The Centaurians/Chapter XV

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CHAPTER XV.

The Observatory, an odd circular building all turrets and balconies, capped the summit of a lofty mountain which rose abruptly out of the lovely bay surrounding the freak city of Centur.

The mystic enchanting quiet of this solitary mountain, with its dense forest of stunted trees and towering fort of science, fired the imagination with unwholesome ambition to accomplish grand impossibilities, and I longed to pierce the unknown and reveal the hidden light that gleams through the day and night. I told Saunders of my singular emotions. He sighed sympathetically and suggested astronomy, that impenetrable science which calms despondency in a profound realization of the sublime vastness of—Nothing.

The marvels revealed through colossal telescopes fascinated me. Viewing countless worlds swirling through space, strange unknown planets bounding from dark obscurity, great globes of vapory fire churning for centuries and centuries belching gigantic flashes, incited me to wild speculation which ended in a positive conviction of the habitation of the moon. This great wan sphere to telescopic vision appeared like a far-distant landscape, lofty mountains, wide plains lined with flickering, silvery spaces, were sharply outlined against a vast area of vapory whiteness which alternated dark and light flaring, at intervals, almost transparent. There is atmosphere, life, habitation, upon the moon. The interesting planet was suddenly enveloped in a far-reaching roseate mist drifting from the east, which flared in a wide arch of splendor vibrating spiked streamers of violet brilliancy, and from the depths of this tinging glory Saunders's weird, beautiful star slowly glided into view, absorbing the ruddy reflection, till reaching the zenith the strange fiery disc glimmered with a deepening, unflinching pink, and I discovered Saunders's star was very trying to the eyes, yet the swift changing surface of the freakish planet fascinated. Amazed, I watched the intense rose nebulous gradually pale, then lift, revealing a luminous, mottled globe, circled with a hoop of livid green flame which darkened ominously. A great black spot slowly widened, spread, and engulfed the strange orbit, which silhouetted against the flashing circle shone distinct, round as our globe.

It was a remarkable sight, but a sudden sharp pain through the eyes abruptly ended observations. I blinked against the thousands of crimson and violet discs that assail those who have looked too long at the sun and finally sought relief in frequent cold bandages and rest.

Casually metioning the matter to Saunders, he testily advised me not to do it again; give up astronomy and return to Centur, suggesting that I be quick about it; he didn't want to be bothered. I informed him of the result of my observations, to wit: That his phenomenal "discovery" was naught but a great mass of congealed vapor subject to constant disturbances and would eventually evaporate.

Saunders argued conscientiously, bringing out maps, conducting me over zigzag astral routes, and explaining that at intervals the mystic planet underwent semi-eclipse, but had observations been continued I would have noticed the oblong pink nebulous soar above the dark obstruction and caught a glimpse of an exquisite roseate scenery that was instantly obscured in thick, rolling, fiery clouds.

I let him do most of the talking, he was more up on the subject than I; but his explanations were long, tedious, and thoroughly wearied me. I decided to give up astronomy. Yes, sir! I had all I wanted of astronomy, but insisted that my suppositions were as acceptable as any—no one knows more about it than the other, which is a mercy. The science is an unfathomable mystery … guesswork. We are one in trillions, the neighborly lights wandering for eternity as we do and forming all manner of wild conclusions.

I soon discovered the star-gazing clique regarded Saunders much as the National Geographical-Geological societies regarded Sheldon. Saunders was not considered a crank exactly, but he was primitive, ludicrous. His statements, theories, were received with suppressed merriment. For diversion the wise ones propounded the most impossible problems till Saunders, like the scientist who once driven almost mad trying to solve the unsolvable, seized his grandson and burdened the undeveloped mind with the improbable. The simple straightforwardness of tender faculties foreign of worry shredded intricacies and revealed the emptiness of all mysteries. In this manner Saunders patiently answered all queries and at the same time delivered himself of a rare truth.

"A scientist," he informed them, "will sometimes, in the course of experiment, chance upon a meteoric speck problem which immediately he buries deep beneath a heap of scientific rubbish; then in absorbed contemplation of shadows that stretch inquiringly forgets all about it. A mighty problem develops with flickering memory, and in a vain attempt to recall what is lost forever researchers are invited to delve into that which takes centuries of martyred concentration to realize—wasted inspiration never returns. Occasionally in this life the problem seeker is rewarded, then he wonders why and if it was worth a life of probing.

"I don't blame them," said Saunders confidentially; "it is a wise man who makes of every task diversion. To some extent I suppose I represent what they were centuries ago, and the wide difference that does exist they chose to overlook. But I'll accomplish in less than three months what they've been experimenting upon with failure for over fifty years."

And Saunders was not at all deceived how he stood with the clientele. Of one thing I was positive, Saxe., dear old Saxe. was equal to his surroundings. His domineering intellect commanded respect and had no superior. How I was regarded by these wise men did not concern me. They were too advanced to meet my views and interested me as little as I did them.

***

Before returning to Centur I thoroughly explored the strange mountain island. Declining to descend in the pulley coaches, which darted down the mountain side at regular intervals, I made my way to a narrow foot path hewed in the rocks by centuries of travel. I was accompanied part of the way by one of the Professors, who, probably anxious to be rid of me, suddenly decided I didn't interest him nohow and with remarkable speed returned to the summit. I was glad the old boy and his prosy talk were out of the way, as both had frequently made me lose my footing, and having reached a point where the path widened and travel was made easier by natural steps formed in the cliffs I was soon upon level ground, a broad open road about fifty feet wide circling the base of the mountain like a racetrack and enclosed with a high fortress-like wall.

Perched haphazardly among the cliffs were odd-looking, mound-shaped stone huts, painted in all the soft tints of the rainbow. The effect was ridiculously like a huge toy, a great cone of giant marbles.

I walked entirely around the mountain before encountering anything alive and had decided to make a second trip when just ahead, advancing rapidly, I spied the figure of a woman; tall, lithe, graceful. I hastened forward, then stopped, gasped and bared my head before the lovely child, for she was little more. She stopped also and gazed at me with frank, curious eyes, a faint smile curved the perfect mouth, the face was bewitching in its undeveloped, innocent beauty.

She held out her hand in welcome.

"Your name?" she asked.

"With pleasure," I responded, "and yours?"

"Abella," she answered simply. "But I was sure you were 'The Virgillius.' I never heard of With-pleasure, before."

She laughed merrily, and beneath the searching hazel eyes my face flushed.

"I am Virgillius," I hastened to inform her. "Virgillius Salucci."

"'The Virgillius!'" she cried in triumph. "I knew I could not be mistaken. Ah," she sighed ecstatically, "'The Virgillius,' he who braved the dead North, that he might see the women of Centauri and impel them to revive the lost art."

This was one way of putting it, but not exactly what I crossed the Pole for. I gazed with bold admiration at the beautiful young woman. She seemed unaware of my warm glances, and as she took my arm, smilingly inviting me to go with her, no mock modest blush marred the delicate transparency of her skin. The women of Centauri do not blush—they have nothing to blush for.

Abella led me to the side of the mountain facing Centur, then escorted me up a long flight of steps and into one of the huge, emerald-tinted marbles. A man, busy mending fish-nets, glanced up as we entered, then hurriedly advanced to meet us. Abella gently pushed me forward and presented "The Virgillius" to—her husband!

He greeted me cordially. A massive fellow head and shoulders above me, and I a tall man. A fine man, but how did he come by such a lovely wife? For according to the matrimonial system of this land these two were not mates. Abella, aside from the peerless Alpha, was the loveliest morsel of femininity I had seen in this land of beautiful women. I contrived to see a great deal of her during my stay at the Observatory. I would descend to the village in the early morning and not return to the summit till the stars were out.

I sketched the girl in many poses. Features such as hers could be naught but beautiful, however criminal the artist, and became very friendly with the husband; a typical Centaurian, whose password was Equality. This brawny fisherman had a wonderful flow of language, his intelligence was deep, he knew when he had talked enough—a science many have still to master on our side of the world.

The man was a magnificent specimen of the strange, soulless nature of his race. Under circumstances that would have driven me mad with doubt and irritation he was calm, serene. He permitted his young, lovely wife, to spend hours in the society of one famous as Cupid.

Distorted in his mind, Love was a grotesque, fantastic bauble, a fabulous folly; yet he claimed Love was not altogether unknown to him; it filled a good space in the history of his ancestors and during childhood, when the nights were long and wintry, he had been greatly diverted with charming, impossible tales of tenderness. He frankly told me my undertaking was most difficult—Love could not be resurrected; the Dead were dead forever.

My tuition was undoubtedly excellent, and possibly I possessed the approved modern methods, but he knew the women of Centauri, and they would tire of the study ere they mastered the rudiments. Only once did he exhibit any warmth or enthusiasm, and were I not positive he was incapable of passion. I would have declared him enamoured with the Priestess of the Sun. Her name accidentally mentioned inspired ecstasy. She was divine, and he worshipped her. But between love and worship there is a universe of difference. His wife presented the inevitable, she was his affinity, his mate, his fate. He was not indifferent, but she was not divine. They led a smooth, even, contented life together, and I am willing to wager he never cursed his idiocy for wedding, nor did she wonder daily what had become of her reason at the critical period. But in this strange, unnatural world, the old Italian adage is worn threadbare—"A woman is beautiful till she crosses the threshold of her husband's home, then she's good all the rest of her days" (translation ruinous).

The artistic, but practical, fisherman had before possession appreciated the ravishing beauty of Abella. These people did not differ so much from us; true, we could love, but preferred not to, whereas they were bereft of inclination; still the grand finale was marvelously similar—possession killed desire.

I had the audacity to show Abella some of my sketches. She examined them critically, and, as the Centaurians are devoid of passion so are they above deceit. This simple little fisher-girl told me I was not an artist, that my work was crude and lacked character. She took me to her brilliant overturned tea-cup of a home and showed me some of her crayons and pastels. The artist had a bold, strong stroke, rather remarkable in a woman, but taken all in all Abella did not excel in art any more than I did. Landscape was her forte, as it is with all women. At once I recognized the artistically crooked lines trailing across the faint horizon.

Women are more clever than men; they rarely attempt what is beyond them. Continual failure, due to overtaxation of capabilities, is entirely a masculine trait.

I was quite frank with Abella, and she was wonderfully patient. Women of my world ostracise unfavorable criticism, the spontaneous critic embroils and is always a boor.

Abella told me she lacked talent, but that she was beautiful.

"And how do you know?" I asked stupidly.

"My husband is the most famous artist in the world and he has told me."

"Excellent!" I cried. "If that mode were only popular in my land, vice would become extinct. But we have not mastered the divine power of resistance, we shrivel in egotism; and love—the genuine thrill is as much a myth in my land as in yours—is recognized as the most malignant form of insanity; marriage is the remedy which produces merciful reaction. Truly are the men of Centauri wise, their wives are ever beautiful, though unloved."

Abella threw up her hands. "How very strange, and how very unhappy you all must be!" she cried.

The dear child! So interesting to converse with one who cannot understand … beautiful, tedious, the two always go together; yet I had been detained a week.

Undaunted by Abella's frankness, I offered my sketches to the artist fisherman for examination. He smiled indulgently, looked them over, and desired them all, offering in return any one from his wonderful collection. I agreed, and followed him to the top of his mound-shaped home, entering a room strong with the odor of oil and paint. It was the workshop of an artist; a studio is quite another place. Near the window upon an easel was a half finished painting of sky, storm clouds, with a background of thunderous, rolling, flame-tinged vapor—the sullen red of a storm sun that no artist has as yet mastered. The picture was powerfully impressive. The fisherman was a master, his aim—individuality. But I could not admire his ideal of feminine beauty. He was the creator of a Type, elongated, sombre, gaunt, thick-lipped; yet in these impossible faces was that which could not be found in one woman's face in all Centauri—soul. The artist had a cunning skill, he was able to depict that which he lacked.

I looked in vain for a trace of the delicate loveliness of his wife, but in all the work scattered about the walls there was not one sketch of Abella.

He asked me if I had noticed his work in the Salon. I told him I had not yet visited the Salon.

"My work is conspicuously hung," he informed me. "You cannot overlook any of it. I am the only painter in Centauri who refrains from defacing canvas with initials. I come from a long line of artists; necessity made us fishermen; yet each in his time was the foremost painter of the age. I am that to-day; success is the heritage. Those divinely gifted with genius strive for fame, glory alone; to barter that speck of gold which the sun's rays burned in us is sacrilegious. Sol! blind my eyes forever to your golden brilliancy. I would as soon think of selling my wife Abella."

"And when you have reached fame, glory—what?" I asked.

"You do not quite understand," he quickly replied, "it is not momentary fame we seek; immortal fame is the goal we all strive for. But all who are famous cannot be immortal, yet each believe immortality the just reward; even Alpha, the Superb, yearns for immortal fame, and is wasting her gorgeous youth in the effort."

He turned to a huge stone chest or vault set in the wall; unbolting the door he invited me to enter. There was sufficient light from the outer room, and I saw shelves reaching from floor to ceiling ladened with parchment canvases carefully covered with oil silk.

"Stored on those shelves are rare works of art representing the endless toil of my ancestors," explained the fisherman. "All were famous, but one only attained immortality. You have been to the museum?" he asked, drawing down a small canvas from an upper shelf. "Possibly you saw this picture while there; it is a portrait of Alpha the First. This is the original," he continued. "History tells us Alpha the First reigned during the era of Love, and the renowned painter, Francesco, was deeply enamoured with her. But in a mood of exaltation she renounced Love, and went in bondage to Culture, and Francesco, the painter, died of a wounded heart.

"Culture opened a new epoch in this great world of ours, but brought down malignant wrath upon Alpha the First, who being advanced beyond her era, ignored the petulance of inferiors. To her the Centaurians are indebted for the grand, vigorous race of to-day.

"Alpha the First did not long survive Francesco, the artist, whose reward for deep suffering and anguish is immortality."

I became deeply interested in the many treasures stored in the iron room, but the work of the living artist surpassed them all.

He threw up his arms and laughed when I asked to see some of his sketches of Abella.

"She is beautiful, but does not inspire," he told me. "I fail when I attempt to portray Abella. Life, animation, is her beauty; repose, the death mask. Landscape is beautiful on canvas, but never reaches the beauty of reality. Those women up there that I know you do not admire have made me famous."

He referred to the gaunt, dark-visaged ideal.

"All Centauri recognizes them as the type of a perverted age," he continued, "showing this race has lived through and conquered degeneration. Those faces are arch, subtle, perfectly beautiful; to study them is fascinating. The scowling brows arch, the eyes take deeper tinges, and the lips—ah!"

I turned away smiling, muttering in jest.

He advised me when I returned to Centur to visit the Salon, there I would find a portrait of Abella, "which impressed, but gave dissatisfaction, lacking that which made Abella a beautiful woman."

He opened an exquisitely carved cabinet and taking out an oblong leather case, remarked: "that this was some of his first work." Then, without warning, he thrust before me a portrait of Alpha Centauri. I gasped. Skill! Powers above! Alpha Centauri stood before me, marvelously beautiful, enveloped in a broad stream of golden light, devout, with eyes and arms raised heavenward, in the Temple of the Sun. I'm not certain how I acted; men in love are usually maudlin. I had been away a long time—must return—must see, speak with her at once! I implored, begged for the portrait.

The man stared at me in amazement, then quietly closed the case and pressed my hand upon it—the picture was mine.

He pitied, yet could not understand. As we parted, he murmured: "Very unfortunate, great passion wasted. The women of the Great Family are sacred; the men only mate."

He invited me to call again, hoping that I would find leisure from my many engagements to promise him at least one visit before returning to my own country. His seeming sincerity was very complimentary. Flattery is a strong point with the Centaurians.

I found Abella waiting for me in the vestibule, seated in a wide, deep-silled window overlooking the bay.

Beautiful Abella—she had ceased to interest me.

"You have been long," she murmured; "but the work is wonderful."

"Your husband is a master," I replied.

She looked happy, gratified, and asked me to be seated, pointing to the place beside her. I declined, then with the brutality of indifference told her I was going, would return to Centur that evening.

"So soon!" she gasped, a startled expression coming to the sweet eyes, then she turned aside and in cold tones told me she regretted my departure. It was enough. I should have gone, but the situation tantalized gallantry. No man could have left her like that.

I drew the girl to me and slowly raised her arms till they rested around my neck. "Abella," I whispered: "You are sad that I go?" She raised the lovely eyes brimful of tears, the sweet mouth with its full red lips quivered, drooped, and was very close.

"Abella!" I murmured; then our lips met in a long, long kiss—her first kiss of love. Ah, but she was beautiful!

With a low cry she darted from me and with her face well averted bade me go.

"Go," she muttered; "go to Alpha Centauri."

With the name of the woman I worshipped reason returned. Without a word I left her—left her forever.

Abella was completely forgotten in the exciting events that followed. Possibly I acted wrong, but was innocent of harm, and did none. True, Abella had met with an experience few women of Centauri ever encounter, but I knew her brilliant eyes would be dimmed but a few minutes after my departure, and in a very little time I would cease to be anything but a remembrance, a pleasant remembrance circling in dreamy mist till submerged, obliterated.

Abella and all the women of this strange land are devoid of depth, which is the secret of their great beauty. Nothing affected them, the perfect surface challenged contact with the cold hardness of gems, ills glanced aside, leaving a placid, flawless mask.

I shall always remember Abella, but knew she had forgotten me long before I left her wonderful and unnatural world.