Uranie, by Camille Flammarion

V.

The Aurora Borealis — The Balloon Ascent — In Mid-Heaven — Catastrophe.

THE disturbance of the magnetic needle had announced the coming of the Northern Lights, even before the sun had set, and the balloon was being filled with hydrogen gas, when the transparent green color, which is the unmistakable forerunner of an Aurora Borealis, appeared in the North. In a few hours more the preparations were completed. The atmosphere was limpid, the sky cloudless. The stars sparkled in a moonless heaven, brightened only in the magnetic regions of the North by a circle of soft light, which shot forth rosy and greenish flames that seemed like the throbbings of the heart of some unknown and mysterious being. The father of Iclea, who was present at the inflation of the balloon, had no suspicion of his daughter’s intention. At the last moment she entered the parachute as if for the purpose of examining it. Spero gave a signal and the balloon rose slowly and majestically above the city of Christiania, which, with its thousands of lights, gradually diminishing in size, soon disappeared from the gaze of the two aerial voyagers as they ascended into the dark regions of space. The balloon, taking an oblique direction, soared lightly above the dark regions below, whose lights paling gradually, soon disappeared from view. The noises of the city were at the same time lost in distance, and a profound silence, the silence of the upper regions, enveloped the aerial boat. Impressed by the strange stillness, and still more, perhaps, by the novelty of her position, Iclea clung to her intrepid companion. They were now ascending rapidly in the air. The Aurora Borealis seemed to descend toward them, spreading itself beneath the stars like a floating drapery of gold and purple, shot with electric lights. Spero, by the aid of a small glass globe containing glow-worms, took observations from time to time with his instruments, marking the degrees indicated by them as they ascended. The balloon continued to mount. What intense joy for the scientist! In a few moments they should reach the plane of the lights. He was about to solve the problem of the altitude of the Aurora Borealis, which so many famous scientists, chief among them his beloved masters, the two great “psychologists and philosophers,” Oersted and Ampère, had attempted to solve in vain. Iclea had recovered her calmness. “Are you then afraid?” her friend asked her. “The balloon is safe, there is nothing to be feared; every possible accident has been provided against; we shall descend in an hour. There is not a breath of wind blowing from the earth.”

“No,” she said, while a flame lighted up her figure with a transparent, rosy brightness. “I am not afraid, but it is all so strange, so beautiful, so divine; to me, in my insignificence, it seems sublime. I trembled for an instant. It seems to me that I love you more than ever —”

And throwing her arms around his neck she clasped him in a long and passionate embrace.

The solitary balloon sailed on through the aerial heights in silence, a globe of transparent gas enveloped in a frail, silken covering, of which they could descry, from the parachute, the vertical divisions meeting at the top around the ring of the valve, the inferior part of the balloon remaining wide open for the expansion of the gas. The “obscure brightness” of which Corneille speaks, shed by the stars, would have given light enough without the light of the Aurora Borealis, to distinguish the form of the aerial vessel. The parachute, suspended to the network enveloping the silken globe, was fastened by eight solid cords woven into the wicker-work surrounding it and passing under the feet of the aeronauts. The silence was solemn and profound; they could almost hear the beating of their hearts. The last sounds of earth had sunk into silence. They moved at a disiance of five thousand yards above the Earth, borne along with incredible swiftness by the upper current of the atmosphere, of which, however, they felt nothing, for a balloon is submerged in the moving current of air and remains motionless in it, as if it formed a part of it. Sole inhabitants of those elevated regions, our two travelers experienced in their novel situation, the exquisite happiness felt by those who breathe this pure and exhilarating atmosphere, and soaring above the world below, forget in the silence of space, all the meannesses of our terrestrial system. And they, better than any of those who have preceded them, were able to enjoy the charms of this unique situation, heightened tenfold by the feeling of their own happiness. They conversed in low tones as if they feared to be overheard by the angels, and that the magic spell should be broken that held them suspended near to Heaven. At times, sudden flashes, the lights of the Aurora Borealis, passed before their gaze, then everything returned to an obscurity more profound and more fathomless than before.

They continued sailing on, as in a dream, among the stars, when a sudden sound like a dull hissing greeted their ears. They leaned over the edge of the parachute and listened attentively. The sound did not come from the earth. Was it the hum of the electric currents of the Aurora Borealis? Was it some magnetic disturbance in the upper regions of the air? Lights flashed suddenly from the depths of space, illumining their figures for a moment, then vanished. They listened breathless — the sound was close beside them — it was the gas escaping from the balloon.

Whether it was that the valve had opened of itself, or that either of them had accidentally pressed upon the cord that secured it, the fact was the same — the gas was escaping!

Spero soon discovered the cause of the sound that had alarmed them, but it was with terror that he did so, for it was impossible to close the valve again. He examined the barometer, which began to rise slowly — the balloon, then, was descending. And the descent, slow at first, but inevitable, would go on increasing in mathematical proportion. Looking into the space below them, they saw the lights of the Aurora Borealis reflected in the burnished mirror of a vast lake.

The balloon descended with velocity until it was not more than three thousand yards above the ground. Although outwardly calm, the unfortunate aeronaut did not deceive himself as to the imminence of the danger. He threw overboard, in succession, all the ballast that remained, the rugs, the instruments, the anchor, until the parachute was empty; but this lightening of the balloon was insufficient, and served to diminish its velocity but for an instant. Descending, or rather falling now, with inconceivable rapidity, the balloon was only a few hundred yards above the surface of the lake. A violent wind began to blow from below, and whistled about their ears.

The balloon whirled around, as if caught in a waterspout. Suddenly George Spero felt himself clasped in a close embrace, his lips pressed by a long kiss. “My Master, my Lord, my All, I love thee!” she cried, and parting the cords with her hands she precipitated herself from the balloon.

The balloon, lightened of its weight, shot up like an arrow. Spero was saved.

The fall of Iclea’s body into the deep waters of the lake produced a dull sound, strange and terrible, in the silence of the night. Mad with anguish and despair, his hair bristling with horror, looking into space, but beholding nothing, while the balloon shot up to the height of a thousand yards, he hung with all his weight on the cord of the valve in the hope of descending to the scene of the catastrophe; but the cord did not work. He fumbled at it in the darkness, but without result. He felt under his hand the little veil of his beloved, which had remained caught among the cords, the light, little perfumed veil, still impregnated with the intoxicating perfume of his beautiful companion’s breath. He examined the cords closely, fancied he discovered the impress her little clinched hands had made upon them, and placing his hands where a few seconds before Iclea’s had rested, threw himself from the balloon.

For an instant his foot remained caught among the ropes, but he had the courage to disengage it, and fell whirling into space.

Some fishermen, who had witnessed the tragedy, had rowed quickly to the place where the young girl had fallen into the lake, and had succeeded in rescuing her. She was still alive, but all the cares lavished upon her could not prevent a fever supervening. In the morning the fishermen put in at one of the little towns on the borders of the lake, and carried her to their humble dwelling. She had not once recovered her senses. “George!” she would cry, opening her eyes, “George!” and that was all. On the following day she heard the tolling of the village bell. “George” she repeated,” George!” They had found his body, a formless mass, a few steps distant from the borders of the lake. His fall, from a height of more than a thousand yards, had commenced above the lake, but the body, still keeping the motion communicated to it by the horizontal movement of the balloon, had not fallen vertically, it had descended obliquely, following the line of progress of the balloon, and had dropped, a mass precipitated from the sky, into a field on the borders of the lake, had left a deep imprint on the ground, and rebounded to a distance of a yard from the spot where it had fallen. The very bones even, were ground to powder, and the brains had escaped from the skull. Scarcely was his grave closed than another was opened beside it for Iclea, who died calling, with her latest accents, “George! George!”

One stone covered both their tombs, and the same willow cast its shadow over their last sleep. To this day the dwellers on the borders of the beautiful Lake Tyrifiorden preserve in their hearts a sad remembrance of the catastrophe, now almost a tradition, and they never point out the stone that covers the graves of the lovers to the traveler, that it does not bring to their minds the mournful memory of a vanished dream.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/f/flammarion/camille/uranie/part2.5.html

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