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Mark Twain > Roughing It > Chapter LXXIV

Roughing It

Chapter LXXIV

We got back to the schooner in good time, and then sailed down to Kau,
where we disembarked and took final leave of the vessel. Next day we
bought horses and bent our way over the summer-clad mountain-terraces,
toward the great volcano of Kilauea (Ke-low-way-ah). We made nearly a
two days' journey of it, but that was on account of laziness. Toward
sunset on the second day, we reached an elevation of some four thousand
feet above sea level, and as we picked our careful way through billowy
wastes of lava long generations ago stricken dead and cold in the climax
of its tossing fury, we began to come upon signs of the near presence of
the volcano--signs in the nature of ragged fissures that discharged jets
of sulphurous vapor into the air, hot from the molten ocean down in the
bowels of the mountain.

Shortly the crater came into view. I have seen Vesuvius since, but it
was a mere toy, a child's volcano, a soup-kettle, compared to this.
Mount Vesuvius is a shapely cone thirty-six hundred feet high; its crater
an inverted cone only three hundred feet deep, and not more than a
thousand feet in diameter, if as much as that; its fires meagre, modest,
and docile.--But here was a vast, perpendicular, walled cellar, nine
hundred feet deep in some places, thirteen hundred in others, level-
floored, and ten miles in circumference! Here was a yawning pit upon
whose floor the armies of Russia could camp, and have room to spare.

Perched upon the edge of the crater, at the opposite end from where we
stood, was a small look-out house--say three miles away. It assisted us,
by comparison, to comprehend and appreciate the great depth of the basin
--it looked like a tiny martin-box clinging at the eaves of a cathedral.
After some little time spent in resting and looking and ciphering, we
hurried on to the hotel.

By the path it is half a mile from the Volcano House to the lookout-
house. After a hearty supper we waited until it was thoroughly dark and
then started to the crater. The first glance in that direction revealed
a scene of wild beauty. There was a heavy fog over the crater and it was
splendidly illuminated by the glare from the fires below. The
illumination was two miles wide and a mile high, perhaps; and if you
ever, on a dark night and at a distance beheld the light from thirty or
forty blocks of distant buildings all on fire at once, reflected strongly
against over-hanging clouds, you can form a fair idea of what this looked

A colossal column of cloud towered to a great height in the air
immediately above the crater, and the outer swell of every one of its
vast folds was dyed with a rich crimson luster, which was subdued to a
pale rose tint in the depressions between. It glowed like a muffled
torch and stretched upward to a dizzy height toward the zenith. I
thought it just possible that its like had not been seen since the
children of Israel wandered on their long march through the desert so
many centuries ago over a path illuminated by the mysterious "pillar of
fire." And I was sure that I now had a vivid conception of what the
majestic "pillar of fire" was like, which almost amounted to a

Arrived at the little thatched lookout house, we rested our elbows on the
railing in front and looked abroad over the wide crater and down over the
sheer precipice at the seething fires beneath us. The view was a
startling improvement on my daylight experience. I turned to see the
effect on the balance of the company and found the reddest-faced set of
men I almost ever saw. In the strong light every countenance glowed like
red-hot iron, every shoulder was suffused with crimson and shaded
rearward into dingy, shapeless obscurity! The place below looked like
the infernal regions and these men like half-cooled devils just come up
on a furlough.

I turned my eyes upon the volcano again. The "cellar" was tolerably well
lighted up. For a mile and a half in front of us and half a mile on
either side, the floor of the abyss was magnificently illuminated; beyond
these limits the mists hung down their gauzy curtains and cast a
deceptive gloom over all that made the twinkling fires in the remote
corners of the crater seem countless leagues removed--made them seem like
the camp-fires of a great army far away. Here was room for the
imagination to work! You could imagine those lights the width of a
continent away--and that hidden under the intervening darkness were
hills, and winding rivers, and weary wastes of plain and desert--and even
then the tremendous vista stretched on, and on, and on!--to the fires and
far beyond! You could not compass it--it was the idea of eternity made
tangible--and the longest end of it made visible to the naked eye!

The greater part of the vast floor of the desert under us was as black as
ink, and apparently smooth and level; but over a mile square of it was
ringed and streaked and striped with a thousand branching streams of
liquid and gorgeously brilliant fire! It looked like a colossal railroad
map of the State of Massachusetts done in chain lightning on a midnight
sky. Imagine it--imagine a coal-black sky shivered into a tangled net-
work of angry fire!

Here and there were gleaming holes a hundred feet in diameter, broken in
the dark crust, and in them the melted lava--the color a dazzling white
just tinged with yellow--was boiling and surging furiously; and from
these holes branched numberless bright torrents in many directions, like
the spokes of a wheel, and kept a tolerably straight course for a while
and then swept round in huge rainbow curves, or made a long succession of
sharp worm-fence angles, which looked precisely like the fiercest jagged
lightning. These streams met other streams, and they mingled with and
crossed and recrossed each other in every conceivable direction, like
skate tracks on a popular skating ground. Sometimes streams twenty or
thirty feet wide flowed from the holes to some distance without dividing
--and through the opera-glasses we could see that they ran down small,
steep hills and were genuine cataracts of fire, white at their source,
but soon cooling and turning to the richest red, grained with alternate
lines of black and gold. Every now and then masses of the dark crust
broke away and floated slowly down these streams like rafts down a river.
Occasionally the molten lava flowing under the superincumbent crust broke
through--split a dazzling streak, from five hundred to a thousand feet
long, like a sudden flash of lightning, and then acre after acre of the
cold lava parted into fragments, turned up edgewise like cakes of ice
when a great river breaks up, plunged downward and were swallowed in the
crimson cauldron. Then the wide expanse of the "thaw" maintained a ruddy
glow for a while, but shortly cooled and became black and level again.
During a "thaw," every dismembered cake was marked by a glittering white
border which was superbly shaded inward by aurora borealis rays, which
were a flaming yellow where they joined the white border, and from thence
toward their points tapered into glowing crimson, then into a rich, pale
carmine, and finally into a faint blush that held its own a moment and
then dimmed and turned black. Some of the streams preferred to mingle
together in a tangle of fantastic circles, and then they looked something
like the confusion of ropes one sees on a ship's deck when she has just
taken in sail and dropped anchor--provided one can imagine those ropes on

Through the glasses, the little fountains scattered about looked very
beautiful. They boiled, and coughed, and spluttered, and discharged
sprays of stringy red fire--of about the consistency of mush, for
instance--from ten to fifteen feet into the air, along with a shower of
brilliant white sparks--a quaint and unnatural mingling of gouts of blood
and snow-flakes!

We had circles and serpents and streaks of lightning all twined and
wreathed and tied together, without a break throughout an area more than
a mile square (that amount of ground was covered, though it was not
strictly "square"), and it was with a feeling of placid exultation that
we reflected that many years had elapsed since any visitor had seen such
a splendid display--since any visitor had seen anything more than the now
snubbed and insignificant "North" and "South" lakes in action. We had
been reading old files of Hawaiian newspapers and the "Record Book" at
the Volcano House, and were posted.

I could see the North Lake lying out on the black floor away off in the
outer edge of our panorama, and knitted to it by a web-work of lava
streams. In its individual capacity it looked very little more
respectable than a schoolhouse on fire. True, it was about nine hundred
feet long and two or three hundred wide, but then, under the present
circumstances, it necessarily appeared rather insignificant, and besides
it was so distant from us.

I forgot to say that the noise made by the bubbling lava is not great,
heard as we heard it from our lofty perch. It makes three distinct
sounds--a rushing, a hissing, and a coughing or puffing sound; and if you
stand on the brink and close your eyes it is no trick at all to imagine
that you are sweeping down a river on a large low-pressure steamer, and
that you hear the hissing of the steam about her boilers, the puffing
from her escape-pipes and the churning rush of the water abaft her
wheels. The smell of sulphur is strong, but not unpleasant to a sinner.

We left the lookout house at ten o'clock in a half cooked condition,
because of the heat from Pele's furnaces, and wrapping up in blankets,
for the night was cold, we returned to our Hotel.

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Index Index

Chapter I
Chapter II
Chapter III
Chapter IV
Chapter V
Chapter VI
Chapter VII
Chapter VIII
Chapter IX
Chapter X
Chapter XI
Chapter XII
Chapter XIII
Chapter XIV
Chapter XV
Chapter XVI
Chapter XVII
Chapter XVIII
Chapter XIX
Chapter XX
Chapter XXI
Chapter XXII
Chapter XXIII
Chapter XXIV
Chapter XXV
Chapter XXVI
Chapter XXVII
Chapter XXVIII
Chapter XXIX
Chapter XXX
Chapter XXXI
Chapter XXXII
Chapter XXXIII
Chapter XXXIV
Chapter XXXV
Chapter XXXVI
Chapter XXXVII
Chapter XXXIX
Chapter XL
Chapter XLI
Chapter XLII
Chapter XLIII
Chapter XLIV
Chapter XLV
Chapter XLVI
Chapter XLVII
Chapter XLVIII
Chapter XLIX
Chapter L
Chapter LI
Chapter LII
Chapter LIII
Chapter LIV
Chapter LV
Chapter LVI
Chapter LVII
Chapter LVIII
Chapter LIX
Chapter LX
Chapter LXI
Chapter LXII
Chapter LXIII
Chapter LXIV
Chapter LXV
Chapter LXVI
Chapter LXVII
Chapter LXVIII
Chapter LXIX
Chapter LXX
Chapter LXXI
Chapter LXXII
Chapter LXXIII
Chapter LXXIV
Chapter LXXV
Chapter LXXVI
Chapter LXXVII
Chapter LXXIX

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