The Centaurians/Chapter VII
The following day we reached 95 degrees, experiencing no discomfort. I awoke from a nap and found the Propellier at a standstill, my three interesting friends crowded at the window, gazing out with the liveliest curiosity. I joined them and was astonished to see a strange, large plant, resembling a cactus, about five feet high, with greenish, putrid looking veins tracing through dull, brown leaves—a plant growing wild, vigorous, amidst a vast snow plain! I made for the door, so did Sheldon. As the first breath of air struck me it cut through my lungs like a knife, so intense was the cold, but after I suffered no inconvenience; in fact, the atmosphere was exhilarating, though close and thick, a misty twilight. I approached the odd looking plant, it was icy to the touch, soft and pulpy like liver, with a sticky, moist surface. Saxe., Sheldon and Saunders hurried up, calling the plant various Latin names, to all of which it refused to answer. Then Saxe. took out his knife and cut one of the broad, thick leaves neatly down the middle. A reddish-brown fluid spattered the snow, emitting such a stench that Saxe. dropped that portion he held and the three learned ones bolted for the car.
I watched with interest the cut leaf shriveling tip, then placed the severed portion to the cut, making it fit exactly. At once a thin film formed over the parting, which gradually thickened into a fine skin and the shriveled leaf became soft and pulpy again with nothing but a faint line to show where the wound had been. Something about the plant nauseated me and I hastily returned to the car to find my three friends in a noisy discussion about it. Saxe. declared it was flesh, not vegetable. Saunders was positive it was a mineral product, and Sheldon frankly told them both they were asses; the plant was vegetable, how could it be anything else?
I never joined in their discussions, it was impossible to convince them of anything. They generally yelled like mad for a few minutes, then each, sure of his superior knowledge of all things, would gradually simmer down and draw out of the argument. And as usual Saxe. rose with that familiar know-it-all-air, and started the Propellier going. Sheldon and Saunders continued the debate for hours, in fact, till the plants became so thick and common Sheldon called time.
We seemed to be passing through a forest of brown rubber trees, some attaining a growth of ten feet, whose branches bruised against the car windows, staining them with their foul smelling fluid. The snow was thinning to slush and we jolted fearfully over the rocky, uneven road, but not till we had passed the forest of unearthly plants would Saxe. halt to remove the runners and fit the wheels. When we emerged from the nightmare thicket a rocky territory stretched wide before us, snow and ice traveling were at an end; our course appeared to be over the lava bed of a monster crater.
"I was correct!" shouted Saunders and Sheldon simultaneously, while they glared at each other. "I was positive when we reached the summit we would discover the outlet of all equatorial eruptions. We travel upon frozen lava beds, and——"
"Later on," Saxe. cried impatiently; "we have work to do now."
A few minutes later, muffled to the eyes, we trooped out into an atmosphere of stifling cold (no other expression for it) to remove the runners. Frequently I was seized with vertigo, but kept quiet as nobody else complained.
Saunders informed us we had reached 97 degrees north latitude. Three more degrees and we have discovered the Pole.
Saxe. worked, but at the same time watched us keenly, bawling instructions, then wasted a whole hour carefully inspecting our work.
"Can't afford accidents," he explained, "will submit only to the unavoidable;" and wheel after wheel was examined.
We watched him fooling away the time and amused ourselves cutting jokes at his expense, but he was entirely oblivious. Suddenly we were startled by the deep baying of hounds.
"Dogs!" gasped Saxe., "sounds like dogs!"
Saunders streaked it for the car, bawling to us to follow.
Sheldon suggested it might be the Relief Party, at the same time striding mightily for safety. Saxe. in his hurry tumbled over himself, and I, horrified, heavy man as he was, picked him up as though he were a child and hurried with him to the car, securing the door just in time. The great beasts rushed towards us and sprang upon either side of the Propellier, which shook beneath their weight. Saxe. turned on the siren, the monsters yelled and snapped at the steel, but held on, differing from other animals we had encountered, which, now that I mention the matter, are far from numerous despite the contrary exaggerations written by some arctic tourists. But the few roving animals we did meet renounced all curiosity at the first blast of the siren, which Saxe. now kept going at one continual earsplitting shriek till the huge beasts finally dropped off and made for the car. What magnificent animals they were, certainly resembling, dogs, but assuredly not dogs. Their monstrous bodies were covered with long, thick, white fur, and they dragged great plume-like tails. The immense head was ornamented with ridiculously small, pointed ears, with short, blunt horns growing behind. The larger animal sprang at the window from which we looked and broke it with his horns. He thrust in his great head; how his eyes glared and what awful fangs, and how he snapped and snarled, and strained and worked to lift his great bulk. Saxe. struck him with a piece of iron; with a howl he fell back, tumbling to the ground. I hurriedly took from the shelf two large fish that had been pounded to tenderness and flung them to the enraged beasts. Each grabbed a fish—what transformation! They sat on their haunches and regarded us with gratitude—it was gratitude—purely an animal trait.
Sheldon forgot prudence and leaned far out of the window, calling: "Poor fellow!" and "Good dog!" With the fish secure in their teeth they jumped about delighted, wagged their bushy tails, and trotted off contentedly towards the south.
"They were desperate with hunger," I remarked.
"They were not," Saxe. snapped, "they looked well fed, were fat. They feed upon those plants we've just passed, which are flesh, not vegetable. If those dogs, or whatever they are, had been hungry they would have devoured the fish at once."
"If they were not hungry why did they come after us so fiercely?" I asked.
"In our country," Saxe. responded, "we produce every product under the sun, yet we are continually importing foreign stuffs."
This ended the discussion. When he thought it prudent, Saxe. ventured out to finish his interrupted inspection of our work and travel was not resumed till he was thoroughly satisfied.
"Hope we don't run across any more queer animals," he remarked to nobody in particular.
"We won't," Saunders replied, "we are too far up to discover anything but petrification and the Pole."
"We are traveling upon lava beds," Saxe. informed us, "and I believe we are in the pit of a huge crater—what misfortune if it should come to sudden eruption!"
"Ah, bosh!" sassed Saunders, "crater be blowed! we're traveling upon rocks, petrified earth." "Nonsense!" bawled Saxe.
"Order, order, boys!" called Sheldon from the tanks where he was brewing quarts of coffee. "In case of necessity," he murmured.
We were prepared for any emergency, the air-pipes were stocked and heaters in good working order. I was busy putting in a new pane of glass in the damaged window, when I heard Saxe. say he saw cliffs ahead and heard a roaring sound. I heard a roaring sound also, but it was rush of blood to the head and I was attacked with a violent hemorrhage. But I soon recovered under Sheldon's excellent treatment, which was smoking hot coffee. My three comrades suffered intensely from nausea, but each remained at his post. Saxe. guiding the Propellier, Saunders ever alert for his star, and Sheldon at the coffee stand serving out regular instalments, with the encouraging words: "It's the best and only stimulant we can take."
Though the air valves were opened wide, creating a slight draught, it seemed heavy with drugs. Drowsiness was overpowering, and though sleep meant death the eye-ball ached with weariness, yet we managed to keep each other awake, but eventually endured a siege of suffocation that was agonizing in the futile attempt to take a long breath, the gurgling effort leaving a heavy, suppressed pain in the lungs. We were tortured with every stage of suffocation except the last one—death. There was a thin streak of life in the atmosphere. It took an hour to pass the danger zone, yet not once did we think of turning back.
"Forward! forward!" always was the cry.
"We're too expert, it's got to be stronger to swamp us," Saxe. declared, and Sheldon has since expressed great faith in "Determination, grim determination." And during the trying time, possibly for the encouragement of everybody, including themselves, both aired very grand, lofty ideas about "will-vitality," etc. I listened admiringly, but gradually lost interest, and in spite of heroic efforts succumbed to a stupor of weariness. I was dulled, not unconscious, and distinctly saw Saxe., for all his high-faluting "will-vitality," turn livid as he slid from his seat. He was gasping, and limply moved his arms for assistance. For the life of me I could not move, seemed tied as in a nightmare. Sheldon flung the doors and windows wide, then rushed to Saxe.'s assistance, who had fainted for the first time in his life. The icy blast that swept through the car brushed the cobwebs from my brain and thoroughly chilled the treacherous lethargy from us all. But it took some time to recover from that "high air pressure," and we had considerable trouble with Saxe., who took to his bunk.
Saunders's predictions were correct, only reversed. He declared the atmosphere of the unknown circle to be charged with deadly gases (no atmosphere), but up to the danger line we would encounter brisk, icy winds. For upward of an hour we faced the "no atmosphere" problem, but within the Pole circle brisk, icy breezes blew life to us—no one dared mention the fact to Saunders.
Sheldon served around hot, fragrant coffee, and suggested lunch. When the meal was ready Saxe. had sufficiently recovered to join us and felt so invigorated after that he proposed we venture out and prospect. We advised against it, of course, but Saxe. was known never to take advice, and we might as well talk to the Propellier.
We discovered a broad plain stretching east to west to an infinite distance, but straight ahead the road continued as though leveled from the side of the mountains. Upon one side huge cliffs towered and upon the other deep, unfathomable chasms. The boulders were perpendicular and of glassy smoothness. A terrific gale was blowing, dark clouds scurried across the sky with occasional breaks, letting a star gleam through, and once a wide space cleared and the moon shone full, lighting up the strange, weird, beautiful scenery.
"If this is the dead portion of the earth, then death is certainly grand, sublime," remarked Sheldon.
"According to the compass," interrupted Saxe., whose mind apparently was not upon the scenery, "we must travel straight ahead, and that narrow road in front is the route. I judge it's about fifteen feet wide," he continued, "inclines sharply, curving into the cliffs down there. We must know what's around that bend before we go splurging with the machine."
We started down the narrow road, but the cutting ice wind chilled us to the heart and we huddled together with a distinct desire to avoid moving. "We'll petrify if we remain stationary," warned Saunders, "keep moving. But it's not as frigid as it should be at this altitude. It's the atmosphere and earth——"
Saxe. grunted and rushed ahead; we quickly followed, glad of anything to squelch Saunders, who once started upon his hobby was good for days. His language was eloquent, his subject always learned and instructive, and in a nice, warm room, we could have all gone comfortably to sleep, but in an atmosphere of ice, with the Pole almost in sight.… We reached the perilous bend in the road, it was engulfed in deep, black shadows, cast by cliffs above, but farther on re-appeared, stretching along the level for miles and miles, curving, undulating, like a gigantic serpent, and gleaming like silver in the strange light, neither night nor day.
"It was once the bed of a river," remarked Sheldon, who, like Saunders, was daft on his hobby.
"Nonsense!" retorted Saxe., "it's the main artery of a burnt-out volcano."
"Volcano in the frigid zone!" laughed Sheldon.
We returned to the Propellier, tired out and panting heavily, the exertion made us perspire freely after a few seconds' rest. Saxe. was anxious to push forward at once. We voted consent. He flared the search-light upon the road and the Propellier cautiously started down the incline. Up hill and down into deep, black hollows, we sped like the wind and very little level was there to this riverbed, artery, or whatever it was. Ever to our right were smooth, high cliffs, and to the left unfathomable mist shrouded valleys. The wild, uncanny scenery, magnetic in its monstrous, powerful unreality, chained the attention. Granite, granite, mighty boulders reared to stupendous height, casting shadows that stretched to the impenetrable, blue mist, shielding mysterious chasms. Vegetation? God! Vegetation in this dreadful place with its dull, horrible, mucky atmosphere? It was like a nightmare, awe-inspiring, firing the imagination.
Dread silenced us, an intangible fear made our hearts flutter, and we looked forward at any moment to what? It seemed we were among the damned. Unmerciful, unjust, is the punishment inflicted upon the erring, condemned to wander forever aimlessly alone in this terrible shadow-land. It is hell—if there is a hell.
Sheldon came and sat beside me.
"Going at a pretty good rate," he said. "Not far from the Pole. Saunders informs me we're at 99 degrees north latitude with some figuring to the west and some minutes thrown in for luck. Great chap Saunders! Saxe. is reckless to be rid of this place, the car is rocking enough to cause sickness, and not far off the road curves sharply. Wonder if he intends to risk it and go ahead."
"Good heavens! Sheldon," I gasped, "suppose the road ends there!"
"No, it doesn't," he quickly assured me, "I can see it farther on, but it widens and changes altogether, seems to wind down into the valley. We will certainly reach the Pole, very soon—then what?"
"And then what?" I repeated.
"Saxe. says Asia is on the other side. He intends to make the return trip through Asia, declares he wouldn't pass this way again for millions. And say, Sally," he whispered confidentially, "we might as well come out in the open and state what we came up here for. None of us have been fooled as to the other's intentions and secretly worked in search of the object, to wit: The other side of the earth. Saxe. raves of the Pole, but did not work years upon the Propellier merely to travel to the highest northern altitude with it. Saunders pretends to be daft about his star, yet every astronomer in the world is aware of the existence of that star. It is not the star he wishes to discover, but that portion of the world it sparkles upon. And the great reservoir of fresh water is certainly not bubbling in the polar zone. But you, Sally, you have deceived no one. Boy, you mutter continually in your sleep and the passionate murmurs could never be roused by a star, a country, or a man. An exquisite vision, an alluring phantom has fired you—a woman, by Jove!" He nudged me. "The woman on the other side of the globe. We know all about it. That's why you joined the expedition and fooled poor old Middleton, at the last."
I gasped. Chuckling and winking, he left me. And my secret had been known all along, commented upon, and undoubtedly they joshed me among themselves. I felt odd for the second, then laughed the silliness away. Sheldon attempted to astonish Saxe. and Saunders as he had me, but they were ready for him and foreclosed. Then we all came "out in the open," and had an eager consultation about the undiscovered country we expected to find. Each had theories which of course were different and superior to the other's, but upon one point we all agreed—there was another side to this globe, figuratively speaking, a new world.
Columbus believed the "land where the sun set" to be a continuation of Asia, a new continent did not occur to him. We are more bigoted than people of those days. Superficial knowledge and science declares the earth orange shaped, divided into two hemispheres, with a handful of islands to cap the dejeuner. This vast globe never was and never will be fully explored. There are continents upon continents, teeming with civilization, I believe, vastly superior to our own with one exception—their world, like ours, does not extend any farther than their knowledge, otherwise they would have discovered us.
As we neared the sharp curve in the road Saxe. slackened speed and cautiously steered around it into a steep, narrow lane, partially obscured by elongated shadows. The search-light revealed the road widening farther on, then the cliffs ended abruptly and we speeded over a level, low country, one of those valleys that seemed so mysterious. A strong wind came up and whistled around the car, and upon it was borne the roar and boom of some far distant ocean. We dashed through the valley which was filled with death-like odors, up a steep mountain path, and were once more on the old familiar road, banked with cliff and precipice. Saxe. vowed we traveled in a circle, but the atmosphere suddenly cleared, the heavy mists floated upwards, and the black chasms we took for valleys were but a continuation of cliffs and ceaseless hills backed with a dismal vista of rugged plains, fringed by a lofty range of black mountains capped with a strange, soft glow.
"We are nearing the summit," Saxe. told us; "if the road continues like this we should reach it in an hour."
We reached the North Pole in less than an hour. The road we had followed so faithfully gradually zigzagged to the summit of a precipitous mountain, then parted abruptly at the sharp lip of a deep, unfathomable pit. The view was magnificent, grand, diabolical, and in the strange half light fantastic shadows seemed to dance and beckon. Our route gleamed like a silver thread as it widened through the valley beneath to be submerged in far distant ice and snow fields. And down in the deep, black mountain pit, surrounded by high walls of shining petrification, was the ocean, whose roar had so puzzled us. An ocean? A wide pool of dark, glassy substance, without ripple or disturbance, yet the roar blared, deafening, like a great horn.
"Any amount," said Sheldon, "that water down there is hot."
"Won't take your bet," Saxe. answered, "but it's hot all right, it's lava—don't care to investigate. But, gentlemen," he suddenly exclaimed, "gentlemen, gentlemen, we have discovered the Pole!"
We gave three rousing cheers; the echo was like a thousand voices.
Saunders, after taking observations, told us we had reached 100 degrees north latitude. Time, 5.20 A. M.
"Onward!" cried Saxe.
But Sheldon called our attention to the sudden disturbance in the black waters below. Even as he spoke we heard a sissling, bubbling sound, and a great column of water shot upward hundreds of feet, falling with tremendous roar; then another column mightier than the first rolled upward, while the mountain quaked to the detonation.
"Onward!" shouted Saxe.
The Propellier shot down the side of that quivering mountain like a rocket. Looking back I saw column after column of fiery, steaming substance boil upward in rapid succession. With lightning speed we got out of the vicinity of that strange pool with its marvelous geyser-like action, and did not slacken up till we were miles away; then—glory be to glory! we had reached the North Pole, and passed it.