THE ATLANTIC MONTHLY.
A MAGAZINE OF LITERATURE, ART, AND POLITICS.
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M DCCC LXII.
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[Transcriber's note: Converted page numbers to issue numbers.]
A.C., The Experiences of the, 52. Agnes of Sorrento, 51, 52, 53, 54. American Civilization, 54. Author of "Charles Auchester," The, 56. Autobiographical Sketches of a Strength-Seeker, 51.
Childhood, Concerning the Sorrows of, 53. Clough, Arthur Hugh, 54. Cooper, James Fenimore, 52.
Ease in Work, 52.
Forester, The, 54. Fremont's Hundred Days in Missouri, 51, 52, 53. Fruits of Free Labor in the Smaller Islands of the British West Indies, 53.
German Burns, The, 54.
Health of Our Girls, The, 56. Hindrance, 55. Horrors of San Domingo, The, 56.
Jefferson and Slavery, 51. John Lamar, 54.
Letter to a Young Contributor, 54. Light Literature, 51. Love and Skates, 51, 52.
Man under Sealed Orders, 55. Methods of Study in Natural History, 51, 52, 53, 54, 55, 56. My Garden, 55.
Old Age, 51. Our Artists in Italy, 52.
Pere Antoine's Date-Palm, 56. Pilgrimage to Old Boston, 51.
Raft that no Man made, A, 53. Richelieu, The Statesmanship of, 55. Rifle, The Use of the, 53.
Saltpetre as a Source of Power, 55. Sam Adams Regiments in the Town of Boston, The, 56. Slavery, in its Principles, Development, and Expedients, 55. Snow, 52. "Solid Operations in Virginia", 56. South Breaker, The, 55, 56. Spain, The Rehabilitation of, 53. Spirits, 55. Story of To-Day, A, 51, 52, 53.
Taxation, 53. Then and Now in the Old Dominion, 54.
Walking, 56. War and Literature, 56. Weather in War, 55. What shall We do with Them?, 54.
Astraea at the Capitol, 56. At Port Royal, 1861, 52.
Battle-Hymn of the Republic, 52. Birdofredum Sawin, Esq., to Mr. Hosea Biglow, 51, 53.
Lines written under a Portrait of Theodore Winthrop, 55. Lyrics of the Street, 55.
Mason and Slidell: A Yankee Idyl, 52. Message of Jeff Davis in Secret Session, A, 54. Midwinter, 52. Mountain Pictures, 53, 54.
Order for a Picture, An, 56. Out of the Body to God, 56.
Per Tenebras, Lumina, 51.
Sonnet, 56. Southern Cross, The, 53. Speech of Hon'ble Preserved Doe in Secret Caucus, 55. Strasburg Clock, The, 54. Sunthin' in the Pastoral Line, 56.
Titmouse, The, 55. True Heroine, The, 51.
Under the Snow, 55.
Volunteer, The, 55. Voyage of the Good Ship Union, 53.
REVIEWS AND LITERARY NOTICES.
Arnold's Lectures on translating Homer, 51.
Book about Doctors, A, 54. Botta's Discourse on the Life, Character, and Policy of Count Cavour, 55.
Cloister and the Hearth, The, 52.
De Vere, Aubrey, Poems by, 54. Dickens's Works, Household Edition, 55.
Harris's Insects Injurious to Vegetation, 55.
John Brent, 54.
Leigh Hunt, Correspondence of, 55. Lessons in Life, 51.
Mueller's Lectures on the Science of Language, 51.
Newman's Homeric Translation in Theory and in Practice, 51.
Pauli's Pictures of Old England, 55.
Record of an Obscure Man, 55.
Tragedy of Errors, 55.
Willmott's English Sacred Poetry, 52.
FOREIGN LITERATURE, 54, 55.
RECENT AMERICAN PUBLICATIONS, 52, 53, 54, 55.
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THE ATLANTIC MONTHLY.
A MAGAZINE OF LITERATURE, ART, AND POLITICS.
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VOL. IX.—JANUARY, 1862.—NO. LI.
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METHODS OF STUDY IN NATURAL HISTORY.
It is my intention, in this series of papers, to give the history of the progress in Natural History from the beginning,—to show how men first approached Nature,—how the facts of Natural History have been accumulated, and how those facts have been converted into science. In so doing, I shall present the methods employed in Natural History on a wider scale and with broader generalizations than if I limited myself to the study as it exists to-day. The history of humanity, in its efforts to understand the Creation, resembles the development of any individual mind engaged in the same direction. It has its infancy, with the first recognition of surrounding objects; and, indeed, the early observers seem to us like children in their first attempts to understand the world in which they live. But these efforts, that appear childish to us now, were the first steps in that field of knowledge which is so extensive that all our progress seems only to show us how much is left to do.
Aristotle is the representative of the learning of antiquity in Natural Science. The great mind of Greece in his day, and a leader in all the intellectual culture of his time, he was especially a naturalist, and his work on Natural History is a record not only of his own investigations, but of all preceding study in this department. It is evident that even then much had been done, and, in allusion to certain peculiarities of the human frame, which he does not describe in full, he refers his readers to familiar works, saying, that illustrations in point may be found in anatomical text-books.
 See Aristotle's Zooelogy, Book I., Chapter xiv.
Strange that in Aristotle's day, two thousand years ago, such books should have been in general use, and that in our time we are still in want of elementary text-books of Natural History, having special reference to the animals of our own country, and adapted to the use of schools. One fact in Aristotle's "History of Animals" is very striking, and makes it difficult for us to understand much of its contents. It never occurs to him that a time may come when the Greek language—the language of all culture and science in his time—would not be the language of all cultivated men. He took, therefore, little pains to characterize the animals he alludes to, otherwise than by their current names; and of his descriptions of their habits and peculiarities, much is lost upon us from their local character and expression. There is also a total absence of systematic form, of any classification or framework to express the divisions of the animal kingdom into larger or lesser groups. His only divisions are genera and species: classes, orders, and families, as we understand them now, are quite foreign to the Greek conception of the animal kingdom. Fishes and birds, for instance, they considered as genera, and their different representatives as species. They grouped together quadrupeds also in contradistinction to animals with legs and wings, and they distinguished those that bring forth living young from those that lay eggs. But though a system of Nature was not familiar even to their great philosopher, and Aristotle had not arrived at the idea of a classification on general principles, he yet stimulated a search into the closer affinities among animals by the differences he pointed out. He divided the animal kingdom into two groups, which he called Enaima and Anaima, or animals with blood and animals without blood. We must remember, however, that by the word blood he designated only the red fluid circulating in the higher animals; whereas a fluid akin to blood exists in all animals, variously colored in some, but colorless in a large number of others.
After Aristotle, a long period elapsed without any addition to the information he left us. Rome and the Middle Ages gave us nothing, and even Pliny added hardly a fact to those that Aristotle recorded. And though the great naturalists of the sixteenth century gave a new impulse to this study, their investigations were chiefly directed towards a minute acquaintance with the animals they had an opportunity of observing, mingled with commentaries upon the ancients. Systematic Zooelogy was but little advanced by their efforts.
We must come down to the last century, to Linnaeus, before we find the history taken up where Aristotle had left it, and some of his suggestions carried out with new vigor and vitality. Aristotle had distinguished only between genera and species; Linnaeus took hold of this idea, and gave special names to other groups, of different weight and value. Besides species and genera, he gives us orders and classes,—considering classes the most comprehensive, then orders, then genera, then species. He did not, however, represent these groups as distinguished by their nature, but only by their range; they were still to him, as genera and species had been to Aristotle, only larger or smaller groups, not founded upon and limited by different categories of structure. He divided the animal kingdom into six classes, which I give here, as we shall have occasion to compare them with other classifications:—Mammalia, Birds, Reptiles, Fishes, Insects, Worms.
That this classification should have expressed all that was known in the last century of the most general relations among animals only shows how difficult it is to generalize on such a subject; nor should we expect to find it an easy task, when we remember the vast number of species (about a quarter of a million) already noticed by naturalists. Linnaeus succeeded, however, in finding a common character on which to unite most of his classes; but the Mammalia, that group to which we ourselves belong, remained very imperfect. Indeed, in the earlier editions of his classification, he does not apply the name of Mammalia to this class, but calls the higher animals Quadrupedia, characterizing them as the animals with four legs and covered with fur or hair, that bring forth living young and nurse them with milk. In thus admitting external features as class characters, he excluded many animals which by their mode of reproduction, as well as by their respiration and circulation, belong to this class as much as the Quadrupeds,—as, for instance, all the Cetaceans, (Whales, Porpoises, and the like,) which, though they have not legs, nor are their bodies covered with hair or fur, yet bring forth living young, nurse them with milk, are warm-blooded and air-breathing. As more was learned of these animals, there arose serious discussion and criticism among contemporary naturalists respecting the classification of Linnaeus, all of which led to a clearer insight into the true relations among animals. Linnaeus himself, in his last edition of the "Systema Naturae," shows us what important progress he had made since he first announced his views; for he there substitutes for the name of Quadrupedia that of Mammalia, including among them the Whales, which he characterizes as air-breathing, warm-blooded, and bringing forth living young which they nurse with milk. Thus the very deficiencies of his classification stimulated naturalists to new criticism and investigation into the true limits of classes, and led to the recognition of one most important principle,—that such groups are founded, not on external appearance, but on internal structure, and that internal structure, therefore, is the thing to be studied. The group of Quadrupeds was not the only defective one in this classification of Linnaeus; his class of Worms, also, was most heterogeneous, for he included among them Shell-Fishes, Slugs, Star-Fishes, Sea-Urchins, and other animals that bear no relation whatever to the class of Worms.
But whatever its defects, the classification of Linnaeus was the first attempt at grouping animals together according to certain common structural characters. His followers and pupils engaged at once in a scrutiny of the differences and similarities among animals, which soon led to a great increase in the number of classes: instead of six, there were presently nine, twelve, and more. But till Cuvier's time there was no great principle of classification. Facts were accumulated and more or less systematized, but they were not yet arranged according to law; the principle was still wanting by which to generalize them and give meaning and vitality to the whole. It was Cuvier who found the key. He himself tells us how he first began, in his investigations upon the internal organization of animals, to use his dissections with reference to finding the true relations between animals, and how, ever after, his knowledge of anatomy assisted him in his classifications, and his classifications threw new light again on his anatomical investigations,—each science thus helping to fertilize the other. He was not one of those superficial observers who are in haste to announce every new fact that they chance to find, and his first paper specially devoted to classification gave to the world the ripe fruit of years of study. This was followed by his great work, "Le Regne Animal." He said that animals were united in their most comprehensive groups, not on special characters, but on different plans of structure,—moulds, he called them, in which all animals had been cast. He tells us this in such admirable language that I must, to do justice to his thought, give it in his own words:—
"Si l'on considere le regne animal d'apres les principes que nous venons de poser en se debarrassant des prejuges etablis sur les divisions anciennement admises, en n'ayant egard qu'a l'organisation et a la nature des animaux, et non pas a leur grandeur, a leur utilite, au plus ou moins de connaissance que nous en avons, ni a toutes les autres circonstances accessoires, on trouvera qu'il existe quatre formes principales, quatre plans generaux, si l'on peut s'exprimer ainsi, d'apres lesquels tous les animaux semblent avoir ete modeles, et dont les divisions ulterieures, de quelque titre que les naturalistes les aient decorees, ne sont que des modifications assez legeres, fondees sur le developpement ou l'addition de quelques parties, qui ne changent rien a l'essence du plan."
 Sur un nouveau rapprochement a etablir entre les Classes qui composent le Regne Animal. Ann. Mus., Vol. XIX.
The value of this principle was soon tested by its application to facts already known, and it was found that animals whose affinities had been questionable before were now at once referred to their true relations with other animals by ascertaining whether they were built on one or another of these plans. Of such plans or structural conceptions Cuvier found in the whole animal kingdom only four, which he called Vertebrates, Mollusks, Articulates, and Radiates.
With this new principle as the basis of investigation, it was no longer enough for the naturalist to know a certain amount of features characteristic of a certain number of animals,—he must penetrate deep enough into their organization to find the secret of their internal structure. Till he can do this, he is like the traveller in a strange city, who looks on the exterior of edifices entirely new to him, but knows nothing of the plan of their internal architecture. To be able to read in the finished structure the plan on which the whole is built is now essential to every naturalist.
There have been many criticisms on this division of Cuvier's, and many attempts to change it; but though some improvements have been made in the details of his classification, all departures from its great fundamental principle are errors, and do but lead us away from the recognition of the true affinities among animals.
Each of these plans may be stated in the most general terms. In the Vertebrates there is a vertebral column terminating in a prominent head; this column has an arch above and an arch below, forming a double internal cavity. The parts are symmetrically arranged on either side of the longitudinal axis of the body. In the Mollusks, also, the parts are arranged according to a bilateral symmetry on either side of the body, but the body has but one cavity, and is a soft, concentrated mass, without a distinct individualization of parts. In the Articulates there is but one cavity, and the parts are here again arranged on either side of the longitudinal axis, but in these animals the whole body is divided from end to end into transverse rings or joints movable upon each other. In the Radiates we lose sight of the bilateral symmetry so prevalent in the other three, except as a very subordinate element of structure; the plan of this lowest type is an organic sphere, in which all parts bear definite relations to a vertical axis.
It is not upon any special features, then, that these largest divisions of the animal kingdom are based, but simply upon the general structural idea. Striking as this statement was, it was coldly received at first by contemporary naturalists: they could hardly grasp Cuvier's wide generalizations, and perhaps there was also some jealousy of the grandeur of his views. Whatever the cause, his principle of classification was not fully appreciated; but it opened a new road for study, and gave us the keynote to the natural affinities among animals. Lamarck, his contemporary, not recognizing the truth of this principle, distributed the animal kingdom into two great divisions, which he calls Vertebrates and Invertebrates. Ehrenberg also, at a later period, announced another division under two heads,—those with a continuous solid nervous centre, and those with merely scattered nervous swellings.
 For more details upon the different systems of Zooelogy, see Agassiz's Essay on Classification in his Contributions to the Natural History of the United States, Vol. I.
But there was no real progress in either of these latter classifications, so far as the primary divisions are concerned; for they correspond to the old division of Aristotle, under the head of animals with or without blood, the Enaima and Anaima. This coincidence between systems based on different foundations may teach us that every structural combination includes certain inherent necessities which will bring animals together on whatever set of features we try to classify them; so that the division of Aristotle, founded on the circulating fluids, or that of Lamarck, on the absence or presence of a backbone, or that of Ehrenberg, on the differences of the nervous system, cover the same ground. Lamarck attempted also to use the faculties of animals as a groundwork for division among them. But our knowledge of the psychology of animals is still too imperfect to justify any such use of it. His divisions into Apathetic, Sensitive, and Intelligent animals are entirely theoretical. He places, for instance, Fishes and Reptiles among the Intelligent animals, as distinguished from Crustacea and Insects, which he refers to the second division. But one would be puzzled to say how the former manifest more intelligence than the latter, or why the latter should be placed among the Sensitive animals. Again, some of the animals that he calls Apathetic have been proved by later investigators to show an affection and care for their young, seemingly quite inconsistent with the epithet he has applied to them. In fact, we know so little of the faculties of animals that any classification based upon our present information about them must be very imperfect.
Many modifications of Cuvier's great divisions have been attempted. Some naturalists, for instance, have divided off a part of the Radiates and Articulates, insisting upon some special features of structure, and mistaking these for the more important and general characteristics of their respective plans. All subsequent investigations of such would-be improvements show them to be retrograde movements, only proving more clearly that Cuvier detected in his four plans all the great structural ideas on which the vast variety of animals is founded. This result is of greater importance than may at first appear. Upon it depends the question, whether all such classifications represent merely individual impressions and opinions of men, or whether there is really something in Nature that presses upon us certain divisions among animals, certain affinities, certain limitations, founded upon essential principles of organization. Are our systems the inventions of naturalists, or only their reading of the Book of Nature? and can that book have more than one reading? If these classifications are not mere inventions, if they are not an attempt to classify for our own convenience the objects we study, then they are thoughts which, whether we detect them or not, are expressed in Nature,—then Nature is the work of thought, the production of intelligence carried out according to plan, therefore premeditated,—and in our study of natural objects we are approaching the thoughts of the Creator, reading His conceptions, interpreting a system that is His and not ours.
All the divergence from the simplicity and grandeur of this division of the animal kingdom arises from an inability to distinguish between a plan and the execution, of a plan. We allow the details to shut out the plan itself, which exists quite independent of special forms. I hope we shall find a meaning in all these plans that will prove them to be the parts of one great conception and the work of one Mind.
Proceeding upon the view that there is a close analogy between the way in which every individual student penetrates into Nature and the progress of science as a whole in the history of humanity, I continue my sketch of the successive steps that have led to our present state of knowledge. I began with Aristotle, and showed that this great philosopher, though he prepared a digest of all the knowledge belonging to his time, yet did not feel the necessity of any system or of any scientific language differing from the common mode of expression of his day. He presents his information as a man with his eyes open narrates in a familiar style what he sees. As civilization spread and science had its representatives in other countries besides Greece, it became indispensable to have a common scientific language, a technical nomenclature, combining many objects under common names, and enabling every naturalist to express the results of his observations readily and simply in a manner intelligible to all other students of Natural History.
Linnaeus devised such a system, and to him we owe a most simple and comprehensive scientific mode of designating animals and plants. It may at first seem no advantage to give up the common names of the vernacular and adopt the unfamiliar ones, but a word of explanation will make the object clear. Perceiving, for instance, the close relations between certain members of the larger groups, Linnaeus gave to them names that should be common to all, and which are called generic names,—as we speak of Ducks, when we would designate in one word the Mallard, the Widgeon, the Canvas-Back, etc.; but to these generic names he added qualifying epithets, called specific names, to indicate the different kinds in each group. For example, the Lion, the Tiger, the Panther, the Domestic Cat constitute such a natural group, which Linnaeus called Felis, Cat, indicating the whole genus; but the species he designates as Felis catus, the Domestic Cat,—Felis leo, the Lion,—Felis tigris, the Tiger,—Felis panthera, the Panther. So he called all the Dogs Canis; but for the different kinds we have Canis familiaris, the Domestic Dog,—Canis lupus, the Wolf,—Canis vulpes, the Fox, etc.
In some families of the vegetable kingdom we can appreciate better the application of this nomenclature, because we have something corresponding to it in the vernacular. We have, for instance, one name for all the Oaks, but we call the different kinds Swamp Oak, Red Oak, White Oak, Chestnut Oak, etc. So Linnaeus, in his botanical nomenclature, called all the Oaks by the generic name Quercus, (characterizing them by their fruit, the acorn, common to all,) and qualified them as Quercus bicolor, Quercus rubra, Quercus alba, Quercus castanea, etc., etc. His nomenclature, being so easy of application, became at once exceedingly popular and made him the great scientific legislator of his century. He insisted on Latin names, because, if every naturalist should use his own language, it must lead to great confusion, and this Latin nomenclature of double significance was adopted by all. Another advantage of this binominal Latin nomenclature consists in preventing the confusion frequently arising from the use of the same name to designate different animals in different parts of the world,—as, for instance, the name of Robin, used in America to designate a bird of the Thrush family, entirely different from the Robin of the Old World,—or of different names for the same animal, as Perch or Chogset or Burgall for our Cunner. Nothing is more to be deprecated than an over-appreciation of technicalities, valuing the name more highly than the thing; but some knowledge of this nomenclature is necessary to every student of Nature.
The improvements in science thus far were chiefly verbal. Cuvier now came forward and added a principle. He showed that all animals are built upon a certain number of definite plans. This momentous step, the significance of which is not yet appreciated to its full extent; for, had its importance been understood, the efforts of naturalists would have been directed toward a further illustration of the distinctive characteristics of all the plans,—instead of which, the division of the animal kingdom into larger and smaller groups chiefly attracted their attention, and has been carried too far by some of them. Linnaeus began with six classes, Cuvier brought them up to nineteen, and at last the animal kingdom was subdivided by subsequent investigators into twenty-eight classes. This multiplication of divisions, however, soon suggested an important question: How far are these divisions natural or inherent in the objects themselves, and not dependent on individual views?
While Linnaeus pointed out classes, orders, genera, and species, other naturalists had detected other divisions among animals, called families. Lamarck, who had been a distinguished botanist before he began his study of the animal kingdom, brought to his zooelogical researches his previous methods of investigation. Families in the vegetable kingdom had long been distinguished by French botanists; and one cannot examine the groups they call by this name, without perceiving, that, though they bring them together and describe them according to other characters, they have been unconsciously led to unite them from the general similarity of their port and bearing. Take, for instance, the families of Pines, Oaks, Beeches, Maples, etc., and you feel at once, that, besides the common characters given in the technical descriptions of these trees, there is also a general resemblance among them that would naturally lead us to associate them together, even if we knew nothing of the other features of their structure. By an instinctive recognition of this family likeness between plants, botanists have been led to seek for structural characters on which to unite them, and the groups so founded generally correspond with the combinations suggested by their appearance.
By a like process Lamarck combined animals into families. His method was adopted by French naturalists generally, and found favor especially with Cuvier, who was particularly successful in limiting families among animals, and in naming them happily, generally selecting names expressive of the features on which the groups were founded, or borrowing them from familiar animals. Much, indeed, depends upon the pleasant sound and the significance of a name; for an idea reaches the mind more easily when well expressed, and Cuvier's names were both simple and significant. His descriptions are also remarkable for their graphic precision,—giving all that is essential, omitting all that is merely accessory. He has given us the key-note to his progress in his own expressive language:—
"Je dus donc, et cette obligation me prit un temps considerable, je dus faire marcher de front l'anatomie et la zoologie, les dissections et le classement; chercher dans mes premieres remarques sur l'organisation des distributions meilleures; m'en servir pour arriver a des remarques nouvelles; employer encore ces remarques a perfectionner les distributions; faire sortir enfin de cette fecondation mutuelle des deux sciences, l'une par l'autre, un systeme zoologique propre a servir d'introducteur et de guide dans le champ de l'anatomie, et un corps de doctrine anatomique propre a servir de developpement et d'explication au systeme zoologique."
It is deeply to be lamented that so many naturalists have entirely overlooked this significant advice of Cuvier's, to combine zooelogical and anatomical studies in order to arrive at a clearer perception of the true affinities among animals. To sum it up in one word, he tells us that the secret of his method is "comparison,"—ever comparing and comparing throughout the enormous range of his knowledge of the organization of animals, and founding upon the differences as well as the similarities those broad generalizations under which he has included all animal structures. And this method, so prolific in his hands, has also a lesson for us all. In this country there is a growing interest in the study of Nature; but while there exist hundreds of elementary works illustrating the native animals of Europe, there are few such books here to satisfy the demand for information respecting the animals of our land and water. We are thus forced to turn more and more to our own investigations and less to authority; and the true method of obtaining independent knowledge is this very method of Cuvier's,—comparison.
Let us make the most common application of it to natural objects. Suppose we see together a Dog, a Cat, a Bear, a Horse, a Cow, and a Deer. The first feature that strikes us as common to any two of them is the horn in the Cow and Deer. But how shall we associate either of the others with these? We examine the teeth, and find those of the Dog, the Cat, and the Bear sharp and cutting, while those of the Cow, the Deer, and the Horse have flat surfaces, adapted to grinding and chewing, rather than cutting and tearing. We compare these features of their structure with the habits of these animals, and find that the first are carnivorous, that they seize and tear their prey, while the others are herbivorous or grazing animals, living only on vegetable substances, which they chew and grind. We compare farther the Horse and Cow, and find that the Horse has front teeth both in the upper and lower jaw, while the Cow has them only in the lower; and going still farther and comparing the internal with the external features, we find this arrangement of the teeth in direct relation to the different structure of the stomach in the two animals,—the Cow having a stomach with four pouches, adapted to a mode of digestion by which the food is prepared for the second mastication, while the Horse has a simple stomach. Comparing the Cow and the Deer, we find that the digestive apparatus is the same in both; but though they both have horns, in the Cow the horn is hollow, and remains through life firmly attached to the bone, while in the Deer it is solid and is shed every year. With these facts before us, we cannot hesitate to place the Dog, the Cat, and the Bear in one division, as carnivorous animals, and the other three in another division as herbivorous animals,—and looking a little farther, we perceive, that, in common with the Cow and the Deer, the Goat and the Sheep have cloven feet, and that they are all ruminants, while the Horse has a single hoof, does not ruminate, and must therefore be separated from them, even though, like them, he is herbivorous.
This is but the simplest illustration, taken from the most familiar objects, of this comparative method; but the same process is equally applicable to the most intricate problems in animal structures, and will give us the clue to all true affinities between animals. The education of a naturalist, now, consists chiefly in learning how to compare. If he have any power of generalization, when he has collected his facts, this habit of mental comparison will lead him up to principles, to the great laws of combination. It must not discourage us, that the process is a slow and laborious one, and the results of one lifetime after all very small. It might seem invidious, were I to show here how small is the sum total of the work accomplished even by the great exceptional men, whose names are known throughout the civilized world. But I may at least be permitted to speak of my own efforts, and to sum up in the fewest words the result of my life's work. I have devoted my whole life to the study of Nature, and yet a single sentence may express all that I have done. I have shown that there is a correspondence between the succession of Fishes in geological times and the different stages of their growth in the egg,—this is all. It chanced to be a result that was found to apply to other groups and has led to other conclusions of a like nature. But, such as it is, it has been reached by this system of comparison, which, though I speak of it now in its application to the study of Natural History, is equally important in every other branch of knowledge. By the same process the most mature results of scientific research in Philology, in Ethnology, and in Physical Science are reached. And let me say that the community should foster the purely intellectual efforts of scientific men as carefully as they do their elementary schools and their practical institutions, generally considered so much more useful and important to the public. For from what other source shall we derive the higher results that are gradually woven into the practical resources of our life, except from the researches of those very men who study science not for its uses, but for its truth? It is this that gives it its noblest interest: it must be for truth's sake, and not even for the sake of its usefulness to humanity, that the scientific man studies Nature. The application of science to the useful arts requires other abilities, other qualities, other tools than his; and therefore I say that the man of science who follows his studies into their practical application is false to his calling. The practical man stands ever ready to take up the work where the scientific man leaves it, and to adapt it to the material wants and uses of daily life.
The publication of Cuvier's proposition, that the animal kingdom is built on four plans, created an extraordinary excitement throughout the scientific world. All naturalists proceeded to test it, and many soon recognized in it a great scientific truth,—while others, who thought more of making themselves prominent than of advancing science, proposed poor amendments, that were sure to be rejected on farther investigation. There were, however, some of these criticisms and additions that were truly improvements, and touched upon points overlooked by Cuvier. Blainville, especially, took up the element of form among animals,—whether divided on two sides, whether radiated, whether irregular, etc. He, however, made the mistake of giving very elaborate names to animals already known under simpler ones. Why, for instance, call all animals with parts radiating in every direction Actinomorpha or Actinozoaria, when they had received the significant name of Radiates? It seemed, to be a new system, when in fact it was only a new name. Ehrenberg, likewise, made an important distinction, when he united the animals according to the difference in their nervous systems; but he also incumbered the nomenclature unnecessarily, when he added to the names Anaima and Enaima of Aristotle those of Myeloneura and Ganglioneura.
But it is not my object to give all the classifications of different authors here, and I will therefore pass over many noted ones, as those of Burmeister, Milne, Edwards, Siebold and Stannius, Owen, Leuckart, Vogt, Van Beneden, and others, and proceed to give some account of one investigator who did as much for the progress of Zooelogy as Cuvier, though he is comparatively little known among us. Karl Ernst von Baer proposed a classification based, like Cuvier's, upon plan; but he recognized what Cuvier failed to perceive,—namely, the importance of distinguishing between type (by which he means exactly what Cuvier means by plan) and complication of structure,—in other words, between plan and the execution of the plan. He recognized four types, which correspond exactly to Cuvier's four plans, though he calls them by different names. Let us compare them.
Cuvier. Baer. Radiates, Peripheric, Mollusks, Massive, Articulates, Longitudinal, Vertebrates. Doubly Symmetrical.
Though perhaps less felicitous, the names of Baer express the same ideas as those of Cuvier. By the Peripheric he signified those in which all the parts converge from the periphery or circumference of the animal to its centre. Cuvier only reverses this definition in his name of Radiates, signifying the animals in which all parts radiate from the centre to the circumference. By Massive, Baer indicated those animals in which the structure is soft and concentrated, without a very distinct individualization of parts,—exactly the animals included by Cuvier under his name of Mollusks, or soft-bodied animals. In his selection of the epithet Longitudinal, Baer was less fortunate; for all animals have a longitudinal diameter, and this word was not, therefore, sufficiently special. Yet his Longitudinal type answers exactly to Cuvier's Articulates,—animals in which all parts are arranged in a succession of articulated joints along a longitudinal axis. Cuvier has expressed this jointed structure in the name Articulates; whereas Baer, in his name of Longitudinal, referred only to the arrangement of joints in longitudinal succession, in a continuous string, as it were, one after another. For the Doubly Symmetrical type his name is the better of the two; for Cuvier's name of Vertebrates alludes only to the backbone,—while Baer, who is an embryologist, signifies in his their mode of growth also. He knew what Cuvier did not know, that in its first formation the germ of the Vertebrate divides in two folds: one turning up above the backbone, to inclose all the sensitive Organs,—the spinal marrow, the organs of sense, all those organs by which life is expressed; the other turning down below the backbone, and inclosing all those organs by which life is maintained,—the organs of digestion, of respiration, of circulation, of reproduction, etc. So there is in this type not only an equal division of parts on either side, but also a division above and below, making thus a double symmetry in the plan, expressed by Baer in the name he gave it. Baer was perfectly original in his conception of these four types, for his paper was published in the very same year with that of Cuvier. But even in Germany, his native land, his ideas were not fully appreciated: strange that it should be so,—for, had his countrymen recognized his genius, they might have claimed him as the compeer of the great French naturalist.
Baer also founded the science of Embryology, under the guidance of his teacher, Dollinger. His researches in this direction showed him that animals were not only built on four plans, but that they grew according to four modes of development. The Vertebrate arises from the egg differently from the Articulate,—the Articulate differently from the Mollusk,—the Mollusk differently from the Radiate. Cuvier only showed us the four plans as they exist in the adult; Baer went a step farther, and showed us the four plans in the process of formation. But his greatest scientific achievement is perhaps the discovery that all animals originate in eggs, and that all these eggs are at first identical in substance and structure. The wonderful and untiring research condensed into this simple statement, that all animals arise from eggs and that all those eggs are identical in the beginning, may well excite our admiration. This egg consists of an outer envelope, the vitelline membrane, containing a fluid more or less dense, the yolk; within this is a second envelope, the so-called germinative vesicle, containing a somewhat different and more transparent fluid, and in the fluid of this second envelope float one or more so-called germinative specks. At this stage of their growth all eggs are microsopically small, yet each one has such tenacity of its individual principle of life that no egg was ever known to swerve from the pattern of the parent animal that gave it birth.
From the time that Linnaeus showed us the necessity of a scientific system as a framework for the arrangement of scientific facts in Natural History, the number of divisions adopted by zooelogists and botanists increased steadily. Not only were families, orders, and classes added to genera and species, but these were further multiplied by subdivisions of the different groups. But as the number of divisions increased, they lost in precise meaning, and it became more and more doubtful how far they were true to Nature. Moreover, these divisions were not taken in the same sense by all naturalists: what were called families by some were called orders by others, while the orders of some were the classes of others, till it began to be doubted whether these scientific systems had any foundation in Nature, or signified anything more than that it had pleased Linnaeus, for instance, to call certain groups of animals by one name, while Cuvier had chosen to call them by another.
These divisions are, first, the most comprehensive groups, the primary divisions, called branches by some, types by others, and divided by some naturalists into so-called sub-types, meaning only a more limited circumscription of the same kind of group; next we have classes, and these also have been divided into sub-classes, then orders and sub-orders, families, sub-families, and tribes; then genera, species, and varieties. With reference to the question, whether these groups really exist in Nature or are merely the expression of individual theories and opinions, it is worth while to study the works of the early naturalists, in order to trace the natural process by which scientific classification has been reached; for in this, as in other departments of learning, practice has always preceded theory. We do the thing before we understand why we do it: speech precedes grammar, reason precedes logic; and so a division of animals into groups, upon an instinctive perception of their differences, has preceded all our scientific creeds and doctrines. Let us, therefore, proceed to examine the meaning of these names as adopted by naturalists.
When Cuvier proposed his four primary divisions of the animal kingdom, he added his argument for their adoption,—because, he said, they are constructed on four different plans. All the progress in our science since his time confirms this result; and I shall attempt to show that there are really four, and only four, such structural ideas at the foundation of the animal kingdom, and that all animals are included under one or another of them. But it does not follow, that, because we have arrived at a sound principle, we are therefore unerring in our practice. From ignorance we may misplace animals, and include them under the wrong division. This is a mistake, however, which a better insight into their organization rectifies; and experience constantly proves, that, whenever the structure of an animal is perfectly understood, there is no hesitation as to the head under which it belongs. We may consequently test the merits of these four primary groups on the evidence furnished by investigation. It has already been seen that these plans may be presented in the most abstract manner without any reference to special animals. Radiation expresses in one word the idea on which the lowest of these types is based. In Radiates we have no prominent bilateral symmetry, as in all other animals, but an all-sided symmetry, in which there is no right and left, no anterior and posterior extremity, no above and below. They are spheroidal bodies; yet, though many of them remind us of a sphere, they are by no means to be compared to a mathematical sphere, but rather to an organic sphere, so loaded with life, as it were, as to produce an infinite variety of radiate symmetry. The whole organization is arranged around a centre toward which all the parts converge, or, in a reverse sense, from which all the parts radiate. In Mollusks there is a longitudinal axis and a bilateral symmetry; but the longitudinal axis in these soft concentrated bodies is not very prominent; and though the two ends of this axis are distinct from each other, the difference is not so marked that we can say at once, for all of them, which is the anterior and which the posterior extremity. In this type, right and left have the preponderance over the other diameters of the body. The sides are the prominent parts,—they are charged with the important organs, loaded with those peculiarities of the structure that give it character. The Oyster is a good instance of this, with its double valve, so swollen on one side, so flat on the other. There is an unconscious recognition of this in the arrangement of all collections of Mollusks; for, though the collectors do not put up their specimens with any intention of illustrating this peculiarity, they instinctively give them the position best calculated to display their distinctive characteristics, and to accomplish this they necessarily place them in such a manner as to show the sides. In Articulates there is also a longitudinal axis of the body and a bilateral symmetry in the arrangement of parts; the head and tail are marked, and the right and left sides are distinct. But the prominent tendency in this type is the development of the dorsal and ventral region; here above and below prevail over right and left. It is the back and the lower side that have the preponderance over any other part of the structure in Articulates. The body is divided from end to end by a succession of transverse constrictions, forming movable rings; but the character of the animal, its striking features, are always above or below, and especially developed on the back. Any collection of Insects or Crustacea is an evidence of this; being always instinctively arranged in such a manner as to show the predominant features, they uniformly exhibit the back of the animal. The profile view of an Articulate has no significance; whereas in a Mollusk, on the contrary, the profile view is the most illustrative of the structural character. In the highest division, the Vertebrates, so characteristically called by Baer the Doubly Symmetrical type, a solid column runs through the body with an arch above and an arch below, thus forming a double internal cavity. In this type, the head is the prominent feature; it is, as it were, the loaded end of the longitudinal axis, so charged with vitality as to form an intelligent brain, and rising in man to such predominance as to command and control the whole organism. The structure is arranged above and below this axis, the upper cavity containing all the sensitive organs, and the lower cavity containing all those by which life is maintained.
While Cuvier and his followers traced these four distinct plans, as shown in the adult animal, Baer opened to us a new field of investigation in the embryology of the four types, showing that for each there was a special mode of growth in the egg. Looking at them from this point of view, we shall see that these four types, with their four modes of growth, seem to fill out completely the plan or outline of the animal kingdom, and leave no reason to expect any further development or any other plan of animal life within these limits. The eggs of all animals are spheres, such as I have described them; but in the Radiate the whole periphery is transformed into the germ, so that it becomes, by the liquefying of the yolk, a hollow sphere. In the Mollusks, the germ lies above the yolk, absorbing its whole substance through the under side, thus forming a massive close body instead of a hollow one. In the Articulate, the germ is turned in a position exactly opposite to that of the Mollusk, and absorbs the yolk upon the back. In the Vertebrate, the germ divides in two folds, one turning upward, the other turning downward, above and below the central backbone. These four modes of development seem to exhaust the possibilities of the primitive sphere, which is the foundation of all animal life, and therefore I believe that Cuvier and Baer were right in saying that the whole animal kingdom is included under these four structural ideas.
Leuckart proposed to subdivide the Radiates into two groups: the Coelenterata, including Polyps and Acalephs or Jelly-Fishes,—and Echinoderms, including Star-Fishes, Sea-Urchins, and Holothurians. His reason for this distinction is the fact that in the latter the organs are inclosed within walls of their own, distinct from the body-wall; whereas in the former the organs are formed by internal folds of the outer wall of the body, as in the Polyps, or are hollowed out of the substance of the body, as in Jelly-Fishes. This implies no difference in the plan, but merely a difference in the execution of the plan. Both are equally radiate in their structure; and when Leuckart separated them as distinct primary types, he mistook a difference in the material expression of the plan for a difference in the plan itself. So some naturalists have distinguished Worms from the other Articulates as a separate division. But the structural plan of this type is a body divided by transverse constrictions or joints; and whether those joints are uniformly arranged from one end of the body to the other, as in the Worms, or whether the front joints are soldered together so as to form two regions of the body, as in Crustacea, or divided so as to form three regions of the body, as in winged Insects, does not in the least affect the typical character of the structure, which remains the same in all. Branches or types, then, are natural groups of the animal kingdom, founded on plans of structure or structural ideas.
What now are classes? Are they lesser divisions, differing only in extent, or are they founded on special characters? I believe the latter view to be the true one, and that class characters have a significance quite different from that of their mere range or extent. These divisions are founded on certain categories of structure; and were there but one animal of a class in the world, if it had those characters on which a class is founded, it would be as distinct from all other animals as if its kind were counted by thousands. Baer approached the idea of the classes when he discriminated between plan of structure or type and the degree of perfection in the structure. But while he understands the distinction between a plan and its execution, his ideas respecting the different features of structure are not quite so precise. He does not, for instance, distinguish between the complication of a given structure and the mode of execution of a plan, both of which are combined in what he calls degrees of perfection. And yet, without this distinction, the difference between classes and orders cannot be understood; for classes and orders rest upon a just appreciation of these two categories, which are quite distinct from each other, and have by no means the same significance. Again, quite distinct from both of these is the character of form, not to be confounded either with complication of structure, on which orders are based, or with the execution of the plan, on which classes rest. An example will show that form is no guide for the determination of classes or orders. Take, for instance, a Beche-de-Mer, a member of the highest class of Radiates, and compare it with a Worm. They are both long cylindrical bodies; but one has parallel divisions along the length of the body, the other has the body divided by transverse rings. Though in external form they resemble each other, the one is a worm-like Radiate, the other is a worm-like Articulate, each having the structure of its own type; so that they do not even belong to the same great division of the animal kingdom, much less to the same class. We have a similar instance in the Whales and Fishes,—the Whales having been for a long time considered as Fishes, on account of their form, while their structural complication shows them to be a low order of the class of Mammalia, to which we ourselves belong, that class being founded upon a particular mode of execution of the plan characteristic of the Vertebrates, while the order to which the Whales belong depends upon their complication of structure, as compared with other members of the same class. We may therefore say that neither form nor complication of structure distinguishes classes, but simply the mode of execution of a plan. In Vertebrates, for instance, how do we distinguish the class of Mammalia from the other classes of the type? By the peculiar development of the brain, by their breathing through lungs, by their double circulation, by their bringing forth living young and nursing them with milk. In this class the beasts of prey form a distinct order, superior to the Whales or the herbivorous animals, on account of the higher complication of their structure; and for the same reason we place the Monkeys above them all. But among the beasts of prey we distinguish the Bears, as a family, from the family of Dogs, Wolves, and Cats, on account of their different form, which does not imply a difference either in the complication of their structure or in the mode of execution of their plan.
* * * * *
AGNES OF SORRENTO.
The course of our story requires us to return to the Capuchin convent, and to the struggles and trials of its Superior; for in his hands is the irresistible authority which must direct the future life of Agnes.
From no guilty compliances, no heedless running into temptation, had he come to love her. The temptation had met him in the direct path of duty; the poison had been breathed in with the perfume of sweetest and most life-giving flowers: nor could he shun that temptation, nor cease to inhale that fatal sweetness, without confessing himself vanquished in a point where, in his view, to yield was to be lost. The subtle and deceitful visit of Father Johannes to his cell had the effect of thoroughly rousing him to a complete sense of his position, and making him feel the immediate, absolute necessity of bringing all the energy of his will, all the resources of his nature to bear on its present difficulties. For he felt, by a fine intuition, that already he was watched and suspected;—any faltering step now, any wavering, any change in his mode of treating his female penitents, would be maliciously noted. The military education of his early days had still left in his mind a strong residuum of personal courage and honor, which made him regard it as dastardly to flee when he ought to conquer, and therefore he set his face as a flint for victory.
But reviewing his interior world, and taking a survey of the work before him, he felt that sense of a divided personality which often becomes so vivid in the history of individuals of strong will and passion. It seemed to him that there were two men within him: the one turbulent, passionate, demented; the other vainly endeavoring by authority, reason, and conscience to bring the rebel to subjection. The discipline of conventual life, the extraordinary austerities to which he had condemned himself, the monotonous solitude of his existence, all tended to exalt the vivacity of the nervous system, which, in the Italian constitution, is at all times disproportionately developed; and when those weird harp-strings of the nerves are once thoroughly unstrung, the fury and tempest of the discord sometimes utterly bewilders the most practised self-government.
But he felt that something must be done with himself, and done immediately; for in a few days he must again meet Agnes at the confessional. He must meet her, not with weak tremblings and passionate fears, but calm as Fate, inexorable as the Judgment-Day. He must hear her confession, not as man, but as God; he must pronounce his judgments with a divine dispassionateness. He must dive into the recesses of her secret heart, and, following with subtile analysis all the fine courses of those fibres which were feeling their blind way towards an earthly love, must tear them remorselessly away. Well could he warn her of the insidiousness of earthly affections; better than any one else he could show her how a name that was blended with her prayers and borne before the sacred shrine in her most retired and solemn hours might at last come to fill all her heart with a presence too dangerously dear. He must direct her gaze up those mystical heights where an unearthly marriage awaited her, its sealed and spiritual bride; he must hurry her footsteps onward to the irrevocable issue.
All this was before him. But ere it could be done, he must subdue himself,—he must become calm and pulseless, in deadly resolve; and what prayer, what penance might avail for this? If all that he had already tried had so miserably failed, what hope? He resolved to quit for a season all human society, and enter upon one of those desolate periods of retreat from earthly converse well known in the annals of saintship as most prolific in spiritual victories.
Accordingly, on the day after the conversation with Father Johannes, he startled the monks by announcing to them that he was going to leave them for several days.
"My brothers," he said, "the weight of a fearful penance is laid upon me, which I must work out alone. I leave you today, and charge you not to seek to follow my footsteps; but, as you hope to escape hell, watch and wrestle for me and yourselves during the time I am gone. Before many days I hope to return to you with renewed spiritual strength."
That evening, while Agnes and her uncle were sitting together in their orange-garden, mingling their parting prayers and hymns, scenes of a very different description surrounded the Father Francesco.
One who looks on the flowery fields and blue seas of this enchanting region thinks that the Isles of the Blest could scarcely find on earth a more fitting image; nor can he realize, till experience proves it to him, that he is in the immediate vicinity of a weird and dreary region which might represent no less the goblin horrors of the damned.
Around the foot of Vesuvius lie fair villages and villas garlanded with roses and flushing with grapes whose juice gains warmth from the breathing of its subterraneous fires, while just above them rises a region more awful than can be created by the action of any common causes of sterility. There, immense tracts sloping gradually upward show a desolation so peculiar, so utterly unlike every common solitude of Nature, that one enters upon it with the shudder we give at that which is wholly unnatural. On all sides are gigantic serpent convolutions of black lava, their immense folds rolled into every conceivable contortion, as if, in their fiery agonies, they had struggled and wreathed and knotted together, and then grown cold and black with the imperishable signs of those terrific convulsions upon them. Not a blade of grass, not a flower, not even the hardiest lichen, springs up to relieve the utter deathliness of the scene. The eye wanders from one black, shapeless mass to another, and there is ever the same suggestion of hideous monster life,—of goblin convulsions and strange fiend-like agonies in some age gone by. One's very footsteps have an unnatural, metallic clink, and one's garments brushing over the rough surface are torn and fretted by its sharp, remorseless touch,—as if its very nature were so pitiless and acrid that the slightest contact revealed it.
The sun was just setting over the beautiful Bay of Naples,—with its enchanted islands, its jewelled city, its flowery villages, all bedecked and bedropped with strange shiftings and flushes of prismatic light and shade, as if they belonged to some fairy-land of perpetual festivity and singing,—when Father Francesco stopped in his toilsome ascent up the mountain, and, seating himself on ropy ridges of black lava, looked down on the peaceful landscape.
Above his head, behind him, rose the black cone of the mountain, over whose top the lazy clouds of thin white smoke were floating, tinged with the evening light; around him the desolate convulsed waste,—so arid, so supernaturally dreary; and below, like a soft enchanted dream, the beautiful bay, the gleaming white villas and towers, the picturesque islands, the gliding sails, flecked and streaked and dyed with the violet and pink and purple of the evening sky. The thin new moon and one glittering star trembled through the rosy air.
The monk wiped from his brow the sweat that had been caused by the toil of his hurried journey, and listened to the bells of the Ave Maria pealing from the different churches of Naples, filling the atmosphere with a soft tremble of solemn dropping sound, as if spirits in the air took up and repeated over and over the angelic salutation which a thousand earthly lips were just then uttering. Mechanically he joined in the invocation which at that moment united the hearts of all Christians, and as the words passed his lips, he thought, with a sad, desolate longing, of the hour of death of which they spake.
"It must come at last," he said. "Life is but a moment. Why am I so cowardly? why so unwilling to suffer and to struggle? Am I a warrior of the Lord, and do I shrink from the toils of the camp, and long for the ease of the court before I have earned it? Why do we clamor for happiness? Why should we sinners be happy? And yet, O God, why is the world made so lovely as it lies there, why so rejoicing, and so girt with splendor and beauty, if we are never to enjoy it? If penance and toil were all we were sent here for, why not make a world grim and desolate as this around me?—then there would be nothing to seduce us. But our path is a constant fight; Nature is made only to be resisted; we must walk the sharp blade of the sword over the fiery chasm to Paradise. Come, then!—no shrinking!—let me turn my back on everything dear and beautiful, as now on this landscape!"
He rose and commenced the perpendicular ascent of the cone, stumbling and climbing over the huge sliding blocks of broken lava, which grated and crunched beneath his feet with a harsh metallic ring. Sometimes a broken fragment or two would go tinkling down the rough path behind him, and sometimes it seemed as if the whole loose black mass from above were about to slide, like an avalanche, down upon his head;—he almost hoped it would. Sometimes he would stop, overcome by the toil of the ascent, and seat himself for a moment on a black fragment, and then his eye would wander over the wide and peaceful panorama below. He seemed to himself like a fly perched upon some little roughness of a perpendicular wall, and felt a strange airy sense of pleasure in being thus between earth and heaven. A sense of relief, of beauty, and peacefulness would steal over him, as if he were indeed something disfranchised and disembodied, a part of the harmonious and beautiful world that lay stretched out beneath him; in a moment more he would waken himself with a start, and resume his toilsome journey with a sullen and dogged perseverance.
At last he gained the top of the mountain,—that weird, strange region where the loose, hot soil, crumbling beneath his feet, was no honest foodful mother earth, but an acrid mass of ashes and corrosive minerals. Arsenic, sulphur, and many a sharp and bitter salt were in all he touched, every rift in the ground hissed with stifling steam, while rolling clouds of dun sullen smoke, and a deep hollow booming, like the roar of an immense furnace, told his nearness to the great crater. He penetrated the sombre tabernacle, and stood on the very brink of a huge basin, formed by a wall of rocks around a sunken plain, the midst of which rose the black cone of the subterraneous furnace, which crackled and roared and from time to time spit up burning stones and cinders or oozed out slow ropy streams of liquid fire.
The sulphurous cliffs were dyed in many a brilliant shade of brown and orange by the admixture of various ores, but their brightness seemed strange and unnatural, and the dizzying whirls of vapor, now enveloping the whole scene in gloom, now lifting in this spot and now in that, seemed to magnify the dismal pit to an indefinite size. Now and then there would come up from the very entrails of the mountain a sort of convulsed sob of hollow sound, and the earth would quiver beneath his feet, and fragments from the surrounding rocks would scale off and fall with crashing reverberations into the depth beneath; at such moments it would seem as if the very mountain were about to crush in and bear him down in its ruins.
Father Francesco, though blinded by the smoke and choked by the vapor, could not be content without descending into the abyss and exploring the very penetralia of its mysteries. Steadying his way by means of a cord which he fastened to a firm projecting rock, he began slowly and painfully clambering downward. The wind was sweeping across the chasm from behind, bearing the noxious vapors away from him, or he must inevitably have been stifled. It took him some little time, however, to effect his descent; but at length he found himself fairly landed on the dark floor of the gloomy inclosure.
The ropy, pitch-black undulations of lava yawned here and there in red-hot cracks and seams, making it appear to be only a crust over some fathomless depth of molten fire, whose moanings and boilings could be heard below. These dark congealed billows creaked and bent as the monk stepped upon them, and burned his feet through his coarse sandals; yet he stumbled on. Now and then his foot would crush in, where the lava had hardened in a thinner crust, and he would draw it suddenly back from the lurid red-hot metal beneath. The staff on which he rested was constantly kindling into a light blaze as it slipped into some heated hollow, and he was fain to beat out the fire upon the cooler surface. Still he went on half-stifled by the hot and pungent vapor, but drawn by that painful, unnatural curiosity which possesses one in a nightmare dream. The great cone in the centre was the point to which he wished to attain,—the nearest point which man can gain to this eternal mystery of fire. It was trembling with a perpetual vibration, a hollow, pulsating undertone of sound like the surging of the sea before a storm, and the lava that boiled over its sides rolled slowly down with a strange creaking; it seemed the condensed, intensified essence and expression of eternal fire, rising and still rising from some inexhaustible fountain of burning.
Father Francesco drew as near as he could for the stifling heat and vapor, and, resting on his staff, stood gazing intently. The lurid light of the fire fell with an unearthly glare on his pale, sunken features, his wild, haggard eyes, and his torn and disarranged garments. In the awful solitude and silence of the night he felt his heart stand still, as if indeed he had touched with his very hand the gates of eternal woe, and felt its fiery breath upon his cheek. He half-imagined that the seams and clefts which glowed in lurid lines between the dark billows would gape yet wider and show the blasting secrets of some world of fiery despair below. He fancied that he heard behind and around the mocking laugh of fiends, and that confused clamor of mingled shrieks and lamentations which Dante describes as filling the dusky approaches to that forlorn realm where hope never enters.
"Ah, God," he exclaimed, "for this vain life of man! They eat, they drink, they dance, they sing, they marry and are given in marriage, they have castles and gardens and villas, and the very beauty of Paradise seems over it all,—and yet how close by burns and roars the eternal fire! Fools that we are, to clamor for indulgence and happiness in this life, when the question is, to escape everlasting burnings! If I tremble at this outer court of God's wrath and justice, what must be the fires of hell? These are but earthly fires; they can but burn the body: those are made to burn the soul; they are undying as the soul is. What would it be to be dragged down, down, down, into an abyss of soul-fire hotter than this for ages on ages? This might bring merciful death in time: that will have no end."
The monk fell on his knees and breathed out piercing supplications. Every nerve and fibre within him seemed tense with his agony of prayer. It was not the outcry for purity and peace, not a tender longing for forgiveness, not a filial remorse for sin, but the nervous anguish of him who shrieks in the immediate apprehension of an unendurable torture. It was the cry of a man upon the rack, the despairing scream of him who feels himself sinking in a burning dwelling. Such anguish has found an utterance in Stradella's celebrated "Pieta, Signore," which still tells to our ears, in its wild moans and piteous shrieks, the religious conceptions of his day; for there is no phase of the Italian mind that has not found expression in its music.
When the oppression of the heat and sulphurous vapor became too dreadful to be borne, the monk retraced his way and climbed with difficulty up the steep sides of the crater, till he gained the summit above, where a comparatively free air revived him. All night he wandered up and down in that dreary vicinity, now listening to the mournful roar and crackle of the fire, and now raising his voice in penitential psalms or the notes of that terrific "Dies Irae" which sums up all the intense fear and horror with which the religion of the Middle Ages clothed the idea of the final catastrophe of humanity. Sometimes prostrating himself with his face towards the stifling soil, he prayed with agonized intensity till Nature would sink in a temporary collapse, and sleep, in spite of himself, would steal over him.
So waned the gloomy hours of the night away, till the morning broke in the east, turning all the blue wavering floor of the sea to crimson brightness, and bringing up, with the rising breeze, the barking of dogs, the lowing of kine, the songs of laborers and boatmen, all fresh and breezy from the repose of the past night.
Father Francesco heard the sound of approaching footsteps climbing the lava path, and started with a nervous trepidation. Soon he recognized a poor peasant of the vicinity, whose child he had tended during a dangerous illness. He bore with him a little basket of eggs, with a melon and a fresh green salad.
"Good morning, holy father," he said, bowing humbly. "I saw you coming this way last night, and I could hardly sleep for thinking of you; and my good woman, Teresina, would have it that I should come out to look after you. I have taken the liberty to bring a little offering;—it was the best we had."
"Thank you, my son," said the monk, looking wistfully at the fresh, honest face of the peasant. "You have taken too much trouble for such a sinner. I must not allow myself such indulgences."
"But your Reverence must live. Look you," said the peasant, "at least your Reverence will take an egg. See here, how handily I can cook one," he added, striking his stick into a little cavity of a rock, from which, as from an escape-valve, hissed a jet of hot steam,—"see here, I nestle the egg in this little cleft, and it will be done in a twinkling. Our good God gives us our fire for nothing here."
There was something wholesomely kindly and cheerful in the action and expression of the man, which broke upon the overstrained and disturbed musings of the monk like daylight on a ghastly dream. The honest, loving heart sees love in everything; even the fire is its fatherly helper, and not its avenging enemy.
Father Francesco took the egg, when it was done, with a silent gesture of thanks.
"If I might make bold to say," said the peasant, encouraged, "your Reverence should have some care for yourself. If a man will not feed himself, the good God will not feed him; and we poor people have too few friends already to let such as you die. Your hands are trembling, and you look worn out. Surely you should take something more, for the very love of the poor."
"My son, I am bound to do a heavy penance, and to work out a great conflict. I thank you for your undeserved kindness. Leave me now to myself, and come no more to disturb my prayers. Go, and God bless you!"
"Well," said the peasant, putting down the basket and melon, "I shall leave these things here, any way, and I beg your Reverence to have a care of yourself. Teresina fretted all night for fear something might come to you. The bambino that you cured is grown a stout little fellow, and eats enough for two,—and it is all of you; so she cannot forget it. She is a busy little woman, is Teresina; and when she gets a thought in her head, it buzzes, buzzes, like a fly in a bottle, and she will have it your Reverence is killing yourself by inches, and says she, 'What will all the poor do when he is gone?' So your Reverence must pardon us. We mean it all for the best."
So saying, the man turned and began sliding and slipping down the steep ashy sides of the mountain cone with a dexterity which carried him to the bottom in a few moments; and on he went, sending back after him a cheerful little air, the refrain of which is still to be heard in our days in that neighborhood. A word or two of the gay song fluttered back on the ear of the monk,—
"Tutta gieja, tutta festa."
So gay and airy it was in its ringing cadence that it seemed a musical laugh springing from sunny skies, and came fluttering into the dismal smoke and gloom of the mountain-top like a very butterfly of sound. It struck on the sad, leaden ear of the monk much as we might fancy the carol of a robin over a grave might seem, could the cold sleeper below wake one moment to its perception. If it woke one regretful sigh and drew one wandering look downward to the elysian paradise that lay smiling at the foot of the mountain, he instantly suppressed the feeling, and set his face in its old deathly stillness.
After the departure of her uncle to Florence, the life of Agnes was troubled and harassed from a variety of causes.
First, her grandmother was sulky and moody, and though saying nothing directly on the topic nearest her heart, yet intimating by every look and action that she considered Agnes as a most ungrateful and contumacious child. Then there was a constant internal perplexity,—a constant wearying course of self-interrogation and self-distrust, the pain of a sensitive spirit which doubts at every moment whether it may not be falling into sin. The absence of her kind uncle at this time took from her the strongest support on which she had leaned in her perplexities. Cheerful, airy, and elastic in his temperament, always full of fresh-springing and beautiful thoughts, as an Italian dell is of flowers, the charming old man seemed, while he stayed with Agnes, to be the door of a new and fairer world, where she could walk in air and sunshine, and find utterance for a thousand thoughts and feelings which at all other times lay in cold repression in her heart. His counsels were always so wholesome, his sympathies so quick, his devotion so fervent and cheerful, that while with him Agnes felt the burden of her life insensibly lifted and carried for her as by some angel guide.
Now they had all come back upon her, heavier a thousand-fold than ever they had been before. Never did she so much need counsel and guidance,—never had she so much within herself to be solved and made plain to her own comprehension; yet she thought with a strange shiver of her next visit to her confessor. That austere man, so chilling, so awful, so far above all conception of human weaknesses, how should she dare to lay before him all the secrets of her breast, especially when she must confess to having disobeyed his most stringent commands? She had had another interview with this forbidden son of perdition, but how it was she knew not. How could such things have happened? Instead of shutting her eyes and turning her head and saying prayers, she had listened to a passionate declaration of love, and his last word had called her his wife. Her heart thrilled every time she thought of it; and somehow she could not feel sure that it was exactly a thrill of penitence. It was all like a strange dream to her; and sometimes she looked at her little brown hands and wondered if he really had kissed them,—he, the splendid strange vision of a man, the prince from fairyland! Agnes had never read romances, it is true, but she had been brought up on the legends of the saints, and there never was a marvel possible to human conception that had not been told there. Princes had come from China and Barbary and Abyssinia and every other strange out-of-the-way place, to kneel at the feet of fair, obdurate saints who would not even turn the head to look at them; but she had acted, she was conscious, after a much more mortal fashion, and so made herself work for confession and penance. Yet certainly she had not meant to do so; the interview came on her so suddenly, so unexpectedly; and somehow he would speak, and he would not go when she asked him to; and she remembered how he looked when he stood right before her in the doorway and told her she should hear him,—how the color flushed up in his cheeks, what a fire there was in his great dark eyes; he looked as if he were going to do something desperate then; it made her hold her breath even now to think of it.
"These princes and nobles," she thought, "are so used to command, it is no wonder they make us feel as if they must have their will. I have heard grandmother call them wolves and vultures, that are ready to tear us poor folk to pieces; but I am sure he seems gentle. I'm sure it isn't wicked or cruel for him to want to make me his wife; and he couldn't know, of course, why it wasn't right he should; and it really is beautiful of him to love me so. Oh, if I were only a princess, and he loved me that way, how glad I should be to give up everything and go to him alone! And then we would pray together; and I really think that would be much better than praying all alone. He said men had so much more to tempt them. Ah, that is true! How can little moles that grub in the ground know of the dangers of eagles that fly to the very sun? Holy Mother, look mercifully upon him and save his soul!"
Such were the thoughts of Agnes the day when she was preparing for her confession; and all the way to church she found them floating and dissolving and reappearing in new forms in her mind, like the silvery smoke-clouds which were constantly veering and sailing over Vesuvius.
Only one thing was firm and never changing, and that was the purpose to reveal everything to her spiritual director. When she kneeled at the confessional with closed eyes, and began her whispered acknowledgments, she tried to feel as if she were speaking in the ear of God alone,—that God whose spirit she was taught to believe, for the time being, was present in His minister before whom her inmost heart was to be unveiled.
He who sat within had just returned from his lonely retreat with his mind and nerves in a state of unnatural tension,—a sort of ecstatic clearness and calmness, which he mistook for victory and peace. During those lonely days when he had wandered afar from human converse, and was surrounded only by objects of desolation and gloom, he had passed through as many phases of strange, unnatural experience as there were flitting smoke-wreaths eddying about him.
There are depths in man's nature and his possibilities which no plummet has ever sounded,—the wild, lonely joys of fanatical excitement, the perfectly ravenous appetite for self-torture, which seems able, in time, to reverse the whole human system, and make a heaven of hell. How else can we understand the facts related both in Hindoo and in Christian story, of those men and women who have found such strange raptures in slow tortures, prolonged from year to year, till pain became a habit of body and mind? It is said, that, after the tortures of the rack, the reaction of the overstrained nerves produces a sense of the most exquisite relief and repose; and so when mind and body are harrowed, harassed to the very outer verge of endurance, come wild throbbings and transports, and strange celestial clairvoyance, which the mystic hails as the descent of the New Jerusalem into his soul.
It had seemed to Father Francesco, when he came down from the mountain, that he had left his body behind him,—that he had left earth and earthly things; his very feet touching the ground seemed to tread not on rough, resisting soil, but upon elastic cloud. He saw a strange excess of beauty in every flower, in every leaf, in the wavering blue of the sea, in the red grottoed rocks that overhung the shore, with their purple, green, orange, and yellow hangings of flower-and-leaf-tapestry. The songs of the fishermen on the beach, the peasant-girls cutting flowery fodder for the cattle, all seemed to him to have an unnatural charm. As one looking through a prism sees a fine bordering of rainbow on every object, so he beheld a glorified world. His former self seemed to him something forever past and gone. He looked at himself as at another person, who had sinned and suffered, and was now resting in beatified repose; and he fondly thought all this was firm reality, and believed that he was now proof against all earthly impressions, able to hear and to judge with the dispassionate calmness of a disembodied spirit. He did not know that this high-strung calmness, this fine clearness, were only the most intense form of nervous sensibility, and as vividly susceptible to every mortal impression as is the vitalized chemical plate to the least action of the sun's rays.
When Agnes began her confession, her voice seemed to him to pass through every nerve; it seemed as if he could feel her presence thrilling through the very wood of the confessional. He was astonished and dismayed at his own emotion. But when she began to speak of the interview with the cavalier, he trembled from head to foot with uncontrollable passion. Nature long repressed came back in a tempestuous reaction. He crossed himself again and again, he tried to pray, and blessed those protecting shadows which concealed his emotion from the unconscious one by his side. But he set his teeth in deadly resolve, and his voice, as he questioned her, came forth cutting and cold as ice crystals.
"Why did you listen to a word?"
"My father, it was so sudden. He wakened me from sleep. I answered him before I thought."
"You should not have been sleeping. It was a sinful indolence."
"Yes, my father."
"See now to what it led. The enemy of your soul, ever watching, seized this moment to tempt you."
"Yes, my father."
"Examine your soul well," said Father Francesco, in a tone of austere severity that made Agnes tremble. "Did you not find a secret pleasure in his words?"
"My father, I fear I did," said she, with a trembling voice.
"I knew it! I knew it!" the priest muttered to himself, while the great drops started on his forehead, in the intensity of the conflict he repressed. Agnes thought the solemn pause that followed was caused by the horror that had been inspired by her own sinfulness.