The Centaurians/Chapter X
We entered the Octrogona domain, a dank, tropical forest, whose gigantic trees towered hundreds of feet. Giant palms shaded glassy pools, dark green, where huge, pale lilies floated, poisoning the air with their strong, sweet, sickening odor. In this moist, slumberous richness, heavy with unhealthy vapors, flowers of marvelous beauty and strange, unknown fruits, berries grew in abundance. Sheldon, who was fond of strawberries, gathered a quantity of deep-red, luscious-appearing fruit; but Saxe. warned him against eating them, declaring the berries too large, that strawberries of great size always tasted like turnips. These berries were stringy and juiceless, with a peculiar, sharp flavor, that blistered the palate. Fortunately we refused the first mouthful, the fruit was poisonous; but we indulged freely in rich, purple clusters of wild grapes, with a deep wine flavor, and thoroughly satisfied our curiosity regarding all fruit discovered in our wanderings. For nearly a week we roamed in the enchanting Octrogona forest, but saw nary an Octrogona. We strayed far from the river bank, lost our way, and in the confusion trying to find it plunged deeper into the wondrous, tropical maze. The forest was alive with animal and bird mysteries. For hours we followed strange, uncouth tracks, made by some monster. Occasionally the wood rang with shrill, bell-like notes, followed by groaning, moaning sounds that chilled us. The roaring of distant lions was cheerful in comparison, but forced us to realize our peril. Monstrous birds of gay plumage chirped to us, but flew higher in the trees as we approached. Great red and gold serpents coiled and twisted, but glided to higher branches as we stopped to watch them, where they regarded us curiously from their brilliant, unblinking eyes. Once we came near being trampled under by a strange, wild herd of ponies. They clattered past, snorting and neighing, and glared viciously at us. They were queer, shaggy, little ponies, with monstrous heads. Frequently as dusk approached we were startled by wild, uncanny hoots, and saw huge, elongated bodies whirr from tree to tree. We came across one of these creatures lying prone upon the ground, its immense, gauze wings spread wide in the sun. Believing it dead we poked and prodded the body, which was covered with a pale brown down. Saxe., very curious, attempted to turn the thing on its back; suddenly the wings fluttered, the mouth opened wide and out forked pointed red fangs. With a loud, sibilant sound it flew up in the tree. We watched it as it gently settled among the branches.
"Queer thing, neither animal nor fowl," mused Sheldon.
"It's animal," Saxe. informed us in authoritative, yet argumentative tones. "It's the winged lizard, which has become extinct on our side."
Sheldon coughed doubtfully. "Flying lizard—ahem!"
We encountered a colony of gigantic apes dwelling in little huts made of foliage and tree branches. The tiny village rested in a wide inclosure. Our approach created great excitement, the apes trooped from their huts and clustered around us. They seemed friendly, but one huge fellow familiarly grasped Saxe.'s shoulder, the next instant he sprawled upon the ground. Then they showed fight, but we routed them. They rushed up the trees, shrieking and chattering, and began pelting us with leaden fruit. We stampeded. Sheldon and Saunders speeded and left us to haul the car. When we caught up with them they were learnedly wrangling over Darwin.
"Wrong, boys; altogether wrong," Saxe. solemnly informed them. "We've committed a grave blunder. Those were the Octrogonas, and we've insulted them."
Saxe. joined the Darwin debate.
The clear, sparkling stream which Saunders vowed was the River of Life proved as illusive, but we did not despair, the luxurious forest was way ahead of the ice blockade, and feeling confident that ultimately we would be discovered by either the Octrogonas or Centaurians we leisurely and cheerfully penetrated deeper into the dense, mystic wood, under the impression we could discover a new route and unexpectedly stumbled across, not the long-searched-for river, but the Octrogonas, who seemed astounded at seeing us. They closed around us at once. Warriors, magnificent men, clad for war in steel-like armor light as wool. They were a detachment of the Octrogona army guarding the frontier. We told them where we came from, had been discovered by the Potolilis, and had strayed from the river bank. Judging by their astonishment it was the first they'd heard of us, but they treated us with the greatest courtesy, the Captain explaining that his regiment had been camped in the woods for weeks. They received little news, but were aware the warring tribes had met in several engagements, and with a whoop informed us the Octrogonas had been victorious in all. What the war was over they neglected to state. They questioned us closely concerning the Potolilis, and seemed disappointed because we could give no information. They finally escorted us to the edge of the woods, pointed out the route, and there, far in the distance, sparkling, dancing in its serpentine course, was the river whose bank we were still to follow. The directions were clearly given, but at the last the Captain thought it advisable to send a couple of guards with us. We thanked him and departed jubilant, glad to be rid of the strange, dense forest, which to us seemed to extend over the whole of this half of the world.
We traveled in an open, rugged country, meeting numerous detachments, small armies bound for some place where the enemy had been located and hoping for battle. The troops halted at sight of us. We were detained and gaped at while the guards explained who we were and where we came from. Toward evening we reached the main camp of the Octrogona army, a soft, green plain, dotted with a formidable array of tents pitched closely together, row upon row. The Octrogona army numbered thousands. Evidently we were expected, pickets lowered arms as we passed, and the news flew of our arrival. Warriors trooped from their quarters to gaze wonderingly at us and our strange little car, and reverently helmets were raised in salute. Then suddenly the air rang with cheers.
We uncovered, shouting response. The soldiers crowded about us in welcome. We were detained a few minutes, then hustled into the car and dozens of willing hands pulled us along at a lively speed. Accompanied by cheering hundreds, we halted before a wide, square tent, staked in the center of the camp and were escorted to a cool, fragrant room fitted up with barbaric splendor. A hanging of skin was flung aside, and a man advanced to meet us. We knew at once this was Octrogona.
He was darkly handsome; magnificent physique, his magnetism invincible. He was born to rule. With piercing glance he scanned our faces, then like a mask the sternness vanished. His smile was as sweetly alluring as a woman's.
"Greetings! greetings!" he cried, clasping Saxe.'s hand.
We clustered about him and each in turn received the embrace of welcome. He motioned us to seats, then explained he had been commissioned by the Centaurians to discover the cause of the phenomenal northern lights, but Potolili, with whom he was at war (his face darkened ominously), had spies, vermin, crawling throughout the Octrogona forces, who conveyed to their chief the news of the northern commission, etc.
Potolili at once organized and headed an expedition and was well on his way north before the Octrogonas had commenced preparations.
"To the Potolilis," he continued, "is the credit, reward, of discovery; but it is an honor stolen, and for the theft they shall pay. I have vowed this war shall end only with the extermination of the Potolilis. The black tribes must dissolve in one; the enemy does not progress; they are now as centuries ago—savages. They are guilty of innumerable outrages against us; from our stock they pick the best, and for years have appropriated our women and boasted of their gallantry because the women failed to return—they dared not. They have in every way sought to injure our good repute with the Centaurians, and Potolili's latest offence is the seizure of my sister. He forcibly removed her and her women from the retreat I had placed her in. She was the most beautiful woman of the Octrogona tribe, but the moment she became Potolili's possession she became an outcast—she hastens his downfall."
I didn't dare look at Sheldon.
"I say, boys," he muttered, "what a jolly opinion they have of each other, and what holy liars! Five to one on crafty Potolili, against this fiery young scamp!"
We didn't take his bet, but it went hard to keep from grinning. His language was so droll beside Octrogona's lofty tirade, whose eyes now snapped as he realized, for some reason, we were laughing at him.
Saxe. hastened to express sympathy, and declared we all hoped the Octrogona forces would be victorious. Octrogona saluted deeply, at the same time keeping a suspicious eye on Sheldon, which caused Saunders to irritably remark: That Sheldon was an ass whose noisy braying would eventually get us all into trouble.
Potolili's agility in discovering us evidently greatly exasperated Octrogona.
"He will be rewarded with a piece of land we've both coveted for over fifty years," he hissed. "But I'll wrest it from him! Do you know the moment he sighted you a messenger was sent over the mountains to report to the Centaurians, who will arrive shortly to escort you to their territory. If we were at peace Potolili would have forced you people over the mountains to prevent our meeting, but the journey is dangerous during war time. He suffered heavy losses during his northern trip, my troops slaughtered the Potolilis in every engagement. I had troops stationed in ambush to capture Potolili when he neared the reservation, never believing he would abandon his 'discovery' three miles from the boundary line. He is a coward, sneak, and up to his old deviltry! He will not fight openly like a soldier! But it is destiny, the Octrogonas will be victorious. And, gentlemen (he bowed deeply), my abode is at your disposal."
We thanked him, mentioning the car, preferring not to intrude upon him.
Impatiently he threw up his hand, commanding silence, then conducted us to an adjoining tent and advised us to "cleanse," while attendants hauled in several huge jars containing ice water.
"I suppose he thinks we bathed every day in an ice lake while fooling around the Pole," grumbled Sheldon, dousing himself in the chilling water.
"He certainly had some good reason for forcing us to clean up in water at freezing point," Saxe. admitted. "Let's ask him for it."
"Ask him for what?" sputtered Saunders.
"Something to eat," murmured Saxe. sweetly.
And Saunders glared because we all snickered.
Octrogona's quarters consisted of a number of tents pitched closely together in a circle, and when we ventured forth we promptly became entangled in the tent maze, butting into places where we had no business to and startling a number of dusky individuals who rushed upon us chattering wildly, but promptly salaamed as though we were gods. And they were black! Whew!
Octrogona suddenly appeared, laughing loudly at our discomfiture. We murmured apologies, which he politely waived aside and escorted us to the front tent.
Refreshments were served. The table was loaded with strange delicacies. Roasted fish stuffed with berries swimming in the fresh juice of grapes; wild game sliced with crushed nuts, and meat spiced with rich, tropical fruit, tempted the appetite, yet everything was cold—and Saxe. longed for soup. The wine was the same brand Potolili had been so lavish with, and though of a clear, sparkling crystal, was searching. Octrogona, in his dining, was civilized, a bon vivant. The service was excellent, putting us on our mettle and rousing to action our rusty table etiquette.
After dining Octrogona expressed a wish to examine the car. We placed it at his disposal. He examined everything with much curiosity, and for an old string of wax pearls, presented Saxe. with an armlet carved from quartz ornamented with five flashing emeralds.
"You're trading at a bargain, old boy," Sheldon told him, but he was frowned to silence and found solace brewing his coffee, which he wanted Octrogona to taste. Octrogona seemed doubtful of the cup handed to him, but inhaling the aroma, drank with relish. The flavor tickled his palate, and he begged for some of the beans. We decided the cultivation of coffee had become a lost industry. It seemed impossible these enlightened people had never discovered it.
We returned to the tent and were served with syrupy liqueur in large silver thimbles, and some queer little cakes that tasted like sweetened mud. We avoided the cakes, but the liqueur! what a bouquet! and how it flushed us! Even Octrogona, who no doubt was seasoned, seemed affected. His eyes flashed, his lips thickened voluptuously, and his tongue loosened confidentially. With a sigh he told us of Potolili's daughter, which originally was not his intention.
"The most beautiful woman in the world!" he exclaimed with amorous enthusiasm. "The women of Centauri are divine, but Potolili's daughter is—heaven!"
"She is your prisoner," I blurted out before Saxe. could prevent.
Octrogona eyed me keenly for a second, then replied: "No, I am her prisoner—her slave!"
"Hum! got it bad!" murmured Sheldon, ever alert to mix things.
"As you know of Potolili's daughter," Octrogona continued, eying me severely, "and undoubtedly believe she is my prisoner, which is false, perhaps you can give me some information concerning my sister Gona."
"I cannot," I replied. "Potolili did not mention your sister, though he told of the abduction of his daughter."
"That man is a traitor, liar!" Octrogona yelled fiercely. "He abducted Gona, then learning we were preparing for war he sends his daughter, whose beauty is renowned, sends this lovely girl among my men to lead their thoughts from war to love. She obtained sympathy for her father and his people, she lowered my sister in the esteem of my soldiers, declaring Gona went voluntarily, having long been enamoured with Potolili. (This we did not doubt.) By the merest chance I heard of the matter and ordered the lovely devil brought before me. And she came like the Queen, enchantress, that she is, reclining amid silken cushions and flowers and borne aloft by worshippers.
"I was dazzled, and—er—," Octrogona paused, his glance shifted, "she is still here." Then realizing the comical side of the situation, he burst out laughing.
"She and her father are schemers, and have no equal for craftiness," he continued. "Her mission is to influence all in favor of her people, to arouse so-called brotherly love, and effect the unification of tribes, with—er—Potolili as supreme chief. Until her mission is accomplished she will not permit me to possess her, yet swears to her love for me. She is not a prisoner, but I have placed her where she can work no further mischief except upon me; and I love her! I love her! She has full freedom, but at the least sign or inclination to return to her people she becomes a prisoner and a slave to my fancy."
"Octrogona! Octrogona!" we heard a voice wail in protest, sweet as a bell. With a stride Octrogona reached the end of the tent, flung aside the hanging and drew forth the shrinking woman.
We knew she was Potolili's daughter. No one in the world could resemble him so completely. She was beautiful, wondrously beautiful, in a sensuous, barbaric fashion. Her luxurious tresses, glossily rippled unconfined; her dusky neck, shoulders, arms were devoid of covering except for the flashing gems that hid most of her charms. Soft, white, shimmering stuff wound around her form. This woman, with her great animal magnetism, could sway and rule as she pleased. The conquest of Octrogona was diversion to her. She hung upon his shoulder with her full weight. He flung his arm around her, both were oblivious of our presence. In silence he gazed into her deep eyes with intense love, and she cooed to him while one pretty hand caressed his cheek.
"Octrogona, I am your prisoner," we heard her tell him. "Your eyes thrill, hold me, your glance is stronger than prison bars."
"I should say so!" muttered Sheldon, who had become very restless.
"I love you! I love you!" the siren went on. "Octrogona, your pleasure is mine."
Swiftly he bent his head and pressed his lips to hers.
"No," said Sheldon, turning his back upon them, "they're not married yet. Matrimony is death to that sort of thing. And I say, boys, she's playing the same old game on him, and they claim to be six hundred years ahead of us. That fiery boy is as blind as a bat. Twenty to one foxy Potolili rules the two tribes in less than a month, and I don't blame Octrogona. She's a glorious woman! Jove, a glorious woman!"
Before we could put a quietus on Sheldon, several men rushed excitedly into the tent.
"The Centaurians!" they cried. "The Centaurians are coming!"
Octrogona awoke as from a dream, becoming at once cold, alert, diplomatic. He gently put the girl from him, and with a deep bow urged her to retire. With a lingering glance she stepped from view. He turned quickly to us, murmuring: "The Centauris!" and we hurried outside. The camp twinkled brightly with lights. We could see the soldiers crowding from their quarters to gaze up at a dozen or more great balls of fire, which were circling and lowering like buzzards.
A chariot drawn by three magnificent horses dashed up to where we stood. Octrogona explained the Centaurians would meet us in the plains a half mile distant, and invited us to enter the chariot. We declined, expressing the wish to travel in our car; it had brought us so far it could convey us to the Centaurians. Octrogona displayed wisdom; he avoided argument, and hurriedly entered the car with us, ordering it to be attached to the chariot, and away we started amid wild cheers from the soldiers. Many followed some distance, shouting lustily, and in the enthusiasm we whooped and jumped like a brace of Indians.
Octrogona laughed till his sides ached.
But at last we were to meet the Centaurians and witness civilization six hundred years in advance of our own. We wondered what these new people were like, and gravely pondered between conflicting thoughts of hope and fear.
Sheldon believed his great body of fresh water a discovered fact. The Centaurians would escort him to view these marvelous waters.
Saunders, jubilant, chuckled with enthusiasm as he speculated upon the vast improvements accomplished in six hundred years upon astronomical instruments, which he expected placed at his disposal for a thorough analytic inspection of the planet Virgillius, and he confidentially informed me it was his intention to join the next expedition to the moon. Saxe. thought of the lost Propellier, and figured on the powerful proportions it must have attained in so many centuries of improvement. As for myself, I grew wild, restless with expectation. I thought of the wraith, devil, woman, what you will, that had decoyed me to this world. The luring, smiling beauty frenzied me. Centauri, Centauri, was the name my heart gave her.
Swiftly we reached the plains, plunging into brilliant illumination cast by great search-lights in the towers of a number of—ships!
We pressed forward in amazement.
"Powers above, they're ships!" Sheldon cried.
"Ferry-boats!" I gasped.
And the decks were crowded. The boats presented a gala appearance, streamers and banners flying, the upper decks shaded with gay-colored awnings. We could easily see into the brilliantly-lighted salons, and wondered at the sparkling interior, and down the sides of all these vessels people jostled and hurried.
A number of men hastened to meet us. Stalwart, massive fellows, white, but a dark tinge, and every blessed mother's son of them as handsome as Apollo. Potolili spoke the truth, the Centaurians were gods.
"Good heavens, what magnificent people!" I cried out in admiration.
"Aye," answered Sheldon, "to see something like this is worth crossing the Pole. For the first time in my life I see a man!"
His remark irritated Saxe. "Curtail your tongues!" he snapped. "The more perfect the body the less soul it contains. Sheldon, you've lost your senses. Undoubtedly those splendid creatures are men; so are we. Perfection we cannot boast, but we possess souls."
"Do we, now?" squeaked Saunders, who never permitted any one to worry Sheldon except himself. But Saxe. only scowled, and with Octrogona, stepped from the car.
"Wonder if the climate is affecting old Saxe.?" Saunders inquired.
"You started it!" Sheldon growled.
"And you got the blame for it!" I retorted.
"Hist! don't quarrel; come along," Saunders urged hurriedly. "Suppose they expect to rope us on to those boats."
We hurried after Saxe., who spruced up lively as a Centaurian advanced to greet us. A handsome, broad-shouldered gentleman, who spoke words of welcome in Latin, pure and simple, much to the astonishment of Saxe., who expected a mutilation of every language under the sun thrown into one. Many crowded around us, eager to shake hands, and we were extravagantly complimented upon accomplishing the "remarkably daring exploit of crossing the Polar regions." Of course Saxe. received most of the honors and bowed continually, while we stood in the rear a sort of reflection, though I noticed many eying me curiously and suddenly a group of gay, young men, who had held aloof, laughing and joking among themselves, no doubt at me, rushed forward and closed around me, and to my chagrin, boldly criticised my face and form, muttering: "A Centauri, a Centauri!"
"Now don't get conceited, Sally," Sheldon admonished. "These fellows think you as pretty as you think them."
And sizing up the fresh boys, I realized I was as broad, massive, if not quite as tall as they. Sheldon's remark made me blush like a girl, the color flamed my face, and perceiving it the Centaurians shouted with glee. One slapped me on the back, another patted my cheek, a third pulled me one way, while a fourth drew me in the opposite direction. I caught the nearest man, raised him above my head, swung him around several times, then flung him from me. Another rushed upon me and, to show my strength, I caught him with one arm, tossed him high as though he were a ball, dizzied him with a rapid swing, then laid him gently on his back. It was enough.
"A Centauri! A Centauri!" they shouted, crowding closer. Then amid laughter and cheers I was hoisted and carried in triumph aboard one of the ships. What a predicament had I been less strong! Such a glory this muscular popularity (?).
Saxe., Sheldon and Saunders laughingly followed and cheered with the crowd. They were proud of their Sally? Well!
Our staunch little car created considerable anxiety, but finally, with the utmost care and reverence, was hoisted aboard.
Octrogona accompanied us to the ship simply to go through the formality of explaining that we would meet again. He gave a long hand-clasp to Saxe., to whom apparently he'd taken a great fancy, while that gentleman advised him that "Peace is the Spirit of civilization," and begged him cease the continual warfare with Potolili.
"Become friends, comrades," continued Saxe., warming up. "Yield to the pleading of the girl you love, or you may lose her. She will return to her; people."
"Oh, no!" Octrogona answered quickly. "I love her youth, beauty; but passion does not control me; I delight in anticipation. The girl is mine, and she will never return to her people."
"This savage delights in anticipation," murmured Sheldon, "and those on our side delight in precipitation. Wow!"
"Have you ever met Potolili?" Saxe. asked.
"No!" cried Octrogona, aghast. "Meet Potolili! Oh, no!"
"You should," Saxe. urged, undaunted. "You love the daughter, you will be charmed with the father. Just give the word, he will meet you more than half."
"Ah, no doubt, no doubt," said Octrogona drily; "but (politely wishing to make Saxe. happy), I shall consider your advice. It never occurred to me to meet Potolili, but it could be arranged, and to please the girl I am willing to make some concessions; then—ahem! my sister Gona, is still his captive."
Saxe. was pleased and satisfied his words would go a long way toward ending the war. He patted Octrogona on the back, who seemed immensely tickled about something. Saxe. smiled indulgently. He considered this great chief merely a hot-headed boy, and renewed the risky topic, endeavoring to impress Octrogona with the wisdom of meeting his enemy. But Octrogona was too politic to continue the subject and seemed suddenly very anxious to depart. He astonished Saxe. by tenderly embracing him, then bowing deeply to us, hurriedly left the ship. We saw him enter the chariot, he waved his hand as the horses plunged into gallop. Saxe. twirled his cap, but our attention was attracted to the strange vibration of the ship, accompanied by an odd whirring sound, and two huge black objects at the sides slowly unfurled and gently fluttered in the breeze. They looked like the wings of a monster bat, and the boat began moving—moving upwards. Heavens knows what we thought when boarding the vessel, but it never occurred to us we would sail the air.
"It's a flying machine!" gasped Saxe.
"An air ship!" echoed Sheldon.
And we continued to float upward, the vessel rolling and rocking as in a rough sea, causing Sheldon to exclaim: "The damned thing'll roll clean over and dump us all out!" And then to impress the gentlemen surrounding us that his remark had been one of learning he began conversing earnestly in his most polished, class-room manner with a tall gentleman beside him. A fine old individual, with a long grey beard, towed Saunders off, and Saxe. became the center of a group of men, who plied him with questions and were eagerly questioned in turn.
A handsome young man took possession of me—he was the Governor's son, and introduced himself as Tolna; and I learned we were the guests of the Governor, and were being conveyed to Latonia in his private yacht. I questioned Tolna as to the safety of traveling by the zephyr route, and was keen concerning the rolling of the ship, explaining it was my first experience of air navigation. He looked incredulous, and I reminded him his people were six centuries in advance of those of my country.
"But we are considering the air ship," I continued. "We are just realizing the air is navigable, and several bright men have invented machines that were received fairly well by the press, but the atmosphere did not take kindly to them. The fatalities incurred ruinous skepticism."
"Fatality, Skepticism, are the parents of Progression," Tolna informed me. "Without either the universe would be vacuum. Skepticism is the spur; Fatality, realization. Vessels sailing the clouds have been our mode of traveling for centuries, continual improvement have made the ships absolutely safe. I do not think the air ship can be perfected further unless something altogether new is invented. For speed, comfort, elegance, the air ship has no parallel. This rolling and slanting is simply the upward motion, like birds whose wings flutter spasmodically to a certain height then straight they speed almost without motion. Our ship will soon reach the altitude, the rolling, flapping of sails will cease, and the smoothness, evenness of travel will enrapture you. A feathered pet served as the model for the first invention, which can be seen in the museum at Centur. It is a remarkably cunning, useless contrivance, but is the foundation of this superb floating machine. Do not fail to visit the museum when you reach Centur."
Tolna's explanation undoubtedly was very elevating, but there was considerably more to learn about the air ship; and apparently we had reached the desired altitude, for the pitching and rolling ceased, and we flew straight ahead upon an infinite avenue of ether, so swiftly as to seem motionless. I was conducted to view the engine which was inclosed in a crystal cage stretching the length down the center of the ship. The machinery was a complicated mass of golden wires, crossed and recrossed with an astonishing assortment of tiny wheels, all revolving around a powerful arm that hammered swiftly up and down, and received force from a treacherous looking cylinder dashing back and forth. I became absorbed in the confusion of wires drawn swiftly over their golden pulleys, the sheen of yellow metal was dazzling.
Tolna turned me over to the engineer, who invited me to enter the glass cage with him. The kindly fellow patiently answered all my questions (know the senseless questions of greenhorns?) and explained the whole intricate mass of machinery which comprised five distinct separate engines, with only one in action; and fascinated, I watched the one working engine that compelled this huge structure to float upon the air. Then I made thorough examinations, vividly impressing the whole superb complication upon my memory. I was determined to master the mystery of the air ship before returning to my own country. Finally Tolna returned, some sign passed between him and the engineer, which I caught for all my absorbed contemplation. Evidently the engineer wished me out of the way, and hurriedly I departed with Tolna, who informed me my friends had made inquiries for me.
My three friends were hugely enjoying themselves. Each in their element, the center of a crowd, were lecturing with gusto upon the merits of their respective hobbies. Saxe. was exhibiting the interior of his car, and his face glowed with pride at the extraordinary interest the Centaurians took in the engraving of the lost Propellier.
Saunders was displaying the mutilated portions of his various astronomical instruments; his one uninjured instrument created a sensation. The Centaurians had never seen anything like it. Nothing in that line could compete with it in the museum at Centur, and they warned Saunders his little, old telescope would be seized by the government to be exhibited as a rare curio. He would be compensated, of course, of course—any one could see Saunders grow.
Sheldon was very important—irritatingly so—and had assumed an attitude of condescension little short of cuss words. He had quite the largest group of listeners, and was explaining with authoritative distinctness the many points of interest upon his map of the world.
But I culled the attention of all by distributing a few gold and silver coins, and this little generosity begot a tremendously new sensation. For the first time in my life I was the recipient of thanks, the value exceeding by far the gift; and under the unusual experience I became awkward, blushed and stammered.
What a startling, barbaric custom! Thanks! thanks! thanks! Prevailing etiquette of our world voted acceptance in any form, but a blasé, indifferent manner, the acme of vulgarity. Favor conferred in acceptance—the recipient's due, etc. Scientists delved into chaos, feverishly pursuing a wraith-like, fascinating substance, they labeled Gratitude, but the experts failed to discover the slightest streak of this rare ore of their brains. Universal is the belief in Gratitude, but no one—no one—has ever witnessed it.
Tolna escorted us to the cabin, which was richly furnished. Pale, cloudy material draped the walls; soft damask skins carpeted the floors; there were many couches and roomy seats in odd, fantastic forms, marvelous with intricate carving, massive, weighty, as though hewed from stone, yet lighter than wood.
The Centaurians had mastered the rare art of combining beauty with comfort I sank into a thickly cushioned seat and sipped the strange poignant liqueur Tolna served in tiny glasses. The poignant bouquet swept the cobwebs of fatigue from my system, and boldly I complimented the handsome youth, who looked as though he had just stepped from some mediæval painting. The Centaurians were a marvelously enlightened people, but in mode of dress had apparently remained stationary. They adhered, probably from time immemorial, to the pictureque, easy costume of the ancient Romans, but the gorgeous, pagan splendor of Rome paled before the barbaric magnificence of Centauri, scintillating in gem-studded fabrics. Sheldon, who was near, whispered excitedly: "The wealth of the world must be on this side. These fellows are stiff with richness—six centuries ahead—barbarians!"
"Orientals," I suggested.
"Nonsense!" he retorted. "But they do remind me a little of the Chinese—same costume since the year one. You've tipped Saunders one better, he declares these people are descendants of a lost tribe of Romans or Jews, explaining the wandering Jews discovered themselves again in the Romans, while the meandering Romans were lassoed by the Centaurians. He bases his extraordinary inference upon the appearance of these people; says they're Romans clear through, and grew bilious because I called the Centaurians barbarians, hinting he'd got his tribes mixed. I wasn't aware there were any Romans missing." Sheldon chuckled at the recollection and "supposed" the argument would last the whole time they were in this part of the world.
Saunders's idea concerning the origin of the Centaurians was certainly diverting, still not impossible. But we, not the Romans, discovered this wonderful new continent, and the superb Centauris are a product of their own magnificent land. These tall, powerful men were god-like in their perfect beauty with their close-cropped curls, strong necks and massive shoulders; but it did go against me to see the great muscular arms heavily braceleted.
Tolna, linking his arm in mine, informed me the journey was nearly at an end. We strolled out upon deck, everybody followed, and a quiver of excitement passed through all as a hoarse shout wafted up from the earth. The ship began rolling, and I experienced an uncomfortable sensation as it suddenly slanted down from the wind and through a damp, chilling cloud, then what an extraordinary, magnificent sight met the eye. Beneath, visible as in broad day, white, brilliant with lights, lay the remarkable, dazzling city of Latonia. Shining mosques, odd, cone-shaped domes, delicate spiral towers reared majestically to infinite heights, tinging the heavens with flaring, gigantic sprays of brilliancy. Through vivid reflections the broad avenues of this flashing city were plainly visible, black with a crowding, yelling mob that rent the air with deafening shouts as the gradually drooping ship gently settled upon a high steel trestle.
We were hurried down spidery steel steps and through an avenue of guards, but hastily uncovered before the wild cheers of the crowd that pressed forward. There was a rush, the guards gave way, we were seized, hoisted high, and carried to the waiting carriage, where a splendid old party stood smiling a welcome. With one hand he held in check the six restive horses, the other he extended to Saxe. The noise, confusion, was so great it was impossible to hear anything said, but we knew this was the Governor of Latonia, and saluted deeply. The fine, old gentleman gave us each a kindly greeting, then was obliged to turn his attention to the prancing, impatient horses, as they suddenly plunged into the crowd, which stampeded, but quickly closed in the rear and raced after us, cheering. We shouted back, waving our caps, while the delighted Latonians fiercely pelted us with flowers.
Once or twice the Governor raised his arm in protest, but the four scientists from the other side of the globe commanded the whole attention. The speeding horses soon outdistanced the crowd and suddenly swerved down a wide, peaceful boulevard. Dazed with excitement, we hardly noticed this wonderful city of bizarre architecture except that it blazed in a continual glare. The streets were all of unyielding stone, and thronged with people, people, people—in the gardens, doorways, windows, even clinging to the house-tops—who cheered lustily as we clattered past and frantically waved gay streamers and peculiar white flags, ornamented with a single, glaring, yellow star.
Gallantly we saluted this strange emblem of Centauri.
The Governor's palace, situated in the heart of the city, was a great, clumsy, stone structure, of many gables and towers, surrounded by a park of stately oaks. The tolling of countless bells signaled our arrival, the tall gates flew wide, and the horses dashed up a broad, graveled road. People hurried from all parts of the park to see us as the Governor escorted us to the great domed hall, where he bestowed upon us the embrace of welcome, then personally conducted us to our apartments. He placed his palace at our disposal, and gave strict orders concerning our comfort (the moon was ours for the asking), then turned us over to an army of attendants. These people seemed rather timid of us at first and deferentially sounded our inclinations regarding the bath. As we exhibited a lively interest in the subject they lost no further time about the matter, but hurried us down vast columned halls and corridors, and finally ushered us to a pavilion gardened with countless strange, tropical plants. A deep rippling brook gently caressed the soggy edge of a steep mossy bank, and down this soft incline we recklessly tumbled and rolled, hauling and mauling each other, and simultaneously plunged into the water with a tremendous splash—the water was tepid and stinging. Saxe. suggested it was the salt, but Saunders was positive we bathed in fresh water, while Sheldon declared it was lime, and these advanced people wished to do away with us to get possession of the car. It was certainly a villainous plot. But we emerged from the plunge with tingling, glistening skins, and meekly submitted to the severe rubbing down that even a pugilist would balk against. Swathed in fleecy wool, we were hustled through a panel door, down a winding, oven-heated alley, which led, in some mysterious way, direct to our apartments. They handled us like toys, these cast-iron people, and quickly assisted us into fresh clothing—the costume of Centauri, which suited us well, though Sheldon whined that he felt naked. Saxe. and Saunders bothered continually about the chemicals contained in the bath, and quizzed the attendants, who pretended not to understand; both however declared they felt as fresh as daisies and good for all night.
"No doubt," said Sheldon, "freshness is proverbial with daisies, though I've seen many that reeked the other way; but recollect everything on this side is six centuries ahead, even to the water, and the Centaurians seem pretty rapid. That stiff, old chap, the Governor, is going to let us in for some tall doings."
Saxe. flushed angrily as I snickered approval of Sheldon's flippancy, but was forced to postpone his bristling rebuke as a sedate, but very nervous individual, entered, bowing profoundly and announced in scarcely audible tones something about "Governor," and "waiting." We followed the gentleman of nerves, who seemed greatly distressed because we looked at him. He ushered us to the great dining hall, then escaped with remarkable agility.
A feast awaited us, long tables spread with snowy, sheeny cloth; rich, tropical fruit heaped high in wide, golden salvers, pasty sweets, jellied viands, crowned with the aroma of punch—it was a congenial atmosphere. The rooms were crowded with guests, who watched us with delighted expectancy as Tolna advanced to meet us.
"Not a woman in sight!" muttered Sheldon. "Somebody had a dream like this once and woke up, crowing he'd been in hell!"
Divining Sheldon's grumble Tolna explained the ladies had retired. He would not detain us long, as he wished us to rest, for at day-break, according to orders, we were to be conveyed to Centur, and presented to "The Centauri."
Introductions followed. We were separated in the gathering about the tables. Sheldon joined the representatives of the National Geographical-Geological societies. Saunders bossed things among the astronomers, and Saxe. was the center of an odd-looking, crowding group. I was tolled off to the Sports of Latonia, there was no doubt about it, either—they were Sports.
The wine passed freely. Ye gods! wine that required years to season the system. I drank sparingly, indulging in luscious fruit, yet did I become light-headed and lost prudence. I was the gayest of the swift band and boisterously outsang them all. How they did laugh! And their jokes! Ouch! leveled at me! Each ardently drank to the beauties of Centauri, then all declared some angel waited my return to the other side. Their mirth grew wild, noisy, as my face flushed, the blood rushed to my brain, wine roused desire. I sprang up, overturning the chair in my eagerness and twirling my goblet high, shouted: "I drink to the glorious eyes of my inamorata, Alpha Centauri!"
The effect was startling and enough to sober any man. A pall of silence fell upon the guests deeper than the polar stillness and in profound respect all rose stiff, erect as soldiers, murmuring in hushed, reverential tones the name: "Alpha Centauri."
I was astonished, yet positive of some mistake. These men could not possibly know of the myth that had lured me to this land, gallantly complimenting their fair country, I, at the same time had been chivalrous to the hidden passion. There was some mistake, and I laughed at their solemnity, again raising my goblet: "To the beauty of my enchantress, Alpha Centauri!" I sang out, but in lower, gentler tones.
What ailed them? All bowed respectfully, but not one touched his glass. Then the Governor, who was at the far end of the table, raised his glass level with his eyes and slowly turned it in a circle. "Gentlemen," he spoke in tones almost devout, "with the fiery young stranger, I drink to the most wise, divine—Alpha Centauri!"
At once all goblets were raised and drained, then in silence the gentlemen reseated themselves. Merriment was stifled, I alone remained standing, sobered—but when was I ever wise.
"I drank to a myth," I cried; "a vision of my brain that tortured and lured me beyond the Pole. May I inquire whom you gentlemen honor?"
Again the Governor rose and replied: "We drank to Alpha Centauri, the future ruler of the world, the most wonderful woman in the universe, resolute, brilliant, mysterious as the star from whence she came—Alpha Centauri."
My goblet fell with a thud. I tried to recover it and caught the table to steady myself. At once all was confusion, a sea of blurred faces surrounded me. "Give him water, he's had enough wine!" rang the familiar tones of Saxe. Immediately the weakness left me and Sheldon's hoarse whisper forced me to smile. "The myth realized—if she only looks as she appeared; but she won't, old boy, she won't! It's some old jade with a hair-lip. Beautiful women were created to be adored, never to rule." He chuckled audibly as I pushed him aside.
Tolna offered me wine, but Saxe. compelled me to drink a whole goblet of water, then in a way all his own, which no one could take offence at, he intimated the day had been long, fatiguing, and suggested the merrymakers continue without the presence of the four strangers.
Tolna regretted, the others crowded about us, but finally with many salutes we were escorted from the hall.
When we were alone Saxe. advised and warned me, and Saunders shook his head. "To think it should come true!" he muttered.
"Yes," said Saxe., "your vision is mortal. You will realize what is denied to most. All have ideals, those are rare that are realized."
"Don't congratulate him yet, boys," chimed in Sheldon; "wait till the 'ideal' materializes, perhaps then he'll want our sympathies. And, Sally, did you really believe in the vision? But of course you did; the effect was powerful; you gave up everything to join us."
"I loved!" I cried, all aflame. "Sometimes I believed, again doubted; but all the time I loved, and that leads anywhere, most often to hell!"
Saxe. threw up his hands in protest. He was not a profane man, and Saunders suggested we retire.
Our room was spacious, luxurious, divided into four by tall granite columns. The furniture was rich, but weighty in effect, and fantastically carved; the beds were long, narrow and heavily padded; we sank deep in softness, inhaling a sleep producing odor, sweet, sensuous.
Drowsily Sheldon uttered a gruesome joke, and Saxe. yawned his preference for the bunks of his car.