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   Chapter 17 No.17

The Land of the Changing Sun By Will N. Harben Characters: 29419

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:04


Bernardino turned to look after her father as he was leaving the room.

"He is going to the observatory," she said to Thorndyke and Johnston. "Let us go also." And they followed the king into the room with the glass roof and walls covered with mirrors which he had shown the strangers several days before. A white-headed old man stood at the stand, his fingers trembling over the half circle of electric buttons. In a mirror before him he was studying the reflection of a town of perhaps a hundred houses. The streets were filled with excited citizens, and a squad of protectors stood ready for action near a row of flying-machines.

"Ornethelo," said the king, and at the sound of his voice the old man turned and bowed humbly.

"All right," went on the king, "I will take your place a moment."

He went to the stand and touched a button. Instantly the scene changed; fields, forests, streams and hills ran by in a murky blur, and then a larger town flashed on the mirror. Here the same stir and alertness characterized the scene. The gaze of every inhabitant was fixed on the threatening horizon. Rapidly the scenes shifted at the king's will, till a hundred cities, towns and villages had been reviewed.

"Enough! They are all ready-all faithful," groaned the king, "and, Ornethelo, they may all have to perish to-day, and all for our ambition. Poor mortals!"

Ornethelo's face was half submerged in the beard on his breast, but he looked up suddenly and spoke:

"For their sakes, then, we ought not to delay; there may yet be hope."

"You are right, Ornethelo." There was a ring of hope in the voice of the king. "Quick! show me my capitol, that I may see if all the protectors are ready."

Ornethelo touched another button, and, as if seen from a great height, the fair and wondrous city dawned before the eyes of the spectators. In every street policemen and protectors and flying-machines stood in orderly readiness. The housetops were colored with the variegated costumes of men, women and children. Over all lay the wondrous sunlight, through the green splendor of which the flakes of soot were falling like black snow.

The king touched the old man's arm. "I must see beyond the walls; are the connections made?"

"Ready, sir."

"Try them; they must not fail me now!"

The old man tremblingly unlocked a cabinet on the table, and another row of electric buttons was displayed. Ornethelo touched one. Immediately there was a sharp clicking sound under the stand, and the view was swept from the mirror. Nothing could be seen but a dark suggestion of towering cliffs and yawning caverns.

"Not the east, Ornethelo," cried the king impatiently. "Go on! the west! the west!"

The black landscape flashed by like a glimpse of night from a flying train, and then a blur of redly illuminated smoke in rolling billows seemed to swell out from the surface of the mirror into the room.

"There, slow!" cried the king, and then a frightful scene burst upon their sight. They beheld a great belching pit of fire and flames. The sky from the earth to the zenith was a vast expanse of illuminated smoke, and the black landscape round about was cut by rivulets of molten lava rolling on and on like restless streams of quicksilver.

The king leaned against the stand as if faint with despair. "Call Prince Arthur!" he ordered, and almost at that instant the young man appeared.

"Father!"

The king pointed a quivering finger at the mirror, and said huskily:

"Let not the sun go down! Let its light be white as at noon."

"But, father, it has never been done before; it--"

"Alpha has never faced such danger. All our dream is about to end. Go!"

Without a word the young man hastened away, and it seemed scarcely a moment before the sunlight streaming in at the oval glass roof changed from green to white.

The king pushed Ornethelo impatiently aside; his eyes held a dull gleam of despair, and he seemed to have grown ten years older. He touched a button, and the awful scene at the pit gave place to a bright view of the capitol, which was plainly seen from its crowded centre to its scattering suburbs. The squads of "protectors" stood like armies ready for battle, their rigid faces still toward the awful west.

"They are ready-the signal!" yelled the king, waving his hand, "the signal!" Ornethelo caught his breath suddenly and tottered as he went across the room, and touched a button on the wall. The king's eyes were glued on the mirrored view of the capitol, his trembling hands held out, as if commanding silence. Then a deafening trumpet blast broke on the ear. The masses of citizens pressed near the edges of the roofs and close against the walls along the streets, as the protectors rushed into the flying-machines. Another trumpet-blast, and away they flew, a long black line, every instant growing smaller as it receded in the murky distance. The princess, white and silent, led Thorndyke and Johnston back to the balcony. The line of machines was now a mere thread in the sky, but the ominous cloud in the west had increased, and fine sand and ashes were added to the fall of soot.

"What was that?" gasped the princess. It was a low rumble like distant thunder, and the balcony shook violently.

"An earthquake," said Thorndyke. "I am really afraid there is not a ghost of a chance for us; the water running into the fire is sure to cause an eruption of some sort, and even a slight one would be likely to enlarge the opening to the ocean."

Johnston nodded knowingly as he looked into his friend's face, but, considering the presence of the princess, he said nothing.

"My brother, Prince Marentel, is the greatest man in our kingdom," she re marked. "He has taken enough explosives to remove a mountain."

"How will he use them?" asked Thorndyke.

"I don't know, but I fancy he will try to close the opening in some way."

The latter slowly shook his head. "I fear he will fail. The fall must be as voluminous as Niagara by this time."

"My father must have lost hope, or he would not have stopped the sun," sighed the princess, and she cast a sad glance towards the west. The rolling clouds had become more dense, and the rumbling and booming in the distance was growing more frequent. A thin gray cloud passed before the sun, and a dim shadow fell over the city.

"That is a natural cloud," said Thorndyke; "it comes from the steam that rises from the pit."

"It is exactly like our rain clouds," returned the princess; "but it comes from the steam, as you say. But let us go into the Electric Auditorium and hear the news. As soon as anything is done we will hear of it there." The others had no time to question her, for she was hastening into the corridor outside. She piloted them down a flight of stairs into a large circular room beneath the surface of the ground. It was filled with seats like a modern theatre, and in the place where the stage would have been, stood a mighty mirror over an hundred feet square. She led them to a private box in front of the mirror. The room was filled from the first row of chairs to the rear with a silent, anxious crowd. In the massive frame of the mirror were numerous bell-shaped trumpets like those on the ordinary phonograph, though much larger.

"Watch the mirror," whispered Bernardino as she sat down.

And at that instant the surface of the great glass began to glow like the sky at dawn, and all the lights in the room went out. Then from the trumpets in the frame came the loud ringing of musical bells.

"They are ready," whispered Bernardino; "now watch and listen."

The pink light on the mirror faded, and a life-like reflection appeared-the reflection of a young man standing on a rock in bold relief against a dark background of rugged, slabbering cliffs and the forbidding mouths of caves.

"Waldmeer!" ejaculated the princess, and she relapsed into silence.

The young man held in his hand a cup-shaped instrument from which extended a wire to the ground. He raised it to his lips, and instantly a calm, deliberate voice came from the mirror, soft and low and yet loud, enough to reach the most remote parts of the great room.

"The ocean," began he, "is pouring into the 'Volcano of the Dead' in a gradually increasing torrent. Prince Marentel hopes temporarily to delay the crisis by partially turning the torrent away from the pit into the lowlands of the country. For that purpose a portion of the endless wall is being torn down, and Marentel's forces are placing their explosives. After this is done an attempt will be made to stop the original break. There is, however, little hope. The prince has warned the king to be prepared for the worst."

At this point, the speaker turned as if startled toward the red glare at his right. He quickly picked up another instrument attached to a wire and put it to his ear. A look of horror changed his face as he turned to the audience and began to speak:-"The opening in the wall is not progressing rapidly. Workmen are drowning and the tunnel of the sun is filling with water. It will be impossible for the sun to go through to the east."

Just then there was a far-away crash, and instantly the mirror was void. There was now no sound except the low groans of women in the audience and the subdued curses of maddened men. The silence was profound. Then the mirror began to glow, and the image of another man took Waldmeer's place.

"It is the Mayor of Telmantio," whispered the princess, "a place near the western limits of Alpha."

He held a like instrument to the one used by Waldmeer, and through it spoke:-"Venus, one of the great stars, has been shaken from the firmament. It fell in the suburbs of Telmantio, and many lives were lost."

That was all, and the figure vanished. Presently Waldmeer reappeared. He seemed to be standing nearer the pit, for the entire background was aflame; volumes of black smoke now and then hid him from view, and a thick shower of ashes and small stones were falling round him. He spoke, but his voice was drowned in a deafening explosion, and the whole landscape about him seemed afire. In the semi-darkness hundreds of protectors could be seen struggling in the rushing water, moving stones and building a dam. Waldmeer again faced his far-off audience and spoke:-"Prince Marentel has turned the course of the stream. All now depends on the success or failure of his final test with explosives, which will take place in about half an hour."

"We ought to go outside again," suggested Bernardino, as Waldmeer's image disappeared; "my father might want us."

Seeing no one in the king's apartment, they passed through it to the balcony. Half the sky was now covered with mingled fog and smoke, and the sun could be seen only now and then. A drizzling rain was falling-a rain that brought down clots of ashes and soot. But this made no difference to the throngs in the now muddy and slippery streets. They stood shivering in damp and soiled clothing, their blearing eyes fixed hopelessly on the lowering signs in the west. Johnston noticed a bent figure crouched against a wall beneath them. It was Branasko.

"Who is it?" inquired the princess.

"Branasko, the companion of my adventures," he replied.

"Call him to us," she said eagerly, and the American went down to the Alphian.

As they entered together, Branasko uncovered his dishevelled head and bowed most humbly.

"You look tired and sick and hungry; have you eaten anything today?" she asked.

"Not in two days," he replied.

The princess called to a frightened maid who was wringing her hands in a corridor.

"Give this man food and drink at once," she ordered, and Branasko, with a grateful bow and glance, withdrew. Johnston followed him to the door.

"Fear nothing," he said. "If the danger passes we are safe; the king has promised to pardon me, and he will do the same for you."

"There is no hope for any of us," replied Branasko grimly; "but I do not want to die with this gnawing in my stomach; adieu."

"If the worst comes, is there any chance for us to escape from here to the outer world?" the Englishman was asking the princess when Johnston turned back to them.

"For a few hundred, yes,-by the sub-water ships, but for all, no; and, then, my father would not consent to rescue a part and not the whole of his subjects. He would not try to save himself or any of his family."

The clouds still covered the sun; but on the eastern sky its rays were shining gloriously. Ever and anon there sounded from afar a low rumbling as if the earth were swelling with heat.

Johnston left the two lovers together and went to the door of the Electric Auditorium, and over the heads of the breathless crowd he watched the great mirror. After a few moments Waldmeer appeared and spoke:

"Prince Marentel is operating with great difficulty. A large quantity of his explosives has been injured by water, but he hopes there is enough left intact to serve his purpose. The final explosion will soon take place. The greatest peril hangs over Alpha."

Waldmeer's reflection was becoming in-distinct, and sick at heart the American elbowed his way through the muttering crowd into the corridor. Here he met Branasko, and together they walked back to Thorndyke and the princess, who were mutely watching the signs in the east. Just then the sun slowly emerged from the cloud.

"Look!" cried Bernardino in horror. "The cloud is not moving; the sun has not stopped! It is going down and we shall soon be in utter darkness. Oh, it is awful-to die in this way!"

The king had just returned, and he over-heard her words. He came hastily to the edge of the balcony, and gazed at the sun. The others held their breath and waited. His face became more rigid; he swayed a little as he turned to her.

"You are right, my daughter," he groaned; "it is going down; the cowardly dogs in the east have deserted their posts. It is going down! It will sink into a tunnel filled with water, and the light of Alpha will be extinguished forever. We are undone! Say your prayers, my child, your prayers, I tell you, for an Infinite God is angry at our pretensions!"

"Don't despair, father," and Bernardino put her arms gently round the old man's neck. "You understand the solar machinery; could you not stop the sun?"

The eyes of the old man flashed. He seemed electrified as he drew himself from her embrace and looked anxiously over the balustrade to a flying-machine in the street below.

"I might reach the east in time," he cried; "yes, you are right, I was acting cowardly. The fastest air-ship in Alpha is ready, and Nanleon can drive it to its utmost speed

. If the worst comes, I shall see you no more, good-bye!" He kissed her brow tenderly, and her eyes filled as he hastened away. Down below they saw him spring lightly into the gold-mounted car, and the next instant the graceful vessel rose above the palace roof and sped like an arrow across the sky toward the east.

A faint cheer broke from the lips of the crowd which seemed suddenly to take new hope from the king's departure. Some of them waved their hats and scarfs, and many watched the air-ship till it had disappeared in the murky distance.

"He may not get there in time!" cried the princess; "it seems to be going down faster than it ever did before, and he has a great distance to go."

The little party on the balcony were silent for a long time. Presently Bernardino turned her tearful eyes to the face of Thorndyke.

"The smoke and steam do not seem so voluminous, do you think all will go well?"

The Englishman slowly shook his head. "I don't want to depress you more than you are; but I think at such a time we ought to realize the worst. It is true, the clouds are not so heavy, and the earth-quakes are less frequent, but, unfortunately, it is owing to the fact that the volume of water has been turned away from the pit into the tunnel. Be prepared for the worst. If your father cannot reach the machinery in the east soon enough, our light will go out; and, worse than that, if Prince Marentel should fail in his next venture with explosives, all hope will be gone."

"I have never desired to live so much as now," she answered, inclining with an air of tenderness toward him. "I never knew what it was to fear death till-till you came to us."

He made no reply. There was a lump in his throat and he could not trust his voice to speech. Branasko and Johnston left them together to go into the Electric Auditorium. They returned in great haste.

"The prince is ready for the explosion," panted Johnston. "Thorndyke, old man, this is simply awful! It is not like standing up to be shot at, or being jerked through the clouds in a balloon. It seems to me that out there is the endless space of infinity, and that all the material world is coming to an end. My God! look at that hellish fire, the awful smoke and that black sky! Oh, the blasphemy of a such a paltry imitation of the handiwork of the Creator! We are damned! I say damned, and by a just and angry God!"

"Don't be a fool," said Thorndyke, and he threw a warning glance at Bernardino, who, with staring, distended eyes was listening to Johnston.

"No, he is right," she said in a low tone. "I have never seen your world, but I know my people must be woefully wrong. In your land they say men teach things about Infinity and an eternal life for the soul; and that one may prepare for that life by living pure, and in striving to attain a high spiritual state. Oh, why have you not told me about that? It is the one important thing. I have long wanted to know if my soul will be safe at death, but I can learn nothing of my people. They have always tried to rival God, and, in their mad pursuit of perfection in science, they have been reduced to-this. That black cloud is the frown of God, hose mad flames may burst forth at any moment and engulf us."

She uttered a low groan and hung her head as if in prayer. Johnston and Thorndyke were awed to silence. Never had the Englishman loved her as at that moment. She was no longer simply a beautiful human creature, but a divinity, speaking truths from Heaven itself. He felt too unworthy to stand in her presence, and yet his heart was aching to comfort her.

She raised her pallid face heavenward and extended her fair, fragile hands toward the lowering sky and began to pray. "My Creator," she said reverently, childishly, "I have never come to Thee, but they say that people far away from this dark land, under Thy own sun, moon and stars do ask aid of Thee, and I, too, want Thy help. Forgive me and my people. They have been sinful, and vain, and thoughtless, but let them not perish in utter gloom. Forgive them, O thou Maker of all that exists-thou Creator of pain that we may love joy, Creator of evil that we may know good, turn not from us! We are but thoughtless children-and Thy children-give us time to realize the awful error of our hollow pretensions! Give them all now, at once, if they are to die, that spirit which is awakened in me by the awful majesty of Thy anger! Hear me, O God!" And with a sob she sank on her knees, clasped her hands and raised them upward. Thorndyke tried to lift her up, but she shook her head and continued her prayer in silence. A marked change had come over Branasko. He looked at Johnston and Thorndyke in a strange, helpless way, and then, in a corner of the balcony the begrimed and tattered man fell on his knees. He knew not the meaning of prayer, but there was something in the reverent attitude of the princess that drew his untutored being toward his Maker. He covered his face with his hands and his shaggy head sank to his knees.

Johnston hastened back into the Auditorium. Returning in a moment, he found the Englishman tenderly lifting Bernardino from her knees and Branasko still crouching in a corner.

"What is the news?" asked Thorndyke.

"Everything is ready for the explosion. The prince seems only waiting because he dreads failure. The people in there are so frightened that they cannot move from their seats."

Just then Branasko raised a haggard face and looked appealingly at the princess. She caught his eye.

"Fear nothing, good man," she said; "the God of the Christians will not harm us; we are safe in His hands. I felt it here in my heart when I prayed to Him. Oh, why has my father and the other kings of Alpha not taught us that grand simple truth! But before I die I want to leave this dark pit of sin, and look out once into endless, world-filled space."

A joyous flush came into the face of the Alphian. His fear had vanished. She had promised him safety. He bowed worshipfully, but he spoke not, for Bernardino was eagerly pointing to the sun.

"Look!" she cried gleefully, with the merry tremolo of a happy, surprised child. "The sun is not moving. Father has been successful! It is a good omen! God will save us!"

It was true; the sun was standing still. A deep silence was on the city. The crowds in the street neither moved nor spoke. Without a murmur or complaint they stood facing the frowning west. Suddenly the silence was interrupted by a low volcanic rumble. The earth heaved, and rolled, and far away in the suburbs of the city the spire of a public building fell with a loud crash. A groan swept from mouth to mouth and then died away.

"The cloud is increasing rapidly," said Thorndyke. "I can really see little hope. I shall return in a moment."

While he was gone Bernardino knelt and prayed. Again overcome with fear Branasko crouched down in his corner. Another shudder and rumble from the earth, another long moan from the people. Thorndyke came back. He spoke to the princess:

"The dam built by Prince Marentel has been swept away. The ocean is pouring into the internal fires. There is scarcely any hope now."

Branasko groaned, but Bernardino's face was aglow with celestial faith. She shook her head.

"They will not be destroyed in this way," she said; "they have had no chance to know God."

"It all depends on the explosion which may take place at any moment," and Thorndyke took her into his arms and whispered into her ear, "I do not care for myself; but I cannot bear to think of your suffering pain."

She answered only by pressing his hand. The clouds were now rolling upward in greater volume than ever. It was growing darker. The little group on the balcony could now scarcely see the people below them. The fall of damp ashes was resumed. The air had grown hot and close.

Boom! Boom! Boom! the streets of the city rose and fell with the undulating motion of a swelling sea. Blacker and blacker grew the sky; closer and closer the atmosphere; damper and damper became the fog; thicker and thicker fell the wet sand and ashes.

"Perhaps we would be safer in the streets," suggested Thorndyke, drawing Bernardino closer into his arms, "the palace may fall on us."

But the princess shook her head. "Father would not know where to find me, I shall await him here." Branasko had edged nearer to her. His eyes were glued on her face and he hung on her words as if his fate were in her hands. He had no regard for the opinions of the others.

"The explosion will soon take place now unless something has happened contrary to the expectations of the prince," said the Englishman.

Boom! Boom! kr-kr-kr-kr-boom! The noise seemed to shake the earth to its centre. Now the far-away pit was belching forth fire and molten lava rather than steam and smoke. The flames had spread out against the sloping roof of the cavern, and seemed to extend for a mile along the horizon. "They can do nothing in that heat," exclaimed Johnston; "they could not get near enough to the pit. Thorndyke, old fellow, I can't see a ghost of a chance. We might as well say good-bye."

"Hush!" It was the voice of the princess. "I feel that we shall not be lost, I say." And as she spoke Branasko crept toward her and raised the hem of her gown to his white lips. Something dark came between them and the far-off glare. It was a flying-machine.

"It is father," cried Bernardino, and she called out to him: "Father! father! Here we are, waiting for you!" In a moment he was with them.

"All right in the east," he said gloomily. "Baryonay is there. They deserted him, but they returned when the flames went down. This is awful, daughter; it means death! It means annihilation!"

She put her arms round his neck and drew his face close to hers. "No, no," she said earnestly; "I see with a new light-a new spiritual light. There is mercy in the divine heart of Him that made the walls of our little world and constructed countless other worlds. I have prayed for mercy, and into my heart has come a sweet peace I never knew before. We shall not be lost. He will give us time to give up our sinful life here and seek Him."

The old man quivered as with ague; he searched her face eagerly, drew her spasmodically into his arms, and then sank to the floor, overcome with exhaustion.

The roar in the west was increasing. Hot ashes, gravel and small stones were falling on the roofs and the people. Now and then a cry of pain was heard, but they would not seek the shelter of the buildings. If they had to die they wanted to fall facing the enemy. Suddenly the king rose. He looked to the west and groaned. Something told them that the explosion was coming. Expectation, horrible suspense was in the air. There was a mighty flare of light. The entire heavens were lighted from horizon to horizon, and then the light went out.

"Oh, I thought it--" but the princess did not finish her sentence.

"The explosion," said Thorndyke, "the sound will follow in a moment."

"My God, have mercy on us!" cried the king. But his prayer was drowned in a deafening sound. Bernardino had leaned into the arms of her lover. "Don't despair," he said tenderly, "the prince may have been successful."

"I feel that he has," she replied. "But, oh, it is dreadful!"

The crowds below seemed to understand that their fate depended on the news that would reach them in a few minutes.

Boom! Boom! kr-kr-kr-kr-boom! There seemed to be no lessening of the volcanic disturbance, and the earth groaned and rocked and quivered as before.

"It is impossible to tell yet," groaned the king. "Oh, God, save us; give us a chance to escape this awful doom!"

Johnston bethought himself that he might learn something in the Electric Auditorium and he went into it. It was empty and dark; not a soul was there save himself. He was turning to leave when his eye was drawn to the great mirror by a faint pink glow appearing upon it. He stood still, a superstitious fear coming over him as he thought of being alone with a possible messenger from the far-away scene of disaster. The light went out tremblingly; then it flashed up again, and the American thought he saw the face of Waldmeer. The light grew steadier, stronger. It was Waldmeer, but he was submerged in smoke. Hark! he was speaking.

"Marentel is successful! Entrance closed temporarily, and will be strengthened!"

Johnston rushed out to the balcony. "I have been to the Auditorium," he announced. "I have seen Waldmeer. He says the experiment was successful. It is closed temporarily, and can be strengthened."

The king grasped the hand of the American. "Thank God!" he ejaculated, "if I can only save my people I shall desire nothing more." The princess moved toward him affectionately, but he put her aside and retired into the palace.

"He will at once communicate with the people," remarked Bernardino hopefully, and she turned her face again toward the west. The red glare was dying down, and the dense clouds in the sky were thinning. In an hour the face of the sun broke through the smoke, and the flying-machines of the protectors began to return.

That night the king caused the pink light of the "Ideal Dawn" to flood the eastern sky, and, as before, he appeared in a circle of dazzling light and addressed his subjects:

"All danger to life is over; but the ultimate fate of Alpha is sealed. Prince Marentel has effectually closed the entrance of the ocean, but the internal fires are gradually burning through the rocky bed of the ocean. In a couple of years Alpha will be demolished. All our wealth shall be equally distributed among you, and my ships shall transport you to whatever destination you desire. Let there be no haste. Order shall be preserved throughout."

That was all. The king bowed and the picture faded from view. A deep silence was over everything. The only light came from the stars and from the moon. Then there was a sound like the wind passing over a vast forest of dry-leaved trees-the people were returning to their homes.

"I should have thought they would greet the king's announcement with a cheer of joy," said Thorndyke to the princess, as they returned to the palace.

"They don't know whether to weep or laugh," she replied. "They love Alpha, and the other world will be strange to most of them. As for myself, now that I am to leave, I feel a few misgivings."

"I shall see that you are perfectly happy," he said tenderly. "You are to be my wife. I shall always love you and care for you; you need have no fears."

And a moment later, with joyous tears and face aglow, she assured him she had none.

THE END.

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