Continuing the diary of an anonymous nineteenth-century Jesuit, translated and annotated by Brigadier Sir George A.M.F. MacPhail (author of To the Equator with Elephant Gun).
Today we attained the top of the rise. It came suddenly, like a miracle. The trees parted, the river vanished and we found ourselves standing on the edge of another world. At our feet, the ground fell away in a tumble of rocks and greenery – straight ahead, a faint line of reddish rock showed us the far edge of the valley – below, vast green plains, patches of woodland, and everywhere the welcome gleam of water. A greater contrast to the dim, damp forest from which we came could not be imagined. I could feel no wind, and yet some, I believed, there must have been, for in the woods nearest to us the trees rustled and swayed as if moved by a strong force.
And then Father Spada cursed, and clutched at my sleeve – I went to shake his hand off, for he had worn sorely on my nerves in the last days, but a cry from Father Dalmasso stopped me.
“Look,” he exclaimed, “only look! What on earth is that?”
Here my commitment to the truth compels me to set down something that must cast my sanity into doubt, should anyone ever read it – which I very much doubt anyone will.
Something was emerging from the trees: something vast and long, like the trunk of an immense elephant. As we watched, this unholy trunk was followed by a massive rounded body – it was no trunk at all, then, but a neck, with a small dog-like head – and then a long, low, thick tail that tapered to a vicious point. The monstrous creature was soon followed by another of equally dizzying size, and then two more, rather smaller but of the same form. They lumbered slowly across the plain, and I fancied that I could feel the tremors caused by the impact of their titanic feet.
“Do you see?” whispered Father Olivero, and Father Spada said, uncharacteristically sotto voce, that he did see.
Father Dalmasso was praying the Rosary. I could only stare, for I was seized by a thought I dared not communicate to the others. I had read much, in the popular press, about the work of the Englishman Richard Owen, and the lizard-monsters he supposes once to have walked the earth. Sensational, fantastical stuff, yet it exerted a boyish fascination over me. And the creatures in the valley reminded me of nothing so much as Owen’s terrible lizards. I was possessed by two urges at once: to flee for my life, and to scramble down the hill and get a closer look.
We stood there for some time in silence, until Father Olivero said in a trembling voice that we really ought to start walking.
“Yes,” said Father Spada, “but whither?”
“Back, for the Lord’s sake!” cried Father Olivero. “Let us go back and find a new path. Away from here, at all costs.”
“Go back into that d–n deserted forest?” retorted Father Spada. “Why, we shall starve to death. I should rather take my chance in the valley, with the behemoths.”
A controversy began. Spada was in favour of forging on – Olivero clung to the idea of going back. Father Dalmasso suggested we follow the line of the valley for a while, to see if it brought us to new ground. And I, for the first time in our long journey together, broke out with an impassioned plea. The idea of turning away from that valley and seeing no more of its curious inhabitants was suddenly unbearable to me. Look at us, I protested, we are skin and bones – there is nothing for us, if we turn back, but to wander alone until we die – here before us we have a new and promising landscape, one with air and sunlight and plentiful water – let us at least explore it. We need not fear the beasts – they are too large to see us as a threat, and we can very easily avoid them.
At this point, one of the creatures helped me in my argument by stopping to tear up and consume a small tree that lay in its path. “You see,” I said, “they are plant-eaters! They are really nothing more than giant cows.”
“I loathe cows,” said Father Olivero.
But the other two were at last convinced. Perhaps they felt something of my fascination for this otherworldly place. At any rate, they agreed to my plan and we began our descent into the valley, with Olivero reluctantly following.
The hill was terribly steep, in places almost vertical. We clambered and fell and rolled, and in due course found ourselves bruised and exhausted at its foot. The sun was already setting, and so we have set up our camp by a fast-flowing stream, and will begin our explorations at first light.
© Alix Montague 2015