The Centaurians/Chapter XXI
Disappointment is destiny: the grim inevitable to climax every ambition and season the soul with reason. Disappointment spares this world of imbeciles. And I, for all my wealth, became a man afflicted with a grand disappointment, just a swirling atom in this planet of passion. The room was flooded with yellow sunlight; after all it was a good, cosy old world, and why was I complaining when, for the first time in my life, I realized just what I expected only spoiled the good effect by trying to tease myself into false security.
My three friends watched me slyly, though engaged in their usual discussion. Sheldon and Saunders had returned to their old disputes. Saxe. was trying to make peace, and once more did I feel the usual inclination to sic the two old boys on. I joined them and was soon drawn into the mêlée. Saxe. expostulated, and I discovered I could still laugh.
Mike's entrance ended the row. He informed me Alpha Centauri wished to see me at once. It occurred to me I was no longer at the beck and call of this woman who had killed the beautiful, the poetical in me, and I replied: "I would follow shortly." Mike stared and possibly fancied some disrespect to the superb Centaurian, and he could fancy what he damned please.
"We have arranged to depart in ten days," Saxe. informed me; "couldn't possibly manage it sooner."
"And the world can explode in that time," muttered Sheldon.
"But it won't!" snapped Saxe. "We are starting a month earlier than expected. Has it occurred to you, boys, that lacking a few months the seven years of absence are nearly up? I think we will just about catch the last vessel. And now that we are really going the Centaurians want us to remain. They have warned me of all manner of dangers and emphasized the fact that owing to volcanic origin, etc., the ice regions are constantly changing form and that possibly we would encounter a vast frozen ocean whose waves were insurmountable ice mountains, where formerly were barren valleys and cliffs. I replied we were forced to overcome all obstacles as our return to our own country was imperative. They consider us a brave quartette. One man particularly regretted our hastened departure, as he is perfecting an instrument which would establish communication between the two hemispheres, and he wished to present one to me for experiment. He has promised me the plan; from descriptions I think it is all wrong; I can improve upon it; but it would be wonderful if we could communicate with these people from our side. They want us to remain among them the worst way, however, and urged with every argument, finally declaring our people had long ago given us up and no benefit ever came from resurrection."
"Nonsense, Saxe.!" I bawled, "you're hinting to remain. If I'm obliged to go alone, I will get out of this cursed place and quick. I detest Centauri!"
"There, there," he answered soothingly; "I am more anxious to go than you; merely wished to test, and you're game. Guess the latest phase the Centaurians have taken regarding us—the Vespa Prince is responsible for it."
"Out with it," I laughed. "I'm going to worry him some before I go anyway."
"This wise Prince says we're not from any strange land; we're Vespas," Saxe. informed us. "He declares the earth is round—ahem!—and that the Vespa Belt and, incidentally Centauri, comprise the whole globe.
"He claims that only one horn of his famous crescent is visible, the other is the foundation of the great ice regions and extends beyond the Pole; the land there is the Vespa Belt. He's about as wise as some of the smarties on our side, who insist the whole world is explored when they've toured the five little continents. The Prince thinks it's just possible we may have come from the extended horn of his little old crescent, but doubts it, and thinks it's more likely we're merely four clever adventurers from one of the large cities of his dominion. Now what d'ye think of that, Salucci?"
"Four adventurous hornets!" roared Sheldon.
"Hornets, by George!" echoed Saunders.
I was astonished, but joined in the yells that followed an inelegant remark from Sheldon, who rarely missed an opportunity, and Saunders helped him out with the same kind of thing. I took my turn and the buffooned Vespa Prince was guyed unmercifully. The four strayed hornets were making an awful din when Mike marched in, silencing us with his gravity and dignity. He disapproved of our boisterousness and came to remind me I must see Alpha Centauri.
Sheldon had his fling at him also, and Saunders gave his snicker that exasperated all who heard it, and caused Saxe. to raise his hands as though the fun had gone far enough.
"I shall have to see her," I murmured nervously. "She sent for me over an hour ago. It will have to take place; it might as well be now."
"Not much!" cried Sheldon. "I would avoid it. What do you suppose she has to say? I bet ten to one, boys, I have the whole interview in a nutshell. Sally, reproachful—the left man always is, I wonder why—and she will whine and simper, and regret, and want him to hang around to see how happy she can be with the other fellow. Same old affair, same old woman, no scarcity of 'em—what did he come over here for?"
Saxe. glanced sternly and hushed him up.
"Go, my boy," he told me; "but cut it short; make it the last time; end everything now. Don't permit her to play with you further."
"She did not play with me," I interrupted; "As far as she is concerned everything was——"
"All right," he hurriedly replied; "then you played with her, which is the same thing. Be firm, make it the last meeting."
"Saxe., you don't understand," I explained; "when I joined the expedition, it was to seek a madly-adored ideal—I found a woman and still seek. The ideal has no rival; I am true, faithful to my creation. Alpha Centauri never was divine. Her beauty pales before the gorgeousness of my ideal. The love-lorn Virgillius is dead. It is the same old Salucci itching for a new sensation."
I followed Mike. He regarded me curiously. "Alpha Centauri is grieved at your delay," he remarked.
I shrugged my shoulders, astonished at my indifference, but sighed deeply as I saluted the exquisite creature reclining upon a skin-covered couch with a background of huge white blossoms whose heavy fragrance consumed the air. She arose, watching me doubtfully, hesitatingly. I hurried to her and caught her hands tightly; the witchery of her eyes was upon me.
"Alpha," I murmured.
"Yes," she replied. "I know, I know. Ah, if it had only been, Virgillius!"
I dropped her hands.
"Do not reproach me," she pleaded. "I love as you have taught me. I've learned the lesson well. The Image claims me in the form of the Vespa Prince. Benlial! ah, Benlial! brings immortality; I am for eternity the Alpha who united the white races. In less than a century the Vespa race is extinct, mentioned as history, submerged by the powerful Centauris. Fate mocks, linking me to a people whom formerly I ridiculed, scorned; yet I would not have it otherwise. I adore my Prince. Love brought immortality, yet I would renounce both if once again I could be the Alpha of Sol. I existed in a divine atmosphere, gazed upon with awe; I basked joyously in the glorious golden light of my spiritual grandeur. Priestess of the Sun has passed away forever—immortality is the reward for undying regret.
"Virgillius, you have made me a woman, given me a conscience, a heart throbbing with exquisite passion, but in creating me you neglected Fate, yet you gave me life and I am yours."
I stared at her, this marvelous woman in her folly defied even Fate. Then I knelt before Alpha Centauri in reverence of her grand, almost divine nature.
"I would be a monster to permit the sacrifice," I murmured. "Do not mar the perfection of my creation. Be happy, joyous, bright as the golden rays of the god you worship. May you exist always in the brilliant dream of the present. In ten day I leave Centauri forever."
She drew in her breath sharply, then clung to me, alarmed.
"We can never part," she whispered. "Virgillius, I have been blind."
I did not question her near-sightedness, but gazed rapturously into the sorrowful eyes, then passionately kissed her lips. But I knew. God! I knew. She spoke without reason that was in the keeping of the Vespa Prince. But her love glances made me reckless. The moment absorbed me, I forgot Saxe., everybody, and had but one thought—possession. I crushed her to me, ranting madly in my passion, the sweet eyes drooped and the lovely face flushed beneath my ardor. Suddenly she stood erect, as though listening, then with a startled exclamation sprang from me—in that instant the whole universe seemed to come between us. Then I perceived Mike's ugly head thrust between the hangings at the entrance. Mike, unruffled, seeing all with sightless eyes.
Before he could speak a powerful white hand clutched and pushed him aside and the Vespa Prince strode into the room. He gave me a sharp, scrutinizing glance, then hurried to Alpha. And I, looking at him in the full light of day, marveled at his god-like strength and beauty. He was the substance, I the shadow. Physically, mentally, he was a force beyond me. Though I loved her deeply my ardor was mild compared with his amorous adoration. He loved her; yes, with a mad, crazy desire that destroyed all barriers. And she? Her eyes beamed upon him with wonder and delight. It was joy to her just to have him near her. He clasped her firm, white arm and bent close, whispering eagerly, then led her to the far end of the room. She was completely under his control and he exulted in his power. He was wildly enamoured, but he was master. I had been her slave; she pitied, regretted me; but the Vespa Prince was all the world to her. Absorbed in one another they had completely forgotten me and silently I departed.
Heavy gloom had apparently settled upon my three friends, but they brightened considerably at my return, especially when perceiving my calmness, and I accompanied them to view the instrument that was to speed us over the Pole again.
During the final days we were lavishly fêted. The Centaurians presented all manner of flattering inducements, and noted orators from all parts of the land came, argued, vainly tempting us to remain among them. They warned us that we had become acclimated, and like the Centaurians would perish when reaching a certain latitude. But we couldn't see it, and I was the most anxious to depart. I thought of my three guardians, Middleton & Co., of the sceptre-like power my wealth influenced, by eminence in my own world, and maybe it was not altogether my wealth Beauty desired. My life had been marred; Cynicism, the brilliant, cruel blossom of Gold, had blinded me from the cradle to the purity of nature. The Ideal never possessed, still charmed; far above the earthly she lured, ever fair and true—unattainable.
Alpha Centauri realized the image of my brain, but the living, tangible woman dispelled the charm and I awoke with a shock, yet rapturous that the Ideal still existed. And I knew once out of this cursed country, away from the strangely fascinating woman who bore its name, that even regret would cease and again would I be the free, careless Salucci, fleeing from one idea to another; fickle, but comfortable.
Centauri and I never met again in private. She always had a fond, regretful glance and lingering hand pressure, but did not seek to see me alone and I did not ask her. We had parted with a sweet embrace and I would leave her happy with her Prince and—immortality.
The day finale arrived. At noon we sailed forever from this strange, glorious land. Already Centauri and its people seemed of the past and would soon become faint, formless, in the soothing haze of memory. Saxe. lost trace of me in the pleasures offered by those interested in his craft. Sheldon had been mobbed and captured by the Geological-Geographical societies, and Saunders had been at the Observatory for three days past. I was the guest of a fashionable coterie of gay, idle young dandies, who made my last week in their freakish, but beautiful, world one of revelry. They were to be my escort in the farewell march to the ship, and as mid-day approached clustered about me eagerly, intent, apparently, that I should not have an instant for reflection.
They flattered, cajoled, and with delicate innuendo made me aware of my immense popularity. Incidentally I discovered that I was the last of the quartette to remain in the palace, and casually my attention was directed to the great mass of people who, since day-break, had been swarming into the gardens and streets surrounding the palace, and who now sweltered and jostled impatiently in the intense noon heat.
I spied my two old literary friends forcing their way through the crowd, and eagerly beckoned, while my gay companions boisterously hailed them. They responded by immediately disappearing beneath the flame-glinting portico, and elbowed their way to my side. Both gentlemen bubbled with fun and witticism, and I learned that my "meteor-like visit had been mystically impressive"; also, that I was too light for tragedy, too deep for comedy; my forte lay in the enjoyment I could take in both. I was advised to never again attempt any character except myself, and both in chorus implored me to cut out romance altogether.
Of course I joined in the laughter, though hazy to the joke, and while raking my brains for an apt retort was unconscious of the mischief brewing. I was suddenly seized and hoisted high. In spite of my protests I was rushed to the vestibule and dumped into a throne of foliage and rainbow blossoms, then borne aloft upon the shoulders of these rascally exquisites of Centur, began a merry, triumphant march to the ship. People cheered me wildly all along the route, and I yelled myself hoarse, while ladies pelted me with blossoms, and though I flashed bold glances right and left my mind suddenly shifted from the gay, noisy scene, and I glanced despairingly in the direction of the palace sparkling in the noon sun. Alpha Centauri had not said farewell. Centauri! Centauri! The name rattled through my brain. I turned sick with longing, myth or woman, I craved to see her again. And so befogged my senses became between sweet, forlorn memories, and the tumult around me that as the sudden ear-splitting shriek of a whistle pierced the air I jumped and nearly fell from my toppling floral throne.
Pandemonium reigned as Saxe.'s great machine speeded into view, and he beamed and shouted, waving his cap at the cheering mob, while Sheldon and Saunders stood upon the platform yelling like Apaches. The engine slackened as it neared the ship, then rushed up the bridge, running the full length of the deck.
My three comrades appeared suspiciously flustered and anxious as I boarded the ship, and busied constantly about me till we cut from the steel shell and floated upward—foolish trio.
Friends pressed around us and many were the long hand-clasps and good wishes huskily expressed. I was thankful when the bell of warning sounded and all hurriedly departed. Then, amid wild cheers, the ship slowly rose, the loud whirring, flapping of sail wings almost drowned the "good luck" called up to us. Higher and still higher we floated, the vast throng below massed and wavered. I leaned dangerously over the railing yelling, frantically signaling to the people who could no longer see or hear me. Then the ship shifted to a slanting course, darting meteor-like over the deep blue bay of Centur. Rich, fertile valleys, undulating mountains, thread-like silvery streams, flashed, then faded in the blue speed-mist as a fabulous poppy scene; and far in the distance, glimmering mystically through the heliotrope pall that shielded her, was the phantom city of Centur, the white city of delicate fairy spires and domes, and tall, fantastic, glinting Sun Temples. Beautiful Centur.
The ship soared higher, piercing the swiftly driven wind clouds which enveloped us in a fleecy mist, obscuring forever the marvelous dreamland. A burning flood scorched my eyes, a sickening regret raked my heart; after all it was a fair, smiling, wondrous country, the Centaurians, friends. God in heaven! if I dared—if I dared—I would return, return at once! But Centauri had vanished for all time, and my only consolation was to sigh miserably, though cursing my weakness and gaze distractedly in the direction of the evanescent city; and this unhappiness, love-sickness, self-pity so engrossed me that I did not hear the soft, stealthy footsteps approaching. My arm was gently clasped, a form leaned lovingly against me while a low, tremulous voice murmured my name. Startled, incredulous, I turned quickly and met the glorious, fascinating eyes of Alpha Centauri.
"You did not forget!" I cried in delight.
"I can never forget, Virgillius," she whispered, twining her arm in mine. "I shall accompany you as far north as it is deemed safe."
Determined to see the last of us she had boarded the ship at dawn, long before the crowd collected. The Vespa Prince was aboard also, but clever old Centauri kept that Prince in tow, never letting him out of his sight, and for six whole days I had Alpha entirely to myself.
She was fond of me—very; but she had killed the ideal. The passionate adoration that had caused me such misery was dead. Still she was the one woman in all the world I had ever really loved, and fickle, light, I may be, I could never forget her. I thought my heart would break when parting, and to me it seemed a criminal fate that ordained our lives should be separated; but later I realized it was all for the best; the exalted passion she inspired had vanished, and only exaltation could make love a delight to me.
For Sheldon's benefit we took the route north over the Ocstas so he could view the magnificent ruins of his great body of fresh water.
The Otega was still in eruption. The earth around had dissolved like wax and half the range was leveled with the country; miles were buried beneath ashes and lava.
Seventy-five miles farther north we came upon the encampment of the Octrogonas and Potolilis. The ship lowered and we spent several hours with the two tribes who were still at war, and still hoped to extinguish each other. Potolili's beautiful daughter was still a prisoner, though Octrogona had wedded her; and Potolili had lost the wife whom Octrogona claimed as his sister. The Octrogonas openly declared she had been murdered, and the bitter feud waged savagely. Potolili fiercely declared he would extinguish his opponents. He ordered all prisoners slaughtered like cattle. Alpha shuddered. Potolili laughed cynically as he watched her, and said the world would become a moon before the supreme passion, Hate, became extinct. Both tribes loaded us with gifts, and each were sincere in wishing us luck. Potolili declared his race would in time travel beyond the Pole and join our people.
We bade the warring chiefs farewell; even the savages of this country had become dear to us.
As the atmosphere cleared, rarified to a penetrating distinctness, we could see hundreds of miles ahead. Centauri had passed from us forever; we were up in the snow regions, and far in the distance, like a gigantic shadow resting upon the vast whiteness, was the fearful, barren regions of the Pole, tipped by the violet, illusive, ice mountains that had led many an explorer to his death.
The Centaurians traveling with us suffered intensely from the cold and had become strangely silent and sad; all dreaded the finale.
Alpha's vivaciousness was gone, the sweet face paled before the biting blast of the north, the glorious eyes clouded and drooped with weariness, yet watched my every movement with intense wistfulness—our last parting was near.
The ship gradually sailed nearer the earth, then a few miles farther north the order was given to lower—the hour I dreaded had arrived. Alpha, breathing with difficulty, tremblingly clung to my arm. I caressed and tried to soothe her.
Saxe., Sheldon and Saunders entered the Propellier. The Centaurians collected around the machine in sorrowful farewell. The ship softly plowed the snow, the bridge was lowered, and we cheered as Saxe. put the machine in motion and dashed out into the great white desert.
I strode forward with Alpha clinging to me; suddenly she flung her arms around me and laid her cheek against mine.
"Let them go," she murmured; "you must remain. Virgillius, we cannot part! Ah, do not leave me!"
"Why should he remain?" demanded a voice close beside us.
Alpha gasped, but continued to cling to me, and startled, we turned to find the Vespa Prince glaring at us with jealous eyes.
Beautiful Centauri laughed hysterically, pressing her hands over her eyes as though bewildered, then she clung to my shoulder, murmuring:
"Remain; do not heed him."
"Remain for what?" I whispered, caressing her hair.
"For love," she murmured; "for love—it is not too late."
The Prince moved restlessly.
"Be patient," I muttered; "you will have her always. I paved the way."
"Nonsense!" he retorted. "I could have taught her; so could any man who had the courage. She is not a saint, just a sweet, warm-hearted woman who grieves at your departure because you came near being mated. Alpha," he continued, roughly taking her from me, "look up, be brave, make your choice, there is yet time. If it is Virgillius I return to the Belt, content that you are happy. If I am the one, say farewell, and let Virgillius depart in peace."
She shook her head, then slowly raised her eyes to his compelling glance; he drew her to him, she sighed wearily and her head sank to his breast. He held out his hand and gripped mine in a parting shake.
Without a word I turned and ran off the ship, which floated upward ere my feet scarcely touched the snow. Centauri leaned dangerously over the railing, her long black hair floated on the icy breeze, but she was clasped securely in the arms of the Vespa Prince.
"Virgillius! Virgillius!" she called, stretching out her arms. "Come back; ah, Virgillius, come back to me!"
Higher rose the ship.
"Virgillius!" the name wafted from the clouds. I scarce could see the lovely face. Then something fell; a bright yellow object softly plowed the snow and my control deserted me as I raised the shining thing. It was the little golden cap she had always worn to keep secret the charm that none but she could see—a huge yellow stone that flashed fire. Alpha Centauri gave up her religion when I passed from her life. To me she had given the sacred emblem of the Sun.
She and the ship had sailed swiftly away forever, and in despair I shrieked and ran, hoping, hopeless, if further there might be some trace in the sky. Nothing, all gloom and terrifying stillness—the one woman in all the world that I loved was sailing far above the clouds, consoled in the arms of her affinity.
This was fate.
And all that remained of this wonderful creature was a sweet remembrance and the little emblemic cap with its hidden treasure that only a Centauri dare possess.
Centauri! Centauri! my beautiful——.