Great Negative! how vainly would the wise
Inquire, define, distinguish, teach, devise,
Didst thou not stand to point their dull
ROCHESTER’S ODE TO NOTHING.
Should you feel half as tired with
reading as I am with writing, I forgive you, with
all my heart, if you throw down the book, and read
no more. I have written too fast I
have quite sprained my imagination
for you must know that this is all fiction,
every word of it. Yet I do not doubt but there
are many who will find out who the characters are
meant for, notwithstanding my assertion to the contrary.
Well, be it so. It’s a very awkward position
to have to write a chapter of sixteen pages, without
materials for more than two; at least, I find it so.
Some people have the power of spinning out a trifle
of matter, covering a large surface with a grain of
ore like the goldbeater, who, out of a
single guinea, will compose a score of books.
I wish I could.
Is there nothing to give me an idea?
I’ve racked my sensorium internally to no purpose.
Let me look round the cabin for some external object
to act as a fillip to an exhausted imagination.
A little thing will do. Well, here’s
an ant. That’s quite enough. Commencons.
“Home-keeping youths have ever
homely wits,” they say; but much as travel by
land may enlarge the mind, it never can be expanded
to the utmost of its capabilities, until it has also
peregrinated by water. I believe that not only
the human intellect, but the instinct of brutes, is
enlarged by going to sea.
The ant which attracted my attention
is one of a nest in my cabin, whose labours I often
superintend: and I defy any ant, in any part of
the four continents, or wherever land may be, to show
an equal knowledge of mechanical power. I do
not mean to assert that there is originally a disproportion
of intellect between one animal and another of the
same species; but I consider that the instinct of
animals is capable of expansion, as well as the reason
of man. The ants on shore would, if it were
required, be equally assisted by their instinct, I
believe; but not being required, it is not brought
into play; and, therefore, as I before observed, they
have not the resources of which my little colony at
present are in possession.
Now I will kill a cockroach for them;
there is no difficulty in finding one, unfortunately
for me, for they know everything that I have.
There never was a class of animals so indifferent
to their fare, whether it be paper, or snuff, or soap,
or cloth. Like Time, they devour everything.
The scoundrels have nearly demolished two dozen antibilious
pills. I hope they will remember Dr Vance as
long as they live.
Well, here’s one a
fine one. I throw his crushed carcase on the
deck, and observe the ants have made their nest in
the beams over my head, from which I infer, that the
said beams are not quite so sound as they should be.
An ant has passed by the carcase, and is off on a
gallop to give notice. He meets two or three stops
a second and passes on. Now the tide
flows; it’s not above a minute since I threw
the cockroach down, and now it is surrounded by hundreds.
What a bustle! what running to and fro!
They must be giving orders. See, there are fifty
at least, who lay hold of each separate leg of the
monster, who in bulk is equal to eight thousand of
them. The body moves along with rapidity, and
they have gained the side of the cabin. Now for
the ascent. See how those who hold the lower
legs have quitted them, and pass over to assist the
others at the upper. As there is not room for
all to lay hold of the creature’s legs, those
who cannot, fix their forceps round the bodies of
the others, double-banking them, as we call
it. Away they go, up the side of the ship a
pull, and all together. But now the work becomes
more perilous, for they have to convey the body to
their nest over my head, which is three feet from
the side of the ship. How can they possibly
carry that immense weight, walking with their heads
downwards, and clinging with their feet to the beams?
Observe how carefully they turn the corner what
bustle and confusion in making their arrangements!
Now they start. They have brought the body
head-and-stern with the ship, so that all the legs
are exactly opposed to each other in the direction
in which they wish to proceed. One of the legs
on the fore side is advanced to its full stretch, while
all the others remain stationary. That leg stops,
and the ants attached to it hold on with the rest,
while another of the foremost legs is advanced.
Thus they continue, until all the foremost are out,
and the body of the animal is suspended by its legs
at its full stretch. Now one of the hindmost
legs closes in to the body, while all the others hold
on now another, and another, each in their
turn; and by this skilful manoeuvre they have contrived
to advance the body nearly an inch along the ceiling.
One of the foremost legs advances again, and they
proceed as before. Could your shore-going ants
have managed this? I have often watched them,
when a boy, because my grandmother used to make me
do so; in later days, because I delighted in their
industry and perseverance; but, alas! in neither case
did I profit by their example.
“Now, Freddy,” the old
lady would say, giving her spectacles a preparatory
wipe, as she basked in a summer evening’s sun,
after a five o’clock tea, “fetch a piece
of bread and butter, and we will see the ants work.
Lord bless the boy, if he hasn’t thrown down
a whole slice. Why do you waste good victuals
in that way? Who do you think’s to eat
it, after it has been on the gravel? There, pinch
a bit off and throw it down. Put the rest back
upon the plate it will do for the cat.”
But these ants were no more to be
compared to mine, than a common labourer is to the
engineer who directs the mechanical powers which raise
mountains from their foundation. My old grandmother
would never let me escape until the bread and butter
was in the hole, and, what was worse, I had then to
listen to the moral inference which was drawn, and
which took up more time than the ants did to draw the
bread and butter all about industry, and
what not; a long story, partly her own, partly borrowed
from Solomon; but it was labour in vain. I could
not understand why, because ants like bread and butter,
I must like my book. She was an excellent old
woman; but nevertheless, many a time did I have a
fellow-feeling with the boy in the caricature print,
who is sitting with his old grandmother and the cat,
and says, “I wish one of us three were dead.
It an’t I and it an’t you,
Well, she died at last, full of years
and honour; and I was summoned from school to attend
her funeral. My uncle was much affected, for
she had been an excellent mother. She might
have been so; but I, graceless boy, could not perceive
her merits as a grandmother, and showed a great
deal of fortitude upon the occasion. I recollect
a circumstance attendant upon her funeral which, connected
as it was with a subsequent one, has since been the
occasion of serious reflection upon the trifling causes
which will affect the human mind, when prostrate under
affliction. My grandmother’s remains were
consigned to an old family vault, not far from the
river. When the last ceremonies had been paid,
and the coffin was being lowered into the deep receptacle
of generations which had passed away, I looked down,
and it was full of water, nearly up to the arch of
the vault. Observing my surprise, and perceiving
the cause, my uncle was much annoyed at the circumstance;
but it was too late the cords had been removed, and
my grandmother had sunk to the bottom. My uncle
interrogated the sexton after the funeral service was
“Why, sir, it’s because
it’s high-water now in the river; she will be
all dry before the evening.”
This made the matter worse.
If she was all a-dry in the evening, she would be
all afloat again in the morning. It was no longer
a place of rest, and my uncle’s grief was much
increased by the idea. For a long while afterwards
he appeared uncommonly thoughtful at spring tides.
But although his grief yielded to
time, the impression was not to be effaced.
Many years afterwards a fair cousin was summoned from
the world, before she had time to enter upon the duties
imposed upon the sex, or be convinced, from painful
experience, that to die is gain. It was then
I perceived that my uncle had contracted a sort of
post-mortem hydrophobia. He fixed upon
a church, on the top of a hill, and ordered a vault
to be dug, at a great expense, out of the solid chalk,
under the chancel of the church. There it would
not only be dry below, but even defended from the
rain above. It was finished and
(the last moisture to which she was ever to be subjected)
the tears of affection were shed over her remains,
by those who lost and loved her. When the ceremony
was over, my uncle appeared to look down into the
vault with a degree of satisfaction. “There,”
said he, “she will lie as dry as possible, till
the end of time.” And I really believe
that this conviction on his part went further to console
him than even the aid of religion, or the ministering
of affection. He often commented upon it, and
as often as he did so, I thought of my old grandmother
and the spring tides.
I had an odd dream the other night,
about my own burial and subsequent state which was
so diametrically opposite to my uncle’s ideas
of comfort, that I will relate it here.
I was dead; but, either from politeness
or affection, I knew not which, the spirit still lingered
with the body, and had not yet taken its flight, although
the tie between them had been dissolved. I had
been killed in action; and the first-lieutenant of
the ship, with mingled feelings of sorrow and delight sorrow
at my death, which was a tribute that I did not expect
from him, and delight at his assumed promotion, for
the combat had been brought to a successful issue read
the funeral service which consigned me and some twenty
others, sewed up in hammocks, to the deep, into which
we descended with one simultaneous rush.
I thought that we soon parted company
from each other, and, all alone, I continued to sink,
sink, sink, until, at last, I could sink no deeper.
I was suspended, as it were: I had taken my exact
position in the scale of gravity, and I lay floating
upon the condensed and buoyant fluid, many hundred
fathoms below the surface. I thought to myself,
“Here, then, am I to lie in pickle, until I
am awakened.” It was quite dark, but by
the spirit I saw as plain as if it were noon-day; and
I perceived objects in the water, which gradually
increased in size. They were sharks, in search
of prey. They attacked me furiously; and as they
endeavoured to drag me out of my canvas cerements,
I whirled round and round as their flat noses struck
against my sides. At last they succeeded.
In a moment, I was dismembered without the least pain,
for pain had been left behind me in the world from
which I had been released. One separated a leg,
with his sharp teeth, and darted away north; another
an arm, and steered south; each took his portion, and
appeared to steer away in a different direction, as
if he did not wish to be interrupted in his digestion.
“Help yourselves, gentlemen,
help yourselves,” mentally exclaimed I; “but
if Mr Young is correct in his `Night Thoughts,’
where am I to fumble for my bones, when they are to
be forthcoming?” Nothing was left but my head,
and that, from superior gravity, continued to sink,
gyrating in its descent, so as to make me feel quite
giddy: but it had not gone far, before one, who
had not received his portion, darted down upon it
perpendicularly, and as the last fragment of me rolled
down his enormous gullet, the spirit fled, and all
was darkness and oblivion.
But I have digressed sadly from the
concatenation of ideas. The ant made me think
of my grandmother, my grandmother of my
uncle, my uncle of my cousin, and
her death of my dream, for “We are such stuff
as dreams are made of, and our little lives are rounded
with a sleep.” But I had not finished
all I had to say relative to the inferior animals.
When on board of a man-of-war, not only is their instinct
expanded, but they almost change their nature from
their immediate contact with human beings, and become
tame in an incredibly short space of time. Man
had dominion given unto him over the beasts of the
field; the fiercest of the feline race will not attack,
but avoid him, unless goaded on by the most imperious
demands of hunger; and it is a well-known fact, that
there is a power in the eye of man, to which all other
animals quail. What, then, must it be to an animal
who is brought on board, and is in immediate collision
with hundreds, whose fearless eyes meet his in every
direction in which he turns, and whose behaviour towards
him corresponds with their undaunted looks?
The animal is subdued at once. I remember a
leopard which was permitted to run loose after he had
been three days on board, although it was thought
necessary to bring him in an iron cage. He had
not been in the ship more than a fortnight, when I
observed the captain of the after-guard rubbing the
nose of the animal against the deck, for some offence
which he had committed.
“Why, you have pretty well brought
that gentleman to his bearings,” observed I:
“he’s as tame as a puppy.”
“Tame! why, sir, he knows better
than to be otherwise. I wish the Hemp’rer
of Maroccy would send us on board a cock rhinoceros we’d
tame him in a week.”
And I believe the man was correct in his assertion.
The most remarkable change of habit
that I ever witnessed was in a wether sheep, on board
of a frigate, during the war. He was one of a
stock which the captain had taken on board for a long
cruise, and being the only survivor, during the time
that the ship was refitting he had been allowed to
run about the decks, and had become such a favourite
with the ship’s company, that the idea of his
being killed, even when short of fresh provisions,
never even entered into the head of the captain.
Jack, for such was his cognomen, lived entirely with
the men, being fed with biscuit from the different
messes. He knew the meaning of the different
pipes of the boatswain’s mates, and always went
below when they piped to breakfast, dinner, or supper.
But amongst other peculiarities, he would chew tobacco,
and drink grog. Is it to be wondered, therefore,
that he was a favourite with the sailors? That
he at first did this from obedience is possible; but,
eventually, he was as fond of grog as any of the men;
and when the pipe gave notice of serving it out, he
would run aft to the tub, and wait his turn for
an extra half-pint of water was, by general consent,
thrown into the tub when the grog was mixed, that
Jack might have his regular allowance. From habit,
the animal knew exactly when his turn came. There
were eighteen messes in the ship; and as they were
called, by the purser’s steward, or sergeant
of marines, in rotation first mess, second
mess, etcetera. after the last mess was
called, Jack presented himself at the tub, and received
Now, it sometimes occurred that a
mess, when called, would miss its turn, by the man
deputed to receive the liquor not being present:
upon which occasion the other messes were served in
rotation, and the one who had not appeared to the
call was obliged to wait till after all the rest;
but a circumstance of this kind always created a great
deal of mirth; for the sheep, who knew that it was
his turn after the eighteenth, or last mess, would
butt away any one who attempted to interfere; and
if the party persevered in being served before Jack,
he would become quite outrageous, flying at the offender,
and butting him forward into the galley, and sometimes
down the hatchway, before his anger could be appeased from
which it would appear that the animal was passionately
fond of spirits. This I consider as great a change
in the nature of a ruminating animal as can well be
I could mention many instances of
this kind, but I shall reserve them till I have grown
older; then I will be as garrulous as Montaigne.
As it is, I think I hear the reader say “All
this may be very true, but what has it to do with
the novel?” Nothing, I grant; but it has a great
deal to do with making a book for
I have completed a whole chapter out of nothing.