The strange events that form the subject of this book began on an evening in August, in the city of Melbourne, Australia, in the year 1880. My companion, the mathematician and detective Dr Lewis Kripkenstein and I, had been invited to the Melbourne Club to dine. Our host was a fellow scientist and explorer, the eminent geologist Professor Ernest Chesterton. He had promised us a “first class” meal at the Club, with a strange story to follow. And so, here I was, happily full with beef and roasted vegetables of every kind, an ample serving of spotted dick, an even more generous helping of “Eton Mess”, a good choice of matured cheeses, and now I was well in to my second port and cigar. Chesterton’s mood suddenly changed: pushing away his plate he solemnly said: “Well gentlemen, it is time for business”
“The facts I am about to relate are quite unlike anything I have ever encountered before” he said. “And I’ve been around. I’ve seen some very rum things in Africa, and in Central America, even in India. But this case is so queer; I’d say impossibly queer if I hadn’t seen these things with my own eyes. There is nothing to compare to it.”
“What, right here in Melbourne?” I cried.
“No, no” said Chesterton, “Not here. Have you ever heard of the Lofoten Crater?”
“A large meteorite crater in the desert. One of the largest in the country” said my companion.
“That it is” said Chesterton. “Do you know anything else about it?”
“A little” replied Lewis. “Some fragments have been found at the site consisting of a substance unknown to science. For this reason alone it is of great interest. There have also been claims that the life, such as it is, existing in the vicinity of the crater has been affected in an odd way: Perhaps by something emanating from the crater itself. It is said the local natives avoid the area, but I suppose that is not to be wondered at. The climate is reputed to be rather inhospitable.”
“Rather inhospitable.” said Chesterton. “Yes, you could put it that way. You could also say it was the most God-forsaken, infernal, blasted place on the face of the Earth. But even that’s probably putting it mildly. Let me try to describe to you what the place is like. You get to the crater by travelling through the Lethe sand hills. And that’s only after days of travelling through desert covered by spine bushes, poisonous snakes and murderous heat. But these sand hills – how shall I describe them – like giant waves of the sea. And soft, yielding, almost like a fluid. Lie down in them and in a few hours you will be covered. By morning your tent will be half buried. A wind is continually blowing across this desert of dunes. The dunes are, in fact, giant, slow moving waves steadily rolling across the face of the Earth. But – eventually – this frightful, dreary sea of sand comes to its end!”
“And is that where the crater is?” I asked.
“It is” said our host. “Quite suddenly, the dunes stop. You can see in front of you a low range of hills, but these hills are pinkish, unlike the yellow of the sands. You climb the hill, and there the crater lies before you.”
“And is there anything beyond the crater?” I asked.
“Yes,..and no. If you walk across the crater and look out to what lies beyond...well,...there is nothing. Just flatness and whiteness, and unbelievable heat. Heat like fire. Somehow, in and through this heat, the blacks roam naked. How they survive I do not know. The heat is enough to kill a European.”
“But surely there must be water out there somewhere, if they live”
“There are rumours of a vast inland sea lying somewhere beyond the horizon, but we have yet to find it.”
“You have painted a very vivid picture” said my companion. “But I cannot see how my particular expertise may required”.
“Yes, yes, I am coming to that” said Chesterton. “A scientific expedition had set up a camp near the rim of the crater. I was a member of that expedition. I should explain that we had two encampments. The main encampment was about one mile from the rim of the crater. It consisted of four tents: two for sleeping, one for stores, and another as a field laboratory. But we had another tent sent up, only a few yards from the rim of the crater. It contained some special scientific instruments, a few stores, and somewhere to get in the shade during the furnace of the midday heat. Clear?”
“Very clear” said my companion, “But may I ask a question? Why two encampments? Why not just have a single encampment?”
“Well, we need to have some of our scientific equipment next to the crater rim. So we need to have an encampment as close to the crater rim as possible.” Chesterton replied.
“Quite so” said my companion, “Then why not just one camp, next to the rim?”
“Well, er” said Chesterton, seeming rather embarrassed, “We found that if we slept too close to the crater itself, some of us were, er, troubled by dreams of a.....disturbing nature.”
“The dreams must have been very disturbing indeed if they made you shift camp” I observed.
“Yes” said Chesterton, without further elaboration. “One day I was at the camp next to the rim with my colleague: one Dr Gordon Ryle. Gordon was an excellent scientist, and a very agreeable companion. A popular fellow. Everyone on the team liked him.”
“Good to hear” said my companion dryly.
“We had completed a day’s observations” continued Chesterton. “We were just heading back to the main camp. Ryle suddenly realised he had forgotten his notebook, containing his record of the days observations. We need these observations for our work. So, he went back in to the tent to retrieve them.”
Chesterton paused, as if bracing himself for what he had to say next. “Ryle went back in to the tent, just a few paces away. As he disappeared inside the tent I recall him saying, very clearly: “Won’t be half a mo’. Promise.” I expected him to be in and out, in a few seconds. But perhaps a minute elapsed. I remember I said: “Gordon?” But there was no reply. “Gordon?” I said again. No reply. I went to the tent and looked inside. He was not there. At first I thought he must have somehow gone out the other end. No reason why he should, but I couldn’t see what else could have happened to him. So I looked around, in all directions. I stepped to the rim of the crater. Now, standing on the rim of the crater you can see for miles. If he was running away, I could have seen him. There is nowhere to hide. But he was not to be seen. I went back to the tent. It’s only a small tent, nowhere to hide in there. He wasn’t in the tent. He had vanished. No one in this world has seen him since. The fact is, he went in to the tent and ceased to exist.”
“Impossible!” I cried.
“But it happened” said Chesterton.
“Was there anyone other than you and Ryle at the camp?” asked my companion. “Can anyone else verify this version of events?”
I looked at Chesterton, expecting him to become angry at what Lewis seemed to be implying. But Chesterton replied calmly: “No, I was the only one there.”
“Has anything else of an unusual nature happened at this encampment?” asked Lewis
“Yes” replied Chesterton. “Right from the first few days of making observations, all of us felt something was not right. Of course, we all misremember things: no one has a perfect memory. But, right from the first days all of us had the odd feeling our records were changing. We would write something in our notebooks, and when we re-read it a few days later, all of us had the feeling that what we were now reading was different from what we had written. It had changed of its own accord. I repeat: all of us had this experience when we looked again at our notes.”
“How had they changed?” asked my companion.
“Hard to be precise about it” replied Chesterton. “All I can say, speaking of my own case, is that when I read my notes, I could swear that the words or numbers I was reading were not the words and numbers I had written down a few days ago. Can’t be more specific than that.”
“May be the heat had been affecting your memories” I ventured.
“That’s possible” agreed Chesterton. “But we had some other experiences that are a little harder to explain in that way. A few days before he disappeared, Ryle had taken a photograph of the crater. When we developed the photograph, a figure was clearly visible standing on the crater floor. But no figure was visible to the naked eye when the photograph was taken. But that is not all that was odd.”
“What more?” I asked.
Chesterton replied: “We looked at the image of the figure, and noticed it seemed to be very large. We decided to calculate how large it must have been by the distance it was from the camera. We calculated that it had to have been some thirty feet high.”
There was a pause.
“It must have been a very large man, or was it a woman?.” I said somewhat awkwardly.
“Well, actually, it did not seem to be either a man or a woman” said Chesterton.
“What do you mean?”
“We, at the camp, all agreed: the image was of a gigantic baby. And it was smiling. We stored the image away carefully, intending to examine it more carefully when we had returned to Melbourne. But when we looked at the photograph again, the image of the baby had vanished. It had gone back to being a perfectly ordinary photograph of the crater.”
Now there was an even longer pause. The thought occurred to me – and I guess it may have also occurred to my companion – that this Professor Chesterton was having a joke with us. At length, my companion spoke:
“These are all very remarkable and baffling events. But so far – I am sure you will forgive me if I point out – all we have is your word that these events took place. Can you provide us with anything more substantial? May I begin by asking: What action did you take regarding the disappearance of your colleague Dr Ryle? You notified the police of course.”
“Of course” replied Chesterton. “The area is very remote, and it took us several days to contact the police, and several more days before they arrived. They suggested that what happened was that Ryle had wandered off in to the desert. I had not noticed this, they said, or my memory, or perception, was affected by the heat. I should also point out that they found no evidence of his tracks leading away from our encampment in to the desert. No sign of any tracks. Officially, he has been listed as lost in the desert. Incidentally, in case you are wondering, the police found no evidence of foul play.”
“Might I ask how you feel about the police report?” asked Lewis
“Well, I can see how, to any sensible person, it must seem most likely that that is what happened. But I can assure you, it is not what happened. I clearly saw Gordon get in to the tent. He did not come out. Let me tell you something else. There are poisonous snakes and spiders in that desert. The floors of the tents are carefully sealed to the walls, to prevent the entry of unwelcome intruders of that sort. If Gordon had got out the other side of the tent, he would have to have torn the fabric. But it was not torn.”
“How has this affected you, and your other companions?” Lewis inquired.
“Well, initially, they were sceptical. But I was insistent. I’m sure they could also tell I was in a highly agitated state. But, at the same time, I did get the feeling they were eyeing me with suspicion. Perhaps they suspected me of murdering Ryle. But I think they probably thought I must be lying, and so covering something up.”
“Do they still feel that?” asked my companion.
“No. Now I am sure they accept that I am telling the truth.”
“Why? Did something else happen to change their minds?” Lewis asked.
“Yes, well, I am getting to that. We are now getting to the queerest part of the whole business. But the story is a long one.”
“We have plenty of time” said my companion.
“Well, the others, of course, resolved that the thing to do was to search for Gordon. So we all headed off to the camp at the crater’s rim.”
“Any sign of the missing man?” I asked
“None. We spent several hours searching. Nothing. Then a member of our team, Andrew Douglas, asked a very simple question: Did Gordon pick up his records before vanishing? I must confess I hadn’t looked. Let me make another confession. As soon as it became clear to me that Gordon had disappeared while inside that tent, I myself had become rather uneasy about stepping inside the tent. Obviously, I had looked inside when Gordon hadn’t replied, but I had only stuck my head in. The tent is quite small, and it was not necessary to actually get inside it to verify he was not there.”
“Were you afraid you too would be pulled away in to the ether?” I inquired
“Something of that sort” replied Chesterton. “In any case, I had to reply to Andrew that I simply did not know whether Gordon had retrieved his records. As I said before, these records contained very important data, essential to our investigations. I recall that Andrew then made some remark like: “Well, we will need to see if they’re in there, won’t we? This, of course, meant going in that tent. And I admit I had no desire to do that.”
“So, what happened?” I asked.
“Well, it was a strange sight. Five grown men, all scared to go in to the tent. Each making excuses, saying that we didn’t really need that data anyway, when every one of us knew we did. Eventually, Andrew – who I already mentioned, and Campbell Stirling – a rather forbidding Scotsman – agreed to go in to the tent together to look for the note book.”
“And?” I asked, seating on the edge of my seat.
“They found it almost straightaway. And came out laughing – at themselves and at the rest of us, I guess.”
“What a let-down”, I cried.
“We had the precious data. But no Gordon. At this point we decided we must inform the police. What happened next I have already told you. It was nearly a week before the police arrived, carried out their investigations, and left. We found ourselves still at this God forsaken site, one of our colleagues had gone missing. The heat was becoming unbearable. We stayed one more night. The next morning, we had a meeting. We all agreed that the place was unnerving us. Gordon’s baffling disappearance, the weird way records of our data seemed to be changing. The odd dreams. A man could go mad if he stayed out here. We decided to return to Melbourne.”
I helped myself to another port, and lit my third cigar. Chesterton was a scientist of some standing, and, I gather, a responsible fellow. Yet I could not see how what he was saying was true. Men do not just go vanishing in to thin air. Lewis was sitting, staring at the table. I could see he was thinking carefully. Chesterton, meanwhile, and to my considerable surprise, had just poured himself a large whisky. I noticed his hand was shaking.”
“I gather you have not completed your story” said Lewis.
“No, I haven’t. My word I haven’t” said Chesterton. “We set off back to Melbourne. We traversed the sand hills, then the thorn desert. We had to cover these on foot – although we used camels when conveying our scientific apparatus to the site. After three days we reached the remote outpost – the absurdly named “Princeton”. It was formerly a stronghold where labouring convicts were sent to build roads. But it was soon realised there was simply no point in building a road in to the desert: there is nothing in the desert. The stronghold was abandoned. Now it is a small town – but why anyone should choose to live there I do not know. In any case, Princeton is as far as the road goes. We then travelled by horse and cart to the city of Mildura, on the Murray River. From there, the train goes to Melbourne.”
“Your journey went safely?” I asked.
Chesterton took another gulp of whisky. “No, it did not” he said. He paused, then continued.
“We got on the train in Mildura, and it headed south towards Melbourne. Now, this train trip is rather long. It takes all day. We settled down in our compartment: all five of us in the one compartment. We sat in there conversing, and then simply watching the landscape slip by. Soon after midday we went to the dining car for luncheon, then back to our private compartment. I know I fell asleep. When I awoke the Sun was setting. My companions expressed their intention to head to dining car for an evening meal, before the train arrived in Melbourne. They asked me if I wished to join them; I said I did.”
Chesterton paused again. It was evident that he was getting towards an event that still caused him some distress. He continued.
“We left our compartment, heading towards the dining car. But before we had proceeded very far down the corridor, Andrew Douglas and Campbell Stirling – the two who, you will remember, courageously entered the tent from which Gordon had vanished – both remembered they had left their wallets back in the compartment. Now, the price of meals on this train were not included in the price of the ticket. You have to pay for your meals separately, in the train’s restaurant. Andrew and Stirling both turned back along the corridor, to get their money. I called back to Andrew, “Don’t worry, I’ll pay for you.” Then, Andrew turned back to me. I recall exactly what he said: “Won’t be half a mo’. Promise.” Then they both went in to their compartment. I and the others stood in the train corridor, waiting, but they did not appear. I remember one of my companions, I can’t recall whom, saying, “Let’s go, they will catch us up.” But as I stood in the corridor, the hair was standing up on the back of my neck. I knew something was wrong. You see, the words that Andrew had just said “Won’t be half a mo’. Promise” – they were exactly the words Gordon spoke before he vanished.”
“So what happened. Did they emerge from the compartment?” I asked with urgency.
“Sir, they did not. I went to the door of the compartment and looked in. With horror I saw: it was empty.”
There was a long pause. Then my companion spoke.
“You say you called back to Andrew Douglas that you would pay for his meal.”
“Yes” said Chesterton. “Is that significant?”
“May be. We do not call to someone if they are right next to us. Your use of the word “call” suggests that Douglas and the other fellow – Stirling, was it – were some distance down the corridor from you when you addressed them”
“That is so, perhaps ten or so yards.”
“That is quite a distance” said my companion. “Are you absolutely sure it was your compartment to which they returned? Might they have gone in to another compartment?”
“I thought of that” said Chesterton. “There were only two other compartments it was at all possible they might have gone in to. One of them was empty. The other was occupied by some elderly ladies. I asked the elderly ladies if they had seen two gentlemen. They indicated they had not.”
“But is it not possible that your companions had continued travelling down the corridor and moved in to another carriage altogether?” I asked.
“No. I very clearly saw them leave the corridor by moving out of sight to my right, as I was facing. They entered a compartment, off the corridor to my right. If they done what you suggested, they would have kept moving away from me, and been facing away from me as they opened the door to the next carriage.”
“Did you search your own compartment?” Lewis asked.
“Of course. And another thing. The thought occurred to me that they had perhaps opened the window and leapt from the moving train. Dangerous, of course, but at least it would be a rational explanation of how they had disappeared.”
“Do you think that is what happened?” I ventured to ask.
“No. Definitely not. The window was still closed, and locked from the inside.”
“As you say. Very queer indeed” said my companion. “Remarkably odd. One minor point. You say they went back to their apartments to get their wallets. Do you happen to know: did they get them, or were they swallowed up by nothingness before they had retrieved their wallets?”
“A reasonable question” replied Chesterton “As it happened, when we were collecting their belongings, we noticed that Stirling’s wallet was missing, while that of Douglas was still in his satchel. It seems that Stirling had managed to find his wallet before he.....went, while Douglas had not.”
My companion frowned. Evidently this intelligence particularly confounded him. At length he spoke again, but simply to ask Chesterton what happened next.
“Well” said Chesterton “I admit I was in something of a state. It was a repetition of the events in the desert. I was particularly distressed by the fact that last words spoken to me by Douglas – “Won’t be half a mo’ Promise” were exactly the last words spoken to me by Ryle. I could not recall either man ever using those words before. It was particularly out of character in the case of Douglas, who always spoke very properly, and never used abbreviations. I had an overwhelming feeling that we were all – how can I put it – at the mercy of – some immense, incomprehensible force. It was some force or power that was able to cause Gordon Ryle to disappear from his tent. Now, it had stretched across hundreds of miles and snatched Douglas and Stirling. And here we were, in a railway carriage, back in civilization.”
Chesterton paused. Then he started again. His voice was shaking. “I was acutely aware” he said “that the two men who had just disappeared from the train were the men who went in to tent to retrieve the data from the tent. I felt, or assumed, that their disappearance was, perhaps, some kind of delayed response, or perhaps a punishment, for their having gone in to tent. The force had bided its time, it had not taken them while they were in the tent, but waited. Then, when we all thought we were safe, it took them.”
I looked at Chesterton. My mouth might have been open in wonder, I cannot recall. I poured myself another port. Then my companion spoke:
“But surely you made more of an attempt to find the missing men.”
“Of course. Of course. We looked the length of the train. We asked other passengers. We notified the train staff. Searches were conducted. But neither Douglas nor Stirling were found.”
Chesterton paused again, then went on. “When we arrived in Melbourne, the police were notified, of course. I am sure I am now a person “of great interest” to the police. Three mysterious disappearances, and I am the only person present in all cases. The police found, I am glad to say, no evidence of any wrong doing on my part. But their investigations have not revealed the slightest trace of any of the men.”
“Do you know what conclusions, if any, the police drew?”
“They concluded that my colleagues and I must have been mistaken in thinking Douglas and Stirling returned to our compartment. They – the police – said that Andrew and Stirling must have gone to some other part of the train, where they either jumped, or fell, or were pushed off the train.”
“And your opinion of the police conclusions?” asked my companion.
“Just plain wrong. I plainly saw them enter our compartment, as did my colleagues. Or, if they did not enter our compartment, without any doubt they entered one of the two others. But there were not in any of the compartments, either in ours or the other compartments. I should add: we checked the windows of the other compartments as well. They were locked, from the inside. I am aware that any sensible, rational person would concur with the police. But what I have seen with my own eyes compels me to say: the police are wrong.”
“And have there been any more mysterious disappearances of persons associated with your expedition?” asked Lewis.
“A very remarkable story. Very remarkable. Is there anything else you’d like to let us know about?”
“Well, I thought you might be interested in some of the other strange phenomena associated with the Lofoten Crater.”
“Very much so” said Lewis.
At this point, Chesterton removed a small stone from his pocket, and laid it on the table. It was only about two inches long. It seemed to be two spheres or egg-shapes linked by a “neck”. One might make such a shape by taking a small sausage of clay and rolling its middle section between one’s fingers until it was thinner than the two ends. One of the “heads” of the stone had a kind of helmet or “peel” partially covering one side. It was unclear to me whether the shape of the stone had occurred naturally, or was artificially made. It was also difficult to say of what it was made: it could have been a glassy rock of some kind, or maybe some sort of metal. It was dark grey in colour. I studied it for some time as it lay on the table. I had some training in geology, but I was unable to identify this. Chesterton invited me to pick it up.
“It’s quite light” I remarked.
“Is it?” asked Chesterton.“Try placing it to your ear, and listening.”
I did as Chesterton suggested. When it was pressed against my ear, I became aware of a sound emanating from the stone. It was, perhaps, a kind of humming. But as I listened I became aware it might also have been the sound of a distant, but huge, choir, sustaining a single note. But there was another sound, behind the voice of the choir. A scraping sound and a throbbing or drumming, like the sounds of some huge, far away machinery. I removed the stone from the vicinity of my ear, and was aware of a sensation of “returning” to this world, to this warm, well furnished room in the Melbourne Club. I felt the sound had been “pulling me away” somehow.
“People have fallen in to a trance listening to that sound” said Chesterton. “Remarkable, isn’t it?”
“But why is the stone producing the sound?”
“That we have not been able to explain” said Chesterton, passing the stone to my companion.
“Chesterton” I said “When I commented that the stone was light, you asked: “Is it?” Surely you cannot fail to have noticed how light it was. I thought it was lighter than pumice.”
“No doubt it was” he replied. Lewis had now finished listening to it, and handed it back to Chesterton. He then passed it again to me. To my astonishment, the stone now felt heavy, almost as heavy as lead. Chesterton gave a grim chuckle.
“Remarkable?” he asked.
“But... how?” I asked. But then the truth, or what I rashly assumed to be the truth, occurred to me, “I say Chesterton – you are skilled at sleight-of-hand! You had me fooled for a second there. It is obviously a different stone. But your trick was well performed. I did not see you switch them.”
“I’m afraid it is no trick, he replied. The stone is the same one. Allow me to put the stone down on the table for a minute of two – in plain sight where I will not touch it. Then, if you wish, pick it up again.”
He laid the stone on the table. It lay there for a few minutes. I was careful to observe Chesterton’s hand went nowhere near it. Then I picked it up again: the stone had become light again.
“But this cannot be” I cried. “It is against the laws of nature”.
“It is indeed” said Chesterton.
“But how can the weight of a thing change?
“I do not know. Neither does any scientist with whom I have spoken”
Lewis had been thinking quietly for the last few minutes. At last he broke his silence. “The weight of the stone changes” he said “Have you been able to discover any law or pattern governing its changes. Does its weight increase or decrease at regular intervals, perhaps?”
“This is something we have been studying. Maybe there is a definite pattern there, but we have not yet discerned what it is. All we have noted is that if you leave it for a few minutes, there is a pretty good chance its weight will have changed. Sometimes this stone has been so heavy I literally could not lift it. At other times it is as light as a pumice or wood, and would, I guess, float if placed in water.”
Lewis paused, and spoke again. “Does it have any other unusual properties?”
“We believe it does. This is only one of a number of the fragments we have discovered from the crater site. There are, in total, seven such fragments stored in the Geology Department at the University. Soon after we deposited them in the Department building, we started getting odd reports, or, initially, odd complaints.”
`“What was the nature of these complaints?” asked my companion.
“People started reporting that things were being moved. Always small objects: cups, small books (not heavy tomes), pens and the like. People would leave these objects in one location, only to return a minute or two later to find them missing. They had not vanished: they would always turn up some distance away, perhaps on the other side of the room, or on another table. Perhaps in the next room. At first we all assumed some prankster was at work. But we started getting stories of things being moved even when it was clear no one was around to move them. People expressed the view that the stones had something to do with it.”
“And were you able to verify that it was the stones that were responsible?” asked Lewis.
“Actually, we were” replied Chesterton. “We kept a record of all the locations in the building in which the mysterious movements took place. And we noted, wherever the movements occurred, a stone was stored in the vicinity.”
“A triumph for scientific method!” I cried.
“A small one, perhaps” said Chesterton “But all it succeeded in doing was prove something was taking place that our science was quite unable to explain.”
“Yes indeed” said my companion “Something science seems quite unable to explain. May I ask, Professor Chesterton, even though our science is not able to give an explanation of the curious events that you have described to us, at least, within our current state of knowledge, do you yourself have any theories as to what might be happening here? Even a guess?”
“Well, I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a theory. You could call it a guess – it’s really just a stab in the dark. I should perhaps begin by saying I would not describe myself as a devoutly or rigidly religious man. I do not believe, as Bishop Ussher has exhorted us to believe, that the world was created a little less than six thousand years ago. I believe there is abundant evidence from science that the world – or the universe – is far older than that. I trust you do not find such views offensive, Dr Kripkenstein?’
“Not at all” replied my companion.
Chesterton continued: “I believe the universe is old, far older than Ussher says. And immeasurably vast. How far does space extend? I do not know. For all I know it is infinite. Perhaps time is infinite, too. Maybe the universe, or realms within it, have endured forever.”
“It is certainly a possibility” my companion replied.
“Now” Chesterton continued “I invite you to consider the consequences of accepting the idea that the universe is infinite, or even that it is incomprehensibly, immeasurably vast by our standards. If you travelled a billion miles from here, the distance you would have travelled would be as nothing, if the universe is infinite. If you travelled a billion billions of miles, still, the distance would be as nothing, if it is infinite.”
“That is so” responded my companion.
“And if it is infinite in time, if it has existed forever, then, if somehow you were to travel back in time a billion years, you would still be no closer to the beginning of the universe, if it has a beginning. If you were to travel back a billion billions of years, you would still be no closer.”
“I accept the point you are making” said my companion.
“But now” continued Chesterton “Let us try to imagine these inconceivably remote stretches of the universe. What might they be like? How might they seem to us if we were to find ourselves relocated to some such inconceivably remote world within the universe? We have to confess: we may have no idea. Our science is based on our observations of the objects around us. True, we have observed the stars, but even the stars we can see with our telescopes might be very close indeed to us compared to the unimaginably remote stretches of an infinite universe. It may be that in these inconceivably remote regions, matter is quite unlike anything we know. Perhaps it obeys different laws. Its behaviour, if we were to encounter it, might seem miraculous and incomprehensible. But now, suppose at some impossibly distant point in the remote past, there was a cataclysm in this foreign realm, where the laws of physics are different. Fragments of matter from this cataclysm were blasted in all directions across the universe. Eventually, after uncounted aeons of travelling, one such fragment happened to collide with our small planet on the other side of the universe. I believe, or rather, I conjecture, that that it was happened at the Lofoten Crater. A fragment of matter from a part of the universe so inconceivably remote that even the laws of physics are different, struck our Earth. The small stone lying on the table in front of you is, perhaps, a part of it. But the meteorite itself, that is still buried somewhere in the crater at Lofoten.”
My companion paused. “I think” he said at last, “that I must see this remarkable crater for myself. I have some business in Melbourne I must clear up in the next few days. But, after that, I shall be free. Are you able to journey to Lofoten in, say, three days from now?”
“Indeed! Excellent!” said Chesterton.
“That is settled, then” said Lewis “We will meet again in three days. Thank-you for an extremely stimulating evening. But I fear it is now late, and I must retire.”
We returned in a Hansom Cab to Parkville. It was raining heavily and the wind was blowing in gusts. The Melbourne winter was definitely not over yet. By now it was very late and I went straight to bed. I recall having decidedly peculiar dreams. One was remarkably vivid, so vivid I felt certain it was real. I was standing on the flat, white desert of salt that lay beyond the crater. I turned away from the crater rim and faced towards the perfectly flat horizon that lay to the West. As I looked, I saw, or rather felt, some gateway open in the sky above the horizon. A tremendous heat poured out. It appeared as a region of violet or mauve against – or rather, behind – the blue of the sky, and it was like a gigantic mouth or maw. As I stood looking at it, I became aware that the blacks – hundreds of them – were walking towards this maw. They were smiling and happy. I felt that perhaps I should join them, and walk towards the maw. But then I realised: I could not move. I tried to walk, but I was paralysed. I panicked and struggled, but could not move. Then I woke up. It was still raining.
I descended for breakfast, which had already been served. Eggs, bacon, sausages, tomatoes, toast had been laid out. I believe a hearty breakfast gets of you off to a good start. It is also good for the health. And plenty of coffee. I have always been a coffee man, never cared much for tea. As I sat down with my generous spread before me, I looked out the window. It was still only half light, despite the fact that it was now almost nine. A thick layer of grey cloud lay over the city.
After another half hour, Lewis finally descended for breakfast. We had not spoken about the matter since leaving Chesterton at his Club last evening. I asked my companion what he felt we ought to do next.
“I think” he replied “We ought to speak to the other members of Chesterton’s party. There are now only two of them, after the departure to realms unknown of Douglas and Stirling. It would be valuable to get their version of events.”
“Do you think Chesterton is lying?”
“I doubt it, but he may have omitted some facts. In any case, it is in our interests to marshal as much information as possible germane to the case.”
The two other members of Chesterton’s party were Barry Tingwell, a minerals scientist, and Arthur Leadbetter, who had been described to us as the expedition’s “odd job” man. He acted as cook, and also performed a variety of manual tasks. He was the only member of the group without technical or scientific training.
Tingwell readily agreed to be interviewed, but Leadbetter was another matter. He seemed to be never at home; only after persistently calling did we manage to catch him. At first he would not open the door to us, but after considerable persuasion he did finally permit us to enter his flat. Leadbetter, a bachelor, lived by himself in modest lodgings, and was dressed rather shabbily. He was a thin, gaunt man, with a shock of prematurely grey hair. He was obviously in a bad way. He had a bad cold, and was always coughing or sneezing. He had a queer smell about him, and his skin looked sallow and unhealthy. Hands almost had a greenish tinge. I wondered if he had contracted some unknown disease from contact with the meteoritic material. He told us he was unable to sleep. The disappearance of Douglas and Stirling had, he told us, left him a shattered man. What vast, malign and incomprehensible force had they awakened from its slumber, he wondered. Would it take him next? To what unknown place would he be dragged? But to most of my companion’s questions, Leadbetter would only respond by shaking or nodding his head.
The interview with Tingwell was certainly much easier. He admitted us immediately, and was perfectly willing to talk. Unlike Leadbetter, he seemed in good health and spirits. His manner was friendly and helpful. But neither Tingwell nor Leadbetter offered any new insights in to the curious events at Lofoten, except for one point. Tingwell said that one day, when he was exploring the country to the north of the crater, he heard a very odd sound. It was unlike anything he had heard before; a very striking sound, weird, unearthly and quite loud. But he could not discover the source of it.
“Can you describe it?”asked my companion.
“It is very hard to do so” said Tingwell. “It was a kind of whirring sound, rising and falling, at intervals of about a second. It was possibly a little like the sound of a rubber band being continually plucked, if that is of any help. Or it might have been the call of some strange animal, like a giant toad. But neither of those comparisons convey the peculiar, uncanny quality of the sound. It was the type of thing that, once heard, can not be forgotten. It went on for half an hour or so, and then stopped.”
“And do you think this sound was connected with the disappearances?” I asked
“I have no idea. Maybe, but perhaps there is no link at all.”
We told Tingwell that we were accompanying Chesterton on a journey to the crater, and asked him if he would like to join us. Suddenly Tingwell’s calm, congenial manner changed violently.
“Not on your life!!” he thundered, “Wild horses would not drag me back to that infernal place.”
We left Tingwell and returned to our residence in Parkville. The expedition, we now knew, would consist only of Chesterton, my companion and myself.
Three days had passed, and we were due to set off on our journey. I awoke at eight, unusually early for me. The rain of the previous few days had now settled down to a steady drizzle. A thick layer of cloud, like cotton wool soaked in dirty water, lay over Melbourne. To my surprise, Lewis – usually an even later riser than I – was already up. He had finished his breakfast: an odd dish he liked consisting of shellfish and bacon in cream sauce. He was looking at the grey sky.
“Not a good day for travelling” I ventured
“Oh, er, no,... But the weather might be quite different north of the Dividing Range” said my companion vaguely. Then he went back to smoking his cigarette and staring out the window. He clearly was not in the mood for any kind of conversation, so I tucked in to my breakfast.
Our cab arrived at nine, and we set off for Spencer Street Station. The bluestone roads were covered in puddles, reflecting the dirty sky. The office workers of Melbourne were huddled up in their rain-coats, hurrying to work. The sky seemed to have grown darker since we left Parkville.
We met our fellow traveller on the platform; he seemed in remarkably good spirits. He gave us both a warm handshake, and asked us if we were both ready for our “adventure”. I thought this was an odd word to use when we were headed for a place that seemed instil terror in his two other surviving colleagues.
We found our private compartment. Chesterton and Lewis started up a scientific conversation. Something about magnets, and electricity. A fellow named Maxwell was frequently mentioned. All beyond me. So, I decided to repair to the dining car; settling down with a good cigar and a large Irish coffee, I waited for the train to depart.
The train to Mildura travels to the north from Melbourne. On time, it glided out of the station, and then rattled through the rail yards. It lumbered its way through the northern suburbs, and presently we had left Melbourne behind and were heading out across the flat farming lands to the north. After perhaps an hour we were passing through the famed “Digger’s Rest”, where hopefuls travelling by foot to the gold fields rested on their first night out of Melbourne. Then the land began to climb. Mt Aitken, in fact an ancient and long extinct volcano, came in to view. The cloud layer was now visibly closer. Soon we were passing Mt Gisborne, its top obscured by the clouds. After the township of Gisborne, we passed through a short stretch of farming country, and then entered a region known as the “Black Forest”. Not as dark or cold as its German namesake, but today, with the mist and rain and gloom, it was distinctly forbidding. We were now approaching the Great Dividing Range, and it was apparent that the train track was rising more steeply. The train engine began to labour, and even in the heated dining car I was aware it had become colder. Looking to the East, Mt Macedon – the tallest mountain in the region – was detectable only as a still darker shadow in the dark greyness. The drizzle outside now had a milky look and was slowly floating down rather than falling. I realised it was snowing. An excellent time, I concluded, for another Irish coffee.
But shortly I could hear that train engine had started to speed up. We were moving more quickly. We had crossed the divide. And now the train was slowing again. But this time to stop at the township of Woodend. It was, I felt, time to rejoin my companions.
We all stepped on to the platform at Woodend to stretch our legs. It was exceedingly cold, and our breath looked like smoke. But already the cloud cover seemed lighter and brighter. Looking back to south it was like slate.
“Has science solved the mysteries yet?” I asked my fellow travellers.
“No”, chortled Chesterton. But my companion glared at me.
“There are no mysteries” he said severely.
Back on board the train, we headed north-west out of Woodend. Looking to the East I could see a few miles distant the famed geological formation known as Hanging Rock. Like Lofoten Crater, it was reputed to be the source of some unexplained phenomena, including mysterious disappearances. But the train now sped in a different direction. Perhaps we would have occasion to investigate Hanging Rock some other day.
As we headed further inland, the cloud cover became lighter. Passing the township of Kyneton, patches of blue started appearing. And by the time the train had arrived at the gold-rich mining city of Bendigo, the sky was entirely cloudless and blue. Shortly after Bendigo, the rolling hill country through which we had been passing came to end. The train descended one last long, slow hill, and we were down on to a flat plain. There were to be no mountains of any size in this direction for some thousands of miles. We just entered the vast, flat – and increasingly arid – interior of the continent.
The train was now travelling rapidly across wheat growing country. At this time of year, the fields were still lying fallow and were of a dirty yellow appearance. But the sky was clear, bright blue. We had luncheon, and then retired to our compartment. I fell fast asleep.
When I awoke, it was late afternoon. The train had traversed much of north-western Victoria and was now passing through a region known locally as the “Little Desert”. Not really desert, in the usual sense, it is actually a thinly spread forest. But it is too arid and infertile for any kind of agriculture. The Little Desert was followed by the “Big Desert”. Mallee country: low, scrubby, extremely long lived trees, scarcely more than bushes, growing in the sandy soil. For Melbournians, the source of an iron-hard form of wood known as “Mallee Roots”. They seem to burn forever, and have kept many Melbourne homes warm throughout our long winter.
At long last the Mallee scrub came to an end we found ourselves approaching a region of vineyards, and citrus groves. Long racks of sultanas, currants and raisins drying in the orange-yellow setting Sun. We had entered the country irrigated by the water from the Murray River, and were drawing close to Mildura. When the train finally pulled in to Mildura the Sun had already set. The sky was a deep sapphire blue. I was surprised there was already a chill in the air; only an hour ago it was quite warm. The smell of smoke was in the air: people had already lit their fires in preparation for a cold night.
“Desert country, or close to it” explained Chesterton. “In arid regions such as these, it can become very hot during the day, but then plunge to below zero at night. It is the water vapour in the air that holds the heat. But if the air is very dry, as it is here, the heat of the day simply vanishes during the night. It can be literally freezing. The effect will be noticeable enough here in Mildura, but even more so when we reach the true desert further north.”
We left the railway station and went to our hotel. It was surprisingly grand for what I had assumed to be a fairly remote outpost. But Chesterton explained that since the Murray was a navigable river, Mildura was a major port. Trade brings wealth. I marvelled at how quickly the benefits of Empire had flowed to a region that surely only a few decades ago had been untouched by Europeans. Chesterton said that it was only after we had passed over the Murray that we would be entering truly remote wilderness.
We settled in to our hotel and I decided to sample the bar. The region, I was told, produced some of the finest fortified wines in the world. The Muscats and Tokays in particular were recommended. After testing this proud claim, I found that I was inclined to agree, and resolved that I would ensure that a generous quantity of the local product would be included in the provisions we took with us in our expedition in to the desert.
We dined in the hotel on the local speciality “Murray cod”. A huge fish, in taste quite unlike sea cod – in fact, rather more delicious. After dining I realised I was so tired I was almost falling asleep at table. I made my apologies to my companions are turned at what was, for me, a very early hour. I slept like a log.
When I awoke, the Sun was not yet up. And yet, I felt fully refreshed and energetic – highly unusual for someone who’s usual practice was not rise until nine. I decided to go for a walk. As I passed Lewis’ room I detected the smell of a lighted cigarette. Looking at the space between the bottom of his door and the floor, I saw his light was on. I knocked on his door.
“I’m going for a walk” I said “Care to join me?”
We left the hotel and took a path that led away from town across some empty paddocks. There was a heavy mist on the ground, and it was very cold, if not quite frosty. The grass under foot was sparse and dry, almost white rather than yellow. As we walked, some old, twisted River Gums loomed up through the mist. Then we came to the trunk of what must have been a truly ancient River Gum, lying on the ground. It was smouldering; it might have been slowly burning like this for several days. We warmed our hands by the glowing coals, and walked on. At length we came to the river itself. We looked out across the water, but the far side could not be seen through the mist. On the other side lay the Colony of New South Wales.
We gazed at the water slipping silently by, with its small eddies and wellings up from the deep. We looked to our right and saw the pale yellow Sun slowly becoming clearly defined as it rose through the fog. We started to feel a little of its warmth. Overhead, we could already see there was no cloud: it was going to be a hot day.
“I feel I have identified a crucial aspect of this case” my companion said at last. “It lies in the precise words that Douglas spoke before he vanished. Those words, you may recall, were: “Won’t be half a mo’. Promise.”
“But why do you feel those words were so important?”
“They determine just what meaning we are to attach to this whole series of extraordinary events. I realised that from the start. But first I had to become clear on one very important point.”
“And what was that.”
“Chesterton told us that they were also the last words Ryle spoke before he went in to the tent. The crucial point was this: Had Chesterton told Douglas that those were Ryle’s last words? Did Douglas know they were words spoken by Ryle? That was the point I had to discover.”
‘Couldn’t you simply ask Chesterton if had told Douglas about the words?”
“Of course, I did. And he assured me that he had not told Douglas. But I had to be sure Chesterton was telling the truth about this matter. A great deal depends on it.”
“And do you think he was telling the truth?”
“I think so. Either that or he is a very skilled liar. While you were asleep on the train I did my best to probe his character. He is, to be sure, an ambitious man, perhaps with a slightly histrionic side to his nature. But I believe him to be essentially decent. I am sure he is not involved in any kind of foul play.”
I let out a long breath. “That is certainly good to know” I commented “I would not like to be travelling through the wilderness with a murderer.”
“Neither would I. In fact, I think I can say with confidence that neither you nor I will be in any danger.”
“I have complete confidence in your judgement. But you still have not explained why those words were so important.”
“Just think. Let us suppose Chesterton is speaking truly: he never mentioned to Douglas that those were precisely Ryle’s last words. Then how do we explain the fact that Douglas spoke those very words before he disappeared?”
“Enormously unlikely. Remember: Douglas was not given to abbreviated expressions. He was always careful to speak very precisely. Since this was a matter of some importance, I carried out some investigations of my own. All who knew him at the University agreed that it would be decidedly out of character for him to speak this way.”
“But it is still possible, surely”
“Anything is possible. But just think. Ryle uses this expression, and disappears. Then Douglas – a man who seemed massively unlikely to use those words, all of a sudden does use them. Then he also disappears. What is the likelihood of that happening, just by chance?
“Not very likely” I conceded “Do you mean the words themselves might have some mysterious power?”
“That is how things might perhaps look. But I do not believe that is the case. I myself have used the words several times, and I am still here.”
“Then how do you account for it?”
“Well, this is why it was so important that I establish whether or not Chesterton had uttered the words to Douglas. If he had, then we would have a rational explanation at least of why Douglas had said those words when going in the cabin to get his wallet. He may have been, consciously or not, recalling the words that Ryle had used when he too was going to retrieve something. So, it was vital to discover: did Douglas know what Ryle had said?”
“And he did not.”
“I don’t think so.”
“But, I say, old man, surely there are much more mysterious things going on here than the fact that a fellow said some out of character words.”
“But consider the effect that these words had on the subsequent course of events. It was because Douglas said those words that, Chesterton told us, “the hair stood up on the back of his neck.” It was this that gave him a sign there was something strange taking place. And this was the reason why he rushed back to their compartment to see if Douglas and Stirling were still there.”
“True enough” I agreed “But I still don’t see why it is so important. Their disappearance would have been discovered, if not sooner, then later.”
“Yes, but later rather than sooner. And that is crucial. Suppose Douglas had not used those very words. Suppose he said something like: “I’ve forgotten my wallet, I’ll meet you in the dining car. Then nothing would have happened to remind Chesterton of the disappearance of Ryle. What then would have happened? Very likely, Chesterton and the others would simply have proceeded to the dining car and waited.”
“But” I pointed out. “Douglas and Stirling would not have appeared. Then the search for them would have been on. Events would then have proceeded pretty much as they have. I don’t see how the words play any especially vital role.”
“But they did. Chesterton and the others would have gone to the dining car, and, after perhaps a few minutes, would have started wondering what had become of Douglas and Stirling. Only then would they have returned to the compartment to find them missing. But, in those few minutes, Douglas and Stirling might have done any number of things. They might have gone to some other part of the train, found an empty compartment, and perhaps leapt out. Of course, we would be faced with the question of why they would do this, but it would at least have been possible to give a rational explanation for their disappearance. The version of events given by the police would have been the only one any reasonable person could possibly entertain. But, by rushing back immediately to the compartment, Chesterton and others saw that Douglas and Stirling must have simply and mysteriously disappeared in to thin air.”
“I see your point”
“It is only because Douglas uttered those words that all of Chesterton, his colleagues, and now ourselves, have reason to believe that we are here confronted with something altogether beyond the realm of the natural: something our science seems unable to explain.”
“You are right!” I cried “Those words are of the first importance!”
“There is more to it than that, I fear” said my companion. “Just think, why might those words have been caused to be spoken? What might the underlying motive have been?”
“I’m not sure I follow you.”
“Well, some force or agency – we do not know its nature – somehow moved Douglas to utter those decisive words. “Won’t be ‘arf a mo”. Promise” What might have been the motive of this force or agency in getting Douglas to say it?”
“How should we know, Lewis?”
“Well, consider the effect it has. It has the effect of giving us good reason to believe that what we are dealing with here is not some ordinary case of disappearance, but some incomprehensible, supernatural force, beyond our understanding and control, that can, at will and perhaps at any location on Earth, pluck them from their location and transport them to – who knows where.”
“Terrifying!” I cried.
“Precisely, it is terrifying. And that I think is its intended function.”
“To terrify us?”
“Yes. Or more exactly, it is a warning. It is saying “Stay away! Stay away! Stay away! You are dealing with a force beyond your imagining!”
We stood staring at the river. The mist was rising, but the other side was still not visible. The Murray flowed, strong and clear, on its way down to the sea. I had to agree with what my companion said. But – a point so obvious I felt I could not utter it – were we not heading precisely in to the territory from which we were being warned away? Would I seem like a coward, or a simpleton, if I were to make this obvious point? The Sun was now higher in the sky.
“Surely it is time for breakfast” I said
My companion agreed and returned to the hotel.
After breakfast we packed and a carriage took us to the river, and the ferry. The Sun had now burned away all the ground-mist, and the day was already warm. Insects were buzzing in the air. I was surprised to see a number of large paddle boats at the wharf. But the ferry that took us to the other side was a much smaller affair, only just large enough for our carriage and horses. I alighted. I had left the Colony of Victoria and was now in the Colony of New South Wales.
Our carriage took a road heading almost directly north out of Mildura. Initially, the country-side was just like that on the Victorian side: vineyards irrigated by water from the Murray, and racks of drying fruit. But after perhaps two miles, the vineyards ended. No more farmhouses were visible. It was dry, empty grassland, with only the occasional stunted gum-tree. As we passed the last vineyard I reflected: “This, here, is the very edge of Empire. On one side the land has been cultivated, and brought in to service. Grapes were grown for wine that might find its way to the tables of Sydney or Melbourne, or even London itself. On the other side lay the wild, untouched, perhaps unchanged for thousands of years. But I knew also the border was constantly moving northwards. The abundant waters of the Murray could surely irrigate much more. Perhaps, if I were to return many years from now, it would be green fields as far as the eye could see.” With that comforting thought, I settled back in my seat and watched the country-side pass by.
The horizon was perfectly flat; flat like the sea, but it was a yellow-grey colour, sparsely dotted with the dusty dark green of the small trees. “So this” I thought to myself “is New South Wales”. I knew it had been given that name because to the first Europeans to see the Colony it reminded them of South Wales. But it would be hard to imagine anything that resembled less that land of green hills and running streams than the prospect now before me: flat, dry, empty and featureless. We had finally left civilization behind.
Our carriage steadily clopped on and the warmth of the day increased. The song of some species of cicada or grasshopper became audible, and steadily increased. By midday, the sound of the creatures became in places almost deafening. It sounded as though the grass lands were swarming with them. The light became more and more intense. There was not a breath of wind. Our carriage clopped slowly on.
We stopped for luncheon at about 1.00pm. The temperature by this time was decidedly hot, although not intensely so. If this is what late winter is like, I said to myself, the heat of high summer must truly incredible. Our luncheon was a simple one of bread and cheese, cold meats, boiled duck eggs, foie gras, and a cold collation that had been prepared in advance. It was washed down by a few bottles of Hock kept in an ice-chest from Mildura. I believe my companions were pleasantly surprised when I also produced a bottle of the locally produced Tokay. All fairly basic fare, but, I reflected, in a couple of days even these modest indulgences would be denied to us. From now on, I must prepare myself for the increasingly rough living of an expedition in to the wilderness. After luncheon, it was back to the road. There seemed to be no discernable change in the landscape, so I felt I would not be missing anything if I allowed myself some brief repose.
It was nearly six when I awoke. The Sun was setting: the air was cooling down but still rather close. I was surprised to observe we were no longer on a barren plain, but were passing through a wooded area. I wouldn’t describe it exactly as a forest: the trees were set rather too far apart from each other for it to merit that description. There was still not a breath of wind, and the sound of the cicadas had ceased. The only sound was the clop-clop of our horse. The darkness increased, and the trees became silhouettes against the sapphire sky. But looking ahead I now saw a light. We were approaching the outpost of Princeton.
The main building of Princeton is a former stronghold used to house prisoners. They were engaged to build a road in to the heart of the continent. The project was abandoned not long after Britain ceased to send convicts to the Colony. But now, I was told, the settlement was inhabited by perhaps a dozen souls: a local “Ranger”, and a small collection of others who, for one reason or other, chose to live as far from civilization as it was possible for a European to live.
“I must confess, Dr Kripkenstein” said Chesterton “I cannot comprehend why anyone would choose to live in such a place as Princeton”
“On the contrary” replied my companion “I believe a place like this, isolated from the world, might be the most ideal place imaginable for engaging oneself wholeheartedly in pure, abstract thought of the most rigorous nature.”
Chesterton shrugged. “Perhaps” he replied.
Our carriage pulled up outside the residence of the Ranger. It was a solid building, but it was also apparent it had seen better days. It was in need of a coat of paint, and some of the louvers on the window shutters were missing. Behind it loomed the dark silhouette of the stronghold in which the prisoners were kept. Its casselated rim looked bizarrely out of place in this antipodean wilderness. It looked, I thought, like some folly that a man with more money than common-sense might have constructed in the desert. Now a colony of bats emerging from it in the dusk were perhaps its only inmates.
The Ranger came out to greet us: he was a fit looking man of about thirty, name Desmond. He greeted Chesterton as friend: the two men had got to know each other on Chesterton’s previous expeditions to the crater. We were shown to our accommodation, and settled in for the evening.
The next morning was crisp but clear. Princeton was really just a collection of houses rather than a town. There seemed to be no shop or post-office. From the outside, all the houses seemed to be falling in to decay, and several looked abandoned, even though we were assured there were people living in them. I noticed a curtain flutter as I walked down the open space that served as the main street. Outside one of the houses a local wag had left a sign saying “Don’t ask us the way out of here. If we knew we wouldn’t be here.”
Beyond Princeton the road ceased and there was only a rough track, although the Ranger Desmond told us plans were now being considered to further develop the road. So, we had to leave our carriage behind and take to horse-back. I had ridden before, even taken part in a hunt, but I confess that this was the part of the journey I had been looking forward to the least. Each of us had our own horse, and there were also an additional three horses carrying our supplies.
The track out of Princeton headed north-west through the same sparsely wooded country I had briefly seen in the gloom last night. The trees were so far apart it was possible to see for many hundreds of yards, even in the midst of the forest. How grey it all was! Everything was some shade of grey, light or dark. The soil was dark, like ground charcoal, while the sparse, wiry patches of dry grass were almost white: the colour of dried bones. The tree trunks were grey, with long strips of a papery bark hanging down in shreds. The trees were festooned with them. Where the rags of bark had been stripped, lighter, almost white, papery bark was visible. The rags of bark lay in disorder on the ground. The whole forest conveyed a feel of decay and infertility. The only colour was at the very tops of the trees, where small clusters of dusty dark green leaves managed to survive. And it was quiet, and still: still as the grave. I thought: “What an abominable place to live Princeton must be: Decaying houses in an empty street, in the shadow of what must have been a cruel torture chamber to the poor convicts, and all set in a sterile, grey deathly forest.”
We rode in silence for perhaps two hours. Then we came to a large open space in the trees. It seemed to be perhaps a mile across. The soil here, I noticed, was different. Not the charcoal grey of the forest, but sand. The open space was dotted with clumps of a spiky yellow grass. And to my surprise, there were even tiny flowers, yellow and red. The sky over head was of a flawless blue, and it was warm, but not hot. Unlike the sepulchral forest, this open patch was quite cheery. I suggested to my companions that we break our journey with a morning coffee in this pleasant spot.
After this open space, the forest closed in again. But an hour’s ride brought us to another, rather larger, open space of clumps of grass and flowers. Chesterton explained that as the day progressed, the open sandy patches would become larger and more frequent, while the stretches of forest would become less and finally cease altogether. We were making the transition from marginal country to the true desert.
We finished our day’s ride mid afternoon. As Chesterton had predicted, we were now in an open, rolling country of sand dunes, dotted with the clumps of spiky grass and thorn bushes. This was to be the first night of our expedition spent in tents, lying in sleeping-bags on the ground rather than in beds. I had refrained from telling my companions that I had never slept in a tent before. Actually, not quite true, I had once as a youngster slept in a tent my parents had set up in the grounds of their summer home in Portsea. At the time I felt I was frightfully brave, staying in the tent even though I could hear the scratchings and snufflings of wild creatures outside. Of course, the wild creatures were no more than possums, and the house was a few yards away. But I was at the time tremendously proud of my achievement.
I rendered whatever assistance I could to the construction of the tents, and in a little over an hour we had three little canvas houses standing in the midst of the desert. The bedding was laid out inside each, and our accommodation for the evening was in place. Chesterton set a fire burning, and started preparing our meal. My own contribution to the evening was, after dinner, to open a bottle of the excellent fortified wine – this one a Muscat – that I had the foresight to purchase in Mildura. As we drank our Muscat around the campfire the Moon rose. I had never seen a Moon in the desert before. Nearly full, it looked enormous as it lay just above the horizon. And it was so bright! It was painful to look directly at it. According to Chesterton, it was the dry, clear air that made it so bright. In the city much of its light is drowned by the moisture, the smoke, and the city lights. Here it shone on the dunes and patches of dry grass, making them look almost as if they had been washed with the luminous paint of clock faces.
Next morning there was a light frost. I had been warned that this can happen in the desert, even when the previous day had been hot. I confess that I was loath to extract myself from the eider-down sleeping-bag, even though I could hear that my companions were up and moving about. But in due course we broke camp, and resumed our expedition in to remoter parts of the desert.
As the day progressed, the dunes gradually became larger, the clumps of dry grass smaller and fewer. By early afternoon we had indeed entered the “sea of sand”. The dunes rose up like huge waves in the sea. Our progress was slow: the hooves of our horses sunk deep in the sand. A wind was blowing the tiny grains over the surface of the dunes, giving them an almost misty or blurred appearance. As the day progressed, the wind rose and the tiny blown particles started striking my hands and face. The heat, for the first time on our journey, started to become uncomfortable. Chesterton took pains to ensure we all drank copious amounts of water.
Once again, we stopped to set up camp in the middle of the afternoon. As the Sun westered, the wind died down, and by sunset the air had become completely still. In the East, the deep mauve-purple shadow of the Earth crept slowly in to the sky. And then the Moon rose. Now almost completely full. Never had every crater and sea on that heavenly body been so clear. It cast its light on the dunes; in the day light they had been yellow, now they were lavender, with distant ridges and tops looking silver against the darkening sky.
We had been on horseback all day, and had not had occasion to exercise our legs. So, after our evening meal, the three of us decided to take a short stroll across the dunes. There was no danger of us getting lost: in the bright light of the Moon the tracks we left in the soft sand were only too clear. One of the dunes a little to the North of our encampment was very much higher than the others. We resolved to climb it to the top. As we ascended, more and more of the surrounding country-side came in to view. Looking to the south east, we could see the territory we had traversed: dune upon dune to the horizon. Looking directly North, however, we could just make out a range of hills with a rusty brown look, contrasting with the lavender and grey appearance of the dunes around us. To the North West, the direction we were headed more dunes to come – but beyond, in the far distance, we could discern the flat horizon of the salt desert, silver, almost luminous in the bright light of the Moon.
“We are more than half way through the dune country, then?” I ventured
“I’d say so” replied Chesterton.
I looked back towards the country we had traversed today. I wondered if I could catch a glimpse of the lights of Princeton.
“No. They would be far beneath the horizon now.”
“I say Chesterton – did any prisoners from Princeton ever escape in to the wilderness? Did they come in this direction? Can’t imagine how they would survive if they did.”
“Apparently they did have the occasional escapee, or so my friend Desmond the Ranger has informed me.”
“Did they survive?”
“Who knows? They escaped in to wilderness. Some were never seen again. Who knows what happened to them?”
“By George!” I cried “You don’t suppose some of them vanished in the same way as your unfortunate colleague?”
“It’s strange you should mention that. My friend Desmond has told me a curious story along those lines. You see to the north that range of rusty hills?”
“Much firmer country than this. Rock and gravel, not sand. Much more suitable for the construction of a road in the interior than these dunes. A group of convicts were sent to start building a road through those hills, before the project was abandoned. One day the party, with armed guards and horses, set out. They never returned. No sign of them. An investigation was carried out. There was no sign of any armed struggle. They found the tracks of the party, but, at one point, the tracks simply just stopped. No could find where they went. It was as if they had simply vanished.”
“Great Scott!” I cried.
“What were the official findings?” asked Lewis.
“Lost in the desert. They became disoriented by the heat and dust, and were unable to find their way back.”
“Might I ask your opinion of those findings?” my companion inquired.
“Well, I can’t really comment, can I? But I would have thought that if they had become disoriented in the desert so close to Princeton, at least some evidence of them would have been found. It seems a bit rum to me.”
“Very rum” I opined. But Lewis said nothing.
I turned away from the rusty hills and looked towards the flat horizon of the salt desert. It was evident that, in the clear air and from the height of the dune we were seeing a great distance. The salt seemed perfectly flat and featureless, and was almost glowing in the powerful light of the Moon. It seemed to stretch away to infinity. I thought of the blacks that somehow managed to survive in this place that almost seemed to be not of this Earth. How do they do it? There must, I said to my companions, be more hospitable regions somewhere beyond the horizon.
Chesterton replied: “Well no one has ever found any physical evidence of anything like that. But some have reported the aboriginals making reference to a place they call the “Never-Never. It is a note-worthy fact that, even in different tribes from different regions, references to the “Never-Never” keep coming up.”
“What is the “Never-Never”?” I asked
“No one knows. Or no white knows. But they say if you go in to desert far enough, eventually you come to the Never-Never. Beyond the driest, harshest, hottest desert lies the Never-Never.”
“Is it a green and fertile land. Perhaps an oasis?” I ventured.
“Possibly, who knows. But why give an oasis such as odd name as “the Never-Never?” To me it does not even sound like the name of any physical place on the Earth at all. It is something that lies somehow beyond the desert – that’s what the reports say – but I do not believe it to be some place that can be located on a map.”
Then I remembered the strange dream I had before I set out on this expedition. I was on the salt desert, and the aboriginals were walking across the desert to some giant maw or portal that had opened in the sky. To what strange realm were they headed?”
“The Never-Never” I quietly murmured under my breath. Then, a thought flashed in to my brain as if I had been struck by lightning. Everything fell in to place.
“Chesterton!” I cried “You don’t suppose this is the place to which your unfortunate colleague Ryle was pulled – to the Never-Never?”
Chesterton looked at me. For a second he did not speak. Then he said gravely: “I believe that is a hypothesis that ought not to be dismissed.”
I was, at least for a while, as proud as punch with myself. I felt I had solved the mystery, at least to the extent that it was possible for Western science explain it at all. This warranted the opening of another bottle of Muscat. My companions joined me in an evening tipple when we returned to camp. Then Chesterton retired. It was just Lewis and myself.
“Well, dear friend” what do you think of my theory that Ryle, the others too, perhaps, were dragged away to the Never-Never?”
“What, oh?” said Lewis “I’m sorry, my mind was on something else.”
“Well, what do you think of my theory?”
He paused for a while. “For my own part, I do not wish to state my conclusions at this stage. I’m sorry to disappoint you, but I’m afraid I’m not attracted by your suggestion. Forgive me, old chap, I’m a man of reason and science. But, if it is of any comfort to you, let me repeat something I have already said. I am sure that neither you nor I are in any danger on this trip. I don’t think there is any danger of either of us being plucked from our world and deposited in the Never-Never.”
I was, I confess, a little deflated by Lewis’ lack of enthusiasm for my theory. I sometimes wondered if the logical rigour of his thought could sometimes prevent him from making the imaginative leap sometimes necessary to finally get at the truth about some matter. I chose, instead, to focus on the encouragement Professor Chesterton had given me: “a hypothesis that cannot be dismissed” I think he said. Praise indeed from such an eminent man of science. With that comforting thought, I went to bed.
The next morning there was again a light frost, but by the end of breakfast the air was warming rapidly. There was not a cloud in the sky. It was already clear today would be very hot; the hottest day of our expedition so far.
We broke camp as quickly as we could and set off. Soon, the wind started up and the tiny sand particles were stinging my hands and face. By midday the Sun was fierce. We had a quick, light luncheon: we all wished to be past this, the least pleasant part of our journey, as quickly as possible. Dune followed dune, but I noticed that, by the middle of the afternoon, they seemed to getting smaller. Instead of a sea sand, the dunes were now more distant from each other, and we could walk between them over a firmer surface. The wind died down. Presently, the dunes became no more than small piles off sand, less high than the head of a man. Then I saw ahead what looked at first like a low range of hills, pinkish, or a light pink-brown in appearance. They contrasted markedly with the yellow of the sands around us. They almost looked like a row of rounded or ground down teeth. Somehow, they seemed to stand out like a barrier or boundary, with nothing beyond except blue sky. As if we had reached the end of the Earth.
“Those hills you see are the rim of the crater” said Chesterton. “The crater itself is, of course, a great hole or hollow. But its rim is raised somewhat above the desert floor.”
I been gazing so intently at the crater rim that I failed to notice the cluster of tents we were rapidly approaching.
“None of these tents” Chesterton assured “are the tent from which Ryle mysteriously vanished. That tent,” he explained “Is right next to the crater rim.”
We set up camp and relaxed after the day’s exertions. We ate early: we were all hungry after the light and not particularly satisfactory luncheon we had in the dunes. The Sun had not set when I put up my feet with a good cigar and a glass of Muscat. I was pleased with myself: the way I had endured the rugged living of an expedition in to the Australian desert. I fancied I had settled down for the evening when Chesterton spoke up:
“Well gentlemen, would you like to see the crater itself. It is only about a mile from here.”
I swallowed the remainder of my Muscat. I had just lit a fine and rather large cigar, and I no intention of abandoning that. So I took my cigar with me on this, the very last leg in our expedition.
Almost as soon as we left camp, the ground started to slowly rise. The dunes over which we had just travelled were illuminated by the now westering Sun. As we climbed higher, I thought I could make out in the distance the very high dune we had climbed the previous evening. The pinkish rim of the crater now drew closer and closer. We were now walking up this pinkish surface; it seemed to be chalk or some similar powdery rock. Finally, we strolled over the last few yards, almost flat, and there it was. The crater lay before us.
The crater seemed to me to be an almost perfect circle. I was told it was three miles from one side to the other, to walk around it, ten. The outer rim we had just ascended was, as I remarked, pinkish, but the inner wall perfectly white. The inner wall dropped steeply away from where we stood, but proceeding towards the centre of the crater, it gradually became level. The very centre of the crater was flat. But what caught my attention was the extraordinary colouration. As I remarked, the walls were white. But, as you moved down towards the central, flatter parts, a slight pinkish, subtle cherry blossom hue was discernable. As you moved close to the centre of the crater, the pinkish hue became deeper and deeper, until becoming red as a rose. At the very centre of the crater was a zone of deep, ruby red. I was reminded of a certain species of flower: white petals on the outer rim, passing through deeper shades of pink until, at the very centre, a grotto of deepest red to entice the bees to the sweetest nectar.
“That red” I asked “What is the cause of it?”
“We do not know yet” replied Chesterton. “It is one the questions we wish to address in our researches.”
As we stood looking at the crater, the Sun slowly set before us. Then, behind us, the Moon rose, now completely full. The sky around the crater gradually darkened as the Sun slipped further below the horizon and the full Moon rose up in to the sky. Its light was astonishing. I did not believe the Moon could ever emit such powerful rays. But the most remarkable thing was the effect the Moon rays had on the white walls of the crater. They seemed to become luminous, to have a powerful light of their own, against the now deep velvet blue of the sky. And the red centre of the crater of the crater became a dark purple, like some vast stain leaking out in to the luminous white. What was the source of that stain? I thought again of what Chesterton had said at our first meeting. Some cataclysm in an impossibly remote region of the universe, a chunk of alien matter, so different from ours that it obeys different laws, colliding with our planet after an unimaginably long journey through space. And here it was, lying under the ground before me. Was that the source of the red stain? What was it? Would we ever know? As I stood looking out at the crater, a flash and movement in the heavens caught my eye. A shooting star. Another traveller from the remote heavens meeting their final destiny by colliding with our small rock.
We had certainly come a long way over the last few days. I thought of our last morning in Melbourne: the drizzle, the office workers huddling in their raincoats on their way to work. The spectacle now before my eyes hardly seemed to be part of the same creation, much less the same country.
We all stood gazing at the crater well in to the night. Shooting stars every now and again shot through the sky in this direction or that. Chesterton said they were quite common out here. At length, we left this sight of wonder and returned to our tents. I slept, without dreaming.
The next day all of us set off early for the rim of the crater. Chesterton had brought with him some scientific apparatus that he thought might throw some light on whatever was buried beneath the crater floor. Something about magnets and electricity again. Lewis had expressed an interest in the work, but I’m afraid I could make neither head nor tail of it all. So, I resolved to carry out investigations of my own.
If, as I had theorised, Ryle had been carried off to the Never-Never, then contact with the blacks might shed further light on the mysteries that confronted us. So, I set off by myself, with the intention of encountering the natives. I recall that Chesterton had mentioned that the blacks roamed across the salt desert on the other side of the crater. Walking directly across the crater was out of the question: the inner wall dropped away too steeply. So, I decided to walk around the rim, heading off in a northerly direction.
After walking for perhaps an hour it was clear to me that, looking directly north – away from the crater rim – I had already reached the border between the dune country and the salt-flat desert. Looking directly north from where I stood, I could see, on my right and to the East, the dune country, to my left, the salt-flat. I was apprehensive about setting out in to centre of the salt flats. They were entirely without any feature or mark at all. Nothing would be easier than becoming lost. Also, I had been told the heat out there becomes truly terrific; enough to kill a European. So, I decided to strike out more or less directly north. I would keep the border of the dune country to my right, and keep an eye to the left for any natives that might be crossing the salt desert.
I walked for perhaps another hour. The heat was increasing and I felt it was time for a rest. I walked a short distance in to the dune country and was surprised to encounter some small thorn bushes and grass clumps. Walking a little further, I came to larger stands of the spiky grass, and a small copse of stunted trees, not much larger than myself. I found what shade I could under the trees, and lit a cigar, a large and fine Cuban I had bought all the way from Melbourne. I looked out from the shade as I drew away on my cigar. The dunes were dotted with a variety of small plants and shrubs, but looking further to the West I could see, between the dunes, the salt-desert in the distance, shimmering in the heat as it stretched away to infinity. I drew in on my cigar to savour the taste of the smoke, and just as I did so, it began. What on Earth was it? An unearthly sound, quite loud. Then the description given by Tingwell flashed in to my mind: like a huge heavy, rubber band continually being plucked, rising and falling in intervals of about a second. That was a pretty fair description of what I was now hearing. There was no doubt, what I was now hearing was the same sound as one Tingwell had reported. I stood up, and tried determine the direction from which it was coming. It seemed to fill the air in an odd way. I fancied it was coming from further North, so I struck off in direction.
After walking for perhaps ten minutes, it was clear that the sound was getting louder. The country-side also seemed more hospitable, some bushes carried small, dark red berries; others had seed pods that I guessed might contain a small nut. The sound kept getting louder as I walked: I realised I was certainly headed in the right direction. Ahead, a little to the right, stood another clump of trees, somewhat larger than the one under which I had rested. The sound seemed to be coming from there. Slowly I moved towards the trees, wondering what bizarre spectacle I might encounter. Tingwell had suggested the sound was like the call of a gigantic toad; I could now appreciate what he meant. Might it be that such a grotesque creature was the source of the sound? I crept closer, and then it came in to view. What I saw was a native, seated on the ground, twirling above his head what seemed to be nothing more than a length of rope with some attachments. Somehow this was producing the extraordinary sound. So, it was in fact a kind of musical instrument that made the noise. I watched the native: he was totally absorbed in his playing. Then, suddenly, he saw me. He leapt up: the fellow was completely naked! He seemed very angry; he redoubled the vigour with which he twirled his instrument, and yelled something at me in his tongue. He was in a highly agitated state, and started gesturing at me to remove myself from this location.
“Steady on old, old man” I said “I was only looking.
But the fellow was not to be placated. He now seemed in a furious state, whirling his instrument faster than ever, and yelling and gesticulating. I decided to retreat, and return to my companions back at the crater’s rim. He watched me until I disappeared over a dune.
I realised I had solved a mystery that had stumped Tingwell. The sound was in fact a musical instrument of the aborigines! “That’s one mystery solved!” I thought.
When I returned to the others, Lewis and Chesterton were engrossed in the discussion of some question of electricity. I rushed in and told them of my discovery. They congratulated me enthusiastically.
“Stirling work, old chap” said Lewis. I flushed with pride.
“That’s one mystery that we can definitely attribute to the natives!” I said “Perhaps we will find they also hold the key to the others!”
“That may well be” said Chesterton
“So you are now inclined to agree that the natives also are behind the mysterious disappearances?” I said.
“Only that it is a hypothesis worth investigating” replied Chesterton. “I am still rather more inclined to think that the solution lies with whatever is buried out there” he said indicating the crater “bit I do not wish to rule out any possibilities.”
I announced my intention of setting out this very afternoon out with the aim of making further contact with the natives, and invited the others to accompany me. To my pleasure, Lewis agreed. But Chesterton said he must continue with his work at the crater’s rim.
“Love to accompany you two” he said “But I’m afraid that there are certain readings I must complete before we head back to Melbourne. I’m working on a paper on this thing. I’ll be reading it to the Royal Scientific Society – very important matter.”
“Of course, of course” I replied
“But let me give you a word of warning. Be careful. You may be walking in to danger.”
“Are the natives hostile?” I asked “Should we take a pistol?”
“No. I don’t mean physical danger of that sort. There is no record of the natives in this region being violent or hostile in that way. Let me tell you a story in that regard. You recall I told the story about the troop of prisoners and guards that mysteriously vanished a little North of here?
“Yes, of course” I replied.
“There was an investigation in to the matter. One of the possibilities they looked at was that the group had come under attack from the aborigines.”
“And had they?” I asked
“Not a single sign of violence of any kind.” Replied Chesterton “But that is not the only thing the inquiry found. They were able to establish there had never been any record of violence by the natives around here towards Europeans. They seem to be an entirely pacific lot. No, it was not to the possibility of physical danger I was referring.”
“Then what did you mean?”
“They are an unknown people, with unknown powers. I heard some mighty rum things. Apparently, they can cause someone to die merely by pointing a bone at them.”
“You mean, stabbing them with a bone?”
“No, simply pointing a bone at them” replied Chesterton “The unfortunate victim has a bone pointed at him. At first nothing happens, he seems perfectly fit and well. But, in the next few days he starts to weaken and sicken. A few days later, he is dead.”
“Sounds like hogwash to me” I scoffed.
“Well, it’s been confirmed that this happens. European observers have seen it happen. It’s a confirmed fact.”
“Good God!” I cried “How do they do it?”
“We do not know. That’s my point. They seem to have other queer powers. There are tales of them walking, naked and unprotected, through fire and emerging unharmed. I have even heard it claimed they have the power to make themselves invisible. And I don’t mean by hiding. I mean literally invisible, in the way the air around us, for example, is there but cannot be seen by the eye. They are a people with powers we do not understand.”
I must confess that I was taken aback at what Chesterton had said. Then a thought occurred to me.
“I say Chesterton, you say these natives can make themselves invisible. You don’t suppose that is what they did to Ryle – they made him invisible. Maybe Ryle was there all along, you just couldn’t see him!”
Chesterton thought for a second. “Forgive me” he said at last “But I think there are a number of difficulties with that hypothesis. First, I have only ever heard of the natives making themselves invisible. I’ve never heard of them rendering anybody else, certainly no European, invisible. Second point: Even if Ryle had been rendered invisible, he surely would have been able to communicate his presence in other ways, by speaking, or moving objects about, for example. No, I’m afraid I’m not persuaded by this suggestion.”
I remained convinced that the aboriginals were the key to the baffling phenomena of this case, but I did not pursue the matter with Chesterton. We returned to our main encampment for luncheon.
I had discovered that it was inadvisable to consume a heavy luncheon in the increasing heat. We ate lightly, and then Lewis and I prepared to set off in search of the natives. The Sun was burning hot, and so we decided to wear our Trilbys, and to take with us a pair of parasols, to afford us some shade if the Sun became exceptionally fierce. We must have looked a rather queer sight, two gentlemen from Melbourne, me in my plus-fours and silk cravat, strolling through the dunes with Trilbys and parasol.
We headed north, and after walking for about an hour found the tree under which the fellow had been whirling his instrument. But there was no sign of him now. We decided to head further North: in that direction the country seemed to be more generously laden with the bushes of nuts and berries. We walked for perhaps another twenty minutes, and I voted we paused for a rest. We sat down on a small rock that afforded a clear view out across the salt-desert: I smoking a cigar, Lewis one of his cigarettes.
How we sense these things I do not know, but after we had been sitting on the rock for perhaps ten minutes I felt we were being watched. I looked around, and there were two native women, standing looking at us. They were no more than twenty feet away. Apart from huge wooden hats they wore on their heads, they were, like the fellow I encountered earlier in the day, entirely naked.
“Good afternoon. Very hot day!” I exclaimed, stepping forward to greet them.
They replied with words of their own tongue. Completely incomprehensible to me. How to communicate with them when none of us understood the other’s language? I pointed to the Sun and smiled. “Hot!” I said.
They looked at me. They were smiling, but evidently I had not conveyed my meaning to them. The thought occurred to me that, although this weather was sweltering hot to me, it was not even yet Spring. Perhaps, to them, the weather was rather cool. How to convey that it hot to me? I repeatedly pointed to Sun, then to myself, smiling and nodding. I thought this might convey the idea I was finding it hot. But they just stood looking at me in puzzlement. Then one of them said something to the other. There was a sound of “Ahhh!” as if understanding had suddenly dawned. Then both of them looked at me in amazement – they repeatedly pointed to me, to the Sun, and back again, saying something in their own tongue. I nodded and smiled. Their looks of amazement increased. Surely it’s not that astounding, I thought. But then I realised they had misinterpreted me. They had thought I was saying something like: I had come from the Sun. An understandable interpretation, after all, here we were, beings perhaps quite unlike those they had seen before. Perhaps the first question they would want answered would be: “Where have they come from?” They thought I was answering that question for them. Perhaps they thought white people came from the Sun.
“No No No” I cried. “I am not from the Sun. We are from Europe. Britain, in fact. The other side of the world”.
How to convey, to someone with a different language, that you come from the far side of the world? I pointed to myself, and then in a downward direction. I repeated the gesture several times, nodding each time. They looked at me in puzzlement, then one muttered something to the other. Now they looked at me with apprehension, and backed away a little. I continued pointing down and smiling. Then the penny dropped.
“You fool” I said to myself, “They think you are telling them that you come from underneath the Earth.”
I decided to dispense with the small talk and get straight down to business. I wanted to ask them: Were they responsible for the disappearance of Ryle and the others? But: how on Earth was I to convey to them the idea of disappearance? It was quite a poser, and I found my brain was casting around in all directions. An idea occurred to me; I took off my hat and made as if I was placing a rabbit in to it, in the manner of a music hall illusionist. Perhaps I could convey the idea of the rabbit disappearing. Smiling, I raised and lowered my hand, holding the invisible rabbit, in to the upturned hat. The blacks watched my actions in puzzlement. Finally, one them removed the large wooden hat from her head and placed it on the ground. I saw now it was not a hat; it was in fact a kind of basket. In it were nuts, berries and other foodstuffs. She took a handful of the food and put it in my upturned hat.
Initially, the meaning of this action escaped me. Why would she suppose I wanted food put in my hat? Then I realised what was going on. For these natives, receptacles carried on the head were for the purposes of carrying food. I raised and lowered my hand in to an empty receptacle. They thought I was trying to convey the idea I had not found any food. And so, this lady had generously placed some of her own comestibles in what she took to be my food basket. I gave her back her food and returned the hat to my head, this action causing her to look slightly puzzled, if not offended.
I still hadn’t succeeded in conveying the idea of disappearing to my interlocutors. How to do this? I momentarily considering going and hiding behind a nearby tree, but I feared this would only reinforce the impression they were rapidly forming of me – that I was as mad as a hatter. This attempt at communication, I felt, was going nowhere. We had not even been able to make each other understood on such a mundane topic as the weather. I decided to bid these ladies farewell. With as much dignity as I could, I doffed my hat to them and bowed. Whereupon, quick as a flash, one of the ladies once again deposited a handful of nuts and berries in my upturned hat. I felt it would be unforgivably ungracious to once again return this generous gift, so I returned my hat – nuts, berries and all – to my head. I turned and walked away, Lewis following. Never in my life had I felt such a fool.
I kept walking until I was sure we could no longer be seen. Lewis was walking beside me: during the whole encounter, as I have observed is his wont with women in society – he had said nothing.
“Do you still feel the blacks hold the key to the mystery?” he asked.
I was not sure in what spirit this remark was intended, But I replied, truthfully, that nothing in the encounter had caused me to alter my opinion.
When we arrived back at our camp, the Sun was low in the West. I was very tired. After our evening meal I went straight to bed.
Next morning Chesterton informed us he was again headed off to the crater rim to continue his observations. He invited us to accompany him. I had, by now, given my experiences of the previous day a lot of thought. I was confident I had worked out a means whereby I could communicate effectively with the natives. In Melbourne, I was regarded as a pretty fair player of charades. I intended to use my considerable skills in that area to engage in fruitful dialogue with the natives. I asked Lewis if he wished to come with, but, sadly, he declined.
“I believe I am likely to be of more assistance to Chesterton” he explained.
I set off by myself to the area where yesterday I had seen the natives. I walked around from one spot to another, but I saw not a trace of them. In the afternoon, I returned to our encampment, exhausted. Chesterton’s work, on the other hand, had progressed well. He had nearly completed the observations he needed for his paper to be read before the Scientific Society. It would not be too long before we were headed back to Melbourne. Not before time, I reflected. I was down to my second last bottle of Muscat, and the supplies of Stilton were alarmingly low.
The next day I again set off in search of the natives. But once again, there was no sign of them anywhere. I began to suspect that they had left the area. Perhaps the word had been passed around that Europeans were camped in the vicinity, and it was wise to shift elsewhere. I could imagine them saying to each other: “Be especially careful to give a wide berth to the one in the plus-fours and silk cravat: he is a complete lunatic.”
Towards late afternoon I returned once again to our camp. I saw immediately something was not right. Desmond, the Ranger from Princeton, had arrived at our camp. He was staring gravely in to space. Chesterton had his hands buried in his face. Lewis was smoking.
I approached camp. Chesterton looked up – clearly upset. Lewis had an inscrutable expression on his face. Desmond had just brought the news from Melbourne: Tingwell and Leadbetter had vanished.