Uranie, by Camille Flammarion

V.

The Light of the Past — The Revelations of the Muse.

THUS spoke my celestial guide. Her countenance was beautiful as the day, her eyes shone with a brilliant light, her voice sounded Iike divine music. I contemplated the worlds revolving around us in space, and I felt that a supreme harmony reigned throughout Nature.

“Now,” said Uranie, pointing out to me with her finger the place in the heavens from which our sun had disappeared, “let us return to the Earth. You have learned that Space is infinite. You are now going to learn that Time is eternal.”

We journeyed through many constellations, and at last reached the solar system, for I saw the sun reappear as a diminutive star.

“I am going to bestow upon you for an instant,” she said, “if not the divine, at least angelic vision! Your soul is about to feel the ethereal vibrations that are the cause of light, and to learn how the history of each world is eternal in God. To see is to know. Behold!”

Just as the microscope makes an ant appear to our eyes as large as an elephant, as, extending its power to the minutest atom, it can render the invisible visible, so, at the bidding of the Muse, my sight all at once acquired an unimagined power, and was able to distinguish through space near the sun which had eclipsed it, the Earth, invisible before.

I recognized it, and while I observed it, its disk grew larger, presenting the appearance of the moon a few days before the full. I was soon able to distinguish, as the disk grew larger, its principal geographical aspects, the snowy spot at the North Pole, the outlines of Europe and Asia, the North Sea, the Atlantic Ocean, and the Mediterranean. The more I concentrated my gaze, the better could I see. Lesser details grew more and more visible, as if I were looking through a series of micro-telescopic glasses of gradually increasing power. I recognized France by its shape as it appears upon the map, but our beautiful country looked to me entirely green, from the Rhine to the ocean, and from the British Channel to the Mediterranean Sea, as if it were covered by one immense forest. I was able, however, to distinguish smaller objects more clearly, for I could easily recognize by their position the Alps, the Pyrenees, the Rhine, the Rhone and the Loire.

“Fix well your attention,” resumed my companion. As she pronounced these words she touched my forehead with the tips of her fingers, as if she wished to magnetize me, causing my perceptive faculties to become still keener than they already were.

Then I looked more closely at the vision before me, and I recognized the Gaul of the time of Julius Cæsar. It was the epoch of the war of independence stirred up by the patriotism of Vercingetorix. I saw all this from the height at which I was, as we see the lunar landscapes through the telescope, or as we see the earth from a balloon; but I could recognize Gaul, l’Amerque, Gergovia, the Puy de Dôme, extinct volcanoes, and my mind easily reconstructed the Gallic scene of which this reduced image was presented to my gaze.

“We are so distant from the earth,” said Uranie, “that it would take her light the same length of time to reach us here as has passed since the days of Julius Cæsar. We receive here now only the rays of light reflected from the earth at that period. Yet light travels through space with a velocity of three hundred thousand kilometres a second. This is rapid, it is true, but it is not instantaneous. The astronomers of the Earth, who are now observing the stars in the regions where we are, do not see them as they are now, but as they were at the time when the rays of light that reach us now were reflected from the earth; that is to say, as they were eighteen centuries ago.”

“Neither from the earth,” she added, “nor from any other point in space, does the observer behold the stars as they are now, but as they have been. The more distant they are the less recent knowledge has he of their history.

“You observe with the greatest care, through the telescope, stars that no longer exist. Many of the stars which you can now see with the naked eye exist no longer. Many of the nebulas, whose substance you analyze by means of the spectroscope, have become suns. Many of your most beautiful red stars are, in reality, extinct and dead. On approaching the spot where you had supposed them to be, you would no longer see them. The light emanating from all these suns that people immensity, the light reflected through space by all these worlds lighted by these suns, photographs throughout the boundless heaven, the centuries, the days, the moments as they pass, — when you observe a star, you see it as it was at the instant when the photographic impression which you receive of it was produced, just as when you hear a clock strike, the sound reaches you only after it has ceased striking, and so much the longer after, the greater its distance from you.

“From this it results that the histories of all the worlds are traveling through space without disappearing altogether, and that all the events of the past are present and live forever in the bosom of the Infinite.

“The duration of the Universe will be endless. The Earth will have an end and will one day be only a tomb. But there shall be new suns and new earths, new springs, and new smiles, and life will always flourish in a universe without limits and without end.

“I wished to show you,” she said, after a moment’s pause, “that time is eternal. You have seen that space is infinite. You have comprehended the grandeur of the Universe. Let us direct our course to the Earth, and return to your abode.

“As for yourself,” she continued, “know that knowledge is the surest foundation of intellectual worth; seek neither poverty nor riches; keep yourself free from ambition, as from every other species of bondage. Be independent; independence is the chiefest of blessings and the first condition of happiness.”

Uranie had spoken in her sweetest voice; but the emotion the extraordinary scenes I had witnessed produced in me was such, that I was seized with a sudden fit of trembling. A shudder ran through me from head to foot, and this it was, doubtless, that caused me to awaken with a sudden start. Alas! this delightful celestial journey had come to an end.

I sought Uranie with my gaze, but I could not see her. A. ray of moonlight entering my chamber window, played upon the edge of the curtain, and seemed to outline vaguely the ethereal form of my celestial guide; but it was nothing more than a ray of moonlight.

* * * *

On returning the following day to the Observatory, my first impulse was to hasten, with some pretext, to the study of the Director that I might again behold the gracious Muse who had favored me with so marvelous a dream.

The clock had disappeared.

For days and weeks I sought for it without ever succeeding in seeing it again, or even in learning what had become of it.

I had a friend, a confidant — nearly of my own age, although appearing a little older on account of a beard which was beginning to make its appearance — a worshiper of the Ideal also, and still more of a dreamer than I. He was the only one, perhaps, at the Observatory, with whom I had ever formed any close ties of friendship. He was the sharer of my joys and my sorrows. Our tastes, our ideas, even our opinions were the same. He had been able to understand my feeling, my youthful admiration of a statue, how it was that in my imagination I had invested her with the attribute of life, and my sorrow at having thus suddenly lost my dear Uranie, just when I had become most attached to her. He had more than once admired with me the effects produced upon that countenance of bronze, by the light, and smiled at my ecstasies like an indulgent elder brother, ridiculing me at times a little severely, perhaps, on my passion for an idol, and even going so far as to call me “Camille Pygmalion.” But, in his heart, I saw that he too loved her.

This friend, who was to be taken from me, alas! a few years later, in the flower of his youth; this George Spero, a man of profound intellect and noble soul, whose memory will be forever dear to me, was then the private secretary of the Director, and I received a proof of the sincerity of his affection, on this occasion, in an attention as graceful as it was unexpected.

One day, on returning home, I saw with unspeakable amazement, standing just in front of me on my chimney-piece, the famous clock!

Was it indeed the clock? But how had it come here? Who had brought it and where had it come from?

I learned that the illustrious discoverer of Neptune had sent it to one of the principal clockmakers of Paris to be repaired; that the latter, who had just received from China a highly interesting antique astronomical clock, offered this in exchange for it to the Director, who had accepted his offer, and that George Spero, who had been entrusted with the transaction, had bought back the work of Pradier, for the purpose of presenting it to me as a souvenir of the lessons in mathematics that I had given him.

With what joy did I again behold my Uranie! With what happiness did I let my gaze linger upon her. This charming representation of the Heavenly Muse has never since left me. In my hours of study, the beautiful statue stands before me, as if to remind me of the discourse of the goddess, to announce to me the future of astronomy, to direct me in my youthful aspirations toward knowledge. Since then, more passionate emotions have stirred my senses, allured my soul, held captive my heart; but I shall never forget the ideal feeling with which the Muse of the stars inspired me, nor the celestial journey on which she carried me, nor the strange panoramas that then unfolded themselves before my gaze, nor the truths she revealed to me with regard to the extent and the constitution of the Universe, nor the happiness she conferred upon me by assigning me as the definite intellectual aim of my life, the calm contemplation of Nature and of Science.

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:37