The Lost World
Pages: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 Next page
of verdure, that only a dim and shadowy light penetrated to
the bottom. We had had no food for many hours, and were very
weary with the stony and irregular journey, but our nerves were
too strung 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 closed until 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 made our way back--the
whole gorge was not more than a quarter of a mile deep--and
then suddenly the quick eyes of Lord John fell upon what we
were seeking. High up above our heads, amid the dark shadows,
there was one circle of deeper gloom. 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 not difficult to clamber up. When we reached it, all
doubt was removed. Not only was it an opening into the rock, but
on the side of it there was marked once again the sign of the arrow.
Here was the point, and this the means by which Maple White and his
ill-fated comrade had made their ascent.
We were too excited to return to the camp, but must make our
first exploration at once. Lord John had an electric torch in
his knapsack, and this had to serve us as light. He advanced,
throwing his little clear circlet of yellow radiance before him,
while in single file we followed at his heels.
The cave had evidently been water-worn, the sides being smooth
and the floor covered with rounded stones. It was of such a size
that a single man could just fit through by stooping. For fifty
yards it ran almost straight into the rock, and then it ascended
at an angle of forty-five. Presently this incline became even
steeper, and we found ourselves climbing upon hands and knees
among loose rubble which slid from beneath us. Suddenly an
exclamation broke from Lord Roxton.
"It's blocked!" said he.
Clustering behind him we saw in the yellow field of light a wall
of broken basalt 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 larger ones became detached and threatened to roll down
the gradient and crush us. It was evident that the obstacle was
far beyond any efforts which we could make to remove it. The road
by which Maple White had ascended was no longer available.
Too much cast down to speak, we stumbled down the dark tunnel and
made our way back to the camp.
One incident occurred, however, before we left the gorge, which
is of importance in view of what came afterwards.
We had gathered in a little group at the bottom of the chasm,
some forty feet beneath the mouth of the cave, when a huge rock
rolled suddenly downwards--and shot past us with tremendous force.
It was the narrowest escape for one or all of us. We could not
ourselves see whence the rock had come, but our half-breed
servants, who were still at the opening of the cave, said that
it had flown past them, and must therefore have fallen from
the summit. Looking upwards, we could see no sign of movement
above us amidst the green jungle which topped the cliff.
There could be little doubt, however, that the stone was aimed
at us, so the incident surely pointed to humanity--and malevolent
humanity--upon the plateau.
We withdrew hurriedly from the chasm, our minds full of this new
development and its bearing upon our plans. The situation was
difficult enough before, but if the obstructions of Nature were
increased by the deliberate opposition of man, then our case was
indeed a hopeless one. And yet, as we looked up at that
beautiful fringe of verdure only a few hundreds of feet above
our heads, there was not one of us who could conceive the idea
of returning to London until we had explored it to its depths.
On discussing the situation, we determined that our best course
was to continue to coast round the plateau in the hope of finding
some other means of reaching the top. The line of cliffs, which
had decreased considerably in height, had already begun to trend
from west to north, and if we could take this as representing the
arc of a circle, the whole circumference could not be very great.
At the worst, then, we should be back in a few days at our
We made a march that day which totaled some two-and-twenty miles,
without any change in our prospects. I may mention that our
aneroid shows us that in the continual incline which we have
ascended since we abandoned our canoes we have risen to no less
than three thousand feet above sea-level. Hence there is a
considerable change both in the temperature and in the vegetation.
We have shaken off some of that horrible insect life which is
the bane of tropical travel. A few palms still survive, and many
tree-ferns, but the Amazonian trees have been all left behind.
It was pleasant to see the convolvulus, the passion-flower, and
the begonia, all reminding me of home, here among these
inhospitable rocks. There was a red begonia just the same color
as one that is kept in a pot in the window of a certain villa
in Streatham--but I am drifting into private reminiscence.
That night--I am still speaking of the first day of our
circumnavigation of the plateau--a great experience awaited us,
and one which for ever set at rest any doubt 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 the first time that the paper has not sent me on a
wild-goose chase, and that there is inconceivably fine copy
waiting for the world whenever we have the Professor's leave to
make use of it. I shall not dare to publish these articles
unless I can bring back my proofs to England, or I shall be
hailed as the journalistic Munchausen of all time. I have no
doubt that you feel the same way yourself, and that you would not
care to stake the whole credit of the Gazette upon this adventure
until we can meet the chorus of criticism and scepticism which
such articles must of necessity elicit. So this wonderful
incident, which would make such a headline for the old paper,
must still wait its turn in the editorial drawer.
And yet it was all over in a flash, and there was no sequel to it,
save in our own 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 cooking the other half upon our fire. There is
a chill in the air after dark, and we had all drawn close to
the blaze. The night was moonless, but there were some stars,
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 a swish like an aeroplane. The whole group of us
were covered for an instant by a canopy of leathery wings, and I
had a momentary vision of a long, snake-like neck, a fierce, red,
greedy eye, and a great snapping beak, filled, to my amazement,
with little, gleaming teeth. The next instant it was gone--and
so was our dinner. A huge black shadow, twenty feet across,
skimmed up into the air; for an instant the monster wings blotted
out the stars, and then it vanished over the brow of the cliff
above us. We all sat in amazed silence round the fire, like the
heroes of Virgil when the Harpies came down upon them. It was
Summerlee who was the first to speak.
"Professor Challenger," said he, in a solemn voice, which
quavered with emotion, "I owe you an apology. Sir, I am very
much in the wrong, and I beg that you will forget what is past."
It was handsomely said, and the two men for the first time shook hands.
So much we have gained by this clear vision of our first pterodactyl.
It was worth a stolen supper to bring two such men together.
But if prehistoric life existed upon the plateau it was not
superabundant, for we had no further glimpse of it during the
next three days. During this time we traversed a barren and
forbidding country, which alternated between stony desert and
desolate marshes full of many wild-fowl, upon the north and
east of the cliffs. From that direction the place is really
inaccessible, and, were it not for a hardish ledge which runs at
the very base of the precipice, we should have had to turn back.
Many times we were up to our waists in the slime and blubber of
an old, semi-tropical swamp. To make matters worse, the place
seemed to be a favorite breeding-place of the Jaracaca snake, the
most venomous and aggressive in South America. Again and again
these horrible creatures came writhing and springing towards us
across the surface of this putrid bog, and it was only by keeping
our shot-guns for ever ready that we could feel safe from them.
One funnel-shaped depression in the morass, of a livid green in
color from some lichen which festered in it, will always remain
as a nightmare memory in my mind. It seems to have been a
special nest of these vermins, and the slopes were alive with
them, all writhing in our direction, for it is a peculiarity
of the Jaracaca that he will always attack man at first sight.
There were too many for us to shoot, so we fairly took to our
heels and ran until we were exhausted. I shall always remember
as we looked back how far behind we could see the heads and necks
of our horrible pursuers rising and falling amid the reeds.
Jaracaca Swamp we named it in the map 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, and they had sunk to three or four hundred feet
in height, but in no place did we find any point where they could
be ascended. If anything, they were more impossible than at the
first point where we had met them. Their absolute steepness 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 way down 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 have conclusively proved by ocular demonstration that there
are no water channels down the rocks."