chest was thrown out, and his hand was thrust int_he front of his jacket. So, in his fancy, may he see himself sometimes, gracing the vacant pedestal in Trafalgar Square, and adding one more to th_orrors of the London streets.
"Eureka!" he cried, his teeth shining through his beard. "Gentlemen, you ma_ongratulate me and we may congratulate each other. The problem is solved."
"You have found a way up?"
"I venture to think so."
For answer he pointed to the spire-like pinnacle upon our right.
Our faces—or mine, at least—fell as we surveyed it. That it could be climbe_e had our companion's assurance. But a horrible abyss lay between it and th_lateau.
"We can never get across," I gasped.
"We can at least all reach the summit," said he. "When we are up I may be abl_o show you that the resources of an inventive mind are not yet exhausted."
After breakfast we unpacked the bundle in which our leader had brought hi_limbing accessories. From it he took a coil of the strongest and lightes_ope, a hundred and fifty feet in length, with climbing irons, clamps, an_ther devices. Lord John was an experienced mountaineer, and Summerlee ha_one some rough climbing at various times, so that I was really the novice a_ock-work of the party; but my strength and activity may have made up for m_ant of experience.
It was not in reality a very stiff task, though there were moments which mad_y hair bristle upon my head. The first half was perfectly easy, but fro_here upwards it became continually steeper until, for the last fifty feet, w_ere literally clinging with our fingers and toes to tiny ledges and crevice_n the rock. I could not have accomplished it, nor could Summerlee, i_hallenger had not gained the summit (it was extraordinary to see suc_ctivity in so unwieldy a creature) and there fixed the rope round the trun_f the considerable tree which grew there. With this as our support, we wer_oon able to scramble up the jagged wall until we found ourselves upon th_mall grassy platform, some twenty-five feet each way, which formed th_ummit.
The first impression which I received when I had recovered my breath was o_he extraordinary view over the country which we had traversed. The whol_razilian plain seemed to lie beneath us, extending away and away until i_nded in dim blue mists upon the farthest sky-line. In the foreground was th_ong slope, strewn with rocks and dotted with tree-ferns; farther off in th_iddle distance, looking over the saddle-back hill, I could just see th_ellow and green mass of bamboos through which we had passed; and then, gradually, the vegetation increased until it formed the huge forest whic_xtended as far as the eyes could reach, and for a good two thousand mile_eyond.
I was still drinking in this wonderful panorama when the heavy hand of th_rofessor fell upon my shoulder.
"This way, my young friend," said he; "vestigia nulla retrorsum. Never loo_earwards, but always to our glorious goal."
The level of the plateau, when I turned, was exactly that on which we stood, and the green bank of bushes, with occasional trees, was so near that it wa_ifficult to realize how inaccessible it remained. At a rough guess the gul_as forty feet across, but, so far as I could see, it might as well have bee_orty miles. I placed one arm round the trunk of the tree and leaned over th_byss. Far down were the small dark figures of our servants, looking up at us.
The wall was absolutely precipitous, as was that which faced me.
"This is indeed curious," said the creaking voice of Professor Summerlee.
I turned, and found that he was examining with great interest the tree t_hich I clung. That smooth bark and those small, ribbed leaves seemed familia_o my eyes. "Why," I cried, "it's a beech!"
"Exactly," said Summerlee. "A fellow-countryman in a far land."
"Not only a fellow-countryman, my good sir," said Challenger, "but also, if _ay be allowed to enlarge your simile, an ally of the first value. This beec_ree will be our saviour."
"By George!" cried Lord John, "a bridge!"
"Exactly, my friends, a bridge! It is not for nothing that I expended an hou_ast night in focusing my mind upon the situation. I have some recollection o_nce remarking to our young friend here that G. E. C. is at his best when hi_ack is to the wall. Last night you will admit that all our backs were to th_all. But where will-power and intellect go together, there is always a wa_ut. A drawbridge had to be found which could be dropped across the abyss.
It was certainly a brilliant idea. The tree was a good sixty feet in height, and if it only fell the right way it would easily cross the chasm. Challenge_ad slung the camp axe over his shoulder when he ascended. Now he handed it t_e.
"Our young friend has the thews and sinews," said he. "I think he will be th_ost useful at this task. I must beg, however, that you will kindly refrai_rom thinking for yourself, and that you will do exactly what you are told."
Under his direction I cut such gashes in the sides of the trees as woul_nsure that it should fall as we desired. It had already a strong, natura_ilt in the direction of the plateau, so that the matter was not difficult.
Finally I set to work in earnest upon the trunk, taking turn and turn wit_ord John. In a little over an hour there was a loud crack, the tree swaye_orward, and then crashed over, burying its branches among the bushes on th_arther side. The severed trunk rolled to the very edge of our platform, an_or one terrible second we all thought it was over. It balanced itself, however, a few inches from the edge, and there was our bridge to the unknown.
All of us, without a word, shook hands with Professor Challenger, who raise_is straw hat and bowed deeply to each in turn.
"I claim the honor," said he, "to be the first to cross to the unknown land—_itting subject, no doubt, for some future historical painting."
He had approached the bridge when Lord John laid his hand upon his coat.
"My dear chap," said he, "I really cannot allow it."
"Cannot allow it, sir!" The head went back and the beard forward.
"When it is a matter of science, don't you know, I follow your lead becaus_ou are by way of bein' a man of science. But it's up to you to follow me whe_ou come into my department."
"Your department, sir?"
"We all have our professions, and soldierin' is mine. We are, accordin' to m_deas, invadin' a new country, which may or may not be chock-full of enemie_f sorts. To barge blindly into it for want of a little common sense an_atience isn't my notion of management."
The remonstrance was too reasonable to be disregarded. Challenger tossed hi_ead and shrugged his heavy shoulders.
"Well, sir, what do you propose?"
"For all I know there may be a tribe of cannibals waitin' for lunch-time amon_hose very bushes," said Lord John, looking across the bridge. "It's better t_earn wisdom before you get into a cookin'-pot; so we will content ourselve_ith hopin' that there is no trouble waitin' for us, and at the same time w_ill act as if there were. Malone and I will go down again, therefore, and w_ill fetch up the four rifles, together with Gomez and the other. One man ca_hen go across and the rest will cover him with guns, until he sees that it i_afe for the whole crowd to come along."
Challenger sat down upon the cut stump and groaned his impatience; bu_ummerlee and I were of one mind that Lord John was our leader when suc_ractical details were in question. The climb was a more simple thing now tha_he rope dangled down the face of the worst part of the ascent. Within an hou_e had brought up the rifles and a shot-gun. The half-breeds had ascende_lso, and under Lord John's orders they had carried up a bale of provisions i_ase our first exploration should be a long one. We had each bandoliers o_artridges.
"Now, Challenger, if you really insist upon being the first man in," said Lor_ohn, when every preparation was complete.
"I am much indebted to you for your gracious permission," said the angr_rofessor; for never was a man so intolerant of every form of authority.
"Since you are good enough to allow it, I shall most certainly take it upo_yself to act as pioneer upon this occasion."
Seating himself with a leg overhanging the abyss on each side, and his hatche_lung upon his back, Challenger hopped his way across the trunk and was soo_t the other side. He clambered up and waved his arms in the air.
"At last!" he cried; "at last!"
I gazed anxiously at him, with a vague expectation that some terrible fat_ould dart at him from the curtain of green behind him. But all was quiet, save that a strange, many- colored bird flew up from under his feet an_anished among the trees.
Summerlee was the second. His wiry energy is wonderful in so frail a frame. H_nsisted upon having two rifles slung upon his back, so that both Professor_ere armed when he had made his transit. I came next, and tried hard not t_ook down into the horrible gulf over which I was passing. Summerlee held ou_he butt-end of his rifle, and an instant later I was able to grasp his hand.
As to Lord John, he walked across—actually walked without support! He mus_ave nerves of iron.
And there we were, the four of us, upon the dreamland, the lost world, o_aple White. To all of us it seemed the moment of our supreme triumph. Wh_ould have guessed that it was the prelude to our supreme disaster? Let me sa_n a few words how the crushing blow fell upon us.
We had turned away from the edge, and had penetrated about fifty yards o_lose brushwood, when there came a frightful rending crash from behind us.
With one impulse we rushed back the way that we had come. The bridge was gone!
Far down at the base of the cliff I saw, as I looked over, a tangled mass o_ranches and splintered trunk. It was our beech tree. Had the edge of th_latform crumbled and let it through? For a moment this explanation was in al_ur minds. The next, from the farther side of the rocky pinnacle before us _warthy face, the face of Gomez the half-breed, was slowly protruded. Yes, i_as Gomez, but no longer the Gomez of the demure smile and the mask-lik_xpression. Here was a face with flashing eyes and distorted features, a fac_onvulsed with hatred and with the mad joy of gratified revenge.
"Lord Roxton!" he shouted. "Lord John Roxton!"
"Well," said our companion, "here I am."
A shriek of laughter came across the abyss.
"Yes, there you are, you English dog, and there you will remain! I have waite_nd waited, and now has come my chance. You found it hard to get up; you wil_ind it harder to get down. You cursed fools, you are trapped, every one o_ou!"
We were too astounded to speak. We could only stand there staring i_mazement. A great broken bough upon the grass showed whence he had gained hi_everage to tilt over our bridge. The face had vanished, but presently it wa_p again, more frantic than before.
"We nearly killed you with a stone at the cave," he cried; "but this i_etter. It is slower and more terrible. Your bones will whiten up there, an_one will know where you lie or come to cover them. As you lie dying, think o_opez, whom you shot five years ago on the Putomayo River. I am his brother, and, come what will I will die happy now, for his memory has been avenged." _urious hand was shaken at us, and then all was quiet.
Had the half-breed simply wrought his vengeance and then escaped, all migh_ave been well with him. It was that foolish, irresistible Latin impulse to b_ramatic which brought his own downfall. Roxton, the man who had earne_imself the name of the Flail of the Lord through three countries, was not on_ho could be safely taunted. The half-breed was descending on the farther sid_f the pinnacle; but before he could reach the ground Lord John had run alon_he edge of the plateau and gained a point from which he could see his man.
There was a single crack of his rifle, and, though we saw nothing, we hear_he scream and then the distant thud of the falling body. Roxton came back t_s with a face of granite.
"I have been a blind simpleton," said he, bitterly, "It's my folly that ha_rought you all into this trouble. I should have remembered that these peopl_ave long memories for blood-feuds, and have been more upon my guard."
"What about the other one? It took two of them to lever that tree over th_dge."
"I could have shot him, but I let him go. He may have had no part in it.
Perhaps it would have been better if I had killed him, for he must, as yo_ay, have lent a hand."
Now that we had the clue to his action, each of us could cast back an_emember some sinister act upon the part of the half-breed—his constant desir_o know our plans, his arrest outside our tent when he was over-hearing them, the furtive looks of hatred which from time to time one or other of us ha_urprised. We were still discussing it, endeavoring to adjust our minds t_hese new conditions, when a singular scene in the plain below arrested ou_ttention.
A man in white clothes, who could only be the surviving half- breed, wa_unning as one does run when Death is the pacemaker. Behind him, only a fe_ards in his rear, bounded the huge ebony figure of Zambo, our devoted negro.
Even as we looked, he sprang upon the back of the fugitive and flung his arm_ound his neck. They rolled on the ground together. An instant afterward_ambo rose, looked at the prostrate man, and then, waving his hand joyously t_s, came running in our direction. The white figure lay motionless in th_iddle of the great plain.
Our two traitors had been destroyed, but the mischief that they had done live_fter them. By no possible means could we get back to the pinnacle. We ha_een natives of the world; now we were natives of the plateau. The two thing_ere separate and apart. There was the plain which led to the canoes. Yonder, beyond the violet, hazy horizon, was the stream which led back t_ivilization. But the link between was missing. No human ingenuity coul_uggest a means of bridging the chasm which yawned between ourselves and ou_ast lives. One instant had altered the whole conditions of our existence.
It was at such a moment that I learned the stuff of which my three comrade_ere composed. They were grave, it is true, and thoughtful, but of a_nvincible serenity. For the moment we could only sit among the bushes i_atience and wait the coming of Zambo. Presently his honest black face toppe_he rocks and his Herculean figure emerged upon the top of the pinnacle.
"What I do now?" he cried. "You tell me and I do it."
It was a question which it was easier to ask than to answer. One thing onl_as clear. He was our one trusty link with the outside world. On no accoun_ust he leave us.
"No no!" he cried. "I not leave you. Whatever come, you always find me here.
But no able to keep Indians. Already they say too much Curupuri live on thi_lace, and they go home. Now you leave them me no able to keep them."
It was a fact that our Indians had shown in many ways of late that they wer_eary of their journey and anxious to return. We realized that Zambo spoke th_ruth, and that it would be impossible for him to keep them.
"Make them wait till to-morrow, Zambo," I shouted; "then I can send lette_ack by them."
"Very good, sarr! I promise they wait till to-morrow, said the negro. "Bu_hat I do for you now?"
There was plenty for him to do, and admirably the faithful fellow did it.
First of all, under our directions, he undid the rope from the tree-stump an_hrew one end of it across to us. It was not thicker than a clothes-line, bu_t was of great strength, and though we could not make a bridge of it, w_ight well find it invaluable if we had any climbing to do. He then fastene_is end of the rope to the package of supplies which had been carried up, an_e were able to drag it across. This gave us the means of life for at least _eek, even if we found nothing else. Finally he descended and carried up tw_ther packets of mixed goods—a box of ammunition and a number of other things, all of which we got across by throwing our rope to him and hauling it back. I_as evening when he at last climbed down, with a final assurance that he woul_eep the Indians till next morning.
And so it is that I have spent nearly the whole of this our first night upo_he plateau writing up our experiences by the light of a single candle- lantern.
We supped and camped at the very edge of the cliff, quenching our thirst wit_wo bottles of Apollinaris which were in one of the cases. It is vital to u_o find water, but I think even Lord John himself had had adventures enoug_or one day, and none of us felt inclined to make the first push into th_nknown. We forbore to light a fire or to make any unnecessary sound.
To-morrow (or to-day, rather, for it is already dawn as I write) we shall mak_ur first venture into this strange land. When I shall be able to writ_gain—or if I ever shall write again—I know not. Meanwhile, I can see that th_ndians are still in their place, and I am sure that the faithful Zambo wil_e here presently to get my letter. I only trust that it will come to hand.
P.S.—The more I think the more desperate does our position seem. I see n_ossible hope of our return. If there were a high tree near the edge of th_lateau we might drop a return bridge across, but there is none within fift_ards. Our united strength could not carry a trunk which would serve ou_urpose. The rope, of course, is far too short that we could descend by it.