The Centaurians/Chapter XVIII
The following day was one of excitement and petty anxieties. I constantly feared the wonderful young woman would, at the last moment, change her mind and electing to remain faithful to her "Fancy," declare the tour off. But I was far from understanding Alpha Centauri. She directed preparations with a cool energy that was beyond alteration, and impatient to depart, would have sailed from Centur before noon but superstition prevailed—a lucky voyage must always be started at sundown.
I accompanied Alpha to the Temple of the Sun where she led the high-noon devotions. For the time she forgot her new emotions in fanatical worship of the Sun as the broad rays streamed upon her. All Centur knew she would that evening set out to see the world, and people crowded the streets to cheer their beloved Priestess and wish her bon voyage. They cheered her beauty and piety, and because she had sent King Benlial to his Belt disappointed. I alone knew the object of the tour.
That evening, at sun-down, we boarded the good ship Centur. As the great wings fluttered and the vessel slowly rose, vast crowds shouted good luck to us, and Alpha waved the colors of Centauri in response. Then suddenly we darted ahead into infinite blue plains and the search for a god began.
It is impossible to describe the many strange, wonderful sights seen upon those travels. We skimmed swiftly over marvelous violet-blurred cities, dense forests cut with silvery, winding streams, and over long snow-capped mountain ranges. Frequently the ship fluttered to earth, and a day was idled away in fishing or gathering wild fruit and flowers, and once we nestled upon a lofty peak that pierced the clouds and viewed the mountain girdled with sleet, ice and snow, yet where we rested the grass grew rank, and some delicate pink blossoms I gathered drooped at the breast of Alpha Centauri.
It took nearly two days to cross a great tract of prairie land and we flew with dizzy velocity over five great oceans; the roaring, mountainous waves swirled frantic for life. It seemed impossible ships ever navigated these fierce waters, yet they did centuries ago, but disasters had been appalling. As we gazed downward, awed by the stupendous vastness of the earth, the universe, we reverently pondered over the reason of this gigantic creation.
"Bred of Sol, Virgillius. It is the true faith; how obscured the intellect that reasons otherwise. Sol, do not doubt, Virgillius, Sol always."
Argument is more debilitating than cold in the head. The extraordinary belief of this beautiful Centaurian made her adamant, and I desired the woman, not the belief.
We visited all the large cities of this world; great cities of commerce and gigantic industry, and were royally entertained. Our approach, heralded hours in advance, signaled great festivities. These people of advanced views proclaimed Wisdom sovereign, but Old Centauri is monarch of this land of wise men, and Equality is as mythical here as in my world. The Great Family is supreme, and Alpha, my Alpha, is Princess of Centauri.
One continual nationality lacks individuality; travel in my world is far more interesting, yet Centauri is beautiful, a wonderful vision of superb development; but see one city and you've seen them all.
Alpha Centauri entered these marvelous cities quivering with expectations, radiant with hope, but departure was invariably hastened by bitter disappointment and, in despair, she finally suggested the return to Centur. I brusquely advised her to continue traveling, reminding her that once in Centur all hope was ended. Then endeavoring to console I talked long and earnestly about ideals never realized and succeeded in rousing anger, which is better. She reproached me for "planting this image of torture in my brain," and "you class me with the absurdities of six centuries ago."
"Ah, Virgillius," she continued: "this phantom of my brain has an adoration far exceeding mine, a powerful magnetism forced me upon this tour. All ideas, no matter how fabulous, have had previous existence. What the brain conceives can be realized; nothing is impossible. Life is the most fabulous illusion in the universe—a marvelous creation of Sol. Virgillius, the magnetism of your idea forced you into a stupendous folly, but you realized."
"I realize, but it does not bring me peace or happiness," I retorted.
"You sought and worshipped beyond your sphere," she quickly answered. "The current of Thought met, crashed, and lost power in evaporation; the union of magnets creates disaster. Virgillius, I have a great longing to return to Centur, some force urges me. To travel farther is needless. Ah, how selfish is my passion! I follow your advice, the tour continues."
So we sailed onward, and into a corner of her vast knowledge Alpha Centauri stored the wisdom of deceit. She smiled and appeared gay, happy, when heart-sick, disappointed and bored. She preferred solitude, lost her brilliant coloring and the grave, frank eyes became dull, fatigued. Those traveling with us paid little heed to her erratic ways, believing she was deep in the study of some new scientific discovery—which she was—and had it not been for my pleasant surroundings it would have been a toss-up between the air ship and Saxe. After all, Saxe. & Co. were to be envied. The Propellier was faithful to Saxe., the stars true to Saunders. Only Sheldon and myself were excavating with doubts as to our landing.
Alpha Centauri had gathered about her many charming people, their entertaining company made life bearable during the tedious ending of the tour. There were several ladies with husbands, two young girls with cavaliers, and an interesting Mamma who did the talking for them. The girls were very pretty and the cavaliers devoted. One was a young doctor—we've all met him. The other was a descendant of the man who melted the emerald and kept it to himself. Naturally the young man was rather mournful and stilted, his pride was inherited—keeping a secret is a most acrobatic feat. There was a companionable literary man constantly deep in inspired thought. He did not alarm with allusions to the plot of his forthcoming book, but occasionally boasted of a world of his own—as they all do—and limited his conversation to current topics. His briefness was fascinating—an art.
Then we had a mineralogist whose deep scientific problem was—sleep. Occasionally he woke up and became as frisky as a boy of fifty. His wife was the only woman I ever met who could keep up an incessant chatter and still be interesting. There was a tragedian, playwright, all in one, including a wife. The tragedies this gentleman wrote were excellent farces. He was the greatest humorist of the time. His wit was sharp, broad and frequently coarse, but he handled his subject with such rare delicacy that it took a couple of days to discover that he shouldn't have told the joke and we shouldn't have laughed. The wife was a beautiful, fair woman of that type that most men are willing some other fellow shall possess.
Everybody was very kind to me, and were I not so desperately in love and therefore desperately unhappy, I would have greatly enjoyed the trip throughout this strange land.
The country was rapidly changing in appearance. We sailed over a range of burnt, dwarfed mountains enclosing completely a vast desert which narrowed to meet a neck of land that stretched across the ocean, connecting Centauri with the Vespa Belt. This connecting land was fifty miles long, twenty wide, and most of the time submerged.
"You are viewing the ancient battlefield of the Vespas and Centauris," the literary man informed me. "The last war they had lasted forty years, closed with carnage, and should be eliminated from history. The reading is not elevating and neither have anything to be proud of. It occurred during the early ages when civilization ignored the earth which was inhabited by savages and beasts, the beasts being superior and more humane. What the war was over I've never discovered, nor has any one else; but it was conducted upon the most hellish plans. During one engagement the Vespas invaded too deeply the Centauri desert, their idea to surprise the enemy, who were ambushed in the hills. They were permitted to advance well inland, then suddenly the Centauris appeared and surrounded them. Not one Vespa returned to the Belt, but scouts informed the crescent people what had happened. The ancient King Benlial was a demon, the Vespas were enraged, and early the following day the Centauris were astounded to see another Vespa army marching across the neck. The Centaurians yelled their scorn of the advancing army and rushed to meet it. The battle was fought upon the peninsular, the Vespas gradually retreating; then suddenly, as though panic-stricken, turned tail and fled. The Centaurians, wild, drunk with victory, pursued them closely and at first did not see the tremendous wall of water rising, cutting off all escape. They realized when the land sank and mountainous waves engulfed them. It was a fiendish revenge; the Vespas are rightly named."
The literary man gave a shrug of disgust. I had passed from his vision long ago. He was conversing with himself, a habit most literary people effect, and he walked away as unconcernedly as though I'd never existed. I wondered if he had really repeated history or simply reviewed a scene from his new romance.
We were crossing this historical neck of land now and all were on deck, gazing curiously at the dim outlines of the Vespa Belt.
Alpha Centauri joined us, pale, listless, heavy-eyed, and gave orders for low sailing that we could more distinctly view the possessions of King Benlial. She confidentially told me she would remain in seclusion during the journey over the Vespa Belt, and mournfully shook her head when I begged permission to visit her.
"The Vespa Belt has no charms for me," she murmured. "Ah, Virgillius, do not be downhearted, you have taught me the value of unhappiness, life is incomplete without it. I am not despondent, but tortured with doubts; he whom I seek waits at Centur, but I have suffered disappointment so often I dread another. Do not think of me, join the others. I shall not see you again till we are crossing the Great Ocean."
She sighed heavily and entered her cabin before I could prevent. The door closed between us and bitterly I regretted teaching her the knowledge of misery. Love had robbed her of individuality, damning her with a craving for the unattainable worse than death, whose soothing balm of peace, rest and vacant identity was far more cheerful than eternal yearning. From my heart I wished I could make her the radiant, soulless, happy creature she was before we met. I would give all I possess if I had never crossed the Pole, and suddenly a longing came over me to see once again dear old Middleton.
Traitorous thoughts galloped upon me. I had become enamoured with a bright, glorious vision. Reproaches, sad eyes, mournfulness were killing my passion. Bah! the vision still exists; I created it; but Centauri, who enslaved me, was fading.
I joined the others, who were leaning over the ship's side, gazing curiously at a village we were sailing over. We could see the people crowding into the narrow streets and from our ship came a faint report, followed by a cloud of deep violet smoke which curled upward, twisted and looped till finally the word "Centauri" floated in space beside us. At the sight the crowds below shouted and cheered; we bellowed response. Toward evening we passed over a lovely bay, the air was soft, balmy and we remained upon deck till near midnight. The time passed swiftly between the Literary Man and Humorist, while the ladies sang in clear, sweet voices. We turned in when a sudden icy squall struck us, and the last view we had of the new country was of dark, gloomy mountains.
Next morning before sun-rise I was on deck, but my traveling companions were earlier and joshed me unmercifully. The Literary Man was persistently witty about oversleeping—he'd been up all night and regaled us about the wondrous sights we'd missed. We had sailed over three great cities brilliant with light, humming with revelry, some celebration going on. "And," he continued, "these Vespa savages have built wonderful cities of superb architecture. I think we're approaching the royal city of Benlial. See the height of those monstrous domes, the steeple of one temple has tried to pierce the sun. The ancient city of Benlial has for ages been the theme of poets."
We were sailing over vast grain fields and meadow-land where thousands of cattle grazed, and far in the distance, gleaming white, phantom-like through the mist, we saw a great city. As we neared this spectral, poem city, the mist cleared before the strong, hot rays of the rising sun, and beneath us stretched a scene of fabulous beauty. Thoroughfares of marble lined with gigantic palms, whose huge branches arched from side to side, high domed buildings of pure white marble surrounded with vast gardens gorgeous with bloom. Poverty could not exist in this luxurious city. The ship sailed lower that we might view closer this paradise of earth. Nestling in the center of extensive gardens, miniature lakes and streams, forced cataracts and high spraying fountains was the jewel-like palace of Benlial—a long, flat, shining building.
"Here in the heart of civilization is a barbaric relic of what the Vespa people were," remarked the Literary Man. "They have been working centuries upon that palace and are still adding to it; it will never be completed. The architecture is valuable only for antiquity and hideousness," he continued, "and tasks the ingenuity of modern architects to follow the original plan. The building is entirely of mosaic."
"Taken as a whole it is of remarkable beauty," I blurted out. "There's not another building to compare with it in the wide world."
Everybody became greatly interested in the strange palace with its numerous domes, steeples and beautiful lacey archways—an abode for gnomes and fairies, the crown jewel of the Vespa Belt, its diadem of artistic glory. Centauri with all her wonders could not boast of any work to compare with this marvelous palace.
Slowly, reluctantly, we sailed from the superb marble city with its gleaming white edifices, mosaic palaces and vast boulevards haunting the memory, so that in dreams the beautiful scene is revisited again and again. This crescent-shaped country was cultivated from point to point, and boasted a population of over forty millions. The Vespas worshipped the Sun, but enjoyed the dusk. In Centauri twilight is unknown, and the state of progression between the two countries was not worth warring over—they were tanto per tanto.
The morning of the third day we reached the extreme north point of the Belt and sighted the Great Ocean. The air was misty, ice cold, and a piercing salt breeze suddenly turned to a terrific gale and tore and whistled around the ship forcing her ahead at a dizzy speed.
"Well be out of it in a second," the literary gent assured us. "I feared we were venturing rather near the danger point. There four wind currents meet; anything caught in it is lost. The gale we're flying before is merely one of the four. Imagine the extreme north point of the crescent. It is said that at one time this land extended half across the ocean; but these four gales blowing constantly for ages have gradually blown the Belt to its present small dimensions. Possibly in a few centuries more the Belt will vanish and the crescent country become one of the great legends of Centauri."
The ladies laughed incredulously, but the men pretended to take the speaker seriously.
"You speak with prophetic wisdom," said the tragedian. "An interpreter of tragedies can be blunt, and his words always taken in jest. The Vespa Belt will never be swallowed by the Four Winds, but in less than ten years she will be submerged by Centauri. For perfect civilization, progression, harmony, there must be unity. I do not jest, but a tragedian is always a jester."
He was vigorously applauded and encouraged to continue, but, bowing, modestly refrained commenting further upon the subject and suggested we go above, as the wind had calmed. We trooped up on deck and were greeted by a hot, blazing sun, a deep blue sky, and a fierce ocean with mountainous waves boiling white beneath us. Far in the distance were the snow mountains and white cliffs of the Vespa Belt, which in the clear sunlight showed up a perfect crescent.
"We have entered another zone," the writing gent informed us. "We have emerged from the wind regions, and—er—ahem!——."
He ended abruptly; no one was listening to him. All looked in one direction, and, as I looked the blood rushed to my head. Alpha Centauri stepped from her cabin, radiantly beautiful, garbed in white.
In an instant I was beside her. With passionate ardor I pressed her hand to my lips. Her face flushed delicately, pallor, dejection had vanished; her eyes gleamed and burned, she was the personification of joy.
"In a few days we will be in Centur—think what that means to me, Virgillius," she murmured.
"You are positive then?"
"As though I were already there," she replied. "He waits me. Centur ends all disappointments. I will talk with you later, this is a day of worship. I am the Priestess of the Sun."
Rising to her full height majestically she walked down the deck with upstretched arms waving toward the Sun. High, clear, rang out her clarion voice in the call to worship, and people flocked from all parts of the ship, circled around her, and kneeled.
With swaying form she chanted in low, weird tones. The glorious eyes did not blink before the dazzling rays that enveloped her. She twisted, undulated, as though to have the streaming fiery light bathe every portion of her body; then suddenly, as in ecstasy, out came the cry of devotion, high, clear, sweet. At that moment the Sun's rays slanted, and in the golden shadow the glorious Priestess stood silent, rapt; then her arms fell to her sides and devotions ended.
All rose and went about their various duties. Alpha turned to me with a smile as placid as a child's.
"Always the Priestess of the Sun," she murmured. "I love, Sol, how I love! this new worship absorbs my whole life, but—always the Priestess of the Sun, Virgillius."
I led her to the other side of the ship, away from the others.
"Virgillius," she murmured, "do not think me childish because I sought seclusion while sailing over the Belt. I did not think of the Vespas, but could conceal my unhappiness no longer. Solitude has no prying, curious eyes; I was alone, gloomy, morose, despairingly worshipping a fancy, and believe as you wish, Virgillius, I know not if I dreamed or was awake, but for the instant the veil of obscurity lifted and I saw the future. Scenes like great paintings were revealed, then slowly slid from view; only two was I permitted to gaze upon with memory. I saw the palace at Centur sparkling in the vivid light of noon. Wandering disconsolately through the halls was a form swathed in twilight. I tried to peer through the flickering dusk and listened to my name repeatedly called, frequently imploringly, always with passion. Like a magnet I was drawn within the mystic gloam; I tried to touch, to speak with the shadow, then like a flash the scene shifted and I floated over the Ocsta Mountains. Standing upon the cliffs, gazing with grave anxiety into the waters of the Otega, was your friend, the great Sheldon. Suddenly he raised his face, white, wild with terror and shouting, he leaped with great bounds from cliff to cliff. His cries brought the men from the caves and I saw my father among them, calm, magnificent, giving directions, commanding order. I heard an awful rumbling noise, the mountains swayed as trees in the wind, the sky became suffused, lurid, the air suffocating. There was a terrific explosion, a huge funnel of fire rose, meeting the heavens, and monstrous columns of yellow, red, black smoke swallowed all nature. I shrieked in horror and obscurity clouded the frightful scene. Once more the future was a blank, dark, illusive. Virgillius, I did not sleep or dream; Centauri, Sheldon and all with them are in peril. I shall save them. Speed has been doubled, the ship travels swifter than the wind, and we will reach the mountains toward evening of the day after to-morrow. It is the fastest time ever made over the Great Ocean, and the Ocstas is the first land sighted, then—Centur. Come, Virgillius, this will never do, we must join the others. Artoisti will teach you the game he is eternally playing with Dreaisti."
Artoisti was the literary gent, and he of Dreaisti the dramatist. I argued against both gentlemen and the game, and feelingly pleaded to remain with her the afternoon. She laughingly refused to listen to me and made sport of my earnestness. We joined the others.
Artoisti called me to the table where he was playing with Dreaisti. I watched the game some time, but was soon convinced that in a hundred years I couldn't master it. It was tedious, complicated, and played with oblong ivory chips the size of a match ornamented with fine threads of color. The game seemed a mixture of chess, checkers and hop-scotch, played upon a board similar to the chart of the heavens. The splintery chips were twirled in the air and fell upon the chart in squares, triangles, circles. Where the tricks, points, came in I have still to discover. The gentlemen invited me to take a "flip" in the game, but I hastily retreated, amid shouts of derision.
We were warned from the deck as the ship suddenly lowered and zigzagged at terrific speed. The great wings fluttered heavily, and frequently the ship crested the turbulent waves like a monster seagull.
We had reached the danger zone. Safety lay in hugging the water to avoid the fierce wind currents crashing above, but we soon out-distanced danger and gradually floated upward high and higher; by noon we coursed in our accustomed sphere, but speeded on with a hurricane following swiftly. From the little signal house Alpha and I watched the storm gathering and strengthening.
"We speed ahead," she murmured; "but if caught—devotions to Sol, all is over."
I pressed her close to me; at that moment death with her seemed rapture, then she was mine forever. But I shall never forget that frightful night. The din, uproar of thunderous cannonading as great black, red, lightning-pierced clouds met the ocean was terrifying; the ship creaked and groaned threateningly in her wild flight before the hurricane.
With ill-concealed alarm I sat up all night, but the others retired as usual. The Centaurian equipoise will remain forever an enigma.
Dawn ended our peril. We still traveled before a gale, but had outsailed the tempest. Above was a clear, blue sky, and the soft radiance of the rising sun enveloped the ship. Toward noon we reached the dead calm ocean tropics, the heat flamed upon oily, slothful waters, but we sailed with the swiftness of a bird, and far in the distance a heliotrope ridge met our vision.
"The Ocstas!" cried Alpha, delighted. "We shall reach them in the early evening."
And all day she watched till the violet line became a positive purple, gradually deepening into peak and curve with soft velvety slopes, yet as we neared the mountains I noticed, with astonishment, that they reached the water's edge without beach, perpendicular cliffs with smooth, shining surface, barren, upright, a gigantic wall that huge ocean waves dashed against in high bounding sprays.
It was rosy twilight when we sailed over these uncanny mountains so sharply divided by cold, barren cliffs on one side and deep forests, rich valleys on the other.
Anxiously Alpha gazed downward and called my attention to the ominous rumbling, which I supposed was the roar of the ocean.
"I fear we are too late," she murmured. "It seems we will never reach the place where the great Sheldon and Centauri are imperiling their lives tampering with the volcanic Otega."
In vain I tried to calm her. Words made her desperate, and as the detonations increased she clasped her hands tightly in agony. The air grew dense, sultry, vibrating with electricity. All scented danger, calamity and clustered together in alarmed little groups, murmuring: "The Otega; the Otega."
The ship slackened speed as we sighted the Otega, and her great wings fluttered as though about to lower. Upon earth all was agitation, the ocean boiled furiously, at high tide crashing over the steep cliff wall and flooding the land; people, panic-strickened, scurried in all directions. Then Centauri appeared. We knew him by his long white beard. The little crowd gathered about him, but suddenly, all with one accord, rushed to the side of the mountain, where, in a hollow, their ship rested. We could see them scrambling over the side of the vessel, working, tugging with desperation to loosen her. We lowered a little to give assistance, but the ship bounded free, the great bat wings vigorously unfurled; then shouts of distress coming from land startled us and we saw a man running, mad with terror. He reached the ship, grasping the side just as she lurched upward, jerking his body out with the shock, then banging it back with terrific force. I turned sick, covering my eyes—the man was Sheldon. My blood curdled as I thought of his awful death, expecting, of course, that he'd fallen to earth and was dashed to pieces, but Alpha whispered he was safe, that he'd clung to the vessel as he had to his theory and Centauri had dragged him from his awful position. I could see him lying on the deck. The two vessels sailed close and established communication. Alpha talked with her father, and I learned the great Otega would soon be in eruption after a quiet of six centuries. We lingered to view the phenomenon.
"I am glad the matter is settled for all time," murmured Alpha. "Certainly the great Sheldon's visit to Centauri has been of some benefit, his laughable theories have obtained positive results and settled forever a grave doubt to the satisfaction of every one."
She laughed as I suggested that Sheldon, to a certain extent, had been deceived.
"He deceived himself," she replied. "No one disputed his positive assertions, and consequently he believed all agreed with him, but every one went up to the Ocstas bent upon private investigations. Your friend was intent upon discovering the source of that body of water and delegates from four geographical-geological societies accompanied him solely to determine whether the volcano was extinct or not—all have been successful. Isn't it strange, Virgillius," she continued, "that water was so fresh, wholesome, beneficial to the system, yet fish could not live in it. We tried, and——"
A warning shout came from Centauri's ship. Ours shot upward like a rocket and slanted across the sky, swift as an arrow.
A terrific explosion took place, thunder rolled from the heavens, while earth responded with tremendous detonations. The incessant roaring, sizzling noise was frightful—the majestic fury of the Otega had awakened from its long trance. Sulphurous flames played about the volcano, giving it a terrible, weird appearance, steam rose in monstrous clouds, and waves of liquid fire boiled and dashed against the cliffs overflowing the huge caldron in broad streams of molten mass deluging the earth with devastation. Ashes, rock, lava shot skyward in monster geysers of incandescent matter that gave forth prismatic lights and in stinging, serpent-like coils writhed to the sea.
Voluminous waves hedged in the Ocstas, and their steady blaze cast a deep crimson, purple glare over the heavens that must have reached to Centur. We were ten miles away, our ship had a heavy coating of cinders and the sickening odor of sulphur suffocated. A scorching smoke devoured the air and hung like a pall over all nature, obscuring everything except the splendid, diabolical phenomenon, belching flame and lightning forking from the gigantic crested columns that shot upward hundreds of feet. It was a fearsome, stupendous spectacle.
Time seemed infinite, so absorbed had I been watching the magnificent Otega, that from a light touch I started as from a dream, mumbling gruffly.
"Awake, Virgillius, you are fascinated by the splendid Otega."
A sudden dazzling flash illuminated the ship and I saw her. She laughed teasingly as I caught her hand and pressed it against my face.
"We are going to Centur," she told me. "All lights have been extinguished. Thousands are on their way to view the volcano. Should it become known that I have returned the loyal people will forego that marvelous sight and accompany us back to Centur. The lava streams are rushing down the other side of the mountain into the sea. The flow will continue many days and there will be intermittent eruptions for months, then the Otega will be dormant, probably forever."
"Much damage done?"
"Some," she answered, "to the Potolilis. The Ocstas is the property of the Potolilis. They know the Otega and avoid it. There is much timber lost, but the Potolilis are a tribe of vast wealth. Centauri has ordered his ship brilliantly illuminated, so all may know he has not perished."
Our ship had ceased its aimless floating and slanted straight for Centur. Far in the distance, speeding toward the Ocstas, were thousands of red globe lights traveling thickly together, resembling the Milky Way suddenly lowered to our sphere. We darted in a westerly direction avoiding the flying multitude, which gradually sailed past like a great stream of meteors, traveling in groups or long straggling lines, and all heavily laden with sightseers. One huge vessel, sailing apart from the others, edged us closely. She was gayly illuminated and decorated with the colors of Centauri. We did not clear her in time, and she spied our dark hulk and saluted. We flashed farther into the darkness, but the sound of gay music, wild singing, shouts and shrill laughter of the men and women aboard followed us.
"A private vessel, party of pleasure-loving young people out for a lark," I suggested.
Alpha watched the vessel till it appeared but a pale stream of light against the sky.
"Possibly a wedding party," she replied. "But the ship floated the colors, which signals some great personage aboard. Banners are hoisted only upon national fête days. This ship carried the flag of Centauri. Odd this particular ship should stray aside just as we pass to nearly collide with us."
She gazed perplexedly into the darkness and silently, thoughtfully, studied the starry horizon, then with a murmured "Good night" and gentle hand-clasp she left me.
Suddenly our ship blazed with lights and the Centauri banners were hoisted. We cut sharply across the heavens separating entirely from the speeding sightseers, our lights only distinguishable. No one dreamed Alpha Centauri was returning to Centur.
"It is three hours on the new day, why do you not retire?" a deep voice rumbled close to my ear.
With a start I turned and confronted the Literary Man.
"Why don't you seek rest yourself?" I snapped.
"I have rested too long. I am far in arrears with my work, but have put everything aside to complete an Ode upon the joyful emotions Alpha Centauri is supposed to entertain when beholding Centur once again."
His eyes twinkled and he chuckled without smiling.
"You are humorous," I told him. "Do you doubt the joyful emotions?"
"I never answer questions," he replied. "They always lead to argument and time is too limited for that. An argument should last at least a month, both sides talking all the time. How very young, inexperienced, you must be, Virgillius; you still have to discover that women have no emotions. The Centaurians are all humorists, tragedy is an obliterated evil; and, Virgillius, we reach Centur at sunrise. I must go and finish my Ode to Joy. We will meet again."
He hurried away, chuckling, glancing over his shoulder to smile good-humoredly at me. Alone, a sudden depression came upon me. I was living in a nerve-racking atmosphere of doubt and anxiety. Dejectedly I entered my cabin to wait in gloomy misery for day, but deadly wearied, unknowingly I sank into deep slumber, which lasted till heavy movements about the ship roused me. I hurried on deck, the morning was flushed with the rising sun, we sailed over a deep blue bay, and just ahead glistened the crystal city of Centur. Everybody was on deck to view the magnificent scene, but exchanged amused glances and smiled openly at my tardiness, while Alpha, radiant, buoyant with hope, greeted me with laughter and jest. Repose had not banished despondency; I chilled with dread and black forebodings. In all the travels, when constantly fearing the possible materializing of the "adored," I never experienced the positive hopelessness that now warned me of sure and bitter, bitter disappointment. Alpha Centauri would treasure the ideal forever. I was miserable, cruelly fated to worship a phantom which was fading from my life. I knew it. In an agony of wretchedness I caught her hand, holding it tight, and she—God!—laughed in her mirthful mood, taunting my gloomy countenance. The others joined in her sport, gayly encouraging me and quipped my depression; yet smile I could not. The dramatist declared I would make tragedy popular again, and the literary genius told me he would never regret our meeting, as I had colored the closing chapter of his forthcoming romance, which finale would crown him with immortality.
"You shall jest no longer at my Virgillius!" cried Alpha, leading me away, though laughing merrily.
It matters not what passed between us, she spoke seriously, and of the future.
"I am glad to return," she murmured; "do not begrudge me the scant joy of expectancy. It is only on the surface. In my heart I fear—ah!—I cannot, I cannot envelop you with the sweet foolishness lavished upon the impossible, but you taught me to love—I belong to you—and—er—Virgillius, we may both be happy yet."
God! I gasped, scarcely believing what I heard. My senses tingled, I seemed to choke. She gazed at me with wide open, tender eyes, and passionately I pressed her hand to my lips. She flushed at my ardor and turned aside. In mad adoration I caught her in my arms and crushed her to me. I cared not if the whole world spied upon us. I kissed my glorious Alpha upon the lips, eyes and sweetly flushed cheeks.
Snickering, smothered guffaws roused my drugged senses; protesting vigorously, yet goodnaturedly, against my ardent caresses, Alpha freed herself, calling me a "wild boy, but lovable."
"And look," she cried, running to the ship's side; "look, Virgillius, we have reached Centur."