The Centaurians/Chapter IX
Urged by curiosity we traveled steadily night and day. Saunders scanned the heavens nightly for a reappearance of the brilliant globes, and incidentally his star, but discovered nothing except the atmosphere was gradually clearing, and the filmy twilight heralded a beautiful, crescent moon, whose silvery, mystic rays pierced the lifting northern vapors. Sparse vegetation greeted us as we advanced, and we ran across an odd, stunted plant, bearing a beautiful, crimson blossom, which threw out a sickly-sweet odor, and shriveled up, turning black the instant it was plucked. These vivid ice blossoms dotted the snow desert profusely as the climate grew warmer.
We halted upon the crest of a hill to survey the surrounding country, which was almost submerged in a thick, floating, blue mist; but gradually this vapor sea lifted, compact like a monstrous lid, and we viewed a vast expanse of velvety whiteness; but beyond—far, far beyond, though real—we feasted our eyes upon the loveliest country God ever created. We cheered the beautiful scene, and marveled at the stupendously lofty mountains, whose azure peaks pierced the clouds. Vast plains and valleys stretched wide, crossed and re-crossed with serpentine, silvery lines, and to the west, glimmering white, expansive, was a great body of water, an ocean. Through the glasses the mountains showed up, thickly covered with forest, a glorious, verdant land, richly seamed with sparkling streams, a wondrous land shading into golden lights, a paradise—superb Centauri!
Before we could look our fill upon this lovely promise of the future the thick vapors descended, veiling all.
In our eagerness we went off our feed, consequently gained mightily in speed. Soon we cleared the polar mists, the evenings grew deeper, darker, the stars shone brilliantly, startlingly near and large. Then one night, toward the death hour of twelve, far in the east a strange opaline light slowly glided into view. A pear-shaped disc, lusterless like a monster pearl, of a pale pink, mystic color. High in the heavens it sailed—Saunders had at last discovered his star.
He pointed to it, pale, trembling, vainly striving to control his emotion.
"It is at the full," he murmured. "Pinkish-hued, egg-shaped, as I insisted, contrary to all scientific statements. Gentlemen, behold the planet Virgillius!"
We gave three cheers for the planet Virgillius. (Saunders and myself both gloried in the name of Virgillius.)
We knew the old boy was happy and congratulated him, then viewed the mystery through the telescope. It rose higher, glimmering in pale splendor, weird, unnatural, as it flared in uncanny, pinkish light, without sparkle or brilliancy. Through the telescope the belated star was a disappointment. Partially obscured in spiral nebula, it appeared to be in the liquid state, yet at intervals flared clear, revealing vertical bars of piercing, phosphorous light.
Saunders launched into a learned, very scientific explanation, which the discussive Sheldon prolonged far into the night.
The planet Virgillius was a "stellar apparition," a "solar phenomenon," and the farther south we advanced the more vivid would the rose light glow. Nine moons circled this singular planet, which revolved through space in the same sphere directly opposite our "solar globe."
Saunders lectured volubly, but the learned atmosphere evaporated the instant he and Sheldon attempted an estimate of the distance between the planet Virgillius and Earth. Saxe. joined in the argument, shouting: "Unfathomable!" When the noise quieted I mildly suggested the dull-hued star might possibly be a moon. This startling announcement, after Saunders's deep explanations, actually deprived my friends of speech, and I hurriedly explained my reasons for condemning the great planet Virgillius to the zodiacal insignificance of a moon, and a mighty little moon at that. I blundered along, as people will who grapple with a subject too heavy for them, but Saunders seemed overwhelmed at my brilliancy. Saxe. scowled frightfully, and Sheldon played peekaboo. I grew choleric; though my knowledge of astronomy was certainly limited, my theory concerning the pink, flickering star, was as rational as theirs, and so I frankly told them. They laughingly agreed, and Saxe. called the argument off by yawningly reminding us it was long past midnight, and suggested we turn in and rest the few remaining hours of darkness.
Overwearied from the long day's march, restlessly I tossed, enviously listening to the measured breathing of my slumbering comrades and vaguely turning over in my mind the advisability of rising. I was determined to rise, though occasional lapses of memory made it difficult to resume thinking about it precisely where I left off; still with heroic efforts I managed to strive along till quite suddenly I drowsily wondered why I worried so much over nothing in particular.
I had been dozing but a short time, it seemed, when slightly roused by a vague, uneasy, persistent impression something unusual was going on. Dreamily I became aware of stealthy movements and whispers within the car and, believing it was morning, sleepily wondered what the fuss was about, but my eyes flew wide as a hand suddenly grasped my shoulder, gently shaking me, and Saxe. bent over, his fingers upon his lips.
"Get up!" he whispered. "We're surrounded!"
"Surrounded by what?" I gasped.
"I don't know," he answered. "They look like men—inhabitants of this side. Get up!"
I sprang from my bunk, my three friends were armed to the teeth and prepared for the worst. Sheldon stood upon a packing box, peeking through the ventilator and beckoned me up beside him. He edged away, giving me his place, and I looked upon a remarkable scene. We were surrounded.
A band of men numbering over a hundred, stood in groups or tramped around the car, silent, all intently watching the windows.
Great, swarthy fellows, of magnificent physique, delicate-featured as the East Indian. What made Saxe. doubt they were men?
Enormous horned dogs were harnessed to many odd-looking conveyances. In one, seated among luxurious furs, a man rested whose piercing eyes never wandered from the car. Occasionally he gave an order, and from the alert attitude and obsequious manner of the others, I judged he was their chief. Suddenly he raised his eyes to the ventilator and gazed straight into mine; he seemed to smile; I caught a flash of white teeth as I sank from view. Sheldon laughed at my precipitancy.
"One of them spied me!" I gasped.
"That's nothing," he assured me; "that fellow in the sleigh has spied every one of us in turn; you're the last; by this time I guess he's aware of the number of our band."
Then he buoyed us up by elegantly expressing his belief that "we'd about reached the last coil," and advised us to "wiggle around," and find out what the "tribe" outside wanted. He couldn't understand why the "savages" didn't attack us.
Saxe. braced up and declared he would step out and inquire what he could do for the "dusky boys." To avoid argument he unbarred the door at once and we all trooped out to the platform.
Our sudden appearance startled the strangers who stared in round-eyed wonder, while the man in the sleigh sprang out and hurried forward, scanning us with the liveliest interest. We were not behind in that matter but nodded, he responding with a sweeping bow. Saxe. held out his hand, the other grasped and shook it heartily, then glanced smilingly at us. We nodded again in our friendliest manner. The whole band saluted.
"By George! the Relief Party after all," Sheldon muttered.
The leader indulged in graceful pantomime, pointing to the north, indicating he knew we came from there, and apparently he considered we had accomplished a wonderful feat. He pressed his hand to his heart and, saluting, waved toward the south, from which we inferred he had appointed himself our escort; and if everything was as agreeable as appearances, then we had struck clover.
Saxe. thanked the gentleman—in English. The chief threw out his hands and looked anxious. Saxe. tried again in German, then Italian, French, Spanish, and finally in Latin. Our dusky friend listened attentively, seeming to catch at a word or two of the Latin, then replied in the most musical language I ever heard, similar to Latin; but we were all Latin scholars and could not understand a word. We invited him to enter the car. He complied graciously, first giving orders to his men, which they obeyed with alacrity, and sleighs and dogs were prepared for action.
"We shall figure as the chief attraction at a barbecue," murmured Sheldon, as the car began moving, jolting fearfully with the unaccustomed rapidity. "Depend upon it," he continued, "that old tom-cat over there is purring till the ripe moment, then presto! the world will come to an end."
The swift motion of the car and the thought of the tremendous advance we were making inclined me to be skeptical of Sheldon's barbecue, though possibly he was correct. Saxe. was doing his level best to make himself understood to the "tom-cat," who in turn was equally anxious to be understood, and seemed greatly astonished at everything he saw in the car. After awhile he managed to convey to us two important facts, to wit: His name was Potolili, chief of the Potolili tribes, and we were six hundred years behind the times.
"Nonsense, he's making sport of us," muttered Sheldon, who was busy brewing his favorite coffee. "Six hundred years behind the times, are we? I'll wager he never tasted coffee."
Saxe. declared the Latin we spoke was a mutilation of the language, that this "savage" had mastered the Latin of perfection. And the "savage" proceeded to teach us this perfect language and made rapid strides into the difficulties of our mutilation. He traveled with us nearly three weeks and was good company, hilarious, but thoroughly vicious and unprincipled. He sang ribald songs that I wonder at my daring in mentioning them, and his sentiments towards the fair sex betrayed the savage. I flushed at the way he alluded to the ladies; he considered them without soul or value, and frankly told us when he and his people renounced all that was delightful then civilization would welcome them. "To efface the savage condition," the gentleman informed us, "will take centuries; till then—bah!"
Evidently the Potolilis did not desire civilization.
Potolili had an extremely cultivated palate and delighted in preparing and introducing many peculiar dishes at our meals. An epicure he may have been, but we certainly were far his superiors when it came to cooking and politely refused to partake of any of his messes.
In return he rated our food as abominable, but Sheldon's coffee made him blink. In compliment we made strenuous overtures to his wine, which had the appearance of water and a bouquet divine. It put fire in our veins, courage in our hearts, and we existed in the confidence that only the mighty enjoy. We were soon familiar enough with Potolili's language to question him regarding the new land we were entering. We learned scientists were exploring the northern heavens when startled by thousands of vari-colored sparks belching from the earth.
They hastened back to headquarters and informed their colleagues, who flashed the news to various observatories and triumphantly published the report throughout Centauri. This aroused controversy and much speculation concerning the brilliant signals, and the following evening four different scientific societies sailed to the north in hopes of viewing the remarkable streams of light.
"Atmospheric experimenters and learned astronomers are continually invading the northern regions. Their aim is to circle the moon," Potolili informed us. "Ten years ago the inhabitants of the moon signaled to us. When the moon was at the full, a broad stream of vivid light issued from her heart, illuminating the heavens. The phenomenon aroused widespread discussion among the scientific societies throughout the country, the chief excitement being not one knew more than the other. Peace came only with the waning of the moon, which absorbed the brilliant stream, and the signal never flashed again. Since that time plans have been formed, experiments made, volumes written, all with a view to circling the moon."
"In what?" I gasped.
"Balloons!" muttered Saxe. "I told you they were balloons, and that ninny over there (indicating Saunders) declared they were planets; bless my soul!"
Potolili shrugged his shoulders. He had become accustomed to our interruptions and patiently waited till we ended our side talk, then continued without answering my question.
"The four societies wonderingly witnessed the northern phenomenon. As the narrow ribbons of fire shot upward, bursting into thousands of bright-hued sparks, these wise men concluded it was a signal of some sort and claim they responded; then hurriedly returned and reported to the Centaurians, who communicated with and solicited aid of the Potolilis, the most northern tribe in the universe. We are thoroughly familiar with these regions up to a certain degree, beyond that we dare not venture, though we have a legend that centuries ago a sturdy Potolili dared into the Unknown and safely reached the other side. He encountered a strange, wild race, became their chief and founder of the Potolili tribe over there. It is doubtful, as are all legends, but it adds distinction to the Potolilis, and enrages the Octrogonas, with whom we are at war—they are legendless.
"Our instructions were, if we discovered anything to return with it, or with news without delay. Our reward will be a piece of land we have coveted for over half a century. The scientific societies are regarded with respect, awe, and have a wide and popular hearing; but little reliance is placed upon their reports. They are continually discovering something that, upon investigation, refuses to be discovered; and in this instance I believe the learned ones themselves are doubtful whether they saw all they claim they did; otherwise all Centauri would have accompanied us north. The scientists described the phenomenon, stated the degree they sailed in, and hazarded a guess as to the latitude the lights blazed in. Navigators of the clouds are always hazy on distance. With this meagre information we started out upon the search, constantly fearing the signal lights would flash beyond our sphere and force us to abandon them. The vapors of the ice world congeals in our lungs and—the end. We had been out scarcely a week when very abruptly we came across an odd-looking car with four men inside very sound asleep. We were astonished to so soon discover the phenomenon, while the little battered car increased our wonder. It is a fair imitation of the one in Centur, said to have been in use six hundred years ago. Centur is the city of Centauri.
"You people are the same complexion as the Centaurians. We knew of the continent on the other side of the globe, its wide civilization and perpetual progression. Science revealed all this to us, but it was reserved for the Potolilis to discover that Centauri is six centuries in advance of the other side. This car and contents are rare antiquities and of fabulous value. Have you any savages on your side such as Potolili and his tribe?"
We considered Potolili about as clever a rascal as ever existed. "Savages" of his calibre were not a rarity on our side; but what a sensation he would create in our land with his herculean physique, flashing eyes, glib tongue and cruel, brilliant intellect. His reason was tumultuous, ruling for strife, war.
It riled Saxe. that his invention had been produced six centuries ago, and proudly, with long explanations, he displayed the handsomely engraved plan of the lost Propellier. Potolili turned aside to hide his mirth, we were a continual source of amusement to him. But he became deeply interested in Sheldon's map of the world and marveled much at the injured, disjointed instruments belonging to Saunders's impaired collection. He examined the remaining telescope with great curiosity, informing us it was patterned after antiquated astronomical curios in the museum. Saunders reared, and came back with: That it was a moderately good telescope; could not compare with those blown up in the explosion, but it had been of invaluable service to him in his labors. Then he swerved upon his favorite topic and began to bleat of the great planet Virgillius. Potolili roared and begged us to wait till we reached the Centaurians. "But, remember," he cried, gazing at us with sudden respect, "though we have six hundred years the advantage, you have accomplished what is beyond us. The Centaurians will go mad and receive you as gods."
We gazed at this man who called himself a savage, and apprehensively wondered what the Centaurians were like.
Gradually, thankfully, we emerged from the ice wilderness where for months we had miserably wandered, and under Potolili's guidance made a wide detour to avoid a chain of lakes which seemingly divided the Pole regions from the living world. We crossed a low range of hills blocking the way to a sloping valley, thinly mantled with snow, which melted to slush beneath a burning sun. The temperature changed completely, this wide marsh freed us entirely from the ice, snow and deadly northern vapors, leading us to a rich, verdant, luxuriant country, a wonderful country whose lofty, snow-capped mountains, velvet mantled in soft green, reared sharply in the clear atmosphere of deep azure, and Potolili impulsively threw out his arms, murmuring: "The potency of God is sublime; He is the universe."
Yet, with all this loveliness before us, half regretfully we glanced back at the mist enveloped, frozen world, gleaming white, shadowy, mystic, beautiful, so beautiful—at a distance.
We traveled over vast prairies, wide, trackless, where herds of wild horses galloped; over rich meadow-land, where sheep and cattle grazed in countless numbers; we rested in fertile valleys ripe with fields of promise, swaying yellow seas of grain, and finally entered a deep, odorous, wooded country, abundant with wild fruit and vegetation. The refreshing splash of rushing waters guided us to the bank of a clear sparkling stream, and heedless of Potolili's warning concerning chills, we plunged in for a long-needed swim. We sported like schoolboys, our spirits rose, we grew boisterous, the swim revived and freed our bodies from all tired aches. Saunders declared we had at last discovered the River of Life. "Whose source springs from the inexhaustible wells of my great body of fresh water," Sheldon added.
We guyed him unmercifully, but he answered good-naturedly and the cool, green-shaded wood rang with our shouts. Saxe. felt so frisky he started a song in a terrible bass; we joined in the chorus and traveled some distance before it dawned upon us Potolili did not approve of our noise, though occasionally he smiled sympathetically. He looked worried, was unusually silent, and his manner, also that of his men, appeared very uneasy. He had sent little bands ahead to reconnoitre, and all sharply watched hedges and thicket, and jumped at every sound. Finally Potolili told us we would very soon have to part company. "We are nearing the Octrogona reservation," he explained. "Possibly you may have to travel a few miles alone. Follow the river bank, it leads direct to Latonia. But you'll reach the Octrogonas first; they're on the lookout for you and will present you to the Centaurians, and attempt to claim the discovery. I have, sent a messenger ahead over the mountains, and before you fall in with this savage tribe the Centaurians will know the northern streams of light heralded the arrival of four wise men from the other side."
From the disdainful way Potolili mentioned the Octrogonas we concluded they ranked rather low in the advanced civilization of this side and believed we were about to encounter the genuine, every-day savage of our world (Saxe. got his box of beads handy), consequently we suggested to Potolili to remain with us and personally hand over his "discovery" to the Centaurians. Potolili coughed slightly and declined our suggestion, informing us his escort ended at the frontier of the Octrogona reservation; a formidable, but cowardly tribe, with whom at present he was at war. Bands of both tribes were continually meeting in conflict and he considered us safer without him.
"These wretched savages would have seized you long ago," he added; "but fear us and dare not venture beyond the limit of their own land. The cause of the present war? Women! Old Octrogona very conveniently died recently and the young devil was proclaimed chief. His first act was for war; he seized my daughter, who is the most beautiful thing ever created. He imprisoned her and forced her to become his bride. Women willingly mated to the Octrogonas are outcasts; those forced into union are martyrs. My daughter is a martyr—what a fate! I will kill Octrogona on sight!"
We murmured sympathy. Potolili suddenly seemed greatly cast down, though his gayety while traveling with us would never lead one to believe he had just lost a beautiful daughter.
"Yes," he continued, "they have gone too far; they are progressing, becoming bolder; but I will exterminate them—that is their fate. For two centuries we have been warring with these people for this same offence—they will pilfer us of our women. The Octrogonas are doomed; we shall overcome and command them. It cannot be otherwise, we are more advanced, more civilized, more numerous. War must cease, but existence can revel in superb tranquillity only when humanity has mastered the divine wisdom to thoroughly control all emotions, then is perfect civilization attained; but passion damns the universe to everlasting savagery. The Centaurians," he informed us, "were at one time divided into many tribes, speaking different languages, and being unable to understand each other would go to war on that account. They declared war at the least provocation, then prolonged it because pride, honor or fear of losing prestige with other nations was at stake. They would dispute about the depth of the ocean, then go to war over it; whether the other side of the earth was inhabited was always a good incentive; then some powerful tribe would discover a weaker one had in their possession vast fields of production, or perhaps a neck of land, skirting their own, rich in metal, gems, and war is declared with the avowed intention of exterminating the weaker foe simply to enrich themselves. Sometimes these plans miscarried and the weaker foe became enriched—this was savagery beyond our conception. These wars of avarice brought the downfall of the nations. To-day they number but one—the Centaurians, a rich and powerful tribe. The Centauri Reservation extends over the whole of this portion of the globe, they speak one language, and have named the universe after themselves. Their chief is revered as sublime, and is a descendant of the founder of the Centauris, who, it is claimed, fell from the star bearing that name. They are a grand, god-like race, having reached the zenith of perfect civilization, yet still possess one uncontrollable passion—an irreverent desire for knowledge. They would ride the heavens, visit the moon and stars, yet dare not explore the other side of their own little planet.
"Oh, Centauri! Centauri!" roared Potolili derisively; "four men, their own color, yet still in the savage state" (he laughed), "have accomplished what Centauri is still dreaming of. But the superiority of a superb people will acknowledge and praise your daring. A true savage, jealous, doubts and jeers. I worship the Centaurians; the men are gods, the women—ah!" he clasped his hands, sighing voluptuously, "the women are divine!"
Fourteen hours later we parted from Potolili.
"You are entering the Octrogona domain," he told us. "I am sad at parting, but we shall meet again. Good luck."
We could not let him or his men depart without some little token of our esteem; this regard deeply affected them.
Saxe. presented a canoe to Potolili. He was delighted with the gift. The canoes had attracted his attention above everything else in the car, he had never seen one before. I created a sensation by distributing money. Potolili informed me the museum contained many of these rare, valuable coins. Saxe. cautioned me to preserve my gold, and he became very stingy with his beads. Potolili had curiously examined Saxe.'s collection of beads, but preferred the canoe because it could not be found in the museum. The beads, however, were there in every variety, and were priceless; they were relics of an extinct age.
Potolili embraced us and bestowed upon Saxe. a most peculiar ring of dull, coral-red metal. The width of the ring reached the first joint of the finger, and was ornamented with a diamond whose least value in our country would have reached four figures. It flashed a steel-blue glint. We learned later this magnificent gem was a production of man. The Centaurians had discovered the secret of the diamond.