The Lost Continent: "Splendidly colourful, imaginative and gloriously entertaining." ~ Lin Carter
Atlantida: “Well imagined, with much scholalry detail on the geography of French north Africa and the classical literature on Atlantis. The narrative is fast-moving and hold's one's interest well. All in all, perhaps the best of the older Atlantis fictions..” ~Everett Franklin Bleiler, Science-fiction, the Early Years
The Toll of the Sea: “One of the better lost races of the period, with well-realized moments, a convincing culture, reasonable characters, and competent writing.” ~Everett Franklin Bleiler, Science-fiction, the Early Years
Queen of Atlantis: Much the best of the Atkins adventures.” ~Everett Franklin Bleiler, Science-fiction, the Early Years
When the World Shook:
“A really splendid romance, rich in color, fresh and gorgeous in its imaginative qualities and power, and needless to add, absorbingly interesting...” ~The New York Times (1919)
If you would approach the barriers that guard Kir-Asa, you must come in a boat of shallow draught to a shore that is mud unalloyed. Then you get out from the boat with a rope to tow it to solid ground if you want it for the return journey, and flounder knee-deep across the flats over which the tide washes.
Later, you come to a belt of coarse grass beyond reach of the tides, where land-crabs run about; beyond this is scrubby bush, then open grassland, and then jungle-clad, gentle slopes rise and fall, each ridge a little higher than the last. And then there is a long, slow descent to open, treeless marsh, where the waterfowl rise up in clouds at sight of a human form, and the mosquitoes swarm, pestilentially. It is three days’ journey from the coast to the nearer edge of this marsh, two days more of weary travelling across the marsh, and then the thick jungle begins again.
That way came Watkins, Bent, and I, Faulkner. Watkins—so he told us at the outset—had the tale of Kir-Asa and various landmarks from an old, old Dyak who had travelled far in his time, and whom Watkins met up in British North Borneo. He had persuaded the tramp steamer’s captain to bring us and our gear and our flat-bottomed boat down the coast, and to drop us off the mud shore. From the Dyak, he said, he had landmarks, which he would not describe to us, to bid him leave the steamer so as to strike the shore nearest to Kir-Asa.
As to food, we had no trouble either in the five days of dreary labour that took us to the jungle edge after we had secured our boat well above high-water mark, or, in fact, at any time in the expedition, except for such as shall be told in its place. There were three or four species of antelope, and wildfowl without end, and we had two rifles and a double-barrelled shot-gun in addition to our revolvers. Also we were not much troubled as regards water; our chief preoccupations were those of warding off fever and possible roving savages, though of the latter we had little fear until we had got through the marshy belt. It was no country to attract even a savage, but a misery to travel through and a matter for relief when passed.
Before the heat grew to torture, the morning of the sixth day, the jungle edge showed like a wall before us. We paused in the slush of the marshland, gazing, and suddenly Watkins pointed at what looked like a sunken gully in the forest top.
“The road to Kir-Asa,” he said.
It was as if, at that point, the jungle growth had failed, or as if it might at one time have been, as he said, a road, for though jungle creepers laced and twined there as elsewhere, there were no great trees—there was no evidence of heavy, monstrous forest growth such as luxuriated on either side of the road, or ravine, or whatever it might be. We floundered toward it, our boots squelching and sucking in the sodden marsh; all three of us were agueish, spent with the steamy damp of the last two days’ travel, and sore from the bites of many insects. Yet we were all heartened when Watkins pointed—the tale told by his old Dyak held good, so far.
So we came to the fall in the level of the jungle roof, and, before we reached the edge of the jungle itself, found firm ground beneath our feet. I paused and, turning, called to the others to look back; we were on a ridge, or causeway, which ran arrow-straight across the marsh, raised above the level of the water-logged land.
“Aye,” said Watkins, “the road to Kir-Asa. If we had struck it before, we’d have been here sooner.”
In making up our equipment, he had put in three of the big knives—in Mexico they call them machetes—with which one can slash through undergrowth, and now we found the need of these. By nightfall we had slashed our way about a mile into the jungle, following that lightening of the growth and absence of great trees that made a continuation of the slight ridge or causeway across the marsh. We made a clearing, built and lighted a great fire, and so camped. My hands were a mass of blisters from the machete handle, and I was stiff and shivering with the fever from the marsh lands. Bent was but little better, but Watkins, tough pioneer that he was, seemed as happy here as when we had first met him, a year before, over in Java.
“Ah, you boys!” he said. “You’ll harden off before you’re through.”
In the morning he pulled away creeper roots, and dug and fussed in the soft leaf mould down beside our fire, until he had a hole or pit six or seven feet deep—the stuff cleared away easily enough. At this depth he dug and dug with his machete point, flinging out earth and rotted vegetation until the machete struck and rang on something hard. With his hands he cleared a space about a yard square, or a little more, and, jumping down into the pit, we saw enough of his clearing to give us an idea of the nature of the road to Kir-Asa.
The little piece that he had uncovered was solid rock, laid in blocks of about a foot square that fitted diagonally to each other as one looked up or down the direction of the road—that is, the corners of the squares pointed up and down the direction in which we were travelling, and the sides of the blocks were diagonal to the line of the road. So perfect was the fitting of these blocks that a fine knife-blade could not have been inserted between them, and now we knew why only the lighter jungle creepers grew along the way. And this great work, we estimated, was not less than sixty feet in width.
I thought of the Forth Bridge, of the Pyramids, of St. Peter’s at Rome, of New York’s skyscrapers; I called to mind the great architectural and engineering achievements of the world, and knew them all for pigmy trifles compared with the building of this tremendous causeway, so solidly laid that in unnumbered centuries the jungle that had hidden it could not conquer or break it. If the mere road was such titan’s work, of what fashion must be Kir-Asa, to which the road led?
In the lower jungle between the marsh and our camps, only the existence of this road, preventing the heavier jungle growth from taking root, made it possible for us to cut a way—to either side the forest was impenetrable, except for an organised expedition with adequate means for clearing.
But, from the point of our camping, the way sloped upward, and as we went up the undergrowth thinned out until, save for slashing at a creeper here and there, we had free passageway through the gloom of the forest. For still it was forest; where the moisture was not enough to nourish the rank undergrowth of the lowlands, still the soil would feed the more deeply rooted trees which crowded on each other to either side of us, while our causeway, buried as it was feet deep in leaf-mould, still refused to support heavy timber, and nurtured only saplings and rank tropic weed.
Thus, the going having become easier, we made a dozen miles that day. An hour before nightfall we followed a game track into the wood on our right and found a drinking pool. Down by its edge Watkins cut a snake in half with his machete, just in time to save Bent’s life—the snake was in the act of springing when the blade fell on it, and, had its fangs reached Bent, he would never have seen sunset.
Having drunk our fill, and replenished our water-bottles, we went back to the causeway. There we built our fire, cooked our meal, and camped for the night.
“Why are we the first to come this way?” I asked Watkins, as we sat by our fire that night.
He looked at me with a slow, reflective smile on his lined face. “When I was in London,” he answered, “I met a man who had lived there fourteen years and had never been inside St. Paul’s Cathedral.”
I pondered this while he smiled. A lean, spare little man, attractively ugly, who if he travelled from Hong-Kong through the Straits to Auckland, could speak the tongue of nearly every native he might meet on the way; who knew all the customs of the East, and nearly all its legends—a man who had little liking for civilization, and a reputation for going on strange quests, like this of Kir-Asa. Such was Watkins, our leader and indeed our chief.
“I am not sure we are the first,” he said.
“Who else, then?” Bent asked.
Watkins shook his head. “Past my telling, as yet,” he answered.
We sat silent about the fire for a while. Bent threw on the flame more of the dead wood we had collected.
“The Pacific is full of legends,” Watkins said at last, “and the more one knows of native dialects, the more stories one hears. There’s the sunken treasure of the Pahenge River, and the jewels of the ruined temple of Mah-Eng, and the lost ruby mine in the Firesi hills, and I know four different stories of buried pirate hoards. Nobody had ever been to look for these things, as far as I know. A legend grows up on a little less than nothing, and people distrust it.”
Bent yawned sleepily. “How much farther have we to go?” he asked.
Watkins shook his head. “A day, a week, a month,” he answered. “I don’t know, and—does it matter? So long as game and water don’t fail us—the old Dyak I got this story from could only tell me how to find the trace of the road at the edge of the jungle, by the sinking among the treetops—I’d heard of the existence of Kir-Asa before.”
“What of it?” I asked.
“The oldest work of man left on earth,” Watkins said.
“But…” Bent put in, and paused.
“Well,” Watkins said, “our agreement was quite good enough for you when we made it—good pay for both of you for a year, or as much longer as the trip lasts, and twenty per cent apiece of any findings.”
“What are the findings?” Bent asked rather irritably—in spite of quinine, he was still a little under the marsh fever.
“Kir-Asa, perhaps,” Watkins said, “jungle and old ruins, bare rock, gold, crumbled tombs, decay, nothing—Kir-Asa.”
I had a feeling that he knew more than he cared to tell, though why, buried in the heart of the jungle, he should withhold from us any of the story that he knew, was more than I could guess.
I had met him, a year before, in Java, and had got to know him and like him better as I knew him more. About a month before we landed on the mud flats he had put the proposition of the quest before me, telling me even less than he told now, but offering good pay, and a year’s wage in advance if I accepted the proposal he made—which I was glad to do.
Before he came to me, he had found and fixed up with Bent on terms similar to those he and I made. He had done all the organising, taken command, and with a year’s pay to my credit I had set out with him and Bent, content in the knowledge that my pay was awaiting me at the end of the venture, and perhaps more than the mere pay. As to this latter, however, I knew nothing; I followed where Watkins led, and if the twenty per cent of findings materialised in any large way, so much the better. Meanwhile, I went on with an easy mind, except when snakes were numerous, as they were at times in the jungle undergrowth.
We came out, at about noon of the next day, through thinning growth to country resembling English park-land. There was rich, long grass, with scattered clumps of ancient trees, yet not so scattered that they did not hide the view at little more than a mile away from us. Our pocket aneroid gave us an elevation of four thousand feet, for the way had sloped upward in varying gradations since we left the marsh behind, and here the air was fresh and cool compared with the clammy heat of the lowlands behind us, although in reality it was still well above the normal warmth of white men’s countries.
Still the trace of the mighty road guided us. The clumps of woodland, scattered about this park-like expanse, left clear a way that went straight as a stretched cord for miles, up to a rise beyond which showed a great smoke that went up to the sky and wavered and broke in the wind that set in steadily from the coast we had left. Here, as in the jungle, the road had become overgrown and buried in the centuries that had passed since men used it, but the mark of its builders remained in that no trees had been able to root themselves in its massive paving.
We trudged on till near on nightfall, and camped by a line of deeper green in the long grass, where a spring oozed up from among the roots of a great tree to trickle away and lose itself to southward. It was Bent, I think, who tempted fate by remarking that we were unusually lucky in meeting neither savages nor anything more disagreeable and dangerous than snakes. There was a yellowish-green, hooded kind of snake of which we had already killed nearly a dozen since entering the jungle, of which, Watkins told us, the bite was certain death. So far, it was our only enemy.
Not that the land was deserted—far from it. That night, as I lay by the fire, the noises of the wild kept me long awake. I heard Bent’s placid breathing—he lay next to me, and Watkins beyond him—only at intervals, for there was the squealing and chattering of monkeys not far off, and the many cries of settling birds, until it was quite dark. Later there were grunts and roars and squealings—back toward the jungle we had left I heard the succession of noises that told how a tiger had made his kill, and until I went to sleep the bleating of antelope kids and the howls of jackals troubled the night. We were in a hunter’s paradise. It seemed.
I wakened early, and dozed again till dawn. We had for covering a seven by six waterproof sheet apiece, with a lining of fleece. It was very light to carry, and in that climate quite enough for warmth as well as full protection from the heavy dews. Wakening fully when the day had come, I threw off my covering and sat up. Watkins was rubbing his eyes and yawning, but Bent lay on his back, very still.
I stared at him, wondering if it were an effect of the light that made his face seem so pale beneath the tan of exposure. Even his lips looked pale and bloodless, and there was a chalky appearance about his cheeks that normally were so healthily tinged beneath their tan. I leaned toward him, and his breathing was faint as an infant’s.
“Bent!” I called.
He did not stir. Watkins sat up on his side and leaned over the sleeper. I saw him pull back the collar of Bent’s shirt and bend down close to his neck, and then he looked up at me.
“Get a fire going as soon as you can,” he bade, speaking so as not to rouse Bent. “We must boil him up some sort of soup—he’s had his veins drained by a vampire bat.”
I needed no second bidding, but had our tin can on a fire as quickly as possible, and chopped up a leg of buck that Watkins had shot the day before, to simmer and make soup. We left Bent to sleep until a rich liquid had simmered out from the meat, and then Watkins wakened him—he was weakly surprised at his own inability to sit up straight.
This, our first set-back, cost us three days. We rigged a sort of shelter for Bent, and, after the first day, gave him a twig to keep the flies off himself while we tended camp and amused ourselves as best we could. Watkins went searching vainly for a weed from which—so he said—he could make a tolerable substitute for tobacco, of which we had none left. I went shooting for the pot, an easy business, since the wild things here had never faced a gun before, and I think many of them had never even encountered man.
No incident of those days is worth record; on the morning of the fourth day we went on, Watkins and I carrying all Bent’s gear, and even then our convalescent found it hard to keep pace with us. Two tiny punctures already nearly healed, in the left side of his neck, were all that he had to show; had it not been for Watkins’ knowledge of the cause of his weakness he might have died, for it was my first experience of such a danger as this, though I knew the country was not innocent of vampire bats.
I have said that, from where we camped, the trace of the ancient road led on to a rise that hid what lay beyond. On the fourth day, in spite of Bent’s weakness, we went up to the crest of that rise and paused, for there the road ceased. There, it seemed, the way to Kir-Asa ended.
Abruptly, as we topped the rise, a great gulf yawned before us, its brink less than a dozen paces from the crest of the long ascent. It ran transversely to the line of our approach, and the farther cliff was not less than a hundred yards distant from where we stood. I can think of no better simile for that tremendous gorge than that it was as if some giant had taken a colossal wedge and split the rock foundations of the world as a woodman might split a tree.
From behind us the westering sun shone on the upper part of the gulf’s far wall; in the mother-rock were streaks of quartz and mica, so that the cliff looked like a mighty jewelled mosaic wrought by the hands of gods. To southward the chasm ran unbroken, precipice-walled, as far as eye could reach; to the north, it went to a horizon of tumbled, jagged rocks, from among which little pillars of smoke went up here and there. And beyond the cliff in front of us rose a heavier smoke pillar, the one we had seen for miles back along our way, though now as we stood at gaze the crater that sent it forth was still hidden by the great ravine’s far edge.
Watkins went forward to the brink of the cliff and looked over—while he leaned and looked into the gulf my heart stood still and I wanted to call out to him, but dared not speak. He turned and beckoned to me.
“Come and see what you think of it, Faulkner,’’ he bade.
So I went, nine paces of the dozen walking and the other three on my hands and knees, for from where we had been standing the ground fell a matter of six feet or so, to the edge where Watkins stood so unconcernedly.
I crawled to the edge.
“Hold my feet, Watkins,” I asked.
He promptly sat on my calves, grinning in his infernally cool way, and, so secured, I got my head over the cliff edge and looked down. I saw that though at the top the walls of the chasm seemed perpendicular, yet the cleft appeared to narrow as it went down to a dimness where—I judged it somewhere between five and eight hundred feet—the daylight failed to penetrate. Yet, in spite of this impression—or illusion—of less width of cleavage in the depths, the rock face down which I looked went sheer away until lost in obscurity. And faint and far down I could hear the splash of running water, while it seemed to me that a mist clouded the darkness into which I gazed.
I drew back, and Watkins, releasing my legs, crawled up again to where Bent sat waiting the fruits of our investigation. Watkins followed me slowly, and glancing back at the gulf.
“What I want to know,” Bent said peevishly, “is what breed of fool built a road like that to a hole like this.”
Watkins pointed across to the farther cliff, and there at its edge a curved depression showed, like the hump of a macadamised road seen in section. It was opposite and corresponding with the trace of the way we had followed.
“This gulf has been made by an earthquake, or some convulsion, since the road was built,” he said. “When the road was laid down it went straight westward from Kir-Asa to the coast. But our main problem is not how the road was made—we have to join up with the other end of it over there—the problem is how to cross this.”
And, with a gesture, he indicated the great chasm that barred our way.
Since Bent was still weak from loss of blood, we agreed to camp without trying to push on farther that day. We had had a drink and refilled our water-bottles at a spring I found three or four miles back—it was a trickle similar to that by which we had made our preceding camp. With nearly a quart of water apiece, and the cool of the evening coming, we counted ourselves safe as regards thirst, so we moved back about a quarter of a mile from the ridge to a clump of trees, and there built us a fire to cook the half haunch of buck that remained to us for food. Watkins was much concerned about the absence of vegetable food, I remember.
“We shall all get scurfy and pimply and evil-tempered,” he declared. “An unrelieved meat diet is simply damnation, and since we got out of the jungle we’ve had nothing else.”
We had got our fire going, and chunks of the half haunch were grilling, when he made this announcement. I was bending over the fire, attending to the meat, and Bent lay a little way off, stretched at full length with his face upturned to the sky. It wanted then about half an hour of sunset, as nearly as I could judge—Watkins had the only watch that would keep good time; mine had gone wrong down in the marshes and Bent’s gained time so that he was forever setting it by Watkins. Still, on a trip like this, the exact time was not of much consequence.
As I bent over the fire, something came past my ear—psst!—into the heart of the flames. I saw Watkins leap for a rifle and work the bolt to drive a cartridge from magazine to barrel-chamber, and then he lifted the rifle and fired so closely past me that the explosion almost stunned me. Again he fired, and yet again, and then, still holding the rifle, he began to run.
It had all passed so quickly that he was charging past me before I had recovered from the shock of his first shot, and before Bent could get on his feet. When I had straightened myself and looked around, I saw two grotesque figures on the ground, about fifty yards away toward the great chasm, and Watkins was chasing a third who had nearly reached the crest of the ridge. Up there, at the edge of the ridge, this third figure turned as if awaiting its pursuer, with what looked like a slender stick raised to its face.
Watkins, whom I knew to be a splendid shot with a rifle, stopped to fire again; the figure on the ridge tottered, dropped its stick, then turned and disappeared toward the chasm. Either its arm was broken by the shot, or else the shoulder blade was damaged, for as it turned its arm that had held the stick fell and dangled uselessly. That it could still take to flight in spite of the terrific shock such a wound must involve spoke volumes for the physique of these beings who had come on us.
I followed, as quickly as possible, with the second rifle, leaving Bent to his own inclinations—I confess to having had a hope that, semi-invalid as he was, he would stay and look to the grilling of our steaks. Watkins disappeared over the crest of the ridge, and as I came up to sight of the chasm I heard his rifle bark again, but hollowly and faintly. In a few seconds an echo of the shot was flung back by the farther cliff, and then the two rock walls tossed the sound back and forth between themselves till it sounded like the rattle of marbles on a pavement, and finally died away. But of Watkins I could see nothing.
The point to which the figure he pursued had fled was three or four hundred yards to the left of that from which we had looked down into the depths. I went down gingerly from the ridge, and in fear and trembling lay flat and looked over. The mystery of Watkins’ disappearance explained itself at once. A little ledge, some eighteen inches or less in width, ran steeply down the cliff face, forming a sort of path; about thirty yards down that path Watkins was kneeling, looking into the depths as unconcernedly as if he looked out of a ground-floor window in a suburban villa.
“Hullo!” I called.
He looked up at me. “It’s a hell of a way down,” he called back. “I ought to have heard him crash when he bounced on the floor down there, but never a sound came back. Hold on—I’m coming up again.”
I drew back from the edge and waited, but it was fully a quarter of an hour before he came up, looking very thoughtful. We went back together toward our fire, and I felt grateful to Bent for having, as I had hoped, stayed to see to the cooking. He explained later that we had the two rifles, and as far as he could see we were two to one, so he judged that in his weak state he would be of little use to us—unless we called to him to come and take a hand.
We two stopped beside the second of the wild men whom Watkins had shot—the one farthest from our fire. He was a being streaked with paint, with a necklace of bones, and a slender tube—a blowpipe—dropped beside the recumbent figure. One hand was twitching feebly, and as my shadow fell across the man his eyes opened and glared up at me. He spat out some sentence that sounded weakly fierce, and even as he spoke drew up his limbs in a final convulsion, and so died. I looked at Watkins.
“What did he say?” I asked.
Watkins shook his head. “I don’t know the language,” he confessed. “It isn’t any dialect of the Pacific that I’ve ever heard—sounds more like a jargon derived from Aryan roots. I seemed to get two words—one was either ‘vengeance’ or ‘expiation,’ according to the context, and the other was ‘ghosts’ or perhaps ‘shadows’—it may have been a curse at you because your shadow fell on him.”
He prodded the corpse with his foot, indifferently, as if it had been that of a rat.
‘‘We’ve had a narrow squeak,” I said. “If it hadn’t been for your marvellous shooting…”
‘I knew we simply had to bag all three,” he answered, almost apologetically. “If that beggar I chased had got away, he might have brought a whole tribe down on us. Your escape, by the way, was a miracle. That arrow that went into the fire instead of into you would have put paid to your account in about ten minutes—these chaps all tip their arrow with the same sort of poison, no matter what dialect they speak. Let’s go and get some grub, unless Bent has frizzled the steaks to cinders.”
We went back to the fire, and saw as we passed that the other man, whom Watkins had shot first, was quite dead—the expanding bullet had taken him just under the eye, and, as is the way with that sort of ammunition, in its exit had blown the back of his skull away.
“After grub,” Watkins said, “we’d better tumble these chaps over the cliff, or else the jackals will give us no sleep tonight.”
It was a gruesome thought, but our appetites suffered not at all because of it. We polished off the meat, wiped our hands on the grass, had a sparing drink apiece from our water-bottles, and then Watkins and I lugged the two carcasses to the top of the ridge and sent them rolling down. We agreed between ourselves, now that human enemies had put in an appearance, that it was not enough protection merely to keep up a good fire. Between us we would keep four-hour watches, letting Bent sleep the night through, since he had not completely recovered from his loss of blood. We spun a knife for choice of watches, and Watkins calling “Point!” won, since the knife came down handle first. Then we went back to our fire, and threw into it the little satchels of poisoned arrows and the blowpipes, which we had not sent over the cliff with the bodies of their owners. There were a couple of spears which we let lie where they had fallen, half-hidden in the grass.
I settled down beside Bent, who slept soundly, as Watkins had elected to take the first watch. It was then hardly dark, and though the day had been tiring enough sleep was not for me. I could see Watkins sitting with the firelight on him, gazing toward the ridge; as I watched him, he got up and paced back and forth restlessly—he seemed, from what the glow of the fire showed me of his face, perplexed over some problem, for he frowned and shook his head at times.
So we alternated between sitting and pacing up and down until moonrise, and then I must have dozed. The moon was but a little way up from the horizon when he wakened me to take my turn at watching.
Our precaution, though wise, proved needless, for nothing more came to disturb us. Our fire kept off jackals and other prowling beasts, and the three wild men we had killed—or rather, Watkins had killed—had no followers, as far as we were concerned. When it was time I roused Watkins again, and this time slept without difficulty until after sunrise.
And there sat Watkins, frowning as he gazed into the fire. He looked at me and smiled as I sat up.
“I’ve been thinking,” he announced. “Last night, chasing that savage, I found what I came to find, and now I’m wondering whether to go on or turn back.”
I stared, wondering at his words. In the end he laughed.
“I’m quite sane,” he said. “Down that ledge there’s a sort of cave or recess in the rock. In the cave there are some bones and an inscription scratched on the rock.”
“Well?” I asked, mystified not only at the existence of a readable inscription in such a spot as this, but at its possible connection with the man before me.
“You asked, some days ago,” he said deliberately, “about our being first to come this way, and I told you I was not sure about our being first. I had an idea that a relative of mine had preceded us, and last night I found all that was left of him. But what he’s left—what he scrawled on the rock—makes me curious, and I feel inclined to go on, down the cliff.”
“Down that ledge?” I asked incredulously.
He nodded. “It’s not nearly so bad as it looks,” he said.
Now—it is a weakness that I share with most men, I believe—I hated to confess that I was horribly afraid even of looking over the cliff, but it seemed that the alternatives lay between confession of my fears and actually setting foot on that perilously narrow ledge. Mentally, I postponed the confession.
“I suggest that you come and see the statement of my ancestor, so as to assure yourself that I’m not guying you,” Watkins said. “And when we can come back, we’ll tell Bent all about it, and decide among ourselves whether to go on or to go back. It won’t take more than half an hour, and we can leave Bent to sleep until we get back here.”
Sitting comfortably there by the fire, well out of sight of those tremendous cliffs, I had a sudden access of courage. I told myself that if Watkins could crawl about that cliff like a fly going down a wall, I’d be hanged if I wouldn’t screw myself up to doing likewise.
“Right,” I said, and I fancy the ready acceptance of his proposal surprised him, since he must have known when he sat on my legs what it meant to me even to look down into the gulf. “Let’s start now.” For I wanted to get it over before my fit of bravery evaporated.
So we set out. By screwing up my resolution I managed to keep on my feet when we got to the brink of the cliff, and Watkins, preceding me, gave me a hand until I was safely on the sloping edge that made so dizzy a pathway.
“Don’t look down,” he bade—needlessly enough, for I dared not. “Keep your eyes on where your feet must tread, and try and think of any funny stories you know.”
But all I could get in my mind was that, to be grammatically correct, he should have said “try to think,” not “try and think.” I was about to tell him this when he came to the cave or recess in the rock wall of which he had spoken. It was a cleft like an inverted V with a fiat floor on which was a confusion of bones—a skull among them, minus the lower jawbone—and some rusted bits of metal, including the barrel and trigger mechanism of what I took to be an old muzzle-loader. There was, too, a rusty bone-handled knife, and there were some mouldering rags, and a couple of bone buttons. Here some civilized man had come to his end.
Watkins, without speaking, pointed at the right-hand wall as we faced inward to the cleft, and I read what had been scratched—I judged with some metal implement—in the soft rock. I transcribed the message from the penciled copy that Watkins made then and there:
“RECORD CONCERNINQ IOHN WATKYNS, HERMAN ROEDERER, CORNELIUS VAN VUUREN, DIRK VAN DEN HEUVEL, PETER SLUYS, AUTUMN 1768.
IN APRIL 1766 WE FIVE CAME SEARCHING FOR KIR ASA. PETER SLUYS WAS BIT BY A SERPENT IN THE FOREST AND WE BERIED HIM. BY GODD HIS MERCY WE PASSED THE TREMBLING BRIDGE THAT IS IN THIS GULPH AND CLIMBED TO THE PLACE WHERE GHOSTS CHASE WOMEN. SO IT IS NAMED. ALSO WE PASSED NANTIA THE WOMAN WHO RULES MONKEYS AND FOR MONTHS WERE PRISONERS IN THE LAND OF KIR ASA BEYOND THE WALL. THIS YEAR BEING FREED WE FLEDD AND RETURNED TAKING NOTHING OF THE PLACE BUT GLADD OF OUR LIVES.
“HERMAN ROEDERER AND DIRK VAN DEN HEUVEL WERE TORN IN PIECES OF THE MONKEYS RULED BY NANTIA. CORNELIUS VAN VUUREN ATE OF FISH HE CAUGHT IN THE RIVER THAT IS DOWN IN THE GULPH AND DIED MISERABLY AND I BERIED HIM. I IOHN WATKYNS HAVE CRAWLED HITHER FROM THE GULPH HAVING BROKEN MY LEG BY THE ANKEL AFTER THAT I HAD PASSED THE TREMBLING BRIDGE. MY POWDER IS SPENT AND MY STRENGTH AND HERE I SHALL DIE COMENDING MY SOUL TO MY MAKER.
“TO ANY WHO FOLLOW—SEEK OUT PHILIP WATKYNS OR SEND HIM MESSAGE TO CLIFFE BY ROCHESTER IN KENT THAT IS IN ENGLAND TO TELL HIM HIS BROTHER IOHN MET DEATH WITH XTIAN FORTITUDE FOR I KNOW THAT HERE I DIE ALONE. AND IF YOU FOLLOWING FOLLOW TO KIR ASA KILL NANTIA WHO RULES MONKEYS. I COMMEND MY SOUL TO GODD THOUGH MY BODDY WILL BE TORN OF BEASTS FOR HERE I DIE ALONE NOT HAVING POWDER OR STRENGTH TO FACE THE WILD BEESTS THAT ROAM THE PLAIN AND WITH NOUGHT MORE TO EAT. IOHN WATKYNS OF CLIFFE BY ROCHESTER IN KENT.”
Watkins finished his transcription, kneeling to read what was inscribed near down to the ground. I picked up the rusty knife and saw how, apart from corrosion, its point was worn down. With this tool “Iohn Watkyns” had inscribed his story on the stone, and the awful fate that the story pictured appalled me. Somehow this iron-nerved man had dragged himself up from the “Gulph” with a broken ankle, and here he had set himself to make this record in the knowledge that, foodless and disabled, he must wait here until pain and starvation left a lifeless body for the jackals.
Watkins, taking off his coat and spreading it on the floor of the cave, began picking up the bones that lay scattered about and placing them on the coat. I gave him a hand, and when we had them all picked up he took up the coat.
“Let’s get back,” he said. “This was a brave man, and we’ll do him all the honour we can by burying his remains decently. We can talk about his message outside—I don’t feel like it, here.”
“Neither do I,” I confessed. And so, Watkins carrying the bones wrapped in his coat, we made our way up to the top of the cliff. But, either because of the deep impression made on me by the writing in the cave, or because a danger faced is never so great as a danger anticipated, I thought far less of walking up the ledge that had cost me so much resolution to descend.
The bones that had been “Iohn Watkyns” were decently and reverently buried at a little distance from the top of the cliff, and we three sat round the ashes of our fire, which we had let die down. Watkins had intimated to Bent that he wished to have a talk before moving on, and Bent and I sat waiting while he arranged in his own mind what he wished to say and discuss. At last he began.
“When I bargained with you two,” he said, “I told you that my object was hunting and exploration, and that I had a yarn from an old Dyak about Kir-Asa. That was all true, but it was not all the truth. Back there where men are plentiful I had no wish to tell more than would get me two good men as companions on a trip like this, because—well, apart from all else, Kir-Asa may be really worth finding.”
Here he paused. I saw that Bent, nursing his knees, rested his chin on them and looked hard at Watkins. He had grown very silent, had Bent, since the incident of the vampire bat, and it seemed to me that he was hardly as grateful as he might have been for the consideration—even solicitude—that Watkins showed him.
“Now,” Watkins went on, “I’ve always had a liking for antiquities, and stories of strange places, but it was not till my father died that I had any opportunity of indulging my likings—I earned my own living from’ Darjeeling to Hong-Kong, and from there to Penang, and pretty much all over the islands. That’s not the story, though. Away at my home there’s a faded old manuscript diary that my grandfather’s great-grandfather kept. There’s not much in it of interest concerning him—his name was Philip Watkins, and he lived at a place called Cliffe, in north Kent.”
“It seems to me,” Bent said, as Watkins paused in his recital, “that you’re merely telling family history. I mean—this hardly concerns us.”
Watkins looked across at him. “When you’re a little older, and a little wiser, Bent,” he said coldly, “you’ll also be a little more patient. I’m not telling these details without reason—they link up with the grave we dug and the bones we buried—while you were resting—an hour or two ago.”
“Oh, well,” Bent said carelessly, “I apologise. Go on.”
“Bent,” Watkins said, and the word sounded like the snap of a steel trap, “I don’t take apologies that veil mere contempt or lack of interest. What I have to say involves a decision as to whether we go on or go back from here. I’m talking with a purpose, not to develop my lungs.”
There was some hint of the latent power in the man as he fixed and beat down Bent’s gaze. I found my admiration of him growing yet more—it had been growing all the way from the coast.
“I’m sorry,” Bent said, with more of conviction in the words, “and—I’m listening.”
“But Philip Watkins’ diary,” Watkins went on after a pause for thought, “had one interesting portion, which told of a brother, John Watkins, who came home from service with the old John Company, and brought back a story of a place called Kir-Asa. I’m not going to detail that story to you two now—it’s too incredlble. But, on the strength of the story, John borrowed five hundred pounds from his brother and came east again. Here he either hired or took into partnership four Dutchmen, and Philip got a letter giving the names of the four and saying they were starting with John from Batavia. And that was the last Philip ever heard of his brother.
“When I came East, I brought the knowledge of John’s starting out, and brought in my mind all he had told Philip of the nature of the adventure he contemplated. But it was not till a little over a year ago that I could get any mention of a place called Kir-Asa anywhere, and then I came on an old Dyak—you both know that part of the story. His directions brought us here, and less than a mile from here, Bent, I found the end of the story of John Watkins, together with his bones—Faulkner knows it. It was scratched on the side of a cave in which John Watkins died, and I’ll read it out as I copied it in the cave this morning.”
He read the inscription very slowly, and Bent listened intently. As he paused at the end, Bent put in:
“And now you intend to decide whether to finish here or go on?”
“Not yet,” Watkins answered. “I intend first to weigh up this message sentence by sentence, discuss it thoroughly, and then take the opinion of you two as to what we ought to do, though I think I’m pretty fully decided myself, already. But if you two don’t agree—if you’re both of one mind against me—well, it’s too serious and perhaps dangerous a matter for any but a majority decision to take us on.”
He took up the copy of “Iohn Watkyns”’ record again and studied it. “First of all,” he said, “assuming that we go on, we’ve got to get through that cleft in the earth—up and down the cliffs. We can save ourselves the trouble of searching for any other route—John Watkins and his party must have searched both ways of the cleft to see if they could get round it before going the way they did, and that’s the best, if not the only way. Agreed?”
“Agreed,” I said, and: “Assuming that we go on,” Bent remarked.
“We can tackle the trembling bridge, and what he calls ‘the place where ghosts chase women,’ when we come to them, as the record does not describe them in any way that would help us in preparing ourselves. Thus we needn’t discuss them till we know a little more about them. Agreed?”
To this we both assented without hesitation or comment.
“As for Nantia and her monkeys, old age has probably done her in and saved us any trouble, but it strikes me as a sort of guard over the place that may have been replaced or kept up—a big danger. That control of animals, when it exists among savages, runs in families and is generally handed down, and there’s nothing more terrible to face than a troop—or whatever the collective word is—of big monkeys. It’s something to watch and save revolver ammunition for, but since John’s party got through without damage, one way, with far less efficient equipment than breech-loading pistols, I don’t see why we shouldn’t get through.”
“If we go on, I agree,” Bent said.
“All this is assuming that we do go on,” Watkins said calmly, though I could see that the calm hid irritation. “Now, beyond the monkeys, the party that preceded us were taken prisoners, but were not harmed. That stamps the people who took them prisoners as something more than ordinary savages, who usually kill their prisoners after more or less torture—there’s a hint of trouble in their being glad to get away with their lives, but they did get away. Further, as I read it, they left behind something that would have been worth bringing with them—‘taking nothing of the place’—the record states, showing that there was something to take.”
He paused and looked at uis questioningly. We both nodded assent.
“As to the disasters of the return journey, we can’t blame Kir-Asa for them,” he suggested.
“I conclude Nantia’s monkeys belong to Kir-Asa,” I said, “and if so Kir-Asa is to blame.”
“If we go on,” he said, “we shall find out about that. Now, as to whether we go on or no, I’ve summed up all the record tells us. For myself, I think we’re forewarned to a certain extent, and there’s a chance of making good over our findings. At the worst, we shall probably have as good a chance of getting away as had the party before us, and at the best we may come back very rich men. And—I hate giving up a thing once I’ve begun it.”
“Watkins,” I asked, “what is Kir-Asa?”
“I know very little,” he answered frankly. “Philip’s diary that I spoke of—you must remember that it was written about a century and a half ago—tells the fantastic tales that came from the East in those days. But I judge it to be a very old city or place, Atlantean, perhaps, or even a survival from Lemuria, the continent that was before Atlantis.
“It may be just a relic of an Eastern state only a few hundred years old, though what we saw of the surface of the road points to something far greater. By what Philip’s diary tells, there are traces of Lemuria about the place—uncanny traces—but what he wrote, which is what his brother told him, may be only travellers’ tales. As to what Kir-Asa is, my own inclination is to go and find out.”
“And mine,” Bent said slowly, “is exactly the reverse.”
“Well,” Watkins commented, “perhaps you’re wise. But since you’re the youngest member of the party, and volunteered your decision before Faulkner had a chance to speak, perhaps you’ll state your reasons fully.”
“I believe,” Bent said, choosing his words with care, “that your ancestor was rather delirious with pain from his broken leg when he cut that record in the rock. His story of a place where ghosts chase women, and of a woman who could rule a herd of monkeys, goes a long way beyond probability. He says nothing definite about anything at Kir-Asa to make the expedition worthwhile, and I don’t like the idea of risking my neck on those cliffs, since it appears there’s no avoiding them if we go on, without some better prospect of a real profit accruing. It looks to me like a series of very grave dangers for the sake of what you yourself have owned may be only travellers’ tales.”
“There’s one bit of evidence to the contrary that I haven’t mentioned,” Watkins said, “and that’s the sentence spoken by the man I shot last night—you remember, Faulkner, when your shadow fell on him. It was nothing like the ordinary dialects of the Pacific, and it pointed to the existence in these parts of a totally different kind of race. In the same way as my ancestor’s imprisonment without harm of any kind points to the existence of some sort of civilization, as distinct from the savage sort of life you generally find about this quarter of the world.”
“Proves nothing, with regard to Kir-Asa,” Bent said doggedly. “Apart from the bit of road you uncovered, there’s no real evidence.”
Watkins turned toward me. “Faulkner—the casting vote?” he asked.
I think he knew what it would be. “I’m for going on.” I said. “If you turned back now. I should be forever hungering to come along this road again and find out what it was that we perhaps had missed.” .
After this there was a long silence between us, broken in the end by Bent.
“Well,” he said, “what shall we do about it?”
There was a hint of obstinacy in the manner of the question, as if he feared coercion and would resist it. Watkins considered his words very carefully in replying.
“Bent,” he said, “when we started on this trip you knew quite well it was no weekend excursion to a seaside resort, but a difficult and possibly dangerous task. I gave you to understand that much, as I did with Faulkner—when I bargained for your services. For my part I looked to get two sound men who would follow through any hells there are to reach our objective.”
“You yourself have owned that the objective is not only vague,” Bent interrupted, “but quite possibly non-existent. It’s a quest of shadows.”
“And does that matter two halves of a damn to you, under the terms of our agreement?” Watkins asked, suddenly exploding out of his usual calm. “On a trip like this anything short of absolute concord may spell disaster at any minute—one must lead, and it is for the others to fall in with the leading, so long as it’s fair and just. Your attitude breaks the concord, spoils leading. The fact that I, the leader, think it better to go on than to leave the possibilities unexplored ought to be enough for you, if what you said when you agreed to come counts for anything.”
“Frankly,” Bent said, “I don’t like the look of the thing. It’s as I said, a quest of shadows, a maximum of risk with a minimum possibility of profit.”
“Look here,” Watkins suggested. “Subject to Faulkner’s approval, we two will come back with you through the jungle to the edge of the marsh, back down to the low country where we began to cut a way. You can take either the shotgun or a rifle, make your way to the coast, and take the boat—you can work it on your own easily enough—and we’ll find a way to get off the coast when the time comes for us to want to. That lets you out, we two can go on, and everybody’s satisfied.”
Whether the proposal shamed Bent out of his attitude, or whether he feared to cross the marsh alone, I do not know. But he shook his head at the proposal.
“No,” she said, “the voting was two to one, and I abide by it. I merely stated my objections, and my views, but they’re overruled. With me it’s more a premonition of no good to come out of it than anything else—I’ll come with you to Kir-Asa.”
Watkins reached out his hand, and Bent took it.
“I’m glad we’ve talked it out and cleared the air,” Watkins said. “We can only tackle a problem like this in absolute agreement—there must be no divided opinions about it. And now it’s settled—we go on.”
We decided to make a day on the plain, shooting and cutting up for the pot, since it was pretty evident that the chasm would provide nothing in the way of food, and we did not know if it would take hours or days to reach the top of the farther cliff.
At noon, when the sun shone directly into the cleft, Watkins and I went and looked over the cliff edge; we saw, down in the depths, tumbling masses of pearl-grey clouds, which hid the floor of the ravine and prevented us from making any estimate of its depth, and again we could hear faintly the sound of water falling.
Beyond these things, our scrutiny added nothing to our knowledge of what we had to face. We knew that John Watkins had crawled up the cliff face to the little cave, if his “record” told truth, while we ourselves had found a way down from the edge to the cave. There was our path—no need to search for another.
Next morning, well stocked with cooked meat, we were ready to face the descent of the cliff.