"It Was Dreadful In The Forest"
I have said--or perhaps I have not said, for my memory plays me sad tricks these days--
that I glowed with pride when three such men as my comrades thanked me for having
saved, or at least greatly helped, the situation. As the youngster of the party, not merely in
years, but in experience, character, knowledge, and all that goes to make a man, I had
been overshadowed from the first. And now I was coming into my own. I warmed at the
thought. Alas! for the pride which goes before a fall! That little glow of self-satisfaction,
that added measure of self-confidence, were to lead me on that very night to the most
dreadful experience of my life, ending with a shock which turns my heart sick when I
think of it.
It came about in this way. I had been unduly excited by the adventure of the tree, and
sleep seemed to be impossible. Summerlee was on guard, sitting hunched over our small
fire, a quaint, angular figure, his rifle across his knees and his pointed, goat-like beard
wagging with each weary nod of his head. Lord John lay silent, wrapped in the South
American poncho which he wore, while Challenger snored with a roll and rattle which
reverberated through the woods. The full moon was shining brightly, and the air was
crisply cold. What a night for a walk! And then suddenly came the thought, "Why not?"
Suppose I stole softly away, suppose I made my way down to the central lake, suppose I
was back at breakfast with some record of the place-- would I not in that case be thought
an even more worthy associate? Then, if Summerlee carried the day and some means of
escape were found, we should return to London with first-hand knowledge of the central
mystery of the plateau, to which I alone, of all men, would have penetrated. I thought of
Gladys, with her "There are heroisms all round us." I seemed to hear her voice as she said
it. I thought also of McArdle. What a three column article for the paper! What a
foundation for a career! A correspondentship in the next great war might be within my
reach. I clutched at a gun--my pockets were full of cartridges--and, parting the thorn
bushes at the gate of our zareba, quickly slipped out. My last glance showed me the
unconscious Summerlee, most futile of sentinels, still nodding away like a queer
mechanical toy in front of the smouldering fire.
I had not gone a hundred yards before I deeply repented my rashness. I may have said
somewhere in this chronicle that I am too imaginative to be a really courageous man, but
that I have an overpowering fear of seeming afraid. This was the power which now
carried me onwards. I simply could not slink back with nothing done. Even if my
comrades should not have missed me, and should never know of my weakness, there
would still remain some intolerable self-shame in my own soul. And yet I shuddered at
the position in which I found myself, and would have given all I possessed at that
moment to have been honorably free of the whole business.
It was dreadful in the forest. The trees grew so thickly and their foliage spread so widely
that I could see nothing of the moon-light save that here and there the high branches
made a tangled filigree against the starry sky. As the eyes became more used to the
obscurity one learned that there were different degrees of darkness among the trees--that