The tunnel through which Ashman propelled the canoe containing himself and Ariel, was more than a hundred yards in length. It was only for the smallest distance that the craft was in darkness, when the water began to reflect light and reveal its outlines.
A few minutes later the tunnel was passed, and they debouched into an expansion of the enchanted lake. The second division was similar to the other and almost as large, but its appearance was tenfold more wonderful.
The sheet of water may be said to have been divided into two nearly equal parts by the narrow tunnel running under the mass of rocks described. One division was in the outer air, after the usual fashion of lakes, while the other was wholly underground.
The interior lake was nearly circular in shape, with an arching roof hundreds of feet high. It was surrounded by towering crags, and volcanic masses of stone, which gave it an appearance different from anything on which Fred Ashman had ever looked. Nothing grander, wilder, more picturesque or romantic can be conceived. It was a scene which an explorer could stand for hours and contemplate in rapt admiration.
But the most amazing feature of this underground
lake was the way in which it was illuminated, so that every portion
stood out in as bold relief as if under the flaming sun of mid-day.
At the western side, the shore, as was the case in nearly all other directions, was a mass of jagged rocks, piled upon each other in the wildest confusion. Beyond these rocks, was a vast chasm above the level of the lake, and extending right and left for a distance of fifty rods. This huge chasm was one mass of crimson light, whose rays pierced every nook and cranny on every side of the lake.
The eye gazing in that direction saw something similar to that which greets the traveller in the far north, when viewing the play of the aurora borealis in the horizon, or when the red sun is rising from its ocean bed.
This enormous opening was so surcharged with light that Ashman, after contemplating it but a minute or two, did not need to ask its source. Beyond the area of illumination was the burning mountain whose blood-red glow covered the entire surface and shores of the underground portion of the enchanted lake. The volcano had been aflame for ages, and was likely to continue to burn for centuries to come.
Such an eternal conflagration must have an outlet for the vast quantity of vapor generated, and Ashman wondered that he had not noticed the ascending smoke on his way thither. He recalled that when he and his friend were coming up the Xingu, far below the last rapids, they observed a dark cloud resting in the western horizon. There was no thought at that time that it was caused by a burning mountain, but such must have been the fact. The most singular fact was, that while on his way across the lake to the tunnel, he had failed to notice and remark it.
There was a steady draft in the direction of the flaming cavern. He had observed it while paddling through the tunnel where it was strong enough to assist in the propulsion of the canoe. It was caused by the ascent of the vapor through the chimney of the fiery mountain, and averted the intolerable heat that otherwise would have been felt over every portion of the lake. As it was, a moderate increase of temperature was perceptible.
Ashman was tempted to paddle the canoe to the black rocks which separated the chasm from the lake, and he timidly moved the blade, restrained by the fear of something in the nature of a "back draft," which might consume them before they could escape.
Ariel assured him that she had never encountered or heard of anything of the kind, though she had often visited this remarkable region in the company of her father. Thereupon Ashman sent the boat ahead faster than before, and a minute later the bow touched the rocky wharf.
Stepping out, he drew the bow upon the rocks, so as to hold it fast, and, extending his hand, assisted her to shore. Then he drew the craft still further up, and, taking her hand again in his own, began picking their way over the jagged bowlders and stones to the edge of the volcano.
From the margin of the lake to the other side of the mass of rocks was a hundred feet. This may be defined as a solid wall, shutting out the water from the burning mountain. The rocks rose to a height of a dozen rods or so, attaining which a spectator found himself half-way across the dividing ridge, where, viewed from the lake, his figure looked as if stamped in ink on the crimson background.
It was here that the lovers paused and viewed the striking picture spread out before their vision.
That which they saw might properly be considered the crater of the volcano. It was four or five acres in extent, irregular in contour, and so filled with gases and vapors that one could not see the bottom, while the jagged boundary on the farther side came out to view only at intervals, when the obstructing smoke was swept aside.
Spiral columns of black vapor twisted swiftly upward from the fiery depths, sometimes side by side, and sometimes they would unite and climb toward the opening above, like a couple of huge serpents struggling together. The air quivered and pulsated in certain portions, as if with fervid heat, and Ashman fancied once or twice that he caught glimpses of a vast mass of molten stuff, far down in the mountain, surging; seething and turning upon itself with terrific violence. But the glare was so dazzling that it was like staring at the sun, and he was compelled to withdraw his gaze.
The opening above, through which all this vapor and gas effected its escape into the clear atmosphere outside, was of irregular outline and no more than twenty feet across. It was at a great height above the spectators, and ought to have been visible many miles in every direction.
Now and then Ashman caught the odor of the sulphurous fumes rising from the naming depth, and he could not help reflecting that if the ascending vapors should swerve toward them only for a minute or two, they would be asphyxiated before they could get away; but he could not shrink, when his lovely companion stood so boldly by his side, unmoved by the impressive scene.
When he had become accustomed in a degree to the sight, the like of which he had never viewed before, he recalled that they could not occupy a more conspicuous position, in the event of being pursued by their enemies to the underground lake.
As we have explained, they were standing on the highest portion of the rocky wall, separating the burning mountain from the subterranean portion of the enchanted lake. In this situation, they were in sight from every portion of the shore; any one entering by the tunnel, as they had done, would descry them almost at once, because of the vivid background against which their figures were thrown.
This fact led Ashman to turn to his love
and suggest that they should leave the spot. She nodded her head
in acquiescence, and, still clasping hands, they began picking
their way down among the bowlders to the spot where they had left
their canoe a short time before.
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