In Search of The Unknown

Robert W. Chambers


And so it came about that one calm evening towards the end of June, William Spike and I went into camp under the southerly shelter of that vast granite wall called the Hudson Mountains, there to await the promised “further instructions.”

It had been a tiresome trip by steamer to Anticosti, from there by schooner to Widgeon Bay, then down the coast and up the Cape Clear River to Port Porpoise. There we bought three pack-mules and started due north on the Great Fur Trail. The second day out we passed Fort Boise, the last outpost of civilization, and on the sixth day we were travelling eastward under the granite mountain parapets.

On the evening of the sixth day out from Fort Boise we went into camp for the last time before entering the unknown land.

I could see it already through my field-glasses, and while William was building the fire I climbed up among the rocks above and sat down, glasses levelled, to study the prospect.

There was nothing either extraordinary or forbidding in the landscape which stretched out beyond; to the right the solid palisade of granite cut off the view; to the left the palisade continued, an endless barrier of sheer cliffs crowned with pine and hemlock. But the interesting section of the landscape lay almost directly in front of me—a rent in the mountain-wall through which appeared to run a level, arid plain, miles wide, and as smooth and even as a highroad.

There could be no doubt concerning the significance of that rent in the solid mountain-wall; and, moreover, it was exactly as William Spike had described it. However, I called to him and he came up from the smoky camp-fire, axe on shoulder.

“Yep,” he said, squatting beside me; “the Graham Glacier used to meander through that there hole, but somethin’ went wrong with the earth’s in’ards an’ there was a bust-up.”

“And you saw it, William?” I said, with a sigh of envy.

“Hey? Seen it? Sure I seen it! I was to Spoutin’ Springs, twenty mile west, with a bale o’ blue fox an’ otter pelt. Fust I knew them geysers begun for to groan egregious like, an’ I seen the caribou gallopin’ hell-bent south. ‘This climate,’ sez I, ‘is too bracin’ for me,’ so I struck a back trail an’ landed onto a hill. Then them geysers blowed up, one arter the next, an’ I heard somethin’ kinder cave in between here an’ China. I disremember things what happened. Somethin’ throwed me down, but I couldn’t stay there, for the blamed ground was runnin’ like a river—all wavy-like, an’ the sky hit me on the back o’ me head.”

“And then?” I urged, in that new excitement which every repetition of the story revived. I had heard it all twenty times since we left New York, but mere repetition could not apparently satisfy me.

“Then,” continued William, “the whole world kinder went off like a fire-cracker, an’ I come too, an’ ran like—”

“I know,” said I, cutting him short, for I had become wearied of the invariable profanity which lent a lurid ending to his narrative.

“After that,” I continued, “you went through the rent in the mountains?”


“And you saw a dingue and a creature that resembled a mammoth?”

“Sure,” he repeated, sulkily.

“And you saw something else?” I always asked this question; it fascinated me to see the sullen fright flicker in William’s eyes, and the mechanical backward glance, as though what he had seen might still be behind him.

He had never answered this third question but once, and that time he fairly snarled in my face as he growled: “I seen what no Christian oughter see.”

So when I repeated: “And you saw something else, William?” he gave me a wicked, frightened leer, and shuffled off to feed the mules. Flattery, entreaties, threats left him unmoved; he never told me what the third thing was that he had seen behind the Hudson Mountains.

William had retired to mix up with his mules; I resumed my binoculars and my silent inspection of the great, smooth path left by the Graham Glacier when something or other exploded that vast mass of ice into vapor.

The arid plain wound out from the unknown country like a river, and I thought then, and think now, that when the glacier was blown into vapor the vapor descended in the most terrific rain the world has ever seen, and poured through the newly blasted mountain-gateway, sweeping the earth to bed-rock. To corroborate this theory, miles to the southward I could see the debris winding out across the land towards Wellman Bay, but as the terminal moraine of the vanished glacier formerly ended there I could not be certain that my theory was correct. Owing to the formation of the mountains I could not see more than half a mile into the unknown country. What I could see appeared to be nothing but the continuation of the glacier’s path, scored out by the cloud-burst, and swept as smooth as a floor.

Sitting there, my heart beating heavily with excitement, I looked through the evening glow at the endless, pine-crowned mountain-wall with its giant’s gateway pierced for me! And I thought of all the explorers and the unknown heroes—trappers, Indians, humble naturalists, perhaps—who had attempted to scale that sheer barricade and had died there or failed, beaten back from those eternal cliffs. Eternal? No! For the Eternal Himself had struck the rock, and it had sprung asunder, thundering obedience.

In the still evening air the smoke from the fire below mounted in a straight, slender pillar, like the smoke from those ancient altars builded before the first blood had been shed on earth.

The evening wind stirred the pines; a tiny spring brook made thin harmony among the rocks; a murmur came from the quiet camp. It was William adjuring his mules. In the deepening twilight I descended the hillock, stepping cautiously among the rocks.

Then, suddenly, as I stood outside the reddening ring of firelight, far in the depths of the unknown country, far behind the mountain-wall, a sound grew on the quiet air. William heard it and turned his face to the mountains. The sound faded to a vibration which was felt, not heard. Then once more I began to divine a vibration in the air, gathering in distant volume until it became a sound, lasting the space of a spoken word, fading to vibration, then silence.

Was it a cry?

I looked at William inquiringly. He had quietly fainted away.

I got him to the little brook and poked his head into the icy water, and after a while he sat up pluckily.

To an indignant question he replied: “Naw, I ain’t a-cussin’ you. Lemme be or I’ll have fits.”

“Was it that sound that scared you?” I asked.

“Ya-as,” he replied with a dauntless shiver.

“Was it the voice of the mammoth?” I persisted, excitedly. “Speak, William, or I’ll drag you about and kick you!”

He replied that it was neither a mammoth nor a dingue, and added a strong request for privacy, which I was obliged to grant, as I could not torture another word out of him.

I slept little that night; the exciting proximity of the unknown land was too much for me. But although I lay awake for hours, I heard nothing except the tinkle of water among the rocks and the plover calling from some hidden marsh.  At daybreak I shot a ptarmigan which had walked into camp, and the shot set the echoes yelling among the mountains.

William, sullen and heavy-eyed, dressed the bird, and we broiled it for breakfast. 

Neither he nor I alluded to the sound we had heard the night before; he boiled water and cleaned up the mess-kit, and I pottered about among the rocks for another ptarmigan. Wearying of this, presently, I returned to the mules and William, and sat down for a smoke.

“It strikes me,” I said, “that our instructions to ‘await further orders’ are idiotic. How are we to receive ‘further orders’ here?” 

William did not know.

“You don’t suppose,” said I, in sudden disgust, “that Miss Smawl believes there is a summer hotel and daily mail service in the Hudson Mountains?”

William thought perhaps she did suppose something of the sort.

It irritated me beyond measure to find myself at last on the very border of the unknown country, and yet checked, held back, by the irresponsible orders of a maiden lady named Smawl. However, my salary depended upon the whim of that maiden lady, and although I fussed and fumed and glared at the mountains through my glasses, I realized that I could not stir without the permission of Miss Smawl. At times this grotesque situation became almost unbearable, and I often went away by myself and indulged in fantasies, firing my gun off and pretending I had hit Miss Smawl by mistake. At such moments I would imagine I was free at last to plunge into the strange country, and I would squat on a rock and dream of bagging my first mammoth.

The time passed heavily; the tension increased with each new day. I shot ptarmigan and kept our table supplied with brook-trout. William chopped wood, conversed with his mules, and cooked very badly.

“See here,” I said, one morning; “we have been in camp a week to-day, and I can’t stand your cooking another minute!”

William, who was washing a saucepan, looked up and begged me sarcastically to accept the cordon bleu. But I know only how to cook eggs, and there were no eggs within some hundred miles.

To get the flavor of the breakfast out of my mouth I walked up to my favorite hillock and sat down for a smoke. The next moment, however, I was on my feet, cheering excitedly and shouting for William.

“Here come ‘further instructions’ at last!” I cried, pointing to the southward, where two dots on the grassy plain were imperceptibly moving in our direction.

“People on mules,” said William, without enthusiasm.

“They must be messengers for us!” I cried, in chaste joy. “Three cheers for the northward trail, William, and the mischief take Miss—Well, never mind now,” I added.

“On them approachin’ mules,” observed William, “there is wimmen.”

I stared at him for a second, then attempted to strike him. He dodged wearily and repeated his incredible remark: “Ya-as, there is—wimmen—two female ladies onto them there mules.”

“Bring me my glasses!” I said, hoarsely; “bring me those glasses, William, because I shall destroy you if you don’t!”

Somewhat awed by my calm fury, he hastened back to camp and returned with the binoculars. It was a breathless moment. I adjusted the lenses with a steady hand and raised them.

Now, of all unexpected sights my fate may reserve for me in the future, I trust—nay, I know—that none can ever prove as unwelcome as the sight I perceived through my binoculars. For upon the backs of those distant mules were two women, and the first one was Miss Smawl!

Upon her head she wore a helmet, from which fluttered a green veil.  Otherwise she was clothed in tweeds; and at moments she beat upon her mule with a thick umbrella.

Surfeited with the sickening spectacle, I sat down on a rock and tried to cry.

“I told yer so,” observed William; but I was too tired to attack him.

When the caravan rode into camp I was myself again, smilingly prepared for the worst, and I advanced, cap in hand, followed furtively by William.

“Welcome,” I said, violently injecting joy into my voice. “Welcome, Professor Smawl, to the Hudson Mountains!”

“Kindly take my mule,” she said, climbing down to mother earth.

“William,” I said, with dignity, “take the lady’s mule.”

Miss Smawl gave me a stolid glance, then made directly for the camp-fire, where a kettle of game-broth simmered over the coals. The last I saw of her she was smelling of it, and I turned my back and advanced towards the second lady pilgrim, prepared to be civil until snubbed.

Now, it is quite certain that never before had William Spike or I beheld so much feminine loveliness in one human body on the back of a mule. She was clad in the daintiest of shooting-kilts, yet there was nothing mannish about her except the way she rode the mule, and that only accentuated her adorable femininity.

I remembered what Professor Lesard had said about blue stockings—but Miss Dorothy Van Twiller’s were gray, turned over at the tops, and disappearing into canvas spats buckled across a pair of slim shooting-boots.

“Welcome,” said I, attempting to restrain a too violent cordiality. “Welcome, Professor Van Twiller, to the Hudson Mountains.”

“Thank you,” she replied, accepting my assistance very sweetly; “it is a pleasure to meet a human being again.”

I glanced at Miss Smawl. She was eating game-broth, but she resembled a human being in a general way.

“I should very much like to wash my hands,” said Professor Van Twiller, drawing the buckskin gloves from her slim fingers.

I brought towels and soap and conducted her to the brook.

She called to Professor Smawl to join her, and her voice was crystalline; Professor Smawl declined, and her voice was batrachian.

“She is so hungry!” observed Miss Van Twiller. “I am very thankful we are here at last, for we’ve had a horrid time. You see, we neither of us know how to cook.”

I wondered what they would say to William’s cooking, but I held my peace and retired, leaving the little brook to mirror the sweetest face that was ever bathed in water.

Go to Chapter Eight.....