In Search of The Unknown

Robert W. Chambers


“There is something weird about this whole proceeding,” I observed to the pretty stenographer next morning. 
          “These pies will be weird if you don’t stop talking to me,” she said, opening the doors of Professor Farrago’s portable camping-oven and peeping in at the fragrant pastry. 
          The professor had gone off somewhere into the woods early that morning. As he was not in the habit of talking to himself, the services of Miss Barrison were not required. Before he started, however, he came to her with a request for a dozen pies, the construction of which he asked if she understood. She had been to cooking-school in more prosperous days, and she mentioned it; so at his earnest solicitation she undertook to bake for him twelve apple-pies; and she was now attempting it, assisted by advice from me. 
          “Are they burned?” I asked, sniffing the air. 
          “No, they are not burned, Mr. Gilland, but my finger is,” she retorted, stepping back to examine the damage. 
          I offered sympathy and witch-hazel, but she would have none of my offerings, and presently returned to her pies. 
          “We can’t eat all that pastry,” I protested. 
          “Professor Farrago said they were not for us to eat,” she said, dusting each pie with powdered sugar. 
          “Well, what are they for? The dog? Or are they simply objets d’art to adorn the shanty—” 
          “You annoy me,” she said. 
          “The pies annoy me; won’t you tell me what they’re for?” 
          “I have a pretty fair idea what they’re for,” she observed, tossing her head. 
          “Haven’t you?” 
          “No. What?” 
          “These pies are for bait.” 
          “To bait hooks with?” I exclaimed. 
          “Hooks! No, you silly man. They’re for baiting the cage. He means to trap these transparent creatures in a cage baited with pie.” 
          She laughed scornfully; inserted the burned tip of her finger in her mouth and stood looking at me defiantly like a flushed and bright-eyed school-girl. 
          “You think you’re teasing me,” she said; “but you do not realize what a singularly slow-minded young man you are. “ 
          I stopped laughing. “How did you come to the conclusion that pies were to be used for such a purpose?” I asked. 
          “I deduce,” she observed, with an airy wave of her disengaged hand. 
          “Your deductions are weird—like everything else in this vicinity. Pies to catch invisible monsters? Pooh!” 
          “You’re not particularly complimentary, are you?” she said. 
          “Not particularly; but I could be, with you for my inspiration. I could even be enthusiastic—” 
          “About my pies?” 
          “No—about your eyes.” 
          “You are very frivolous—for a scientist,” she said, scornfully; “please subdue your enthusiasm and bring me some wood. This fire is almost out.” 
          When I had brought the wood, she presented me with a pail of hot water and pointed at the dishes on the breakfast-table. 
          “Never!” I cried, revolted. 
          “Then I suppose I must do them—” 
          She looked pensively at her scorched finger-tip, and, pursing up her red lips, blew a gentle breath to cool it. 
          “I’ll do the dishes,” I said. 
          Splashing and slushing the cups and saucers about in the hot water, I reflected upon the events of the last few days. The dog, stupefied by unwonted abundance of food, lay in the sunshine, sleeping the sleep of repletion; the pretty stenographer, all rosy from her culinary exertions, was removing the pies and setting them in neat rows to cool. 
          “There,” she said, with a sigh; “now I will dry the dishes for you.... You didn’t mention the fact, when you engaged me, that I was also expected to do general housework.” 
          “I didn’t engage you,” I said, maliciously; “you engaged me, you know.” 
          She regarded me disdainfully, nose uptilted. 
          “How thoroughly disagreeable you can be!” she said. “Dry your own dishes. I’m going for a stroll.” 
          “May I join—” 
          “You may not! I shall go so far that you cannot possibly discover me.” 
          I watched her forestward progress; she sauntered for about thirty yards along the lake and presently sat down in plain sight under a huge live-oak. 
          A few moments later I had completed my task as general bottle-washer, and I cast about for something to occupy me. 
          First I approached and politely caressed the satiated dog. He woke up, regarded me with dully meditative eyes, yawned, and went to sleep again. Never a flop of tail to indicate gratitude for blandishments, never the faintest symptom of canine appreciation. 
          Chilled by my reception, I moused about for a while, poking into boxes and bundles; then raised my head and inspected the landscape. Through the vista of trees the pink shirt-waist of the pretty stenographer glimmered like a rose blooming in the wilderness. 
          From whatever point I viewed the prospect that pink spot seemed to intrude; I turned my back and examined the jungle, but there it was repeated in a hundred pink blossoms among the massed thickets; I looked up into the tree-tops, where pink mosses spotted the palms; I looked out over the lake, and I saw it in my mind’s eye pinker than ever. It was certainly a case of pink-eye. 
          “I’ll go for a stroll, too; it’s a free country,” I muttered. 
          After I had strolled in a complete circle I found myself within three feet of a pink shirt-waist. 
          “I beg your pardon,” I said; “I had no inten—” 
          “I thought you were never coming,” she said, amiably. 
          “How is your finger?” I asked. 
          She held it up. I took it gingerly; it was smooth and faintly rosy at the tip. 
          “Does it hurt?” I inquired. 
          “Dreadfully. Your hands feel so cool—” 
          After a silence she said, “Thank you, that has cooled the burning.” 
          “I am determined,” said I, “to expel the fire from your finger if it takes hours and hours.” And I seated myself with that intention. 
          For a while she talked, making innocent observations concerning the tropical foliage surrounding us. Then silence crept in between us, accentuated by the brooding stillness of the forest. 
          “I am afraid your hands are growing tired,” she said, considerately. 
          I denied it. 
          Through the vista of palms we could see the lake, blue as a violet, sparkling with silvery sunshine. In the intense quiet the splash of leaping mullet sounded distinctly. 
          Once a tall crane stalked into view among the sedges; once an unseen alligator shook the silence with his deep, hollow roaring. Then the stillness of the wilderness grew more intense. 
          We had been sitting there for a long while without exchanging a word, dreamily watching the ripple of the azure water, when all at once there came a scurrying patter of feet through the forest, and, looking up, I beheld the hounddog, tail between his legs, bearing down on us at lightning speed. I rose instantly. 
          “What is the matter with the dog?” cried the pretty stenographer. “Is he going mad, Mr. Gilland?” 
          “Something has scared him,” I exclaimed, as the dog, eyes like lighted candles, rushed frantically between my legs and buried his head in Miss Barrison’s lap. 
          “Poor doggy!” she said, smoothing the collapsed pup; “poor, p-oor little beast! Did anything scare him? Tell aunty all about it.” 
          When a dog flees without yelping he’s a badly frightened creature. I instinctively started back towards the camp whence the beast had fled, and before I had taken a dozen steps Miss Barrison was beside me, carrying the dog in her arms. 
          “I’ve an idea,” she said, under her breath. 
          “What?” I asked, keeping my eyes on the camp. 
          “It’s this: I’ll wager that we find those pies gone!” 
          “Pies gone?” I repeated, perplexed; “what makes you think—” 
          “They are gone!” she exclaimed. “Look!” 
          I gaped stupidly at the rough pine table where the pies had stood in three neat rows of four each. And then, in a moment, the purport of this robbery flashed upon my senses. 
          “The transparent creatures!” I gasped. 
          “Hush!” she whispered, clinging to the trembling dog in her arms. 
          I listened. I could hear nothing, see nothing, yet slowly I became convinced of the presence of something unseen—something in the forest close by, watching us out of invisible eyes. 
          A chill, settling along my spine, crept upward to my scalp, until every separate hair wiggled to the roots. Miss Barrison was pale, but perfectly calm and self-possessed. 
          “Let us go in-doors,” I said, as steadily as I could. 
          “Very well,” she replied. 
          I held the door open; she entered with the dog; I followed, closing and barring the door, and then took my station at the window, rifle in hand. 
          There was not a sound in the forest. Miss Barrison laid the dog on the floor and quietly picked up her pad and pencil. Presently she was deep in a report of the phenomena, her pencil flying, leaf after leaf from the pad fluttering to the floor. Nor did I at the window change my position of scared alertness, until I was aware of her hand gently touching my elbow to attract my attention, and her soft voice at my ear— 
          “You don’t suppose by any chance that the dog ate those pies?” 
          I collected my tumultuous thoughts and turned to stare at the dog. 
          “Twelve pies, twelve inches each in diameter,” she reflected, musingly. “One dog, twenty inches in diameter. How many times will the pies go into the dog? Let me see. She made a few figures on her pad, thought awhile, produced a tape-measure from her pocket, and, kneeling down, measured the dog. 
          “No,” she said, looking up at me, “he couldn’t contain them.” 
          Inspired by her coolness and perfect composure, I set the rifle in the corner and opened the door. Sunlight fell in bars through the quiet woods; nothing stirred on land or water save the great, yellow-striped butterflies that fluttered and soared and floated above the flowering thickets bordering the jungle. 
          The heat became intense; Miss Barrison went to her room to change her gown for a lighter one; I sat down under a live-oak, eyes and ears strained for any sign of our invisible neighbors. 
          When she emerged in the lightest and filmiest of summer gowns, she brought the camera with her; and for a while we took pictures of each other, until we had used up all but one film. 
          Desiring to possess a picture of Miss Barrison and myself seated together, I tied a string to the shutter-lever and attached the other end of the string to the dog, who had resumed his interrupted slumbers. At my whistle he jumped up nervously, snapping the lever, and the picture was taken. 
          With such innocent and harmless pastime we whiled away the afternoon. 
          She made twelve more apple-pies. I mounted guard over them. And we were just beginning to feel a trifle uneasy about Professor Farrago, when he appeared, tramping sturdily through the forest, green umbrella and butterfly-net under one arm, shotgun and cyanide-jar under the other, and his breast all criss-crossed with straps, from which dangled field-glasses, collecting-boxes, and botanizingtins —an inspiring figure indeed—the embodied symbol of science indomitable, triumphant! 
          We hailed him with three guilty cheers; the dog woke up with a perfunctory bark—the first sound I had heard from him since he yelped his disapproval of me on the lagoon. 
          Miss Barrison produced three bowls full of boiling water and dropped three pellets of concentrated soup-meat into them, while I prepared coffee. And in a few moments our simple dinner was ready—the red ants had been dusted from the biscuits, the spiders chased off the baked beans, the scorpions shaken from the napkins, and we sat down at the rough, improvised table under the palms. 
          The professor gave us a brief but modest account of his short tour of exploration. He had brought back a new species of orchid, several undescribed beetles, and a pocketful of coontie seed. He appeared, however, to be tired and singularly depressed, and presently we learned why. 
          It seemed that he had gone straight to that section of the forest where he had hitherto always found signs of the transparent and invisible creatures which he had determined to capture, and he had not found a single trace of them. 
          “It alarms me,” he said, gravely. “If they have deserted this region, it might take a lifetime to locate them again in this wilderness.” 
          Then, very quietly, sinking her voice instinctively, as though the unseen might be at our very elbows listening, Miss Barrison recounted the curious adventure which had befallen the dog and the first batch of apple-pies. 
          With visible and increasing excitement the professor listened until the very end. Then he struck the table with clinched fist—a resounding blow which set the concentrated soup dancing in the bowls and scattered the biscuits and the industrious red ants in every direction. 
          “Eureka!” he whispered. “Miss Barrison, your deduction was not only perfectly reasonable, but brilliant. You are right; the pies are for that very purpose. I conceived the idea when I first came here. Again and again the pies that my guide made out of dried apples disappeared in a most astonishing and mysterious manner when left to cool. At length I determined to watch them every second; and did so, with the result that late one afternoon I was amazed to see a pie slowly rise from the table and move swiftly away through the air about four feet above the ground, finally disappearing into a tangle of jasmine and grape-vine. 
          “The apparently automatic flight of that pie solved the problem; these transparent creatures cannot resist that delicacy. Therefore I decided to bait the cage for them this very night—Look! What’s the matter with that dog?” 
          The dog suddenly bounded into the air, alighted on all fours, ears, eyes, and muzzle concentrated on a point directly behind us. 
          “Good gracious! The pies!” faltered Miss Barrison, half rising from her seat; but the dog rushed madly into her skirts, scrambling for protection, and she fell back almost into my arms. 
          Clasping her tightly, I looked over my shoulder; the last pie was snatched from the table before my eyes and I saw it borne swiftly away by something unseen, straight into the deepening shadows of the forest. 
          The professor was singularly calm, even slightly ironical, as he turned to me, saying: 
          “Perhaps if you relinquish Miss Barrison she may be able to free herself from that dog.” 
          I did so immediately, and she deposited the cowering dog in my arms. Her face had suddenly become pink. 
          I passed the dog on to Professor Farrago, dumping it viciously into his lap— a proceeding which struck me as resembling a pastime of extreme youth known as “button, button, who’s got the button?” 
          The professor examined the animal gravely, feeling its pulse, counting its respirations, and finally inserting a tentative finger in an attempt to examine its tongue. The dog bit him. 
          “Ouch! It’s a clear case of fright,” he said, gravely. “I wanted a dog to aid me in trailing these remarkable creatures, but I think this dog of yours is useless, Gilland.” 
          “It’s given us warning of the creatures’ presence twice already,” I argued. 
          “Poor little thing,” said Miss Barrison, softly; “I don’t know why, but I love that dog.... He has eyes like yours, Mr. Gilland—” 
          Exasperated, I rose from the table. “He’s got eyes like holes burned in a blanket!” I said. “And if ever a flicker of intelligence lighted them I have failed to observe it.” 
          The professor regarded me dreamily. “We ought to have more pies,” he observed. “Perhaps if you carried the oven into the shanty—” 
          “Certainly,” said Miss Barrison; “we can lock the door while I make twelve more pies.” 
          I carried the portable camping-oven into the cabin, connected the patent asbestos chimney-pipes, and lighted the fire. And in a few minutes Miss Barrison, sleeves rolled up and pink apron pinned under her chin, was busily engaged in rolling pie-crust, while Professor Farrago measured out spices and set the dried apples to soak. 
          The swift Southern twilight had already veiled the forest as I stepped out of the cabin to smoke a cigar and promenade a bit and cogitate. A last trace of color lingering in the west faded out as I looked; the gray glimmer deepened into darkness, through which the white lake vapors floated in thin, wavering strata across the water. 
          For a while the frog’s symphony dominated all other sounds, then lagoon and forest and cypress branch awoke; and through the steadily sustained tumult of woodland voices I could hear the dry bark of the fox-squirrel, the whistle of the raccoon, ducks softly quacking or whimpering as they prepared for sleep among the reeds, the soft booming of bitterns, the clattering gossip of the heronry, the Southern whippoorwill’s incessant call. 
          At regular intervals the howling note of a lone heron echoed the strident screech of a crimson-crested crane; the horned owl’s savage hunting-cry haunted the night, now near, now floating from infinite distances. And after a while I became aware of a nearer sound, low-pitched but ceaseless—the hum of thousands of lesser living creatures blending to a steady monotone. 
          Then the theatrical moon came up through filmy draperies of waving Spanish moss thin as cobwebs; and far in the wilderness a cougar fell a-crying and coughing like a little child with a bad cold. 
          I went in after that. Miss Barrison was sitting before the oven, knees gathered in her clasped hands, languidly studying the fire. She looked up as I appeared, opened the oven-doors, sniffed the aroma, and resumed her attitude of contented indifference. 
          “Where is the professor?” I asked. 
          “He has retired. He’s been talking in his sleep at moments.” 
          “Better take it down; that’s what you’re here for,” I observed, closing and holding the outside door. “Ugh! there’s a chill in the air. The dew is pelting down from the pines like a steady fall of rain.” 
          “You will get fever if you roam about at night,” she said. “Mercy! your coat is soaking. Sit here by the fire.” 
          So I pulled up a bench and sat down beside her like the traditional spider. 
          “Miss Muffitt,” I said, “don’t let me frighten you away—” 
          “I was going anyhow—” 
          “Please don’t.” 
          “Why?” she demanded, reseating herself. 
          “Because I like to sit beside you,” I said, truthfully. 
          “Your avowal is startling and not to be substantiated by facts,” she remarked, resting her chin on one hand and gazing into the fire. 
          “You mean because I went for a stroll by moonlight? I did that because you always seem to make fun of me as soon as the professor joins us.” 
          “Make fun of you? You surely don’t expect me to make eyes at you!” 
          There was a silence; I toasted my shins, thoughtfully. 
          “How is your burned finger?” I asked. 
          She lifted it for my inspection, and I began a protracted examination. 
          “What would you prescribe?” she inquired, with an absent-minded glance at the professor’s closed door. 
          “I don’t know; perhaps a slight but firm pressure of the finger-tips—” 
          “You tried that this afternoon.” 
          “But the dog interrupted us—” 
          “Interrupted you. Besides—” 
          “I don’t think you ought to,” she said. 
          Sitting there before the oven, side by side, hand innocently clasped in hand, we heard the drumming of the dew on the roof, the night-wind stirring the palms, the muffled snoring of the professor, the faint whisper and crackle of the fire. 
          A single candle burned brightly, piling our shadows together on the wall behind us; moonlight silvered the window-panes, over which crawled multitudes of soft-winged moths, attracted by the candle within. 
          “See their tiny eyes glow!” she whispered. “How their wings quiver! And all for a candle-flame! Alas! alas! fire is the undoing of us all.” 
          She leaned forward, resting as though buried in reverie. After a while she extended one foot a trifle and, with the point of her shoe, carefully unlatched the oven-door. As it swung outward a delicious fragrance filled the room. 
          “They’re done,” she said, withdrawing her hand from mine. “Help me to lift them out.” 
          Together we arranged the delicious pastry in rows on the bench to cool. I opened the door for a few minutes, then closed and bolted it again. 
          “Do you suppose those transparent creatures will smell the odor and come around the cabin?” she suggested, wiping her fingers on her handkerchief. 
          I walked to the window uneasily. Outside the pane the moths crawled, some brilliant in scarlet and tan-color set with black, some snow-white with black tracings on their wings, and bodies peacock-blue edged with orange. 
          The scientist in me was aroused; I called her to the window, and she came and leaned against the sill, nose pressed to the glass. 
          “I don’t suppose you know that the antennæ of that silvery-winged moth are distinctly pectinate,” I said. 
          “Of course I do” she said. “I took my degree as D. E. at Barnard College.” 
          “What!” I exclaimed in astonishment. “You’ve been through Barnard? You are a Doctor of Entomology?” 
          “It was my undoing,” she said. “The department was abolished the year I graduated. There was no similar vacancy, even in the Smithsonian.” 
          She shrugged her shoulders, eyes fixed on the moths. “I had to make my own living. I chose stenography as the quickest road to self-sustenance.” 
          She looked up, a flush on her cheeks. 
          “I suppose you took me for an inferior?” she said. “But do you suppose I’d flirt with you if I was?” 
          She pressed her face to the pane again, murmuring that exquisite poem of Andrew Lang: 
          “Spooning is innocuous and needn’t have a sequel, 
          But recollect, if spoon you must, spoon only with your equal.” 
          Standing there, watching the moths, we became rather silent—I don’t know why. The fire in the range had gone out; the candle-flame, flaring above a saucer of melted wax, sank lower and lower. 
          Suddenly, as though disturbed by something inside, the moths all left the window-pane, darting off in the darkness. 
          “That’s curious,” I said. 
          “What’s curious?” she asked, opening her eyes languidly. “Good gracious! 
          Was that a bat that beat on the window?” 
          “I saw nothing,” I said, disturbed. “Listen!” 
          A soft sound against the glass, as though invisible fingers were feeling the pane—a gentle rubbing—then a tap-tap, all but inaudible. 
          “Is it a bird? Can you see?” she whispered. 
          The candle-flame behind us flashed and expired. Moonlight flooded the pane. The sounds continued, but there was nothing there. 
          We understood now what it was that so gently rubbed and patted the glass outside. With one accord we noiselessly gathered up the pies and carried them into my room. 
          Then she walked to the door of her room, turned, held out her hand, and whispering, “Good-night! A demain, monsieur!” slipped into her room and softly closed the door. 
          And all night long I lay in troubled slumber beside the pies, a rifle resting on the blankets beside me, a revolver under my pillow. And I dreamed of moths with brilliant eyes and vast silvery wings harnessed to a balloon in which Miss Barrison and I sat, arms around each other, eating slice after slice of apple-pie. 

Go to Chapter Seventeen.....