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Charles Kingsley

The Chalk‑Carts

W HAT do you want to know about next? More about the caves in which the old savages lived,—how they were made, and how the curious things inside them got there, and so forth?

Well, we will talk about that in good time: but now—What is that coming down the hill?

Oh, only some chalk-carts.

Only some chalk-carts? It seems to me that these chalk-carts are the very things we want; that if we follow them far enough—I do not mean with our feet along the public road, but with our thoughts along a road which, I am sorry to say, the public do not yet know much about—we shall come to a cave, and understand how a cave is made. Meanwhile, do not be in a hurry to say, "Only a chalk-cart," or only a mouse, or only a dead leaf. Chalk-carts, like mice, and dead leaves, and most other matters in the universe are very curious and odd things in the eyes of wise and reasonable people. Whenever I hear young men saying "only" this and "only" that, I begin to suspect them of belonging, not to the noble army of sages—much less to the most noble army of martyrs,—but to the ignoble army of noodles, who think nothing interesting or important but dinners, and balls, and races, and backbiting their neighbours: and I should be sorry to see you enlisting in that regiment when you grow up. But think—are not chalk-carts very odd and curious things? I think they are. To my mind, it is a curious question how men ever thought of inventing wheels; and, again, when they first thought of it. It is a curious question, too, how men ever found out that they could make horses work for them, and so began to tame them, instead of eating them, and a curious question (which I think we shall never get answered) when the first horse-tamer lived, and in what country. And a very curious, and, to me, a beautiful sight it is, to see those two noble horses obeying that little boy, whom they could kill with a single kick.

But, beside all this, there is a question, which ought to be a curious one to you (for I suspect you cannot answer it)—Why does the farmer take the trouble to send his cart and horses eight miles and more, to draw in chalk from Odiham chalk-pit?



Oh, he is going to put it on the land, of course. They are chalking the bit at the top of the next field, where the copse was grubbed.

But what good will he do by putting chalk on it? Chalk is not rich and fertile, like manure. It is altogether poor, barren stuff: you know that, or ought to know it. Recollect the chalk cuttings and banks on the railway between Basingstoke and Winchester—how utterly barren they are. Though they have been open these thirty years, not a blade of grass, hardly a bit of moss, has grown on them, or will grow, perhaps, for centuries.

Come, let us find out something about the chalk before we talk about the caves. The chalk is here, and the caves are not; and "Learn from the thing that lies nearest you" is as good a rule as "Do the duty which lies nearest you." Let us come into the grubbed bit, and ask the farmer—there he is in his gig.

Well, old friend, and how are you? Here is a little boy who wants to know why you are putting chalk on your field.

Does he then? If he ever tries to farm round here, he will have to learn for his first rule—No chalk, no wheat.

But why?

Why, is more than I can tell, young squire. But if you want to see how it comes about, look here at this freshly-grubbed land—how sour it is. You can see that by the colour of it—some black, some red, some green, some yellow, all full of sour iron, which will let nothing grow. After the chalk has been on it a year or two, those colours will have all gone out of it; and it will turn to a nice wholesome brown, like the rest of the field; and then you will know that the land is sweet, and fit for any crop. Now do you mind what I tell you, and then I'll tell you something more. We put on the chalk because, beside sweetening the land, it will hold water. You see, the land about here, though it is often very wet from springs, is sandy and hungry; and when we drain the bottom water out of it, the top water (that is, the rain) is apt to run through it too fast: and then it dries and burns up; and we get no plant of wheat, nor of turnips either. So we put on chalk to hold water, and keep the ground moist.

But how can these lumps of chalk hold water? They are not made like cups.

No: but they are made like sponges, which serves our turn better still. Just take up that lump, young squire, and you'll see water enough in it, or rather looking out of it, and staring you in the face.

Why! one side of the lump is all over thick ice.

So it is. All that water was inside the chalk last night, till it froze. And then it came squeezing out of the holes in the chalk in strings, as you may see it if you break the ice across. Now you may judge for yourself how much water a load of chalk will hold, even on a dry summer's day. And now, if you'll excuse me, sir, I must be off to market.

Was it all true that the farmer said?

Quite true, I believe. He is not a scientific man—that is, he does not know the chemical causes of all these things; but his knowledge is sound and useful, because it comes from long experience. He and his forefathers, perhaps for a thousand years and more, have been farming this country, reading Madam How's books with very keen eyes, experimenting and watching, very carefully and rationally; making mistakes often, and failing and losing their crops and their money; but learning from their mistakes, till their empiric knowledge, as it is called, helps them to grow sometimes quite as good crops as if they had learned agricultural chemistry.

What he meant by the chalk sweetening the land you would not understand yet, and I can hardly tell you; for chemists are not yet agreed how it happens. But he was right; and right, too, what he told you about the water inside the chalk, which is more important to us just now; for, if we follow it out, we shall surely come to a cave at last.

So now for the water in the chalk. You can see now why the chalk-downs at Winchester are always green, even in the hottest summer: because Madam How has put under them her great chalk sponge. The winter rains soak into it; and the summer heat draws that rain out of it again as invisible steam, coming up from below, to keep the roots of the turf cool and moist under the blazing sun.

You love that short turf well. You love to run and race over the Downs with your butterfly-net and hunt "chalk hill blues," and "marbled whites," and "spotted burnets," till you are hot and tired; and then to sit down and look at the quiet little old city below, with the long cathedral roof, and the tower of St. Cross, and the grey old walls and buildings shrouded by noble trees, all embosomed among the soft rounded lines of the chalk hills; and then you begin to feel very thirsty, and cry, "Oh, if there were but springs and brooks in the Downs, as there are at home!" But all the hollows are as dry as the hill tops. There is not a brook, or the mark of a watercourse, in one of them. You are like the Ancient Mariner in the poem, with

"Water, water, every where,

Yet not a drop to drink."

To get that you must go down and down, hundreds of feet, to the green meadows through which silver Itchen glides toward the sea. There you stand upon the bridge, and watch the trout in water so crystal-clear that you see every weed and pebble as if you looked through air. If ever there was pure water, you think, that is pure. Is it so? Drink some. Wash your hands in it and try—You feel that the water is rough, hard (as they call it), quite different from the water at home, which feels as soft as velvet. What makes it so hard?

Because it is full of invisible chalk. In every gallon of that water there are, perhaps, fifteen grains of solid chalk, which was once inside the heart of the hills above. Day and night, year after year, the chalk goes down to the sea; and if there were such creatures as water-fairies—if it were true, as the old Greeks and Romans thought, that rivers were living things, with a Nymph who dwelt in each of them, and was its goddess or its queen,—then, if your ears were opened to hear her, the Nymph of Itchen might say to you:

So child, you think that I do nothing but, as your sister says when she sings Mr. Tennyson's beautiful song,

" 'Chatter over stony ways,

In little sharps and trebles,

And bubble into eddying bays,

And babble on the pebbles.'

Yes. I do that: and I love, as the Nymphs loved of old, men who have eyes to see my beauty, and ears to discern my song, and to fit their own song to it, and tell how

" 'I wind about, and in and out,

With here a blossom sailing,

And here and there a lusty trout,

And here and there a greyling,

" 'And here and there a foamy flake

Upon me, as I travel

With many a silvery waterbreak

Above the golden gravel,

" 'And draw them all along, and flow

To join the brimming river,

For men may come and men may go,

But I go on for ever.'

Yes. That is all true: but if that were all, I should not be let to flow on for ever, in a world where Lady Why rules, and Madam How obeys. I only exist (like everything else, from the sun in heaven to the gnat which dances in his beam) on condition of working, whether we wish it or not, whether we know it or not. I am not an idle stream, only fit to chatter to those who bathe or fish in my waters, or even to give poets beautiful fancies about me. You little guess the work I do. For I am one of the daughters of Madam How, and, like her, work night and day, we know not why, though Lady Why must know. So day by day, and night by night, while you are sleeping (for I never sleep), I carry, delicate and soft as I am, a burden which giants could not bear: and yet I am never tired. Every drop of rain which the south-west wind brings from the West Indian seas gives me fresh life and strength to bear my burden: and it has need to do so; for every drop of rain lays a fresh burden on me. Every root and weed which dies in every field; every dead leaf which falls in the highwoods of many a parish, from the Grange and Woodmancote round to Farleigh and Preston, and so to Brighton and the Alresford downs;—ay, every atom of manure which the farmers put on the land—foul enough then, but pure enough before it touches me—each of these, giving off a tiny atom of what men call carbonic acid, melts a tiny grain of chalk, and helps to send it down through the solid hill by one of the million pores and veins which at once feed and burden my springs. Ages on ages I have worked on thus, carrying the chalk into the sea. And ages on ages, it may be, I shall work on yet; till I have done my work at last, and levelled the high downs into a flat sea-shore, with beds of flint gravel rattling in the shallow waves.

She might tell you that; and when she had told you, you would surely think of the clumsy chalk-cart rumbling down the hill, and then of the graceful stream, bearing silently its invisible load of chalk; and see how much more delicate and beautiful, as well as vast and wonderful, Madam How's work is than that of man.

But if you asked the nymph why she worked on for ever, she could not tell you. For like the Nymphs of old, and the Hamadryads who lived in trees, and Undine, and the little Seamaiden, she would have no soul; no reason; no power to say why.

It is for you, who are a reasonable being, to guess why: or at least listen to me if I guess for you, and say, perhaps—I can only say perhaps—that chalk may be going to make layers of rich marl in the sea between England and France; and those marl-beds may be upheaved and grow into dry land, and be ploughed, and sowed, and reaped by a wiser race of men, in a better-ordered world than this: or the chalk may have even a nobler destiny before it. That may happen to it, which has happened already to many a grain of lime. It may be carried thousands of miles away to help in building up a coral reef (what that is I must tell you afterwards). That coral reef may harden into limestone beds. Those beds may be covered up, pressed, and, it may be, heated, till they crystallize into white marble: and out of it fairer statues be carved, and grander temples built, than the world has ever yet seen.

And if that is not the reason why the chalk is being sent into the sea, then there is another reason, and probably a far better one. For, as I told you at first, Lady Why's intentions are far wiser and better than our fancies; and she—like Him whom she obeys—is able to do exceeding abundantly, beyond all that we can ask or think.

But you will say now that we have followed the chalk-cart a long way, without coming to the cave.


You are wrong. We have come to the very mouth of the cave. All we have to do is to say—not "Open Sesame," like Ali Baba in the tale of the Forty Thieves—but some word or two which Madam Why will teach us, and forthwith a hill will open, and we shall walk in, and behold rivers and cascades underground, stalactite pillars and stalagmite statues, and all the wonders of the grottoes of Adelsberg, Antiparos, or Kentucky.

Am I joking? Yes, and yet no; for you know that when I joke I am usually most in earnest. At least, I am now.

But there are no caves in chalk?

No, not that I ever heard of. There are, though, in limestone, which is only a harder kind of chalk. Madam How could turn this chalk into hard limestone, I believe, even now; and in more ways than one: but in ways which would not be very comfortable or profitable for us Southern folk who live on it. I am afraid that—what between squeezing and heating—she would flatten us all out into phosphatic fossils, about an inch thick; and turn Winchester city into a "breccia" which would puzzle geologists a hundred thousand years hence. So we will hope that she will leave our chalk downs for the Itchen to wash gently away, while we talk about caves, and how Madam How scoops them out by water underground, just in the same way, only more roughly, as she melts the chalk.

Suppose, then, that these hills, instead of being soft, spongy chalk, were all hard limestone marble, like that of which the font in the church is made. Then the rain-water, instead of sinking through the chalk as now, would run over the ground down-hill, and if it came to a crack (a fault, as it is called) it would run down between the rock; and as it ran it would eat that hole wider and wider year by year, and make a swallow-hole—such as you may see in plenty if you ever go up Whernside, or any of the high hills in Yorkshire—unfathomable pits in the green turf, in which you may hear the water tinkling and trickling far, far underground.

And now, before we go a step further, you may understand, why the bones of animals are so often found in limestone caves. Down such swallow-holes how many beasts must fall: either in hurry and fright, when hunted by lions and bears and such cruel beasts; or more often still in time of snow, when the holes are covered with drift; or, again, if they died on the open hill-sides, their bones might be washed in, in floods, along with mud and stones, and buried with them in the cave below; and beside that, lions and bears and hyænas might live in the caves below, as we know they did in some caves, and drag in bones through the caves' mouths; or, again, savages might live in that cave, and bring in animals to eat, like the wild beasts; and so those bones might be mixed up, as we know they were, with things which the savages had left behind—like flint tools or beads; and then the whole would be hardened, by the dripping of the limestone water, into a paste of breccia just like this in my drawer. But the bones of the savages themselves you would seldom or never find mixed in it—unless some one had fallen in by accident from above. And why? (For there is a Why? to that question: and not merely a How?) Simply because they were men; and because God has put into the hearts of all men, even of the lowest savages, some sort of reverence for those who are gone; and has taught them to bury, or in some other way take care of, their bones.

But how is the swallow-hole sure to end in a cave?

Because it cannot help making a cave for itself if it has time.

Think: and you will see that it must be so. For that water must run somewhere; and so it eats its way out between the beds of the rock, making underground galleries, and at last caves and lofty halls. For it always eats, remember, at the bottom of its channel, leaving the roof alone. So it eats, and eats, more in some places and less in others, according as the stone is harder or softer, and according to the different direction of the rock-beds (what we call their dip and strike); till at last it makes one of those wonderful caverns about which you are so fond of reading,—such a cave as there actually is in the rocks of the mountain of Whernside, fed by the swallow-holes around the mountain-top; a cave hundreds of yards long, with halls, and lakes, and waterfalls, and curtains and festoons of stalactite which have dripped from the roof, and pillars of stalagmite which have been built up on the floor below. These stalactites (those tell me who have seen them) are among the most beautiful of all Madam How's work; sometimes like branches of roses or of grapes; sometimes like statues; sometimes like delicate curtains, and I know not what other beautiful shapes. I have never seen them, I am sorry to say; and therefore I cannot describe them. But they are all made in the same way; just in the same way as those little straight stalactites which you may have seen hanging, like icicles, in vaulted cellars, or under the arches of a bridge. The water melts more lime than it can carry, and drops some of it again, making fresh limestone grain by grain as it drips from the roof above; and fresh limestone again where it splashes on the floor below: till, if it dripped long enough, the stalactite hanging from above would meet the stalagmite rising from below, and join in one straight round white graceful shaft, which would seem (but only seem) to support the roof of the cave. And out of that cave—though not always out of the mouth of it—will run a stream of water, which seems to you clear as crystal, though it is actually, like the Itchen at Winchester, full of lime; so full of lime, that it makes beds of fresh limestone, which are called travertine—which you may see in Italy, and Greece, and Asia Minor: or perhaps it petrifies, as you call it, the weeds in its bed, like that dropping-well at Knaresborough, of which you have often seen a picture. And the cause is this: the water is so full of lime, that it is forced to throw away some of it upon everything it touches, and so incrusts with stone—though it does not turn to stone—almost anything you put in it. You have seen, or ought to have seen, petrified moss and birds' nests and such things from Knaresborough Well: and now you know a little, though only a very little, of how the pretty toys are made.

Now if you can imagine for yourself (though I suppose a little boy cannot) the amount of lime which one of these subterranean rivers would carry away, gnawing underground centuries after centuries, day and night, summer and winter, then you will not be surprised at the enormous size of caverns which may be seen in different parts of the world: but always, I believe, in limestone rock. You would not be surprised (though you would admire them) at the caverns of Adelsberg, in Carniola (in the south of Austria, near the top of the Adriatic), which runs, I believe, for miles in length; and in the lakes of which, in darkness from its birth until its death, lives that strange beast, the Proteus, a sort of long newt which never comes to perfection—I suppose for want of the genial sunlight which makes all things grow. But he is blind; and more, he keeps all his life the same feathery gills which newts have when they are babies, and which we have so often looked at through the microscope, to see the blood-globules run round and round inside. You would not wonder, either, at the Czirknitz Lake, near the same place, which at certain times of the year vanishes suddenly through chasms under water, sucking the fish down with it; and after a certain time boils suddenly up again from the depths, bringing back with it the fish, who have been swimming comfortably all the time in a subterranean lake; and bringing back, too (and, extraordinary as this story is, there is good reason to believe it true) live wild ducks, who went down small and unfledged, and come back full-grown and fat, with water-weeds and small fish in their stomachs, showing they have had plenty to feed on underground. But—and this is the strangest part of the story, if true—they come up unfledged just as they went down, and are moreover blind from having been so long in darkness. After a while, however, folks say, their eyes get right, their feathers grow, and they fly away like other birds.

Neither would you be surprised (if you recollect that Madam How is a very old lady indeed, and that some of her work is very old likewise) at that Mammoth Cave in Kentucky, the largest cave in the known world, through which you may walk nearly ten miles on end; and in which a hundred miles of gallery have been explored already, and yet no end found to the cave. In it (the guides will tell you) there are "226 avenues, 47 domes, 8 cataracts, 23 pits, and several rivers;" and if that fact is not very interesting to you (as it certainly is not to me) I will tell you something which ought to interest you: that this cave is so immensely old that various kinds of little animals, who have settled themselves in the outer parts of it, have had time to change their shape, and to become quite blind; so that blind fathers and mothers have blind children, generation after generation.

There are blind rats there, with large shining eyes which cannot see; blind landcrabs, who have the foot-stalks of their eyes (you may see them in any crab) still left: but the eyes which should be on the top of them are gone. There are blind fish, too, in the cave, and blind insects; for, if they have no use for their eyes in the dark, why should Madam How take the trouble to finish them off?

One more cave I must tell you of, to show you how old some caves must be; and then I must stop: and that is the cave of Caripé, in Venezuela, which is the most northerly part of South America. There, in the face of a limestone cliff, crested with enormous flowering trees, and festooned with those lovely creepers of which you have seen a few small ones in hothouses, there opens an arch as big as the west front of Winchester Cathedral, and runs straight in like a cathedral nave for more than 1,400 feet. Out of it runs a stream; and along the banks of that stream, as far as the sunlight strikes in, grow wild bananas, and palms, and lords and ladies (as you call them), which are not, like ours, one foot, but many feet high. Beyond that the cave goes on, with subterranean streams, cascades, and halls, no man yet knows how far. A friend of mine last year went in farther, I believe, than any one yet has gone; but, instead of taking Indian torches made of bark and resin, or even torches made of Spanish wax, such as a brave bishop of those parts used once when he went in farther than any one before him, he took with him some of that beautiful magnesium light which you have seen often here at home. And in one place, when he lighted up the magnesium, he found himself in a hall full 300 feet high—higher far, that is, than the dome of St. Paul's—and a very solemn thought it was to him, he said, that he had seen what no other human being ever had seen; and that no ray of light had ever struck on that stupendous roof in all the ages since the making of the world. But if he found out something which he did not expect, he was disappointed in something which he did expect. For the Indians warned him of a hole in the floor which (they told him) was an unfathomable abyss. And lo and behold, when he turned the magnesium light upon it, the said abyss was just about eight feet deep. But it is no wonder that the poor Indians with their little smoky torches should make such mistakes; no wonder, too, that they should be afraid to enter far into those gloomy vaults; that they should believe that the souls of their ancestors live in that dark cave; and that they should say that when they die they will go to the Guacharos, as they call the birds that fly with doleful screams out of the cave to feed at night, and in again at daylight, to roost and sleep.


Now, it is these very Guacharo birds which are to me the most wonderful part of the story. The Indians kill and eat them for their fat, although they believe they have to do with evil spirits. But scientific men who have studied these birds will tell you that they are more wonderful than if all the Indians' fancies about them were true. They are great birds, more than three feet across the wings, somewhat like owls, somewhat like cuckoos, somewhat like goatsuckers: but, on the whole, unlike anything in the world but themselves; and instead of feeding on moths or mice, they feed upon hard dry fruits, which they pick off the trees after the set of sun. And wise men will tell you, that in making such a bird as that, and giving it that peculiar way of life, and settling it in that cavern, and a few more caverns in that part of the world, and therefore in making the caverns ready for them to live in, Madam How must have taken ages and ages, more than you can imagine or count.

But that is among the harder lessons which come in the latter part of Madam How's book. Children need not learn them yet; and they can never learn them, unless they master her alphabet, and her short and easy lessons for beginners, some of which I am trying to teach you now.

But I have just recollected that we are a couple of very stupid fellows. We have been talking all this time about chalk and limestone, and have forgotten to settle what they are, and how they were made. We must think of that next time. It will not do for us (at least if we mean to be scientific men) to use terms without defining them; in plain English, to talk about—we don't know what.