Uranie, by Camille Flammarion


The Apparition — Journey to Norway — The Anthelion — A Meeting in the Heavens.

THEIR first meeting had been, in truth, a strange one. A passionate admirer of the beauties of Nature, always in search of sublime scenes, the young physicist had undertaken, the preceding summer, a journey to Norway, for the purpose of visiting those solitary fiords that suck in the sea; those mountains whose snowy summits, pure and unspotted, tower above the clouds; but urged chiefly by an ardent desire to make a special study of the Aurora Borealis, that sublime manifestation of the life of our planet. I was his companion on this journey. The sun, sinking beyond calm and unsounded fiords, the rising of the Day-star above the summits of the mountains, produced in his soul — the soul of an artist and a poet — an indescribable emotion. We remained there more than a month, exploring the picturesque region extending from Christiania to the Scandinavian Alps. And Norway was the birthplace of that daughter of the North who was to cast so sudden a spell over his yet unawakened heart. She was there, a few steps distant from him, and yet it was only on the day of our departure that chance — that goddess of the ancients — decided to bring them face to face.

The morning light gilded the distant mountain peaks. The young Norwegian had made an excursion with her father to one of those mountains which, like the Rigi of Switzerland, are the resort of tourists, to witness the sunrise that on this particular day had been marvelous. Iclea had withdrawn alone to a solitary hillock a few yards distant, in order the better to observe certain details of the landscape, when, turning around, with her face opposite the sun, in order to take in the whole of the horizon, she perceived — not now on the mountain or on the earth — but on the sky itself, her image, her full-length figure, quite recognizable by its likeness. A luminous aureole encircled the head and shoulders like a crown of dazzling brightness, and a large aerial circle, faintly tinted by the colors of the rainbow, surrounded this mysterious apparition.

Astonished and agitated by the strangeness of the spectacle, and impressed, as she still was, by the splendor of the sunrise, she did not at first observe that another image, that of a man’s figure in profile, was beside hers, — the silhouette of a traveler standing motionless, contemplating the scene, and looking like one of those statues of saints that adorn the columns of churches. This masculine countenance and her own were framed in by the same aerial circle when she perceived this strange human profile outlined against the sky. She thought herself the victim of some fantastic illusion, and made a gesture of surprise, almost of terror. Her aerial image repeated the gesture, and she saw the spectre of the traveler carry its hand to its hat and uncover its head in salutation, then fade away and vanish from view at the same time as her own.

The Transfiguration on Mount Tabor when the disciples suddenly beheld the image of the Master accompanied by the images of Moses and Elias, did not cause a more profound astonishment to those who witnessed it than did the sight of the anthelion, of which the explanation is known to all meteorologists, to the innocent Norwegian maiden.

This apparition remained fixed in her thoughts like some wonderful dream. She had called her father, who was standing at a little distance behind the hillock, but when he came there was nothing to be seen. She asked him for an explanation of the apparition, but could obtain nothing in reply, unless it were a doubt, almost a denial of the reality of the phenomenon. This excellent man, a retired military officer, belonged to that category of distinguished sceptics, who content themselves with denying whatever they have no knowledge of or do not understand. It was in vain she declared that she had just seen her image on the sky, and also that of a man whom she judged must be young and of a good figure — it was in vain she related to him all the details of the apparition, and added that the figures had seemed to her larger than life, resembling colossal silhouettes; he declared with an air of authority and with some emphasis, that it was what is called an optical illusion produced by a disordered imagination, often the result of disturbed sleep, especially during the period of adolescence.

But as we were going on board the steamer that evening, I noticed a young girl with very fair hair looking at my friend with an undisguised expression of amazement on her face. She was leaning on her father’s arm on the quay, and stood motionless as Lot’s wife after she had been changed into a pillar of salt. I drew George’s attention to her as we went on board, but he no sooner turned around to look at her than, flushing quickly, she turned her head aside and fixed her gaze on the wheel of the vessel, which had now begun to move. I do not know if Spero had remarked this. In point of fact neither of us had observed the aerial phenomenon of the morning, at least not during the time in which the young girl was near us, hidden from view by the bushes. It was the eastern portion of the heavens, the magnificence of the rising sun that had especially attracted us. George had, however, saluted the young Norwegian, whom he quitted with regret, with the same gesture with which he had saluted the rising sun, and which she had taken as being for herself.

Two months later the Count de R—— held a brilliantly attended féte in honor of a recent triumph of his compatriot Christine Nilsson. The young Norwegian and her father, who had come to Paris to spend there a part of the winter, were among the guests. They and the famous singer had known each other for a long time as compatriots, Norway and Sweden being sister countries. We, however, now visited the house tonight for the first time, our invitation being due to the appearance of Spero’s latest book, which had already attained marked success. Dreamy, thoughtful, learned with the solid learning of the North, eager for knowledge, Iclea had already read more than once and with lively interest, this somewhat mystical work in which the author has laid bare the secret doubts of his soul, unsatisfied with the Pensées of Pascal. Let us add that she herself had a few months previously successfully passed the examination for a higher degree, and having abandoned the study of medicine, which had at first attracted her, had thrown herself with ardor into the study — at that time coming into fashion — of physiological psychology.

When M. George Spero was announced, it seemed to her as if an unknown friend, the confidant of her thoughts almost, were about to enter the room. She trembled as if an electric shock had passed through her. George, little accustomed to society, timid and embarrassed when with strangers, fond neither of dancing, playing, nor conversing, had remained in a corner of the salon with some friends, indifferent to waltzes and quadrilles, but listening with interest to some of the master-pieces of modern music played with feeling, and the evening had passed without his approaching her, although he had not failed to observe her — although indeed among all this brilliant company he saw no one but her. More than once their glances had encountered each other. At last at about two o’clock, when the restraint of the earlier part of the evening had begun to wear away, he ventured to approach her, but without addressing her. She it was who spoke first, asking him to explain to her the meaning of a passage toward the conclusion of his book. Flattered, but still more surprised that those metaphysical pages should be read by a woman, — and so young a woman — the author answered with some embarrassment that such subjects were rather dry for a woman. She responded that not all women — not all young girls even — devoted themselves entirely to the arts of coquetry; and that she knew of some who occasionally studied, worked and thought.

She spoke with some warmth in her eagerness to enter her protest against the contemptuous disdain of certain scientists for her sex and to vindicate their intellectual claims, and she had but little difficulty in gaining a cause in which her opponent was not her adversary.

This latest book of its author, of which the success had been striking and immediate, notwithstanding the serious nature of its subject, had crowned the name of George Spero with glory; and the brilliant author was received in every salon with lively expressions of interest. The two young people had hardly exchanged a dozen words before he found himself the center of observation of the assembled guests, answering various questions, by which their tête-à-tête was continually interrupted. One of the most eminent critics of the day, had a short time before devoted a long article to the new work, and this now became the subject of general conversation. Iclea held herself apart. She felt — and women rarely deceive themselves — that the hero of the evening had already observed her; that their minds were already united by an invisible thread, and that, as he answered the more or less commonplace questions addressed to him, his thoughts were not all in the conversation. This first secret triumph sufficed her. She did not aspire to any other, and she had, besides, recognized in his profile, that of the mysterious aerial apparition, and the young passenger of the Christiania steamer.

In this, their first interview, he was not slow in manifesting his enthusiasm for the marvelous scenes of Norway, telling her of his travels there.

She was burning to hear some allusion to the aerial phenomenon which had made so deep an impression upon her, and she could not understand his silence and reserve regarding it. He, however, not having observed the anthelion at the moment when her image appeared in it, had not been especially surprised by a phenomenon which he had already seen several times and observed under better conditions from the parachute of a balloon, and having taken no particular notice of it, had nothing to say about it. Nor did the circumstance of his journey on the boat occur to his memory, and although the beautiful girl did not seem to him altogether a stranger, he could not remember where he had before seen her. For my part, I recognized her at once. They talked of lakes, rivers, fiords, mountains. He learned from her that her mother had died at an early age, of an affection of the heart; that her father preferred the life of Paris to that of any other city; and that it was probable that she would revisit but rarely her own country. A remarkable similarity of tastes and ideas, congeniality of disposition and mutual esteem at once placed them en rapport. Educated according to the English fashion, she enjoyed that independence of mind and freedom of action which French women are denied, until after marriage, and she did not feel herself embarrassed by any of those social conventionalities, the object of which seems to be with us, the protection of innocence and virtue. Two friends of her own age had already come alone to Paris to finish their musical education, and all three lived together in perfect security in the midst of this Babylon, without ever even suspecting the dangers of which Paris is said to be full. The young girl received the visits of George Spero as her father himself might have received them, and in a few weeks the similarity of their characters and their tastes had associated them in the same studies, the same researches, and often in the same thoughts. Almost every afternoon, drawn by a secret attraction, he directed his steps from the Latin Quarter toward the banks of the Seine, whose course he followed till he reached the Trocadero, and passed several hours with Iclea, either in the library, the terrace of the garden, or promenading in the Bois. The impression first received from the apparition had remained in the soul of Iclea. She regarded the young savant, if not as a god or a hero, at least as a man superior to his contemporaries. The reading of his books strengthened this impression and augmented it. The feeling she had for him was more than admiration. It was almost veneration. When she became more intimately acquainted with him, the great man did not descend from his pedestal. She found him so superior to every one else in knowledge, and at the same time so unaffected, so sincere, so amiable, and so indulgent toward others and — for she seized every pretext to hear his name uttered — she was sometimes compelled to listen to remarks made by his rivals concerning him, that seemed to her so unjust, that she began to regard him with an affection that was almost maternal. Does this feeling of protecting love then, already exist in the heart of every young girl? It may be so, but certain it is that Iclea loved him thus at first. I think I have said before that the disposition of this savant was naturally tinged with melancholy, which Pascal called the nostalgia of the soul. His constant occupation, in fact, was the solution of the eternal problem, the “To be or not to be” of Hamlet. At times he seemed depressed, sad, even to death. By a strange contradiction in his nature, when his gloomy thoughts had, so to say, spent themselves in his investigations, and his brain could no longer work, peace and serenity once more took possession of his mind, the red blood again circled through his frame, and the philosopher became a child — gay, simple, easily amused, with tastes almost like those of a woman, fond of flowers, perfumes, music, reverie, and at times even astonishingly indifferent to everything.


Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:54