In Search of The Unknown

Robert W. Chambers


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 light-house 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 shirtfront, 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. 
          “‘The carrion-crows 
          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 canon, 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. Goodbye, 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. 
          “Yours, F.”  
          “What the deuce is the matter with him!” I exclaimed, irritably. “I’ll take any chances Kingsley does!” 
          Miss Barrison looked up in surprise. 
          “Miss Barrison,” I said, plunging into the subject headfirst, “I’m extremely sorry, but I have news that forces me to believe the journey too dangerous for you to attempt, so I think that it would be much better—” The consternation in her pretty face checked me. 
          “I’m awfully sorry,” I muttered, appalled by her silence. 
          “But—but you engaged me!” 
          “I know it—I should not have done it. I only—” 
          “But you did engage me, didn’t you?” 
          “I believe that I did—er—oh, of course—” 
          “But a verbal contract is binding between honorable people, isn’t it, Mr. Gilland?” 
          “Yes, but—” 
          “And ours was a verbal contract; and in consideration you paid me my first week’s salary, and I bought shirt-waists and a short skirt and three changes of—and tooth-brushes and—” 
          “I know, I know,” I groaned. “But I’ll fix all that.” 
          “You can’t if you break your contract.” 
          “Why not?” 
          “Because,” she said, flushing up, “I should not accept.” 
          “You don’t understand—” 
          “Really I do. You are going into a dangerous country and you’re afraid I’ll be frightened.” 
          “It’s something like that.” 
          “Tell me what are the dangers?” 
          “Alligators, big, bitey snakes—” 
          “Oh, you’ve said all that before!” 
          “And that too. What else is there? Did the young man in the sun-helmet tell you of something worse?” 
          “Yes—much worse! Something so dreadfully horrible that—” 
          “I am not at liberty to tell you, Miss Barrison,” I said, striving to appear shocked. 
          “It would not make any difference anyway,” she observed, calmly. “I’m not afraid of anything in the world.” 
          “Yes, you are!” I said. “ Listen to me; I’d be awfully glad to have you go—I— I really had no idea how I’d miss you—miss such pleasant companionship. But it is not possible—” The recollection of Professor Farrago’s aversion suddenly returned. “No, no,” I said, “it can’t be done. I’m most unhappy over this mistake of mine; please don’t look as though you were ready to cry!” 
          “Don’t discharge me, Mr. Gilland,” she said. 
          “I’m a brute to do it, but I must; I was a bigger brute to engage you, but I did. Don’t—please don’t look at me that way, Miss Barrison! As a matter of fact, I’m tender-hearted and I can’t endure it.” 
          “If you only knew what I had been through you wouldn’t send me away,” she said, in a low voice. “It took my last penny to clothe myself and pay for the last lesson at the college of stenography. I—I lived on almost nothing for weeks; every respectable place was filled; I walked and walked and walked, and nobody wanted me—they all required people with experience—and how can I have experience until I begin, Mr. Gilland? I was perfectly desperate when I went to see you, knowing that you had advertised for a man—” The slightest break in her clear voice scared me. 
          “I’m not going to cry,” she said, striving to smile. “If I must go, I will go. I—I didn’t mean to say all this—but—but I’ve been so—so discouraged;—and you were not very cross with me—” 
          Smitten with remorse, I picked up her hand and fell to patting it violently, trying to think of something to say. The exercise did not appear to stimulate my wits. 
          “Then—then I’m to go with you?” she asked. 
          “I will see,” I said, weakly, “but I fear there’s trouble ahead for this expedition.” 
          “I fear there is,” she agreed, in a cheerful voice. “You have a rifle and a cage in your luggage. Are you going to trap Indians and have me report their language?” 
          “No, I’m not going to trap Indians,” I said, sharply. “They may trap us—but that’s a detail. What I want to say to you is this: Professor Farrago detests unmarried women, and I forgot it when I engaged you.” 
          “Oh, is that all?” she asked, laughing. 
          “Not all, but enough to cost me my position.” 
          “How absurd! Why, there are millions of things we might do!—millions!” 
          “What’s one of them?” I inquired. 
          “Why, we might pretend to be married!” Her frank and absolutely innocent delight in this suggestion was refreshing, but troubling. 
          “We would have to be demonstrative to make that story go,” I said. 
          “Why? Well-bred people are not demonstrative in public,” she retorted, turning a trifle pink. 
          “No, but in private—” 
          “I think there is no necessity for carrying a pleasantry into our private life,” she said, in a perfectly amiable voice. “Anyway, if Professor Farrago’s feelings are to be spared, no sacrifice on the part of a mere girl could be too great,” she added, gayly; “I will wear men’s clothes if you wish.” 
          “You may have to anyhow in the jungle,” I said; “and as it’s not an uncommon thing these days, nobody would ever take you for anything except what you are—a very wilful and plucky and persistent and—” 
          “And what, Mr. Gilland?” 
          “And attractive,” I muttered. 
          “Thank you, Mr. Gilland.” 
          “You’re welcome,” I snapped. The near whistle of a locomotive warned us, and I rose in the carriage, looking out across the sand-hills. 
          “That is probably our train,” observed the pretty stenographer. 
          “Our train!” 
          “Yes; isn’t it?” 
          “Then you insist—” 
          “Ah, no, Mr. Gilland; I only trust implicitly in my employer.” 
          “We’ll wait till we get to Citron City,” I said, weakly; “then it will be time enough to discuss the situation, won’t it?” 
          “Yes, indeed,” she said, smiling; but she knew, and I already feared, that the situation no longer admitted of discussion. In a few moments more we emerged, without warning, from the scrub-crested sand-hills into the single white street of Citron City, where China-trees hung heavy with bloom, and magnolias, already set with perfumed candelabra, spread soft, checkered shadows over the marl. 
          The train lay at the station, oceans of heavy, black smoke lazily flowing from the locomotive; negroes were hoisting empty fruit-crates aboard the baggage-car, through the door of which I caught a glimpse of my steel cage and remaining paraphernalia, all securely crated. 
          “Telegram hyah foh Mistuh Gilland,” remarked the operator, lounging at his window as we descended from our dusty vehicle. He had not addressed himself to anybody in particular, but I said that I was Mr. Gilland, and he produced the envelope. “Toted in from Okeechobee?” he inquired, listlessly. 
          “Probably; it’s signed ‘Farrago,’ isn’t it?” 
          “It’s foh yoh, suh, I reckon,” said the operator, handing it out with a yawn. 
          Then he removed his hat and fanned his head, which was perfectly bald. 
          I opened the yellow envelope. “Get me a good dog with points,” was the laconic message; and it irritated me to receive such idiotic instructions at such a time and in such a place. A good dog? Where the mischief could I find a dog in a town consisting of ten houses and a water-tank? I said as much to the bald-headed operator, who smiled wearily and replaced his hat: “Dawg? They’s moh houn’-dawgs in Citron City than they’s wood-ticks to keep them busy. I reckon a dollah ‘ll do a heap foh you, suh.” 
          “Could you get me a dog for a dollar?” I asked;— “one with points?” 
          “Points? I sholy can, suh;—plenty of points. What kind of dawg do yoh requiah, suh?—live dawg? daid dawg? houn’-dawg? raid-dawg? hawg-dawg? coon-dawg?—” 
          The locomotive emitted a long, lazy, softly modulated and thoroughly Southern toot. I handed the operator a silver dollar, and he presently emerged from his office and slouched off up the street, while I walked with Miss Barrison to the station platform, where I resumed the discussion of her future movements. 
          “You are very young to take such a risk,” I said, gravely. “Had I not better buy your ticket back to New York? The north-bound train meets this one. I suppose we are waiting for it now—” I stopped, conscious of her impatience. 
          Her face flushed brightly: “Yes; I think it best. I have embarrassed you too long already—” 
          “Don’t say that!” I muttered. “I—I—shall be deadly bored without you.” 
          “I am not an entertainer, only a stenographer,” she said, curtly. “Please get me my ticket, Mr. Gilland.” 
          She gazed at me from the car-platform; the locomotive tooted two drawling toots. 
          “It is for your sake,” I said, avoiding her gaze as the far-off whistle of the north-bound express came floating out of the blue distance. 
          She did not answer; I fished out my watch, regarding it in silence, listening to the hum of the approaching train, which ought presently to bear her away into the North, where nothing could menace her except the brilliant pitfalls of a Christian civilization. But I stood there, temporizing, unable to utter a word as her train
shot by us with a rush, slower, slower, and finally stopped, with a long-drawn sigh from the air-brakes. 
          At that instant the telegraph-operator appeared, carrying a dog by the scruff of the neck—a sad-eyed, ewe-necked dog, from the four corners of which dangled enormous, cushion-like paws. He yelped when he beheld me. Miss Barrison leaned down from the car-platform and took the animal into her arms, uttering a suppressed exclamation of pity as she lifted him. 
          “You have your hands full,” she said to me; “I’ll take him into the car for you.” 
          She mounted the steps; I followed with the valises, striving to get a good view of my acquisition over her shoulder. 
          “That isn’t the kind of dog I wanted!” I repeated again and again, inspecting the animal as it sprawled on the floor of the car at the edge of Miss Barrison’s skirt. “That dog is all voice and feet and emotion! What makes it stick up its paws like that? I don’t want that dog and I’m not going to identify myself with it! Where’s the operator—” 
          I turned towards the car-window; the operator’s bald head was visible on a line with the sill, and I made motions at him. He bowed with courtly grace, as though I were thanking him. 
          “I’m not!” I cried, shaking my head. “I wanted a dog with points—not the kind of points that stick up all over this dog. Take him away!” 
          The operator’s head appeared to be gliding out of my range of vision; then the windows of the north-bound train slid past, taster and faster. A melancholy grace note from the dog, a jolt, and I turned around, appalled. 
          “This train is going,” I stammered, “and you are on it!” 
          Miss Barrison sprang up and started towards the door, and I sped after her. 
          “I can jump,” she said, breathlessly, edging out to the platform; “please let me! There is time yet—if you only wouldn’t hold me—so tight—” 
          A few moments later we walked slowly back together through the car and took seats facing one another. 
          Between us sat the hound-dog, a prey to melancholy unutterable. 

Go to Chapter Fifteen.....