By this, no doubt, both ape-men and Indians had at different epochs reached the top, and Maple White with his companion had taken the same way.
Only the year before, however, there had been a terrific earthquake, and the upper end of the tunnel had fallen in and completely disappeared.
The Indians now could only shake their heads and shrug their shoulders when we expressed by signs our desire to descend.
It may be that they cannot, but it may also be that they will not, help us to get away.
At the end of the victorious campaign the surviving ape-folk were driven across the plateau (their wailings were horrible) and established in the neighborhood of the Indian caves, where they would, from now onwards, be a servile race under the eyes of their masters. It was a rude, raw, primeval version of the Jews in Babylon or the Israelites in Egypt.
At night we could hear from amid the trees the long-drawn cry, as some primitive Ezekiel mourned for fallen greatness and recalled the departed glories of Ape Town.
Hewers of wood and drawers of water, such were they from now onwards.
We had returned across the plateau with our allies two days after the battle, and made our camp at the foot of their cliffs.
They would have had us share their caves with them, but Lord John would by no means consent to it considering that to do so would put us in their power if they were treacherously disposed.
We kept our independence, therefore, and had our weapons ready for any emergency, while preserving the most friendly relations.
We also continually visited their caves, which were most remarkable places, though whether made by man or by Nature we have never been able to determine.
They were all on the one stratum, hollowed out of some soft rock which lay between the volcanic basalt forming the ruddy cliffs above them, and the hard granite which formed their base.
The openings were about eighty feet above the ground, and were led up to by long stone stairs, so narrow and steep that no large animal could mount them.
Inside they were warm and dry, running in straight passages of varying length into the side of the hill, with smooth gray walls decorated with many excellent pictures done with charred sticks and representing the various animals of the plateau.
If every living thing were swept from the country the future explorer would find upon the walls of these caves ample evidence of the strange fauna—the dinosaurs, iguanodons, and fish lizards—which had lived so recently upon earth.
Since we had learned that the huge iguanodons were kept as tame herds by their owners, and were simply walking meat-stores, we had conceived that man, even with his primitive weapons, had established his ascendancy upon the plateau.
We were soon to discover that it was not so, and that he was still there upon tolerance.
It was on the third day after our forming our camp near the Indian caves that the tragedy occurred.
Challenger and Summerlee had gone off together that day to the lake where some of the natives, under their direction, were engaged in harpooning specimens of the great lizards.
Lord John and I had remained in our camp, while a number of the Indians were scattered about upon the grassy slope in front of the caves engaged in different ways.
Suddenly there was a shrill cry of alarm, with the word "Stoa" resounding from a hundred tongues.
From every side men, women, and children were rushing wildly for shelter, swarming up the staircases and into the caves in a mad stampede.
Looking up, we could see them waving their arms from the rocks above and beckoning to us to join them in their refuge.
We had both seized our magazine rifles and ran out to see what the danger could be. Suddenly from the near belt of trees there broke forth a group of twelve or fifteen Indians, running for their lives, and at their very heels two of those frightful monsters which had disturbed our camp and pursued me upon my solitary journey.
In shape they were like horrible toads, and moved in a succession of springs, but in size they were of an incredible bulk, larger than the largest elephant.
We had never before seen them save at night, and indeed they are nocturnal animals save when disturbed in their lairs, as these had been.
We now stood amazed at the sight, for their blotched and warty skins were of a curious fish-like iridescence, and the sunlight struck them with an ever-varying rainbow bloom as they moved.
We had little time to watch them, however, for in an instant they had overtaken the fugitives and were making a dire slaughter among them.
Their method was to fall forward with their full weight upon each in turn, leaving him crushed and mangled, to bound on after the others.
The wretched Indians screamed with terror, but were helpless, run as they would, before the relentless purpose and horrible activity of these monstrous creatures.
One after another they went down, and there were not half-a-dozen surviving by the time my companion and I could come to their help.
But our aid was of little avail and only involved us in the same peril.
At the range of a couple of hundred yards we emptied our magazines, firing bullet after bullet into the beasts, but with no more effect than if we were pelting them with pellets of paper.
Their slow reptilian natures cared nothing for wounds, and the springs of their lives, with no special brain center but scattered throughout their spinal cords, could not be tapped by any modern weapons.
The most that we could do was to check their progress by distracting their attention with the flash and roar of our guns, and so to give both the natives and ourselves time to reach the steps which led to safety.
But where the conical explosive bullets of the twentieth century were of no avail, the poisoned arrows of the natives, dipped in the juice of strophanthus and steeped afterwards in decayed carrion, could succeed.
Such arrows were of little avail to the hunter who attacked the beast, because their action in that torpid circulation was slow, and before its powers failed it could certainly overtake and slay its assailant.
But now, as the two monsters hounded us to the very foot of the stairs, a drift of darts came whistling from every chink in the cliff above them.
In a minute they were feathered with them, and yet with no sign of pain they clawed and slobbered with impotent rage at the steps which would lead them to their victims, mounting clumsily up for a few yards and then sliding down again to the ground.
But at last the poison worked.
One of them gave a deep rumbling groan and dropped his huge squat head on to the earth.
The other bounded round in an eccentric circle with shrill, wailing cries, and then lying down writhed in agony for some minutes before it also stiffened and lay still.
With yells of triumph the Indians came flocking down from their caves and danced a frenzied dance of victory round the dead bodies, in mad joy that two more of the most dangerous of all their enemies had been slain.
That night they cut up and removed the bodies, not to eat—for the poison was still active—but lest they should breed a pestilence.
The great reptilian hearts, however, each as large as a cushion, still lay there, beating slowly and steadily, with a gentle rise and fall, in horrible independent life. It was only upon the third day that the ganglia ran down and the dreadful things were still.
Some day, when I have a better desk than a meat-tin and more helpful tools than a worn stub of pencil and a last, tattered note-book, I will write some fuller account of the Accala Indians—of our life amongst them, and of the glimpses which we had of the strange conditions of wondrous Maple White Land.
Memory, at least, will never fail me, for so long as the breath of life is in me, every hour and every action of that period will stand out as hard and clear as do the first strange happenings of our childhood. No new impressions could efface those which are so deeply cut.
When the time comes I will describe that wondrous moonlit night upon the great lake when a young ichthyosaurus—a strange creature, half seal, half fish, to look at, with bone-covered eyes on each side of his snout, and a third eye fixed upon the top of his head—was entangled in an Indian net, and nearly upset our canoe before we towed it ashore; the same night that a green water-snake shot out from the rushes and carried off in its coils the steersman of Challenger's canoe.
I will tell, too, of the great nocturnal white thing—to this day we do not know whether it was beast or reptile—which lived in a vile swamp to the east of the lake, and flitted about with a faint phosphorescent glimmer in the darkness.
The Indians were so terrified at it that they would not go near the place, and, though we twice made expeditions and saw it each time, we could not make our way through the deep marsh in which it lived.