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Life! Life again, and light, the sun and the fresh winds of heaven, the perfect azure of a June sky, the perfume of the passionate red blooms along the lips of the chasm, the full-throated song of hidden birds within the wood to eastward—life, beauty, love—such, the sunrise hour when Allan and the girl once more stood side by side in the outer world, delivered from the perils of the black Abyss.
Hardly more real than a disordered nightmare now, the terrible fall into those depths, the captivity among the white barbarians, the battles and the ghastly scenes of war, the labors, the perilous escape.
All seemed to fall and fade away from these two lovers, all save their joy in life and in each other, their longing for the inevitable greater passion, pain and joy, their clear-eyed outlook into the vast and limitless possibilities of the future, their future and the world's.
And as they stood there, hand in hand beside the body of the fallen patriarch—he whose soul had passed in peace, even at the moment of his life's fulfilment, his knowledge of the sun—awe overcame them both. With a new tenderness, mingled with reverent adoration, Stern drew the girl once more to him.
Her face turned up to his and her arms tightened about his neck. He kissed her brow beneath the parted masses of her wondrous hair. His lips rested a moment on her eyes; and then his mouth sought hers and burned its passion into her very soul.
Suddenly she pushed him back, panting. She had gone white; she trembled in his clasp.
"Oh, your kiss—oh, Allan, what is this I feel?—it seems to choke me!" she gasped, clutching her full bosom where her heart leaped like a prisoned creature. "Your kiss—it is so different now! No, no—not again—not yet!"
He released her, for he, too was shaking in the grip of new, fierce passions.
"Forgive me!" he whispered. "I—I forgot myself, a moment. Not yet—no, not yet. You're right, Beatrice. A thousand things are pressing to be done. And love—must wait!"
He clenched his fists and strode to the edge of the chasm, where, for a while, he stood alone and silent, gazing far down and away, mastering himself, striving to get himself in leash once more.
Then suddenly he turned and smiled.
"Come, Beta," said he. "All this must be forgotten. Let's get to work. The whole world's waiting for us, for our labor. It's eager for our toil!"
She nodded. In her eyes the fire had died, and now only the light of comradeship and trust and hope glowed once again.
"Our first duty—" She gestured toward the body of the patriarch, nobly still beneath the rough folds of the mantle they had drawn over it.
"Yes," murmured he. "And his grave shall be for all the future ages a place of pilgrimage and solemn thought. Where first, one of lost Folk issued again into the world and where he died, this shall be a monument of the new time now coming to its birth.
"His grave shall lie here on this height, where the first sun shall each day for ages fall upon it, supreme in its deep symbolism. Forever it shall be a memorial, not of death, but life, of liberty, of hope!"
They kept a moment's silence, then Stern added.
"So now, to work!" From the biplane he fetched the ax. With this he cut and trimmed a branch from a near-by fir. He sharpened it to a flat blade three or four inches across. In the deep red sand along the edge of the Abyss he set to work, scooping the patriarch's grave.
In silence Beatrice took the ax and also labored, throwing the sand away. Together, in an hour, they had dug a trench sufficiently deep and wide.
"This must do, for now," said Stern, looking up at last. "Some time he shall have fitting burial, but for the present we can do no more. Let us now commit his body to the earth, the Great Mother which created and which waits always to give everlasting sleep, peace, rest."
Together, silently, they bore him to the grave, still wrapped in the cloak which now had become his shroud. Once more they gazed upon the noble face of him they had grown to love in the long weeks of the Abyss, when only he had understood them or seemed near.
"What is this, Allan?" asked the girl, touching a fine chain of gold about the patriarch's neck, till now unnoticed.
Allan drew at the chain, and a small golden cylinder was revealed, curiously carven. Its lightness told him it was hollow.
"Some treasure of his, I imagine," judged he.
"Some record, perhaps? Oughtn't we to look?"
He thought a moment in silence, then detached the chain.
"Yes," said he. "It can't help him now. It may help us. He himself would have wanted us to have it."
And into the pocket of his rough, brown cassock, woven of the weed-fiber of the dark sea, he slid the chain and golden cylinder.
A final kiss they gave the patriarch, each; then, carefully wrapping his face so that no smallest particle of sand should come in contact with it, stood up. At each other they gazed, understandingly.
"Flowers? Some kind of service?" asked the girl.
"Yes. All we can do for him will be too little!"
Together they brought armfuls of the brilliant crimson and purple blooms along the edge of the sands, where forest and barren irregularly met; and with these, fir and spruce boughs, the longer to keep his grave freshly green.
All about him they heaped the blossoms. The patriarch lay at rest among beauties he never had beheld, colors arid fragrances that to him had been but dim traditions of antiquity.
"I can't preach," said Stern. "I'm not that kind, anyway, and in this new world all that sort of thing is out of place. Let's just say good-by, as to a friend gone on a long, long journey."
Beatrice could no longer keep back her grief. Kneeling beside the grave, she arranged the flowers and the evergreens, on which her tears fell shining.
"Dust unto dust!" Stern said. "To you, oh Mother Nature, we give back the body of this friend, your son. May the breeze blow gently here, the sun shine warm, and the birds forever sing his requiem. And may those who shall come after us, when we too sleep, remember that in him we had a friend, without whom the world never again could have hoped for any new birth, any life! To him we say good-by—eternally! Dust unto dust; good-by!"
"Good-by!" whispered the girl. Then, greatly overcome, she arose and walked away.
Stern, with his naked hands, filled the shallow grave and, this done, rolled three large boulders onto it, to protect it from the prowling beasts of the wild.
Beatrice returned. They strewed more flowers and green boughs, and in silence stood a while, gazing at the lowlier bed of their one friend on earth.
Suddenly Stern took her hand and drew her toward him.
"Come, come, Beatrice," said he, "he is not dead. He still lives in our memories. His body, aged and full of pain, is gone, but his spirit still survives in us—that indomitable sold which, buried alive in blindness and the dark, still strove to keep alive the knowledge and traditions of the upper world, hopes of attaining it, and visions of a better time to be!
"Was ever greater human courage, faith or strength? Let us not grieve. Let us rather go away strengthened and inspired by this wonderful life that has just passed. In us, let all his hopes and aspirations come to reality.
"His death was happy. It was as he wished it, Beatrice, for his one great ambition was fully granted—to know the reality of the upper world, the winds of heaven and the sun! Impossible for him to have survived the great change. Death was inevitable and right. He wanted rest, and rest is his, at last.
"We must be true to all he thought us, you and I—to all he believed us, even demigods! He shall inspire and enlighten us, O my love; and with his memory to guide us, faith and fortitude shall not be lacking.
"Now, we must go. Work waits for us. Everything is yet to be planned and done. The world and its redemption lie before us. Come!"
He led the girl away. As by mutual understanding they returned to where the biplane lay, symbol of their conquest of nature, epitome of hopes.
Near it, on the edge of the Abyss, they rested, hand in hand. In silence they sat thinking, for a space. And ever higher and more warmly burned the sun; the breeze of June was sweet to them, long-used to fogs and damp and dark; the boundless flood of light across the azure thrilled them with aspiration and with joy.
Life had begun again for them and for the world, life, even there in the presence of death. Life was continuing, developing, expanding—life and its immortal sister, Love!
Practical matters now for a time thrust introspection, dreams and sentiment aside. The morning was already half spent, and in spite of sorrow, hunger had begun to assert itself; for since time was, no two such absolutely vigorous and healthy humans had ever set foot on earth as Beatrice and Allan.
The man gathered brush and dry-kye and proceeded to make a fire, not far from the precipice, but well out of sight of the patriarch's grave. He fetched a generous heap of wood from the neighboring forest, and presently a snapping blaze flung its smoke-banner down the breeze.
Soon after Beatrice had raided the supplies on board the Pauillac—fish, edible seaweed, and the eggs of the strange birds of the Abyss—and with the skill and speed of long experience was getting an excellent meal. Allan meantime brought water from a spring near by. And the two ate in silence, cross-legged on the warm, dry sand.
"What first, now?" queried the man, when they were satisfied. "I've been thinking of about fifteen hundred separate things to tackle, each one more important than all the others put together. How are we going to begin again? That's the question!"
She drew from her warm bosom the golden cylinder and chain.
"Before we make any move at all," she answered, "I think we ought to see what's in this record—if it is a record. Don't you?"
"By Jove, you're right! Shall I open it for you?"
But already the massively chased top lay unscrewed in her hand. Within the cylinder a parchment roll appeared.
A moment later she had spread it on her knee, taking care not to tear the ancient, crackling skin whereon faint lines of writing showed.
Stern bent forward, eager and breathless. The girl, too, gazed with anxious eyes at the dim script, all but illegible with age and wear.
"You're right, Allan," said she. "This is some kind of record, some direction as to the final history of the few survivors after the great catastrophe. Oh! Look, Allan—it's fading already in the sunlight. Quick, read it quick, or we shall lose it all!"
Only too true. The dim lines, perhaps fifteen hundred years old, certainly never exposed to sunlight since more than a thousand, were already growing weaker; and the parchment, too, seemed crumbling into dust. Its edges, where her fingers held it, already were breaking away into a fine, impalpable powder.
"Quick, Allan! Quick!"
Together they read the clumsy scrawl, their eyes leaping along the lines, striving to grasp the meaning ere it were too late.
TO ANY WHO AT ANY TIME MAY EVER REVISIT THE UPPER WORLD: Be it known that two records have been left covering our history from the time of the cataclysm in 1920 till we entered the Chasm in 1957. One is in the Great Cave in Medicine Bow Range, Colorado, near the ruins of Dexter. Exact location, 106 degrees, 11 minutes, 3 seconds west; 40 degrees, 22 minutes, 6 seconds north. Record is in left, or northern branch of Cave, 327 yards from mouth, on south wall, 4 feet 6 inches from floor. The other—
"Where? Where?" cried Beatrice. A portion of the record was gone; it had crumbled even as they read.
"Easy does it, girl! Don't get excited," Allan cautioned, but his face was pale and his hand trembled as he sought to steady and protect the parchment from the breeze.
Together they pieced out a few of the remaining words, for now the writing was but a pale blur, momently becoming dimmer and more dim.
… Cathedral on … known as Storm King … River … crypt under … this was agreed on … never returned but may possibly … signed by us on this 12th day …
They could read no more, for now the record was but a disintegrating shell in the girl's hands, and even as they looked the last of the writing vanished, as breath evaporates from a window-pane.
Allan whirled toward the fire, snatched out a still-glowing stick, and in the sand traced figures.
"Quick! What was that? 106-11-3, West—Forty—"
"Forty, 22, north," she prompted.
"How many seconds? You remember?"
"No." Slowly she shook her head. "Five, wasn't it?"
Eagerly he peered at the record, but every trace was gone.
"Well, no matter about the seconds," he judged. "I'll enter these data on our diary, in the Pauillac, anyhow. We can remember the ruins of Dexter and Medicine Bow Range; also the cathedral on Storm King. Put the fragments of the parchment back into the case, Beta. Maybe we can yet preserve them, and by some chemical means or other bring out the writing again. As it is, I guess we've got the most important facts; enough to go on, at any rate."
She replaced the crumbled record in the golden cylinder and once more screwed on the cap. Allan got up and walked to the aeroplane, where, among their scanty effects, was the brief diary and set of notes he had been keeping since the great battle with the Lanskaarn.
Writing on his fish-skin tablets, with his bone stylus, dipped in his little stone jar of cuttle-fish ink, he carefully recorded the geographical location. Then he went back to Beatrice, who still sat in the midmorning sunlight by the fire, very beautiful and dear to him.
"If we can find those records, we'll have made a long step toward solving the problem of how to handle the Folk. They aren't exactly what one would call an amenable tribe, at best. We need their history, even the little of it that the records must contain, for surely there must be names and events in them of great value in our work of trying to bring these people to the surface and recivilize them."
"Well, what's to hinder our getting the records now?" she asked seriously, with wonder in her gray and level gaze.
"That, for one thing!"
He gestured at the Abyss.
"It's a good six or seven hundred miles wide, and we already know how deep it is. I don't think we want to risk trying to cross it again and running out of fuel en route! Volplaning down to the village is quite a different proposition from a straight-away flight across!"
She sat pensive a moment.
"There must be some way around," said she at last. "Otherwise a party of survivors couldn't have set out for Storm King on the Hudson to deposit a set of records there!"
"That's so, too. But—remember? 'Never returned.' I figure it this way: A party of the survivors probably started for New York, exploring. The big, concrete cathedral on Storm King—it was new in 1916, you remember—was known the country over as the most massive piece of architecture this side of the pyramids. They must have planned to leave one set of records there, in case the east, too, was devastated. Well—"
"Do you suppose they succeeded?"
"No telling. At any rate, there's a chance of it. And as for this Rocky Mountain cache, that's manifestly out of the question, for now."
"So then?" she queried eagerly.
"So then our job is to strike for Storm King. Incidentally we can revisit Hope Villa, our bungalow on the banks of the Hudson. It's been a year since we left it, almost—ten months, at any rate. Gad! What marvels and miracles have happened since then, Beta—what perils, what escapes! Wouldn't you like to see our little nest again? We could rest up and plan and strengthen ourselves for the greater tasks ahead. And then—"
He paused, a change upon his face, his eyes lighting with a sudden glow. She saw and understood; and her breast rose with sudden keen emotion.
"You mean," whispered she, "in our own home?"
She paled as, kneeling beside her, he flung a powerful arm about her, and pulled her to him, breathing heavily.
"Don't! Don't!" she forbade. "No, no, Allan—there's so much work to do—you mustn't!"
To her a vision rose of dream-children—strong sons and daughters yet unborn. Their eyes seemed smiling, their fingers closing on hers. Cloudlike, yet very real, they beckoned her, and in her stirred the call of motherhood—of life to be. Her heart-strings echoed to that harmony; it seemed already as though a tiny head, downy—soft, was nestling in her bosom, while eager lips quested, quested.
"No, Allan! No!"
Almost fiercely she flung him back and stood up.
"Come!" said she. "Let us start at once. Nothing remains for us to do here. Let us go—home!"
An hour later the Pauillac spiralled far aloft, above the edge of the Abyss, then swept into its eastward tangent, and in swift, droning flight rushed toward the longed-for place of dreams, of rest, of love.
Before them stretched infinities of labor and tremendous struggle; but for a little space they knew they now were free for this, the consummation of their dreams, of all their hopes, their happiness, their joy.
Toward five o'clock next afternoon, from the swooping back of the air-dragon they sighted a far blue ribbon winding among wooded heights, and knew Hudson once more lay before them.
The girl's heart leaped for joy at thought of once again seeing Hope Villa, the beach, the garden, the sun-dial—all the thousand and one little happy and pleasant things that, made by them in the heart of the vast wilderness, had brought them such intimate and unforgetable delight.
"There it is, Allan!" cried she, pointing. "There's the river again. We'll soon be home now—home again!"
He smiled and nodded, watchful at the wheel, and swung the biplane a little to southward, in the direction where he judged the bungalow must lie.
Weary they both were, yet full of life and strength. The trip from the chasm had been tedious, merely a long succession of hours in the rushing air, with unbroken forest, hills, lakes, rivers, and ever more forest steadily rolling away to westward like a vast carpet a thousand feet below.
No sign of man, no life, no gap in nature's all-embracing sway. Even the occasional heap of ruins marking the grave of some forgotten city served only to intensify the old half-terror they had felt, when flying for the first time, at thought of the tremendous desolation of the world.
The shining plain of Lake Erie had served the first day as a landmark to keep them true to their course.
That night they had stopped at the ruins of Buffalo, where they had camped in the open, and where next morning Stern had fully replenished his fuel-tanks with the usual supplies of alcohol from the debris of two or three large drug-stores.
From Buffalo eastward, over almost the same course along which the hurricane of ten months ago had driven them, battling at random with the gale, they steered by the compass. Toward mid-morning they saw a thin line of smoke arising in the far north, answered by still another on the hills beyond, but to these signs they gave no heed.
Already they had seen and scorned them during their first stay at the bungalow. They felt that nothing more was to be seriously feared from such survivors of the Horde as had escaped the great Battle of the Tower—a year and a half previously.
"Those chaps won't bother us again; I'm sure of that!" said Allan, nodding toward the smoke-columns that rose, lazily blue, on the horizon. "The scare we threw into them in Madison Forest will last them one while!"
Still in this confident, defiant mood it was that they sighted the river again and watched it rapidly broaden as the Pauillac, in a long series of flat arcs, spurned the June air and whirled them onward toward their goal.
Nearer the Hudson drew, and nearer still; and now its untroubled azure, calm save for a few cat's-paws of breeze that idled on the surface, stretched almost beneath them in their rapid flight.
"We're still a little too far north, I see," the man judged, and swept the biplane round to southward.
The ruins of Newburgh lay presently upon their right. Soon after the crumbled walls of West Point's pride slid past in silence, save for the chatter of the engines, the whirling roar of the propeller-blades' vast energy.
No boat now vexed the flood. Upon its bosom neither steam nor sail now plowed a furrow. Along the banks no speeding train flung its smoke-pennant to the wind. Primeval silence, universal calm, wrapped all things.
Beatrice shuddered slightly. Now that they were nearing "home" the desolation seemed more appalling.
"Oh, Allan, is it possible all this will ever be peopled again—alive?"
"Certain to be! Once we get those records and begin transplanting the Merucaans, the rest will be only a matter of time!"
She made no answer, but in her eyes shone pride that he could know such visions, have such faith.
Already they recognized the ruins of Nyack, and beyond them the point in the river behind which, they knew, lay Hope Villa, nestling in its gardens, its little sphere of cultivation hewn from the very heart of the dense wilderness.
Allan slackened speed, crossed to the eastern bank, and jockeyed for a safe landing.
The point slipped backward and away. There, right ahead, they caught a glimpse of the long white beach where they had fished and bathed and built their boat-house, and whence in their little yawl they had ten months before started on their trip of exploration—a trip destined to end so strangely in the Abyss.
"Home! Home!" cried Beta, the quick tears starting to her lids. "Oh, home again!"
Already the great plane was swooping downward toward the beach, hardly a mile away, when a harsh shout escaped the man.
"Look! Canoes! My God—what—"
As the drive of the Pauillac opened up the concave of the sand and brought its whole length to view, Stern and the girl suddenly became aware of trouble.
There, strung along the beach irregularly, they all at once made out ten, twenty, thirty boats. Still afar, they could see these were the same rough bancas such as they had seen after the battle—bancas in one of which they two had escaped up-river!
"Boats! The Horde again!"
Even as he shouted a tiny, black, misshapen little figure ran crouching out onto the sand. Another followed and a third, and now a dozen showed there, very distinct and hideous, upon the white crescent.
Stern's heart went sick within him A terrible rage welled up—a hate such as he had never believed possible to feel.
Wild imprecations struggled to be voiced. He snapped his lips together in a thin line, his eyes narrowed, and his face went gray.
"The infernal little beasts!" he gritted. "Tried to trap us in the tower—cut our boat loose afterward—and now invading us! Don't know when they're licked, the swine!"
Beatrice had lost her color now. Milk-white her face was; her eyes grew wide with terror; she strove to speak, but could not.
Her hand went out in a wild, repelling gesture, as though by the very power of her love for home she could protect it now against the incursion of these foul, distorted, inhuman little monsters.
Stern acted quickly. He had been about to cut off power and coast for the beach; but now he veered suddenly to eastward again, rotated the rising-plane, and brought the Pauillac up at a sharp tilt. Banking, he advanced the spark a notch; the engine shrilled a half-tone higher, and with increased speed the aero lifted them bravely in a long and rising swoop.
He snatched his automatic from its holster on his hip and as the plane swept past the beach, down-stream, let fly a spatter of steel jacketed souvenirs at the fast-thickening pack on the sand.
Far up to the girl and him, half heard through the clatter of the motors, they sensed a thin, defiant, barbarous yell—a yapping chorus, bestial and horrible.
Again Stern fired.
He could see quick spurts of water jet up along the edge of the sand, and one of the creatures fell, but this was only a chance shot.
At that distance, firing from a swift-skimming plane, he knew he could do no execution, and with a curse slid the pistol back again into its place.
"Oh, for a dirigible and a few Pulverite bombs, same as we had in the tower!" he wished. "I'd clean the blighters out mighty quick!"
But now Beatrice was pointing, with a cry of dismay, down, away at the bungalow itself, which had for a moment become visible at the far end of the clearing as the Pauillac scudded past.
Even as Stern thought: "Odd, but they're not afraid of us—a flying-machine means nothing to them, does not terrify them as it would human savages. They're too debased even to feel fear!"—even as this thought crossed his brain he, too, saw the terrible thing that the girl had cried out at sight of.
"My God!" he shouted. "This—this is too much!"
All about the bungalow, their home, the scene of such happy hours, so many dreams and hopes, such heart-enthralling labors, hundreds of the Horde were swarming.
Like vicious parasites attacking prey, they overran the garden, the grounds, even the house itself.
As in a flash, Stern knew all his work of months must be undone—the fruit-trees he had rescued from the forest be cut down or broken, the bulbs and roots in the garden uptorn, even the hedges and fences trampled flat.
Worse still, the bungalow was being destroyed! Rather, its contents, since the concrete walls defied the venomous troop.
They knew, at any rate, the use of fire, and not so swiftly skimmed the Pauillac as to prevent both Stern and Beatrice seeing a thin but ominous thread of smoke out-curling on the June air from one of the living-room windows.
With an imprecation of unutterable hate and rage, yet impotent to stay the ravishment of Hope Villa, Stern brought the machine round in a long spiral.
For a moment the wild, suicidal idea possessed him to land on the beach, after all, and charge the little slate-blue devils who had evidently piled all the furnishings together in the bungalow and were now burning them.
He longed for slaughter now; he lusted blood—the blood of the Anthropoid pack which from the beginning had hung upon his flank and been as a thorn unto his flesh.
He seemed to feel the joy of rushing them, an automatic in each hand spitting death, just as he had mown down the Lanskaarn in the Battle of the Wall, down below in the Abyss. Even though he knew the inevitable ends poisoned spear-thrust, a wound with one of those terribly envenomed arrows—he felt no fear.
Revenge! If he could only feel its sweetness, death had no terrors.
Common sense instantly sobered him and dispelled these vain ideas. The bungalow, after all, was not vital to his future or the girl's. Barring the set of encyclopedias on metal plates, everything else could be replaced with sufficient labor. Only a madman would risk a fight with such a Horde in company with a woman.
Not now were he and Beatrice entrenched in a strong tower, with terrible explosives. Now they were in the open, armed only with revolvers. For the present there was no redress.
"Beta," cried he, "we're up against it this time for fair—and we can't hit back!"
"Our bungalow! Our precious home!"
"I know." He saw that she was crying: "It's a rotten shame and all that, but it isn't fatal."
He brought the Pauillac down-wind again, coasting high over the bungalow, whence smoke now issued ever more and more thickly.
"We're simply hamstrung this time, that's all. Where those devils have come from and how many there may be, God knows. Thousands, perhaps; the woods may be full of em. It's lucky for us they didn't attack while we were there!
"Now—well, the only thing to do is let 'em have their way for the present. Eventually—"
"Oh, can't we ever get rid of the horrid little beasts for good?"
"We can and will!" He spoke very grimly, soaring the machine still higher over the river and once more coming round above the upper end of the beach. "One of these days there's got to be a final reckoning, but not yet!"
"So it's good-by to Hope Villa, Allan? There's no way?"
"It's good-by. Humanly speaking, none."
"Couldn't we land, blockade ourselves in the boat-house, and—"
Her eyes sparkled with the boldness of the plan—its peril, its possibilities. But Allan only shook his head.
"And expose the Pauillac on the beach?" he asked. "One good swing with a war-club into the motor and then a week's siege and slow starvation, with a final rush—interesting, but not practical, little girl. No, no; the better part of valor is to recognize force majeure and wait! Remember what we've said already? 'Je recule pour mieux sauter?' Wait till we get a fresh start on these hell-hounds; we'll jump 'em far enough!"
The bungalow now lay behind. The whole clearing seemed alive with the little blue demons, like vermin crawling everywhere. Thicker and thicker now the smoke was pouring upward. The scene was one of utter desolation.
Then suddenly it faded. The plane had borne its riders onward and away from the range of vision. Again only dense forest lay below, while to eastward sparkled the broad reach where, in the first days of their happiness at Hope Villa, the girl and Allan had fished and bathed.
Her tears were unrestrained at last; but Allan, steadying the wheel with one hand, drew an arm about her and kissed and comforted her.
"There, there, little girl! The world's not ended yet, even if they have burned up our home-made mission furniture! Come, Beatrice, no tears—we've other things to think of now!"
"Where away, since our home's gone?" she queried pitifully.
"Where away? Why, Storm King, of course! And the cathedral and the records, and—and—"
Purple and gold the light of that dying day still glowed across the western sky when the stanch old Pauillac, heated yet throbbing with power, skimmed the last league and swung the last great bend of the river that hid old Storm King from the wanderers' eager sight.
Stern's eyes brightened at vision of that vast, rugged headland, forest-clad and superb in the approaching twilight. Beatrice, weary now and spent—for the long journeys, the excitements and griefs of the day had worn her down despite her strength—paled a little and grew pensive as the massive structure of the cathedral loomed against the sky-line.
What thoughts were hers now that the goal lay near—what longings, fears and hopes, what exultation and what pain? She shivered slightly; but perhaps the evening coolness at that height had pierced her cloak. Her hands clasped tightly, she tried to smile but could not.
Allan could notice nothing of all this. His gaze was anxiously bent on the earth below, to find a landing for the great machine. He skimmed the broad brow of the mountain, hardly a hundred feet above the spires of the massive concrete pile that still reared itself steadfastly upon the height facing the east.
All about it the dense unbroken forest spread impenetrable to the eye. Below the bold breast of the cliff a narrow strip of beach appeared.
"Hard job to land, that's one sure thing!" exclaimed the man, peering at the inhospitable contours of the land. "No show to make it on top of the mountain, and if we take the beach it means a most tremendous climb up the cliff or through the forest on the flank. Here is a situation, Beatrice! Now—ah—see there? Look! that barren ridge to westward!"
Half a mile back from the river on the western slope of the highlands, a spur of Storm King stretched water-worn and bare, a sandy spit dotted only sparsely with scrub-pine.
"It's that, or nothing!" cried the man, banking in a wide sweep.
"Can you make it? Even the clearest space at this end is terribly short!"
Allan laughed and cut off power. In the old days not for ten thousand dollars would he have tried so ticklish a descent, but now his mettle was of sterner stuff and his skill with the machine developed to a point where man and biplane seemed almost one organism.
With a swift rush the Pauillac coasted down. He checked her at precisely the right moment, as the sand seemed whirling up to meet them, swerved to dodge a fire-blasted trunk, and with a shout took the earth.
The plane bounced, creaked, skidded on the long runners he had fitted to her, and with a lurch came to rest not ten yards from an ugly stump dead ahead.
"Made it, by Heaven!" he exulted. "But a few feet more and it wouldn't have been—well, no matter. We're here, anyhow. Now, supper and a good sleep. And to-morrow, the cathedral!"
He helped the girl alight, for she was cramped and stiff. Presently their camp-fire cheered the down-drawing gloom, as so many other times in such strange places. And before long their evening meal was in course of preparation, close by a great glacial boulder at the edge of the sand-barren.
In good comradeship they ate, then wheeled the biplane over to the rock, and under the shelter of its wide-spreading wings made their camp for the night. An hour or so they sat talking of many things—their escape from the Abyss, the patriarch's death, their trip east again, the loss of their little home, their plans, their hopes, their work.
Beatrice seemed to grieve more than Stern over the destruction of the bungalow. So much of her woman's heart had gone into the making of that nest, so many thoughts had centered on a return to it once more, that now when it lay in ruins through the spiteful mischief of the Horde, she found sorrow knocking insistently at the gates of her soul. But Allan comforted her as best he might.
"Never you mind, little girl!" said he bravely. "It's only an incident, after all. A year from now another and a still more beautiful home will shelter us in some more secure location. And there'll be human companionship, too, about us. In a year many of the Folk will have been brought from the depths. In a year miracles may happen—even the greatest one of all!"
Her eyes met his a moment by the ruddy fire-glow and held true.
"Yes," answered she, "even the greatest in the world!"
A sudden tenderness swept over him at thought of all that had been and was still to be, at sight of this woman's well-loved face irradiated by the leaping blaze—her face now just a little wan with long fatigues and sad as though with realization, with some compelling inner sense of vast, impending responsibilities.
He gathered her in his strong arms, he drew her yielding body close, and kissed her very gently.
"To-morrow!" he whispered. "Do you realize it?"
"To-morrow," she made answer, her breath mingling with his. "To-morrow, Allan—one page of life forever closed, another opened. Oh, may it be for good—may we be very strong and very wise!"
Neither spoke for the space of a few heart-beats, while the wind made a vague, melancholy music in the sentinel tree-tops and the snapping sparks danced upward by the rock.
"Life, all life—just dancing sparks—then gone!" said Beatrice slowly. "And yet—yet it is good to have lived, Allan. Good to have lighted the black mystery of the universe, formless and endless and inscrutable, by even so brief a flicker!"
"Is it my little pessimist to-night?" he asked. "Too tired, that's all. In the morning things will look different. You must smile, then, Beta, and not think of formless mystery or—or anything sad at all. For to-morrow is our wedding-day."
He felt her catch her breath and tremble just a bit.
"Yes, I know. Our wedding-day, Allan. Surely the strangest since time began. No friends, no gifts, no witnesses, no minister, no—"
"There, there!" he interrupted, smiling. "How can my little girl be so wrong-headed? Friends? Why, everything's our friend! All nature is our friend—the whole life-process is our friend and ally! Gifts? What need have we of gifts? Aren't you my gift, surely the best gift that a man ever had since the beginning of all things? Am I not yours?
"Minister? Priest? We need none! The world-to-be shall have got far away from such, far beyond its fairy-tale stage, its weaknesses and fears of the Unknown, which alone explain their existence. Here on Storm King, under the arches of the old cathedral our clasped hands, our—mutual words of love and trust and honor—these shall suffice. The river and the winds and forest, the sunlight and the sky, the whole infinite expanse of Nature herself shall be our priest and witnesses. And never has a wedding been so true, so solemn and so holy as yours and mine shall be. For you are mine, my Beatrice, and I am yours—forever!"
A little silence, while the flames leaped higher and the shadows deepened in the dim aisles of the fir-forest all about them. In the vast canopy of evening sky clustering star-points had begun to shimmer.
Redly the camp-fire lighted man and woman there alone together in the wild. For them there was no sense of isolation nor any loneliness. She was his world now, and he hers.
Up into his eyes she looked fairly and bravely, and her full lips smiled.
"Forgive me, Allan!" she whispered. "It was only a mood, that's all. It's passed now—it won't come back. Only forgive me, boy!"
"My dear, brave girl!" he murmured, smoothing the thick hair back from her brow. "Never complaining, never repining, never afraid!"
Their lips met again and for a time the girl's heart throbbed on his.
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