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Concerning Animals and Other Matters by E.H. Aitken, (AKA Edward Hamilton)

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[Illustration: Portrait of "EHA."]












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

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

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

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.

[Illustration: GOOD FOR ANY ROUGH JOB]

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

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

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

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.

[Illustration: A SHREW CAN DO IT, BUT NOT A MAN.]

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

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

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.

[Illustration: THE LONG-NOSED MONKEY.]


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

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."

Darwin says nothing about the nose, but I believe that, by physiological
sympathy, it cannot but take part in the habitual downward look upon
inferior beings. Darwin goes on to say that, "The whole expression of
pride stands in direct antithesis to that of humility"; from which it
follows, if my philosophy is sound, that the nose of Uriah Heep was
turned upwards.

Of course, many emotions may share in the moulding of a nose, and the
whole subject is too intricate and vast to be treated briefly. I have
only given a few examples to illustrate my argument, and my conclusion
is that the key to the peculiar significance and personal quality of the
nose is to be found in its _immobility_. The eyes and lips are
incessantly in motion, we can twitch and wrinkle the cheeks and
forehead, and muscles to move the ears are there, though most men have
lost control of them. But the nose stands out like some bold promontory
on a level coast, or like the Sphinx in the Egyptian desert, with an
ancient history, no doubt, and a mystery perhaps, but without response
to any appeal. And for this very reason it is an index, not to that
which is transient in the man, but to that which is permanent. He may
knit his brows to seem thoughtful and profound, or compress his lips to
persuade his friends and himself that he has a strong will, but he can
play no trick with his nose. There it stands, an incorruptible witness,
testifying to what he is, and not only to what he is, but to the rock
whence he was hewn and to the pit whence he was digged. For his nose is
a bequest from his ancestors, an entailed estate which he cannot



Men and women have ears, and so have jugs and pitchers. In the latter
case they are useful: jugs and pitchers are lifted by them. And what is
useful is fit, and fitness is the first condition of beauty. But human
ears are put to no use, except sometimes when naughty little boys are
lifted by them in the way of discipline; and I can see no beauty in
them. It is only because they are so common that we do not notice how
ridiculous they are. In the days of Charles I. men sometimes had their
ears cut off for holding wrong opinions, which would have made them
famous and popular in these enlightened days, but at that time it made
all right-thinking people despise them, so the fashion of going without
ears did not spread among us. If it had, then how differently we should
all think of the matter now! If we were all accustomed to neat, round
heads at drawing-rooms, levees and balls, how repulsive it Would be to
see a well-dressed man with two ridiculous, wrinkled appendages sticking
out from the sides of his face!

In saying this I am not drawing on my fancy, but on my memory. I can
recollect the time when no gentleman, still less any lady, would have
owned a terrier with its ears on. And why go back so far? The same
sentiment is prevalent in good society with respect to men's beards in
this year of grace and smooth faces. Yet, if one chance to be looking at
a Rembrandt instead of at society, what an infinitely handsomer adjunct
to a noble face is a fine beard than a pair of ears!

When woman first looked at her face in a polished saucepan, she was at
once struck with the comicality of those things, and bethought herself
what to do with them. She decided to use them for pegs to hang ornaments
on. The improvement excited the admiration of her husband and the envy
of her rivals to such a degree that all other women of taste in her
tribe did the same, and from that day to this, in almost every country
in the world, it has been accounted a shame for any respectable woman to
show her face in public in the hideousness of naked ears. This discovery
of its capabilities gave a new value to the ear, and a large, roomy one
became an asset in the marriage market. I have seen a pretty little
damsel of Sind with fourteen jingling silver things hanging at regular
intervals from the outside edge of each ear. If Nature had been
niggardly, the lobe at least could be enlarged by boring it and
thrusting in a small wooden peg, then a larger one, and so on until it
could hold an ivory wheel as large as a quoit, and hung down to the

But Nature surely did not intend the ear for this purpose. Then what
did she intend? A popular error is that the ears are given to hear with,
but the ears cannot hear. The hearing is done by a box of assorted
instruments (_malleus, incus, stapes_, etc.) hidden in a burrow which
has its entrance inside of the ear. If you argue that the ears are
intended to catch sounds and direct them down to the hearing instrument,
then explain their absurd shape. They are useless. A man who wants to
hear distinctly puts his hand to his ear. And why do they not turn to
meet the sounds that come from different quarters? They are absolutely
immovable, and therefore also expressionless. A savage expresses his
mind with all the rest of his face; he smiles and grins and pouts and
frowns, but his ears stand like gravestones with the inscriptions
effaced. How different is the case when you turn from man to the
"irrational" animals! The eyes of a fawn are lustrous and beautiful, but
they would be as meaningless as polished stones without the eloquent
ears that stand behind them and tell her thoughts. Curiosity, suspicion,
alarm, anger, submission, friendliness, every emotion that flits across
her quick, sensitive mind speaks through them. They are in touch with
her soul, and half the music of her life is played on them. And if you
abstract yourself from individuals and look at that thing, the ear, in
the wide field of life, what a great, living reality it is!--a spiritual
unity under infinite diversity of material form and fashion. It is like
the telegraph wire overhead, the commonest and plainest of material
things, but charged with the silent and invisible currents of the life
of the world.

"Let my heart be still a moment and this mystery explore."


Birds have no ears, nor have crocodiles, nor frogs, nor snakes. Ears
seem to be for beasts only. And not for all beasts. Seals are divided by
naturalists into two great families--those with ears, and those without.
The common seal belongs to the latter class, and the sea-lion to the
former. A common seal lives in the sea, and when it does wriggle up on
the beach of an iceberg there is nothing to hear, I suppose, or perhaps
when it wants to listen it raises a flipper to its ear. I never saw one
doing so, but we do not see everything that happens in the world. The
sea-lion, with its stouter limbs, can lift its forepart, raise its head
and look about it, and even flop about the ice-fields at a respectable
rate. And there is no doubt that one of these is as much above an
earless seal as fifty years of Europe are better than a cycle of Cathay.
When performing seals are exhibited at a circus sitting on chairs,
catching balls on the points of their noses and playing diabolo with
them, or balancing billiard cues on their snouts, and doing other
miraculous things, they are always sea-lions, not common seals. Of
course, I do not mean to insinuate that sea-lions invented the ear and
stuck it on: that would be unscientific; but I mean that their general
intelligence and interest in affairs created that demand for more
distinct hearing which led to the development of an ear trumpet. This
view is wholly scientific, though pedants may quarrel with my way of
putting it.

The sea-lion's ears are very minute, mere apologies one might think; but
don't be hasty. The finny prey of the sea-lion makes no sound as it
skims through the water; and perhaps the padded foot of that stealthy
garrotter, the Polar bear, makes as little on the smooth ice; for
catching the one and not being caught by the other the sea-lion must
trust to the keenness of its great goggle eyes. But it is a social
beast, and it wants to catch the bellowing of its fellows far across
the foggy waste of ice-floes; and that little leather scoop standing
behind the ear-hole seems to be just the instrument required to catch
and send down those sounds which would otherwise glance off the glossy
fur and never find entrance to the tiny orifice at all. If it were any
larger than is absolutely necessary it would be a serious impediment to
a professional diver and swimmer like the sea-lion. This is the reason
why otters have very small ears, and why whales and porpoises have none
at all.

But when a beast lives on land the conditions are all altered, and then
the ear blossoms out into an infinite variety of forms and sizes, from
each of which the true naturalist may divine the manner of life of its
wearer as surely as the palmist tells your past, present and future from
the lines on your hand. First, he will divide all beasts into those that
pursue and those that flee, oppressors and oppressed. The former point
their ears forwards, but the latter backwards. There may be a good deal
of free play in both cases, but I am thinking of the habitual position.
When a cat is making its felonious way along the garden wall, wrapped in
thoughts of blackbirds and thrushes, its ears look straight forwards,
and this is the way in which a cat's portrait is always taken, because
it is characteristic, It cannot turn them round to catch sounds from
behind, and would scorn to do so; when accosted from behind, it turns
its head and looks danger in the face. It can fold them down backwards
when the danger is a terrier and the decks are cleared for action, but
that is another story. Contrast Brer Rabbit as he comes "lopin' up de
big road," His ears are turning every way scouting for danger, not
always in unison, but independently; but when he is at rest they are set
to alarm from the flank and rear.


But when he "tear out the house like the dogs wuz atter him," then they
point straight back. He was made to be eaten, and he knows it. So it is
with the whole tribe of deer, and even with the horse, pampered and
cared for and unacquainted with danger; his ears are a weathercock
registering the drift of all his petty hopes and fears. I see the left
ear go forward and prepare for a desperate shy at that wheelbarrow. He
knows a wheelbarrow familiarly--there is one in his stall all day--but I
am taking him a road he does not want to go, and so the hypocrite is
going to pretend that barrow is of a dangerous sort. I prepare to apply
a counter-irritant: he sees it with the corner of his eye, and both ears
turn back like a tuning-fork.

The size and quality of the ear serve to show how far the owner depends
on it. You will never begin to understand Nature until you see clearly
that every life is dominated by two supreme anxieties which push aside
all other concerns--viz., to eat, and not to be eaten. The one is
uppermost in those that pursue, and the other in those that flee. Now if
the pursuer fails he loses a dinner, but if the fugitive fails he loses
his life, from which it follows that the very best sort of ears will be
found among those beasts that do not ravage but run.

But there is another matter to be taken into account. The ears are not
the whole of the beast's outfit. It has eyes, and it has a nose. Which
of the three it most relies on depends upon the manner of its life. A
bird lives in trees or the air, looking down at the prowling cat or up
at the hawk hovering in the clear sky; so it does not keep ears, and its
nose is of no account. But what four-footed thing can see like a bird?
The squirrel also lives in the trees, and its ears are frivolously
decorated with tufts of hair. You will not find many beasts that can
afford to prostitute their ears to ornamental purposes. The only other
beast that I can think of at this moment which has tufted ears is the
lynx. Now the lynx is a tree cat, and there is proverbial wisdom in the
saying "Eyes like a lynx."


But go to the timid beasts that spend their lives on the ground among
grass and brushwood and woods and coppices, where murderous foes are
prowling unseen, and you will see ears indeed--expansive, tremulous,
turning lightly on well-oiled pivots, and catching, like large
sea-shells, the mingled murmur of rustling leaves and snapping twigs and
chirping insects and falling seeds, and the slight, occasional, abrupt,
fateful sound which is none of these. It is impossible, no doubt, for us
ever to think ourselves into the life which these beasts live--moving,
thinking and sleeping in a circumambient atmosphere of never-ceasing
sound; sitting, as it were, at the receiving station of a system of
wireless telegraphy, and catching cross-currents of floating
intelligence from all quarters, mostly undiscernible by us if we
listened for it, but which they, by long practice, instantly locate and
interpret without conscious effort.

The zoologist classifies them under many heads. The field mouse and
rabbits are rodentia, the deer ungulata, the kangaroos marsupialia. In
my museum they are all one family, and their labels are their ears. In
these days of international conferences, parliaments of religion,
pan-everything-in-turn councils, might we not arrange for a great
catholic congress of distinguished ears? What a glow of new life it
would shed upon our straitened, traditional ways of thinking about the
social problems of our humble fellow-creatures! I would exclude the
eared owls, whose ears are a mere sport of fashion, like the hideous
imitations of birds' wings which ladies stick on their hats.

But just when this peep into the rare show of Nature is lifting my soul
into sublimity, I am brought down to the base earth again by an
exception. This is the plague of all high science. You design a stately
theory, collect from many quarters a wealth of facts to establish it
with, and have arranged them with cumulative and irresistible force,
when some disgusting, uninvited case thrusts itself in on your notice
and refuses to fit into your argument at all. In this instance it is
"my lord the elephant." That he has no need to concern himself about any
bloodthirsty beast that may be lurking in the jungle is not more obvious
than that his ears are the biggest in the world. Now there are two ways
of getting rid of an obstruction of this kind. One is to betake yourself
to your thinking chair and pipe and to rake up the possibilities of the
Pleiocene and Meiocene ages, and prove that when the immense ear of the
elephant was evolved there must have been some carnivorous monster, some
sabre-toothed tiger or cave bear, which preyed on elephants.

The other way is to get acquainted with the elephant, cultivate an
intimacy with him, and find out what his ears are to him. I prefer the
second way. I would patiently watch him as he stands drowsily under an
umbrageous banian tree on a sultry day before the monsoon has burst and
refreshed earth and air. So might I note that his ears are incessantly
moving, but not turning this way and that to catch sounds--just
flapping, flapping, as if to cool his great temples. So have I seen the
gigantic fruit bats, called flying foxes in India, hanging in hundreds
in the upper branches of a tall peepul tree at noon, feeling too hot to
sleep, and all fanning themselves in unison with one wing--a comic
spectacle. And at each flap of the elephant's ears I would observe that
a cloud of flies (for the elephant is not too great to be pestered by
the despicable hordes of beggars for blood) were dislodged from their
feeding grounds about his head and neck, and, trying to settle about his
rear parts, were driven back again by the swinging of his tail. Then I
should say that ear is just a fan. How significant it is that among the
emblems of royalty in the East the three chiefest are an
umbrella-bearer, two men who stand behind and swing great punkahs
modelled on the elephant's ear, and two others carrying yak's tails
wherewith to scare the flies from the royal person! The elephant is a

There is another mysterious ear which is a stumbling-block to the simple
theory-monger. It is in fashion among a tribe of bats to which belongs
the so-called vampire of India. This monster is fond of coming into your
bedroom at midnight through the open windows, but not to suck your
blood, for it has little in common with the true vampire of South
America. It brings its dinner with it and hangs from the ceiling,
"feeding like horses when you hear them feed." You hear its jaws
working--crunch, crunch, crunch, but feel too drowsy to get up and expel

When you get up in the morning there on your clean dressing table, just
below the place where it hung, are the bloody remains of a sparrow, or
the crumbs of a tree-frog. The servants will tell you that the sparrow
was killed and eaten by a rat, but if you rise softly next night when
you hear the sound of feeding, and shut the windows, you will find a
goblin hanging from the ceiling in the morning, hideous beyond the
power of words to tell. Its ears, thin, membranous and longer than its
head, tremble incessantly. Inside of them is another pair, much smaller
than the first, and tuned to their octave, I should guess, while two
membranous smelling trumpets of similar pattern rise over the nose. What
is the meaning of these repulsive instruments, and how does that strange
beast catch sparrows? When it comes out after dark and quarters the
garden, passing swiftly under and through the branches of trees, they
are sound asleep hidden among the leaves, motionless and silent. But
their flesh may be scented, and their gentle breathing heard if you have
instruments sufficiently delicate. Then the ample wings may suddenly
enfold the sleeping body, and the savage jaws grip the startled head
before there is time even to scream. Without a doubt this is the secret
of the vampire bat's ears.

But to find food and flee death are not the only interests in life even
to the meanest creature. There are social pleasures, family affections
and fellowship, sympathy and co-operation in the struggles of life. And
there is love.

Omne adeo genus in terris hominumque ferarumque,
Et genus aequoreum, pecudes, pictaeque volucres,
In furias ignemque ruunt: amor omnibus idem.

The chirping of the cricket, the song of the lark, the call of the
sentinel crane, the watchword with which the migratory geese keep their
squadrons together, the howling of jackals, the lowing of cows, the hum
of the hive, the chatter of the drawing-room, and a hundred other voices
in forest and field and town remind us that the voice and the ear are
the pair of wheels on which society runs.

And this thought points the way out of another contradictious puzzle,
that which confronts my argument from the ears of an ass. It roams
treeless deserts where no foe can approach unseen. Thistles make no
sound. Why should it be adorned with ears which in their amplitude are
scarcely surpassed by those of the rabbit and the hare. There is no
answer unless their function is to hear the bray of a fellow-ass.... One
may object that that majestic sound is surely of force to impress itself
without any aid from an external ear; but that is a vain argument built
on the costermonger's moke--dreary exile from its fatherland. Remember
that its ancestors wandered on the steppes of Central Asia or the
borders of the Sahara. In those boundless solitudes, with nothing that
eye can see or that common ear can hear to remind her that she is not
the sole inhabitant of the universe, the wild ass "snuffeth up the wind
in her desire," and lifting her windsails to the hot blast, hears, borne
across miles of white sand and shimmering mirage, the joyful
reverberations of that music which tells of old comrades and boon
companions scouring the plain and kicking up their exultant heels.

Monkeys taking to trees were like the birds, they scarcely needed ears.
And so by the high road of evolution you arrive at man and the enigma of
his ear. It is a shrunken and shrivelled remnant, a moss-grown ruin, a
derelict ship. It is to a pattern ear what the old shoe which you find
in a country lane, shed from the foot of some "unemployed," is to one of
Waukenphast's "five-miles-an-hour-easy" boots. We ought to temper our
contempt for what it is with respect for what it was. All the parts of
it are there and recognisable, even to the muscles that should move it,
but we have lost control of them. I believe anyone could regain that by
persevering exercise of his will power for a time--that is, if he has
any. I have a friend who, if you treat him with disrespect, shrivels you
up with a sarcastic wag of his right ear.

The ears of dogs open up another vista for the questioning philosopher.
Their day is past, too, and man may cut them short to match his own, but
the dog grows them longer than before. When he first took service with
man, and grew careless and lazy, the muscles got slack and the ears
dropped, which is in accordance with Nature. Then, instead of being
allowed to wither away, they have been handed over to the milliner and
shaped and trimmed in harmony with the "style" of each breed of dogs.

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