ePub 版

“ And now we were in the midst of the blaze. Two arms of fire encircled the base of the little hillock on wbich we stood, and united before us in a waving mass, which, rolling onwards, receded further and further from our gaze. The flames had devoured the short grass

of the ock, but had not found sufficient nourishment for our destruction. Whole swarms of voracious vultures followed in circling flight the fiery column, like so many hungry jackals, and pounced upon the snakes and lizards which the blaze had stifled and half-calcined in its murderous embrace. When, with the rapidity of lightning, they darted upon their prey and disappeared in the clouds of smoke, it almost seemed as if they were voluntarily devoting themselves to a fiery death. Soon the deafening noise of the conflagration ceased, and the dense black clouds in the distance were the only signs that the fire was still proceeding on its devastating path over the wide wastes of the savannah."

At length, after a long drought, when all nature seems about to expire under the want of moisture, various signs announce the approach of the rainy season. The sky, instead of its brilliant blue, assumes a leaden tint, from the vapours which are beginning to condense. The black spot of the “Southern Cross,” that most beautiful of constellations, in which, as the Indians poetically fancy, the Spirit of the savannah resides, becomes more indistinct as the transparency of the atmosphere diminishes. The fixed stars, which shine with a quiet planetary light, now twinkle even in the zenith. Like distant mountain-chains, banks of clouds begin to rise over the horizon, and, forming in masses of increasing density, to ascend higher and higher, until at length the sudden lightnings flash from their dark bosom, and with the loud crash of thunder, the first rains burst in torrents over the thirsty land. Scarcely have the showers had time to moisten the earth, when the dormant powers of vegetation begin to awaken with an almost miraculous rapidity. The dull, tawny surface of the parched savannah changes, as if by magic, into a carpet of the most lively green, enamelled with thousands of flowers of every colour. Stimulated by the light of early day, the mimosas expand their

delicate foliage, and the fronds of the beautiful mauritias sprout forth with all the luxuriance of youthful energy.

And now, also, the animal life of the savannah awakens to the full enjoyment of existence. The horse and ox rejoice in the grasses, under whose covert the jaguar frequently lurks to pounce upon them with his fatal spring. On the border of the swamps, the moist clay, slowly heaving, bursts asunder, and from the tomb in which he lay imbedded rises a gigantic water-snake or huge crocodile. The new-formed pools and lakes swarm with life, and a host of water-fowl,—ibises, cranes, flamingoes,—make their appearance to regale on the abundant banquet. A new creation of insects and other unbidden guests now seek the wretched hovels of the Indians, which are sparingly scattered over the higher parts of the savannah. Countless multitudes of ants, sand-flies, and mosquitoes ; rattlesnakes, expelled by the cold and moisture from the lower grounds ; nauseous toads, which, concealing themselves by day in the dark corners of the huts, crawl forth in the evening in quest of prey ; lizards, scorpions, centipedes ; in a word, worms and vermin of all names and forms-emerge from the inundated plains, for the tropical rains have gradually converted the savannah, which erewhile exhibited a waste as dreary as that of the Sahara, into a boundless lake. The swollen rivers of the steppe pour in mighty streams over the plains, and boats are now able to sail for miles across the land, from one river bed into another.

On the same spot where, but a short time ago, the thirsty horse anxiously snuffed the air to discover by its moisture the presence of some pool, the animal is now obliged to lead an amphibious life. The mares retreat with their foals to the higher banks, which rise like islands above the waters; and as from day to day the land contracts within narrower limits, the want of forage obliges them to swim about in quest of the grasses that raise their heads above the fermenting waters. Many foals are drowned ; many are surprised by the crocodiles, that strike them down with their jagged tails, and then crush them between their jaws.



MIDWAY between the North and South Poles is a ridge high land running east and west right round the Earth. Unlike the Alps and the Himalayas, it is not seen lifting to the clouds giant heads covered with snow, or stretching down to lower grounds arm-like rivers of snow and ice. But not the less is it of great height; far higher, indeed, than the loftiest mountains in the world. A traveller setting out from the North Pole, and sailing southward, begins to climb this high hill at the very outset of his journey. The seas over which he is sailing, or the lands through which he is passing, may seem to him perfectly flat. If he were told that the winds, which waft his good ship onward, were blowing it up-hill, he would, perhaps, beguile the weariness of the voyage by many a laugh at the folly of his fellow-passenger. Or if told that the marches which he makes day by day over wide stretches of level prairie were but a tiresome climbing up the side of a lofty mountain, he would rather trust what his own eye-sight tells him, and believe that he is journeying over a perfect level. But whether he credits it or not, the traveller who journeys southward from the North Pole is climbing slowly but surely a very lofty height. It is highest midway between the poles of the Earth, lifting its mighty head thirteen miles above them. In some parts the top of the ridge is land, with cities, fields, woods, and rivers in richest abundance; in other parts it is sea and ocean, along which ships are carrying the news and the commerce of the world. The length of this great mountain girdle running east and west round the Earth is nearly 25,000 miles. The ridge or highest part passes across the Atlantic Ocean from the mouth of the River Amazon to the coast of Africa. Stretching across the whole breadth of that continent, in regions which the foot of civilized man has seldom or never trod, it then crosses the Indian and Pacific Oceans, passing through Sumatra, Borneo, and various groups of islands. Where it strikes the west coast of America, we find perched on it, as it were, the city of Quito. Between that town and the mouth of the River Amazon, on the eastern side of the continent, streams without number, some very large, and some but small, cross and recross, flow beside it or flow along it, presenting the curious sight, seen nowhere else, of rivers flowing up one side and down the other of a lofty mountain, or coursing along its very top

The ridge of this lofty mountain girdling the Earth is called the Equator, ,-a name that comes from a Latin word meaning equal (aequus). At every point throughout its length, the North Pole is 6000 miles off, and the South Pole equally far. . From this equal division of the globe into two, the ridge is called the Equator, or equal divider. It also happens that along this line the day is always of the same length as the night throughout

Twelve hours of light followed by twelve hours of darkness make up the twenty-four from one year's end to another. After sunset, there is little of that pleasant close to the day which we call twilight or gloaming. Scarcely has the chariot of the sun sunk in the west, before darkness is stealing swiftly upward from the east. Light and darkness thus divide the twenty-four hours almost equally. The ridge of high ground midway between the poles is also called by sailors the Line. In former times it was counted a great honour among them to have crossed the Line; but, in these days of steam and of running to and fro, many sailors cross it oftener in a year than most of the greatest voyagers used to do in a lifetime.

the year.


As the Earth is nearly 25,000 miles round at the Equator, and as it takes twenty-four hours to turn from west to east on its axis, it is easy to see that every point of the Equator is careering eastward at the rate of more than 1000 miles an hour. To understand this fully, fix your thoughts on a city such as Quito, built on the higli ridge midway between the Poles. Men, houses, spires, trees, everything in it, are whirling round with such swiftness that they sweep over nearly seventeen miles in a minute. Between every two successive beats of the seconds' pendulum, the city has been carried eastward more than a quarter of a mile. The fastest railway train, from which we start back in alarm as it thunders past, creeps along, compared with this speed, at the snail-like pace of only an eighteenth of the rate. Everything on the great thick girdle of the Earth is whirled round equally quick. Ships at sea with the waters far and near on which they are floating, the angry tossing waves as well as the light spray dashed from them, the birds that cut their way through the air, the clouds that seem to hang motionless in the blue sky overhead, and the light vapours that rise from the steaming earth, are also hurried onward towards the east with the same amazing speed. There is no danger of any of them being whisked off, as water is whisked off a mop when swiftly turned round. They are, as it were, firmly tied on to the Earth by an unseen, unfelt chain, which we call the force of gravity. Pulling all things towards the Earth's centre, it allows nothing to fall off or to fly off. So long as the day remains of twenty-four hours in length, there is no cause for fear. If, however, the day were shortened to a seventeenth part of its present length, this unseen chain, this force of gravity, could no longer tie things on to the Earth. Men, animals, all things, would soon lose their hold. We might be whisked into space, like water from a mop, or might fall off and be left behind, as the Earth hurried forward on its journey round the Sun. But this is danger which need not cause any one the slightest alarm ; for, since the days when the ancient Babylonians watched the risings and settings of the heavenly bodies from the top of the Temple of Baal in the days of Merodach-Baladan or Nebuchadnezzar down to the present time, the length of the day has not changed by so much as a second.

Although everything at the Equator is whirled round at the rate of more than 1000 miles an hour, the rate is not the same in other parts of the Earth. Midway between the Equator and either Pole it is only 740 miles an hour, or about 12 miles a minute. At the nearest point to the North Pole which man has yet reached,

« 上一頁繼續 »