In Search of The Unknown

Robert W. Chambers


Before I proceed any further, common decency requires me to reassure my readers concerning my intentions, which, Heaven knows, are far from flippant.

To separate fact from fancy has always been difficult for me, but now that I have had the honor to be chosen secretary of the Zoological Gardens in Bronx Park, I realize keenly that unless I give up writing fiction nobody will believe what I write about science. Therefore it is to a serious and unimaginative public that I shall
hereafter address myself; and I do it in the modest confidence that I shall neither be distrusted nor doubted, although unfortunately I still write in that irrational style which suggests covert frivolity, and for which I am undergoing a course of treatment in English literature at Columbia College.
Now, having promised to avoid originality and confine myself to facts, I shall tell what I have to tell concerning the dingue, the mammoth, and— something else.

For some weeks it had been rumored that Professor Farrago, president of the Bronx Park Zoological Society, would resign, to accept an enormous salary as manager of Barnum & Bailey’s circus. He was now with the circus in London, and had promised to cable his decision before the day was over.

I hoped he would decide to remain with us. I was his secretary and particular favorite, and I viewed, without enthusiasm, the advent of a new president, who might shake us all out of our congenial and carefully excavated ruts. However, it was plain that the trustees of the society expected the resignation of
Professor Farrago, for they had been in secret session all day, considering the names of possible candidates to fill Professor Farrago’s large, old-fashioned shoes. These preparations worried me, for I could scarcely expect another chief as kind and considerate as Professor Leonidas Farrago.

That afternoon in June I left my office in the Administration Building in Bronx Park and strolled out under the trees for a breath of air. But the heat of the sun soon drove me to seek shelter under a little square arbor, a shady retreat covered with purple wistaria and honeysuckle. As I entered the arbor I noticed
that there were three other people seated there—an elderly lady with masculine features and short hair, a younger lady sitting beside her, and, farther away, a rough-looking young man reading a book.

For a moment I had an indistinct impression of having met the elder lady somewhere, and under circumstances not entirely agreeable, but beyond a stony and indifferent glance she paid no attention to me. As for the younger lady, she did not look at me at all. She was very young, with pretty eyes, a mass of
silky brown hair, and a skin as fresh as a rose which had just been rained on.

With that delicacy peculiar to lonely scientific bachelors, I modestly sat down beside the rough young man, although there was more room beside the younger lady. “Some lazy loafer reading a penny dreadful,” I thought, glancing at him, then at the title of his book. Hearing me beside him, he turned around
and blinked over his shabby shoulder, and the movement uncovered the page he had been silently conning. The volume in his hands was Darwin’s famous monograph on the monodactyl.

He noticed the astonishment on my face and smiled uneasily, shifting the short clay pipe in his mouth.

“I guess,” he observed, “that this here book is too much for me, mister.”

“It’s rather technical,” I replied, smiling.

“Yes,” he said, in vague admiration; “it’s fierce, ain’t it?”

After a silence I asked him if he would tell me why he had chosen Darwin as a literary pastime.

“Well,” he said, placidly, “I was tryin’ to read about annermals, but I’m up against a word-slinger this time all right. Now here’s a gum-twister,” and he painfully spelled out m-o-n-o-d-a-c-t-y-l, breathing hard all the while.

“Monodactyl,” I said, “means a single-toed creature.”

He turned the page with alacrity. “Is that the beast he’s talkin’ about?” he asked.

The illustration he pointed out was a wood-cut representing Darwin’s reconstruction of the dingue from the fossil bones in the British Museum. It was a well-executed wood-cut, showing a dingue in the foreground and, to give scale, a mammoth in the middle distance.

“Yes,” I replied, “that is the dingue.”

“I’ve seen one,” he observed, calmly.

I smiled and explained that the dingue had been extinct for some thousands of years.

“Oh, I guess not,” he replied, with cool optimism. Then he placed a grimy forefinger on the mammoth.

“I’ve seen them things, too,” he remarked.

Again I patiently pointed out his error, and suggested that he referred to the elephant.

“Elephant be blowed!” he replied, scornfully. “I guess I know what I seen.  An’ I seen that there thing you call a dingue, too.”

Not wishing to prolong a futile discussion, I remained silent. After a moment he wheeled around, removing his pipe from his hard mouth.

“Did you ever hear tell of Graham’s Glacier?” he demanded.

“Certainly,” I replied, astonished; “it’s the southernmost glacier in British America.”

“Right,” he said. “And did you ever hear tell of the Hudson Mountings, mister?”

“Yes,” I replied.

“What’s behind ‘em?” he snapped out.

“Nobody knows,” I answered. “They are considered impassable.”

“They ain’t, though,” he said, doggedly; “I’ve been behind ‘em.”

“Really!” I replied, tiring of his yarn.

“Ya-as, reely,” he repeated, sullenly. Then he began to fumble and search through the pages of his book until he found what he wanted. “Mister,” he said, “jest read that out loud, please.”

The passage he indicated was the famous chapter beginning:

“Is the mammoth extinct? Is the dingue extinct? Probably. And yet the aborigines of British America maintain the contrary. Probably both the mammoth and the dingue are extinct; but until expeditions have penetrated and explored not only the unknown region in Alaska but also that hidden tableland beyond the Graham Glacier and the Hudson Mountains, it will not be possible to definitely announce the total extinction of either the mammoth or the dingue.”
When I had read it, slowly, for his benefit, he brought his hand down smartly on one knee and nodded rapidly.

“Mister,” he said, “that gent knows a thing or two, and don’t you forgit it!” Then he demanded, abruptly, how I knew he hadn’t been behind the Graham Glacier.

I explained.

“Shucks!” he said; “there’s a road five miles wide inter that there table-land.  Mister, I ain’t been in New York long; I come inter port a week ago on the Arctic Belle, whaler. I was in the Hudson range when that there Graham Glacier bust up—”

“What!” I exclaimed.

“Didn’t you know it?” he asked. “Well, mebbe it ain’t in the papers, but it busted all right—blowed up by a earthquake an’ volcano combine. An’, mister, it was oreful. My, how I did run!”

“Do you mean to tell me that some convulsion of the earth has shattered the Graham Glacier?” I asked.

“Convulsions? Ya-as, an’ fits, too,” he said, sulkily. “The hull blame thing dropped inter a hole. An’ say, mister, home an’ mother is good enough fur me now.”

I stared at him stupidly.

“Once,” he said, “I ketched pelts fur them sharps at Hudson Bay, like any yaller husky, but the things I seen arter that convulsion-fit—the things I seen behind the Hudson Mountings—don’t make me hanker arter no life on the pe-rarie wild, lemme tell yer. I may be a Mother Carey chicken, but this chicken has got enough.”

After a long silence I picked up his book again and pointed at the picture of the mammoth.

“What color is it?” I asked.

“Kinder red an’ brown,” he answered, promptly. “It’s woolly, too.”

Astounded, I pointed to the dingue.

“One-toed,” he said, quickly; “makes a noise like a bell when scutterin’ about.”

Intensely excited, I laid my hand on his arm. “My society will give you a thousand dollars,” I said, “if you pilot me inside the Hudson table-land and show me either a mammoth or a dingue!”

He looked me calmly in the eye.

“Mister,” he said, slowly, “have you got a million for to squander on me?”

“No,” I said, suspiciously.

“Because,” he went on, “it wouldn’t be enough. Home an’ mother suits me now.”

He picked up his book and rose. In vain I asked his name and address; in vain I begged him to dine with me—to become my honored guest.

“Nit,” he said, shortly, and shambled off down the path.

But I was not going to lose him like that. I rose and deliberately started to stalk him. It was easy. He shuffled along, pulling on his pipe, and I after him.

It was growing a little dark, although the sun still reddened the tops of the maples. Afraid of losing him in the falling dusk, I once more approached him and laid my hand upon his ragged sleeve.

“Look here,” he cried, wheeling about, “I want you to quit follerin’ me. Don’t I tell you money can’t make me go back to them mountings!” And as I attempted to speak, he suddenly tore off his cap and pointed to his head. His hair was white as snow.

“That’s what come of monkeyin’ inter your cursed mountings,” he shouted, fiercely. “There’s things in there what no Christian oughter see. Lemme alone er I’ll bust yer.”

He shambled on, doubled fists swinging by his side. The next moment, setting my teeth obstinately, I followed him and caught him by the park gate.  At my hail he whirled around with a snarl, but I grabbed him by the throat and backed him violently against the park wall.

“You invaluable ruffian,” I said, “now you listen to me. I live in that big stone building, and I’ll give you a thousand dollars to take me behind the Graham Glacier. Think it over and call on me when you are in a pleasanter frame of mind. If you don’t come by noon to-morrow I’ll go to the Graham Glacier without you.”

He was attempting to kick me all the time, but I managed to avoid him, and when I had finished I gave him a shove which almost loosened his spinal column. He went reeling out across the sidewalk, and when he had recovered his breath and his balance he danced with displeasure and displayed a vocabulary that astonished
me. However, he kept his distance.

As I turned back into the park, satisfied that he would not follow, the first person I saw was the elderly, stony-faced lady of the wistaria arbor advancing on tiptoe. Behind her came the younger lady with cheeks like a rose that had been rained on.

Instantly it occurred to me that they had followed us, and at the same moment I knew who the stony-faced lady was. Angry, but polite, I lifted my hat and saluted her, and she, probably furious at having been caught tiptoeing after me, cut me dead. The younger lady passed me with face averted, but even in the dusk I could
see the tip of one little ear turn scarlet.

Walking on hurriedly, I entered the Administration Building, and found Professor Lesard, of the reptilian department, preparing to leave.

“Don’t you do it,” I said, sharply; “I’ve got exciting news.”

“I’m only going to the theatre,” he replied. “It’s a good show—Adam and Eve; there’s a snake in it, you know. It’s in my line.”

“I can’t help it,” I said; and I told him briefly what had occurred in the arbor.

“But that’s not all,” I continued, savagely. “Those women followed us, and who do you think one of them turned out to be? Well, it was Professor Smawl, of Barnard College, and I’ll bet every pair of boots I own that she starts for the Graham Glacier within a week. Idiot that I was!” I exclaimed, smiting my head with both
hands. “I never recognized her until I saw her tiptoeing and craning her neck to listen. Now she knows about the glacier; she heard every word that young ruffian said, and she’ll go to the glacier if it’s only to forestall me.”

Professor Lesard looked anxious. He knew that Miss Smawl, professor of natural history at Barnard College, had long desired an appointment at the Bronx Park gardens. It was even said she had a chance of succeeding Professor Farrago as president, but that, of course, must have been a joke. However, she haunted the gardens,
annoying the keepers by persistently poking the animals with her umbrella. On one occasion she sent us word that she desired to enter the tigers’ enclosure for the purpose of making experiments in hypnotism. 
Professor Farrago was absent, but I took it upon myself to send back word that I feared the tigers might injure her. The miserable small boy who took my message informed her that I was afraid she might injure the tigers, and the unpleasant incident almost cost me my position.

“I am quite convinced,” said I to Professor Lesard, “that Miss Smawl is perfectly capable of abusing the information she overheard, and of starting herself to explore a region that, by all the laws of decency, justice, and prior claim, belongs to me.”

“Well,” said Lesard, with a peculiar laugh, “it’s not certain whether you can go at all.”

“Professor Farrago will authorize me,” I said, confidently.

“Professor Farrago has resigned,” said Lesard. It was a bolt from a clear sky. 

“Good Heavens!” I blurted out. “What will become of the rest of us, then?”

“I don’t know,” he replied. “The trustees are holding a meeting over in the Administration Building to elect a new president for us. It depends on the new president what becomes of us.”

“Lesard,” I said, hoarsely, “you don’t suppose that they could possibly elect Miss Smawl as our president, do you?”

He looked at me askance and bit his cigar.

“I’d be in a nice position, wouldn’t I?” said I, anxiously.

“The lady would probably make you walk the plank for that tiger business,” he replied.

“But I didn’t do it,” I protested, with sickly eagerness. “Besides, I explained to her—”

He said nothing, and I stared at him, appalled by the possibility of reporting to Professor Smawl for instructions next morning.

“See here, Lesard,” I said, nervously, “I wish you would step over to the Administration Building and ask the trustees if I may prepare for this expedition. Will you?”

He glanced at me sympathetically. It was quite natural for me to wish to secure my position before the new president was elected—especially as there was a chance of the new president being Miss Smawl.

“You are quite right,” he said; “the Graham Glacier would be the safest place for you if our next president is to be the Lady of the Tigers.” And he started across the park puffing his cigar.

I sat down on the doorstep to wait for his return, not at all charmed with the prospect. It made me furious, too, to see my ambition nipped with the frost of a possible veto from Miss Smawl.

“If she is elected,” thought I, “there is nothing for me but to resign—to avoid the inconvenience of being shown the door. Oh, I wish I had allowed her to hypnotize the tigers!”

Thoughts of crime flitted through my mind. Miss Smawl would not remain president—or anything else very long—if she persisted in her desire for the tigers. And then when she called for help I would pretend not to hear.

Aroused from criminal meditation by the return of Professor Lesard, I jumped up and peered into his perplexed eyes. “They’ve elected a president,” he said, “but they won’t tell us who the president is until tomorrow.”

“You don’t think—” I stammered.

“I don’t know. But I know this: the new president sanctions the expedition to the Graham Glacier, and directs you to choose an assistant and begin preparations for four people.”

Overjoyed, I seized his hand and said, “Hurray!” in a voice weak with emotion. “The old dragon isn’t elected this time,” I added, triumphantly.

“By-the-way,” he said, “who was the other dragon with her in the park this evening?”

I described her in a more modulated voice.

“Whew!” observed Professor Lesard, “that must be her assistant, Professor Dorothy Van Twiller! She’s the prettiest blue-stocking in town.”

With this curious remark my confrère followed me into my room and wrote down the list of articles I dictated to him. The list included a complete camping equipment for myself and three other men.

“Am I one of those other men?” inquired Lesard, with an unhappy smile.

Before I could reply my door was shoved open and a figure appeared at the threshold, cap in hand.

“What do you want?” I asked, sternly; but my heart was beating high with triumph.

The figure shuffled; then came a subdued voice:

“Mister, I guess I’ll go back to the Graham Glacier along with you. I’m Billy Spike, an’ it kinder scares me to go back to them Hudson Mountains, but somehow, mister, when you choked me and kinder walked me off on my ear, why, mister, I kinder took to you like.”

There was absolute silence for a minute; then he said:

“So if you go, I guess I’ll go, too, mister.”

“For a thousand dollars?”

“Fur nawthin’,” he muttered— “or what you like.”

“All right, Billy,” I said, briskly; “just look over those rifles and ammunition and see that everything’s sound.”

He slowly lifted his tough young face and gave me a doglike glance. They were hard eyes, but there was gratitude in them.

“You’ll get your throat slit,” whispered Lesard.

“Not while Billy’s with me,” I replied, cheerfully.

Late that night, as I was preparing for pleasant dreams, a knock came on my door and a telegraph-messenger handed me a note, which I read, shivering in my bare feet, although the thermometer marked eighty Fahrenheit:

“You will immediately leave for the Hudson Mountains via Wellman Bay, Labrador, there to await further instructions. Equipment for yourself and one assistant will include following articles” [here began a list of camping utensils, scientific paraphernalia, and provisions]. “The steamer Penguin sails at five o’clock to-morrow
morning. Kindly find yourself on board at that hour. Any excuse for not complying with these orders will be accepted as your resignation.

“Susan Smawl,

“President Bronx Zoological Society.”

“Lesard!” I shouted, trembling with fury.

He appeared at his door, chastely draped in pajamas, and he read the insolent letter with terrified alacrity.

“What are you going to do—resign?” he asked, much frightened.

“Do!” I snarled, grinding my teeth; “I’m going—that’s what I’m going to do!”

“But—but you can’t get ready and catch that steamer, too,” he stammered.

He did not know me.