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    Chapter LXXV

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    Chapter 79
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    The next night was appointed for a visit to the bottom of the crater, for
    we desired to traverse its floor and see the "North Lake" (of fire) which
    lay two miles away, toward the further wall. After dark half a dozen of
    us set out, with lanterns and native guides, and climbed down a crazy,
    thousand-foot pathway in a crevice fractured in the crater wall, and
    reached the bottom in safety.

    The irruption of the previous evening had spent its force and the floor
    looked black and cold; but when we ran out upon it we found it hot yet,
    to the feet, and it was likewise riven with crevices which revealed the
    underlying fires gleaming vindictively. A neighboring cauldron was
    threatening to overflow, and this added to the dubiousness of the
    situation. So the native guides refused to continue the venture, and
    then every body deserted except a stranger named Marlette. He said he
    had been in the crater a dozen times in daylight and believed he could
    find his way through it at night. He thought that a run of three hundred
    yards would carry us over the hottest part of the floor and leave us our
    shoe-soles. His pluck gave me back-bone. We took one lantern and
    instructed the guides to hang the other to the roof of the look-out house
    to serve as a beacon for us in case we got lost, and then the party
    started back up the precipice and Marlette and I made our run.
    We skipped over the hot floor and over the red crevices with brisk
    dispatch and reached the cold lava safe but with pretty warm feet. Then
    we took things leisurely and comfortably, jumping tolerably wide and
    probably bottomless chasms, and threading our way through picturesque
    lava upheavals with considerable confidence. When we got fairly away
    from the cauldrons of boiling fire, we seemed to be in a gloomy desert,
    and a suffocatingly dark one, surrounded by dim walls that seemed to
    tower to the sky. The only cheerful objects were the glinting stars high
    overhead.

    By and by Marlette shouted "Stop!" I never stopped quicker in my life.
    I asked what the matter was. He said we were out of the path. He said
    we must not try to go on till we found it again, for we were surrounded
    with beds of rotten lava through which we could easily break and plunge
    down a thousand feet. I thought eight hundred would answer for me, and
    was about to say so when Marlette partly proved his statement by
    accidentally crushing through and disappearing to his arm-pits.

    He got out and we hunted for the path with the lantern. He said there
    was only one path and that it was but vaguely defined. We could not find
    it. The lava surface was all alike in the lantern light. But he was an
    ingenious man. He said it was not the lantern that had informed him that
    we were out of the path, but his feet. He had noticed a crisp grinding
    of fine lava-needles under his feet, and some instinct reminded him that
    in the path these were all worn away. So he put the lantern behind him,
    and began to search with his boots instead of his eyes. It was good
    sagacity. The first time his foot touched a surface that did not grind
    under it he announced that the trail was found again; and after that we
    kept up a sharp listening for the rasping sound and it always warned us
    in time.

    It was a long tramp, but an exciting one. We reached the North Lake
    between ten and eleven o'clock, and sat down on a huge overhanging lava-
    shelf, tired but satisfied. The spectacle presented was worth coming
    double the distance to see. Under us, and stretching away before us, was
    a heaving sea of molten fire of seemingly limitless extent. The glare
    from it was so blinding that it was some time before we could bear to
    look upon it steadily.

    It was like gazing at the sun at noon-day, except that the glare was not
    quite so white. At unequal distances all around the shores of the lake
    were nearly white-hot chimneys or hollow drums of lava, four or five feet
    high, and up through them were bursting gorgeous sprays of lava-gouts and
    gem spangles, some white, some red and some golden--a ceaseless
    bombardment, and one that fascinated the eye with its unapproachable
    splendor. The mere distant jets, sparkling up through an intervening
    gossamer veil of vapor, seemed miles away; and the further the curving
    ranks of fiery fountains receded, the more fairy-like and beautiful they
    appeared.

    Now and then the surging bosom of the lake under our noses would calm
    down ominously and seem to be gathering strength for an enterprise; and
    then all of a sudden a red dome of lava of the bulk of an ordinary
    dwelling would heave itself aloft like an escaping balloon, then burst
    asunder, and out of its heart would flit a pale-green film of vapor, and
    float upward and vanish in the darkness--a released soul soaring homeward
    from captivity with the damned, no doubt. The crashing plunge of the
    ruined dome into the lake again would send a world of seething billows
    lashing against the shores and shaking the foundations of our perch. By
    and by, a loosened mass of the hanging shelf we sat on tumbled into the
    lake, jarring the surroundings like an earthquake and delivering a
    suggestion that may have been intended for a hint, and may not. We did
    not wait to see.

    We got lost again on our way back, and were more than an hour hunting for
    the path. We were where we could see the beacon lantern at the look-out
    house at the time, but thought it was a star and paid no attention to it.
    We reached the hotel at two o'clock in the morning pretty well fagged
    out.

    Kilauea never overflows its vast crater, but bursts a passage for its
    lava through the mountain side when relief is necessary, and then the
    destruction is fearful. About 1840 it rent its overburdened stomach and
    sent a broad river of fire careering down to the sea, which swept away
    forests, huts, plantations and every thing else that lay in its path.
    The stream was five miles broad, in places, and two hundred feet deep,
    and the distance it traveled was forty miles. It tore up and bore away
    acre-patches of land on its bosom like rafts--rocks, trees and all
    intact. At night the red glare was visible a hundred miles at sea; and
    at a distance of forty miles fine print could be read at midnight. The
    atmosphere was poisoned with sulphurous vapors and choked with falling
    ashes, pumice stones and cinders; countless columns of smoke rose up and
    blended together in a tumbled canopy that hid the heavens and glowed with
    a ruddy flush reflected from the fires below; here and there jets of lava
    sprung hundreds of feet into the air and burst into rocket-sprays that
    returned to earth in a crimson rain; and all the while the laboring
    mountain shook with Nature's great palsy and voiced its distress in
    moanings and the muffled booming of subterranean thunders.

    Fishes were killed for twenty miles along the shore, where the lava
    entered the sea. The earthquakes caused some loss of human life, and a
    prodigious tidal wave swept inland, carrying every thing before it and
    drowning a number of natives. The devastation consummated along the
    route traversed by the river of lava was complete and incalculable. Only
    a Pompeii and a Herculaneum were needed at the foot of Kilauea to make
    the story of the irruption immortal.
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