Darkness and Dawn Book I: The Vacant World
Chapter 2: Realization
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.”