Darkness and Dawn Book I: The Vacant World
Chapter 9: Headway Against Odds
Stern gazed at this alarming object with far more trepidation than he would have eyed a token authentically labeled: “Direct from Mars.”
For the space of a full half-minute he found no word, grasped no coherent thought, came to no action save to stand there, thunder-struck, holding the rotten leather bag in one hand, the spear-head in the other.
Then, suddenly, he shouted a curse and made as though to fling it clean away. But ere it had left his grasp, he checked himself.
“No, there’s no use in that,” said he, quite slowly. “If this thing is what it appears to be, if it isn’t merely some freakish bit of stone weathered off somewhere, why, it means--my God, what doesn’t it mean?”
He shuddered, and glanced fearfully about him; all his calculations already seemed crashing down about him; all his plans, half-formulated, appeared in ruin.
New, vast and unknown factors of the struggle broadened rapidly before his mental vision, if this thing were really what it looked to be.
Keenly he peered at the bit of flint in his palm. There it lay, real enough, an almost perfect specimen of the flaker’s art, showing distinctly where the wood had been applied to the core to peel off the many successive layers.
It could not have been above three and a half inches long, by one and a quarter wide, at its broadest part. The heft, where it had been hollowed to hold the lashings, was well marked.
A diminutive object and a skilfully-formed one. At any other time or place, the engineer would have considered the finding a good fortune; but now--!
“Yet after all,” he said aloud, as if to convince himself, “it’s only a bit of stone! What can it prove?”
His subconsciousness seemed to make answer: “So, too, the sign that Robinson Crusoe found on the beach was only a human foot-mark. Do not deceive yourself!”
In deep thought the engineer stood there a moment or two. Then, “Bah!” cried he. “What does it matter, anyhow? Let it come--whatever it is! If I hadn’t just happened to find this, I’d have been none the wiser.” And he dropped the bit of flint into the bag along with the other things.
Again he picked up his sledge, and, now more cautiously, once more started forward.
“All I can do,” he thought, “is just to go right ahead as though this hadn’t happened at all. If trouble comes, it comes, that’s all. I guess I can meet it. Always have got away with it, so far. We’ll see. What’s on the cards has got to be played to a finish, and the best hand wins!”
He retraced his way to the spring, where he carefully rinsed and filled the Cosmos bottle for Beatrice. Then back to the Metropolitan he came, donned his bear--skin, which he fastened with a wire nail, and started the long climb. His sledge he carefully hid on the second floor, in an office at the left of the stairway.
“Don’t think much of this hammer, after all,” said he. “What I need is an ax. Perhaps this afternoon I can have another go at that hardware place and find one.
“If the handle’s gone, I can heft it with green wood. With a good ax and these two revolvers--till I find some rifles--I guess we’re safe enough, spearheads or not!”
About him he glanced at the ever-present molder and decay. This office, he could easily see, had been both spacious and luxurious, but now it offered a sorry spectacle. In the dust over by a window something glittered dully.
Stern found it was a fragment of a beveled mirror, which had probably hung there and, when the frame rotted, had dropped. He brushed it off and looked eagerly into it.
A cry of amazement burst from him.
“Do I look like that?“ he shouted. “Well, I won’t, for long!”
He propped the glass up on the steel beam of the window-opening, and got the scissors out of the bag. Ten minutes later, the face of Allan Stern bore some resemblance to its original self. True enough, his hair remained a bit jagged, especially in the back, his brows were somewhat uneven, and the point to which his beard was trimmed was far from perfect.
But none the less his wild savagery had given place to a certain aspect of civilization that made the white bearskin over his shoulders look doubly strange.
Stern, however, was well pleased. He smiled in satisfaction.
“What will she think, and say?” he wondered, as he once more took up the bag and started on the long, exhausting climb.
Sweating profusely, badly “blown,”--for he had not taken much time to rest on the way--the engineer at last reached his offices in the tower.
Before entering, he called the girl’s name.
“Beatrice! Oh, Beatrice! Are you awake, and visible?”
“All right, come in!” she answered cheerfully, and came to meet him in the doorway. Out to him she stretched her hand, in welcome; and the smile she gave him set his heart pounding.
He had to laugh at her astonishment and naive delight over his changed appearance; but all the time his eyes were eagerly devouring her beauty.
For now, freshly-awakened, full of new life and vigor after a sound night’s sleep, the girl was magnificent.
The morning light disclosed new glints of color in her wondrous hair, as it lay broad and silken on the tiger-skin.
This she had secured at the throat and waist with bits of metal taken from the wreckage of the filing-cabinet.
Stern promised himself that ere long he would find her a profusion of gold pins and chains, in some of the Fifth Avenue shops, to serve her purposes till she could fashion real clothing.
As she gave him her hand, the Bengal skin fell back from her round, warm, cream-white arm.
At sight of it, at vision of that messy crown of hair and of those gray, penetrant, questioning eyes, the man’s spent breath quickened.