So long as I followed it down I must come to the lake, and so long as I followed it back I must come to the camp.
Often I had to lose sight of it on account of the tangled brush-wood, but I was always within earshot of its tinkle and splash.
As one descended the slope the woods became thinner, and bushes, with occasional high trees, took the place of the forest.
I could make good progress, therefore, and I could see without being seen.
I passed close to the pterodactyl swamp, and as I did so, with a dry, crisp, leathery rattle of wings, one of these great creatures—it was twenty feet at least from tip to tip—rose up from somewhere near me and soared into the air.
As it passed across the face of the moon the light shone clearly through the membranous wings, and it looked like a flying skeleton against the white, tropical radiance.
I crouched low among the bushes, for I knew from past experience that with a single cry the creature could bring a hundred of its loathsome mates about my ears.
It was not until it had settled again that I dared to steal onwards upon my journey.
The night had been exceedingly still, but as I advanced I became conscious of a low, rumbling sound, a continuous murmur, somewhere in front of me. This grew louder as I proceeded, until at last it was clearly quite close to me.
When I stood still the sound was constant, so that it seemed to come from some stationary cause. It was like a boiling kettle or the bubbling of some great pot. Soon I came upon the source of it, for in the center of a small clearing I found a lake—or a pool, rather, for it was not larger than the basin of the Trafalgar Square fountain—of some black, pitch-like stuff, the surface of which rose and fell in great blisters of bursting gas.
The air above it was shimmering with heat, and the ground round was so hot that I could hardly bear to lay my hand on it.
It was clear that the great volcanic outburst which had raised this strange plateau so many years ago had not yet entirely spent its forces.
Blackened rocks and mounds of lava I had already seen everywhere peeping out from amid the luxuriant vegetation which draped them, but this asphalt pool in the jungle was the first sign that we had of actual existing activity on the slopes of the ancient crater.
I had no time to examine it further for I had need to hurry if I were to be back in camp in the morning.
It was a fearsome walk, and one which will be with me so long as memory holds.
In the great moonlight clearings I slunk along among the shadows on the margin. In the jungle I crept forward, stopping with a beating heart whenever I heard, as I often did, the crash of breaking branches as some wild beast went past.
Now and then great shadows loomed up for an instant and were gone—great, silent shadows which seemed to prowl upon padded feet.
How often I stopped with the intention of returning, and yet every time my pride conquered my fear, and sent me on again until my object should be attained.
At last (my watch showed that it was one in the morning) I saw the gleam of water amid the openings of the jungle, and ten minutes later I was among the reeds upon the borders of the central lake.
I was exceedingly dry, so I lay down and took a long draught of its waters, which were fresh and cold.
There was a broad pathway with many tracks upon it at the spot which I had found, so that it was clearly one of the drinking-places of the animals.
Close to the water's edge there was a huge isolated block of lava.
Up this I climbed, and, lying on the top, I had an excellent view in every direction.
The first thing which I saw filled me with amazement.
When I described the view from the summit of the great tree, I said that on the farther cliff I could see a number of dark spots, which appeared to be the mouths of caves.
Now, as I looked up at the same cliffs, I saw discs of light in every direction, ruddy, clearly-defined patches, like the port-holes of a liner in the darkness.
For a moment I thought it was the lava-glow from some volcanic action; but this could not be so.
Any volcanic action would surely be down in the hollow and not high among the rocks.
What, then, was the alternative?
It was wonderful, and yet it must surely be. These ruddy spots must be the reflection of fires within the caves—fires which could only be lit by the hand of man.
There were human beings, then, upon the plateau.
How gloriously my expedition was justified!
Here was news indeed for us to bear back with us to London!
For a long time I lay and watched these red, quivering blotches of light.
I suppose they were ten miles off from me, yet even at that distance one could observe how, from time to time, they twinkled or were obscured as someone passed before them.
What would I not have given to be able to crawl up to them, to peep in, and to take back some word to my comrades as to the appearance and character of the race who lived in so strange a place!
It was out of the question for the moment, and yet surely we could not leave the plateau until we had some definite knowledge upon the point.
Lake Gladys—my own lake—lay like a sheet of quicksilver before me, with a reflected moon shining brightly in the center of it.
It was shallow, for in many places I saw low sandbanks protruding above the water.
Everywhere upon the still surface I could see signs of life, sometimes mere rings and ripples in the water, sometimes the gleam of a great silver-sided fish in the air, sometimes the arched, slate-colored back of some passing monster.
Once upon a yellow sandbank I saw a creature like a huge swan, with a clumsy body and a high, flexible neck, shuffling about upon the margin. Presently it plunged in, and for some time I could see the arched neck and darting head undulating over the water.
Then it dived, and I saw it no more.
My attention was soon drawn away from these distant sights and brought back to what was going on at my very feet.
Two creatures like large armadillos had come down to the drinking-place, and were squatting at the edge of the water, their long, flexible tongues like red ribbons shooting in and out as they lapped.
A huge deer, with branching horns, a magnificent creature which carried itself like a king, came down with its doe and two fawns and drank beside the armadillos.
No such deer exist anywhere else upon earth, for the moose or elks which I have seen would hardly have reached its shoulders.
Presently it gave a warning snort, and was off with its family among the reeds, while the armadillos also scuttled for shelter.
A new-comer, a most monstrous animal, was coming down the path.
For a moment I wondered where I could have seen that ungainly shape, that arched back with triangular fringes along it, that strange bird-like head held close to the ground.
Then it came back, to me.