But how is it that those logs stand up out of the asphalt, with asphalt caps and hounds’ ears (as Mr. Manross well phrases it) on the tops of them?
We pushed on across the lake, over the planks which the negroes laid down from island to island. Some, meanwhile, preferred a steeple-chase with water-jumps, after the fashion of the midshipmen on a certain second visit to the lake. How the negroes grinned delight and surprise at the vagaries of English lads—a species of animal altogether new to them; and how they grinned still more when certain staid and portly dignitaries caught the infection, and proved by more than one good leap that they too had been English school-boys—alas! long, long ago.
So, whether by bridging, leaping, or wading, we arrived at the little islands, and found them covered with a thick, low scrub; deep sedge, and among them Pinguins, like huge pine-apples without the apple; gray wild-pines, parasites on Matapalos, which, of course, have established themselves, like robbers and vagrants as they are, everywhere; a true holly, with box-like leaves; and a rare cocoa-plum, very like the holly in habit, which seems to be all but confined to these little patches of red earth, afloat on the pitch. Out of the scrub, when we were there, flew off two or three night-jars, very like our English species, save that they had white in the wings; and on the second visit one of the midshipmen, true to the English boy’s bird’s-nesting instinct, found one of their eggs, white-spotted, in a grass nest.
Passing these little islands, which are said (I know not how truly) to change their places and number, we came to the very fountains of Styx, to that part of the lake where the asphalt is still oozing up.
As the wind set toward us, we soon became aware of an evil smell—petroleum and sulphureted hydrogen at once—which gave some of us a headache. The pitch here is yellow and white with sulphur foam; so are the water-channels; and out of both water and pitch innumerable bubbles of gas arise, loathsome to the smell. We became aware that the pitch was soft under our feet. We left the impression of our boots; and if we had stood still awhile, we should soon have been ankle-deep. No doubt there are spots where, if a man stayed long enough, he would be slowly and horribly engulfed. “But,” as Mr. Manross says truly, “in no place is it possible to form those bowl-like depressions round the observer described by former travellers.” What we did see is that the fresh pitch oozes out at the lines of least resistance, namely, in the channels between the older and more hardened masses, usually at the upper ends of them, so that one may stand on pitch comparatively hard, and put one’s hand into pitch quite liquid, which is flowing softly out, like some ugly fungoid growth, such as may be seen in old wine-cellars, into the water. One such pitch-fungus had grown several yards in length in the three weeks between our first and second visit; and on another, some of our party performed exactly the same feat as Mr. Manross.