The Land of the Changing Sun by William N. Harben - HTML preview
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"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."