"I leave the matter to your discretion." Then, after a long pause, he added: "The king of the ape-men was really a creature of great distinction—a most remarkably handsome and intelligent personality.
Did it not strike you?"
"A most remarkable creature," said I.
And the Professor, much eased in his mind, settled down to his slumber once more.
CHAPTER XIV "Those Were the Real Conquests"
We had imagined that our pursuers, the ape-men, knew nothing of our brush-wood hiding-place, but we were soon to find out our mistake.
There was no sound in the woods—not a leaf moved upon the trees, and all was peace around us—but we should have been warned by our first experience how cunningly and how patiently these creatures can watch and wait until their chance comes.
Whatever fate may be mine through life, I am very sure that I shall never be nearer death than I was that morning.
But I will tell you the thing in its due order.
We all awoke exhausted after the terrific emotions and scanty food of yesterday.
Summerlee was still so weak that it was an effort for him to stand; but the old man was full of a sort of surly courage which would never admit defeat.
A council was held, and it was agreed that we should wait quietly for an hour or two where we were, have our much-needed breakfast, and then make our way across the plateau and round the central lake to the caves where my observations had shown that the Indians lived.
We relied upon the fact that we could count upon the good word of those whom we had rescued to ensure a warm welcome from their fellows.
Then, with our mission accomplished and possessing a fuller knowledge of the secrets of Maple White Land, we should turn our whole thoughts to the vital problem of our escape and return.
Even Challenger was ready to admit that we should then have done all for which we had come, and that our first duty from that time onwards was to carry back to civilization the amazing discoveries we had made.
We were able now to take a more leisurely view of the Indians whom we had rescued.
They were small men, wiry, active, and well-built, with lank black hair tied up in a bunch behind their heads with a leathern thong, and leathern also were their loin-clothes. Their faces were hairless, well formed, and good-humored.
The lobes of their ears, hanging ragged and bloody, showed that they had been pierced for some ornaments which their captors had torn out.
Their speech, though unintelligible to us, was fluent among themselves, and as they pointed to each other and uttered the word "Accala" many times over, we gathered that this was the name of the nation.
Occasionally, with faces which were convulsed with fear and hatred, they shook their clenched hands at the woods round and cried:
Doda!" which was surely their term for their enemies.
"What do you make of them, Challenger?" asked Lord John.
"One thing is very clear to me, and that is that the little chap with the front of his head shaved is a chief among them."
It was indeed evident that this man stood apart from the others, and that they never ventured to address him without every sign of deep respect.
He seemed to be the youngest of them all, and yet, so proud and high was his spirit that, upon Challenger laying his great hand upon his head, he started like a spurred horse and, with a quick flash of his dark eyes, moved further away from the Professor.
Then, placing his hand upon his breast and holding himself with great dignity, he uttered the word "Maretas" several times.
The Professor, unabashed, seized the nearest Indian by the shoulder and proceeded to lecture upon him as if he were a potted specimen in a class-room.
"The type of these people," said he in his sonorous fashion, "whether judged by cranial capacity, facial angle, or any other test, cannot be regarded as a low one; on the contrary, we must place it as considerably higher in the scale than many South American tribes which I can mention.
On no possible supposition can we explain the evolution of such a race in this place.
For that matter, so great a gap separates these ape-men from the primitive animals which have survived upon this plateau, that it is inadmissible to think that they could have developed where we find them."
"Then where the dooce did they drop from?" asked Lord John.
"A question which will, no doubt, be eagerly discussed in every scientific society in Europe and America," the Professor answered.
"My own reading of the situation for what it is worth—" he inflated his chest enormously and looked insolently around him at the words—"is that evolution has advanced under the peculiar conditions of this country up to the vertebrate stage, the old types surviving and living on in company with the newer ones.
Thus we find such modern creatures as the tapir—an animal with quite a respectable length of pedigree—the great deer, and the ant-eater in the companionship of reptilian forms of jurassic type.
So much is clear.
And now come the ape-men and the Indian.
What is the scientific mind to think of their presence?
I can only account for it by an invasion from outside.
It is probable that there existed an anthropoid ape in South America, who in past ages found his way to this place, and that he developed into the creatures we have seen, some of which"—here he looked hard at me—"were of an appearance and shape which, if it had been accompanied by corresponding intelligence, would, I do not hesitate to say, have reflected credit upon any living race.
As to the Indians I cannot doubt that they are more recent immigrants from below. Under the stress of famine or of conquest they have made their way up here.
Faced by ferocious creatures which they had never before seen, they took refuge in the caves which our young friend has described, but they have no doubt had a bitter fight to hold their own against wild beasts, and especially against the ape-men who would regard them as intruders, and wage a merciless war upon them with a cunning which the larger beasts would lack.
Hence the fact that their numbers appear to be limited.
Well, gentlemen, have I read you the riddle aright, or is there any point which you would query?"
Professor Summerlee for once was too depressed to argue, though he shook his head violently as a token of general disagreement.
Lord John merely scratched his scanty locks with the remark that he couldn't put up a fight as he wasn't in the same weight or class.
For my own part I performed my usual role of bringing things down to a strictly prosaic and practical level by the remark that one of the Indians was missing.
"He has gone to fetch some water," said Lord Roxton.
"We fitted him up with an empty beef tin and he is off."