The Land of the Changing Sun
WILL. N. HARBEN
The balloon seemed scarcely to move, though it was slowly sinking toward the ocean of white clouds which hung between it and the earth.
The two inmates of the car were insensible; their faces were bloodless, their cheeks sunken. They were both young and handsome. Harry Johnston, an American, was as dark and sallow as a Spaniard. Charles Thorndyke, an English gentleman, had yellow hair and mustache, blue eyes and a fine intellectual face. Both were tall, athletic in build and well-proportioned.
Johnston was the first to come to consciousness as the balloon sank into less rarefied atmosphere. He opened his eyes dreamily and looked curiously at the white face of his friend in his lap. Then he shook him and tried to call his name, but his lips made no sound. Drawing himself up a little with a hand on the edge of the basket, he reached for a water-jug and sprinkled Thorndyke’s face. In a moment he was rewarded by seeing the eyes of the latter slowly open.
“Where are we?” asked Thorndyke in a whisper.
“I don’t know;” Johnston answered, “getting nearer to the earth, for we can breathe more easily. I can’t remember much after the professor fell from the car. My God, old man! I shall never forget the horror in the poor fellow’s eyes as he clung to the rope down there and begged us to save him. I tried to get you to look, but you were dozing off. I attempted to draw him up, but the rope on the edge of the basket was tipping it, and both you and I came near following him. I tried to keep from seeing his horrible face as the rope began to slip through his fingers. I knew the instant he let go by our shooting upward.”
“I came to myself and looked over when the basket tipped,” replied the Englishman, “I thought I was going too, but I could not stir a muscle to prevent it. He said something desperately, but the wind blew it away and covered his face with his beard, so that I could not see the movement of his lips.”
“It may have been some instructions to us about the management of the balloon.”
“I think not–perhaps a good-bye, or a message to his wife and child. Poor fellow!”
“How long have we been out of our heads?” and Johnston looked over the side of the car.
“I have not the slightest idea. Days and nights may have passed since he fell.”
“That is true. I remember coming to myself for an instant, and it seemed that we were being jerked along at the rate of a gunshot. My God, it was awful! It was as black as condensed midnight. I felt your warm body against me and was glad I was not alone. Then I went off again, but into a sort of nightmare. I thought I was in Hell, and that you were with me, and that Professor Helmholtz was Satan.”
“Where can we be?” asked Thorndyke.
“I don’t know; I can’t tell what is beneath those clouds. It may be earth, sea or ocean; we were evidently whisked along in a storm while we were out of our heads. If we are above the ocean we are lost.”
Thorndyke looked over the edge of the car long and attentively, then he exclaimed suddenly:
“I believe it is the ocean.”
“What makes you think so?”
“It reflects the sunlight. It is too bright for land. When we got above the clouds at the start it looked darker below than it does now; we may be over the middle of the Atlantic.”
“We are going down,” said Johnston gloomily.
“That we are, and it means something serious.”
Johnston made no answer. Half-an-hour went by. Thorndyke looked at the sun.
“If the professor had not dropped the compass, we could find our bearings,” he sighed.
Johnston pointed upward. Thin clouds were floating above them. “We are almost down,” he said, and as they looked over the sides of the car they saw the reflection of the sun on the bosom of the ocean, and, a moment later, they caught sight of the blue billows rising and falling.
“I see something that looks like an island,” observed Thorndyke, looking in the direction toward which the balloon seemed to be drifting. “It is dark and is surrounded by light. It is far away, but we may reach it if we do not descend too rapidly.”
“Throw out the last bag of sand,” suggested the American, “we need it as little now as we ever shall.”
Thorndyke cut the bag with his knife and watched the sand filter through the bottom of the basket and trail along in a graceful stream behind the balloon. The great flabby bag overhead steadied itself, rose slightly and drifted on toward the dark spot on the vast expanse of sunlit water. They could now clearly see that it was a small island, not more than a mile in circumference.
“How far is it?” asked Thorndyke.
“About two miles,” answered the American laconically, “it is a chance for us, but a slim one.”
The balloon gradually sank. For twenty minutes the car glided along not more than two hundred feet above the waves. The island was now quite near. It was a barren mound of stone, worn into gullies and sharp precipices by the action of the waves and rain. Hardly a tree or a shrub was in sight.
“It looks like the rocky crown of a great stone mountain hidden in the ocean,” said the Englishman; “half a mile to the shore, a hundred feet to the water; at this rate of speed the wind would smash us against those rocks like a couple of bird’s eggs dropped from the clouds. We must fall into the water and swim ashore. There is no use trying to save the balloon.”
“We had better be about it, then,” said Johnston, rising stiffly and holding to the ropes. “If we should go down in the water with the balloon we would get tangled in the ropes and get asphyxiated with the gas. We had better hang down under the basket and let go at exactly the same time.”
The water was not more than forty feet beneath, and the island was getting nearer every instant. The two aeronauts swung over on opposite sides of the car and, face to face, hung by their hands beneath.
“I dread the plunge,” muttered Thorndyke; “I feel as weak as a sick kitten; I am not sure that I can swim that distance, but the water looks still enough.”
“I am played out too,” grunted the American, red in the face; “but it looks like our only chance. Ugh! she made a big dip then. We’d better let go. I’ll count three, and three is the signal. Now ready. One, two, three!”
Down shot the balloonists and up bounded the great liberated bag of gas; the basket and dangling ropes swung wildly from side to side. The aeronauts touched the water feet foremost at the same instant, and in half a minute they rose, not ten feet apart.
“Now for it,” sputtered Johnston, shaking his bushy head like a swimming dog. “Look, the shore is not very far.” Thorndyke was saving his wind, and said nothing, but accommodated his stroke to that of his companion, and thus they breasted the gently- rolling billows until finally, completely exhausted, they climbed up the shelving rocks and lay down in the warm sunshine.
“Not a very encouraging outlook,” said Johnston, rising when his clothing was dry and climbing a slight elevation. “There is nothing in sight except a waste of stone. Let’s go up to that point and look around.”
The ascent was exceedingly trying, for the incline was steep and it was at times difficult to get a firm footing. But they were repaid for the exertion, for they had reached the highest point of the island and could see all over it. As far as their vision reached there was nothing beyond the little island except the glistening waves that reached out till they met the sky in all directions. High up in the clouds they saw the balloon, now steadily drifting with the wind toward the south.
“We might as well be dead and done with it,” grumbled Thorndyke. “Ships are not apt to approach this isolated spot, and even if they did, how could we give a signal of distress?”
Johnston stroked his dark beard thoughtfully, then he pointed toward the shore.
“There are some driftwood and seaweed,” he said; “with my sun- glass I can soon have a bonfire.” He took a piece of punk from a waterproof box that he carried in his pocket and focussed the sun’s rays on it. “Run down and bring me an armful of dry seaweed and wood,” he added, intent on his work.
Thorndyke clambered down to the shore, and in a few minutes returned with an armful of fuel. Johnston was blowing his punk into a flame, and in a moment had a blazing fire.
“Good,” approved the Englishman, rubbing his hands together over the flames. “We’ll keep it burning and it may do some good.” Then a smile of satisfaction came over his face as he began to take some clams from his pockets. “Plenty of these fellows down there, and they are as fat and juicy as can be. Hurry up and let’s bake them. I’m as hungry as a bear. There is a fine spring of fresh water below, too, so we won’t die of thirst.”
They baked the clams and ate them heartily, and then went down to the spring near the shore. The water was deliciously cool and invigorating. The sun sank into the quiet ocean and night crept on. The stars came out slowly, and the moon rose full and red from the waves, adding its beams to the flickering light of the fire on the hill-top.
“Suppose we take a walk all round on the beach,” proposed the Englishman; “there is no telling what we may find; we may run on something that has drifted ashore from some wrecked ship.”
Johnston consented. They had encompassed the entire island, which was oval in shape, and were about to ascend to the rock to put fresh fuel on the fire before lying down to sleep for the night, when Thorndyke noticed a road that had evidently been worn in the rock by human footsteps.
“Made by feet,” he said, bending down and looking closely at the rock and raking up a handful of white sand, “but whether the feet of savage or civilized mortal I can’t make out.”
Johnston was a few yards ahead of him and stooped to pick up something glittering in the moonlight. It was a tap from the heel of a shoe and was of solid silver.
“Civilized,” he said, holding it out to his companion; “and of the very highest order of civilization. Whoever heard of people rich enough to wear silver heel-taps.”
“Are you sure it is silver?” asked the Englishman, examining it closely.
“Pure and unalloyed; see how the stone has cut into it, and feel its weight.”
“You are right, I believe,” returned Thorndyke, as Johnston put the strange trophy into his pocket-book, and the two adventurers paused a moment and looked mutely into each other’s eyes.
“We haven’t the faintest idea of where we are,” said Johnston, his tone showing that he was becoming more despondent. “We don’t know how long we were unconscious in the balloon, nor where we were taken in the storm. We may now be in the very centre of the North Polar sea–this knob may be the very pivot on which this end of the earth revolves.”
The Englishman laughed. “No danger; the sun is too natural. >From the poles it would look different.”
“I don’t mean the old sun that you read so much about, and that they make so much racket over at home, but another of which we are the original discoverer–a sun that isn’t in old Sol’s beat at all, but one that revolves round the earth from north to south and dips in once a day at the north and the south poles. See?”
The Englishman laughed heartily and slapped his friend on the shoulder.
“I think we are somewhere in the Atlantic; but your finding that heel-tap does puzzle me.”
“We are going to have an adventure, beside which all others of our lives will pale into insignificance. I feel it in my bones. See how evenly this road has been worn and it is leading toward the centre of the island.”
In a few minutes the two adventurers came to a point in the road where tall cliffs on either side stood up perpendicularly. It was dark and cold, and but a faint light from the moon shone down to them.
“I don’t like this,” said Johnston, who was behind the Englishman; “we may be walking into the ambush of an enemy.”
“Pshaw!” and Thorndyke plunged on into the gloomy passage. Presently the walls began to widen like a letter “Y” and in a great open space they saw a placid lake on the bosom of which the moon was shining. On all sides the towering walls rose for hundreds of feet. Speechless with wonder and with quickly- beating hearts they stumbled forward over the uneven road till they reached the shore of the lake. The water was so clear and still that the moon and stars were reflected in it as if in a great mirror.
“Look at that!” exclaimed Thorndyke, pointing down into the depths, “what can that be?”
Johnston followed Thorndyke’s finger with his eyes. At first he thought that it was a comet moving across the sky and reflected in the water; but, on glancing above, he saw his mistake. It looked, at first, like a great ball of fire rolling along the bottom of the lake with a stream of flame in its wake.
The two men watched it for several minutes; all the time it seemed to be growing larger and brighter till, after a while, they saw that the light came from something shaped like a ship, sharp at both ends, and covered with oval glass. As it slowly rose to the surface they saw that it contained five or six men, sitting in easy chairs and reclining on luxurious divans. One of them sat at a sort of pilot-wheel and was directing the course of the strange craft, which was moving as gracefully as a great fish.
Then the young men saw the man at the pilot-wheel raise his hand, and from the water came the musical notes of a great bell. The vessel stopped, and one of the men sprang up and raised an instrument that looked like a telescope to his eyes. With this he seemed to be closely searching the lake shores, for he did not move for several minutes. Then he lowered the instrument, and when the bell had rung again, the vessel rose slowly and perpendicularly to the surface and glided to the shore within twenty yards of where the adventurers stood.
“Could they have seen us?” whispered Thorndyke, drawing Johnston nearer the side of the cliff.
“I think so; at all events, they are between us and the outlet; we may as well make the best of it.”
The men, all except the pilot, landed, and a dazzling electric search-light was turned on the spot where Thorndyke and Johnston stood. For a moment they were so blinded that they could not see, and then they heard footsteps, and, their eyes becoming accustomed to the light, they found themselves surrounded by several men, very strangely clad. They all wore long cloaks that covered them from head to foot and every man was more than six feet in height and finely proportioned. One of them, who seemed to be an officer in command, bowed politely.
“I am Captain Tradmos, gentlemen, in the king’s service. It is my duty to make you my prisoners. I must escort you to the palace of the king.”
“That’s cool,” said Johnston, to conceal the discomfiture that he felt, “we had no idea that you had a kingdom. We have tramped all over this island, and you are the first signs of humanity we have met.”
He would have recalled his words before he had finished speaking, if he could have done so, for he saw by the manner of the captain that he had been over bold.
“Follow me,” answered the officer curtly, and with a motion of his hand to his men he turned toward the odd-looking vessel.
The two adventurers obeyed, and the cloaked men fell in behind them. Neither Johnston nor Thorndyke had ever seen anything like the peculiar boat that was moored to the rocky shore. It was about forty feet in length, had a hull shaped like a racing yacht, but which was made of black rubber inflated with air. It was covered with glass, save for a doorway about six feet high and three feet wide in the side, and looked like a great oblong bubble floating on the still dark water. As they approached the searchlight was extinguished, and they were enabled to see the boat to a better advantage by the aid of the electric lights that illuminated the interior. It was with feelings of awe that the two adventurers followed the captain across the gang-plank into the vessel.
The electric light was brilliantly white, and in various places pink, red and light-blue screens mellowed it into an artistic effect that was very soothing to the eye. The ceiling was hung with festoons of prisms as brilliant as the purest diamonds, and in them, owing to the gently undulatory movement of the vessel, colors more beautiful than those of a rainbow played entrancingly. Rare pictures in frames of delicate gold were interspersed among the clusters of prisms, and the floor was covered with carpets that felt as soft beneath the foot as pillows of eider-down.
As he entered the door the officer threw off his gray cloak, and his men did likewise, disclosing to view the finest uniforms the prisoners had ever seen. Captain Tradmos’s legs were clothed in tights of light-blue silk, and he wore a blue sack-coat of silk plush and a belt of pliant gold, the buckles of which were ornamented with brilliant gems. His eyes were dark and penetrating, and his black hair lay in glossy masses on his shoulders. He had the head of an Apollo and a brow indicative of the highest intellect.
Leaving his men in the first room that they entered, he gracefully conducted his prisoners through another room to a small cabin in the stern of the boat, and told them to make themselves comfortable on the luxurious couches that lined the circular glass walls.
“Our journey will be of considerable length,” he said, “and as you are no doubt fatigued, you had better take all the rest you can get. I see that you need food and have ordered a repast which will refresh you.” As he concluded he touched a button in the wall and instantly a table, laden with substantial food, rare delicacies and wines, rose through a trap-door in the floor. He smiled at the expressions of surprise on their faces and touched a green bottle of wine with his white tapering hand.
“The greater part of our journey will be under water, and our wines are specially prepared to render us capable of subsisting on a rather limited quantity of air during the voyage, so I advise you to partake of them freely; you will find them very agreeable to the taste.”
“We are very grateful,” bowed Thorndyke, from his seat on a couch. “I am sure no prisoners were ever more graciously or royally entertained. To be your prisoner is a pleasure to be remembered.”
“Till our heads are cut off, anyway,” put in the irrepressible American.
Tradmos smiled good-humoredly.
“I shall leave you now,” he said, and with a bow he withdrew.
“This is an adventure in earnest,” whispered Johnston; “my stars! what can they intend to do with us?”
“One of the first things will be to take us down to the bottom of this lake where we saw them awhile ago, and I don’t fancy it at all; what if this blasted glass-case should burst? We may have dropped into a den of outlaws on a gigantic scale, and it may be necessary to put us out of the way to keep our mouths closed.”
“I am hungry, and am going to eat,” said the American, drawing a cushioned stool up to the table. “Here goes for some of the wine; remember, it is a sort of breath-restorer. I am curious enough not to want to collapse till I have seen this thing through. He said something about a palace and a king. Where can we be going?”
“Down into the centre of the earth, possibly,” and the handsome Englishman moved a stool to the table and took the glass of green-colored wine that Johnston pushed toward him. “Some scientists hold that the earth is filled with water instead of fire. Who knows where this blamed thing may not take us? Here is to a safe return from the amphibious land!”
Both drank their wine simultaneously, lowered their glasses at the same instant, and gazed into each other’s eyes.
“Did you ever taste such liquor?” asked Thorndyke, “it seems to run like streams of fire through every vein I have.”
Johnston shook his head mutely, and held the sparkling effervescing fluid between him and the light.
“Ugh! take it down,” cried the Englishman, “it throws a green color on your face that makes you look like a corpse.” Johnston clinked the glass against that of his companion and they drained the glasses. “Hush, what was that?” asked Thorndyke.
There was a sound like boiling water outside and as if air were being pumped out of some receptacle, and the vessel began to move up and down in a lithe sort of fashion and to bend tortuously from side to side like a great sluggish fish. Through the partitions of glass they saw one of the men closing the door, and in a moment the vessel glided away from the shore. The men all sank into easy positions on the couches, and delightful music as soft as an Aeolian lyre seemed to be breathed from the walls and floor. Then the music seemed to die away and a bell down in the vessel’s hull rang.
“We are in the middle of the lake,” said Thorndyke, looking through the glass toward the black cliffy shore; “the next thing will be our descent. I wonder—-“
But he was unable to proceed, and Johnston noticed in alarm that his eyes were slightly protruding from their sockets. The air seemed suddenly to become more com- pact as if compressed, and the water was set into such violent commotion that it was dashed against the glass sides in billows as white as snow. Then Johnston found that he could not breathe freely, and he understood the trouble of the Englishman.
Captain Tradmos came suddenly to the door. He was smiling as he motioned toward the wines on the table.
“You had better drink more of the wine,” he advised sententiously.
Both of the captives rushed to the table. The instant they had swallowed the wine they felt relieved, but were still weak. The captain bowed and went away. Thorndyke’s hand trembled as he refilled his friend’s glass. I thought I was gone up,” he said, “I never had such a choky sensation in my life; you are still purple in the face.”
“Eat of what is before you,” said the captain, looking in at the door; “you cannot stand the increasing pressure unless you do.”
They needed no second invitation, for they were half-famished. The fish and meat were delicious, and the bread was delightfully sweet.
“Look outside!” cried Johnston. The water was now still, but it was gradually rising up the sides of the boat, and in a moment it had closed over the crystal roof. Both of the captives were conscious of a heavy sensation in the head and a dull roaring in the ears. Down they went, at first slowly and then more rapidly, till it seemed to them that they had descended over a thousand feet. Great monsters like whales swam to the vessel, as if attracted by the lights, and their massive bodies jarred against the glass walls as they turned to swim away. They sank about five hundred feet lower; and all at once the lights went out, and the boat gradually stopped.
It was at once so dark that the two captives could not see each other, though only the width of the table separated them. Everything was profoundly still; not a sound came from the men in the other rooms. Presently Thorndyke whispered, “Look, do you see that red light overhead?”
“Yes,” said Johnston, “it looks like a star.”
“It is our bonfire,” said Thorndyke, “that’s what betrayed us.”
Again the vessel began to sink, and more rapidly than ever; indeed, as Thorndyke expressed it, he had the cool feeling that nervous people experience in going down quickly in an elevator.
“If we go any lower,” he added, as the great rubber hull seemed to struggle like some living monster, “the sides of this thing will collapse like an egg-shell and we will be as flat as pancakes.”
“You need not fear, we have much lower to go!” It was the captain’s voice, but they could not tell from whence it came. Then they heard again the seductive music, and it was so soothing that they soon fell asleep.
They had no idea how long they had slept, but they were awakened by the ringing of a bell and felt the vessel was coming to a stop. They were still far beneath the surface; indeed, the boat was resting on the bottom, for in the light of two or three powerful search-lights they saw a wide succession of submerged hills, vales, and rugged cliffs. Before them was a great mountain-side and in it they saw the mouth of a dark tunnel. They had scarcely noticed it before the vessel rose a little and glided toward the tunnel and entered it. Through the glass walls they could see that it was narrow, and that the ragged sides and roof were barely far enough apart to admit them.
Suddenly one of the men came in and drew a curtain down behind them, and, with a vexed look on his face retired.
When he was gone Johnston put his lips close to Thorndyke’s ear and whispered:
“Did you see that?”
“Just as he drew the curtain down I saw what looked to me like a cliff of solid gold. It had been dug out into a cavern in which I saw a vessel like this, and men in diving suits digging and loading it.”
This took the Englishman’s breath away for a moment, then he remarked: “That accounts for the heel-tap we found; who knows, these people may be possessors of the richest gold and silver mines on earth.”
The bell rang again. “We are rising,” said Johnston. “If this is the only way of reaching the king’s domain, we could never get back to civilization unless they release us of their own accord, that’s certain!”
“Heavens, isn’t it still!” exclaimed the Englishman. “The machinery of this thing moves as noiselessly as the backbone of an eel. I wish I could understand its works.”
“I am more concerned about where we are going. I tell you we are being taken to some wonderful place. People who can construct such marvels of mechanical skill as this boat will not be behind in other things; then look at the physiques of those giants.”
Just then the man who had drawn down the shade came in and raised it. Both the captives pretended to be uninterested in his movements, but when he had withdrawn they looked through the glass eagerly.
“See,” whispered Thorndyke, in the ear of his companion, “the walls are close to us, and are as perpendicular as those of the lake in which they found us.”
Johnston said nothing. His attention was riveted to the walls of rock; the vessel was rising rapidly. An hour passed. The soft music had ceased, and the air seemed less dense and fresher. Then the waters suddenly parted over the roof and ran in crystal streams down the oval glass.
They were on the surface, and the vessel was slowly gliding toward the shore which could not be seen owing to there now being no light except that inside the boat. Captain Tradmos entered, followed by two of his men holding black silken bandages.
“We must blindfold you,” he said; “cap- tives are not allowed to see the entrance to our kingdom.”
Without a word they submitted.
“This way,” said the captain kindly, and, holding to an arm of each, he piloted them out of the vessel to the shore. Then he led them through what they imagined to be a long stone corridor or arcade from the ringing echoes of their feet on the stone pavement. Presently they came to what seemed to be an elevator, for when they had entered it and sat down, they heard a metallic door slide back into its place, and they descended quickly.
They could form no idea as to the distance they went down; but Thorndyke declared afterward that it was over ten thousand feet. When the elevator stopped Captain Tradmos led them out, and both of the captives were conscious of breathing the purest, most invigorating air they had ever inhaled. Instantly their strength returned, and they felt remarkably buoyant as they were led along over another pavement of polished stone.
Tradmos laughed. “You like the atmosphere?”
“I never heard of anything like it,” said Thorndyke. “It is so delightful I can almost taste it.”
“It was that which made Alpha what it is–the most wonderful country in the universe,” said the officer. “There is much in store for you.”
The ears of the two captives were greeted by a vague, indefinable hum, like and yet unlike that of a busy city. It was like many far-off sounds carefully muffled. Now and then they heard human voices, laughter, and singing in the distance, and the twanging of musical instruments.
Then they knew that they were entering a building of some sort, for they heard a key turn in a lock and the humming sound in the distance was cut off. They felt a soft carpet under their feet, and the feet of their guards no longer clinked on the stones.
When the bandages were removed they found themselves in a sumptuous chamber, alone with the captain. The brilliant light from a quaintly-shaped candelabrum, in the centre of the chamber, dazzled them, but in a few minutes their eyes had become accustomed to it.
Tradmos seemed to be enjoying the looks of astonishment on their faces as they glanced at the different objects in the room.
“It is night,” he said smilingly. “You need rest after your voyage. Lie down on the beds and sleep. To-morrow you will be conducted to the palace of the king.”
With a bow he withdrew, and they heard a massive bolt slide into the socket of a door hidden behind a curtain. The two men gazed at each other without speaking, for a moment, and then they began to inspect the room.
In alcoves half-veiled with silken curtains stood statues in gold and bronze. The walls and ceilings were decorated with pictures unlike any they had ever seen. Before one, the picture of an angel flying through a dark, star-filled sky, they both stood enchanted.
“What is it?” asked Thorndyke, finding voice finally. “It is not done with brush or pencil; the features seem alive and, by Jove, you can actually see it breathe. Don’t you see the clouds gliding by, and the wings moving?”
“It is light–it is formed by light!” declared the other enthusiastically, and he ran to the wall, about six feet from the picture, and put his hand on a square metal box screwed to the wall.
“I have it,” he said quickly, “come here!”
The Englishman advanced curiously and examined the box.
“Don’t you see that tiny speck of light in the side towards the picture? Well, the view is thrown from this box on the wall, and it is the motion of the powerful light that gives apparent life to the angel. It is wonderful.”
In a commodious alcove, in a glow of pink light from above, was a life-sized group of musicians–statues in colored metal of a Spanish girl playing a mandora, an Italian with a slender calascione, a Russian playing his jorbon, and an African playing a banjo. Luxurious couches hung by spiral springs from the ceiling to a convenient height from the floor, and here and there lay rugs of rare beauty and great ottomans of artistic designs and colors.
“We ought to go to bed,” proposed Thorndyke; “we shall have plenty of time to see this Aladdin’s land before we get away from it.”
There were two large downy beds on quaintly wrought bedsteads of brass, but the two captives decided to sleep together.
Thorndyke was the first to awaken. The lights in the candelabrum were out, but a gray light came in at the top and bottom of the window. He rose and drew the heavy curtain of one of the windows aside. He shrank back in astonishment.
“What is it, Thorndyke? What are you looking at?” And the American slowly left the bed and approached his friend.
Thorndyke only held the curtain further back and watched Johnston’s face as he looked through the wide plate-glass window.
“My gracious!” ejaculated the latter as he drew nearer. It was a wondrous scene. The building in which they were imprisoned stood on a gentle hill clad in luxuriant, smoothly-cut grass and ornamented with beautiful flowers and plants; and below lay a splendid city–a city built on undulating ground with innumerable grand structures of white marble, with turrets, domes and pinnacles of gold. Wide streets paved in polished stone and bordered with lush-green grass interspersed with statues and beds and mounds of strange plants and flowers stretched away in front of them till they were lost in the dim, misty distance. Parks filled with pavilions, pleasure-lakes, fountains and tortuous drives and walks, dotted the landscape in all directions.
Thorndyke’s breath had clouded the glass of the window, and he rubbed it with his handkerchief. As he did so the sash slowly, and without a particle of sound, slid to one side, disclosing a narrow balcony outside. It had a graceful balustrade, made of carved red-and-white mottled marble, and on the end of the balcony facing the city sat a great gold and silver jug, ten feet high, of rare design. The spout was formed by the body of a dragon with wings extended; the handle was a serpent with the extremity of its tail coiled around the neck of the jug.
The air that came in at the window was fresh and dewy, and laden with the most entrancing odors. Thorndyke led the way out, treading very gently at first. Johnston followed him, too much surprised to make any comment. From this position, their view to the left round the corner of the building was widened, and new wonders appeared on every hand.
Over the polished stone pavements strange vehicles ran noiselessly, as if the wheels had cushioned tires, and the streets were crowded with an active, strangely- clad populace.
“Look at that!” exclaimed the American, and from a street corner they saw a queer-looking machine, carrying half-a-dozen passengers,rise like a bird with wings outspread and fly away toward the east. They watched it till it disappeared in the distance.
“We are indeed in wonderland,” said the Englishman; “I can’t make head nor tail of it. We were on an isolated island, the Lord only knows where, and have suddenly been transported to a new world!”
“I can’t feel at all as if we were in the world we were born in,” returned Johnston. “I feel strange.”
“The wine,” suggested the Englishman, “you know it did wonders for us in that subwater thing.”
“No; the wine has nothing to do with it. My head never was clearer. The very atmosphere is peculiar. The air is invigorating, and I can’t get enough of it.”
“That is exactly the way I feel,” was Thorndyke’s answer.
“Look at the sunlight,” went on Johnston; “it is gray like our dawn, but see how transparent it is. You can look through it for miles and miles. It is becoming pink in the east, the sun will soon be up, and I am curious to see it.”
“It must be up now, but we cannot see it for the hills and buildings. My goodness, see that!” and the Englishman pointed to the east. A flood of delicate pink light was now pouring into the vast body of gray and was slowly driving the more sombre color toward the west. The line of separation was marked–so marked, indeed, that it seemed a vast, rose-colored billow rolling, widening and sweeping onward like a swell of the ocean shoreward. On it came rapidly, till the whole landscape was magically changed. The flowers, the trees, the grass, the waters of the lakes, the white buildings, the costumes of the people in the streets, even the sky, changed in aspect. The white clouds looked like fire-lit smoke, and far toward the west rolled the long line of pink still struggling with the gray and driving it back.
The sun now came into sight, a great bleeding ball of fire slowly rising above the gilded roofs in the distance.
“By Jove, look at our shadows!” exclaimed Johnston, and both men gazed at the balcony floor in amazement; their shadows were as clearly defined and black as silhouettes. “How do you account for that?” continued the American, “I am firmly convinced that this sun is not the orb that shines over my native land.”
Thorndyke laughed, but his laugh was forced. “How absurd! and yet–” He extended his hand over the balustrade into the rosy glow, and without concluding his remark held it back into the shadow of the window-casement. “By Jove!” he exclaimed; “there is not a particle of warmth in it. It is exactly the same temperature in the shade as in the light.” He moved back against the wall. “No; there is no difference; the blamed thing doesn’t give out any warmth.”
Johnston’s hands were extended in the light. “I believe you are right,” he declared in awe, “something is wrong.”
At that moment appeared from the room behind them a handsome youth, attired in a suit of scarlet silk that fitted his athletic figure perfectly. He rapped softly on the window- casement and bowed when they turned.
“Your breakfast is waiting for you,” he announced. They followed him into a room adjoining the one they had occupied, and found a table holding a sumptuous repast. The boy gave them seats and handed them golden plates to eat upon. The fruits, wine and meats were very appetizing, and they ate with relish.
“I believe we are to be conducted to the palace of your king to- morrow,” ventured the Englishman to the boy.
The boy shook his head, but made no reply, and busied himself with removing the dishes. As they were rising from the table, they heard footsteps in the hall outside. The door opened. It was Captain Tradmos, and he was accompanied by a tall, bearded man with a leather case under his arm.
“You must undergo a medical examination,” the captain said smilingly. “It is our invariable custom, but this is by a special order from the king.”
Johnston shuddered as he looked at the odd-looking instruments the medical man was taking from the case, but Thorndyke watched his movements with phlegmatic indifference. He stood erect; threw back his shoulders; expanded his massive chest and struck it with his clenched fist in pantomimic boastfulness.
Tradmos smiled genially; but there was something curt and official in his tone when he next spoke that took the Englishman slightly aback. “You must bare your breast over your heart and lungs,” he said; and while Thorndyke was unbuttoning his shirt, he and the medical man went to the door and brought into the room a great golden bell hanging in a metallic frame.
The bell was so thin and sensitive to the slightest jar or movement that, although it had been handled with extreme care, the captives could see that it was vibrating considerably, and the room was filled with a low metallic sound that not only affected the ear of the hearer but set every nerve to tingling. The medical man stopped the sound by laying his hand upon the bell. To a tube in the top of the bell he fastened one end of a rubber pipe; the other end was finished with a silver device shaped like the mouth-piece of a speaking tube. This he firmly pressed over the Englishman’s heart. Thorndyke winced and bit his lip, for the strange thing took hold of his flesh with the tenacity of a powerful suction-pump.
“Ouch!” he exclaimed playfully, but Johnston saw that he had turned pale, and that his face was drawn as if from pain.
“Hold still!” ordered the medical man; “it will be over in a minute; now, be perfectly quiet and listen to the bell!”
The Englishman stood motionless, the sinews of his neck drawn and knotted, his eyes starting from their sockets. Thorndyke felt the rubber tube quiver suddenly and writhe with the slow energy of a dying snake, and then from the quivering bell came a low, gurgling sound like a stream of water being forced backward and forward.
Tradmos and the medical man stepped to the bell and inspected a small dial on its top.
“What was that?” gasped the Englishman, purple in the face.
“The sound of your blood,” answered Tradmos, as he removed the instrument from Thorndyke’s flesh; “it is as regular as mine; you are very lucky; you are slightly fatigued, but you will be sound in a day or two.”
“Thank you,” replied the Englishman, but he sank into a chair, overcome with weakness.
“Now, I’ll take you, please,” said the medical man, motioning Johnston to rise.
“I am slightly nervous,” apologized the latter, as he stood up and awkwardly fumbled the buttons of his coat.
“Nervousness is a mental disease,” said the man, with professional brusqueness; “it has nothing to do with the body except to dominate it at times. If you pass your examination you may live to overcome it.”
The American looked furtively at Thorndyke, but the head of the Englishman had sunk on his breast and he seemed to be asleep. Johnston had never felt so lonely and forsaken in his life. From his childhood he had entertained a secret fear that he had inherited heart disease, and like Maupassant’s “Coward,” who committed suicide rather than meet a man in a duel, he had tried in vain to get away from the horrible, ever-present thought by plunging into perilous adventures.
At that moment he felt that he would rather die than know the worst from the uncanny instrument that had just tortured his strong comrade till he was overcome with exhaustion.
“I never felt better in my life,” he said falteringly, but it seemed to him that every nerve and muscle in his frame was withering through fear. His tongue felt clumsy and thick and his knees were quivering as with ague.
“Stand still,” ordered the physician sternly, and Johnston was further humiliated by having Tradmos sympathetically catch hold of his arm to steady him.
“Your people are far advanced in the sciences,” went on the physician coldly, “but there are only a few out of their number who know that the mind governs the body and that fear is its prime enemy. Five minutes ago you were eating heartily and had your share of physical strength, and yet the mere thought that you are now to know the actual condition of your most vital organ has made you as weak as an infant. If you kept up this state of mind for a month it would kill you.
“Now listen,” he went on, as the instrument gripped Johnston’s flesh and the rubber tube began to twist and move as if charged with electricity. The American held his breath. A sound as of water being forced through channels that were choked, mingled with a wheezing sound like wind escaping from a broken bellows came from the bell.
“Your frame is all right,” said the medical man, as he released the trembling American, “but you have long believed in the weakness of your heart and it has, on that account, become so. You must banish all fear from your thoughts. You perhaps know that we have a place specially prepared for those who are not physically sound. I am sorry that you do not stand a better examination.”
Tradmos regarded the American with a look of sympathy as he gave him a chair and then rang a bell on the table. Thorndyke looked up sleepily, as an attendant entered with a couple of parcels, and glanced wonderingly at his friend’s white face and bloodshot eyes.
“What’s the matter?” he asked; but Johnston made no reply, for the captain had opened the parcels and taken out two suits of silken clothing.
“Put them on,” he said, giving a suit of gray to Johnston and one of light blue to Thorndyke. “We shall leave you to change your attire, and I shall soon come for you.”
In a few minutes the captain returned and found his prisoners ready to go with him. Thorndyke looked exceedingly handsome in his glossy tights, close-fitting sack-coat, tinsel belt and low shoes with buckles of gold. The natural color had come back into his cheeks, and he was exhilarated over the prospect of further adventure.
It was not so, however, with poor Johnston; his spirits had been so dampened by the physician’s words that he could not rally from his despondency. His suit fitted his figure as well as that of the Englishman, but he could not wear it with the same hopeful grace.
“Cheer up!” whispered Thorndyke, as they followed the captain through a long corridor, “if we are on our way to the stake or block we are at least going dressed like gentlemen.”
Outside they found the streets lined with spectators eagerly waiting to see them pass. The men all had suits like those which had been given the captives, and the women wore flowing gowns like those of ancient Greece.
“These are the common people,” whispered Thorndyke to Johnston, “but did you ever dream of such perfect features and physiques? Every face is full of merriment and good cheer. I am curious to see the royalty.”
Johnston made no reply, for Captain Tradmos turned suddenly and faced them.
“Stand here till I return,” he said, and he went back into the house.
“Where in the deuce do you think we are?” pursued Thorndyke with a grim smile.
“Haven’t the slightest idea,” sighed Johnston, and he shuddered as he looked down the long white street with its borders of human faces.
Thorndyke was observant.
“There is not a breath of air stirring,” he said; “and yet the atmosphere is like impalpable delicacies to a hungry man’s stomach.Look at that big tree, not a leaf is moving, and yet every breath I draw is as fresh as if it came from a mountain- top. Did you ever see such flowers as those? Look at that ocean of orchids.”
“They think we are a regular monkey-show,” grumbled the American. “Look how the crowd is gaping and shoving and fighting for places to see us.”
“It’s your legs they want to behold, old fellow. Do you know I never knew you had such knotty knee-joints; did you ever have rheumatism? I wish I had ’em; they wouldn’t put me to death–they would make me the chief attraction in the royal museum.” Thorndyke concluded his jest with a laugh, but the face of his friend did not brighten.
“You bet that medical examination meant something serious,” he said.
“Pooh!” and the Englishman slapped his friend playfully on the shoulder.
“Since I have seen that vast crowd of well-developed people, and remember what that medicine man said, I have made up my mind that we are going to be separated.” Poor Johnston’s lip was quivering.
“Rubbish! but there comes the captain; put on a bold front; talk up New York; tell ’em about Chicago and the Fair, and ask to be allowed to ride in their Ferris Wheel–if they ain’t got no wheel, ask ’em when the first train leaves town.”
“This is no time for jokes,” growled Johnston, as Tradmos returned. Tradmos motioned to something that in the distance looked like a carriage, but which turned out to be a flying machine. It rose gracefully and glided over the ground and settled at their feet. It was large enough to seat a dozen people, and there was a little glass-windowed compartment at the end in which they could see “the driver,” as he was termed by Tradmos. The mysterious machinery was hidden in the woodwork overhead and beneath.
“Get in,” said the captain, and the door flew open as if of its own accord. Thorndyke went in first and was followed by the moody American. “Let up on the ague,” jested Thorndyke, nudging his friend with his elbow; “if you keep on quivering like that you may shake the thing loose from its moorings and we’d never know what became of us.”
Johnston scowled, and the officer, who had overheard the remark, smiled as he leaned toward the window and gave some directions to the man in the other compartment.
“You both take it rather coolly,” he remarked to Thorndyke. “I took a man and a woman over this route several years ago and both of them were in a dead faint; but, in fact, you have nothing to fear. We never have accidents.”
“It is as safe as a balloon, I suppose, and we are at home in them,” said the Englishman, with just the hint of a swagger in his tone.
“But your balloons are poor, primitive things at best,” returned Tradmos in his soft voice. “They can’t be compared to this mode of travel, though, of course, our machines would not operate in your atmosphere.”
“Why not?” impulsively asked the Englishman. “I thought—-“
But he did not conclude his remark, for they were rising, and both he and Johnston leaned apprehensively forward and looked out of one of the windows. Down below the long lines of people were silently waving their hats, scarfs and handkerchiefs as the machine swept along over their heads. As they rose higher the scene below widened like a great circular fan, and in the delicate roselight, the whole so appealed to Thorndyke’s artistic sense that he ejaculated:
“Glorious! Superb! Transcendent!” and he directed Johnston’s attention to the wonderful pinkish haze which lay over the view toward the west like a vast diaphanous web of rosy sunbeams.
“You ask why our air-ships would not operate in your atmosphere,” said the captain, showing pleasure at Thorndyke’s enthusiasm. “It is simple enough when you have studied the climatic differences between the two countries. You have much to contend with–the winds, for instance, the heat and cold, etc.; this is the only known country where the winds are subjugated. I have never been in your world, but from what I have heard of it I am not anxious to see it. Your atmosphere and climate are so changeable and so diverse in different localities that I have heard your people spend much of their time in seeking congenial climes. I think it was a man who came from London that claimed he once had a cold–‘a bad cold,’ I think he called it. It was a standing joke in the royal family for a long time, and he heard so much about it that he tried to deny what he had said!”
Johnston glanced at the speaker non-plussed, but the captain was looking at Thorndyke.
“Your climate is delightful here now,” said the Englishman; “is it so long at a time?”
“Perpetually; it is regulated every moment, and every year we perfect it in some way.”
“Yes, of course, why not? If it ever fails to be up to the usual high standard, it is owing to neglect of those in charge, and neglect is punished severely.”
Thorndyke’s eyes sought those of the American incredulously. Seeing which Tradmos looked amused.
“You doubt it,” he smiled. “Well, wait till you have been here longer. The fact is, any one born in our climate could not live in yours. The king experimented on a man who claimed to have only one lung, but who had two sound ones when he was cut open. Well, the king sent him to China, or America, or some such place, and he wheezed himself to death in a week by your clocks. The weather was too fickle for him. Our system has been perfected to such an extent that we live four lives to your one, and our fruits and vegetables are a hundred per cent. better than those in other countries.”
“What is the name of your country?” asked Thorndyke, feeling that he was not losing anything by his boldness.
“Where is it located?”
“I don’t know.” Tradmos looked out at the window for a moment as if to ascertain that they were going in the right direction, then he fixed his dark eyes on Thorndyke and asked hesitatingly:–
“I never thought–I–but do you know where your country is located?”
“Well, I don’t know where this one is. We are taught everything, I think, except geography.” Nothing more was said for several minutes, then an exclamation of admiration broke from the Englishman. The color of the sunlight was changing. From east to west within the entire arc of their observation rolled an endless billow of lavender light leaving a placid sea of the same color behind it. On it swept, slowly driving back the pink glow that had been over everything.
“I see you like our sunlight?” said Tradmos, half interrogatively.
“Never saw anything like it before.”
“Yours is, I think, the same color all day long.”
“Except on rainy days.”
“Must be a great bore, monotonous–too much sameness. It is white, is it not?”
“Yes, rather–between white and yellow, I call it.”
“Something like our sixth hour, I suppose; this is the fourth hour of morning. Then come blue, yellow, green, and at noon red. The afternoon is divided up in the same way. The first hour is green, then follow yellow, blue, lavender, rose, gray and purple. Yes, I should think you would find yours somewhat tiresome.”
“We can rely on it,” said Johnston speaking for the first time and in a wavering voice, “it is always there.”
“Doing business at the old stand,” laughed Thorndyke, attempting an Americanism.
“Well, that is a comfort, anyway,” said the captain seriously. “In my time they have had no solar trouble, but some of the old people tell horrible tales of a period when our sun for several days did not shine at all.”
“Can it be possible?” said the Englishman dubiously.
“Oh, yes; and the early settlers had a great deal of trouble in different ways; but I am not at liberty to give you information on that head. It is the king’s special pleasure to have new-comers form their own impressions, and he is particularly fond of noting their surprise, and, above all, their approval. People usually come here of their own accord through the influence of our secret force of agents all over the earth, but you were brought because you happened to drop on our island and would have found out too much for our good, and that red light you kept burning night and day might have given us trouble. There is no telling how long you could have kept alive on those clams.”
“We meant no offence,” apologized Thorndyke; “we—-“
“Oh, I know it, I was only explaining the situation,” interrupted the officer.
“What is that bright spot to the right?” asked Thorndyke, to change the subject.
“The king’s palace; that is the dome. We shall soon be there. Now, I must not talk to you any longer. Somebody may be watching us with glasses. I have taken a liking to you, and some time, when I get the opportunity, I shall give you some useful advice, but I must treat you very formally, at least till you have had audience with the king.”
“Thank you,” said the Englishman, and Tradmos stood up in the car to watch their progress through the circular glass of a little cupola on top. Thorndyke smiled at Johnston, but the American was in no pleasant mood. The indifference with which Tradmos had treated him had nettled him.
The machine was now slowly descending. A vast pile of white marble, with many golden domes and spires, rose between them and the earth below.
“To the balcony on the central dome,” ordered Tradmos through the window of the driver’s compartment; and the adventurers felt the car sweep round in a curve that threw them against each other, and the next moment they had landed on a wide iron balcony encircling a great golden cone that towered hundreds of feet above them.
“Follow me,” said the captain stiffly, for there were several guards in white and gold uniforms pacing to and fro on the battlement-like walls. He led the two adventurers through a door in the base of the dome. At first they were dazed by a brilliant light from above, and looking up they beheld a marvel of kaleidoscopic colors formed by a myriad of electric-lighted prisms sloping gradually from the floor to the apex of the dome. Thorndyke could compare it to nothing but a stupendous diamond, the very heart of which the eye penetrated.
“Don’t look at it now,” advised Tradmos, in an undertone; “it was constructed to be seen from below, and to light the great rotunda.”
Mutely the captives obeyed. At every turn they were greeted with a new wonder. The captain now led them round a narrow balcony on the inside of the vast dome, and, looking over the railing down below, they saw a vast tessellated pavement made of polished stones of various and brilliant colors and so artistically arranged that, from where they stood, lifelike pictures of landscapes seemed to rise to meet the vision wherever the eye rested. Statues of white marble, gold and bronze were placed here and there, and, in squares of living green, fountains threw up streams of crystal water. Tradmos paused for them to look down and smiled at their evident admiration.
“How far is it down there?” Thorndyke ventured to ask.
“Over a thousand feet,” replied Tradmos. “Look across opposite and you will see that there are fifty floors beneath us, and each floor has a balcony like this overlooking the court.”
“What is the sound that comes up from below?” asked the Englishman.
“It is the voices of the people and their footsteps on the stone.”
“Don’t you see them? Your eyes are dazzled by the light; I ought to have warned you against looking up into the dome. The people are down there; do the views in the pavement not look a little blurred?”
“Well, if you will look more closely you will see that it is a multitude of people.”
“Great heavens!” exclaimed the Englishman, and he became deeply absorbed in the contemplation of the rarest sight he had ever seen. As he looked closely he noticed a black spot growing larger and nearer, and he glanced inquiringly at the captain.
“It is an elevator. There are a great many of them used in the palace, but none have happened to rise as high as this since we came. The one you see is coming for us.” The next moment the strange vehicle was floating toward them. The captain opened the door and preceded the captives into the interior.
“The royal audience chamber,” he said, carelessly, to the driver behind the glass of the adjoining compartment, and down they floated as lightly as a bubble–down past balcony after balcony, laden with moving throngs, until they alighted in a great conservatory.
Near them was a tall fountain the water of which was playing weird music on great bells of glass, some of which hung in the fountain’s stream and others rose and fell, giving forth strange, submerged tones in the foaming basin.
“It is a new invention recently placed here by the king’s son who is a musical genius,” explained Tradmos. “You will be astonished at some of his inventions.”
He led them, as if to avoid the great crowds that they could now hear on all sides, down a long vista of palms, the branches of which met over their heads, to the wide door of the audience chamber. A party of men dressed in uniforms of white silk with gold and silver ornaments bowed before the captain and made way for him.
The captives now found themselves in the most splendid and spacious room they had ever seen, at the far end of which was a long dais and on it an elaborate throne.
“I shall be obliged to leave you when the king comes,” said Tradmos to Thorndyke, “but I shall hope to see you again. Don’t forget my name and rank, for I may send you a message some time that may aid you.” “Thank you,” replied the Englishman, and then as a throng of beautiful young women came from a room on the side and gathered about the throne he added inquisitively: “Who are they?”
“The wives and daughters of the king and the wives of the princes,” was the cautious answer, “but don’t look at any one of them closely.”
“I don’t see how a fellow can help it; they are ravishingly beautiful, don’t you think so, Johnston?”
“Don’t be a fool,” snapped the American, “don’t you know enough to hold your tongue.”
Tradmos smiled as if amused, and when he had shown them to seats near the great golden throne, he said:
“Stay where you are till the king sends for you, and then go and kneel before the throne. Do not rise till he bids you.”
The captives thanked him and the captain turned away. The eyes of all the royal party now rested on the strangers, and it was hard for them to appear unconscious of it. A great crowd was slowly filling the room and an orchestra in a balcony on the left of the dais began to make delightful music on instruments the strangers had never before seen. After an entrancing prelude a sound of singing was heard, and far up in a grand dome, lighted like the one the captives had just admired over the central court of the palace, they saw a bevy of maidens, robed in white, moving about in mid-air, apparently unsupported by anything.
“How on earth is that done?” asked Thorndyke.
“I don’t know,” returned Johnston, speaking more freely now that the captain had gone. “I am not surprised at anything.”
“Their voices are exquisite, and that orchestra–a Boston symphony concert couldn’t be compared to it.”
“There goes the sunlight again,” cried Johnston, “by Jove, it is blue!”
The transition was sublime. They seemed transported to some other scene. The great multitude, the elegantly-dressed attendants about the throne, the courtiers, the beautiful women, all seemed to change in appearance; on the view through the wide doors leading to the conservatory, and the great swarming court beyond, the soft blue light fell like a filmy veil of enchantment.
“Wonderful!” exclaimed the American.
“It is ahead of our clocks, anyway,” jested Thorndyke. “Any child that can count on its fingers could tell that this is the fifth hour of the day.”
The music grew louder; there was a harmonious blare of mighty trumpets, the clang of gongs and cymbals, and then the music softened till it could scarcely be heard. There was commotion about the throne.
The king was coming. Every person on the dais stood motionless, expectant. A page drew aside the rich curtain from a door on the right, and an old man, wearing a robe of scarlet ornamented with jewels and a crown set with sparkling gems, entered and seated himself on the throne. The music sank lower; so soft did it become that the tinkling bells of the great fountain outside could be heard throughout the room.
The king bowed to the throng on the dais and spoke a few words to a courtier who advanced as he sat down. The courtier must have spoken of them, for the king at once looked down at Johnston and Thorn-dyke and nodded his head. The courtier spoke to a page, and the youth left the dais and came toward the captives.
“We are in for it,” cautioned Thorndyke, “now don’t be afraid of your shadow; we’ll come out all right.”
“The king has sent for you,” said the page, the next instant. “Go to the throne.”
They were the cynosure of the entire room as they went up the carpeted steps of the dais and knelt before the king.
“Rise!” commanded the king, in a deep, well-modulated voice, and when they had arisen he inspected them critically, his eyes lingering on Thorndyke.
“You look as if you take life easily; you have a jovial countenance,” he said cordially.
Thorndyke returned his smile and at once felt at ease.
“There is no use in taking it any other way,” he said; “it doesn’t amount to much at best.”
“You are wrong,” returned the king, playing with the jewels on his robe, “that is because you have been reared as you have–in your unsystematic world. Here we make life a serious study. It is our object to assist nature in all things. The efforts of your people amount to nothing because they are not carried far enough. Your scientists are dreaming idiots. They are continually groping after the ideal and doing nothing with the positive. It was for us to carry out everything to perfection. Show me where we can make a single improvement and you shall become a prince.”
“If my life depended on that, my head would be off this instant,” was the quick-witted reply of the Englishman.
This so pleased the king that he laughed till he shook. “Well said,” he smiled; “so you like our country?”
“Absolutely charmed; my friend (Thorndyke was determined to bring his companion into favor, if possible) and I have been in raptures ever since we rose this morning.”
A flush of pleasure crossed the face of the king. “You have not seen half of our wonders yet. I confess that I am pleased with you, sir. The majority of people who are brought here are so frightened that they grow morbid and desirous to return to their own countries as soon as they learn that such a thing is out of the question.”
Thorndyke’s stout heart suffered a sudden pang at the words, but he did not change countenance in the slightest, for the king was closely watching the effect of his announcement.
“Of course,” went on the ruler, gratified by the indifference of the Englishman, “of course, it could not be done. No one, outside of a few of the royal family and our trusted agents, has ever left us.”
“I can’t see how any one could be so unappreciative as to want to go,” answered Thorndyke, with a coolness that surprised even Johnston. “I have travelled in all countries under the sun–the sun I was born under–and got so bored with them that my friend and myself took to ballooning for diversion; but here, there is a delightful surprise at every turn.”
“I was told you were aeronauts,” returned the ruler, deigning to cast a glance at the silent Johnston, who stood with eyes downcast, “and I confess that it interested me in you.”
At that juncture a most beautiful girl glided through the curtains at the back of the throne and came impulsively toward the king. Her brown hair fell in rich masses on her bare shoulders; her eyes were large, deep and brown, and her skin was exquisitely fine in texture and color; her dress was artistic and well suited to her lithe figure. She held an instrument resembling a lute in her hands, and stopped suddenly when she noticed that the king was engaged,
“It is my daughter, the Princess Bernardino,” explained the king, as he heard her light step and turned toward her; “she shall sing for you, and, yes (nodding to her) you shall dance also.”
As she took her position on a great rug in front of the throne, she kept her eyes on the handsome Englishman as if fascinated by his appearance. Thorndyke’s heart beat quickly; the blood mantled his face and he stood entranced as she touched the resonant strings with her white fingers and began to play and sing. An innocent, artless smile parted her lips from her matchless teeth, and her face glowed with inspiration. Far above in the nooks and crannies of the vast dome, with its divergent corridors and arcades, the faint echoes of her voice seemed to reply to her during the pauses in her song. Then she ceased singing and to the far-away and yet distinct accompaniment of some stringed instrument in the orchestra, she began to dance. Holding her instrument in a graceful fashion against her shoulder as one holds a violin, and with her flowing white gown caught in the other hand, she bowed and smiled and instantly seemed transformed. From the statuesque and dreamy singer she became a marvel of graceful motion. To and fro she swept from end to end of the great rug, her tiny feet and slim ankles tripping so lightly that she seemed to move without support through the air.
Thorndyke stood as if spell-bound, for, at every turn, as if seeking his approval, she glanced at him inquiringly. When she finished she stood for a moment in the centre of the rug panting, her beautiful bosom, beneath its filmy covering of lace, gently rising and falling. Then, asking her father’s consent with a mute glance, she ran forward impulsively, and, kneeling at Thorndyke’s feet, she took his hand and pressed it to her lips. And rising, suffused with blushes, she tripped from the dais and disappeared behind the curtain.
The king frowned as he looked after her. “It is a mark of preference,” he said coldly. “It is one of our customs for a dancer or singer to favor some one of her spectators in that way. My daughter evidently mistook you for an ambassador from one of my provinces, but it does not matter.”
“She is wonderfully beautiful,” replied the tactful Englishman, pretending not to be flattered by the notice of the princess.
“Do you think our people fine looking as a rule?” asked the king, to change the subject.
“Decidedly; I never imagined such a race existed.”
Again the king was pleased. “That is one of the objects of our system. Generation after generation we improve mentally and physically. We are the only people who have ever attempted to thoroughly study the science of living. Your medical men may be numbered by the million; your remedies for your ills change daily; what you say is good for the health to-day is to- morrow believed to be poison; to-day you try to make blood to give strength, and half a century ago you believed in taking it from the weakest of your patients. With all this fuss over health, you will think nothing of allowing the son of a man who died with a loathsome hereditary disease to marry a woman whose family has never had a taint of blood. Here no such thing is thought of. To begin with, no person who is not thoroughly sound can remain with us. Every heart-beat is heard by our medical men and every vein is transparent. You see evidences of the benefit of our system in the men and women around you. All our conveniences, the excellence of our products, our great inventions are the result.”
“I have been wondering about the size of your country,” ventured Thorndyke cautiously.
The king smiled. “That will be one of the things for you to discover later,” he returned. “But this, the City of Moron, is the capital; our provinces, farming lands, smaller cities, towns and hamlets lie around us. Come with me and I will show you something.”
He waved his hand and dismissed a number of courtiers who were waiting to be called, and rose from the throne and led the two captives into a large apartment adjoining the throne-room. Here they found six men in blue uniforms looking into a large circular mirror on a table. They all bowed and moved aside as the king approached.
“These men are the municipal police,” explained the king, resting his hand on the gold frame of the glass; “they are watching the city.” And when the strangers drew nearer they were surprised to see reflected, in the deeply concave glass, the entire city in miniature; its streets, parks, public buildings, and moving populace. And what seemed to be the most remarkable feature of the invention was, that the instant the eye rested on any particular portion of the whole that part was at once magnified so that every detail of it was clearly observable.
“This is an improvement on your police system,” continued the king. “No sooner does anything go wrong than a red signal is given on the spot of the trouble and the attention of these officers is immediately called to it. A flying machine is sent out and the offender is brought to the police station; but trouble of any nature rarely occurs, and the duties of our police are merely nominal; my people live in thorough harmony. Now, come with me and I will give you an idea of the surrounding country.”
As the king spoke he led them into a circular room, the roof of which was of white glass, and the walls were lined with large mirrors.
“This is our general observatory from which every part of Alpha can be seen,” said the king with a touch of pride in his tone. “Look at the mirror in front of you.”
They did as he requested, and at first saw nothing; but, as he went to a stone table in the centre of the room and touched an electric button, a grand view of green fields, forests, streams, lakes and farm-houses flashed upon the mirror. The king laughed at their surprise and touched another button. As he did so the scene shifted gradually; the landscapes ran by like a panorama. A pretty village came into sight, and passed; then a larger town and still a larger; then fields, hills and valleys and forests of giant trees.
“It is that way all over my kingdom,” said the king; “in an hour I can inspect it all.”
“But how is it done?” asked Thorndyke, forgetting himself in wonder.
“Through a telescopic invention, aided by electricity and the clearness of our atmosphere,” replied the king. “It would take too long to go into the details. The views, however, are reflected to this point from various observatories throughout the land. Such a system would be impossible in any other country on account of the clouds and atmospheric changes; but here we control everything.”
“I noticed,” returned the Englishman, “that green fields lie beside ripening ones and those in which the grain is being harvested.”
“We have no change of seasons,” answered the king. “Change of seasons may be according to nature, but it is in the province of man’s intellect to improve on nature. But I must leave you now; I shall summon you again when I have the leisure to continue our conversation.”
“Well, what do you think of it?” asked Johnston, as the king disappeared behind a curtain in the direction of the audience chamber.
“I give it up; I only know that the old fellow’s daughter, the Princess Bernardino is the most beautiful, the most bewitching creature that ever breathed. Did you notice her eyes and form? Great heavens! was there ever such a vision of human loveliness? Her grace, her voice, her glances drove me wild with delight.”
“You are dead gone,” grumbled the American despondently; “we’ll never get away from here in the world. I can see that.”
“I gave up all hope in that direction some time ago,” said Thorndyke; “and why should we care? We were awfully bored with life before we came; for my part I’d as soon end mine up here as anywhere else. Besides, didn’t his majesty say that they live longer under his system than we do?”
“I don’t take stock in all he says,” growled the American; “he talks like a Chicago real estate agent who wants to sell a lot. Why doesn’t he chop off our heads and be done with it?”
Thorndyke burst into a jovial laugh. “You are coming round all right; that is the first joke you have got off since we came here; his royal Nibs may need a court-jester and give you a job.”
“There goes that blamed sunlight again,” exclaimed Johnston, grasping his companion’s arm, “don’t you see it changing?”
“Yes, and this time it is white, like old Sol’s natural smile; but isn’t it clear? It seems to me that I could see to the end of the earth in that light. I want to know how he does it.”
“How who does it?”
“Why, the king, of course, it is his work–some sort of invention; but we must keep civil tongues in our heads when we are dealing with a man who can color the very light of the sun.”
They were walking back toward the great rotunda, and, as they entered the conservatory, the crowds of men and women stared at them curiously. They had paused to inspect the statue of a massive stone dragon when a young officer in glittering uniform approached and addressed Johnston.
“Follow me,” he said simply; “it is the king’s command.”
The American started and looked at Thorndyke apprehensively.
“Go,” said the latter; “don’t hesitate an instant.”
Poor Johnston had turned white. He held out his hand to Thorndyke, “Shake,” he said in a whisper, not intended for the ears of the officer, “I don’t believe that we shall meet again. I felt that we were to be parted ever since that medical examination.”
Thorndyke’s face had altered; an angry flush came in his face and his eyes flashed, but with an effort he controlled himself.
“Tut, tut, don’t be silly. I shall wait for you round here; if there is any foul play I shall make some one suffer for it. You can depend on me to the end; we are hand in hand in this adventure, old man.”
Johnston followed his guide to a flying machine outside. He hesitated an instant, as the officer was holding the door open, and looked back toward the conservatory; but he could not see Thorndyke.
“Where are you taking me?” he asked desperately. But the officer did not seem to hear the question. He was motioning to a tall man of athletic build who wore a dark blue uniform and who came hastily forward and pushed the American into the machine. Through the open door Johnston saw Thorndyke’s anxious face as the Englishman emerged from the conservatory and strode toward them. The two officers entered and closed the glass door.
Then the machine rose and Johnston’s spirits sank as they shot upward and floated easily over the humming crowd into the free white light above the smokeless city. The poor captive leaned on the window-sill and looked out. There was no breeze, and no current of air except that caused by their rapid passage through the atmosphere.
Up, up, they went, till the city seemed a blur of mingled white and gray, and then the color below changed to a vague blue as they flew over the fields of the open country.
The first officer took a glass and a decanter from a receptacle under a seat, and, pouring a little red fluid into the glass, offered it to the American.
“Drink it,” he said, “it will put you to sleep for a time.”
“I don’t want to be drugged.”
“The journey will try your nerves. It is harmless.”
“I don’t want it; if I take it, you will have to pour it down my throat.”
The officer smiled as he put the glass and decanter away. Faster and faster flew the machine. They had to put the window down, for the current of air had become too strong and cool to be pleasant. The color of the sunlight changed to green, and then at noon, from the zenith, a glorious red light shimmered down and veiled the earth with such a beautiful translucent haze that the poor American for a moment almost forgot his trouble.
The afternoon came on. The sunlight became successively green, white, blue, lavender, rose and gray. The sun was no longer in sight and the gray in the west was darkening into purple, the last hour of the day. Night was at hand. Johnston’s limbs were growing stiff from inaction, and he had a strong desire to speak or to hear one of the officers say something, but they were dozing in their respective corners. The moon had risen and hung far out in space overhead, but they seemed to be leaving it behind. Later he felt sure of this, for its light gradually became dimmer and dimmer till at last they were in total darkness–darkness pierced only by the powerful search-light which threw its dazzling, trumpet-shaped rays far ahead. But, search as he would in the direction they were going, the unfortunate American could see nothing but the ever-receding wall of blackness.
Suddenly they began to descend. The officers awoke and stretched themselves and yawned. One of them opened the window and Johnston heard a far-off, roaring sound like that of a multitude of skaters on a vast sheet of ice.
Down, down, they dropped. Johnston’s heart was in his mouth.
The machine suddenly slackened in its speed and then hung poised in mid-air. The rays of the search-light were directed downward and slowly shifted from point to point. Looking down, the American caught glimpses of rugged rocks, sharp cliffs and yawning chasms.
“How is it?” asked the first officer, through a speaking-tube, of the driver.
“A good landing!” was the reply.
“Well, go down.” And a moment later the machine settled on the uneven ground.
The same officer opened the door, and gently pushed Johnston out. Johnston expected them to follow him, but the door of the machine closed behind him.
“Stand out of the way,” cried out the officer through the window; “you may get struck as we rise.”
Involuntarily Johnston obeyed. There was a sound of escaping air from beneath the machine, a fierce commotion in the atmosphere which sucked him toward the machine, and then the dazzling search-light blinded him, as the air-ship bounded upward and sailed back over the course it had come.
Johnston stood paralyzed with fear. “My God, this is awful!” he exclaimed in terror, and his knees gave way beneath him and he sank to the rock. “They have left me here to starve in this hellish darkness!” He remained there for a moment, his face covered with his hands, then he sprang up desperately, and started to grope through the darkness, he knew not whither. He stumbled at almost every step, and ran against boulders which bruised his hands and face, and went on till his strength was gone. Then he paused and looked back toward the direction from which he had come. It seemed to him that he could see the straight line of mighty black wall above which there was a faint appearance of light. A lump rose in the throat of the poor fellow, and tears sprang into his eyes.
But what was that? Surely it was a sound. It could not have been the wind, for the air was perfectly still. The sound was repeated. It was like the moaning of a human voice far away in the dark. Could it be some one in distress, some poor unfortunate, banished being, like himself? Again he heard the sound, and this time, it was like the voice of some one talking.
“Hello!” shouted the American, and a cold shudder went over him at the sound of his own husky voice. There was a dead silence, then, like an echo of his own cry, faintly came the word, “Hello!”
Filled with superstitious fear, the American cautiously groped toward the sound. “Hello, there, who are you?”
“Help, help!” said the voice, and it was now much nearer.
Johnston plunged forward precipitately. “Where are you?”
“Here,” and a human form loomed up before him.
For a moment neither spoke, then the strange figure said: “I thought at first that you were some one sent to rescue me, but I see you are alone–damned like myself.”
“It looks that way,” replied Johnston.
“When did they bring you?”
“Only a moment ago.”
“My God, it is awful! A week ago I did not dream of such a fate as this. I had enemies. The medical men were bribed to vote against me. Am I not strong? Am I not muscular? Feel my arms and thighs.”
He held out an arm and Johnston felt of it. The muscles were like stone.
“You are a giant.”
“Ah! you are right; but they reported that there was a taint in my blood. I was to marry Lallio, the most beautiful creature in our village–Madryl, you know, the nearest hamlet to the home of the Sun. I was rich, and the best farmer there. But Lyngale wanted her. She hated him and spat at him when he spoke against me. He proved by others that my lungs were weak, and showed them the blood of a slain dog in my fields that they said had come from my lungs. Ah, they were curs! My lungs weak! Strike my chest with all your might. Does it not sound like the king’s thunder? Strike, I say!” and as the enfeebled American struck his bare breast he cried:–Harder, harder! Pooh, you are a child, see this, and this,” and he emphasized his words with thunderous blows on his resounding chest.
“But it has been so for a century,” he panted; “hundreds have been unjustly buried alive here. The king thinks it is not murder because they die of starvation. I have stumbled over the bones of giants here in the dark lands, and have met dying men that are stronger than the king’s athletes.”
“What, are there others here?” gasped the American.
The Alphian was silent in astonishment.
“Why, where did you come from?” he asked, after a pause.
“From New York City.”
“I don’t know of it, and yet I thought I knew of all the places inside the great endless wall.”
Johnston was mystified in his turn. “It is not in your country– your world, or whatever you call it. It is far away.”
“Ah, under the white sun! In the ‘Ocean Country,’ and the world of fierce winds and disease. And you are from there. I had heard of it before they banished me; but two days since I came across a dying man, away over there. He was huddled against the wall, and had fallen and killed himself in his efforts to climb back to food and light.
“I saw him die. He told me that he had come from your land when he was a child. His trouble was the lungs and he had fallen off to a skeleton. He talked to me of your wide ocean land. Is it, indeed so great? And has it no walls about it?”
“No, it is surrounded by water.”
“I cannot understand,” and, after a pause, in which Johnston could hear the great fellow’s heart beating, he continued; “That must be the Heaven the man spoke about. And beyond the water is it always dark like this, and do they banish people there as the king has us?”
“No; beyond are other countries. But is there no chance for us to escape from here?”
The Alphian laughed bitterly. “None. What were you banished for?”
“I hardly know.”
“Hold out your arm. There,” as he grasped Johnston’s arm in a clasp of iron, “I see; you are undeveloped, unfit–none but the healthy and strong are allowed to live in Alpha. It is right, of course; but it is hard to bear. But I must lie down. I am wearied with constant rambling. I am nervous too. I fell asleep awhile ago and dreamt I heard all my friends in a great clamoring body calling my name, ‘Branasko!’ and then I awoke and cried for help.”
As he spoke he sank with a sigh to the ground and rested his head on his elbows and knees and seemed asleep. The American sat down beside him, and, for a long time, neither spoke. Branasko broke the silence; he awoke with a start and eyed his companion in sleepy wonder.
“Ugh, I dreamt again,” he grunted, “are you asleep?”
“No,” was Johnston’s reply. “I am hungry and thirsty and cannot sleep.”
“So am I, but we must wait till it is lighter, then we can go in search of food. When I was a boy I learned to catch fish in pools with my hands and it has prolonged my life here. When the light comes again, I shall show you how I do it.”
“Then the day does break? I thought it was eternally dark here.”
“It does not get very light, because we are behind the sun; but it is lighter than now, for we get the sun’s reflection, enough at least to keep us from falling into the chasms.”
Branasko lowered his head to his knees and slept again, but the American, though wearied, was wakeful. Several hours passed. The Alphian was sleeping soundly, his breathing was very heavy and he had rolled down on his side.
Far away in the east the darkness gradually faded into purple, and then into gray, and slowly hints of pink appeared in the skies. It was dawn. Johnston touched his companion. The man awoke and looked at him from his great swollen eyes.
“It is day,” he yawned, rising and stretching himself.
“But the sun is not in sight.”
“No; it shows itself only in the middle of the day, and then but for a few minutes. We must go now and search for food. I will show you how to catch the eyeless fish in the black caverns over there.” And he led the American into the blackness behind them. Every now and then, as they stumbled along, Johnston would look longingly back toward the faint pink light that shone above the high black wall. But Branasko hastened on.
Presently they came to the edge of a black chasm and the American was filled with awe, for, from the seemingly fathomless depths, came a great roaring sound like that of a mighty wind and the air that came from it was hot, though pure and free from the odor of gas.
“What is this?” he asked.
“They are everywhere,” answered Branasko, “if it were not for their hot breathing the Land of the Changing Sun would be cold and damp.”
“Then the sun does not give out heat?”
“It is cold?”
“I believe so, I have never thought much about it.”
The American was mystified, but he did not question farther, for Branasko was carefully lowering himself into the hot gulf.
“Follow me,” he said; “we must cross it to reach the caves. I will guide you. I have been over this way before.”
“But can we stand the heat?”