by horace p sternwall
illustrated by rhoda penmarq and roy dismas
for part 1 click here
i had a pleasant surprise on returning to my house after my first visit to the firehouse. my housekeeper, mrs adams, presented me with a package that had been delivered in my absence - a new monograph, with copious notes and addenda, by doctor hargrave on the aboriginal burying grounds in his native dakotas. he and i had long enjoyed a friendly rivalry as to the relative antiquity of the ruins in his part of the world and my own, and i looked forwardly eagerly to studying and passing considered judgment on his newest findings.
consequently the three days passed swiftly before the date of my next scheduled visit to hank and the firehouse, and as i spent them almost entirely in my study and did not so much as look out the window, i had sadly neglected the good doctor melville's exhortations to exercise. i decided therefore to walk the three or four miles to the firehouse, rather than summon a hackney as i had on my first visit. and also save a few pennies from my all too rapidly disappearing patrimony.
i quickly regretted my decision - the day was much chillier and windier than i had first apprehended - but some unsuspected reservoir of stubbornness welling up from the depths of my being kept me from turning back.
when i was about half way to my destination i began to feel light headed, and the landscape - of unremitting fields of some crop or other - agriculture being no part of my field of study - began to take on a sinister and sneering hue not easily described. the midday sky was a loathsome bluish-gray and the crops - tall greenish-purple stalks of who knew what - seemed both to wave mockingly and be frozen in some obdurate obsidian vision of cosmic blasphemy.
a single gray cloud hid the sun.
butterfly wings of panic tickled my brain. where was i? where? what had possessed me - i , who had hardly ever gone fifty yards from my beloved study - to venture into this terrifying desolation? a desolation undreamed of in my most terrifying nightmares? and yet existing, apparently, only a few miles from the cocoon of my ancestral fortress?
you are a waterspoon, i told myself, a waterspoon. the direct descendant of the pitiless pioneers who cleared the land of its savage inhabitants, in order to stamp the impress of civilization on its flat and ungrateful face. it won't do to give in to even the appearance of effete hysteria, it won't do at all.
no vehicle had passed me in either direction as i walked the road - a road, i should mention, absolutely straight and uncontoured - nor had i seen a living person, or heard an animal or bird.
i began to feel thirsty, and even more lightheaded. i must, i thought, be only a mile from my goal. what could i do but press on.
at last - at last! - i saw a figure approaching in the distance. what relief i felt! i should mention here that i was under the impression that the farm dwellers in the neighborhood, though ignorant brutes to be sure, had at least a vestigial remnant of respect for their betters, in contrast to their degenerate cousins in the modern metropolises (with whom i had had only one terrible encounter - never, unfortunately, to be forgotten).
as the figure came closer, my blood began to run a little cold. i beheld a shambling, rawboned figure - "human" to be sure - it wore ragged clothing and a battered felt hat - but barely. the craggy face, simultaneously apish and reptilian, seemed to light up with an unholy delight on perceiving me, and i felt nought but panic as it hastened toward me, swinging its long, low-hanging arms.
"morning!" it cried. "morning there, professor!" in a voice like ice breaking in a subterranean cavern. "out for a stroll, are you? ha, ha, ha!" and it roared with laughter at this humorous sally.
with some effort i mastered my first fear. as the creature came closer i perceived that it was, after all, only a man - a hired man type of fellow of about thirty rough years. and the sobriquet of "professor" with which he greeted me, though not strictly accurate - my studies have always been maintained privately - seemed to indicate a modicum of respect.
"hey, professor, hey!" suddenly a thick walking stick seemed to materialize in his right hand and he poked me in the chest with it. as i staggered backward i heard another voice raised in laughter - the shrieking laughter of a banshee. and i perceived on the road behind the man a stunted figure which on rapidly approaching i could see was a pigtailed girl of about fifteen, in a tattered flowered dress, and with a face even more lewdly simian and reptiloid than the man's.
"uncle jack asked you a question, professor! ain't you got no manners?" and she howled with laughter as i shrank back from her hideous person.
"yes, yes," i managed to stammer, "i am out for a stroll, as you so drolly put it. a stroll into town." i controlled myself, and felt some little rage bubbling up beneath my fear.
"no need to be snickety, professor, when folks asks you polite questions." and the man poked me with the stick again, harder this time. "into town, hey?"
"yes, to the fire station to be exact. for a friendly game of checkers."
"fire station! as worthless a bunch of sons of bitches as ever there was, hey, lily?"
my fear began to return. needless to say i was not used to such rough talk as this, and in front of a young woman no less, rough-hewn as she might be. something was amiss. where was i?
"you said right, uncle jack. almost as worthless as those no good clowns as call theirselves deputy sheriffs. they friends of yours too, professor?" i now saw the girl had a stick too, and she shook it at me.
"i don't have the honor of those gentlemen's acquaintance," i replied with such composure as i could muster.
"is that right, professor?" drawled the girl. it had finally gotten through to me that in their mouths "professor" was not a term of respect at all, but intended as some sort of epithet, even insult. "gentlemen, eh? are you a gentleman, professor?"
"why of course i am a gentleman."
the girl whacked me sharply across my knee with her stick, and i cried out.
"lily, lily," laughed the man. "no need for that. he ain't said nothing to deserve that. yet." he looked up at the sky. though it was about mid day, the single dark cloud continued to hide the sun. the wind had died down. "kind of hot, eh?"
"yes, it does seem to be getting warmer."
"seems to be, seems to be. always the way with the likes of you - seems to be, hey?"
i did not know how to answer this. "yes, and i must say i could use a drink of water. though there does not seem - though i don't see any place in sight where i could find one."
"oh? look over there." the man pointed across the fields and i saw - surely i would have noticed it before if it had been there - something i can hardly describe. some kind of giant featureless mound rising from the field. but made of what? and was it a building? it had neither doors nor windows. some kind of giant growth from the depths of primordial dreams, like a colossal mushroom ? it seemed too smooth.
"what is it?" i managed to ask at last.
"well, what do you think it is?" asked the man. "it's the place."
"the place?" i replied. "and what is in the place?
the girl howled with laughter. "what do you think is in the place? ha, ha, ha! what would be in the place, do you think, but the thing? ha, ha, ha, ha!" and she whacked me with the stick again.
this time the man made no objection to her striking me. he looked into my eyes, and his own eyes seemed to change from rhinoceroid gray to cobroid green. "you've been asking questions, professor. but there are those in the place who would like to ask you questions."
the two of them fell upon me, flailing at me and driving me into the fields with their sticks. i staggered through the hideous green plants toward the "place" with them laughing and shouting behind me, and as i did i lost all dignity and began sobbing uncontrollably with fear.
the horror! the horror!
Most excellent. And -- I know, I know, genius cannot be rushed -- I only hope we won't have to wait a year-and-a-half for the next installment!
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