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Nether Lochaber
Chapter LVIII


Showers in Harvest Time—Magnificent Sunset—Night sometimes seeming not to descend but to ascend—Death of M. Leverrier—The Discovery of Neptune—Pigeon cooing at Midnight—The Owl at Noon—Cage-Birds singing at Night.

The weather continues wonderfully fine for the season [October 1877], and with the exception of the potato-lifting, all our harvest labours are at length concluded. The ingathering has upon the whole been highly satisfactory, far more so than any one could have had the courage to predict up to the very advent of this our autumnal summer, which has already lasted just thirty days, uninterruptedly sunny and dry, without any more serious break than a mere passing shower, which invariably did more good than harm. More good the reader exclaims interrogatively, how can a shower do good, how can it be otherwise than harmful in harvest time? Patience, courteous reader, and we shall explain. It is a case of something of this kind. You are driving along the road; the horse in the shafts before you is upon the whole a steady-going and willing animal enough, but you have let him have it just his own way for the last half hour, and dreaming, perhaps, of fresh fields and pastures green, he has for the moment forgotten your existence, and begins to lag. His usual pace of a good eight miles an hour is now hardly over five, and what in such a case shall you do? You drop the lash gently across his flank, as light and gently as falls the angler's cast on the waveless pool; you are too much of a Christian and a gentlemen—the terms are or ought to be synonymous—to do otherwise until it is absolutely necessary. Your horse forgets his dream; becomes instantly alive to the work before him; gathers himself together, and with a responsive toss of his head and a lively play of ears, goes along at rather more than his average speed until the next stage is reached; knowing full well that the hand that laid on that serpent-like lash so tenderly, can lay it on in very different fashion, hot and heavy enough when occasion calls. Or, dropping metaphor, let us state the matter plainly, thus :—Here in Lochaber, and we suppose it is just the same over all the Highlands, when really fine weather comes, we are for the first few days up and doing, busy enough. But as one fine day succeeds another, we are very ready to fall into the error that after all it is best to take things leisurely. Where's the need, we ask ourselves, for so much hurry and bustle? The fine weather has lasted a week; it may last a month, is indeed likely so to last; it is no more like rain to-day than it was yesterday; and thus we lapse, often unconsciously, perhaps, into a spirit of dilatoriness and procrastination, out of which only a lowering sky, and a shower that for all we know may become a flood, can fairly rouse us. You slept long, for instance, this morning; you dawdled over your porridge and milk at breakfast time, and it is now noonday. But see ! the heavens yonder in the north-west are suddenly overcast; an ominous gloom creeps over the Outer Hebrides; a few drops of rain have already fallen, one on the back of your left hand, on which placing the index finger of your right, you can find that it is wet, that it is rain; a second on your cheek with a soft, tepid thud; and a third right into your open, uplifted eye, and you straightway start into activity and life. All hands on deck! is the cry. You rush into the field amongst the stooks; you bustle about cheerily, and calling all hands into your service, for idlers are now out of place, you cart and carry away as f&st as-you can into your barn or stack-yard, and by sunset, so expeditiously have you worked, that the field from head-rig to head-rig is but bare and stookless stubble. It was after all but a passing shower; the gloom has given place to cloudless blue; you have been cheated, so to speak. But what matters it % Your crop is safely stacked or housed, and were it not for the passing shower and temporary mid-day gloom, your stooks were still alield, running a risk there was no reason they should run; and so, good reader, you will understand how a slight shower in the season of ingathering may not always be an evil, but a very good thing indeed; and only a few such passing, labour-inciting showers have we known here for a whole month, and that is much to say when the month is to be counted from mid-September to mid-October.

And, O gentle reader, we only wish you were with us here to see for yourself, propriis oculis, for no pen can describe it, one or more of the many magnificent sunsets we have, had in the course of this same bypast month of fine weather. The sunsets of the equinoctial seasons, both vernal and autumnal, are almost always beautiful, more particularly those of the autumnal equinox; but never before, we think, have we seen them so startling, gloriously beautiful, so gorgeously magnificent, as on several occasions lately. A few evenings ago, as we were busy in our study, a young lady burst in upon us in a state of great excitement, begging us to throw aside our pen for a little, and come out to see the exceeding glory of the setting sun. We readily complied of course, and taking the young lady by the hand we made a race of it till we reached our "coigne of vantage," a grassy green knoll, a favourite standpoint when any celestial phenomenon of importance to the W. or S.W. of us is to be observed. The scene, in truth, was indescribably beautiful, and we stood in speechless admiration, not unmingled with awe, in sight of the most glorious sunset our eyes ever beheld. Before us lay the whole expanse of the Linnhe Loch, shimmering as if gently aboil in a flood of pale golden light. Beyond, rose what seemed the one vast unbroken range of the mountains of Ardgour, Kingerloch, and Morven, bathed in a rich dark purple hue, that for the moment so thoroughly obliterated every trace of their native ruggedness, that our companion prettily observed, " Haven't you the idea, sir, as I have, that if one were only near enough these beautiful mountains to pat them lovingly with the hand, they would feel to the touch soft and warm as a roll of velvet!" a thought, unconsciously perhaps, tinged with poetry, though the woman pure and simple comes out very unmistakeably in the reference to the "roll of velvet." In the far background, thirty miles away, rose the glory and pride of Mull (Blackie's favourite island of all the Hebrides), the huge mountains of Benmore and Ben-na-Bairnich, their base and middle zones ink-black, their shoulders dark orange, here and there curiously streaked with threads of pearly light, their summits and sloping ridges fringed with living fire. Above, the whole western heavens was full of vast continents, peninsulas, isthmuses, and islands of cloud, all afire at their edges, with firths, ferries, and Mediterraneans of liquid gold between. As the full-orbed sun, fiery and red, slowly sank to the horizon, the clouds were rent asunder as if by the very excellency of the glory that beat upon them; some of them assuming fantastic shapes, in which a lively imagination had no difficulty in tracing striking resemblances to the hugest animals of our own and past ages, a monster saurian in sharply defined silhouette, being so marvellously outlined that our fair companion sketched it on the spot, as a memento of a sunset that neither of us is likely ever to forget. As the sun's lower limb seemed just to touch and rest an instant on the highest peak of the Kingerloch range, a large mass of cloud immediately above him rapidly assumed a columnar shape, perpendicular to the plane of the horizon, and, as the splendid orb dipped and disappeared, this huge "pillar of cloud" became a perfect Ionic column, sharply outlined, and admirably correct in all its proportions from base to entablature, and all aglow with living fire; shaft and pediment with richest crimson; frieze and architrave and cornice with the glow of molten mettle at "white heat" as it issues from a blast furnace. There was, truth to say, something terrible about the scene, a wild and weird combination of the sublime and beautiful such as Edmund Burke never beheld even in his dreams. It was impossible, in the presence of the "terrible majesty" of that glory, to avoid thinking of the awfulness that must appertain to a scene of which all of us shall one day he spectators, when the "elements shall melt with fervent heat," and the "earth also, and the works that are therein," shall be consumed with fire. The succeeding afterglow of that same evening was singularly beautiful. The mountains of Appin and Glencoe were for a time bathed from their summits to their shoulders in the richest purple and gold, making them look so soft and warm, that for the moment their actual ruggedness was utterly forgotten, and one felt towards them a far stronger and tenderer sentiment than mere admiration. And very curiously, as we gazed, did the night immediately succeed the afterglow, for of twilight there was none—there rarely is indeed in autumn, as the old Highlanders were too observant not to notice, for what saith the old and well-known rhyme!—

"Mar chlorich a ruith le gleann,
Tha feasgar fann, fogharaidh."

The meaning of which is, that no longer lasts the autumnal twilight than it takes a stone to roll adown the mountain steep into the glen below. We generally speak of the night's descending; we say the falling night, the darkness fell, &c., as if the darkness came down from above, and sometimes, doubtless, it does seem so to fall —to descend like a curtain. On this occasion, however, and frequently, we have noticed, in the autumnal season, the night did not seem so much to descend as to ascend, like an exhalation from out the entrails of the earth; the blackness of gorge and corrie and glen slowly creeping upwards, banishing the gold and purple as it ascended, just as you have seen the earth's shadow in an eclipse of the moon obliterate the silvery radiance of the lunar disc—finally reaching ridge and summit and loftiest peak, and lo, it was night, the ruddy orb of Mars over the now ink-black top of Buachaill-Etive putting the fact beyond all question; and, while our fair companion went for a stroll along the beach, gaily singing a merry roundelay as became her innocence and her years, we retired in a mood of mind that, while it was pleasant upon the whole, had yet a tinge of sadness about it, to our study and our books.

France has recently lost one of her greatest men by the death of M. Leverrier, her distinguished astronomer, the most distinguished astronomer, it is not too much to say, of the present century. Many, indeed, achieved greater triumphs with the telescope, for with the telescope Leverrier did comparatively little; it was as a mathematical astronomer that he was unrivalled. He came first prominently into notice while still a young man, with his cometary investigations, and his researches into the motions of the planet Mercury, constructing tables by which transits of the latter can be predicted with such absolute correctness that the mean error never exceeds sixteen seconds of time. But it is with the discovery of the planet Neptune that Leverrier's name is imperishably associated. The case briefly stated was this :—It was found, after a time, that the planet Uranus, discovered by Sir "William Herschel, did not actually follow the orbit which theory had assigned to it. It had a mysterious trick of leaving the computed track, and describing a greater orbit, if the law of gravitation was to hold good, than the tables founded on that law warranted. Astronomers were puzzled to account for the vagaries of an orbit that, According to their theory, ought to he well-behaved, and staid and steady-going as any other member of the solar system. "What could the perturbations of Uranus mean? was the question asked; and at the suggestion of his friend the distinguished Arago, Leverrier undertook to answer it, and in due time did answer it in such wise as filled the world with astonishment and admiration. Resolutely grasping with his task, Leverrier laboured long and laboured hard to resolve the mystery, and as a first step with this result, that the problem was utterly unresolvable on any other conceivable theory or conjecture than that another planet, albeit unknown to astronomers, and hitherto as unsuspected as it was unseen, existed exterior to Uranus, and that it was to the attraction or disturbing influence of this hitherto undreamt-of orb that the perturbations and mysterious vagaries of Uranus could alone be ascribed. A memoir stating the conclusion arrived at, and all the calculations leading towards it, was read before the Royal Academy of Sciences in June 1846, and the young and daring astronomer straightway resumed his labours, of which the aim was now to determine the elements of the orbit of the unknown planet, in the existence of which he now believed as firmly as in that of the visibly perturbed orb Uranus itself. The astronomical world shook its head dubiously, and waited. Did such a planet really exist, and if it did, could this daring Frenchman find it? M. Leverrier meantime laboured on, and finally mastering every difficulty, he gave the computed plans of orbit, the mass and natural position of his constructed world, if in truth, that is, such a world existed. This was in a second memoir to the Academy of Sciences on the last day of August 1846. Towards the end of the following month (September 1846), Leverrier wrote to M. Galle, of Berlin, requesting him to level the powerful telescope under his charge at a particular point of the heavens, and there, in effect, said the wonderful Frenchman, you will find the cause of the perturbations of Uranus, a new and distant world, hitherto undreamt of and unseen by mortal eye, but existing all the same. M. Galle, on the first favourable opportunity, directed his telescope as requested, and there, within less than a single eye of its computed place, and flinging hack its light from the enormous distance of more than three billions of miles, was the planet of Leverrier's analysis, with a diameter, magnitude, and orbit all as calculated and predicted. It was a glorious triumph, the most wonderful achievement in the annals of a science where all is wonder.

Publicly and privately has this query been put to us—Is it unusual to hear a pigeon cooing at midnight, and the owl hooting in bright noonday? We answer very unhesitatingly that it is unusual, so unusual in the case of the owl at least, that in a quarter of a century's familiar and friendly intercourse with our wild-birds under all possible circumstances, we have never heard an owl hoot except " darkling," as Milton has it, that is, from out the darkness or sombre shade. Even at night, if the moon is shining bright, it never hoots from a spot on which the moonbeams fall in full flood; it selects the deepest shadow even in faint moonlight when uttering its eerie notes. It will hoot in twilight, and it will hoot when the heavens are bright ablaze with the most brilliant coruscations of the aurora, but never, so far as our experience has extended, does it hoot in honest daylight or even in moonlight, except when, as we have said, it is itself in deep shade. We have kept pets of all our native species of owls, and most interesting pets they make, and though, when angry or in any way out of sorts, it will utter a ready hiss, ending in a curious rasping guttural, we have never known it to hoot except in the darkness of night, and, more rarely, in the dim, uncertain light of evening or morning twilight. The cooing of a pigeon at midnight, while it may he said to be unusual, is yet a thing that, under certain circumstances, may be heard at any time. Many birds, captives in cage or aviary, frequently sing short and incomplete strophes of their special song in the warm stillness of summer nights, evidently in their dreams. Others, in their natural state of freedom, about the time of the longest day, when there is hardly any night in our latitudes, may he heard singing, generally unconnectedly, and in a faint, uncertain key. The pigeon will coo at any time when brooding, if rudely disturbed in any way, just as a brooding hen will purr and scold if you annoy her or her nest at any hour of the day or night. The cooing of a pigeon, therefore, at midnight is nothing very wonderful. The hooting of an owl at noonday, however, is surprising, and a thing which, although we live in a district where owls are plentiful, is altogether unknown in our experience.


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