Concerning Animals and Other Matters
by E.H. Aitken, (AKA Edward Hamilton)
1  2  3  4     Next Part
Home - Random Browse












Special thanks are due to the Editors and Proprietors of the Strand Magazine, Pall Mall Magazine and Times of India for their courtesy in permitting the reprinting of the articles in this book which originally appeared in their columns.






























Edward Hamilton Aitken, the author of the following sketches, was well known to the present generation of Anglo-Indians, by his pen-name of Eha, as an accurate and amusing writer on natural history subjects. Those who were privileged to know him intimately, as the writer of this sketch did, knew him as a Christian gentleman of singular simplicity and modesty and great charm of manner. He was always ready to help a fellow-worker in science or philanthropy if it were possible for him to do so. Thus, indeed, began the friendship between us. For when plague first invaded India in 1896, the writer was one of those sent to Bombay to work at the problem of its causation from the scientific side, thereby becoming interested in the life history of rats, which were shown to be intimately connected with the spread of this dire disease. Having for years admired Eha's books on natural history—The Tribes on my Frontier, An Indian Naturalist's Foreign Policy, and The Naturalist on the Prowl, I ventured to write to him on the subject of rats and their habits, and asked him whether he could not throw some light on the problem of plague and its spread, from the naturalist's point of view.

In response to this appeal he wrote a most informing and characteristic article for The Times of India (July 19, 1899), which threw a flood of light on the subject of the habits and characteristics of the Indian rat as found in town and country. He was the first to show that Mus rattus, the old English black rat, which is the common house rat of India outside the large seaports, has become, through centuries of contact with the Indian people, a domestic animal like the cat in Britain. When one realises the fact that this same rat is responsible for the spread of plague in India, and that every house is full of them, the value of this naturalist's observation is plain. Thus began an intimacy which lasted till Eha's death in 1909.

The first time I met Mr. Aitken was at a meeting of the Free Church of Scotland Literary Society in 1899, when he read a paper on the early experiences, of the English in Bombay. The minute he entered the room I recognised him from the caricatures of himself in the Tribes. The long, thin, erect, bearded man was unmistakable, with a typically Scots face lit up with the humorous twinkle one came to know so well. Many a time in after-years has that look been seen as he discoursed, as only he could, on the ways of man and beast, bird or insect, as one tramped with him through the jungles on the hills around Bombay during week-ends spent with him at Vehar or elsewhere. He was an ideal companion on such occasions, always at his best when acting the part of The Naturalist on the Prowl.

Mr. Aitken was born at Satara in the Bombay Presidency on August 16, 1851. His father was the Rev. James Aitken, missionary of the Free Church of Scotland. His mother was a sister of the Rev. Daniel Edward, missionary to the Jews at Breslau for some fifty years. He was educated by his father in India, and one can well realise the sort of education he got from such parents from the many allusions to the Bible and its old Testament characters that one constantly finds used with such effect in his books. His farther education was obtained at Bombay and Poona. He passed M.A. and B.A. of Bombay University first on the list, and won the Homejee Cursetjee prize with a poem in 1880. From 1870 to 1876 he was Latin Reader in the Deccan College at Poona, which accounts for the extensive acquaintance with the Latin classics so charmingly manifest in his writings. That he was well grounded in Greek is also certain, for the writer, while living in a chummery with him in Bombay in 1902, saw him constantly reading the Greek Testament in the mornings without the aid of a dictionary.

He entered the Customs and Salt Department of the Government of Bombay in April 1876, and served in Kharaghoda (the Dustypore of the Tribes), Uran, North Kanara and Goa Frontier, Ratnagiri, and Bombay itself. In May, 1903, he was appointed Chief Collector of Customs and Salt Revenue at Karachi, and in November, 1905, was made Superintendent in charge of the District Gazetteer of Sind. He retired from the service in August 1906.

He married in 1883 the daughter of the Rev. J. Chalmers Blake, and left a family of two sons and three daughters.

In 1902 he was deputed, on special duty, to investigate the prevalence of malaria at the Customs stations along the frontier of Goa, and to devise means for removing the Salt Peons at these posts, from the neighbourhood of the anopheles mosquito, by that time recognised as the cause of the deadly malaria, which made service on that frontier dreaded by all.

It was during this expedition that he discovered a new species of anopheline mosquito, which after identification by Major James, I.M.S., was named after him Anopheles aitkeni. During his long service there are to be found in the Annual Reports of the Customs Department frequent mention of Mr. Aitken's good work, but it is doubtful whether the Government ever fully realised what an able literary man they had in their service, wasting his talent in the Salt Department. On two occasions only did congenial work come to him in the course of his public duty—namely, when he was sent to study, from the naturalist's point of view, the malarial conditions prevailing on the frontier of Goa; and when during the last two years of his service he was put in literary charge of The Sind Gazetteer. In this book one can see the light and graceful literary touch of Eha frequently cropping up amidst the dry bones of public health and commercial statistics, and the book is enlivened by innumerable witty and philosophic touches appearing in the most unlikely places, such as he alone could enliven a dull subject with. Would that all Government gazetteers were similarly adorned! But there are not many "Ehas" in Government employ in India.

On completion of this work he retired to Edinburgh, where most of the sketches contained in this volume were written. He was very happy with his family in his home at Morningside, and was beginning to surround himself with pets and flowers, as was his wont all his life, and to get a good connection with the home newspapers and magazines, when, alas! death stepped in, and he died after a short illness on April 25, 1909.

He was interested in the home birds and beasts as he had been with those in India, and the last time the writer met him he was taking home some gold-fish for his aquarium. A few days before his death he had found his way down to the Morningside cemetery, where he had been enjoying the sunshine and flowers of Spring, and he remarked to his wife that he would often go there in future to watch the birds building their nests.

Before that time came, he was himself laid to rest in that very spot in sure and certain hope of a blessed resurrection.

The above imperfect sketch fails to give the charm and magnetic attraction of the man, and for this one must go to his works, which for those who knew him are very illuminating in this respect. In them one catches a glimpse of his plan for keeping young and cheerful in "the land of regrets," for one of his charms was his youthfulness and interest in life. He refused to be depressed by his lonely life. "I am only an exile," he remarks, "endeavouring to work a successful existence in Dustypore, and not to let my environment shape me as a pudding takes the shape of its mould, but to make it tributary to my own happiness." He therefore urges his readers to cultivate a hobby.

"It is strange," he says, "that Europeans in India know so little, see so little, care so little, about all the intense life that surrounds them. The boy who was the most ardent of bug-hunters, or the most enthusiastic of bird-nesters in England, where one shilling will buy nearly all that is known, or can be known, about birds or butterflies, maintains in this country, aided by Messrs. B. &. S., an unequal strife with the insupportableness of an ennui-smitten life. Why, if he would stir up for one day the embers of the old flame, he could not quench it again with such a prairie of fuel around him. I am not speaking of Bombay people, with their clubs and gymkhanas and other devices for oiling the wheels of existence, but of the dreary up-country exile, whose life is a blank, a moral Sahara, a catechism of the Nihilist creed. What such a one needs is a hobby. Every hobby is good—a sign of good and an influence for good. Any hobby will draw out the mind, but the one I plead for touches the soul too, keeps the milk of human kindness from souring, puts a gentle poetry into the prosiest life. That all my own finer feelings have not long since withered in this land of separation from 'old familiar faces,' I attribute partly to a pair of rabbits. All rabbits are idiotic things, but these come in and sit up meekly and beg a crust of bread, and even a perennial fare of village moorgee cannot induce me to issue the order for their execution and conversion into pie. But if such considerations cannot lead, the struggle for existence should drive a man in this country to learn the ways of his border tribes. For no one, I take it, who reflects for an instant will deny that a small mosquito, with black rings upon a white ground, or a sparrow that has finally made up its mind to rear a family in your ceiling, exercises an influence on your personal happiness far beyond the Czar of the Russias. It is not a question of scientific frontiers—the enemy invades us on all, sides. We are plundered, insulted, phlebotomised under our own vine and fig-tree. We might make head against the foe if we laid to heart the lesson our national history in India teaches—namely, that the way to fight uncivilised enemies is to encourage them to cut one another's throats, and then step in and inherit the spoil. But we murder our friends, exterminate our allies, and then groan under the oppression of the enemy. I might illustrate this by the case of the meek and long-suffering musk-rat, by spiders or ants, but these must wait another day."

Again he says, "The 'poor dumb animals' can give each other a bit of their minds like their betters, and to me their fierce and tender little passions, their loves and hates, their envies and jealousies, and their small vanities beget a sense of fellow-feeling which makes their presence society. The touch of Nature which makes the whole world kin is infirmity. A man without a weakness is insupportable company, and so is a man who does not feel the heat. There is a large grey ring-dove that sits in the blazing sun all through the hottest hours of the day, and says coo-coo, coo, coo-coo, coo until the melancholy sweet monotony of that sound is as thoroughly mixed up in my brain with 110 deg. in the shade as physic in my infantile memories with the peppermint lozenges which used to 'put away the taste,' But as for these creatures, which confess the heat and come into the house and gasp, I feel drawn to them. I should like to offer them cooling drinks. Not that all my midday guests are equally welcome: I could dispense, for instance, with the grey-ringed bee which has just reconnoitred my ear for the third time, and guesses it is a key-hole—she is away just now, but only, I fancy, for clay to stop it up with. There are others also to which I would give their conge if they would take it. But good, bad, or indifferent they give us their company whether we want it or not."

Eha certainly found company in beasts all his life, and kept the charm of youth about him in consequence to the end. If his lot were cast, as it often was, in lonely places, he kept pets, and made friends besides of many of the members of the tribes on his frontier; if in Bombay city he consoled himself with his aquarium and the museum of the Bombay Natural History Society. When the present writer chummed with him in a flat on the Apollo Bunder in Bombay, he remembers well that aquarium and the Sunday-morning expeditions to the malarious ravines at the back of Malabar Hill to search for mosquito larvae to feed its inmates. For at that time Mr. Aitken was investigating the capabilities for the destruction of larvae, of a small surface-feeding fish with an ivory-white spot on the top of its head, which he had found at Vehar in the stream below the bund. It took him some time to identify these particular fishes (Haplochilus lineatus), and in the meantime he dubbed them "Scooties" from the lightning rapidity of their movements, and in his own admirable manner made himself a sharer of their joys and sorrows, their cares and interests. With these he stocked the ornamental fountains of Bombay to keep them from becoming breeding-grounds for mosquitoes, and they are now largely used throughout India for this very purpose. It will be recognised, therefore, that Mr. Aitken studied natural history not only for its own sake, but as a means of benefiting the people of India, whom he had learned to love, as is so plainly shown in Behind the Bungalow.

He was an indefatigable worker in the museum of the Bombay Natural History Society, which he helped to found, and many of his papers and notes are preserved for us in the pages of its excellent Journal, of which he was an original joint-editor. He was for long secretary of the Insect Section, and then president. Before his retirement he was elected one of the Vice-Presidents of the Society.

Mr. Aitken was a deeply religious man, and was for some twenty years an elder in the congregation of the United Free Church of Scotland in Bombay. He was for some years Superintendent of the Sunday School in connection with this congregation, and a member of the Committee of the Bombay Scottish Orphanage and the Scottish High Schools. His former minister says of him, "He was deeply interested in theology, and remained wonderfully orthodox in spite of" (or, as the present writer would prefer to say, because of) "his scientific knowledge. He always thought that the evidence for the doctrine of evolution had been pressed for more than it was worth, and he had many criticisms to make upon the Higher Critics of the Bible. Many a discussion we had, in which, against me, he took the conservative side."

He lets one see very clearly into the workings of his mind in this direction in what is perhaps the finest, although the least well known of his books, The Five Windows of the Soul (John Murray), in which he discourses in his own inimitable way of the five senses, and how they bring man and beast into contact with their surroundings. It is a book on perceiving, and shows how according as this faculty is exercised it makes each man such as he is. The following extract from the book shows Mr. Aitken's style, and may perhaps induce some to go to the book itself for more from the same source. He is speaking of the moral sense. "And it is almost a truism to say that, if a man has any taste, it will show itself in his dress and in his dwelling. No doubt, through indolence and slovenly habits, a man may allow his surroundings to fall far below what he is capable of approving; but every one who does so pays the penalty in the gradual deterioration of his perceptions.

"How many times more true is all this in the case of the moral sense? When the heart is still young and tender, how spontaneously and sweetly and urgently does every vision of goodness and nobleness in the conduct of another awaken the impulse to go and do likewise! And if that impulse is not obeyed, how certainly does the first approving perception of the beauty of goodness become duller, until at last we may even come to hate it where we find it, for its discordance with the 'motions of sins in our members'!

"But not less certainly will every earnest effort to bring the life into unison with what we perceive to be right bring its own reward in a clearer and more joyful perception of what is right, and a keener sensitiveness to every discord in ourselves. How all such discord may be removed, how the chords of the heart may be tuned and the life become music,—these are questions of religion, which are quite beyond our scope. But I take it that every religion which has prevailed among the children of Adam is in itself an evidence that, however debased and perverted the moral sense may have become, the painful consciousness that his heart is 'like sweet bells jangled' still presses everywhere and always on the spirit of man; and it is also a conscious or unconscious admission that there is no blessedness for him until his life shall march in step with the music of the 'Eternal Righteousness.'"

Mr. Aitken's name will be kept green among Anglo-Indians by the well-known series of books published by Messrs. Thacker & Co., of London and Calcutta. They are The Tribes on my Frontier, An Indian Naturalist's Foreign Policy, which was published in 1883, and of which a seventh edition appeared in 1910. This book deals with the common birds, beasts, and insects in and around an Indian bungalow, and it should be put into the hands of every one whose lot is cast in India. It will open their eyes to the beauty and interests of their surroundings in a truly wonderful way, and may be read again and again with increasing pleasure as one's experience of Indian life increases.

This was followed in 1889 by Behind the Bungalow, which describes with charming insight the strange manners and customs of our Indian domestic servants. The witty and yet kindly way in which their excellencies and defects are touched off is delightful, and many a harassed mem-sahib must bless Eha for showing her the humorous and human side of her life surrounded as it is by those necessary but annoying inhabitants of the Godowns behind the bungalow. A tenth edition of this book was published in 1911.

The Naturalist on the Prowl was brought out in 1894, and a third edition was published in 1905. It contains sketches on the same lines as those in The Tribes, but deals more with the jungles, and not so much with the immediate surroundings of the bungalow. The very smell of the country is in these chapters, and will vividly recall memories to those who know the country along the West Coast of India southward of Bombay.

In 1900 was published The Common Birds of Bombay, which contains descriptions of the ordinary birds one sees about the bungalow or in the country. As is well said by the writer of the obituary notice in the Journal of the Bombay Natural History Society, Eha "had a special genius for seizing the striking and characteristic points in the appearance and behaviour of individual species and a happy knack of translating them into print so as to render his descriptions unmistakable. He looked upon all creatures in the proper way, as if each had a soul and character of its own. He loved them all, and was unwilling to hurt any of them." These characteristics are well shown in this book, for one is able to recognise the birds easily from some prominent feature described therein.[1]

The Five Windows of the Soul, published by John Murray in 1898, is of quite another character from the above, and was regarded by its author with great affection as the best of his books. It is certainly a wonderfully self-revealing book, and full of the most beautiful thoughts. A second impression appeared in the following year, and a new and cheaper edition has just been published. The portrait of Eha is reproduced from one taken in 1902 in a flat on the Apollo Bunder, and shows the man as he was in workaday life in Bombay. The humorous and kindly look is, I think, well brought out, and will stir pleasant memories in all who knew Mr. Aitken.

W. B. B.

MADRAS, January 1914.


[Footnote 1: The illustrations are his own work, but the blocks having been produced in India, they do not do justice to the extreme delicacy of workmanship and fine perception of detail which characterise the originals, as all who have been privileged to see these will agree.]




It is evident that, in what is called the evolution of animal forms, the foot came in suddenly when the backboned creatures began to live on the dry land—that is, with the frogs. How it came in is a question which still puzzles the phylogenists, who cannot find a sure pedigree for the frog. There it is, anyhow, and the remarkable point about it is that the foot of a frog is not a rudimentary thing, but an authentic standard foot, like the yard measure kept in the Tower of London, of which all other feet are copies or adaptations. This instrument, as part of the original outfit given to the pioneers of the brainy, backboned, and four-limbed races, when they were sent out to multiply and replenish the earth, is surely worth considering well. It consists essentially of a sole, or palm, made up of small bones and of five separate digits, each with several joints.

In the hind foot of a frog the toes are very long and webbed from point to point. In this it differs a good deal from the toad, and there is significance in the difference. The "heavy-gaited toad," satisfied with sour ants, hard beetles, and such other fare as it can easily pick up, and grown nasty in consequence, so that nothing seeks to eat it, has hobbled through life, like a plethoric old gentleman, until the present day, on its original feet. The more versatile and nimble-witted frog, seeking better diet and greater security of life, went back to the element in which it was bred, and, swimming much, became better fitted for swimming. The soft elastic skin between the fingers or toes is just the sort of tissue which responds most readily to inward impulses, and we find that the very same change has come about in those birds and beasts which live much in water. I know that this is not the accepted theory of evolution, but I am waiting till it shall become so. We all develop in the direction of our tendencies, and shall, I doubt not, be wise enough some day to give animals leave to do the same.

It seems strange that any creature, furnished with such tricky and adaptable instruments to go about the world with, should tire of them and wish to get rid of them, but so it happened at a very early stage. It must have been a consequence, I think, of growing too fast. Mark Twain remarked about a dachshund that it seemed to want another pair of legs in the middle to prevent it sagging. Now, some lizards are so long that they cannot keep from sagging, and their progress becomes a painful wriggle. But if you must go by wriggling, then what is the use of legs to knock against stems and stones? So some lizards have discarded two of their legs and some all four. Zoologically they are not snakes, but snakes are only a further advance in the same direction. That snakes did not start fair without legs is clear, for the python has to this day two tell-tale leg-bones buried in its flesh.

When we pass from reptiles to birds, lo! an astounding thing has happened. That there were flying reptiles in the fossil ages we know, and there are flying beasts in our own. But the wings of these are simple mechanical alterations, which the imagination of a child, or a savage, could explain.

The hands of a bat are hands still, and, though the fingers are hampered by their awkward gloves, the thumbs are free. The giant fruit bats of the tropics clamber about the trees quite acrobatically with their thumbs and feet.

That Apollyonic monster of the prime, the pterodactyl, did even better. Stretching on each little finger a lateen sail that would have served to waft a skiff across the Thames, it kept the rest of its hands for other uses. But what bearing has all this on the case of birds? Here is a whole sub-kingdom, as they call it, of the animal world which has unreservedly and irrevocably bartered one pair of its limbs for a flying-machine. The apparatus is made of feathers—a new invention, unknown to amphibian or saurian, whence obtained nobody can say—and these are grafted into the transformed frame of the old limbs. The bargain was worth making, for the winged bird at once soared away in all senses from the creeping things of earth, and became a more ethereal being; "like a blown flame, it rests upon the air, subdues it, surpasses it, outraces it; it is the air, conscious of itself, conquering itself, ruling itself." But the price was heavy. The bird must get through life with one pair of feet and its mouth. But this was all the bodily furniture of Charles Francois Felu, who, without arms, became a famous artist.

A friend of mine, standing behind him in a salon and watching him at work, saw him lay down his brush and, raising his foot to his head, take off his hat and scratch his crown with his great toe. My friend was nearly hypnotised by the sight, yet it scarcely strikes us as a wonder when a parrot, standing on one foot, takes its meals with the other. It is a wonder, and stamps the parrot as a bird of talent. A mine of hidden possibilities is in us all, but those who dig resolutely into it and bring out treasure are few.

And let us note that the art of standing began with birds. Frogs sit, and, as far as I know, every reptile, be it lizard, crocodile, alligator, or tortoise, lays its body on the ground when not actually carrying it. And these have each four fat legs. Contrast the flamingo, which, having only two, and those like willow wands, tucks up one of them and sleeps poised high on the other, like a tulip on its stem.

Note also that one toe has been altogether discarded by birds as superfluous. The germ, or bud, must be there, for the Dorking fowl has produced a fifth toe under some influence of the poultry-yard, but no natural bird has more than four. Except in swifts, which never perch, but cling to rocks and walls, one is turned backwards, and, by a cunning contrivance, the act of bending the leg draws them all automatically together. So a hen closes its toes at every step it takes, as if it grasped something, and, of course, when it settles down on its roost, they grasp that tight and hold it fast till morning. But to birds that do not perch this mechanism is only an encumbrance, so many of them, like the plovers, abolish the hind toe entirely, and the prince of all two-legged runners, the ostrich, has got rid of one of the front toes also, retaining only two.

To a man who thinks, it is very interesting to observe that beasts have been led along gradually in the very same direction. All the common beasts, such as cats, dogs, rats, stoats, and so on, have five ordinary toes. On the hind feet there may be only four. But as soon as we come to those that feed on grass and leaves, standing or walking all the while, we find that the feet are shod with hoofs instead of being tipped with claws. First the five toes, though clubbed together, have each a separate hoof, as in the elephant; then the hippopotamus follows with four toes, and the rhinoceros with practically three. These beasts are all clodhoppers, and their feet are hobnailed boots. The more active deer and all cattle keep only two toes for practical purposes, though stumps of two more remain. Finally, the horse gathers all its foot into one boot, and becomes the champion runner of the world.

It is not without significance that this degeneracy of the feet goes with a decline in the brain, whether as cause or effect I will not pretend to know. These hoofed beasts have shallow natures and live shallow lives. They eat what is spread by Nature before their noses, have no homes, and do nothing but feed and fight with each other. The elephant is a notable exception, but then the nose of the elephant, becoming a hand, has redeemed its mind. As for the horse, whatever its admirers may say, it is just a great ass. There is a lesson in all this: "from him that hath not shall be taken even that which he hath."

There is another dull beast which, from the point of view of the mere systematist, seems as far removed from those that wear hoofs as it could be, but the philosopher, considering the point at which it has arrived, rather than the route by which it got there, will class it with them, for its idea of life is just theirs turned topsy-turvy. The nails of the sloth, instead of being hammered into hoofs on the hard ground, have grown long and curved, like those of a caged bird, and become hooks by which it can hang, without effort, in the midst of the leaves on which it feeds. A minimum of intellect is required for such an existence, and the sloth has lost any superfluous brain that it may have had, as well as two, or even three, of its five toes.

To return to those birds and beasts with standard feet, I find that the first outside purpose for which they find them serviceable is to scratch themselves. This is a universal need. But a foot is handy in many other ways. A hen and chickens, getting into my garden, transferred a whole flower-bed to the walk in half an hour. Yet a bird trying to do anything with its foot is like a man putting on his socks standing, and birds as a race have turned their feet to very little account outside of their original purpose. Such a simple thing as holding down its food with one foot scarcely occurs to an ordinary bird. A hen will pull about a cabbage leaf and shake it in the hope that a small piece may come away, but it never enters her head to put her foot on it. In this and other matters the parrot stands apart, and also the hawk, eagle, and owl; but these are not ordinary birds.

Beasts, having twice as many feet as birds, have learned to apply them to many uses. They dig with them, hold down their food with them, fondle their children with them, paw their friends, and scratch their enemies. One does more of one thing and another of another, and the feet soon show the effects of the occupation, the claws first, then the muscles, and even the bones dwindling by disuse, or waxing stout and strong. Then the joy of doing what it can do well impels the beast further on the same path, and its offspring after it.

And this leads at last to specialism. The Indian black bear is a "handy man," like the British Tar—good all round. Its great soft paw is a very serviceable tool and weapon, armed with claws which will take the face off a man or grub up a root with equal ease. When a black bear has found an ant-hill it takes but a few minutes to tear up the hard, cemented clay and lay the deep galleries bare; then, putting its gutta-percha muzzle to the mouth of each, it draws such a blast of air through them that the industrious labourers are sucked into its gullet in drifts. Afterwards it digs right down to the royal chamber, licks up the bloated queen, and goes its way.

But there is another worker in the same mine which does not go to work this way. The ant-eater found fat termites so satisfying that it left all other things and devoted its life to the exploiting of anthills, and now it has no rival at that business, but it is fit for nothing else. Its awkward digging tools will not allow it to put the sole of its foot to the ground, so it has to double them under and hobble about like a Chinese lady. It has no teeth, and stupidity is the most prominent feature of its character. It has become that poor thing, a man of one idea.

But the bear is like a sign-post at a parting of the ways. If you compare a brown bear with the black Indian, or sloth bear, as it is sometimes called, you may detect a small but pregnant difference. When the former walks, its claws are lifted, so that their points do not touch the ground. Why? I have no information, but I know that it is not content with a vegetarian diet, like its black relative, but hankers after sheep and goats, and I guess that its murderous thoughts flow down its nerves to those keen claws. It reminds me of a man clenching his fist unconsciously when he thinks of the liar who has slandered him.

But what ages of concentration on the thought and practice of assassination must have been required to perfect that most awful weapon in Nature, the paw of a tiger, or, indeed, of any cat, for they are all of one pattern. The sharpened flint of the savage has become the scimitar of Saladin, keeping the keenness of its edge in a velvet sheath and flashing out only on the field of battle. Compare that paw with the foot of a dog, and you will, perhaps, see with me that the servility and pliancy of the slave of man has usurped a place in his esteem which is not its due. The cat is much the nobler animal. Dogs, with wolves, jackals, and all of their kin, love to fall upon their victim in overwhelming force, like a rascally mob, and bite, tear, and worry until the life has gone out of it; the tiger, rushing single-handed, with a fearful challenge, on the gigantic buffalo, grasps its nose with one paw and its shoulder with the other, and has broken its massive neck in a manner so dexterous and instantaneous that scarcely two sportsmen can agree about how the thing is done.

I have said that the foot first appeared when the backboned creatures came out of the waters to live upon the dry land. But all mundane things (not excepting politics) tend to move in circles, ending where they began; and so the foot, if we follow it far enough, will take us back into water. See how the rat—I mean our common, omnivorous, scavenging, thieving, poaching brown rat—when it lives near a pond or stream, learns to swim and dive as naturally as a duck. Next comes the vole, or water-rat, which will not live away from water. Then there are water shrews, the beaver, otter, duck-billed platypus, and a host of others, not related, just as, among birds, there are water ousels, moorhens, ducks, divers, etc., which have permanently made the water their home and seek their living in it. All these have attained to web-footedness in a greater or less degree.

That this has occurred among reptiles, beasts, and birds alike shows what an easy, or natural, or obvious (put it as you will) modification it is. And it has a consequence not to be escaped. Just as a man who rides a great deal and never walks acquires a certain indirectness of the legs, and you never mistake a jockey for a drill-sergeant, so the web-footed beasts are not among the things that are "comely in going."

Following this road you arrive at the seal and sea-lion. Of all the feet that I have looked at I know only one more utterly ridiculous than the twisted flipper on which the sea-lion props his great bulk in front, and that is the forked fly-flap which extends from the hinder parts of the same. How can it be worth any beast's while to carry such an absurd apparatus with it just for the sake of getting out into the air sometimes and pushing itself about on the ice and being eaten by Polar bears? The porpoise has discarded one pair, turned the other into decent fins, and recovered a grace and power of motion in water which are not equalled by the greyhound on land. Why have the seals hung back? I believe I know the secret. It is the baby! No one knows where the porpoise and the whale cradle their newborn infants—it is so difficult to pry into the domestic ways of these sea-people—but evidently the seals cannot manage it, so they are forced to return to the land when the cares of maternity are on them.

I have called the feet of these sea beasts ridiculous things, and so they are as we see them; but strip off the skin, and lo! there appears a plain foot, with its five digits, each of several joints, tipped with claws—nowise essentially different, in short, from that with which the toad, or frog, first set out in a past too distant for our infirm imagination. Admiration itself is paralysed by a contrivance so simple, so transmutable, and so sufficient for every need that time and change could bring.

There remains yet one transformation which seems simple compared with some that I have noticed, but is more full of fate than they all; for by it the foot becomes a hand. This comes about by easy stages. The reason why one of a bird's four toes is turned back is quite plain: trees are the proper home of birds, and they require feet that will grasp branches. So those beasts also that have taken to living in trees have got one toe detached more or less from the rest and arranged so that it can co-operate with them to catch hold of a thing. Then other changes quickly follow. For, in judging whether you have got hold of a thing and how much force you must put forth to keep hold of it, you are guided entirely by the pressure on the finger-points, and to gauge this pressure nicely the nerves must be refined and educated. In fact, the exercise itself, with the intent direction of the mind to the finger-points, brings about the refinement and education in accordance with Sandow's principle of muscle culture.

For an example of the result do not look at the gross paw of any so-called anthropoid ape, gorilla, orang-outang, or chimpanzee, but study the gentle lemur. At the point of each digit is a broad elastic pad, plentifully supplied with delicate nerves, and the vital energy which has been directed into them appears to have been withdrawn from the growth of the claws, which have shrunk into fine nails just shielding the fleshy tips. In short, the lemur has a hand on each of its four limbs, and no feet at all. And as it goes about its cage—I am at the Zoo in spirit—with a silent wonder shining out of its great eyes, it examines things by feeling them with its hands.

How plainly a new avenue from the outer world into its mind has been opened by those fingers! But how about scratching? What would be the gain of having higher susceptibilities and keener perceptions if they only aggravated the triumph of the insulting flea? Nay, this disaster has been averted by reserving a good sharp claw on the forefinger (not the thumb) of each hind hand.

The old naturalists called the apes and lemurs Quadrumana, the "four-handed," and separated the Bimana, with one species—namely, Homo sapiens. Now we have anatomy cited to belittle the difference between a hand and a foot, and geology importuned to show us the missing link, pending which an order has been instituted roomy enough to hold monkeys, gorillas, and men. It is a strange perversity. How much more fitting it were to bow in reverent ignorance before the perfect hand, taken up from the ground, no more to dull its percipient surfaces on earth and stones and bark, but to minister to its lord's expanding mind and obey his creative will, while his frame stands upright and firm upon a single pair of true feet, with their toes all in one rank.



The prospectus, or advertisement, of a certain American typewriting machine commences by informing the public that "The —— typewriter is founded on an idea." When I saw this phrase I secured it for my collection, for I felt that, without jest, it contained the kernel of a true philosophy of Nature. The forms, the phainomena, of Nature are innumerable, multifarious, interwoven, and infinitely perplexing, and you may spend a happy life in unravelling their relations and devising their evolutions; but until you have looked through them and seen the ideas that are behind them you are a mere materialist and a blind worker. The soul of Nature is hid from you.

What is the bill of a bird and what does it mean? I do not refer to the bill of a hawk, or a heron, or an owl, or an ostrich, but to that which is the abstract of all these and a thousand more. I hold, regardless of anatomy and physiology, that a bird is a higher being than a beast. No beast soars and sings to its sweetheart; no beast remains in lifelong partnership with the wife of its youth; no beast builds itself a summer-house and decks it with feathers and bright shells. A beast is a grovelling denizen of the earth; a bird is a free citizen of the air. And who can say that there is not a connection between this difference and other developments? The beast, thinking only of its appetites, has evolved a delicate nose, a discriminating palate, three kinds of teeth to cut, tear, and grind its food, salivary glands to moisten the same, and a perfected apparatus of digestion.

The bird, occupied with thoughts of love and beauty, with "fields, or waves, or mountains" and "shapes of sky or plain," has made little advance in the art and instruments of good living. It swallows its food whole, scarcely knowing the taste of it, and a pair of forceps for picking it up, tipped and cased with horn, is the whole of its dining furniture. For the bill of a bird, primarily and essentially, is that and nothing else. In the chickens and the sparrows that come to steal their food, and the robin that looks on, and all the little dicky-birds, you may see it in its simplicity. The size and shape may vary, as a Canadian axe differs from a Scotch axe; some are short and stout and have a sharp edge for shelling seeds; some are longer and fine-pointed, for picking worms and caterpillars out of their hiding-places; some a little hooked at their points, and one, that of the crossbill, with points crossed for picking the small seeds out of fir-cones; but all are practically the same tool. Yet the last distinctly points the way to those modifications by which the simple bill is gradually adapted to one special purpose or another, until it becomes a wonderful mechanism in which the original intention is quite out of sight.

At this point I find an instructive parable in my tool chest. Fully half of the tools are just knives. A chisel is a knife, a plane is a knife set in a block of wood, a saw is a knife with the edge notched. Moreover, there are many sorts of curious planes and saws, each intended for one distinct kind of fine work. All these the joiner has need of, but a schoolboy would rather have one good, strong pocket-knife than the whole boxful. For, just in proportion as each tool is perfected for its own special work, it becomes useless for any other. And your schoolboy is not a specialist. He wants a tool that will cut a stick, carve a boat, peel an apple, dig out a worm—in short, one that will do whatever his active mind wants done.

Now apply this parable to the birds. If you see a bill that is nothing but a large and powerful pair of forceps, good for any rough job, you may know without further inquiry that the owner is no limited specialist, but a "handy man," bold, enterprising, resourceful, and good all round. He will not starve in the desert. No wholesome food comes amiss to him—grub, slug, or snail, fruit, eggs, a live mouse or a dead rat, and he can deal with them all. Such are the magpie, the crow, the jackdaw, and all of that ilk; and these are the birds that are found in all countries and climates, and prosper wherever they go.

But all birds cannot play that part. One is timid, another fastidious, another shy but ingenious. So, in the universal competition for a living, each has taken its own line according to the bent of its nature, and its one tool has been perfected for its trade until it can follow no other. The thrush catches such worms as rashly show themselves above-ground; but an ancient ancestor of the snipe found that, if it followed them into marshy lands, it could probe the soft ground and drag them out of their chambers. For this operation it has now a bill three inches long, straight, thin and sensitive at the tip, a beautiful instrument, but good for no purpose except extracting worms from soft ground. If frost or drought hardens the ground, the snipe must starve or travel. Among the many "lang nebbit" birds that follow the same profession as the snipe, some, like the curlew and the ibis, have curved bills of prodigious length. I do not know the comparative advantages of the two forms, but no doubt each bird swears by its own pattern, as every golfer does by his own putter.

But now behold another grub-hunter, which, distasting mud, has discovered an unworked mine in the trunks of trees. There, in deep burrows, lurked great succulent beetle-grubs, demanding only a tool with which they might be dug out. This has been perfected by many stages, and I have now before me a splendid specimen of the most improved pattern—namely, the bill of the great black woodpecker of Western India, a bird nearly as big as a crow. It is nothing else than a hatchet in two parts, which, when locked together, present a steeled edge about three-eighths of an inch in breadth. The hatchet is two and a half inches long by one in breadth at the base, and a prominent ridge, or keel, runs down the top from base to point. It is further strengthened by a keel on each side. Inside of it, ere the bird became a mummy, was her tongue, which I myself drew out three inches beyond the point of the bill. It was rough and tough, like gutta-percha, tipped with a fine spike, and armed on each side, for the last inch of its length, with a row of sharp barbs pointing backwards. The whole was lubricated with some patent stickfast, "always ready for use." That grub must sit tight indeed which this corkscrew will not draw when once the hatchet has opened a way.

The swallows and swifts, untirable on their wings, but too gentle to hold their own in a jostling crowd, soared away after the midges and May-flies and pestilent gnats that rise from marsh and pond to hold their joyous dances under the blue dome. Continually rushing open-mouthed after these, they have stretched their gape from ear to ear; but their bills have dwindled by disuse and left only an apology for their absence.

Compared with all these, the birds that can do with a diet of fruit only lead an easy life. They have just to pluck and eat—that is, if they are pleased with small fruits and content to swallow them whole. But the hornbills, being too bulky to hop among twigs, need a long reach; hence the portentous machines which they carry on their faces. The beak of a hornbill is nothing else than a pair of tongs long enough to reach and strong enough to wrench off a wild fig from its thick stem. If it were of iron it would be thin and heavy; being of cellular horn-stuff it is bulky but light. If you ask why it should rise up into an absurd helmet on the queer fowl's head, I cannot tell. Nature has quaint ways of using up surplus material.

An easy life begets luxury, and among fruit-eaters the parrot has become an epicure. It will not swallow its food whole, and its bill deserves study. In birds generally the upper mandible is more or less joined to the skull, leaving only the lower jaw free to move. But in the parrot the upper mandible is also hinged, so that each plays freely on the other. The upper, as we all know, is hooked and pointed; the lower has a sharp edge. The tongue is thick, muscular, and sensitive. The whole makes a wonderful instrument, unique among birds, for feelingly manipulating a dainty morsel, shelling, peeling, and slicing, until nothing is left but the sweetest part of the core. Of all gourmands Polly is the most shameless waster.

Long before land, trees, and air had been exploited the primitive bird must have discovered the harvest of the waters, and here the competition has been very keen indeed. Yet the form of bill most in use is very simple—just a plain pair of forceps, long and sharp-pointed like scissors. This is evidently hard to beat, for birds of many sorts use it, handling it variously. The kingfisher plumps bodily down on the minnow from an overhanging perch; the solan goose, soaring, plunges from a "pernicious height"; the heron, high on its stilts, darts out a long and serpentine neck; the diver, with similar beak and neck, but different legs, pursues the fleeing shoals under water; to the swift and slippery fish all are alike terrible in their certainty.

There are, however, other varieties of the fishing bill. Some have a hook at the point, as that of the cormorant, and some are straight at the top, but curved on the under side. This last form is handy for storks, which do not pluck fish out of water so much, but scoop up frogs, crabs, and reptiles from the ground. The ridiculous bill of the puffin, or sea-parrot, is an eccentricity. There may be some idea in it, but I suspect it is an effect of vanity merely, being coloured blue, yellow, and red, and quite in keeping with the other absurdities of the wearer.

Apart from all these and by itself stands a princely fisher whose bill is no modification, but an original invention and a marvellous one. Larger than a swan and gluttonous withal, the pelican cannot live on single fishes. It has given up angling altogether and taken to netting; and the way in which the net has been constructed out of the pair of forceps provided in the original plan of its construction is as well worth your examining as anything I know. It is a foot in length, the upper jaw is flat and broad, while the lower consists of two thin, elastic bones joined at the point, a mere ring to carry the curious yellow bag that hangs from it. In pictures this is represented as a creel in which the kind pelican carries home the children's breakfast; you are allowed to see the tail of a big fish hanging out. But it is not a creel; it is a net. The great birds, marshalled in line on some broad lake or marsh, and beating the water with their wings, drive the fish before them until they have got a dense crowd huddled in panic and confusion between them and the shore. Now watch them narrowly. As each monstrous bill opens, the thin bones of the lower jaw stretch sideways to the breadth of a span by some curious mechanism not described in the books, and at the same time the shrunken bag expands into a deep, capacious net. Simultaneously the whole instrument is plunged into the struggling, silvery mass and comes up full. The side bones instantly contract again, and the upper jaw is clapped on them like a lid. No wonder the fishermen of the East detest the pelican.

In the same marsh, perhaps, standing with unequalled grace upon the longest legs known in this world, is a troop of giant birds as wonderful as the pelican, but how opposite! The beautiful flamingo is a bird of feeble intellect, delicate appetite, and genteel tastes. It cannot eat fish, for its slender throat would scarcely admit a pea. Besides, the idea of catching anything, or even picking up food from the ground, does not occur to its simple mind. Its diet consists of certain small crustaceans, classed by naturalists with water-fleas, which abound in brackish water; and it has an instrument for taking these which it knows how to use. I kept flamingos once, and, after trying many things in vain, offered them bran, or boiled rice, floating in water. Then they dined, and I learned the construction and working of the most marvellous of all bills. The lower jaw is deep and hollow, and its upper edges turn in to meet each other, so that you may fairly describe it as a pipe with a narrow slit along the upper side. In this pipe lies the tongue, and it cannot get out, for it is wider than the slit, but it can be pressed against the top to close the slit, and then the lower jaw becomes an actual pipe. The root of the tongue is furnished on both sides with a loose fringe which we will call the first strainer. The upper jaw is thin and flat and rests on the lower like a lid, and it is beautifully fringed along both sides with small, leathery points, close set, like the teeth of a very fine saw. This is the second strainer. To work the machine you dip the point into dirty water full of water-fleas, draw back the tip of the tongue a little, and suck in water till the lower jaw (the pipe) is full, then close the point again with the tip of the tongue and force the water out. It can only get out by passing through the first strainers at the root of the tongue, then over the palate, and so through the second strainers at the sides of the bill; and all the solid matter it contained will remain in the mouth. The sucking in and squirting out of the water is managed by the cheeks, or rather by the cheek, for a flamingo has only one cheek, and that is situated under the chin. When the bird is feeding you will see this throbbing faster than the eye can follow it, while water squirts from the sides of the mouth in a continuous stream. I should have said that the whole bill is sharply bent downwards at the middle. The advantage of this is that when the bird lets down its head into the water, like a bucket into a well, the point of the bill does not stick in the mud, but lies flat on it, upside down.

In conclusion, let us not fail to note, whatever be our political creed, that, while all the birds pursue their respective industries, there sit apart, in pride of place, some whose bills are not tools wherewith to work, but weapons wherewith to slay. And these take tribute of the rest, not with their consent, but of right.



The secrets of Nature often play like an iridescence on the surface, and escape the eye of her worshipper because it is stopped with a microscope. There are mysteries all about us as omnipresent as the movement of the air that lifts the smoke and stirs the leaves, which I cannot find that any philosopher has looked into. Often and deeply have I been impressed with this. For example, there is scarcely, in this world, a commoner or a humbler thing than a tail, yet how multifarious is it in aspect, in construction, and in function, a hundred different things and yet one. Some are of feathers and some of hair, and some bare and skinny; some are long and some are short, some stick up and some hang down, some wag for ever and some are still; the uses that they serve cannot be numbered, but one name covers them all. In the course of evolution they came in with the fishes and went out with man. What was their purpose and mission? What place have they filled in the scheme of things? In short, what is the true inwardness of a tail?

If we try to commence—as scientific method requires—with a definition, we stumble on a key, at the very threshold, which opens the door. For there is no definition of a tail; it is not, in its nature, anything at all. When an animal's fore-legs are fitted on to its backbone at the proper distance from the hind-legs, if any of the backbone remains over, we call it a tail. But it has no purpose; it is a mere surplus, which a tailor (the pun is unavoidable) would have trimmed off. And, lo! in this very negativeness lies the whole secret of the multifarious positiveness of tails. For the absence of special purpose is the chance of general usefulness. The ear must fulfil its purpose or fail entirely, for it can do nothing else. Eyes, nose and mouth, hands and feet, all have their duties; the tail is the unemployed. And if we allow that life has had any hand in the shaping of its own destiny, then the ingenuity of the devices for turning the useless member to account affords one of the most exhilarating subjects of contemplation in the whole panorama of Nature. The fishes fitted it up at once as a twin-propeller, with results so satisfactory that the whale and the porpoise, coming long after, adopted the invention. And be it noted that these last and their kin are now the only ocean-going mammals in the world. The whole tribe of paddle-steamers, such as seals and walruses and dugongs, are only coasters.

Among those beasts that would live on the dry land, the primitive kangaroo could think of nothing better to do with his tail than to make a stool of it. It was a simple thought, but a happy one. Sitting up like a gentleman, he has his hands free to scratch his ribs or twitch his moustache. And when he goes he needs not to put them to the ground, for his great tail so nearly equals the weight of his body that one pair of legs keeps the balance even. And so the kangaroo, almost the lowest of beasts, comes closer to man in his postures than any other. The squirrel also sits up and uses his forepaws for hands, but the squirrel is a sybarite who lies abed in cold weather, and it is every way characteristic of him that he has sent his tail to the furrier and had it done up into a boa, or comforter, at once warm and becoming. See, too, how daintily he lifts it over his back to keep it clean. The rat is a near relation of the squirrel zoologically, but personally he is a gutter-snipe, and you may know that by one look at the tail which he drags after him like a dirty rope. Others of the same family, cleaner, though not more ingenious, like the guinea-pig, have simply dispensed with the encumbrance; but the rabbit has kept enough to make a white cockade, which it hoists when bolting from danger. This is for the guidance of the youngsters. Nearly every kind of deer and antelope carries the same signal, with which, when fleeing through dusky woods, the leader shows the way to the herd and the doe to her fawn.

But of beasts that graze and browse, a large number have turned their tails rather to a use which throws a pathetic light on misery of which we have little experience. We do, indeed, growl at the gnats of a summer evening and think ourselves very ill-used. How little do we know or think of the unintermitted and unabated torment that the most harmless classes of beasts suffer from the bands of beggars which follow them night and day, demanding blood, and will take no refusal. Driven from the brow they settle on the neck, shaken from the neck they dive between the legs, and but for that far-reaching whisk at the end of the tail, they would found a permanent colony on the flanks and defy ejection, like the raiders of Vatersay. Darwin argues that the tail-brush may have materially helped to secure the survival of those species of beasts that possessed it, and no doubt he is right.

The subject is interminable, but we must give a passing glance to some quixotic tails. The opossum scampers up a tree, carrying all her numerous family on her back, and they do not fall off because each infant is securely moored by its own tail to the uplifted tail of its mother. The opossum is a very primitive beast, and so early and useful an invention should, one would think, have been spread widely in after time; but there appears to be some difficulty in developing muscles at the thin end of a long tail, for the animals that have turned it into a grasping organ are few and are widely scattered. Examples are the chameleon among lizards, our own little harvest mouse, and, pre-eminent above all, the American monkeys. To a howler, or spider-monkey, its long tail is a swing and a trapeze in its forest gymnasium. Humboldt saw (he says it) a cluster of them all hanging from a tree by one tail, which proceeded from a Sandow in the middle. I should like to see that too. It is worth noting, by the way, that no old-world monkey has attained to this application of its tail.

Then there is the beaver, whose tail I am convinced is a trowel. I know of no naturalist who has mentioned this, but such negative evidence is of little weight. The beaver, as everybody knows, is a builder, who cuts down trees and piles log upon log until he has raised a solid, domed cabin from seven to twenty feet in diameter, which he then plasters over with clay and straw. If he does not turn round and beat the work smooth with his tail, then I require to know for what purpose he carries that broad, heavy, and hard tool behind him.

How few even among lovers of Nature know why a frog has no tail! The reason-is simply that it used that organ up when it was in want. In early life, as a jolly tadpole, it had a flourishing tail to swim with, and gills for breathing water, and an infantile mouth for taking vegetable nourishment. But when it began to draw near to frog's estate, serious changes were required in its structure to fit it for the life of a land animal. Four tiny legs appeared from under its skin, the gills gave place to air-breathing lungs, and the infant lips to a great, gaping mouth. Now, during this "temporary alteration of the premises" all business was of necessity stopped. The half-fish, half-frog could neither sup like an infant nor eat like a man. In this extremity it fed on its own tail—absorbed it as a camel is said to absorb its hump when travelling in the foodless desert—and so it entered on its new life without one.

Aeronautics have changed the whole perspective of life for birds, as they may for us shortly; so it is no surprise to find that birds have, almost with one consent, converted their tails into steering-gear. A commonplace bird, like a sparrow, scarcely requires this except as a brake when in the act of alighting; but to those birds with which flight is an art and an accomplishment, an expansive forked or rounded tail (there are two patents) is indispensable. We have shot almost all the birds of this sort in our own country, and must travel if we would enjoy that enchanting sight—a pair of eagles or a party of kites gone aloft for a sail when the wind is rising, like skaters to a pond when the ice is bearing. For an hour on end, in restful ease or swift joy, they trace ever-varying circles and spirals against the dark storm-cloud, now rising, now falling, turning and reversing, but never once flapping their widespread pinions.

How is it done? How does the Shamrock sail? Watch, and you will see. When the wind is behind, each stiff quill at the end of the wing stands out by itself and is caught and driven by the blast; but as the bird turns round to face the gale, they all close up and form a continuous mainsail, close-hauled. And all the while the expanded tail is in play, dipping first at one side and then at the other, and turning the trim craft with easy grace "as the governor listeth."

Besides ground birds, like the quail, there are some eccentrics, such as Jenny wren, which have despised their tails, and there are specialists also which require them for other purposes than flying. The woodpecker's tail is quite useless as a rudder, for he is a woodman and has altered and adapted it for a portable stool to rest against as he plies his axe.

But that man must be very blind to the place which birds have taken in the progress of civilisation who can suppose it possible that they should think only of utility in such a question as the disposal of their tails. It is a common notion among those who have acquired some smattering of the theory of evolution that fishes developed into reptiles, reptiles into birds, and birds into beasts; but this is as wrong as it could be. Whatever the genealogy of the beasts may be, they certainly were not evolved from birds, and are in many respects not above them but below them. These are two independent branches of the tree of living forms, as the Greeks and Romans were branches of the stock of Japheth. The beasts may stand for the conquering Romans if you like, but the birds are the Greeks, and have advanced far beyond them in all emotional and artistic sensibility. They worship in the temple of music and beauty. And, like ourselves, they have found no subject so worthy of the highest efforts of art as their own dress. But the clothing of the body must conform more or less to the figure, and so, for a field in which invention and fancy may sport untrammelled, a lady turns to her hat and a bird to its tail. And by both, with equal heroism, every consideration of mere comfort, convenience, health, or safety is swept aside in obedience to the higher aim. Is this only a flippant jocularity, or is there here in very truth some profound law of the mind revealing itself in spheres seemingly so disconnected?

Look at a peacock. Its train, by the way, is a false tail, like the chignon of twenty years ago, or the fringe of the present day; the true tail is under it, and serves no purpose but to support it. Now the peacock lives on the ground, among scrub and brushwood, haunted by jackals and wild cats. They, like soldiers in khaki, reconnoitre him in a uniform expressly designed to elude the eye, but he flaunts a flag resplendent with green and gold. And when his one chance of life lies in springing nimbly from the ground and committing himself to his strong wings, he must lift and carry this ponderous paraphernalia with him. And the terrible Bonelli's eagle is soaring above. But all is risked proudly for the sake of the morning hour in the glade where the ladies assemble. And the peacock is only one of many. Not to mention the lyre bird, the Argus pheasant, the bird of paradise, and other splendid examples, there are common dicky-birds which point the moral and adorn the tail as emphatically.

If the tail is a rudder, where should you look to find it in its most simple and efficient form but among the flycatchers, which make their living by aerial acrobatics after flies? Yet this family seems to be peculiarly prone to the vanity of a stylish tail. The paradise flycatcher flutters two streamers a foot long, like white ribbons, behind it. The fantail could hide behind its own fan. The bee-eater has the two central feathers prolonged and pointed. The drongos, which are flycatchers in habit, wear their tails very long and deeply forked; and one of them, the racket-tailed drongo, has the two side feathers extended beyond the rest for nearly a foot, and as thin as wires, expanding into a blade at the ends. I have seen nothing in ladies' hats more preposterous. It is vain to object that there can be no proper comparison between tails and hats because the woman chooses her own hat while the bird has to wear what Nature has given it. I know that, but the contention is utterly superficial. What choice has a woman as to the style of her hat? Fashion prescribes for her, and Nature for the birds; that is all the difference. No doubt she acquiesces when theoretically she might rebel. The bird cannot rebel, but does it not acquiesce? Does a lyre bird submit to its tail—wear it under protest, so to speak? Believe me, every bird that has an aesthetic tail knows the fact, and tries to live up to it. We may push the argument even further, for the motmot of Brazil is not content with a ready-made tail, but actually strips the web off the two long side feathers with its own beak, except a little patch at the end, so as to get the pattern which Nature, if one must use the phrase, gave to the racket-tailed drongo. A specimen is exhibited in the hall of the South Kensington Museum.

In this connection I may also say that the shape or colour of a tail is not everything. An observant eye may find much to note in the wearing of them. There is a stylish way of carrying a tail and a slovenly way, and there are coquettish arts for the display of recherche tails. A blackbird and a starling are both tidy birds, and both walk much on the ground, but the one lifts its skirts, while the other, more practical and less fashionable, wears a walking dress and saves itself trouble.

This line of observation leads to a higher, and reveals the most important purpose that tails have served in the economy of beast, bird, and reptile, and, perhaps, even cold-blooded fish. Before the godlike countenance of man appeared on the earth, with its contractile forehead and erectile eyebrows, the answering light of the eye, the expansive nostrils, and subtilely mobile lips; before that the tail was the prime vehicle of emotion and safety-valve of passion. It is a great truth, too often buried in these days under rubbish of materialistic theories, that some way of self-manifestation is a supreme necessity of all sentient life. From the hot centre of thought and feeling the currents rush along the nervous ways and pervade the whole frame, seeking an outlet. But many passages are barred by duty, or fear, or eager purpose. A strong gust of passion may burst all barriers and force its way out at every point, but gentle currents flow along the lines of least resistance and find the idle tail. I do not know a better illustration of this than a cat watching a mouse. The ears are pricked forward, the eyes are fixed on the unsuspecting victim, every muscle of the legs is tense, like a bent bow ready to speed the arrow on its way. But see, the excitement with which the whole body is charged cannot be wholly restrained, and oozes out at the point of the tail.

Every emotion and passion takes this course. The happy kid wags its tail as it runs to its mother, the donkey when it has executed a successful bray, and the dog when it sees its master. At the sight of a rival the dog holds its tail up stiffly, unless, indeed, the rival is a bigger dog than itself, in which case the index goes down quickly between the legs. An elated horse elevates its tail, and so does a duck in the same mood. A lizard preparing to fight another lizard

Swinges the scaly horror of his folded tail,

and the raging lion of fiction lashes its sides with the same nervous instrument.

It would be tedious to dwell on the pretty part which the tail plays in the courtships of sparrows and pigeons, or on the sprightly attitudes by which birds of all sorts let off their spirits when shower and sunshine have overfilled their hearts with gladness. But birds twitch their tails constantly, without meaning anything by it. The ceaseless wagging of a wagtail is a mere habit of cheerfulness, like the twirling of her thumbs by an idle Scotswoman. The long tail is there and something must be done with it. Look at the embarrassment which a nervous young man shows about the disposal of his hands; how he thrusts them into his trouser pockets, hangs them by their thumbs from the arm-holes of his waistcoat, or gives them a walking-stick to play with. I like to imagine what such a fellow would do with a long tail if he had it—how he would wind it round each leg in turn, rub up his back hair, and describe figures on the floor. But no animal so self-conscious as man could bear up long under the nervous strain of having to think continually of its tail. It would die young and the race would become extinct. Perhaps it did.

A final word on the conclusion of the whole matter, for these reflections have a moral. As habit becomes character, so expression hardens into feature. The tail of a sheep grows downwards, but that of a goat upwards, and this is the only infallible outward mark of distinction between the two animals. But it is the permanent record of a long history. The sheep was never anything but sheepish; the goat and its forefathers were pert as kids and insolent when their beards grew. It is useless to inquire why insolence should express itself by an upturned tail until someone can advance a reason why it should express itself in another way.

For proof of the fact you need go no farther than your own dogs. The ancestral wolf, or jackal, hunting and fighting, fearing and hoping, showed every changing mood by the pose of its tail; but a change came when it acquired an assured position of security and importance as the chosen companion of man, so dreaded by all its kith and kin. The tail went up at once and stayed there; when it could go no higher, it curled over. But promotion breeds conceit only in base natures. The greyhound is a gentleman, respectful and self-respecting, and it shows that by the very carriage of its tail. Only a snob at heart, petted and pampered for many generations, could have produced that perfect incarnation of smug self-satisfaction, the pug. Let us take the lesson home. The thoughts on which we let our minds dwell, and the sentiments that we harbour in our hearts, are the chisels with which we are carving out our faces and those of our children's children.



Some may think that I have chosen a trivial subject, and they will look for frivolous treatment of it. I can only hope that they will be disappointed. There is nothing that the progress of science has taught us more emphatically than this—that we must call nothing insignificant. Seemingly trivial pursuits have led to discoveries which have benefited all mankind, and priceless truths have been dug out of the most unpromising mines. I am not insinuating that anyone's nose is an unpromising mine, but I say that I am persuaded there is wisdom hidden in that organ for him who will observingly distil it out.

It possesses a peculiar and mystical significance not shared by any other feature. This is abundantly proved by common speech, which is one of the most trustworthy of all kinds of evidence. For example, we speak of a person turning up his nose at a good offer. The phrase is absurd, for the power of turning up his nose is one which no human being ever possessed. A shrew can do it, but not a man. Yet the meaning of the saying needs no interpretation. Akin to it is the classical phrase, adunco suspendere naso. What Horace means scarcely requires explanation, but no commentator has successfully explained it. These expressions well illustrate the mystery that enshrouds our most salient feature. They show that, while everybody can see that disdain is expressed through the nose, nobody can define how it is done. Then there is that curious expression "put his nose out of joint," which is quite inexplicable, the nose being destitute of joint. There are many other phrases and also gestures which point in the same direction, but need not be cited, being for the most part vulgar. Allusions to the nose have a tendency to be vulgar, which is another mystery inciting us to investigate it. So let us proceed.

The first thing required by the principles of scientific precedure is a definition. What is a nose? But this proves to be a much more difficult question than anyone would suspect before he tried to answer it. The individual human nose we can recognise, describe or sketch more easily than any other feature, but try to define the thing nose in Nature and it is a most elusive phenomenon. When we speak of a man being led by the nose we imply that it is a part of him which is prominent and situated in front, when we speak of keeping one's nose above water we refer to it as the breathing orifice, but when we say that this or that offends our nose we are regarding it as the seat of the sense of smell. I believe that all these three ideas must be included in any definition. It should follow that insects, which breathe through holes in their sides, cannot have noses, and this is the truth.

Fishes, too, though they may have snouts, have not noses, because they breathe by gills. In truth, it seems that the nose was a very late and high acquisition, almost the finishing touch of the perfected animal form. And incidentally this leads us to notice what a great step was taken in evolution when the breathing holes were brought up to the region of the mouth. For the sense of taste is necessarily situated in the mouth, and the sense of smell is in close alliance with it. The mouth tastes food dissolved in the saliva during the process of mastication, and the primary use of the sense of smell is to detect and analyse beforehand the small particles given off by food and floating in the atmosphere.

A good many years ago, when the late Sally chimpanzee was the darling of the Zoological Gardens in Regent's Park, I watched her eating dates. She was an epicure, and always peeled each date delicately with her preposterous lips before eating it, and during the process she would apply the date to her nose every second to test its quality or enjoy its aroma. The action was indescribably comical, but what would it have been if her nostrils had been situated among her ribs? Imagine a mantis, for example, as he chews up a fly, lifting one of his wings and applying it to his flanks to see if it smells gamey. That is where some naturalists believe that the sense of smell is situated in insects. Others, however, think, with reason, that it is in the antennae or mouth. Nobody knows; the senses of the lower animals seem to be stuck about all parts of the body.

But, even if the sense of smell is at the mouth, how limited must its usefulness be when it can only deal with substances that are held to it! A new era dawned when the passages by which the breath of life unceasingly comes and goes were transferred to the region of the mouth also. The nerves of smell quickly spread themselves over the lining membrane of those passages and became warders of the gate, challenging every waft of air that entered the body and examining what it carried. Thenceforth this region comprising the mouth, nostrils and surrounding parts holds a new and high place in the economy of the body, for the headquarters of the intelligence department are located there, and all the faculties of the brain converge on that point. Of course, the eyes and ears claim a share, but they are not far off.

Now it is being recognised more and more clearly by medical and physiological science that when the mind is much directed to any part of the body it exercises an influence in some way not understood on the flow of blood to that part to a degree which may seriously affect its functions and even its growth. When a person is suffering from any nervous affection, from heart disease, or even from weakness of the eyes, it is of the utmost importance to keep him from knowing it if possible, for if he knows it he will think about it, and that will inevitably aggravate it. This principle is well recognised in systems of physical culture. And surely it is impossible that so much intelligence should pass through that one sensitive region of the body which we are considering without affecting its growth and structure. Every muscle in it becomes quick to respond to various sensations in different ways, till the very recollection of those sensations will excite the same response.

Nay, we may go further. The mental emotions excited by those sensations will be expressed in the same way. For example, the sense of smell is peculiarly effective in exciting disgust. Anything which does violence to the sense of hearing exasperates, but does not disgust. If a man practises the accordion all day in the next room you do not loathe him, you only want to kill him. But anything that stinks excites pure disgust. Here you have the key to the fact that disgust and all feelings akin to it, disdain, contempt and scorn, express themselves through the nose. Darwin says that when we think of anything base or vile in a man's character the expression of the face is the same "as if we smelled a bad smell." This is an example of the temporary expression of a passing emotion, and there are many others like it. But each of us has his prevailing and dominant emotions which constitute the habitual attitude of his mind. And by the habitual indulgence of any emotion the features will become habituated to the expression of it, and so the set of our features comes at last to express our prevailing and dominant emotions; in other words, our character.

But let us return to the evolution of the nose. In these days of universal "Nature study" nobody need be told that the practice of breathing through the nostrils was introduced by the amphibians and reptiles. The former (frogs and toads) take to it only when they come of age, but lizards, snakes and all other reptiles do it from infancy. But the nose is not yet. That is something too delicate to come out of a cold-blooded snout covered with hard scales. Birds, too, by having their mouth parts encased in a horny bill seem to be debarred from wearing noses. And yet there is one primeval fowl, most ancient of all the feathered families, which has come near it. I mean the apteryx, that eccentric, wingless recluse which hides itself in the scrub jungles of New Zealand. Its nostrils, unlike those of every other bird, are at the tip of its beak, which is swollen and sensitive; and Dr. Buller says that as it wanders about in the night it makes a continual sniffing and softly taps the walls of its cage with the point of its bill. But the apteryx is one of those odd geniuses which come into the world too soon, and perish ineffectual. Its kindred are all extinct, and so will it be ere long.

When we come to the beasts we find the right conditions at last for the growth of the nose. Take the horse for an example of the average beast without idiosyncrasy. Its profile is nearly a straight line from the crown to the nostrils, beyond which it slopes downwards to the lips. The skin of this part is soft and smooth, without hair, and the horse dearly loves to have it fondled. The sense of touch is evidently uppermost. At this stage there was what to the eye of fancy looks like a bold attempt to grow a nose in the case of a tapir, but it miscarried. These hoofed beasts are all very hard up for something in the way of a hand to bring their food to their mouths. The camel employs its lips and the cow its tongue; the muntjae or barking deer of India has attained a tongue of such length that it uses it for a handkerchief to wipe its eyes. So the tapir could not resist the temptation to misapply its nose to the purpose of gathering fodder, and the ultimate result was the elephant, whose nose is a wonderful hand and a bucket and other things. The pig, being a swine, debased its nose in a worse way, making a grubbing tool of it.

There has been another attempt to misuse and pervert this part of the face which I scarcely dare to touch upon, for it is so utterly fantastic and mystical that I fear the charge of heresy if I give words to my thoughts. It occurs among bats, a tribe of obscure creatures about which common knowledge amounts to this, that they fly about after sunset, are uncanny, and fond of getting entangled in the hair of ladies, and should be killed. But there are certain families of bats, named horseshoe bats, leaf-nosed bats and vampires about which common knowledge is nil, and the knowledge possessed by naturalists very little, so I will tell what I know of them. They are larger than common bats, their wings are broad, soft and silent, like those of the owl, they sleep in caves, tombs and ruins, they do not flutter in the open air, but swiftly traverse gloomy avenues and shady glades, their prey is not gnats and midges, but the "droning beetle," the death's head moth, the cockchafer, croaking frogs, sleeping birds and human blood. The books will tell you that these bats are distinguished by "complicated nasal appendages consisting of foliaceous skin processes around the nostrils," which is quite true and utterly futile. It may do for a dried skin or a specimen in spirits of wine. I have had the foul fiend in a cage and looked him in the face. His whole countenance, from lips to brow and from cheek to cheek, is covered and hidden by a hideous design of

Spells and signs, Symbolic letters, circles, lines,

sculptured in living, quivering skin. It is a sight to make the flesh creep. The books suggest that these foliaceous appendages are the organs of some special sense akin to touch. Futile again! There are things in Nature still which prompt the naturalist who has not atrophied his inner eye and starved his imagination to cry out:

Science ... Why preyest thou thus upon the poet's heart, Vulture, whose wings are dull realities?

Supposing there should be in the unseen universe an evil spirit, an imp of malice and mischief, not Milton's Satan, but the Deil of Burns:

Whyles ranging, like a roaring lion, For prey, a' holes an' corners tryin; Whyles on the strong-winged tempest flyin, Tirlin the kirks; Whyles in the human bosom pryin,

and supposing him to crave possession of a body through which he might get into touch with this material world and express himself in outward forms and motions; then oh! how fitly were this bat explained.

But let us go back to firm ground. If you compare a dog's profile with that of a horse you will note at once that the nostrils are in advance of the lips, and have a kind of portal to themselves. This is a distinct advance. The sense of smell has come to the front and pushed aside the lower sense of touch. You will observe, too, that with the growth of the brain the brain-pan has elevated itself above the level of the nose. Through the cat to the monkeys the process proceeds, the forehead advancing, the jaws retreating, and the nostrils leaving the lips, until they finally settle in a detached villa midway between the eyes and the mouth. This is the nose. I do not know the use of it. I cannot fathom the meaning of it. It is a solemn mystery. See the face of an orang-outang. It is a countenance, a signboard with three distinct lines of writing on it, the eyes, the nose and the mouth. You may not think much of this particular nose. Neither do I. I think it is situated rather too near the eyes and too far from the mouth. It is a little too small also, and wants style. But you must not judge a first attempt too critically. I have seen human noses of a pattern not unlike this, but they are not considered aristocratic: perhaps they indicate a reversion to the ancestral type.

But the noses even of monkeys are not all like this. In fact, there is a good deal of variety, and two in particular have struck me as quite remarkable. One is that of the long-nosed monkey (Semnopithecus nasalis). I think it must have suggested Sterne's stranger on a mule, who had travelled to the promontory of noses and threw all Strassburg into a ferment. I have often contemplated this nose in mute wonderment, and longed to see that monkey in life, if so be I might arrive at some understanding of it; for the taxidermist cannot rise above his own level, and the man who would mount S. nasalis would need to be a Henry Irving. Then there is the sub-nosed monkey, labelled rhinopithecus, of which there is an expressive specimen at the South Kensington Museum. Who can consider that nose seriously and continue to believe in a recipe made up of struggle for existence, adaptation to environment, and natural selection quantum suf.? If I could dine with that monkey, ask it to drink a glass of wine with me, offer it a pinch of snuff and so on, I might come in time to feel, if not to comprehend, the import of its nose.

But one step further is required for the evolution of what we may call the human nose, and that is a solid foundation, a ridge of bone connecting it with the brow and separating the eyes from each other. I believe that the completeness of this is a fair index of the comparative advancement of different races of men. In the Greek ideal of a perfect face the profile forms a straight line from the top of the forehead to the tip of the nose. This is the type of face which painters have delighted to give to the Virgin Mary; and, when looking at their Madonnas, one cannot help wondering whether they forgot that Mary was a Jewess. According to the Hebrew ideal, a perfect nose was like "the tower of Lebanon which looketh toward Damascus" (Song of Solomon, vii. 4); but not even the ruins of that tower remain to help us to-day. The Romans, no doubt, accepted the ideal of the Greeks aesthetically, but their destiny had given them a very different nose, and they ruled the world.

Here is the nose of Julius Caesar as a coin has preserved it for us. I think that the outline is too straight for a typical Roman, but the deep dip under the brow and the downward point are characteristic. Now compare the nose of another race which rules an empire greater than that of the Caesars. Here is John Bull as Punch usually represents him. It belongs to the same genus as that of the Roman. The reason why this should be the nose of command is not easy to give with scientific precision, for we are dealing with the play of very subtle influences, so the man without imagination will no doubt scoff. But I will take shelter under Darwin. Dealing with the expression of pride he says, "A proud man exhibits his sense of superiority by holding his head and body erect. He is haughty (haut), or high, and makes himself appear as large as possible." Again, "The arrogant man looks down on others"; and yet again, "In some photographs of patients affected by a monomania of pride, sent me by Dr. Crichton-Browne, the head and body were held erect and the mouth firmly closed. This latter action, expressive of decision, follows, I presume, from the proud man feeling perfect self-confidence in himself."

1  2  3  4     Next Part
Home - Random Browse