My comrades were delighted at my idea.
"Our young friend," said Challenger, bunching up the red apples of his cheeks, "is capable of acrobatic exertions which would be impossible to a man of a more solid, though possibly of a more commanding, appearance.
I applaud his resolution."
"By George, young fellah, you've put your hand on it!" said Lord John, clapping me on the back.
"How we never came to think of it before I can't imagine!
There's not more than an hour of daylight left, but if you take your notebook you may be able to get some rough sketch of the place.
If we put these three ammunition cases under the branch, I will soon hoist you on to it."
He stood on the boxes while I faced the trunk, and was gently raising me when Challenger sprang forward and gave me such a thrust with his huge hand that he fairly shot me into the tree.
With both arms clasping the branch, I scrambled hard with my feet until I had worked, first my body, and then my knees, onto it.
There were three excellent off-shoots, like huge rungs of a ladder, above my head, and a tangle of convenient branches beyond, so that I clambered onwards with such speed that I soon lost sight of the ground and had nothing but foliage beneath me.
Now and then I encountered a check, and once I had to shin up a creeper for eight or ten feet, but I made excellent progress, and the booming of Challenger's voice seemed to be a great distance beneath me.
The tree was, however, enormous, and, looking upwards, I could see no thinning of the leaves above my head.
There was some thick, bush-like clump which seemed to be a parasite upon a branch up which I was swarming.
I leaned my head round it in order to see what was beyond, and I nearly fell out of the tree in my surprise and horror at what I saw.
A face was gazing into mine—at the distance of only a foot or two.
The creature that owned it had been crouching behind the parasite, and had looked round it at the same instant that I did.
It was a human face—or at least it was far more human than any monkey's that I have ever seen.
It was long, whitish, and blotched with pimples, the nose flattened, and the lower jaw projecting, with a bristle of coarse whiskers round the chin.
The eyes, which were under thick and heavy brows, were bestial and ferocious, and as it opened its mouth to snarl what sounded like a curse at me I observed that it had curved, sharp canine teeth. For an instant I read hatred and menace in the evil eyes. Then, as quick as a flash, came an expression of overpowering fear.
There was a crash of broken boughs as it dived wildly down into the tangle of green.
I caught a glimpse of a hairy body like that of a reddish pig, and then it was gone amid a swirl of leaves and branches.
"What's the matter?" shouted Roxton from below.
"Anything wrong with you?"
"Did you see it?" I cried, with my arms round the branch and all my nerves tingling.
"We heard a row, as if your foot had slipped.
What was it?"
I was so shocked at the sudden and strange appearance of this ape-man that I hesitated whether I should not climb down again and tell my experience to my companions.
But I was already so far up the great tree that it seemed a humiliation to return without having carried out my mission.
After a long pause, therefore, to recover my breath and my courage, I continued my ascent.
Once I put my weight upon a rotten branch and swung for a few seconds by my hands, but in the main it was all easy climbing.
Gradually the leaves thinned around me, and I was aware, from the wind upon my face, that I had topped all the trees of the forest.
I was determined, however, not to look about me before I had reached the very highest point, so I scrambled on until I had got so far that the topmost branch was bending beneath my weight.
There I settled into a convenient fork, and, balancing myself securely, I found myself looking down at a most wonderful panorama of this strange country in which we found ourselves.
The sun was just above the western sky-line, and the evening was a particularly bright and clear one, so that the whole extent of the plateau was visible beneath me.
It was, as seen from this height, of an oval contour, with a breadth of about thirty miles and a width of twenty. Its general shape was that of a shallow funnel, all the sides sloping down to a considerable lake in the center. This lake may have been ten miles in circumference, and lay very green and beautiful in the evening light, with a thick fringe of reeds at its edges, and with its surface broken by several yellow sandbanks, which gleamed golden in the mellow sunshine.
A number of long dark objects, which were too large for alligators and too long for canoes, lay upon the edges of these patches of sand.
With my glass I could clearly see that they were alive, but what their nature might be I could not imagine.
From the side of the plateau on which we were, slopes of woodland, with occasional glades, stretched down for five or six miles to the central lake.
I could see at my very feet the glade of the iguanodons, and farther off was a round opening in the trees which marked the swamp of the pterodactyls.
On the side facing me, however, the plateau presented a very different aspect.
There the basalt cliffs of the outside were reproduced upon the inside, forming an escarpment about two hundred feet high, with a woody slope beneath it.
Along the base of these red cliffs, some distance above the ground, I could see a number of dark holes through the glass, which I conjectured to be the mouths of caves.
At the opening of one of these something white was shimmering, but I was unable to make out what it was.
I sat charting the country until the sun had set and it was so dark that I could no longer distinguish details. Then I climbed down to my companions waiting for me so eagerly at the bottom of the great tree.
For once I was the hero of the expedition.
Alone I had thought of it, and alone I had done it; and here was the chart which would save us a month's blind groping among unknown dangers.
Each of them shook me solemnly by the hand.
But before they discussed the details of my map I had to tell them of my encounter with the ape-man among the branches.
"He has been there all the time," said I.
"How do you know that?" asked Lord John.