In Search of the Unknown
Dawn came—the dawn of a day that I am destined never to forget. Long, rosy streamers of light broke through the forest, shaking, quivering, like unstable beams from celestial search-lights. Mist floated upward from marsh and lake; and through it the spectral palms loomed, drooping fronds embroidered with dew.
For a while the ringing outburst of bird music dominated all; but it soon ceased with dropping notes from the crimson cardinals repeated in lengthening minor intervals; and then the spell of silence returned, broken only by the faint splash of mullet, mocking the sun with sinuous, silver flashes.
“Good-morning,” said a low voice from the door as I stood encouraging the camp-fire with splinter wood and dead palmetto fans.
Fresh and sweet from her toilet as a dew-drenched rose, Miss Barrison stood there sniffing the morning air daintily, thoroughly.
“Too much perfume,” she said—”too much like ylang-ylang in a department-store. Central Park smells sweeter on an April morning.”
“Are you criticising the wild jasmine?” I asked.
“I’m criticising an exotic smell. Am I not permitted to comment on the tropics?”
Fishing out a cedar log from the lumber-stack, I fell to chopping it vigorously. The axe-strokes made a cheerful racket through the woods.
“Did you hear anything last night after you retired?” I asked.
“Something was at my window—something that thumped softly and seemed to be feeling all over the glass. To tell you the truth, I was silly enough to remain dressed all night.”
“You don’t look it,” I said.
“Oh, when daylight came I had a chance,” she added, laughing.
“All the same,” said I, leaning on the axe and watching her, “you are about the coolest and pluckiest woman I ever knew.”
“We were all in the same fix,” she said, modestly.
“No, we were not. Now I’ll tell you the truth—my hair stood up the greater part of the night. You are looking upon a poltroon, Miss Barrison.”
“Then there was something at your window, too?”
“Something? A dozen! They were monkeying with the sashes and panes all night long, and I imagined that I could hear them breathing—as though from effort of intense eagerness. Ouch! I came as near losing my nerve as I care to. I came within an ace of hurling those cursed pies through the window at them. I’d bolt to-day if I wasn’t afraid to play the coward.”
“Most people are brave for that reason,” she said.
The dog, who had slept under my bunk, and who had contributed to my entertainment by sighing and moaning all night, now appeared ready for business—business in his case being the operation of feeding. I presented him with a concentrated tablet, which he cautiously investigated and then rolled on.
“Nice testimonial for the people who concocted it,” I said, in disgust. “I wish I had an egg.”
“There are some concentrated egg tablets in the shanty,” said Miss Barrison; but the idea was not attractive.
“I refuse to fry a pill for breakfast,” I said, sullenly, and set the coffee-pot on the coals.
In spite of the dewy beauty of the morning, breakfast was not a cheerful function. Professor Farrago appeared, clad in sun-helmet and khaki. I had seldom seen him depressed; but he was now, and his very efforts to disguise it only emphasized his visible anxiety.
His preparations for the day, too, had an ominous aspect to me. He gave his orders and we obeyed, instinctively suppressing questions. First, he and I transported all personal luggage of the company to the big electric launch—Miss Barrison’s effects, his, and my own. His private papers, the stenographic reports, and all memoranda were tied up together and carried aboard.
Then, to my surprise, two weeks’ concentrated rations for two and mineral water sufficient for the same period were stowed away aboard the launch. Several times he asked me whether I knew how to run the boat, and I assured him that I did.
In a short time nothing was left ashore except the bare furnishings of the cabin, the female wearing-apparel, the steel cage and chemicals which I had brought, and the twelve apple-pies—the latter under lock and key in my room.
As the preparations came to an end, the professor’s gentle melancholy seemed to deepen. Once I ventured to ask him if he was indisposed, and he replied that he had never felt in better physical condition.
Presently he bade me fetch the pies; and I brought them, and, at a sign from him, placed them inside the steel cage, closing and locking the door.
“I believe,” he said, glancing from Miss Barrison to me, and from me to the dog—”I believe that we are ready to start.”
He went to the cabin and locked the door on the outside, pocketing the key.
Then he backed up to the steel cage, stooped and lifted his end as I lifted mine, and together we started off through the forest, bearing the cage between us as porters carry a heavy piece of luggage.
Miss Barrison came next, carrying the trousseau, the tank, hose, and chemicals; and the dog followed her—probably not from affection for us, but because he was afraid to be left alone.
We walked in silence, the professor and I keeping an instinctive lookout for snakes; but we encountered nothing of that sort. On every side, touching our shoulders, crowded the closely woven and impenetrable tangle of the jungle; and we threaded it along a narrow path which he, no doubt, had cut, for the machete marks were still fresh, and the blazes on hickory, live-oak, and palm were all wet with dripping sap, and swarming with eager, brilliant butterflies.
At times across our course flowed shallow, rapid streams of water, clear as crystal, and most alluring to the thirsty.
“There’s fever in every drop,” said the professor, as I mentioned my thirst; “take the bottled water if you mean to stay a little longer.”
“Stay where?” I asked.
“On earth,” he replied, tersely; and we marched on.
The beauty of the tropics is marred somewhat for me; under all the fresh splendor of color death lurks in brilliant tints. Where painted fruit hangs temptingly, where great, silky blossoms exhale alluring scent, where the elaps coils inlaid with scarlet, black, and saffron, where in the shadow of a palmetto frond a succession of velvety black diamonds mark the rattler’s swollen length, there death is; and his invisible consort, horror, creeps where the snake whose mouth is lined with white creeps—where the tarantula squats, hairy, motionless; where a bit of living enamel fringed with orange undulates along a mossy log.
Thinking of these things, and watchful lest, unawares, terror unfold from some blossoming and leafy covert, I scarcely noticed the beauty of the glade we had entered—a long oval, cross-barred with sunshine which fell on hedges of scrub-palmetto, chin high, interlaced with golden blossoms of the jasmine. And all around, like pillars supporting a high green canopy above a throne, towered the silvery stems of palms fretted with pale, rose-tinted lichens and hung with draperies of grape-vine.
“This is the place,” said Professor Farrago.
His quiet, passionless voice sounded strange to me; his words seemed strange, too, each one heavily weighted with hidden meaning.
We set the cage on the ground; he unlocked and opened the steel-barred door, and, kneeling, carefully arranged the pies along the centre of the cage.
“I have a curious presentiment,” he said, “that I shall not come out of this experiment unscathed.”
“Don’t, for Heaven’s sake, say that!” I broke out, my nerves on edge again.
“Why not?” he asked, surprised. “I am not afraid.”
“Not afraid to die?” I demanded, exasperated.
“Who spoke of dying?” he inquired, mildly. “What I said was that I do not expect to come out of this affair unscathed.”
I did not comprehend his meaning, but I understood the reproof conveyed.
He closed and locked the cage door again and came towards us, balancing the key across the palm of his hand.
Miss Barrison had seated herself on the leaves; I stood back as the professor sat down beside her; then, at a gesture from him, took the place he indicated on his left.
“Before we begin,” he said, calmly, “there are several things you ought to know and which I have not yet told you. The first concerns the feminine wearing apparel which Mr. Gilland brought me.”
He turned to Miss Barrison and asked her whether she had brought a complete outfit, and she opened the bundle on her knees and handed it to him.
“I cannot,” he said, “delicately explain in so many words what use I expect to make of this apparel. Nor do I yet know whether I shall have any use at all for it. That can only be a theoretical speculation until, within a few more hours, my theory is proven or disproven—and,” he said, suddenly turning on me, “my theory concerning these invisible creatures is the most extraordinary and audacious theory ever entertained by man since Columbus presumed that there must lie somewhere a hidden continent which nobody had ever seen.”
He passed his hand over his protruding forehead, lost for a moment in deepest reflection. Then, “Have you ever heard of the Sphyx?” he asked.
“It seems to me that Ponce de Leon wrote of something—” I began, hesitating.
“Yes, the famous lines in the third volume which have set so many wise men guessing. You recall them:
“‘And there, alas! within sound of the Fountain of Youth whose waters tint the skin till the whole body glows softly like the petal of a rose—there, alas! in the new world already blooming, THE ETERNAL ENIGMA I beheld, in the flesh living; yet it faded even as I looked, although I swear it lived and breathed. This is the Sphyx.’”
A silence; then I said, “Those lines are meaningless to me.”
“Not to me,” said Miss Barrison, softly.
The professor looked at her. “Ah, child! Ever subtler, ever surer—the Eternal Enigma is no enigma to you.”
“What is the Sphyx?” I asked.
“Have you read De Soto? Or Goya?”
“Yes, both. I remember now that De Soto records the Syachas legend of the Sphyx—something about a goddess—”
“Not a goddess,” said Miss Barrison, her lips touched with a smile.
“Sometimes,” said the professor, gently. “And Goya said:
“‘It has come to my ears while in the lands of the Syachas that the Sphyx surely lives, as bolder and more curious men than I may, God willing, prove to the world hereafter.’”
“But what is the Sphyx?” I insisted.
“For centuries wise men and savants have asked each other that question. I have answered it for myself; I am now to prove it, I trust.”
His face darkened, and again and again he stroked his heavy brow.
“If anything occurs,” he said, taking my hand in his left and Miss Barrison’s hand in his right, “promise me to obey my wishes. Will you?”
“Yes,” we said, together.
“If I lose my life, or—or disappear, promise me on your honor to get to the electric launch as soon as possible and make all speed northward, placing my private papers, the reports of Miss Barrison, and your own reports in the hands of the authorities in Bronx Park. Don’t attempt to aid me; don’t delay to search for me. Do you promise?”
“Yes,” we breathed together.
He looked at us solemnly. “If you fail me, you betray me,” he said.
We swore obedience.
“Then let us begin,” he said, and he rose and went to the steel cage. Unlocking the door, he flung it wide and stepped inside, leaving the cage door open.
“The moment a single pie is disturbed,” he said to me, “I shall close the steel door from the inside, and you and Miss Barrison will then dump the rosium oxide and the strontium into the tank, clap on the lid, turn the nozzle of the hose on the cage, and spray it thoroughly. Whatever is invisible in the cage will become visible and of a faint rose color. And when the trapped creature becomes visible, hold yourselves ready to aid me as long as I am able to give you orders. After that either all will go well or all will go otherwise, and you must run for the launch.” He seated himself in the cage near the open door.
I placed the steel tank near the cage, uncoiled the hose attachment, unscrewed the top, and dumped in the salts of strontium. Miss Barrison unwrapped the bottle of rosium oxide and loosened the cork. We examined this pearl-and-pink powder and shook it up so that it might run out quickly. Then Miss Barrison sat down, and presently became absorbed in a stenographic report of the proceedings up to date.
When Miss Barrison finished her report she handed me the bundle of papers. I stowed them away in my wallet, and we sat down together beside the tank.
Inside the cage Professor Farrago was seated, his spectacled eyes fixed on the row of pies. For a while, although realizing perfectly that our quarry was transparent and invisible, we unconsciously strained our eyes in quest of something stirring in the forest.
“I should think,” said I, in a low voice, “that the odor of the pies might draw at least one out of the odd dozen that came rubbing up against my window last night.”
“Hush! Listen!” she breathed. But we heard nothing save the snoring of the overfed dog at our feet.
“He’ll give us ample notice by butting into Miss Barrison’s skirts,” I observed. “No need of our watching, professor.”
The professor nodded. Presently he removed his spectacles and lay back against the bars, closing his eyes.
At first the forest silence seemed cheerful there in the flecked sunlight. The spotted wood-gnats gyrated merrily, chased by dragon-flies; the shy wood-birds hopped from branch to twig, peering at us in friendly inquiry; a lithe, gray squirrel, plumy tail undulating, rambled serenely around the cage, sniffing at the pastry within.
Suddenly, without apparent reason, the squirrel sprang to a tree-trunk, hung a moment on the bark, quivering all over, then dashed away into the jungle.
“Why did he act like that?” whispered Miss Barrison. And, after a moment: “How still it is! Where have the birds gone?”
In the ominous silence the dog began to whimper in his sleep and his hind legs kicked convulsively.
“He’s dreaming—” I began.
The words were almost driven down my throat by the dog, who, without a yelp of warning, hurled himself at Miss Barrison and alighted on my chest, fore paws around my neck.
I cast him scornfully from me, but he scrambled back, digging like a mole to get under us.
“The transparent creatures!” whispered Miss Barrison. “Look! See that pie move!”
I sprang to my feet just as the professor, jamming on his spectacles, leaned forward and slammed the cage door.
“I’ve got one!” he shouted, frantically. “There’s one in the cage! Turn on that hose!”
“Wait a second,” said Miss Barrison, calmly, uncorking the bottle and pouring a pearly stream of rosium oxide into the tank. “Quick! It’s fizzing! Screw on the top!”
In a second I had screwed the top fast, seized the hose, and directed a hissing cloud of vapor through the cage bars.
For a moment nothing was heard save the whistling rush of the perfumed spray escaping; a delicious odor of roses filled the air. Then, slowly, there in the sunshine, a misty something grew in the cage—a glistening, pearl-tinted phantom, imperceptibly taking shape in space—vague at first as a shred of lake vapor, then lengthening, rounding into flowing form, clearer, clearer.
“The Sphyx!” gasped the professor. “In the name of Heaven, play that hose!”
As he spoke the treacherous hose burst. A showery pillar of rose-colored vapor enveloped everything. Through the thickening fog for one brief instant a human form appeared like magic—a woman’s form, flawless, exquisite as a statue, pure as marble. Then the swimming vapor buried it, cage, pies, and all.
We ran frantically around, the cage in the obscurity, appealing for instructions and feeling for the bars. Once the professor’s muffled voice was heard demanding the wearing apparel, and I groped about and found it and stuffed it through the bars of the cage.
“Do you need help?” I shouted. There was no response. Staring around through the thickening vapor of rosium rolling in clouds from the overturned tank, I heard Miss Barrison’s voice calling:
“I can’t move! A transparent lady is holding me!”
Blindly I rushed about, arms outstretched, and the next moment struck the door of the cage so hard that the impact almost knocked me senseless. Clutching it to steady myself, it suddenly flew open. A rush of partly visible creatures passed me like a burst of pink flames, and in the midst, borne swiftly away on the crest of the outrush, the professor passed like a bolt shot from a catapult; and his last cry came wafted back to me from the forest as I swayed there, drunk with the stupefying perfume: “Don’t worry! I’m all right!”
I staggered out into the clearer air towards a figure seen dimly through swirling vapor.
“Are you hurt?” I stammered, clasping Miss Barrison in my arms.
“No—oh no,” she said, wringing her hands. “But the professor! I saw him! I could not scream; I could not move! They had him!”
“I saw him too,” I groaned. “There was not one trace of terror on his face. He was actually smiling.”
Overcome at the sublime courage of the man, we wept in each other’s arms.
True to our promise to Professor Farrago, we made the best of our way northward; and it was not a difficult journey by any means, the voyage in the launch across Okeechobee being perfectly simple and the trail to the nearest railroad station but a few easy miles from the landing-place.
Shocking as had been our experience, dreadful as was the calamity which had not only robbed me of a life-long friend, but had also bereaved the entire scientific world, I could not seem to feel that desperate and hopeless grief which the natural decease of a close friend might warrant. No; there remained a vague expectancy which so dominated my sorrow that at moments I became hopeful—nay, sanguine, that I should one day again behold my beloved superior in the flesh. There was something so happy in his last smile, something so artlessly pleased, that I was certain no fear of impending dissolution worried him as he disappeared into the uncharted depth of the unknown Everglades.
I think Miss Barrison agreed with me, too. She appeared to be more or less dazed, which was, of course, quite natural; and during our return voyage across Okeechobee and through the lagoons and forests beyond she was very silent.
When we reached the railroad at Portulacca, a thrifty lemon-growing ranch on the Volusia and Chinkapin Railway, the first thing I did was to present my dog to the station-agent—but I was obliged to give him five dollars before he consented to accept the dog.
However, Miss Barrison interviewed the station-master’s wife, a kindly, pitiful soul, who promised to be a good mistress to the creature. We both felt better after that was off our minds; we felt better still when the north-bound train rolled leisurely into the white glare of Portulacca, and presently rolled out again, quite as leisurely, bound, thank Heaven, for that abused aggregation of sinful boroughs called New York.
Except for one young man whom I encountered in the smoker, we had the train to ourselves, a circumstance which, curiously enough, appeared to increase Miss Barrison’s depression, and my own as a natural sequence. The circumstances of the taking off of Professor Farrago appeared to engross her thoughts so completely that it made me uneasy during our trip out from Little Sprite—in fact it was growing plainer to me every hour that in her brief acquaintance with that distinguished scientist she had become personally attached to him to an extent that began to worry me. Her personal indignation at the caged Sphyx flared out at unexpected intervals, and there could be no doubt that her unhappiness and resentment were becoming morbid.
I spent an hour or two in the smoking compartment, tenanted only by a single passenger and myself. He was an agreeable young man, although, in the natural acquaintanceship that we struck up, I regretted to learn that he was a writer of popular fiction, returning from Fort Worth, where he had been for the sole purpose of composing a poem on Florida.
I have always, in common with other mentally balanced savants, despised writers of fiction. All scientists harbor a natural antipathy to romance in any form, and that antipathy becomes a deep horror if fiction dares to deal flippantly with the exact sciences, or if some degraded intellect assumes the warrantless liberty of using natural history as the vehicle for silly tales.
Never but once had I been tempted to romance in any form; never but once had sentiment interfered with a passionless transfer of scientific notes to the sanctuary of the unvarnished note-book or the cloister of the juiceless monograph. Nor have I the slightest approach to that superficial and doubtful quality known as literary skill. Once, however, as I sat alone in the middle of the floor, classifying my isopods, I was not only astonished but totally unprepared to find myself repeating aloud a verse that I myself had unconsciously fashioned:
Is a work of God.”
Never before in all my life had I made a rhyme; and it worried me for weeks, ringing in my brain day and night, confusing me, interfering with my thoughts.
I said as much to the young man, who only laughed good-naturedly and replied that it was the Creator’s purpose to limit certain intellects, nobody knows why, and that it was apparent that mine had not escaped.
“There’s one thing, however,” he said, “that might be of some interest to you and come within the circumscribed scope of your intelligence.”
“And what is that?” I asked, tartly.
“A scientific experience of mine,” he said, with a careless laugh. “It’s so much stranger than fiction that even Professor Bruce Stoddard, of Columbia, hesitated to credit it.”
I looked at the young fellow suspiciously. His bland smile disarmed me, but I did not invite him to relate his experience, although he apparently needed only that encouragement to begin.
“Now, if I could tell it exactly as it occurred,” he observed, “and a stenographer could take it down, word for word, exactly as I relate it—”
“It would give me great pleasure to do so,” said a quiet voice at the door. We rose at once, removing the cigars from our lips; but Miss Barrison bade us continue smoking, and at a gesture from her we resumed our seats after she had installed herself by the window.
“Really,” she said, looking coldly at me, “I couldn’t endure the solitude any longer. Isn’t there anything to do on this tiresome train?”
“If you had your pad and pencil,” I began, maliciously, “you might take down a matter of interest—”
She looked frankly at the young man, who laughed in that pleasant, good-tempered manner of his, and offered to tell us of his alleged scientific experience if we thought it might amuse us sufficiently to vary the dull monotony of the journey north.
“Is it fiction?” I asked, point-blank.
“It is absolute truth,” he replied.
I rose and went off to find pad and pencil. When I returned Miss Barrison was laughing at a story which the young man had just finished.
“But,” he ended, gravely, “I have practically decided to renounce fiction as a means of livelihood and confine myself to simple, uninteresting statistics and facts.”
“I am very glad to hear you say that,” I exclaimed, warmly. He bowed, looked at Miss Barrison, and asked her when he might begin his story.
“Whenever you are ready,” replied Miss Barrison, smiling in a manner which I had not observed since the disappearance of Professor Farrago. I’ll admit that the young fellow was superficially attractive.
“Well, then,” he began, modestly, “having no technical ability concerning the affair in question, and having no knowledge of either comparative anatomy or zoology, I am perhaps unfitted to tell this story. But the story is true; the episode occurred under my own eyes—within a few hours’ sail of the Battery. And as I was one of the first persons to verify what has long been a theory among scientists, and, moreover, as the result of Professor Holroyd’s discovery is to be placed on exhibition in Madison Square Garden on the 20th of next month, I have decided to tell you, as simply as I am able, exactly what occurred.
“I first told the story on April 1, 1903, to the editors of the North American Review, The Popular Science Monthly, the Scientific American, Nature, Outing, and the Fossiliferous Magazine. All these gentlemen rejected it; some curtly informing me that fiction had no place in their columns. When I attempted to explain that it was not fiction, the editors of these periodicals either maintained a contemptuous silence, or bluntly notified me that my literary services and opinions were not desired. But finally, when several publishers offered to take the story as fiction, I cut short all negotiations and decided to publish it myself. Where I am known at all, it is my misfortune to be known as a writer of fiction. This makes it impossible for me to receive a hearing from a scientific audience. I regret it bitterly, because now, when it is too late, I am prepared to prove certain scientific matters of interest, and to produce the proofs. In this case, however, I am fortunate, for nobody can dispute the existence of a thing when the bodily proof is exhibited as evidence.
“This is the story; and if I tell it as I write fiction, it is because I do not know how to tell it otherwise.