THE OPPOSITION OF MARS.
Suspense. — Evening success. — A little cloud. — Splendid Definition. — Sweet sounds. — A favourable Opposition. — The Mail lost.
MEANTIME the 5th of September has come. I could write no diary, and have not the slightest recollection of how I spent the day—unprofitably, I fear, in watching and waiting; finally bringing on a violent headache towards evening, which was less painful, however, than the excessive nervous excitement I was endeavouring to repress. To-night Mars will be nearer to us—his ruddy glare brighter than ever again for a hundred years, and what if we should not see him?
The sun had shone all day in a cloudless sky, but before sunset some ugly clouds rolled up from windward, and made me feel quite feverish. I could not rest, but kept wandering about from tent to tent like an unquiet spirit; inwardly resenting David's exceeding calm, as a tacit reproof to my perturbation. There he sat, quietly tying up photographs, softly whistling to himself, as if nothing were going to happen, and then he actually smoked a very long pipe, with even longer and slower whiffs than usual. Of course it was affectation! But I wondered how he managed to keep up the deception, and for the first time fully believed what he had told me of having enjoyed his breakfast on the morning of the Transit of Venus, notwithstanding that it rained. Nominally, we dined to-day at half-past five, and I found it hard work!
Six o'clock, and still the heavens look undecided; half-past six, and a heavy cloud is forming in the south. Slowly the cloud rises—very slowly; but by-and-by a streak of light rests on the top of the dark rocks—it widens and brightens, and at last we see Mars shining steadily in the pure blue horizon beneath. It was now seven o'clock, and David called quickly for lights. Graydon, who was almost as much excited as I was, answered with his ready "Aye, aye, sir," and in a few minutes I was left alone in a pitiful state of anxiety and unquiet.
How slowly the minutes passed! How very long each little interruption appeared! The wind was blowing lazily, and light clouds glided at intervals across the sky, obscuring, for a few moments, the Planet as they crossed his path. But at last I heard the welcome note "All right," and then I went to bed, leaving David to add the pleasant postscript of "Evening success" to his letters. When the letters were finished, he gave them in charge to Hill, with orders that they should be sent off at daybreak, and then he lay down to rest.
I now took the watch for the morning. The first hours of my waiting promised well, but before 1 A.M. a tiny cloud, no bigger than a man's hand, arose in the south, and I called my husband to know what he thought of it. On this, the night of Opposition, the planet would be in the most favourable position for beginning morning observations about 2.30. Now it was but 12.50, and the question came to be—shall some value of position be lost, so as to give a greater chance of securing observations before the rising cloud reach the zenith, or shall we wait, in the hope that this cloud has "no followers"?
Being a Scot, and fully appreciating the motto of the Kirkpatricks, "I mak siccar," David began work at once in a break-neck position, with the telescope pointed but a few degrees west of the zenith. How my heart beat, for I saw the cloud rise and swell, and yet no silver lining below. I dared not go inside the Observatory, lest my uncontrollable fidgets might worry the observer, but sat without on a heap of clinker, and kept an eye on the enemy. Five, ten, fifteen minutes! Then David called out, "Half set finished—splendid definition—go to bed!" Just in time, I thought, and crept off to my tent, thankful for little, and not expecting more, for one arm of the black cloud was already grasping Mars.
My husband would, of course, remain in the Observatory for the rest of the night to watch for clear intervals, while I was expected to go to sleep. But how could I? I took up a book and tried to read by the light of my lantern for a few minutes; then I thought to myself, "Just a peep to see whether the cloud promises to clear off." I looked forth, and lo! no cloud! I rubbed my eyes, thinking I must be dreaming, and pulled out my watch, to make sure I had not been asleep, so sudden was the change. No! truly the obnoxious cloud had mysteriously vanished, and the whole moonless heavens were of that inky blueness so dear to astronomers.
Mars now outrivalled Jupiter in ruddy splendour; Orion had flung abroad his jewels like hoarfrost; the Pleiades glittered in such bewildering multitude, that it seemed as if the lost Pleiad had returned with a train of shining followers from some other system. "Like fire-flies tangled in a silver braid," they shone with a soft beauty; and everywhere, above and around, myriads of stars dazzled the night.
While my eyes drank in this beautiful scene, my ears were filled with sweet sounds issuing from the Observatory, "A, seventy and one, point two seven one; B, seventy-seven, one, point three six eight," &c. Let not any one smile that I call these sweet sounds. Sweet they were indeed to me, for they told of success after bitter disappointment; of cherished hopes realised; of care and anxiety passing away. They told too of honest work honestly done—of work that would live and tell its tale, when we and the instruments were no more; and, as I thought of this, there came upon me with all their force the glowing words of Herschel—
"When once a place has been thoroughly ascertained, and carefully recorded, the brazen circle with which that useful work was done may moulder, the marble pillar totter on its base, and the astronomer himself survive only in the gratitude of his posterity; but the record remains, and transfuses all its own exactness into every determination which takes it for a groundwork."
Happier hours I never spent than those early morning ones under this beautiful heaven; for in helpless restlessness I had again taken up my position on the clinker. The night was unusually still, and outside the Observatory there was not a sound save the gentle flapping of the tents—like the wings of passing birds, and the continual murmur of greeting from the waves as they met the shore. Time passed unconsciously, for I was giving my imagination full play, and when I heard the Observatory dome shut, I could hardly believe that I had been dreaming on a rock for three hours. The awakening was as pleasant as the dream had been. David was radiant, and no wonder! All our previous disappointment, fatigue and anxiety were forgotten in the good fortune of to-night, and now we might rest.
But excitement made sleep for me impossible, and after some fruitless attempts, I got up at 8 o'clock, and sallied forth into the bright morning. At this time I was fondly imagining Sam to be in Garrison with the letter bag; so judge of my dismay, when the first object my eyes rested upon was the young man quietly smoking at the door of the kitchen tent! I called Hill, and on my asking why he had so disobeyed orders, he coolly replied, "Oh! the Mail isn't in yet, ma'am, we'd have seen her pass." Be it confessed—I lost my temper. After taking so many precautions to make sure of the letters going at daybreak, to have them all frustrated by such a gross act of disobedience was too provoking; and it was in a very cross tone indeed that I told Sam to be off at once.
When David heard the news, he too was very indignant and scolded Hill severely; still we had good hope that all would yet be well. But alas! the truant turtle-boat, (which ought to have come for our letters the day before, had she not been delayed by the Orontes,) arrived to-day at noon, bringing us home letters, and also the distressing news that ours had missed the Mail. The Mail was under way as our runner sighted Garrison, and the captain had waited for him some time in vain. It was very annoying, and Hill was exceedingly ashamed of himself; but unfortunately, that did not forward our poor letters, many of which were of considerable importance; at least many of my husband's were. The only one of mine I felt unhappy about was my letter to my mother; and the thought of the five weeks of anxiety that she would suffer on our account until next mail, was the single drop of bitterness that mingled with the sweet satisfaction of a favourable "Opposition," and the enjoyment of home news.
Well! it was one of those little clouds that often come on the brightest days, just to keep the brightness from dazzling our eyes, and to remind us that bad weather may come.