Darkness and Dawn Book I: The Vacant World
Chapter 19: The Unknown Race
An almost irresistible repugnance, a compelling aversion, more of the spirit than of the flesh, instantly seized the man at sight of even the few members of the Horde which lay within his view.
Though he had been expecting to see something disgusting, something grotesque and horrible, his mind was wholly unprepared for the real hideousness of these creatures, now seen by the ever-strengthening light of day.
And slowly, as he stared, the knowledge dawned on him that here was a monstrous problem to face, far greater and more urgent than he had foreseen; here were factors not yet understood; here, the product of forces till then not even dreamed of by his scientific mind.
“I--I certainly did expect to find a small race,” thought he. “Small, and possibly misshapen, the descendants, maybe, of a few survivors of the cataclysm. But this--!“
And again, fascinated by the ghastly spectacle, he laid his eye to the chink in the wall, and looked.
A tenuous fog still drifted slowly among the forest trees, veiling the deeper recesses. Yet, near at hand, within the limited segment of vision which the engineer commanded, everything could be made out with reasonable distinctness.
Some of the Things (for so he mentally named them, knowing no better term) were squatting, lying or moving about, quite close at hand. The fire by the spring had now almost died down. It was evident that the revel had ceased, and that the Horde was settling down to rest--glutted, no doubt, with the raw and bleeding flesh of the conquered foe.
Stern could easily have poked his pistol muzzle through the crack in the wall and shot down many of them. For an instant the temptation lay strong upon him to get rid of at least a dozen or a score; but prudence restrained his hand.
“No use!” he told himself. “Nothing to be gained by that. But, once I get my proper chance at them--!”
And again, striving to observe them with the cool and calculating eye of science, he studied the shifting, confused picture out there before him.
Then he realized that the feature which, above all else, struck him as ghastly and unnatural, was the color of the Things.
“Not black, not even brown,” said he. “I thought so, last night, but daylight corrects the impression. Not red, either, or copper-colored. What color, then? For Heaven’s sake, what?”
He could hardly name it. Through the fog, it struck him as a dull slate-gray, almost a blue. He recalled that once he had seen a child’s modeling-clay, much-used and very dirty, of the same shade, which certainly had no designation in the chromatic scale. Some of the Things were darker, some a trifle lighter--these, no doubt, the younger ones--but they all partook of this same characteristic tint. And the skin, moreover, looked dull and sickly, rather mottled and wholly repulsive, very like that of a Mexican dog.
Like that dog’s hide, too, it was sparsely overgrown with whitish bristles. Here or there, on the bodies of some of the larger Things, bulbous warts had formed, somewhat like those on a toad’s back; and on these warts the bristles clustered thickly. Stern saw the hair, on the neck of one of these creatures, crawl and rise like a jackal’s, as a neighbor jostled him; and from the Thing’s throat issued a clicking grunt of purely animal resentment.
“Merciful Heavens! What are they?” wondered Stern, again, utterly baffled for any explanation. “What can they be?”
Another, in the group close by, attracted his attention. It was lying on its side, asleep maybe, its back directly toward the engineer. Stern clearly saw the narrow shoulders and the thin, long arms, covered with that white bristling hair.
One sprawling, spatulate, clawlike hand lay on the forest moss. The twisted little apelike legs, disproportionately short, were curled up; the feet, prehensile and with a well-marked thumb on each, twitched a little now and then. The head, enormously too big for the body, to which it was joined by a thin neck, seemed to be scantily covered with a fine, curling down, of a dirty yellowish drab color.