The Green Ray/Chapter XIII

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If any one showed signs of vexation at the decision arrived at, it was Mr. MacFyne, the hotel-keeper; had it been possible, he would have had every island lying in front of Oban blown up. The worthy man had to console himself, when his visitors were gone, by regretting that he had ever taken in such a party of monomaniacs.

At eight o'clock in the morning Miss Campbell, her uncles, Dame Bess, and Partridge, embarked on the “swift steamer Pioneer,” as said the prospectus, which made the trip round Mull, calling at Iona and Staffa, and returning to Oban the same evening.

Oliver Sinclair had gone down before them to the quay, and was awaiting his friends on the foot-bridge, between the paddle-boards of the steamer.

Aristobulus Ursiclos was not to be thought of for this trip, and yet the brothers were obliged to acquaint him with their sudden departure; it was only common politeness, and they were the most polite of men.

Aristobulus received the communication very coolly, and merely thanked them without saying a word as to his own plans.

Thus the brothers had gone off, contenting themselves with the thought that, though their protégé was extremely reserved, and their niece somewhat averse to him, yet all would be changed one fine autumn evening after a beautiful sunset, which Iona could not fail to give them.

All the passengers being on board, the moorings were cast after the third shrill whistle had sounded, and the Pioneer steamed out of the bay, taking a southerly course for the straits of Kerera.

There were a good many tourists on board, attracted by this charming excursion round Mull, which takes place once or twice a week, but Miss Campbell and her companions were to leave them at the first landing-place.

They were all impatience to reach Iona, this new field for their observation. The weather was splendid, the sea calm as a lake, and there was every promise of a fine passage. If that same evening did not bring them the realization of their wishes, well! they would wait patiently, after having settled down on the island. There, at least, the curtain was always raised and the scenery ready, so that nothing but bad weather could come in the way.

They would reach their destination before midday. The Pioneer passed through the straits of Kerera, doubled the southern point of the island, steamed across the wide mouth of the Frith of Lorn, left behind Colonsay and its ancient abbey, built in the fourteenth century by the celebrated Lords of the Isles, and ranged along the southern coast of Mull, lying in the open sea, like an immense crab with one claw slightly curved towards the south-west. At one moment Ben More, clad with heather, lifted its rugged head three thousand two hundred feet above the range of distant hills, its rounded summit overlooking those pasture-lands, sharply divided by the imposing mass of Ardalanish point.

Then the picturesque island of Iona stood out against the north-west, almost at the end of the southern point of Mull, and beyond lay the vast Atlantic.

“Are you fond of the sea, Mr. Sinclair?” asked Miss Campbell of her young companion, who sat near her on the deck, gazing at the lovely prospect.

“Am I fond of it, Miss Campbell?” replied he. “Yes, and I am not one of those miserable individuals who find the sight of it monotonous! To me, nothing is more varied than its appearance, but one must see it under its different aspects. The sea takes so many shades of colour, marvellously blended, that it is perhaps more difficult for an artist to produce an effect at the same time uniform and varied, than to paint a face, however changeable the expression may be.”

“Yes,” said Helena, “it changes incessantly with the slightest breath of wind, and alters every hour of the day, according to the light with which it is impregnated.”

“Look at it now, Miss Campbell; it is perfectly calm! Does it not look like a lovely face asleep, in its unalterable serenity? It has not a wrinkle, it is young, it is beautiful! or, if you prefer it, it is an immense mirror, which reflects the sky, and in which God Himself is visible!”

“A mirror often dimmed by the breath of tempests!” added Miss Campbell.

“And,” continued Oliver Sinclair, “it is that which makes the great variety, in the aspect of the ocean! Let but a little wind arise, the face will change, will grow wrinkled, and hoary with feathery spray; it will look old in a moment, but it will still be grand with its fitful phosphorescence, and its foam-flecked waves.”

“Do you think, Mr. Sinclair,” asked Miss Campbell, “that any artist, however clever he may be, could reproduce all the beauties of the sea on canvas?”

“No, indeed, Miss Campbell, and how could he? The sea has really no colour of its own; it is but an immense reflection of the sky; if it is blue, it is not a blue that one can paint; if it is green, there is no green that will match it! It should rather be depicted in a tempest, when it is dark, gloomy and livid, when it seems as though sky and sea were blended! Ah! Miss Campbell, the more I see of it, the more I find the ocean sublime! Ocean! that word says everything! It is immensity! Unfathomable depths below it are regions beside which ours are deserts! as Darwin says. What, compared to it, are the vastest continents? Mere islands surrounded by its waters! it covers four-fifths of the globe! By incessant circulation, it is nourished by the vapours which it emits. Yes, the ocean is infinite, an infinity one cannot see, but feel, infinite as the space it reflects in its waters, as says one of the poets.”

“I like to hear you speak with such enthusiasm' Mr. Sinclair,” said Miss Campbell, “and I quite share your feelings! Yes, I love the sea as much as you do.”

“And you will not be afraid of braving its perils?” asked Oliver.

“No, indeed, I shall not be afraid! Can one be afraid of what one admires?”

“Would you like to be a daring explorer?”

“Perhaps so, Mr. Sinclair,” replied Helena. “At any rate, of all the accounts of travels I have read, I prefer those relating to the discovery of distant seas. How often I have travelled over them with the great navigators! How often I have wandered into the great unknown, in imagination only, it is true, but I know nothing more enviable than the position of those heroes who have accomplished such grand discoveries.”

“Yes, Miss Campbell, in the history of all ages, what is there more worthy of admiration? Only to think of crossing the Atlantic for the first time with Columbus, the Pacific with Magellan, the polar seas with Parry, Franklin, and many others! I can never see a ship, man-of-war, trading-vessel, or even a simple fishing-smack, set out on any journey without my whole heart going with it. I think I was made for a sailor, and I regret, every day of my life, that it has not been my vocation.”

“At any rate, you have been a great deal on the sea, have you not?” asked Miss Campbell.

“As much as I could,” replied Oliver Sinclair. “I have been up the Mediterranean from the Straits of Gibraltar to the ports of the Levant, across the Atlantic to North America, and on the northern seas of Europe, and I know all the waters round England and Scotland—”

“And how magnificent they are, Mr. Sinclair!”

“Yes, indeed, I know of nothing to compare with these shores! We have here another archipelago; perhaps the sky is not so intensely blue as in the east, but the rugged rocks and hazy horizons make it much more romantic. The Grecian Archipelago gave birth to a whole company of gods and goddesses. That may be! but you may have remarked that they were very matter-of-fact divinities, very practical, and, moreover, endowed with corporeal life, doing business and reckoning up their accounts like any ordinary mortal. In my idea, Olympus appears like a great reception-room for rather common-place divinities. This is not the case with our Hebrides; they are the abode of supernatural beings! The ethereal Scandinavian deities are not in the least corporeal, but invisible beings, such as Odin, Ossian, Fingal, and the host of poetical phantoms, from the pages of the Sagas. How enchanting are these imaginary forms, which our memories can invoke, in the midst of Arctic gloom, or across the snows of northern regions! Here is an Olympus far more divine than its Grecian namesake; there is nothing earthly about it, and if one had to search the wide world for a place worthy of such guests, it would be found in our Hebrides. Yes, Miss Campbell, this is where I should come to worship our divinities, and, like a true son of Caledonia, I would not change our archipelago with its two hundred isles, its grey skies, its tumultuous seas, influenced by the Gulf-stream, for all the archipelagos in the east.”

“And it is all our own, being true Highlanders!” said Miss Campbell, carried away by her companion's enthusiastic words. “Ah! Mr. Sinclair, I am like you, passionately fond of our archipelago! it is magnificent, especially when lashed by the fury of tempests.”

“It is indeed sublime,” replied Oliver Sinclair. “There is nothing on the way to obstruct the violence of the gales which vent their force here after travelling three thousand miles! The American coast faces Scotland, and though great storms may rise there, it is the western coast of Europe which gets the first benefit of their fury! But what can they do against our Hebrides, which are not like that man of whom Livingstone speaks, who had no fear of lions, but was afraid of the sea? These isles, with their solid granite bases, can laugh to scorn the violence of wind and sea.”

“The sea! A chemical combination of hydrogen and oxygen with two and a half per cent. of chloride of sodium! Indeed, nothing can be more sublime than the violent agitations of chloride of sodium!”

Miss Campbell and Oliver turned round on hearing these words, which were evidently meant for them, and intended as a reply to their enthusiastic eulogies.

Aristobulus Ursiclos was standing close behind them. The troublesome fellow could not resist the desire to leave Oban at the same time as Miss Campbell, knowing that Oliver Sinclair was accompanying her to Iona. Having come on board before them, he had remained in the saloon till just as they were within sight of the island.

The workings of chloride of sodium indeed! what a blow to their romantic visions!