The Centaurians/Chapter XVII

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CHAPTER XVII.

The heat was intense. It was impossible to remain in my rooms, and my nerves were at such tension that I decided to hunt up Saxe. for relaxation. I knew I would find him awake and busy; he always worked at night, declaring the brain was clearer, more vigorous during the dark hours, and that all great ideas have been figured out by candle light. I softly stepped into the hall, the dim lights flickered in a slight draught, all seemed silent, yet distinctly a low murmur of voices reached me. I hurried down the broad vista of shining stairs, the bronze entrance stood wide as always, there were no sentinels in this wondrous land of harmony. As I neared the grand vestibule, the voices raised loud, discordant in angry dispute, and I paused in astonishment. A brilliant light suddenly flared from the Audience, or Throne Room, where royal magnificence defied comparison. A sultry silence, followed by the rustling of silks, warned me I had barely time to conceal myself behind the huge fluted column which supported the dome, when a door swung wide and Alpha Centauri stepped out, her bearing that of a Queen, a disdainful, arrogant Queen. By her side was the Vespa King, wild with rage; in the rear Centauri stood, arms uplifted in dismay and bewilderment.

"At least meet Prince Benlial," snorted the angry King, trying to detain her. Alpha gazed scornfully upon him.

"I do not refuse to meet the Prince," she answered, "but shall be absent from Centur indefinitely. However, when I return will give him an audience."

"Bah!" scoffed the King, unable to control his fury. "Leave the veneer for publicity; we are alone, be natural. You must meet my son, and cold, superior, as you think you are, you will——."

Quickly she raised her hand, commanding silence.

"Useless!" she told him. "You have my decision. I am the Priestess of the Sun, and shall never wed."

She walked slowly away, the King watched her with bulging eyes, too furious for speech. Suddenly she turned and flashed him a brilliant smile.

"My greetings to Prince Benlial. Should he ever visit Centur, a royal welcome awaits him."

She courtesied deeply in mockery; the interview was at an end.

The King stamped with rage and would have followed her, but Centauri remonstrated and drew him into the room, gently closing the door.

Alpha paused, shrugged her shoulders, and glanced disdainfully at the closed door.

"The Prince of the Vespa Belt—ouff!" she muttered. Then she flung her arms high and whispered in adoration: "I am true, faithful; yours entirely." Her eyes closed in passionate ecstasy, a smile of exquisite joy stole over the lovely features, as in a dream she proceeded on her way.

I watched till she passed from view. She had learned the lesson well—an apt pupil who had not been taught, who had never forgotten. Remembrance had tarnished, a slight pressure upon the fabulous spring and the sensitive wires vibrated with rejuvenated vigor. Hurray! return to your Belt, oh Vespa King—sic!

Accosting the first pedestrian I inquired the way to Professor Saxlehner. Following directions, I soon reached Saxe.'s dwelling, which was brilliantly lit from top to bottom. The house seemed all frontage, wide, flat, and very shallow. I touched a conspicuous knob, the door startled me, as, clanging violently, it slid up. There stood Saxe. at the far end of the hall waiting for the intruder, but seeing me he shouted welcome.

"Thought you intended to stay for good with Saunders," he told me after the greeting. "What consumed the time? Surely not Saunders! Never mind, tell it to me later. The Centaurians do things in style; my workshop is a great improvement upon the old one, but, confidentially, Virgillius, give me the attic every time; there the ideas came without wasting hours thinking them up. This luxury inspires yawns. I don't see how these people ever made such rapid headway."

And Saxe. was right, the place resembled a lady's boudoir, all silken cushions, soft carpets and rainbow tints.

"But it's pleasant to rest here when I'm tired," he continued. "I don't object to the frippery, it's all in a lifetime. The rear is serious enough."

"And breeches more comfortable, eh, Saxe.?" I nudged him.

"No comparison, my boy!" he replied. "I'm done with petticoats, a man can't do anything in them but try to look pretty. No wonder women spend most of their lives primping, it's the petticoats. I've found a tailor who knows his business. Imagine us returning to our own land rigged up in the sort of thing you've got on! Yes, sir! I feel like Saxlehner now. Sheldon's done the same thing; says the climate of the Ocstas is too arctic for tights."

I decided to don trousers again.

"Yes," Saxe. advised, "bundle the drapery out; it makes you look like the bearded lady. Now for the Propellier. The new machine is a great improvement upon the old one; the defects of the first are remedied in the second—don't advertise it."

He showed me two or three tiny wheels, several great long screws and rivets, and two gigantic pieces of filigree work cast in glittering metal.

"Pure gold," he informed me, "cast in crystal molds over a furnace of electricity. It took me several days planning and figuring for the molds, yet, by George! the factory delivered them in a few hours. That's rapid work for you! Molds should always be of crystal."

"But the gold!" I interrupted; "is the whole machine to be cast in gold?"

"Of course! What of it?" he cried. "It's manufactured by wholesale and on the market like lumber. Look here."

He opened the adjoining room and showed me the gold stacked up in blocks ready for use.

"Is it absolutely pure?" I asked.

"Well," he replied, "it's stood every test I've made upon it. Beyond doubt it's the same article that's so scarce on our side. I held out for steel, but the durability of gold was pointed out, and it was explained the Propellier would be in the museum for all time, and gold was the metal. I wouldn't argue with them. They are going to publish books with exquisite illustrations, the date and details of when Potolili first sighted us and the car. Little guide books will be issued, explaining all about the strange little steel car and gold Propellier, presented to the people of Centauri by the renowned Professor Saxlehner. 'Renowned Saxlehner' sounds first rate—ahem! Now look at this." He opened a small box stuffed with silk floss and took out a huge diamond the size and shape of a pecan and of dazzling brilliancy. "For the Propellier," he explained; "a perfect gem without a flaw, yet not genuine. Yes, Virgillius, the Centaurians have discovered the secret; this stone is as perfect as any ever taken from the mines. Before returning home I shall master the intricate combination of gold blocks and diamonds. Nearly all the genuine gems of Centauri have been placed in the museum. The manufactured article is the standard; man's ingenuity is rated invaluable. Notice the ruby, it contains a fire never seen in the most famous gems of our world; but the stone that defies penetration is the emerald. It guards its secret well and is very rare. Many have attempted to produce the stone and turned out fairly good imitations, but imitation was failure, a perfect emerald must be produced. Half a century ago a noted scientist delved into the mystery of the emerald. In his efforts to get ahead of competitors he experimented upon the sacred emerald loaned to him from the museum and actually reduced it to liquid. Old Centauri was sent for and found the scientist frantically trying to analyze the liquid, under the impression it would shortly petrify again, but, to the amazement of both, the strange greenish liquid dwindled and evaporated—that ended the emerald problem with the scientist. He succumbed to an ailment unknown to physicians, and it is believed he inhaled the emerald. Scientists declare the fatal incident analyzed the emerald. The gem is composed of congealed poisonous gases petrified. The emerald man became famous because he came nearer solving the green mystery, but his secret died with him. When pressed to divulge he replied: 'My experiment failed; had I produced the perfect stone the knowledge would have been free to all. I produced nothing and lost the emerald, as I feared I would. Failures are enervating, should remain obscure; the time in this sphere is too short to ponder over them.'"

Saxe. told me many curious things about the Centaurians and their wonderful discoveries. We talked till daybreak. He made me promise to visit him daily and be useful, but it was several months before Saxe. and I met again. I returned to the palace and wandered in the gardens, waiting impatiently for the summons from Alpha Centauri. But I was disappointed; though I sent many messages, she refused to see me that day and, womanlike, gave no reasons. I idled the glorious morning away in the gardens, then towards noon started for the city in quest of Saxe.'s intelligent tailor. The man seemed to regard my order as an honor, and to my request promised to give it his personal attention and I would have the garments as early as I desired. He informed me the costume was ancient, but occasionally seen on the stage, and there was a general impression the mountaineers of the Vespa Belt still wore it.

He took my measure and again promised to accommodate me at the earliest possible moment. I decided the next time Alpha and I met she would behold a gentleman of the period of my world.

Strolling leisurely about the city, pondering upon the advisability of visiting Saxe. again, I suddenly sighted a tall, majestic building, whose portals stood wide with a gigantic statue of the angel Genius, smiling a welcome. It was the Salon, and remembering the artistic fisherman and fair Abella, I entered the gallery with much curiosity. I remained till sun-down. The fisherman's work was above and beyond anything in the gallery, not for merit, but originality. He aimed at the mysterious, the startling, and charmed the imagination. An artist who daringly flings upon the world a picture of dull sky and half-obscured moon is a master.

Originality is the child of imagination; Fame, the blossom.

There were many clever artists in this strange land, possibly more clever than the extraordinary fisherman, but their work lacked individuality and paled into insignificance before the wild combination of vivid, gaudy shades blended by the greatest artist in the world.

But as I viewed the portrait of the beauteous Abella, my admiration for her husband's art dwindled considerably. In the pink-and-white, simpering portrait the artist betrayed his lack of skill; he failed utterly to produce Abella's delicate archness and made her loveliness a type to compare with his strange ideal of pervertness. A long panel canvas revealed the dark-browed, intense production posed impossibly statuesque; deep, gloomy, intelligent eyes, the whole vivid with that which was lacking in the painted prettiness of Abella. It was a masterstroke placing the two side by side, the one fair, smiling, shallow, the other dark, wintry, magnetic. The failure was obscured; the ideal charmed the eye and attention.

I was wondering which type I admired when startled by the sudden flare of lights in the building—the signal of the setting sun—and instantly forgot all types but one and hurried away in happy anticipation.

I found Mike greatly perturbed. He told me every one in the palace had been thrown in great confusion by the tempestuous King of the Vespa Belt.

"Alpha Centauri honors the traditions of her family," he informed me. "She proclaims herself Priestess of the Sun, and that her celestial duties do not include the unification of the white race. King Benlial departed at sun-down. Friendly relations between the two countries are at an end. Centauri and his daughter escorted the wrathy King to his ship. In loud, excited tones, he told them the Prince would visit Centur. 'Greetings,' Alpha replied, 'the people of Centur will welcome the Prince when honored by his presence.' Her stateliness, serenity, superiority to the man before her—it was sacrilegious to dream of mating her with the son of such a barbarian!"

Mike waxed indignant.

"Centauri watched the departure of their royal visitor till the ship was out of sight," he continued, "then seeing me near, the Priestess of the Sun beckoned and bade me tell you she would consult with you in the morning."

"I will not see her to-day at all then!" I cried.

Mike shrugged his shoulders.

"She is closeted with her father, deep in discussion of important state matters," he told me.

"Will the Prince visit the city?" I foolishly asked.

Without the least hesitancy he replied: "Certainly; Alpha must mate, the last of her people. Prince Benlial may prove worthy."

This was consoling. I dismissed him and, weary, disappointed, retired. My slumbers were disturbed with lurid visions of Prince Benlial, and one poppy scene more vivid than others roused me with heartache and I awoke moaning. The sun streamed into the room, a slanting flame seared straight across my eyes, but through the blur I saw Mike tip-toeing about with disapproving glances fixed upon a heap of clothing fragrant with newness. He strenuously objected to the new clothing, but curious, and unable to assist me, keenly watched my preparations. When I stood complete before him he turned me around admiringly.

"You look very well," he remarked; "but appeared better yesterday."

"Nonsense!" I retorted. "I look better and feel more like myself now than since entering Centur."

He smiled, bowing deeply.

"Alpha Centauri awaits you," he said. "You were to be so informed the moment of awakening."

I pushed him aside, shaking my fist at his chuckle and hurried to meet the sweet woman who was certainly making life a very unhappy problem for me. She received me with a veiled glance and smiled tenderly as I raised her hand to my lips. I chided her for breaking her appointments.

"Ah, Virgillius," she replied. "No plans could be perfected till the departure of wrathy King Benlial. I am not divine, and love begets selfishness. I will not sacrifice myself for the people."

The Vespa Prince—finis!

We spent the entire day together. Over and over again she told of her deep infatuation for—nothing. Poetically, impassionately, she described the image of her dreams, and no man on earth could ever reach the perfections of the idol this girl had erected to worship. Then I learned of her plans. Alpha Centauri, for the first time in her life, was to leave Centur and tour the world. A large party of friends had been invited to travel with her and the government ship Centur was placed at her disposal.

"I have frequently been urged to do this," she told me; "advised that I should become familiar with the world I would some day rule; but I demurred; science was more interesting. I lived a painfully narrow life—what a wonderfully different view you have created! Virgillius, I go in search of the god of my dreams."

And the secret was out. Alpha Centauri would search for and, if possible, possess this man of her imagination, and forever bring damnation upon her soul. What woman is happy with the individual she thinks her affinity?

"Suppose your search should prove futile," I maliciously suggested.

"That is impossible," she replied confidently; "my love exists."

I inquired if she would visit the Vespa Belt.

"No," she answered quickly. "My ideal could not be found among the Vespa people; but we shall sail low and slowly over the Belt that you may see it. It will take about two days to sail from one point of the crescent to the other and five days of stormy weather over the vast waters that separates the Belt from this land. Altogether we shall be absent many months. Centauri does not accompany us; he is much interested in the daring exploits of your great friend, Sheldon, and will pass most of the time in the Ocstas—and, Virgillius, we sail to-morrow evening at sun-down."