Many of them carried sticks, and at the distance they looked like a line of very hairy and deformed human beings.
For a moment I caught this clear glimpse of them.
Then they were lost among the bushes.
"Not this time," said Lord John, who had caught up his rifle.
"Our best chance is to lie quiet until they have given up the search.
Then we shall see whether we can't get back to their town and hit 'em where it hurts most.
Give 'em an hour and we'll march."
We filled in the time by opening one of our food tins and making sure of our breakfast.
Lord Roxton had had nothing but some fruit since the morning before and ate like a starving man.
Then, at last, our pockets bulging with cartridges and a rifle in each hand, we started off upon our mission of rescue.
Before leaving it we carefully marked our little hiding-place among the brush-wood and its bearing to Fort Challenger, that we might find it again if we needed it.
We slunk through the bushes in silence until we came to the very edge of the cliff, close to the old camp.
There we halted, and Lord John gave me some idea of his plans.
"So long as we are among the thick trees these swine are our masters," said he.
"They can see us and we cannot see them.
But in the open it is different. There we can move faster than they.
So we must stick to the open all we can.
The edge of the plateau has fewer large trees than further inland. So that's our line of advance.
Go slowly, keep your eyes open and your rifle ready.
Above all, never let them get you prisoner while there is a cartridge left—that's my last word to you, young fellah."
When we reached the edge of the cliff I looked over and saw our good old black Zambo sitting smoking on a rock below us.
I would have given a great deal to have hailed him and told him how we were placed, but it was too dangerous, lest we should be heard.
The woods seemed to be full of the ape-men; again and again we heard their curious clicking chatter.
At such times we plunged into the nearest clump of bushes and lay still until the sound had passed away.
Our advance, therefore, was very slow, and two hours at least must have passed before I saw by Lord John's cautious movements that we must be close to our destination.
He motioned to me to lie still, and he crawled forward himself. In a minute he was back again, his face quivering with eagerness.
"Come!" said he.
I hope to the Lord we are not too late already!"
I found myself shaking with nervous excitement as I scrambled forward and lay down beside him, looking out through the bushes at a clearing which stretched before us.
It was a sight which I shall never forget until my dying day—so weird, so impossible, that I do not know how I am to make you realize it, or how in a few years I shall bring myself to believe in it if I live to sit once more on a lounge in the Savage Club and look out on the drab solidity of the Embankment.
I know that it will seem then to be some wild nightmare, some delirium of fever.
Yet I will set it down now, while it is still fresh in my memory, and one at least, the man who lay in the damp grasses by my side, will know if I have lied.
A wide, open space lay before us—some hundreds of yards across—all green turf and low bracken growing to the very edge of the cliff.
Round this clearing there was a semi-circle of trees with curious huts built of foliage piled one above the other among the branches.
A rookery, with every nest a little house, would best convey the idea.
The openings of these huts and the branches of the trees were thronged with a dense mob of ape-people, whom from their size I took to be the females and infants of the tribe.
They formed the background of the picture, and were all looking out with eager interest at the same scene which fascinated and bewildered us.
In the open, and near the edge of the cliff, there had assembled a crowd of some hundred of these shaggy, red-haired creatures, many of them of immense size, and all of them horrible to look upon.
There was a certain discipline among them, for none of them attempted to break the line which had been formed.
In front there stood a small group of Indians—little, clean-limbed, red fellows, whose skins glowed like polished bronze in the strong sunlight.
A tall, thin white man was standing beside them, his head bowed, his arms folded, his whole attitude expressive of his horror and dejection.
There was no mistaking the angular form of Professor Summerlee.
In front of and around this dejected group of prisoners were several ape-men, who watched them closely and made all escape impossible.
Then, right out from all the others and close to the edge of the cliff, were two figures, so strange, and under other circumstances so ludicrous, that they absorbed my attention.
The one was our comrade, Professor Challenger.
The remains of his coat still hung in strips from his shoulders, but his shirt had been all torn out, and his great beard merged itself in the black tangle which covered his mighty chest. He had lost his hat, and his hair, which had grown long in our wanderings, was flying in wild disorder.
A single day seemed to have changed him from the highest product of modern civilization to the most desperate savage in South America.
Beside him stood his master, the king of the ape-men.
In all things he was, as Lord John had said, the very image of our Professor, save that his coloring was red instead of black.