From the village where they had set up the centre of their explorations, they had left with the rising sun and had already been walking for three hours. The part of Borneo through which they made their way was mountainous, and divided by deep, dark valleys. Rocky peaks alternated with nigh-impenetrable jungles. Accompanied by a native guide and carrying their plant presses, the two naturalists had just climbed half-way up a precipitious outcropping. After stopping in the shade of one of the rare trees growning on this gravelly slope, they went on their way. Suddenly, they found themselves in a natural hollow, carved out of the rock.
"A cave!" cried out Mounier.
"No, a tunnel!" answered the other.
In saying these words, the second European, Steiner, pushed aside a curtain of dried lianas which half covered the opening. A narrow circle of pale daylight appeared at the other end. It was indeed a passageway which extended at both ends into open air.
"Let's go in!" Mounier offered resolutely. "I'll go first!"
They silently made their way down the passage, their rifle at the ready, followed by the native whose supple tread barely brought a crackle from the granitic debris strewn across the floor. They could walk upright, but sometimes the ceiling would abruptly drop or bristle with sharp spikes, forcing them to bend over. Large bats, hanging upside-down from the roof, their serenity disturbed, took wing with cries that spun through the oppressive air. They finally reached the end of the straight passageway
Steiner, who had taken the lead, lifted a sort of blind of twigs such as hung at the other end, but suddenly stepped back.
"Just in time," he grumbled, "I was going to take quite a tumble."
Indeed, the ground dropped off abruptly in front of the cave floor, sloping down sharply, almost perpendicularly to heaps of boulders. The three companions stopped and took in the scene which presented itself to them. They saw an extremely deep, funnel-shaped cirque, at the bottom of which, amongst fearful shadows, one could hear the roar of an invisible torrent. The edges of this deep granite basin were lost at a dizzying height, far above their heads, and the light from the sky, falling on the chaotic assemblage of irregularly-shaped boulders, contrasted areas of light with black pits.
The corridor from which the exlorers were emerging, continued on the other side of the cirque, but to reach it one had to follow an extremely narrow platform, created by a freak of Nature, which ran all along the wall.
"It's dangerous!" pointed out Steiner: "but if we want to know what this underground passage leads to, there's no hesitating!"
"Let's go!...You don't suffer from vertigo, do you, Sikoula?" said Mounier.
The native smiles. Vertigo, pah! he was well acquainted with peaks, experienced in the most awkward of balancing acts!
They continued their perilous hike. Here and there the suspended walkway widened and the piles of boulders beneath made any possible fall much shorter.
But Steiner burst out happily. There, mere meters away, he had made out, upon a crag, a bunch of pale mauve flowers.
"Velamina Sigillata!" he cried out triumphantly, his face glowing with happiness..."Finally! I knew I would succeed in finding it!"
This Velamina Sigillata, an extremely rare plant, a genuine jewel of Botany, of which only one living example existed in cultivation and which he had searched for in vain for years! He had come to Borneo with the hope of perhaps finding, in the midst of its abundant vegetation, the coveted specimen, which he counted upon to cement his professional reputation. This expectation had not been disappointed! On the edge of the walkway, his eyes asparkle, he contemplated the object of his dreams.
He extended a finger
"There, Sikoula...Ten dollars for you if you bring me back that plant with its roots!"
In a flash, the native had slipped down a granite rib to a spot a few feet below the walkway, and began to leap from boulder to boulder to where the Velamina opened it mauve corollas.
Suddenly, there was a stifled cry and his arms flailed out: he had lost his footing. The Europeans, who had been following him, saw him waver and drop, head first, over the precipice. But at the very moment he was to disappear, from behind a rocky outcropping emerged a huge, muscular black arm, bearing a crooked hand. This hand grabbed the man as he fell, and held him still, suspended over the abyss like a gesticulating puppet. Slowly, something fearful, a gigantic, hideous creature, was revealed before the explorers' eyes.
They had enough time to make him out clearly, to notice his body's long fawn-coloured hair, his spindly legs, bending under the weight of the torso, the head's flattened skull, the sunken brow, the prominent cheeks and forward-jutting jaws that made up its features. Buried beneath the beetling brow, gleamed furtive yellow eyes. Still holding Sikoula at arm's length, the marvelous creatured had turned towards the strangers and was looking them over. They too looked him over, frozen in fear and amazement. This was no orang, for it was much bigger, better proportioned and missing the pair of lateral cranial protrusions characteristic of the Asian anthropoid. There was, all told, over his features a singular, indefinable expression, less bestial than human. The features of this creature would not allow it being assigned to any species of apes. The two naturalists, accustomed to all forms of the simian race, of which the island had supplied them numerous examples, had no doubt whatsoever of this. What they were seeing was a new, unknown life-form.
Struck by a sudden thought, Mounier leaned over and whispered:
"Steiner! Could it be it...It...the ape-man?...You know of course, the pithecanthrope, the missing rung in the ecological ladder between the gorilla and us! There are claims it is not extinct. Travelers have met it in certain old-growth forests. I myself didn't believe it, however..."
But already, his partner, driven by his haste to save the native had shouldered his rifle. Before his partner could stop him he had shot at the monster without further thought.
It jerked, threw down its stick and put its free hand to its chest, over its heart. With its other arm it still held Sikoula, suspended motionless over the abyss. It had but to open its fingers and the poor wretch would have been splattered over the bottom. At this thought the two explorers shuddered. Furious at his own thoughtlessness, Steiner muttered:
"What an idiot I am!"
But, rather than perpetrate the act of vengeance they feared, to their amazement the creature put the native softly down on a boulder from which he could easily regain the platform. Then in a look which give away its suffering it seemed to say: "Go back to your own kind, go...You are safe now!"
And while a still trembling Sikoula returns to his companions, the mysterious creature, leans tottering against a boulder. His hairy hand presses against the thorax from which a red stream flows. It moans, and turning its head several times towards the men, towards those who have just struck him unto death, he moves off towards the underground passage. Helping himself up by way of great masses of stone, he climbs the fairly steep slope leading to it. Having reached the tunnel's entrance, he calls feebly. The travelers immediately see a long-haired female and her agile children emerge and busy themselves around him...One last look back and the creature disappears."
"I feel like I've committed murder," Steiner admitted.
Perplexed, almost anguished, they turned back. A few days later they returned to this spot with a large escort. The tunnel, the cirque, the neighbouring areas were searched, but no trace was found of the family of anthropoids.
Had they come face to face with a human ancestor, which remained the matter of legends, or had they simply encountered an orang-outang of superior instincts? None was ever able to solve this enigma.
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