How difficult it was to realize that the violet line upon the far horizon was well advanced to that great river upon which huge steamers ran, and folk talked of the small affairs of life, while we, marooned among the creatures of a bygone age, could but gaze towards it and yearn for all that it meant!
One other memory remains with me of this wonderful day, and with it I will close this letter.
The two professors, their tempers aggravated no doubt by their injuries, had fallen out as to whether our assailants were of the genus pterodactylus or dimorphodon, and high words had ensued.
To avoid their wrangling I moved some little way apart, and was seated smoking upon the trunk of a fallen tree, when Lord John strolled over in my direction.
"I say, Malone," said he, "do you remember that place where those beasts were?"
"A sort of volcanic pit, was it not?"
"Exactly," said I.
"Did you notice the soil?"
"But round the water—where the reeds were?"
"It was a bluish soil. It looked like clay."
A volcanic tube full of blue clay."
"What of that?" I asked.
"Oh, nothing, nothing," said he, and strolled back to where the voices of the contending men of science rose in a prolonged duet, the high, strident note of Summerlee rising and falling to the sonorous bass of Challenger.
I should have thought no more of Lord John's remark were it not that once again that night I heard him mutter to himself:
"Blue clay—clay in a volcanic tube!"
They were the last words I heard before I dropped into an exhausted sleep.
"For once I was the Hero"
Lord John Roxton was right when he thought that some specially toxic quality might lie in the bite of the horrible creatures which had attacked us.
On the morning after our first adventure upon the plateau, both Summerlee and I were in great pain and fever, while Challenger's knee was so bruised that he could hardly limp.
We kept to our camp all day, therefore, Lord John busying himself, with such help as we could give him, in raising the height and thickness of the thorny walls which were our only defense.
I remember that during the whole long day I was haunted by the feeling that we were closely observed, though by whom or whence I could give no guess.
So strong was the impression that I told Professor Challenger of it, who put it down to the cerebral excitement caused by my fever.
Again and again I glanced round swiftly, with the conviction that I was about to see something, but only to meet the dark tangle of our hedge or the solemn and cavernous gloom of the great trees which arched above our heads.
And yet the feeling grew ever stronger in my own mind that something observant and something malevolent was at our very elbow.
I thought of the Indian superstition of the Curupuri—the dreadful, lurking spirit of the woods—and I could have imagined that his terrible presence haunted those who had invaded his most remote and sacred retreat.
That night (our third in Maple White Land) we had an experience which left a fearful impression upon our minds, and made us thankful that Lord John had worked so hard in making our retreat impregnable.
We were all sleeping round our dying fire when we were aroused—or, rather, I should say, shot out of our slumbers—by a succession of the most frightful cries and screams to which I have ever listened.
I know no sound to which I could compare this amazing tumult, which seemed to come from some spot within a few hundred yards of our camp.
It was as ear-splitting as any whistle of a railway-engine; but whereas the whistle is a clear, mechanical, sharp-edged sound, this was far deeper in volume and vibrant with the uttermost strain of agony and horror.
We clapped our hands to our ears to shut out that nerve-shaking appeal.
A cold sweat broke out over my body, and my heart turned sick at the misery of it.
All the woes of tortured life, all its stupendous indictment of high heaven, its innumerable sorrows, seemed to be centered and condensed into that one dreadful, agonized cry.
And then, under this high-pitched, ringing sound there was another, more intermittent, a low, deep-chested laugh, a growling, throaty gurgle of merriment which formed a grotesque accompaniment to the shriek with which it was blended.
For three or four minutes on end the fearsome duet continued, while all the foliage rustled with the rising of startled birds. Then it shut off as suddenly as it began.
For a long time we sat in horrified silence.
Then Lord John threw a bundle of twigs upon the fire, and their red glare lit up the intent faces of my companions and flickered over the great boughs above our heads.
"What was it?" I whispered.
"We shall know in the morning," said Lord John.
"It was close to us—not farther than the glade."
"We have been privileged to overhear a prehistoric tragedy, the sort of drama which occurred among the reeds upon the border of some Jurassic lagoon, when the greater dragon pinned the lesser among the slime," said Challenger, with more solemnity than I had ever heard in his voice.
"It was surely well for man that he came late in the order of creation.
There were powers abroad in earlier days which no courage and no mechanism of his could have met.
What could his sling, his throwing-stick, or his arrow avail him against such forces as have been loose to-night?
Even with a modern rifle it would be all odds on the monster."
"I think I should back my little friend," said Lord John, caressing his Express.
"But the beast would certainly have a good sporting chance."