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   Chapter 6 IN SPACE.

A Trip to Venus: A Novel By John Munro Characters: 23142

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


We had entered the clouds.

For half-an-hour we were muffled in a cold, damp mist, and total darkness, and had begun to think of going indoors when, all at once, the car burst into the pure and starlit region of the upper air.

A cry of joyous admiration escaped from us all.

The spectacle before us was indeed sublime.

The sky of a deep dark blue was hung with innumerable stars, which seemed to float in the limpid ether, and the rolling vapours through which we had passed were drawn like a sable curtain between us and the lower world. The stillness was so profound that we could hear the beating of our own hearts.

"How beautiful!" exclaimed Miss Carmichael, in a solemn whisper, as if she were afraid that angels might hear.

"There is Venus right ahead," cried the astronomer, but in a softer tone than usual, perhaps out of respect for the sovereign laws of the universe. "The course is clear now-we are fairly on the open sea-I mean the open ether. I must get out my telescope."

"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 nebul? 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-"

"Anything else?"

"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 curiosi

ty 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.

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