Outwardly I trust that I appear as unconcerned as they.
Inwardly I am filled with apprehension.
Let me give you, with as much detail as I can, the sequence of events which have led us to this catastrophe.
When I finished my last letter I stated that we were within seven miles from an enormous line of ruddy cliffs, which encircled, beyond all doubt, the plateau of which Professor Challenger spoke.
Their height, as we approached them, seemed to me in some places to be greater than he had stated—running up in parts to at least a thousand feet—and they were curiously striated, in a manner which is, I believe, characteristic of basaltic upheavals.
Something of the sort is to be seen in Salisbury Crags at Edinburgh.
The summit showed every sign of a luxuriant vegetation, with bushes near the edge, and farther back 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 and desolate spot.
The crags above us were not merely perpendicular, but curved outwards at the top, so that ascent was out of the question.
Close to us was the high thin pinnacle of rock which I believe I mentioned earlier in this narrative.
It is like a broad red church spire, the top of it being level with the plateau, but a great chasm gaping between.
On the summit of it there grew one high tree.
Both pinnacle and cliff were comparatively low—some five or six hundred feet, I should think.
"It was on that," said Professor Challenger, pointing to this tree, "that the pterodactyl was perched.
I climbed half-way up the rock before I shot him.
I am inclined to think that a good mountaineer like myself could ascend the rock to the top, though he would, of course, be no nearer to the plateau when he had done so."
As Challenger spoke of his pterodactyl I glanced at Professor Summerlee, and for the first time I seemed to see some signs of a dawning credulity and repentance.
There was no sneer upon his thin lips, but, on the contrary, a gray, drawn look of excitement and amazement.
Challenger saw it, too, and reveled in the first taste of victory.
"Of course," said he, with his clumsy and ponderous sarcasm, "Professor Summerlee will understand that when I speak of a pterodactyl I mean a stork—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 bowed until his colleague turned and walked away.
In the morning, after a frugal breakfast of coffee and manioc—we had to be economical of our stores—we held a council of war as to the best method of ascending to the plateau above us.
Challenger presided with a solemnity as if he were the Lord Chief Justice on the Bench.
Picture him seated upon a rock, his absurd boyish straw hat tilted on the back of his head, his supercilious eyes dominating us from under his drooping lids, his great black beard wagging as he slowly defined our present situation and our future movements.
Beneath him you might have seen the three of us—myself, sunburnt, young, and vigorous 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 the speaker.
Behind us were grouped the two swarthy half-breeds and the little knot of Indians, while in front and above us towered those huge, ruddy ribs of rocks which kept us from our goal.
"I need not say," said our leader, "that on the occasion of my last visit I exhausted every means of climbing the cliff, and where I failed I do not think that anyone else is likely to succeed, for I am something of a mountaineer.
I had none of the appliances of a rock-climber with me, but I have taken the precaution to bring them now. With their aid I am positive I could climb that detached pinnacle to the summit; but so long as the main cliff overhangs, it is vain to attempt ascending that.
I was hurried upon my last visit by the approach of the rainy season and by the exhaustion of my supplies.
These considerations limited my time, and I can only claim that I have surveyed about 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.
"If you have explored the east, we should travel along the base of the cliff to the 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 great size, and we shall travel round it until we either find an easy way up it, or come back to the point from which we started."
"I have already explained to our young friend here," said Challenger (he has a way of alluding to me as if I were a school child ten years old), "that it is quite impossible that there should be an easy way up anywhere, for the simple reason that if there were the summit would not be isolated, and those conditions would not obtain which have effected so singular an interference with the general laws of survival.
Yet I admit that there may very well be places where an expert human climber may reach the summit, and yet a cumbrous and heavy animal be unable to descend.
It is certain that there is a point where an ascent is possible."
"How do you know that, sir?" asked Summerlee, sharply.
"Because my predecessor, the American Maple White, actually made such an ascent.
How otherwise could he have seen the monster which he sketched in his notebook?"
"There you reason somewhat ahead of the proved facts," said the stubborn Summerlee.
"I admit your plateau, because I have seen it; but I have not as yet satisfied myself that it contains any form of life whatever."
"What you admit, sir, or what you do not admit, is really of inconceivably small importance.
I am glad to perceive that the plateau itself has actually obtruded itself upon your intelligence."
He glanced up at it, and then, to our amazement, he sprang from his rock, and, seizing Summerlee by the neck, he tilted 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.
Out of this there had emerged a black, glistening object.