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   Chapter 8 No.8

The Land of the Changing Sun By Will N. Harben Characters: 23072

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:04


As Thorndyke watched the flying machine that was bearing his friend away a genuine feeling of pity went over him. Poor Johnston! He had been haunted all day with the belief that he was to meet with some misfortune from which Thorndyke was to be spared, and Thorndyke had ridiculed his fears. When the air-ship had become a mere speck in the sky, the Englishman turned back into the palace and strolled about in the vast crowd.

A handsome young man in uniform approached and touched his hat:

"Are you the comrade of the fellow they are just sending away?" he asked.

"Yes. Where are they taking him?"

"To the 'Barrens,' of course; where do you suppose they would take such a man? He couldn't pass his examination. You are not a great physical success yourself, but they say you pleased the king with your tongue."

"To the Barrens," repeated Thorndyke, too much concerned over the fate of his comrade to notice the speaker's tone of contempt; "what are they, where are they?"

The Alphian officer changed countenance, as he looked him over with widening eyes.

"Your accent is strange; are you from the other world?"

"I suppose so,-this is a new one to me at any rate."

"The world of endless oceans?"

"Yes."

"And the unchanging sun-forever white and--?"

"Yes; but where the devil is the Barrens?"

"Behind the sun, beyond the great endless wall."

"Do they intend to put him to death?"

"No, that would be-what do you call it? murder; they will simply leave him there to die of his own accord. And the king is right. I never saw such a weakling. He would taint our whole race with his presence."

Without a word Thorndyke abruptly turned from the officer and hastened toward the apartment of the king. He would demand the return of poor Johnston or kill the king if his demand was not granted. In his haste and perturbation, however, he lost his way and wandered into a part of the palace he had not seen. At every step he was more and more impressed with the magnificent proportions of the structure and the grandeur of everything about it.

Passing hurriedly through a large hall he saw an assemblage of beautiful women and handsome men dancing to the music of a great orchestra. Further on-in a great court-a regiment of soldiers were drilling, their rapid evolutions making no more sound than if they were moving in mid-air. In another room he saw a great body of men, women and children in vari-colored suits bathing in a pool of rose-colored, perfumed water.

He was passing on when a woman, closely veiled and simply dressed, touched his arm.

"Be watchful and follow me," she said, in a low, guarded tone.

The heart of the Englishman bounded and his blood rushed to his face, for the speaker was the Princess Bernardino. She did not pause, but glided on into the shade of a great palm tree, and, behind a row of thick-growing ferns of great height and thickness, she waited for him.

She lowered her veil as he approached and looked at him from her deep brown eyes in great concern. He stood spell-bound under the witchery of her beauty.

"I came to warn you, Prince," she said, and her soft musical voice set every nerve in Thorndyke's body to tingling with delight. "My father has banished the faithful slave that you love, but you must not show the anger that you feel, else he will kill you. You must be exceedingly cautious if you would save him. My father would punish me severely if he knew that I had sought you in this way. I was obliged to come in disguise; this dress belongs to my most trusted maid."

"And you came for my sake?" blurted out the Englishman, much embarrassed; "I am not worthy of such a high honor."

She smiled and tears rose in her eyes.

"Oh, Prince, don't speak to me so! You are far above me. I am weak. I know nothing. I never cared for other men than the king and my brothers till I saw you today, but now I would willingly be your slave."

"I am yours forever, and an humble one," bowed the courteous Englishman. "The moment I saw you at the throne of your father my heart went out to you. You wound it up in your music and trampled it under your dancing feet. I have been over the whole world, and you are the loveliest creature in it. It is because I saw you, because you are here, that I do not want to leave your country. They may do as they will with me if they only will let me see you now and then."

The princess was deeply moved. The blood rushed to her face and beautified it. Her eyes fell beneath his admiring glance. Thorndyke could not restrain himself. He caught her slender hand and pressed it passionately to his lips, and she made only a slight effort to prevent it.

"I am your obedient slave; what shall I do?" he asked.

"Do not try to rescue him now," she said softly. "I shall come to you again when we are not watched-you can know me by this dress. There is no need for great haste, he could live in the Barrens several days; I shall try to think of some way to save him, though such a thing has never been done-never."

Footsteps were heard on the other side of the row of ferns. A man was passing and others soon followed him. The bathers were leaving the great pool.

"I must leave you now," she whispered. "If the king honors you again by talking of his kingdom, continue to act as you did; your fearlessness and good humor have pleased him greatly."

"Could I not persuade him to bring Johnston back?"

"No; that would be impossible; those who are pronounced physically unfit are obliged to die. It has been a law for a long time; you must not count on that. I have, however, another plan, but I cannot tell you of it now, for they may miss me and wonder where I am, and then, too, my father may be looking for you. He will naturally desire to see you soon again."

Bowing, she turned away and passed on toward the apartments of the king, which the Englishman now recognized in the distance. Thorndyke went into the bathing-room to watch those remaining in the great pool of rose-colored water. The sight was beautiful. The waves which lapped against the shelving shores of white marble were pink and white, and the deeper water was as red as coral.

The Englishman was at once troubled over the fate of Johnston and elated over having won Bernardino's regard. Thoughtfully he strolled away from the bathers into a great picture-gallery. Here hung on the walls and stood on pedestals some of the rarest works of art he had ever seen. He passed through this room and was entering a shady retreat where plants, flowers and umbrageous trees grew thickly, when he heard a step behind him and the rustling of a silken skirt against the plants.

It was Bernardino.

"We can be unobserved here," she said, taking off her thick veil and arranging her luxuriant hair. "I hasten back. The king thinks, so my maid tells me, that I am asleep in my chamber. He is busy with an audience of police from a neighboring town and will not think of us."

She sat down on a sofa upholstered in leather, and he took a seat beside her. "I am glad that we can talk alone," he said, "for I have much to ask you. First, tell me where we are,-where this strange country is on the map of the world."

"It is a long story," she replied, "and it would greatly incense the king if he should find out that I had told you, for one of his chief pleasures is to note the surprise and admiration of new-comers over what they see here. But if you will promise to gratify his vanity in this particular I will try to explain it all."

"I promise, and you can depend on my not getting you into trouble," replied Thorndyke. "I never was so puzzled in my life, with that sullen sky overhead, the wonderful changing sunlight, and the remarkable atmosphere. I am both bewildered and entranced. Every moment I see something new and startling. Where are we?"

"Far beneath the ocean and the surface of the earth. I only know what the king has let fall in my hearing in his conferences with his men of science and inventors; but I shall try to make you understand how it all came about."

"It was a long time ago, two hundred years back, I suppose, that one of my ancestors discovered a little isolated island in the Atlantic Ocean. He was forced in a storm to land there with his ship and crew to make some repairs in his vessel. In wandering about over the island he discovered a narrow entrance to a cave, and, with two or three of his men, he began to explore it. When they had gone for a mile or two down into the interior of the cavern, which seemed to lead straight down toward the centre of the earth, they began to find small pieces of gold. The further they went the more they found, till at last the very cavern walls seemed lined with it.

"They were at first wildly excited over their sudden good fortune and were about to load their ship with it and return to Europe at once, but the better judgment of my ancestor prevailed. He explained that, if the world were informed of the discovery of such an inexhaustible mine of gold, that the value of the precious metal would decline till it would be worth little more than some grosser metal, and that if they would only keep their secret to themselves they could in time control the finances of the world. So, acting on this suggestion, they only dug out a few thousand pounds and took part of it to Europe and part of it to America and turned it into money.

"Then, to curtail my story, they elected my ancestor as ruler, and, with ships loaded with every available convenience that inexhaustible wealth could procure and a colony of carefully chosen men, they returned to the island.

"After the men and their families had settled in the great roomy mouth of the cavern my ancestor supplied himself with several strong men and food and lights, and sought to explore the entire cavern.

"To their astonishment they found that it was practically endless. When they had gone down about sixty or seventy miles below the sea level they found themselves on a vast, undulating plain, the soil of which was dark and rich, with the black roof of the cavern arching overhead like the bottom of a great inverted bowl. And when they had travelled about ten days and reached the other side my ancestor calculated that the cave must be over one hundred miles in diameter and almost circular in shape. But what elated and surprised them most was the remarkable salubrity of the atmosphere. In all parts of the cave it was exactly the same temperature, and they found that they scarcely felt any fatigue from their journey, and that they had little desire to eat the provisions with which they were supplied. Indeed, the very air seemed permeated with a subtle quality that gave them strength and energy of mind and body.

"Finally, when, after a month had passed, and they returned to their anxious friends, these people overwhelmed them with exclamations of surprise over their appearance. And in the light of day the explorers looked at one another in astonishment, for, in the dim light of the lanterns they had carried, they had not noticed the great change that had come over them. They had all become the finest specimens of physical health that could be imagined. Their bodies had filled out; they were remarkably strong; their skins shone with healthful color and their eyes sparkled with intellectual energy, and their minds, even to the humblest burden-carrier, were astonishingly acute and active.

"My ancestor was a remarkable man, and he had hi

therto shown much inventive ability; but in that month in the cave he had developed into an intellectual giant. After mature deliberation, he proposed a prodigious scheme to his followers. He explained that, while they might, by using the utmost discretion, hold the financial world in their power by means of their inexhaustible wealth, that the laws and restrictions of different countries prevented men of vast wealth from really enjoying more privileges than men of moderate means. He grew eloquent in speaking of the underground atmosphere, and proposed that they light the great cavern from end to end and make it an ideal place where they could live as it suited them.

"I see that you guess the end. My ancestor was a great student of the sciences and had already thought of putting electricity to practical use. You are surprised? Yes, it has been applied to our purposes for two hundred years, while your people have understood its use such a short time."

"Great heavens!" exclaimed the Englishman. "I see it all; the sun is an electric one!"

"Yes."

"And it runs mechanically over its great course as regularly as clock-work."

"More accurately, I assure you, but there probably never was a greater mathematical problem than they solved in deciding on the size the sun should be and amount of light necessary to fill up all the recesses of the great vacancy. It was all very crude at the start; for years a great electric light was simply suspended in the centre of the cavern's roof and the light did not vary in color. A son of the first king suggested the plan of giving the sun diurnal movement and the changing light. The moon and stars were a later development. They found, too, that the light could not be made to reach certain recesses in the cavern where the roof approached the earth, so they finally built a great wall to keep the inhabitants within proscribed boundaries, and to prevent them from understanding the machinery of the heavens."

"Wonderful!" exclaimed Thorndyke. "But the temperature of the atmosphere, how does that happen to be so delightful and beneficial?"

"I believe they do not themselves thoroughly comprehend that. The heat comes from the internal fires, and the fresh air from without in some mysterious way. At first, in a few places, the heat was too severe, but the scientific men among the first settlers obviated this difficulty by closing up the hottest of the fissures and opening others in the cooler parts of the cavern."

"And the people, where did they come from?"

"From all parts of the earth. We had agents outside who selected such men and women that were willing to come, and who filled all the requirements, mentally and physically."

"But why do they desire to live here instead of out in the world, when they have all the wealth that they need to assure every advantage."

"They dread death, and it is undoubtedly true that life is prolonged here; our medical men declare that the longevity of every generation is improved."

"Is it possible? But tell me about the sun, when it sets, what becomes of it?"

"It goes back to its place of rising through a great tunnel beneath us."

Thorndyke sat in deep thought for a moment; then he looked so steadily and so admiringly into Bernardino's eyes that she grew red with confusion. "But you, yourself, are you thoroughly content here?"

"I know nothing else," she continued. "I have heard little about your world except that your people are discontented, weak and insane, and that your changeable weather and your careless laws regarding marriage and heredity produce perpetual and innumerable diseases; that your people are not well developed and beautiful; that you war with one another, and that one tears down what another builds. I have, too, always been happy, and since you came I am happier still. I don't know what it means. I have never been so much interested in any one before."

"It is love on the part of both of us," replied the Englishman impulsively, taking her hand. "I never was content before. I went roving over the earth trying to end my life at sea or in balloon voyages, but now I only want to be with you. I have never dreamed that I could be so happy or that I would meet any one so beautiful as you are."

Bernardino's delight showed itself in blushes on her face, and Thorndyke, unable to restrain himself, put his arm around her and drew her to his breast and kissed her.

She sprang up quickly and he saw that she was trembling and that all the color had fled from her face.

"What is the matter?" he asked, in alarm.

At first she did not answer, but only looked at him half-frightened, and then covered her face with her hands. He drew them from her face and compelled her to look at him.

"What is the matter?" he repeated, a strange fear at his heart.

"You have broken one of the most sacred laws of our country," she faltered, in great embarrassment; "my father would punish me very severely if he knew of it, and he would banish you; for, to treat me in that manner, as his daughter, is regarded as an insult to him."

"I beg your pardon most humbly," said the contrite Englishman. "It was all on account of my ignorance of your customs and my impulsiveness. It shall never happen again, I promise you."

Her face brightened a little and the color came back slowly. She sat down again, but not so near Thorndyke, and seemed desirous of changing the subject.

"And do you love the man my father has transported?" she questioned.

"Yes, he is a good, faithful fellow, and it is hard to die so far away from friends."

"We must try to save him, but I cannot now think of a safe plan. The police are very vigilant."

"Where was he taken?"

"Into the darkness behind the sun-beyond the wall of which I spoke."

A flush of shame came into Thorndyke's face over the remembrance that he had made no effort to aid poor Johnston, and was sitting listening with delight to the conversation of Bernardino. He rose suddenly.

"I must be doing something to aid him," he said. "I cannot sit here inactive while he is in danger."

"Be patient," she advised, looking at him admiringly; "it is near night; see, it is the gray light of dusk; the sun is out of sight. To-night, if possible, I shall come to you. Perhaps I shall approach you without disguise if you are in the throne-room and my father does not object to my entertaining you, but for the present we must separate. Adieu."

He bowed low as she turned away, and joined the throng that was passing along outside. An officer approached him. It was Captain Tradmos, who bowed and smiled pleasantly.

"I congratulate you," he said, with suave pleasantness.

"Upon what?" Thorndyke was on his guard at once.

"Upon having pleased the king so thoroughly. No stranger, in my memory, has ever been treated so courteously. Every other new-comer is put under surveillance, but you are left unwatched."

"He is easily pleased," said the Englishman, "for I have done nothing to gratify him."

"I thought he would like you; and I felt that your friend would have to suffer, but I could not help him."

"He shall not suffer if I can prevent it."

"Sh-be cautious. Those words, implying an inclination to treason, if spoken to any other officer would place you under immediate arrest. I like you, therefore I want to warn you against such folly. You are wholly in the king's power. Another thing I would specially warn you against--"

"And that is?"

"Not to allow the king to suspect your admiration for the Princess Bernardino. It would displease the king. She is much taken with you; I saw it in her eyes when she danced for your entertainment."

Thorndyke made no reply, but gazed searchingly into the eyes of the officer. Tradmos laughed.

"You are afraid of me."

"No, I am not, I trust you wholly; I know that you are honorable; I never make a mistake along that line."

Tradmos bowed, pleased by the compliment.

"I shall aid you all I can with my advice, for I know you will not betray me; but at present I am powerless to give you material aid. Every subject of this realm is bound to the autocratic will of the king. It is impossible for any one to get from under his power."

"Why?"

"The only outlet to the upper world is carefully guarded by men who would not be bribed."

"Is there any chance for my friend?"

"None that I can see, but I must walk on; there comes one of the king's attendants."

"The king has asked to speak to you," announced the attendant to Thorndyke.

"I will go with you," was his reply, and he followed the man through the crowded corridors into the throne-room of the king. Thorndyke forced a smile as he saw the king smiling at him as he approached the throne.

"What do you think of my palace?" asked the king, after Thorndyke had knelt before him.

"It is superb," answered the Englishman, recalling the advice of Bernardino. "I am dazed by its splendor, its architecture, and its art. I have seen nothing to equal it on earth."

The king rose and stood beside him. His manner was both pleasing and sympathetic. "I am persuaded," said he, "that you will make a good subject, and have the interest of Alpha always at heart, but I have often been mistaken in the character of men and think it best to give you a timely warning. An attendant will conduct you to a chamber beneath the palace where it will be your privilege to converse with a man who once planned to get up a rebellion among my people."

There had come suddenly a stern harshness into the king's tone that roused the fears of Thorndyke. He was about to reply, but the king held up his hand. "Wait till you have visited the dungeon of Nordeskyne, then I am sure that you will be convinced that strict obedience in thought as well as deed is best for an inhabitant of Alpha." Speaking thus, he signed to an attendant who came forward and bowed.

"Conduct him to the dungeon of Nordeskyne, and return to me," ordered the king.

Thorndyke's heart was heavy, and he was filled with strange forebodings, but he simply smiled and bowed, as the attendant led him away. The attendant opened a door at the back of the throne-room and they were confronted by darkness. They went along a narrow corridor for some distance, the darkness thickening at every step. There was no sound except the sound of the guide's shoes on the smooth stone pavement. Presently the man released Thorndyke's arm, saying:

"It is narrow here, follow close behind, and do not attempt to go back."

"I shall certainly stick to you," replied the Englishman drily. They turned a sharp corner suddenly, and were going in another direction when Thorndyke felt a soft warm hand steal into his from behind, and knew intuitively that it was Bernardino. The guide was a few feet in advance of them and she drew Thorndyke's head down and whispered into his ear.

"Be brave-by all that you love-for your life, keep your presence of mind, and--"

"What was that?" asked the guide, turning suddenly and catching the Englishman's arm, "I thought I heard whispering."

"I was saying my prayers, that is all," and the Englishman pressed the hand of the princess, who, pressed close against the wall, was gliding cautiously away.

"Prayers, humph-you'll need them later, come on!" and he caught the Englishman's arm and hastily drew him onward. Thorndyke's spirits sank lower. The air of the narrow under-ground corridor was cold and damp, and he quivered from head to foot.

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