Page images

LESSON 53.-A SOUTH AFRICAN SCENE. Undiversified-of uniform appearance. Ingenious—clever, skilful. Mottled-spotted.

Mimic-sham. Dusky-dark.

Intersecting-cutting across, (Lat. seco, Depending-hanging down.

I cut, inter, between, among). Selected-chosen (Lat. lego, I choose). Anticipating-expecting. Animated-lively (Lat. anima, life). Devastation-laying waste (Lat. casto, Guana-a sort of lizard.

I ravage. It is a still, calm day, in South Africa. The warm, clear sun is shining upon the russet-brown slopes of hill-sides, where not a tree or a fence is to be seen, with a genial warmth that recalls to mind the sensations of an English August, although it is now actually the middle of the Southern winter. No drop of rain has fallen for weeks. The ground is covered everywhere with a parched coarse grass, which stands stifty and resolutely out from the soil, with here and there the orange blossoms of a prickly tufted aloe, catching the eye in the otherwise undiversified russet field. Some of the distant hills are mottled with broad dark patches, in which a tint of tender green is just blending with scorched blackness, so far as to turn it into a streaked carpet of rich velvet. We shall presently see for ourselves whence comes the scorched blackness, the velvety carpet, and the tender green.

Near at hand, in a shallow grove of the russet slope, a naked dusky figure, with only a slight drapery of furry skins depending from his waist, is busily moving from spot to spot. He stoops to the ground, and a light grey

smoke issues from it at his touch; then a faint red fame glimmers and dances in the coarse dry herbage. The kindler of the flame follows its course, as it creeps gently over the surface, beating it out with some broad object, which he holds in his hand, when it seems inclined to become inconveniently brisk; and leading it, ever and aon, in the direction in which he desires it should

This busy individual has selected the spot for the erection of his hut, and he is now clearing the


neighbourhood of the coarse herbage by fire, in order that he may be surrounded by fresh young grass, in the advancing spring. In the wild and uncultivated pastures of South Africa fire takes the place of the scythe; and the old grass is habitually burned, during the dry season, to make way for a finer and more abundant growth.

But the dusky form, of a sudden, has become very animated and brisk in its movements.

It now leaps from place to place, and seems to be waging a more active conflict with the power that it has called into activity. The puffs and wreaths of white smoke are expanding into a dense murky cloud, which ascends against the blue sky; and the small dancing flames extend in a continuous curving line, to the right and to the left. A flock of long-legged and red-billed cranes settles down upon the margin of the fire, thoroughly awake to what is going on, and flits backwards and forwards across the flickering line; now picking up a halfroasted guana from the black, smouldering embers, and now catching some scared and fugitive insect or quadruped, as it scurries away from the advancing glow. A clear crackling sound is rising into the air. The wind has begun to freshen, when its presence was neither desired, nor looked for; and the flame, which the ingenious and careful savage has kindled, is no longer under the control of his hand. It rises higher and higher, and speeds on in its course with an ever-quickening pace. Viewed from a short distance, the rapidly advancing line of smoke closely resembles the appearance of a railwaytrain, shooting along over some English plain. If it were night, the outlines of the mimic carriages would be seen, traced in red fire, with dark intervals intersecting and breaking the line. As the flames grow in intensity, they add their own in-drawn blast to the rising breeze. They now enter a tract of country where there is grass of two years' growth, with sun-dried culms, and the crackling becomes a hoarse roar. The


flickering tongues, at intervals, leap up twenty feet into the black canopy that floats above; and they rush madly forward, in the direction of the air-current, with the speed of a cantering horse. Two miles ahead there is a settler's homestead, thatch-roofed, and surrounded with out-buildings. It stands at the bottom of a slope, with beaten roads crossing between it and the advancing flame; but the space around has not been bared of its grass by anticipatory fire, as it should have been. The inhabitants of the homestead have heard the ominous roar, and have seen the thickening smoke. White skins and dusky skins have turned out at the sound, and are preparing for a fierce contest. The grass is already fired in a dozen places, in the hope to destroy the fuel before the uncontrollable consumer arrives for its meal, and a dozen pairs of stalwart arms are beating the blazing stubble. The labour is in vain ! In twelve short minutes the fierce conflagration is upon them. It leaps the broad roads without even

a pause of consideration. In another instant a thatch-covered shed is in flames, and a waggon beneath is blazing. The fire then jumps from roof to roof. In two short hours the iron axles and tires of the waggon are lying on the ground, the inconsumable fragments of a dismembered skeleton; and where the farm-buildings and dwellings recently stood, there are bare and smouldering walls

. The owner of the homestead is some hundred pounds poorer than when he rose in the morning, and the fire has swept on in search of other food. It will only cease when the wind dies out, on the approach of sunset, and when the copious night-dews have drenched the thick herbage.

All this devastation has been the work of the inconstant wind.

On a day which gave ample promise of a continued calm, a fitful breeze rose at the wrong moment, and blew the wrong way, without vouchsafing to give any timely notice of its mischievous purpose ; and a few square

yards of burning herbage have been turned into many square miles of black desolation and destruction.

LESSON 54.-HURRICANES. “High Latitude"-latitudes near the Determinate-fixed. poles.

Hemisphere-half a globe (Gr. hemi, Transported—carried to another place half; sphairn, ball).

(Lat. trans, across; porto, I carry). Analogous—similar. Veers—changes round.

i Aerial-pertaining to the air. The true hurricane is never encountered in high northern, or southern latitudes; neither is it found in the mid-region of the equator. It is generally first produced in the close neighbourhood of the tropics, and blows away from them towards the nearest pole. Gentle breezes sweep along, over the surface of the earth, with a speed of four or five miles an hour; a brisk gale, with a speed of ten or fifteen miles an hour; and the heaviest storm of temperate regions with that of forty or fifty miles an hour. The hurricane of the tropics moves at the rate of a hundred miles an hour, and overturns almost every object that it meets. Large trees are torn up by their roots; roofs are lifted from houses; and strong walls overthrown. There are even cases on record, in which heavy cannons and their carriages have been transported for several feet.

The spots of the earth which the hurricanes most love are the West India Islands, and the neighbourhood of Madagascar, and the Mauritius. They occasionally disport themselves near the Cape de Verd. They are also frequent in the Chinese Sea, but there they are called typhoons. They burst of a sudden from a fixed centre, and traverse some six or eight hundred miles of the earth's surface, and then die of exhaustion.

When a hurricane is met upon the ocean, a deep murky gloom is first perceived on some part of the horizon : then short and variable squalls of wind and

rain sweep up, with intervals of calm between. Next a fierce gale bursts from some one quarter of the compass, so suddenly, that the masts and spars of ships are often blown away in an instant. After some hours of terrific blowing, the wind veering slightly during the time, a dead calm falls round the vessel.” Then, after an interval, the gale again bursts from an opposite point to that from which it came at the first; veers gradually as it blows, for some hours; and then finally subsides into fitful squalls.

The reason for these peculiar features—the suddenness of the burst-the gradual veering of the windthe deceitful calm in the midst-and the reversed direction at the end is, that the hurricane whirls along over the earth's surface, as a teetotum spins along upon the table. It has two motions of its own. It spins upon its own centre, and it advances along the ground, or sea, as it spins. It is in the spinning motion that its great force resides. It is its whirling circumference which travels with a speed nearly twice as great as the express railway train, and which overthrows and destroys the objects that stand in its way. Its rate of onward movement over the surface does not commonly exceed ten or twelve miles an hour. A great hurricane, which swept over the West India Islands in the year 1831, was proved to have performed a journey of two thousand miles in 150 hours, and thus to have traversed its path with a speed of something like twelve miles and a half in the hour. It is because of its whirling gait, as it goes onwards, that the hurricane has acquired for itself the appropriate name of “The Whirlwind.”

There is one very surprising and remarkable fact, ooncerning the movement of the hurricane. It always whirls in the same direction, at each of its favourite haunts; but it turns opposite ways, on the opposito sides of the equator. It whirls from east, through north, to west, on the north side of the equator; and it

« PreviousContinue »