Saunders, whom I had not seen for several days, met me as I returned to the Observatory. Undoubtedly one of his pet experiments had gone awry, for he was peevish and spoiling for a fight. He very frankly informed me he didn't want me around any more, that arrangements were completed to start that evening upon a gigantic piece of work and no idlers wanted. "And I've spied the attraction!" he snapped. "Clear out; this is no place for such tomfoolery."
"But, Saunders!" I interrupted.
"Nonsense!" he cried. "Don't deny it. I won't have any tomfoolery around here!"
"Oh, bosh! I return to Centur to-night, anyhow," I told him; "and no harm done; they're different here."
"Tomfoolery, all tomfoolery," he grumbled, shaking his head obstinately.
An hour later, in company with a number of gentlemen, I boarded a ship bound for Centur. Saunders puttered around for fear, by some mishap, I might be left behind; but when we were ready to start he affectionately clasped my hand and informed me that I was used to his crabbedness and that it was out of gear for a crusty old chap to be in sympathy with nonsense. If his plans succeeded he would be detained at the Observatory only a month, then it was his intention to travel. He wanted me to run over to see him whenever I had spare time. I promised in order to get him off the ship, as he delayed departure.
We reached Centur early in the evening. The city, brilliant with lights, presented a gala appearance. The glowing houses were gaudily festooned with banners and greens, and from all floated the colors of Centauri. The streets were canopied with flags formed in arches.
When I reached the palace I knew some great event was taking place.
The immense building was ablaze with lights, and draped across the stately entrance, swaying gracefully in the light breeze, was a flag of yellow shimmering material with a huge black crescent cutting the center. The gardens were crowded with courtiers and guards, who pranced and swaggered in gay, fantastic costumes. I was observed at once and way was made for me. I heard my name carried from lip to lip and was gazed at with curiosity, bordering on impertinence. In the usually deserted halls of the palace stalked bold, dashing cavaliers, who saluted me respectfully as I entered, but uttered irreverent undertones, which they thought I could not understand. In confusion I stumbled over my own feet, then became enraged at the cruel guffaws only half suppressed. With relief I spied Mike's familiar face as he hurried to meet me and, with unnecessary speed, rushed me to my apartments and immediately proceeded with my toilet. I was shaved, anointed, curled, my hands dipped in scented water—I felt so effeminate.
"You are to present yourself at once to Alpha Centauri," said Mike, "hence my haste."
"She expected me to arrive this evening?" I gasped eagerly.
"No," Mike answered: "she gave this order when you departed, doubtless expecting your early return, then forgot all about it; but I obey. There is great rejoicing in the city and much doing in the palace."
"What's going on?"
"The King of the Vespa Belt has honored us with his long-promised visit," he replied.
"The King!" I cried. "What King? I thought Centauri ruled over all this land."
"He does," Mike informed me, "but not the crescent Belt, separated from us by the Great Ocean, and comprising one-third of this half of the globe. Like the dark races the white people have divided into two. They are wonderful, these people of the Vespa Belt, so-called, because in war they cling together and fight like hornets. But civilization is slow with them; they do not progress and are ruled by the passions. They still love, hate, and still have their King who, however, is good, wise, and rules through kindness. He is a descendant of the resolute, daring immortal Benlial, who abolished the army and navy. We think a great deal of the Vespa people; they regard us with affection, and in time will join us. Centauri has often visited the Vespa Belt, but this is the first time Benlial ever stepped upon Centauri soil. He has some mighty scheme, or he would never take the trip over the Great Ocean at his age. He greatly surprised us, heralding his approach just twelve hours ahead with gigantic flaring images of himself across a midnight sky, but we gave him a royal welcome.
"Centauri is with your friend, the famous Sheldon, in the Ocsta Mountains; he has been apprised of the King's visit and is expected any moment. Benlial has been with us two days, the guest of Alpha Centauri."
"What's the mysterious motive back of the King's visit?" I asked.
"The unification of the white race," answered Mike.
"So you told me before," I snapped; "how does he intend to accomplish it?"
"Marriage," was the monosyllabic reply.
God! A sudden weakness came over me, and my head sank heavily upon the back of the chair. Mike turned aside, his action irritated me and, impatiently, I bade him continue with his news and omit nothing.
"The King wishes the hand of Alpha Centauri in marriage for his son, Prince Benlial. They are all Benlials, you know," Mike explained. "Should the marriage take place the Vespas and Centauris are one, but never in the history of the Great Family have the feminine members mated. They are divine, and all, at a certain age, are with much pomp and festivity, publicly wedded to the Sun. Alpha Centauri became the bride of the Sun ten years ago. The men of the Great Family mate with whom they please. The mother of Alpha was an Octrogona, fairer than her race and surpassingly beautiful. Progression is wonderful, it makes simple the impossible. A century ago such a union as now contemplated would have been looked upon as sacrilegious, now it is considered. Alpha Centauri is the last of her name; should she die unmated the Great Family becomes extinct. The marriage may take place, but the Priestess of the Sun is a superb enigma, unapproachable, illusive as the star which guides the destiny of her family."
I ceased being a fool, bah! the man gossiped; yet I drank eagerly the greenish liqueur handed to me. It warmed my chilled blood, the color flushed my face, and boldly I mingled with the jolly Vespas that had invaded the palace. I hurried down the crowded rooms, oblivious of the curious glances leveled upon me. Alpha Centauri stood at the gates of her miniature forest of exotic plants and perfumed lakes.
I marveled at the wondrous woman; never had she seemed so exquisitely beautiful, gorgeously gowned, covered with blazing gems, even coiled midst the raven locks rippling to her feet, yet crowned with the dull gold cap, symbol of the Sun. But the woman was changed, the glorious eyes heavy-lidded, always veiled, now flashed with brilliant intellectuality, the sweet lips parted in a gracious smile, and her form swayed with gentle grace in conversation.
Alpha Centauri was transformed, transformed into a glorious creature of the earth. The cold, repellant, mystical sphinx was no more, and it was I—I who had forced her from her pedestal into the pulsing, passionate arms of Life. She was mine! I created her! The fabulous creature of my dreams, the ideal was realized.
Fears vanished. I was confident, supreme. The force of my adoration would draw this woman to me as now my ardent glances drew her eyes to mine. The fair face flushed and impulsively she threw out her arms in glad welcome. I hurried to her, yet my quick glance embraced the man beside her. Father Neptune, as I live! Giant in form with heavy locks and beard; gross, flushed, jolly, with sharp, pale eyes that flashed intense admiration upon the lovely girl at his side.
Alpha murmured a welcome as I raised her hand to my lips, then presented me to the King of the Vespa Belt. He extended his hand graciously, and in condescension resembled all the little kings of my world.
He spoke in a deep bass and gave me to understand he was pleased to meet "The Virgillius," who came from the other side, while his sharp, little eyes plainly asked—and, what the devil did you come for?
But he was an entertaining old boy, a clever raconteur; his forceful manner and rather coarse wit rolled around an eloquent tongue compelling laughter though one should not. He thoroughly enjoyed his own risque jests, and I never heard the finale of a racy affair wherein figured a disheveled damsel and a ship in mid-air fluttering disastrously, for sudden cheers and shouts of "Centauri!" rang from the gardens and echoed through the great halls. People crowded to the windows and into the vestibule, but the throngs hushed and parted as old Centauri entered, tall, grave with heavy dignity. I tarried not to watch the greeting between the two great men, but drew Alpha deeper into her ethereal forest, far amid dim lights and slumbering birds, the air heavy with pungent odors of strange blossoms. She sank upon a mossy couch. With a sigh of ecstasy I flung myself at her feet.
"You did miss me a little?" I asked.
She smiled softly and gazed musingly at me.
"Yes, a little," she finally answered. "I wanted some one to talk to who would understand. I've spent hours in idleness and dreams, yet have not wasted time. I have formed plans, brilliant plans for the future, which appears rosy and hopeful. The chill of cold facts are freed from my being, the world is brighter, gayer. I am wondrously beautiful, and have discovered there is happiness, much happiness in foolishness. Virgillius, my whole life has changed. Now I live—live, and would not return to the old existence for a world full of knowledge. I am raised supreme in vast expectations. I worship, ah! an image of my brain. I love deeply, wholly, a man—I've never seen!"
She leaned back against a giant plant, and with voluptuously uplifted arms smiled the smile of selfishness, rapt in her own passion, cruelly oblivious to the despair she inflicted.
"Yes," she continued. "I have learned the lesson. I have mastered the science of Love, the key to all emotion, the passion root of humanity, which a universe of knowledge cannot wither. Yet does my faith follow me in this new life. Sol is my god, and the god of the universe—immortality, the supreme reward.
"This phantom which inspires me exists, it is ordained we meet. There is a wave of emotion deeper, stronger than mine, so powerful my soul is drawn from me. I visited the laboratory this morning, the first visit in days. The valuable liquid of eternal youth had evaporated, the ingredients clung to the side of the vessels in fine powder; all was a dead loss, the work of years in ruins, yet I felt no regret; and while I mused upon the sinful waste and wondered at my indifference, I was startled by a rushing, flooding noise, and the dense white film which suddenly descended clouding my sight, but fear quieted in silvery sweet sounds. Then gradually the mist floated, undulated, and shaped into a hovering, indistinct form that beckoned—with a shriek I regained my senses. And, Virgillius, though our souls met, communed in the laboratory, I imagined I was here, alone with my flowers and birds—we meet here, my affinity! I am impatient."
For the second she forgot me entirely in some sweet reverie, then with a start roused herself. The lovely face changed sharply and I was jarred by the conventional laugh that chills. She rose hastily.
"Come, Virgillius," she commanded, "return with me; we should never have dallied in this dim retreat."
She hurried forward. I sprang to my feet and followed her.
"Alpha," I called, catching her arm. "King Benlial, what message does he take to his son, the Prince?"
For an instant she seemed puzzled. Then her great eyes blazed scornfully. "I am the Priestess of the Sun!" she cried. "I worship a god! My descendants shall unite the white races."
She hurried away, and I sighed with relief, but chuckled gleefully as I thought of the chagrin of old Benlial. He and Centauri had left the hall hours ago, presumably to discuss affairs of state.
I joined the group surrounding the fair Priestess of the Sun and edged my way to her side. The guests were departing reluctantly. I thought they would never go, but at last Alpha and I remained alone in the great, brilliantly lit rooms.
"Good-night, Virgillius," she murmured, as I raised her hand to my lips. "Come on the morrow as early as you wish, I will tell you of my plans."
She tried to free her hand, then smiled softly. The tender light in her eyes emboldened me. I drew her to me and flung my arms around her. "You who love so deeply and truly," I whispered; "why, ah, Alpha, are you so cruel to me?"
"Oh, you do not understand love at all!" she interrupted, quickly passing from my embrace. "You did not willingly love, you were forced into it—and you love a woman. With you, Love is passion, desire, recreation; you will outlive it and love as deeply again. In your mind is ample space for other thoughts. You are not my affinity. It was not destined we should mate. I adore till death and for the sake of adoring, it is absolute. I love a god, perfect mentally, physically. Should the substance lack either perfection, it is fate, and I'll be true to the shadow. Ah, Virgillius, I am not ungrateful. I do not forget it is to you I owe this wondrous new existence, and—well—it is late; I will see you in the morning."
All women have ideals, those lacking this sweet sentiment are not worth winning. Alpha, the beauteous, was only a woman after all, passionately enamoured with an ideal she would never meet. An ideal—fiddlesticks! I inspired this passion for a shadow. Alpha Centauri is mine. I created her.