Darkness and Dawn Book I: The Vacant World
Chapter 24: The Fight In The Forest

Public Domain

Now the Thing was close, very close to them, while a hush lay upon the watching Horde and on the forest. So close, that Stern could hear the soughing breath between those hideous lips and see the twitching of the wrinkled lid over the black, glittering eye that blinked as you have often seen a chimpanzee’s.

All at once the obeah stopped. Stopped and leered, his head craned forward, that ghastly rictus on his mouth.

Stern’s hot anger welled up again. Thus to be detained, inspected and seemingly made mock of by a creature no more than three-quarters human, stung the engineer to rage.

“What do you want?” cried he, in a thick and unsteady voice. “Anything I can do for you? If not, I’ll be going.”

The creature shook its head. Yet something of Stern’s meaning may have won to its smoldering intelligence. For now it raised a hand. It pointed to the pail of water, then to its own mouth; again it indicated the pail, then stretched a long, repulsive finger at the mouth of Stern.

The meaning seemed clear. Stern, even as he stood there in anger--and in wonder, too, at the fearlessness of this superthing--grasped the significance of the action.

“Why, he must mean,” said he, to Beatrice, “he must be trying to ask whether we intend to drink any of the water, what? Maybe it’s poisoned, now, or something! Maybe he’s trying to warn us!”

“Warn us? Why should he?”

“How can I tell? It isn’t entirely impossible that he still retains some knowledge of his human ancestors. Perhaps that tradition may have been handed down, some way, and still exists in the form of a crude beast-religion.”

“Yes, but then--?”

“Perhaps he wants to get in touch with us, again; learn from us; try to struggle up out of the mire of degeneration, who knows? If so--and it’s possible--of course he’d try to warn us of a poisoned spring!”

Acting on this hypothesis, of which he was now half-convinced, Stern nodded. By gesture-play he answered: Yes. Yes, this woman and he intended to drink of the water. The obeah-man, grinning, showed signs of lively interest. His eyes brightened, and a look of craft, of wizened cunning crept over his uncanny features.

Then he raised his head and gave a long, shrill, throaty call, ululating and unspeakably weird.

Something stirred in the forest. Stern heard a rustle and a creeping murmur; and quick fear chilled his heart.

To him it seemed as though a voice were calling, perhaps the inner, secret voice of his own subjective self--a voice that cried:

“You, who must drink water--now he knows you are not gods, but mortal creatures. Tricked by his question and your answer, your peril now is on you! Flee!

The voice died. Stern found himself, with a strange, taut eagerness tingling all through him, facing the obeah and--and not daring to turn his back.

Retreat they must, he knew. Retreat, at once! Already in the forest he understood that heads were being lifted, beastlike ears were listening, brute eyes peering and ape-hands clutching the little, flint-pointed spears. Already the girl and he should have been half-way back to the tower; yet still, inhibited by that slow, grinning, staring advance of the chief, there the engineer stood.

But all at once the spell was broken.

For with a cry, a hoarse and frightful yell of passion, the obeah leaped--leaped like a huge and frightfully agile ape--leaped the whole distance intervening.

Stern saw the Thing’s red-gleaming eyes fixed on Beatrice. In those eyes he clearly saw the hell-flame of lust. And as the woman screamed in terror, Stern pulled trigger with a savage curse.

The shot went wild. For at the instant--though he felt no pain--his arm dropped down and sideways.

Astounded, he looked. Something was wrong! What? His trigger-finger refused to serve. It had lost all power, all control.

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