Thus speaking, my quiet leader, who had so long been as a shepherd to my wandering feet, on the upper earth, grasped my hands tightly, and placed them in those of my new companion, whose clammy fingers closed over them as with a grip of iron. The mysterious being, now my custodian, turned towards the creek, drawing me after him, and together we silently anti solemnly waded beneath the stone archway. As I passed under the shadow of that dismal, yawning cliff, I turned my head to take one last glimpse of the world I had known—that "warm precinct of the cheerful day,"—and tears sprang to my eyes. I thought of life, family, friends,—of all for which men live—and a melancholy vision arose, that of my lost, lost home. My dear companion of the journey that had just ended stood in the sunlight on the banks of the rippling stream, gazing at us intently, and waved an affectionate farewell. My uncouth new associate (guide or master, whichever he might be), of the journey to come, clasped me firmly by the arms, and waded slowly onward, thrusting me steadily against the cold current, and with irresistible force pressed me into the thickening darkness. The daylight disappeared, the pathway contracted, the water deepened and became more chilly. We were constrained to bow our heads in order to avoid the overhanging vault of stone; the water reached to my chin, and now the down jutting proof touched the crown of my head; then I shuddered convulsively as the last ray of daylight disappeared.
Had it not been for my companion, I know that I should have sunk in despair, and drowned; but with a firm hand he held my head above the water, and steadily pushed me onward. I had reached the extreme of despondency: I neither feared nor cared for life nor death, and I realized that, powerless to control my own acts, my fate, the future, my existence depended on the strange being beside me. I was mysteriously sustained, however, by a sense of bodily security, such as comes over us as when in the hands of an experienced guide we journey through a wilderness, for I felt that my pilot of the underworld did not purpose to destroy me. We halted a moment, and then, as a faint light overspread us, my eyeless guide directed me to look upward.
"We now stand beneath the crevice which you were told by your former guide would admit the last ray of sunlight on your path. I also say to you, this struggling ray of sunlight is to be your last for years."
I gazed above me, feeling all the wretchedness of a dying man who, with faculties intact, might stand on the dark edge of the hillside of eternity, glancing back into the bright world; and that small opening far, far overhead, seemed as the gate to Paradise Lost. Many a person, assured of ascending at will, has stood at the bottom of a deep well or shaft to a mine, and even then felt the undescribable sensation of dread, often terror, that is produced by such a situation. Awe, mystery, uncertainty of life and future superadded, may express my sensation. I trembled, shrinking in horror from my captor and struggled violently.
"Hold, hold," I begged, as one involuntarily prays a surgeon to delay the incision of the amputating knife, "just one moment." My companion, unheeding, moved on, the light vanished instantly, and we were surrounded by total darkness. God's sunshine was blotted out.
Then I again became unconcerned; I was not now responsible for my own existence, and the feeling that I experienced when a prisoner in the closed carriage returned. I grew careless as to my fate, and with stolid indifference struggled onward as we progressed slowly against the current of water. I began to interest myself in speculations regarding our surroundings, and the object or outcome of our journey. In places the water was shallow, scarce reaching to our ankles; again it was so deep that we could wade only with exertion, and at times the passage up which we toiled was so narrow, that it would scarcely admit us. After a long, laborious stemming of the unseen brook, my companion directed me to close my mouth, hold my nostrils with my fingers, and stoop; almost diving with me beneath the water, he drew me through the submerged crevice, and we ascended into an open chamber, and left the creek behind us. I fancied that we were in a large room, and as I shouted aloud to test my hypothesis, echo after echo answered, until at last the cry reverberated and died away in distant murmurs. We were evidently in a great pocket or cavern, through which my guide now walked rapidly; indeed, he passed along with unerring footsteps, as certain of his course as I might be on familiar ground in full daylight. I perceived that he systematically evaded inequalities that I could not anticipate nor see. He would tell me to step up or down, as the surroundings required, and we ascended or descended -accordingly. Our path turned to the right or the left from time to time, but my eyeless guide passed through what were evidently the most tortuous windings without a mishap. I wondered much at this gift of knowledge, and at last overcame my reserve sufficiently to ask how we could thus unerringly proceed in utter darkness. The reply was:
"The path is plainly visible to me; I see as clearly in pitch darkness as you can in sunshine."
"Explain yourself further," I requested.
He replied, "Not yet;" and continued, "you are weary, we will rest."
He conducted me to a seat on a ledge, and left me for a time. Returning soon, he placed in my hands food which I ate with novel relish. The pabulum seemed to be of vegetable origin, though varieties of it had a peculiar flesh-like flavor. Several separate and distinct substances were contained in the queer viands, some portions savoring of wholesome flesh, while others possessed the delicate flavors of various fruits, such as the strawberry and the pineapple. The strange edibles were of a pulpy texture, homogeneous in consistence, parts being juicy and acid like grateful fruits. Some portions were in slices or films that I could hold in my hand like sections of a velvet melon. and yet were in many respects unlike any other food that I had ever tasted. There was neither rind nor seed; it seemed as though I were eating the gills of a fish, and in answer to my question the guide remarked:
"Yes; it is the gill, but not the gill of a fish. You will be instructed in due time." I will add that after this, whenever necessary, we were supplied with food, but both thirst and hunger disappeared altogether before our underground journey was finished.
After a while we again began our journey, which we continued in what was to me absolute darkness. My strength seemed to endure the fatigue to a wonderful degree, notwithstanding that we must have been walking hour after hour, and I expressed a curiosity about the fact. My guide replied that the atmosphere of the cavern possessed an intrinsic vitalizing power that neutralized fatigue, "or," he said, "there is here an inherent constitutional energy derived from an active gaseous substance that belongs to cavern air at this depth, and sustains the life force by contributing directly to its conservation, taking the place of food and drink."
"I do not understand," I said.
"No; and you do not comprehend how ordinary air supports mind and vitalizes muscle, and at the same time wears out both muscle and all other tissues. These are facts which are not satisfactorily explained by scientific statements concerning oxygenation of the blood. As we descend into the earth we find an increase in the life force of the cavern air."
This reference to surface earth recalled my former life, and led me to contrast my present situation with that I had forfeited. I was seized with an uncontrollable longing for home, and a painful craving for the past took possession of my heart, but with a strong effort I shook off the sensations. We traveled on and on in silence and in darkness, and I thought again of the strange remark of my former guide who had said: "You are destined to go deeper into the unknown; yes, into and beyond the Beyond."