Dimly, like the daybreak glimmer of a sky long wrapped in fogs, a sign of consciousness began to dawn in the face of the tranced girl.
Once more the breath of life began to stir in that full bosom, to which again a vital warmth had on this day of days crept slowly back.
And as she lay there, prone upon the dusty floor, her beautiful face buried and shielded in the hollow of her arm, a sigh welled from her lips.
Life—life was flowing back again! The miracle of miracles was growing to reality.
Faintly now she breathed; vaguely her heart began to throb once more. She stirred. She moaned, still for the moment powerless to cast off wholly the enshrouding incubus of that tremendous, dreamless sleep.
Then her hands closed. The finely tapered fingers tangled themselves in the masses of thick, luxuriant hair which lay outspread all over and about her. The eyelids trembled.
And, a moment later, Beatrice Kendrick was sitting up, dazed and utterly uncomprehending, peering about her at the strangest vision which since the world began had ever been the lot of any human creature to behold—the vision of a place transformed beyond all power of the intellect to understand.
For of the room which she remembered, which had been her last sight when (so long, so very long, ago) her eyes had closed with that sudden and unconquerable drowsiness, of that room, I say, remained only walls, ceiling, floor of rust-red steel and crumbling cement.
Quite gone was all the plaster, as by magic. Here or there a heap of whitish dust betrayed where some of its detritus still lay.
Gone was every picture, chart, and map—which—but an hour since, it seemed to her—had decked this office of Allan Stern, consulting engineer, this aerie up in the forty-eighth story of the Metropolitan Tower.
Furniture, there now was none. Over the still-intact glass of the windows cobwebs were draped so thickly as almost to exclude the light of day—a strange, fly-infested curtain where once neat green shade-rollers had hung.
Even as the bewildered girl sat there, lips parted, eyes wide with amaze, a spider seized his buzzing prey and scampered back into a hole in the wall.
A huge, leathery bat, suspended upside down in the far corner, cheeped with dry, crepitant sounds of irritation.
Beatrice rubbed her eyes.
"What?" she said, quite slowly. "Dreaming? How singular! I only wish I could remember this when I wake up. Of all the dreams I've ever had, this one's certainly the strangest. So real, so vivid! Why, I could swear I was awake—and yet—"
All at once a sudden doubt flashed into her mind. An uneasy expression dawned across her face. Her eyes grew wild with a great fear; the fear of utter and absolute incomprehension.
Something about this room, this weird awakening, bore upon her consciousness the dread tidings this was not a dream.
Something drove home to her the fact that it was real, objective, positive! And with a gasp of fright she struggled up amid the litter and the rubbish of that uncanny room.
"Oh!" she cried in terror, as a huge scorpion, malevolent, and with its tail raised to strike, scuttled away and vanished through a gaping void where once the corridor-door had swung. "Oh, oh! Where am I? What—what has—happened?"
Horrified beyond all words, pale and staring, both hands clutched to her breast, whereon her very clothing now had torn and crumbled, she faced about.
To her it seemed as though some monstrous, evil thing were lurking in the dim corner at her back. She tried to scream, but could utter no sound, save a choked gasp.
Then she started toward the doorway. Even as she took the first few steps her gown—a mere tattered mockery of garment—fell away from her.
And, confronted by a new problem, she stopped short. About her she peered in vain for something to protect her disarray. There was nothing.
"Why—where's—where's my chair? My desk?" she exclaimed thickly, starting toward the place by the window where they should have been, and were not. Her shapely feet fell soundlessly in that strange and impalpable dust which thickly coated everything.
"My typewriter? Is—can that be my typewriter? Great Heavens! What's the matter here, with everything? Am I mad?"
There before her lay a somewhat larger pile of dust mixed with soft and punky splinters of rotten wood. Amid all this decay she saw some bits of rust, a corroded type-bar or two—even a few rubber key-caps, still recognizable, though with the letters quite obliterated.
All about her, veiling her completely in a mantle of wondrous gloss and beauty, her lustrous hair fell, as she stooped to see this strange, incomprehensible phenomenon. She tried to pick up one of the rubber caps. At her merest touch it crumbled to an impalpable white powder.
Back with a shuddering cry the girl sprang, terrified.
"Merciful Heavens!" she supplicated. "What—what does all this mean?"
For a moment she stood there, her every power of thought, of motion, numbed. Breathing not, she only stared in a wild kind of cringing amazement, as perhaps you might do if you should see a dead man move.
Then to the door she ran. Out into the hall she peered, this way and that, down the dismantled corridor, up the wreckage of the stairs all cumbered, like the office itself, with dust and webs and vermin.
Aloud she hailed: "Oh! Help, help, help!" No answer. Even the echoes flung back only dull, vacuous sounds that deepened her sense of awful and incredible isolation.
What? No noise of human life anywhere to be heard? None! No familiar hum of the metropolis now rose from what, when she had fallen asleep, had been swarming streets and miles on miles of habitations.
Instead, a blank, unbroken leaden silence, that seemed part of the musty, choking atmosphere—a silence that weighed down on Beatrice like funeral-palls.
Dumfounded by all this, and by the universal crumbling of every perishable thing, the girl ran, shuddering, back into the office. There in the dust her foot struck something hard.
She stooped; she caught it up and stared at it.
"My glass ink-well! What? Only such things remain?"
No dream, then, but reality! She knew at length that some catastrophe, incredibly vast, some disaster cosmic in the tragedy of its sweep, had desolated the world.
"Oh, my mother!" cried she. "My mother—dead? Dead, now, how long?"
She did not weep, but just stood cowering, a chill of anguished horror racking her. All at once her teeth began to chatter, her body to shake as with an ague.
Thus for a moment dazed and stunned she remained there, knowing not which way to turn nor what to do. Then her terror-stricken gaze fell on the doorway leading from her outer office to the inner one, the one where Stern had had his laboratory and his consultation-room.
This door now hung, a few worm-eaten planks and splintered bits of wood, barely supported by the rusty hinges.
Toward it she staggered. About her she drew the sheltering masses of her hair, like a Godiva of another age; and to her eyes, womanlike, the hot tears mounted. As she went, she cried in a voice of horror.
"Mr. Stern! Oh—Mr. Stern! Are—are you dead, too? You can't be—it's too frightful!"
She reached the door. The mere touch of her outstretched hand disintegrated it. Down in a crumbling mass it fell. Thick dust bellied up in a cloud, through which a single sun-ray that entered the cobwebbed pane shot a radiant arrow.
Peering, hesitant, fearful of even greater terrors in that other room, Beatrice peered through this dust-haze. A sick foreboding of evil possessed her at thought of what she might find there—yet more afraid was she of what she knew lay behind her.
An instant she stood within the ruined doorway, her left hand resting on the moldy jam. Then, with a cry, she started forward—a cry in which terror had given place to joy, despair to hope.
Forgotten now the fact that, save for the shrouding of her messy hair, she stood naked. Forgotten the wreck, the desolation everywhere.
"Oh—thank Heaven!" gasped she.
There, in that inner office, half-rising from the wrack of many things that had been and were now no more, her startled eyes beheld the figure of a man—of Allan Stern!
At her he peered with eyes that saw not, yet; toward her he groped a vague, unsteady hand.
Not quite alone in this world-ruin, not all alone was she!