A thousand years of darkness and decay! A thousand years of blight, brutality, and atavism; of Nature overwhelming all man's work, of crumbling cities and of forgotten civilization, of stupefaction, of death! A thousand years of night!
Two human beings, all alone in that vast wilderness—a woman and a man.
The past, irrevocable; the present, fraught with problems, perils, and alarms; the future—what?
A thousand years!
Yet, though this thousand years had seemingly smeared away all semblance of the world of men from the cosmic canvas, Allan Stern and Beatrice Kendrick thrilled with as vital a passion as though that vast, oblivious age lay not between them and the time that was.
And their long kiss, there in sight of their new home-to-be—alone there in that desolated world—was as natural as the summer breeze, the liquid melody of the red-breast on the blossomy apple-bough above their heads, the white and purple spikes of odorous lilacs along the vine-grown stone wall, the gold and purple dawn now breaking over the distant reaches of the river.
Thus were these two betrothed, this sole surviving pair of human beings.
Thus, as the new day burned to living flame up the inverted bowl of sky, this woman and this man pledged each other their love and loyalty and trust.
Thus they stood together, his left arm about her warm, lithe body, clad as she was only in her tiger-skin. Their eyes met and held true, there in the golden glory of the dawn. Unafraid, she read the message in the depths of his, the invitation, the command; and they both foreknew the future.
Beatrice spoke first, flushing a little as she drew toward him.
"Allan," she said with infinite tenderness, even as a mother might speak to a well-loved son, "Allan, come now and let me dress your wound. That's the first thing to do. Come, let me see your arm."
He smiled a little, and with his broad, brown hand stroked back the spun silk of her hair, its mass transfixed by the raw gold pins he had found for her among the ruins of New York.
"No, no!" he objected. "It's nothing—it's not worth bothering about. I'll be all right in a day or two. My flesh heals almost at once, without any care. You don't realize how healthy I am."
"I know, dear, but it must hurt you terribly!"
"Hurt? How could I feel any pain with your kiss on my mouth?"
"Come!" she again repeated with insistence, and pointed toward the beach where their banca lay on the sand.
"Come, I'll dress your wound first. And after I find out just how badly you're injured—"
He tried to stop her mouth with kisses, but she evaded him.
"No, no!" she cried. "Not now—not now!"
Allan had to cede. And now presently there he knelt on the fine white sand, his bearskin robe opened and flung back, his well-knit shoulder and sinewed arm bare and brown.
"Well, is it fatal?" he jested. "How long do you give me to survive it?" as with her hand and the cold limpid water of the Hudson she started to lave the caked blood away from his gashed triceps.
At sight of the wound she looked grave, but made no comment. She had no bandages; but with the woodland skill she had developed in the past weeks of life in close touch with nature, she bound the cleansed wound with cooling leaves and fastened them securely in place with lashings of leather thongs from the banca.
Presently the task was done. Stern slipped his bearskin back in place. Beatrice, still solicitous, tried to clasp the silver buckle that held it; but he, unable to restrain himself, caught her hand in both of his and crushed it to his lips.
Then he took her perfect face between his palms, and for a long moment studied it. He looked at her waving hair, luxuriant and glinting rich brown gleams in the sunlight; her thick, arched brows and hazel eyes, liquid and full of mystery as woodland pools; her skin, sun-browned and satiny, with abundant tides of life-blood coursing vigorously in its warm flush; her ripe lips. He studied her, and loved and yearned toward her; and in him the passion leaped up like living flames.
His mouth met hers again.
"My beloved!" breathed he.
Her rounded arm, bare to the shoulder, circled his neck; she hid her face in his breast.
"Not yet—not yet!" she whispered.
On the white and pink flowered bough above, the robin, unafraid, gushed into a very madness of golden song. And now the sun, higher risen, had struck the river into a broad sheet of spun metal, over which the swallows—even as in the olden days—darted and spiraled, with now and then a flick and dash of spray.
Far off, wool-white winding-sheets of mist were lifting, lagging along the purple hills, clothed with inviolate forest.
Again the man tried to raise her head, to burn his kisses on her mouth. But she, instilled with the eternal spirit of woman, denied him.
"No, not now—not yet!" she said; and in her eyes he read her meaning. "You must let me go now, Allan. There's so much to do; we've got to be practical, you know."
"Practical! When I—I love—"
"Yes, I know, dear. But there's so much to be done first." Her womanly homemaking instinct would not be gainsaid. "There's so much work! We've got the place to explore, and the house to put in order, and—oh, thousands of things! And we must be very sensible and very wise, you and I, boy. We're not children, you know. Now that we've lost our home in the Metropolitan Tower, everything's got to be done over again."
"Except to learn to love you!" answered Stern, letting her go with reluctance.
She laughed back at him over her fur-clad shoulder as her sandaled feet followed the dim remnants of what must once have been a broad driveway from the river road along the beach, leading up to the bungalow.
Through the encroaching forest and the tangle of the degenerate apple-trees they could see the concrete walls, with here or there a bit of white still gleaming through the enlacements of ancient vines that had enveloped the whole structure—woodbine, ivy, wisterias, and the maddest jungle of climbing roses, red and yellow, that ever made a nest for love.
"Wait, I'll go first and clear the way for you," he said cheerily. His big bulk crashed down the undergrowth. His hands held back the thorns and briers and the whipping hardbacks. Together they slowly made way toward the house.
The orchard had lost all semblance of regularity, for in the thousand years since the hand of man had pruned or cared for it Mother Nature had planted and replanted it times beyond counting. Small and gnarled and crooked the trees were, as the spine-tree souls in Dante's dolorosa selva.
Here or there a pine had rooted and grown tall, killing the lesser tribe of green things underneath.
Warm lay the sun there. A pleasant carpet of last year's leaves and pine-spills covered the earth.
"It's all ready and waiting for us, all embowered and carpeted for love," said Allan musingly. "I wonder what old Van Amburg would think of his estate if he could see it now? And what would he say to our having it? You know, Van was pretty ugly to me at one time about my political opinion—but that's all past and forgotten now. Only this is certainly an odd turn of fate."
He helped the girl over a fallen log, rotted with moss and lichens. "It's one awful mess, sure as you're born. But as quick as my arm gets back into shape, we'll have order out of chaos before you know it. Some fine day you and I will drive our sixty horse-power car up an asphalt road here, and—"
"A car? Why, what do you mean? There's not such a thing left in the whole world as a car!"
The engineer tapped his forehead with his finger.
"Oh, yes, there is. I've got several models right here. You just wait till you see the workshop I'm going to install on the bank of the river with current-power, and with an electric light plant for the whole place, and with—"
"You dear, big, dreaming boy!" she interrupted. Then with a kiss she took his hand.
"Come," said she. "We're home now. And there's work to do."