We were awakened at daybreak, all seemed excitement and bustle, and with little ceremony we were served in our room with a dainty breakfast of delicately browned fish, fruit, and tea brewed from freshly gathered leaves. Then they conducted us to the garden where Tolna and the Governor waited. Both gentlemen greeted us with many polite inquiries concerning our rest, then impressively informed us that during the night "The Centauri" had arrived, impatient to meet the four illustrious explorers, the brave men who dared the horrors of the north for the benefit of science.
"You will be his guests," Tolna informed us; "and in his superb ship return with him to Centur."
We bowed deeply, while the young gentleman beckoned to a man who was leading a sextette of prancing horses, three abreast, harnessed to a queer vehicle, a cross between a chariot and hotel bus. The Governor entered, we followed with Tolna, who hurried forward and caught the reins. The horses arched and high-stepped a bit to show their mettle, then dashed into a gallop and clattered noisily through the quiet streets, sombre with the silence of dawn. Windows were raised, touseled heads, sleepy faces, leaned far out to see and cheer us, but the road was clear, no swaying, pushing mob. Our departure was altogether unexpected.
We reached the sheds as full day flooded the city. A ship, small, elegant, glistened in the sunlight like silver. Several gentlemen loitered at the foot of the steps, evidently waiting for us. We were presented, then hurried aboard. The Governor, in parting, assured us repeatedly that we would meet again. Tolna handed me a small parcel, his eyes pleading acceptance. Saxe. could boast no longer, I was the happy possessor of a bracelet also, composed of jade with three huge opals sunk in the stone. With a hand-clasp I signified my appreciation, and Tolna locked it upon the upper portion of my arm. We were deferentially escorted to the upper deck, which was carpeted with soft, rich material, deadening footsteps. Advancing to meet us with outstretched arms and a wonderfully kind smile was a tall, powerful, magnificent old man. Saxe. gave an exclamation which ended in a sigh. We all bowed in reverence. He welcomed us. His voice had the melodious sweetness of the flute. He invited us to his cabin, and I stared in awe at "The Centauri" of all Centauri.
A long, patriarchal beard flowed over his breast; thick, snowy curls reached to his shoulders. He was much darker than the average Centaurian, with deep, piercing, magnetic, black eyes gleaming beneath heavy black brows. He studied us each in turn, and strange, the silence did not embarrass. While the deep eyes were riveted upon me, unconcernedly I examined the barbaric splendor of the room.
The odd-shaped furniture glistened like crystal. There were chairs with fluted, shell-shaped backs, cushioned in delicate pink, others molded in forms of twisted, entwined reptiles, cushioned in chameleon green; the effect rather created chills. There were couches, divans, heaped high with soft, downy head-rests, the prevailing color white; and over the whole atmosphere pervaded a sweet, almost nauseating odor. Centauri ended the silence addressing Saxe., who in spite of his wonderful self-control, appeared flurried.
"Your invention is remarkable, considering the era in which you live, but superior to your inventive genius was the fabulous idea you treasured that beyond the pivot another world existed. Your forceful nature, powerful intellect, energy, labored to attain ambition. Such men always succeed." Saxe. bowed. "I have thoroughly examined your car," Centauri continued; "it belongs to the people and will be placed in the museum at Centur. The government will present you with an engine perfected with the improvements of centuries, yet you will easily recognize your own machine. A great error was made in the use of steel; had your instrument been molded in crystal, explosion would have been impossible, and you would have discovered us earlier and avoided many hardships."
Saxe. saluted low and sweeping, but was mute. Centauri gazed steadily at him several seconds, then as though satisfied, turned his attention to Sheldon, who became a lively pink.
"The great, fresh water ocean was discovered centuries ago. Your theory concerning the earth's fresh water supply is erroneous."
Sheldon, who was minus the bump of reverence, sharply asked: "In what way, sir?"
Centauri smiled pleasantly. "When we reach Centur," he said, "I will turn you over to the Geologists, who will conduct you to view this ocean which surges in an unfathomable hollow of the Otega, the highest mountain in the world. It is of volcanic origin, and floods the lakes, rivers, etc., only in its immediate vicinity."
"Nonsense!" snapped Sheldon, regardless of everything, "I've delved too deeply in the anatomy of subterranean flows to blunder. Through great arteries in the heart of the earth this water rushes, flooding countless natural reservoirs, and continually creating new ones. I shall positively prove my statements before returning to my own country."
"All the latest appliances of science shall be placed at your disposal," said Centauri. "Should your assertions prove correct, the discovery will be vastly beneficial to the Centaurians. I wish you success."
He turned to Saunders, opening conversation about the star, "Virgillius." "It is not a planet, nor yet a star," he told Saunders, who was all respectful attention, "but a moon of immeasurable dimension and illusive distance, the after-film of a monstrous, strickened world, gradually dissolving midst the ether of our sphere, yet completely beyond the radius of your continent; but were it not the shadowy rays must fail absolutely to penetrate the thick atmosphere ladened with minute life which you people inhale. The Centaurians dare not stray over the sharp ice summit, the poisonous disease-inflicting vapors cause instant death. We of this land exist in a purer, clearer atmosphere. The sun, moon and stars have no dense, fetid veil to pierce, their beneficial rays bestow miraculous strength and rare longevity. When crossing the earth's summit you experienced a terrible weakening of vital force, an intense absorption almost resulting in disaster, yet immediately escaping the dreaded circle all underwent startling rejuvenation, a sudden strong pulsation of restored vigor and energy—glorious Centauri is discovered. Many animals from your continent have strayed over the unknown regions, queer, stunted, hornless dogs, and weazened birds of marvelous plumage. Instinct forced these creatures to continual advancement, while man, bumptuous in semi-civilization and faltering, immature reason, invariably retrace travel the instant the geyser pivot is sighted to perish miserably in the stampede to the Reflection mountains. In your world undoubtedly progress is rapid, but never will an instrument be invented sufficiently powerful to pierce the vapory substance you call atmosphere for one ray of that mysterious, shadowy disc so plainly visible in rarified Centauri. Professor, you have braved many perils simply to obtain knowledge strictly beneficial to yourself. Astronomers will accept your statements concerning the positive existence of the phenomenon they had vaguely located, but the desired enlightenment you wished to convey is forever concealed amid the blinding elements. Soaring into astral convictions is fleeting satisfaction and everlasting solitary despair."
Centauri's eyes actually twinkled, but Saunders was looking ugly. Like most mild men he was stubborn and began reply in his usual deliberate, argumentative manner.
"I regret I cannot agree with your views concerning this monstrosity of the heavens," he informed the great Centauri. "As I understand you, your knowledge of the oblong radiance is as limited as mine, yet you state positively, after declaring it of illusive distance, that it is a globe in the lunar state, a world in decline. This is most perplexing, but perhaps after further investigations I will agree with you. At present permit me to state the result of my very thorough calculations. This peculiar stellar formation I believe to be a new world developing and have named it the planet Virgillius. Its revolution through space is similar to Earth. Both planets present a lunar appearance to the other, and each globe casts a semi-eclipse over the other; hence, the planet Virgillius is invisible to astronomers of my country.
"The fetid mists, etc., enveloping only our portion of the globe is, you will pardon me, altogether visionary. Encircling Earth is the nebulous radiance visibly enveloping the whole planetary system. Within this nebulous is temperature, the chart of the elements divided into five zones. Centauri in her zones is subject to the same atmospheric influences that envelops our continent. Your inability to cross the polar circle is not due to contagious vapors; the icy petrification, intangible, mystic calm of the unknown regions rouses a horrible, freezing fear, which causes fatal physical dread—you perish. Centauri, in frigid panic, eternally retreats, while wandering, enterprising unenlightenment discovers. But the Centaurians, with their extensive knowledge, vast researches and keen perception, realized the existence of far, unknown countries, populous, progressive. We of our land, ah! how widely different! Perception is still in the nebulous state, and centuries will elapse before tender intellect is sufficiently sinewy to grapple with the astounding problem that our own little hemisphere does not embrace the universe."
Saunders gravely bowed to the amazed and delighted old gentleman, whose eyes now snapped with merriment. We four certainly made a huge, square joke, but Saunders was game and Centauri smiled very kindly upon him.
"Later we shall have another discussion," he told him. "Now you are under a disadvantage. Possibly you will devote months, years, in extensive observation and limitless calculation—it will be interesting to hear all the extravagant new ideas you will form concerning the—er—planet Virgillius. That's what the Centaurians have been doing for ages—are still doing—and will continue to do forever. Form theories, theories always, never more. Baffled, they study this spectral lunar disc, enveloped in a halo of mystery that none can penetrate, but I, I who have solved intricate problems of the Known, and delved daringly into the Unknown, will, must pierce the denseness of those clouds whose form never vary."
Which proved that these wonderful people, with their vaunted centuries of superiority, had still to conquer the masterful passion for fame, and struggled even as——.
Centauri mused and murmured to himself in rapt reverie, seemingly our presence completely forgotten, yet suddenly he turned his deep eyes upon me, his face beaming with a most engaging smile. Saunders and his planets were dismissed. He nodded approval, evidently pleased with my appearance.
"You are young, comely," he told me. "What science induced you to brave the northern perils?"
I flushed hotly, believing he ridiculed; a strange vehemence seized me. "A phantom, myth, a creation of my brain—what you will!" I cried eagerly. "I love, adore; the strength of my adoration will compel response! I will possess and realize—heaven!"
I flung out my arms in a paroxysm of desire, and Centauri stared in amazement, then spoke in severe, chilling tones, which quelled passion. "Your task is difficult, more difficult than those of your comrades. To them success is assured; you are doomed to failure. The Centaurians subdued emotion centuries ago; savages, beasts alone, are controlled by impulse. Self-government is sublime; civilization attains perfection when passion is obliterated."
He rose and, with a gesture, signified the interview at an end. I was the last to salute and in passing murmured: "I have hope."
"A false sentiment," he replied. "Centauri is above and beyond you."
"My God!" I gasped, yet quick as a flash replied: "Centauri is a woman!"
His eyes burned into mine. "You are courageous," he whispered, then abruptly, yet without offence, shut the door almost in my face.
Outside, alone upon a misty deck, we stared blankly at each other; then Sheldon aired a grievance.
"We've permitted ourselves to be mauled about by this, that, and the other; to be taken here, there, anywhere, willy-nilly; we've almost lost our identity," he grumbled. "It is well we managed some spunk before 'The Centauri' who, by the way, is a shrewd old cuss, and gained power through the exaggerated estimate of the people—like many on our side. But he's a harmless old chap, on the decade. Look sharp about the girl, Sally. He warned you of that himself. She's a tartar, and as homely as sin—there's a great disappointment sure. Squelch the flame, think of gain; domineering selfishness is a powerful magnet."
"Notice how he mentioned the planet Virgillius?" squeaked Saunders. "Why, for all his boasted knowledge he knows little more of the planet than I do."
"And," sputtered Sheldon, "he claimed the great body of fresh water for the Centaurians, called it 'Tegao,' or something——."
"Good heavens, boys!" murmured Saxe., "have more respect for our host, he is Centauri, the Great One!"
"Fiddle! he flung bouquets at you, Saxe.!" retorted Sheldon. "He'll have the government present you with an advanced Propellier—invented centuries ago by himself—all for towing us safely across the Pole. Traveling in crystal won't be bad—I'll be in full possession of the fresh water supply, Saunders'll have his star fenced in, and Sally—well—er—Sally will have nothing to show—a dead romance—sweet remembrance—and a devout thankfulness he's well out of it."
"Say, don't worry about me," I cried; "and—drop the subject all around. The Centaurians are great people, their reception of us was superb, and criticising them not quite up to—er—par. For instance," I concluded, pointing to the clouds enveloping us, "admire the—ahem!—scenery."
"Yes, oh, yes; scenery!" mocked Sheldon:
Clouds to the left,
Clouds in front of us,
Vollied and thundered.'
Heard that years ago at a club entertainment—great thing, club entertainments—something from 'The Dandy Fifth,' recited by a badly frightened female who, at regular intervals, bawled: 'Hurry, oh, hurry!" Fine thing 'The Dandy Fifth.'"
"Now I wonder why it's necessary to travel in these clouds?" Saunders testily inquired. Sheldon was about to reply wittily when several hurrying forms loomed up through the mist. We were conducted to the lower deck and into a gorgeous dining-room where refreshments of fruit, heavy little cakes and mild wine was served, including the information that Centur would be reached one hour after noon. We were shown every courtesy and greatly entertained by the brilliant wit of these men—but we learned nothing. It is wonderful how much can be said with so little imparted, but Saunders finally losing patience, testily inquired why we traveled so high in the clouds, and expressed a wish to view the earth we sailed over. At once orders were given for the lowering of the ship and amid bellowed commands and uneasy sounds of tightening, straining cables, and whirring, fluttering sails, the ship suddenly slanted sickeningly, waveringly floated, then gradually resumed the former swift, even travel, and we were invited on deck.
A gale was blowing, whistling, shrieking icily through the riggings. We sailed over a vast ocean of mountainous waves whose spray dashed high, forming a wall of vapor reaching the clouds. The sensation was terrifying, elevated in this dense moisture. The roaring ocean beneath and oppressive, leaden clouds above—a terrifying insecurity impressive of our insignificance. What are we after all? Mere species of atom forming this turbulent system of entirety.
My friends, unusually silent, thoughtful, and shivering with nervousness, gloomily listened to the affably confident Centaurians.
"The damned thing'll cut capers and it's all over with us!" muttered Sheldon. Even as he spoke the ship, like a meteor, shot through the red-black funnel cloud gathering and deepening in front of us and swayed in a swimming darkness of thunderous detonation whose sulphurous denseness suddenly dissolved before vivid streaks of blinding green eruption—the next instant the sun streamed upon us with furnace rays and land was beneath, a gloriously beautiful country, seemingly smiling wide in welcome. Buoyantly we feasted our eyes upon the wondrous panorama, as with lightning speed we flew over city after city, gleaming white, glistening in the brilliant sunlight. Rivers, lakes rippled and sparkled in wavy lines like gleaming streaks of ore. Snow-capped peaks cut the pale, distant azure, and beyond stretched miles of prairie land. Our attention was directed to a vast plain, and through powerful glasses we viewed the encampment of a mighty army. Soldiers in shining armor marched into the open, filing rank upon rank into glittering divisions.
"The camp of the Potolilis," we were informed. "A formidable tribe of savages at present warring upon the Octrogonas, who, though they outnumber yonder tribe three to one, are routed continually by the insidious Potolilis."
The speaker delivered an oration upon the ruinous policy of war while the ship veered easterly, sailing swiftly from the martial scene, over extensive forests, rich valleys, and in the heat of the mid-day sun slackened speed, floating gently over the loveliest bay I ever saw whose deep-blue, glassy waters reflected elongated, fantastic shadows of the great white city on the coast gleaming phantom-like through a shroud of heavy, azure mist. Borne before the mild breeze, we fluttered to the heart of this fair city, hovering an instant in the high, intense heat, then the ship slanted and circled downward.
Beneath was the reality of a dream-vision. A fairy palace glinted in the sunlight with soft, rainbow tints, surrounded with gorgeous gardens sheltered from the wilting heat by giant palms, and cooled, refreshed by swift, ribboned streams, and slumberous pools upon whose surface floated strange, heavy-scented blossoms.
The vessel shifted far to the rear of the irradiating palace toward the outskirts of the wondrous gardens, where a steel trestle reared high, supporting a great, oblong object, which slowly parted wide. The ship sank without a jar, gently settling, the sails folded close while the huge metal shell gradually closed together. The flying ship Centur had reached port.
Leisurely we strolled through the heavenly gardens, lingering in admiration of the witching picturesqueness. We were told that exquisite Centur was the divine city of Centauri—ahem! and that we were the guests of Alpha Centauri, who would receive us some time after sunset; the exciting interval, we understood, was to be devoted to rest. The gentleman graciously gave us further information concerning the greatness and exclusiveness of our hostess. We learned Alpha Centauri was sweet, merciful, divine and the true ruler of this grand race. The venerable Centauri existed in his laboratory. He was revered as the father of the people, whose ancestors were the first and only rulers of the earth.
"Not as king or chief," the gentleman hastened to explain, "but just one mighty man at the head of the nation whose wisdom, simplicity in ruling brought plenty, peace and happiness. The knowledge of the Great Family is far-reaching, a vast heirloom guarded, treasured above all their possessions—they are protégés of the Sun, and worshipped by all Centauri."
The speaker clasped his hands piously. We stared, amazed, though respect for the cleverness of Old Centauri bounded to the limit.
"Veiled Prophet and pretty Priestess," muttered Sheldon.
"Wonder how he does it?" Saxe. murmured.
"Humbug!" I whispered.
From a cool, shaded grove of tall, slender trees with silvery leaves, we unexpectedly stepped into a narrow, mossy path, leading to a wide, stately piazza, with broad, sloping, velvety lawns, surrounding a great fairy palace of three domes, delicate spires and strange zigzag balconies flashing myriad tints in the glaring hot sunshine; a bizarre structure, out of all proportion, with queer, protruding circular rooms, and high, broad windows facing every direction; a palatial sun-dwelling whose architectural incongruity was submerged in royal magnificence.
We entered the columned vestibule, cool, lofty, lit with uncertain tints, and almost saluted a marvelously sculptured form near the entrance. A fatherly individual greeted us, then immediately conducted us to our apartments. Silently we followed down the broad arched hall, up wide, flat stairways, carpeted with silver-gray softness, and were ushered to our quarters. A suite of five rooms, four sleeping apartments and a sitting-room reserved for criticisms, which forethought proved the superior perceptiveness of these advanced people. Following prevalent customs of our land we'd been separated as far apart as the Poles, and not till we'd escaped could we get together close enough to compare notes and whisper of the invariable peculiarities of surroundings.
Ruby-tinted wine, heavy, hard to carry; luscious fruit and strange nuts were served to us with a delicately-flavored cigar, which proved exceptionally inviting, creating the visionary and a decided distaste for conversation, then a sudden, acute realization of fatigue and finally compelling slumber. Faintly I heard Sheldon mutter something about "sleep producing weed," but in numb indifference I soared beyond this sphere of sordid events, slumbering for hours. The evening was well advanced when my three friends awakened me, crowing, yes, crowing, because their sleep ended before mine.
"And on the eve of beholding the divinity," Sheldon chirped. I sprang up as the room suddenly flared with light and several attendants entered.
"To make us beautiful," Sheldon remarked.
We were shaved, perfumed and attired in gorgeous raiment. The customary suit of black, which I preferred, would have created a sensation, but we looked rather well. Saxe. was superb in purple, wearing Octrogona's armlet of emeralds, and the strange ring of Potolili gleamed upon his hand. Sheldon imagined himself fascinating in claret-shaded folds, and Saunders in a gray toga, sniffed at us disdainfully. I strutted, satisfied, arrayed in white with a rich ornamental border of gold. The finery polished up our tarnished gallantry, yet each felt an inward quivering excitement which we vainly strove to conceal in personalities. I twitted them all for their conceit—they were not a bad looking trio—retaliation was fierce. Sheldon, being a lady's man, threw out his chest and dark hints concerning the end of the week wherein a certain "smarty" would be wondering what he came over here for and he (Sheldon) would be the bright, shining light of the quartette.
Our fun hushed as a magnificent individual entered, bowing ceremoniously. He gave his name, which we immediately forgot when he stated he came to conduct us to Her Graciousness, Alpha Centauri.
God! I felt the hot flush rush to my head, then ebb away, and shuddered with sudden chill. Sheldon, ever alert for mischief, glanced my way sharply, then declared I turned the famous "ashen hue," though he could see no occasion for alarm—there were others—the fair Alpha might—ahem! And twirled his little old mustachios, and leered.
Saxe. took my arm, murmuring encouragingly, while the splendid stranger smiled warmly, sympathetically, and not at all like a party who had burned all his passions centuries ago.
We hurried down the columned hall, brilliant with reflecting lights gleaming from panel and dome. Low, sweet music greeted our ears, and judging by the hubbub there were many people waiting to meet us. Through wide arched entrances we caught glimpses of a great banquet hall, whose mirrored walls reflected myriad hues flashing upon jewels of gorgeously attired guests. A dazzling scene of fabulous grandeur alcoved with a background like a gigantic painting; a dimly-lit miniature forest stretched wide beyond, restful, quieting, in rich green tints, and the refreshing splash of perfumed fountains cooled the air.
We stepped within this radiant magnificence. At once conversation ceased, all eyes were focused upon us. But I—ah!—was oblivious to all things; my whole attention chained to the tall, statuesque form of a woman. Masses of jetty, rippling tresses reached the hem of her gown, and perched upon her head, yet fitting closely, revealing perfect outlines, was a cap of dull gold ornamented with slender spikes, a huge gem flashing in the center. She turned and quickly advanced. We bowed low before the majestic dignity of her bearing. And the face! divine, beautiful, darkly tinted, heavy-browed, with deep, strange eyes, whose cold, meaningless, unresponsive stare flashed a dead chill to my heart. God! how common, matter-of-fact the world suddenly appeared. That one moment of terrible disappointment corrupted forever the divine imagery of my heaven. Oh, the folly of looking forward to realizing the crimson vividness of our imagination with Hope, dazzling white, ever circling mid the black dizziness of Disappointment. Yet a life overlooked by these profound calamities is an existence of deepest damnation. But the phantom that roused an idyllic passion stood revealed, and the sombre, chilling orbs were powerfully magnetic. Robed in clinging white, barbarously decked with blazing jewels, she repelled, yet fascinated, compelling the gaze.
She greeted Saxe. with a voice of music, low, sweet, each word distinct. I gasped with the sudden bound my heart gave and clutched Sheldon, as she smiled, then threw back her head with a light laugh. Something Saxe. said amused her. The roseate, smiling phantom was realized; and ecstatically, passionately, with burning, delighted glances, I watched this regal, glorious woman, my first disappointment completely forgotten.
"Easy, easy," Sheldon murmured. "Don't blame you, but easy, easy. I——" He saluted deeply the radiant welcome she gave him, and I—I raised her hand to my lips, kissing it twice, thrice. It closed over mine, cold, firm. She watched my action calmly, gravely, passionless; and I, my ardor chilled, remained speechless with emotion.
She was an imperfect woman—a rare blossom blighted before full bloom—hard, freezing, as the terrible ice mountains I had crossed to meet her.
Imperiously she bade me follow her. We were alone, my three friends having wisely strolled away. She led to the alcoved greenery, heavy with the sweet, powerful odor of wonderful exotic plants.
Silently we wandered beneath tall palms and trees of thick foliage, whose branches housed gorgeously plumed, shrill songsters.
I plucked a deep crimson flower and attempted to place it in her hair. She stood quite still, but the task was beyond me. In exasperation I crushed the blossom, then stooping, suddenly pressed a kiss upon the lovely shoulder. She turned sharply.
"What's the difference!" I cried passionately. "With my eyes I kiss you constantly!"
"Pretty boy," she murmured musingly. "I have seen you before. I do not remember where."
I cursed my lack of control as she led me into the glare of brilliant lights again and bade me be seated at a small table in full view of the fantastically garbed banqueters.
Sheldon was seated between two beautiful women, and all in his vicinity were convulsed with laughter. He was proving himself a wit even among these advanced people. Saunders was explaining something of vast importance. I could almost hear his nasal, bilious tones; and dear old Saxe. had the seat of honor. He had cleared a space in front of him, and with his forefinger was drawing marvelous circles and triangles upon the satiny damask, his every movement watched closely by eager, enthusiastic admirers.
A brilliant scene, this banquet hall, with its crystal walls flashing blinding lights, and I, my senses drugged with the sensuous ether of this rich, tropical idyl, served with strange delicacies and rare wines, basking in the intoxicating smiles of a glorious dream-vision, whose eyes were more potent than wine—Centauri! Yes; a marvelous picture, a masterpiece of the fabulous whose wonderful unreality was before me, yet—I realized. And for all the splendor of rioting radiance and hilarious music a heavy gloom overwhelmed me, a dull foreboding of the future, a glimpse of a great sorrow, a blighted life. The dark shadow of awakening obscured the vast, soft-tinted halo—my dream was not Paradise, nor was the enchantress an angel. She and all her world were now aware why I crossed the frigid north—to pluck the fairest blossom from a garden of rare flowers.
She conversed in low tones, her words few, just clever, tactful encouragement. She drew me out, rousing the best in me. The familiar conversational meaningless chatter had no place here. Alpha Centauri differed widely from the women of my world. I longed to tear from her face the stony mask that so marred its beauty. In my hopelessly enamoured state I swore it was a mask, yet beneath my searching, ardent gaze she calmly questioned.
With astonishing eloquence I described that portion of the globe from whence I hailed, which, divided into numerous nations, cordially hated each other with a hatred bred in the blood and concealed in the blatant roar of deadly patriotism—the terrible, unspeakable carnage of warfare. I dwelled long upon the beautiful, and Art, and the great strides made in mechanism. I talked for hours, it seemed. I told her of my life, my great wealth and many, many disappointments, and had reached that point in my career when the vision of herself had appeared. She was intensely interested, leaning dangerously near, while the expression of her deep eyes made me reckless. Passion mastered. I caught her hand and pressed my lips upon palm and wrist, while in broken tones I told of my love.
"I worship you!" I murmured huskily. "I love, adore you!"
She gazed perplexed, yet a reflection of my passion shone in her glance; a reflection only, then she smiled, faintly amused.
"Love," she murmured. "What is love? A woman, a child, or a fancy? Once, centuries ago," she continued, "love ruled Centauri; now knowledge reigns supreme; the master of the universe."
"Without love life is imperfect," I hastened to assure her.
She looked puzzled, curious.
"I do not understand," she muttered. "All know of Love, but no one ever experienced it. Centuries ago this dead science had many students. You must visit the museum, Virgillius; it contains many rare works of art. There are three gigantic sculptured forms that absorb the attention. Two are particularly noticeable for crudeness, representing Art in the primitive beautiful. They were discovered in the caves of the Ocstas, and have been traced back 5,000 years. Each represents Love, one a woman of immense, but perfect proportions; the other a winged child. The third is an enormous statue revealing the touch of genius, stationed near the others, possibly for contrast to prove the progress of Art. Exquisite in perfection, every line and curve wrought by a master's hand, a man and woman smile upon each other out of shapeless stone, her lovely head rests upon his massive shoulders, his arms clasp her perfect form closely. Art has progressed little since then and now is rapidly approaching the abnormal. From these three monstrous carvings we judge, hence: Love is a primitive desire; Fancy, a cultivation of early civilization, and Knowledge crowns all. I would know more of this powerful, forceful science that once controlled the world."
She rose and moved slowly toward the dim interior of this leafy retreat and sank upon a mossy bank near the refreshing coolness of perfumed waters. I flung myself at her feet. A huge instrument resembling a harp was wheeled towards her. It had two sets of golden wires in a casement of crystal. Her white hands strayed idly over the wires—the vision in the burning globe was before me—then under her powerful touch a volume of music rang—sweet, wild melody, and she who declared Love a dead science portrayed upon her instrument all the emotions of the human heart. Deep tones of passion thrilled and trembled, the strident howl of rage, hatred; the laugh of envy, the wail of anguish, all rang out clearly beneath her inspired touch. I gazed at her in doubt and amusement. Perceiving my glance she murmured: "Knowledge's tuition is: All emotions have their note of melody, rhythm."
"You worship Knowledge," I told her; "you can adore man."
"I know nothing of your country," she replied: "yet in your far zone, centuries ago, there were customs that never could be re-established—you have progressed above them. This strange sentiment you uphold is not of the intellect, the children of Centauri are followers of the divine light blessed with calmness, peace."
"Love still rules Centauri; your own words prove it!" I exclaimed stubbornly. "Knowledge is bait. You people are greatly advanced, but in love the whole world is equal. Pride, ambition, seeks Wisdom. We upon our side also bend the knee to Elevation. The passion for Fame, Glory is supreme. Love is the title for a thousand emotions—Greed, Wealth, Position—and sacrificial crimes are committed hourly to obtain them. Then there is the much-vaunted maternal love, the most unreliable of all instincts. I have known the life of a daughter made miserable, the sweet freshness of youth blighted in cynical thoughts roused by a pretty, passé, selfish, knife-tongued mother. Maternal affection! bah! it ceases the moment individuality is attained, thrusting aside yokish, slavish control. Show me the human being who appreciates the monstrous favor of birth. Is the Innocent responsible for creative desire? Yet not till dissolution does Result escape the harpy Reminder. There is the soul-inspiring passion for the One Woman—a grand affair of a few days, chiefly experienced in this metallic period by very young girls, very old men and, occasionally for relaxation, a staid family man indulges——!!! I could talk for months upon this theme; it could never be exhausted; but you, Centauri, I worship! love as no man ever loved! I will be patient, wait years, if in the end I can teach you to truthfully say: 'Virgillius, I love you.'" She gazed at me wonderingly.
"To experience this marvelous sensation, to master the art of love I would study years; for all things I must know. Strange," she continued, "this absorbing science should have become obsolete."
Suddenly she leaned closer, her great eyes blazed, her face paled with intensity. "Of your journey across the Pole," she whispered, "you must tell me minutely; the atmospheric influences, the state of the land, the great fiery geyser shooting up from the bowels of the earth. In the privacy of my rooms you will describe everything. I, Alpha, noted for her wisdom, would remedy, overpower the evils of nature. The benighted pivot regions shall become habitable. I will control the atmosphere. The laws of creation are desecrated by that monstrous icy waste. Earth is the vast estate of humanity, and the mystery, richness of that world of frigid savageness was destined for progression to conquer. I shall realize the stupendous ambition of civilization. The reward? Immortality, ah, immortality!"
She arose, erect in her superb pride and the flow of language was magnificent in the lengthy scientific explanation she gave of how she intended to vanquish the sleeping north. I was not sufficiently familiar with the language to follow her clearly, but this I did understand, were I not so desperately enamoured I certainly would have found her tedious. All intensely intellectual women are tedious. The idea of love is always more poignant than love, and I realized the task of teaching this strange creature the science of affection would be a heavy one.
Softly, musingly, she continued her learned explanations. Science absorbed her; the exquisite flower face grew cold, hard, expressionless. My romantic imagination lingered around this beautiful, fascinating enigma, illusive, desirable, yet every word she uttered forced the realization of an infinite barrier of remoteness—a phantom ever. But we can ardently worship the moon, and my rapt gaze finally drew her attention. Slowly she passed her hand over her brow, then abruptly asked if I comprehended all she said.
"Every word," I replied gallantly.
"Then I must see you again," she told me.
I sprang to my feet in alarm. "Was it not your intention to see me again?" I asked.
"I encounter new faces daily," she answered. "They sail from my vision as the clouds overhead. You have interested me. I have mentioned the secret—my daring secret—from you I can learn much that is important. Yes, I must see you again."
"I am to teach you the lost science," I murmured, going close; "you have not forgotten?"
She glanced vaguely, then suddenly leaning toward me laughed softly, while her whisper thrilled. "Already I am learning the art of Love—it begins with attraction, sympathy; ends with ennui. Should the student survive these three emotions he has achieved the enthralling, submerging flame of desire. Each atom of humanity is a world in itself, a shell covering of volcanic emotions; passion is the eruption, fierce, unwholesome, fleeting, leaving a wide swath of cinderous reflections tossed by the violent current of zephyric reason and gradually uplifted to the celestial heights of serenity, repose. Virgillius, we shall study together, for I must know all things. Do you understand?"
"Yes, I think I do," I told her; "and you have naught to learn except experience. This I shall compel you to realize, thereby giving you a dim perception of heaven and hell."
With half closed eyes she smiled. "We have talked hours, Virgillius, and said nothing. I can tarry with you no longer; on the morrow we shall meet again."
"I have been very happy," I whispered.
"Happy!" she cried incredulously. "Since creation the Centauris have been searching for happiness and believe when all mysteries are solved the chimera is theirs."
"My happiness is with you, Centauri!" I cried passionately. "I love you! I love you!"
She shook her head as though I was a spoiled child, then with a sweet, insinuating smile, departed. Rapturously I feasted my eyes upon her as she joined the guests, she the radiant, dazzling center of a bevy of bewitching beauties. I was consumed with ardent longings and flashed dangerous glances at Her Sereneness, but gay, exhilarating music wafting in from the gardens roused me from languorous meditations, and out of the dim, heavy-odored retreat into the brilliant, chameleon-glinting hall, scintillating with mirth and wit.
Bold, debonair, I joined the revelers—how exquisitely fair were the women of this strange land!
I found Saxe. flushed with wine, haranguing learnedly and emphasizing his remarks with sweeping gestures. The subject was beyond my comprehension, but the intellectual circle about him were absorbed. Saxe. monopolized their attention entirely. He informed me before I left the group that he had made engagements, including the four of us, for the following day and told me to advise the others of it.
I strayed over to Sheldon, who was in his element making others happy. He was the center of a jovial set, and judging by the gayety was certainly amusing. I was too deeply in love to perceive the point of his jests, and out of my sphere sought Saunders, after learning, to my dismay, that Sheldon also had made engagements including all of us for the following day. Saunders, to my thinking, was the least interesting of the quartette. He had assumed his stilted, speech-making manner, and was lecturing on the hazy, mystic beauties of the great planet Virgillius to these people who knew more about the star than he did. I grew irritable, bored, and wrathily wondered if he, too, had arranged that we be taken somewhere on the morrow. Covertly I watched my inamorata, passive, calm of face, taller, darker, more beautiful than any woman in Centauri. Dare I approach such chilling loftiness? Yes; and subdue, overpower with the potency of my own passion.
Alpha Centauri shall be mine! We were born for each other—just a sweet woman of this earth, nothing more; else could she create desire? Boldly I forced my way to her side, determined to sweep away the tantalizing indifference. I would command her thoughts, then—— Ah, how irrational are dreams! Before her calm, expressionless regard my passion quelled. She was kind; yes, a dead kindness, as with a few words and slight inclination this regal woman passed from the hall. I hastened after her; she lingered reluctantly beneath the lofty arch. "Rest well, Virgillius," she murmured sweetly; "in a few hours we meet again."
I bent deeply before her, but glanced up quickly at the sound of a low laugh—she was gone.
Her departure signaled the end of festivities, and after many salutations and best wishes we four found ourselves alone in the vast hall, staring vaguely at each other. The lights grew dim, casting ghostly reflections in the mirrored spaciousness, and chilled with the deathly silence pervading this marvelous crystal palace we hurried to our apartments, where several very sleepy individuals awaited us, whom we promptly dismissed.
"To-morrow we go through the museum," Saxe. informed us.
"Yes, and take in the city," echoed Sheldon.
"And in the evening," cried Saunders excitedly, "we visit the Observatory, situated upon a mountain somewhere. My acceptance is for all of us. I fancy this engagement the most important."
"Are you at leisure to accompany us, Sally?" asked Sheldon insinuatingly; "or do instructions begin at once? No occasion to stare," he replied to my look; "you have not been secretive. The women over here are all alike. When time hangs heavy and my mind unoccupied, I am to teach a couple of sweet morsels the art of love also, which, it seems, only the ancients knew anything about. Innocence, however, is a thorough accomplishment in this wonderful land of advancement. It will take centuries of progression before the charm of this trait is valued by the women of our world. Knowledge is the admitted great passion over here, the foundation of existence, etc., and sought from cradle to grave, even then not abandoned; hence, the Centauri brain is ever active, verdant, and dogged ennui as Love is a dead evil. Here a man is judged by deeds and what he knows, not by what he's worth. Wealth, the common, is thought of with indifference, poverty has become obsolete. You see I did not waste my time this evening and, Sally, you have a powerful rival. You will lose, of course; that's what you came over here for, to experience a losing game, never having done so before. But look sharp, ice-crusted volcanoes are risky toys. Notice anything peculiar about the remarkable Alpha? Certainly not; you are too much in love," he added hastily, not giving me time to reply. "She is different from all the women of this land. The first Centauri was an off-shoot of the Potolili or Octrogona tribes—mark that! She has colored blood. I suspected it when I saw the old boy; but one glance at your divinity and all doubts vanished."
"She is the most beautiful woman in the world!" I cried hotly.
"She is ravishingly beautiful," he replied; "but no white woman looks quite as she does. She is superb, but——. Take care, Sally, should you tire, as you are apt to—all men do—Centauri would be a dangerous place for us."
He stretched and yawned, while I, too full of emotion to retort, glared scornfully. He laughed good-humoredly as I hastened to my apartment.