"The sky does not look sad here, as it always does on the earth—to me at least," whispered Miss Carmichael, after Gazen had left us alone. "I suppose that is because there is so much sadness around us and within us there."
"The atmosphere, too, is often very impure," I replied, also in a whisper.
"Up here I enjoy a sense of absolute peace and well-being, if not happiness," she murmured. "I feel raised above all the miseries of life—they appear to me so paltry and so vain."
"As when we reach a higher moral elevation," said I, drifting into a confidential mood, like passengers on the deck of a ship, under the mysterious glamour of the night-sky. "Such moments are too rare in life. Do you remember the lines of Shakespeare:—
"'Look, how the floor of heaven Is thick inlaid with patines of bright gold: There's not the smallest orb which thou behold'st, But in his motion like an angel sings, Still quiring to the young-eyed cherubims: Such harmony is in immortal souls; But whilst this muddy vesture of decay Doth grossly close it in—we cannot hear it.'"
"True," responded Miss Carmichael, "and now I begin to feel like a disembodied spirit—a 'young-eyed cherubim.' I seem to belong already to a better planet. Should you not like to dwell here for ever, far away from the carking cares and troubles of the world?"
The unwonted sadness of her tone reminded me of her devoted life, and I turned towards her with new interest and sympathy. She was looking at the Evening Star, whose bright beam softened the irregularities of her profile, and made her almost beautiful.
"Yes," I answered, and the words "with you" formed themselves in my heart. I know not what folly I might have spoken had not the conversation been interrupted by Gazen, who called out in his unromantic style,
"I say, Miss Carmichael! Won't you come and take a look at Venus?"
She rose at once, and I followed her to the observatory.
The telescope was very powerful for its size, and showed the dusky night side of the planet against the brilliant crescent of the day like the "new moon in the arms of the old," or, as Miss Carmichael said, "like an amethyst in a silver clasp."
"Really, it is not unlike that," said Gazen, pleased with her feminine conceit. "If the instrument were stronger you would probably see the clasp go all round the dusky violet body like a bright ring, and probably, too, an ashen light within it, such as we see on the dark side of the moon. By-and-by, as we get nearer, we shall study the markings of the terminator, and a shallow notch that is just visible on the inner edge of the southern horn. Can you see it?"
"Yes, I think I can. What is it?" replied Miss Carmichael.
"Probably a vast crater, or else a range of high mountains intercepting the sunlight, and making a scallop in the border of the terminator. However, that is a secret for us to find out. We know very little of the planet Venus—not even the length of her day. Some think it is eight months long, others twenty-four hours. We shall see. I have begun to keep a record of our discoveries, and some day—when I return to town—I hope to read a paper on the subject before the most potent, grave, and learned Fellows of the Royal Astronomical Society—I rather think I shall surprise them—I do not say startle—it is impossible to startle the Fellows of the Royal Astronomical Society—or even to astonish them—you might as well hope to tickle the Sphinx—but I fancy it will stir them up a little, especially my friend Professor Sylvanus Pettifer Possil. However, I must take care not to give them the slightest hint of what they are to expect beforehand, otherwise they will declare they knew all about it already."
"Has it struck you that up here the stars appear of different colours at various distances," said Miss Carmichael.
"Oh, yes," answered Gazen, "and in the pure atmosphere of the desert, or on the summit of high mountains, we notice a similar effect. The stars have been compared to the trees of a forest, in different stages of growth and decay. Some of them are growing in splendour, and others again are dying out. Arcturus, a red star, for example, is fast cooling to a cinder. Capella, over there, is a yellow star, like our own sun, and past his prime. Sirius, that brilliant white or bluish star, which flashes like a diamond in the south, is one of the fiercest. He is a double star, his companion being seven and himself thirteen times massier than the sun; but they are fifty times brighter, and a million times further off, that is to say, one hundred billion miles away. These double or twin stars are often very beautiful. The twins are of all colours, and generally match well with each other—for instance, purple and orange—green and orange—red and green—blue and pale green—white and ruby. One of the prettiest lies in the constellation Cygnus. I will show it to you."
"Oh, how lovely!" exclaimed Miss Carmichael, looking through the glass. "The bigger star is a golden or topaz yellow, and the smaller a light sapphire blue."
"Some of the star groups and nebulae are just as pretty," observed Gazen, turning his telescope to another part of the heavens; "most of the stars are white, but there is a sprinkling of yellow, blue, and red amongst them—I mean, of course, to our view, for the absorption of our atmosphere alters the tint."
"Does that mean that there is more youth than age, more life than death, in the universe?" enquired Miss Carmichael.
"Not exactly," replied the astronomer. "There is apparently no lack of vigour in the Cosmos—no great sign of decrepitude; but we must remember that we see the younger and brighter stars better than the others, and for aught we know there are many dark suns or extinct stars, as well as planets and their satellites. I should not like to say that the population of space is going down; but on the whole it may be stationary. I wish I could show you the cluster in Toucan, a rosy star in a ring of white ones."
"Like a brooch of pearls," said Miss Carmichael.
"Yes—not unlike that," responded Gazen, evidently amused at her comparison. "But that constellation is in the Southern Hemisphere. However, here is the 'ring' or 'planetary' nebula in the Lyre."
"What a wonderful thing!" exclaimed Miss Carmichael, with her eye at the instrument. "It looks to me like a golden hoop, with diamond dust inside."
I do not know where Miss Carmichael got her knowledge of jewellery, for to all appearance she wore none.
"Or the cup of a flower," she added, raising her head.
"Poets have called the stars 'fleurs de ciel,'" said Gazen, shifting the telescope, "and if so, the nebula are the orchids; for they imitate crabs, birds, dumb-bells, spirals, and so forth. Take a look at this one, and tell us what you think of it."
"I see a cloud of silver light in the dark sky," said Miss Carmichael, after observing it.
"What does it resemble?"
"It's rather like a pansy—or—"
"A human face!"
"Not far out," rejoined Gazen. "It is called the Devil Nebula!"
"And what is it?" enquired Miss Carmichael.
"It is a cluster of stars—a spawn of worlds, if I may use the expression," answered Gazen.
"And what are they made of? I know very little of astronomy."
"The same stuff as the earth—the same stuff as ourselves—hydrogen, iron, carbon, and other chemical elements. Just as all the books in the world are composed of the same letters, so all the celestial bodies are built of the same elements. Everything is everywhere—"
Gazen was evidently in his own element, and began a long lecture on the constitution of the universe, which appeared to interest Miss Carmichael very much. Somehow it jarred upon me, and I retired to the little smoking-room, where I lit a cigar, and sat down beside the open scuttles to enjoy a quiet smoke.
"Why am I displeased with the lucubrations of the professor?" I said to myself. "Am I jealous of him because he has monopolised the attention of Miss Carmichael? No, I think not. I confess to a certain interest in Miss Carmichael. I believe she is a noble girl, intelligent and affectionate, simple and true; with a touch of poetry in her nature which I had never suspected. She will make an excellent companion to the fortunate man who wins her. When I remember the hard life she has led so far, I confess I cannot help sympathising with her; but surely I am not in love?"
I regret to say that my friend the astronomer, with all his good qualities, was not quite free from the arrogance which leads some men of science to assume a proprietary right in the objects of their discovery. To hear him speak you would think he had created the stars, instead of explaining a secret of their constitution. However, I was used to that little failing in his manner. It was not that. No, it was chiefly the matter of his discourse which had been distasteful to me. The sight of that glorious firmament had filled me with a sentiment of awe and reverence to which his dry and brutal facts were a kind of desecration. Why should our sentiment so often shrink from knowledge? Are we afraid its purity may be contaminated and defiled? Why should science be so inimical to poetry? Is it because the reality is never equal to our dreams? There is more in this antipathy than the fear of disillusion and alloyment. Some of it arises from a difference in the attitude of the mind.
To the poet, nature is a living mystery. He does not seek to know what it is, or how it works. He allows it as a whole to impress itself on his entire soul, like the reflection in a mirror, and is content with the illusion, the effect. By its power and beauty it awakens ideas and sentiments within him. He does not even consider the part which his own mind plays, and as his fancy is quite free, he tends to personify inanimate things, as the ancients did the sun and moon.
To the man of science, on the other hand, nature is a molecular mechanism. He wishes to understand its construction, and mode of action. He enquires into its particular parts with his intellect, and tries to penetrate the illusion in order to lay bare its cause. Heedless of its power and beauty, he remains uninfluenced by sentiment, and mistrusting the part played by his own mind, he tends to destroy the habit of personification.
Hence that opposition between science and poetry which Coleridge pointed out. The spirit of poetry is driven away by the spirit of science, just as Eros fled before the curiosity of Psyche.
How can I enjoy the perfume of a rose if I am thinking of its cellular tissue? I grow blind to the beauty of the Venus de Medicis when I measure its dimensions, or analyse its marble. What do I care for the drama if I am bent on going behind the scenes and examining the stage machinery? The telescope has banished Phoebus and Diana from our literature, and the spectroscope has vulgarised the stars.
Will science make an end of poetry as Renan and many others have thought? Surely not? Poetry is quite as natural and as needful to mankind as science. All men are poetical, as they are scientific, more or less.
It might even be argued that poetry is for the general, for the man as a man; while science is for the particular, for the man as a specialist; and that poetry is a higher and more essential boon than science, because it speaks to the heart, not merely to the head, and keeps alive the celestial as well as the terrestrial portion of our nature.
Shall we prefer the cause to the effect, and the means to the end, or exalt the matter above the form, and the letter above the spirit? Does not the tissue exist for the sweetness of the rose, the marble for the beauty of the stature, and the mechanism for the illusion of the play? The "opposition" between science and poetry lies not in the object, but in our mode of regarding it. The scientific and the poetical spirit are complementary, as the inside to the outside of a garment, and if they seem to drive each other away it is because the mind cannot easily entertain and employ both together; but one is passive when the other is active.
Keats drank "confusion to Newton" for destroying the poetry of the rainbow by showing how the colours were elicited; but after all was Newton guilty? Why should a true knowledge of the cause destroy the poetry of an effect? Every effect must be produced somehow. The rainbow is not less beautiful in itself because I know that it is due to the refraction of light. The diamond loses none of its lustre although chemistry has proved it to be carbon; the heavens are still glorious even if the stars are red-hot balls.
But stones, carbon, and light are familiar commonplace things, and fraught with prosaic associations.
True, and yet natural things are noble in themselves, and only vulgar in our usage. It is for us to purify and raise our thoughts. Instead of losing our interest in the universe because it is all of the same stuff, we should rather wonder at the miracle which has formed so rich a variety out of a common element.
But the mystery is gone, and the feelings and fancies which arose from it.
In exchange for the mystery we have truth, which excites other emotions and ideas. Moreover, the mystery is only pushed further back. We cannot tell what the elements really are; they will never be more than symbols to us, and all nature at bottom will ever remain a mystery to us: an organised illusion. Think, too, of the innumerable worlds amongst the stars, and the eternity of the past and future. Whether we look into the depths of space beyond the reach of telescope and microscope, or backward and forward along the vistas of time, we shall find ourselves surrounded with an impenetrable mystery in which the imagination is free to rove.
Science, far from destroying, will foster and develop poetry. It is the part of the scientific to serve the poetical spirit by providing it with fresh matter. The poet will take the truth discovered by the man of science, and purify it from vulgar associations, or stamp it with a beautiful and ideal form.
Consider the vast horizons opened to the vision of the poet by the investigations of science and the doctrine of evolution. At present the spirit of science is perhaps more active than the spirit of poetry, but we are passing through an unsettled to a settled period. Tennyson was the voice of the transition; but the singer of evolution is to come, and after him the poet of truth.
If we allowed the scientific to drive away the poetical spirit, we should have to go in quest of it again, as the forlorn Psyche went in search of Eros. It is necessary to the proper balance and harmony of our minds, to the purification of our feelings, and the right enjoyment of life. Poetry expresses the inmost soul of man, and science can never take its place. Religion apart, what does the present age of science need more than poetry? What would benefit a hard-headed, matter-of-fact man of science like Professor Gazen if not the arts of the sublime and beautiful—if not a poetical companion—such as Miss Carmichael?
* * * * *
Thus, after a long rambling meditation, I had come back to my bachelor friend and the fair American.
"Yes," thought I, rather uneasily, I must confess, for I could not disguise from myself the fact that I was taken with her, "Gazen and she are not an ill-matched pair by any means. They are alike in many respects, and a contrast in others. They have common ground in their love and aptitude for science; yet each has something which the other lacks. She has poetry and sentiment for instance, but he—well, I'm afraid that if he ever had any it has all evaporated by this time. On the other hand, she"—but it puzzled me to think of any good quality that Miss Carmichael did not possess, and I began to consider that she would be throwing herself away upon him. "They seem to get on well together, however—monstrously well. I wonder what star he is picking to pieces now?"
I listened for the sound of their voices, but not a murmur passed through the curtain which I had drawn across the entrance to the smoking cabin. Only a peculiar tremor from the mysterious engines broke the utter stillness. Was I growing deaf? I snapped my fingers to reassure myself, and the sound startled me like the crack of a pistol. Evidently my sense of hearing had become abnormally acute. My mind, too, was preternaturally clear, and the solitude became so irksome that I rose from my seat, and looked out of the scuttles to relieve the tension of my nerves.
Apparently we had reached a great height in the atmosphere, for the sky was a dead black, and the stars had ceased to twinkle. By the same illusion which lifts the horizon of the sea to the level of the spectator on a hillside, the sable cloud beneath was dished out, and the car seemed to float in the middle of an immense dark sphere, whose upper half was strewn with silver. Looking down into the dark gulf below, I could see a ruddy light streaming through a rift in the clouds. It was probably a last glimpse of London, or some neighbouring town; but soon the rolling vapours closed, and shut it out.
I now realised to the full that I was nowhere, or to speak more correctly, a wanderer in empty space—that I had left one world behind me and was travelling to another, like a disembodied spirit crossing the gloomy Styx. A strange serenity took possession of my soul, and all that had polluted or degraded it in the lower life seemed to fall away from it like the shadow of an evil dream.
In the depths of my heart I no longer felt sorry to quit the earth. It seemed to me now, a place where the loveliest things never come to birth, or die the soonest—where life itself hangs on a blind mischance, where true friendship is afraid to show its face, where pure love is unrequited or betrayed, and the noblest benefactors of their fellowmen have been reviled or done to death—a place which we regard as a heaven when we enter it, and a hell before we leave it. . . . No, I was not sorry to quit the earth.
And the beautiful planet, shining there so peacefully in the west, was it any better? At a like distance the earth would seem still fairer, and perhaps even now some wretch in Venus is asking himself a similar question. Is it not probable that just as all the worlds are made of the same materials, so the mixture of good and evil is much the same in all? I turned to the stars, where in all ages man has sought an answer to his riddles. The better land! Where is it? if not among the stars. I am now in the old heaven above the clouds. Does it lie within the visible universe, as it lies within the heart when peace and happiness are there?
In that pure ether the glory of the firmament was revealed to me as it had never been on the earth, where it is often veiled with clouds and mist, or marred by houses and surrounding objects—where the quietude of the mind is also apt to be disturbed by sordid and perplexing cares. Its awful sublimity overwhelmed my faculties, and its majesty inspired me with a kind of dread. In presence of these countless orbs my own nothingness came home to me, and a voice seemed to whisper in my ear,
"Hush! What art thou? Be humble and revere."
After a while, I perceived a pure celestial radiance of a marvellous whiteness dawning in the east. By slow degrees it spread over the starlit sky, lightening its blackness to a deep Prussian blue, and lining the sable clouds on the horizon with silver. At length the round disc of the sun, whiter than the full moon, and intolerably bright, rose into view.
With the intention of rejoining Professor Gazen in the observatory, and seeing it through his telescope, I flung away my cigar, and stepped towards the door of the cabin; but ere I had gone two paces, I suddenly reeled and fell. At first I imagined that an accident had happened to the car, but soon realised that I myself was at fault. Dizzy and faint, with a bounding pulse, an aching head, and a panting chest, I raised myself with great difficulty into a seat, and tried to collect my thoughts. For the last quarter of an hour I had been aware of a growing uneasiness, but the spectacle of sunrise had entranced me, and I forgot it. Suspecting an attack of "mountain sickness" owing to the rarity of the atmosphere, I attempted to rise and close the scuttles, but found that I had lost all power in my lower limbs. The pain in my head increased, the palpitation of my heart grew more violent, my ears rang like a bell, and I literally gasped for breath. Moreover, I felt a peculiar dryness in my throat, and a disagreeable taste of blood in my mouth. What was to be done? I tried again to reach the door, but only to find that I could not even move my arms, let alone my feet. Nevertheless, I was singularly free from agitation or alarm, and my mind was just as clear as it is now. I reflected that as the car was ever rising into a rarer atmosphere, my only hope of salvation lay in calling for help, and that as the paralysis was gaining on my whole body, not a moment was to be lost. I shouted with all my strength; but beyond a sort of hiss, not a sound escaped my lips. The profound silence of the car now struck me in a new light. Had Gazen and Miss Carmichael not committed the same blunder, and suffered a like fate? Perhaps even Carmichael himself had been equally careless, and the flying machine, now masterless, was carrying us Heaven knows whither. Strange to say I entertained these sinister apprehensions without the least emotion. I had lost all feeling of pain or anxiety, and was perfectly tranquil and indifferent to anything that might happen. It is possible that with the paralysis of my powers to help myself, I was also relieved by nature from the fears of death. I began to think of the sensation which our mysterious disappearance would make in the newspapers, and of divers other matters, such as my own boyhood and my friends, when all at once my eyes grew dim—and I remembered nothing more.
ARRIVING IN VENUS.
"Try to speak—there's a good fellow—open your eyes."
I heard the words as in a dream. I recognised the voice of Gazen, but it seemed to come from the far distance. Opening my eyes I found myself prostrate on the floor of the smoking room, with the professor and Miss Carmichael kneeling beside me. There was a look of great anxiety on their faces.
"I'm all right," said I feebly. "I'm so glad you are safe."
It appears that a short time before, Gazen had closed the scuttles of the observatory and returned with Miss Carmichael to the saloon, then, after calling to me without receiving any answer, had opened the door of the smoking-room and seen me lying in a dead faint. Luckily Miss Carmichael had acquired some knowledge of medicine, partly from her father, and without loss of time they applied themselves to bring me round by the method of artificial respiration employed in cases of drowning or lightning stroke.
It would be tedious to narrate all the particulars of our journey through the dark abyss, particularly as nothing very important befell us, and one day passed like another. Now and then a small meteoric stone struck the car and glanced off its rounded sides.
"Old Charon," as Gazen and I had nicknamed Carmichael, after the grim ferryman of the Styx, seldom forsook his engines, and Miss Carmichael spent a good deal of her time along with him. Occasionally she chatted with Gazen and myself in the saloon, or helped us to make scientific observations; but although neither of us openly confessed it, I think we both felt that she did not give us quite enough of her company. Her manner seemed to betray no preference for one or the other.
Did she, by her feminine instinct, perceive that we were both solicitous of her company, and was she afraid of exciting jealousy between us? In any case we were all the more glad to see her when she did join us. No doubt men in general, and professors in particular, are fond of communicating knowledge, but a great deal depends on the pupil; and certainly I was surprised to see how the hard and dry astronomer beamed with delight as he initiated this young lady into the mysteries of the apparatus, and what a deal of trouble he took to cram her lovely head with mathematics.
We noted the temperature of space as we darted onwards, and discovered that it contains a trace of gases lost from the atmospheres of the heavenly bodies. We also found there a sprinkling of minute organisms, which had probably strayed from some living world. Gazen suggested that these might sow the seeds of organic life in brand-new planets, ready for them, but perhaps that was only his scientific joke. The jokes of science are frequently so well disguised, that many people take them for earnest.
Gazen made numerous observations of the celestial bodies, more especially the sun, which now appeared as a globe of lilac fire in the centre of a silvery lustre, but I will leave him to publish his results in his own fashion. We may claim to have seen the South Pole, but, of course, at a distance too great for scientific purposes. Judging by its appearance, I should say it was surrounded by a frozen land. The earth, with its ruddy and green continents, delineated as on a map, or veiled in belted clouds, was a magnificent object for the telescope as it wheeled in the blue rays of the sun.
Hour after hour, with a kind of loving fascination, we watched it growing "fine by degrees and beautifully less," until at last it waned into a bright star.
Venus, on the other hand, waxed more and more brilliant until it rivalled the moon, and Mercury appeared as a rosy star not far from it.
We soon got accustomed to the funereal aspect of the sky, and the utter silence of space. Indeed, I was not so much impressed by the reality as I had been by the simulacrum in my dream of sunrise in the moon. When I looked at the weird radiance of the sun, however, I realised as I had never done before that he was only a star seen comparatively near, and that the earth was but his insignificant satellite. Moreover, when I gazed down into the yawning gulf, with its strange constellations so far beneath us, I felt to the full the awful loneliness of the universe; and how that all life and soul were confined to mere sunlit specks thinly scattered here and there in the blackness of eternal night.
Steering a calculated course by the stars, we reached the orbit of Venus, and travelled along it in advance of the planet with a velocity rather less than her own, so as to allow her to overtake us. Some notion of the eagerness with which we scanned her approach may be gathered by imagining the moon to fall towards the earth. Slowly and steadily the illuminated crescent of the planet grew in bulk and definition, until we could plainly distinguish all the features of her disc without the aid of glasses. For the most part she was wrapped in clouds, of a dazzling lustre at the equator, and duskier towards the poles. Here and there a gap in the vapour revealed the summit of a mountain range, or the dark surface of a plain or sea.
I need hardly say that none of us viewed the majestic approach of this new world, suspended in the ether, and visibly turning round its axis, without emotion. The boundary of day and night was fairly well marked, and I pictured to myself the wave of living creatures rising from their sleep to life and activity on one side, and going to sleep again on the other, as it crept slowly over the surface. To compare small things with great, the denizens of a planet reminded me of performers under the limelight of a darkened theatre:
"All the world's a stage!"
We amused ourselves with conjectures as to our probable fate on Venus, supposing we should arrive there safe and sound.
"I suppose the authorities will demand our passports," said I. "Perhaps we shall be tried and condemned to death for invading a friendly planet."
"It wouldn't surprise me in the least," said Gazen, "if they were to put us into their zoological gardens as a rare species of monkey."
"What a ridiculous idea!" exclaimed Miss Carmichael. "Now I feel sure they will pay us divine honours. Won't it be nice?"
"You will make a perfect divinity," rejoined the professor with consummate gallantry. "For my part I shall feel more at home in a menagerie."
Thus far we had not observed any signs of intelligent beings on the cloudy globe, and it was still doubtful whether we should not discover it to be a lifeless world.
Our track did not lie exactly on the orbit of the planet, but sufficiently beneath it to let her attraction pull the car up towards her Southern Pole as it passed above us; and by this course of action we trusted to enjoy a wider field of atmosphere to manoeuvre in, and probably a safer descent into a cooler climate than we should have experienced in attempting to land on the equator.
By an illusion familiar in the case of railway trains, it seemed to us that the car was stationary, and the planet rushing towards us. On it came like a great shield of silver and ebony, eclipsing the stars and growing vaster every moment. Under the driving force of the engines and the gravity of the planet, our car was falling obliquely towards the orbit, like a small boat trying to cross the bows of an ironclad, and a collision seemed inevitable. Being on the sunward side we could see more and more of the illuminated crescent as it drew near, and were filled with amazement at the sublime spectacle afforded by the strange contrast between the purple splendour of the solar disc in the black abyss of ether and the pure white celestial radiance which was reflected from the atmosphere of the planet.
The climax of magnificence was reached when the approaching surface came so close as to appear concave, and our little ark floated above a hemisphere of dazzling brightness under a hemisphere of appalling darkness faintly relieved by the glimmer of stars and the purple glory of the sun.
Ere we could express our admiration, however, we were startled by a magical transformation of the scene. The sky suddenly became blue, the stars vanished from sight, the sun changed to a golden lustre, and the broad day was all around us.
"Whatever has happened?" exclaimed Miss Carmichael between alarm and wonder.
"We have entered the atmosphere of Venus," responded Gazen with alacrity. "I wonder if it is breathable?"
So saying he opened one of the scuttles, and a whiff of fresh air blew into the car. Thrusting his nose out, he sniffed cautiously for a while and then drew several long breaths.
"It seems all right as regards quality," he remarked, "but there's too little body in it. We must wait until we get nearer the ground before we can go outside the car."
The pressure of the atmosphere as taken by an aneroid barometer confirmed his observation, but as we were ignorant of its average density it could not give us any certain indication of our height. Far beneath us an ideal world of clouds hid the surface from our view. We seemed to be floating above a range of snowy Alps, their dusky valleys filled with glaciers, and their sovereign peaks glittering in the sun like diamonds. As we descended in a long slant, their dazzling summits rose to meet us, and the infinite play of light and shade became more and more beautiful. The gliding car threw a distinct shadow which travelled along the white screen, and equally to our surprise and delight became fringed with coloured circles resembling rainbows.
"It is a good omen!" cried Miss Carmichael.
"Humph!" responded the professor, shaking his head but smiling good-humouredly; "that is a mere superstition I'm afraid. It is simply an optical effect, a variety of the phenomenon called 'anthelia,' like Ulloa's Circle and the famous 'Spectre of the Brocken.'"
"Explain it how you will," rejoined Miss Carmichael, "to me it is an emblem of hope. It cheers my heart."
"I am very glad to hear it, and I should be very sorry to crush your hopes," said Gazen pleasantly. "We can sometimes derive moral encouragement and profit from external phenomena. A rainbow in the midst of a storm is a cheering sight. I daresay there is a reasonable basis, too, for certain superstitions. St. Elmo's Fire may, for instance, from natural causes, be a sign of good weather, only there is nothing supernatural about it."
"I am not in the secrets of the supernatural," replied Miss Carmichael, "but I believe that if we do not look for the supernatural, if we shut our eyes to it, we are not likely to see it."
"Science has proved that so many things formerly thought to be supernatural are quite natural," observed the astronomer a little more humbly.
"Perhaps the natural and the supernatural are one," said Miss Carmichael. "Does a thing cease to be supernatural because we know something about it?"
"Well, it may have another meaning for us. Before the days of science, great mistakes were made in our interpretations of phenomena. Superstition is born of ignorance, and we can see the germ of it in the child who is frightened by a bogie, or the horse that shies at the moonlight."
"Its higher parent is a belief in the unseen."
"In any case it has done an immense amount of harm," said the professor.
"And probably quite as much good," responded Miss Carmichael. "However, don't think me a friend of superstition. But in getting rid of it let us take care that we do not fall into the opposite error. It seems to me that if science had all its own way it would reduce man and nature to a little machine working in the corner of a big one; but I think it will cost us too dear if it make us lose our sense of the divine origin and spiritual significance of the universe."
Further argument was cut short by the car suddenly dashing into the clouds with a noiseless ease that astonished us, for they had appeared as solid as the rock.
Lost in the vapours, our car seemed at rest; but although we saw nothing, we could hear a vague and distant murmur which charmed our ears after the long silence of space like a strain of music. Whether this was due to the sounds of the surface collected in the clouds, or to electrical discharges I cannot say, for we were trying to solve the mystery by hearkening to it, when it abruptly died away as the car shot into the clear air beneath the clouds.
"The sea! the sea!" cried Miss Carmichael, starting up in joyful excitement to join her father; and sure enough we were flying above a dark blue hemisphere which could only be the ocean.
Gazen now made another test of the atmosphere, and, finding it satisfactory, we opened the door of the car and ventured on the gallery.
After our confinement the fresh air acted like a charm. It felt so cool and sweet in the nostrils that every breath was a pleasure. We inhaled it in long, deep, loving draughts, which imparted vigour to our exhausted frames, and intoxicated our spirits like laughing gas. I could hardly restrain a wild impulse to leap from the car into the unruffled bosom of the sea below, and Gazen, habitually staid, actually shouted with glee. His voice startled the utter stillness, and was mocked by a faint echo from the surface of the water. By timing the interval between a call and its echo we found it nearly ten seconds, which corresponded to a height of about a mile. A repetition of the test from time to time showed that the car was now travelling at a fairly constant level. The wide ocean spread all around us; neither sail nor shore, nor living creature was visible, and we had begun to ask ourselves whether we had not found a watery planet, when Gazen suddenly cried out,
"Whereaway?" I enquired with breathless interest.
He pointed a little to the right of our course, and following the direction of his finger, I saw a dim outline where sea and sky met. It might have been mistaken for the tip of a cloud, but as we advanced it rose above the horizon and took a definite shape not unlike a truncated cone.
The glasses showed it to be an island apparently of volcanic formation, and after a brief consultation with Carmichael, we steered towards it. The emotion of Columbus when he arrived at the Bahamas affords, perhaps, the nearest parallel to our feelings, but in our case the land in sight was the outlier of another planet. Watchful curiosity and silent expectation, the ineffable sorcery of new scenes, the mystery of the unknown, the romance of adventure, the exultation of triumph, and the dread of disaster, were inextricably blended in our hearts. It was a glorious hour, and come what might, we all felt that we had not lived in vain.
The island rose out of the sea like a volcanic peak, and was evidently encircled with a barrier reef, as we could trace a line of snowy surf breaking on its outer verge, and parting the sapphire blue of the deep water without from the emerald green shoals within. The coast, sweeping in beautiful bays, dotted with overgrown islets, and fended by rocky promontories, was rimmed with beaches of yellow sand. The steep sides of the mountain, broken with precipices, and shaggy with vegetation, ascended from a multitude of spurs and buttresses, resembling billows of verdure, and towered into the clouds.
I have used the word verdure, but it is really a misnomer, for although the prevailing tint of the foliage was a dark green, the entire forest was streaked like a rainbow with innumerable flowers, and the breeze which blew from it was laden with the most delightful perfume, Evidently it was all a howling wilderness, for we could not detect the slightest vestige of human dwellings or cultivation. We did not even observe any signs of bird or beast. A profound stillness brooded over the solitude, and was scarcely broken by the drowsy murmur of distant waterfalls.
A forest, like the sea or desert, has a magical power to stimulate the fancy and touch the primitive chords of the heart. Even a Scotch hillside, or a Devonshire moor, can throw their wild spells over the civilised man of letters, and appeal to savage or poetical instincts underlying all his culture. So now, where everything seen or unseen, was new and strange, and the imagination was quite free to rove, the charm was more intense. We stood and gazed upon the moving panorama like persons in a trance. The trees and plants grew in zones according to their different levels above the sea, after the manner of those on the earth, but we were too high to distinguish the various kinds. Apparently, however, feathery palms and gigantic grasses prevailed in the lower, and glossy evergreens, resembling the magnolia and rhododendron, in the middle grounds. All this part of the forest was so thickly encumbered with flowering creepers and parasites as to seem one immense bower, dense enough to exclude the sunlight and make a perpetual twilight underneath. The higher slopes were clad with pine-trees, having long thin needles, which hung from their boughs like fringes of green hair, and bushy shrubs which reminded me of heaths. Above these, enormous ferns with fronds twenty or thirty feet in length, and thickets draped in variegated mosses were thriving in the spray of a thousand slender cataracts which poured from the brink of the precipitous crags on the summit of the mountain.
Seen from a distance, the cliffs appeared of a ruddy tint, but on coming closer we found this was due to myriads of huge lichens of a deep crimson and orange, and that the natural colours of the rock, vermilion and blue, lemon, yellow, purple, and olive green, almost vied with those of the forest lower down the steep.
We glided over the crest at a point where it was almost free of cloud, and were astonished to find it carved by the weather into the most fantastic shapes, rudely imitating the colossal figures of men and animals, or the towers and turrets of ruined castles. After the novelty of this goblin architecture had passed, however, its effect was somewhat dreary. The wind, moaning through the lifeless aisles and crannies of the dripping rocks, the rolling mist and shuddering pools of water, induced a sense of loneliness and depression. The revulsion in our feelings was therefore all the greater when the car suddenly escaped from this height of desolation, and a magnificent prospect burst upon our view.
An immense valley seemed to lie far beneath us, but it was really a table-land of hills, rocks, and mountains, shaggy with vegetation, and flung together in riotous confusion like the billows of a raging sea. The stupendous cliffs behind us dropped sheerly down to the level of the plateau, some ten or twenty thousand feet below, and swept around it as a curving wall on either hand until they vanished in the distance. It was evidently the crater of the extinct volcano.
Our journey across that blooming wilderness will never fade from my recollection, but when I attempt to give the reader an idea of it, impressions crowd so thick and fast upon me as to choke my utterance; I am equally in danger of soaring into a wild extravagance of generality and sinking into a mere catalogue of detail. Yet I find it impossible to hit a mean that can do any justice to it. The extraordinary way in which the ancient lavas of the interior had been riven, upheaved, and piled upon each other by the volcanic forces, the bewildering variety and exuberance of the tropical plants and trees which battened on the rich and crumbling soil, completely baffles all description. What the imagination is unable to conceive, and the eye itself is overpowered in beholding, the pen can never hope to depict. Let the grandest mountain scenes of your memory be jumbled together as in a dream and overgrown with the maddest jungles of the Ganges or the Amazon, and the phantasmagoria would still be nothing to the living reality.
Most of the highest peaks and ridges, as well as the deepest valleys and ravines, were covered with the embowering forest; but here and there a huge boss of granite or porphyry reared its bare scalp out of the verdure like the head and shoulders of some antediluvian monster. The gigantic palms and foliage trees, all tufted with air-plants or strangled with climbers, were literally buried in flowers of every hue, and the crown of the forest rolled under us like a sea of blossoms. Every moment one enchanting prospect after another opened to our wondering eyes. Now it was a waterfall, gleaming like a vein of silver on the brow of a lofty precipice, and descending into a lakelet bordered with red, blue, and yellow lilies. Again it was a natural bridge, spanning a deep chasm or tunnel in the rock, through which a river boiled and roared in a series of cascades and rapids. Ever and anon we passed over glades and prairies, carpeted with orchids, and dotted with clumps of shrubbery, a mass of golden bloom, or tremendous blocks of basalt hung with crimson creepers. Butterflies with azure wings of a surprising spread and lustre, alighted on the flowers, and great birds of resplendent plumage flashed from grove to grove. A sun, twice the diameter of ours, blazed in the northern sky, but the intensity of his rays was tempered by a thin veil of cloud. The atmosphere although warm and moist, was not oppressive like that of a forcing-house, and the breeze was balmy with delicious perfume.
As each new marvel came in sight, unstaled by familiar and untarnished by vulgar associations, fresh from the hand of nature, so to speak, we were filled as we had never been before with an intoxicating sense of the divine mystery and miracle of life. For myself I was fairly dumbfounded with amazement, and my companion, the hard-headed sceptical astronomer, kept on crying and muttering to himself, "My God! my God!" as if he had become a drivelling fool.
We travelled league after league of this paradise run wild (I cannot tell how many) without noticing any change in the character of the scenery. At length, however, it grew less savage by degrees, and we entered on a park-like country which gained in loveliness what it lost in grandeur. Low hills, clad from base to summit in masses of gorgeous bloom, and mirrored in sequestered lakes fringed with pied water-lilies; groves of majestic cedars inviting to repose; rambling shrubberies and evergreen trees festooned with flowering vines; brooks as clear as crystal, murmuring over their pebbly beds, now hiding under drooping boughs, now lost in brakes of tall reeds and foliage plants; grassy meadows gay with crocusses, hyacinths, and tulips, or such-like flowers; isolated rocks and boulders mantled with vivid moss and lichens; hot springs falling over basins and terraces of tinted alabaster; clustering palms and groups of spiry pine-trees; geysers throwing up columns of spray tinged with rainbows; all these and a thousand other features of the landscape which must be nameless passed before our view.
Again and again we startled some herd of wild quadrupeds or flock of gaudy birds unknown to science. Legions of large and burnished insects, veritable living jewels, might be seen everywhere, and flaunting butterflies hovered about the car. So far we had not observed the least sign of human occupation, and yet, as Gazen remarked, the appearance of the country seemed to betray the influence of art. It had not the wild and wasteful luxuriance of the earlier tract, of a region left entirely in the hands of Nature, but rather of a paradise which had been dressed and kept by the gods.
Owing to the height at which we were travelling, and the undulating character of the surface, we could not see very far ahead. At length, however, on emerging from a gap in a range of hills, we came upon a vast plain or prairie stretching away into the distance, and there in the blue haze of the horizon we saw, or fancied we saw, the architecture and gardens of a great city, on the borders of a lake, and above the lake, suspended in mid-air, a spectral palace, glittering in the sunbeams.
We raised a shout of joy and triumph at this discovery.
"Stop a minute, though," said Gazen, and a shade of doubt passed over his face. "Perhaps it is only a mirage."
We levelled our glasses at the distant scene, and scanned it with palpitating hearts. We could discern the general shape, and even the details of many houses, and the roofs and minarets of the palace, which was evidently built on the top of an island in the midst of the lake.
"That is not a phantasm," said I at last; "it is a real city."
Gazen made no reply, but turned and silently shook me by the hand. The tears were standing in his eyes.
A delightful breeze, fragrant with innumerable flowers, mantled the long grass of the prairie which was threaded by a maze of silver streams, and diversified with bosky woodlands. Ere long we observed fantastic cottages and picturesque villas nestling in the coppices, and as may be imagined we were all on tip-toe with curiosity to catch a sight of their inhabitants. We were anxious to see whether they looked like human beings, and how they were disposed towards us.
For a long time we looked in vain, but at length we saw a figure moving across the prairie which turned out to be that of—a man. Yes, a man like ourselves, but well stricken in years, and to judge by his costume apparently a savage. His back was towards us, and as we floated past the professor shouted in a tone loud enough for him to hear,
"Good evening, sir."
The native started, and lifting his eyes to the car beheld it with astonishment and awe. He raised his hands in the air, then dropped them by his side, and sank upon his knees.
"That's a good sign," said Gazen with a grim smile. "I wonder if he understands English. Let's try him again," and he cried out, "What's the name of this place?" but the car was going rapidly, and if there was any response it was lost upon the wind.
As we approached the city, the cottages became thicker and thicker. They were of various sizes, and of a light fanciful design adapted to a warm climate. Each of them was surrounded by a grove or garden rich in flowers and fruit. There were grassy trails and roads from one to another, but we did not see any fields or fences, flocks or herds.
We also saw more and more of the inhabitants—men, women, and children. They were evidently a fine race, tall, handsome, and of white complexion; but the men in general were darker than the women. From their gay dresses, and the condition of the land, we had set them down for savages; but on a nearer view, their lack of arms, the beauty of their homes, and their own graceful demeanour, obliged us to reconsider our opinion. When they first saw the car they did not fly in terror, or muster hastily in armed and yelling bands. Many of them ran and cried, it is true, but only to call their friends, and while some stood with bowed heads and upraised hands as the car floated by, others, like the old man, fell upon their knees as though in prayer.
It was getting late in the day, and the sun was now sloping to the crest of the mountain wall encircling the crater. Accordingly we held a consultation with Carmichael as to whether we should land there, or proceed to the city.
Carmichael thought we should go on.
"But," said Gazen, "would it not be safer to try the temper of the people first, here in the country?"
"These people are not savages," replied Carmichael. "They are civilised, or semi-civilised, else how could they have built so fine a city as that appears. If we should see any signs of hostility amongst them, however, the car is plated with metal and will protect us—we have arms and can defend ourselves—and, besides, we can rise again, and slip away from them."
We decided to advance, but Gazen and I took the precaution to belt on our revolvers.
The huge limb of the sun, red and glowing, sank to rest in a bed of purple clouds on the summit of the rosy precipice, and filled all the green plain with a rich amber light. The fantastic towers and trees of the distant city by the lake shone in his mellow lustre; the solitary island swam in a flood of gold, and the quaint edifice which crowned it blazed with insufferable splendour. As the eerie gloaming died in the west, and thin grey mists began to veil the outlandish scene, we realised to the full that we were all alone and friendless in an unknown world, and a deep sentiment of exile took possession of our souls.
The gloaming fell, and myriads of lights twinkled in the dusk, some flitting about like fireflies, others stationary, while a hum of many voices ascended to our ears. The lights showed us that we were gliding over the city, and the voices told us that our arrival was causing a great commotion. Presently we floated above a large open space or square, lit with coloured lanterns, and evidently adorned with trees, fountains, and statuary. Here a great number of people had assembled, and as they appeared quite orderly and peaceable, we determined to land. While the car descended cautiously, Gazen and I kept a sharp watch on the crowd, with our revolvers in our hands. Instead of anger and resistance, however, the natives only manifested friendly signs of welcome. They withdrew to a respectful distance, and, dropping on their knees, burst into a song or hymn of wonderful sweetness as the car touched the ground.
THE CRATER LAND.
A man of dignified and venerable mien stepped from the crowd, and followed by a train of youths and maidens, each bearing a vase or a tray of fruit and flowers, came towards the car. While yet some ten or twelve paces distant he stopped, and saluted Gazen and myself by lifting his hands gracefully in the air, and bowing his head. After we had acknowledged his greeting with due respect, he addressed us, speaking fluently, and in a reverent, not to say a humble tone; but his words, being entirely strange to our ears, we could only shake our heads with a baffled smile, and reply in English that we did not understand. On this a look of doubt and wonder passed over his face, and pointing, first to the car, then to the sky, he seemed to enquire whether we had not dropped from the clouds. We nodded our assent, and the astronomer, indicating the Earth, which was now shining in the east as a beautiful green star, endeavoured to let him know by signs that we had come from there.
The countenance of our host seemed to brighten again, and, saluting us with a profound obeisance, he said a few words to the attendants, who advanced to the car, and sinking upon their knees proffered us their charming tribute.
"Good!" exclaimed Gazen, testifying his delight and manifesting his gratitude by an elaborate pantomime.
I am afraid his performance must have appeared slightly ludicrous to the Venusians, for one or two of the younger girls had some difficulty in keeping their gravity. On a hint from the Elder the young people retired to their places, leaving their offerings upon the ground.
"They don't intend to starve us at all events," muttered Gazen to me, in an undertone. "The very fragrance of these fruits entices a man to eat them; but will they agree with our stomachs? Notwithstanding my scientific curiosity, and my natural appetite, I am quite willing to let you and Carmichael try them first."
Having found the value of gestures in our intercourse, the Elder leaned his head on one hand, and pointed with the other to a large house at the upper end of the square. His meaning was plain; but as we had already made up our minds to stay in the car, at all events until we had looked about us, Gazen signified as much by energetic but indescribable actions, and further contrived to intimate that we were all thoroughly tired and worn out with our voyage.
The Senior politely took the hint, and repeating his courteous salute, withdrew from our presence, accompanied by his followers.
"I told you so!" cried Miss Carmichael, when Gazen and I re-entered the car. "They are treating us like superior beings."
"It shows their good sense," replied Gazen, and even as he spoke a strain of heavenly music rose from the assembled multitude, and gradually died away as they departed to their homes.
We could not sufficiently admire the beauty and fragrance of the flowers and fruit, or the exquisite workmanship of the vases they had brought. What struck us most was the lovely iridescence which they all displayed in different lights. The vases in particular seemed to be carved out of living opals, yet each was large enough to contain several pints of liquor. Miss Carmichael decorated the dinner-table with a selection from the trays, but although we found the fruits and beverages delicious to the taste, we prudently partook very sparingly of them.
After dinner we all went outside to enjoy the cool evening breeze, but without actually leaving the car. It was hardly dusk, only a kind of twilight or gloaming, and it did not seem to grow any darker. Yet innumerable fire-flies, bright as glow-lamps, and of every hue, were flashing like diamonds against the whispering foliage of the trees.
With the exception of an occasional group or a solitary who stopped awhile to look at the car and then passed on, the square was deserted; but the dwellings around it were lighted up, and being of a very open construction, we could see into them, and hear the voices of the inmates feasting and making merry. Needless to say that everything we observed was interesting to us, for it was all strange; but we were so much exhausted with excitement that we were fain to go to bed.
Next day the professor and I, obeying a common impulse of travellers, got up early and went forth to survey our new quarters. It was a splendid morning, the whole atmosphere steeped in sunshine, and musical with the songs of birds. The big sun was peeping over the distant wall of the crater, but we did not feel his rays uncomfortably hot. A sky of the loveliest azure was streaked with thin white clouds, drawn across it like muslin curtains, and a cooling breeze played gently upon the skin. The dewy air, so spring-like, fresh and sweet, was a positive pleasure to breathe, and we both felt the intoxication, the rapture of life, as we had never felt it since our boyhood. The grass underfoot was green as emerald, and soft as velvet; fountains were flashing in the sunshine, statues gleaming amongst the flowering trees, and birds of brilliant plumage glancing everywhere.
The square opened on the lake, and afforded us a magnificent view of the island. It was conical in shape, and the peak, no doubt, of an old volcanic vent. I should say it was at least a thousand feet in height; the sides were a veritable "hanging garden," wild and luxuriant; and the summit was crowned by a glittering mass of domes, minarets, and spires. Numbers of people, old and young, were bathing along the beach, and swimming, diving, and splashing each other in the water with innocent glee. Large birds, resembling swans, double the size of ours, and of pale blue, rose, yellow, and green, as well as white plumage, were floating in and out, and some of the children were riding on their backs. Fantastic boats, with carved and painted prows, might be seen crossing the lake in all directions, some under sail, and others with rowers, keeping stroke to the rhythm of their songs. The shores of the lake, sloping quietly to the waterside, were covered more or less thickly with the houses and gardens of the city, and far in the distance, perhaps fifty, perhaps a hundred miles away, the view was bounded by the dim and ruddy precipice of the crater wall.
Regaling our eyes on the beautiful prospect, and our lungs on the pure atmosphere, we wandered along the beach, ever and anon pausing to admire the strange forms and beautiful colouring of the shells and seaweeds, or to pick up a rare pebble, then shie it away again, little thinking that it might have been a ruby, sapphire, or topaz, worth a king's ransom on the earth. At length the way was barred by the mouth of a broad river, and after a refreshing plunge in the lake, we returned home to breakfast.
During our absence Carmichael had been visited by our venerable host of the evening, whose name was Dinus, and a young man called Otare, who turned out to be his son. They had brought a fresh supply of dainties, and what was still more important, some pictorial dictionaries and drawings which would enable us to learn their language. As the structure of it was simple, and the vocabulary not very copious, and as we also enjoyed the tuition of the young man, who was devoted to our service, and conducted us in most of our walks abroad, at the end of a fortnight we could maintain a conversation with tolerable fluency.
In the meanwhile, and afterwards, we learned a good deal about the country, and the manners and customs of its inhabitants. Womla, or Woom-la, which means the "bowl" or hollow-land, is evidently the crater of an extinct volcano of enormous dimensions, such as are believed to exist upon the moon. It belongs to an archipelago of similar islands, which are widely scattered over a vast ocean in this part of Venus, but is, we were told, far distant from the nearest of them. The climate may be described as a perpetual spring and summer, with a sky nearly always serene, and of a beautiful azure blue, veiled with soft and fleecy clouds.
Thanks to the lofty walls of the crater, which penetrate the clouds and condense their moisture, the land is watered with many streams. These flow into the central lake, which discharges into the surrounding ocean by a rift or chasm in the mountain side. Moreover, there are frequent showers, and heavy dews by night, to refresh the surface of the ground. Thunderstorms occur on the tops of the mountain and in the open sea; but very seldom within the enchanted girdle of the crater. The air is remarkably pure, sweet, and exhilarating, owing doubtless to the high percentage of oxygen it contains, and the absence of foreign matter, such as microbes, dust, and obnoxious fumes. In fact, we all felt a distinct improvement in our health and spirits, a kind of mental intoxication which was really more than a rejuvenescence. Nor was the heat very trying, even in the middle of the day, because although the sun was twice as large as on the earth, he did not rise far above the horizon, and cooling breezes blew from the chilled summit of the cliffs. The vegetation seems to go on budding, flowering, and fruiting perpetually, as in the Elysian Fields of Homer, where
"Joys ever young, unmixed with pain or fear, Fill the wide circle of the eternal year: Stern winter smiles on that auspicious clime The fields are florid with unfading prime; From the bleak Pole no winds inclement blow, Mould the round hail, or flake the fleecy snow; But from the breezy deep the blessed inhale, The fragrant murmurs of the western gale."
The mysterious behaviour of the sun was a great puzzle to our astronomer. I have said that he rose very little above the horizon, or in other words the lip of the crater, as might be expected from our high southern latitude; but we soon found that he always rose and sank at the same place. In the morning he peeped above the cliffs, and in the evening he dipped again behind them, leaving a twilight or gloaming (I can scarcely call it dusk), which continued throughout the night. From his fixity in azimuth, Gazen concluded that Schiaparelli, the famous Italian observer, was right in supposing that Venus takes as long to turn about her own axis as she does to go round the sun, and that as a consequence she always presents the same side to her luminary. All that we heard from the natives tended to confirm this view. They told us that far away to the east and west of Womla there was a desert land, covered with snow and ice, on which the sun never shone. We also gathered that the sun rises to a greater and lesser height above the cliffs alternately, thus producing a succession of warmer and cooler seasons; a fact which agrees with Schiaparelli's observation that the axis of the planet sways to and from the sun. Gazen was intensely delighted at this discovery, partly for its own sake, but mainly, I think, because it would afford him an opportunity of crushing the celebrated Pettifer Possil, his professional antagonist, who, it seems, is bitterly opposed to the doctrines of Schiaparelli. But why did the sun rise and set every fifteen hours or thereabout, and so make what I have called a "day" and "night"? Why did he not continue in the same spot, except for the slow change caused by the nutation or nodding of Venus? Gazen was much perplexed over this anomaly, and sought an explanation of it in the refraction of the atmosphere above the cliffs producing an apparent but not a real motion of the orb.
The territory of Womla may be divided into three zones, namely, a central plain under cultivation, a belt of undulating hills, kept as a park or pleasaunce, and a magnificent, nay, a sublime wilderness, next to the crater wall.
The natural wealth of the country is very great. Some of its productions resemble and others are different from those of the earth. We saw gold, silver, copper, tin, and iron, as well as metals which were quite new to us. Some of these had a purple, blue, or green colour, and emitted a most agreeable fragrance. There are granites and porphyries, marbles and petrifactions of the most exquisite grain or tints. Precious stones like the diamond, ruby, sapphire, topaz, emerald, garnet, opal, turquoise, and others familiar or unfamiliar to us, fairly abound, and can be picked up on the shores of the lake. I presume that many of them have been formed on a large scale in chasms of the rock by the volcanic fumes of the crater.
What struck us most of all, however, was the prevalence of phosphorescent minerals which absorbed the sunlight by day, and glimmered feebly in the dusk. Professor Gazen seems to think that the presence of snow and clouds, together with these phosphorescent bodies, may help to account for the mysterious luminosity on the dark side of Venus.
The vegetation is wonderfully rich, varied, and luxuriant. As a rule, the foliage is thick and glossy; but while it is green to blackness in some of the trees, it is parti-coloured or iridescent in others. Many of the flowers, too, are iridescent, or change their hues from hour to hour. The beauty and profusion of the flowers is beyond conception, and some of the loveliest grow on what I should take for palms, ferns, canes, and grasses. A distant forest or woodland rivals the splendid plumage of some tropical bird. We heard of "singing flowers," including a water-lily which bursts open with a musical note, and of many plants which are sensitive to heat as well as touch, and if Gazen be correct, to electricity and magnetism. We saw one in a house which was said to require a change of scene from time to time else it would languish and die.
The borders of the lakes and ponds teemed with corals, delicate seaweeds, and lovely shells. Innumerable fishes of gay and brilliant hues darted and burned in the water like broken rainbows.
Reptiles are not very common, at least, in the cultivated zone; but we saw a few snakes, tortoises, and lizards, all brightly and harmoniously marked. One of the snakes was phosphorescent, and one of the lizards could sit up like a dog, or fly in the air like a swallow. The variety and beauty of the birds, as well as the charm of their song, exceed all description. Most of them have iridescent feathers, several are wingless, and one at least has teeth. The insects are a match for the birds in point of beauty, if not also in size and musical qualities. Many of them are luminescent, and omit steady or flashing lights of every tint all through the night.
There are few large quadrupeds in the country, and so far as we could learn none of these are predaceous. We saw an animal resembling a deer on one hand, and a tapir on the other, as well as a kind of toed horse or hipparion, and a number of domestic pets all strange to us.
The people, according to their tradition, came originally from a temperate land far across the ocean to the south-east, which is now a dark and frozen desert. They are a remarkably fine race, probably of mixed descent, for they found Womla inhabited, and their complexions vary from a dazzling blonde to an olive-green brunette. They are nearly all very handsome, both in face and figure, and I should say that many of them more than realise our ideals of beauty. As a rule, the countenances of the men are open, frank, and noble; those of the women are sweet, smiling, and serene. Free of care and trouble, or unaffected by it, mere existence is a pleasure to them, and not a few appear to live in a kind of rapture, such as I have seen in the eyes of a young artist on the earth while regarding a beautiful woman or a glorious landscape. Their attitudes and movements are full of dignity and grace. In fact, during my walks abroad, I frequently found myself admiring their natural groups, and fancying myself in ancient Greece, as depicted by our modern painters. Their style of beauty is not unlike that of the old Hellenes, but I doubt whether the delicacy and bloom of their skins has ever been matched on our planet except, perhaps, in a few favoured persons.
From some experiments made by Gazen, it would appear that while their senses of sight and touch are keener, their senses of hearing and also of heat are rather blunter than ours.
Partly owing to the genial climate, their love of beauty, and their easy existence, their dress is of a simple and graceful order. Many of their light robes and shining veils are woven from silky fibres which grow on the trees, and tinged with beautiful dyes. Bright, witty, and ingenious, as well as guileless, chaste, and happy, I can only compare them to grown-up children—but the children of a god-like race. Thanks to the purity of their blood, and the gentleness of their dispositions, together with their favourable circumstances, they live almost exempt from disease, or pain, or crime, and finally die in peace at the good old age of a hundred or a hundred and fifty years.
Their voices are so pleasing, and their language is so melodious that I enjoyed hearing their talk before I understood a word of it. Moreover, their delightful manners evince a rare delicacy of sentiment and appreciation of the beautiful in life. We foreigners must have been objects of the liveliest curiosity to them, yet they never showed it in their conduct; they never stared at us, or stopped to enquire about us, but courteously saluted us wherever we went, and left us to make ourselves at home. We never saw an ugly or unbecoming gesture, and we never heard a rude, unmannerly word all the time we stayed in Womla.
Some of their public buildings are magnificent; but most of their private houses are pretty one-storied cottages, each more or less isolated in a big garden, and beyond earshot of the rest. They are elegant, not to say fanciful constructions of stone and timber, generally of an oval shape, or at least with rounded outlines; but sometimes rambling, and varying much in detail. Everyone seems to follow his particular bent and taste in the fashion of his home. Many of them have balconies or verandahs, and also terraces on the roof, where the inmates can sit and enjoy the surrounding view. They are doorless, and the outer walls are usually open so that one may see inside; but in stormy weather they are closed by panels of wood, and a translucent mineral resembling glass. They are divided into rooms by mats and curtains, or partitions and screens of wood, which are sometimes decorated with paintings of inimitable beauty. The ceilings are usually of carved wood, and the floors inlaid with marbles, corals, and the richer stones. There are no stuffy carpets on the floors, or hangings on the walls to collect the dust. The light easy furniture is for the most part made of precious or fragrant woods of divers colours—red, black, yellow, blue, white, and green. At night the rooms are softly and agreeably lighted by phosphorescent tablets, or lamps of glow-worms and fire-flies in crystal vases.
The dishes and utensils not only serve but adorn the home. Most of the implements and fittings are made of coloured metals or alloys. Many of the cups and vessels are beautifully cut from shells and diamonds, rubies, or other precious stones. Statuary, manuscripts, and musical instruments, bespeak their taste and genius for the fine arts.
Their love of Nature is also shown in their gardens and pleasure grounds, which are stocked with the rarest flowers, fruits, and pet animals; such as bright fishes, luminous frogs and moths, singing birds, and so forth, none of which are captives in the strict sense of the word.
Members of one family live under the same roof, or at all events within the same ground. The father is head of the household, and the highest in authority. The mother is next, and the children follow in the order of their age. They hold that the proper place for the woman is between the man and the child, and that her nature, which partakes of both, fits her for it. On the rare occasions when authority needs to be exercised it is promptly obeyed. All the members of the family mix freely together in mutual confidence and love, with reverence, but not fear. They are very clean and dainty in their habits. To every house, either in an open court or in the garden, there is a bathing pond of running water, with a fountain playing in the middle, where they can bathe at any time without going to the lake.
They deem it not only gross to eat flesh or fish, but also barbarous, nay cruel, to enjoy and sustain their own lives through the suffering and death of other creatures. This feeling, or prejudice as some would call it, extends even to eggs. They live chiefly on fruits, nuts, edible flowers, grain, herbs, gums, and roots, which are in great profusion. I did not see any alcoholic, or at least intoxicating beverages amongst them. Their drink is water, either pure or else from mineral springs, and the delectable juices of certain fruits and plants. They eat together, chatting merrily the while, and afterwards recline on couches listening to some tale, or song, or piece of music, but taking care not to fall asleep, as they believe it is injurious.
They rejoice when a child is born, and cherish it as the most holy gift. For the first eight or ten years of its life it is left as much as possible to the teaching of Nature, care being taken to guard it from serious harm. It is allowed to run wild about the gardens and fields, developing its bodily powers in play, and gaining a practical experience of the most elementary facts. After that it goes to school, at first for a short time, then, as it becomes used to the confinement and study, for a longer and longer period each day. Their end in education is to produce noble men and women; that is to say, physical, moral, and intellectual beauty by assisting the natural growth. They hold it a sin to falsify or distort the mind, as well as the soul or body of a child. They seem to be as careful to cultivate the genius and temperament as the heart and conscience. Their object is to train and form the pupil according to the intention of Nature without forcing him beyond his strength, or into an artificial mould. Studious to preserve the harmony and unity of mind, soul, and body, they never foster one to the detriment of the others, but seek to develop the whole person.
It is not so much words as things, not so much facts, dates, and figures, as principles, ideas, and sentiments, which they endeavour to teach. The scholar is made familiar with what he is told by observation and experience whenever it is possible, for that is how Nature teaches. Precept, they say, is good, and example is better; but an ideal of perfection is best of all.
At first more attention is paid to the cultivation of the body than the mind. Not only are the boys and girls trained in open-air gymnasia, or contend in games, but they also work in the gardens, and during the holidays are sent into the wilderness under the guidance of their elders, especially their elder brothers, to rough it there in primitive freedom.
The first lessons of the pupil are very short and simple, but as his mind ripens they become longer and more difficult. The education of the soul precedes that of the mind. They wish to make their children good before they make them clever; and good by the feelings of the heart rather than the instruction of the head. Every care is taken to refine and strengthen the sentiments and instincts, the conscience, good sense and taste, as well as the affections, filial piety, friendship, and the love of Nature. Spiritual and moral ideals are inculcated by means of innocent and simple tales or narratives. Children are taught to obey the authority placed over them, or in their own breast, and to sacrifice all to their duty. The conduct of the teacher must be irreproachable, because he is a model to them; but while they look upon him as their friend and guide, he leaves them free to choose their own companions and amuse themselves in their own way.
In the cultivation of the mind they give the first and foremost place to the imagination. The reason, they say, is mechanical, and cannot rise above the known; that is to say, the real; whereas the imagination is creative and attains to the unknown, the ideal. Its highest work is the creation of beauty. Because it is unruly, and precarious in its action, however, the imagination requires the most careful guidance, and the assistance of the reason. Students are taught to idealise and invent, as well as to analyse and reason, but without disturbing the equilibrium of the faculties by acquiring a pronounced habit of one or the other. It is better, they say, to be reasonable than a reasoner; to be imaginative than a dreamer; and to have discernment or insight than mere knowledge.
The most important study of all is the art of living, or in other words the art of leading a simple, noble, and beautiful life. It finishes their education, and consists in the reduction of their highest precepts and ideals to practice. The reasons for every lesson are given so far as they are known, and they are always founded in the nature of things. A pupil is taught to act in a particular way, not in the hope of a reward or in the fear of punishment, but because it would be contrary to the laws of matter and spirit to act otherwise; in short, because it is right. They hold that life is its own end as well as its own reward. According as it is good or bad, so it achieves or fails of its purpose, and is happy or miserable. We are happy by our emotions or feelings, and through these by our actions. Happiness comes from goodness, but is not perfect without health, beauty, and fitness: hence the pupils are taught self-regulation, practical hygiene, and a graceful manner. Indeed, their passion for beauty is such that they regard nothing as perfect until it is beautiful.
As beauty of mind, soul, and body, is their aim, a beautiful person is held in the highest honour. Prizes are offered for beauty, and statues are erected to the winners. Many are called after some particular trait; for example, "Timare of the lovely toes," and a pretty eyelash is a title to public fame. Beauty they say is twice blessed, since it pleases the possessor as well as others.
The sense of existence, apart from what they do or gain, is their chief happiness. Their "ealo," or the height of felicity, is a passive rather than an active state. It is (if I am not mistaken) a kind of serene rapture or tranquil ecstasy of the soul, which is born doubtless from a perfect harmony between the person and his environment. In it, they say, the illusion of the world is complete, and life is another name for music and love.
As far as I could learn, this condition, though independent of sexual love, is enhanced by it. On the one hand it is spoiled by too much thought, and on the other by too much passion. They cherish it as they cherish all the natural illusions (which are sacred in their eyes), but being a state of repose it is transient, and only to be enjoyed from time to time.
Since an unfit employment is a mistake, and a source of unhappiness, everyone is free to choose the work that suits his nature. Parents and teachers only help him to discover himself. One is called to his work by a love for it, and the pleasure he takes in doing it easily and well. If his bent is vague or tardy, he is allowed to change, and feel his way to it by trial. Since the work or vocation is not a means of living, there is no compulsion in it. Their aim is to do right in carrying out the true intentions of Nature.
For the same reason everyone is free to choose the partner of his life. They are monogamists, and believe that nothing can justify marriage but love on both sides. The rite is very simple, and consists in the elected pair sipping from the same dish of sacred water. It is called "drinking of the cup."
Most of them die gradually of old age, and they do not seem to share our fear and horror of death, but to regard it with a sad and pleasing melancholy. The body is reduced to ashes on a pyre of fragrant wood, and the songs they sing around it only breathe a tender regret for their loss, mingled with a joyful hope of meeting again. They neither preserve the dust as a memento, nor wear any kind of mourning; but they cherish the memory of the absent in their hearts.
They believe that labour like virtue is a necessity, and its own reward; but it is moderate labour of the right sort, which is a blessing and not a curse. They all seem happy at their work, which is often cheered by music, songs, or tales. Everyone enjoys his task, and tries to attain the perfection of skill and grace. Those who excel are honoured, and sometimes commemorated with statues.
They seem artists in all, and above all. They hold that every beautiful thing has a use, and they never make a useful thing without beauty. Apart from portraits, their pictures and statuary are mostly historical, or else ideal representations. Many of these are typical of life; for example, a boy at play, a pair of lovers, a mother weaning her child, and the parting of friends. The ideal of art is to them not merely a show to please the eye for a while, but a model to be realised in their own lives; and I daresay it has helped to make them such a fine people. They are clever architects and gardeners. Indeed, the whole country may be described as a vast ornamental garden. In the middle zone, which borders on the wilderness, their wonderful art of beautifying natural scenery is at its best. They have a good many simple machines and implements, but I should not call them a scientific people. Gazen, who enquired into the matter, was told by Otare, himself an artist, by the way, that science in their opinion had a tendency to destroy the illusion of Nature and impair the finer sentiments and spontaneity of the soul; hence they left the systematic study of it to the few who possess a decided bias for it. As a rule they are content to admire.
They have many books of various kinds, either printed or finely written and illustrated by hand. I should say their favourite reading was history and travels, or else poetry and fiction; anything having a human interest, more especially of a pathetic order. Everyone is taught to read aloud, and if he possess the voice and talent, to recite. Poets are highly esteemed, and not only read their poems to the people, but also teach elocution. They have dramatic performances on certain days, and seem to prefer tragedies or affecting plays, perhaps because these awaken feelings which their happy lot in general permits to sleep. They are very fond of music, and can all sing or play on some musical instrument. Their favourite melodies are mostly in a minor key, and they dislike noisy music; indeed, noise of any sort. Gesture and the dance are fine arts, and they can imitate almost any action without words. A favourite amusement is to gather in the dusk of the evening, crowned with flowers, or wearing fanciful dresses, and sing or dance together by the light of the fire-flies.
The inhabitants of the whole island live as one happy family. Recognising their kinship by intermarriage, and their isolation in the world, they never forget that the good or ill of a part is the good or ill of the whole, and their object is to secure the happiness of one and all. It is considered right to help another in trouble before thinking of oneself.
When Gazen explained the doctrine of "the struggle for existence ending in the survival of the fittest" to Otare, he replied that it was an excellent principle for snakes; but he considered it beneath the dignity and wisdom of men to struggle for a life which could be maintained by the labour of love, and ought to be devoted to rational or spiritual enjoyment.
Thanks to the helpful spirit which animates them, and the bounty of Nature, nobody is ever in want. As a rule, the garden around each home provides for the family, and any surplus goes to the public stores, or rather free tables, where anyone takes what he may require.
As I have already hinted, personal merit of every kind is honoured amongst them.
Dinus, the gentleman who received us on the night of our arrival, is the chief man or head of the community, and was appointed to the post for his wisdom, character, and age. He is assisted in the government by a council of a hundred men, and there are district officers in various parts of the country.
They have no laws, or at all events their old laws have become a dead letter. Custom and public opinion take their place. Crime is practically unknown amongst them, and when a misdemeanour is committed the culprit is in general sufficiently punished by his own shame and remorse. However, they have certain humane penalties, such as fines or restitution of stolen goods; but they never resort to violence or take life, and only in extreme cases of depravity and madness do they infringe on the liberty of an individual.
Quarrels and sickness of mind or body are almost unknown amongst them. The care and cure of the person is a portion of the art of life as it is taught in the schools.
An account of this remarkable people would not be complete without some reference to their religion; but owing to their reticence on sacred subjects, and the shortness of our visit, I was unable to learn much about it. They believe, however, in a Supreme Being, whom they only name by epithets such as "The Giver" or "The Divine Artist." They also believe in the immortality of the soul. One of their proverbs, "Life is good, and good is life," implies that goodness means life, and badness death. They hold that every thought, word, and deed, is by the nature of things its own reward or punishment, here or hereafter. Their ideals of childlike innocence, and the reign of love, seem to be essentially Christian. Their solicitude and kindness extends to all that lives and suffers, and they regard the world around them as a divine work which they are to reverence and perfect.
Our visit fell during a great religious festival and holiday, which they keep once a year, and by the courtesy of Dinus, or his son, we witnessed many of their sacred concerts, dances, games, and other celebrations. Of these, however, I shall only describe the principal ceremony, which is called "Plucking the Flower," and appears to symbolise the passage of the soul into a higher life.
THE FLOWER OF THE SOUL.
Early on the chief day of the festival Otare came and took us to see the mystical rite of cutting the "Flower of the Soul."
The morning was fine, and the clear waters of the lake were bright with boats filled with joyous parties bound like ourselves for the Holy Island.
Landing at a noble quay of red granite, we climbed the steep and shaggy sides of the mountain by a sacred and winding avenue, bordered with blooming trees and statuary. Most of the figures were exquisitely carved in a white wood or stone, having a pearly sheen, and represented the former priestesses of the Temple, or illustrated the animating spirit of the cult.
On gaining the summit we found ourselves at the brim of a spacious hollow or basin, which in past ages must have been the crater of the volcanic peak. The grassy slopes of the basin were laid out in flower gardens and terraces of coloured marbles, shaded with sombre trees, and ornamented with sculpture. In the bottom lay an oval sheet of water a mile long or more, and from the midst of it, towards the near end, a beautiful islet, crowned by a magnificent temple, rose like a mirage to the view, and seemed to float on its glassy bosom.
Words of mine cannot give any idea of that sublime architecture, which resembled no earthly order, though it seemed to partake of both the Saracenic and the Indian. Fragrant timber, precious stones, and burnished metals; in fine, the richest materials known to the builders, had been united with consummate art into one harmonious emblem of their faith. The first beams of the rising sun blazed on its golden roof and fretted pinnacles of diamond, and ruby, sapphire, topaz, and emerald; but the lower part was still in shadow. Nevertheless, we could distinguish a grand portal in the southern front, which faced the sun, and a broad flight of marble steps descending from it into the water; but the massive doors were shut, and not a soul was to be seen about the temple.
As the worshippers arrived they seated themselves on the turf amongst the flowering shrubs, or on the benches along the terraces, and either spoke in subdued tones, or preserved a religious silence. Otare led us to a kind of throne or stand facing the temple, and raised above the other seats, where his father, as chief of the community, sat in state. Dinus received us with his usual gracious dignity, and gave us chairs on his right and left hand.
From this height we enjoyed a splendid panorama of the Craterland, at least that portion which had already caught the sunshine. It lay beneath us like a picture, the surface rising in a series of zones from the central sea, which mirrored the serene azure and plume-like vapours of the heavens, through the sweet meadows, and the smiling gardens, to the luxuriant wilderness beyond; and we could plainly see the shadow of the bounding rampart shrink towards the south as the sun mounted higher and higher.
It was a lovely dawn. A rosy mist hung like a veil of gauze over the southern sky, and from behind a bar of purple cloud, lined with gold, which rested on the summit of the cliffs, a coronet of auroral beams or crepuscular rays, blue on a pink ground, shot upwards, heralding the advent of the sun, and reminding me of the ancient simile of the earth as a bride awaiting the arrival of her lord.
At length the first glowing tip of the solar disc peeped over the rim of the crater, and a deep low murmur, swelling to a shrill cry, ascended from the passive multitude.
All the people rose to their feet, and every eye was turned on the south front of the temple, which was now illuminated to the edge of the water. As the sunlight crept over the surface it sparkled on the dense foliage of what seemed a bed of water-lilies flourishing quite close to the marble stairs.
Presently a rich and stately barge, moved by crimson oars, and enlivened with young girls draped in sky-blue, was seen to glide round a corner of the temple, and come to rest beside the water-lilies.
A deep silence, as of breathless expectation, fell upon the vast assembly, and then, without other warning, the great purple doors of the temple swung open, and revealed a white-robed figure walking at the head of a glittering procession of maidens decked in jewels and luminous scarves, which vied with the colours of the rainbow. It was the young priestess and her train of virgins.
Simultaneously the immense multitude raised their voices in a sacred hymn of melting sweetness, very low at first, but gathering volume as the priestess descended the marble stairs to the waterside.
Here, on the lowest of the steps, one of her maidens put into her hand a sacred knife or sickle, which, as Otare informed us had a blade of gold, and a handle of opal. The woman then retired, and we saw her stand erect for a moment in the full blaze of the mellow sunlight, with her golden hair falling about her in a kind of glory, and stretch out her arms towards the sun in a superb attitude of adoration. Then, with a slow and swan-like movement, she entered the water, and wading among the lilies, cut the sacred blossom, and held it aloft in triumph, while the music swelled to a mighty paean of thanksgiving and praise.
After that she went on board the barge, which had been waiting for her, and was rowed around the border of the lake not far from the shore, so that the onlookers might see the loveliness of the flower, and even smell its perfume. The barge was not unlike an ancient galley in shape, but ornately curved like the proa of a South Sea Islander. The rowers were concealed underneath the deck, but the crimson oars kept time to the music of their voices, and the spectators joined in the song as the vessel glided onwards.