And now I was coming into my own. I warmed at the thought.
Alas! for the pride which goes before a fall!
That little glow of self-satisfaction, that added measure of self-confidence, were to lead me on that very night to the most dreadful experience of my life, ending with a shock which turns my heart sick when I think of it.
It came about in this way.
I had been unduly excited by the adventure of the tree, and sleep seemed to be impossible.
Summerlee was on guard, sitting hunched over our small fire, a quaint, angular figure, his rifle across his knees and his pointed, goat-like beard wagging with each weary nod of his head.
Lord John lay silent, wrapped in the South American poncho which he wore, while Challenger snored with a roll and rattle which reverberated through the woods.
The full moon was shining brightly, and the air was crisply cold.
What a night for a walk!
And then suddenly came the thought, "Why not?"
Suppose I stole softly away, suppose I made my way down to the central lake, suppose I was back at breakfast with some record of the place—would I not in that case be thought an even more worthy associate?
Then, if Summerlee carried the day and some means of escape were found, we should return to London with first-hand knowledge of the central mystery of the plateau, to which I alone, of all men, would have penetrated.
I thought of Gladys, with her
"There are heroisms all round us." I seemed to hear her voice as she said it.
I thought also of McArdle.
What a three column article for the paper!
What a foundation for a career!
A correspondentship in the next great war might be within my reach.
I clutched at a gun—my pockets were full of cartridges—and, parting the thorn bushes at the gate of our zareba, quickly slipped out.
My last glance showed me the unconscious Summerlee, most futile of sentinels, still nodding away like a queer mechanical toy in front of the smouldering fire.
I had not gone a hundred yards before I deeply repented my rashness.
I may have said somewhere in this chronicle that I am too imaginative to be a really courageous man, but that I have an overpowering fear of seeming afraid.
This was the power which now carried me onwards.
I simply could not slink back with nothing done.
Even if my comrades should not have missed me, and should never know of my weakness, there would still remain some intolerable self-shame in my own soul.
And yet I shuddered at the position in which I found myself, and would have given all I possessed at that moment to have been honorably free of the whole business.
It was dreadful in the forest.
The trees grew so thickly and their foliage spread so widely that I could see nothing of the moon-light save that here and there the high branches made a tangled filigree against the starry sky.
As the eyes became more used to the obscurity one learned that there were different degrees of darkness among the trees—that some were dimly visible, while between and among them there were coal-black shadowed patches, like the mouths of caves, from which I shrank in horror as I passed.
I thought of the despairing yell of the tortured iguanodon—that dreadful cry which had echoed through the woods.
I thought, too, of the glimpse I had in the light of Lord John's torch of that bloated, warty, blood-slavering muzzle.
Even now I was on its hunting-ground. At any instant it might spring upon me from the shadows—this nameless and horrible monster.
I stopped, and, picking a cartridge from my pocket, I opened the breech of my gun.
As I touched the lever my heart leaped within me.
It was the shot-gun, not the rifle, which I had taken!
Again the impulse to return swept over me.
Here, surely, was a most excellent reason for my failure—one for which no one would think the less of me.
But again the foolish pride fought against that very word.
I could not—must not—fail.
After all, my rifle would probably have been as useless as a shot-gun against such dangers as I might meet.
If I were to go back to camp to change my weapon I could hardly expect to enter and to leave again without being seen.
In that case there would be explanations, and my attempt would no longer be all my own.
After a little hesitation, then, I screwed up my courage and continued upon my way, my useless gun under my arm.
The darkness of the forest had been alarming, but even worse was the white, still flood of moonlight in the open glade of the iguanodons.
Hid among the bushes, I looked out at it.
None of the great brutes were in sight.
Perhaps the tragedy which had befallen one of them had driven them from their feeding-ground.
In the misty, silvery night I could see no sign of any living thing.
Taking courage, therefore, I slipped rapidly across it, and among the jungle on the farther side I picked up once again the brook which was my guide.
It was a cheery companion, gurgling and chuckling as it ran, like the dear old trout-stream in the West Country where I have fished at night in my boyhood.