In Search of The Unknown

Robert W. Chambers


It was on Sunday when I awoke to the realization that I had quitted civilization and was afloat on an unfamiliar body of water in an open boat containing— 
          One light steel cage, 
          One rifle and ammunition, 
          One stenographer, 
          Three ounces rosium oxide, 
          One hound-dog, 
          Two valises.  A playful wave slopped over the how and I lost count; but the pretty stenographer made the inventory, while I resumed the oars, and the dog punctured the primeval silence with staccato yelps. 
          A few minutes later everything and everybody was accounted for; the sky was blue and the palms waved, and several species of dicky-birds tuned up as I pulled with powerful strokes out into the sunny waters of Little Sprite Lake, now within a few miles of my journey’s end. 
          From ponds hidden in the marshes herons rose in lazily laborious flight, flapping low across the water; high in the cypress yellow-eyed ospreys bent crested heads to watch our progress; sun-baked alligators, lying heavily in the shoreward sedge, slid open, glassy eyes as we passed. 
          “Even the ‘gators make eyes at you,” I said, resting on my oars. 
          We were on terms of badinage. 
          “Who was it who shed crocodile tears at the prospect of shipping me North?” she inquired. 
          “Speaking of tears,” I observed, “somebody is likely to shed a number when Professor Farrago is picked up.” 
          “Pooh!” she said, and snapped her pretty, sun-tanned fingers; and I resumed the oars in time to avoid shipwreck on a large mud-bar. 
          She reclined in the stern, serenely occupied with the view, now and then caressing the discouraged dog, now and then patting her hair where the wind had loosened a bright strand. 
          “If Professor Farrago didn’t expect a woman stenographer,” she said, abruptly, “why did he instruct you to bring a complete outfit of woman’s clothing?” 
          “I don’t know,” I said, tartly. 
          “But you bought them. Are they for a young woman or an old woman?” 
          “I don’t know; I sent a messenger to a department store. I don’t know what he bought.” 
          “Didn’t you look them over?” 
          “No. Why? I should have been no wiser. I fancy they’re all right, because the bill was eighteen hundred dollars—” 
          The pretty stenographer sat up abruptly. 
          “Is that much?” I asked, uneasily. “I’ve always heard women’s clothing was expensive. Wasn’t it enough? I told the boy to order the best;—Professor Farrago always requires the very best scientific instruments, and—I listed the clothes as scientific accessories—that being the object of this expedition—What are you laughing at?” 
          When it pleased her to recover her gravity she announced her desire to inspect and repack the clothing; but I refused. 
          “They’re for Professor Farrago,” I said. “I don’t know what he wants of them. I don’t suppose he intends to wear ‘em and caper about the jungle, but they’re his. I got them because he told me to. I bought a cage, too, to fit myself, but I don’t suppose he means to put me in it. Perhaps,” I added, “he may invite you into it.” 
          “Let me refold the gowns,” she pleaded, persuasively. “What does a clumsy man know about packing such clothing as that? If you don’t, they’ll be ruined. It’s a shame to drag those boxes about through mud and water! “ 
          So we made a landing, and lifted out and unlocked the boxes. All I could see inside were mounds of lace and ribbons, and with a vague idea that Miss Barrison needed no assistance I returned to the boat and sat down to smoke until she was ready. When she summoned me her face was flushed and her eyes bright. 
          “Those are certainly the most beautiful things!” she said, softly. “Why, it is like a bride’s trousseau—absolutely complete—all except the bridal gown—” 
          “Isn’t there a dress there?” I exclaimed, in alarm. 
          “No—not a day-dress.” 
          “Night-dresses!” I shrieked. “He doesn’t want women’s night-dresses! He’s a bachelor! Good Heavens! I’ve done it this time!” 
          “But—but who is to wear them?” she asked. 
          “How do I know? I don’t know anything; I can only presume that he doesn’t intend to open a department store in the Everglades. And if any lady is to wear garments in his vicinity, I assume that those garments are to be anything except diaphanous!... Please take your seat in the boat, Miss Barrison. I want to row and think.” 
          I had had my fill of exercise and thought when, about four o’clock in the afternoon, Miss Barrison directed my attention to a point of palms jutting out into the water about a mile to the southward. 
          “That’s Farrago!” I exclaimed, catching sight of a United States flag floating majestically from a bamboo-pole. “Give me the megaphone, if you please.” 
          She handed me the instrument; I hailed the shore; and presently a man appeared under the palms at the water’s edge. 
          “Hello!” I roared, trying to inject cheerfulness into the hollow bellow. “How are you, professor?” 
          The answer came distinctly across the water: 
          “Who is that with you?” 
          My lips were buried in the megaphone; I strove to speak; I only produced a ghastly, chuckling sound. 
          “Of course you expect to tell the truth,” observed the pretty stenographer, quietly. I removed my lips from the megaphone and looked around at her. She returned my gaze with a disturbing smile. 
          “I want to mitigate the blow,” I said, hoarsely. “Tell me how.” 
          “I’m sure I don’t know,” she said, sweetly. 
          “Well, I do!” I fairly barked, and seizing the megaphone again, I set it to my lips and roared, “My fiancée!” 
          “Good gracious!” exclaimed Miss Barrison, in consternation, “I thought you were going to tell the truth!” 
          “Don’t do that or you’ll upset us,” I snapped— “I’m telling the truth; I’ve engaged myself to you; I did it mentally before I bellowed.” 
          “You know as well as I do what engagements mean,” I said, picking up the oars and digging them deep in the blue water. 
          She assented uncertainly. 
          A few minutes more of vigorous rowing brought us to a muddy landing under a cluster of tall palmettos, where a gasoline launch lay. Professor Farrago came down to the shore as I landed, and I walked ahead to meet him. He was the maddest man I ever saw. But I was his match, for I was desperate. 
          “What the devil—” he began, under his breath. 
         “Nonsense!” I said, deliberately. “An engaged woman is practically married already, because marriages are made in heaven.” 
          “Good Lord!” he gasped, “are you mad, Gilland? I sent for a stenographer—” 
          “Miss Barrison is a stenographer,” I said, calmly; and before he could recover I had presented him, and left them face to face, washing my hands of the whole affair. 
          Unloading the boat and carrying the luggage up under the palms, I heard her saying: 
          “No, I am not in the least afraid of snakes, and I am quite ready to begin my duties.” 
          And he: “Mr. Gilland is a young man who—er—lacks practical experience.” 
          And she: “Mr. Gilland has been most thoughtful for my comfort. The journey has been perfectly heavenly.” 
          And he, clumsily: “Ahem!—the—er—celestial aspect of your journey has—er— doubtless been colored by—er—the prospect of your—er—approaching nuptials—” 
          She, hastily: “Oh, I do not think so, professor.” 
          “Idiot!” I muttered, dragging the dog to the shore, where his yelps brought the professor hurrying. 
          “Is that the dog?” he inquired, adjusting his spectacles. 
          “That’s the dog,” I said. “He’s full of points, you see?” 
          “Oh,” mused the professor; “I thought he was full of—” He hesitated, inspecting the animal, who, nose to the ground, stood investigating a smell of some sort. 
          “See,” I said, with enthusiasm, “he’s found a scent; he’s trailing it already! Now he’s rolling on it!” 
          “He’s rolling on one of our concentrated food lozenges,” said the professor, dryly. “Tie him up, Mr. Gilland, and ask Mrs. Gilland to come up to camp. Your room is ready.” 
          “Rooms,” I corrected; “she isn’t Mrs. Gilland yet,” I added, with a forced smile. 
          “But you’re practically married,” observed the professor, “as you pointed out to me. And if she’s practically Mrs. Gilland, why not say so?” 
          “Don’t, all the same,” I snarled. 
          “But marriages are made in—” 
          I cast a desperate eye upon him. 
          From that moment, whenever we were alone together, he made a target of me. I never had supposed him humorously vindictive; he was, and his apparently innocent mistakes almost turned my hair gray. 
          But to Miss Barrison he was kind and courteous, and for a time over-serious. 
         Observing him, I could never detect the slightest symptom of dislike for her sex—a failing which common rumor had always credited him with to the verge of absolute rudeness. 
          On the contrary, it was perfectly plain to anybody that he liked her. There was in his manner towards her a mixture of business formality and the deferential attitude of a gentleman. 
          We were seated, just before sunset, outside of the hut built of palmetto logs, when Professor Farrago, addressing us both, began the explanation of our future duties. 
          Miss Barrison, it appeared, was to note everything said by himself, making several shorthand copies by evening. In other words, she was to report every scrap of conversation she heard while in the Everglades. And she nodded intelligently as he finished, and drew pad and pencil from the pocket of her walking-skirt, jotting down his instructions as a beginning. I could see that he was pleased. 
          “The reason I do this,” he said, “is because I do not wish to hide anything that transpires while we are on this expedition. Only the most scrupulously minute record can satisfy me; no details are too small to merit record; I demand and I court from my fellow-scientists and from the public the fullest investigation.” 
          He smiled slightly, turning towards me. 
          “You know, Mr. Gilland, how dangerous to the reputation of a scientific man is any line of investigation into the unusual. If a man once is even suspected of charlatanism, of sensationalism, of turning his attention to any phenomena not strictly within the proper pale of scientific investigation, that man is doomed to ridicule; his profession disowns him; he becomes a man without honor, without authority. Is it not so?” 
          “Yes,” I said. 
          “Therefore,” he resumed, thoughtfully, “as I do most firmly believe in the course I am now pursuing, whether I succeed or fail I desire a true and minute record made, hiding nothing of what may be said or done. A stenographer alone can give this to the world, while I can only supplement it with a description of events—if I live to transcribe them.” 
          Sunk in profound reverie he sat there silent under the great, smooth palm-tree— a venerable figure in his yellow dressing-gown and carpet slippers. Seated side by side, we waited, a trifle awed. I could hear the soft breathing of the pretty stenographer beside me. 
          “First of all,” said Professor Farrago, looking up, “I must be able to trust those who are here to aid me.” 
          “I—I will be faithful,” said the girl, in a low voice. 
          “I do not doubt you, my child,” he said; “nor you, Gilland. And so I am going to tell you this much now—more, I hope, later.” 
          And he sat up straight, lifting an impressive forefinger. 
          “Mr. Rowan, lately an officer of our Coast Survey, wrote me a letter from the Holland House in New York—a letter so strange that, on reading it, I immediately repaired to his hotel, where for hours we talked together. 
          “The result of that conference is this expedition. 
          “I have now been here two months, and I am satisfied of certain facts. First, there do exist in this unexplored wilderness certain forms of life which are solid and palpable, but transparent and practically invisible. Second, these living creatures belong to the animal kingdom, are warm-blooded vertebrates, possess powers of locomotion, but whether that of flight I am not certain. Third, they appear to possess such senses as we enjoy—smell, touch, sight, hearing, and no doubt the sense of taste. Fourth, their skin is smooth to the touch, and the temperature of the epidermis appears to approximate that of a normal human being. Fifth and last, whether bipeds or quadrupeds I do not know, though all evidence appears to confirm my theory that they walk erect. One pair of their limbs appear to terminate in a sort of foot— like a delicately shaped human foot, except that there appear to be no toes. The other pair of limbs terminate in something that, from the single instance I experienced, seemed to resemble soft but firm antennæ or, perhaps, digitated palpi—” 
          “Feelers!” I blurted out. 
          “I don’t know, but I think so. Once, when I was standing in the forest, perfectly aware that creatures I could not see had stealthily surrounded me, the tension was brought to a crisis when over my face, from cheek to chin, stole a soft something, brushing the skin as delicately as a child’s fingers might brush it.” 
          “Good Lord!” I breathed. 
          A care-worn smile crept into his eyes. “A test for nerves, you think, Mr. Gilland? I agree with you. Nobody fears what anybody can see.” 
          There came the slightest movement beside me. 
          “Are you trembling?” I asked, turning. 
          “I was writing,” she replied, steadily. “Did my elbow touch you?” 
          “By-the-way,” said Professor Farrago, “I fear I forgot to congratulate you upon your choice of a stenographer, Mr. Gilland.” 
          A rosy light stole over her pale face. 
          “Am I to record that too?” she asked, raising her blue eyes. 
          “Certainly,” he replied, gravely. 
          “But, professor,” I began, a prey to increasing excitement, “do you propose to attempt the capture of one of these animals?” 
          “That is what the cage is for,” he said. “I supposed you had guessed that.” 
          “I had,” murmured the pretty stenographer. 
          “I do not doubt it,” said Professor Farrago, gravely. 
          “What are the chemicals for—and the tank and hose attachment?” 
          “Think, Mr. Gilland.” 
          “I can’t; I’m almost stunned by what you tell me.” 
          He laughed. “The rosium oxide and salts of strontium are to be dumped into the tank together. They’ll effervesce, of course.” 
          “Of course,” I muttered. 
          “And I can throw a rose-colored spray over any object by the hose attachment, can’t I?” 
          “Well, I tried it on a transparent jelly-fish and it became perfectly visible and of a beautiful rose-color: and I tried it on rock-crystal, and on glass, and on pure gelatine, and all became suffused with a delicate pink glow, which lasted for hours or minutes according to the substance.... Now you understand, don’t you’” 
          “Yes; you want to see what sort of creature you have to deal with.” 
          “Exactly; so when I’ve trapped it I am going to spray it.” He turned half humorously towards the stenographer: “I fancy you understood long before Mr. Gilland did.” 
          “I don’t think so,” she said, with a sidelong lifting of the heavy lashes; and I caught the color of her eyes for a second. 
          “You see how Miss Barrison spares your feelings,” observed Professor Farrago, dryly. “She owes you little gratitude for bringing her here, yet she proves a generous victim.” 
          “Oh, I am very grateful for this rarest of chances!” she said, shyly. “To be among the first in the world to discover such wonders ought to make me very grateful to the man who gave me the opportunity.” 
          “Do you mean Mr. Gilland?” asked the professor, laughing. 
          I had never before seen Professor Farrago laugh such a care-free laugh; I had never suspected him of harboring even an embryo of the social graces. 
          Dry as dust, sapless as steel, precise as the magnetic needle, he had hitherto been to me the mummified embodiment of science militant. Now, in the guise of a perfectly human and genial old gentleman, I scarcely recognized my superior of the Bronx Park society. And as a woman-hater he was a miserable failure. 
          “Heavens,” I thought to myself, “am I becoming jealous of my revered professor’s social success with a stray stenographer?” I felt mean, and I probably looked it, and I was glad that telepathy did not permit Miss Barrison to record my secret and unworthy ruminations. 
          The professor was saying: “These transparent creatures break off berries and fruits and branches; I have seen a flower, too, plucked from its stem by invisible digits and borne swiftly through the forest—only the flower visible, apparently speeding through the air and out of sight among the thickets. 
          “I have found the footprints that I described to you, usually on the edge of a stream or in the soft loam along some forest lake or lost lagoon. 
          “Again and again I have been conscious in the forest that unseen eyes were fixed on me, that unseen shapes were following me. Never but that one time did these invisible creatures close in around me and venture to touch me. 
          “They may be weak; their structure may be frail, and they may be incapable of violence or harm, but the depth of the footprints indicates a weight of at least one hundred and thirty pounds, and it certainly requires some muscular strength to break off a branch of wild guavas.” 
          He bent his noble head, thoughtfully regarding the design on his slippers. 
          “What was the rifle for?” I asked. 
          “Defence, not aggression,” he said, simply. 
          “And the camera?” 
          “A camera record is necessary in these days of bad artists.” 
          I hesitated, glancing at Miss Barrison. She was still writing, her pretty head bent over the pad m her lap. 
          “And the clothing?” I asked, carelessly. 
          “Did you get it?” he demanded. 
          “Of course—” I glanced at Miss Barrison. “There’s no use writing down everything, is there?” 
          “Everything must be recorded,” said Professor Farrago, inflexibly. “What clothing did you buy?” 
          “I forgot the gown,” I said, getting red about the ears. 
          “Forgot the gown!” he repeated. 
          “Yes—one kind of gown—the day kind. I—I got the other kind.” 
          He was annoyed; so was I. After a moment he got up, and crossing to the log cabin, opened one of the boxes of apparel. 
          “Is it what you wanted?” I inquired. 
          “Y-es, I presume so,” he replied, visibly perplexed. 
          “It’s the best to be had,” said I. 
          “That’s quite right,” he said, musingly. “We use only the best of everything at Bronx Park. It is traditional with us, you know.” 
          Curiosity pushed me. “Well, what on earth is it for?” I broke out. 
          He looked at me gravely over the tops of his spectacles—a striking and inspiring figure in his yellow flannel dressing-gown and slippers. 
          “I shall tell you some day—perhaps,” he said, mildly. “Good-night, Miss Barrison; good-night, Mr. Gilland. You will find extra blankets on your bunk—” 
          “What!” I cried. 
          “Bunks,” he said, and shut the door.