Darkness and Dawn Book I: The Vacant World - Cover

Darkness and Dawn Book I: The Vacant World

Public Domain

Chapter 8: A Sign Of Peril

Stern’s weakness--as he judged it--lasted but a minute. Then, realizing even more fully than ever the necessity for immediate labor and exploration, he tightened his grip upon the sledge and set forth into the forest of Madison Square.

Away from him scurried a cotton-tail. A snake slid, hissing, out of sight under a jungle of fern. A butterfly, dull brown and ocher, settled upon a branch in the sunlight, where it began slowly opening and shutting its wings.

“Hem! That’s a Danaus plexippus, right enough,” commented the man. “But there are some odd changes in it. Yes, indeed, certainly some evolutionary variants. Must be a tremendous time since we went to sleep, for sure; probably very much longer than I dare guess. That’s a problem I’ve got to go to work on, before many days!”

But now for the present he dismissed it again; he pushed it aside in the press of urgent matters. And, parting the undergrowth, he broke his crackling way through the deep wood.

He had gone but a few hundred yards when an exclamation of surprised delight burst from his lips.

“Water! Water!” he cried. “What? A spring, so close? A pool, right here at hand? Good luck, by Jove, the very first thing!”

And, stopping where he stood, he gazed at it with keen, unalloyed pleasure.

There, so near to the massive bulk of the tower that the vast shadow lay broadly across it, Stern had suddenly come upon as beautiful a little watercourse as ever bubbled forth under the yews of Arden or lapped the willows of Hesperides.

He beheld a roughly circular depression in the woods, fern-banked and fringed with purple blooms; at the bottom sparkled a spring, leaf-bowered, cool, Elysian.

From this, down through a channel which the water must have worn for itself by slow erosion, a small brook trickled, widening out into a pool some fifteen feet across; whence, brimming over, it purled away through the young sweet-flags and rushes with tempting little woodland notes.

“What a find!” cried the engineer. Forward he strode. “So, then? Deer-tracks?” he exclaimed, noting a few dainty hoof-prints in the sandy margin. “Great!” And, filled with exultation, he dropped beside the spring.

Over it he bent. Setting his bearded lips to the sweet water, he drank enormous, satisfying drafts.

Sated at last, he stood up again and peered about him. All at once he burst out into joyous laughter.

“Why, this is certainly an old friend of mine, or I’m a liar!” he cried out. “This spring is nothing more or less than the lineal descendant of Madison Square fountain, what? But good Lord, what a change!

“It would make a splendid subject for an article in the ‘Annals of Applied Geology.’ Only--well, there aren’t any annals, now, and what’s more, no readers!”

Down to the wider pool he walked.

“Stern, my boy,” said he, “here’s where you get an A-1, first-class dip!”

A minute later, stripped to the buff, the man lay splashing vigorously in the water. From top to toe he scrubbed himself vigorously with the fine, white sand. And when, some minutes later, he rose up again, the tingle and joy of life filled him in every nerve.

For a minute he looked contemptuously at his rags, lying there on the edge of the pool. Then with a grunt he kicked them aside.

“I guess we’ll dispense with those,” judged he. “The bear-skin, back in the building, there, will be enough.” He picked up his sledge, and, heaving a mighty breath of comfort, set out for the tower again.

“Ah, but that was certainly fine!” he exclaimed. “I feel ten years younger, already. Ten, from what? X minus ten, equals--?”

Thoughtfully, as he walked across the elastic moss and over the pine-needles, he stroked his beard.

“Now, if I could only get a hair-cut and shave!” said he. “Well, why not? Wouldn’t that surprise her, though?”

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