The Centaurians/Chapter XII
The following day dawned clear, bright and hot. The heat irritated Sheldon and inspired orative propensities in Saxe.; both were engaged in argument as I entered the room reserved for—er—gossip.
"They are certainly a cold-blooded, soulless race," agreed Saxe. to Sheldon's testy exclamation; "Fish!"
"The result of over-civilization," continued Saxe. with merciless deliberation. "They have reached the acme of that which we deem impossible, yet gaze upon in all its remarkable rarity—Perfection. And in the whole universe I see nothing so imperfect; yet these people are sublimely satisfied with themselves, their complacency and faith in their superiority is superb—I wouldn't be one of them! In their marvelous conceit they have dared penetrate and would crush Nature's final repose. Their indefatigable search for knowledge is spurred by the belief that everlasting existence is accomplished in conquering all mysteries. Death to them is full realization, having solved the problem of joy they forfeited immortality. Earth is their Paradise; they and their world beyond have reached perfection—there is nothing beyond."
I hastened to change the subject Saxe.'s words filled me with horror as I thought of the beautiful girl whose supreme ambition was for immortality, which she expected to gain through deeds, not death. Knowledge would be the ruination of this grand race. Saxe. spoke the truth, but I would not believe, and accused him of hasty judgment and ever on the alert for effect. He shook his head, gravely reiterating his statements of the "strange, repellant Centaurians," from whom he would learn all he could, considering them, from a scientific point of view, most interesting. He emphatically preferred the Potolilis and Octrogonas.
I hurried to the gardens to avoid further discussions, but my friends soon joined me. We strolled beneath gigantic trees, enjoying their cool, quiet protection from the fierce sunlight. Strange flowers grew in profusion, flowers of massive beauty and sickening-sweet fragrance.
"Monstrosities—flowers—Centaurians!" snapped Saxe., still harping on the subject that made me realize the full meaning of despair.
I passionately loved the beautiful Centaurian who ruled over this abnormal civilization, whose demise meant—bah! does Saxe. know any more about it than the rest of us? Impatiently I turned away, colliding with a huge bush glorious in bloom, whose exquisite flower of transparent whiteness petaled a star-shaped, golden heart. Instantly the beautiful, heavy, fragrant clusters enslaved the senses with a strange, ecstatic glamour. The compelling personality of the siren I worshipped roused vivid, overpoweringly, crowding from my mind all obnoxious warnings. Impulsively I plucked the gorgeous witch flowers, and with fervent message sent them to the fairest, most beautiful woman in all the world. The reply was brief, characteristic, despairing. Alpha Centauri was thankful I had rested well (which I hadn't mentioned), and trusted I would find the day full of enjoyment. She would receive me when I returned from the Observatory.
"Damn the Observatory!" I blurted out.
"Another man, no fake!" chirped Sheldon in his usual consoling manner. "A fine girl like that, of course, has admirers."
"I don't believe it!" I bawled.
"Centur is not interested in your beliefs," he retorted; "and—oh, well, have it any way that's tickling. She's been waiting all her life for—er—you, dear boy."
He snickered, while I, with growing excitement, declared my intention of shirking the Observatory.
"Bravo, Sally! my suggestion exactly," Sheldon laughed. "The Observatory will come later; it always does—just one particular twinkler now; when that pales——."
A number of gentlemen unexpectedly joined us. Apparently they had been waiting for us somewhere and I was cheated out of my reply.
Sheldon fairly shook with exasperating enjoyment as he manœuvred to prevent me getting any closer to him than a block.
We were escorted to the museum, our way leading mostly through the vast gardens of the palace. From time to time along the route groups of gentlemen casually joined us until, as Sheldon elegantly expressed it, we ought to be tagged or the Pound might take us for the lost tribe of Roman-Jews and get rude.
We strolled along in pairs and groups. I was tolled off to a set of pretty, babbling inconsequents, whose beauty, gracefulness and astonishing interest displayed in Sheldon's witticisms impressed me rather favorably. I amused myself watching Saxe. as he cleverly juggled with the people he thought so little of, making them his friends; but finally bored into deep meditation completely forgot them all, even the beardless fashionables, whom the Centaurians considered my class, who, uneasy, at my absent-mindedness, uncongeniality, slyly slipped away one by one. Unnoticed I escaped down a side path, where a sea of pink bloom tempted me to wander in amazed admiration through a veritable forest of waxen lilies. But their roseate beauty, fragrance failed to lighten the gloom that now gripped desperately. For the first time in my life I realized my own individual worth. Stripped of wealth, the ruling deity of my world, I stood revealed an ordinaire without talent or inspiration, a dissatisfied nondescript riling at fate, limited in the higher treasures of enlightenment before which this fair, radiant land of mighty ideals kneeled. Saxe., Sheldon, Saunders and myself, had battled with northern horrors to discover—same evil old world of sordidness, shoddily veneered, ranting victory over impulse, but coveting, struggling, for the imaginary power of knowing all things.
I had neglected to bring my one potent charm, and out of my sphere, bitter with disappointment, crazed with love sickness, in a frenzy of desire I vowed—vowed to possess the One Woman, who from her pedestal of aloofness roused such reverential awe. She who would solve all mysteries shall realize the joy, sorrow of savagery.
Before the masterful emotion of possession, tumultuous ravings evaporated. My mind cleared, freshened as a mid-summer's day after a cooling shower, and from a sweet, calm reverie, I was suddenly roused by my own ringing laughter. After all, these marvelously enlightened people were not so different from us—the whole world avoids a man in love.
I emerged from the forest of blush lilies; a wide waste of velvety lawn stretched far to the east, and nestling in a hollow of soft emerald, a long grotesque structure of ivory whiteness gleamed. It was the museum. The entrance stood wide and I entered a lofty, tiled hall, the walls wondrously carved; fabulous monstrosities leered from all sides. I stepped into a spacious room hung with handwoven silks and rare tapestries of intricate design, rich scarfs of delicate raised beading represented scenes of a strange, unknown period. There were peculiar wall ornaments in circular and diamond shapes. Queer conical baskets, varying in size from a thimble to a trunk woven from human hair, the various shades blending exquisitely in quaint patterns. There were curious pouches, chatelaines and many dainty toilet articles, made from the damask leather of pulped flowers, the odor after unknown centuries clinging pungently to the crushed blossoms.
I strolled from one department to the other crowded with priceless curios. It was impossible to view everything in a single day, but I did good work in the few hours I spent there, and during my stay in Centur visited the museum many times.
Most of the morning glided away as I lingered before great jewel cases, containing superb gems. I marveled at the rare, beautiful settings, and queer golden ornaments covered with weird inscriptions; great golden urns, shaped like a bishop's mitre, and tongueless bells engraved with heathenish figures, and apart by itself was an enormous block of gold cut with minute carvings and hierographic writings, with a monstrous ruby like a rose-bud sunk in the center. The tiny carvings represented vital epochs in the history of Centauri, and the great ruby heart would evaporate when Centauri ceased—the sentiment was very pretty.
I curiously examined numerous trays of beads, their glaring colors blended gorgeously in barbaric settings. These articles were treasured because worn by the first Centauris, and for centuries had ceased to be manufactured. The few remaining strings in Saxe.'s collection were vastly superior in make and no doubt, in many eloquent speeches, he would be requested to donate them to the museum.
I wandered into a great long picture gallery. The walls hung with rare old paintings—these people had their "old masters" also. For over an hour I remained before a huge painting; it seemed one could enter the pictured room and converse with the vividly animated faces, brightened with such friendly, expressive eyes. In the foreground the figure of a woman reclined upon a golden couch swathed in flimsy material, ill concealing her dusky beauty. Deep, burning eyes gleamed intensely, heavy masses of dark hair fell all around her. She was beautiful, fascinating, yet repelled. The passionate eyes were cruel, the lovely mouth drooped, cold, cynical; yet there was a startling resemblance between this divinity of past ages and the woman I adored. The ancient Queen was feline, treacherous, and the living beauty——? I was informed the portrait was a splendid likeness of the first woman to rule the Centaurians. Her reign had been one of culture and prosperity. She existed during the era of Love, and was Alpha the First. All the women of the Great Family have been named after her. "There is a wonderful resemblance between the portrait and the present Alpha," I remarked.
My informant lowered his eyes. The glamour of awe, reverence, had been well ground into these people. Apparently the present Alpha was sacred and beyond comparison. The political situation of this great country could be regarded any way it pleased the Centaurians, but their Alpha was their Queen.
The worshipful gentleman spoke, his voice trembling with pride. "The present Alpha is divine," he told me.
"And," he continued, "the painting that so interests you represents the Centaurians just emerging from the savage state."
"Ah, bravo!" We bowed deeply to each other and, admiringly. I watched him as he strolled leisurely away.
For some time I lingered, studying the untamed beauty of Alpha the First, then as the echo of voices reached me, and fearing to encounter those who had failed to notice my absence, I hurried ahead through luxurious apartments furnished in the silken modernness of my world and rested secure in a dimly-lit room crowded with primitive earthenware, grotesque pottery and cooking utensils. Progression had neatly divided the apartment. Near where I stood were shelves of ancient bric-a-brac and clay crockery of unique design and molding. There were tall, shining pedestals and enormous fat vases, and behind a hideous idol with white eyes, I hid till sure those I wished to avoid had passed on.
I wandered aimlessly, marveling at the fabulous antiquity, and finally anchored in a vast department of massive machinery. Here progression had made rapid strides; you could follow it from the crude, primitive, to perfected mechanism. I came across a curiously devised instrument, raw, immature, yet very similar to Saxe.'s lost Propellier. His invention, however, was the idea perfected, and to excite comparison and prove the superiority of his own instrument he intended constructing a new machine and present it to the museum.
I examined strange traveling conveyances, uncouth, chariot-shaped, and laughed at the repetition of custom—chariots were in use at the present time. There were huge ocean liners, and bulky, high-masted sailing vessels, and ominous, sullen battleships. The railroad was ludicrously represented« in complete trains of heavy, lumbersome coaches, drawn by gigantic engines, as different from the locomotives of our world as the two halves of the globe. The first aerial machine, though a complete failure, had its niche in this colossal exposition. Tragic was its history, a score or more lives sacrificed to the inventor's ambition. Navigable balloons came later, marking progress, success, in various forms. Most were square at the base with toy wind-mills for propellers, and if they sailed the air, all right; but not even Centauri could tempt me to enter one. Devilish implements of war and monstrous instruments of torture occupied a vast space, catalogued according to history with civilization glaringly noticeable in the learning of refined fiendishness. It was fascinating to follow up the perpetual advancement of inhumanity. From primitive ingenuity of the antediluvian age one stepped through the periods of enlightenment, reaching the zenith of hostile progression through an awful device, creating instantaneous blindness. This exhausted the age of war, but the exquisite cruelty of these people continued to advance. Instruments of frightful torture were extensively arrayed, foul infernal machines to whose ingenious devilishness nothing, nothing in the universe could compare—the Centaurians have not always been saints (?).
Constant civilization simplifies the miraculous, but savagery exists as long as life's fluid stains red.
I lost no time in getting away from the room of horrors with its loathsome exhibit of man's satanic genius, and hastened down a narrow, serpentine passage, plunging unexpectedly through a swinging brass net door. A flood of light greeted me and I blinked and gaped in confusion. I had stumbled into the midst of a large assemblage of gigantic men and women whose stone countenances welcomed me with every variety of expression. There were joyful, beaming smiles, and fierce glances of forbiddance, but all diffidence vanished before the sweet witchery of invitation. I had reached the hall of wonderful sculpture and at once sought the three famous loves of Centauri.
Perfection in art had been attained during the era of passion; plainly genius is a savage taint. The deadening of all emotion is productive of the marvelous in science, but abnormity is the result of too advanced civilization. In this motley collection acquired and natural inspiration is easily discernible and progression traceable in gradual sections. The Centaurians had reached the inartistic height and realized it. They treasured antiquity above all the miraculous inventions of modern times.
Conspicuously set apart and above in lofty azure niches, the three grand passions of the dark ages gazed down upon their stone dominion. I paused before a colossal figure in quartz richly veined with gold, a form of heavy, generous proportions, a dull, stupid face—this was Love. The sculptor was a master, but lacked originality, expression, and judging him by his work, he'd found Love deucedly slow. His winged child, however, was exquisite, but failed to impress, being the same fat, little boy trying to fly that we're all familiar with.
The third Love was produced in a later generation and tantalized with enticement. The artist betrayed a cynical, humorous genius in every curve of his exquisite creation and had transformed a huge block of virgin marble into a pair of lovers. It was the work of a visionary, the human form never reached such absolute divinity.
A feminine figure of petite, delicate loveliness was passionately clasped in the massive arms of a herculean Adonis, who gazed rapturously into the upturned flower face, fascinating in winsome, diablier beauty. The pose was ideal. This risque conception was "Fancy," and I laughed softly as I figured out the situation. Each fancied, desired, toyed with the other, both were superficial; and the sculptor, after varied experience, happily discovered that Love was merely a fleeting disturbance. Vaguely I wondered if anything so incredulous could be true, and devoutly hoped so. Centauri I loved, fiercely desired, but should the end be disastrous I would give all my wealth to have the madness flit airily away into convenient, mischievous "Fancy." Not caring to mar the delightful, whimsical impression this astounding phantasy made upon me, I left the museum.
The morning was far advanced—noon, I judged by the sun. There wasn't a soul in sight, just a broad expanse of calm and peace throbbing beneath a scorching sun, and my enchanting forest of vermilion flickered, sultry, seemingly hundreds of miles away. I decided to go to the city. It was a long tramp, but I rested frequently in cool green parks, shaded by giant trees. Houses at first were few, quaintly picturesque, surrounded with beautiful gardens and orchards. Soon this lovely rural simplicity gave way to broad avenues lined with costly residences, but after awhile, though the uniformed elegance was very impressive, I wearied of the monotonous similarity of the odd domed buildings, glistening with a greenish lustre. It was this sea lustre which caused Sheldon to exclaim, when beholding the palace of Centauri, "A palace of crystal!"
Houses were not crushed together as seen in our cities. Each building was centered in a spacious square and all surrounded with high, solid walls. Curious, I examined this wall. The surface was smooth, shiny and cold. I decided the foundation was of stone veneered with a combination of—er——.
A short distance ahead a gentleman stepped from one of the gardens and I hastened to join him. He had no objection to my company; the Centaurians are a genial, social race. It was not long, however, before he discovered I was "one of the four strangers who had crossed," etc., and he hung like a burr. He was full of information, tedious with lengthy explanations—he went clear around the city to reach a point just across the street, and I watched for a chance to lose him, deciding finally to excuse myself and streak up another avenue, when suddenly he grasped my arm, murmuring: "The hour of worship," and rushed me ahead to avoid the people trooping from houses and gardens who swelled the great throng that gradually swooped upon us. In the crush I lost my friend, but could see him peering for me in all directions and cheerfully eluded him. I was forced along, wondering at the destination of this dense, silent throng, all so hurried and earnest, traveling with settled purpose in one direction. Women, vividly beautiful with health; men, muscular, powerful in their strength; children, fresh with a cherubic loveliness; a fascinating crowd. Suddenly loud shouts of warning rang clear on the sultry air, I heard the clattering of horses' hoofs upon the hard pavement: the crowd parted with shrill cheers and a chariot drawn by plunging white horses flew by. A woman stood erect, holding with one hand the reins guiding the flying steeds, the other was pointed to the heavens. A woman tall, straight, a goddess with dark tresses floating in the breeze.
"Alpha Centauri!" I gasped.
"Aye, Alpha Centauri," the man next to me answered.
"Priestess of the Sun!" cried a second.
"The bride of Knowledge, whose wedding gift was divinity," murmured a third. And it is all very pretty, I thought, and what a poetical, sentimental race these people are.
Steadily pressing onward, with constant reinforcements trooping from every avenue, the crush became alarming, but finally we entered a wide park and in relief the people spread like a great, black wave over the green lawn thinning to an obelisk peak toward a shining temple, with glistening steeples topped with huge golden globes. The bronze portals stood wide and, carried along by the rush of devout Centaurians, I entered a place dark with the chill of a sepulchre. My eyes accustomed to the brilliant sunlight at first could distinguish nothing, but gradually the darkness lifted. I was in a house of worship crowded with a kneeling, reverent congregation. Ignorant of what they worshipped, I would not kneel, but squatted upon the cold, tiled floor, and peered through the dim light. A long hall, wide, windowless, with lofty domed ceiling and rounded walls hung with rich tapestries and exquisite wood etchings. In the roof was a circular opening about twenty feet in diameter—this admitted all the light and ventilation. No wonder the place was cold, dark and filled with close vapors. Directly beneath this opening four massive, yet transparent, columns rose, and in the center a figure stood heavily draped, with face upturned and arms hanging limply at the sides. In the dimness at first I took this form for a fifth column. The congregation was a silent one, no psalm singing, minister or priest; yet all were reverently, devoutly engrossed. Gradually the light grew brighter, clearer, and long, slanting rays of the sun filtered through the opening. Longer, stronger, grew these slants of light and heat penetrating the darkest corner. Then suddenly the sun itself appeared, a round, burning disc, high in the heavens directly above the opening. The Temple was flooded with light, and the figure I took for a statue moved, flinging up its arms in worshipful adoration, chanting weirdly in low tones. As the sun moved so did the form. I caught a glimpse of the face and fell against my neighbor with a loud, startled cry, but my voice was drowned in the great volume of music that filled the place. These people with lifted faces and outstretched arms sang ardently—sang to the Sun. And the woman upon whom I feasted my eyes stood in all her marvelous loveliness amid the burning rays of this fiery god, in truth a Priestess of the Sun.
As the sun gradually sailed over the opening the rays became shorter, more oblique, casting odd black shadows, and finally the Temple was once more in darkness. The song ended abruptly, the congregation rose and quietly dispersed; services were over.
I remained, intending to examine this peculiar Temple of a fiery religion, but the lid slid suddenly over the opening above and hastily I groped my way to the door, thankful there were no seats to stumble over. Out in the hot sunshine again I mingled with the crowd that hurried in various directions and wandered about the city for hours.
The architecture of public buildings was varied, unique, superb, and in complete contrast to the monotonous sameness of private dwellings. Skilled architects had planned that no two government buildings should in any way be similar. Near the palace was the court house, a low, square, rugged stone building of primitive hideousness, centuries—centuries old. Prisons there were none; this half of the globe was free of criminals. It was explained to me that all causes fostering crime belonged to the middle ages. A philosopher had then predicted that civilization would be complete when passionate humanity became extinct—ahem! The Centaurians had mastered civilization in the production of a perfect race. They could not love or hate. Adultery, murder, envy, jealousy were the unknown evils of savagery.
Exterminating the germ, Love, root of disaster, all other passions were conquered by themselves. Marriage was committed simply for the perpetuity of the race.
I envied these people their lofty, pure minds, and rare, physical perfection. Like blessed, celestial childhood, they seemed free of care. Death brought momentary sadness, regret. These philosophers declared dissolution the highest degree of nature, which they worshipped in the form of the Sun.
The political situation of the country I did not attempt to analyze, but the great organizations of political intrigue, shareholders in the monstrous, outrageous peculation of Principle, and the turbulent, contagious plague of Election, were labeled among the rare curios of the dark ages.
The Centaurians in their far-reaching, penetrating intelligence and advanced simplicity, vested full power in one man, the Great Man of Wisdom.
Centauri was the head of the nation, personifying the government, and enlightened beyond duplicity, believed firmly in himself, as did the people. Fortunates, rising above tortuous, mental doubts, are the dominants of civilization.
From time immemorial each Great Man, upon assuming office, was supposed to form a new government, but the majority abided by the laws of their predecessors, chary of questioning the sublime, shackless justice, reigning centuries of calm. Centauri, however, brought about many radical changes. His strenuousness ended the quietude of centuries, destroyed the ancient laws of his ancestors and created new ones. The people welcomed the new regime. "Progression!" they cried, but ignored entirely that which was next to Centauri's heart.
"Progression by degrees is more thorough." The people pleaded and vetoed the order "to abolish all Sun Temples and erect new houses of worship to Him, who is supreme."
Centauri wished to found a new sect and when learning of the veto, sorrowfully remarked: "I have ignored the Gradual, yet will live to realize the suggestion as fact." He sacrificed his wish to the people. He set a new value upon Trade, which in this ideal world defined the full significance of the word—merchandise for merchandise—limiting the circulation of currency to such an extent that in the present era of plenty money was superfluous, and exchanged merely for form in trifling transactions.
Many schools, libraries were stationed throughout the city; handsome buildings luxuriously equipped. Private institutions had long been abolished, young ladies' seminaries and muscle-developing colleges, where fancy sums are expended for a veneer which renders the subject pitifully unfit, lacking even the ability to assist themselves in necessity. Mere useless toys of frivolity issued yearly from stilted preparatories—unseasoned veal garnished with underdone dumplings, a saute, to the dismay of our ancestors, is called the rising generation—were forgotten nuisances. In this marvelously enlightened world greed, cupidity were traits of mediæval times, merit rose superior to capricious "influence," students were ambitious, sincere in their efforts and sought elevation till they passed away to new spheres. Centur had many magnificent theaters, all with a remarkable roof contrivance. At a moment's notice the whole top of the building could be removed, sliding upon hinges and resting at the side of the house upon props like a huge box cover.
The opera house was by far the handsomest building of its kind in the city. The interior was indescribably beautiful, lavish, rich, wantonly luxurious, with a seating capacity for twenty thousand.
The Centaurians had still to conquer their passion for music, but comedy was the chief amusement, caged in a bijou of art splendid with elaborate decorations of foolish clowns, mirth-inspiring masks and rare, exquisite etchings of fair Folly in various beckoning attitudes. These wise children, with their wonderful clarity of thought, had long digested the happiness of laughter, but realized the absolute necessity of variation. Gloom spiced delight; ennui was strictly a product of my own country.
Tragedy was a classic, a profound culture, and was lodged in a sombre, stately building bearing the nearest approach to a prison I had yet encountencountered—a handsome monument to Melancholia, rich in antiquity. There were whole scenes of famous tragedies produced in wonderful paintings startlingly vivid with the misery of reality shadowed in a background of heavy, costly, dull-hued fabrics. I grew wretched with homesickness in the dolorous aura, dense with the miasma of rank perfumes. The theater reminded me of those of my own world during the sad day time, illy ventilated, morose half light, and the usual freezing shower to the imagination which impels you to seek fresh air with alacrity. Tragedy was unpopular with the Centaurians. Thespians were forced to work before the uninspiring view of rows of empty seats, their efforts critically watched by scant audiences, unresponsive, stony, occasionally applauding, invariably at the wrong time. And the actors, adepts in the art of mechanism, waded through their parts with not the slightest conception or sympathy—marionettes.
The culture of progression reduced tragedy to the greatest of farces, and fatalities were shelved by the generation of the wonderful present. The knowledge of the "diseased art, relic of the dark ages," was culled from the histories of the ancients.
Fascinated, I tramped throughout this marvelous city, congratulating myself that I was without a guide. The lost, strange feeling was delightful. I had not the remotest idea where I was going, but noticed the avenues grew broader, dwellings farther apart and gardens larger, more gorgeous, finally terminating in the city's wall, a shallow forest of magnificent trees circling Centur like a great feathery belt; beyond stretched a broad vista of lovely verdant country, but the blue line of distance seemed strangely cut and uneven, a shadowy obstruction reared to a tremendous height extending over the land for miles.
Curious, I wandered to the edge of the forest wall, resting a few minutes, undecided whether to advance or turn back; then I struck out direct over the soft green fields, avoiding the road, which is always the longest route. Why?
The heat was intense, the journey long, tedious, but in the glorious end fatigue was forgotten. I finally reached a high, massive iron trellis wall, through which I peered at a scene; ah! entrancing, Eden-like, veiled with the enchantment of mystery. I found the ponderous gates invitingly wide and dared to enter this strangely still sphere of illusion, dense with overpowering, exotic odors of millions of brilliant-hued blossoms. I gorged my sight with the rainbow tinted vision, then waded neck deep in the wild, flowery maze, wondering for all the heavy-scented fascination just why this paradise had been created.
Gradually my senses pierced the charm and I discovered the bewildering-hued floral abundance was massed cleverly together forming clusters of stars, circles and crescents, separated by broad stone paths, all leading to a gigantic structure rearing higher than any building in Centur. A grim abode, marring, darkening the brilliant surroundings. I ventured near this huge, strange building; high, broad, square, of sombre granite, the massive bronze portals stood wide.
A chill quietness pervaded all things, a sudden unaccountable feeling of abhorrence came over me. My swift glance traveled throughout the immense vestibule tiled with black marble and wainscoted to the ceiling with iron; the walls were ornamented with countless little brass knobs.
"A sepulchre!" I gasped; "a monstrous tomb!" and turning quickly fell heavily against a man who evidently had been following me.
"You wish to enter?" he asked, ignoring my awkwardness. In confusion I mumbled an apology. The moment I spoke he saluted deeply.
"One of the four strangers from the other side," he murmured; and without further ceremony led the way. I followed, plying him with questions, all of which he courteously answered. He informed me the circular spots that so attracted me were the knobs of little doors leading to diminutive, yet far-stretching lanes, containing the ashes of the departed. He twisted a great knob near the floor, instantly twenty or thirty little doors flew open and I peered curiously into the little dark alleys, some extending clear around the building and all containing ashes of those who had departed centuries ago.
"The fundamental law and perfecting touch of nature is extinction," the gentleman informed me. "At the expiration of a race," he continued, "the ashes of the entire line are removed from these cells and consigned to the underground vaults which form the foundation of this building. Throughout the gardens are many stairways leading to the vaults; ventilation is perfect. Would you care to visit the underground?"
I replied hastily in the negative.
He told me the building had been erected 5,000 years and was still incomplete. It comprised twenty-five floors, with the plans opened to add twenty-five more. But he was positive the additional twenty-five floors would never be built, basing his conviction upon the "supreme law of degeneration, extinction."
He declared the building would never be completed; that it would take thousands of years, and the "inevitable is never idle."
"Has it always been cremation? Was there never a time of burials?" I asked.
"Burials!" he cried: "you mean the body in the natural state, planted in the ground?"
"Preposterous!" he gasped; "is there such a custom? Not even the savages commit such sacrilege. Cremation," he continued, "is a form of our religion, though for a century burials were resorted to. Eight hundred years ago a noted herbalist of that period extracted from minerals an acid which, when applied to the lifeless body, produced instant petrification, but unfortunately the demise of this wise man closed forever the petrified age. We returned to cremation."
He drew from their cells exquisite, odd-shaped urns. Some were of bronze, many of iron, a few of gold. The silver ones were tarnished and ugly, and plain stone jars seemed to be the most in use. He drew out boxes of rare scented wood, beautifully inlaid with metals, and from one of the lower shelves brought out a narrow, oblong, silvery block, explaining the style had been in use many centuries and proved the most durable.
Eagerly I examined the curio. It was a crystal block quaintly etched with queer characters, the ashes within giving the silver sheen. I quickly returned it to its cell, then stooping, twisted the great knob near the floor, which caused all the little doors to spring together with a snap. The guide smiled knowingly and, taking my arm, escorted me down the long, sombre hall, advising me to inspect the tomb of the Great Family. We halted in front of a small door, which flew open at the touch, revealing a small, square platform that shot up like a rocket as we stepped upon it. The speed slackened gradually to a standstill before wonderful gates of smooth, dull gold, which slowly opened. I entered a lofty, arched room, flooded with sunlight blazing upon gold-paneled walls, and sank ankle deep in golden floss which deadened sound. I gazed upon fabulous magnificence. There were wonderful embroideries studded with gems flashing golden suns. Silver gauze hung high, shimmering with sparkling sprays, soft as moonlight; strange urns, jars and bowls embedded with gems; delicate jeweled caskets of ivory and jade, tall crystal cylinders, divided into compartments, all containing a silvery dust. Massive bronze columns carved and engraved with strange forms and inscriptions relative to the history of those whose ashes powdered its heart. Gold and silver globes and queer diamond-shaped receptacles were lined in order upon bronze trestles; all contained the sanctified ashes of rulers long departed, and high above all this splendor hung the golden banner and imperial arms of Centauri.
My eyes suddenly fastened upon a hideous stone figure, the trunk of a woman resting upon a gem-incrusted pedestal.
"That is the form of the beauteous Alpha Centauri, who reigned during the petrified age," the guide informed me. "It is very pathetic, and marks petrification a failure. The lower portion of the body has crumpled away; the pedestal contains the powder. Before long what remains will be dust, then the pedestal will be sealed."
"Why so much splendor for the Great Family if all Centaurians are equal?" I asked.
"All Centaurians are equal," he answered; "but the Great Family is divine, immortal."
"Truly is the Great Family wise," I muttered; then suddenly sickened, repelled at the bestial richness. I turned toward the golden gates, but hesitated, not caring to descend by the treacherous elevator.
The guide, understanding my nervousness, led me through a rear door and out to a long, barren, draughty hall. The floor, a recent addition, was still incomplete, but the ashes of the Great Family always occupied the new portion of the building. We reached a narrow, winding stairway, and the friendly guide cautioned and advised slow travel.
I began the steep descent, but frequently rested, owing to an odd trembling, and from that day forever I abhorred the odor of musk and wondered if I had inhaled any of the perfumed powder of the Great Family. Reaching the gloomy, black tiled hall, I rushed like one possessed out into the fresh air, but the beauties of the garden had vanished and I raced along the white paths and was soon streaking it across the green country, nor did I slacken up till reaching once more the swaying, circular forest. I followed the edge of the curving grove, hoping it would lead to the heart of the city, but instead the trees thinned to the harbor. The long, slanting rays of the sun glistened upon white piers and bridges which jutted far out into the bay. Gateways were elaborate columned arches, and the fantastic domed and spiral turreted roofs of dock buildings gave Centur the appearance of a great mystical palace floating upon the sea. If only the much respected municipalities of our various cities could have accompanied me upon that tour of inspection——!!!
Heavy freight was still transported by water and rail. I watched strong, brawny men load and unload queer, barge-like ships.
The wages of labor was paid in bolts of goods, provisions and books. Knowledge was prized higher than gold or silver.
All work was done for the government. There was but one government, one nationality, one language, and competition, monopolies, labor organizations, were unknown evils. There were no classes, all men were equal, but a thin dividing line was stretched by Knowledge—the more learned the more power.
Supreme satisfaction resulted in this superior civilization.
I wandered some time around the business portion of the city, vainly trying to find my way back to the palace. I would not ask directions, as I passed all right for a Centaurian, till I opened my mouth, then I was gaped at as "one of the four," etc. This had begun to pall.
There seemed to be a great many buildings going up in the business district, or it was just possible that my wanderings invariably winded up in front of the same building. At all events my lounging finally attracted the attention of the workmen, and the foreman ventured up and inquired my business. The moment I spoke it was all up—one of the four——. The man saluted deeply and courteously offered to take me over the building. The word flew along the line and I was regarded with interest, and caps were doffed if by chance I happened to meet the eye of any of the men. Information concerning the building was willingly given, and I solved the mysterious appearance of all the houses in Centur—they were made of glass. Great blocks of glass hoisted one upon the other forced and screwed together and joined with liquid crystal. Walls measured from five to seven feet thick; apartments were large, airy, the halls wide, lofty, with domed ceilings supported by huge crystal columns. In the center of the dome an electric chandelier swung, which flamed blue the moment the sun set and remained burning till sun rise. Dwellings were constructed to accommodate four and five families. The durability of glass is above argument; most of the buildings in Centur had been standing for centuries, and the palace of Centauri was believed to be the first crystal building erected. Some of the houses had a coating of paint, pale blue, pink, whatever the fancy, creating a porcelain effect which I thought vastly pretty; but the popular tint seemed to be the natural tinge of the glass, a dark, sea green, very cooling to the sight and nerves.
All buildings were hosed every morning, which accounted for their irradiating hues when the sun shone upon them, but at night they presented an extraordinary appearance, the lights within penetrated the glass, which absorbed the rays, and cast a dull roseate splendor. One could walk down rows of glowing houses and yet be in total darkness, but the streets were flooded with brilliancy from great arc lights suspended high above the crossings.
Vacant lots enclosed with unsightly board fences were not permitted to mar the symmetry of this lovely city. Such land was converted into public parks and kept by the city till the owner, ready to build, notified the authorities; then after the time limit the wall which surrounds all private property was erected.
It was very interesting watching the carpenters at their strange house building. The preciseness, ease, rapidity and methodical attention given to details produced faultless work. Such conscientiousness was astounding. I remained till the closing hour, then following the directions of the foreman soon found my way to the palace.
The setting sun painted the horizon line a fierce crimson and seemed to sink into the beautiful bay surrounding this most wonderful city. As the fiery glow faded to a dying pink the lights of the city suddenly flared with electric splendor, and calm, reposeful twilight was unknown in this strange land, and night, moist, restful, shaded only the mountains and wilderness.