"Well, sir, what do you propose?"
"For all I know there may be a tribe of cannibals waitin' for lunch-time among those very bushes," said Lord John, looking across the bridge.
"It's better to learn wisdom before you get into a cookin'-pot; so we will content ourselves with hopin' that there is no trouble waitin' for us, and at the same time we will act as if there were.
Malone and I will go down again, therefore, and we will fetch up the four rifles, together with Gomez and the other.
One man can then go across and the rest will cover him with guns, until he sees that it is safe for the whole crowd to come along."
Challenger sat down upon the cut stump and groaned his impatience; but Summerlee and I were of one mind that Lord John was our leader when such practical details were in question.
The climb was a more simple thing now that the rope dangled down the face of the worst part of the ascent.
Within an hour we had brought up the rifles and a shot-gun.
The half-breeds had ascended also, and under Lord John's orders they had carried up a bale of provisions in case our first exploration should be a long one.
We had each bandoliers of cartridges.
"Now, Challenger, if you really insist upon being the first man in," said Lord John, when every preparation was complete.
"I am much indebted to you for your gracious permission," said the angry Professor; for never was a man so intolerant of every form of authority.
"Since you are good enough to allow it, I shall most certainly take it upon myself to act as pioneer upon this occasion."
Seating himself with a leg overhanging the abyss on each side, and his hatchet slung upon his back, Challenger hopped his way across the trunk and was soon at the other side.
He clambered up and waved his arms in the air.
"At last!" he cried; "at last!"
I gazed anxiously at him, with a vague expectation that some terrible fate would dart at him from the curtain of green behind him.
But all was quiet, save that a strange, many-colored bird flew up from under his feet and vanished among the trees.
Summerlee was the second.
His wiry energy is wonderful in so frail a frame.
He insisted upon having two rifles slung upon his back, so that both Professors were armed when he had made his transit.
I came next, and tried hard not to look down into the horrible gulf over which I was passing.
Summerlee held out the butt-end of his rifle, and an instant later I was able to grasp his hand.
As to Lord John, he walked across—actually walked without support!
He must have nerves of iron.
And there we were, the four of us, upon the dreamland, the lost world, of Maple White.
To all of us it seemed the moment of our supreme triumph.
Who could have guessed that it was the prelude to our supreme disaster?
Let me say in a few words how the crushing blow fell upon us.
We had turned away from the edge, and had penetrated about fifty yards of close brushwood, when there came a frightful rending crash from behind us.
With one impulse we rushed back the way that we had come.
The bridge was gone!
Far down at the base of the cliff I saw, as I looked over, a tangled mass of branches and splintered trunk. It was our beech tree.
Had the edge of the platform crumbled and let it through?
For a moment this explanation was in all our minds.
The next, from the farther side of the rocky pinnacle before us a swarthy face, the face of Gomez the half-breed, was slowly protruded.
Yes, it was Gomez, but no longer the Gomez of the demure smile and the mask-like expression.
Here was a face with flashing eyes and distorted features, a face convulsed with hatred and with the mad joy of gratified revenge.
"Lord Roxton!" he shouted.
"Lord John Roxton!"
"Well," said our companion, "here I am."
A shriek of laughter came across the abyss.
"Yes, there you are, you English dog, and there you will remain!
I have waited and waited, and now has come my chance.
You found it hard to get up; you will find it harder to get down.
You cursed fools, you are trapped, every one of you!"
We were too astounded to speak. We could only stand there staring in amazement.
A great broken bough upon the grass showed whence he had gained his leverage to tilt over our bridge.
The face had vanished, but presently it was up again, more frantic than before.
"We nearly killed you with a stone at the cave," he cried; "but this is better.