I try hard not to believe what my friend George tells me. How can I possibly believe a man who tells me he has access to a two-centimeter-tall demon he calls Azazel, a demon who is really an extraterrestrial personage of extraordinary-but strictly limited-powers?
And yet George does have this ability to gaze at me unblinkingly out of his blue eyes and make me believe him temporarily-while he's talking. It's the Ancient Mariner effect, I suppose.
I once told him that I thought his little demon had given him the gift of verbal hypnosis, but George sighed and said, "Not at all! If he has given me anything, it is a curse for attracting confidences- except that that has been my bane since long before I ever encountered Azazel. The most extraordinary people insist on burdening me with their tales of woe. And sometimes-"
He shook his head in deep dejection. "Sometimes," he said, "the load I must bear as a result is more than human flesh and blood should be called upon to endure. Once, for instance, I met a man named Hannibal West…
I noticed him first [said George] in the lounge of a hotel at which I was staying. I noticed him chiefly because he encumbered my view of a statuesque waitress who was most becomingly and insufficiently dressed. I presume he thought I was looking at him, something I would certainly not willingly have done, and he took it as an overture of friendship.
He came to my table, bringing his drink with him, and seated himself without a by-your-leave. I am, by nature, a courteous man, and so I greeted him with a friendly grunt and glare, which he accepted in a calm way. He had sandy hair, plastered down across his scalp; pale eyes and an equally pale face; and the concentrated gaze of a fanatic, though I admit I didn't notice that until later on.
"My name," he said, "is Hannibal West, and I am a professor of geology. My particular field of interest is speleology. You wouldn't, by any chance, be a speleologist yourself?"
I knew at once he was under the impression he had recognized a kindred soul. My gorge rose at the possibility, but I remained courteous. "I am interested in all strange words," I said. "What is speleology?"
"Caves," he said. "The study and exploration of caves. That is my hobby, sir. I have explored caves on every continent except Antarctica. I know more about caves than anyone in the world."
"Very pleasant," I said, "and impressive." Feeling that I had in this way concluded a most unsatisfactory encounter, I signalled for the waitress to renew my drink and watched, in scientific absorption, her undulating progress across the room.
Hannibal West did not recognize that our conversation had been concluded, however. "Yes," he said, nodding vigorously, "you do well to say it is impressive. I have explored caves that are unknown to the world. I have entered underground grottoes that have never felt the footsteps of a human being. I am one of the few people alive today who has gone where no man, or woman, for that matter, has ever gone before. I have breathed air undisturbed, till then, by the lungs of a human being, and have seen sights and heard sounds no one else has ever seen or heard-and lived." He shuddered.
My drink had arrived, and I took it gratefully, admiring the grace with which the waitress bent low to place it on the table before me. I said, my mind not really on what I was saying, "You are a fortunate man."
"That I am not," said West. "I am a miserable sinner called upon by the Lord to avenge the sins of humanity."
Now at last I looked at him sharply, and noted the glare of fanaticism that nearly pinned me to the wall. "In caves?" I asked.
"In caves," he said, solemnly. "Believe me. As a professor of geology, I know what I am talking about."
I had met numerous professors in my lifetime who had known no such thing, but I forebore mentioning the fact.
Perhaps West read my opinion in my expressive eyes, for he fished a newspaper clipping out of a briefcase at his feet and passed it over to me. "Here!" he said, "Just look at that!"
I cannot say that it much rewarded close study. It was a three-paragraph item from some local newspaper. The headline read "A Dim Rumble" and the dateline was East Fishkill, New York. It was an account to the effect that local residents had complained to the police department of a dim rumble that left them uneasy and caused much disturbance among the cat and dog population of the town. The police had dismissed it as the sound of a distant thunderstorm, though the weather department heatedly denied that there had been any that day anywhere in the region.
"What do you think of
"In this case, it was indeed fortunate I was alone, for it would not have done for any other human being to discover what I discovered. I had been exploring for several hours when I entered a large and silent room with stalactites above and stalagmites below in gorgeous profusion. I skirted about the stalagmites, trailing my unwinding twine behind me, since I am not fond of losing my way, and then I came across what must have been a thick stalagmite that had broken off at some natural plane of cleavage. There was a litter of limestone to one side of it. What had caused the break I cannot say-perhaps some large animal, fleeing into the cave under pursuit, had blundered into the stalagmite in the dark; or else a mild earthquake had found this one stalagmite weaker than the others.
"In any case, the stump of the stalagmite was now topped by a smooth flatness just moist enough to glisten in my electric light. It was roughly round and strongly resembled a drum. So strongly did it resemble one that I automatically reached out and tapped it with my right forefinger."