As all the bubbles in a glass shrink and vanish when the first collapses, so the troop of fairy-like forms before me disintegrated, and were gone. The delicate being, whose hand I held, fluttered as does a mist in the first gust of a sudden gale, and then dissolved into transparency. The gaily decked amphitheater disappeared, the very earth cavern passed from existence, and I found myself standing solitary and alone in a boundless desert. I turned towards every point of the compass only to find that no visible object appeared to break the monotony. I stood upon a floor of pure white sand which stretched to the horizon in gentle wave-like undulations as if the swell of the ocean had been caught, transformed to sand, and fixed.
I bent down and scooped a handful of the sand, and raised it in the palm of my hand, letting it sift back again to earth; it was surely sand. I pinched my flesh, and pulled my hair, I tore my garments, stamped upon the sand, and shouted aloud to demonstrate that I myself was still myself. It was real, yes, real. I stood alone in a desert of sand. Morning was dawning, and on one side the great sun rose slowly and majestically.
"Thank God for the sun," I cried. "Thank God for the light and heat of the sun."
I was again on surface earth; once more I beheld that glorious orb for the sight of which I had so often prayed when I believed myself miserable in the dismal earth caverns, and which I had been willing to give my very life once more to behold. I fell on my knees, and raised my hands in thankfulness. I blessed the rising sun, the illimitable sand, the air about me, and the blue heavens above. I blessed all that was before me, and again and again returned thanks for my delivery from the caverns beneath me. I did not think to question by what power this miracle had been accomplished. I did not care to do so; had I thought of the matter at all I would not have dared to question for fear the transition might prove a delusion.
I turned towards the sun, and walked eastward. As the day progressed and the sun rose into the heavens, I maintained my journey, aiming as best I could to keep the same direction. The heat increased, and when the sun reached the zenith it seemed as though it would melt the marrow in my bones. The sand, as white as snow and hot as lava, dazzled my eyes, and I covered them with my hands. The sun in the sky felt as if it were a ball of white hot iron near my head. It seemed small, and yet appeared to shine as through a tube directed only towards myself. Vainly did I struggle to escape and get beyond its boundary, the tube seemed to follow my every motion, directing the blazing shafts, and concentrating them ever upon my defenseless person. I removed my outer garments, and tore my shirt into fibers hoping to catch a waft of breeze, and with one hand over my eyes, and the other holding my coat above my head, endeavored to escape the mighty flood of heat, but vainly. The fiery rays streamed through the garment as mercury flows through a film of gauze. They penetrated my flesh, and vaporized my blood. My hands, fingers, and arms puffed out as a bladder of air expands under the influence of heat. My face swelled to twice, thrice its normal size, and at last my eyes were closed, for my cheeks and eyebrows met. I rubbed my shapeless hand over my sightless face, and found it as round as a ball; the nose had become imbedded in the expanded flesh, and my ears had disappeared in the same manner.
I could no longer see the sun, but felt the vivid, piercing rays I could not evade. I do not know whether I walked or rolled along; I only know that I struggled to escape those deadly rays. Then I prayed for death, and in the same breath begged the powers that had transferred me to surface earth to carry me back again to the caverns below. The recollection of their cool, refreshing atmosphere was as the thought of heaven must be to a lost spirit. I experienced the agony of a damned soul, and now, in contradistinction to former times, considered as my idea of perfect happiness the dismal earth caverns of other days. I thought of the day I had stood at the mouth of the Kentucky cave, and waded into the water with my guide; I recalled the refreshing coolness of the stream in the darkness of that cavern when the last ray of sunshine disappeared, and I cursed myself for longing then for sunshine, and the surface earth. Fool that man is, I mentally cried, not to be contented with that which is, however he may be situated, and wherever he may be placed. This is but a retribution, I am being cursed for my discontented mind, this is hell, and in comparison with this hell all else on or in earth is happiness. Then I damned the sun, the earth, the very God of all, and in my frenzy cursed everything that existed. I felt my puffed limbs, and prayed that I might become lean again. I asked to shrink to a skeleton, for seemingly my misery came with my expanded form; but I prayed and cursed in vain. So I struggled on in agony, every moment seemingly covering a multitude of years; struggled along like a lost soul plodding in an endless expanse of ever-increasing, ever-concentrating hell. At last, however, the day declined, the heat decreased, and as it did so my distorted body gradually regained its normal size, my eyesight returned, and finally I stood in that wilderness of sand watching the great red sun sink into the earth, as in the morning I had watched it rise. But between the sunrise and the sunset there had been an eternity of suffering; and then, as if released from a spell, I dropped exhausted upon the sand, and seemed to sleep. I dreamed of the sun, and that an angel stood before me, and asked why I was miserable, and in reply I pointed to the sun. "See;" I said, "the author of the misery of man."
Said the angel: "Were there no sun there would be no men, but were there no men there would still be misery."
"Misery of what?" I asked.
"Misery of mind," replied the angel. "Misery is a thing, misery is not a conception—pain is real, pain is not an impression. Misery and pain would still exist and prey upon mind substance were there no men, for mind also is real, and not a mere conception. The pain you have suffered has not been the pain of matter, but the pain of spirit. Matter can not stiffer. Were it matter that suffered, the heated sand would writhe in agony. No; it is only mind and spirit that experience pain, or pleasure, and neither mind nor spirit can evade its destiny, even if it escape from the body."
Then I awoke and saw once more the great red sun rise from the sand-edge of my desolate world, and I became aware of a new pain, for now I perceived the fact that I experienced the sense of thirst. The conception of the impression drew my mind to the subject, and instantly intense thirst, the most acute of bodily sufferings, possessed me. When vitalized tissue craves water, other physical wants are unfelt; when man parches to death all other method; of torture are disregarded. I thought no longer of the rising sun, I remembered no more the burning sand of yesterday, I felt only the pain of thirst.
"Water, water, water," I cried, and then in the distance as if in answer to my cry, I beheld a lake of water.
Instantly every nerve was strained, every muscle stretched, and I fled over the sands towards the welcome pool.
On and on I ran, and as I did so, the sun rising higher and higher, again began to burn the sands beneath my feet, and roast the flesh upon my bones. Once more I experienced that intolerable sense of pain, the pain of living flesh disintegrating by fire, and now with thirst gnawing at my vitals, and fire drying up the residue of my evaporated blood, I struggled in agony towards a lake that vanished before my gaze, to reappear just beyond.
This day was more horrible than the preceding, and yet it was the reverse so far as the action of the sun on my flesh was concerned. My prayer of yesterday had been fearfully answered, and the curses of the day preceding were being visited upon my very self. I had prayed to become lean, and instead of the former puffed tissue and expanded flesh, my body contracted as does beef when dried. The tightening skin squeezed upon the solidifying flesh, and as the moisture evaporated, it left a shriveled integument, contracted close upon the bone. My joints stood out as great protuberances, my skin turned to a dark amber color, and my flesh became transparent as does wetted horn. I saw my very vitals throb, I saw the empty blood vessels, the shriveled nerves and vacant arteries of my frame. I could not close my eyes. I could not shield them from the burning sun. I was a mummy, yet living, a dried corpse walking over the sand, dead to all save pain. I tried to fall, but could not, and I felt that, while the sun was visible, I must stand upright; I could not stop, and could not stoop. Then at last the malevolent sun sank beneath the horizon, and as the last ray disappeared again, I fell upon the sand.
I did not sleep, I did not rest, I did not breathe nor live a human; I only existed as a living pain, the conception of pain realized into a conscious nucleus,—and so the night passed. Again the sun arose, and with the light of her first ray I saw near at hand a caravan, camels, men, horses, a great cavalcade. They approached rapidly and surrounded me. The leader of the band alighted and raised me to my feet, for no longer had I the power of motion. He spoke to me kindly, and strange as it may seem to you, but not at all strange did it seem to me, called me by name.
"We came across your tracks in the desert," he said; "we are your deliverers."
I motioned for water; I could not speak.
"Yes," he said, "water you shall have."
Then from one of the skins that hung across the hump of a camel he filled a crystal goblet with sparkling water, and held it towards me, but just before the goblet touched my lips he withdrew it and said:
"I forgot to first extend the greetings of our people."
And then I noticed in his other hand a tiny glass containing a green liquid, which he placed to my lips, pronouncing the single word, "Drink."
I fastened my gaze upon the water, and opened my lips. I smelled the aroma of the powerful narcotic liquid within the glass, and hastened to obey, but glanced first at my deliverer, and in his stead saw the familiar face of the satanic figure that twice before had tempted me. Instantly, without a thought as to the consequences, without a fear as to the result, I dashed the glass to the sand, and my voice returning, I cried for the third time, "No; I will not drink."
The troop of camels instantly disappeared, as had the figures in the scenes before, the tempter resolved into clear air, the sand beneath my feet became natural again, and I became myself as I had been before passing through the hideous ordeal. The fact of my deliverance from the earth caverns had, I now realized, been followed by temporary aberration of my mind, but at last I saw clearly again, the painful fancy had passed, the delirium was over.
I fell upon my knees in thankfulness; the misery through which I had passed had proven to be illusory, the earth caverns were beneath me, the mirage and temptations were not real, the horrors I had experienced were imaginary—thank God for all this—and that the sand was really sand. Solitary, alone, I Kneeled in the desert barren, from horizon to horizon desolation only surrounded, and yet the scene of that illimitable waste, a fearful reality, it is true, was sweet in comparison with the misery of body and soul about which I had dreamed so vividly.
"’T is no wonder," I said to myself, "that in the moment of transition from the underground caverns to the sunshine above, the shock should have disturbed my mental equilibrium, and in the moment of reaction I should have dreamed fantastic and horrible imaginings."
A cool and refreshing breeze sprung now, from I know not where; I did not care to ask; it was too welcome a gift to question, and contrasted pleasantly with the misery of my past hallucination. The sun was shining hot above me, the sand was glowing, parched beneath me, and yet the grateful breeze fanned my brow, and refreshed my spirit.
"Thank God," I cried, "for the breeze, for the coolness that it brings; only those who have experienced the silence of the cavern solitudes through which I have passed, and added thereto, have sensed the horrors of the more recent nightmare scenes, can appreciate the delights of a gust of air."
The incongruity of surrounding conditions, as connected with affairs rational, did not appeal at all to my questioning senses, it seemed as though the cool breeze, coining from out the illimitable desolation of a heated waste was natural. I arose and walked on, refreshed. From out that breeze my physical self drew refreshment and strength.
"’T is the cold," I said; "the blessed antithesis of heat, that supports life. Heat enervates, cold stimulates; heat depresses, cold animates. Thank God for breezes, winds, waters, cold."
I turned and faced the gladsome breeze. "’T is the source of life, I will trace it to its origin, I will leave the accursed desert, the hateful sunshine, and seek the blissful regions that give birth to cool breezes."
I walked rapidly, and the breeze became more energetic and cooler. With each increase of momentum on my part, corresponding strength seemed to be added to the breeze—both strength and coolness.
"Is not this delightful?" I murmured; "my God at last has come to be a just God. Knowing what I wanted, He sent the breeze; in answer to my prayer the cool, refreshing breeze arose. Damn the heat," I cried aloud, as I thought of the horrid day before; "blessed be the cold," and as though in answer to my cry the breeze stiffened and the cold strengthened itself, and I again returned thanks to my Creator.
With ragged coat wrapped about my form I faced the breeze and strode onward towards the home of the gelid wind that now dashed in gusts against my person.
Then I heard my footstep crunch, and perceived that the sand was hard beneath my feet; I stooped over to examine it and found it frozen. Strange, I reflected, strange that dry sand can freeze, and then I noticed, for the first time, that spurts of snow surrounded me, ’t was a sleety mixture upon which I trod, a crust of snow and sand. A sense of dread came suddenly over me, and instinctively I turned, affrighted, and ran away from the wind, towards the desert behind me, hack towards the sun, which, cold and bleak, low in the horizon, was sinking. The sense of dread grew upon me, and I shivered as I ran. With my back towards the breeze I had blessed, I now fled towards the sinking sun I had cursed. I stretched out my arms in supplication towards that orb, for from behind overhanging blackness spread, and about me roared a fearful hurricane. Vainly. As I thought in mockery the heartless sun disappeared before my gaze, the hurricane surrounded me, and the wind about me became intensely cold, and raved furiously. It seemed as though the sun had fled from my presence, and with the disappearance of that orb, the outline of the earth was blotted from existence. It was an awful blackness, and the universe was now to me a blank. The cold strengthened and froze my body to the marrow of my bones. First came the sting of frost, then the pain of cold, then insensibility of flesh. My feet were benumbed, my limbs motionless. I stood a statue, quiescent in the midst of the roaring tempest. The earth, the sun, the heavens themselves, my very person now had disappeared. Dead to the sense of pain or touch, sightless, amid a blank, only the noise of the raging winds was to me a reality. And as the creaking frost reached my brain and congealed it, the sound of the tempest ceased, and then devoid of physical senses, my quickened intellect, enslaved, remained imprisoned in the frozen form it could not leave, and yet could no longer control.
Reflection after reflection passed through that incarcerated thought entity, and as I meditated, the heinous mistakes I had committed in the life that had passed, arose to torment. God had answered my supplications, successively I had experienced the hollowness of earthly pleasures, and had left each lesson unheeded. Had I not alternately begged for and then cursed each gift of God? Had I not prayed for heat, cold, light, and darkness, and anathematized each? Had I not, when in perfect silence, prayed for-sound; in sheltered caverns, prayed for winds and storms; in the very corridors of heaven, and in the presence of Etidorhpa, had I not sought for joys beyond?
Had I not found each pleasure of life a mockery, and notwithstanding each bitter lesson, still pursued my headstrong course, alternately blessing and cursing my Creator, and then myself, until now, amid a howling waste, in perfect darkness, my conscious intellect was bound to the frozen, rigid semblance of a body? All about me was dead and dark, all within was still and cold, only my quickened intellect remained as in every corpse the self-conscious intellect must remain, while the body has a mortal form, for death of body is not attended by the immediate liberation of mind. The consciousness of the dead man is still acute, and he who thinks the dead are mindless, will realize his fearful error when devoid of motion he lies a corpse, conscious of all that passes on around him, waiting the liberation that can only come by disintegration and destruction of the flesh.
So, unconscious of pain, unconscious of any physical sense, I existed on and on, enthralled, age after age passed and piled upon one another, for time was to me unchangeable, no more an entity. I now prayed for change of any kind; and envied the very devils in hell their pleasures, for were they not gifted with the power of motion, could they not hear, and see, and realize the pains they suffered? I prayed for death—death absolute, death eternal. Then, at last, the darkness seemed to lessen, and I saw the frozen earth beneath, the monstrous crags of ice above, the raging tempest about, for I now had learned by reflection to perceive by pure intellect, to see by the light within. My body, solid as stone, was fixed and preserved in a waste of ice. The world was frozen. I perceived that the sun, and moon, and stars, nearly stilled, dim and motionless, had paled in the cold depths of space. The universe itself was freezing, and amid the desolation only my deserted intellect remained. Age after age had passed, æons of ages had fled, nation after nation had grown and perished, and in the uncounted epochs behind, humanity had disappeared. Unable to free itself from the frozen body, my own intellect remained the solitary spectator of the dead silence about. At last, beneath my vision, the moon disappeared, the stars faded one by one, and then I watched the sun grow dim, until at length only a milky, gauze-like film remained to indicate her face, and then—vacancy. I had lived the universe away. And in perfect darkness the living intellect, conscious of all that had transpired in the ages past, clung still enthralled to the body of the frozen mortal. I thought of my record in the distant past, of the temptations I had undergone, and called myself a fool, for, had I listened to the tempter, I could at least have suffered, I could have had companionship even though it were of the devils—in hell. I lived my life over and over, times without number; I thought of my tempters, of the offered cups, and thinking, argued with myself:
"No," I said; "no, I had made the promise, I have faith in Etidorhpa, and were it to do over again I would not drink."
Then, as this thought sped from me, the ice scene dissolved, the enveloped frozen form of myself faded from view, the sand shrunk into nothingness, and with my natural body, and in normal condition, I found myself back in the earth cavern, on my knees, beside the curious inverted fungus, of which fruit I had eaten in obedience to my guide's directions. Before me the familiar figure of my guide stood, with folded arms, and as my gaze fell upon him he reached out his hand and raised me to my feet.
"Where have you been during the wretched epochs that have passed since I last saw you?" I asked.
"I have been here," he replied, "and you have been there."
"You lie, you villainous sorcerer," I cried; "you lie again as you have lied to me before. I followed you to the edge of demon land, to the caverns of the drunkards, and then you deserted me. Since last we met I have spent a million, billion years of agony inexpressible, and have had that agony made doubly horrible by contrast with the thought, yes, the very sight and touch of Heaven. I passed into a double eternity, and have experienced the ecstacies of the blessed, and suffered the torments of the damned, and now you dare boldly tell me that I have been here, and that you have been there, since last I saw you stand by this cursed fungus bowl."
"Yes," he said, taking no offense at my violence; "yes, neither of us has left this spot; you have sipped of the drink of an earth-damned drunkard, you have experienced part of the curses of intemperance, the delirium of narcotics. Thousands of men on earth, in their drunken hallucination, have gone through hotter hells than you have seen; your dream has not exaggerated the sufferings of those who sup of the delirium of intemperance."
And then he continued:
"Let me tell you of man's conception of eternity."