Chapter XXXIII. Story of the City of Fire (Continued)
 

"'Quitting air, must pass through water.' The meaning of those words became apparent enough. I stood at the foot of the waterfall, looking up at the fissure from which it issued.

"Although the fact had been most artistically disguised, I could not doubt that this fissure was artificial. A tunnel had been hewn through the rock, and a mountain stream diverted into it. Indeed, on close inspection, I saw that it was little more than a thin curtain of water, partly concealing what looked like the entrance of a cave.

"A great deal of mist arose from it. But I could see that, beyond a ducking, I had little to fear; and, stepping down into the bed of the little stream which frothed and bubbled pleasantly about my bare legs, I set my bundle on my head as the mendicant had done, and plunged through the waterfall, into a place of delicious coolness.

"A strange greenish light prevailed here and directly before me I saw a flight of stone steps leading upward through a tunnel in the rock. By the light of a pocket torch with which I had provided myself, I began to ascend the steps. These, as I have said, were hewn out of the solid rock, and as they numbered something like seven hundred, the labour expended upon the making of this extraordinary staircase must have been stupendous.

"At first the character of the surrounding tunnel suggested that it was, in part at least, a natural cavern. But as I mounted higher and higher, solid masonry appeared in places, some of it displaying unusual carvings, of a character with which I was quite unfamiliar. I concluded that it was very ancient.

"I should explain, gentlemen, that this ascending tunnel zigzagged in a peculiar fashion, which may have been due to the natural formation of the volcanic rock, or may have been part of the design of the original builder. I had ascended more than five hundred steps, and felt that a rest would shortly be necessary, when I reached a sort of cavern, or interior platform, from which seven corridors branched out like the spokes of a wheel. The top of this place was lost in shadows, which the ray of my torch failed to penetrate; and here I paused, setting down my bundle and wondering what my next move should be.

"To the damp coolness of the lower stairs an oppressive heat had now succeeded, and I became aware of a continuous roaring sound, which I found myself unable to explain.

"Attached to a belt beneath my native dress I carried a Colt revolver; and therefore, leaving my rifle and bundle in a corner of the cavern, I selected one of these corridors more or less at random, and set out to explore. This corridor proved to slope very gently upward from the platform, and I could not fail to notice that at every step the heat grew greater and greater. A suffocating, sulphurous smell became perceptible also, and the roaring sound grew almost deafening. It became possible to discern the walls of the corridor ahead because of a sort of eerie bluish light which had now become visible.

"Gentlemen, I don't say that I hesitated in a physical sense: I went right on walking ahead. But a voice somewhere deep down inside me was whispering that this was the road to hell.

"At a point where the heat and the smell were almost unendurable the corridor was blocked by massive iron bars beyond which the reflection of some gigantic fire danced upon the walls of a vast cavern.

"The heat was so great that my garments, saturated by the curtain of water through which I had passed, were now bone dry, and I stood peering through those bars at a spectacle which will remain with me to the merciful day of my death.

"A hundred feet beneath me was a lake of fire! That is the only way I can describe it: a seething, bubbling lake of fire. And above, where the roof of the cavern formed a natural cone, was a square section formed of massive stone blocks, and quite obviously the handiwork of man. The bars were too hot to touch, and the heat was like that of a furnace, but while I stood, peering first upward and then downward, a thing happened which I almost hesitate to describe, for it sounds like an incident from a nightmare.

"Heralded by a rumbling sound which was perceptible above the roar of the fire below, the centre block in the roof slid open. A tremendous draught of air swept along the passage in which I was standing, and doubtless along other passages which opened upon this hell-pit.

"As if conjured up by magic, a monstrous column of blue flame arose, swept up scorchingly, and licked like the tongue of a hungry dragon upon the roof of the cavern. Instantly the trap was closed again; the tongue of fire dropped back into the lake from which it had arisen on the draught of air.

"And right past me where I stood, rigid with horror, looking through those bars, fell a white-robed figure--whether man or woman I could not determine! Down, down into the fiery pit, a hundred feet below!

"One long-drawn, dying shriek reached my ears.

"Of my return to the place at which I had left my bundle and rifle I retain absolutely not one recollection. I was aroused from a sort of stupor of horror by the sight of a faint light moving across the platform ahead of me, as I was about to emerge from the tunnel.

"It was the light of a lantern, carried by a man who might have been the double of that yellow-robed mendicant who had first unconsciously led me to this accursed place.

"I won't deny that, up to the moment of sighting him, my one idea had been to escape, to return, to quit this unholy spot. But now, as I watched the bearer of the lantern cross the platform and enter one of the seven corridors, that old, unquenchable thirst for new experiences got me by the throat again.

"As the light of the lantern was swallowed up in the passage, I found my bundle and rifle and set out to follow the man. Four paces brought me to the foot of more steps. I walked barefooted, frequently pausing to listen. There were many carvings upon the walls, but I had no leisure to examine them.

"Contrary to my anticipations, however, there were no branches in this zigzag staircase, which communicated directly with the top of the lofty plateau. When presently I felt the fresh mountain air upon my face, I wondered why I could perceive no light ahead of me. Yet the reason was simple enough.

"Since I had passed through that strange watergate to the City of Fire, the day had ended: it was night. And when, finding no further steps ahead of me, I passed along a level, narrow corridor for some ten paces and, looking upward, saw the stars, I was astounded.

"The yellow-robed man had disappeared, and I stood alone, looking down upon that secret city which I had come so far to see.

"I found myself standing in deep undergrowth, and, pressing this gently aside, I saw a wonderful spectacle. Away to my left was a great white marble building, which I judged to be a temple; and forming a crescent before it was a miniature town, each white-walled house surrounded by a garden. It was Damascus reduced to fairy dimensions, a spectacle quite unforgettable.

"The fact which made the whole thing awesome and unreal was the presence, along the top of the temple (which, like that of Hatshepsu at Deir elBahari, seemed to be hewn out of the living rock but was faced with white marble) of seven giant flambeaux, each surmounted by a darting tongue of blue flame!

"Legend had it that this was the temple built by Zoroaster and preserved intact by that wonderful secretiveness of the Orient through the generations, by a cult who awaited the coming of Zoroaster's successor, of that Fire-Tongue who was to redeem and revolutionize the world.

"I was afraid to move too far from the mouth of the tunnel, but nevertheless was anxious to obtain a good view of the little city at my feet. Gingerly I moved farther forward and forward, ever craning out for a glimpse of the buildings more immediately below me, forgetful of the fact that I walked upon the brink of a precipice.

"Suddenly my outstretched foot failed to touch ground. I clutched wildly at the bushes around me. Their roots were not firm in the shallow soil, and, enveloped like some pagan god in a mass of foliage, I toppled over the cliff and fell!"