PrologueIN THE FIRST PLACE PLEASE BEAR IN MIND THAT I do not expect you to believe this story. Nor could you wonder had you witnessed a recent experience of mine when, in the armor of blissful and stupendous ignorance, I gaily narrated the gist of it to a Fellow of the Royal Geological Society on the occasion of my last trip to London.
You would surely have thought that I had been detected in no less a heinous crime than the purloining of the Crown Jewels from the Tower, or putting poison in the coffee of His Majesty the King.
The erudite gentleman in whom I confided congealed before I was half through!--it is all that saved him from exploding--and my dreams of an Honorary Fellowship, gold medals, and a niche in the Hall of Fame faded into the thin, cold air of his arctic atmosphere.
But I believe the story, and so would you, and so would the learned Fellow of the Royal Geological Society, had you and he heard it from the lips of the man who told it to me. Had you seen, as I did, the fire of truth in those gray eyes; had you felt the ring of sincerity in that quiet voice; had you realized the pathos of it all--you, too, would believe. You would not have needed the final ocular proof that I had--the weird rhamphorhynchus-like creature which he had brought back with him from the inner world.
I came upon him quite suddenly, and no less unexpectedly, upon the rim of the great Sahara Desert. He was standing before a goat-skin tent amidst a clump of date palms within a tiny oasis. Close by was an Arab douar of some eight or ten tents.
I had come down from the north to hunt lion. My party consisted of a dozen children of the desert--I was the only "white" man. As we approached the little clump of verdure I saw the man come from his tent and with hand-shaded eyes peer intently at us. At sight of me he advanced rapidly to meet us.
"A white man!" he cried. "May the good Lord be praised! I have been watching you for hours, hoping against hope that THIS time there would be a white man. Tell me the date. What year is it?"
And when I had told him he staggered as though he had been struck full in the face, so that he was compelled to grasp my stirrup leather for support.
"It cannot be!" he cried after a moment. "It cannot be! Tell me that you are mistaken, or that you are but joking."
"I am telling you the truth, my friend," I replied. "Why should I deceive a stranger, or attempt to, in so simple a matter as the date?"
For some time he stood in silence, with bowed head.
"Ten years!" he murmured, at last. "Ten years, and I thought that at the most it could be scarce more than one!" That night he told me his story--the story that I give you here as nearly in his own words as I can recall them.