|Cryptozoology, BioForteana, Zoological Oddities, Unusual Natural History|
Thomas Charles Sloane
Sheldon, my associate in the strange adventure I am about to relate, was an ex-Army officer, who, in some Indian campaign, had been shot through the knee, the injury producing a permanent lameness. By reason of this disability he had retired with honour from the service some years before our acquaintance began.
He was a large, powerful man, with a vigour of speech and manner which conveyed the impression of strong virility. His forehead was seamed with an ugly scar which, I understood, had been inflicted by some scalp-taking savage. I presently discovered that his mind, direct and soldierly, possessed a marked vein of poetry and that the rough camp-life on the frontier had not obliterated a delicacy of feeling and an exquisite taste for the beautiful and marvellous which, in hours of repose, lent flavour and entertaining variety to his conversation.
It was this circumstance, coupled with his military experience, which soon led us in the Gun Club to follow his lead in many matters, and when he suggested an autumn excursion into the mountains of Virginia for turkey and other game, we readily took up the idea. It thus happened that late in October, 1900, we found ourselves at the little station of Brownhills, where we were met by Hank Bowls, who was to act as guide and chief huntsman for the party.
It had been arranged that we should take up quarters in an old Log house some twenty miles distant, in the very heart of a mountainous, wooded region.
At nightfall of the following day we reached our destination. Though the old house had been put in some repair for our reception, the collapse of the chimney rendered a fire impossible, so we were obliged to establish our kitchen in the open air. While reconnoitring with this object in view my attention was specially attracted by a tall hickory at the side of the house, the limbs of which partly overhung the roof.
Some hours after we had turned in we were all wakened by a shout from Cummings who, I discovered on sitting up in my bunk, was standing in the middle of the room, gazing intently at the rafters.
What in Heaven's name is the matter with you, doctor?" I called, leaping to the floor.
Before Cummings could reply, a low, ominous growl, accompanied by a sniffing sound, came down from the roof.
"A panther!" cried Hank. "I reckon it's the same that carried off Dobbin's calf last weekand he's a big one! Hold up!" he shouted, grasping Cummings by the shoulder, as the doctor was making for the door. "Don't go out, or the brute will be upon you, teeth and claws!"
The panther, if panther it was, which had remained silent during this monologue, sniffed and growled again in the same low, menacing manner, as if resenting Hank's untimely interference; and I noticed by the sound that he had shifted his position to a point almost over the door.
Sheldon, who had seized a lantern, now began to grope about the room in quest of a gun, and then I suddenly remembered that all the guns stood without at the corner of the house near the tall hickory I have mentioned.
"It's certain death to go out there!" declared Hank, positively. "The infernal brute will be on you like a thunderbolt in a fit!"
The brute without, irritated, no doubt, by the sound of our voices, now uttered a louder and more threatening growl, and we could hear his claws tearing at different parts of the roof, as though seeking the best means of ingress to his prey.
Without having noticed Sheldon in particular, I afterwards remembered that he had been the last to quit his bunk on Cummings' alarm, and had stood with blanched face as though petrified with terrorincommensurate, or so it seemed to me, with his character and the extent of the danger. Having mastered himself, he now seemed for the first time, to think clearly. Seizing a pillow of straw, he stepped swiftly to the door and stood with his hand on the latch listening, as though to locate the exact position of the panther, now tearing and clawing savagely at the roof. My blood curdled as I realized that the savage animal was exactly over my head; but before any of us thought of fathoming Sheldon's purpose he had cautiously opened the door. I saw the flicker of a match, and the next instant the blazing pillow held above his head, Sheldon leaped towards the guns.
The panther immediately ceased tearing at the roof above me. I could hear the scraping of its claws as it bounded towards the farther eave, where, with a scream of dismay it paused.
I dare say fifteen seconds elapsedto us it seemed a quarter of an hourbefore Sheldon reappeared, still bearing his shield of flame, but with two guns and a quantity of cartridges. Scarcely had he closed the door when I heard the panther drop to the ground, the next instant it threw itself with a yell of baffled fury against the stout timbers.
"Open on him!" cried Cummings, excitedly.
"The shot will never cut through the door!" retorted Hank. "But the rest of us can hold it against him while the Major fires through the crack."
While he was speaking we had placed ourselves in position, holding the door very slightly ajar. At the next attack of the furious animal Sheldon discharged his gun, as it appeared to us, into the panther's very throat.
There was a moment's silence. Then a long-drawn, rising wail, which pierced our ears like a knife. It was repeated across the clearing, again and again, at successively greater intervals, till it seemed to die away in the heart of the woods.
"He's gone!" said Hank.
"But not dead," rejoined Sheldon.
Cummings then told us how he had heard the panther alight on the roof, probably from some overhanging limb of the hickory.
A few splinters of wood below the eaves, the deeply-scored claw-marks in the rough door, and a slender trail of blood across the clearing and into the woods were the visible traces which the morning revealed of our savage nocturnal visitor. Hank, who followed the trail some distance into the woods, discovered nothing further. And so the incident closedbut for the consequence to which it led.
It had fallen to my lot to remain on guard during this first day, and with my nerves still somewhat shaken I was by no means displeased when Sheldon, excusing himself to the others, expressed his intention of bearing me company.
After sitting for an hour in almost unbroken silence, gazing listlessly into the woods, he abruptly asked:
"Do you ever imagine you have lived before?"
I parried the question,
"It is probable, Hossman, that you will think me unreasonably superstitious if I tell you that, like some doting old woman, I have been unnerved by a dream. A dream, too, which, like the wild imaginings of a drunken man, centres about a strange, unnamable, impossible monster, which by me and those with me seems to have been regarded with fantastic terror and reverence."
I waited, silent, knowing not what to say.
Presently he continued:
"In one shape and an other this dream has occurred three times. First, when I was at Tucson; that night my brother and his entire command were massacred on the Gila by the mountain Apaches! The second occasion was five years later, at Yuma: next day a despatch announced my wife's death in hospital in Philadelphia! Last night it came again, for the third time, and Cummings' cry of alarm seemed so confused with the cries of others from the world of shadows that I was scarcely able to shake off the horrible illusion that I was in the temple at Dion, struggling for my life before the God of the Caves."
He regarded me with a smilerather forced, I thoughtand paled visibly as he continued:
"One is seldom conscious in dreams of any circumstance antedating the situation in which one finds oneself, so that who I was and whence I came were things of no moment. I found myself traversing a path over rugged hills, scrambling amid blackened rocks, and diving into gloomy canyons, from one of which I presently emerged upon a broad highway and mingled with a throng of gaily-attired travellers, who seemed bent upon some festival, the import of which beneath the stratum of consciousness I fully understood. The way was strewn with fragments of red cloth and dyed quillsthe confetti of the carnival. A kind of screechy, querulous music was produced by those around me upon some reed-like instrument held to the lips, and here and there I noticed the coppery gleam of a weapon which some disarranged garment had exposeda circumstance that I marked with a feeling of interest. In and out through the throng ran groups of girls intent upon the pranks and merriments of youth, accosting with perfect freedom and entire absence of bashfulness any whom they chose. One of these young women, in passing, favoured me with a coquettish fillip upon the cheek, and as I caught the bright smile in her dancing eyes my heart warmed toward her, though I felt that some about me regarded the freedom with disfavour. A little later, on passing me again, she purposely slipped. As I aided her to rise I ventured to impart a salute upon her cheek, which was immediately suffused with a deep blush, though this, I fancied, was in no way due to resentment. Instantly, however, a tall, black-robed man near me turned, and, without warning, levelled a blow at me with a short axe of bronze. It narrowly missed my head, but caught my feathered head-dress, which fell to the ground; and I noticed that, whereas the heads of all were decorated with many-coloured plumes, none were red save mine.
"'Son of a priest!' muttered my assailant, in tones vibrant with hate, 'will not the fruits of the land suffice you that you must needs ravish the blossom?'
"Then another interposed:
"'By the fire of the Bird, 'tis Torqua and the daughter of Narbin! Put up your weapon! See you not that he flies with the red eagles of Dion?'
"With the easy grace of a courtier the speaker stooped and restored to me my fallen helmet, but as he turned away he spat upon the ground, and I knew that his hate envenomed the dust. Before I could acknowledge either the affront of the one or the mock courtesy of the other we were forced apart by those attracted by the incident, and I heard on all sides low-spoken words of reproof:
"The armed men of Narbinarmed in spite of the priestly edictwere on the road to Dion to offer sacrifice to the God of the Caves. If this offering were accepted, I knew that the blood of our order must flow around the altars and that a new priesthood would arise to minister among the people. If only they could be apprised before the hour of sacrifice, the crafty men of Narbin might be undone. I pressed forward, thinking to enter Dion in advance of the plotters, but soon found this hope vain; at every step some fresh incident revealed their numbers and their insolence. After having been pricked in the arm by the dagger of a stranger, without other provocation than the mere movement to pass him, I realized that I was walking under the menace of death, and that I was a prisoner, not, perhaps, in chains, but held far more securely by a thousand unspoken threats lurking in every glance and gesture of my companions.
"We were now approaching the city, its spiked and embattled walls already casting their shadows across our way.
"Before passing through the great gate I glanced toward the field of mounds, and observed with foreboding that workmen were busy upon the great mound of Chalma, which contained the tumuli of the priests. I wondered if the spirit of revolt had infected the officers of the city, for I knew that this mound was only opened for the reception of the most exalted dignitaries. My companions had by this time gathered about me in such a manner as to guard me on all sides, and thus intercept any communication, either by look or sign, which I might attempt to hold with others.
"Thus we reached the many-terraced slope at the base of which stood the temple. Through the gloomy portals we swept, and then, in utter silence and darkness, passing along its sinuous passages, we emerged at last into the great hall of sacrifice, said to be in the heart of the mountain. Here we prostrated ourselves, and in the hush, broken only by the half-audible voices of the distant priests, I ventured a stealthy glance about me.
"To the right, and far in front, sputtered and smoked the altar of invocation, near which stood a grey-bearded old man, of whose flesh and blood I was the sole surviving remnant. His voice alone must summon the God of the Caves. I hoped that by some miracle dumbness might fall upon his tongue, that it might fail to do its familiar office, and thus that the sacrifice might be for that day at least postponed. At no great distance yawned the cavernous way through which the monster god must come, and I strained my gaze to pierce the solid blackness, while my ears seemed splitting in the effort to hear the first soft beat of a muffled wing. To the left of this opening, in many loops and folds, hung the great scarlet curtain, behind which was solemnized the last mysterious rite, the translation of the favourite of Heaven, without pain or death, into the realms of everlasting felicity. Then the murmur of the priestly ritual suddenly ceased, and a clear, strong note from a shell trumpet pealed through the vast hall. In the train of its echo a thin voice rose:
"'O God of the Caves, we await thee!'
"Like the pattering sound of many raindrops, or the rustle of a million leaves, swelling into the deep, full tone of some mighty cataract, rose the murmur of the multitude:
"'O God of the Caves, we await thee!'
"Again that thin voice:
"'Out of the profound darkness wert thou born, O Winged Flame of Heaven!'
"And again the soft thunder of the response:
"'And thou comest to us as a light for ever.'
"At intervals, from some far-off chamber deep in the foundations, I could hear the distant beat of the drums with which the priests sought to persuade the reluctant deity, whose wont it was in time of displeasure to feign a deep slumber from which only the most vehement supplication might arouse him.
"At length out of the inky gulf there stole a faint phosphorescence, suffusing, very gradually, the satiny blackness with the hue of moonshine. Then a mighty, unearthly voice, as through a tunnel rolling, cried:
"'Let none look up!'
"The glimmer grew into a flood of pale, tremulous radiance, which streamed forth into the hall, illuminating the intervening space and touching hundreds of forms in the prostrate multitude. Then a rhythmic, stealthy sound, like the very footfall of Silence, crept around me, and in the awe of Eternity I pressed my hands to my eyes.
"When at last I ventured one swift glance, I beheld, suspended from the lofty wall, above and beyond the Veil of the Transmutation, a huge, bird-like shape, with great, extended wings, which shed a shower of mild sparkles as if bejewelled with myriads of fireflies. There it hung, slowly swaying, pendulum-like, to and fro, so that the lustre of its presence came and went in great, deliberate throbs of light, while its green eyes scanned with indifferent glance the levelled ranks of its mute, motionless worshippers. Whoever came beneath the spell of those mesmeric eyes, for him earth was at an end, for he was the favourite of Heaven, the groves of singing birds, in the pleasant valleys which are under the world, beckoned him to bask for ever in the shade of their immortal verdure. Thither would he be borne through the dark and bewildering mazes of the subterranean ways by the benignant but awful God of the Caves. For many minutes this silent, terrific contemplation continued, until my very flesh seemed to be quivering and tense. I wondered where was the elector of the sacrifice, for I knew such matters were all prepared beforehand, and that the favour and preference of the hierarchy were sure credentials to the favour of Heaven. Suddenly that thin voice rasped through the stillness:
"'O Seneschal of the Elect! has the blood of the youth of Dion turned to water that none dare claim thy approving glance?'
"A contagious sigh, like the stirring of some vagrant wind, rustled through the multitude. I felt my nerves relax, and with the return of ordinary perception I became aware of a slight struggle to my right, as though someone were being forcibly withheld. Then in hoarse, suppressed tones came the words:
"'Die, then, accursed fool!'
"This was followed by a gurgling, smothered cry, and, raising my head, I saw a form half rise on its hands and pitch forward, while an arm was suddenly withdrawn; before the form fell I saw the haft of a dagger in its back. At the same moment a slight murmur swept through the hall, and now, to my left, a slender figure had arisen and stood swaying in unison with the motion of the great bird.
"I became so absorbed in this singular pantomime as to forget momentarily the horrible incident I had just witnessed. Not for some minutes did I recollect and realize its significance. Meantime the slender figure continued its rhythmical movements, until from the green eyes shot scintillating gleams like the atoms of a dissolving emerald. Then, as the figure began to walk slowly like one in a trance, I perceived that it was a maiden, and it needed not the low comment of those about me to tell me it was the daughter of Narbin. Moving among the prostrate people whom she saw not, and who, in profound awe, made way for her, her charmed eyes riveted on that supernal form which now had ceased to sway, she reached the open space and passed beneath the Veil of the Transmutation. Then, guided by unseen hands, the great scarlet curtain fluttered between. There was a heavy swooping sound, a shimmering palpitation of sparkles as of the incandescent dust of meteors, then a long, loud, shrill, heart-shattering crythe God of the Caves had disappeared into the screened sanctuary!
"Not until that moment, when the men of Narbin were already on their feet and the vaulted dome seemed rocking with the acclamation of the multitude, did I comprehend the crafty manipulation by which, in the very presence of the pontiff, the daughter of Narbin had been substituted for the elector of the sacrifice, and the acceptance of the God of the Caves secured, as it were, with the sanction of the very priesthood it must annihilate, since their offering had not been deemed worthy. Once, in the days of Chalma, a youth, the pawn of some malcontent faction, had been wrested from behind the great curtain, and another, a priest of the reigning order, proffered and accepted in his stead. Might I not venture to re-enact this miracle of history? I saw the bewildered, uncertain movement of the priests, the consternation of my venerable kinsman. Already the black plume of Narbin was nodding near the altar of the invocation. I knew that the opportunity had comenay, was passingand rising with a new, fierce valour in my veins, I seized a spear, sprang forward, and rushed under the Veil. There I paused. The God of the Caves had descended, and now at my feet stretched one mighty wing, like a many-wrinkled gauze of gold, through whose translucent folds ran a complex network of red veins as in some gorgeous patterned fabric. The body, insignificantly small in comparison, lay huddled in the midst. By the rapid palpitation of its radiance and the eager, convulsive shuddering of its outline I knew that the daughter of Narbin was beneath. As I stood the creature raised its head, its beak dripping with the blood of a horrible repast and transfixed me with a long, steady gaze.
"Many moments must have passed thus. Then my blood, congealed at first with terror, resumed its natural flow and warmed in my veins till fear forsook me, and I would have approached nearer the magnetic loadstar of my being had I not shrunk from profaning with my foot the golden livery it seemed to wear.
"Suddenly a jeering voice broke in upon the spell:
"'Thinks Torqua to become the beloved of the God? Not you, aspiring youth, but at some future day, perhaps. For the God of the Caves has looked upon you, and none may cheat him!''
"At the same instant I was violently withdrawn by a powerful hand, and found myself without the sanctuary. What carnage was here! Around me lay the mangled corpses of a hundred priests, seized, weaponless as they were, and butchered at their own altars. The aged pontiff had fallen where he stood, and his bleeding headthe starting eyeballs glazed with horror and the mouth fallen open, with the silly tongue protrudinghad been thrust upon the brazen staff of his office and fixed to the altar of the invocation. The air still rang with the shouts of contending men and reeked with the odour of death; I knew that for the time anarchy was abroad in the city. Above me swung the copper axe of Narbin. I threw up my arms, for I possessed not even a dagger, and strove to flee. But 'twas a vain effort. Down hissed the cruel blade, ripping through my shoulder like the tusk of a mastodon, so that I stepped upon my own arm as I ran. Falling thus, I rolled under the stone chair of the pontiff, and ere the last blow fell, bringing the awful blackness of oblivion, I seemed again to gaze into two great green eyes, ringed with red circles and scintillating like portentous stars entangled in a palpitating cloud of moonlight."
As Sheldon finished this recital I found myself spellbound. His look, as of one who spoke from some inner prompting; the fervid flow of unaccustomed eloquence; the solemn mimicry of priestly incantation, and the swift expression of fear, reverence, and horror which impressed his features, were the words and actions of another age, through which I saw, as through a crevice in a wall, the violent political upheavals and barbarous pageantry of some prehistoric race.
.As he finished, he half turned, looking behind him. And I, too, found my eyes involuntarily seek the ground as if to behold the severed arm of Torqua, with its quivering fingers clutching at the tainted air of those ancient shambles.
When at last Sheldon recalled me from my reverie his ordinary manner had returned; but his words then I have since pondered long and often:
"We called it a dream, Hossman. Let us say, rather, it is a memory."
Not until the return of the others compelled my mind to move in other channels was I able to fully shake off the nightmare of antediluvian horror which the tale of Torqua's fate had provoked.
Hank, it seemed, had, at a point some two miles distant, unexpectedly come upon the trail which he had lost in the morning, leading through the bottom of a ravine into some rocky lair, into which, he believed, the panther had crept either to die or recuperate its energies. I was pleased to observe that Sheldon manifested a sportsmanlike interest in the narration. It was agreed by all that the courage and ingenuity he had displayed on the preceding night entitled him to the pelt, for those of our party best versed in woodcraft were convinced that the panther might be traced to its present hiding-place, and, if not already dead, easily dispatched.
Guided by Hank, we proceeded in company along the creek bottom, arriving without incident at the mouth of the ravine, where we easily picked up the trail. It was arranged to divide into three parties, Sheldon and I beating up the ravine, while the others skirted along the high ground at either side. By this means we thought that the panther might soon be started, while, if it endeavoured to quit the ravine it was certain to find a vigilant enemy on either hand.
A tiny fleck of crimson, visible from time to time upon some fragment of stone or fallen log, guided us for a considerable distance along the brink of a slender rivulet which had possessed itself of the bed of the ravine.
Near this point we began to climb among the bushes and rocks which concealed the course of the rivulet. A little way up the slope we found that the stream emerged abruptly from a slanting fissure in the face of the rock, and here a final bloodstain seemed to indicate the panther's last retreat.
We determined to explore the fissure, but before plunging into it Sheldon lighted the lantern he had brought in anticipation of just such a contingency.
Within, we found ourselves at once entangled in a mass of dead bushes which so choked the path that we were forced to wade in the shallow bed of the stream. The steep slant of the walls soon rendered an upright position impossible, and we were obliged at last to fall upon all fours.
Moving in this manner, we presently entered a sort of flume or sloping tunnel, so narrow that I began to fear we might become hopelessly wedged in. I was on the point of suggesting a retreat, when Sheldon, who was in front, with a laboured grunt and exclamation of relief suddenly moved freely forward. Following him with an effort, for I was by no means so active as he, I found myself able to stand, though still nearly knee-deep in icy water. When he had relighted his lantern, which for some time he had been carrying in his teeth, and which had been extinguished by the suddenness of his release from the granite prison, we found ourselves in a sort of grotto through which ran the stream we were following.
Though loath to oppose Sheldon, I yet shrank from prosecuting farther what now seemed to me a foolhardy quest: I remembered that night was at hand, that a heavy storm of rain was threatening, and that our companions were quite ignorant of our whereabouts. Another objection I was at the time ashamed to formulate: on the farther side of the grotto my eyes lit upon a tumbled heap of earth and rock accidentally fashioned into the shape of the head and open jaws of a toad, from which issued the stream like a greedy tongue ready to lick up a hapless insect. This excited in me a sensation of the most intense repugnance and fear.
Through the throat of this gigantic fossil-like structure we would be obliged to pass, and I felt it an omen of evil that Nature had provided the mysteries beyond with so forbidding a threshold. Undeterred by such reflections, Sheldon had already preceded me, and I presently heard him calling from the inner cave.
Thither with reluctance I followed, and soon entered a large chamber, the silence of which was intensified rather than broken by the tinkle of a slender waterfall, a leap in the course of the stream which, after all, had an exterior source, and entered the cave in this manner from some point above.
Finding nothing here, we continued our search for some distance, until we came to a splintered and jagged parapet overlooking what appeared to be a vast gulf of impenetrable gloom, into which the original wall might at some remote period have fallen. Leaning over this, we discovered, by the aid of the lantern, a wide-spreading declivity thickly strewn with loose stones, but owing to our feeble light we were unable to guess to what depths it might reach. Sheldon wished to descend, but, yielding to my counsel, we determined upon a more careful inspection of the chamber in which we were, and in the course of this made a most singular discovery. Traced as if by a pencil of fire upon the grey surface of the rock was the blackened outline of a colossal bat, with wings widely extended as though clinging to the wall. After some scrutiny I fancied it bore an exaggerated resemblance to pictures and descriptions I had seen of an ancient monster, the pterodactyl. It was almost as though one of those creatures had reposed upon the spot.
To my conjecture Sheldon replied with many eager questions, though he forebore to allude to an idea which I now believe was in his mind as well as my ownnamely, the resemblance of the tracing to the monster of his dream.
Although this Satanic portrait was probably nothing more than a fantastic accident, it seemed to hold our attention with so gruesome an interest that I quite lost count of time, until, suddenly, my ear was impressed by an unusual sound. The tinkling waterfall had changed its tone: the tiny rivulet was now a brawling stream. It needed little reflection to explain this. The storm without had at last broken, and now, from the heights above, a thousand rivulets were all streaming together into their wonted channel.
Filled with alarm, I hurried to the outer grotto, where I found what I dreaded. The tunnel through which we had squeezed our way had become the flume of a copious torrent, and all thought of egress in that direction was now out of the question: we would, without doubt, be prisoners for some hours!
This dilemma apparently rather pleased Sheldon than otherwise, though he professed much regret. His words however had a ring of insincerity about them, and were, or so I imagined applied rather to me than to himself. Almost immediately he returned to the contemplation of the outlines so strangely burned upon the wall, and his growing abstraction and the look of concentration in his eyes filled me with vague apprehension so that I felt an inexplicable sensation of relief when he suddenly broke silence.
"Well, Hossman, I like the poster; suppose we wait for the play?"
Knowing that we must have several hours before us, and not being over-fond of the mood which Sheldon's sinister raillery betokened, I was not loath to join him in a further exploration of the cavern.
Returning, therefore, to the parapet, we began to pick our way among the loose fragments of rock which covered the declivity. One of these, slipping from beneath my foot, after rolling for several seconds struck at the bottom with a bound and plunged with a hollow splash into some invisible water. Other pieces dislodged by its descent began to grind and slide threateningly, and, fearing a granite avalanche, we bore off in haste to the left, and soon reached a wide platform freer from débris, from which a short, steep slope reached to the edge of a dark pool.
So murky was the water that it received the ray of the lantern with scarce a glint, and, but for the plunging stones, we might have supposed ourselves on the brink of a bottomless volcanic shaft. This pool I afterwards discovered to be of great extent; but, although my feet circumscribed the whole circuit of its infernal shores, I am to this day unable to guess its exact size.
Before continuing our course I made a careful survey of our position trying to fix any prominent peculiarities well in mind. Moving a large stone into a conspicuous position, I leaned my gun against it for a landmark, it being apparent this maw of darkness might conceal some immeasurable labyrinth.
As usual Sheldon preceded me, bearing the lantern above his head. In this manner we proceeded for more than an hour. I began to think that the circuit of the lake must be nearly completed, and now scanned the reaches ahead in momentary expectation that the next cape in the irregular shore must bring into view some mark of our starting-place.
While thus engaged my eye was arrested by what seemed to be a reflection of the lantern from the surface of the lake at a considerable distance. After a little, observing this with greater intentness, I felt my limbs suddenly stiffen with weird fearfor these eccentric movements were not those of Sheldon's lantern. Who then, or what was it, moving off there through the thick gloom above the black waterhere and there, to and froin quick lines and slowly-executed circles, like some erratic star bewildered in a universal night and wandering through pathless space? Then I noticed its pulsating glimmer as of a firefly, and the Horror that has no name clutched at my throat. Was the creature of Sheldon's dream cruising upon this inky sea? Was this the infernal bird of the caves that glutted its craw with the flesh and blood of human sacrifice? Were we in the presence of the winged reptile, fit accomplice of canting hypocrisy and priestly oppression, in whose name unknown millions had sunk degraded to the mud and expired in despair?
On slid the accursed thing through many moments of wavering and objectless flight, and when at length it neared the shore it was far behind us, so that I was unable to distinguish more than its luminous outline.
"Do you know whom it is seeking?" asked Sheldon.
Poor wretch! I had almost forgotten his existence. Now I realized in an instant what an evil moment had befallen us.
Turning, I grasped his arm. Even as I did so, his gun, slipping from his nerveless hand, splashed into the water. I reached after it, and thrust in my arm to the shoulder; then, clutching by the brink, lowered myself, feet foremost, and felt for the bottom. If only it had caught on some projection of the side!
How vain was my hope! In that black hole there was neither side nor bottom!
Fortunately, we still had the lantern. Seizing Sheldon, who now lagged limply behind, I pressed forward. If we but could find the other gun, this devilish divinity which had outlived the youth of the world and the evil age of its own sway might be shorn of its terror for all time.
That we were in the haunt of a living pterodactyl I was certain; and equally certain was it that the creature was able amid the darkness to light its own path. Then, I reflected, after all, Nature abounded with creatures similarly able to emit a luminous phosphorescence. Though this was not a known property of the pterodactyl, yet there was little very startling in the discovery, nor was it strange that this attribute, linked to its forbidding aspect, should have powerfully impressed the hearts and minds of primitive men.
Suddenly all trace of the phosphorescence vanishedhidden, no doubt, by some intervening spur. The creature had disappeared on the shore between us and the cave.
That cave! I shuddered with uncontrollable terror as the shadow seared upon its wall recurred to my imagination.
As my excitement gradually abated I felt more and more the encumbrance of Sheldon's fainting steps. I had half borne him, as it seemed, an interminable mile, and still there was no sign of the stony slope or the gun at its foot. The character of the shore, too, had changed; the comparatively smooth ledge which overlapped the lake had given way to great broken steps, over which we climbed with great labour, and I was now continually obliged to assist my companion, who seemed to lack all energy for any effort. Against my judgment, I was forced to admit that he needed repose, and while in this mind I came upon a deep sort of recess in the rock well suited to the purpose.
Entering this I obliged him to lie down, and, having extinguished the lantern, I placed myself at the portal. After some time Sheldon fell asleep, and I heard him muttering broken words and phrases of a strange tongue. Then I, too, overcome by weariness, nodded into that calm which resembles death in all but the- awakening.
I am convinced that I had not slept for more than ten minutes at the outside when I started up. My first thought was of Sheldon. He was not there! I felt for the lantern. It, too, was gone! About me the darkness lay dense as a velvet pall, and a terrible thought burned into my brain. In this fearsome place Sheldon had deserted me! Once, only, I called:
Though I stifled my very heartbeats to listen, no responsive sound came to my listening sense.
The situation was fraught with the most dreaded perplexities. Yet I must live and to live I must go on.
Creeping upon my hands and knees along the edge of the rocks, I groped my way for endless minutes, rising many feet above the lake, until the bones of my knees cut through the flesh and my palms were raw from the rough stones.
Suddenly this miserable progress was stopped. A great rock rose before me, lying full to the verge. I stood up to lean against it, but immediately recoiled. At my pressure it had yielded!
Filled with a new dread, I began to creep around it, and had moved but a few yards when, with my right hand advanced like the hoof of an animal, my left suddenly slipped from beneath me. Clutching desperately at the edge, with a superhuman effort I brought myself back to an erect position. I had all but fallen over the brink. How was this? I had followed the brink on my right; here was another on my left!
A little reflection dispelled the mystery. The great table along which for the last hour I had hobbled and crept here ended in a slender point. What was beneaththe shore or the lake?
I lit a precious match and held it till the flame burned to the finger, peering intently downwards into the gloom.
I could discover nothing. The abyss into which I had all but fallen was bottomless! I felt well-nigh paralyzed with the peril of my position. My brain grew giddy; the whirling darkness was streaked with fire. I flattened myself upon the ground and shrank against the unstable rock. The poise of its enormous mass was disturbed. It lurched heavily, grinding on the edge, then tumbled headlong.
Seconds of awful suspense ensued. Then up from the depths came a far-off, hollow boom. Tremors shook the ground again and again. Then, what sickening sensation was this? The earth moved; it slid, grinding and rasping, into the thundering depths; jarred, as though from the heaving shoulder of a struggling giant, I was hurled many yards into the water.
Dazed and astounded though I was, terror gave me strength and despair courage. I swam for my life, though the lake was rocked with great billows; but when I had reached the shore I feared to climb upon it. I believed that the abyss which separated the lake from the rocky table along which I had journeyed had closed. What effect would this settling of the foundations have upon the walls around? After long waiting through minutes devoid of incident I clambered up and sank in utter exhaustion upon the ledge.
Listening to the restless lapping of the still unquiet water, the torpor of fatigue enchained my senses, and, in a horrible waking dream, Torqua, with the epaulettes of a soldier, and Sheldon, with the cunning face of a priest, peered down upon me out of the hooded darkness, until at last they seemed to lean together above my body and blend in one. Then a thin voice cried:
"Out of the darkness wert thou born, O Winged Flame of Heaven!"
Immediately many murmurs, that seemed to be rolling and reverberating through vast aisles, made answer:
"And thou comest to us as a light for ever!"'
Again that horrible thin voice:
"Is the blood of the youth of Dion turned to water"
And againthis time louder:
Surely that was not the voice of a dream, nor the cry of a wraith in the caves of the ghosts? I sat up and listened. A far-off sound, like the dull crack of a whip, came to my ears.
Sheldon! Surely that was Sheldon, and he had found the gun!
In a voice so shaken that the sound went wavering on like a succession of broken echoes, I gave an answering "Halloa!"
The silence was dumb.
"Sheldon!" I shrieked, mustering all my strength into one great cry.
Then came an answer, distant and indistinctbut it was no echo.
Forgetful of the darkness, of the abyss, of the insidious monster whose reptile presence had chilled and tainted the air about me, I hurried forward, careless alike of path or obstacle. Suddenly, turning an angle of the shore, I stopped in astonishment. Scarce a hundred yards away, dazzling the air with brandished lanterns were two figures. As I paused, they shouted.
I could hardly believe my eyes. Neither of the figures was that of Sheldon. Instead, Cummings and Hank stood before me. Me they had not discovered in the darkness, and I saw that they both faced in another direction. Shouting out as I advanced, I hurried forward.
Cummings and Hank barely turned to recognise me. Then the former, in a voice hoarse with excitement. exclaimed:
"In Heaven's name, Hossman, what is that?"
Moving from beneath a projection, of which in the gloom I had been unaware, I gazed upward. At about two hundred yards distance, to the left poised in space and sowing the air with rills of pale radiance, hung the pterodactyl; it was so near that the low humming of the wings was quite audible. In such wise did it maintain itself that it seemed scarce to move, being intent upon some object beneath which was beyond our vision.
Hanging thus in mid-air, the mighty sweep of its lambent wings, over the edge of which protruded its gleaming clawsthe cruel set of its crocodile mouth tense with the strain of a devilish concentrationthe ominous poise of its enormous head, and the curve of its snake-like neckall were such as might well inspire terror in mere mortals.
As I stared with fascinated gaze I presently became conscious that it was very gradually moving towards us as though pulling on some invisible cord.
Then, O horror! above the rocky shoulder of a cape we had passed some hours before now made visible by this infernal light, appeared the face of a man!
"Sheldon!" gasped Cummings.
Climbing, with uplifted eyes, Sheldon, for it was indeed he, mounted to the crest. Then extending his arms as if in supplication, we distinctly heard the invocation of the priests of Dion
"O God of the Caves, we await thee!'''
"What is he saying?" muttered Hank.
The pterodactyl, with a sudden movement drew back in such a manner as to fully expose its body and blunt tail, spotted and ringed with phosphorescent dots as though clad in a cuticle of fire.
"It's going to drop. Sheldon! Sheldon!! Sheldon!!!" shrieked Cummings.
At his shoulder Cummings held a gun, and almost with the cry came the report. But the bullet sped far below its mark, and found another for which it was never intended. I saw Sheldon starthalf turn, sway where he stood, thenpitch forward into the lake. At the same instant, like a meteor, down darted the pterodactyl, clapping the water with its wings. Then rising, with a discordant screech of fury, it spun round and round in a rage of disappointment, until, perceiving us, it suddenly turned full on us, its green eyes aflame with vengeance, snapping its ponderous jaws with incredible speed the while, and hissing like an enraged goose as it sped towards us.
"It's the Vulture of Hell!" screamed Cummings, throwing aside his gun. Bounding up the stony slope with the agility of a hare, he disappeared.
Through all this I had stood without the power of motion, beads of agonized sweat bursting from my very brain it seemed.
Now, with no time for retreat, I dropped to the ground and concealed myself beside the very rock against which some hours before I had leant the gun which had just dealt death to poor, infatuated Sheldon. Here, unnoticed, I lay as the monster passed me in its pursuit of Cummings. In a short time it returned and began circling about above the spot where Sheldon's body had disappeared. As it passed over me a second time there dropped upon my hand a fleck of red froth, which I hastily wiped away. It must have contained a virulent poison, for from that momentary contact it has continued to affect me to this day.
To attempt to recover Sheldon's body was clearly as dangerous as it was futile. Therefore, with a low call summoning Hank from his place of concealment, we made our way by stealth up the slope, through the cave where was the portrait, and so out through the toad's mouth to the grotto.
Here Hank and I found Cummings lying unconscious. Between us we dragged and bore him through the flume, now comparatively clear of water, to the outer air; and there, with some difficulty, we revived him. But there was madness in his eyes, and I hailed the return of insensibility, when it speedily came, with a sigh of relief.
A little later, pausing to rest by a pool, I was startled to find that my hair was absolutely white.
That night Cummings raved incessantly, and we were obliged to guard him by turns. The next day, through a drizzling rain, we tramped to Brownhills and took train for our homes.
It was many weeks before health of either mind or body was securely mine again. Often, in the stillness of night, I would leap from my bed with cries of terror, living over again in dreams the awful experience which had brought to Sheldon death, to Cummings madness, to myself blanched locks.
Two years later Dr. Cummings died in a sanatorium. His attendant told me that at the last moment he fancied himself still fleeing from a great, winged monster of fire, which in his ravings he called the Vulture of Hell.
It has been conjectured that some creatures of the reptile world may hibernate for ages. If so, perchance in some dark, silent abyss the pterodactyl sleeps still.
Of that remarkable infatuation which Sheldon had termed a memory little may be said. As for the weird fatality of his career, which has made the dream of one life and the climax of another so closely coincide, it has never ceased to excite the marvel of my mind. Fancy has wrought in me his epitaph, and much musing has made the thought less strange:
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