The Centaurians/Chapter XIII
The palace from foundation to dome was a blaze of lights. As I entered the grounds, Mike (short for Aurelius), who had been detailed to look after the comfort of the "four illustrious," hastened anxiously to meet me. I questioned him concerning Saxe., Sheldon and Saunders. He informed me my absence had greatly alarmed the gentleman with the mane on his chin (Saxe.), but the thin, positive gentleman, with the bald head (Saunders), had advised him that they "couldn't lose the child and he'd turn up as colicky as ever," while the old, young man, with stiff black mustachios (Sheldon), had consoled the Kind-hearted One that "the boy could not stray farther than Centur anyhow,and he'd find the palace quick when hungry." This comforted the Good One, with the magnificent mane, and early in the afternoon the three, with a large escort, had sailed for the great Ocsta range to view the waters of the Otega. Mike was not certain when they would return, as the Ocsta mountains were far distant. I laughed, knowing full well Sheldon and Saunders had been as uneasy about me as dear old Saxe., and all three had made dead certain of me before sailing to the mountains.
And Sheldon was to view his great body of fresh water at last. His spunk and determination deserves credit. For all the ridicule he stuck to his theory and knew what he was talking about all the time. The great body of fresh water was a fact, and he discovered it.
I hurried to my apartments, thence to the baths. Nothing so refreshing as the bath, yet my long day of wandering and fast made me nearly collapse with fatigue. My feet ached painfully and were badly inflamed; the streets of Centur are hard on pedestrians unaccustomed to sandals. Roads, pavements were of stone, but trees lined the curbing, their wide-spreading branches formed a welcome arch of shade. The sun’s rays were more penetrating, more burning on this side of the globe.
Mike served me with a delicious drink and while sipping it I put in the time writing to Alpha Centauri.
It took three notes to gain satisfaction. The first brought no reply, the second an excuse, but the third roused the lady’s interest.… I was invited to dine.
I sent Mike ahead with acceptance, but stealthily followed, and he, all unsuspecting, led me up a long flight of stairs and still another which wound serpent-like around a giant column. I wondered if he would ever reach the top; surely we were climbing to the skies, yet at the end heaven awaited. We finally reached the landing; that is, Mike did. He knocked discreetly upon a little square door which immediately opened and I hurried forward, saluting the loveliest woman in the world.
Of course I was requested to enter and Mike's gasp of amazement dissolved into a very kind, sympathetic smile, while Alpha Centauri laughed outright, the sweetest, merriest laughter imaginable. It set me all aflame. How beautiful she was with that great mass of jetty hair piled upon her head and the heavy-lashed, sidling eyes, evading mine. My pulses throbbed wildly.
The humor of the situation both thoroughly understood and enjoyed, but the impassioned motive was entirely beyond them.
As I entered the room the strong, pungent odor of chemicals warned me I had intruded the sanctified laboratory of Centauri, and to my chagrin, the old gentleman was there, polite, frigid, and deeply engrossed in a table crowded with queer little vials and tubes.
The walls of the room were lined with shelves filled with glass jars containing strange fluids and powders. There were huge glass mortar bowls, tall crystal pipes and cylinders, and several long, narrow tables. Over one a cloth had been hastily thrown.
"You find me deep in my great work," a sweet voice murmured near me.
I glanced down at the lovely speaker, her arms were bared to the shoulders, and one was stained with a dull red color.
Centauri advised her to cease work and entertain the stranger.
She shrugged her shoulders and turned at once to the covered table and there followed a whispered argument which was perfectly audible to me (one always overhears). He cautioned her against overconfidence, adding that the stranger might lose the desire to teach the science she wished to learn. For several seconds she stood undecided, stubborn, then suddenly courtesied deeply and turned to me. "For once pleasure lures me," she murmured, smiling divinely. "I will be with you in a few moments."
She raised her arm as though to give some last direction to her father, it was the stained arm, but in my ardor I caught and passionately kissed it. The acid was glazed, sticky, the odor sickening. I turned from her, repelled, with a keen desire to get out of the place.
She laughed merrily as she hastened away, and Centauri twitted me that I changed color at the sight of life's fluid, but was able to endure the horrors of the polar regions. He considered that I possessed a remarkable constitution, and informed me his daughter's work was for the prolongation of life.
"She seeks the elixir of eternal youth and health."
I laughed indulgently; a queer whim for such an exquisite creature, but it was distasteful to me to connect this dainty Centaurian with the gross depths of a laboratory, yet it seemed the natural trend of her powerful intellect. She was far and above the ordinary sphere of delicate, ethereal, trifling femininity; a phantom, yes; but tangible, adorable.
Centauri chuckled softly as I laughed again and led me to the covered table. There were a dozen or more silver lidded bowls arranged in a circle with a wide, flat dish in the center. Curiously I raised the lids, all contained liquids of various hues; one was green with a spicy odor of herbs, another thick, white as milk; and a third clear as water, while the flat center dish contained a dull, brownish fluid, emitting a strong wild odor.
"Blood!" I whispered.
"Quite right," Centauri replied comfortably; "blood of oxen, which must be used in the natural heat."
He turned to a tall glass jar which was filled with a beautiful ruby fluid, and placing a small vial to the crystal tube, pressed the siphon. The fluid rose sluggishly to the surface, then slowly flowed into the vial, thick, like syrup of fruit. He filled two goblets, handing one to me, the other the old gentleman drained at a gulp, never batting an eye. The draught turned against me, but I swallowed it. The liquor had a sweet, poignant flavor, and a most injurious effect. I felt a terrible pain in the region of my heart and the blood rushed to my head, blinding me. Centauri led me to the adjoining room, large, airy and flooded with moonlight. The weakness quickly passed, taking with it the fatigue of the day. I felt freshened, invigorated, as though just risen from a long, restful slumber. I hurried to the wide-opened windows, inhaling the fresh, fragrant breeze whistling around the high-turreted room and gazed upon a marvelous night view. The fantastic city of Centur flared a brilliant panorama, the penetrating light of electricity streamed from countless gigantic bulbs softening the lurid glow of domed buildings; and darting aimlessly, high in the heavens, uncanny bright red globes floated. It was a fabulous scene, yet a light touch upon my arm, a dark, fascinating face smiling into mine, and I completely forgot the blinding, weird expanse. As I drew her to me the room instantly blazed with light. A table lay spread with snowy cloth decked with sparkling silver and crystal. Dainty, tempting viands were served to me by the superb Alpha, but though I had fasted the whole day, I ate with little relish, while a parched throat forced me to drink more than was prudent. Under the fiery stimulant my mind expanded with brilliant thoughts, which I voiced with a sudden new eloquence that amazed me. I told of my side of the globe, picturing the great cities so vividly my listeners leaned eagerly toward me as though seeing my descriptions. I dwelled upon the religion of my country, explaining there were hundreds of sects, yet all worshipped the One Supreme Being, God, Father of all nature.
Alpha gazed at me with distended, wondering eyes, while Centauri sprang to his feet and with outstretched arms spoke wildly, agitatedly. I could not follow clearly his ravings, but his meaning was unmistakable, and while he spoke his daughter's eyes narrowed, the forehead flattened, and the perfect brows met in a straight line.
Centauri's excitement was painful; he was a fanatic. He believed in the Almighty, and denounced the Sun-worshippers as heathens.
Unmindful of his daughter's presence he told me it was she who ruled the people; their idol, leader, they followed with blind devotion, and it was a divine providence that led me safely across the terrible North, that I might fulfill the mission ordained at my birth—converting and saving the Centaurians, through the powerful love inspired by the Priestess of the Sun.
"Teach my daughter the love of God!" he cried. "It will bring sublime, everlasting happiness to the Centaurians."
The Priestess of the Sun patted his hand indulgently, laughing softly, yet defiantly. His voice quavered inaudibly, with arms raised in protest he sank to his seat. She rose, glanced deferentially at her father, then her voice rang sweet, clear as a bell in defence of her creed. She was bigoted, but unlike Centauri (who undoubtedly was the most sincere), she was cold, collected, more eloquent and convincing, and wisely refrained from denunciation.
"Each to his belief," she told me, "and my reverend father is the great Centauri." With a radiant smile she courtesied deeply to him. "His words are indisputable facts," she continued; "facts of long ages ago when the land of Centauri was a great, seething hive, choked with millions of fanatical sects. Discontent, Envy, Malice, Unhappiness twined the pedestal of Love. Evil passions predominated, ruled. Wickedness festered and festered into a poisonous, contagious eruption, which overspread the land and the greatest and last war of Centauri was fought. Years, many years, the god of Destruction swayed his rod of devastation, the knell of Centauri tolled with mighty vibrations, startling, waking somnolent civilization which gathered its dormant forces for one last tremendous upheaval and burst the reservoirs of Purity, flooding the country with righteousness, peace; and from the divine calm that followed rose the great golden Vespa of the Sun. Germs of progress spread broadcast. Passion first was controlled, deadened, then obliterated. The Sun is the inspiration of the universe, but we worship the mysterious, powerful Spirit, who controls the great globe of beneficial light and warmth. Centauri, profound in wisdom, does not fail, but refuses, to comprehend the depth of our creed. The Centaurians are too deeply rooted in their religious sentiments to permit a sudden caprice to dictate a turning in their cherished sacred convictions. For centuries their religion has been as the air they breathe, life. We are fire-worshippers, and the emblem of our faith burns in the heavens for all eternity."
She had forgotten us. Standing erect, magnificent in her enthusiasm with face and arms uplifted, a goddess above the gods; she was superb in her fanaticism. I glanced at Centauri; he sat with crossed arms and bowed head, moody, silent. A long, quivering sigh and Alpha realized the present. She glanced defiantly at her father, yet her face retained its beauteous, angelic expression. She smiled divinely upon me and told me the night was still young, that my friends had not returned from the Ocstas, and she would know more of my wonderful country.
She leaned dangerously near me. Her face flushed and her eyes gleamed as she passed her hand over my brow. I raised my arms to clasp her, but she darted away; with a cry of adoration I sprang up and dared to follow, but she was gone; and Centauri's cold words chilled my passion as he bade me be seated. In the moment he was the mechanical Centauri, courteous, deliberate, freezingly distant.
"The love that creates desire is beyond the Centaurians," he told me. "Progression erased the bestial. The fiery red of the savage still tinges your blood, and my learned daughter is as far above and beyond you as the Sun, that inspires her ravings. Give up this consuming desire—which breeds disappointment, turning bitter the sweetness of your nature. In very sympathy I would spare you, my son. The tribulations of desire, I do not understand; but disappointment, ah! that curse blighting the nobleness of humanity, I have known. Rise above lusty thoughts, seek a higher, purer aim; teach my daughter to know and love the Supreme Being, the Creator, and Virgillius, 'The Virgillius,' becomes immortal."
I reverently saluted the religious fervor of this great man and, much affected, earnestly assured him of my good intentions.
He came quickly to my side and in benediction laid his hands upon my head. I promised to do all that he wished, but added that his daughter must and would be mine, and that I would always adore her, even though I knew the end would be hell.
"You will help each other," he murmured; "but you are not mates. I have spoken. May the Lord bless and spare you."
He returned to his seat as Alpha entered, carrying a dainty golden salver ladened with tiny crystal goblets through which sparkled the rose-tinted syrup of life. She offered us the liqueur, then with her glass held high, bade us drink to perpetual youth and health.
I drained my glass, this time feeling no ill effect from the liquor, though it flushed and gave me boldness. Making no attempt to conceal my ardor, I led this lovely woman, who so inflamed me, to a seat near the window, and in impassioned tones, as though it were the first time, told her of my love. Suddenly, daringly, I drew her closer to me, forgetting Centauri entirely, but when I recovered sufficiently to look around for him the glorious Alpha and myself were alone.
She gently released herself, gazing at me with unresponsive, wonder-wide eyes.
"Is this love?" she asked, "and are you happy?"
"To love you is ecstasy!" I replied. "To possess you—heaven!"
"You are profane," she murmured reprovingly. "Woman is mortal. It is sacrilegious comparing her with paradise."
Powers above! my passion suddenly evaporated; but though she chilled me it was still rapture to be near her.
"I am trying to teach you the lesson of love, sweet Alpha," I whispered; "you must learn, you promised."
"You wish to marry me?" she asked.
I raised her hand to my lips and gazed ardently into her deep eyes (same here as on our side).
She moved from me and haughtily inquired if love in my country was not equivalent to marriage.
Rebuked, I humbly answered: "Not always; we marry frequently and for many reasons, least of all for love."
"We marry for companionship, respect," she icily informed me. "Intellect mates with intellect; mental, physical equality, produces the ideal."
"You have betrayed the Centaurians," I cried triumphantly. "Love is not vetoed, but so sifted and refined it bears little resemblance to the divine flame, yet the tender passion is not quenched, but the Centaurians unabashed proclaim Love, a dead evil, and boldly title their droll creation … Compatibility. Oh, Centauri! Centauri!"
"You dare ridicule!" she cried angrily.
"No, no, my lady!" I hastened to reply. (Good heavens!) "I am giving you the first lesson in the most wonderful of all sciences. Love is a powerful, mysterious, inexplicable ideality—a thrilling experience, and before I leave your world you will have mastered and indulged in all the delights and miseries of this mystic art; and deep in your heart you will bless me for imparting this ecstatic knowledge; and though existence may end in sweet despair (it always does), you have lived and realized. One genuine thrill of this divine folly is worth a life of empty fame with the monstrous finale of decayed immortality. Superb Alpha, your destiny is writ in your glorious beauty and marvelous power to charm."
Her eyes flamed at my words, and for the first time I pondered over the wisdom of my intentions. But desire was turbulent; mad, infatuated, I lost control over conscience, reason—passion has no regrets—I would possess.
I talked with her for hours and told over again of my country and religion, and related completely the life of Christ. She was impressed, awed, and deeply reverenced the divine spirit that embodied the Saviour.
"He was a martyr," she cried with uplifted, worshipping eyes. "His actions, teachings, were divine inspiration; but—He lived His life too early, and Himself ordained it should be shortened."
Gently I argued, trying to fulfill my promise to Centauri, but I struggled with a superior intellect, and like the brilliant woman she was she listened eagerly, attentively, complimenting me into believing my efforts had convinced her; then, with incomparable tact, she steered from the dangerous subject, and before aware of her intent, I was eloquently discussing the North Pole. Again I lived over that awful voyage, describing the vast dead regions, the insurmountable, smooth, perpendicular cliffs, and terrifying, unfathomable chasms, shadowed in sombre stillness; but when I reached the great, fiery pivot, horror overcame me and vividly I pictured our awful plight as we raced down the swaying mountain with the sea of boiling mass pursuing us and the whole world vibrating like a monstrous pendulum.
"And you dared this peril for science?" she asked.
"My comrades did," I answered quickly. "I searched for the greatest drawback to ambition and life lost value in a consuming desire."
Then I told of the wonderful vision that inspired such intense longings, and that I had worshipped her, months before the expedition.
"I adore you!" I whispered. "It is fate that brought us together—I will have you!"
She laughed softly, studying me through half-closed eyes, then told me from the first I had exerted a strange influence, possibly because of the aureola of mystery surrounding me and the great, unknown continent I came from.
"But since our meeting," she sighed, "new and wonderful thoughts riot in my mind, lulling energy, ambition, and deeply I've pondered over the wisdom of a life forfeited for immortality, though it is the grandest finale, and ultimately mine; but I pause, deferring momentous problems absorbed in profound analyses of a powerful, but fleeting emotion."
"Ah!" I sighed ecstatically.
"Selfishness, Discontent," she continued, "the premier rules of this great art are mastered in the realization of my own loveliness and the rebellion against fate, injustice of our sacred laws which sacrifices me for the welfare of humanity."
I stared, astounded, while she, watching me closely with veiled, sidling eyes, caught the wild desire of my glance and, shaking her head, murmured dreamily: "In this wondrous world of fancy crowded with vain longings and godly phantoms which dart from rainbow film, then flash onward, your image does not blend. This sphere is the space of centuries which separates us and, though creating the new element, your appeal fails to inspire response. The joining of two such natures shatters the beautiful—we are not mates. Yours is the love that hopes, dreads, doubts and fears, and dies with possession; while I seek, yet devoutly hope never to find the one only charm of my visionary world—a powerful influence which vanquishes denial, curbing destiny with compelling, flaming radiance—a mighty glory never realized, yet swaying the universe with longings reaching above and far beyond that monster called Death. Ah, Virgillius," she whispered tremulously, "I can love; yes, I can love; but with the knowledge happiness departs forever."
Rapturously I caught her hand, exultant; aflame at her confession I dared press my hot lips to her soft, fair neck. She shuddered, then gently drew from my embrace.
"Thus are the dead evils of the ancients easily acquired," she murmured gloomily, chilling my ardor and thrusting me and my passion to musty remoteness.
"And, Virgillius," she continued, "after centuries of training the savage is still untamed. Leave me now, I am wearied, and the day approaches."
She rose languidly, moving to the window. In the dull gray light of dawn she looked wan, strangely pathetic. In tenderest sympathy I hastened to her side, for the second half regretting my work which had robbed her forever of contentment. The ideal, always existing in her brain, had formed distinct, existable, and she worshipped every caprice of imagination.
Kindly she smiled dismissal, pointing to the heavens flushed with the new day. I understood and, raising her hand to my lips, silently departed. Out of her presence regrets vanished. I had commenced well and accomplished more in a few hours than I had expected to in weeks. Women always adore the ideal, and love a man.
This strange, fascinating piece of femininity grieved because realizing she was a woman, an adorable woman, not a saint.
Alpha Centauri is mine!