Along the chamber through which we now passed I saw by the mellow light great pillars, capped with umbrella-like covers, some of them reminding me of the common toadstool of upper earth, on a magnificent scale. Instead, however, of the gray or somber shades to which I had been accustomed, these objects were of various hues and combined the brilliancy of the primary prismatic colors, with the purity of clean snow. Now they would stand solitary, like gigantic sentinels; again they would be arranged in rows, the alignment as true as if established by the hair of a transit, forming columnar avenues, and in other situations they were wedged together so as to produce masses, acres in extent, in which the stems became hexagonal by compression. The columnar stems, larger than my body, were often spiral; again they were marked with diamond-shaped figures, or other regular geometrical forms in relief, beautifully exact, drawn as by a master's hand in rich and delicately blended colors, on pillars of pure alabaster. Not a few of the stems showed deep crimson, blue, or green, together with other rich colors combined; over which, as delicate as the rarest of lace, would be thrown, in white, an enamel-like intricate tracery, far surpassing in beauty of execution the most exquisite needle-work I had ever seen. There could be no doubt that I was in a forest of colossal fungi, the species of which are more numerous than those of upper earth cryptomatic vegetation. The expanded heads of these great thallogens were as varied as the stems I have described, and more so. Far above our path they spread like beautiful umbrellas, decorated as if by masters from whom the great painters of upper earth might humbly learn the art of mixing colors. Their under surfaces were of many different designs, and were of as many shapes as it is conceivable could be made of combinations of the circle and hyperbola. Stately and picturesque, silent and immovable as the sphinx, they studded the great cavern singly or in groups, reminding me of a grown child's wild imagination of fairy land. I stopped beside a group that was of unusual conspicuity and gazed in admiration on the huge and yet graceful, beautiful spectacle. I placed my hand on the stem of one plant, and found it soft and impressible; but instead of being moist, cold, and clammy as the repulsive toadstool of upper earth, I discovered, to my surprise, that it was pleasantly warm, and soft as velvet.
"Smell your hand," said my guide.
I did so, and breathed in an aroma like that of fresh strawberries. My guide observed (I had learned to judge of his emotions by his facial expressions) my surprised countenance with indifference.
"Try the next one," he said.
This being of a different species, when rubbed by my hand exhaled the odor of the pineapple.
"Extraordinary," I mused.
"Not at all. Should productions of surface earth have a monopoly of nature's methods, all the flavors, all the perfumes? You may with equal consistency express astonishment at the odors of the fruits of upper earth if you do so at the fragrance of these vegetables, for they are also created of odorless elements."
But toadstools are foul structures of low organization. They are neither animals nor true vegetables, but occupy a station below that of plants proper," I said.
"You are acquainted with this order of vegetation under the most unfavorable conditions; out of their native elements these plants degenerate and become then abnormal, often evolving into the poisonous earth fungi known to your woods and fields. Here they grow to perfection. This is their chosen habitat. They absorb from a pure atmosphere the combined foods of plants and animals, and during their existence meet no scorching sunrise. They flourish in a region of perfect tranquillity, and without a tremor, without experiencing the change of a fraction of a degree in temperature, exist for ages. Many of these specimens are probably thousands of years old, and are still growing; why should they ever die? They have never been disturbed by a breath of moving air, and, balanced exactly on their succulent, pedestal-like stems, surrounded by an atmosphere of dead nitrogen, vapor, and other gases, with their roots imbedded in carbonates and minerals, they have food at command, nutrition inexhaustible."
"Still I do not see why they grow to such mammoth proportions."
"Plants adapt themselves to surrounding conditions," he remarked. "The oak tree in its proper latitude is tall and stately; trace it toward the Arctic circle, and it becomes knotted, gnarled, rheumatic, and dwindles to a shrub. The castor plant in the tropics is twenty or thirty feet in height, in the temperate zone it is an herbaceous plant, farther north it has no existence. Indian corn in Kentucky is luxuriant, tall, and graceful, and each stalk is supplied with roots to the second and third joint, while in the northland it scarcely reaches to the shoulder of a man, and, in order to escape the early northern frost, arrives at maturity before the more southern variety begins to tassel. The common jimson weed (datura stramonium) planted in early spring, in rich soil, grows luxuriantly, covers a broad expanse and bears an abundance of fruit; planted in midsummer it blossoms when but a few inches in height, and between two terminal leaves hastens to produce a single capsule on the apex of the short stem, in order to ripen its seed before the frost appears. These and other familiar examples might be cited concerning the difference some species of vegetation of your former lands undergo under climatic conditions less marked than between those that govern the growth of fungi here and on surface earth. Such specimens of fungi as grow in your former home have escaped from these underground regions, and are as much out of place as are the tropical plants transplanted to the edge of eternal snow. Indeed, more so, for on the earth the ordinary fungus, as a rule, germinates after sunset, and often dies when the sun rises, while here they may grow in peace eternally. These meandering caverns comprise thousands of miles of surface covered by these growths which shall yet fulfill a grand purpose in the economy of nature, for they are destined to feed tramping multitudes when the day appears in which the nations of men will desert the surface of the earth and pass as a single people through these caverns on their way to the immaculate existence to be found in the inner sphere."
"I can not disprove your statement," I again repeated; "neither do I accept it. However, it still seems to me unnatural to find such delicious flavors and delicate odors connected with objects associated in memory with things insipid, or so disagreeable as toadstools and the rank forest fungi which I abhorred on earth."
120:* The fungus Polyporus graveolens was neglected by the guide. This fungus exhales a delicate odor, and is used in Kentucky to perfume a room. Being quite large, it is employed to hold a door open, thus being useful as well as fragrant.—J. U. L.