The Dim Winds
—Philosophers have discoursed of it, poets have sung it, artists have shown it, — the gift of second sight. I do not mean the thick-crowding fancies which beset the wizard in Lochiel’s Warning, the unhallowed perceivings professed by modern witchcraft, nor the miracles of theosophy, but that second sight which brings far things near, which paints upon the inner eye a picture whose vividness of tint outrivals all reality ; being illumined by
Fairy lore has no greater fascination in store, after having placed us upon the enchanted carpet, and whisked us away to realms unknown. Even faith has its own resources in this sort, as when Cardinal Newman, by way of argument, tells us of the wonders seen and enjoyed by himself, an untraveled John Bull, sojourning or wayfaring in lands we read of, but may never visit. There is a yet more modest form of second sight, of which nor poet nor painter nor purveyor of fairy lore makes mention, but which is, nevertheless, measurably among the delights within reach of all, however faith and imagination may fail us on their own fields of vision. Especially have the privileges of this form of second sight been extended since one of our scientists, desiring to popularize his beloved studies, published a series of suggestive articles entitled Astronomy through an Opera Glass.
While I am dusting my binocular, and preparing a stand on which to adjust and balance the somewhat heavy implement, I fall to considering what a wonderful thing is a spyglass. Those who marvel at the extraordinary results reached by electricity are largely impressed by the dramatic, not to say theatrical nature of those performances. From the days of Franklin’s kite to the last achievement of the trolley system, the evolution of this power has been rapid, and in many instances, indeed, sensational. Shortly after the first announcement of the successful use of the telegraph wire, there appeared in a Richmond newspaper the following colloquy : “ ‘ Const thou speak by the lightnings ? ’ — Job. ‘ Yes, sirree ! ’ - Professor Morse” Which was simply a popular way of expressing the popular wonder at a remarkable phenomenon. The artificial production of rain, which we must consider a costly experiment, in view of the fact that it was first learned in the stern school of battle, is wonderful enough in itself; though, as in many so-called inventions, it is but a mere imitation of nature. But the evolution of the telescope or the spyglass has been marked by a singular conservatism, and has been so gradual as to suggest its analogy in some of the slow processes of geological formation, rather than a resemblance to any of the theatrical achievements of man ; and not yet has this instrument flattered our human interest by revealing anything even in Mars which should invest that planet with the least shadow of proof of human inhabitation.
With such thoughts, on a fair summer day, I lay my glass upon the stand and sweep the horizon. But a change has come over all within the field of vision. The haze which hung suspended between me and those enchanted islands of the main has assumed a more fragmentary character, and has become a composite of many-shaped and ragged clouds, all drifting in the direction indicated by the prevailing wind. There are little loops between these clouds, through which clearer glimpses of the landscape may be obtained ; and at certain points the fleecy curtain is so lifted as to show the horizon, — a line marking the meeting of the light blue of the sky and the dark blue of the sea. How strange that this line should be irregular, and that, at this distance, the tumbling of the waves should be most distinctly visible ! I remember that, out at sea for the first time, just before going beyond sight of land, the impression was as if we were in a bowl gradually settling towards the centre whereon our gallant ship seemed to stand. Lingering remnants of land, not yet passed from vision, marred the symmetry of this appearance, and suggested that the bowl had been carelessly mended, while still in all directions there was the steady upheaval of the waves, which in calmest weather is by sailors called the “breathing” of the sea. From my seaside balcony, the waves, which are almost always present, form, in the perspective, a wrinkled roughness of surface, which has not escaped the poet, and which is lighted up by a glint of intensified sunshine; for the reflection of the sea seems to have added to the intensity of the sun.
Little by little, the hoarse haze — for hoarse it seems, in the ever-recurring analogies between sight and sound — floats away and disappears altogether, when an increased roughening of the watery surface denotes a change of wind. Ha ! now I understand what the sailors meant when they spoke of the “ cat’s-paws ” that heralded the wished-for breeze ! Now the islands on which my glass is turned shine distinctly through many miles of distance; and cottage and field and rock and stunted tree stand forth gladly to announce dry land beyond those miles of ocean. All trace of mist has finally vanished, — faded into almost preternatural clearness. Watching carefully for any changes in sea or sky or land beyond this glittering field of waters, there floats upon my vision a crystalline consciousness of air ! I certainly can see it, flowing with that shimmering incertitude of small currents which imparts to the leaves their quivering motion, — flowing, flowing steadily to the south, like a vast sea of purest liquid, setting toward the equator. The strange part of it is the wonderful trauslueence. It is not like that tremulous gas which arrests the sight over a heated morass or a furnace. The effect I observe can scarcely be due to heat, for the north wind blows coolingly. I notice in the eddying currents a varying irregularity characteristic of fluid in motion ; and for a moment, at least, I feel certain that what I had supposed to be the viewless air, but now behold, is nothing more nor less than “ the dim winds ” which were trod by Shelley’s fairy ! Science tells us we are immersed in the aerial ocean to the depth of some forty-five miles, but the flood which I can see must be illimitable and beyond plummet reach. It almost seems strange that we should live, move, and have our being under the tumultuous tide, nowas distinctly visible as the sea itself !
After enjoying this vision and the paradoxical reflections it evokes, the spyglass is withdrawn ; and I gaze wistfully over the blue field so lately informed with the magic of art and the dreamland of science. I look again. All is as usual. That flowing translucent sea has faded to utter invisibility. No cloud or feathery mist affords pretext for the thought of ocular delusion ; and were it not that the stern arbitrament of Science decides these things for herself, I should still hold to my belief that I have seen the air with my natural eves, aided by a twelve-lens glass. At any rate, I have as good warrant fur my belief as had the South Sea Islander for his when he averred that he had shot at the wind in the guise of an old man, and had seen it disappear in a cleft of the rocks !