The Centaurians/Chapter V
I had a long consultation with Saxe., then joined the expedition. I expected he would try to dissuade me from my intention, but on the contrary, he seemed singularly happy at my decision and confided to me his strange, strange theory.
"I do not search for the Pole," he told me, "but for the great countries I know exist beyond. The world has never been fully explored, and, Virgillius, it never will be. Once, long ago, ships never sailed beyond the Strait of Gibraltar, the great waste of water meeting the horizon line was simply the 'jumping-off place.' Later, according to civilization, Europe, Asia, and Africa comprised the world, and history relates the jeers Columbus's contrary but positive assertions received. We've made rapid progress since those primitive times.
"Explorers usually are blessed with vivid imaginations—those who seek the Pole, expect to discover a vast continent on the other side; all have the same positive idea concerning the unknown regions, but dare not express them. Now take Sheldon," he continued, "do you suppose a man of his learning expects to discover a great body of fresh water in the Arctic zone? Not much! And Saunders, and his wonderful star, whose existence has never been disputed by scientific readers of the heavens. He declares the earth egg-shaped, not round, as many commonly believe has been proven—nothing has been proven. The great twin planet is visible upon the other side of this globe similar to the Moon, which exposes but one side of her disc to us—the uninhabited sphere."
I gasped. Saxe. chuckled at my astonishment and grasped my hand.
"Glad you've joined us, my boy," he said. "It's a good move. You'll find more confined within the boundary of Earth than in your wildest dreams of paradise. Now, tell me—why have you so suddenly decided to join the expedition?"
He looked at me keenly and I felt my face burning hot but remained mute. Saxe. dropped my hand. "Keep it to yourself," he said. "I dare say it's a very good reason; it ought to be, you're so jealous of it, and I'll learn all about it in good time. Don't mention our conversation to Saunders, or Sheldon; as intimate as we are the subject has never gone beyond the Pole. We all actually believe we're greatly fooling the other, but Saunders will travel till he beholds his star; Sheldon will never halt till he discovers his phenomenal body of water; and I, I have worked for years and spent my last cent that ultimately I can be the discoverer of the other side of the globe. And you, Virgillius, you are going because you—er—have nothing else to do?"
I laughed and took up my hat to depart. How the devil could I tell the old sport I was going to the North Pole, in search of—er—a woman. I, who fancied myself above the ordinary, a side light to gleam and flash fitfully, never with the steady glow of genius, found myself in the category of every-day, commonplace men, whose careers always end with a woman, as I now dared hope mine would.
The day finally arrived when we were to steam away upon our long, venturesome voyage. I was the last to board the little whaling vessel. Saxe., Sheldon, and Saunders were on deck busily occupied. Saxe. had an elderly female clinging and sobbing upon his shoulder, accompanied by two pretty girls with red eyes and sniffles. Saunders was standing apart, holding tightly the hand of a young man who appeared very serious, and talked very rapidly, while Saunders listened with that aggravating air—talk-away-young-man-if-it-makes-you-feel-better-but-it's-useless. The young man was Saunders, Jr. Sheldon, obvious to everything, was up in a corner embracing a portly dame, who wept copiously. Portly dame unknown and nobody's business. I became as blind as a bat, and was hailed by Middleton & Co., who nabbed me after a red-hot chase and started to argue. Never was such eloquence heard outside the bar. The gentlemen had suddenly become convinced I was deceiving them, and their suspicions and fears had to be quieted. I felt ashamed of myself, but could not give up the expedition. My brain throbbed with the memory of the blazing vision, and my three lawyers put aside their dignity and trotted to keep up with me as I paced the deck with amorous strides. I hurried the trio to my cabin, opened several bottles, and out-argued them, till finally, Middleton, sighing heavily, wrung my hand in parting.
"Keep your word, my boy," he warned.
"And what do you expect me to do?" I asked.
"Oh, never mind," he replied, "only see that you return."
"That I certainly will," I told him, and I kept my word.
I felt sorry to part with the old boys, but honestly it was a relief to see them trooping from the ship with other visitors. I did not feel safe from them till I saw them on the wharf waving their kerchiefs as we pulled out. Saxe. walked up and down smoking vigorously, answering very testily if any one dared address him. Saunders was leaning dangerously forward over the railing, bawling to the young man on the pier, who was bawling back at him, neither understanding what the other was bawling. Sheldon, with a red nose, was seated upon a barrel sentimentally studying a photo, presumably of the portly one; and all three, I firmly believe, were willing to back out of the expedition if they dared. We were forced to drop all sentimental nonsense and acknowledge the magnificent send-off tendered us, though every last blessed mortal who wished us luck were positive we would never return. Bare-headed the four of us shouted and gesticulated like mad in response to the hubbub; bedlam reigned; our ship was surrounded by every conceivable craft in existence. The ear-splitting shriek of infernal tugs, and launches, nearly drove us demented, making us deaf to the salutes of little white-halls, and yachts, crowded with wealthy, idle men in flannels, who whooped as we steamed past, roused to momentary enthusiasm because they had nothing else to do. The pleasure-seekers accompanied us till the swell of heavy seas drove them back one by one, and at last, thank Heaven! the awful din was quieted and we, speeding swiftly, alone, between water and sky toward the goal Saxe. had worked a lifetime for. He became very chummy with the captain, who was the most profane man I ever ran across.
Sheldon and Saunders found their charts and quarrels so interesting, I was left entirely to myself, though ennui was killed in vain dreams of an image, an impossibility, thrilling and rousing dormant sensibilities I did not believe myself possessed of. I idled away hours, becoming absolutely useless, and Saxe. dispensing with my services, ordered me from the box he had converted into a laboratory.
At his expressed wish we anchored at several northern ports, and were usually received by a committee of speech-making asses, who forced banquets, balls and receptions upon us. At one port two of the crew deserted and delayed us four days; then when all was in readiness for departure, Saxe., to our astonishment, was missing. We appealed to the captain, who declared, if necessary, he would wait six months for Saxlehner, who he was confident, however, would be along soon. Sheldon confidentially told me he believed Saxe. had deserted, while Saunders fretfully hoped the expedition wasn't going to end here. Saxe.'s absence was beginning to worry us, when towards the close of the following day he put in an appearance, very tired but exultant, and that night several hundred cans of two gallons each containing some mysterious fluid was shipped aboard. This explained Saxe.'s absence, and he explained the mysterious chemical was used in his secret solution which supplied the motor power to the Propellier, and was absolutely proof against what he termed "atmospheric influence," and could be procured in large quantities only in this vicinity. At this stage of the explanation I departed. I knew Saxe. would divulge nothing, his secretive method in securing the chemical was sufficient for me. Not to a living soul would Saxe. ever impart the knowledge of how he manufactured his marvelous electric fluid, but Saunders and Sheldon hung on in the vain hope that Saxe. in his enthusiasm might forget himself; and this after all their years of association with him. They had failed to discover that he was the worst old fox in creation. As there was no further cause for dallying we decided to slight those ports where we were expected to anchor and steamed straight for the north. Four days out we encountered a heavy storm, high seas washed the decks clean of everything. Affairs looked serious at one time, but Captain Norris buoyed us up with the information this was merely a trifle to what we were fated to encounter before we reached the Pole. Saunders said he predicted the storm from the position of wind clouds and atmospheric, etc., etc., etc. Sheldon declared it was brought on by Saxe.'s meddling with combustibles, and aggravated by Sally's volcanic thoughts (a dig at my idleness).
The storm lasted three days, then one morning the sun rose in all serenity and we were nearing the coast of Greenland.
To please various prominent individuals who continually worried him with suggestions, Saxe. favored the Nansen route, though his own had been mapped out years ago when the Propellier was in its infancy. "Following a northerly flowing current was all right for Nansen, and the Fram," he argued, "but the famous Polar Basin, free of ice, has still to be located—Nansen failed."
He had great admiration for Dr. Kane, considering him the bravest and most scientific of explorers.
"His dash for the Pole was not successful, because with all his tremendous knowledge he neglected the fact that the unknown, frozen north must be traversed by steel and steam, as is the civilized portion of the globe; and," he continued, "we have progressed immensely since 1850," then saluted deeply to our vigorous applause.
"Boys," he cried, waving his cap, "I swear we shall succeed."
Even Norris, though shaking his head, joined us in cheering.
Meanwhile we steamed steadily north, up through Davis Strait, viewing the great island of Greenland, bleak, cold, sterile, arctic. We anchored in the calm, deep blue waters of Baffins Bay, a half mile from the icy, snowy coast, and our luggage packed in small boats was towed to land. The captain and crew rendered us every assistance. These men had become wonderfully kind to us, believing firmly we were going to our death. Under their experienced hands tents for our accommodation reared as by magic, and we began the work of putting the Propellier together. Captain Norris had little faith in the Propellier, he asserted positively the machine would take us beyond human aid then "bust up." He informed us of his intention to tarry in this vicinity several weeks; in case things went wrong with us he could hurry to the relief and gladly take us back to civilization.
"It's on my conscience," he told us, "you cannot succeed; but men with a fair amount of intelligence to risk their lives in a perilous attempt to reach the Pole deserve to die. The world is overflowing with asses, but those who commit such rash deeds are evil asses. Gentlemen, pardon me, but encouragement is criminal. Why are you going?" he asked us sternly, "For the benefit of science? Fudge! Professor Saunders, in search of a star! Bah! the sky is overcrowded with stars. Prove they are inhabited and you will benefit science. Professor Sheldon expects to discover a huge body of fresh water resting placidly in hollow ice mountains upon the frozen surface of the Polar Sea. And Saxlehner, with his remarkable invention, intends to return with the Pole under his arm! Oh, gentlemen, gentlemen! And you," he continued, addressing me, "you with your millions, why in God's earth are you going?"
He argued some time, telling me I was the lover of Dame Fortune, and gold the magnet of the universe. No one disputed with him and the poor old fellow's voice finally quivered and broke, he turned away.
We felt as sorry for Norris as he felt for us. He'd done his best to persuade us to give up our polar trip—the absurdity of the effort was too profound for laughter. Saxe. took the captain aside and eased the troublesome conscience, convincing the poor gentleman, as he had everybody else, of the perfect efficiency of his invention. He invited him to examine the instrument which was rapidly nearing completion, and patiently explained each portion of the machinery. Norris became very interested and returned to his ship highly enthused over the Propellier. We had pitched camp in the midst of a little Esquimaux village, the chief told Saxe., who became very friendly with the tribe, being able to speak a few words of their language, that they settled here every season for the whaling and fishing. They pryed around a good deal and interestedly watched us working upon the Propellier. They seemed to regard us with suspicion, but never failed to bring daily tokens of their esteem in the way of fresh fish and oil. Saxe. repaid their gifts with long strings of bright colored beads, which presumably he packed along for that purpose. Captain Norris and his men were on land most of the time assisting us, and created considerable jollity. One or two of the crew started flirtations with several Esquimaux women, rousing the ire of the men, who proceeded to chastise their women. I had not noticed the facial characteristics of the Esquimaux sufficiently to distinguish the sexes, they all looked alike, and when I saw them quarreling and fighting I thought the whole settlement had gone on the warpath, possibly over Saxe.'s beads, and we were in for it. Norris, between shouts of laughter, informed me of my error and that the women were thrashing the men.
The Propellier and cars were eventually ready for the great trial trip. The captain was invited to join us. He seemed dubious but accepted, and as we entered the car the same thought came to every blessed mother's son of us—what if the blamed instrument should explode—we compared notes after the trip. I turned sick at the thought that now we were about to commence our journey in earnest the Propellier might fall short—we were all frank about our uneasiness. Saxe. alone had faith in his instrument and swaggered through the car to his place at the engine. All the sailors, and the whole Esquimaux settlement turned out to see us off with whoops, and yells, that would have sent a troop of Apaches scurrying in fright. Just at starting, the Propellier's siren let off an ear-splitting blast that, in the clear atmosphere, must have been heard for miles. Saxe. went very confidently about his work, handling the great steel lever with expert skill. The Propellier dipped gracefully forward, we moved slowly. The sailors and Esquimaux followed with leaps and shouts, and one merry sailor placed his shoulder against the hind car as though to shove it forward and help us along; he was hooted and cheered in turn by his laughing comrades, but he came to grief. Saxe., oblivious, intent, sure of the result, watched the strange little electric time-piece set above the lever which he pressed several notches farther down, we bounded forward, gliding as smooth as oil, and the suddenness of the start caused the meddlesome sailor to fall—hard.
We literally flew, running at a rate of speed I did not believe the Propellier could ever reach, and as yet the lever nob had traveled but one-half its notched road, and Saxe. would test the full length. His eyes gleamed, and his usually ruddy face became pallid and pinched. He bent in a listening attitude and slowly pressed the lever to its last notch; the Propellier had reached the speed limit. The runners plowed the snow deeply, which flew up, covering the windows; we seemed to be traveling in the air; I grew dizzy with the marvelous velocity. Our captain seemed uneasy and wished to remonstrate with Saxe. to lessen speed, but Saunders pushed him aside in time. It was useless to speak with him now, Saxe. would not even hear; heart, soul, his very life, was bound up in his invention. Should the Propellier fail now that it had reached perfection, his heart would break or he would lose his reason. I went and stood beside him, the perspiration was streaming down his pale face, his tense attitude must have been painful; in very pity I was drawn to him. He was peering through the round magnifying window which brought the distant scenery to closer view, revealing the ruggedness of the snow plains. Suddenly the Propellier swerved, then with a wide, graceful turn made at full speed for camp. Saxe. rose to his full height, the color returned to his face and he heaved a deep sigh of relief, then saluted us.
"Gentlemen," he said, "my invention is successful. I have the honor to state we shall reach the North Pole, in less than nine weeks."
From our hearts we cheered the old boy, our whoops mingled with the shrill shrieks of the siren, and our return to camp was welcomed with noisy delight.
Captain Norris shook hands with Saxe., who beamed with joy. He was congratulated upon his success, and received the congratulations with the loftiness of genius.
The Propellier was perfect. The trip lasted one hour and twenty minutes, and the highest rate of speed reached ninety-five miles an hour.