THE dim shadow of the thing was but a blur against the dim shadows of the wood behind it. The young man could distinguish no outline that might mark the presence as either brute or human.
He could see no eyes, yet he knew that somewhere from out of that noiseless mass stealthy eyes were fixed upon him.
This was the fourth time that the thing had crept from out the wood as darkness was settling — the fourth time during those three horrible weeks since he had been cast upon that lonely shore that he had watched, terror-stricken, while night engulfed the shadowy form that lurked at the forest’s edge.
It had never attacked him, but to his distorted imagination it seemed to slink closer and closer as night fell — waiting, always waiting for the moment that it might find him unprepared.
Waldo Emerson Smith-Jones was not overly courageous. He had been reared among surroundings of culture plus and ultra-intellectuality in the exclusive Back Bay home of his ancestors.
He had been taught to look with contempt upon all that savored of muscular superiority — such things were gross, brutal, primitive.
It had been a giant intellect only that he had craved — he and a fond mother — and their wishes had been fulfilled. At twenty-one Waldo was an animated encyclopedia — and about as muscular as a real one.
Now he slunk shivering with fright at the very edge of the beach, as far from the grim forest as he could get.
Cold sweat broke from every pore of his long, lank, six-foot-two body. His skinny arms and legs trembled as with palsy. Occasionally he coughed — it had been the cough that had banished him upon this ill-starred sea voyage.
As he crouched in the sand, staring with wide, horror-dilated eyes into the black night, great tears rolled down his thin, white cheeks.
It was with difficulty that he restrained an overpowering desire to shriek. His mind was filled with forlorn regrets that he had not remained at home to meet the wasting death that the doctor had predicted — a peaceful death at least — not the brutal end which faced him now.
The lazy swell of the South Pacific lapped his legs, stretched upon the sand, for he had retreated before that menacing shadow as far as the ocean would permit. As the slow minutes dragged into age-long hours, the nervous strain told so heavily upon the weak boy that toward midnight he lapsed into merciful unconsciousness.
The warm sun awoke him the following morning, but it brought with it but a faint renewal of courage. Things could not creep to his side unseen now, but still they could come, for the sun would not protect him. Even now some savage beast might be lurking just within the forest.
The thought unnerved him to such an extent that he dared not venture to the woods for the fruit that had formed the major portion of his sustenance. Along the beach he picked up a few mouthfuls of sea-food, but that was all.
The day passed, as had the other terrible days which had preceded it, in scanning alternately the ocean and the forest’s edge — the one for a ship and the other for the cruel death which he momentarily expected to see stalk out of the dreary shades to claim him.
A more practical and a braver man would have constructed some manner of shelter in which he might have spent his nights in comparative safety and comfort, but Waldo Emerson’s education had been conducted along lines of undiluted intellectuality — pursuits and knowledge which were practical were commonplace, and commonplaces were vulgar. It was preposterous that a Smith-Jones should ever have need of vulgar knowledge.
For the twenty-second time since the great wave had washed him from the steamer’s deck and hurled him, choking and sputtering, upon this inhospitable shore, Waldo Emerson saw the sun sinking rapidly toward the western horizon.
As it descended the young man’s terror increased, and he kept his eyes glued upon the spot from which the shadow had emerged the previous evening.
He felt that he could not endure another night of the torture he had passed through four times before. That he should go mad he was positive, and he commenced to tremble and whimper even while daylight yet remained. For a time he tried turning his back to the forest, and then he sat huddled up gazing out upon the ocean; but the tears which rolled down his cheeks so blurred his eyes that he saw nothing.
Finally he could endure it no longer, and with a sudden gasp of horror he wheeled toward the wood. There was nothing visible, yet he broke down and sobbed like a child, for loneliness and terror.
When he was able to control his tears for a moment he took the opportunity to scan the deepening shadows once more.
The first glance brought a piercing shriek from his white lips.
The thing was there!
The young man did not fall groveling to the sand this time — instead, he stood staring with protruding eyes at the vague form, while shriek after shriek broke from his grinning lips.
Reason was tottering.
The thing, whatever it was, halted at the first blood-curdling cry, and then when the cries continued it slunk back toward the wood.
With what remained of his ebbing mentality Waldo Emerson realized that it were better to die at once than face the awful fears of the black night. He would rush to meet his fate, and thus end this awful agony of suspense.
With the thought came action, so that, still shrieking, he rushed headlong toward the thing at the wood’s rim. As he ran it turned and fled into the forest, and after it went Waldo Emerson, his long, skinny legs carrying his emaciated body in great leaps and bounds through the tearing underbrush.
He emitted shriek after shriek — ear-piercing shrieks that ended in long drawn out wails, more wolfish than human. And the thing that fled through the night before him was shrieking, too, now.
Time and again the young man stumbled and fell. Thorns and brambles tore his clothing and his soft flesh. Blood smeared him from head to feet. Yet on and on he rushed through the semi-darkness of the now moonlit forest.
At first impelled by the mad desire to embrace death and wrest the peace of oblivion from its cruel clutch, Waldo Emerson had come to pursue the screaming shadow before him from an entirely different motive. Now it was for companionship. He screamed now because of a fear that the thing would elude him and that he should be left alone in the depth of this weird wood.
Slowly but surely it was drawing away from him, and as Waldo Emerson realized the fact he redoubled his efforts to overtake it. He had stopped screaming now, for the strain of his physical exertion found his weak lungs barely adequate to the needs of his gasping respiration.
Suddenly the pursuit emerged from the forest to cross a little moonlit clearing, at the opposite side of which towered a high and rocky cliff. Toward this the fleeing creature sped, and in an instant more was swallowed, apparently, by the face of the cliff.
Its disappearance was as mysterious and awesome as its identity had been, and left the young man in blank despair.
With the object of pursuit gone, the reaction came, and Waldo Emerson sank trembling and exhausted at the foot of the cliff. A paroxysm of coughing seized him, and thus he lay in an agony of apprehension, fright, and misery until from very weakness he sank into a deep sleep.
It was daylight when he awoke — stiff, lame, sore, hungry, and miserable — but, withal, refreshed and sane. His first consideration was prompted by the craving of a starved stomach; yet it was with the utmost difficulty that he urged his cowardly brain to direct his steps toward the forest, where hung fruit in abundance.
At every little noise he halted in tense silence, poised to flee.
His knees trembled so violently that they knocked together; but at length he entered the dim shadows, and presently was gorging himself with ripe fruits.
To reach some of the more luscious viands he had picked from the ground a piece of fallen limb, which tapered from a diameter of four inches at one end to a trifle over an inch at the other. It was the first practical thing that Waldo Emerson had done since he had been cast upon the shore of his new home — in fact, it was, in all likelihood, the nearest approximation to a practical thing which he had ever done in all his life.
Waldo had never been allowed to read fiction, nor had he ever cared to so waste his time or impoverish his brain, and nowhere in the fund of deep erudition which he had accumulated could he recall any condition analogous to those which now confronted him.
Waldo, of course, knew that there were such things as step-ladders, and had he had one he would have used it as a means to reach the fruit above his hand’s reach; but that he could knock the delicacies down with a broken branch seemed indeed a mighty discovery — a valuable addition to the sum total of human knowledge. Aristotle himself had never reasoned more logically.
Waldo had taken the first step in his life toward independent mental action — heretofore his ideas, his thoughts, his acts, even, had been borrowed from the musty writing of the ancients, or directed by the immaculate mind of his superior mother. And he clung to his discovery as a child clings to a new toy.
When he emerged from the forest he brought his stick with him.
He determined to continue the pursuit of the creature that had eluded him the night before. It would, indeed, be curious to look upon a thing that feared him. In all his life he had never imagined it possible that any creature could flee from him in fear. A little glow suffused the young man as the idea timorously sought to take root.
Could it be that there was a trace of swagger in that long, bony figure as Waldo directed his steps toward the cliff? Perish the thought! Pride in vulgar physical prowess! A long line of Smith-Joneses would have risen in their graves and rent their shrouds at the veriest hint of such an idea.
For a long time Waldo walked back and forth along the foot of the cliff, searching for the avenue of escape used by the fugitive of yesternight. A dozen times he passed a well-defined trail that led, winding, up the cliff’s face; but Waldo knew nothing of trails — he was looking for a flight of steps or a doorway.
Finding neither, he stumbled by accident into the trail; and, although the evident signs that marked it as such revealed nothing to him, yet he followed it upward for the simple reason that it was the only place upon the cliff side where he could find a foothold.
Some distance up he came to a narrow cleft in the cliff into which the trail led. Rocks dislodged from above had fallen into it, and, becoming wedged a few feet from the bottom, left only a small cavelike hole, into which Waldo peered.
There was nothing visible, but the interior was dark and forbidding. Waldo felt cold and clammy. He began to tremble.
Then he turned and looked back toward the forest.
The thought of another night spent within sight of that dismal place almost overcame him. No! A thousand times no! Any fate were better than that, and so after several futile efforts he forced his unwilling body through the small aperture.
He found himself on a path between two rocky walls — a path that rose before him at a steep angle. At intervals the blue sky was visible above through openings that had not been filled with debris.
To another it would have been apparent that the cleft had been kept open by human beings — that it was a thoroughfare which was used, if not frequently, at least sufficiently often to warrant considerable labor having been expended upon it to keep it free from the debris which must be constantly falling from above.
Where the path led, or what he expected to find at the other end, Waldo had not the remotest idea. He was not an imaginative youth. But he kept on up the ascent in the hope that at the end he would find the creature which had escaped him the night before.
As it had fled for a brief instant across the clearing beneath the moon’s soft rays, Waldo had thought that it bore a remarkable resemblance to a human figure; but of that he could not be positive.
At last his path broke suddenly into the sunlight. The walls on either side were but little higher than his head, and a moment later he emerged from the cleft onto a broad and beautiful plateau.
Before him stretched a wide, grassy plain, and beyond towered a range of mighty hills. Between them and him lay a belt of forest.
A new emotion welled in the breast of Waldo Emerson Smith-Jones. It was akin to that which Balboa may have felt when he gazed for the first time upon the mighty Pacific from the Sierra de Quarequa. For the moment, as he contemplated this new and beautiful scene of rolling meadowland, distant forest, and serrated hilltops, he almost forgot to be afraid. And on the impulse of the instant he set out across the tableland to explore the unknown which lay beyond the forest.
Well it was for Waldo Emerson’s peace of mind that no faint conception of what lay there entered his unimaginative mind.
To him a land without civilization — without cities and towns peopled by humans with manners and customs similar to those which obtain in Boston — was beyond belief.
As he walked he strained his eyes in every direction for some indication of human habitation — a fence, a chimney — anything that would be man-built; but his efforts were unrewarded.
At the verge of the forest he halted, fearing to enter; but at last, when he saw that the wood was more open than that near the ocean, and that there was but little underbrush, he mustered sufficient courage to step timidly within.
On careful tiptoe he threaded his way through the parklike grove, stopping every few minutes to listen, and ready at the first note of danger to fly screaming toward the open plain.
Notwithstanding his fears, he reached the opposite boundary of the forest without seeing or hearing anything to arouse suspicion, and, emerging from the cool shade, found himself a little distance from a perpendicular white cliff, the face of which was honeycombed with the mouths of many caves.
There was no living creature in sight, nor did the very apparent artificiality of the caves suggest to the impractical Waldo that they might be the habitations of perhaps savage human beings.
With the spell of discovery still upon him, he crossed the open toward the cliffs; but he had by no means forgotten his chronic state of abject fear. Ears and eyes were alert for hidden dangers; every few steps were punctuated by a timid halt and a searching survey of his surroundings.
It was during one of these halts, when he had crossed half the distance between the forest and the cliff, that he discerned a slight movement in the wood behind him.
For an instant he stood staring and frozen, unable to determine whether he had been mistaken or really had seen a creature moving in the forest.
He had about decided that he had but imagined a presence when a great, hairy brute of a man stepped suddenly from behind the bole of a tree.