Life And Letters Of Maria Edgeworth/Volume 2/Letter 64

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The day before yesterday we were amusing ourselves by telling who, among literary and scientific people, we should wish to come here next day. Francis said Coleridge; I said Herschel. Yesterday morning, as I was returning from my morning walk at half-past eight, I saw a bonnet-less maid on the walk, with letter in hand, in search of me. When I opened the letter, I found it was from Mr. Herschel! and that he was waiting for an answer at Mr. Briggs's inn. I have seldom been so agreeably surprised; and now that he has spent twenty-four hours here, and that he is gone, I am confirmed in my opinion; and if the fairy were to ask me the question again, I should more eagerly say, "Mr. Herschel, ma'am, if you please." It was really very kind of him to travel all night in the mail, as he did, to spend a few hours here. He is not only a man of the first scientific genius, but his conversation is full of information on all subjects, and he has a taste for humour and playful nonsense, though with a melancholy exterior.

His companion, Mr. Babbage, and he, saw the Giant's Causeway on a stormy day, when the foamy waves beat high against the rocks, and added to the sublimity of the scene. Then he went from the great sublime of Nature to the sublime of Art. He arrived at the place where Colonel Colby is measuring the base line, just at the time when they had completed the repetition of the operation; and he saw, by the instrument, which had not been raised from the spot, that the accuracy of the repetition was within half a dot—the twelve-thousandth part of an inch.

Mr. Herschel has travelled on the Continent. He was particularly pleased with the character of the Tyrolese—their national virtue founded on national piety. One morning, wakening in a cottage inn, he rose, and called in vain in kitchen and parlour: not a body was to be seen, not a creature in yard or stable. At last he heard a distant sound: listening more attentively, and following the sound, he came to a room remote from that in which he had slept, where he found all the inhabitants joining in a hymn, with beautiful voices.

You may remember having seen in the newspapers an account of a philosopher in Germany who made caterpillars manufacture for him a veil of cobweb. The caterpillars were enclosed in a glass case, and, by properly-disposed conveniences and impediments, were induced to work their web up the sides of the glass case. When completed it weighed four-fifths of a grain. Herschel saw it lying on a table, looking like the film of a bubble. When it collapsed a little, and was in that state wafted up into the air, it wreathed like fine smoke. Chantrey, who was present, after looking at it in silent admiration, exclaimed, "What a fool Bernini was to attempt transparent draperies in stone!"

Have you heard of the live camelopard, "twelve foot high, if he is an inch, ma'am?" Herschel is well acquainted with him, and was so fortunate as to see the first interview between him and a kangaroo: it stood and gazed for one instant, and the next leaped at once over the camelopard's head, and he and his great friend became hand and glove.