CHAPTER XV. TAHITI TO SANDWICH ISLANDS. - KILAUEA BY DAY AND BY NIGHT.
It was all terribly grand, magnificently sublime; but no words could adequately describe such a scene. The precipice on which we were standing overhung the crater so much that it was impossible to see what was going on immediately beneath; but from the columns of smoke and vapour that arose, the flames and sparks that constantly drove us back from the edge, it was easy to imagine that there must have been two or three grand fiery fountains below. As the sun set, and darkness enveloped the scene, it became more awful than ever. We retired a little way from the brink, to breathe some fresh air, and to try and eat the food we had brought with us; but this was an impossibility. Every instant a fresh explosion or glare made us jump up to survey the stupendous scene. The violent struggles of the lava to escape from its fiery bed, and the loud and awful noises by which they were at times accompanied, suggested the idea that some imprisoned monsters were trying to release themselves from their bondage, with shrieks and groans, and cries of agony and despair, at the futility of their efforts.
Sometimes there were at least seven spots on the borders of the lake where the molten lava dashed up furiously against the rocks - seven fire-fountains playing simultaneously. With the increasing darkness the colours emitted by the glowing mass became more and more wonderful, varying from the deepest jet black to the palest grey, from darkest maroon, through cherry and scarlet, to the most delicate pink, violet, and blue; from the richest brown, through orange and yellow, to the lightest straw-colour. And there was yet another shade, only describable by the term 'molten-lava colour.' Even the smokes and vapours were rendered beautiful by their borrowed lights and tints, and the black peaks, pinnacles, and crags, which surrounded the amphitheatre, formed a splendid and appropriate background. Sometimes great pieces broke off and tumbled with a crash into the burning lake, only to be remelted and thrown up anew. I had for some time been feeling very hot and uncomfortable, and on looking round the cause was at once apparent. Not two inches beneath the surface, the grey lava on which we were standing and sitting was red-hot. A stick thrust through it caught fire, a piece of paper was immediately destroyed, and the gentlemen found the heat from the crevices so great that they could not approach near enough to light their pipes.
One more long last look, and then we turned our faces away from the scene that had enthralled us for so many hours. The whole of the lava we had crossed, in the extinct crater, was now aglow in many patches, and in all directions flames were bursting forth, fresh lava was flowing, and steam and smoke were issuing from the surface. It was a toilsome journey back again, walking as we did in single file, and obeying the strict injunctions of our head guide to follow him closely, and to tread exactly in his footsteps. On the whole it was easier by night than by day to distinguish the route to be taken, as we could now see the dangers that before we could only feel; and many were the fiery crevices we stepped over or jumped across. Once I slipped, and my foot sank through the thin crust. Sparks issued from the ground, and the stick on which I leant caught fire before I could fairly recover myself.
Either from the effects of the unaccustomed exercise after our long voyage, or from the intense excitement of the novel scene, combined with the gaseous exhalations from the lava, my strength began to fail, and before reaching the side of the crater I felt quite exhausted. I struggled on at short intervals, however, collapsing several times and fainting away twice; but at last I had fairly to give in, and to allow myself to be ignominiously carried up the steep precipice to the 'Volcano House' on a chair, which the guides went to fetch for me.
It was half-past eleven when we once more found ourselves beneath Mr. Kane's hospitable roof; he had expected us to return at nine o'clock, and was beginning to feel anxious about us.
Monday, December 25th (Christmas Day). - Turning in last night was the work of a very few minutes, and this morning I awoke perfectly refreshed and ready to appreciate anew the wonders of the prospect that met my eyes. The pillar of fire was still distinctly visible when I looked out from my window, though it was not so bright as when I had last seen it; but even as I looked it began to fade, and gradually disappeared. At the same moment a river of glowing lava issued from the side of the bank we had climbed with so much difficulty yesterday, and slowly but surely overflowed the ground we had walked over. I woke Tom, and you may imagine the feelings with which we gazed upon this startling phenomenon, which, had it occurred a few hours earlier, might have caused the destruction of the whole party. If our expedition had been made to-day instead of yesterday, we should certainly have had to proceed by a different route to the crater, and should have looked down on the lake of fire from a different spot.
I cannot hope that in my attempt to give you some idea of Kilauea as we beheld it, I shall be successful in conveying more than a very faint impression of its glories. I feel that my description is so utterly inadequate, that, were it not for the space, I should be tempted to send you in full the experiences of previous visitors, as narrated in Miss Bird's 'Six Months in the Sandwich Islands,' and Mr. Bodham Whetham's 'Pearls of the Pacific.' The account contained in the former work I had read before arriving here; the latter I enjoyed at the 'Volcano House.' Both are well worth reading by any one who feels an interest in the subject.