Happy International Pixel-Stained Technopeasant Day! Let’s celebrate the great science fiction and fantasy writers with an excerpt from one of the earliest fantasy novels — and an Oxford World Classic — The Lost World by Arthur Conan Doyle. Professor Challenger’s claims of dinosaurs living in twentieth-century South America may seem outlandish, but even skeptics become believers in The Lost World…
The peaceful penetration of Maple White Land was the pressing subject before us. We had the evidence of our own eyes that the place was inhabited by some unknown creatures, and there was that of Maple White’s sketchbook to show that more dreadful and more dangerous monsters might still appear. That there might also prove to be human occupants and that they were of a malevolent character was suggested by the skeleton impaled upon the bamboos, which could not have got there had it not been dropped from above. Our situation, stranded without possibility of escape in such a land, was clearly full of danger, and our reasons endorsed every measure of caution which Lord John’s experience could suggest. Yet it was surely impossible that we should halt on the edge of this world of mystery when our very souls were tingling with impatience to push forward and to pluck the heart from it.
We therefore blocked the entrance to our zareba by filling it up with several thorny bushes, and left our camp with the stores entirely surrounded by this protecting hedge. We then slowly and cautiously set forth into the unknown, following the course of the little stream which flowed from our spring, as it should always serve us as a guide on our return.
Hardly had we started when we came across signs that there were indeed wonders awaiting us. After a few hundred yards of thick forest, containing many trees which were quite unknown to me, but which Summerlee, who was the botanist of the party, recognized as forms of conifera and of cycadaceous plants which have long passed away in the world below, we entered a region where the stream widened out and formed a considerable bog. High reeds of a peculiar type grew thickly before us, which were pronounced to be equisetacea, or mare’s-tails, with tree-ferns scattered amongst them, all of them swaying in a brisk wind. Suddenly Lord John, who was walking first, halted with uplifted hand.
`Look at this!’ said he. ‘By George, this must be the trail of the father of all birds!’
An enormous three-toed track was imprinted in the soft mud before us. The creature, whatever it was, had crossed the swamp and had passed on into the forest. We all stopped to examine that monstrous spoor. If it were indeed a bird—and what animal could leave such a mark?—its foot was so much larger than an ostrich’s that its height upon the same scale must be enormous. Lord John looked eagerly round him and slipped two cartridges into his elephant-gun.
‘I’ll stake my good name as a shikarree,’ said he, ‘that the track is a fresh one. The creature has not passed ten minutes. Look how the water is still oozing into that deeper print! By Jove! See, here is the mark of a little one!’
Sure enough, smaller tracks of the same general form were running parallel to the large ones.
`But what do you make of this?’ cried Professor Summerlee, triumphantly, pointing to what looked like the huge print of a five-fingered human hand appearing among the three-toed marks.
`Wealden!’ cried Challenger, in an ecstasy. ‘I’ve seen them in the Wealden clay. It is a creature walking erect upon three-toed feet, and occasionally putting one of its five-fingered forepaws upon the ground. Not a bird, my dear Roxton—not a bird.’
`No; a reptile—a dinosaur. Nothing else could have left such a track. They puzzled a worthy Sussex doctor some ninety years ago; but who in the world could have hoped—hoped—to have seen a sight like that?’
His words died away into a whisper, and we all stood in motionless amazement. Following the tracks, we had left the morass and passed through a screen of brushwood and trees. Beyond was an open glade, and in this were five of the most extraordinary creatures that I have ever seen. Crouching down among the bushes, we observed them at our leisure.
There were, as I say, five of them, two being adults and three young ones. In size they were enormous. Even the babies were as big as elephants, while the two large ones were far beyond all creatures I have ever seen. They had slate-coloured skin, which was scaled like a lizard’s and shimmered where the sun shone upon it. All five were sitting up, balancing themselves upon their broad, powerful tails and their huge three-toed hind-feet, while with their small five-fingered front-feet they pulled down the branches upon which they browsed. I do not know that I can bring their appearance home to you better than by saying that they looked like monstrous kangaroos, twenty feet in length, and with skins like black crocodiles.
I do not know how long we stayed motionless gazing at this marvellous spectacle. A strong wind blew towards us and we were well concealed, so there was no chance of discovery. From time to time the little ones played round their parents in unwieldy gambols, the great beasts bounding into the air and falling with dull thuds upon the earth. The strength of the parents seemed to be limitless, for one of them, having some difficulty in reaching a bunch of foliage which grew upon a considerable-sized tree, put his fore-legs round the trunk and tore it down as if it had been a sapling. The action seemed, as I thought, to show not only the great development of its muscles, but also the small one of its brain, for the whole weight came crashing down upon the top of it, and it uttered a series of shrill yelps to show that, big as it was, there was a limit to what it could endure. The incident made it think, apparently, that the neighbourhood was dangerous, for it slowly lurched off through the wood, followed by its mate and its three enormous infants. We saw the shimmering slatey gleam of their skins between the tree-trunks, and their heads undulating high above the brush-wood. Then they vanished from our sight.
I looked at my comrades. Lord John was standing at gaze with his finger on the trigger of his elephant-gun, his eager hunter’s soul shining from his fierce eyes. What would he not give for one such head to place between the two crossed oars above the mantelpiece in his snuggery at the Albany! And yet his reason held him in, for all our exploration of the wonders of this unknown land depended upon our presence being concealed from its inhabitants. The two professors were in silent ecstasy. In their excitement they had unconsciously seized each other by the hand, and stood like two little children in the presence of a marvel, Challenger’s cheeks bunched up into a seraphic smile, and Summerlee’s sardonic face softening for the moment into wonder and reverence.
‘Nunc dimittis!’ he cried at last. ‘What will they say in England of this?’
`My dear Summerlee, I will tell you with great confidence exactly what they will say in England,’ said Challenger. ‘They will say that you are an infernal liar and a scientific charlatan, exactly as you and others said of me.’
`In the face of photographs?’
`Faked, Summerlee! Clumsily faked!’
`In the face of specimens?’
`Ah, there we may have them! Malone and his filthy Fleet Street crew may be all yelping our praises yet. August the twenty-eighth—the day we saw five live iguanodons in a glade of Maple White Land. Put it down in your diary, my young friend, and send it to your rag.’
`And be ready to get the toe-end of the editorial boot in return,’ said Lord John. ‘Things look a bit different from the latitude of London, young fellah my lad. There’s many a man who never tells his adventures, for he can’t hope to be believed. Who’s to blame them? For this will seem a bit of a dream to ourselves in a month or two. What did you say they were?’
The first in Arthur Conan Doyle’s series of books featuring the popular character of Professor Challenger, The Lost World — or to give it its full title: The Lost World: Being an Account of the Recent Amazing Adventures of Professor George E. Challenger, Lord John Roxton, Professor Summerlee, and Mr E.D. Malone of the Daily Gazette — is a classic tale of adventure and discovery. A scientific team embarks on an expedition to a South American plateau, where they find a seemingly impenetrable and dangerous world that has been frozen in time since the age of dinosaurs. This timeless story is sure to excite the modern reader and Oxford World Classics is the only edition with a critical introduction. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was a Scottish physician and prolific writer, most noted for his stories about the detective Sherlock Holmes and the adventures of Professor Challenger. His other works include science fiction stories, plays, romances, poetry, non-fiction, and historical novels.