In Search of The Unknown

Robert W. Chambers


The letter that started me—I was going to say startled me, but only imaginative people are startled—the letter, then, that started me from Bronx Park to the South I print without the permission of my superior, Professor Farrago. I have not obtained his permission, for the somewhat exciting reason that nobody knows where he is. Publicity being now recognized as the annihilator of mysteries, a benevolent purpose alone inspires me to publish a letter so strange, so pathetically remarkable, in view of what has recently occurred. As I say, I had only just returned from Java with a valuable collection of undescribed isopods—an order of edriophthalmous crustaceans with seven free thoracic somites furnished with fourteen legs—and I beg my reader’s pardon, but my reader will see the necessity for the author’s absolute accuracy in insisting on detail, because the story that follows is a dangerous story for a scientist to tell, in view of the vast amount of nonsense and fiction in
circulation masquerading as stories of scientific adventure. 
          I was, therefore, anticipating a delightful summer’s work with pen and microscope, when on April 1st I received the following extraordinary letter from Professor Farrago:
          “In Camp, Little Sprite Lake, “Everglades, Florida, March 15, 1902.
          “My Dear Mr. Gilland,—On receipt of this communication you will immediately secure for me the following articles: 
          “One complete outfit of woman’s clothing. 
          “One camera. 
          “One light steel cage, large enough for you to stand in, 
          “One stenographer (male sex). 
          “One five-pound steel tank, with siphon and hose attachment. 
          “One rifle and ammunition. 
          “Three ounces rosium oxyde. 
          “One ounce chlorate strontium. 
          “You will then, within twenty-four hours, set out with the stenographer and the supplies mentioned and join me in camp on Little Sprite Lake. This order is formal and admits of no delay. You will appreciate the necessity of absolute and unquestioning obedience when I tell you that I am practically on the brink of the most astonishing discovery recorded in natural history since Monsieur Zani discovered the purple-spotted zoombok in Nyanza; and that I depend upon you and your zeal and fidelity for success. 
          “I dare not, lest my letter fall into unscrupulous hands, convey to you more than a hint of what lies before us in these uncharted solitudes of the Everglades. 
          “You must read between the lines when I say that because one can see through a sheet of glass, the glass is none the less solid and palpable. One can see through it—if that is also seeing it, but one can nevertheless hold it and feel it and receive from it sensations of cold or heat according to its temperature. 
          “Certain jellyfish are absolutely transparent when in the water, and one can only know of their presence by accidental contact, not by sight. 
          “Have you ever thought that possibly there might exist larger and more highly organized creatures transparent to eyesight, yet palpable to touch? 
          “Little Sprite Lake is the jumping-off place; beyond lie the Everglades, the outskirts of which are haunted by the Seminoles, the interior of which have never been visited by man, as far as we know. 
          “As you are aware, no general survey of Florida has yet been made; there exist no maps of the Everglades south of Okeechobee; even Little Sprite Lake is but a vague blot on our maps. We know, of course, that south of the eleven thousand square miles of fresh water which is called Lake Okeechobee the Everglades form a vast, delta-like projection of thousands and thousands of square miles. Darkest Africa is no longer a mystery; but the Everglades to-day remain the sombre secret of our continent. And, to-day, this unknown expanse of swamps, barrens, forests, and lagoons is greater than in the days of De Soto, because the entire region has been slowly rising. 
          “All this, my dear sir, you already know, and I ask your indulgence for recalling the facts to your memory. I do it for this reason—the search for what I am seeking may lead us to utter destruction; and therefore my formal orders to you should be modified to this extent:—do you volunteer? If you volunteer, my orders remain; if not, turn this letter over to Mr. Kingsley, who will find for me the companion I require. 
          “In the event of your coming, you must break your journey at False Cape and ask for an old man named Slunk. He will give you a packet; you will give him a dollar, and drive on to Cape Canaveral, and you will do what is to be done there. From there to Fort Kissimmee, to Okeechobee, traversing the lake to the Rita River, where I have marked the trail to Little Sprite. 

“At Little Sprite I shall await you; beyond that point a merciful Providence alone can know what awaits us.
            “Yours fraternally,
                      “P.S.—I think that you had better make your will, and suggest the same idea to the stenographer who is to accompany you. F.” 
And that was the letter I received while seated comfortably on the floor of my work-room, surrounded by innocent isopods, all patiently awaiting scientific investigation. 
          And this is what I did: Within twenty-four hours I had assembled the supplies required—the cage, the woman’s clothing, tank, arms and ammunition, and the chemicals; I had secured accommodations, for that evening, on the Florida, Volusia, and Fort Lauderdale Railway as far as Citron City; and I had been interviewing
stenographers all day long, the result of an innocently worded advertisement in the daily newspapers. 
          It was now very close to the time when I must summon a cab and drive to the ferry; and yet I was still shy one stenographer. 
          I had seen scores; they simply would not listen to the proposition. “Why does a gentleman in the backwoods of Florida want a stenographer?” they demanded; and as I had not the faintest idea, I could only say so. I think the majority interviewed concluded I had escaped from a State institution. 
          As the time for departure approached I became desperate, urging and beseeching applicants to accompany me; but neither sympathy for my instant need nor desire for salary moved them. 
          I waited until the last moment, hoping against hope. Then, with a groan of despair, I seized luggage and raincoat, made for the door and flung it open, only to find myself face to face with an attractive young girl, apparently on the point of pressing the electric button. 
          “I’m sorry,” I said, “but I have a train to catch.” 
          She was noticeably attractive in her storm-coat and pretty hat, and I really was sorry—so sorry that I added: 
          “I have about twenty-seven seconds to place at your service before I go.” 
          “Twenty will be sufficient,” she replied, pleasantly. “I saw your advertisement for a stenographer—” 
          “We require a man,” I interposed, hastily. 
          “Have you engaged him?” 
          We looked at each other. 
          “You wouldn’t accept, anyway,” I began. 
          “How do you know?” 
          “You wouldn’t leave town, would you?” 
          “Yes, if you required it.” 
          “What? Go to Florida?” 
          “Y-yes—if I must.” 
          “But think of the alligators! Think of the snakes—big, bitey snakes!” 
          “Gracious!” she exclaimed, eyes growing bigger. 
          “Indians, too!—unreconciled, sulky Seminoles! Fevers! Mud-puddles! Spiders! And only fifty dollars a week—” 
          “I—I’ll go,” she stammered. 
          “Go?” I repeated, grimly; “then you’ve exactly two and three-quarter seconds left for preparations.” 
          Instinctively she raised her little gloved hand and patted her hair. “I’m ready,” she said, unsteadily. 
          “One extra second to make your will,” I added, stunned by her self-possession. 
          “I—I have nothing to leave—nobody to leave it to,” she said, smiling; “I am ready.” 
          I took that extra second myself for a lightning course in reflection upon effects and consequences. 
          “It’s silly, it’s probably murder,” I said, “ but you’re engaged! Now we must run for it!” 
          And that is how I came to engage the services of Miss Helen Barrison as stenographer. 

Go to Chapter Fourteen.......