The Centaurians/Chapter IV
Saxe. christened his machine Propellier, an aptly chosen name, then rushed into print. He was mobbed by scientific societies, and lectured widely about everything except what his "marvelous invention" was intended for; and it became public wonder to what use this machine was to be put that would butt, crush, and pass over all obstacles.
As he mentioned me continually in connection with the Propellier, we were both much interviewed and written up lengthily.
Cranks clustered around the little house in the suburbs, and almost annoyed the life out of Saxe. with their arrogant demands, and police protection became necessary.
Saxe. was famous and sailed the wave of popularity for about three weeks, and then—well, all waves recede, but this one simply calmed. Saxe. and his invention were not forgotten, because he was wise enough to keep the public guessing. Later, when preparations were progressing rapidly for the one great aim of his life, he in his thankfulness became more communicative, satisfying curiosity, ending all doubts. He lectured before a vast throng of scientists, educators, and students, who wildly applauded him as he divulged the secret of his ambition and the usefulness of his invention. He declared the Pole would never be discovered without the aid of science, and his invention would greatly lessen the many hardships previous explorers suffered (applause). All the tremendous difficulties of Arctic travel would vanish before the terrible force of the Propellier; and he verged nicely into details with deep explanations, and ended he would reach the Pole, then explore the surrounding territory.
Seated upon the stage were several famous lecturers, all had a few remarks to make, chiefly in discouragement of Saxe.'s grand project, placing great stress upon real and imaginary obstacles, and aggravating the listeners enthused with Saxe.'s scheme; but he was too far gone to heed advice, happy that his years of labor were over, he sat there smiling and chuckling.
Saunders had his little say also, spoke glowingly of the expedition, and became eloquent over his wondrous northern star of the brilliant pinkish hue. His statements were positive, and many in the audience nodded approval, and he was enthusiastically applauded when he finally ended his remarks.
Then Sheldon, encouraged by his colleagues and not to be outdone by Saunders in one little instance, rose and exploded his theory concerning the rivers, lakes and vast body of fresh water supposedly located in the vicinity of the Pole. He created a sensation and in his enthusiasm stated as facts the most preposterous hallucinations, and smiles were broad while college veal showed its appreciation in squeaks and irrepressible guffaws, to be frowned upon by their superiors, who were making the most outrageous grimaces themselves. But Sheldon was blind, as were also the large number of sympathizers present, who listened eagerly and believed every word he uttered and cheered him loudly when he resumed his seat. Sheldon proved the star attraction among the large assemblage of wise men.
My three friends became known throughout the press as "the three renowned," and the expedition to the North Pole was written up learnedly, ending with the statement, the start would be made early in the spring; whereupon a wag, itching for a thrashing, suggested we take the Relief Party along, as there was nothing like having things convenient. My own name invariably ended all articles where apparently it had been roped in as an afterthought, and I discovered I belonged to the expedition. Here indeed was an idea, but I refused to entertain it. I was open for much enterprise, but the North Pole was beyond my latitude.
Then Middleton, Burke and Rollins swooped down upon me, each armed with a paper and anxiety upon their faces, and gravely I told them the Pole was Saxlehner's property, and I had no desire to buy it from him. I confided to them my doubts of the whole undertaking and that positively I wanted none of it. My assurance greatly calmed the old boys. To deceive them was my last thought, for I had not the remotest idea of joining the expedition. My slim genius refused to risk life for science. I had a mighty discussion and determined settlement with the "renowned ones" concerning the financial problem. I knew the three cronies could not rake up a thousand between them, but the amazing fact was forced upon me that they seriously objected to accepting funds from me. Sheldon was balky, Saunders grimly uncompromising, and Saxe. declared he would not have those three "sharks" claiming he had bunkoed me into the scheme. It was Saxe.'s positive belief that the firm of Middleton & Co. were the greatest sharks out of water.
But I argued with the stubborn trio, and pressed the issue determinedly when I saw them weakening. I laughed heartily at Saunders's hesitating suggestion that the government would contribute largely toward the expense of the expedition, also, that many scientific societies all over the world would render valuable assistance. I did not doubt his assertion, for it would have created the widest of gulfs, but I reminded him that in about ten years the expedition would be ready to start. This ended the controversy. The very idea of delay threw the old boys into despair, and for twelve years they had been waiting for just such an opportunity as I offered them.
With plans that had been formed for years and unlimited capital at their disposal, arrangements were rushed to completion.
For weeks Saxe., Sheldon, and Saunders worked like beavers. Saxe. was as jealous of his invention as a lover of his mistress; no one was permitted to inspect his work and the Propellier and three steel cars were cast and completed by himself. I assisted him in taking apart and packing the machinery in crates. Saxe. was a wonderful manager, the whole of the extensive preparations were left entirely to him per arrangement. He gave the closest attention to the most insignificant item, perfecting each little detail. He chartered a vessel and made a cast-iron agreement with the shipping company that vessels were to cruise around in Arctic waters at certain dates and locations every year for seven years; if we failed to turn up at the end of that period the agreement was called off. He stored in provisions for a seven year cruise but privately told me they would discover the Pole, and return in less than three years. In my heart I believed they would never return. The idea was to sail as far north as possible. Saxe. calculated on reaching the Pole six or eight weeks after starting with the Propellier. The three were thoroughly familiar with the ice country and had their route mapped out first-rate, but I was dubious; it seemed to me nothing less than suicide, yet Saxe. was thoroughbred in his work and his confidence exhilarating. From the start I had been closely associated with the three famous scientists, and eventually it became noised about that Salucci, the millionaire, was to head the expedition. As I neither affirmed nor denied the report my indecision caused the three "sharks" to storm the citadel in the suburbs.
Saxe. had a wordy war with Middleton & Co., but they capitulated before his lengthy explanations and departed satisfied, enthusiastic, privately informing me the Professor was a wonderful man and that it was preposterous that he could fail; and for the first time in my life I was flinging my money away sensibly. I notified them of my intention to escort the expedition north to a certain point, then return with the ship. My unusual lack of enthusiasm allayed their suspicions and convinced them I was meditating some new enterprise. Unknowingly I deceived the old gentlemen, my sudden reticence was to avoid making positive promises. I wished to be untrammeled in case enthusiasm forced me at the last moment to cast my luck with Saxe., but I doubted if any sensation could inveigle me into such a rash proposition as that Saxe., Sheldon, and Saunders were contemplating, but I remained silent.
About two weeks before the date of departure Saxe., satisfied with the outlook, and but a few minor details to attend to, ordered an easing up of labor and we made the astonishing discovery we were notorious. It seemed the interest of the entire world was centered upon us, and it made Saxe. crabbed. He had lived so long in seclusion and the one idea, had figured and planned and became so thoroughly familiar with the northern zone—on the map—that he could see nothing unusual in his stupendous undertaking and thought no more of it than I would of a trip to Europe.
"It's a private expedition taken solely to test the theories of a few scientists. The public didn't pungle up with any funds, so whose concern is it, anyhow?" he wanted to know, and blamed Middleton & Co., because he was misquoted in fake interviews, though what they had to do with it was a mystery. He took it upon himself to answer all adverse criticisms, and was eminently successful in routing a few daring doubters. In the scientific world the "renowned illustrious" were considered heroes. They lectured before colleges and vast scientific bodies, and their writings in scientific publications were widely read. They indulged in numerous unaccustomed diversions and were banqueted almost nightly. I thought it a poor way to prepare the constitution for polar hardships, but Saxe. said once out of civilization we would become normal again. However, I decided to call a halt and rescued my three brave comrades from the courtesies they could not resist, by giving a return banquet to those who had honored us. It was our farewell, a sumptuous farewell, which remained long in the memory of those who attended, but ended tragically for me—the experience was destiny. Wine flowed freely, gayety ran high, toasts, speech-making the order; some one started a noisy song and all, even Saxe., joined in shouting the chorus. I shouted as loud as any, not prompted by wine, but intent all should enjoy themselves. I had drunk sparingly, though well seasoned and able to stand more than most. They called upon me for a speech and the wits jocularly twitted me about the ladies. So I toasted a dainty, little creature, who, like all celebrities, was commonplace upon acquaintance. The boys yelled at my choice. I twirled my glass recklessly, eager to spout some of my own verses, but suddenly an odd change came upon me, I felt ill and chilled, then apathetic, numbed; the glass fell with a smash. I could utter no sound, but saw all watching me curiously. Middleton rose in alarm, but Saxe. reached me first and caught me as I fell forward inert, helpless, but painfully conscious. I deeply regretted my sudden indisposition, my collapse created a panic and ended the evening's festivities.
An intensely cold air suddenly rushed upon me, chilling my blood. I was being conveyed to some place, but could distinguish nothing in the vague, dreamy vapor gradually enveloping me, which became heavier and heavier, forming a dark wall surrounding me in a silence deep, oppressive; then like a flash I saw clear again, and to my amazement was in my rooms alone seated at the table, book in hand, comfortable, peaceful, while a tornado scourged the city. It was a night of inky blackness, freezingly cold, and vaguely I felt sympathy for the homeless, and those obliged to be out in such a storm; then there was the sound of crashing timber and frightful shrieks roused me from my lethargy and I realized I would not be spared for all my riches. Violent gusts of wind shook the building. I feared the roof would cave in and crush me, yet calculated nicely just how long it would take for the expected to happen. I felt no alarm or discomfort at the destruction going on, but when too late realized peril in the awful roaring, fateful crash in my vicinity. The walls of my rooms fell apart, the ceiling rose and was carried away and I borne with frightful velocity upon the wind, tossed hither and thither; and this tornado with the strength of a hundred thousand giants had the gentleness of a lover. Upon a bed of soft, flaky clouds I finally floated in delicious tranquillity and gradually with exquisite tenderness I was lowered to a wonderful world of down. As far as the eye reached was a vast plain of fairy-land, dazzling in whiteness, maddening in silence, with a ridge of pale mountains gleaming blue, phantom-like. My flesh quivered with the cold, but I was powerless to move or cry out; and here in this great, icy throne, was I forced to sit and gaze at the desolate wilderness of snow, snow, snow; a vast, strange region, with dead, suffocating vapor clinging to my nostrils; dumb, a prey to fear and wonder. The roar and crash of the tornado; anything but this horrible stillness with the heavy dread enveloping me. I remained there forever, it seemed, but gradually my eyes became accustomed to the dull, leaden atmosphere, and I perceived far, far in the distance, a small point of color advancing. Over the ridge of myth mountains it bounded with wonderful velocity, this rolling circle of light, the nearer it approached swelled to enormous dimensions, a huge globe of dull, ominous red, betraying the force, the foundation of destruction. This gigantic world of fire with marvelous bounds sped straight toward me, I seemingly the magnet. I tried to move; could not. On it came with increasing rapidity, I directly in its path. It would come—it would pass over me—God! The horror of the position broke my dumbness, I shrieked and shrieked and lived through the tortures of the damned. The hell globe was most upon me, then as though with fiendish mockery it retreated, then advanced, then retreated again, it swayed back and forth as though attached to a mighty pendulum swung in the grasp of some sinister monster. I shut my eyes—I had committed no crime except in being rich—and waited ages, ages it seemed for oblivion. But nothing happened, no great weight of intense heat crushed me, all was as before, icy, still. I ventured to glance around, the great, fiery globe was there, but farther away burning less vividly, it became dull, duller, and finally with a loud explosion burst apart, forming into a fiery stage for a wondrous scene. In amazement I gazed upon the blackish-red clouds, curling thickly upward. In the smoking midst a reclining form floated and undulated, gathering and manipulating the density till all was consumed and in the vivid clearness a gorgeous scene was revealed. In wonder and delight I gazed into the burning splendor at a myth, houri, such ravishing beauty could not be mortal. Thick masses of jetty hair mingled with the heavy, dusky clouds; starry, flashing eyes burned into mine and scorched me; tall, majestic, scintillating with jewels, red lips parted in an alluring smile, she beckoned to me. I stared, fascinated. She drew to her side an odd instrument and her white fingers caressed the wires, music there must have been, but I could not hear. As I watched a shadow appeared which gradually grew firmer, taking form and finally the dim outlines of a man were revealed bending eagerly toward the luxurious creature. He was pleading, passionate admiration betrayed in his whole attitude. And this man, this man with his slavish devotion was—myself. I, the man of the world, the cynic with a well-known temperament of an icicle. I gazed astounded at this shadow of myself and my heart warmed and beat violently as I watched the strangely beautiful vision; in that moment I loved, loved almost as madly as the shadow. She turned as though in welcome to another, then suddenly a brilliant, golden light shrouded the whole, the globe of fire crashed together and bounded away in space, tinging the universe with a glorious roseate hue. With the last vanishing streak of pink came desolation; in the midst of this gloom a man approached walking rapidly, determinedly. He reached me and passed without heeding my call. I yelled after him, he turned—the man's face was my own. On he went with great strides, obstacles faded beneath the power of his will. I followed, though not conscious of moving, and at last with a shout of triumph, he halted upon the highest peak of the phantom mountains, one foot sunk to the knee in snow, the other ankle deep in rich, rank grass.
"Saxe.!" he shouted, "Saxlehner!"
His voice rang clarion-like over the vast prairies of ice and snow, the piercing sound echoed in my ears and startled me out of my trance; my eyes opened wide in reason. I was lying upon a couch in my own room, the sun streamed broadly through the open window, and Saxe. sat at the table drinking coffee and reading the morning paper. My head was swathed in ice-cold bandages, but the slightest movement gave me excruciating pain.
"Saxe.!" I called.
"All right, my boy," he answered; "feel better?"
"What's the row?"
"Oh, nothing serious, just the usual thing," he replied. "If it hadn't been for me you would have gone to sleep under the table, where most of them passed the night, I imagine."
"Was that really what ailed me? I thought it was a trance."
"Fact!" chuckled Saxe. "Trance, eh? well, well, well—trance! But it's usually mentioned that way, I believe. There are others this morning whose sick heads makes them positive about it. Trance!"
"Did I break up the fun?"
"You were merely an incident; after your removal the fun grew wilder, I understand. But honestly, Salucci, I didn't think it of you, I didn't" And Saxe. gazed sternly at my pallid countenance, then pulling down the shades he advised me to rest.
I lay there with my aching head and thought of my wondrous vision. The marvelous beauty of it all so distinctly impressed me that I could gloat over the slightest detail. I reveled in reverie and saw again the sweet, alluring smile, deep, burning eyes, and royal magnificence of raiment. My desires ruled me as with a great heart throb I realized I loved; I the last of a long line of scorning people who could not realize the sweet passion. And such love! such adoration! It steeped my whole being in delight. I was reckless, folly full, madly enamoured with a phantom—an ideal. The dull-red globe with its reflecting golden mist enshrouding the brilliant, gorgeous creature, haunted me, and again and again the shadow of myself treaded the wide snow plains and lofty ice mountains, the whole enveloped in the mystery of the Unknown, convincing me of the truth of the inspired idea treasured in the fabulous cell of Thought, the extravagance of which I dared not utter. The vision of midnight tresses would become a reality. I would search the earth and seek this woman in her own world. I would be successful. It was fate. My adoration would kindle desire as the beauty had fired me; and then.…