The Centaurians/Chapter XIX

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CHAPTER XIX.

The ship gradually lowered as we floated over the city. The news flashed over Centur that the Priestess of the Sun had returned and excited crowds blackened the streets shouting a welcome.

Alpha leaned far over the ship's side, waving the flag of Centauri in response. Centur was in gay attire, gaudy flags and pennants floated from the domes of all buildings. Gorgeous silken banners coiled around the arms of Centauri and gently fluttered against huge arches and towers of rare blossoms whose rich fragrance absorbed the air. Something wonderful was certainly going on. Alpha turned to us bewildered.

"What is it?" she queried. "Our return was unheralded—it is not a fête day. How beautiful Centur looks!"

She shrugged her shoulders and again smiled down upon the welcoming people. The ship finally reached the palace park, then fluttered and circled downward and gently settled in its steel shed.

The crowd surged against the walls with deafening shouts of greeting. Alpha waved her arms, and her clarion voice rose high in the worshipful cry of Sol. Like an avalanche the response fell upon her, betraying the joy these people felt at seeing her again. How they loved this beautiful woman! And now, as I think of it, I believe it was she, glorious Alpha, whom they worshipped—not the Sun.

With sweet dignity she received the officials who hurried to meet her. Besangno, the great statesman who acted as chief executive during Centauri's absence, saluted deeply and welcomed her in eloquent phrases. She was told that official notice had been received that her travels were about terminating, but that her sudden return was a joyous surprise to the people of Centur.

"If my return is so unexpected what fête day is Centur celebrating?" she inquired.

"Centur wears gala attire in honor of our distinguished guest who has delighted the populace with his presence nearly a fortnight," Besangno informed her. "Benlial, of the Vespa Belt, waits the superb Alpha Centauri."

I was standing beside her, but instinctively drew away, repelled by her sudden icy demeanor. Once more I beheld the strange, enigmatical goddess, who had welcomed me upon my arrival to the city: Alpha Centauri, Priestess of the Sun, always.

Erect, to her full height, with cold, calm, haughty eyes, she regarded the gentleman before her. She raised her arm and placed it across her breast, and with stiff formality bowed.

"Greetings to the Vespa Prince," she said; "his return to his people shall not be delayed. I will receive Prince Benlial at once."

Besangno was not at all dismayed by her manner, she had always been gracious to him, but this was Alpha of the Centauris, Priestess of their deity; a perfect woman, passionless—a saint. The glowing, palpitating creature I created was not for public adoration—she was mine, mine always!

Besangno explained that the Prince was absent, gone to view the magnificent Otega, "but will speed back to Centur when informed that the Priestess of the Sun has returned."

"A ship passed us in the night," she told him, "gay with the nation's color, and freighted to the brim with merriment. Besangno, the morning is still early; before noon you will hear my order. Prince Benlial must not be disturbed in his pleasures."

Besangno bowed low. None dared approach her, and silently she disappeared within the palace whose portals were draped with the gaudy silken banners of the Vespas. I did not see her again till the evening. Besangno and his suite remained in respectful attitudes till she passed from view, then abruptly hurried away, and I was left with the little troupe of traveling companions who were palpably impatient to depart. A low whistle near me, and I turned and faced the Literary Man, who grasped my hand, telling me he could never repay the debt of inspiration I had roused within him.

"Your companionship lures success," he barked.

I smiled acknowledgment, but the Tragedian relieved me from replying. He clung to my other hand and begged me to remain forever among them. "Never in my life," he assured me, "have I experienced the exquisite diversion enjoyed in your company. Your skill as a tragedian is genius, your interpretations famous. Ah, Virgillius, your amazing capabilities will force the public to comprehend the great tragedies that no Centaurian can act. The powerful masterpieces of morbid imaginations shall cease to be farces."

I listened attentively, not certain if they were making sport or meant it, but both seemed ridiculous and I laughed. The laugh was taken up heartily and both gentlemen simultaneously dropped my hands, each declaring gravely I was deep, deep as the fire geyser in the ice summit. Then one, throwing out his chest, cried: "Attention, friends! Will sensations ever cease? or is it the commencement of the end when the world will explode into millions of particles, as Thoralda the Great predicts Listen: first, Virgillius and his friends drop among us from, no one knows where, to overpower us with their marvelous experiences. Then the Otega becomes active after six centuries of repose. And now comes this splendid savage, the Prince of Vespas, ruler of the land of hornets, whose swift progression dares them to defy even Sol. We are far in the rear of these wonderful people, they would elevate us by sending the most audacious hornet of them all—for what? To mate with the rarest and most perfect of Centaurians, Alpha, Priestess of the Sun, who can never mate. Jingle the cap and bells, friends, hail to the splendid, glorious Prince Benlial."

They applauded him noisily, and I tried to crush the sudden sick miserable feeling that came over me. They finally left me, even the crowd outside had dispersed, and I was left alone deep in gloom and hopelessness, assailed with a cowardly faintness of heart that made me at last realize why I had been a failure all my life.

I knew well the import of the Prince's visit, but it seemed preposterous this savage was to end my dream—he was only a man far from ideal.

Bah! absurd! I flung out my arms as though brushing my trouble from me. "Alpha Centauri, my own creation, mine forever," I cried.

Discreet footsteps, an apologetic cough sounded near, and I turned to face Mike, the ever-smiling Mike. He handed me a note and I read that Alpha Centauri had many important matters to attend to and could not see me till evening. She wished me to rest so my mind would be clear, refreshed, and able to give undivided attention to the many affairs she would consult with me. Mike bowed deeply and followed as I hurried to my apartments. He regaled me with the palace gossip.

I learned that Saunders had suddenly ended his connection with the Observatory and, with a party of scientists, had traveled throughout Centauri, returning only last evening, when he and the "great inventor" departed immediately for the Ocstas, both wildly anxious about their friend Sheldon, who they feared had perished. Saxlehner had completed his marvelous machine, and he (Mike) presumed "all three" would again become guests at the palace. Then he told me of Prince Benlial, a magnificent specimen of manhood, who had enthralled the hearts of the people, and was enthusiastically cheered whenever he appeared upon the streets.

"He is searching for his affinity—ahem!" said Mike, "and has already traveled over half the world. He boldly declares he has come to court our beauteous Alpha, and vows the Priestess of the Sun shall be his bride. His bravery and frankness charmed all, even conquering Centauri, who placed the palace at the disposal of the handsome boy; but all pity him. It is really sad to think of the meeting between him and the wondrous Alpha, who, though the most perfect of women, can be infernally cruel. The Prince will depart in anger, and the unification of the white race will be delayed several centuries, though much desired both by the people and Centauri, else the Prince's reception would have been different and his stay among us brief. Like the savages, he adores all women and would throw the whole world in an uproar to obtain the one he desired. What an incomprehensible weakness! However, he is enjoying himself immensely among the gay youngsters of the city, and—luck to him! Luck to the pretty boy!"

Mike irritated me and I dismissed him; then wondering what I should do till evening began scribbling notes to Alpha, begging to be received. I was desperate; positive I must see her at once. She replied verbally: "Much important business to transact; please excuse," etc——.

I gave it up. Why trouble her? She did not care and could not understand. Selfish, cold-hearted, God! how cruel this beautiful woman could be. She was one of those imperfect creatures who never love, their whole nature dominated by Self, fitfully passionate, as unreliable as life—yet was she my own creation, mine!

I found myself pitying the Vespa Prince; after all he was only a man like myself, and I suffered; yes, I suffered.

I sauntered aimlessly through the gardens, then wandered around the city, loitering in the streets and parks watching children at play, and finally sought rest in the Salon, burdened with art treasures. I looked again upon the tranquil beauty of Abella, wife of the gifted fisherman. The face was so calm, placid, vacant, one wondered why humanity worried over trivial nothings. Life is brief, and we cram so much unhappiness into it. Why strive for what we can never accomplish? Why strive at all? Be content, accept destiny, no effort can alter it; crawl and crawl as does the worm: we are but another species.

Life is a mysterious, enchanting dream, the awakening—dissolution. There are very few souls among the millions inhabiting this sphere that have mastered the knowledge of living, the majority merely exist. Every man, woman and child should be drilled through the intricacies of nature, make them thorough in this powerful art—the art of living—then call their attention to the tedious verbs.

I smiled up into the beautiful, soulless eyes of Abella, tranquil, sublime beauty—you have calmed tumultuous thoughts. Adieu, sweet Abella, how your husband has marred your fairness. I blew a kiss to the delicate painting as I hurried away.

The long, slanting rays of the afternoon sun lengthened into dusk, and as I reached the palace the city flamed with lights. The stately quiet of the Centauri dwelling had vanished, all was activity, bustle. The doors of the throne room and vast salons were flung wide, decorators were at work. At the far end of the lofty vestibule, dimly seen amid crystal columns, was the banquet hall with long, massive tables ladened with shimmering satin and glistening plate of gold and silver. Some great event was to take place and I hurried to my rooms to find Saxe., Sheldon and Saunders eagerly awaiting me.

We were powerfully glad to see each other. Though all were anxious to relate their experiences and adventures since last meeting, Sheldon was given the floor, owing to his late narrow escape through too much Otega. In excitable tones he described the progression of his work before the eruption ruined all.

"Boys," he cried, "I was right about the whole matter and the scientific societies of the world be hanged! I discovered the source of that great body of fresh water—the Arctic ocean. It does not supply the earth as I originally contended, but it creates, feeds all streams, rivers, lakes for thousands of miles in that vicinity.

"The Centaurians have wonderful mining apparatuses. We mined those mountains for miles, tracing the flow of that water through the vast arteries of the earth. Springs were numerous, the water bubbling in tiny geysers, clear and sparkling. I proved my assertions and convinced the greatest man of this part of the world, Centauri himself. During his stay in the mountains I learned the secret of his greatness. Simple, unassuming, yet his wisdom is of such superiority and profundity he cannot impart it to others; sublime in his generosity and knowledge he listens to all. I never believed I could feel such reverence for any human being. He impresses every one the same way, hence, his greatness. As for the delegates of the two societies who accompanied me up the mountains I was perfectly aware what they stationed themselves there for; to settle their dispute, whether the volcano was extinct or not; and I'm damned glad they found out!

"Talk about the calmness and haughtiness of these people! Those men squabbled from morning till night and seriously hindered my work. They were constantly wiring statements to their different headquarters, and once the entire crew of both societies swooped down upon us, consuming several days in mass-meetings and idleness.

"Centauri told me the Otega was dormant, having found an outlet in some other portion of the globe, but the solid mass collected here and was a depot for further eruptions. He agrees with me that this body of fresh water is not the aftermath of the famous eruption of six centuries ago, the crater became the bed for one of the greatest freaks of nature, a gigantic artery burst, forming the oceanlet, which is simply a continuation of the Arctic.

"And, friends," ended Sheldon with a twinkle, "all who accompanied me came away with energy and fully satisfied."

He waved his hand toward Saunders, who grudgingly complimented him upon his successful discovery, but suggested that neither he nor Sheldon could become bombastic over their success, both were on a par.

"But," smiling around, "I toured Centauri and journeyed half way to the moon—ahem! Through miscalculation my work at the Observatory was only partially successful. I manufactured a set of lenses three degrees more powerful than those in use; my intention was to extend the power five degrees. The people over here are thorough in everything they undertake, but slow; for fifty years the astronomers have been planning a trip to the moon and arrangements were just completed when I arrived and was complimented with an invitation to join the expedition.

"The Centaurians are very progressive; they attempt to attain the impossible. We started upon our wonderful trip in an especially constructed flying machine loaded with instructions what we were to do when we got there, and the signals we were to send to the gaping boys down here. We traveled very rapidly, attaining a height never reached by balloon. We suffered, of course, hemorrhage attacked us in its most malignant forms, but we paid no heed to this weakness, believing in the scientific assurances that as we became accustomed to the rarified, ever-changing altitude, such annoyances would cease—and they did.

"In the meantime the higher we pierced this atmosphere the farther away the moon seemed, and our own globe had become a huge, glowing ball, throwing out a powerful radius of rosy light, tinting space a deep pink to seemingly unfathomable spheres. We had sailed far and above this roseate radiance when panic seized us, all had one unuttered thought, an intense desire to return to earth, but enough of the world remained in us to secrete cowardice. I, for one, lost courage entirely with the eccentric movements of the ship which suddenly zigzagged oddly, giving great bounds upward, then fell back a space and shot slantways across the sky; but for all of her queer antics she continually gained in height, and height apparently was all we concerned ourselves about.

"However, gradually everything ceased to interest us, a peculiar indifference embraced all, a deadly lassitude. We lolled around seeking rest, peace, to dream forever in blessed forgetfulness of existence, to sail always in the cool, blue depths of eternity. How long I remained in that strange tranquillity I shall never know, but suddenly shrieked with the terrible pain in my heart, a thousand tons seemed pressing upon my brain and vivid streaks of lightning pierced my sight. I was blinded, but danger roused me and I staggered, groping my way to the engine room. A heavy, inert form barred the passage, but I stumbled over it to the gigantic clock whose hands guided the ship.

An ominous roaring sound warned me of grave disaster; if we continued to travel upward the ship would explode. Ignorant how to regulate the ship's speed, I moved the upper hand of the clock downward, and down we shot like a rock, then I stared at the great hands hesitating what to do next when some one pushed me aside. A man, haggard, bleeding profusely from the mouth, deftly moved the hands of the clock and the ship slackened its crushing, downward course.

"Blessings upon your vitality," he whispered; "otherwise we would all be dead. We realize the nectar of existence when we feel it oozing from us. Life! Sol, give me life. Science! bah! nonsense!"

We revived as we approached our natural sphere, but it was an experience I shall never forget, and it cost the lives of two men, A noted professor and the engineer who died like a hero—much good it did him. He gave his life for science, believing himself the only one who succumbed. We took the professor and engineer to their homes, then toured Centauri, which consisted in dropping each member of the expedition to their city. When we dwindled to three, Centur was reached, and—er—here I am."

Our congratulations seemed to make Saunders uneasy.

"You forget," he interrupted, "our trip to the moon was a failure, a second excursion will not be attempted for several centuries. Eventually they will succeed. Our journey to the moon has been suppressed. When we return to our own hemisphere I shall be sadly regretted by the scientists here, for all their marvelous advancement. I imparted much information and predicted this, their latest failure. Ahem! I haven't done bad, not bad at all; but not for a thousand lives would I journey to the moon again."

"Why didn't you visit the Vespa Belt instead?"

Saunders sniffed. "There was no choice offered," he replied; "but certainly I would have preferred the moon. The Vespa folks are way-back savages, I understand, and a broad expanse of wigwam does not inspire me."

He eyed me sharply when I told him he was wrong, all wrong; that the Belt was the most wonderful portion of this part of the globe. Then I described the art and originality of the people and the peculiarly beautiful mosaic palace of King Benlial. Saunders sniffed. He wasn't interested in the Vespas, and turned quickly to Saxe., who remarked that he was mighty glad we were all together again anyhow, because for some time, having no occupation, he'd been ripe for any mischief.

"The Propellier was completed weeks ago, and I've examined the machine they're going to present to us. It's a wonderful structure of crystal and steel, and covers a hundred and fifty miles an hour. The coaches attached are fitted up luxuriously. Our return trip will not be so hazardous and decidedly more comfortable; and we all have the supreme satisfaction of having discovered what we searched for.

"We found the Pole, and can prove of the wonderful cities beyond. I have mastered the marvelous secret of gold and diamonds, and now have the power to do my share in the vast endeavor to stamp out the evil passion that causes so much unhappiness—Greed. Sheldon discovered his great body of fresh water, and has some excellent photographs stored away that will make him famous. His homecoming will be glorious, he'll be given an ovation because he risked his life for science. He can prove the positive existence of the freak ocean. He will experience the rare and pleasurable sensation of ridiculing those who formerly ridiculed him, and that's going some."

Sheldon spruced up, Saxe.'s approval was exhilarating.

"And Saunders succeeded also," continued Saxe., "he discovered the famous pink star that all astronomers know of but failed to locate. He has some remarkable photographs and has written up a treatise on why the star is not visible from our point of view, and constructed a new map of the heavens. He'll return to his continent magnificently equipped with all the modern astronomical contrivances the Centaurians can supply him with, and can lecture at length of how he went the Centaurians better concerning powerful lens—whatever they are.

"During his homeward journey he will occupy the time writing a book of his trip to the moon. Really, I think we've all done first rate; couldn't have done better. We accomplished what we set out to do. But, there's Virgillius," he looked over at me and shook his head reprovingly, "he's simply our millionaire Salucci, the same as formerly. He's gained knowledge, of course, but he won't air it to the world. Yet, come to think of it, he's been about as successful as any of us. He came in search of a woman—and found her."

He smiled encouragingly at me and opined that mine was a mission more difficult than any.

"His was a fancy, mythical, intangible," said Saxe. "A tantalizing dream, a hallucination, and the realization more marvelous than the imagination. Virgillius should be happy; he is the first man in creation that ever realized the ideal and made it his own. He has succeeded where all men fail."

I sprang joyously to my feet, his words invigorated faint hope; but he hurried to me and anxiously grasped my shoulder.

"You return with us, Virgillius," he said: "we cannot; nay, we dare not leave you with these strange people."

"You make me mad with joy!" I cried. "I love! ah, how I love! but hopelessly, hopelessly."

All smiled.

"Poor actor," laughed Saxe.; "pretense too thin—sounds sweet and you want more. Hopeless? Fiddlesticks! you've won. Men always know when they're ahead. You're picked for the mate of the superb Alpha. (Sheldon and Saunders have bet ten to one on it.) She's been declared false to her vows, and is no longer Priestess of the Sun. Gossips whisper of your strange influence upon the fair Centaurian; your absence creates restlessness, distraction, and she seeks every opportunity to study you intently, absorbingly. Bah! just an ordinary case. You discover a handsome woman, innocent, with blank mind, which you proceed to fill with foolish fancies, and, true to her sex, wearying of myths and shadows, she welcomes stalwart, vigorous flesh and blood. It is nonsense that will prove a pleasant remembrance; it must not detain you among these people. Why, Virgillius, we cannot leave you! Heavens, boy! think, we dare not return without you! She will forget, they all do—by George! the women over here are more unreliable than those of our world, and——"

I shouted with happiness.

"A thousand worlds could not separate me from Centauri, if what you tell me is true," I cried. "I will remain—give up everything—but it is too much happiness—you exaggerate—to-night I will know. Have you all forgotten the Vespa Prince?"

A pang quivered through me; my spirits ebbed as I mentioned the name, but my friends' laughter renewed courage and vanity—with a swoop doubts vanished. Thank Heaven! I had won. Alpha Centauri was mine; mine forever. I laughed joyously.

Sheldon's sharp eyes twinkled as he twitted me of my love.

"The Vespa Prince!" he jeeringly remarked, "you overdo your little act. When one is beloved there are no rivals—you know it. The superb Alpha thinks, dreams of just one man—Virgillius. The Prince is the final act of a comedy, unnecessary, witless. He cares not a rap for the peerless Alpha. He was sent here to work as much mischief as possible, then come home again. The King is a vindictive old cuss, thinks his son invincible, and the fair Alpha showed scant courtesy to the old boy, and the Prince is full of ginger. The people here have jollied the young fellow along because he's a pretty boy, even old Centauri said he was a fine specimen. The remarkable change noted in the wondrous Alpha since your advent has roused universal discussion, and scientists aver she is gradually degenerating to the level of primeval womanhood. Virgillius, you seem foolishly timid, this mystical woman has fascinated you. You forget women have always been your—er—inspiration, and you have yet to meet defeat. You have loved before and many times as deeply as you do now; this affair is not more serious than the others. Lay aside passion for one cold little moment; think, my boy, calmly, soberly; do not be an ass.

"Powers above! why don't men cultivate more thought in such emergencies? At any rate one thing is certain, you return with us. You have to; friends would think we'd made away with you—we're all so handsomely provided for in your will. What a peck of trouble you're giving us anyhow!" he snapped, suddenly grown irritable; "you act like a pup!"

"Oh, let him remain and be damned!" bawled Saunders.

I gesticulated impatiently, trying to speak, but Saunders; crabbed, peppery little Saunders, would hear nothing. His voice squeaked high with temper.

"Let him remain, I say! Don't waste time over him. We're not going yet, so let him marry this wonderful creature, and I'll warrant he'll soon be in more haste to depart than we."

"Say, friends, let the boy alone," laughingly cried Saxe., coming to my rescue. "Let him enjoy all the happiness possible out of the affair. He and I will discuss later our departure. Virgillius was always a favorite of Folly. We'll talk this matter over again, meantime be merry."

I laughed happily, not heeding the chorus of caustic remarks hurled at me from Sheldon and Saunders. Nothing at that moment could dampen my ardor. I was wild, triumphant, and even attempted repartee, always a hazardous undertaking with my witty friends. We all became unusually gay, and Sheldon roared a giddy song, which was fortunately terminated by the entrance of Mike. He served us with light wines and viands, and regaled our curiosity concerning the vast preparations going on below. We learned though the Vespa boy had been in Centur over a fortnight Alpha Centauri's greeting would be his first official welcome.

"Old Centauri returned with us last night," Sheldon told me. "The Prince was notified the Priestess of the Sun had returned and he wanted to accompany us back to the city, but was advised to remain and view the Otega, as possibly the queenly young woman would not give him an audience for several days. It is believed he will visit the Potolili and Octrogona camps, both chiefs having, on separate occasions, been guests of old Benlial; but I think the young fellow will slip the dusky ones in his anxiety to inspect the female Centauri. I'm positive he'll reach the city before midnight. We're included in the feast, eh, Mike?"

Mike nodded vigorously, and ordered his three assistants to work, then tackled me; and while the ordeal of rejuvenation was taking place I despatched a messenger to ascertain when it would be convenient for Alpha to receive me. Her reply was verbal, brief, and disappointing as usual. Plans had been changed, the Prince had not been expected to return to the city for several days, but now would arrive any moment. I would find her in the reception rooms—would I please hurry to her——. We hustled and were soon ready to descend.

Mike was disappointed with us; he thought the handsome costume of Centauri more suitable for the occasion, but we couldn't see it. He followed us dismally, we jarred his artistic nerves. Poor fellow!