Part 3 out of 6
carry after all, and you may toss it about as you please, without
deserving much credit for the effort.
"What are you telling me?" you inquire. "If I put a stone on the top
of my head, I can feel its weight easily enough; but if I put my hand
on the top of the stone I no longer feel anything. How can the air
below the stone press against it? And talking of columns--how pleasant
it would be, for instance, if the people who go up the Monument were
to have the weight of it on their heads when they get to the top!"
Well said, little one. And your objection reminds me of an argument
which distracted my head as a lad, when I first heard the pressure of
air explained by a good fellow who did not trouble himself to be quite
as exact as you and I are in our discussions. I was told that the
surface of the body, or the skin of a large man, measured sixteen feet
square, which is equal to the surface of a table four feet long and
four broad. Now, you know that in four feet there are forty-eight
inches, and on the surface of the table are forty-eight rows, with
forty-eight inches in each, or 2,304 square inches; so that a man's
surface is 2,304 square inches, and the weight his body supports is
34,560 lbs., or upwards of fifteen tons--always at the rate of fifteen
pounds to every square inch, you understand. Now, I was constantly
asking myself how it happened that in entering a house one never seemed
to get rid of this almost fabulous weight, since the roof of the house
must naturally interpose itself between the air-column of forty miles
high and the man who would then only have some few feet of air above
his head. The roof would support the rest, that was clear. From whence,
then, came the 34,560 lbs. which seemed to weigh as heavily as before;
since, whether on the threshold of the door, while still under shelter
of the roof, or two steps outside in the open air, under the tremendous
column forty miles high, one never felt a bit lighter, not even to the
extent of the weight of a single sheet of paper? This was a difficulty
from which I could never extricate myself.
I found out the answer to the riddle afterwards, and a very simple one
Air does not, in point of fact, _weigh down_ like a solid fifty
pounds' weight, which has no impulse but to descend, and has nothing
to do with anything above it. It _presses against_ rather, like
a spring, which, having been compressed, tries to resume its natural
position with a force equal to that which holds it back. Ask some one
to show you the spring of a watch, and you will understand this better.
Each atom of air is a spring of matchless elasticity, which nothing
can break, which never wears out, which one can always compress, if
one employs force sufficient, and which is always ready to expand
indefinitely, in proportion as the compressing power is withdrawn.
Now, consider the column of air outside the door, where there is a
pile of such springs forty miles high. The lower ones have to bear up
all their comrades, which press upon them with their united weight,
and these make desperate efforts to repulse the tremendous pressure,
and to spread out in their turn. They endeavor to escape in every
direction--to the right, to the left, above, below; but caught between
the earth, which will not give way, and the compact mass of all the
columns of air which surrounds the earth in every direction, and of
which the lower part is equally compressed everywhere, they struggle
unceasingly, but in vain; indefatigable, but powerless. You live in
the midst of those little wrestlers, and naturally bear the punishment
of the injury done to them. They press against you as against every
thing else--before, behind, on all sides--with a force equal to thatwith
which they are themselves compressed, or I would say, equal to
the weight by which they are so horribly squeezed and contracted: so
that, in fact, you bear this weight not only on your head and shoulders,
as you might at first suppose, but also all along your body and limbs,
under your arms, under your chin, in the hollow of your nostrils,
Now we will suppose you to enter the house; and what do you find there?
Outer air, which on its part has got in by the door, the window, and
every little crevice in the wall. The column outside the roof no longer
presses upon it, but what is the gain of that?
It was compressed when it got in, and the little springs will struggle
as a matter of course, quite as much on this side of the door as on
the other. The protecting roof has so little power that were it not
itself protected by the air outside, the pressure of which keeps it
in its place, the air within would shiver it into a thousand fragments
in its efforts to get loose.
You laugh; but wait till I explain myself further. I will take the
case of a miniature house to make the matter pleasanter to you; one
fifteen feet long, fifteen feet wide, and with a flat roof, the most
economical plan as regards space. Fifteen feet are five yards, and as
the multiplication table tells us that five times five make twenty-five,
our roof will in this case be twenty-five square yards (_i. e._
225 square feet) in superficial extent, or _area_; it is not much,
and you will find few as small.
Would you like to calculate the force with which the millions and
thousand millions of little spring imps imprisoned under that poor
unfortunate roof would press against it? We settled before that the
quantity of them brought to bear upon a square inch had the power to
push at the rate of fifteen pounds. Were they to push against a square
yard (a surface 1296 times greater than the square inch) it would
therefore be 19,440 lbs. This being so for one square yard, calculate
for twenty-five square yards, and you will have the amount of pressure
against our roof--viz. 486,000 lbs--merely that! And now tell me what
cottage roof in the world was ever built so as to be able to stand
against such a weight?
Perhaps though, you can scarcely appreciate the amount of heaviness,
486,000 lbs. Well, 486,000 lbs. is nearly 217 tons; and one of those
railway trucks that you see laden with coals at the stations can carry,
perhaps, from eight to ten tons, without breaking down. Say ten tons
as an outside estimate, and then think of piling the contents of
twenty-one such trucks on your roof, and yet you would still be short
of the weight of air which is bearing down upon it. I need scarcely
say now that were you to take away the air from within the roof, theair
without would smash both it and the whole cottage flat, as a giant
at a fair strikes an egg flat with one blow of his fist. To show you
how in another way: take a moderate sized column or pillar, such as
you see sometimes in a nobleman's grounds, of about the weight of the
twenty-one tons, and set it up like a chimney on the roof of our
cottage, then walk away to a little distance and watch what will happen!
There, little Miss Laugher! have you at last learned to value the
weight of the air, or _atmospheric pressure_ as it is more properly
called; since it is the force with which the atmosphere presses against
rather than weighs upon everything on the surface of the globe? It is
no joke, as you perceive, and it affords plenty of subject
forreflection. I have still to prove to you that I have not been making
fun of you with my calculations, and that the weight of air upon a
square inch is really what I have said--viz., fifteen pounds.
Now, there is a very simple way by which we might get to know your
strength, and tell its amount in figures, if one chose; namely, by
putting a weight on your arms--a heap of books, if you please--and
keep adding and adding to it, until those poor little arms were unable
to bear any more. Then weighing what they had borne, whether we should
find it to be ten or thirty pounds--I cannot guess how much it might
be at this distance--one might safely say, without fear of mistake,
"The strength of this young lady is equal to ten, twenty, or thirty
pounds"--in other words, "she represents a weight of ten, twenty, or
thirty pounds" and by a similar plan people have ascertained the
strength of the air--that is, the weight which it represents. They
have weighed what it is capable of carrying.
I told you lately that the whole surface of the earth was covered by
an immense army of little imps--otherwise called little air-springs,
which, compressed by the giant mass of their comrades above, all of
whom they have to carry on their backs, are always trying to protect
themselves, by pushing back everything which comes across them. Imagine
the bottom of a well. Our imps are permanently installed there as a
matter of course, and face to face with the water they push against
it, each one doing his best, on all points at once. As the pressure
is equal everywhere therefore, and always the same, there are no signs
of it to be seen.
Now insert in the water the end of a tube closed below by a cork which
exactly fits the interior, but which can be moved up and down in the
tube by means of a bar of iron or wood which runs through it. This is
called a _piston_, I may as well tell you as we go on.
When the piston rises in the tube, it drives before it, as it goes,
the air which was already there; and which cannot slip away down the
sides because the piston fits so closely to them all the way along.
The result of this is, that just underneath the piston there is a place
in the water to which the air cannot reach, and at that place the water
has no pressure upon it at all.
Now see what happens. Pressed upon heavily by the air in every other
part and place, like a mouse hunted by a cat, who finds at last a hole
through which to escape, the poor water darts at this and ascends the
tube close after the piston.
So far so good; but if the tube is very long, and the piston rises
rather high;--at thirty-three or thirty-four feet above the level of
the water it has to continue its ascent alone. The water parts company,
stopping quietly behind, half-way up the tube.
"What is the meaning of this?" you will ask.
It means that the force which presses on the well-water all round the
tube, and thus drives it up, has done all it can, and that our little
air-imps refuse to supply any more. The water which rises in the tube
has a weight of its own of course, and with this weight it presses,
as it is fair it should, on the water below. In proportion as the
piston rises, the column of water which follows it gets bigger and
bigger, and naturally its weight increases at the same time. At last
there comes a moment when this weight becomes such that its pressure
on the water below is equal to that with which the air-imps are pressing
on the water in the well. Thenceforth they may push as they please;
no more water will go up. They are in the same position now that they
were before, when their comrades (afterwards driven out by the piston)
were pressing upon the same point, which had only a moment's freedom;
and this water column of thirty-three or thirty-four feet holds them
in check, to exactly the same extent as the gay fellows whose place
it has taken.
Nothing is easier now than to calculate, even to a few grains almost,
the force of the pressure of air. One can get at the weight of water,
thank goodness! and it has been ascertained that our water-column will
weigh fifteen pounds if the tube is a square inch in size. You will
comprehend after this that it might be any size you may please to
imagine, without there being the slightest alteration in the height
of the column. The larger it is, the heavier will be the column of
water on the one hand; but on the other, the greater will be the number
of air-imps turned out; so it comes to the same thing in the end.
If you should feel any doubt about the correctness of this reasoning,
you have only to try the experiment over again, in a well, filled with
mercury for instance. Ask to be shown some pure mercury, which is also
called _Quicksilver_, because one wants to express melted silver,
apt to be constantly on the move; it is often to be met with in houses.
Mercury weighs thirteen and a half times more than water: according
to our calculations, therefore, it would take thirteen and a half times
less of it than of water to bring our little air-imps to reason. And
this is just what you will find happens; you will see the column of
mercury stop short exactly at the moment when it has attained the
orthodox weight of fifteen pounds; that is to say, at a height of
On the other hand, take some ether. You know that delicate spirit,
which smells so strong, which makes your hand feel cold if it is put
upon it, and which we give to sick people to inhale. Ether weighs
one-quarter less than water. In a well of ether you would therefore
see something quite different, and your column would rise without being
asked, to something like forty-three feet, exactly up to the point of
weighing--like the others--fifteen pounds to every square inch. Air
will not be replaced with less.
That, then, is the measure of its strength, or our scales are deceitful.
THE ACTION OF THE LUNGS.
I hope I have told you enough, my dear child, to enable you fully to
estimate the force with which air presses upon everything on the surface
of the earth, and consequently upon our own bodies among the rest.
If you understand this, nothing is easier than to understand how air
comes and goes in our lungs.
When the cook wants to light her fire with two or three hot coals,
what does she do?
She takes the bellows and blows it, does she not?
But if she has no bellows at hand, what does she do? You answer at
once, she blows it herself with all the strength of her lungs.
By which it would seem--does it not?--that we are a sort of living
bellows, being able, in case of necessity, to act as a substitute for
the wood and leather ones of common use. And if we really possess the
power of doing the work of a bellows, may not this be because we have
within us some little machine of the nature of a bellows?
Exactly; and this fact gives me the opportunity of making you understand
the action of the lungs by explaining that of the bellows, which is
in everybody's hands, but which three-fourths of the people use, without
troubling themselves to inquire how it is made or acts.
"A bellows, as you know, is composed of two pieces of board, capable
of being separated and brought together again at will, and united by
a piece of leather so shaped and arranged that it doubles up when the
boards close, the intermediate space forming a firmly-closed box, the
size of which increases or diminishes at every movement of the boards.
"We take the bellows down to use it, and there are the boards, lying
flat upon each other, the box between them quite small. Is there
anything inside, do you think?
"Nothing," you answer; "the bellows is empty."
Do you think so really, my child? Do you think a tumbler is empty,
then, when you have drunk out its contents; and that jelly pots are
empty when all the jelly is eaten? There are not so many empty things
in the world, I assure you, as you suppose. You forget the air--that
monster who is always wanting to stretch himself out, and pushes against
everything he meets. He is an unceremonious gentleman, who takes
possession of every vacant place; as fast as you put a spoonful on
your plate, he takes up the room of the jelly which has been removed,
and at each mouthful you swallow, he slips into the place of the water
which goes away. When you think the glass and pot are empty, they are,
in reality, full of air. You cannot see it; but it is there, you may
rely upon it.
There is air, then, in the bellows-box, because there is air in every
place where there is nothing else to dispute possession with it. The
quantity is small in this case, no doubt, because the box is small and
cannot hold much.
But now, look! I separate the boards, and the box, which was small,
becomes large. For once, then, here is a box which must be partially
empty; for it has just, as if by magic, made a space in itself in which
positively there cannot be anything, since there was nothing there
Ay! but look down at the centre of the upper board. You see a little
hole there, do you not, and below the little hole a small piece of
leather, which seems to close it up? That is a _valve_, one of those
doors, such as we noticed before in the heart, and such as are to be
found, moreover, in most houses, which let people through on one side
but not on the other. This one opens when it is pushed from without, but
lets nothing out which has once got in. Now, the air outside, as I said
before, is always pushing against everything. He pushes as a matter of
course, therefore, against the valve, and as there is nothing behind it
to resist the pressure, in proportion as room is made inside the box, he
enters and fills it with himself.
But presently some one begins to close the bellows, and he finds himself
caught between the boards; on which these invite him to begone, with
the same sort of politeness displayed by the police, when the hour of
departure comes in a place of public exhibition; when, _i.e._,
they spread out on all sides, and force the crowd before them till
they have found the road to the door. But the air cannot get back by
the way it came in, the door being shut. As, however, it must go out
somewhere, whether it likes it or not, it passes through the tube at
the end of the box (the _nozzle_ of the bellows), and comes out
thence with a rush upon the fire. When it is once gone the bellows can
be distended again, and the process be repeated as before indefinitely.
And this is just what goes on inside ourselves. Your chest, my child,
is a box which expands and contracts alternately; making a place for
the air by the first effort, and then driving it out by the second.
It is neither more nor less than a bellows, but of a simpler
construction than that used by the cook. The exit pipe serves also for
a door of entrance, and there is but one board instead of two.
The _exit pipe_ is the _larynx_, of which we spoke before,
when we were talking of swallowing the wrong way, and which communicates
with the air outside, through the nose and mouth at the same time,
allowing us to breathe through either one or the other as we like.
As to the _board_, I said a few words about it when I was describing the
liver. It is the _diaphragm_--that separating partition--that floor
which is placed between the two stories or divisions of the body--the
belly and the chest.
But here especially the infinite superiority of the works of God over
the miserable inventions of man comes out in all its grandeur.
A bellows which was to have the honor of keeping up within us that
miraculous fire--the pre-eminently sacred fire--which we call Life,
required something more than a common board for its foundation. And
accordingly this, of which I am now going to give you a detailed
history, is as marvellous as it is admirable. I fancy that when you
have read my account, you will no longer turn up your nose at the vile
Let us first take a peep at the construction of the bellows.
On each side of the _vertebral column_, from the neck to the loins,
spring twelve long bones, one below the other, bent in the form of bows;
these are called the _ribs_. The first seven pairs of ribs rest, and as
it were, unite, in front, upon a bone called the _sternum_, which you
can trace with your finger down to the pit of the stomach, at which
point the finger sinks in, for there is no more _sternum_, and the last
five ribs on each side no longer unite with those of the opposite one.
For which reason they are called _false ribs_. On the other hand they
are joined to each other at the ends by means of a strip or band of a
substance sufficiently strong, but at the same time flexible, and
somewhat elastic, which is called _cartilage_ or _gristle_. The next
time you see a roasting piece of veal on the table, look well at it, and
you will see at the end a white substance which crackles under your
teeth; that is _gristle_.
This forms the framework of our bellows, which you may picture to
yourself as a kind of cage, widening towards the bottom and going to
a point at the top, for the arches formed by the upper ribs are smaller
than the others. The whole terminates in a sort of ring, through which
pass, together, the _oesophagus_ and the _trachea_.
The space between the ribs is occupied by muscles which reach from one
to the other, and the whole framework or cage is shut in below by the
_diaphragm_, that marvellous board whose history I have promised to
The _diaphragm_, as I told you some time ago, is a large muscle, thin
and flat, stretched like a cloth between the chest and the _abdomen_. It
is fastened by an infinity of little threads called _fibres_, to the
lower edge of the cage I have just been describing, and it looks at
first sight as if it must be incapable of moving, since it is fixed in
one invariable manner all round the body.
It moves nevertheless, but not in the same way as the boards of our
Ask your brother to hold two corners of your pocket-handkerchief; take
hold of the other two yourself, and turn the handkerchief so as to
face the wind. The four corners remain in their place, do they not?
but the middle, inflated by the wind, curves and swells out in front
like a ship's sail, which itself is only an immense hand kerchief after
all. Then draw the handkerchief tightly towards you, each to your own
side, and it will recover itself and become flat again. Loosen it a
little and it will curve and swell out again in the middle, and this
maneuver you can go through as often as you choose.
Which very maneuver the _diaphragm_ is continually performing, of and by
In its natural position it bulges upwards in the middle, like a cloth
swollen out by the wind, and thus occupies a portion of the chest at
the expense of the lungs. When air has to be admitted, its _fibres_
tighten and bring it flat again, as you and your brother brought the
handkerchief flat just now by tightening it.
The whole space previously occupied by the arch of the _diaphragm_
is thus given up to the lungs, which, being elastic, instantly stretch
themselves out to it; while air, running in through the nose and mouth,
fills up in proportion the empty place (_vacuum_) created by the
extension of the lungs, exactly as in the case of the bellows.
But soon the fibres of the _diaphragm_ relax. It rises up again into its
old position, driving back the lungs as it does so; and the air finding
there is now no room for it, goes out by the same way the other came in.
I say _the other_, observe, because the air that goes out is no longer
the same as when it came in; and this is the secret of _why we breathe_;
while the up and down movement of the _diaphragm_ is the explanation of
_how we breathe_.
As you perceive, then, the mechanism of these bellows of ours, is of
the most simple, and consequently of the most ingenious character, and
leaves far behind it anything we have ever imagined.
Are you disappointed? Do you feel inclined to exclaim, "Is this all?"
to ask where are the wonders I promised you? to protest that I may
talk as I please about the inflating and flattening of a
pocket-handkerchief? _you_ can see nothing so marvellous in the
matter; nothing worth making your mouth water for.
A little patience, Mademoiselle! Hitherto we have talked only of the
machine; but there is a goblin inside it, and our fairy tale is going
to begin again.
There are in some families certain old servants who belong to the
house, more, it may be said, than their masters, in some ways. They
educate the children, and they serve them till death; they live for
them alone, and know so well what they have to do, both by day and
night, that there is no need to give them any orders. Nay, not only
is it unnecessary to give them directions--it is for the most part
labor in vain. They are so completely at home in their business, that
they will go nobody's way but their own. If you wish them to alter
their habits they may obey you for an instant, but it is only to return
into the old groove directly after; for they know better than you do
what you want.
I was very little when I first read in the story-books of my day, some
bitter complaints of the disappearance of this race of old-fashioned
servants of the good old times. And you very likely may have seen it
said that they are no longer to be met with. Yet there will always be
some, depend upon it, in families, who know how to make and to keep
them. Good old times or not, they have never been found in any other
but these cases.
Still, _I_ have just such a one as I have described--even I who
am talking to you--and so has your mamma; and what is more, you have
one yourself; and what is more still, everybody else has one. This
servant of the good old times, who will never disappear (and this is
more than one can promise of any other) is the _Diaphragm!_ When
you came into the world, my dear child, and were merely a poor little
lump of flesh, without strength, intelligence, or will; incapable of
giving any orders whatever to those organs of yours, of whose existence
you were not even aware, your _diaphragm_ quietly began his duties,
without leave or inquiry from you, and with your first _breath_ your
life began. Since which he has always gone on, whether you attended
to him or not, and his last effort will be your last sigh.
When you go to sleep, careless of all that is to happen, until you
awake again, that servant of yours, indefatigable at his post, labors
for you still, and the light breath which half opens your rosy little
lips as it passes through them; that light breath which your happy
mother watches with such pleasure, is his work. Midnight strikes--one
o'clock--two; all around you are buried in sleep--but he is awake
still. Were it otherwise--were he to go to sleep when you do, you
would never awake again!
This protector of each instant, this faithful guardian of your life,
is, nevertheless, subject to you as a servant to his master. Attend
to him, and he will obey your orders. You can make him go at a great
pace, or slowly, as you choose; or stop him altogether, if the fancy
takes you to do so: but this not for long. The servant of the good old
times is obstinate in the performance of his duties. He will yield to
you in trifles; but do not try to force him over serious matters. I
have read somewhere of a desperate young fellow, chained down in a
dungeon, who killed himself by holding his breath; but I never quite
believed it. Mr. Diaphragm would not allow any one to carry rebellion
so far as that.
But we have not finished yet, and you do not yet know how appropriate
is the comparison I am making.
Should any misfortune, any grief, any trifling annoyance even, befall
his master, a good servant suffers with him, and as much as he does;
sometimes even more. Occasionally the master is comforted, while he
remains still disturbed.
"And the diaphragm?" you ask.
The diaphragm does precisely the same, my dear child. Yours, especially,
shares in all your griefs to such an extent that, truth to say, he is
not always quite reasonable. The other day when your mamma did not
want to take you into the country with her, he was so sorry for you
that he went into perfect convulsions, and you sobbed and sobbed till
she was obliged to say, "Come, then, you naughty child;" whereupon you
embraced your mamma, and were quite happy again, while he remained
still unappeased, and your poor little chest was shaken more than once
afterwards by his last convulsions.
Sobbing, you must know, is merely a convulsion--a great shake of the
diaphragm--which is the reason of its causing such a heaving of the
It is the same with respect to joy. The joy of the master makes the
servant dance, and so the diaphragm too! Its little internal jumps
are, then, what we call laughter--a thing you are well acquainted with.
Put your hand on your chest next time you laugh (and I hope it will
be soon) and you will feel how it dances--thanks to the diaphragm which
jumps for joy whenever it finds you in good humor.
Please to observe further, that nothing of all this is done to order.
He starts of himself, poor fellow, without waiting to ask if you will
ever know anything about it; and, in truth, you have known nothing
about it up to the present moment.
What say you to the diaphragm now, my child? Does not the very name
please you? You scarcely expected to find there--under your lungs--so
good a servant, one so attached to your person, so strongly resembling
in all points the best specimens we know among men. And still we have
not done. I have reserved as a finale for you a new point of resemblance
which will make you open your eyes very wide indeed.
The old servant is sometimes cross and grumbling. If anything is going
against his grain in the house he has no scruple in saying so; and his
mode of speaking is sometimes rather rude. Nor is it of any use to get
impatient and impose silence on him; he will listen to nothing--it is
his privilege. But let some unforeseen accident happen to his master,
let him see him deeply affected, and in a moment all his anger is over.
He sets himself silently to work again, recalled to order twenty times
sooner by his master's emotion than by his utmost impatience.
You ask what I am coming to now? My dear child, what I have just told
you is the history of the _hiccup_--the history of the hiccup, neither
more nor less.
I must first tell you, however, that the _diaphragm_ keeps up
intimate relations with his neighbor below--the stomach. Every time
he rises in the breast the stomach rises behind him; and not only the
stomach, but also its companions, the intestines. All the officials
employed in the business of digestion travel regularly with him; coming
down as well as going up in company. Put your hand upon your abdomen
and breathe strongly and you will feel the rebound of all the movements
of the diaphragm.
Now, when matters are going on wrongly inside, when too much work has
been imposed on the officials, or work they dislike, or else when they
have been disturbed in their labors, it will sometimes happen that the
_diaphragm_ takes part with his comrades in the abdomen. He gets
angry then, and shakes his master, who cannot help himself a bit. You
must be very well acquainted with these attacks, which are very
fatiguing when they last long. One begs pardon and resists him in vain;
he does as he pleases, without stopping to listen, turning everything
upside down; and do you know the only efficacious plan for calming him
at once? It was a constant source of wonder to me when I was little.
A sudden fright, a start unexpectedly caused by a friendly hand slipping
secretly behind, and laying hold of one, was all-sufficient; disarmed
by the agitation you have undergone, the naughty, stubborn muscle
forgives you, and you are cured.
Having dwelt so long on the truly wonderful resemblance between the
proceedings of two sorts of beings, whom no one that I know of ever
thought of comparing together before, I will now, my dear child, give
you the key to all these comparisons, which seem so whimsical at first,
but are so striking in reality, and which come to my pen of their own
accord, as it were, in the midst of the explanations I have undertaken
to give you. Many people who would not themselves care for them, will
declare that they are too hard for a little girl to follow. But for
my own part, I find that the eye can take in a mountain as easily as
a fly, and that it is not more difficult to lay hold of great ideas
than of little ones. It is short-sighted people, not children, who
cannot see far before them. Who made the heavens and the earth? God,
your catechism tells you. The same God made both; did he not? We do
not acknowledge two. And if it be the self-same God who made everything,
the hand of the universal Maker will be found everywhere; and from the
highest to the lowest portion of His work the same mind will manifest
itself under a thousand different forms. Not only, either, is each man
separately, one by one, the work of God. The whole human race, taken
in the mass, is also His creation; and the laws by which human
society--that great body of the human race--seeks to regulate itself
for the preservation of its existence, are undoubtedly the same as
those which overruled the organization of our individual bodies. It
is not very astonishing, then, if we find, in the life of human society
around us, details corresponding with each detail of the life of the
human body, or, at any rate, closely resembling them. What would really
be astonishing, would be that mankind as a whole should be differently
constituted from man as an individual, and that human society should
have other appointed conditions of well-being than those of each of
So, while I am on the subject, I should like to advise those who wishto
apply themselves to what is called _politics_--that is to say, social
life--to begin their studies of the body social, by studying the body
human, first. They will learn more from it than from the newspapers!
But you have nothing to do with all this. For the present, take notice
of one thing only; viz., that the hand of the same God has passed over
everything, and that there is neither much presumption nor much merit
in tracing points of comparison between the different parts of His
work. These comparisons are not a mere play of the mind; they really
exist ready made in the very foundations of things.
Now let us come down a little from these heights and return to our
friends the lungs. I have not spoken about them for some time, and I
have not yet told you how they are constructed.
I wish I could show you some, but the cook will do so, if you would
like to see them. The _lights_ with which she feeds the cat and
the dog are the lungs of some animal.
Take up a piece in your hand, and you will find you have got hold of
something _light_ (cooks have not given it its name without a reason),
which is also soft, sinks under your finger if you press it, and rises
again afterwards like a sponge. In fact, the lung, like the sponge, is
composed of an infinity of minute cells, whose elastic sides can be
contracted or expanded at will. They are like so many little chambers,
into every one of which blood and air keep running hastily, each on its
own side, to bid good day to each other, touch hands, and then hurry out
as briskly as they came in. Whether the bit of lights the cat is eating,
comes from an ox, a pig, or a sheep, you may look at it with perfect
confidence; your own lung is precisely like it. You would see nothing
different, could you look into your own chest.
So much for the _substance_ of the lungs. As to SHAPE, imagine
two large, elongated packets, flat inside, descending right and left,
inside the breast, and bearing the heart, suspended between the two,
in the middle. The extremity of each packet descends below the heart,
and it is in the interval which separates them that the arch of the
diaphragm performs its up and down movement.
I have already said that air reaches the lungs through the _larynx_. The
_larynx_ (of which we shall speak further when I have explained another
curious thing very valuable to little girls--the voice), the _larynx_ is
a tube composed of five pieces of _cartilage_ (you know now what
_cartilage_ or _gristle_ is), the firm resisting texture of which keeps
it always open. After these five pieces of _cartilage_, come others, and
the tube is continued; but it then takes the name of the _trachea_; the
_larynx_ and _trachea_ constituting the _windpipe_. At its entrance into
the chest, the _trachea_ divides into two branches, which are called
_bronchial tubes_, and which run, one into the right lung, the other
into the left. You sometimes hear people talking about _bronchitis_. It
is an inflammation of these _bronchial tubes_, which are within an inch
or two of the lungs. It is necessary, therefore, to be very careful in
such circumstances, and do exactly what the doctor prescribes, because--
one step further, and the inflammation extends from the bronchial tubes
into the lungs themselves, with which it is not safe to play tricks.
Having reached the lungs, the _bronchial tubes_ subdivide into
branches, which ramify again in their turn like the boughs of a tree,
and the whole ramification terminates in imperceptible little tubes,
each of which comes out in one of those little chambers I was talking
about just now. And this is the way in which air gets there at all.
The venous blood which leaves the heart, arrives on its side by one
large canal, which passes out from the right ventricle, and which is
called the _pulmonary artery_. And, to tell you the truth, while there
is no learned man present to be angry with us, it is a very ill-chosen
name, because it is _venous_ blood which flows in this so-called
_artery_. But the doctors have decided that all the vessels which run
from the heart should be called _arteries_, and all those which go back
to it _veins_, whatever may be the nature of the blood which they
contain. We cannot help it, because they manage all these matters in
their own way; but in that case it was scarcely worth their while to
talk about _arterial_ and _venous_ blood. It would have been better to
have said simply, red blood and black blood.
Be this as it may, _venous blood_ arrives from the right _ventricle_
through the _pulmonary artery_. This divides itself, like the _bronchial
tubes_, into thousands of little pipes, whose extremities come creeping
along the partitions of the little chambers in question.
And here, then, takes place, between the air and the blood, that
mysterious intercourse for the account of which I have kept you waiting
so long; and at the end of which the black blood becomes red, or, in
other words, from venous becomes arterial. I have called it
"intercourse," and this is really the proper phrase; for this
transformation of the blood is accomplished by means of an exchange.
The air gives something to the blood, and the blood gives something
to the air--each giving, in exchange, like two people over a bargain
in the marketplace.
With your permission, my dear child, we will stop here to-day. We have
now got to the charcoal market, and it is a little black.
CARBON AND OXYGEN.
Here, then, my dear child, we have arrived at the explanation of that
great mystery, WHY _we breathe._ Keep on the alert, for we are now
entering into a region where everything will be new to you.
Here we are at the charcoal market, I said to you just now, and no
doubt you concluded that I was beginning another comparison.
But no such thing; there is no question of comparison or simile here;
I state the fact itself, pure and simple as it stands: it is a
_market,_ for commercial intercourse and exchange are carried on
there, as I told you before, and it is a _charcoal_ market,
because _charcoal_ is, positively, the essential and chief article of
You are astonished, I dare say, and are ready to ask me whether I can
possibly mean real charcoal, charcoal such as the cook puts into the
furnace. Surely, say you, we have nothing like _that_ in our bodies?
Surely we don't eat _that_?
But I answer yes; real, true charcoal, and you do not dislike it; you
eat of it even daily; nay, you do not swallow a single mouthful of
food which does not contain its proportion of charcoal.
You laugh; but wait a little and listen.
When you are toasting a slice of bread for breakfast, and hold it too
near the fire, what happens to it?
It turns quite black, does it not?
When mutton-chops are left too long unturned on the gridiron, what
happens to them?
They turn quite black also.
When your brother forgets the apples which he has set to roast, what
happens to them?
They turn quite black, as you have seen more than once.
It is always black, then, that these things turn, is it not? and a
fine rich _charcoaly_ black, as you may see if you please to
observe charcoal closely, for just such is the color of little burnt
cakes, over-roasted chestnuts, and potatoes in their skins, which have
been dropped into the fire.
But there is a common term by which we can express more accurately the
misfortune which has befallen all these various things--slices of
bread, mutton-chops, apples, cakes, chestnuts, potatoes, and what-not,
when "burnt," "over-toasted," "over-roasted," or "over-baked." We may
call them _carbonized_, or more simply _charred_ or _charcoaled_; though
the word _charred_ is generally used only for burnt _wood_. But _carbon_
being the principal ingredient of _charcoal_, and _charcoal_ being one
of the purer forms in which we get at _carbon_, they are almost
synonymous terms, and you may call your burnt food _carbonized_, or
_charred_, or _charcoaled_, whichever you prefer.
The next question is, how did charcoal or carbon get into the food so
as to justify our talking of its being _carbonized_ or _charred_? Even
when we use charcoal stoves for cooking, the charcoal does not jump out
and get into the mutton-chops, etc., you may be sure. Then it is clear
it must have been in them before they were brought to the fire to be
cooked; and such is indeed the case, only its black face escaped notice
because it was in such gay-looking company, and kept itself hid behind
the others like a needle lost in a match-box. Set fire to the matches,
and you will soon have nothing left but the needle, which will then
strike your eye at once. And so with our burnt food; the fire has
carried off all the other ingredients, and the charcoal is left behind
alone, exposed to everybody's view, as if on purpose to teach them that
it was always there; in the apples, i.e., the potatoes, mutton-chops,
etc., which seemed so tempting when the black rogue was hid, but from
which now, when he is there by himself, they turn away in disgust.
Charcoal is, in fact, a much more generally distributed substance than
you have been used to suppose, dear child. That which comes from burnt
wood is most easily observed, because there is a much larger proportion
of charcoal in wood than anywhere else; but there is not a morsel,
however small, of any animal or vegetable whatsoever, which does not
contain charcoal. In the sugar which you crunch, in the wine which you
drink, there is charcoal. I could even find some in the water you wash
in if I were to try hard. There is charcoal in the goose-quill which
I hold in my hand at this moment, and in the paper on which I am
writing, and in the handkerchief on my knee. If I hold them all three
in the light of my wax taper, I shall soon see them turn black and
betray the presence of our friend. It exists in the wax taper itself,
as also in the candle, as also in the oil lamp. If I were to hold a
piece of flat glass above their flame, I should collect enough of it
to blacken the tip of anybody's nose who presumed to doubt the fact.
There is a portion of it in the air; a portion of it in the earth.
Where is it not? In short, all the stones of all the buildings in the
world are filled with it from top to bottom. _Charcoal,_ under his more
scientific and important name of _carbon,_ may be called one of the
great lords of the world. His domain is so extensive that one might go
round the world without getting out of it; he is even worse than the
Marquis of Carabas.
After this you will never, I hope, want to persuade me you do not
eatcharcoal; for, indeed, you would be puzzled to escape doing so. Of
all the things you see on the dinner-table there is but one in which you
will not find it--viz., the salt-cellar; and even while saying this,
I mean only, in the _salt_ itself, for as to the salt-cellar,
clear and transparent as its glass may be, there is charcoal in it!
Our bodies, therefore, are full of charcoal. Everything that we eat
supplies them with enormous quantities of it, which take up their
quarters in every corner of our organs. It is one of the principal
materials of the vast collection of structures of which I spoke to you
in the early part of these letters, and of which the blood, the steward
of the body, is the universal master-builder. If you remember, I told
you then that these structures fell to pieces of themselves, in
proportion as the workmen went on building, and that the blood, which
brings fresh materials on its arrival from the lungs and heart, carries
away the refuse ones on its return. And, of all these refuse materials,
old charcoal is one of those which takes up the most room, as fresh
charcoal took up a great deal of room in the new materials. The blood,
as he goes back again, has his pockets quite crammed with it, and if
he did not try hard to get rid of it as fast as possible, he would be
disabled from being of any further use.
Now it is in the lungs that he clears himself of it. He gives it up
to the air, which has need of it for a very interesting operation, of
which I shall tell you more by and bye; and in return the air gives
him something which is quite indispensable to him, for without it he
would not dare to return to the organs, as his authority would no
longer be recognised.
In the same way, the charcoal-seller goes to market with his charcoal
and receives silver in exchange.
If he were to go home without money his wife would receive him with
But what is the indispensable thing which the blood obtains in his
Remember its name well: it is OXYGEN.
And we must speak of it with respect, for we are talking here of a
very great and powerful personage, very superior even to CARBON. If
CARBON be one of the great lords of the world, OXYGEN is its king.
There is a certain substance, my dear child, of which many people,
especially little girls, do not even know the name, but which yet
constitutes of itself alone a good half of everything we are acquainted
with in the world. And this substance is the very thing I have just
named to you. It is OXYGEN.
Ascend into the air as high as you can go, viz., to forty miles or so
from the ground, as we said before; _oxygen_ forms the fifth part
of that vast aerial ocean which surrounds the globe on every side.
There it is free--is _itself_--if I may use the expression; it
is in the condition of _gas_; that is to say, it eludes our sight,
though there is no difficulty in ascertaining its presence, when one
knows how to set about it.
Go down into the depths of the sea. People think they have good reasons
for believing this to be two and a half miles deep on an average, which
would give a pretty little sum total of tons for its whole weight, as
you will be convinced, if you take the trouble of observing the space
it covers on a map of the world;--to say nothing of lakes, rivers,
streams, the water in the clouds, the water scattered throughout the
interior or on the surface of continents, including that with which
you wash your face every morning.
Oxygen enters in the proportion of eight-ninths into the composition
of this incalculable mass. _Eight-ninths_, you understand, which
is very near being the whole nine; in every nine pounds of water there
are eight pounds of oxygen, the remainder being left for another
substance, of which we shall have occasion to speak presently, and
which is called _hydrogen_.
The earth on which you tread is full of oxygen. So far as we have
penetrated hitherto into the interior of the globe, we have found king
Oxygen everywhere: hidden under a thousand forms, connected with a
heap of substances, not one of which could exist without him; imprisoned
in a thousand combinations, and always ready to resume his natural
condition if his prison-house be destroyed. The whole surface of the
earth, plains, hills, mountains, towns, deserts, cultivated fields,
everything you would look down upon, if on a clear day you could be
carried high enough in a balloon to take in the whole earth at a
glance:--all that may be considered as an immense reservoir of oxygen,
out of which we should see it escaping in gigantic waves, if some
superhuman chemist were to take it into his head to put our poor little
globe into a retort of the same kind as chemists use among us. To give
you an example; the stones of our fine buildings, in which we have
already discovered the presence of _carbon_, are almost half made
up of _oxygen_. In a stone which weighs 100 lbs. there are 48
lbs. of oxygen, and the first chemist who passes by could make them
come out of it if he chose, if he were to use a little trouble and
I enumerated to you last time many of the substances in which _carbon_
is to be found; but as regards _oxygen_ we must give up all attempt at
making a list; it would comprehend the whole dictionary. Touch whatever
lies under your hand--in your room--in the house--wherever you may go--I
will almost defy you to put your finger upon anything--metals
excepted--which is not crammed with oxygen. Your very body, to conclude
with, would become so small a thing, were the oxygen it contains
extracted from it, that you would be perfectly amazed.
So when I told you oxygen was king of the world, I did not say too
much, did I? Between ourselves too, it is a great misfortune that
people live on so complacently in total ignorance of this all-important
material, which is connected with everything, which insinuates itself
everywhere, which we make use of every instant of our lives, which may
almost be said to be in some sort our very selves, since it constitutes
three-fourths of our body, but whose name nevertheless would, I am
certain, make many pretty little mouths pout, if one were to utter it
in a drawing-room.
This is really the case. Many young ladies who are proud to know who
Caractacus was, would be ashamed to know anything about oxygen. There
is a foolish notion that women have no business with such subjects,
probably because children are supposed not to breathe and mothers are
not required to watch over them?
This reminds me that we are on the road to explain _respiration,_
which I had almost forgotten in lifting up this corner of the veil
behind which Nature hides her most valuable secrets from the idle and
It is _oxygen_ then, which the blood carries off triumphantly from his
interview with the air in the cells of the lungs; and, by the way, it
is, thanks to this oxygen that it returns from the lungs to the heart,
and so from the heart to the organs, with that beautiful rosy tint which
distinguishes _arterial_ from _venous_ blood.
Now the blood gives out this oxygen on its road every time it performs
the journey, and the perpetual course it performs from the lungs to
the organs, and from the organs to the lungs, has for its chief object
the perpetual renovation of this previous provision, which is as
Do you ask of what use it is? Does the blood leave it at random in our
organs, and is it one of the materials with which our steward is
constantly providing the little workmen of the body for their various
No, my dear child. The proverb _"One cannot live upon air,"_ is
a very true one, although it is equally true that we cannot live without
air. Air does not nourish our organs; on the contrary, it consumes
them, and what we eat, serves to supply in precisely the same proportion
its insatiable appetite. When we leave off eating, from whatever cause,
the air does not leave off too. He goes on always just the same, and
that is the reason why people who are starved to death are so thin.
(The air has consumed the vital parts.)
You did not expect this; but now prepare yourself to go on from one
surprise to another. To begin with, I shall have to stop here and
explain to you before we go any further--can you guess what? Nay, I
am sure you cannot; FIRE.
There is not much connection, you will say, between _fire_ and
But there you are mistaken. It is precisely the same thing, as I will
prove to you next time.
Have you never, my dear child, whilst warming your little feet on the
hearth in winter-time, asked yourself, _What is fire?_ that great
benefactor of man; fire, without which part of the world would be
uninhabitable by us during at least a third of the year; fire, without
which we could not bake a morsel of bread, and would have to eat our
meat raw; fire, which lights up the night for us, and without which
we should have to go to bed when the hens go to roost; fire, which
subdues metals, and without which we should have neither iron, nor
copper, nor silver, nor anything that is manufactured from those
materials; fire, without which, in short, human industry could not
rise to much higher results than that of the monkey and of the beaver?
We are all of us, it is true, so much accustomed to fire that we do
not pay much attention to it, and have a sort of persuasion that lucifer
matches have existed from all eternity. But the first men, who were
nearer neighbors to that great discovery whence all others have
originated--the first men treated fire with more respect than we do.
It was to them one of the mighty things of the world. The ancient
Persians made a god of it, and told how Zoroaster, their prophet, went
to seek it in heaven, passing thither from the top of the Himalayas,
the highest chain of mountains in the known world.
The old Greeks pretended that Prometheus stole it from the gods, to
make a present of it to man, which came to nearly the same thing as
the Persian account. The Romans had their _sacred fire_, which
the celebrated Vestals were bound to keep lighted, on pain of death
to whoever should let it go out. At the present day we do not stand
upon such ceremonies, but warm our feet at it quite familiarly, without
wishing for anything further. But you would see a terrible revolution
in the world if some Prometheus reversed were, some fine morning, to
steal it from us, and carry it back to its ancient owners. Every branch
of human industry would suddenly stop, as if by enchantment, and in
the course of a very few years the poor little framework of human
society, of which we are now so proud, would totally change its aspect,
and the whole world would be turned topsy-turvy.
But do not be alarmed; there is no danger of the sort. Fire is not a
present once made to man, but liable to be taken away from him at will.
It is a law of nature which existed before the human race came into
being, and which will doubtless continue to exist when the human race
shall have disappeared. The existence of fire is connected in the most
intimate way with that of that great king of the world of whom we spoke
last time--Oxygen. Fire is the wedding-feast of Oxygen with other
When kings are married, what rejoicings there are! what a commotion!
what illuminations! It is only right and proper, then, that the king
of the world should have rejoicings and illuminations at his weddings
also. And they have never been wanting. The rejoicings are the warmth
which rejoices us; the illuminations, the flame which gives us light.
But man, in his dealings with nature, is an imperious subject, such
as few earthly kings are troubled with--happily for them! Whenever he
wants warmth and light he forces the king of the world to get married,
and then takes advantage of the feast; nothing worse than that.
"How so?" you exclaim. "If I want to make a fire with stones or iron,
I should never succeed. Is this because oxygen never unites himself
with those substances, nor with heaps of others which are equally
useless in lighting a fire? Yet you told me that oxygen was to be met
with almost everywhere."
It is a fair question, my dear child; but my answer is, that what you
said last is precisely the reason why all substances are not fit for
making fire of. When oxygen is already there, as he is in stones, for
instance, the marriage is over--the feast cannot begin again. Kings
are like other people in this respect; their weddings are only
celebrated once. If you had happened to be present at the moment when
oxygen was united to the materials of which stones are composed, you
would have seen a feast of which I should like to have heard some news.
I was not there myself either; but learned men in these latter days
have succeeded in breaking the bonds which united oxygen with the
primitive substances in certain fragments of stone, and with these
substances thus freed, and consequently able to remarry, they have
been enabled to give us, in miniature, the spectacle of the festivities
of a fresh wedding. And I can assure you it is enough to make one
shudder, to think of the time when such a marriage must have taken
place on a large scale.
With regard to _iron_ the case is quite different.
You have without doubt heard tell of Louis XIV. (of France), that proud
king who was called _le Grand_, and who is said to have heard
himself compared to the sun, without smiling. It seems that he one day
took it into his head to marry, it is difficult to say why, with Madame
de Maintenon, the old wife of a poor paralytic poet named Scarron,
who, as such, however, was only known by some few farces. Do you suppose
that the palace of Versailles was illuminated in honor of this marriage?
Not a bit of it. It was a disgraceful marriage, which they were bound
to keep secret. The ceremony was conducted mysteriously and without
lighting a single candle more than ordinary.
I do not pretend to say that oxygen has any of these weaknesses, nor
that he is any more partial to marrying with one body more than with
another. In the good God's great world, outside of the family of man,
they know nothing of our foolish pride, of our little weaknesses. It
is nevertheless a fact that this dear monarch has his preferences, and
that all his marriages are not made in this fashion.
Leave those pretty little scissors of yours, with which you would try
in vain to make a fire, outside your window for two or three days, and
then observe the dreadful, scaly, red stain which you are sure to find
on them afterwards, and which is called _rust._ Have you any idea
whence it proceeds? I will tell you. It comes from the oxygen, which
has been making one of those cheerless secret marriages with the iron
of your scissors. So there have been no pretty sights nor sounds, no
lights nor cheerful noises to entertain anybody, and though people may
have wished for them ever so much, they have had to do without them.
I will tell you the true reason of these marriages _incognito._
It is because oxygen is but feebly attracted by iron, who does not
stand so high in his good graces as many other bodies, and so (to
continue the joke) he unites slowly and languidly with him, as we may
Now tell me, when you set fire to a bit of paper, how long does it
take to burn?
Half a minute, at the utmost, you answer.
Very good. And how long does it take to produce that rust-stain, even
though it is probably not a hundredth part the size of the paper?
Two or three days, is your reply, for so I told you my self.
Here is a strange difference indeed; but from it you may discover why
you have not seen any signs of rejoicing or illuminations at the iron
wedding. These are always in proportion to the quantity of oxygen which
is being married at once--and this was--oh, such a slow affair! When
the quantity is very small indeed, the festal illuminations are very
small indeed too, and in fact escape observation altogether. In the
same way that you would not be conscious of little bits of thread laid
delicately one after another on your back, whereas you would plainly
feel a large sheet, were it to fall on your shoulders. Yet what is the
large sheet but a great quantity of little bits of thread? Only in
that case they would all come upon you at once, like the marriage
illuminations of burning paper.
Wait a little longer and we shall finish.
What is there, then, in the paper which pleases the oxygen so much
that he unites himself to it so readily, and in such large quantities?
What is there? Two substances of high degree, who have actually risen
to the dignity of a royal alliance, by the important part they play
in the world; one of these, charcoal or _carbon_, we know quite
well already; the other I have only mentioned to you in connection
with water, HYDROGEN. Thanks to gas companies, everybody in these days
knows _hydrogen,_ at least by name. But before proceeding, I will
just tell you that it is by far the lightest body that is known. It
is forty and a half times lighter than air, which is not very heavy
itself, although in the mass it has its weight, as we have seen.
The true province of hydrogen is water, where it keeps house with
oxygen, in proportion of one to eight pounds, as you may remember I
stated in my last letter. But beside this, _hydrogen_ and _carbon_ are
in a manner inseparable friends, whom one invariably meets side by side
in all animal and vegetable substances. In wood, coal, oil, tallow, and
spirits of wine; in everything in short that we call _combustibles,_
because the name of _combustion_ has been given to this marriage of
oxygen with other bodies, hydrogen and carbon keep themselves shut up
very discreetly and very quietly; like two children playing at hide-and-
seek. You have sometimes played at hide-and-seek yourself, no doubt?
Now, if some naughty child had come behind you with a lighted candle,
what would you have done? You would have had to turn out, whether you
liked it or not, and be caught. Well! this is what happens to our two
friends, when you bring the paper to the fire. The heat forces them out,
and the oxygen, which is always at hand, seizes upon them. In a
twinkling they are married, and a beautiful flame springs up into the
air, which lasts till everything has disappeared.
Hydrogen and carbon! These, then, are the two great combustibles, the
two parents of fire; and as nature has lavished them upon us in what
we may call inexhaustible quantities; when you hear people lamenting
and saying that wood is disappearing, that coal is diminishing, and
that the human race will end by not knowing how to warm themselves,
do not disturb yourself in the least.
There is more hydrogen in a bucket of water than is wanted to cook a
large dinner. There is as much and more carbon in our stone quarries
than in our coal pits, and when all the woods in the world are cut
down (which I trust will never be!) do you know what we shall do? Why,
we shall take to burning the mountains. The Jura mountains in
Switzerland, for instance, (to take the most favorable case) are great
masses of carbon, without its ever being visible. Everything depends
upon knowing how to make it come out of its hiding place; but that
will de done when it is wanted: more difficult matters have been
accomplished already. As to oxygen, whether carbon comes to him from
a log of wood or from a building stone; whether the hydrogen comes
from a candle or a glass of water, is a matter of perfect indifference
to him. He only considers persons, not their origin, and marries as
willingly in one case as in the other.
So we have returned to the subject of _respiration_, on which I
always seem to be turning my back; but now the question is, what brings
us to it again? And this is the explanation.
When the oxygen picked up in the lungs by the blood has traveled with
it to the organs, he finds there two well-known friends--hydrogen and
You smile, and exclaim at once, "Then he marries them, does he?"
Yes, my dear child; and it is only for that purpose he enters our
bodies at all. And this is why I could not make you understand the
nature of respiration until I had explained that of fire to you. As
I have told you before, it is the same thing. Invite air into your
body by the bellows of your chest, or drive it into the fire by the
kitchen bellows--it is always king Oxygen whom you are sending to his
Now, then, we have got hold of the secret of respiration; the _oxygen_
within us unites itself to the _hydrogen_ and _carbon._
And for what purpose, do you suppose?
Unquestionably it must be to make a fire, since they never come together
without doing so.
But what do people make fires for? I ask next. Well! surely to warm
themselves, do they not?
And this is the history of your body being warm exactly like a
dining-room stove, where the oxygen in the air forms an alliance with
the hydrogen and carbon of the wood. Nature warms little girls inside,
on precisely the same plan by which men warm their houses in winter.
Imagine, then, a little stove, furnished with little arms for helping
itself out of the wood-basket as it is wanted, and with little legs
to run and refill it when it is empty; the fire must be always burning
there, and the stove must be always warm.
Just such a little stove is your body; your mouth being the little
door, by which there constantly enter--not wood, that would hardly be
pleasant--but--hydrogen and carbon under the forms of bread, mutton
broth, cakes, sweetmeats, and all the good things people have learnt
to make with sugar, fat, and flour. There is hydrogen and carbon in
everything we eat, as I have already told you; but sugar, fat, flour,
and _wine_ are the substances which contain them in the greatest
quantities, and consequently they are our best _combustibles._
You are surprised, perhaps, at _wine_ being a combustible; wine,
which you think would put out rather than make a fire.
And it would. But that is only because in it, what is good for burning
is mixed with a great deal of water, which prevents our being able to
set it on fire. But if part of this water is withdrawn, you have
_brandy,_ which lights easily enough; and if part of the remaining
water is withdrawn from the brandy, you have _spirits of wine_, which
takes fire more easily still. If you have ever seen a _spirit-of-wine_
lamp, you must know something about this. Judge from that what a fire
spirits of wine must make in the body, even when it has a good deal of
water with it; for it is right to tell you that your little stove is
very superior to the one in the dining-room, and that it hunts out for
consumption the smallest portions of combustible matter, in places where
the other would be a good deal puzzled to find them.
This is not all, however. I have much greater wonders to tell you yet.
What should you say to a stove, which, summer or winter, night or day,
in rain or sunshine, amid the ice of the pole, or under the sun of the
equator, was able to keep itself constantly in the same condition;
neither hotter nor colder one minute than another, whether you gave
it much or little fuel, at a given moment, and sometimes when you gave
it nothing for whole days together? It would be worthy of a fairy tale,
would it not? Yet the human body is a stove of this description.
But this requires a little explanation.
It is rather bold in me, you may think, to assert so freely, that all
the year round, from one end of the earth to the other, the human body
is never colder nor hotter than mine is, for instance, at this present
moment. "Hot" and "cold" is soon said, you argue: but the exact
varieties of _more_ or _less_ are not so easy to measure, and especially
not easy to remember, with reference to so many bodies, scattered over
the face of the whole earth. What may be warmth for one in one case, may
not be equal warmth for another; and even supposing that the same
individual learned man could go and inspect every part of the globe in
succession, how could he possibly recall, while touching the body of a
negro in Senegal, in July, the exact amount of animal heat he had found
in a Greenland Esquimaux in January?
Be content. I should not have settled the question so cavalierly, if
people had not discovered an infallible method of estimating accurately,
and always in the same manner, the degree of warmth, in other words,
the _temperature_ of the body.
Let us first see, then, what this method is, though it will oblige us
to digress a little; but you are accustomed to that now, surely; and
besides, if I were to go straight ahead, you would not be able to
Do you ever recollect being very cold? Let mammas look after their
little girls as much as they please, to prevent it, it is sure to
happen to every one some day or other. Now does it not seem at those
times as if the whole body were contracting itself--and when people
are shivering with cold, have they not a shrunk, shrivelled look? When
the weather is very hot, on the contrary, our bodies feel as if they
were swelling and stretching, and one seems to take up more room than
before. This is the case with all bodies. Heat swells, or, as learned
people call it, expands, them: cold shrinks or contracts them.
Furthermore, _mercury_ is one of the things most susceptible of this
action of heat and cold, and we have had recourse to it accordingly, in
the construction of the _thermometer_, [Footnote: _Thermometer_ comes
from two Greek words: _thermos_, heat; and _metron_, measure. The
degrees in the Thermometer about to be described are marked on the
_Centigrade_ principle. [Not the one (Fahrenheit) in general use in the
United States.]] a very useful instrument, which you will hear spoken of
all your life.
The _thermometer_, or _heat-measure_, consists of a little hollow ball
filled with mercury, out of which rises a small tube of very thin glass,
in which the mercury can move up and down. When the thermometer is
exposed to heat, the heat causes the mercury to expand, so it goes up
the tube; when the thermometer is exposed to cold, the mercury contracts
and sinks again.
Now suppose you were to melt some ice in the palm of one hand, and try
to dip a finger-tip of the other in a saucepan of boiling water; you
would find a great difference of temperature between the two, would
you not? Which difference of temperature people have succeeded in
measuring with the thermometer, as accurately as your mamma measures
a piece of cloth with her yard measure.
This is how it is done:
You surround the ball of mercury with pounded ice, and while it is
melting make a mark at that point in the tube where the mercury has
stopped in its descent. Then plunge the thermometer into boiling water.
Whereupon the mercury goes up, up, up, till at last it reaches a point
beyond which it will not pass. Here a second mark is made, and the
space between the two marks is divided into a hundred perfectly equal
parts, indicated by so many small lines, which are called _degrees_. But
this word _degrees_ has a double meaning in some languages. It means
_steps_ as well as the degrees of measurement we are talking about;
steps being, as you know, the perfectly equal parts into which a
staircase is divided. Fancy the mercury-tube a staircase, then, rising
from the cellar where the melting ice is, up to the garret where the
boiling water is, and let it consist of 100 steps. The mercury goes up
and down this staircase, according as the temperature it encounters
approaches that of the boiling water or of the melting ice; and if you
wish to know exactly how far it is from the cellar or from the garret,
you have only to count the _steps_. Hence arise those expressions which
you so often hear--high temperature and low temperature. These mean,
temperature according to which the mercury goes up or down this
On the actual floor of the cellar where the ice melts, there are yet
no degrees (a floor is not a _step_, you know), so there you find the
word _zero_, which means a cipher or nought. Then you begin to count 1,
2, 3, 4 degrees, marked by lines up to 100, where you reach the garret,
_i.e._ the boiling-water height.
Of course, if the thermometer be exposed to an amount of cold greater
than that of melting ice, the mercury will sink below the cellar.
Accordingly the staircase is carried below it, with steps (so to speak)
of precisely the same size as those above, and you count as before,
1, 2, 3, &c., as it descends; adding however, to distinguish these
degrees from the others, "_below zero_." You may go on in that
way as far as 40; but there you must stop. At that point the mercury
freezes. He sits down there on his last step, and will not go any
In the same way if the thermometer is exposed to a heat greater than
that of boiling water, the mercury will rise higher than the garret.
So the staircase is made to go up higher, and always with steps of the
same size, counting from 101 upwards, as far as 350 if you choose; but
no further, observe! If the temperature were raised beyond that, the
mercury would begin to boil, and then, indeed, good-bye to steps and
measured degrees! The gentleman would dance so fast that there would
be no possibility of seeing anything, to say nothing of his flying
Now nothing is easier than to use the thermometer. You place it in the
situation where you want to measure the heat, and the mercury goes up
or down of itself until it reaches the degree which corresponds with
the temperature of the place. It is much more convenient than your
mamma's yard measure, which has to be moved about over the stuff, and
which is very apt to slip if you do not hold it carefully. Dressmakers
would be delighted to have a measure which only wanted laying upon the
material, and which would unroll itself and stop short just at the
proper point. And this kind of office the thermometer really performs.
We will suppose to-day to be the 30th of November. I have just carried
the thermometer out of doors; the mercury has fixed itself at the
second degree _below zero_. This tells me that it is freezing
cold. My fingers have told me so already; but exactly to what extent
they could not say. Just now in the room, the mercury was at the 15th
degree _above_ zero, thanks to the stove in which we have a good
fire. In summer-time it rises to 25, 26, or 28 degrees. I once saw it
climb as high as 33 degrees: in the shade of course, you understand;
in the sun it would have been quite another affair. Well! there was
a universal outcry against the heat. Grown-up young ladies whom I try
to teach all sorts of things as I do you, pretended that it was
impossible to work. Yet I should find a still greater heat inside my
body, if I could get the thermometer there. Have no fears, however;
I am not going to make a hole in it: luckily there is one already. I
put the ball of mercury into my mouth. And now I can almost tell without
looking. The mercury was on its way up the staircase as soon as I took
the ball in my hand--and now it has reached the 37th step.
You can try the experiment on yourself, but I forewarn you that it
ought to be rather hotter with you than with me: the mercury will
probably rise a degree higher. I will not promise that in your
grandpapa's mouth it may not sink a degree--but that will be all. In
different mouths it has, between the 38th and 36th degree, room for
the play of a little variation, but it can no more go beyond these
than a tethered cow can get beyond the circle made by her cord as she
turns round the stake. Go round the world with your thermometer, pop
it into everybody's mouth, wiping it if you choose as you proceed, you
will always find the mercury on guard. Its tethering cord is somewhat
elastic, like everything else about us; but if by any accident it
should exceed its limit by even one degree above or below, it would
be quite as extraordinary as meeting a giant of eight feet, or a dwarf
of three--which one does see occasionally, although the standard of
human height varies generally round the centre of five feet.
Since there is a fire always kept burning within us, there is no
difficulty in comprehending why our bodies always keep warm. Of course,
however, the fire must be kept brighter in winter than in summer, but
people have no need to be told so. Nature provides for the necessity.
She gives us more appetite in cold than in hot weather; not that we
can perceive much difference in ourselves in this respect from winter
to summer; for our bodies stick to their accustomed habits, and call
out pretty loudly for the same daily rations, though without having
the same need of them. In order to estimate fairly the connexion which
exists between the internal need of food--_i.e.,_ of combustible
matter--and the external temperature, we must compare the Hindoo, who
lives on a pinch of rice a day, between the tropic and the equator,
with the Esquimaux, who, to keep up his 37 degrees of heat, beyond the
polar circle, in a country where European travellers have seen mercury
freeze, sometimes swallows from ten to fifteen pints of whale-oil at
a sitting! Just fancy _whale-oil!_ which is much nastier than
even cod-liver oil, if you ever tasted that; but, on the other hand,
it is a thorough _combustible_, and the poor people are not so
very particular: come what will, the fire must be kept up, and that
briskly. But without going thus into extremes, a friend of mine once
told me that in Portugal, the land of oranges, it is not uncommon to
see gentlemen and ladies (that is to say, those who can eat and drink
what they please) dine standing, in five minutes, on a bit of bread
and whatever else may be handy. Propose this system to the inhabitants
of our colder and damper climate, whose very young ladies, fair and
delicate-looking as they are, need a helping of good roast-beef for
dinner to keep life in them, and they would only laugh at you. But
those who were well instructed could go on to inform you that the
chilly atmosphere of northern countries creates the necessity for a
more active internal fire than is ever needed under the burning sun
of Portugal, and that a mouthful of bread per day will not, in their
case, suffice to maintain the appointed thirty-seven degrees of heat.
For the same reason, Spaniards drink water, and are satisfied; whereas
English wine-merchants add brandy to a good many foreign wines, or
they would be quite unacceptable from being deficient in combustible.
It is for the same reason, also, that Russians can swallow, without
wincing, bumpers of brandy which would kill a Provençal outright: and
that the Swedish Government has no end of trouble to keep the country
people from converting into brandy the corn that ought to go to the
miller; whilst the Mohammedan Arabs accept without difficulty that
precept of the Koran which forbids the use of wine and spirituous
liquors. It is easy for the Arabs, who are kept warm by their climate,
to do without brandy. It is less easy for the Swedes, who are surrounded
All this comes as a matter of course, and we do the same thing
ourselves, without being unusually sagacious. In January, when the
thermometer goes down to twelve or fifteen degrees below zero, I put
more fuel into my stove than I am doing to-day, with only two degrees
of cold to bear with. There is nothing surprising in all this.
The wonderful thing is, that when an Englishman goes to India, he takes
his roast beef and his spirits with him, and in a temperature of more
than thirty degrees of heat, quietly heaps up fuel in his stove, just
as if he was in England, or nearly so. You think he will set fire to
the house, perhaps. But no. Send the thermometer to his mouth for
information, and it will only mark down thirty-seven degrees; neither
more nor less than in the mouth of a rice-eater! The stove has more
sense than its owner. It only burns just what hydrogen and carbon it
wants, and takes no more trouble about the remainder than if it had
not been eaten.
How about the remainder, then? you ask; if it is not consumed for use,
what becomes of it? Do you remember, my dear child, that long ago,
after explaining the office of the bile and the liver, I put off telling
you what the bile _consisted of_, until we had talked about the lungs
and respiration? Well, the time has come now; so listen.
The hydrogen and carbon which is not consumed by the oxygen in the
blood, is seized upon by the liver, who employs it in the manufacture
of bile. Therefore the greater the amount of unemployed hydrogen and
carbon there is in the blood, the greater is the quantity of bile
manufactured by the liver--that is all. When once the body has attained
to its proper degree of heat, it is in vain you load it with
combustibles; it will not get any warmer, do what you will. Only you
will have cut out so much extra work for the liver, and the poor wretch
will have to get through it as he can. Accordingly, what happens in
the long run to our great eaters and drinkers, whether in India or
elsewhere? The bile-manufacturer, overwhelmed with work, gets worn
out at last, and kicks; and people come home with that miserable
disease, which is called the "liver-complaint."
This is one explanation of that wonderful uniformity of temperature
which, happily, human imprudence cannot disturb. But the blood has a
second resource for getting rid of its superfluity of hydrogen and
carbon, and herein especially is displayed the beautiful foresight
with which everything about us has been prearranged. We are told that
wolves, when they get hold of a larger piece of meat than they care
to eat at the moment, carry off what they do not want to some corner
and bury it in the ground, whence they get it again when their hunger
returns. Dogs sometimes do the same; and the blood has a similar
instinct. Listen attentively, for this is very interesting.
I light a candle and you see a bright flame, which will last as long
as there is any tallow below the wick. Can you tell me what it proceeds
Nay, do not laugh at the question; it is quite to the purpose, I assure
We know, do we not, that the substances which burn best are those which
are full of hydrogen and carbon? Tallow, then, is one of those
substances. But tell me further, if you please, what is tallow?
Tallow is _mutton fat_, allow me to say, if you never heard it before.
Now comes the question, who provided the sheep's fat with such a
quantity of hydrogen and carbon as to qualify it for making candles?
The sheep's blood undoubtedly, since blood is the purveyor-general of
living bodies--of the sheep's body as well as of our own.
But how came it that the sheep's blood had so large a stock of these
Undoubtedly, again, because there was more of them in the food the
sheep had eaten than the oxygen was able to consume or the liver to
employ. In short, the sheep has lungs and a bile-manufactory, as we
have; oxygen performs the same office for it as for us. What takes
place in its body in the matter of respiration is an exact counterpart
of what happens in ours, and the history of its fat is simply the
history of our own.
Now do you think it is for our sakes that the sheep's blood deposits
its fat in little pellet-like morsels throughout the body; do you
suppose the poor creature works in this manner merely to have the honor
of providing us with candles? It is not likely. I was talking about
the wolf just now; but there is no need to look beyond ourselves. In
many poor people's cottages there is somewhere an old earthen pot in
which the savings of each day are carefully put by, penny by penny,
as a last resource in time of need. Should a wicked thief succeed in
murdering the owner and laying hold of the treasure, he will squander
in a few hours of brilliant revelry the precious hoard so slowly got
together as a provision for possible needs. And this is what man does,
when he kills the sheep and takes its fat to make candles of! The poor
animal's blood knew well that bad times might come, that grass might
fail, and the combustible matter conveyed into the body become
insufficient to maintain its thirty-nine or forty degrees of heat
(which is the sheep's measure, who is rather hotter than we are). So
it quietly laid up its surplus stock of combustible so conveniently
brought to hand, and destined to be burnt little by little in the
depths of the organs, should times of scarcity arise. But here steps
in man, the universal thief of Nature, and turns it into a beautiful
flame, regardless of cost, and burns in one evening what his victim
had been economizing for so long. To burn for burning's sake, however,
has always been the fate of tallow, the only difference being in the
way it is done. Like the poor man's clumsy pence, which were put by
to be spent some day or other, only in another manner. It is worth
noting here, that some of the Russian soldiers who were in France in
1815 had a very good idea of restoring candles to their original
destiny. As children of the north, driven to get fire wherever they
could, they ate all the candle-ends they could lay hold of, preferring
to burn the tallow, sheep's fashion, inside rather than out!
Fat is, then, the savings' bank of the blood; there it deposits its
savings, and there it can always find them again in time of need.
Witness the fat pig described by Liebig, the great German chemist,
which having been swallowed up by a landslip, was found alive at the
end of 160 days. Fat was out of the question there, of course; the
animal weighed ten stone less than before. We will take the illustrious
professor's word on trust, but were a few days subtracted from the
account the case would still be a splendid example of the resource
which blood finds in fat when other nourishment fails; for the pig had
certainly been breathing during the whole 160 days, and as, in all
probability, he moved about much slower than usual, his hydrogen and
carbon fire was never extinguished for a single instant; of that I am
perfectly certain, and you shall soon know why. It was well for the
poor fellow himself that he had put by his provisions in time of plenty.
And who suffered? Why, the pig's master, who had looked forward with
pleasure to the rashers of bacon he should cut by and by from the
stores of combustibles in his larder. For once Master Piggy ate his
own bacon himself!
You understand now, I hope, by what ingenious management that marvellous
stove, called an animal, never burns too much fuel, whatever be the
quantity it is supplied with, and how, on the other hand, it has always
as much as it wants.
I have now to explain how important it is that it _should_ always
have enough, and that this is not merely a question of heat and cold,
as with dining-room stoves, but one of life and death! Cheer up! I
have only one more word to say about Respiration, and when you have
heard it you will appreciate still better the lesson of economy which
you have learnt from Nature to-day.
ACTION OF THE BLOOD UPON THE ORGANS.
The first time we talked about the Blood, my dear little pupil, I
introduced him to you as the steward of your body, and what a steward
to be sure! Always awake, as you may remember, always in motion; his
pockets ever full of the materials unceasingly required by the
indefatigable builders of that human edifice in which it has pleased
God to house your dear little self. If you wish really to understand
what follows now, we must carry on the simile a little further.
A steward not only provides the workmen with materials, but gives them
orders as well, and this is part of the blood's business also. He is
not only commissary-general, but _whipper-in_ of the whole household,
and besides the care of giving out all the stores, has the charge to see
that everything is properly done. The unhappy men who purchase
prosperity at the dreadful cost of maintaining slavery, pretend that
their slaves would do no work worth looking at, were there not always
some one behind them with a whip in his hand. Well, our organs are
slaves, and slaves of the worst sort. They would never do anything
at all, if the blood were not everlastingly whipping them up in his
ceaseless rounds. Let him come to a stand-still for one minute, for
a second even, and everything stops short; then we are at once in the
castle of the Sleeping Beauty in the wood. But perhaps I cannot do
better than to compare our bodily machine to a violin--to hit upon
something less dismal than slaves--a violin with blood for its bow.
As long as the bow runs over the strings the violin makes music and
lives; when the bow stops, it is silent and dies.
You have never yet had a fainting fit, my dear child; it rarely happens
at your age. But you may possibly have seen somebody faint; or, at any
rate, you have heard it talked about. Do you know what takes place in
such cases? Now and then, in consequence of some violent emotion, but
how or why I cannot tell you, all the blood rushes suddenly back towards
the heart, as during an earthquake a river will sometimes flow back
towards its source, leaving its bed dry. Thereupon the face turns
white, as if to give notice that there is no longer anything red below
the skin. The organs, no longer stimulated by the blood, leave off
work altogether. The brain goes to sleep, the muscles relax,
consciousness ceases, and you behold the poor body, from which the
soul seems to have departed, give way on all sides, and fall to the
ground like a corpse. This is not exactly death, but it is yet an
interruption of life. It would be death if nature did not get the upper
hand again, and send back the deserter to his post.
I may remark here that it was partly on this account that some of the
ancients thought the soul was seated in the blood; not a bad idea for
people who were determined to pronounce where the soul was, when it
is so easy to say one knows nothing about it. But those who placed it
in the breath, and who have bequeathed to us those beautiful
expressions--_yielding up the last breath--giving up the ghost_--were
not wrong neither.
In point of fact the blood is not the soul of the body; in other words,
does not keep the body alive, otherwise than by keeping up unceasingly
and everywhere that magic fire of which we were talking last time.
The French people, in their picturesque language, have found an
expression, full of energy, to express the action exercised by the
master workman, who knows how to make his people work: "_Il vous met
le feu sous le ventre._" [Footnote: Literally, _he puts fire under
their bellies;_ but here signifying that he makes it so hot that
the organs are compelled to continue in motion.] This is, to the letter,
the process employed by the blood to make the organs work. It makes
a fire under the belly. Unhappily their work only lasts as long as the
fire which causes the heat, and which is so necessary to life that it
is almost confounded with it. It is the sacred fire of the Roman
Vestals, which must be fed night and day under pain of death should
it go out. Now, if to feed the sacred fire of life, it be necessary
that the blood should everywhere find hydrogen and carbon
_unattached_, that is to say, free and ready to unite themselves
to oxygen, it is no less necessary that he should bring oxygen with
him everywhere. Else there would be no marriage, and therefore no fire.
Oxygen is, then, the talisman which brings the organs to obedience.
Without oxygen he would be a slave-driver without his whip; his orders
would be despised. If the organs were to be deluged with _venous_
blood--with that black blood which has lost its oxygen, they would not
stir any more than if they had received so much water. They acknowledge
nothing but _arterial_ blood--red blood--blood rich in oxygen.
That is what they respect, and which has authority over them; the other
is a bankrupt who has lost his credit with his cash; those whom he fed
but lately now laugh in his face. And as our good steward spends all
his oxygen every time he goes his rounds, it would soon be over with
him, and, consequently, with us, too, if he had not some method of
replenishing his purse after each journey. Happily the lungs are the
inexhaustible chest to which he always returns to renew his right of
authority; that is, his power of preserving life. When it comes to the
_last sigh_, the last effort of the diaphragm by which the chest
is closed forever, we must bid adieu to life. In yielding up that, we
have in very truth yielded up the ghost.
This is no joke, as you see, and it would not do to be caught
unprepared, with an inexorable necessity hanging over one, which never
allows a moment's respite. The blood acts like a reasonable being,
therefore, in laying up his stores of combustible in reserve. Moreover,
whether he has done so or not, the fire must go on all the same; that
is absolutely necessary; and if he has no spare fat to feed it with,
when, from any cause, the stomach leaves off working, he makes use of
anything he can lay his hands upon.
I know a story on this subject which will amuse you.
There lived, in the reign of Francis I. of France, an honest countryman,
of Périgord, named Bernard Palissy. At that time everybody could not
afford to have earthenware plates, as they have now. It was a
manufacture of which only the Italians had the secret, and Bernard,
who knew something of the matter, from being a glass-worker, took it
into his head to try and find it out entirely by himself. So, without
asking anybody's advice, he turned potter, built ovens, picked up wood
as he could, manufactured his first pots, whether well or ill, made
a beginning, and waited. He had fifteen or sixteen years of it before
he succeeded; fifteen or sixteen years of ruinous experiments, which
would have discouraged a less sturdy heart than his. But he, after he
had succeeded in picking up some money by his church windows, returned
to his work with unconquerable perseverance, insensible to poverty,
deaf to the ridicule of neighbors, and unmoved by the abuse of his
wife, who was furious, as you may suppose, at being forced to play the
heroine without having the least turn for it. And one fine day there
was a grand uproar in La Chapelle-Biron (that was the name of his
village). "Bernard Palissy has gone mad," said everybody; "he is burning
up his house to bake his pots." And upon my word it was true! Wood
happened to be wanting while a batch was in the oven, and Bernard
having begun by using up the garden palisades, took next the large
tables, and at last the floor of the house! What his wife had to say,
I leave you to judge; as for him he listened to nothing; but, fixing
his eyes on the insatiable furnace, threw in one thing after another,
caring only for the risk to his handiwork. The ceiling would have
followed the floor had not his pots been sufficiently baked without.
And thus, and thus, does the blood, when combustible matter fails him!
He demolishes the house, and throws it, bit by bit, into the fire. The
fat goes into it naturally enough, as I have already explained to you.
It is the fuel-store of the house. It was put by on purpose, and may
be used up without injury. Then comes the turn of the muscles; more
useful without being indispensable. Those are Bernard Palissy's
palisades one may contrive to do without them. They melt away, so to
speak, after a few days' fast, and you find yourself what people call
"nothing but skin and bone." But then, if this condition is prolonged,
and the exhausted flesh cannot supply the demand, the blood does not
hesitate a moment. He boldly falls upon the most important organs,
without stopping to consider; he, too, is devoted solely to his work,
and that, like the baking of pots, never comes to an end by being
completed; if external help does not arrive in time, the house soon
becomes uninhabitable, and life slips away. The man dies of hunger.
But in the same way that poor Bernard Palissy was in reality working,
all the time, for his wife and children, whose future well-being he
strove for as the final end of all his efforts, though at the risk of
letting them sleep under the bare heavens; so the blood was laboring
up to the last moment for that very life which he at last turned out
of doors; and the work of destruction which caused its final departure
has had in reality the effect of prolonging its stay. Without it, all
would have been over long before.
THE WORK OP THE ORGANS.
Thus much is settled, then. It is the blood which sets everything in
motion throughout the body. The organs are idlers who would do nothing
but for him; they only work when goaded on, if I may use the expression,
by that fire--always on the point of going out--which he is perpetually
coming back to rekindle, thanks to the oxygen he carries with him from
This will enable me to explain many things, which, although not new
to you, you have probably never tried to account for before.
To begin with: do you remember what happened to you the other day,
when you tried to overtake your mischievous brother in running, and
he, taking advantage of his school-boy legs, led you mercilessly through
all the garden walks, without having the grace even to let you catch
him at the end? You were quite out of breath; your heart beat so rapidly
it almost hurt you; and you were so hot that the perspiration poured
in great drops down your face, so that your mamma, quite frightened,
took you up in her arms and carried you to the fire; for the coolness
of evening was coming on, and a little girl drenched with perspiration
is soon chilled.
Tell me now, what connection was there between your overrunning yourself
in a race and the extraordinary degree of heat which came over you so
soon? Your cheeks were cool and fresh when you began to run; what made
them so red all at once, and especially at a moment when the air was
cool and fresh in the garden?
You open your eyes in surprise; you had never thought of this. No!
that is just the way with little girls. They run; they get hot; it
seems as natural as warming oneself in the sun, and they never ask why
it is so.
Yet you could almost tell me the "why" yourself, if you stopped to
think about it, now that you are what your school-boy brother would
say "_up to a thing or two;_" but to save time, I will help you.
You run as a bird flies, without thinking about it. Nevertheless, if
you could see with a magic glass all that takes place in your body
while those active little feet are carrying it like a feather across
the garden, you would be perfectly amazed. One of these days, when we
have finished our present history, I will tell you that other one,
which is equally worth the trouble. It is enough for the present to
know, that a very complicated piece of work is being carried on there,
in which almost all the muscles of the body take part at the same time,
contracting and relaxing in turn, like so many springs, of which each
either drives forward or holds back a part of the machine. In fact,
while your eyes and thoughts are fixed on the butterfly which is
flitting away from you through the air, there is going on within you
such an unheard-of outlay of efforts as could never be got out of our
idlers if the terrible steward did not lash them severely.
Now, his lash, as we have said often enough, is that eternal fire, the
materials of which he conveys to all parts of the body. On those special
occasions, therefore, he is obliged to make his fire burn much more
briskly than usual--exactly like railway engine-drivers, who increase
the heat of their fire to get up steam in proportion to the speed they
wish to go.
From this you will understand that it is no great wonder that your
small frame should get heated from such work as racing and chasing;
and that if you pursue it too long, the perspiration which comes out
all over you is sufficiently explained.
This is not all, however. The fire, whose strength has to be increased,
naturally requires a larger amount of combustible matter than before,
and forasmuch as there is only a certain fixed quantity in each drop
of blood, whenever the muscles want more than usual, the blood itself
must flow to them in greater abundance. Now if it were a question of
supplying only one part of the body (as it is, you may remember, of
supplying the stomach during the progress of digestion), he might
contrive to accomplish his task there by neglecting it elsewhere, and
overflow one organ at his ease, at the expense of all the rest. But
in this case he is wanted everywhere in the same abundance. It is not
a question of taking one muscle's share for the benefit of another.
From one end of the body to the other, all want to be deluged at once.
And remember that these exigencies do not bring a drop more blood into
the body. How is he to get out of his difficulty then, this overwhelmed
steward of ours? Well! just as your mamma manages, my dear, when there
is more to do than usual in the house;--by running quicker than ever
from the cellar to the garret, and from your room to your papa's! That
is called doubling oneself; and this gallant blood doubles itself to
some purpose. He runs and runs and runs, arrives in hurried streams,
and returns full gallop, passing and repassing through the heart, which
empties and fills itself in sudden jerks. Unluckily, the poor heart
is a delicate sort of person, who does not like having his habits
disarranged, and this forced work soon makes him desperate. The other
day, in his despair, he knocked with all his strength against the walls
of his little chamber, to warn his young mistress that he could bear
no more, and that they were both of them in danger. In fact, you ought
to know that if one was infatuated enough to go on running too long,
one might die of it. When you learn ancient history, you will probably
be told of what happened to the soldier of Marathon, who flew like an
arrow from the field of battle to the gates of Athens, that he might
tell his fellow-citizens a quarter of an hour earlier, that his country
was saved; and he fell dead on his arrival.
But it is not the heart only which suffers by this mad career of the
blood. During each journey it performs it passes through the lungs,
which in their turn are forced to play with hasty jerks. And this is
well for our good steward; for the lungs, filling with air at each
descent of the diaphragm (if you remember what we have said before),
more air, and consequently more oxygen, comes in, and the blood has
by this means a larger stock on hand, ready to help him out in the
unusual waste which is just then going on in the muscles. I spoke just
now of railway steam-engines. See how self-supporting ours is! The
greater the amount of fire wanted, the faster the blood flows; and the
faster the blood flows, the oftener does the coffer re-fill itself,
whence comes the supply of oxygen requisite for keeping up the fire.
All this goes on at once, by one impulse, and the balance between the
receipts and expenditure settles itself of its own accord. How thankful
many families would be if their money-chest would but fill itself in
the same way--in exact proportion as they spend the cash! There is
only one slight drawback, which is, that the diaphragm gets tired with
the unaccustomed gallop it is thus forced into. It falls into
convulsions, therefore, like its neighbor the heart, and the breathing
is stopped, from having been driven too rapidly. An excellent example
for people who want to spend too much at once; showing that Nature
herself cries out against it, even when the only thing wanted is
Now, run if you dare! And, to tell you the truth, it would be a great
pity if you did _not_ dare; for our good God has made little children
for running. They have nimbler blood than we older grandfathers, more
elastic lungs, and consequently more oxygen to spend at a time. But you
must confess that it is a great pity we should run all our lives as many
people do, without having the slightest idea of these admirable
contrivances, thanks to which we are enabled to do it. We can run all
the same, it is true, without the knowledge, the little child as easily
as the little roebuck, which sets a similar machine in motion. But it is
no use talking about the little roebuck; it cannot learn what God has
done for it, but the little child can, if he will. Furthermore, there is
nothing to be really alarmed about, for those great commotions only
occur when we have committed excess; and it is a very good thing, in a
general way, for the blood to give us a stroke of his lash from time to
time. I told you lately that the fire which sets the organs to work is
life; and it is no misfortune to be a little more alive than usual.
Besides which, this increased activity of the internal fire does not
serve us in running only. Every time that a man makes an effort; every
time he lifts a weight, or handles a tool, the blood rushes forward to
deluge the muscles that are thus called into play; the heart beats more
quickly, and the air streams in greater abundance into the lungs. Look
at a man chopping wood. If the log resists too much, if for a minute or
two the man has to strike blow after blow without stopping, you will
soon see him panting for breath, just as if he had been running a race.
On the other hand, he will have gained something from chopping his log
besides the right of warming himself before it at the fire. Blood does
not carry fire only into the muscles; he supplies them with nourishment
also, does he not? Every drop of blood deposits its little offering as
it goes by, and consequently the greater the number that pass along, the
richer is the harvest for the muscle. Look, accordingly, at the laboring
classes. How much healthier and stronger they are than those who do not
work! I speak, of course, of working with one's limbs generally; for
those poor girls who work from morning to night, sitting on their
chairs, are none the better for it, but, on the contrary, worse. There
are also certain worthy fellows who, like myself at the present moment,
drive a pen over sheets of paper for half a day at a time, whose muscles
never get any bigger for it, that is quite clear. Moreover, one
condition has to be fulfilled, which unhappily is not always done. The
more people labor, the more they ought to eat. To you, who have just
been looking at the drama that is performed in the body every time a
muscle is set in motion, this is obvious enough. There is no fire
without smoke, says the proverb. It would have been much better to
have said,--there is no fire without fuel;--and the fuel for our fire
is, as you know, what we eat. Try if you can get one stove to burn
more brightly than another, if you have put less fuel into it. Yet,
alas! this is what many poor wretches are obliged to do but too often;
and then the blood, instead of feeding their muscles, consumes them,
for the reasons I gave, in telling you the story of Bernard Palissy.
Think of this, oh my dear child, when you are grown up, and never
grudge those who work for you their proper share of food.
Here I see many other lessons crowding up, out of what you have just
And first Nature herself, taken as you find her, shows you that manual
labor is, for us, a most beneficial condition of existence; that it
brings about a re-doubling, an exaltation of life; and that
consequently, we have no need to look down upon those who gain their
bread, as we word it, by the sweat of their brows. I told you this
before, in speaking of the hand, which is of so much more use to those
people than to you; and I repeat it now for another reason, viz.:
because labor elevates him who undertakes it, and creates a real
physical nobility. Barbarians in old times, who knew nothing noble nor
grand but war, despised labor, and left it to their slaves; so much
so, that the name _servile labor_, _i.e._ the labor of slaves,
has stuck to it in some places. As for war, the lot of the ancient
nobility, I scarcely dare to say much against it, however much I should
like to do so on some accounts. For, after all, so long as there are
ruffians to trample on the weak, one is only too glad to find brave
men ready to risk their lives in keeping such rascals down: so long
as there are wolves, we must needs keep shepherds' dogs. But in spite
of everything, the best that can be said in favor of war is, that it
remains a sad but inevitable necessity, and that to get rid of it,
more is wanting than the wish. What a contrast to labor--that contest
of Man with Nature;--that merciful and fruitful war, where victories
are not estimated like other victories, by the number of the slain,
but which, on the contrary, scatters fresh life around it as it spreads;
fresh life in the laborer himself, by the very act of work, fresh life
around him without, by the fruits that work produces!
Between the man who dies in slaying others, and the man who keeps
others alive by living longer himself, it seems cruel to make invidious
comparisons; but if it be just to honor the first out of respect for
the cause he has defended, whenever that cause is respectable--it is,
to say the least of it, not less just to do equal honor to the second.
But let us come down from these philosophic heights, and return to
you, dear child; to you, who have nothing to do with war, its massacres
or its laurels.
It is true, however, that you have nothing to do either, with chopping
wood, and I am not asking you to undertake any such thing. But in the
life of a woman, from the time of her childhood upwards, a thousand
things arise for the hands to do, and the question is, how often you
are likely to feel ashamed of not sending for the servants to do them?
Avoid this false and fatal idea as much as possible. The work of the
hands dishonors no one; it is honorable. To cast it aside altogether
is to make yourself smaller instead of greater; to deprive yourself
of one of the glories and the joys of life. If a good thing is set
before you at dinner, do you send for the servants to eat it? If an
occasion arises for making the blood circulate more rapidly in your
veins, and of increasing the strength and life with, in you into the
bargain, why make _them_ a present of it? Especially when it
cannot be an agreeable present considering that good servants have
plenty of such opportunities from morning to night every day.
There was once upon a time a Persian prince staying in Paris, who was
taken to a very fashionable ball, that he might see a specimen of
European civilization. I am not talking about a prince in the "Arabian
Nights;" mine lived, I believe, in the time of Louis Philippe. The
beautiful dancers wheeled round, their eyes brilliant with pleasure,
in the arms of elegant cavaliers; one would have said that the whole
of this airy troop, swaying to and fro in time to the lively flourishes
of the music, was animated by one soul; everything seemed full of joy
in that large and splendidly lit hall, and mothers secretly envied
their daughters as they passed and re-passed before them. Our oriental
alone scanned with a disdainful eye this youthful enjoyment.
When it was ended,--"How is this?" said he to his conductor; "did you
not tell me that I was to see here the most distinguished families of
"Certainly," replied the other; "among those young ladies who were
just now dancing before you, there were at least twenty of the grandest
heiresses of France."
"Young ladies who dance! Come, come! In my country we have dancers,
but they are paid for it. Our wives are never permitted to dance
themselves. That is all very well for the common people!"
Remember, when needful, the contempt of this Persian prince, my dear
child; and let me beg of you, work for yourself. The dance of labor
is worth quite as much as that of the ball-room, when you give your
heart to it. It is even worth more, very often; and next time I will
tell you why.
We are going to make acquaintance to-day with a new personage, who
well deserves our attention. It is the child of oxygen and carbon,
[Footnote: This is the name learned men have given to Charcoal.] though
not in the same way that you are the child of your parents.
To tell you how it is made is more than I am able. It is a _gas_,
or if you like the word better, it is an _air_; for when we say
"gas," we mean "air;" only it is always a different sort of air from
the air of the atmosphere, which learned people are not in the habit
of calling _gas_. I cannot, therefore, show you _carbonic acid_ itself,