In Search of the Unknown
At noon on the second day I disembarked from the train at Citron City with all paraphernalia—cage, chemicals, arsenal, and stenographer; an accumulation of very dusty impedimenta—all but the stenographer. By three o’clock our hotel livery-rig was speeding along the beach at False Cape towards the tall lighthouse looming above the dunes.
The abode of a gentleman named Slunk was my goal. I sat brooding in the rickety carriage, still dazed by the rapidity of my flight from New York; the stenographer sat beside me, blue eyes bright with excitement, fair hair blowing in the sea-wind.
Our railway companionship had been of the slightest, also absolutely formal; for I was too absorbed in conjecturing the meaning of this journey to be more than absent-mindedly civil; and she, I fancy, had had time for repentance and perhaps for a little fright, though I could discover traces of neither.
I remember she left the train at some city or other where we were held for an hour; and out of the car-window I saw her returning with a brand-new grip sack.
She must have bought clothes, for she continued to remain cool and fresh in her summer shirt-waists and short outing skirt; and she looked immaculate now, sitting there beside me, the trace of a smile curving her red mouth.
“I’m looking for a personage named Slunk,” I observed.
After a moment’s silent consideration of the Atlantic Ocean she said, “When do my duties begin, Mr. Gilland?”
“The Lord alone knows,” I replied, grimly. “Are you repenting of your bargain?”
“I am quite happy,” she said, serenely.
Remorse smote me that I had consented to engage this frail, pink-and-ivory biped for an enterprise which lay outside the suburbs of Manhattan. I glanced guiltily at my victim; she sat there, the incarnation of New York piquancy—a translated denizen of the metropolis—a slender spirit of the back offices of sky-scrapers. Why had I lured her hither?—here where the heavy, lavender-tinted breakers thundered on a lost coast; here where above the dune-jungles vultures soared, and snowy-headed eagles, hulking along the sands, tore dead fish and yelped at us as we passed.
Strange waters, strange skies—a strange, lost land aquiver under an exotic sun; and there she sat with her wise eyes of a child, unconcerned, watching the world in perfect confidence.
“May I pay a little compliment to your pluck?” I asked, amused.
“Certainly,” she said, smiling as the maid of Manhattan alone knows how to smile—shyly, inquiringly—with a lingering hint of laughter in the curled lips’ corners. Then her sensitive features fell a trifle. “Not pluck,” she said, “but necessity; I had no chance to choose, no time to wait. My last dollar, Mr. Gilland, is in my purse!”
With a gay little gesture she drew it from her shirt-front, then, smiling, sat turning it over and over in her lap.
The sun fell on her hands, gilding the smooth skin with the first tint of sunburn. Under the corners of her eyes above the rounded cheeks a pink stain lay like the first ripening flush on a wild strawberry. That, too, was the mark left by the caress of wind and sun. I had had no idea she was so pretty.
“I think we’ll enjoy this adventure,” I said; “don’t you?”
“I try to make the best of things,” she said, gazing off into the horizon haze. “Look,” she added; “is that a man?”
A spot far away on the beach caught my eye. At first I thought it was a pelican—and small wonder, too, for the dumpy, waddling, goose-necked individual who loomed up resembled a heavy bottomed bird more than a human being.
“Do you suppose that could be Mr. Slunk?” asked the stenographer, as our vehicle drew nearer.
He looked as though his name ought to be Slunk; he was digging coquina clams, and he dug with a pecking motion like a water-turkey mastering a mullet too big for it.
His name was Slunk; he admitted it when I accused him. Our negro driver drew rein, and I descended to the sand and gazed on Mr. Slunk.
He was, as I have said, not impressive, even with the tremendous background of sky and ocean.
“I’ve come something over a thousand miles to see you,” I said, reluctant to admit that I had come as far to see such a specimen of human architecture.
A weather-beaten grin stretched the skin that covered his face, and he shoved a hairy paw into the pockets of his overalls, digging deeply into profound depths. First he brought to light a twist of South Carolina tobacco, which he leisurely inserted in his mouth—not, apparently, for pleasure, but merely to get rid of it.
The second object excavated from the overalls was a small packet addressed to me. This he handed to me; I gravely handed him a silver dollar; he went back to his clam-digging, and I entered the carriage and drove on. All had been carried out according to the letter of my instructions so far, and my spirits brightened.
“If you don’t mind I’ll read my instructions,” I said, in high good-humor.
“Pray do not hesitate,” she said, smiling in sympathy.
So I opened the little packet and read:
“Drive to Cape Canaveral along the beach. You will find a gang of men at work on a government breakwater. The superintendent is Mr. Rowan. Show him this letter.
Rather disappointed—for I had been expecting to find in the packet some key to the interesting mystery which had sent Professor Farrago into the Everglades—I thrust the missive into my pocket and resumed a study of the immediate landscape. It had not changed as we progressed: ocean, sand, low dunes crowned with impenetrable tangles of wild bay, sparkleberry, and live-oak, with here and there a weather-twisted palmetto sprawling, and here and there the battered blades of cactus and Spanish-bayonet thrust menacingly forward; and over all the vultures, sailing, sailing—some mere circling motes lost in the blue above, some sheering the earth so close that their swiftly sweeping shadows slanted continually across our road.
“I detest a buzzard,” I said, aloud.
“I thought they were crows,” she confessed.
Sing, Caw! caw!’
—only they don’t,” I added, my song putting me in good-humor once more. And I glanced askance at the pretty stenographer.
“It is a pleasure to be employed by agreeable people,” she said, innocently.
“Oh, I can be much more agreeable than that,” I said.
“Is Professor Farrago—amusing?” she asked.
“Well—oh, certainly—but not in—in the way I am.”
Suddenly it flashed upon me that my superior was a confirmed hater of unmarried women. I had clean forgotten it; and now the full import of what I had done scared me silent.
“Is anything the matter?” asked Miss Barrison.
“No—not yet,” I said, ominously.
How on earth could I have overlooked that well-known fact. The hurry and anxiety, the stress of instant preparation and departure, had clean driven it from my absent-minded head.
Jogging on over the sand, I sat silent, cudgelling my brains for a solution of the disastrous predicament I had gotten into. I pictured the astonished rage of my superior—my probable dismissal from employment—perhaps the general overturning and smash-up of the entire expedition.
A distant, dark object on the beach concentrated my distracted thoughts; it must be the breakwater at Cape Canaveral. And it was the breakwater, swarming with negro workmen, who were swinging great blocks of coquina into cemented beds, singing and whistling at their labor.
I forgot my predicament when I saw a thin white man in sun-helmet and khaki directing the work from the beach; and as our horses plodded up, I stepped out and hailed him by name.
“Yes, my name is Rowan,” he said, instantly, turning to meet me. His sharp, clear eyes included the vehicle and the stenographer, and he lifted his helmet, then looked squarely at me.
“My name is Gilland,” I said, dropping my voice and stepping nearer. “I have just come from Bronx Park, New York.”
He bowed, waiting for something more from me; so I presented my credentials.
His formal manner changed at once. “Come over here and let us talk a bit,” he said, cordially—then hesitated, glancing at Miss Barrison—”if your wife would excuse us—”
The pretty stenographer colored, and I dryly set Mr. Rowan right—which appeared to disturb him more than his mistake.
“Pardon me, Mr. Gilland, but you do not propose to take this young girl into the Everglades, do you?”
“That’s what I had proposed to do,” I said, brusquely.
Perfectly aware that I resented his inquiry, he cast a perplexed and troubled glance at her, then slowly led the way to a great block of sun-warmed coquina, where he sat down, motioning me to do the same.
“I see,” he said, “that you don’t know just where you are going or just what you are expected to do.”
“No, I don’t,” I said.
“Well, I’ll tell you, then. You are going into the devil’s own country to look for something that I fled five hundred miles to avoid.”
“Is that so?” I said, uneasily.
“That is so, Mr. Gilland.”
“Oh! And what is this object that I am to look for and from which you fled five hundred miles?”
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t know what you ran away from?”
“No, sir. Perhaps if I had known I should have run a thousand miles.”
We eyed one another.
“You think, then, that I’d better send Miss Barrison back to New York?” I asked.
“I certainly do. It may be murder to take her.”
“Then I’ll do it!” I said, nervously. “Back she goes from the first railroad station.”
In a flash the thought came to me that here was a way to avoid the wrath of Professor Farrago—and a good excuse, too. He might forgive my not bringing a man as stenographer in view of my limited time; he never would forgive my presenting him with a woman.
“She must go back,” I repeated; and it rather surprised me to find myself already anticipating loneliness—something that never in all my travels had I experienced before.
“By the first train,” I added, firmly, disliking Mr. Rowan without any reason except that he had suddenly deprived me of my stenographer.
“What I have to tell you,” he began, lighting a cigarette, the mate to which I declined, “is this: Three years ago, before I entered this contracting business, I was in the government employ as officer in the Coast Survey. Our duties took us into Florida waters; we were months at a time working on shore.”
He pulled thoughtfully at his cigarette and blew a light cloud into the air.
“I had leave for a month once; and like an ass I prepared to spend it in a hunting-trip among the Everglades.”
He crossed his lean legs and gazed meditatively at his cigarette.
“I believe,” he went on, “that we penetrated the Everglades farther than any white man who ever lived to return. There’s nothing very dismal about the Everglades—the greater part, I mean. You get high and low hummock, marshes, creeks, lakes, and all that. If you get lost, you’re a goner. If you acquire fever, you’re as well off as the seraphim—and not a whit better. There are the usual animals there—bears (little black fellows) lynxes, deer, panthers, alligators, and a few stray crocodiles. As for snakes, of course they’re there, moccasins a-plenty, some rattlers, but, after all, not as many snakes as one finds in Alabama, or even northern Florida and Georgia.
“The Seminoles won’t help you—won’t even talk to you. They’re a sullen pack—but not murderous, as far as I know. Beyond their inner limits lie the unknown regions.”
He bit the wet end from his cigarette.
“I went there,” he said; “I came out as soon as I could.”
“Well—for one thing, my companion died of fright.”
“Fright? What at?”
“Well, there’s something in there.”
He fixed a penetrating gaze on me. “I don’t know, Mr. Gilland.”
“Did you see anything to frighten you?” I insisted.
“No, but I felt something.” He dropped his cigarette and ground it into the sand viciously. “To cut it short,” he said, “I am most unwillingly led to believe that there are—creatures—of some sort in the Everglades—living creatures quite as large as you or I—and that they are perfectly transparent—as transparent as a colorless jellyfish.”
Instantly the veiled import of Professor Farrago’s letter was made clear to me. He, too, believed that.
“It embarrasses me like the devil to say such a thing,” continued Rowan, digging in the sand with his spurred heels. “It seems so—so like a whopping lie—it seems so childish and ridiculous—so cursed cheap! But I fled; and there you are. I might add,” he said, indifferently, “that I have the ordinary portion of courage allotted to normal men.”
“But what do you believe these—these animals to be?” I asked, fascinated.
“I don’t know.” An obstinate look came into his eyes. “I don’t know, and I absolutely refuse to speculate for the benefit of anybody. I wouldn’t do it for my friend Professor Farrago; and I’m not going to do it for you,” he ended, laughing a rather grim laugh that somehow jarred me into realizing the amazing import of his story. For I did not doubt it, strange as it was—fantastic, incredible though it sounded in the ears of a scientist.
What it was that carried conviction I do not know—perhaps the fact that my superior credited it; perhaps the manner of narration. Told in quiet, commonplace phrases, by an exceedingly practical and unimaginative young man who was plainly embarrassed in the telling, the story rang out like a shout in a cañon, startling because of the absolute lack of emphasis employed in the telling.
“Professor Farrago asked me to speak of this to no one except the man who should come to his assistance. He desired the first chance of clearing this—this rather perplexing matter. No doubt he didn’t want exploring parties prowling about him,” added Rowan, smiling. “But there’s no fear of that, I fancy. I never expect to tell that story again to anybody; I shouldn’t have told him, only somehow it’s worried me for three years, and though I was deadly afraid of ridicule, I finally made up my mind that science ought to have a hack at it.
“When I was in New York last winter I summoned up courage and wrote Professor Farrago. He came to see me at the Holland House that same evening; I told him as much as I ever shall tell anybody. That is all, Mr. Gilland.”
For a long time I sat silent, musing over the strange words. After a while I asked him whether Professor Farrago was supplied with provisions; and he said he was; that a great store of staples and tins of concentrated rations had been carried in as far as Little Sprite Lake; that Professor Farrago was now there alone, having insisted upon dismissing all those he had employed.
“There was no practical use for a guide,” added Rowan, “because no cracker, no Indian, and no guide knows the region beyond the Seminole country.”
I rose, thanking him and offering my hand. He took it and shook it in manly fashion, saying: “I consider Professor Farrago a very brave man; I may say the same of any man who volunteers to accompany him. Good-bye, Mr. Gilland; I most earnestly wish for your success. Professor Farrago left this letter for you.”
And that was all. I climbed back into the rickety carriage, carrying my unopened letter; the negro driver cracked his whip and whistled, and the horses trotted inland over a fine shell road which was to lead us across Verbena Junction to Citron City. Half an hour later we crossed the tracks at Verbena and turned into a broad marl road. This aroused me from my deep and speculative reverie, and after a few moments I asked Miss Barrison’s indulgence and read the letter from Professor Farrago which Mr. Rowan had given me:
“DEAR MR. GILLAND, —You now know all I dared not write, fearing to bring a swarm of explorers about my ears in case the letter was lost, and found by unscrupulous meddlers. If you still are willing to volunteer, knowing all that I know, join me as soon as possible. If family considerations deter you from taking what perhaps is an insane risk, I shall not expect you to join me. In that event, return to New York immediately and send Kingsley.
“What the deuce is the matter with him!” I exclaimed, irritably. “I’ll take any chances Kingsley does!”