The Green Ray/Chapter XV

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search


That same day, Miss Campbell, her uncles, and the two young men, set out on their excursion directly after breakfast. It was fine autumn weather, and every now and then bright sunbeams darted through rifts in the clouds. In these intermittent gleams of sunshine, the ruins crowning that part of the island, the rocks picturesquely grouped along the coast, the houses scattered upon the undulating slopes of Iona, and the sea rippling under a light breeze, seemed to lose their somewhat sombre aspect, and grew bright in the cheering light.

It was not a visitors' day; the steamer had brought over about fifty of them the day before, and would doubtless bring as many on the morrow, but at present Iona belonged entirely to its new inhabitants, and the ruins were quite deserted when our excursionists reached them.

They had a very lively walk. The brothers' good-humour seemed to infect the rest of the party, and they chatted away as they followed each other along the little shingly paths between the low walls of bare rock.

All went on pleasantly till they reached MacLean's Calvary. This fine red, granite monument, fourteen feet high, which overlooks the high road to Main Street, is the only one left of the three hundred and sixty crosses with which the island was covered at the time of the Reformation, about the middle of the sixteenth century.

Oliver Sinclair was anxious to make a sketch of this monument, which is a fine work, and stands out well in the midst of a bare, desolate plain.

Miss Campbell and her uncles stood round the young artist, about fifty feet from the Calvary, where they could get a full view of it, and Oliver Sinclair, sitting on a corner of a low wall, began to draw the outline of the ground on which the cross stood.

They had only been there a few moments, when it seemed to them all that a human form was trying to climb the steps of the Calvary.

“Well!” exclaimed Sinclair, “what can that intruder want there? If he were but dressed like a monk, he would not be in the way, and I could depict him prostrate at the foot of the old cross!”

“It is only some inquisitive body who is just in your way, Mr. Sinclair,” replied Miss Campbell.

“Stay, is it not Mr. Ursiclos, who has got ahead of us?” said Sam.

“'Tis he, to be sure!” added Sib.

It was indeed Aristobulus, mounted on the base of the monument, which he was vigorously attacking with his hammer.

Incensed at the mineralogist's want of respect, Miss Campbell immediately ran towards him.

“What are you doing there, sir?” she asked.

“You can see. Miss Campbell,” replied Aristobulus; “I am trying to chip off a piece of the granite.”

“But what is the use of such folly? I thought that the time of iconoclasts had long since passed.”

“I am by no means an iconoclast,” replied Aristobulus, “but a geologist, and as such I am anxious to know the nature of this stone.”

A violent blow with the hammer finished the work of defacement, and a piece of the stone basement rolled on the ground.

Aristobulus picked it up, and increasing the power of his spectacles by a large magnifying-glass, which he drew from its case, he put it close to the end of his nose.

“It is just as I expected,” said he. “This is a red granite of a very close, hard grain, which must have been brought from the Island of Nuns, and is, in every respect, similar to that used by the architects of the cathedral in the twelfth century.”

And Aristobulus could not resist this capital opportunity of launching into an archæological discourse, to which the brothers, who had now come up, thought it their duty to listen.

Without further ceremony, Miss Campbell went back to Oliver Sinclair, and when the sketch was finished, they all met again in the enclosure of the cathedral.

This edifice is a complex structure, composed of two churches joined together, the walls of which, thick as curtains, and the pillars solid as rock, have braved the rought tests of this northern climate for thirteen hundred years.

For some minutes the visitors walked about in the first church, which, from the shape of its vaults and arches, is of Roman architecture; then they went into the second, which is purely Gothic of the twelfth century, and forms the nave and transepts of the first. They wandered through these ruins from one epoch to another, peering down at the great square flags, through the cracks of which the grass had forced its way. Here and there were tombstones and effigies standing in corners, with their sculptured figures, seeming to ask alms of the passer-by.

The gloomy silence of the whole place seemed redolent with the romance of the past.

Miss Campbell, her uncles, and Oliver Sinclair, not noticing that their too learned companion had remained behind, then went under the dark archway of the square tower, an archway which formerly stood at the entrance of the first church, and, later on, at the point of intersection of the two edifices.

A few minutes later, measured footsteps were heard on the sonorous pavement; one might have imagined that one of the stone statues, animated by the breath of some spirit, was pacing slowly to and fro, like the Commander in Don Juan's drawing-room.

It was Aristobulus, who, with measured strides, was reckoning the dimensions of the cathedral.

“A hundred and sixty feet from east to west,” he was saying, making a note of this in his pocket-book, as he entered the second church.

“Ah! it is you, Mr. Ursiclos,” said Miss Campbell, sarcastically; “after the mineralogist comes the geometrician.”

“And only seventy feet across the transepts,” continued Aristobulus.

“And how many inches?” asked Oliver Sinclair.

Aristobulus looked at Oliver as though he did not know whether he ought to feel insulted or not, but the uncles came to the rescue, and carried off Miss Campbell and the two young men to see the monastery.

There is nothing left of this building but insignificant ruins, although it survived its defacement at the time of the Reformation. After that time it was even used by a community of canoriesses of the order of St. Augustine, who were allowed to take refuge there by the state. There are now nothing but the dreary ruins of a convent, devastated by tempests, with neither anarch nor a pillar standing to resist the inclemency of the climate.

After exploring the ruins of the monastery, formerly so flourishing, the visitors were able to admire the chapel, which was in a much better state of preservation, and the dimensions of which Aristobulus hardly thought necessary to take. In this chapel, which is less ancient, or more solidly built, than the refectories or cloisters of the convent, only the roof is wanting; the chancel, which is almost intact, is a piece of architecture much admired by antiquaries.

In the western transept is the tomb of the last abbess of the community; on its black marble slab is a woman's face, sculptured between two angels, and above it a Madonna holding the child Jesus in her arms.

“This is just like the Virgin at Père la Chaise and the Madonna of St. Sextus, the only Virgins of Raphael's who have not their eyelids lowered; this one looks right at you, and the eyes seem to smile!”

This remark was very appropriately made by Miss Campbell, but it brought an ironical sneer on Aristobulus' lips,

“Where have you ever learnt, Miss Campbell, that eyes can smile?”

Perhaps Miss Campbell would have liked to have answered him, that, at any rate, her eyes would never have that expression when looking at him, but she contented herself by saying nothing.

“It is a very common error,” continued Aristobulus, as though he were speaking ex cathedra, “to talk of the eyes smiling. These organs of sight are, in fact, devoid of all expression, as oculists teach us: for example, place a mask on a face, look at the eyes through this mask, and I defy you to know whether the face is sad, smiling, or angry.”

“Ah! indeed?” exclaimed Sam, who seemed to be interested in this little lecture.

“I was not aware of that,” added Sib.

“Nevertheless it is a fact,” continued Aristobulus, “and if I had a mask—”

But the wonderful young man did not happen to have a mask, so the experiment could not be made to prove his assertion.

Moreover, Miss Campbell and Oliver Sinclair had already left the cloister, and were going towards the cemetery.

This place bears the name of the “Shrine of Oban,” in memory of the companion of St. Columba, who erected the chapel, the ruins of which stand in the midst of this field of the dead.

This is a curious piece of ground, covered with tombstones, where lie forty-eight Scotch kings, eight viceroys of the Hebrides, four viceroys of Ireland, and a king of France, whose name is entirely lost, like that of some chieftain of prehistoric times. Surrounded with its long iron railing, and paved with flags, it might be a kind of burying-ground of Kamac, whose stones are tombs, and not druidical rocks. Between them, on the grassy sward, lay the granite effigy of Duncan, King of Scotland, rendered illustrious by the tragedy of Macbeth. Of these stones some are simply ornamented with geometrical designs, others, sculptured in bas-relief, represent some fierce Celtic kings, lying there with the rigidity of corpses.

What memories hover over this necropolis of lona! What scope for the imagination to wander into the past, in this St. Denis of the Hebrides!

And how can one forget those lines of Ossian, which seem to have been inspired on this very spot?

“Son of the distant land! Thou dwellest in the field of fame! O, let thy song arise, at times, in praise of those who fell. Let their thin ghosts rejoice around thee.”

Miss Campbell and her companions were able to gaze in silence, without being bored by a guide positively asserting very uncertain historical facts, for the benefit of tourists. They seemed to see again those descendants of the Lord of the Isles, Angus Og, the companion of Robert Bruce, and brother-at-arms of that hero, who fought for the independence of his country.

“I should like to come back here at night-fall,” said Miss Campbell, “it seems to me that would be the best time to recall these memories; I should see them bringing up the corpse of the unfortunate Duncan; I should hear the conversation of the men as they laid him in the ground, consecrated to his ancestors. Now really, Mr. Sinclair, don't you think it would be the most propitious time to invoke the goblins who guard the royal cemetery?”

“Yes, Miss Campbell, and I don't think they could refuse to appear if you called them.”

“How now, Miss Campbell, do you believe in hobgoblins?” exclaimed Aristobulus.

“Yes, sir, I believe in them, like the true Scotch woman I am,” replied Miss Campbell.

“But, of course; you well know that they are quite imaginary, that nothing of the kind exists!”

“And suppose I do believe in them!” replied Miss Campbell. “I like to believe in domestic brownies who do the house-work; in sorcerers who perform their spells by certain incantations; in the Valkyrias, those fatal virgins of Scandinavian mythology, who carry off the fallen warriors from the battle-field; in those household fairies sung of by our poet Burns in his immortal verses, which no true Highlander can ever forget:—

“‘Upon that night, when fairies light
On Cassilis Downans dance,
Or owre the lays, in splendid blaze,
On sprightly coursers prance.
Or for Colean the route is ta'en,
Beneath the moon's pale beams;
There up the cove to strave and rove
Amang the rocks and streams
    To sport that night.’”

“Ah! Miss Campbell,” continued the perverse fellow, “do you think that poets have any faith in those dreams of their imagination?”

“Most certainly, sir!” replied Oliver Sinclair, “or else their poetry would sound as unreal as any work which is not based on profound conviction.”

“And you as well, sir?” said Aristobulus, “I knew you were an artist, but I did not think you were a poet.”

“It is all the same thing,” said Miss Campbell; “art embraces many forms.”

“But no—no!—it is not possible!… You cannot believe in all the mythology of the ancient bards, whose disordered brains invoked imaginary divinities!”

“Oh! Mr. Ursiclos!” exclaimed Sam, touched in a tender point, “please do not treat our ancestors, who have sung of old Scotland, with such disrespect.”

“And just listen to them for a moment!” said Sam, quoting from his favourite poem.

“Pleasant are the words of song, lovely the tales of other times! They are like the calm dew of the morning on the hill…”

“When the sun is faint on its side, and the lake is settled and blue in the vale.”

added his brother.

The brothers would no doubt have indulged indefinitely in the poems of Ossian, had not Aristobulus abruptly cut them short, saying,—

“Gentlemen, have you ever seen a single one of these sprites, of whom you talk so enthusiastically? No. And are they to be seen? No, again.”

“That is just where you are mistaken, sir, and I pity you for never having seen one,” said Miss Campbell, who would not yield a hair of her hobgoblin to her opponent. “They can be seen in any of the Scotch highlands, gliding through lonely glens, rising out of the depths of ravines, fluttering over the surface of lakes, sporting in peaceful waters, and enjoying themselves in the midst of winter storms. And stop; why should not this Green Ray, which I persist in following, be the scarf of some Valkyria with its fringe trailing in the water on the horizon?”

“Oh! dear no!” exclaimed Aristobulus. “Not at all! And I will tell you what your Green Ray really is.”

“Please don't tell me, sir,” cried Miss Campbell. “I do not wish to know.”

“But I must,” persisted Aristobulus, quite excited by this discussion.

“I forbid you—”

“I must tell you all the same. Miss Campbell. If this last ray from the sun, just as it dips below the horizon is green, it is most likely because, just as it passes the thin line of water, it becomes impregnated with the colour—”

“That's enough, Mr. Ursiclos—!”

“Unless this green is the natural result of the crimson of the sun's disk, which suddenly disappears, but leaves the impression on the retina of the eye, for in optics green is the complemental colour of crimson.”

“Ah! sir, your physical arguments—”

“My arguments, Miss Campbell, agree with the nature of things,” replied Aristobulus, “and, indeed, I am thinking of publishing some notes on this subject.”

“Let us go, uncles,” said Miss Campbell, thoroughly annoyed. “Mr. Ursiclos will spoil my Green Ray with his explanation!”

“Sir,” interposed Oliver Sinclair, “your notes on the Green Ray could'not fail to be most curious, but allow me to propose another subject to you, perhaps more interesting still.”

“And what may that be?” asked Aristobulus, in a pompous tone.

“You must doubtless know, that savants have treated scientifically this important question, the influence of fishes' tails on the undulation of the sea!

“I beg your pardon, sir!”

“Well, sir, here is another, which I especially commend to your learned meditation, and that is: The influence of wind instruments on the formation of tempests!