The Lost World
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Alas! for the 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 to the most dreadful experience
of my life, ending with a shock which turns my heart sick when I
think of it.
It came about in this way. I had been unduly excited by the
adventure of the tree, and sleep seemed to be impossible.
Summerlee was on guard, sitting hunched over our small fire,
a quaint, angular figure, his rifle across his knees and his
pointed, goat-like beard wagging with each weary nod of his head.
Lord John lay silent, wrapped in the South American poncho which
he wore, while Challenger snored with a roll and rattle which
reverberated through the woods. The full moon was shining
brightly, and the air was crisply cold. 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 in that case be thought an even more worthy associate?
Then, if Summerlee carried the day and some means of escape were
found, we should return to London with first-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
are heroisms all round us." I seemed to hear her voice as she
said it. I thought also of McArdle. What a three column article
for the paper! What a foundation for a career! A correspondentship
in the next great war might be within my reach. I clutched at a
gun--my pockets were full of cartridges--and, parting the thorn
bushes at the gate of our zareba, quickly slipped out. My last
glance showed me the unconscious Summerlee, most futile of
sentinels, still nodding away 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 may have said somewhere in this chronicle that I am too
imaginative to be a really courageous man, but that I have an
overpowering fear of seeming afraid. This was the power which
now carried me onwards. I simply could not slink back with
nothing done. Even if my comrades should not have missed me, and
should never know of my weakness, there would still remain some
intolerable self-shame in my own soul. And yet I shuddered at
the position in which I found myself, and would have given all I
possessed at that moment to have been honorably free of the
It was dreadful in the forest. The trees grew so thickly and
their foliage spread so widely that I could see nothing of the
moon-light save that here and there the high branches made a
tangled filigree against the starry sky. As the eyes became more
used to the obscurity one learned that there were different
degrees of darkness among the trees--that some were dimly
visible, while between and among them there were coal-black
shadowed patches, like the mouths of caves, from which I shrank
in horror as I passed. I thought of the despairing yell of the
tortured iguanodon--that dreadful cry which had echoed through
the woods. I thought, too, of the glimpse I had in the light of
Lord John's torch of that bloated, warty, blood-slavering muzzle.
Even now I was on its hunting-ground. At any instant it might
spring upon me from the shadows--this nameless and horrible monster.
I stopped, and, picking a cartridge from my pocket, I opened the
breech of my gun. As I touched the lever my heart leaped within me.
It was the shot-gun, not the rifle, which I had taken!
Again the impulse to return swept over me. Here, surely, was a
most excellent reason for my failure--one for which no one would
think the less of me. But again the foolish pride fought against
that very word. I could not--must not--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 to
change my weapon I could hardly expect to enter and to leave
again without being seen. In that case there would be
explanations, and my attempt would no longer be all my own.
After a little hesitation, then, I screwed up my courage and
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 the bushes, I looked out at it. None of
the great brutes were in sight. Perhaps the 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 jungle on the farther side I picked up once again the brook
which was my guide. It was a cheery companion, gurgling and
chuckling as it ran, like the dear old trout-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 I
followed it back I must come to the camp. Often I had to lose
sight of it on account of the tangled brush-wood, but I was always
within earshot of its tinkle and splash.
As one descended the slope the woods became thinner, and bushes,
with occasional high trees, took the place of the forest.
I could make good progress, therefore, and I could see without
being seen. I passed close to the pterodactyl swamp, and as I
did so, with a dry, crisp, leathery rattle of wings, one of
these great creatures--it was twenty feet at least from tip to
tip--rose up from somewhere near me and soared into the air.
As it passed across the face of the moon the light shone clearly
through the membranous wings, and it looked like a flying
skeleton against the white, tropical radiance. I crouched low
among the bushes, for I knew from past experience that with a
single cry the creature could bring a hundred of its loathsome
mates about my ears. It was not until it had settled again that
I dared to steal onwards upon my journey.
The night had been exceedingly still, but as I advanced I became
conscious of a low, rumbling sound, a continuous murmur,
somewhere in front of me. This grew 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 some
stationary cause. It was like a boiling kettle or the bubbling
of some great pot. Soon I came upon the source of it, for in the
center of a small clearing I found a lake--or a pool, rather,
for it was not larger than the basin of the Trafalgar Square
fountain--of some black, pitch-like stuff, the surface of which
rose and fell in great blisters of bursting gas. The air above
it was shimmering with heat, and the ground round was so hot that
I could hardly bear to lay my hand on it. It was clear that the
great volcanic outburst which had raised this strange plateau so
many years ago had not yet entirely spent its forces. Blackened rocks
and mounds of lava I had already seen everywhere peeping out from
amid the luxuriant vegetation which draped them, but this asphalt
pool in the jungle was the first sign that we had of actual
existing activity on the slopes of the ancient crater. I had no
time to examine it further 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 the margin. In the jungle I crept forward,
stopping with a beating heart whenever I heard, as I often did,
the crash of breaking branches as some wild beast went past.
Now and then great shadows loomed up for an instant and were
gone--great, silent shadows which seemed to prowl upon padded feet.
How often I stopped with the intention of returning, and yet every
time my pride conquered my 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 of water amid the openings of the jungle, and ten
minutes later I was among the reeds upon the borders of the
central lake. I was exceedingly dry, so I lay down and took a
long draught of its waters, which were fresh and cold. There was
a broad pathway with many tracks upon it at the spot which I had
found, so that it was clearly one of the drinking-places of
the animals. Close to the water'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 the view from the summit of the great tree, I said that
on the farther cliff I could 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 every direction, ruddy,
clearly-defined patches, like the port-holes of a liner in
the darkness. For a moment I thought it was the lava-glow from
some volcanic action; but this could not be so. Any volcanic action
would surely be down in the hollow and not high among the rocks.
What, then, was the alternative? It was wonderful, and yet it
must surely be. These ruddy spots must be the reflection of
fires within the caves--fires which could only be lit by the
hand of man. There were human beings, then, upon the plateau.
How gloriously my expedition was justified! Here was news indeed
for us to bear back with us to London!
For a long time I lay and watched these red, quivering blotches
of light. I suppose they were ten miles off from me, yet even
at that distance one could observe how, from time to time, they
twinkled or were obscured as someone passed before them. What would
I not have given to be able to crawl up to them, to peep in, and
to take back some word to my comrades as to the appearance and
character of the race who lived in so strange a place! It was
out of the question for the moment, and yet surely we could not
leave the plateau until we had some definite knowledge upon the point.
Lake Gladys--my own lake--lay like a sheet of quicksilver before
me, with a reflected moon shining brightly in the center of it.
It was shallow, for in many places I saw low sandbanks protruding
above the water. Everywhere upon the still surface I could see
signs of life, sometimes mere rings and ripples in 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 a yellow sandbank I saw a creature like a huge swan,
with a clumsy body and a high, 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 over the water.
Then it dived, and I saw it no more.
My attention was soon drawn away from these distant sights and
brought back to what was going on at my very feet. Two creatures
like large armadillos had come 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 they lapped.
A huge deer, with branching horns, a magnificent creature which
carried itself like a king, came down with its doe and two fawns
and drank beside the armadillos. No such deer exist anywhere
else upon earth, for the moose 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 the reeds, while the