The Centaurians/Chapter II
Middleton & Co. were very hazy concerning Professor Saxlehner. Burke and Rollins knew nothing, but Middleton informed me the Professor had dropped all his old associates when he retired from the college and in return everybody had forgotten him. He (Middleton) understood Saxlehner was involved in some colossal scheme which he had "hung on to" all these years, and so far his only recompense was in testing the delights of a hermit. He lived way out somewhere in the suburbs in a little house of his own, did his own cooking, and was very crabbed to outsiders.
"And why are you hunting up the man?" Middleton asked.
"I intend to remain some time on this side of the ocean," I told him. "I always liked Saxlehner, and simply wished to meet him again. He was the only man who seemed to understand me and naturally we're congenial."
"No harm in looking up the Professor," he said. "I always thought Saxlehner a mighty shrewd fellow and his advice worth heeding. Hunt him up, by all means; splendid idea."
Then Middleton scowled fiercely while I roared. A slip of the tongue and the word was sounded that he always avoided when I was within earshot. Idea, idea, idea. Ah, for a brilliant one!
Middleton's chagrin was amusing.
Several days later early one morning I and a pair of thoroughbreds speeded toward the suburbs in search of my old friend Saxlehner. I reined up in front of a little old cottage of one floor, cellar and attic. The little front garden was overgrown with tall pink flowers and huge yellow ones with broad green leaves. The gate hung upon one hinge because it liked to, and had to be coaxed to open wide enough to admit one. There was a narrow, graveled path leading up to an olive green door, ornamented with a tarnished brass knocker in the form of a lion's head with a ring through its nose. And here in these parts so peaceful and sunny, old Saxe. had buried himself with his colossal ideas.
I strode up to the olive door, and used the knocker several times with noisy effect. My summons were certainly heard throughout the house and several blocks beyond, but all remained calm, peaceful, no sign of a living creature anywhere. I stepped out to examine the premises and discovered smoke issuing from the chimney, so tried my luck again with a series of startling knocks. I heard footsteps, quick, jerky, irritated footsteps; bolts were snappishly drawn and the door opened violently; there stood Saxe., red and angry, enveloped from head to foot in a huge apron, sleeves rolled up, and armed with a fork.
"Well, young man," he bawled, "might have known I didn't want to be bothered; what d'ye want?"
Same old Saxe., cross and lovable as ever. I took off my hat and stood smiling at him. He scowled fiercely for a second, then gasped:
"Salucci! pon my soul! Why, it's Salucci!"
He grabbed and drew me into the hall, gazing at me in astonishment, chuckling softly. In a second we were wringing each other's hands as though for a wager.
"Never expected to see you again, my boy," he told me; "thought you'd forgotten old Saxe. completely. Stay awhile?"
"Might as well," I answered.
"Good boy!" he laughed. "But, say, send away that wagon out there, the whole neighborhood'll think I'm sick and you the doctor."
Saxe. really looked uneasy. I did as he wished, then he took me straight to his little kitchen.
"Getting up dinner," he explained. "The reason I'm still a man is because I look after my digestion and live well."
Upon a huge range were several small pots bubbling, and Saxe. went to work like a veteran.
I attempted to account for myself during the twelve years' absence, but Saxe. cut me short.
"I know all about it," he said, "kept track of you right along. Regretted very much your sporty life, but when you deserted Folly you cultivated Seriousness at the wrong end. You remained at nothing long enough to make a success; you surrendered to failure right off, and the sincere enthusiast never admits failure. You have wasted many valuable years, but we'll talk later of that. What I have in these poems will improve with simmering. Come, I'll show you about the place."
He escorted me through the tiny hall to several rooms. There was a sitting room, a cozy smoking room, a library, and three bed rooms. The books in the library were piled high from floor to ceiling without shelves or covering, and tumbled in every direction.
"Best way to keep books," he explained, "too open for moths, and mildew never attacks them. Then if you want a book you can lay hand on it at once. I'm here when I'm not in the attic."
We visited the cellar. Saxe. with pride showed me several brands of fancy wine in casks and bottles, and there was a large variety of imported liquors. Two cobwebbed bottles he took from the shelves, remarking: "We'll test them later," and then he led the way to the attic, a most remarkable room, comprising the length and width of the house. It was packed with odd instruments, huge globes and vast maps of the world cut the corners and lined the walls; there were telescopes, and great charts of the heavens, and monstrous cylinders and electric batteries, and tall, crystal columns, filled with fiery hued liquid; and there was a queer steel contrivance resembling a table with the top cut out, and suspended in the center was a huge, crystal globe, pierced by a steel rod. The globe revolved upon this rod with wonderful rapidity. Saxlehner vouchsafed no explanations. Another thing which roused my curiosity was something of vast dimensions carefully covered with canvas. Saxe. jealously guarded this treasure, whatever it was, and skillfully turned my attention to other matters.
"And was it for this you resigned everything?" I blurted out.
"Exactly," he replied.
"Where does it lead to?"
I turned to him in astonishment, he stared back defiantly.
I refrained from remark, but—a sensible man like Saxe. should have such a fool desire!
"And the end?" I asked stupidly.
"North Pole!" he cried out impatiently.
"Well! well! well!"
He took my arm and led me down stairs, remarking: "I was about to eat the finest dinner I ever tasted in my life."
I certainly enjoyed the meal. As a cook, Saxe. was an expert. His superb Sauterne and Chianti loosened our tongues, and Saxe. speedily learned I was wide and adrift as to my future intentions. This was during the pessimistic Sauterne stage, when the preparatory gloom of expected hilarity causes one to view life sadly, and I ended up a long-winded refrain with: "Honestly, Saxe., I believe the end of it all will be a woman!"
Saxe. was horrified.
"A woman!" he yelled, "A woman! good heavens, Salucci, you must be mad!"
"It's an ordinary madness," I snapped, "and I see no occasion for excitement if eventually the main idea should develop into a woman. What's so terrible about it? All our brilliant men and heroes end their careers with a woman."
"Stuff!" cried Saxe. "Stuff and nonsense! you're not in earnest, you'd cease to interest me if you were. Yet there's a lot in your statement. Many great men have ended with a woman—that was their death; but all accomplished their ambition before seeking diversion."
I laughed, and told him he had just quoted me—women were the most delightful diversion the world contained. He flushed and tried to appear angry. I laughed louder and asked him how old he was. He seemed younger than when I left college. He shook his head impatiently, and cried, "Fudge! got over all that twenty years ago. I'm near fifty," he told me, "but a man can remain the same age fifteen years. How old do I look?"
"Thirty-five," I answered promptly.
"I thought so," he replied slyly, "a man always remains that at least fifteen years, and it is generally understood we do not reach prime till sixty—ahem!"
We'd reached the Chianti, and also the conclusion that we were both rather fortunate than otherwise in being alive. This is a cheering, vigorous thought, and the Chianti inspired lengthy discussions upon all manner of scientific subjects; and as my interests were centered in the attic Saxe. finally took me up there again.
I made straight for the great canvas covering, and Saxe., who had thrown reserve to the winds, assisted me to remove the covering, and to my astonished eyes was revealed the monstrous machinery of—what? It was a massive structure composed entirely of steel, and looked like a locomotive resting upon sleds. The snoot had a projectile three feet in circumference and nine feet long, terminating at the base to the size of a three karat diamond, and the diamond was there, sparkling and blazing away in serene splendor. A ridiculously small button was pressed and the sleds slowly ascended, exposing the base of the machine, which was shaped like a canoe. Another button pressed and the projectile shot into a socket.
"It's magnificent! a marvelous invention, Saxe. What's it intended for?" But Saxe. ignored my question.
"It certainly is a beautiful thing to look at, but useless," he told me; "a failure which some day I shall master. I am in a fair way to succeed, as I have discovered the faults and now only have to discover the remedy."
An odd look of hopelessness and defiance shaded his face, he turned as though to hide the expression.
"I haven't been near it for months," he continued, "everything is in readiness, though. I keep it that way in case I take the notion and won't have to waste time in preparations; but to look at it sometimes sickens me."
"Courage," I told him, "you cannot fail. You are master of the instrument because aware of its imperfections."
He sighed heavily, then explained the faults of his machine, which I examined with enthusiasm. I became inspired and declared positively I could perfect it. Saxe. smiled and replaced the covering, then trotted me from his treasure room.
"You are a one-idea-at-a-time man; you have said it is the secret of the prolongation of youth. At present your splendid intellect is a blank and I will not take advantage of it. Go, remain away a week, think well of your future, mature what indefinite plans you may have formed. Should you return within the week I know you are free, untrammeled, open to suggestion and the supreme idea. Whichever way you decide, Salucci, I wish you prosperity and success."
I grasped his hand as he escorted me to the door. I had spent the entire day with him and it was evening now, beautiful with the white light of the moon. Saxe. stepped out to inhale the fresh, balmy air, and greeted a man who was coming up the little gravel path, who informed him it was an indifferent night for observations.
The light from the door fell upon his features and I recognized Professor Saunders, the astronomer, whose lectures I had often listened to with the keenest interest. He greeted me, then murmured something, entered the house and rapidly vanished in the region of the attic. Saxe., anxious to join his friend, rather abruptly bade me good-night, however, reminding me I had been haphazard long enough. "Be decisive," he murmured.