It was the stegosaurus—the very creature which Maple White had preserved in his sketch-book, and which had been the first object which arrested the attention of Challenger!
There he was—perhaps the very specimen which the American artist had encountered.
The ground shook beneath his tremendous weight, and his gulpings of water resounded through the still night.
For five minutes he was so close to my rock that by stretching out my hand I could have touched the hideous waving hackles upon his back.
Then he lumbered away and was lost among the boulders.
Looking at my watch, I saw that it was half-past two o'clock, and high time, therefore, that I started upon my homeward journey.
There was no difficulty about the direction in which I should return for all along I had kept the little brook upon my left, and it opened into the central lake within a stone's-throw of the boulder upon which I had been lying.
I set off, therefore, in high spirits, for I felt that I had done good work and was bringing back a fine budget of news for my companions.
Foremost of all, of course, were the sight of the fiery caves and the certainty that some troglodytic race inhabited them.
But besides that I could speak from experience of the central lake.
I could testify that it was full of strange creatures, and I had seen several land forms of primeval life which we had not before encountered.
I reflected as I walked that few men in the world could have spent a stranger night or added more to human knowledge in the course of it.
I was plodding up the slope, turning these thoughts over in my mind, and had reached a point which may have been half-way to home, when my mind was brought back to my own position by a strange noise behind me.
It was something between a snore and a growl, low, deep, and exceedingly menacing.
Some strange creature was evidently near me, but nothing could be seen, so I hastened more rapidly upon my way.
I had traversed half a mile or so when suddenly the sound was repeated, still behind me, but louder and more menacing than before.
My heart stood still within me as it flashed across me that the beast, whatever it was, must surely be after ME.
My skin grew cold and my hair rose at the thought.
That these monsters should tear each other to pieces was a part of the strange struggle for existence, but that they should turn upon modern man, that they should deliberately track and hunt down the predominant human, was a staggering and fearsome thought.
I remembered again the blood-beslobbered face which we had seen in the glare of Lord John's torch, like some horrible vision from the deepest circle of Dante's hell.
With my knees shaking beneath me, I stood and glared with starting eyes down the moonlit path which lay behind me.
All was quiet as in a dream landscape. Silver clearings and the black patches of the bushes—nothing else could I see.
Then from out of the silence, imminent and threatening, there came once more that low, throaty croaking, far louder and closer than before.
There could no longer be a doubt. Something was on my trail, and was closing in upon me every minute.
I stood like a man paralyzed, still staring at the ground which I had traversed.
Then suddenly I saw it.
There was movement among the bushes at the far end of the clearing which I had just traversed.
A great dark shadow disengaged itself and hopped out into the clear moonlight.
I say "hopped" advisedly, for the beast moved like a kangaroo, springing along in an erect position upon its powerful hind legs, while its front ones were held bent in front of it.
It was of enormous size and power, like an erect elephant, but its movements, in spite of its bulk, were exceedingly alert.
For a moment, as I saw its shape, I hoped that it was an iguanodon, which I knew to be harmless, but, ignorant as I was, I soon saw that this was a very different creature.
Instead of the gentle, deer-shaped head of the great three-toed leaf-eater, this beast had a broad, squat, toad-like face like that which had alarmed us in our camp.
His ferocious cry and the horrible energy of his pursuit both assured me that this was surely one of the great flesh-eating dinosaurs, the most terrible beasts which have ever walked this earth.
As the huge brute loped along it dropped forward upon its fore-paws and brought its nose to the ground every twenty yards or so. It was smelling out my trail.
Sometimes, for an instant, it was at fault. Then it would catch it up again and come bounding swiftly along the path I had taken.
Even now when I think of that nightmare the sweat breaks out upon my brow.
What could I do?
My useless fowling-piece was in my hand. What help could I get from that?
I looked desperately round for some rock or tree, but I was in a bushy jungle with nothing higher than a sapling within sight, while I knew that the creature behind me could tear down an ordinary tree as though it were a reed.
My only possible chance lay in flight.
I could not move swiftly over the rough, broken ground, but as I looked round me in despair I saw a well-marked, hard-beaten path which ran across in front of me.
We had seen several of the sort, the runs of various wild beasts, during our expeditions.
Along this I could perhaps hold my own, for I was a fast runner, and in excellent condition.
Flinging away my useless gun, I set myself to do such a half-mile as I have never done before or since.
My limbs ached, my chest heaved, I felt that my throat would burst for want of air, and yet with that horror behind me I ran and I ran and ran.
At last I paused, hardly able to move.
For a moment I thought that I had thrown him off. The path lay still behind me.
And then suddenly, with a crashing and a rending, a thudding of giant feet and a panting of monster lungs the beast was upon me once more.
He was at my very heels.
I was lost.