It was far into the night of the Shortest Day of the disturbed, disastrous, and dismal year, 1870.
But Mr. Punch, the Philosopher, was not meditating on disturbance, disaster, or dismalness. He sat pondering on Eclipses, with the assistance of Mr. Norman Lockyer’s Elementary Lesson-book, and he had nearly persuaded himself that he partly understood something of the theory of those Phenomena.
”The longest time an Eclipse of the Sun can be total at any place is seven minutes,” he read, and he seemed to derive comfort from that knowledge. ”There has been no total eclipse of the sun in London since 1715,” he went on. ”Let’s see, that was the year in which the Northern Lights vainly tried to eclipse the Star of Brunswick.”
A card was brought in unto him, inscribed
”I do not know them; probably some balloon-refugees from Paris. They are welcome. Show them in.”
His visitors entered. For a second, he was conscious of a blaze of golden glory, which was succeeded by a silvery effulgence, and then the new arrivals ceased to be more brilliant than other people of the world.
”Delighted,” said Mr. Punch, whose imperturbability is proof against Gods and Men. ”How are you, Queen and Huntress chaste and fair? And how are you, my far-darter, Lord of the Unerring Bow?”
Olympian laughter rang musically, and then Diana said, with the smile that made Endymion’s dream a Paradise ”We have a little performance for the Astronomers tomorrow, and we thought that you might like a Private View.”
”Thanks very much,” said Mr. Punch, playfully adopting the affectation of the hour. ”But you will have to put the performance off. A vessel, laden with Science, has come to grief. I believe she is called—excuse my naming her,” ho added, with a sly glance at the lady.
”You may name her, Sir,” said Diana, laughing, and tossing her radiant head. Psyche was nothing to me.”
”O, if you ‘ll believe Lemprière, you ‘ll believe anything,” said Diana.
”I don’t believe anything,” replied Mr. Punch. ”But may I offer you terrestrial hospitality? I fear that I am out of nectar and ambrosia.”
”Has not Mr. D’Ixion told you that we consign such old-fashioned stuff to the sideboard?” said Apollo. ”There are some stupid old deities, uncle Neptune for one, who believe in them, as old fogies on earth see luck in mince-pies. I ‘ll have brandy-and-seltzer, and Miss Di will, I dare say, take some maraschino and a cigarette.”
”As Byron says, ‘There was a light cloud on the Moon,’ ” said Mr. Punch, handing her a paper of exquisite papirosses Turc fort, the gift of the Russian Ambassador, and marked ”Moscou.”
”This is the way I am going to put him out to-morrow,” said the Goddess, interposing her fair, round face between her brother’s and the Philosopher’s. ”You ‘ll be thirty years older, dear clever boy, before I do it again.”
”I daresay it’s all right, and all very clever,” said Mr. Punch, ”but I want a bit of astrology, not astronomy, from you. Raise your voces stellarum, and tell me what’s going to happen in this Sublunary Wale.”
”Do you mean to say,” said Diana, reproachfully, ”that, with a grand Eclipse to behold, you care about Emperors of Germany, Balloon-Ministers, battles and sieges, broken treaties, and rubbish of that kind? Who will be thinking about them when the next Eclipse happens?’
”Goddess excellently bright,” said Mr. Punch, with that exquisite tact which combines a compliment with a repartee, ”it is a good while since that fire occurred at a certain lady’s house at Ephesus, and yet we talk of it still.”
”Don’t talk about that,” said Diana. ”Do you know that the priests who incited that poor mad Erostratus to burn my temple, cheated him out of his share of the assurance money?”
”Their Reverences made a good thing out of that Dis-establishment, eh? It does them credit. But now, news, news, news! What say the heavenly bodies? What planet rules the destiny of France, and what is the benefic Jupiter about, and does the violent Mars run retrograde?”
”Tell him something,” said Apollo, finishing his B. & S.
”Listen!” said Diana. And leaning down, as erst she leant over her sleeping Shepherd, she whispered.
But what the Moon said to Punch is laid away in the golden casket of his Memory, and locked with the diamond key of his Fidelity. It may be revealed, however, in ”due season.
”By Dad,” said Apollo —
”By Jove, you mean, I suppose?” said Mr. Punch.
”Didn’t I say so? Diana, my dear, we shall be late. It will never do, after good-naturedly appearing at the times predicted, and having the Astronomers’ credit so often, to stultify ‘em now, and show that they only make flukes. Kiss him, and come along, will you? We ought to be in Spain by this time. But I’ll touch up the fiery-footed steeds, and make ‘cm gallop apace.”
The salute of Diana was given, and the bright guests were vanishing:
”Don’t hurry your show,” cried Mr. Punch. ”If the Sun is Eclipsed for ten days, no matter, I will enlighten Creation. Here is my
Punch, 1870, vol. 59