The Centaurians/Chapter VI

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Three days later we started upon our adventurous trip to the Pole. Captain Norris, when bidding us farewell, hoped we would all meet again. "Undoubtedly," Saxe. replied, "undoubtedly we'll all meet again, but perhaps not for years. All depends upon the atmosphere—ahem! I fear evaporation of the fluid in the Propellier's cylinders. Should this occur we'll be absent indefinitely. Many contend the earth's summit is located at 90 degrees," continued Saxe., in his most argumentive manner, "this is preposterous, but were it so that portion of the globe would have been explored long ago. The earth's summit is at 100 degrees. I state this as a fact, and the difficulties I expect to encounter will be beyond the ninetieth degree. The atmosphere will be so compressed as to cause either an explosion of the fluid in the tanks, or gradual evaporation. For either calamity I am altogether unprepared, and consequently figure on the homeward journey to be one of acute hardship, and consuming an indefinite period. But shadows exist only where there's brightness. At any rate we have provisions for seven years, and, Captain Norris, I'll guarantee that in less time we'll reach the Pole, and return to our homes, each busily engaged upon a book of 'How I Discovered the North Pole.'"

Norris smiled, but avoided remarks, and shook hands all around; then I took him aside and intrusted him with a letter for old Middleton. I advised Middleton, though arrangements were waterproof, to personally attend to it that ships sailed north every year to meet us. (I knew he would, and spare no expense), and most humbly I begged pardon for breaking my word to him. I could give no excuse except the unknown polar regions fascinated me, and, against reason, at the last moment I joined the expedition. Years later I learned that Middleton, when he received the letter, was thrown into such a state of alarm and anxiety, that he collapsed and took to his bed with a serious illness from which he recovered with great difficulty. I am satisfied Middleton's affection for me was disinterested.

Captain Norris, also his men, were superstitious, and declared they would not invite ill-luck by seeing us off; but the Esquimaux clamored about us, loading us with gifts. One gave Saxe. a keg of oil, which he stored away with great care; what he wanted with that oil was a mystery. Skins, furs were forced upon us, strings of fresh fish, and a great quantity of dried or frozen fish packed together like staves of a barrel was presented to me. We were each presented with a canoe, with the information that we would need them. Saxe. repaid this kindness with quantities of beads and imitation jewelry, and I flung a little fortune among the natives.

Norris saluted with four guns. The Propellier responded with a shrill blast from her siren as we sped out among the snow hills which soon hid all our friends from view. At last we were really started upon our long journey of marvelous adventure.

We traveled north along the coast of Greenland. The Propellier acted well, the feeler did splendid work, warning us of breaks or gaps in the ice by vibrating and resounding with hollow noise; the great arc-light cast a radiance of three hundred yards, and we traveled full speed night and day. Each were initiated into the mysteries of the engine-room, and took turns in steering the machine. Saunders, however, was exempt from these duties, he permitted nothing to interfere with the work he'd mapped out for himself. He alone was spared from what is called snow-blindness; with his exception we were all decorated with great blue goggles. I was the first to succumb to the glaring whiteness of the snow. The continual sameness of arctic landscape became very tiresome. As far as the eye reached were vast plains of ice and snow, a blinding whiteness in soft, downy hollows and smooth mounds, the earth shrouded in a widening sheet of white velvet; and vividly in the distance with a blue, misty veil, shielding their peaks, was the circular range of ice mountains, that has been declared naught but an optical illusion. All polar explorers have viewed these strange mountains, whose distance is beyond speculation, having always that illusive appearance even at the highest altitudes. Scientists claim this mystic range to be a reflection cast by the heavy, frozen atmosphere. Sheldon was the only one with time to argue about the matter, he agreed with me the illusive range was a solid fact all right, but he went further, declaring they were not polar mountains, and that his great body of fresh water rested——etc. When he reached this stage in his argument my interest flagged. Sheldon and his body of water became very tedious sometimes.

Saxe. was occupied entirely with the Propellier, and Saunders altogether absorbed making atmospheric observations. These observations he takes every seven hours, making us lose much valuable time, and rousing Saxe. to caustic remarks; he puts in the rest of the time studying a chart of the heavens and peering at the stars.

Our first mishap occurred at 74-5° north latitude. The Propellier was speeding, when suddenly the feeler vibrated, then followed a jarring, crushing sound, and the Propellier plunged into a thin layer of ice and snow, and was washed by the swiftly flowing black waters underneath. At the first vibration Saxe. quickly shut off the current, then with considerable difficulty backed the Propellier from her perilous position. We had plunged into a parting or lane, fifteen feet wide and three miles long, concealed by new snow that had iced on the surface, and were obliged to make a wide detour.

Saunders reported a faint aurora borealis in the northeast.

It turned out to be the moon's rays piercing a mackerel-sky. It was a beautiful sight. White shining clouds with antlers branching in long, waving ribbons crimped like blond, which scintillated in diffused patches on the horizon. As we watched the moon sailed high, dimming and scattering the shimmering radiance.

We had the laugh on Saunders, who stubbornly insisted the bright light was a faint aurora. As the heavens are one continual phenomenon, always inspiring mortal with awe, and considering that Saunders knew more of the heavens than any of us, I had a secret belief he might possibly be correct, particularly as we witnessed this phenomenon time after time when there was no moon. The same shining, white clouds, with rippling antlers parting in flaming rays, which stretched across the sky in a broad, throbbing arch, varying in tints of a yellowish, bluish, milky white; all cold, chilly colors, but beautiful.

Saxe. became bold over the successful traveling of his machine, and announced it his belief that we would reach the Pole in a month. But difficulties commenced when we reached 78 degrees north latitude, progress became slow and we were obliged to travel inland to avoid the high winds which threw the snow into insurmountable mounds, forming alley-ways and embankments, and all the time from the north came that ominous warning boom as the ice packed and screwed together. "The Inevitable," as Saxe. called it, and that which has confronted all polar explorers over the Greenland route, happened at 79 degrees.

Further travel was blocked by a chain of small ice hills, so closely packed together they formed a wall, seemingly an impenetrable blockade, extending as far as the sight reached. For several weeks we traveled in an easterly direction, then dared the jagged opening in the shifting chain, which revealed a veritable world of peaks, at sight of which Sheldon blurted out:

"It can't be done, Saxe., old boy!"

But the Propellier was invented to crush all obstacles, and Saxe. grimly, cautiously steered through the icy gate. He found it very difficult to operate the engine in this terrible mountainous district. We were upon the frozen surface of the sea, whose waves seemingly had iced as they formed into the swell. We realized danger, but there was no turning back; through extreme caution we were spared disaster. Saxe. never left his post in the little engine car, he refused aid, we were not expert enough for the situation.

Weeks were consumed in passing over this hilly waste, but hundreds of miles were traversed, then gradually the ice peaks reared farther apart, juts, waves, smoothened; and we finally ploughed into a far-reaching plain of snow, with the distant horizon cut by the familiar, illusive range of mountains capped with their azure veil. We had reached 87 degrees, and were miles from our original course, but steadily advancing toward the Pole.

"87-5° north latitude, and 175-6° east longitude," rattled off Saunders. The Propellier was put at full speed, but soon slackened as we continually encountered lanes concealed by soft, new snow. So frequent did these partings become the machine was forced to a zig-zag course. It took half a day to make two miles, and when we halted the situation was alarming. The ice was shallow and breaks continual, having the appearance of lakes or rivers, the black, sullen water rippled and flowed with a swift undercurrent. Some of the lanes measured thirty feet in width, and one reached 700 yards in length. We agreed the danger was about equal in turning back or pushing forward; we had nothing to gain in turning back.

Sheldon was nonplussed. He could not account for the swiftly flowing surface streams at 88 degrees. He finally ventured they were not breaks in the ice, but freshets coursing from the north, ploughing their own avenues, and creating one of the phenomenons of the polar sphere. Saunders snickered, but Saxe. looked worried.

"A thaw somewhere," he muttered.

But he was wrong; the cold was intense, and were it not for our superb heating apparatus, the pipes extending throughout the cars, we would have been compelled to turn back.; nothing human could live in such temperature. Gradually we dashed free of the freshet bound region and traveled swiftly over a smooth, wide plain without rut or ripple, huge floes of ice packed and screwed together till seemingly one vast floe extended over the whole of this drear unknown continent, and always the same distance away was the blue mystic range of mountains. I wondered if we would ever reach them.

We were making splendid time, gaining on that lost in the mountainous and lake district, yet Saxe. appeared troubled.

"I fear a storm," he told me. "We cannot escape them now, we are nearing the summit."

That night a strange light illuminated the sky.

"An aurora!" shouted Saunders.

Undoubtedly it was, but the beauties of the aurora had paled upon us, yet this night the flaming, brilliant tinted sky held our attention. Awe-inspiring was the vast arch of fire, crown formed, spiked with quivering streamers. The fiery crown varied not in shade, but seemed to burn with deeper intensity as a dull, ominous red clouded some of its brightness. The quivering streamers oscillated with wonderful tints, making each seem as though studded with rare gems. The blood-red ruby glowed upon us, then paled to the amethyst's heliotrope, which faded before the rush of emerald, flooding the sky, and the baleful topaz streaked the delicate green as the flaming arch, edged with the penetrating turquoise, quivered and vibrated with darts and flashes. As we watched the gaudy spectacle it seemed to dull, darken, and grow heavier as though gifted with substance, then with indescribable majesty slowly descended to the earth. The heat became intense, the atmosphere stifling. We raised the windows, but quickly closed them, the car filled with a sulphurous air which started us to coughing and sneezing. We glanced at each other silent, dismayed; Saxe., paled and trembling, sank to a seat.

"The Propellier will explode! nothing is proof against this!" he cried.

"We are witnessing," said Saunders, in reassuring tones, "a phenomenon of the heavens, a combination of electrical forces which will soon disperse and rage in various portions of the globe. It cannot harm us should it descend, as its power, force, will have evaporated. This portion of the globe upon which we are now traveling is——er—hum——"

"God in heaven!" yelled Saxe. "Look, boys, we're done for!"

Saxe., the mainspring of the party, to our amazement, was overcome with terror.

"Come," he cried, retreating with frantic haste, "come, or we'll perish! The Propellier is going to burst!"

We stampeded to the rear car and clustered around the window to gaze at that which had so roused Saxe.'s terror, while he sank in a heap, mopping his brow.

The wide spreading arch of fire suddenly parted with a great blast of thunder, which rolled and revolved over our heads with terrific crash, then passed on toward the south. What chained our attention was the appearance of a great milk-white cloud that sailed through the parted arch, submerging it. A cloud, funnel shaped, of milky, opal tints, whose throbbing, fiery heart burned vividly beneath the thin, shell covering. It gained in size and weight as it advanced, and gradually losing flakiness became a dull, ominous purple, rapidly deepening to black, then with appalling suddenness it was upon us.

We were among the racing clouds, tossed and scattered by the roaring gale. Thunder boomed, and weird, lightning flashes pierced our car, then the hurricane struck us squarely, lifting, overturning the car, and we were buried beneath the wreck. I was stunned, but a slight scalp wound which bled profusely relieved me greatly. The heat was suffocating, my clothing became saturated with perspiration streaming from every pore of my body.

Saxe. was the first to recover and extricated himself from the storage and debris, unhurt but badly scratched, and once more the energetic, pushing old boy we were familiar with.

"The worst is over," he bawled, "and the Propellier didn't bust; but snow is falling in clouds—boys, brace up, or we'll be buried alive!"

Sheldon and Saunders squirmed lively after this. We forced our way out of the overturned car and sank waist deep in soft, new snow, which prevented the gale carrying us away. The Propellier and adjoining cars were not damaged, the snow having blown up against, and piled high, protecting them almost entirely, but the wind now carried the snow over and down the sides, causing Saxe. to shout: "Hustle, boys, hustle! we'll be buried alive!"

The heaters were filled and fires started; in a short time the waste pipes were letting off streams of steam. We shoveled a bank nearly twelve feet high, which protected us some from the wind, but it flung the snow upon us faster than we could work, and from steam to shovel we labored for our lives against odds for eight long, weary hours. But the storm spent itself, ceased as suddenly as it came, calmed beneath the freezing temperature that descended. The snow iced, our labor was over and we sought shelter, food and rest.

Saunders advised early departure, and two hours later we started. The Propellier made a rush up the steep embankment; midway she seemed to lose speed, but suddenly cleared the remaining distance at a bound. The dense atmosphere had lifted and plain upon plain of snow with wind-tossed mounds and hills met our vision, and over it all a crescent moon glistened mystically. The search-light flared and with a shrill blast we speeded northward. Midnight we had reached and traveled beyond the altitude scientists claim the earth's pivot is located. Towards morning a heavy mist fell upon us, a dark, silent, deadly mist, which sent a chill to our bones. I could not shake off the dull feeling of dread that came over me. The Propellier glided smoothly, swiftly onward, taking us farther into this horrible death-land. The fear that tugged at my heart shamed me to silence. I glanced furtively at my three companions, who were unusually still, and whose faces blanched beneath my scrutiny. Then Saxe. suddenly halted the Propellier, and addressed us.

"Boys," he said, "we have stood by one another, we are not cowards, but life is life, and the Pole be damned! We have penetrated farther north than man ever dared, we do not fear, but—others felt the same way in much lower altitudes and stampeded to civilization with tales of blizzards, blockades, and the impossibility of life beyond a certain degree. There are unknown dangers ahead, and death sometimes is very slow, and to struggle and dare and have it all end in oblivion, I think senseless. The earth's summit is at 100 degrees. We have entered the mystic circle—just a league to discovery—the Propellier at full speed could dash through in a few minutes. We will suffer—an awful experience—a terrible risk; and, as I said before, boys, life is life. I call the expedition off; we will return."

He glanced wistfully at me, but I avoided his eyes. The passion for the myth had for the time evaporated. After all, life is worth the living, the world is full of beauty and harmony if we choose to see it. I fully realized the hazardous undertaking I had ventured upon, and—God in heaven!—I may never return.

Saxe. was turning back through anxiety for his friends; were he alone he would crush the dread he imagined upon him and push ahead. He forgot the fanaticism of his comrades. Truly they were three of a kind. Saunders sprang forward and caught Saxe.'s arm.

"Correct! correct!" he cried, "we're not cowards! Why are you turning back? The dread upon us is the dread of nature, the all-pervading fear of first venture, which the will overcomes or we'd still be apes. Determination invites progress, fear checks it; all dread the Unknown. Now, up to 98 or 100 degrees I can state positively what we'll encounter. We've completely traversed the frozen polar sea, from now on it's surface ice and melting snow slushing over brown rocks or earth. At 100 degrees we view the most uncanny scenery man ever gazed upon. Great mountains and steep, smooth cliffs, of petrification; deep, gloomy, barren valleys, horrible in stillness; and lightening up this dead, petrified portion of the globe, is the star, the star I will brave death to see. The foe we have to conquer is atmosphere, science may help, but there is no atmosphere. In advancing we flirt with Death, who'll welcome us with dreadful grandeur, but a bold flirtation does not always end disastrously; we can view the all-mighty magnet, then depart."

"Oh, don't pay any attention to him," interposed Sheldon, "he blunders constantly. If I believed in him I'd favor turning back. For days we've argued this matter; he's merely expressed his views—not facts. I agree with him regarding the petrification of the earth surrounding the Pole, the cold is so intense petrification is natural, but the lack of atmosphere—laughable. From the high altitude undoubtedly we'll suffer, experiencing palpitation, vertigo, and other inconveniences, including a tantalizing thirst. Then again, boys, nature being freakish, we may experience none of these ills, but enjoy the wild, weird scenery of the earth's summit. We'll view the blue Reflection Alps, and drink sparkling, crystal water, from the reservoir of the earth. Onward! Saxe., onward! but—should the Propellier cease to work we're dead men."

I listened to the absurd reasoning of my three esteemed friends, realizing I had three fanatics to deal with. Lacking persuasive ability I had to rely upon common sense and plain English to point out the folly of advancing. I had the power to command the expedition off and rose to better emphasize my words, when suddenly the doubts and nervous restlessness calmed in a deep, delicious languor, which overpowered and deadened reason. I made a feeble effort to regain my flying senses, but the soft, warm zephyr, heavy with an unknown, magnetic perfume, drugged my will. In that instant I revelled in dreams, a maze of love ecstasy, my pulse quivered and tingled with delight. I was blind to all danger, prudence vanished before impetuous recklessness and desire. I sank to my seat. "Onward!" I cried hoarsely, with wildly beating heart. "Forward! Saxe., forward!" And I, too, was a fanatic.