BOOMP! Boomp ! Boomp ! Our driver stopped the car with a jerk, leant back, and shouted, " Asculta, domnule 1 Morelli ! " We listened, and our excitement grew. We had expected nothing quite like this. The noise came at regular intervals. There it was again. Boomp ! Boomp ! Boomp !
We-were still five or six kilometres away, and could see nothing except the endless, flickering- sunset to the south. The sky hid been clear and starlit when we had left Bucharest three hours before, but now a light ground mist • had arisen, softening the outlines of everything. We had first noticed the sunset that hangs over Moreni some fifty kilometres back ; then it was no bigger than a man's hand, a tiny smudge of reddish light dancing somewhere among the foot-hills of the Carpathians, but now,- ever since we had left Ploesti, it had swallowed more of the winter sky. Just before Cflmpina we had turned off the main road and taken a winding country lane. Here and there in the eerie twilight we passed abandoned derricks. Creaking ox-wagons, which held stubbornly to the centre of the track, forced us to slow up, and occasion- ally we met a big lorry, pitching and tumbling over the inequalities of the road. Belated peasants returning from the fields, the shingled roofs and white plastered walls of cottages, solemn long-suffering oxen and outraged geese, who raised indignant wings and hissed at our approach, all looked strangely unfamiliar in the rosy twilight.
Boomp ! Boomp ! Boomp ! The extraordinary noise continued. It is difficult to convey even a suggestion of the uncanny effect of the sound. The world seemed very far away, and unreality held us in a curious spell. We knew what lay the other side of these rolling hills, and yet it was hard to believe that an oil well on fire could alone be responsible for this stupendous spectacle. We might—it seemed quite as probable—have slipped into a fold of time, and have been about to surprise Hephaestus toiling in the smithies of the gods to forge the shackles that were to bind the Titan limbs of Prometheus !
We told our driver to go on, and the car lurched and jolted over the ragged surface of the road. At last we were climbing the hills that hid the little mining town from the world. On the skyline, the web of infernal light winked and flickered above the amphitheatre of the ,hills. The country lane was a bright as Piccadilly Circus at night, and now the regular beat of the flames was almost continuous. We topped the final rise and saw, far below us, the valley bathed in ruddy golden light. Above was the dark wintry sky. The slopes of the hills, five kilometres away, were plainly visible ; hamlets and houses could be picked out as easily as at mid-day ; and in the centre of this wild, flood-lighted saucer of the hills was Moreni !
Jerome Bosch, perhaps, could have painted the extra- ordinary terror of the sight which lay beneath us. It was a nightmare vision of some corner in Hell. We looked claim on Moreni, the busy mushroom town which, since the discovery of oil, has destroyed the quiet agricultural valley. It is no more than a huddle of houses, like any small Western mining town. Nothing appears permanent except the tanks and the spidery derricks that stand as thick as trees in a beech wood. On the outskirts, the colour of silvery pink mullet, stretched rows of huge cylindrical storage tanks from which the oil flows along the oil pipe-line to similar tanks at Constanza, Rumania's seaport on the Black Sea. And above it all, licking and flaring into the night, for all the world like a Brobdingnagian primus stove that has gone wrong, towered the flaming pillar of fire. It surged and roared, an unholy waterspout of golden flame, three hundred metres high.
The air, which was chilly on the uplands, grew percep- tibly warmer as our car, with the engine switched off, moved slowly down the hill to the valley bottom. Once in Moreni, the noise was terrific, and the hot, moistureless air fanned our faces like a draught from a blast-furnace. Everything was as dry as tinder, and the little streets, the ramshackle houses, and even the few surviving trees and bushes were powdered with thick layers of whitish dust.
We took the car as near as possible, and then walked over the scorched earth towards the well. Even with scarves held in front of our faces we could not go closer than a hundred and fifty yards, and at that distance the heat was only tolerable for a few seconds. Out of a jagged hole in the ground shot about ten feet of transparent blue flame, and on top of this rolled the gigantic pillar of fire, fed by thousands of gallons of oil night and day 1 The well caught alight last March, and so far all attempts to extinguish it have been in vain. Now, we were told, as a last resource a trench is being dug in the hopes of tapping the supply. If this fails no one knows what will happen. The danger is that other wells, within the three hundred yards radius, which are still working may ignite also All around us exhausted miners, stripped to the waist, lay on the ground trying to snatch a little sleep. Others sat and watched the flames . . . .
On our way out we stopped to eat at Le Chitu, Moreni's one restaurant that boasts a gipsy band and a cabaret show. The place was crowded with miners who applauded vociferously at every turn. Sitting there under the un- shaded light we could still see the flames through the big windows. Really there was no need for electric light at all. About eleven o'clock we left for Sinaia, and, per- sonally, I was not sorry to go, for the strain both to ears and eyes was terrible. Perhaps one grows accustomed in time, but the faces of the miners, who have had no rest from the noise, and for whom night has never come since last March, all bear witness to the terrific strain. Living on the edge of a volcano seems a peaceful occupation by contrast with life at Moreni. As we drove northwards again the noise accompanied us, and we took our last look at Moreni that night when we arrived at Sinaia, sixty