The Centaurians/Chapter VIII

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Saxe. vehemently declared he would perish before traveling that route again.

"We would never find it," Saunders interrupted. "The crater is in constant eruption, heaving new mountains, leveling new valleys, and utterly obliterating the monster fissures we traveled upon. I knew of the danger, but we were determined to reach the Pole. A burnt-out volcano, Saxe.! Ye gods, that we escaped is miraculous! Literally, we traveled over an ocean of fire, an egg-shell between. Had faith in the Propellier's speed, but—I say, boys, look back at the earth's summit!" It looked like a monstrous explosion, great masses of rock flying in all directions, while column after column of fire belched to the sky, then poured in torrents down the mountain side, a flood of boiling, seething lava. We were miles from the volcano, but the fiery sea seemed spreading with appalling rapidity, and Saxe. kept the Propellier at high speed till the great barren mountains, and awful chasms of the mighty polar volcano, were dimly outlined in the distance, and upon a broad level plain we sped to wide fields of virgin snow. Late in the afternoon we halted long enough for Saunders to take observations. He reported the temperature fallen two degrees, and wanted to know if we had noticed it. Saxe., who had a vivid imagination, began a speech about the sudden vigor he experienced, but Saunders called our attention to the sky.

"The most remarkable phenomenon man ever witnessed!" he exclaimed.

The filmy gray clouds parted, giving us a flash of brilliant, blue sky. A dull-red ball glided into view, casting a roseate glow with long streamers of penetrating light which fell upon us, sending a warmth through our bodies we had not felt for months; then the clouds rolled together, but far in the distance the great red ball blazed; it flew downward, bounded and bounced over mountain and plain, disappearing, to re-appear, remained stationary an instant, then swinging into space with a flash it bounded out of sight. The phenomenon lasted seven minutes. "It is the Sun," Saunders explained, "and touches this point once a month."

Sheldon aired his doubts of course, and suggested the "wonderful sun-lit appearance" merely a reflection or another of Saunders's fake auroras. But he (Sheldon) honestly believed this "atmospheric exhibition" a deep, Simon-pure aurora at last. Then the argument was on which lasted for hours, and though they were really fond of each other, the energy displayed for flinging out insults without coming to blows was about as wonderful as the Sun visiting the polar regions once a month.

During the night we escaped from the shadowy quarry-land, and light as a bird skimmed over the old, familiar plains of ice and snow.

Saxe. began making calculations; we never interfered with him, he delighted in figuring out just how long it would take the Propellier to cover this or that distance, and as his calculations always went wrong we didn't bother him. Sheldon and Saunders suddenly became very busy and pre-occupied, and for no particular reason we all grew much elated and nervous with energy. Saunders said it was the atmosphere, and the farther we advanced in the vigor-producing air the livelier we would become. We certainly were very jubilant and chatted in excited consultation over the great progress made during that week, when a sudden sharp, whizzing sound, coming from the Propellier warned us of disaster. The machine stopped with a jerk, the cars banged together and we were thrown from our feet, then with a dying spurt the doomed Propellier bounded forward. In panic we bolted from the car, but did not escape entirely, though we suffered little injury. The four of us were hurled high in the air by the explosion; one, two, three, like cannonading, then all was quiet, and Saxe.'s life-work, his brilliant invention, was destroyed. Destruction was complete.

Saxe. ran around the wreck wringing his hands, muttering incoherently. The top of the Propellier was blown clean away, the cylinders torn wide open, and the diamond prod had shot up in the air with such force that apparently it never came down again. We were unable to find it. Both cars were overturned, one entirely wrecked, but the other was hardly damaged and was to be our sole future conveyance.

We tried to be cheerful, but Saxe. took it hard and considerable time was wasted humoring him; he obstinately believed he could do something with his wrecked machine. We righted the last remaining car and stored everything in it that escaped the explosion; then we buried the Propellier, and courageously formed new plans.

It seemed easier and wiser to advance, so the word was: "Forward!" We hauled the car in pairs, changing every two hours: Saxe. and Saunders, Sheldon and myself. It would never do to yoke Sheldon and Saunders together, they would consume all steam in argument.

We traveled under great difficulties, anti the outlook was anything but encouraging. Our heating, cooking apparatus had gone up in the explosion, and our store of prepared stuffs limited; but we trudged along with mighty determination.

Grit is as rare as genius, and the foundation of every lofty aspiration; those possessing the magic power, accomplish all desire, no matter how wild; but few comprehend, and still less realize, which accounts for a world overflowing with nondescript.

We suffered terrible hardships, but were spared a repetition of partial suffocation. A sudden new vigor roused energy, ambition, we could travel leagues without the slightest fatigue. Even the inevitable blockade, though formidable, could not weaken our courage.

The noise was deafening as the ice packed and screwed together, layer upon layer into huge blocks, constantly breaking and shifting, then piling up again into insurmountable cliffs and peaked, draw-fed mountains, wedged closely, with occasional gaps or alleyways.

We forced onward, making little headway, some days none at all, and once to our dismay discovered we were traveling north again. Then disaster settled upon us. We strayed far from our course and were lost in this dreary, ice world, wandering for days in a circle.

Almost impenetrable obstacles constantly blocked us; the tedious climbing, cutting steps in ice boulders, then hoisting and hauling the car, the descent into dangerous, curving, lane-crevices, with the constant fear of ice wedging together and crushing us, and once we barely escaped just clearing the treacherous parting when the cliffs above caved in, piling high in the opening. The exhausting weeks of profitless travel harrowed us to desperation, and I cursed my folly in joining the expedition. We seemed hopelessly, irretrievably lost. With the exception of myself all suffered some ailment. Saxe. lost two fingers, the frozen members had to be amputated. Saunders had an attack of scurvy, which I treated successfully, but could not cure permanently. I consoled and advised the pair to rest easy. Sheldon thought we could manage with frequent stoppages, but he soon joined his unhappy comrades, very seriously hurt. Trudging along, his mind thousands of miles away, presumably upon the illusive body of water, he calmly stepped in a rugged new parting, falling his length and breaking his ankle. I set the bones but Sheldon was laid up two months and would carry a game leg the rest of his life. He was keen with energy and accomplished much during his imprisonment. He started a map of the new continent, and out of the debris collected from the lost Propellier fashioned a queer concern which he called a stove. Saxe. mixed some mysterious ingredient with the oil the Esquimaux gave him and produced a fluid that burned, but—stink! Still it threw out considerable heat and we managed a little cooking. This comfort lifted some of the gloom, we became more cheerful and affairs seemed to take a sudden boom, but we wandered five months in confusion and misery, then at last, through the merest trail, discovered an outlet from this icy hell. Birds sailed above, monstrous feathered creatures, shrieking and flapping their huge wings as though to attract attention. Later, a great flock like an enormous black cloud, sailed over diagonally in a southerly direction. We decided to follow the birds, possibly it was death, but in the present predicament, death was a certainty. Cautiously, persistently we advanced, slowly conquering our awful difficulties. This encouraged us, and congratulating each other, we redoubled our efforts, and in three weeks were freed of the hellish blockade. We yelled, mad with joy, and looked upon the grandest sight man ever viewed. Before us an interminable expanse of ocean, whose waters were the clearest, most limpid green, with billows soaring mountain high, crested with the most delicate tracery of foaming lace, yet the strength, suction contained in those voluminous waves was terrifying, magnificent, seeming to increase with monstrous power as though to engulf the universe. Far to the north was the stifling, frozen world, and from the vast unit giant floes constantly broke and parted to be borne swiftly southward by the powerful current. And to the south as far as the eye reached, this mighty ocean roared and boomed in superb grandeur and solitude, banked by a level coast of ice and snow. We followed the coast line. Saxe. indulged in calculations, figuring that with even travel we should be rid of this "infernal snow region" in about eight weeks. He informed us this great body of water was a continuation of the Arctic ocean, and we had been traveling all along over its petrified, or frozen surface; it was his opinion that at present we were drifting southward upon a huge floe. Possibly he believed this, but I have always thought he wished to excite Saunders, who had been unusually silent of late. Sheldon, wide-awake and understanding, suggested we had doubled on our tracks and were now invading an undiscovered portion of Greenland. It occurred to him (Sheldon) there was something familiar about the scenery.

But Saunders wouldn't bite, and muttered something to the effect that he "didn't give a d——." Sheldon chuckled knowingly.

We discovered seal and walrus in enormous numbers, great fellows sprawling over rocks and icy beach; they stared at us in astonishment, possibly wondering what species we might be. Farther down the coast we fell in with birds—birds by the million. Undoubtedly they belonged to the sea-gull family, but resembled storks, with plumage varying from gray to white. Great birds of solemn mien, they would form in line right to the water's edge and stand there upon one leg for hours. We never found out what they were waiting for, and our approach did not disturb them. I firmly believe that strong regimental line was formed merely for slumber. They were easily captured and when cooked and spiced were good eating, tender, palatable; though the second bird convinced us the first was sufficient. Their eggs we found in great quantities, in size and flavor much the same as duck eggs, and vastly superior to the birds. But we lived principally upon fish. Such fish! Great speckled beauties, with a flavor—ah!

All are expert in some particular culinary preparation. Saxe. was magnificent in saute; he could saute anything and you were thankful to be alive and enjoy. Sheldon was the only man in the world who could broil a steak properly; and Saunders excelled in salads, and potato pancakes. I cooked fish. Dropping them alive in boiling oil of sufficient quantity for them to swim in. It is the way to cook fish. Spared from my millions I would have been a famous chef.

We traveled inland to avoid the furious coast gale, and sighted a huge polar bear tracking it for the north. He spied us about the same time, and after intently watching our calisthenics, veered around and stealthily followed us, at times disappearing altogether, then unexpectedly bobbing into view again with the distance between us shorter. Though we puzzled him he finally wearied of tame sport and suddenly rushed us, determined to investigate. Saxe., alert, aimed carefully. He was a prize shot, and it was all over instantly—we enjoyed some excellent steaks.

We encountered numerous packs of the strange horned animal. They traveled in flocks like sheep, and had a well-fed appearance, though what they fed upon was a mystery. They did not attack us, merely surrounded the car, sniffing curiously. These flocks finally became so numerous we gave up the rush for the car every time we saw them approaching and made friends instead. They invariably surrounded us, but we patted and played with them, receiving responsive barks while they frantically wagged their great bushy tails. They were dogs, a strange new species, but dogs. Where did they come from? Where were they going? and to whom did they belong?

Saxe. advised us to be prepared for any emergency, reminding us our adventures were just beginning, to expect all manner of wonders—we had reached the other side of the world.

The wretched, murky atmosphere, damp with treacherous fog, gradually lifted, and yesterday, for the first time in months, we caught a glimpse of the sun as it shone fitfully through breaks in the dull, leaden sky. The wind suddenly became warmer, relaxing the icy chill from our quivering muscles, and like a sip from the elixir of life, affected us strangely with something wonderfully new that each experienced, but no power on earth could force us to acknowledge, yet silently, thankfully, we realized.

Sheldon and Saunders became very springy and chirrupy, and resumed their arguments. Saxe.'s stooped frame straightened, his face flushed healthfully, his eyes brightened. It made me happy to see the old buoyancy of the trio returning. And this powerful vitality coursing through my veins roused to flame the smouldering, ardent desires, that had led me so far astray. My heart beat joyously, vigorous, lusty, unconsciously I gloried in my erect, muscular physique. I loved—loved life.

Hope spurred ambition, each because powerfully intent upon his particular hobby. Saunders was on the alert for the wonderful star that failed to appear. Sheldon voiced for the thousandth time his opinion concerning his great body of fresh water, stating positively that it rested in the hollow of the highest peak in the universe, which peak he had still to locate, as Saxe. continually reminded him. Saxe., in his pride, became rather arrogant. He was the only one who had succeeded. He discovered the North Pole, and the other side of the earth, and naturally gave himself airs, confidentially telling me the "boys" were doomed to disappointment because of their vague, nonsensical beliefs, and researches after the impossible. He advised me to spruce up and quit worrying about "that female," who would prove only a "digger," if we ever did find her, which he thought very, v-e-r-y doubtful.

He tantalized Sheldon out of his usual good nature, who testily advised Saxe. to curb his steep assurance as he had still to prove we were not traveling in Asia. Nothing roused Saxe.'s ire more than to hint that this new portion of the globe was Asia. The dispute lasted hours and once nearly came to blows, but Saunders interfered with a remarkable theory of his own which, after the first surprise, threw the belligerents into spasms of laughter.

Then Saunders discovered his star, or thought he did.

Sheldon and I had turned in, after hauling the greater part of the day, when wild shouting outside startled us. We sprang up in alarm, thinking we were attacked by animals or savages, and rushed to the rescue.

Saxe., open-mouthed, was gazing heavenward, and Saunders, crazy with excitement, bounced up and down like a rubber ball, gesticulating wildly. The stars sparkled brilliantly in the soft, deep-blue twilight sky, but right above us a great globe of light burned red, swinging in the atmosphere as though attached to a gigantic pendulum.

"It's the star!" gasped Saunders. "My God, the star!"

"It flashed there suddenly," echoed Saxe. "The sky cleared shortly after you turned in and we were star gaping when that thing burst into view like a meteor."

I knew it wasn't a star, but kept quiet. To air opinions is the worst policy. I never make a noise unless invited.

We examined the great light through the telescope.

Saunders, disappointed and perplexed, at last admitted it was not a star, and he'd be d——d if he could make out what it was.

Through the telescope the "star" had curious-shaped shadows surrounding it, which served to puzzle us more.

Saxe. said it looked like the search-light of the lost Propellier.

Sheldon snickered, and suggested it was a signal from the Relief Expedition. The Pole was still to be discovered, and we were lost wandering around our own side of the earth.

Sporty old Saxe. nodded approval.

"Quite right," he replied. "I agree with you. That light up there is a signal of some sort, possibly of searchers. But we've crossed the Pole all right, yet of late I've been thinking if we could discover a new route it would be wise to turn back. Earth and the moon are similarly degenerating—we have discovered the dead portion of our globe. As provisions are giving out it occurs to me the situation is becoming embarrassing."

Sheldon looked uncomfortable and contrite, death was preferable to him than turning back without discovering his fresh water ocean.

Saxe. nagged him unmercifully, but eventually they shook hands, then again we turned our attention to the fiery globe above. While we indulged in side arguments Saunders had been intently studying the great light, but could give no satisfactory explanation as to its business up among the stars. Saxe. suggested we signal to it and hurriedly began searching among the storage, at last finding, packed near the roof, a narrow, oblong box, containing rockets, which had been secreted in our luggage as a joke. "FOR THE PURPOSE OF OCCASIONALLY LETTING THE RELIEF PARTY KNOW YOUR LOCATION" was written neatly on a card inside the box.

"Old Jordan's trick," muttered Saxe., while I aired my suspicions that the powder had become damp or something equally mysterious had happened to it—there is always something wrong with rockets.

Saxe. scowled, but signified his intention of sending up rockets just to see what effect they would have upon that red globe.

"For," he concluded, "it is not a star, nor a moon, nor a sun. It is nothing belonging to the heavens."

We trooped out, each armed with a rocket, then at the signal simultaneously up they whizzed, bursting with the report into varied-hued sparks and descending in the usual golden shower. The effect upon the bright globe was startling. Like a shot it flashed across the sky, tinging a long, filmy, roseate path; small, and smaller it grew, then vanished in space. Though still mystified we were satisfied with the experiment. The next day dawned clear, warm. Towards noon the heat became so intense we were forced to give up travel till evening. Saxe. and Saunders had covered seven miles during the night, and we made two in the early morning; consequently were nine miles from the point of the phenomenon. We decided to wait a reasonable length of time for its reappearance, and consumed the entire day in arguments. I was thankful when evening approached. Eagerly we scanned the heavens, the stars came out bright and clear, but nothing unusual occurred. Saunders informed us the same phenomenon never appeared twice. Patiently we waited and watched till near midnight, then, disappointed and angry over the delay, hurriedly pushed on, when we were startled by the sudden appearance of four great globes of light flaming just above us.

"Hoo-ray! hoo-ray!" yelled Sheldon. "Whatever it is, it signals to us. We sent up four rockets and they respond with four balls of fire. What'll we do with 'em?"

Saxe. rushed to the car, returning with rockets and sent them up himself, but their small light faded in the flood of fire that burst from those brilliant globes. The stars vanished as the sky tinged to a fiery sea, flames forked and twisted, seeming to gather volume, and in a second turned to a thousand different hues. It was magnificent!

Gradually the fire dimmed, the stars twinkled richly in the pinkish glow and the four globes above swayed gently. Then they descended nearer the earth while a greenish, blue flame darted from each, floating upon the air like a great ribbon, the color deepening as the four ends joined, then formed into loops and circles, and in the second a word blazed across the sky.

"Centauri!" I gasped.

"Centauri!" my three friends exclaimed.

My head grew light. "Centauri," I murmured. "I saw it."

"I should think you did," Saxe. cried. "We all saw it. I infer we are traveling in the land of Centauri."

"Behind each flaming globe," muttered Saunders, who was unusually pale, "I saw long, dark shadows of very solid appearance. They are planets signaling to us."

"Planets be d——d!" roared Saxe. "They were four balloons with great electric search-lights. Boys, this side of the earth is inhabited, and they are far ahead of us when it comes to fireworks."

"Yes, and fond of airing themselves and their fancied superiority, like the rest of us," agreed Sheldon. "Therefore they're human. Wheel for Centauri!"