As it came slowly forth and overhung the chasm, we saw that it was a very large snake with a peculiar flat, spade-like head.
It wavered and quivered above us for a minute, the morning sun gleaming upon its sleek, sinuous coils. Then it slowly drew inwards and disappeared.
Summerlee had been so interested that he had stood unresisting while Challenger tilted his head into the air.
Now he shook his colleague off and came back to his dignity.
"I should be glad, Professor Challenger," said he, "if you could see your way to 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 justify such a liberty."
"But there is life upon the plateau all the same," his colleague replied in triumph.
"And now, having demonstrated this important conclusion so that it is clear to anyone, however prejudiced or obtuse, I am of opinion that we cannot do better than break up our camp and travel to westward until we find some means of ascent."
The ground at the foot of the cliff was rocky and broken so that the going was slow and difficult.
Suddenly we came, however, upon something which cheered our hearts.
It was the site of an old encampment, with several empty Chicago meat tins, a bottle labeled "Brandy," a broken tin-opener, and a quantity of other travelers' debris.
A crumpled, disintegrated newspaper revealed itself as 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 overshadowed the encampment.
"I say, look at this," said he.
"I believe it is meant for a sign-post."
A slip of hard wood had been nailed to the tree in such a way as to point to the westward.
"Most certainly a sign-post," said Challenger.
Finding himself upon a dangerous errand, our pioneer has left this sign so that any party which follows him may know the way he has taken.
Perhaps we shall come upon some 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 were twenty feet high, with sharp, strong tops, so that even as they stood they made formidable spears.
We were passing along the edge of this cover when my eye was caught by the gleam of something white within it.
Thrusting in my head between the stems, I found myself gazing at a fleshless skull.
The whole skeleton was there, but the skull had detached itself and lay some feet nearer to the open.
With a few blows from the machetes of our Indians we cleared the spot and were able to study the details of this old tragedy.
Only a few shreds of clothes could still be distinguished, but there were the remains of boots upon the bony feet, and it was very clear that the dead man was a European.
A gold watch by Hudson, of New York, and a chain which held a stylographic pen, lay among 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 the catastrophe had occurred no great time before.
"Who can he be?" asked Lord John.
"Poor devil! every bone in his body seems to be broken."
"And the bamboo grows through his smashed ribs," said Summerlee.
"It is a fast-growing plant, but it is surely inconceivable that this body could have been here while the canes grew to be twenty feet in length."
"As to the man's identity," said Professor Challenger, "I have no doubt whatever upon that point.
As I made my way up the river before I reached you at the fazenda I instituted very particular inquiries about Maple White.
At Para they knew nothing.
Fortunately, I had a definite clew, for there was a particular picture in his sketch-book which showed him taking lunch with a certain ecclesiastic at Rosario.
This priest I was able to find, and though he proved a very argumentative fellow, who took it absurdly amiss that I should point out to him the corrosive effect which modern science must have upon his beliefs, he none the less gave me some positive information.
Maple White passed Rosario four years ago, or two years before I saw his dead body.
He was not 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 remains of this James Colver."
"Nor," said Lord John, "is there much doubt as to how he met his death.
He has fallen or been chucked from the top, and so been impaled.
How else could he come by his broken bones, and how could he have been stuck through by these canes with their points so high above our heads?"
A hush came over us as we stood round these shattered remains and realized the truth of Lord John Roxton's words.