“In one of the star-shaped pools of water, some five feet deep, a column of pitch had been forced perpendicularly up from the bottom. On reaching the surface of the water it had formed a sort of centre-table, about four feet in diameter, but without touching the sides of the pool. The stem was about a foot in diameter. I leaped out on this table, and found that it not only sustained my weight, but that the elasticity of the stem enabled me to rock it from side to side. Pieces torn from the edges of this table sank readily, showing that it had been raised by pressure, and not by its buoyancy.”
True, though strange; but stranger still did it seem to us when we did at last what the negroes asked us, and dipped our hands into the liquid pitch, to find that it did not soil the fingers. The old proverb that one cannot touch pitch without being defiled happily does not stand true here, or the place would be intolerably loathsome. It can be scraped up, moulded into any shape you will, wound in a string (as was done by one of the midshipmen) round a stick, and carried off; but nothing is left on the hand save clean gray mud and water. It may be kneaded for an hour before the mud be sufficiently driven out of it to make it sticky. This very abundance of earthy matter it is which, while it keeps the pitch from soiling, makes it far less valuable than it would be were it pure.
It is easy to understand whence this earthy matter (twenty or thirty per cent) comes. Throughout the neighborhood the ground is full, to the depth of hundreds of feet, of coaly and asphaltic matter. Layers of sandstone or of shale containing this decayed vegetable alternate with layers which contain none; and if, as seems probable, the coaly matter is continually changing into asphalt and oil, and then working its way upward through every crack and pore, to escape from the enormous pressure of the superincumbent soil, it must needs carry up with it innumerable particles of the soils through which it passes.
In five minutes we had seen, handled, and smelt enough to satisfy us with this very odd and very nasty vagary of tropic nature; and as we did not wish to become faint and ill between the sulphureted hydrogen and the blaze of the sun reflected off the hot black pitch, we hurried on over the water-furrows, and through the sedge-beds to the farther shore—to find ourselves, in a single step, out of an Inferno into a Paradise.
(FROM THE VOYAGE OF THE CHALLENGER.)
BY SIR C. WYVILLE THOMSON, KT., LL.D., ETC.