The Centaurians/Chapter III

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CHAPTER III.

I thought of Saxe. and his strange instrument, continually wondering what it was intended for, while my fingers twitched to handle it. The old glamour of Saxe.'s companionship was upon me, again was I ambitious, dauntless, scorning difficulties, confident I could accomplish what he, with all his superior knowledge, had failed to do—perfect and set in motion the machinery that he had nearly wasted his entire life upon.

Anxious to test my ability, positive of success, I lost no time in presenting myself to Saxe. early the next day.

He was hurried when admitting me and speeded down the hall, bidding me to follow.

"Frogs saute," he explained, "and Saunders and Sheldon are here—know 'em?"

"Met Sheldon some time ago and Saunders last night," I reminded him.

"So you did, so you did!" he agreed. "Well, you won't disturb them; they're at it, as usual."

The two gentlemen were seated at a table engrossed with a chart between them and deep in discussion or, more correctly speaking, quarreling. They nodded impatiently as I entered and paid no attention whatever as I seated myself and tried to take a hand in the argument. I moved the chart to suit my convenience and then the gentlemen quit quarreling with each other to take sides against me, and I was soon bawling louder than either, my indignation roused to boiling point because they repeatedly yelled: "Hush up, boy, you don't know what you're talking about." Saxe. howled for peace, and passed around something, the flavor of which inspired deep friendship and good fellowship, and amid the jollity he declared I complimented him, always turning up at meal time. I honestly enjoyed dining with the old boys. We sat in our shirt sleeves and conversed in comfort, time no object, and the jokes numerous, whose piquancy only a wit could appreciate.

"And for twelve years," I said, finally, to no one in particular, "you people have been going on like this, easy, careless, comrades always, with the expectation of some day attaining your ambitions."

"Yes," answered Saunders, "comrades always, but not idlers. The twelve years have been mightily employed, we have made much progress toward the great end. My star, 'the star,' scintillates in the same position, been there trillions of years, but invisible because blazing away just above the colossal pivot of Earth. Astronomers have calculated pretty closely the exact position it should occupy on the astral map, but most have calculated wrong. The subject is always an incentive for much controversy, but one and all agree to the certainty of the phenomenon, and if the world revolved according to antiquated supposition—like a ball—we would be permitted to gaze upon the egg-shaped, pinkish-hued marvel. It is the twin planet. My assertions are based upon deep calculations."

He was daring and—like most daring people—queer. He had joined many expeditions to the north to perfect observations of the polar sphere, but before penetrating very far into the ice regions something or other had always frightened the life most out of him and he returned home with the liveliest speed.

Saxe.'s other crony was Sheldon, a genial, patient, cool old party, who became excited only when arguing with Saunders. He had a mania for rivers, declaring all bodies of fresh water were fed from an under-current which flowed through great arteries, connected with an ocean of fresh water, supposedly located somewhere in the region of the Pole. He had completed arrangements to join the next expedition to the north, his intention to explore around for this great fresh water ocean. His arguments were very convincing and his cool, calm, positive assertions made you almost believe his statements. The man was odd, undoubtedly very odd. And Saxe., dear old Saxe., the hard-headed Professor, whom the boys at college dared not play pranks upon, Saxe., with his wonderful inventive genius and vast researches in scientific regions, this man with the brilliant brain, was living in seclusion with a set of cranks and wasting his life upon the North Pole. He formed no wild theories based upon wilder calculations, it was to discover the unknown summit, and he vowed he would do it before he died. The determination of all three men was inspiring. They had their clientele, of course, and their writings were widely read. Sheldon was famous as a lecturer and ranked high in various Geographical-Geological societies, who, however, considered his views concerning the vast ocean of fresh water rather as a joke, a side issue, a hobby; he was not taken seriously. Saunders was a scientific writer of renown and referred to as an authority upon the stellar science, but astronomers while listening gravely, sympathetically, to his learned discourse upon the known but invisible planet, were frankly skeptical and a daring few challenged him. It was then, Sheldon informed me, that Saunders spunkily made his rushing trips to the north and back again, then stoically issued a new thesis upon the invisible twin world which usually silenced, for a time, his derogators. But Saxe., no one dared exchange witticisms with him, his natural secretiveness and air of mystery he affected made all regard him with awe and boosted him to the celebrity class. His studied aloofness forced continual respect, something few brilliant men have been able to retain.

"Spread, air your plans," he said, "and at once you lose interest in them; they never again belong entirely to you; besides, people shy at you. Hopes keep as invisible as your heart."

He was wonderful in his firm belief that he of all men was destined to discover the North Pole.

And here after all my wanderings and bizarre experiences, my strong ambitions and brilliant ideas, I, with my vast wealth and equally vast longings, winded up with this strange trio. But their buoyant confidence attracted me, it was an entirely new atmosphere, permeated with a wild, mystic charm. Saunders' beautiful, invisible star, Sheldon's vast body of limpid, fresh water, and the Pole, with all the mysteries of the dead portion of the earth surrounding it; here was a new experience, a grand, new experience, unique; enough to satisfy the most blasé.

Sheldon and Saunders remained till late, but when Saxe. and I were alone he regarded me keenly, gravely.

"As usual," he said, "you have disregarded all advice, flung aside all plans definite or otherwise, to plunge headlong into—have you any idea what it is you are about to take up?"

"Most congenial company I've encountered for years," I replied. "Saxe., I'm as much alone upon this earth as though the only mortal treading it; don't deny me the pleasure of your company, surely we've all passed a very jolly afternoon together."

"You didn't return for that," he said sharply; "as for the two who have just left, they can be joyful, they live in their imaginations, I upon facts. They need encouragement, they're doomed to disappointment, while I, Salucci, God! millions and millions of leagues away, hardly discernible, yet I can see—Triumph gleams and sparkles, and beckons. I shall accomplish all I've undertaken; success is for me. I've spent my whole life upon one grand scheme, while you have wasted yours upon a dozen. You misdirect, waste your vitality, your energy evaporates, you accomplished nothing; not one of your brilliant ideas absorbed you; insincere always, simply a pastime. Success naturally frowned, and all these years you might have been comfortably asleep."

His object in taking this tone I didn't question, but his talking did me a world of good; ambition fired me, I was positive that at last I had discovered the supreme idea.

"I've formed no plans for the future," I told him, "and returned to you because I wish to put my new idea in action at once. I've decided to join you; there'll be four instead of three—a gold backing, and there's no such thing as failure. Inform me of every detail of your great scheme, initiate me into the mysteries of your attic. Saxe., I swear I can perfect your machinery."

He stared, his face quite white; this time he did not smile at my boast. We rose together and clasped hands across the table, and he, his voice husky with emotion, murmured: "It is the noblest, grandest scheme ever created, but the end may feaze you; still, I believe you to be sincere this time, may your genius aid you to perfect what I have slaved a lifetime over. Come!"

Up the narrow, creaking stairs we went. Saxe. flooded the place with light and there was the monstrous machinery with unsightly covering, which he reverently removed, and the masterpiece of steel was revealed in all its glory. The polish of the cylinder, and great propeller which failed to work, was dazzling; the delicate lace tracery wrought in the steel wrung from me a cry of admiration.

"Shame, shame, Saxe., what a shame it is imperfect!"

He shook his head. "It enrages me," he cried vehemently, "to be able to plan a thing like that, then to be devoid of the trick to perfect it, for it will be by chance, a trick I have so far been unable to hit."

With delight I placed my hands upon the shining metal, then slowly, deliberately began taking the huge instrument apart.

Saxe. remonstrated wildly and wished to explain, but I knew his explanations would take hours and his persistence finally so annoyed me I caught him by the shoulders and rushed him from the room quickly, closing and locking the door. He clamored for admittance and bawled instructions.

"I am responsible for all damage," I called through the keyhole. I heard him sigh heavily as I turned away, but became so absorbed with my task that I forgot him, everybody. I took that machine apart and placed it together again, I don't know how many times. I was unconscious of fatigue, heedless of time, and after hours of tedious work was courageous and alive with energy. But the strain at last must have dazed me, I was confused when putting the infernal instrument together for the final time and made the blunder that ended the difficulty. Wheels, shafts, slides seemed to fit easier into sockets; screws, pins shot into cavities without a rasp. I noticed this, but supposed I was becoming expert, having taken the thing apart so many times, but when the steel monster again towered before me complete I cussed softly, and for the first time doubted my skill. The beauty, contour of the machine was ruined. I would try it again of course, but I was a fool to attempt where Saxe. had failed. Cautiously I set to work to discover the blunder and accidentally touched the propeller, which suddenly rose and shot into its socket and started all portions of the machine into action. I caught my breath, not daring to believe, then commenced experimenting by uncoupling the brakes. The instrument darted forward several yards without the customary whirring noise which warned the operator of a smash-up. I could have shouted for joy—Saxe.'s machine was perfected—I had succeeded.

I discovered the cylinders were partially filled with a peculiar, odorless liquid, and recklessly entered the car and adjusted the lever. The locomotive jerkily responded and slowly we rolled around the room. I had much difficulty steering clear of the walls and various articles in the way and became interested and perplexed in the regular action of the propeller, which shot in and out as though seeking something to demolish, and at last, for all my care, the diamond prod crashed into a huge square of glass and crushed it to atoms. Then it flashed upon me what Saxe.'s invention was intended for and in spite of myself I shouted. An answering shout reached me from the landing outside. I sprang from the car and flung open the door. Three men, wild with excitement, rushed in upon me. Saxe. grabbed and embraced me, yelling all sorts of foolish things. Sheldon and Saunders caught my hands and bawled their congratulations. My head throbbed and I grew dizzy with joy. The reaction set in, my stamina deserted me, the wild entrance of the enthusiastic trio roused me as from a dream. As though an eternity away, like a zephyr, Saxe.'s voice reached me.

"Two days and a half, Virgillius, my boy; it was an awful strain. I hammered repeatedly upon the door, but I don't believe you even heard."

"Two days and a half," I muttered drowsily, then drank the liquor some one handed to me and without further ceremony dropped off to sleep.