I remember once to have stood on the edge of Niagara's great whirlpool, but not more fearful did its seething waters then seem than did the semi-human whirl into which I had now been plunged. Whether my guide had been aware of the coining move that separated us I never knew, but, as his words were interrupted, I infer that he was not altogether ready to part from my company. Be this as it may, he disappeared from sight, and, as by a concerted move, the cries of the drunkards subsided instantly. I found myself borne high in the air, perched on a huge hand that was carried by its semi-human comrades. It seemed as though the contents of that vast hall had been suddenly thrown beneath me, for, as I looked about, I saw all around a sea of human fragments, living, moving parts of men. Round and round that hall we circled as an eddy whirls in a rock-bound basin, and not less silently than does the water of an eddy. Then I perceived that the disjointed mass of humanity moved as a spiral, in unison, throbbing like a vitalized stream, bearing me submissively on its surface. Gradually the distance between myself and the center stone lessened, and then I found that, as if carried in the groove of a gigantic living spiral, I was being swept towards the stone platform in the center of the room. There was method in the movements of the, drunkards, although I could not analyze the intricacies of their complex reel.
Finally I was borne to the center stone, and by a sudden toss of the hand, in the palm of which I was seated, I was thrown upon the raised platform. Then in unison the troop swung around the stone, and I found myself gazing on a mass of vitalized fragments of humanity. Quickly a figure sprung upon the platform, and in him I discerned a seemingly perfect man. He came to my side and grasped my hand as if he were a friend.
"Do not fear," he said; "obey our request, and you will not be harmed."
"What do you desire?" I asked.
He pointed to the center of the stone, and I saw thereon many gigantic, inverted fungus bowls. The gills of some had been crushed to a pulp, and had saturated themselves with liquid which, perhaps by a species of fermentation, had undergone a structural change; others were as yet intact; others still contained men intently cutting the gills into fragments and breaking the fruit preparatory to further manipulation.
"You are to drink with us," he replied.
"No," I said; "I will not drink."
"Then you must die; to refuse to drink with us is to invite death."
"So mote it be; I will not drink."
We stood facing each other, apparently both meditating on the situation.
I remember to have been surprised, not that the man before me had been able to spring from the floor to the table rock on which I stood, but that so fair a personage could have been a companion of the monstrosities about me. He was a perfect type of manhood, and was exquisitely clothed in a loose, flowing robe that revealed and heightened the beauty of his symmetrical form. His face was fair, yet softly tinted with rich, fresh color; his hair and beard were neatly trimmed; his manner was polished, and his countenance frank and attractive. The contrast between the preternatural shapes from among whom he sprung and himself was as between a demon and an angel. I marveled that I had not perceived him before, for such a one should have been conspicuous because so fair; but I reflected that it was quite natural that among the thousands of grotesque persons about me, one attractive form should have escaped notice. Presently he spoke again, seemingly having repented of his display of temper.
"I am a friend," he said; "a deliverer. I will serve you as I have others before you. Lean on me, listen to my story, accept my proffered friendship."
Then he continued: "When you have rested, I will guide you in safety back to upper earth, and restore you to your friends."
I could not resist his pleasing promise. I suddenly and unaccountably believed in his sincerity. He impressed me with confidence in his truthfulness, yes, against my better judgment, convinced me that he must be a friend, a savior. Grasping him by the hand I thanked him for his interest in a disconsolate wanderer, and assured him of my confidence.
"I am in your hands," I said; "I will obey you implicitly. I thank you, my deliverer; lead me back to surface earth and receive the gratitude of a despairing mortal."
"This I will surely do," he said; "rest your case in my hands, do not concern yourself in the least about your future. Before acquiescing in your desire, however, I will explain part of the experiences through which you have recently passed. You have been in the control of an evil spirit, and have been deceived. The grotesque figures, the abnormal beings about you, exist only in your disordered imagination. They are not real. These persons are happy and free from care or pain. They live in bliss inexpressible. They have a life within a life, and the outward expression that you have perceived is as the uncouth hide and figure that incloses the calm, peaceful eye of a toad. Look at their eyes, not at their seemingly distorted forms."
I turned to the throng and beheld a multitude of upturned faces mildly beaming upon me. As I glanced from eye to eye of each countenance, the repulsive figure disappeared from my view, and a sweet expression of innocence was all that was disclosed to me. I realized that I had judged by the outer garment. I had wronged these fellow-beings. A sense of remorse came over me, a desire to atone for my short-sightedness.
"What can I offer as a retribution?" I asked. "I have injured these people."
"Listen," was the reply. "These serene intelligences are happy. They are as a band of brothers. They seek to do you a kindness, to save you from disaster. One hour of experience such as they enjoy is worth a hundred years of the pleasures known to you. This delicious favor, an hour of bliss, they freely offer you, and after you have partaken of their exquisite joy, I will conduct you back to earth's surface whenever you desire to leave us." He emphasized the word, desire.
"I am ready," I replied; "give me this promised delight."
The genial allurer turned to the table rock behind us, and continued:
"In these fungus bowls we foment the extract of life. The precious cordial is as a union of the quintessential spirits of joy, peace, tranquillity, happiness, and delight. Could man abstract from ecstasy the thing that underlies the sense that gives that word a meaning, his product would not approach the power of the potent liquids in these vessels."
"Of what are they composed?" I asked.
"Of derivatives of the rarest species of the fungus family," he answered. "They are made by formulæ that are the result of thousands of years of experimentation. Come, let us not delay longer the hour of bliss."
Taking me by the hand, my graceful comrade led me to the nearest bowl. Then on closer view I perceived that its contents were of a deep green color, and in active commotion, and although no vapor was apparent, a delightful sensation impressed my faculties. I am not sure that I inhaled at all,—the feeling was one of penetration, of subtile, magic absorption. My companion took a tiny shell which he dipped into the strange cauldron. Holding the tiny cup before me, he spoke the one word, "Drink."
Ready to acquiesce, forgetful of the warning I had received, I grasped the cup, and raised it to my lips, and as I did so chanced to glance at my tempter's face, and saw not the supposed friend I had formerly observed, but, as through a mask fair in outline, the countenance of an exulting demon, regarding me with a sardonic grin. In an instant he had changed from man to devil.
I dashed the cup upon the rock. "No; I will not drink," I shouted.
Instantly the cavern rung with cries of rage. A thousand voices joined as by accord, and simultaneously the throng of fragments of men began to revolve again. The mysterious spiral seemed to unwind, but I could not catch the method of its movement. The motion was like that of an uncoiling serpent bisected lengthwise, the two halves of the body seeming to slide against each other. Gradually that part of the cavern near the stone on which I stood became clear of its occupants, and at last I perceived that the throng had receded to the outer edge. Then the encircling side walls of the amphitheater became visible, and as water sinks into sand, the medley of fragments of I humanity disappeared from view.
I turned to my companion; he, too, had vanished. I glanced towards the liquor cauldrons; the stone was bare. I alone occupied the gigantic hall. No trace remained to tell of the throng that a short time previously had surrounded and mocked me.
Desolate, distracted, I threw myself upon the stone, and cursed my miserable self. "Come back," I cried, "come back. I will drink, drink, drink."