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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!
The joy in Beatrice's eyes gave way to poignant wonder as she gazed on him. Could this be he?
Yes, well she knew it was. She recognized him even through the grotesquery of his clinging rags, even behind the mask of a long, red, dusty beard and formidable mustache, even despite the wild and staring incoherence of his whole expression.
Yet how incredible the metamorphosis! To her flashed a memory of this man, her other-time employer—keen and smooth-shaven, alert, well-dressed, self-centered, dominant, the master of a hundred complex problems, the directing mind of engineering works innumerable.
Faltering and uncertain now he stood there. Then, at the sound of the girl's voice, he staggered toward her with outflung hands. He stopped, and for a moment stared at her.
For he had had no time as yet to correlate his thoughts, to pull himself together.
And while one's heart might throb ten times, Beatrice saw terror in his blinking, bloodshot eyes.
But almost at once the engineer mastered himself. Even as Beatrice watched him, breathlessly, from the door, she saw his fear die out, she saw his courage well up fresh and strong.
It was almost as though something tangible were limning the man's soul upon his face. She thrilled at sight of him.
And though for a long moment no word was spoken, while the man and woman stood looking at each other like two children in some dread and unfamiliar attic, an understanding leaped between them.
Then, womanlike, instinctively as she breathed, the girl ran to him. Forgetful of every convention and of her disarray, she seized his hand. And in a voice that trembled till it broke she cried:
"What is it? What does all this mean? Tell me!"
To him she clung.
"Tell me the truth—and save me! Is it real?"
Stern looked at her wonderingly. He smiled a strange, wan, mirthless smile.
All about him he looked. Then his lips moved, but for the moment no sound came.
He made another effort, this time successful.
"There, there," said he huskily, as though the dust and dryness of the innumerable years had got into his very voice. "There, now, don't be afraid!
"Something seems to have taken place here while—we've been asleep. What? What is it? I don't know yet. I'll find out. There's nothing to be alarmed about, at any rate."
"But—look!" She pointed at the hideous desolation.
"Yes, I see. But no matter. You're alive. I'm alive. That's two of us, anyhow. Maybe there are a lot more. We'll soon see. Whatever it may be, we'll win."
He turned and, trailing rags and streamers of rotten cloth that once had been a business suit, he waded through the confusion of wreckage on the floor to the window.
If you have seen a weather-beaten scarecrow flapping in the wind, you have some notion of his outward guise. No tramp you ever laid eyes on could have offered so preposterous an appearance.
Down over his shoulders fell the matted, dusty hair. His tangled beard reached far below his waist. Even his eyebrows, naturally rather light, had grown to a heavy thatch above his eyes.
Save that he was not gray or bent, and that he still seemed to have kept the resilient force of vigorous manhood, you might have thought him some incredibly ancient Rip Van Winkle come to life upon that singular stage, there in the tower.
But little time gave he to introspection or the matter of his own appearance. With one quick gesture he swept away the shrouding tangle of webs, spiders, and dead flies that obscured the window. Out he peered.
"Good Heavens!" cried he, and started back a pace.
She ran to him.
"What is it?" she breathlessly exclaimed.
"Why, I don't know—yet. But this is something big! Something universal! It's—it's—no, no, you'd better not look out—not just yet."
"I must know everything. Let me see!"
Now she was at his side, and, like him, staring out into the clear sunshine, out over the vast expanses of the city.
A moment's utter silence fell. Quite clearly hummed the protest of an imprisoned fly in a web at the top of the window. The breathing of the man and woman sounded quick and loud.
"All wrecked!" cried Beatrice. "But—then—"
"Wrecked? It looks that way," the engineer made answer, with a strong effort holding his emotions in control. "Why not be frank about this? You'd better make up your mind at once to accept the very worst. I see no signs of anything else."
"The worst? You mean—"
"I mean just what we see out there. You can interpret it as well as I."
Again the silence while they looked, with emotions that could find no voicing in words. Instinctively the engineer passed an arm about the frightened girl and drew her close to him.
"And the last thing I remember," whispered she, "was just—just after you'd finished dictating those Taunton Bridge specifications. I suddenly felt—oh, so sleepy! Only for a minute I thought I'd close my eyes and rest, and then—then—"
"Same here," said he. "What the deuce can have struck us? Us and everybody—and everything? Talk about your problems! Lucky I'm sane and sound, and—and—"
He did not finish, but fell once more to studying the incomprehensible prospect.
Their view was towards the east, but over the river and the reaches of what had once upon a time been Long Island City and Brooklyn, as familiar a scene in the other days as could be possibly imagined. But now how altered an aspect greeted them!
"It's surely all wiped out, all gone, gone into ruins," said Stern slowly and carefully, weighing each word. "No hallucination about that." He swept the sky-line with his eyes, that now peered keenly out from beneath those bushy brows. Instinctively he brought his hand up to his breast. He started with surprise.
"What's this?" he cried. "Why, I—I've got a full yard of whiskers. My good Lord! Whiskers on me? And I used to say—"
He burst out laughing. At his beard he plucked with merriment that jangled horribly on the girl's tense nerves. Suddenly he grew serious. For the first time he seemed to take clear notice of his companion's plight.
"Why, what a time it must have been!" cried he. "Here's some calculation all cut out for me, all right. But—you can't go that way, Miss Kendrick. It—it won't do, you know. Got to have something to put on. Great Heavens what a situation!"
He tried to peel off his remnant of a coat, but at the merest touch it tore to shreds and fell away. The girl restrained him.
"Never mind," said she, with quiet, modest dignity. "My hair protects me very well for the present. If you and I are all that's left of the people in the world, this is no time for trifles."
A moment he studied her. Then he nodded, and grew very grave.
"Forgive me," he whispered, laying a hand on her shoulder. Once more he turned to the window and looked out.
"So then, it's all gone?" he queried, speaking as to himself. "Only a skyscraper standing here or there? And the bridges and the islands—all changed.
"Not a sign of life anywhere; not a sound; the forests growing thick among the ruins? A dead world if—if all the world is like this part of it! All dead, save you and me!"
In silence they stood there, striving to realize the full import of the catastrophe. And Stern, deep down in his heart, caught some glimmering insight of the future and was glad.
Suddenly the girl started, rebelling against the evidence of her own senses, striving again to force upon herself the belief that, after all, it could not be so.
"No, no, no!" she cried. "This can't be true. It mustn't be. There's a mistake somewhere. This simply must be all an illusion, a dream!
"If the whole world's dead, how does it happen we're alive? How do we know it's dead? Can we see it all from here? Why, all we see is just a little segment of things. Perhaps if we could know the truth, look farther, and know—"
He shook his head.
"I guess you'll find it's real enough," he answered, "no matter how far you look. But, just the same, it won't do any harm to extend our radius of observation.
"Come, let's go on up to the top of the tower, up to the observation-platform. The quicker we know all the available facts the better. Now, if I only had a telescope—!"
He thought hard a moment, then turned and strode over to a heap of friable disintegration that lay where once his instrument case had stood, containing his surveying tools.
Down on his ragged knees he fell; his rotten shreds of clothing tore and ripped at every movement, like so much water-soaked paper.
A strange, hairy, dust-covered figure, he knelt there. Quickly he plunged his hands into the rubbish and began pawing it over and over with eager haste.
"Ah!" he cried with triumph. "Thank Heaven, brass and lenses haven't crumbled yet!"
Up he stood again. In his hand the girl saw a peculiar telescope.
"My 'level,' see?" he exclaimed, holding it up to view. "The wooden tripod's long since gone. The fixtures that held it on won't bother me much.
"Neither will the spirit-glass on top. The main thing is that the telescope itself seems to be still intact. Now we'll see."
Speaking, he dusted off the eye-piece and the objective with a bit of rag from his coat-sleeve.
Beatrice noted that the brass tubes were all eaten and pitted with verdigris, but they still held firmly. And the lenses, when Stern had finished cleaning them, showed as bright and clear as ever.
"Come, now; come with me," he bade.
Out through the doorway into the hall he made his way while the girl followed. As she went she gathered her wondrous veil of hair more closely about her.
In this universal disorganization, this wreck of all the world, how little the conventions counted!
Together, picking their way up the broken stairs, where now the rust-bitten steel showed through the corroded stone and cement in a thousand places, they cautiously climbed.
Here, spider-webs thickly shrouded the way, and had to be brushed down. There, still more bats bung and chippered in protest as the intruders passed.
A fluffy little white owl blinked at them from a dark niche; and, well toward the top of the climb, they flushed up a score of mud-swallows which had ensconced themselves comfortably along a broken balustrade.
At last, however, despite all unforeseen incidents of this sort, they reached the upper platform, nearly a thousand feet above the earth.
Out through the relics of the revolving door they crept, he leading, testing each foot of the way before the girl. They reached the narrow platform of red tiling that surrounded the tower.
Even here they saw with growing amazement that the hand of time and of this maddening mystery had laid its heavy imprint.
"Look!" he exclaimed, pointing. "What this all means we don't know yet. How long it's been we can't tell. But to judge by the appearance up here, it's even longer than I thought. See, the very tiles are cracked and crumbling.
"Tilework is usually considered highly recalcitrant—but this is gone. There's grass growing in the dust that's settled between the tiles. And—why, here's a young oak that's taken root and forced a dozen slabs out of place."
"The winds and birds have carried seeds up here, and acorns," she answered in an awed voice. "Think of the time that must have passed. Years and years.
"But tell me," and her brow wrinkled with a sudden wonder, "tell me how we've ever lived so long? I can't understand it.
"Not only have we escaped starvation, but we haven't frozen to death in all these bitter winters. How can that have happened?"
"Let it all go as suspended animation till we learn the facts, if we ever do," he replied, glancing about with wonder.
"You know, of course, how toads have been known to live embedded in rock for centuries? How fish, hard-frozen, have been brought to life again? Well—"
"But we are human beings."
"I know. Certain unknown natural forces, however, might have made no more of us than of non-mammalian and less highly organized creatures.
"Don't bother your head about these problems yet a while. On my word, we've got enough to do for the present without much caring about how or why.
"All we definitely know is that some very long, undetermined period of time has passed, leaving us still alive. The rest can wait."
"How long a time do you judge it?" she anxiously inquired.
"Impossible to say at once. But it must have been something extraordinary—probably far longer than either of us suspect.
"See, for example, the attrition of everything up here exposed to the weather." He pointed at the heavy stone railing. "See how that is wrecked, for instance."
A whole segment, indeed, had fallen inward. Its debris lay in confusion, blocking all the southern side of the platform.
The bronze bars, which Stern well remembered—two at each corner, slanting downward and bracing a rail—had now wasted to mere pockmarked shells of metal.
Three had broken entirely and sagged wantonly awry with the displacement of the stone blocks, between which the vines and grasses had long been carrying on their destructive work.
"Look out!" Stern cautioned. "Don't lean against any of those stones." Firmly he held her back as she, eagerly inquisitive, started to advance toward the railing.
"Don't go anywhere near the edge. It may all be rotten and undermined, for anything we know. Keep back here, close to the wall."
Sharply he inspected it a moment.
"Facing stones are pretty well gone," said he, "but, so far as I can see, the steel frame isn't too bad. Putting everything together, I'll probably be able before long to make some sort of calculation of the date. But for now we'll have to call it 'X,' and let it go at that."
"The year X!" she whispered under her breath. "Good Heavens, am I as old as that?"
He made no answer, but only drew her to him protectingly, while all about them the warm summer wind swept onward to the sea, out over the sparkling expanses of the bay—alone unchanged in all that universal wreckage.
In the breeze her heavy masses of hair stirred luringly. He felt its silken caress on his half-naked shoulder, and in his ears the blood began to pound with strange insistence.
Quite gone now the daze and drowsiness of the first wakening. Stern did not even feel weak or shaken. On the contrary, never had life bounded more warmly, more fully, in his veins.
The presence of the girl set his heart throbbing heavily, but he bit his lip and restrained every untoward thought.
Only his arm tightened a little about that warmly clinging body. Beatrice did not shrink from him. She needed his protection as never since the world began had woman needed man.
To her it seemed that come what might, his strength and comfort could not fail. And, despite everything, she could not—for the moment—find unhappiness within her heart.
Quite vanished now, even in those brief minutes since their awakening, was all consciousness of their former relationship—employer and employed.
The self-contained, courteous, yet unapproachable engineer had disappeared.
Now, through all the extraneous disguise of his outer self, there lived and breathed just a man, a young man, thewed with the vigor of his plentitude. All else had been swept clean away by this great change.
The girl was different, too. Was this strong woman, eager-eyed and brave, the quiet, low-voiced stenographer he remembered, busy only with her machine, her file-boxes, and her carbon-copies? Stern dared not realize the transmutation. He ventured hardly fringe it in his thoughts.
To divert his wonderings and to ease a situation which oppressed him, he began adjusting the "level" telescope to his eye.
With his back planted firmly against the tower, he studied a wide section of the dead and buried world so very far below them. With astonishment he cried:
"It is true, Beatrice! Everything's swept clean away. Nothing left, nothing at all—no signs of life!
"As far as I can reach with these lenses, universal ruin. We're all alone in this whole world, just you and I—and everything belongs to us!"
"Everything! Even the future—the future of the human race!"
Suddenly he felt her tremble at his side. Down at her he looked, a great new tenderness possessing him. He saw that tears were forming in her eyes.
Beatrice pressed both hands to her face and bowed her head. Filled with strange emotions, the man watched her for a moment.
Then in silence, realizing the uselessness of any words, knowing that in this monstrous Ragnarok of all humanity no ordinary relations of life could bear either cogency or meaning, he took her in his arms.
And there alone with her, far above the ruined world, high in the pure air of mid-heaven, he comforted the girl with words till then unthought-of and unknown to him.