They sat, thousands of them, crouched silently on their stone seats, gazing, motionless as blocks of wood.
The center of the cavern was a lake, taking up something more than half of its area. The water was black as night, and curiously smooth and silent. Its banks sloped by degrees for a hundred feet or so, but at its edge there was a perpendicular bank of rock fifteen or twenty feet in height.
Near the middle of the lake, ranged at an equal distance from its center and from each other, were three—what shall I call them?—islands, or columns. They were six or eight feet across at their top, which rose high above the water.
On top of each of these columns was a huge vat or urn, and from each of the urns arose a steady, gigantic column of fire. These it was that gave the light, and it was little wonder we had thought it brilliant, since the flames rose to a height of thirty feet or more in the air.
But that which left us speechless with profound amazement was not the endless rows of silent, grinning dwarfs, nor the black, motionless lake, nor the leaping tongues of flame. We forgot these when we followed the gaze of that terrifying audience and saw a sight that printed itself on my brain with a vividness which time can never erase. Closing my eyes, I see it even now, and I shudder.
Exactly in the center of the lake, in the midst of the columns of fire, was a fourth column, built of some strangely lustrous rock. Prisms of a formation new to me—innumerable thousands of them—caused its sides to sparkle and glisten like an immense tower of whitest diamonds, blinding the eye.
The effect was indescribable. The huge cavern was lined and dotted with the rays shot forth from their brilliant angles. The height of this column was double that of the others; it rose straight toward the unseen dome of the cavern to the height of a hundred feet.
It was cylindrical in shape, not more than ten feet in diameter. And on its top, high above the surface of the lake, surrounded by the mounting tongues of flame, whirled and swayed and bent the figure of a woman.
Her limbs and body, which were covered only by long, flowing strands of golden hair, shone and glistened strangely in the lurid, weird light. And of all the ten thousand reflections that shot at us from the length of the column not one was so brilliant, so blinding, as the wild glow of her eyes.
Her arms, upraised above her head, kept time with and served as a key to every movement of her white, supple body. She glided across, back and forth, now this way, now that, to the very edge of the dizzy height, with wild abandon, or slow, measured grace, or the rushing sweep of a panther.
The thing was beauty incarnate—the very idea of beauty itself realized and perfected. It was staggering, overwhelming. Have you ever stood before a great painting or a beautiful statue and felt a thrill—the thrill of perception—run through your body to the very tips of your fingers?