The Centaurians/Chapter I

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search

"The Centaurians."

 

CHAPTER I.


Twelve long years of European travel had failed to stale the beauties of my own country. I compared the exquisite, restful view, to the garish expansiveness of foreign panorama. Though fagged and frayed with experience it was a tingling delight to gaze once again upon this fair, smiling, home country, whose mountain-lined distance of vivid heliotrope formed superb contrast to waving fields of deep yellow corn.

I flung aside the book I was reading with its repellant thoughts; the dewy freshness of a bright July morning weaned me from poppy-drugged ideas. I faltered at the grand finale of this wonderful collection of moods and wandered out in the glorious sunshine and fields beyond. Upon a huge mound of hay I lolled, enjoying the delicate fragrance of roses mingled with the heavy, pungent scent of carnations, and lazily watched blue butterflies flitting above, while black field reptiles ventured close, wondering what species I might be, then vanishing at the least movement. The hum of insects seemingly swelled to the city's roar; all nature was active with industry, I alone was the drone, though master of this rural, enchanting, warm, lazy scene, which, like a veil, spread over the vast area of my possessions.

Powerfully wealthy, I gloat in enjoyment and exist merely to squander the fabulous riches inherited from ancestors who worshipped at the shrine of Accumulation, that I, the culminating period, should revel in Profligacy. Value has no significance and to me there is naught under the blue heavens that is priceless, except perhaps—a new experience. I came from a queer clan, we could date our premier back to the twelfth century; a Florentine dealer in precious stones, whose interesting history filled one of the documents handed to me when I reached the age of supposed discretion. Originality was our motto. All were gifted with keenness and enterprise, though dotted periodically with mania—just a dash, you understand, to aid personality and create distinction. Avarice was strongly developed, dulling fear forcing us to brave many perils, and we scorned the warning contained in the great chest of documents which even I failed to unseal. We had survived many disasters and twice narrowly escaped oblivion. We possessed a doubtful legend and closely guarded a buried tomb of foulness, yet with all our cunning two fools nearly snuffed the name out of existence during the fifteenth, and again at the close of the seventeenth century.

My thoughts often dwelt upon these afflicted kinsmen; both had been mad, of course, their chameleon brains merely reflected the brilliant glints of their rare collection of gems. One coveted the green light flaring in the crown of Isis, and early mastered the knowledge that all men perfect when they are too old to profit by it—anticipation is the nectar of realization. He was radiant in longing for the mystic green he could never possess, and existed in a daring dreamland that all men desire but never contemplate. His marvelous collection of emeralds formed the foundation of our almost fabulous wealth. It was a similar malady that afflicted the later kinsman, who closed his career with a rabidness that slanted a muddy shade consuming centuries of gigantic endeavor to clear. His madness lacked reverence, but keenness, determination proved talent had he not been abnormal. He conceived a frenzied desire to possess a famous jewel with a rich setting of superstition and priceless value. The cutting fascinated him, he jeered at warnings and made offers of purchase with a persistency equal his mania; when realizing the wealth of the world contained not the value of the stone he called it fate and stole the gem. Years later he was found murdered, horribly mutilated. Aware of the fate destined for him, he reasoned a life forfeited justly covered all debts—the stone was our property. He feared to trust it out of his keeping, however, and when the final, awful moment arrived, his insane cunning outwitted the assassins—he swallowed the stone. I have it sunk in a broad band of gold.

After the exploit of this fanatic we scattered over the world, and though our name suffered torturing abbreviation, we were easily traced by our wealth. Luck followed us in all undertakings, riches accumulated, but doubting the truth of the superstition surrounding the stone it is indisputable that from the date it entered our possession love departed. We were known as a cold, calculating, heartless people, with the doubtful intellect usually accompanying wealth. We purchased affection as we would any saleable bauble, and lived the life of indifference and final dislike the purchased article always brings. The curse was a short, loveless existence, crowned with intangible longings.

*******

I recollect very little of my parents, both having passed away during my infancy, but I am liberally supplied with relatives who are disagreeably vivid, treacherous, small, scheming, gifted with a keen eye for profit—just relatives.

It was a kind providence, chiefly law, that placed me under the protection of Middleton & Co., a trio of the ablest and shrewdest of lawyers. They sent me to college, where I passed some years, though really it was not necessary. The intellect of a millionaire is generally accredited heavy with metal, though when backed with distinction, a most desirable bric-a-brac. I early discovered nothing was expected of me except good-nature and generosity. The commonest attributes were denied me, and though of a sunny temperament, eventually I grew bitter, scorning the mercenary. To be constantly striving to force a measure above companionable appendage was a cruel trial. However, my college life was not so difficult when I crushed the romantic nobility of youth. I became resigned to my value and easily tolerated the adulation my wealth inspired. I was extravagantly generous and considered a rare good fellow, who gave rare good times. Occasionally I indulged in spasms of ambition, and when controlled by this feverish sensation, vowed to out-class the associates who imposed upon me. I had a vague idea of Fame, Worth gained through merit, not purchased. These attacks invariably visited me after an evening passed with Professor Saxlehner, the only individual in the wide world who understood me and honestly believed in my possession of brains, and who pronounced my name always with full entirety—Virgillius Salucci. Saxlehner was a man of brilliant mind, quiet, simple, seeking solitude and delving deep in all manner of mysteries.

My gold carried little weight with him, he was sincerely fond of me and consequently rated me soundly for all indiscretions, declaring I would regret wasting the best years of my life and deadening my vast talents—though he failed to state in what particular line my genius lay, I believed him. Frequently I sought him, weary and in need of sympathy, but he regularly refrained giving any, telling me I was simply suffering the dissatisfaction of inferior association and he could not understand my persistence in such a course. He begged me to cultivate seriousness and avoid flattering clowns, frivolity was altogether out of my line, I was born for greater, higher things.

Young and fond of pleasure, I ignored most of his advice, yet his words vividly impressed me, and in after years, profiting by his counsel, I became known as a man of many ideas, a trifle eccentric, and notoriously willing to fling away a fortune for a new experience. Saxlehner and I became great friends, yet with the ending of my college days we drifted apart. I plunged into the social gayety that awaits all rich young men, and learned more in one month of idleness than in all the years passed at college. I became wild, fast, yet deceived all with assumed unsophisticatedness and was a great trial to Middleton & Co., who kept a sharp lookout for squalls, remonstrating and warning me of disasters they could not steer me out of. Maliciously I parried with them, while debauchery fostered ennui and the dormant characteristics of my people roused to activity impregnating my system with the pessimist's germ. Much encountered subtlety and unscrupulousness ceased causing anxiety. I developed an impenetrable armor of caution and sought diversion in heartless analysis—the world is money-mad. Lovelessness, the curse of my people, was upon me. It caused no unhappiness, we had all lived through it, but I alone discovered and realized—it developed with mature reason, we were not born with it. Vaguely I dreamed of congeniality and calm affection but craved neither, and anything deeper seemed annoying. I was incapable of passion, consequently could not inspire it. Iron against all sensations, my callousness astounded even me. I scorned the temptations other men embraced. Contact with the world robbed me of all romance. I lived my life in a few months. In demeanor I was simplicity itself, jovial, gullible as ever, but where formerly I sought enjoyment I was now indifferent, content to bask in the supreme delight of proving my convictions correct. I never committed an error. Disinterestedness, gratitude, are chimeras. Through my reduced expenses Middleton & Co. figured, and honestly believed the gradual change meant matrimony; in no other way could they comprehend my sudden respectability. Middleton harped continually on the subject, Rollins made it the topic of conversation every time I visited his home, and Burke smiled suggestively, but refrained from remarks—he was not the orator of the firm.

As daughters did not ornament any of the three homes I became partially convinced of my duty, and following Middleton's advice began a series of inspection of my numerous cousins.

With the kind assistance of Rollins's wife (who believed herself too young for Rollins, but wasn't), I finally selected a tall, thin young woman, with rolling blue eyes, red cheeks, and rather pretty brown hair. Accustomed to quasi-fresh-wilted buds, I was attracted to the youth and apparent innocence of the girl. She was Carolyn, nineteen, with old age upon her at twenty-five. She was languid, insipid, and possessed the stereotyped conversation of nearly all girls of her age, who arrange their hair and dress all alike. She sang two songs in Italian, without knowing anything about it, and worried through four instrumental solos with murderous skill; also, she painted some, but Mamma gave it great importance and became a nuisance in her persistence that all should inspect the awful attempts, which were merely daubs even after the teacher had "gone over them." This was the extent of Carolyn's accomplishments, which opened preliminaries every time I ventured near her, and wise people versed in prediction aided by Mamma, had us married early in the skirmish. But Mamma was difficult, Carolyn impossible, and both possessed an omnivorous appetite for courtesy. Like boa-constrictors, they swallowed and swallowed and were always famished; and suddenly an unaccountable chill came upon me and I discovered the right was mine to live my own life. I could see no reason why I should burden myself with this great nonentity, this Carolyn, for the sole purpose of permitting her to inherit my wealth when she became my widow. It was an unnaturally cold conclusion and Middleton's pointedness became annoying. I advised him to get the matrimonial "bug" out of his head and quit bothering me. I did not regret Carolyn, but the affair was rather unfortunate, and she was young to be afflicted with the disappointment that all girls find so bitter and take so hard. Actuated by profound selfishness I renounced every inclination toward matrimony; martyr-like I vowed the lasciviousness of my race would end with me. I would live to squander this vast wealth and lead the ideal existence the poor imagine the wealthy enjoy. Possibly I would experience happiness, but in a superficial way, the intense I abhorred. Middleton & Co. were dumbfounded at my strange behavior, their consternation was rather interesting because unnecessary, but eventually the three kindly gentlemen greatly bored me, and to oust all unpleasant association I stated my long-contemplated intention of touring the world. No objections were offered. I was to send news regularly of my doings and the firm was to be notified at once should anything unusual occur.

Loaded with directions and accompanied by a trio of gay, young friends, I started out for adventure. Scarcely had we reached the old world, when I decided to get rid of my traveling companions. They were nice, jolly boys, restless for diversion and amusing because of their eternal appreciation of enjoyment, but I desired freedom, wishing to discover and cultivate any talents I might be gifted with, and to me it was unlimited opportunity, being in a strange land, surrounded by strangers. My three friends early discovered their pursuits were not mine; we parted without any ill-feeling. Then I proceeded to waste my time in a thousand ways, never accomplishing anything, yet perfectly sincere all the time, child-like in my own ambition, horribly cynical regarding others. I became known, of course, as a man of vast ideas, lacking the concentration that promotes success. I was constantly inspired with thoughts that rarely visit other people, but I kept my own counsel and encouraged the inventive ideas that assailed me. Eventually various learned people heard of me and my positive convictions and extended much courtesy while guiding me through all the intricate labyrinths that ever created stupefaction. Greatly encouraged and as happy as I ever expected to be, I became absorbed in that which three-fourths of the world are ever seeking and which the other fourth cannot comprehend—Fame.

Not hampered with advice from individuals who fancied themselves superior mortals, I entered upon heavy duties, much disappointment—which failed to affect me as I brought it upon myself—and many, many years of waste and vast expense. At one time I believed myself destined to become a famous inventor, but after repeated failures I realized the utter impossibility of my productions. However, I was encouraged to continue my "experiments," being considered very promising, and it was the popular impression that in the general confusion I might hit upon something entirely original. I was energetic and deserved to. My inclinations were for work. I believed entirely in myself and continued ambitious till suddenly I developed a pet theory which came upon me unawares, yet took entire possession of my thoughts. For some time I worried along under this compelling influence, then suddenly, without regret, thrust aside inventive ambitions and with my usual determination to succeed entered a college of medicine. Undaunted by the years of study before me I grasped hopefully all problems labelled hazardous and avoided by others, and became an enthusiast when I discovered my theory a fact undreamed of. It was daring, yet I never faltered delving deep in the science that would create universal benefit, convince the skeptical, and perfect success. Finally came the day when knowledge forced me to propound my theory to the medical fraternity. An opportunity to demonstrate was all I asked. I was listened to and not exactly laughed at—that was the impression I made upon the learned gentlemen. All admired the suggestion, yet would give no encouragement. Frankly it was hinted that I was seeking fame, notoriety, not the advancement of science, yet the theory was feasible, though crude, a life-time problem, and—no one dared back me. Through all unfavorable criticism I retained my enthusiasm and sought opportunity. My startling theory received world-wide attention and I lectured all over Europe. When the opportunity presented itself I demonstrated my theory and—failed. The subject was the victim of a shocking accident and could not have lived. I prolonged his life five months. During that time he became the picture of health and progressed rapidly up to a certain degree, then science utterly failed to benefit. He never regained strength, was unable to walk, and if permitted to stand alone sank like pulp to the floor. The case interested and puzzled the whole medical clientele, the end was unexpected and astonishing.

"Your theory is nil, unnatural," I was informed. "Nothing living has the power to survive the shock of test. The subject from the start is doomed to inward decay—you kill the strength nerves," and I had "grasped a suggestion that only a master's mind could complete." Raw, immature, my great theory might be, but it was neither unnatural or impracticable; some bright, young student would master the science that I, through lack of ability for application (?) failed to perfect. Beneath the sun there is nothing new. The wonderful theory I dallied with had been in practice centuries ago and with many other valuable sciences had through disuse fallen out of existence.

The intellect of Time is degenerating with Earth. We grasp and marvel at that at which the ancient giant intellects simply nodded approval. Modernity is the reflection of miraculous originality of the early ages.

My career as a physican came abruptly to an end. I was wearied, and for the benefit of science would sacrifice nothing. That which had animated me now became an abomination. The profession of medicine had not scope enough to bring contentment or make me realize the vast ambition of pride. Vanity! vanity! vanity! I floated rudderless upon this cloudy lake and plunged into the huge, sulky, black waves of Disappointment, yet for an instant I gazed in the far distance—beautiful, enchanting, where the sun of Fame gilded the enticing pool of Success.

From my gigantic blunder I had the courage to extricate myself, renouncing the delights that absorb indolent others who declare the world an illusion and life an exertion. I donated large sums to various colleges to be expended in penetrating the mysterious science I failed in, then for years wandered over the world, aimless, melancholy, craving, ever searching the grand, supreme idea that I knew would reach me before peace.

India, that great field of abundant superstition, mildly restored my shattered energies. The occult science in its most malignant form attacked me. I was enchanted with fanatical proverbs tantalizing in their promise of what?—nothing.

I engaged a dwelling and furnished it up with barbaric splendor, then watched the subtle operations of the strange people I surrounded myself with. They possessed extraordinary imaginations and narrative powers, and, because it was impossible, I developed a keen desire to experience some of the delights these fanatics extolled.

Following instructions, I spent weeks in the mountains, inhaling dank vapors and camped in the wilderness, fasting for days, reading a book—for what purpose I never discovered—and ended it all as unimaginative as ever. I tried my utmost to become convinced of the supernatural, but never for an instant lost the knowledge I was an ass to so ardently pursue Folly, in her mock seriousness. I became shamed with the realization of the utter nonsense I permitted my intellect to roam in and the wild-eyed fanatics with their shrieks and convulsions and frenzied endeavors to convince, nauseated me when I discovered it was all acting, mere acting, and they were less sincere than I.

The fanaticism, immorality, the full rein given to sensualism and vulgar superstition disgusted me. Naught but undeveloped or diseased minds are convinced of such farces—an obnoxious weight upon civilization. My cold, calm, reasoning of the subject flashed clear, strong, like a vivid blaze of light, I stood alone but powerfully in the right. My ideas were ahead of my time, that was all. I suddenly ended my researches in the occult.

I became a worshipper of nature, and gloated in the sunset with its rare, rich coloring; in rapture I gazed upon the ocean with its tracery, lace-flecked waves and grand swell bursting in deep roar. I calmed my vision with the azure vaults above gradually deepening to a purple beyond imitation to be studded with billions and trillions of brilliant twinkling lights, then at the white, mysterious globe, sailing majestically alone; and finally at noontide, I worshipped the brazen, hot splendor of the Sun, and asked what was more awe-inspiring or worthy of devotion than this vast, beautiful Something, we call Nature. With joy I realized I alone had solved the mystery all were struggling to solve. Nature, divine, beautiful Nature, ruled the universe. Continually before us is laid this grand example in its chaste regulations which never offends, yet we the puny, tainted, little atoms, existing in this wonderful purity, continually offend all laws of Nature. If we formed our lives to compare with the vast splendor shining ever before us we would be divine. Eternity, the germ of imagination, soars to wonderful spheres, yet never reaches the sublime summit of the vast glory of the universe. And I still searched for the one great inspiration I knew I was destined for.

About this time I received urgent news from Middleton & Co. They demanded my return and conveyed the impression it was a matter of necessity, causing me to vaguely meditate upon the possibility if I had really reached the end of my powerful fortune. This was laughable, but Middleton & Co. had some strong reason—they always had strong reasons, and had entirely upset the rather flimsy plans I had formed for the future. I used some irritable language, though right down in my heart I had a hankering to see the old boys again.

Leisurely I journeyed homeward and tremendously enjoyed the trip across the ocean. The voyage was remarkably calm and I strode upon deck, inhaling great quantities of fresh, vigorous, salt air, and giving a passing glance at the class of people to whom I belonged, saw what is seen always among the rich and idle. Well-dressed self-satisfaction, without interest or idea beyond their own narrow little world; fashionable, complacent boredom, a certain well-bred discontent, idiotic, polite repartee, stifled yawns.… A kindly old gentleman interested me considerably. We were together constantly and I learned he had squandered three fortunes and enjoyed the superb satisfaction of regretting it. He had a wife and mature family somewhere and delighted in the thought that they had not the remotest idea of his whereabouts. I knew very well who he was, but did not allude to it as he traveled incognito and I feared to annoy him. He was an aristocrat—such men usually are. Our acquaintance ended with the voyage, but as we parted he gave me original, wholesome advice, which, like everything else, failed to impress me, though I stored it safely away in my memory.

"My young friend," he said, "you have traveled over a great portion of the globe and encountered a vast assortment of people, and to your astonishment discovered that good predominated. Everybody is good according to their idea of goodness—ahem! Am I not right? You see, I've studied you as you studied me. Salucci, cease to embitter your life with false views of yourself and others, you've entered the wrong track altogether; it is the man all admire, not the wealth which you permit to kill ambition. Interest yourself in financial problems, the most wonderful of all sciences. You're a born financier. God in heaven! what were the Fates up to that they bestowed upon you every faculty to amass riches, then supplied you with the fortune! What puppets we are! Last night you wished me luck, prosperity; and, Salucci, I wish you happiness. Good-bye."

I watched him hurrying away and almost fall into the arms of two dapper young men who were waiting for him. They had recognized him as I did and their object and interview. The old gentleman smiled genially upon them, but his amazement was comical when they addressed him—he looked politely embarrassed as though regretting he was not the party they were looking for, then shrugged his graceful old shoulders and quietly departed; and the two young men stared at each other, astounded that it was possible they had been trapped into a case of mistaken identity. I was glad we met, however, for he made an otherwise dull voyage extremely interesting.

It was a cold, misty morning when the pompous custom-house officials boarded the steamer. The fussy health officers were working themselves into a fret because some one in the steerage had a cold, and the decks were crowded with passengers, eager, expectant, prepared for departure. Unconcernedly I scanned the dim outlines of the great city I called home, and experienced not the slightest tremolo of excitement, though I had been absent twelve years. What welcome had I to expect? Who cared when I came or went? Affection was not for me, and I grew heavy with longing, when, for the first time, I realized how much alone I was in this world. I would never be conscious of anything above the familiar, calculating coldness, sordid cordiality that was continually shown to me and, reflecting bitterly, I knew precisely what awaited me when the steamer docked. Albert would be there with the carriage and his perpetual grin. My wealth prevented me even enjoying the little annoyances fortunate others were subjected to. They could appreciate comfort. I was uncomfortable always. At my residence there would be no excitement, all in readiness as though I had never been absent. Later, if not fatigued I would saunter to the club, there to meet men who, like myself, had no place else to go. They would all hasten to reach my hand and give it the hearty shake men always give to each other whether they like you or not, and all would simultaneously exclaim: "Glad to see you back, old man! Remain long? What'll you have?"

I almost yelled with repugnance. Though usually I permitted gloom to entirely envelop me, there was an undercurrent of consolation that few, very few experience—I was able to gratify all whims and execute all resolves, and generally when I reached this conclusion obnoxious meditations evaporated.

I strolled among the chattering, enthused passengers, trying to absorb some of their excitement; finding this difficult, I turned my full attention upon a small, black object in the waters that absentmindedly I had been watching some time. It was headed straight for the steamer and the pert, little craft, battling in the choppy sea, amused me. As it got nearer I discovered three men on the deck intently gazing at the steamer and then—yes—no—Middleton's launch—and the three of them! Middleton, Burke, and Rollins! I yelled to them—by George! the firm had come to welcome me home! I was not forgotten. They spied me, then all yelled, wild with excitement. They extended their hands, so did I, as though it was possible to shake at that distance. The launch finally ran alongside the steamer, and three eager gentlemen boarded her. The bones in my hands were nearly crushed, yet hardly were the greetings over when my former gloomy thoughts rushed flood-like upon me. In vain I tried to drown the painful doubts—pon my soul! I swear these gentlemen had no motive but kindness in hurrying to greet me. Why couldn't I be content with the action? What happiness is there in continually searching the motive? Middleton & Co. certainly had regard for me, else would have remained in their comfortable offices such a cold, raw morning. Away with this damned eternal probing, accept what is given, never expect more; yet judging from universal bitter comments of injury, humanity is firm in the belief, more is given than received. Smiling faces, flattering tongues, affectionate attitudes are at least genuine in exertion, why question further? It is enough to cement friendship.

If Middleton & Co. knew of my engaging thoughts while I was wringing their hands they would at once send in a bill for all the advice given gratis since my infancy. What a valuable nature is mine, and what disfigurement is humanity to this gloriously beautiful world.

I remained a month in town, following implicitly the orders of Middleton & Co. We'd had a thorough understanding plus details, and I learned my twelve years abroad had made vast inroads upon my fortune, still I was several centuries from starvation. I chided the old boys for their needless anxiety—Middleton & Co. hung on to every cent they could grasp, then felt injured. Dutifully I dined at each of their homes and gave a return banquet to the club; also, I attended a few extraordinary affairs—decorations, rows of debutantes—then suddenly discovered I didn't owe anybody anything anyhow, and quietly slipped down to my country home that I had not visited in twelve years, and which made me realize for the first time the wonderful pleasure of return. I was born in this simple, rambling, old-fashioned house, surrounded with its acres and acres of boundless wealth. I gloried in the all-pervading peace, the enervating air vibrating with sounds, each a distinct note of music and all blending in superb harmony. I strolled in the orchards, plucking luscious fruit, I gathered my own salads and indulged in the juvenile delight of hunting eggs. I rode with the men upon lofty hay wagons, and lolled countless hours in the fields, dreamily viewing the far-distant valleys sloping gently upward into deep purple mountains, and in all my travels of foreign antiquity flanked with oriental splendor I could remember no land to compare with the grand, vast freshness of this beautiful home scene, nor did I consider time wasted in this sublime appreciation. It seemed the joyous, lazy hours passed in the hot sunshine were simply the rest and peace needed to nerve me for coming events that the supreme inspiration enveloped. The rural quietness did not weary me. I indulged in day dreams and enthused in a thousand plans to be banished as soon as formed, then one morning, as suddenly as I came, I left all this sultry luxury and returned to the city.

With me in dreamland one entire night was Saxlehner, Professor Saxlehner, whom I had not seen or heard of in twelve years. He had appeared vivid, mirthful; we talked long, but with awakening I remembered nothing, simply he had thrust himself upon my memory and I returned to the city at once to search for him.