The Centaurians/Chapter XX

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CHAPTER XX.

The brilliant rainbow salon was crowded. Sweet, weird Centauri music accompanied the hum of voices, and the fragrance of rare, strange blossoms filled the air. My three comrades mingled with the people, and I hurried down the long vista of glistening columns and lights to where Alpha Centauri stood greeting her guests. God! how marvelously beautiful the woman was! In an instant I was beside her and tremblingly addressed her. Her great eyes flashed into mine, her smile scattered reason. I suppose I acted idiotic; it was natural; most men would. She laughed gently and, taking my arm, told me I was a "dear, foolish boy." There was affection in her voice, love in her eyes. The worshipped Ideal was deserted—she had discovered Man. I was victorious. The circle surrounding us thinned; people departed with smiling faces leaving us alone to whisper sweet nonsense. Happy? yes; too happy in a world of our own.

She was gloriously, ideally beautiful to-night, gorgeously garbed in a shimmering robe of chameleon tint lavishly studded with gems. Neck, shoulders, arms were literally concealed beneath flashing orders and ornaments, while the luxuriant midnight tresses rippled the length of her form, yet upon her head rested the little gold cap with raised border of forked gold, emblem of the Sun.

She still considered herself Priestess of the Sun and gloried in that dull bit of gold on her head, the only woman in the wide world crowned with the flaming emblem; yet if she wedded she would be forced to relinquish it, and even now it was whispered she had renounced her religion—for me. Fate timed, yet threw a glamour of confidence and security over my fool's paradise that the end would be more deadly cruel. Her hand rested lightly in mine.

"To-morrow," she whispered, "come; I must see you alone, away from everybody, all to myself. We shall arrange for the future."

"Alpha," I murmured, but her attention was attracted from me and I forgot what I was going to say in the excitement that followed.

Her hand slipped from mine and she moved away, then stood erect in an attitude of expectancy. From the gardens came the sound of trumpets and cheers; again and again above the noise and tumult were borne the words: "Hoo-ray! hoo-ray! long live the Vespa Prince!"

The most intense excitement prevailed; the whole of Centur seemed in an uproar; those in the salon flocked to the vestibule and balconies, echoing the shouts from without; and through it all Alpha remained cool, stately, the only calm, collected being in all that assemblage.

Into the great hall rushed the hubbub, the air filled with crashing, deafening, joyful music. Laughter and song greeted the great man, and those collected to welcome him yelled, mad with enthusiasm.

Alpha Centauri's eyes were riveted upon the main entrance. I stood close beside her, but was forgotten. A man entered, followed by a group of gay young sports. But the man! this one commanded the attention of all. Of gigantic physique he towered above all men, fair as a god, face fresh and rosy, with close-cropped golden curls.

Way was made for him, the guests forming in two obsequious lines. He strode forward, his gleaming, sultry eyes hurriedly scanning the faces of all, then they rested upon the lovely woman at my side. He threw up his arm and his eyes flashed wide with amazement, then over his face spread a smile of wild delight, and he halted, marveling at her loveliness.

A low exclamation made me turn, she was bending forward, hands tightly clasped, her sweet face white with emotion, and dilated eyes raised, enthralled by the burning, blue orbs fixed upon her.

"Sol! Sol!" she murmured; "Sol! Sol!"

She pressed her hand over her eyes and brow, and with the action her senses returned. With drooping eyes and lovely, flushed face, she advanced to meet this man who was born a conqueror.

He hastened to her and caught both her hands; she murmured something, and he sank to his knee pressing his lips upon the hard brilliants hemming her gown. She turned slightly, he sprang to his feet clutching her lovely bare arm and drew her close. He whispered eagerly, passionately, and Alpha gazed at him dazed, fascinated—she realized her ideal, she had met her affinity.

He led her to the forest of strange, tropical plants, whose branches housed hundreds of drowsy songsters drugged with the sweet, pungent odors from the voluptuously undulating fountain. These two will wander in this paradise of love, his arms clasped about her, whispering words of adoration while she listens intoxicated, wildly, deliriously happy, in her earthly heaven.

I watched them pass down the moss-covered path till the thick foliage of strange spices hid them from view—then I realized.

Numbed, chilled, I turned away, every thought swallowed in a great physical pain, a hand of iron clutched my heart and wrung it dry as a sponge. I had a vague idea of falling, not suddenly, but gradually, easily; of many people hurrying to me; then Saxe. loomed above, and as in a dream, came the words: "Courage, courage, my boy; be a man. Help! help!" he shouted in tones that pierced my brain, then borne to me vividly, yet as though thousands of miles away: "Heavens! how the woman deceived us all!" and my last flickering thought before blank was she had deceived no one, least of all myself.

In the garden, full length upon the lawn, the sweet, cool air revived me, but not for an instant had I lost consciousness.

My friends were about me, anxious, grave; distinctly I heard Saxe. mutter: "We must get out of this and quick. Can't have the boy carrying on this way."

I remained silent, rather comfortable than otherwise, dreamily wondering what the row was about; then, like a flash, I knew and a dull, heavy, sickening feeling gripped my whole mind. To escape the hell's torment of memory I would have given life. Oblivion? yes; if I could never have realized. Now, God! All the little tantalizing delights, the sweet doubts vanishing in happy possession I was so sure of—all was over. Who could have foreseen such an end? The very peculiarities of this woman forbade such a finale. Instead, all would have expected this stately, high-souled, devout creature to renounce mankind, remaining true to her deity, secluded, to bask forever in the warm rays of the fiery god she worshipped. Oh, if I could have remembered her always as the Priestess of the Sun! To have renounced the wonderful, mystical being I discovered! I mourned for the beautiful ideal shattered by the woman, though fashioned by a master's hand the delicate veneer revealed the commonplace at the first test—the idealist's mist blinds all eyes. And she had done as the whole world of women have ever done—surrendered at the first flash of a pair of handsome eyes and sensitive red lips.

Ah, Alpha! Alpha Centauri!

I mourn for the romance, bah! I have no passion for the woman. I rolled in the cool, green moisture, moaning aloud my misery. Some one attempted sympathy. I sprang up, pushing him aside.

"None of that," I told them, roughly, "Saunders's prophecy has come true. I am anxious for departure, the sooner now the better."

I left them. How could they console me for the beautiful astral thing that had passed out of my soul. I was fond of them; yes, but—what a deadly disgust I felt for all things.

Sheldon followed me and drew my arm within his. He said nothing, but I understood his deep sympathy, far different from that usually extended by those who cruelly select the most inopportune moment for reminder, and all through distaste to witness suffering embarrassingly mouth stupid, meaningless warnings. My unhappiness caused Sheldon sincere pain. I held out for a second, haughty in my misery, then my head dropped to his shoulder as a choking sob escaped me.

He led me far away from the brilliant palace, blazing lights, and gay music, away from the maddening sound of laughter, far, far to the outskirts of the city; and Sheldon talked, talked, talked; evenly, monotonously, and vaguely I understood that in a marvelous cool and dispassionate manner he was telling me the romance of his life—all men have one and live. My own grief was too vividly fresh for me to follow him entirely, but Sheldon's sorrow was caused by the knowledge that the woman he adored had never been happy. His romance was ordinary and occurred when he was very young or it wouldn't have happened.

They had been separated by lack of funds and a scheming mother, and both learned all about it when it was too late. She had made a very good wife for the wrong man, and had been in her grave these twenty years. And with a deep sigh poor old Sheldon handed me an old-fashioned locket, and I gazed upon a girl with a round, fresh face, saucer eyes and ringlets. He loved as I, not the woman but the ideal, and had been true because he never possessed. He would mourn forever for this moon-faced chit, who if she were to confront the matured Sheldon of to-day would not rouse even interest.

We tramped the live-long night, returning to the palace when the sky flushed red with the rising sun.

Hilarity had deserted the palace, the stillness of wan fatigue reigned, and surrounding all was that stale, dissipated atmosphere, the aftermath of an orgie. The lights were still burning in the spacious salon, and the crystal floor was strewn with wilted flowers smothering and dying in their own sickening-sweet, poisonous odor.

The banquet tables flickered in gorgeous disarray, their rich scarfs stained with the wine that had flowed freely, the pungent odor mingled with that of stale fruit and dying flowers. I turned from it all with loathing, and Sheldon hurried me up to our apartments.

Saxe. and Saunders groaned with indigestion in their deep sleep of wine; our entrance did not disturb them. As though I were a child Sheldon prepared me for rest, then hovered at my side and talked, talked, and talked. My limbs stiffened with weariness, my brain ached and wandered, then finally——