The Centaurians/Chapter XIV

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CHAPTER XIV.

The scorching rays of an afternoon sun roused me from a sleep of hours, yet dreamily I rested till a subdued murmur reached me from the outer room and I knew my friends had returned.

The trio were in deep consultation when I joined them, but all hailed me with evident relief, and Sheldon distinguished himself as usual. He hoped they had not disturbed my "gentle slumbers," as all agreed I needed rest and quiet after the "exhaustive attempt to cipher such a disheartening, complicated, enigmatical, mysterious what?" which made in comparison the most scientific problems diversion. He cautioned me against "invading the climatic disorders of the mighty feminine, as explorers in that realm dazed by rudimental desire, always reached such pitifully befuddled climaxes."

"And, Sally," he continued, "though we have discovered a new portion of the globe, the inhabitants present a very familiar appearance. The feminine species were discovered long ago and are produced in vast numbers on our continent with similar unsatisfactory results; also——"

"I passed the evening with our beautiful hostess," I interrupted, cold, dignified.

"And I missed the preliminaries," he wailed; "the great act where the intellectual divinity absorbs her—ahem—first experience. But there's time——"

"Now, now, now," interposed Saxe., "let the boy alone; it's his affliction and makes him happy."

"Yes," echoed Saunders, "let him alone, the ailment will cure itself, it always does."

Their winks and ill-concealed, struggling laughter exasperated me and, threatening to be even, I roared that I madly loved the beautiful Centaurian.

"We haven't contradicted you," purred Sheldon soothingly; "but your astonishing frankness relieves much anxiety. We doubted your sentiments toward the very handsome lady—you will survive."

Then they let it out, boisterously, derisively. Vainly I protested; the more I raged the wilder grew their mirth, till suddenly realizing they joshed me, believing raillery a sure cure for the tender malady; also, that each would take turns thrashing any one who dared harass me as they were doing, I dropped chivalry and resignedly joined in the sport. All sobered up instantly and Saxe., understanding (he always did), plunged into an account of their adventures.

"You should have been with us, Virgillius," he said, looking at me reproachfully. "It was a wonderful voyage. We started shortly after noon, our ship accompanied by a fleet. The strong, fresh breeze of the cloud plains was delightful after the intense heat of the city. We sailed straight north, expecting to reach the Ocstas about sundown, but the committee erred when mapping out the route. This led over the battle-ground of the Octrogonas and Potolilis, and for three mortal hours we dipped, circled, fluttering like a great buzzard, watching an engagement between the warring tribes. Our captain, a most obliging fellow, slyly detached his ship from the others, which unaware, sailed peacefully on, but our traveling companions when learning the cause of delay immediately secluded themselves. The Centaurians, ahem! are cultured above war—and we had the whole deck to ourselves, occupying railing seats. It was a magnificent sight, Virgillius, magnificent! But warfare is pretty even on both sides of the globe. Here the chiefs, generals, lead in battle; their great armies are drilled to mechanical perfection, in action compact, a gigantic unit; and, boy, every last blessed one of them aimed and shot to kill."

Saxe. wondered how the principals escaped.

"Looks bad for the aiming," murmured Sheldon.

The Octrogonas were the fiercest, but the Potolilis, more numerous, and though the young chief was superb, daring, he was gradually forced to retreat, which so enraged his army, discipline was trampled under. They rushed the enemy and both sides fought like beasts.

"It was slaughter, horrible, yet differs not at all from what is going on continually in some portion of our world," Saxe. growled. He scored those "high-sniffing Centaurians," for their "dastardly indifference," and declared the extermination of the magnificent savage a crime.

"For they're killing each other off as fast as they can and the whole row over a couple of women!"

Saxe.'s indignation gradually calmed in the soothing enthusiasm of explaining how he'd manage affairs were he the head of the nation, but when Sheldon and Saunders started in with a few suggestions his interest suddenly flagged and he decided the people over here knew pretty well what they were about, though things did not seem quite straight to him. Still the deep, far-sighted Centaurians were undoubtedly correct in their "aloofness," and the war was no concern of ours anyhow. He didn't believe the colored races would ever become civilized anyway, but Potolili was the shrewdest egotist he'd ever met, and Octrogona, the noblest ass.

"And," continued Saxe., "over civilized and savage alike glows the one great flaming religion; all worship the powerful, fiery God, and hostilities ceased the instant the sun went down. When we finally reached the Ocstas, it was glorious moonlight, but a glacial atmosphere; we had again invaded the frigid zone."

"The chill in the air was nothing compared to the killing frost nipping our reception," Sheldon blurted out; "our delight in carnage, Sally, me boy, made us lose prestige with the Centaurians."

"Yes, but a biting, raw indifference, produced a tremendous thaw," Saxe. hastened to add; "and I, for one, gazing at the weird grandeur of the rugged Ocstas, forgot these people and their advanced, but narrow theories. They seemed petty, inconsequential, amid the vast wilderness of mighty boulders and unfathomable precipices. You should have been with us, Virgillius, love can be indulged in any moment, but to view the Ocstas at full moon, ah, magnificent! The far-reaching forest of cliffs have a singular, spectral beauty, abundantly covered all the year round with a peculiar, vivid green moss and pale, tender shrubbery. It is spring always in the strange Ocstas; there are no seasons, nothing matures or dies, perpetual spring, with the blasting ice breath of the north settled upon them for all time—something wrong, the Ocstas are unwholesome, and Sheldon intends to explore the whole range! Shouldn't care to get lost up there," he continued, "during my short stay I had the shivers. There is an echo, an uncanny, maddening echo, which moans the length and breadth of the range with every little breeze. It starts with a roar, diminishes to a long-drawn-out, whispering wail, as though something suffered mortal agony—no human brain could stand that any length of time. Then the water! Sheldon's great body of fresh water! It is marvelous; a magnet, an absorbent magnet, from which nothing can stray and which eventually swallows everything.

"Possibly Sheldon's theory concerning this body of water is correct. It looks like a reservoir, the reservoir of the earth, surrounded with a wall of perpendicular, glass cliffs, marred with gigantic fissures and crevices supposed to be the effect of time, ahem! and which Sheldon will explore at low tide. This strange shoreless ocean rouses to fearful activity during the full of the moon, roaring, booming terrifically, while great mountainous billows dash furiously against the cliffs, boiling, swirling into the great fissures, then receding with a dull, hollow sound, which throws the dreadful haunting echo. The waves form deep whirlpools, then soar upward with such force and volume you think the water will reach the sky, then deluge the earth; yet the glistening, silvery columns never break—it is monstrously impressive.

"I cautiously approached the edge of a crevice and when the water flooded high lowered a goblet. Virgillius, it was the first time I ever tasted water in my life; just what the article is we're accustomed to … Pure, sparkling, icy; I've brought a sample of the Otega to show you." He held a bottle to the light, but it looked so clear I doubted if there was anything in it. The stopper was removed and an attempt made to pour out the liquid. Instantly we buried our noses, and Saxe. hastily flung the bottle out the window. Of all the stenches! The water had been corked for hours and the numerous gases combined in deadly fermentation. Saxe., very serious, gravely, but with the air of expecting dispute, expressed his opinion.

"That water would have exploded had it remained corked much longer," he remarked, "which proves beyond question the correctness of my statements. It is of volcanic origin and some day there'll be a terrific eruption, the ocean will vanish with, perhaps, a mountain crowding its cavity; however, I——"

Sheldon, flushed and furious, sprang to his feet, loudly expostulating, but Saxe. was prepared and replied pointedly. From their language I knew it was an old argument and had pretty nearly filled in the time since they viewed the Ocstas; even Saunders took a hand mixing things generally, as he always did, and all three excitedly shouted in chorus, like a trio of women. They made an awful din, but seemed happy, so I let them go it. Now why will people argue? It always creates discord and each, at the end of the mêlée, believes more firmly in his own convictions.

I sprawled contentedly in the broad window-sill flooded with sunlight and drowsed in rapturous dreams, dreams only, but of the most glorious, wondrous creature in the whole wide world.

Heaven is brief, the ardent light gradually slanted chill, and roused by a sudden prolonged silence I found my three friends suspiciously calm, but in a snorting mad condition. It was Saunders who had broken up the seance. He glowered at me and wondered if they were ever going to get anything to eat. These people certainly didn't expect him to keep any further engagements without nourishment. He'd been up all night fooling around that d——d ocean and was exhausted, and he judged it must be near time for him to go somewhere with somebody, too.

Saxe. and Sheldon coughed irritatingly, but further trouble was averted by the entrance of "Mike," who solicitously inquired our wishes about dining. Famished, we all brightened up at the mention of dinner. A delicate meal was served, and Sheldon, his mouth full and good humor restored, suggested Mike's health, opining that Aladdin's genii wasn't in it with Mike. We agreed, and in thin glasses of oily greenish liqueur, Mike's health was freely toasted, varied occasionally with a send-off to ourselves and hobbies.

"Yours, Sally," said Sheldon, alluding to the hobbies, "will ripen, mature, fade and decay in the glorious rays of satiety, but when the inevitable mellowness does occur, for Heaven's sake, my dear boy, kill the pest, don't develop into a plague!"

Sheldon actually believed himself witty, original, but remembering he'd been up all night and crabbed I smiled, blandly thanking him for his advice and reminded him that no matter how severe a case I developed it wouldn't be catching. He seemed willing to drop the subject, but Saunders, evidently annoyed at my calmness, testily sputtered:

"Oh, fiddle! Salucci, you waste your time; love is a pastime, an inclination; turn your attention to more profitable pursuits. We will never visit this portion of the world again. Women, love, oh bosh!"

Saunders made me thoroughly angry. I sprang up, bouncing with fury.

"Gently, gently," murmured Saxe., laying a restraining hand upon me. Then as though it were a subject we had been discussing right along, he proceeded to give out his plans for the future.

Sheldon snickered, and Saunders's eyes twinkled, though his face retained its long, thoughtful expression.

"A committee representing the government," continued Saxe., placidly, "called upon me, armed with a request several yards long, signed by the most influential citizens of Centur, ahem! including the old boy himself. I was assured that by presenting this country with a duplicate of the lost Propellier I would confer a great and lasting benefit to this portion of the world; also it was gently hinted that the accompanying coaches fitted up as we had them would more than … etc., etc., etc. But the people feared to impose—and unlimited material would be supplied for construction. A house will be placed at my disposal where I can enjoy the utmost seclusion. I accepted. Propellier No. 1 was crude, full of defects. The new machine will present startling improvements. Look me up sometimes, Virgillius, don't allow the amorous pursuit to crowd out inventive qualities. And, I say, boys, it seems we're settled in this land of Centauri for a good long time."

"It looks that way," Sheldon agreed; "but we mustn't stay over the limit. I shouldn't relish being marooned in the ice regions."

"We're not beggars for time," I told him. "Allowing twenty months for the return trip, we still have three years to our credit."

Saxe. reminded me that three years passed swiftly; then informed me he understood I was to remain at the palace the honored guest of Love, which had made me famous throughout Centauri.

"You're the hero of the band," he bubbled; "these people have forgotten all about the 'grande passion' themselves and naturally believed the universe exempt. They regard you as a TYPE, rare, valuable. The Dailies give amazing suggestions on the subject and gravely advise the organization of a new sect with Love for its theme, and you the standard bearer; ahem! good scheme. Read any of the papers yet?"

"Nope!" I answered sullenly.

"Very diverting," he informed me, "highly anarchistic in tone, but devoid of the feverish sensationalism affected by so many journals of our world. The news of Centur is printed exquisitely clear upon odd parchment-like sheets, the editorials are brief, scintillating with wit and powerfully impressive with honesty, sense and simplicity. That sort of thing in our country would dwindle the subscriptions to bankruptcy."

Suspicious, but not certain what Saxe. might be driving at and as I never sassed the gentleman, I cautiously promised to look over the journals he mentioned. Then, curious how the Centaurians had disposed of Sheldon, I asked him about his plans.

"Oh, I'll spend most of the time in the Ocstas," he told me. "I am forced to prove my theories, which have roused universal discussion. Two societies with conflicting views will occupy caves in the close vicinity of Yours Truly, just to watch the 'wonderful operations.' Quartered with me will be a crew of doubters, delegates from various Geographical-Geological societies, who pretend to be assistants. The Ocstas abound in mysteries, caves are innumerable, some tunneling far into the mountains honeycombed with apartments. At one time, I understand, these mountains were level country, and the caves are ruins heaved up by some—er—awful eruption. Ahem! The Centaurians are remarkable people, but move slowly. Give us six centuries the start and we'd have traced that body of water to the heart of the earth. Of course, I'm considered a crank, a huge joke, but these scientists are the most absurd set I've ever run across. One eloquent individual broadly hinted that a mania controlled me and thought it extremely fortunate my attention was attracted to the Otega oceanlet, instead of to the boiling sea at the pivot. But I'm a brave gentleman, you know, the guest of Centauri, and at liberty to remove the Ocstas if disposed. He did not doubt should a Centaurian, alive with a watery hobby, stray to our side of the globe, reciprocal courtesies would be extended and an ocean or two thrown in. Now, what d'ye think of that?

"I laughed—everybody did—and shouted for a reply. I told them every argument indulged marked one year less of life, and that I would easily prove all my assertions. And, Sally, I'll remain in those damned mountains till I prove one of two theories—Saxe.'s or mine. I'll discover the source of that ocean and trace the great arteries which extend over the globe, or it'll turn out a freak of nature, phenomenon, the aftermath of something terrible. Saxe.'s theory is very plausible, to some it would be the solution, but plausible theories are not always correct ones. I'll look for you often, Sally, a change, you know, is a wonderful restorative."

"Oh, I'll run over occasionally," I promised. "I believe in restoratives, but it doesn't always require a change."

"Bravo! bravo!" he shouted, twirling his glass. "Luck to Sally, and his—er—dangerous enterprise!"

Blushingly, I drank deeply.

"Better accompany Sheldon when he starts for the mountains," Saunders advised. "The polar scenery is no comparison to the fabulous Ocstas, and that freak ocean is the strangest, most unnatural sight man ever looked upon. I'll never go up there again," he added, "unless with approaching dissolution I should meander. Spirits always hover over the places that haunt them, theosophists whine. However, I'll need relaxation, and it's my intention to explore every portion of this continent before returning to my own. Probably I'll even join the expedition to the moon. This afternoon I go to the Observatory to remain indefinitely," he continued, "but lacking Sheldon's penetration, I still have to discover how I stand with my fellow scientists—we've already argued. They've been gaping at the pale planet for centuries, producing some marvelous maps and photographs, but are still in doubts about it. Opinions are varied, wondrous. Some believe it an old moon vanishing; others, that it's the young blaze of a new sun, and I'm the only one positive. This pink phosphorescence (Saunders assumed his lecture pose) is a new world forming, a twin world to Earth, speeding, crashing through space with mighty velocity, erratically circling this globe in continually narrowing rings to sure disaster. The stellar twins cannot escape collision, then—either we absorb or it absorbs. The Infinite forms a mighty barrier against which all matter swirls grinding void. Should Earth be the under world it forms the barrier impeding the mad rush of that splendid pale mystery which, as it approaches, absorbs all life, pulverizing this globe. Ahem! we don't need to worry about it, though."

He chuckled comfortably, ignoring Sheldon, who muttered as though much relieved.

"I see great work ahead," he continued happily. "In the science of the stars we're about even with these people of mighty energy and boasted advancement. They follow a most complex system of astronomy, possibly when I've mastered the intricacies I may perceive the wonderful progress claimed; at present I believe my researches the most extended. Now who's going with me to the Observatory? Better all come and take a look around; you can return this evening."

Saxe. and Sheldon at once got busy with excuses. Before I could think up anything plausible Mike ushered in several gentlemen whom Saunders greeted effusively. Introductions followed. I was presented as the "gentleman who would accompany the party to the Observatory."

Glaring at Saunders I bowed acquiescence. His colleagues eyed me curiously and slyly whispered: "The Virgillius."

Saxe. and Sheldon were urged to join the party, but their regrets were positive, and after a lively exchange of compliments we departed.