Young Folks' Library: Wonders of Earth, Sea and Sky HTML version

A Stalagmite Cave
(From the Voyage of the Challenger.)
I think the Painter's Vale cave is the prettiest of the whole. The opening is not very large.
It is an arch over a great mass of débris forming a steep slope into the cave, as if part of
the roof of the vault had suddenly fallen in. At the foot of the bank of débris one can
barely see in the dim light the deep clear water lying perfectly still and reflecting the roof
and margin like a mirror. We clambered down the slope, and as the eye became more
accustomed to the obscurity the lake stretched further back. There was a crazy little punt
moored to the shore, and after lighting candles Captain Nares rowed the Governor back
into the darkness, the candles throwing a dim light for a [pg 112] time—while the voices became
more hollow and distant—upon the surface of the water and the vault of stalactite, and
finally passing back as mere specks into the silence.
After landing the Governor on the opposite side, Captain Nares returned for me, and we
rowed round the weird little lake. It was certainly very curious and beautiful; evidently a
huge cavity out of which the calcareous sand had been washed or dissolved, and whose
walls, still to a certain extent permeable, had been hardened and petrified by the constant
percolation of water charged with carbonate of lime. From the roof innumerable
stalactites, perfectly white, often several yards long and coming down to the delicacy of
knitting-needles, hung in clusters; and wherever there was any continuous crack in the
roof or wall, a graceful, soft-looking curtain of white stalactite fell, and often ended,
much to our surprise. Deep in the water Stalagmites also rose up in pinnacles and fringes
through the water, which was so exquisitely still and clear that it was something difficult
to tell where the solid marble tracery ended, and its reflected image began. In this cave,
which is a considerable distance from the sea, there is a slight change of level with the
tide sufficient [pg 113] to keep the water perfectly pure. The mouth of the cave is overgrown
with foliage, and every tree is draped and festooned with the fragrant Jasminum gracile,
mingled not unfrequently with the "poison ivy" (Rhus toxicodendron). The Bermudians,
especially the dark people, have a most exaggerated horror of this bush. They imagine
that if one touch it or rub against it he becomes feverish, and is covered with an eruption.
This is no doubt entirely mythical. The plant is very poisonous, but the perfume of the
flower is rather agreeable, and we constantly plucked and smelt it without its producing
any unpleasant effect. The tide was with us when we regained the Flats Bridge, and the
galley shot down the rapid like an arrow, the beds of scarlet sponges and the great lazy
trepangs showing perfectly clearly on the bottom at a fathom depth.
Every here and there throughout the islands there are groups of bodies of very peculiar
form projecting from the surface of the limestone where it has been weathered. These
have usually been regarded as fossil palmetto stumps, the roots of trees which have been
overwhelmed with sand and whose organic matter has been entirely removed and
replaced by carbonate of lime. Fig. 1 represents one of the most characteristic [pg 114] of these
from a group on the side of the road in Boaz Island. It is a cylinder a foot in diameter and
six inches or so high; the upper surface forms a shallow depression an inch deep
surrounded by a raised border; the bottom of the cup is even, and pitted over with small
depressions like the marks of rain-drops on sand; the walls of the cylinder seem to end a
few inches below the surface of the limestone in a rounded boss, and all over this there