"So long as there was another ship upon the Atlantic."
Challenger waved him away with his great hairy hand.
"Your common sense will, I am sure, sustain my objection and realize that it was better that I should direct my own movements and appear only at the exact moment when my presence was needed.
That moment has now arrived.
You are in safe hands.
You will not now fail to reach your destination.
From henceforth I take command of this expedition, and I must ask you to complete your preparations to-night, so that we may be able to make an early start in the morning.
My time is of value, and the same thing may be said, no doubt, in a lesser degree of your own.
I propose, therefore, that we push on as rapidly as possible, until I have demonstrated what you have come to see."
Lord John Roxton has chartered a large steam launch, the Esmeralda, which was to carry us up the river.
So far as climate goes, it was immaterial what time we chose for our expedition, as the temperature ranges from seventy-five to ninety degrees both summer and winter, with no appreciable difference in heat.
In moisture, however, it is otherwise; from December to May is the period of the rains, and during this time the river slowly rises until it attains a height of nearly forty feet above its low-water mark.
It floods the banks, extends in great lagoons over a monstrous waste of country, and forms a huge district, called locally the Gapo, which is for the most part too marshy for foot-travel and too shallow for boating.
About June the waters begin to fall, and are at their lowest at October or November.
Thus our expedition was at the time of the dry season, when the great river and its tributaries were more or less in a normal condition.
The current of the river is a slight one, the drop being not greater than eight inches in a mile.
No stream could be more convenient for navigation, since the prevailing wind is south-east, and sailing boats may make a continuous progress to the Peruvian frontier, dropping down again with the current.
In our own case the excellent engines of the Esmeralda could disregard the sluggish flow of the stream, and we made as rapid progress as if we were navigating a stagnant lake.
For three days we steamed north-westwards up a stream which even here, a thousand miles from its mouth, was still so enormous that from its center the two banks were mere shadows upon the distant skyline.
On the fourth day after leaving Manaos we turned into a tributary which at its mouth was little smaller than the main stream.
It narrowed rapidly, however, and after two more days' steaming we reached an Indian village, where the Professor insisted that we should land, and that the Esmeralda should be sent back to Manaos.
We should soon come upon rapids, he explained, which would make its further use impossible.
He added privately that we were now approaching the door of the unknown country, and that the fewer whom we took into our confidence the better it would be.
To this end also he made each of us give our word of honor that we would publish or say nothing which would give any exact clue as to the whereabouts of our travels, while the servants were all solemnly sworn to the same effect.
It is for this reason that I am compelled to be vague in my narrative, and I would warn my readers that in any map or diagram which I may give the relation of places to each other may be correct, but the points of the compass are carefully confused, so that in no way can it be taken as an actual guide to the country.
Professor Challenger's reasons for secrecy may be valid or not, but we had no choice but to adopt them, for he was prepared to abandon the whole expedition rather than modify the conditions upon which he would guide us.
It was August 2nd when we snapped our last link with the outer world by bidding farewell to the Esmeralda.
Since then four days have passed, during which we have engaged two large canoes from the Indians, made of so light a material (skins over a bamboo framework) that we should be able to carry them round any obstacle.
These we have loaded with all our effects, and have engaged two additional Indians to help us in the navigation. I understand that they are the very two—Ataca and Ipetu by name—who accompanied Professor Challenger upon his previous journey.
They appeared to be terrified at the prospect of repeating it, but the chief has patriarchal powers in these countries, and if the bargain is good in his eyes the clansman has little choice in the matter.
So to-morrow we disappear into the unknown.
This account I am transmitting down the river by canoe, and it may be our last word to those who are interested in our fate.
I have, according to our arrangement, addressed it to you, my dear Mr. McArdle, and I leave it to your discretion to delete, alter, or do what you like with it.
From the assurance of Professor Challenger's manner—and in spite of the continued scepticism of Professor Summerlee—I have no doubt that our leader will make good his statement, and that we are really on the eve of some most remarkable experiences.
CHAPTER VIII "The Outlying Pickets of the New World"
Our friends at home may well rejoice with us, for we are at our goal, and up to a point, at least, we have shown that the statement of Professor Challenger can be verified.
We have not, it is true, ascended the plateau, but it lies before us, and even Professor Summerlee is in a more chastened mood.
Not that he will for an instant admit that his rival could be right, but he is less persistent in his incessant objections, and has sunk for the most part into an observant silence.
I must hark back, however, and continue my narrative from where I dropped it.
We are sending home one of our local Indians who is injured, and I am committing this letter to his charge, with considerable doubts in my mind as to whether it will ever come to hand.
When I wrote last we were about to leave the Indian village where we had been deposited by the Esmeralda.
I have to begin my report by bad news, for the first serious personal trouble (I pass over the incessant bickerings between the Professors) occurred this evening, and might have had a tragic ending.
I have spoken of our English-speaking half-breed, Gomez—a fine worker and a willing fellow, but afflicted, I fancy, with the vice of curiosity, which is common enough among such men.
On the last evening he seems to have hid himself near the hut in which we were discussing our plans, and, being observed by our huge negro Zambo, who is as faithful as a dog and has the hatred which all his race bear to the half-breeds, he was dragged out and carried into our presence.
Gomez whipped out his knife, however, and but for the huge strength of his captor, which enabled him to disarm him with one hand, he would certainly have stabbed him.
The matter has ended in reprimands, the opponents have been compelled to shake hands, and there is every hope that all will be well.
As to the feuds of the two learned men, they are continuous and bitter.
It must be admitted that Challenger is provocative in the last degree, but Summerlee has an acid tongue, which makes matters worse.
Last night Challenger said that he never cared to walk on the Thames Embankment and look up the river, as it was always sad to see one's own eventual goal.
He is convinced, of course, that he is destined for Westminster Abbey.