The contingencies of actual service demand the use of different kinds of guns to suit the different circumstances which may arise. In rifle-pits, against batteries, or for picking off artillerymen through the embrasures of a fort, the telescope-rifle has established its reputation beyond all question during the war in which we are now engaged. In repeated instances the enemy's batteries have been effectually kept silent by the aid of this weapon, till counter-works could be established, which could by no possibility have been constructed but for such assistance. During the siege of Yorktown, especially, the fact is historical that the Confederates acquired such a dread of these weapons that they forced their negroes to the work of serving the guns, which they did not dare attempt themselves, and our men were reluctantly compelled, in self-defence, to pick off the poor fellows who were unwillingly opposed to them. In more than one instance after an engagement, members of the "Andrew Sharp-shooters" have indicated precisely the spot where their victims would be found, and the exact position of the bullet-holes which had caused their death; for with the telescope-rifle the question is not, whether an enemy shall be hit, but what particular feature of his face, or which button of his coat shall be the target. That this is no exaggeration may be easily proved by the indisputable evidence of hundreds of targets, every shot in which may be covered by the palm of the hand, though fired from a distance at which no unassisted eye could possibly discern the object aimed at.
But the telescope-rifle is utterly useless, except for special service. The great body of infantry comprised in an army must be provided with guns whose general appearance and character admit of no essential variation from the standard which experience has proved to be the best for the wants of the service.
We have given our objections to the whole class of repeating guns in what we have said of Colt's rifles; and we proceed to note the defects of other breech-loading guns, some of which would constitute no ground of objection to the sportsman, but are inadmissible in the soldier's gun. It is, of course, essential that any breech-loading gun which is offered for introduction in the army should be at least equal in range, penetration, and precision, to the best muzzle-loader now in use. It must be so simple in its construction and mode of operation that its manipulation may readily become an instinctive action, requiring no exercise of thought or judgment to guard against errors which might effect a derangement,—for a large portion of any miscellaneous body of men would be found incapable of exercising such judgment in the excitement of action. The limbs and joints comprised in the arrangement for introducing the charge at the breech must not only be so simple as to avoid the danger of making mistakes in their use, but of such strength as will bear the rough usage incident to field-service. They must, of course, make a perfectly tight joint, and there must be no possibility of their becoming clogged by fouling, so as to affect the facility with which they are worked. And finally, it is vitally important that no special ammunition be required, a failure in the supply of which may render the weapon useless.
As this last objection would rule out the whole class of guns requiring metallic cartridges, and as there are undeniable advantages connected with their use, we deem it necessary to give our reasons for this decision somewhat at length. The cartridges are made of copper and filled with powder, and the ball being inserted in the end, they are compressed about its base so as to render them perfectly water-tight. The fulminating powder, being in the base of the cartridge, is exploded by the blow of the hammer, which falls directly upon it. The advantages are, that there is no escape of gas, and no liability of injury from water; and experience has abundantly proved the excellence of the system in the essential qualities of precision and force. The most obvious objection to them is the one above alluded to. The cartridges must, of necessity, be made by special machinery, and can be supplied only from the manufactory. To this it is replied, that the same objection may be urged against the use of percussion-caps. We grant it; and if it were possible to dispense with them, it would be an obvious gain. But because we must have caps, in spite of their disadvantages, it does not follow that we should increase unnecessarily the equipments against which the same objection exists in a much greater degree, owing to the more intricate process of manufacture and the very much greater difficulty of transportation. The additional weight for the soldier to carry, also, is no trifle, and will not be overlooked by those who appreciate the importance of every ounce that is saved. But apart from minor objections, a fatal one lies in the fact that every cartridge-box filled with this ammunition may be considered as a shell liable to explode by concussion and spread destruction around it. The powder and fulminating composition being always in contact in every cartridge, it is obvious that a chance shot may explode the whole boxful; and we have proved by experiment that this is not an imaginary danger.
Since the appearance of our previous article on "The Use of the Rifle," our attention has been called to several new inventions for breech-loading, some of them exceedingly ingenious and curious, but only one of which has at once commended itself as being so obviously and distinctly an improvement as to induce a further test of its powers, and has proved on trial so entirely efficient, and free from the faults which seemed to be inseparable from the system, as to lead to the belief, which we confidently express, that its general adoption as a military weapon must be a necessary consequence of its becoming known.
As a full description and report of the trial of this gun has been officially prepared by a commission appointed for the purpose, and will probably be published, we shall only say of it here that its performance is equal in all respects to that of the best muzzle-loader, and, while possessing all the advantages, it is entirely free from any of the objections which pertain in one form or another to every breech-loading gun we have heretofore had an opportunity to inspect. In appearance it is so nearly like the ordinary soldier's musket that the difference can be perceived only on examination; and, indeed, it may be used as a muzzle-loader either with a cartridge or with loose powder and ball. It is so simple in its mode of operation that there is less danger of error than with a muzzle-loader; yet the anatomical construction of the limbs and joints secures a degree of strength equal to that of a solid mass of iron. The force of the explosion causes so perfect a closing of the joint as to prevent any possible escape of gas, yet the breech may be removed by as simple a process as that of cocking the gun; and we have in the course of experiment fired the gun three hundred times, and have since seen it fired five hundred times, without once wiping or cleaning, and the working of the joints was as easy and the shooting as good at the last as at first.
It is a singular fact in the history of arms, that the successive improvements in their construction have occurred at long intervals, and have made but slow progress towards general adoption even when their advantages were apparent. It was more than a century after muskets were first used in war before they were introduced in the English army to the exclusion of bows and arrows; more than fifty years passed after the invention of flint-locks before they were substituted for match-locks; and many years elapsed after the invention of the percussion-lock before it came into general use.
It is probable that the introduction of breech-loading guns will be proportionally slow. A distinguished English military writer says: "With respect to the choice between muzzle-loaders and breech-loaders, I am quite satisfied that the latter will eventually carry the day. The best principles of construction may not yet have been discovered; but I have no more doubt of their advantage over the muzzle-loaders than I have of the superiority of the percussion—over flint-lock guns."
We coincide entirely in this opinion, and we have a very strong feeling of confidence that the gun we have alluded to is destined to achieve the consummation here predicted.
For clubs which propose to combine a military drill with target-practice, it is of course essential that the guns should be of uniform pattern. But in our country-towns, until some definite system of military organization is established by law, it is not likely that volunteer associations will be formed for anything more than the object of perfecting themselves in marksmanship. Great numbers of able-bodied men may be found in every community, who will be very ready to join associations to meet at stated intervals for simple target-practice, but who could not afford the time which would necessarily be required for the attainment of anything like efficient discipline as soldiers. For such associations it is not only unimportant that the arms should be of uniform pattern, but a diversity is even desirable, as affording the means of testing their comparative merits, and thus giving the members the opportunity of learning from actual observation the governing principles of the science of projectiles.
It is essential, however, to the attainment of any proper degree of skill in the use of the rifle that it should be acquired systematically. Experience has proved to the instructors at the Hythe School, that, "the less practice the pupil has previously had with the rifle, the better shot he is likely in a limited period to become; for, in shooting, bad habits of any kind are difficult to eradicate, and such is the Hythe system that it does not admit of being grafted upon any other. Those who have been zealously engaged in maturing it have left nothing to chance; they have ascertained by innumerable trials the best way in which every minute portion of the task to be executed should be performed, and no deviation, however slight, should be attempted from the directions laid down. By rigid adherence to them, far more than average proficiency in shooting is attainable without the expenditure of a single ball-cartridge. Paradoxical as this may seem, it is nevertheless strictly true. It is only, however, to be accomplished by a course of aiming and position drill."
We have seen too many instances of poor shooting by men who passed for good riflemen, owing to ignorance of principles whose observance would alone enable them to adapt their practice to varying circumstances, to have any doubt of the important truth contained in the above extract; and we would urge its careful consideration and a compliance with its suggestions upon every association of riflemen.
With all the instruction which can be got from books and teachers, however, it is only by constant practice that one can attain the degree of skill which inspires entire confidence in his capacity to develop the best powers of the rifle. It seems a very simple thing to bring the line of sight upon the target, and to pull the trigger at the right moment; but, in reality, it is what no man can do without continued practice, and he who has attained the power will confirm the assertion that the art of doing it is indescribable, and must be acquired by every man for himself.
For the sake of first becoming familiar with the powers of the weapon, we advise beginners to practise for a time with a rest. This should be a bag of sand, or some equally inelastic substance, on which the gun can repose firmly and steadily; and a little practice with such aid will enable the shooter to realize the relation of the line of sight to the trajectory under varying circumstances of wind and light, and thus to proceed knowingly in his subsequent training. But we are unwilling to give this advice without accompanying it with the caution not to continue the practice till it becomes habitual. It is very difficult for one who is accustomed to use a rest to feel the confidence which is essential to success, when shooting from the shoulder; and no one is deserving the name of a rifleman who requires such aid.
It is difficult for an inexperienced person to conceive of the effect of even a light wind upon so small an object as a rifle-ball, when shot from the gun. The difficulty arises from the impossibility of taking in the idea of such rapid flight, or of the resistance produced by it, by comparison with anything within the limits of our experience. We may attain a conception of it, however, by trying to move a stick through the water. Moving it slowly, the resistance is imperceptible; but as we increase the velocity, we find the difficulty to increase very rapidly, and if we try to strike a quick blow through the water, we find the resistance so enormous that the effort is almost paralyzed. Mathematically, the resistance increases in the ratio of the square of the velocity; and although the air is of course more easily displaced than water, the same rule applies to it, and the flight of a ball is so inconceivably rapid that the resistance becomes enormous. The average initial velocity of a cannon- or rifle-ball is sixteen hundred feet in a second, and a twelve-pound round shot, moving at this rate, encounters an atmospheric resistance of nearly two hundred pounds, or more than sixteen times its own weight. Perhaps a clearer idea may be attained by the statement of the fact, that, were it possible to remove this resistance, or, in other words, to fire a ball in a vacuum, it would fly ten miles in a second,—the same time it now requires to move sixteen hundred feet. Bearing in mind this enormous resistance, it will be more readily apparent that even a slight motion of the element through which the ball is struggling must influence its course. For this reason it is that the best time to shoot, as a general rule, is in the morning or evening, when the air is most apt to be perfectly calm. It will often be found, after making very satisfactory shots at sunrise, that by ten o'clock, even on what would be called a calm day, it is impossible to attain to anything like the accuracy with which the day's work was begun; and, owing to the irregular motion of the air, the difficulty cannot be overcome, except to a limited degree, by making allowance for it.
It is well, however, to practise in all possible conditions of weather, and not to be discouraged at finding unaccountable variations at different times in the flight of balls. A few weeks' experience will at least enable the learner to judge of the veracity of a class of stories one often hears, of the feats of backwoodsmen. It is not long since we were gravely assured by a quondam travelling acquaintance, who no doubt believed it himself, that there were plenty of men in the South who could shave off either ear of a squirrel with a rifle-ball at one hundred yards, without doing him further injury. A short experience of target-shooting will suffice to demonstrate the absurdity of all the wonderful stories of this class which are told and often insisted on with all the bigotry of ignorance. A somewhat extended acquaintance with backwoodsmen has served only to convince us, that, while a practical familiarity with the rifle is more general with them than with us, a scientific knowledge of its principles is rare; and the best target-shooting we have ever seen was in New England.
[Footnote 2: Hand-Book for Hythe. By Lieut. Hans Busk.]
Last summer, when athwart the sky Shone the immeasurable days, We wandered slowly, you and I, Adown these leafy forest-ways,
With laugh and song and sportive speech, And mirthful tales of earlier years, Though deep within the soul of each Lay thoughts too sorrowful for tears,
Because—I marked it many a time— Your feet grew slower day by day, And where I did not fear to climb You paused to find an easier way.
And all the while a boding fear Pressed hard and heavy on my heart; Yet still with words of hope and cheer I bade the gathering grief depart,
Saying,—"When next these purple bells And these red columbines return,— When woods are full of piny smells, And this faint fragrance of the fern,—
"When the wild white-weed's bright surprise Looks up from all the strawberried plain, Like thousands of astonished eyes,— Dear child, you will be well again!"
Again the marvellous days are here; Warm on my cheek the sunshine burns, And fledged birds chirp, and far and near Floats the strange sweetness of the ferns.
But down these ways I walk alone, Tearless, companionless, and dumb,— Or rest upon this way-side stone, To wait for one who does not come.
Yet all is even as I foretold: The summer shines on wave and wild, The fern is fragrant as of old, And you are well again, dear child!
Katie (the doctor's name for her) said consolingly, as we went up-stairs,—
"I am going to sleep in Miss Lettie's little dressing-room; the door is close beside her bed. If you want me, you can speak,—I shall be sure to hear"; and she lighted my footsteps to the door.
I went in hastily, for Katie was gone. The statuesque lady became informed with life; she started violently, and said,—
"Who is it?"
"I beg pardon for the noise," I said; "how are you?"
"Thank you, a pain up here, Kate"; and she put her hand, so long giving support to her chin, upon the top of her head.
"It isn't Kate"; and I came into full view.
She looked up at me.
"Why, you are—yes, I know—Miss Percival," she said.
"Have you been here long?"
"Only since yesterday."
Why did she seem relieved at my reply?
"Do they think me ill enough to have a stranger come to me?"
"Almost as polite as the grum brother," I thought; but I said, "You mustn't let me be a stranger to you. I came,—I wasn't sent for."
She made an effort to rise from her seat, but, unable, turned her eyes toward the windows.
"What is it?" I asked.
"I thought I'd like to know what the weather looks like."
"Then let me lift the curtains"; and I drew aside the folds, but there was nothing to be seen. The moon was not yet up; and even had it been, there was slight chance for seeing it, as the sun had stayed behind clouds all the day.
"Put them down, please; there's no light out there."
"The doctor left some medicine for you; will you take it?"
"No, I thank you. I hate medicines."
"So do I."
"Then pray tell me what you wish me to take it for."
"You mistake; it was the doctor's order, not mine."
"The very idea of asking that image of calm decision there to do anything!—but then I must, I am nurse"; so I ventured, "Had you not better go to bed?"
"After a little. Would you bathe my head? this pain distresses me, and I don't want to dream, I'd rather stay awake."
As I stood beside her, gently applying the cooling remedy, trying to stroke away the pain, she asked,—
"Did they tell you that my mother is dead?"
"She was my mother. Oh, why didn't I tell her? Why? why?" and great spasms of torturesome pain drew her beautiful face. I didn't tell you how beautiful she is. Well, it doesn't matter; you couldn't understand, if I should try.
She turned suddenly, caught my dress in her hands, and asked,—
"Have you a mother, Miss Percival?" and before I could answer my sad "No," she said, "Forgive me. I forgot for one moment"
My mother had been twenty years dead. What did she know about it? I, three years old when she died, but just remembered her.
Katie came in, bringing "thoughts of me" condensed into aromatic draughts of coffee, which she put upon the hearth, "to keep warm," she said.
I asked her to bring some "sweet" to mix the powder in.
"I hate disguises," said Miss Axtell; "I'd rather have true bitters than cover them just a little with sugars. Give it me, if I must take it."
"But you can't,—not this powder."
"A glass of water, Kate, please"; and she actually took the bitter dose of Dover in all its undisguised severity.
"There! isn't that a thousand times better than covering it all up in a sweetness that one knows isn't true?"
She looked a little as if expecting an answer. I would have preferred not saying my thought, and was waiting, when she asked,—
"Don't you think on the subject?"
"Yes; I think that I like the bitter better when it is concealed."
"You wouldn't, if you knew, if you had tried it, child."
"Oh, I have taken a Dover's-powder often, and I always bury it in sirup."
She looked a little startled, odd look at me.
"Do you think I'm talking about that simple powder that I've been taking?"
"Come here, innocent little thing!" she said, and motioned me to a footstool at her feet.
Her adjectives were both very unsuitable, when applied to me; but I was nurse, and must yield to the whim of my patient.
"Kate, look after Mr. Axtell."
Poor Kate went out, more from the habit of obedience than apparently to obey any such behest; but she went, nevertheless.
"I know who you are; I knew your mother," she said. "Never attempt to cover up bitterness; it has its use in the world."
"Will you go to bed now? It's very late," I ventured.
She went on as though I had not spoken at all,—
"There's somebody dead down-stairs, there,—now,—this minute;—but dead,—dead,—gone beyond my reach.—Child! child! do you know, do you feel what I mean?"
"How can I? I haven't seen her; I never saw her."
"She's dead,—she's dead,—and I meant to—oh! I meant to do it before she died. Why didn't something tell me? Things do come and speak to me sometimes,—why not last night?"
I got anxious. Was this what the doctor meant by incoherent talking? Away up the village-street I heard the bell striking for midnight.
"It is time you were asleep; please try and sleep."
My words did not stay her; she went on,—
"If it only had,—then,—at the last,—she might have forgiven;—yes,—think, it might have been,—and it is not,—no, it is not!—and she lies dead, down-stairs, in the very room!—But are you sure? Perhaps she isn't dead. Such things have been."
Oh! what should I do? I thought of Katie. "The next door," she said; there were but two in the room; it must be this one, then. I opened it. "No, this is a closet,—dresses are hanging there," I thought; "but there is a door leading out from it." I looked back to the chair, where Miss Axtell still sat; she was talking to herself, as if I had not left the room. I could not venture to open this unknown door without a light to flow into its darkness. I went back into the room and took up a lamp.
"What are you doing?" Miss Axtell stopped to ask; then, forgetting me, she resumed her self-questioning.
I lighted the lamp and went into the closet. I said that there were dresses hanging there. Among them my eyes singled out one; it was not bright,—no, it was a grave, brown, plaid dress. I tried to call Kate. My voice would not obey me. My tongue was still. I grasped the knob and turned it; the door opened. Poor Katie! she was asleep. She started up, bringing the larger half of a dream with her, I'm sure. "It's not so dreadful. You have me left, father," she said, with her young face rosy, and very sleepy. I went close to her, put my hand upon the cover, and said,—
"You must call Mr. Axtell, Katie."
"For what? Is Miss Axtell worse?"
"I think so; she will not lie down."
"Do you think I might try to coax her?"—and Katie rubbed her heavy eyelids, open too soon.
"If you think you can."
Miss Axtell had ceased to talk; she had fallen back into the old absorbed state. Katie kneeled down beside her chair, and spoke.
"Miss Lettie!" she said.
Miss Lettie did not answer. Katie put out one finger only. I saw it shake a bit, as she laid it upon Miss Lettie's hand. As when the doctor touched her forehead, she came back to her proper self, and said,—
"What is it, Kate? Isn't it time you were asleep?"
"Don't you know that my mother is dead?" said poor motherless Katie.
"And so is mine," said Miss Axtell.
"And mine," added I.
"And is it for that that you don't sleep, Kate?"
"No, Ma'am; but it is because you won't try to sleep; and you told us all, when my mother died, that"—and Katie stopped there.
"Why don't you go on?" I asked, in a low voice.
"I can't,—I don't remember the words; but you said, Miss Lettie, that too much sorrow was wicked."
"And so it is; and mine is, if it keeps you awake. I will lie down."
The little maid so kindly, gently arranged the pillows, and made the lady comfortable, that there was little left for me to do.
When she went back to bury the dream that I so suddenly drew out of the balmy land, I had only to shade the light, stir the fire a little, and then wait. From afar up the street came the stroke of one. Miss Axtell's face was turned away from me. I could only fancy that her eyes were closed. Once she put an arm over the pillow. I touched it. It burned with fever-heat. Then all was still. I sat upon a lounge, comfort-giving, related to the chair in style of covering. I fancied, after a long quiet, that my patient was asleep. I kept myself awake by examining this room that I was in. It was, like most of the other rooms, a hexagon, with two windows looking eastward. An air of homeness was over, and in, its every appointment. It seemed a room to sing in; were songs ever heard there? I laid my head upon my hand, and listened to one that Fancy tried to sing,—I, who never sing, in whose soul music rolls and swells in great ocean-waves, that never in this world will break against the shore of sound; and so I builded one, very wild and porous and wavering, a style of iceberg shore, far out in the limitless, waters, and listened to the echoes that came,—and, listening, must have fallen into sleep.
I awoke with a chill feeling, as if the fire had gone down. A draught seemed blowing upon me. I got up with a full sense of my position as keeper of that fire, and went to it. The door into the hall was open. I glanced at the bed; Miss Axtell was not there. The hall was dark. I caught up the lamp and hurried out. I leaned over the balustrade and looked down the stairway. Slowly going down I saw Miss Axtell. Was she a somnambulist? Perhaps so. I must be cautious. I hastened after her, moving as noiselessly as she. I took the precaution to leave the lamp in the upper hall. She was leaning against the wall-side of the staircase. Just as she reached the lower step, I put my arm around her. There was no need; she was fully awake.
"Will you go back to sleep?" she asked of me, before I could find time to make the same request of her.
"No,—I came here for you. Where are you going?"
"In there"; and she pointed to the room where I had seen the doctor and Katie go,—where she who was dead lay.
"Oh, come back! please do! that is no place for you"; and I endeavored to turn her steps.
"It is well that you say it. She's in there; perhaps she isn't dead. Such things have been. It was sudden, you know. Let me go."
I held her with all the strength I had.
"Leave me to myself. I'm going to tell her,—to tell her now. She'll hear me better than to-morrow; they'll have a fathom of earth over her heart then: that will be deeper than all that love of Abraham which covered up her heart from me."
What could I do? Despite my holding arms, she was gaining toward that fatal door, and the light was very dim. I called Katie three times, Miss Axtell still getting near to that I dreaded.
I heard a door open. I looked back, and saw Mr. Axtell coming from the library. He came quickly along the hall, arrested his sister's progress, and said gently, as twice he had spoken before,—
"Lettie, where are you going?"
"In there, Abraham."
"No, Lettie, you are sick; you must go back up-stairs."
"I will, when I have told her what I wish."
What could Mr. Axtell have meant? He asked me to bring down the lamp; he took it in his own hand, and, supporting his sister, moved on. Was he going to take her in there. He did. I fled back to the library; trembling in affright, I sank into the first chair, and, covering my face with my hands, thought,—
"What terrible people these are! Why did I come here, where I was not wanted?"
I started up at the words. Mr. Axtell left the door open.
"You think it strange that I let my sister follow out such a sick fancy, I suppose."
"I think it is dreadful,—terrible."
"Oh, no, it is not. Why do you think so?"
"Talking to dead people!"
"They don't hear you."
"You know they can't."
"No, I do not."
"Then go and learn it. Will you go and listen in there?"
"I will not."
"Lettie wished to be alone."
"You're very strange people."
He got up quickly, confusedly, crossed the room, and turned a picture that was upon the sofa. I had not noticed it before. I glanced up at the wall. The face was gone. The picture that be turned must have been that. He came back and stood before me.
"Were you frightened when Lettie came down?" he asked.
"Yes; how could I help it?"
"Why didn't you turn the lock?"
"I was asleep when she went out."
"What awakened you?"
"The cold air from the hall."
"A careful nurse, you are!"
"I am not careful."
He teased me, this man. I hate to be teased. And all this time, whilst he stood questioning me, Miss Axtell was in that lone, silent room, confessing to the dead. It was worse than the tower-confessional; and besides, what had she done that was so bad? Nothing, I felt convinced. Why would she do such a thing?
I think I must have spoken the last thought; for Mr. Axtell answered it in his next words.
"Lettie is only working out a necessity of her own spirit. She is not harming any living soul. I cannot see why you should look so white and terrified about it. Have you tasted the coffee?"
I had not thought of it: I told him so.
"Did you give my sister what the doctor left for her?"
Honestly, I had forgotten that the powders were to be given every half-hour, and I had offered only one.
"I don't think you have chosen your vocation wisely," he said, when I had told him of my forgetfulness.
"It seems not."
He went out. Very gently he entered the place of the soulless one. I heard a low, murmurous sound, with a deal of contentment in it. After a few moments they came out. He asked me again to carry the lamp. I went up before them. I couldn't go after; I was afraid of words, or I knew not what, coming from that room.
Mr. Axtell gave the second powder, evidently afraid to trust me. Miss Lettie seemed quite tranquil,—a change had come over her. Her brother poured a cup of coffee and told me to drink it. What right had he to tell me to do anything? What right had I to notice it amid the scenes of this night? but I did, and the coffee remained untasted.
"I cannot trust you alone," he said; and leaving me sitting there in Miss Lettie's chair before the fire, he lay down upon the lounge and went to sleep.
The half-hour went by; this time I would remember my duty. Miss Axtell was awake still, but very quiet. Her face was scorched with fever, when I gave her the third powder. I began to feel excessively sleepy; but to fail the second time,—it would never answer. The coffee was the alternative; I drank of it.
Again Miss Axtell asked that I would bathe her head. That, with the half-hour powders, which quite forgot their sleep-bestowing characteristic, was the only change until the day began to dawn.
Katie crept in with it, all in the little shivers March mornings bring.
She didn't see Mr. Axtell. She asked,—
"How has Miss Lettie been?"
"I haven't been asleep, I believe," answered Miss Axtell.
She called Katie to her, and gave some house-orders, in which I thought I heard an allusion to breakfast, in connection with my name. I knew nothing about the arrangements of this house, but ventured to follow Katie out, and ask if there was any one to take my place, should I go home. Finding that my longer stay was unneedful, I went. How lovely the earth seemed on that morning, not long ago, and yet so long! Why could not people live with quiet thoughts, and peaceful quietness of life, in this little country-village, where there seemed nothing to wake up torrents?
* * * * *
Sophie stood beside me, with a tempting little cup in her hand; upon the table lay a breakfast,—for somebody destined, I was sure.
"I thought I'd waken you, so that you might not lose your night's sleep," she said.
"Thank you. What time is it?"
"Look at what the sun says."
She put up the shade, and the sun came in from the west.
"So long? Have I slept?"
"So long, my dear"; and Sophie gave me a kiss.
Sophie was not demonstrative. I answered it with—
"What queer people you sent me to stay with!"
"You make a mistake, Anna; think a moment; you're dreaming; I did not send you there at all."
"Well, what queer people I went to stay with!"
"How was Miss Axtell, when you came away?"
"Really, I don't know; better, I should think. But, Sophie, pray tell me how it is that I should never have heard of them before."
"Partly because they have been away during the three years that you have been in the habit of visiting us,—and partly because Mr. Axtell, and his sister, too, I think, have a very decided way of avoiding us. What induces Mr. Axtell to perform the office of sexton is more than any one in the congregation can divine."
"I intend to find out, Sophie."
"In some way,—how, I cannot tell."
"In the interim, take some breakfast, or you'll lose your curiosity in hunger."
Aaron sent for Sophie just here, and, as usual, I was deserted for him.
I began to scheme a little. "If Miss Axtell had only been the sexton, I could have found a thread; there must be one. Where shall I look for it?"
"How did you manage with our surly Abraham last night? would he let you stay?" asked Aaron, when I joined the family of two.
"He was not very surly; I managed him considerably better than I did his beautiful sister," I said.
He proceeded to question me of the night-events. I told only of the visit to the dead, leaving out the conversations preceding the event.
"An unwarrantable proceeding of Abraham's," said Aaron.
"And that room, so cold, as they always keep such rooms. I expect to hear that Miss Axtell is much worse to-day," was Sophie's comment, when I had told all that I thought it right to tell.
Aaron went away early in the afternoon, to visit some parishioners who lived among the highlands, where the snows of winter had made it difficult to go.
Sophie said, she would read to me. My piece of "knitting-work" was still unfinished, and I, sitting near a window looking churchward, knitted, whilst Sophie pushed back from her low, cool brow those bands of softly purplish hair, and read to me something that strangely soothed my militant spirit, lifted me out of my present self, carried me whither breezes of charity stirred the foliage of the world, and opened sweet flower-blooms on dark, unpromising trees. I had been wafted up to a height where I thought I should forever keep in memory the view I saw, and feel charity toward all erring mortals as long as life endured, when a noise came to my ears. I knew it instantly, before I could catch my dropping stitch and look out. It was the first stroke on hard Mother Earth, the first knocking sound, that said, "We've come to ask one more grave of you."
Sophie did not seem to have heard: she went on with her reading. I looked out. Two men were in the church-yard: one held a measuring-line in his hand, the other a spade. The one with the spade went on to mark the hard winter-beaten turf,—the knotted grass he cut through. I saw him describe the outline of a grave,—the other standing there, silently looking on. When the grave was marked, the one wielding the spade looked up at the silent looker-on, who bowed his head, as if to say, "It is right." Then he began to strike deeper, to hit the stones under the sod.
"What is it?" asked Sophie, looking up, for now she heard.
"I think it's Mrs. Axtell's grave that is to be made," I said.
Sophie came to the window.
"It's a wonder he don't make it himself."
"Who make it?"
"Why, Abraham Axtell. Look now,—see him look at it. It would be very like him. He's fond of such doleful things. He has a way of haunting the Church-yard. Aaron sees him there sometimes on moonlight nights."
Even while she spoke, Mr. Axtell did take the spade from the man; and striking down deeper, stronger than he, he rolled out stones, and the yellow, hard earth, crusty with the frost not yet out of it.
"There! I thought he would. Just watch now, and see of how much use that man is; he might as well be away," exclaimed Sophie.
We two watched the other two in yonder church-yard, until the pile of earth grew so high that it half-concealed them. Two or three times the man seemed to offer to take the spade from Mr. Axtell, but he kept it and worked away. At last the excavation grew so deep that one must needs go down into it to make it deeper. Would Mr. Axtell go? We watched to see. Sophie said "Yes" to the question; I thought "No." There grew a pause. Mr. Axtell stopped in his work, looked at the man, and must have spoken; for he picked up his coat and walked away.
"I wonder what is coming now," said Sophie.
"Nothing," answered I; "for Mr. Axtell evidently is going."
"Time enough to finish to-morrow," she said.—"Where are you going, Anna?"
"To ask after his sister," I answered, and hastened out, for I had seen Mr. Axtell pick up the spade as if to go.
But he did not go; he stood leaning upon the spade, looking into the open grave, forgetful of everything above the earth. I thought to approach him unheard and unseen; but it was willed otherwise, for I stepped upon some of the crispy earth thrown out, and set the stones to rattling in a very rude sort of way. He turned quickly upon me.
"You have chosen a very sad place to meditate over," I said.
"Does it trouble you, if I have?" he asked, not changing his position.
"No, not in the least, Sir. I came to ask after Miss Axtell."
"Lettie is much worse, very ill indeed, to-day."
"I am very sorry to hear it. I ought not to have thought myself wise enough to take care of her last night."
"Yes, you ought; you pleased her; she has asked for you several times to-day,—only she calls you another name. I wish you wouldn't mind it, or seem to notice it either."
"What is the name?"
"Never mind it now; perhaps you will not see her until she is sane, and then she will give you only your own."
"I wish you would tell me."
The spade upon which Mr. Axtell leaned seemed suddenly to have failed to do its duty, for it slid along the distance to the very edge of the grave. Mr. Axtell regained his position and his strength, that had failed only for the moment.
"No, you do not wish it," he said.
What had become of all my sweet charity-blossoms, that unfolded such a little time ago, when Sophie was reading to me? Surely the time of withering had not come so soon? An untimely frost must have withered them all, for I answered,—
"You are dogmatical."
"No, I am not. I only see farther on than you."
"A pleasant way to say, 'You're blind.'"
"And if it is true?"
"To say it to one's self, I suppose, is the better way; for others certainly will of you."
"A sensible conclusion. Who taught you it?"
"Did I? Then my life has been of some little use."
"I saw you very usefully employed not long ago."
"Doing that?" and he pointed to the open place.
"Yes, the strangest occupation I ever saw a man engaged in."
"The man did it awkwardly."
"Better, as you can see."
"I'm no judge."
"Yes, you are."
I saw Aaron coming, driving slowly on. I knew that I must go in.
"Shall I come and stay with Miss Axtell to-night?" I asked.
"You do not look able."
"I am. I've not been long awake. I am quite restored."
He looked up at me. It was the very first time that I had seen him do so.
"Do you wish to come?" he asked.
What a question! I couldn't answer. I thought of my tower-secret, which I felt convinced was wrapped up in that large, sombre mansion, where his dead mother (whom I had never seen) lay, and his beautiful sister was. I had not answered him. He spoke again,—
"As if it could please you to come where death and suffering are! I will find some one; if not, I can stay up."
"I will come, if you can trust me, after last night's errors."
"You look like one to be trusted."
"I am glad you think so. Are my services accepted?"
"Gratefully, if you'll promise one thing."
"Sleep until I send for you."
"I can't promise."
"Perhaps"; and I went back to the parsonage.
Sophie had deserted the reading and the window to do something that she imagined would please Aaron when he came home. It was nearly evening. The sun was gone. I resumed my seat and work.
"You look gloomy, Anna,—what is it?" asked Aaron's evergreen voice, as Aaron's self came into the room, somewhat the worse for mud and mountain wear. "Was last night's watching too much for you?"
"Oh, no; I'm going again to-night."
"Going where?" Sophie was the questioner.
"To stay with Miss Axtell."
"I wouldn't, Anna; one night has made you pale," she said.
"You're a frightened little thing," I said. "You've Aaron's headachy eyes of yesterday."
"Have you promised to go?" Aaron asked.
"I have. Mr. Axtell is to send for me in time."
No more was said on the subject. Aaron had learned many things in his visit to the people's homes. I fancy that he gathered much material for Sunday-sermons that afternoon. I could not help wishing that he knew all of last night's teaching to me. An idle wish; how could he? What is knowledge to one is but dry dust to another soul. The soils of the human heart are as various as those of our planet, and therein as many and as strange plants are grown. Why had I always thought mine to be adapted to the aloe?
The evening was dull. I asked Aaron to lend me a sermon. He inquired,—
"To go to sleep over," I said.
"And are they so soporific?" he laughingly asked.
"It's a great while since I've read one. What have you been doing lately in your profession? anything remarkable?"
He brought me one. It aroused me. The evening passed on. I finished the sermon. Bedtime came in the parsonage, and no messenger from Mr. Axtell for me.
Aaron offered to go. I said, "No, they were such strange people, I would rather not." Chloe came in from the kitchen to say that "Kate, Miss Axtell's girl, had come, and said, 'Miss Lettie was too ill for Miss Percival to take care of her. Mr. Abraham couldn't leave her.'"
The funeral was to be on the morrow.
* * * * *
The morrow came. Early after breakfast I went to the house whereto I had gone with the neighbor's boy two nights before. I met Mr. Axtell just leaving. I inquired after his sister.
"A bad night," he said; "the doctor is here; are you come to stay?"
"If I can be of use."
He walked back with me, went to the sick-room, and left me there with the doctor and Miss Axtell.
She didn't refuse medicines, it seemed; for Doctor Eaton was administering something when I went in.
The same eager look flashed out of his eyes when she spoke to me. She did not remember me,—she called me Mary. Common name it is, but the change seemed to please this quaint M.D.
"Have you found out about the face?" he asked, when he had answered my inquiries after his patient.
"I have not."
"It isn't there any longer. Somebody's taken it away."
"Don't you care to know about it?"
"Yes, it was a pleasant face,—a prettiness of youth about it."
"Ask him,—do you hear, young lady?—ask him"; and giving me directions for the morning, he left.
Curious old doctor,—what care should he have concerning it?
The opiate, if opiate it was, that Doctor Eaton gave Miss Axtell, quickly worked its spell; for after he had gone, she scarcely noticed me; she only moaned a little, and turned her head upon the pillow, as if to ease the pain that made her face so flushed. The room was darkened; the fire upon the hearth was almost out. It didn't seem the same room as that in which I had heard my song so recently. I had nothing to do but to sit and watch,—a sad, nerve-aching woman-work, at the best. In my pocket I had put the bit of woman's wear that I had taken from the iron bar in my tower. I longed to open the closet-door, and compare it with the dress that I had seen hanging there. No opportunity came. Miss Axtell was very drowsy, if not asleep. For full three hours not a varying occurred. Where had every one gone? Was I forgotten, buried in with this sick lady out of the world? Not quite; for I heard the vitalizing charm of a footstep, followed, by the gentlest of knocks, which I rejoicingly answered. It was the brother, come to look at his sister. He walked quietly in, stood several moments looking at her face, as she lay with half the repose of sleep over it, then came to me and said,—
"She looks better."
"I am glad you think so," I replied; "she seems very ill to me. She called me Mary, when I first came in; since then she hasn't noticed me."
"She called you Mary?" he said. "Are you Mary?"
"My name is Anna," I answered.
"Then you are not Mary?"
"Of course not; I am not two."
After a little while of silence, he said,—
"My mother's funeral will be this afternoon."
"Is there anything that I can do for you before the time?"
"Yes, if you will."
"I am ready."
"Wait here a little," he said, and went down.
Katie came up, her young rosy face delightful to behold in the half-way gloom that filled the place.
"Mr. Abraham is waiting to see you in the library," she said. "I'll stay till you come up."
In my short journey down, I marvelled much concerning what he might want. As I entered the room, I saw no visible thing for hands to do. Now, if it were but a hat to fold the winding badge of sorrow about, or a pair of gloves to mend; but no,—he, this strange man, a sort of barbaric gentleman, looked down at me as I went in. "The doctor was right; somebody has taken the face down," I thought, as my glance went up the wall.
"What is there for me to do?" I asked; for Mr. Axtell seemed to have forgotten that he had intimated the possibility of such an event.
"Simply to look upon the face of my mother ere it goes forever away."
"Do you wish it?"
"I would rather not."
"As you will"; and he turned away proudly, with that high style of curling pride that has a touch of soul in it.
"No, Mr. Axtell, it is not as I will; it is very much as I will not. I can go in there, and look at the face you wish; but it will unfit me for the duties of life for days to come. The face that I see there will tenant this house forever, and not this only,—it will be seen wherever I go."
"Can you not overcome it?"
"Why not, then?"
"It takes such sweet revenge that my overcoming is the sorriest kind of victory."
"It is strange," he said.
"I beg your pardon; I was thinking in words," he replied.
"I am sorry that I cannot do as you wish," I said, and resumed my profession in the room above.
The day went on, never pausing one moment for the sorrow and the suffering that another day had brought to this house in Redleaf.
Just before the funeral-bell began to toll, Mr. Axtell came again to the sickroom door. There was no change. I told him so. Why did the man look as if he had been crying? Was it because he had, I wonder?
He did not come in. Poor man! He was the only relative, the only one to stand at the last beside the grave he opened yesterday. I could not help it, I held out my hand to him as he stood there in the hall, I had no words wherewith to convey sympathy. He looked at it very much as he might have done at one of the waxen hands that belong to waxen figures in a shop-window, without one ray of the meaning it was intended to convey entering into his mind. I felt confused, uncomfortable. It seemed to me, then, irreverent to his sorrow, that I, a stranger, should have attempted the proffer of sympathy; but I must make him comprehend me.
"I wanted to say that I am sorry with you," I said.
"Will you say it the same way again?"
"How?" for this time it was I who did not comprehend.
He held out his hand. I fulfilled my original intention.
"I thank you," he said, and went down alone to his mother's funeral.
How do people ever live through funerals? The solemn tolling of the bell went on. The village-people came, one by one. Aaron's voice it was that was heard in the burial-service that came sounding in to me, sitting close beside the bed whereon the sick one lay. There seemed a comfort in getting near to her. At last—what a cycle of thought! time it was at last—I heard the moving sound of many feet, and then I knew that they were carrying her out, out of the house where she had lived, out of the house wherein she had died, carrying her forth for burial,—forth to the grave her only son had made for her; and I, little, shivering, cowardly soul, hid my face in my hands, and let my tears fall,—not because I knew this proud lady dead,—not because a fibre from my warm heart was being drawn out to be knitted into that fathom-deep grave, for it never would be one of my graves,—but because this death and sorrow were in the world, and I must live my life out in a world with them. The funeral-bell stirred me. I looked out from the window, and saw the long procession moving slowly on.
Katie startled me, coming in.
"The minister's wife is down-stairs; she wants to know if she may come up," she said.
"She is my sister, Katie; yes, I think she may come."
I was so relieved to see Sophie; it was getting back to self again, out of which I had gone in this house. I could not help expressing my relief.
"There's no one down there to close the house and put away the sad reminders," Sophie said, after asking about my patient. "Some one ought to make it more cheerful down there before Mr. Axtell comes."
"Won't you, Sophie, since there's no one else?"
I could not yet go into the one room. Death had been too recently there.
"I cannot put away the feeling that I am not wanted; but it has no place here, now at least, and I will go," she said.
So, with Katie to help, she went to throw an air of light into the rooms below, to waft away the sombre shadows that clouded them, to let in a little of the coming life that must still be lived. And I waited on, up-stairs, and listened, counting each long, low peal of the bell, as it shook out its solemn meaning into the March air, and lost itself in quivering distances. They, the kindly hearts, who had come to perform the last rite, must have moved very slowly on; for I counted out the years that the one gone had lived, ere the bell stopped.
Then was silence. In that stillness they were gently lifting down the once more little one,—for are not our dead all little ones, to be watchfully thought of, to be tenderly cared for?—yes, lifting her gently down into the cradle that God hath prepared, and set the sun to rock, until His smile shall awaken, and His arms lift us out of it.
The opiate's power was past. Miss Axtell turned upon the pillow, and asked Kate for a glass of water.
I carried it to her, lifted her head, and she drank of it without opening her eyes. She asked for Abraham.
"He will be here soon," I replied.
"I thought it was Kate," she said, calling me my own name. "Have you been here long?"
"Is it afternoon?"
"Yes, three o'clock."
"Why doesn't Abraham come?"
"He was here not very long ago," I said, and asked her to take some food, not wishing her to question me.
"Food!" she said, "what an odd word! Yes, so that you give it to me in pleasant guise."
"What is pleasant to you to-day?"
"Something soft and cool."
What could I give her? It was very convenient having Sophie so near. This must be Miss Axtell's self who had spoken. Delighted with the change, I ran quickly down to beg of sister Sophie a little skill in preparing some dish suitable to the illness up-stairs.
"I'll go and make something," she said.
And straightway taking off her hat and cloak, and tossing them just where mine had gone two nights before, she followed willing Katie to regions where I had not been, and I went back to find my patient perfectly herself,—only oblivious of time. She asked me if the various preludes to the sad event had been properly done. I answered that it was over.
"And I was not to know it?"
I had heard that tone of voice, surely, somewhere else in life. Where could it have been? I thought of my tower, and of that dress in there. Was never to come chance of seeing it? It seemed quite probable, for the lady asked to have the doors opened through.
"Through where?" I asked.
"All of them," she said.
I opened the two into the dressing-room; there was still another out of that. Uncertain if she might mean it as well, I went back to ask.
"Yes," she said; and I opened it.
The first object that met my sight was the painting—the young girl's face—that had been in the library. The hair was covered, as if one had been trying effects of light and shade. I saw this instantly, and turned away.
"I would like you to raise the shades in there," Miss Axtell said. "I like the light that comes in through the distance, the afternoon light; how much it sees upon the earth!"
Going in again, I drew up one, put the drapery of the curtains back, and laid my hand upon the second, when the door from the hall opened, admitting the owner of the place.
Mr. Axtell did not look window-ward. He did not see me. A stillness of thought and being crept over me. I stood, with fingers clasped about the curtain-cord, enduring conscious paralysis. And he? He laid his overcoat across one chair; next to it was the one on which the portrait of the young girl had been placed. In front of it Mr. Axtell kneeled down, buried his face in his hands, and remained motionless. A second tower I was imprisoned in, higher up than the first,—a well, deep with veins of liquid soul, such as man nor patriarch hath ever builded, and I, a bit of rock-moss, unable to reach out to the light. I heard Miss Axtell's voice, and yet I could not move. She called, "Miss Percival!"—Mr. Axtell did not lift his head; she called, "Abraham!"—then I moved. With a slow swiftness of silence I passed by the kneeling figure, and should have gained the door, had not Mr. Axtell risen up. His eyes were, for the second time, upon me. A dark, thunderous look of anger clouded his face. I stood still and looked at him. If he had evinced emotion at my presence in any other mode, I could not have met his look.
"Your sister wished me to raise the shades in here," I said; "she likes western light."
"Why not do it, then?"—the anger rolling sombrous as at the first,—he asked.
I looked back. Noticing that only one of the shades was lifted,—
"I will leave it for you to do," I said; and with one involuntary glance at the young, life-young face, painted there, I went.
"I thought I heard Abraham's footsteps in the hall," said Miss Axtell, when I entered the room.
"You did," I replied. "He is come in."
The second time the sister called, "Abraham!"
"Yes, Lettie," he answered; but he did not come.
"What is the matter, Abraham?" she asked. "Why do you not come?"
"I'm coming, Lettie."
I thought of the "something soft and cool" that Sophie was making for the invalid; and the thought took me up and carried me away before he came in.
It was not destined that I should be long gone; for I met Katie bringing up something, whose odor was not even a temperate one.
"How is this?" I asked of her; "did Mrs. Wilton send it?"
"Yes, Miss Percival."
"Where is she, Katie?"
"Gone home, she told me to tell you."
Why must Sophie run away? She fancies Aaron might not see the stars come out, if she were not near to point their coming. I would not be so simple, I think; but, whatever I thought, I took from rosy-faced Katie the bowl of warm and fragrant gruel, and carried it in to Miss Axtell.
She took it, looked up smilingly at me, and said, "Something soft and cool."
Mr. Axtell held it for her, whilst slowly she took the gruel.
Doctor Eaton came in.
"How is this?" he asked; "we shall take great skill and credit to our individual self for this recovery. Now tell me, Miss Lettie, am I not the very best physician in all Redleaf?"
"There being none other in the village, I'll permit you to quaff the vain draught, so that you will season it with a little of my gruel; I cannot fancy, even, where it came from," she said, playfully extending to the doctor her spoon, half filled.
Doctor Eaton bent forward, and put his lips to the spoon she had not meant him to touch.
Miss Axtell seemed surprised.
"Why did you do it?" she asked, with a little bit of childish petulance.
"Because I think that you have taken all of it that is good for you at present. I made use of the speediest remedy; vital cases demand sure means, you know, Miss Lettie."
Mr. Axtell held the bowl of gruel no longer. Doctor Eaton turned to me.
"Have you been here all day?" he asked.
"Will you put your hat on and walk in the air? There's just time enough for you to walk to the parsonage and come back, before dark."
Did Doctor Eaton know how to prescribe for cases which were not vital? It so seemed; for he had given me my need this once. I put my hat on, as he had recommended, and went out. The day was saying its soft, genial farewells, that mingle so charmfully with the promise to come again, that is repeated throughout the great city of Nature. Doctor Eaton evidently intended to watch the effect of his dictation, for he joined me, giving me voice-intimation of his presence.
"Have you asked him yet?" he said, coming to my side, and speaking in his peculiar way, very much as if I were a little child, and he its father.
"Please tell me what I am expected to do," I replied.
"To ask Abraham Axtell about that picture, Miss Percival. It will do him good."
"I am afraid your prescriptions are not always the most agreeable," I said.
"Maybe not; it seems quite possible; but bitters are good,—try them."
"I would rather not, Doctor Eaton."
"No? Then offer them to others. Abraham Axtell is one needing them."
"You are his physician."
"You think so?"
"No, I take the seeming."
"Unsafe road, young lady! don't take it,—take mine. Just ask Abraham whose face that is, then come and tell me what he tells you."
"Breach of confidence, Doctor Eaton. I couldn't do it possibly."
"You'll tell me, though, depend upon it," he said, and was carried off in great haste to repair a broken bone, and I saw him no more, until—when?
I found the reason why Sophie must go home without one word for me. Aaron had said that he would like some peculiar admixture of flour, etc.; and she had feared that he might meet disappointment, unless she prevented it by hurrying home and adding the ingredient of her hands for his delectable comfort, which bit of spicery he undoubtedly appreciated to the complete value of the sacrifice. Sophie is wise in her day and generation. I look with affectionate, reverent admiration upon her life. It seems that she is in just the position that Creating Wisdom fitted her for. I saw Aaron looking at her across the table. She was preparing for him his cup of tea; and of course he had nought to do save to wait, and in waiting he watched her. What was it that I saw? I cannot tell. Why, how is this? the world has two sides, two phases; how many more I cannot know. That which I saw in Aaron's face was a something transitory, a nebulous luminousness of an existence that I had not known, had not imagined, having never before received intimation of it. Why will light evanish so soon?—the fragment that shone in on this Terra Incognita went out, was submerged in the Cup of Thea Sinensis that Aaron received from Sophie's hand. I cannot divine why all this new world of being should fancy to unroll itself, an endless panorama of pansophical mysteries, before my eyes. I do not appreciate it in the least. Philip Bailey's "Mystic" is more comprehensible to me. This is a practical, matter-of-fact world; I know it is. Sophie Percival, my sister, is the wife of Aaron Wilton, country-clergyman in Redleaf,—nothing more; and I thought of my untasted cup of tea, in which lay condensed all the fragrance of Wooeshan hill-sides.
"Why not take your tea, Anna?" Sophie asked, just as I had decided not to think of the things that misted around me.
My answer was a taste of it. I really thought I was doing my duty, when Sophie's words came upon me, a little distractingly,—
"Will you have more sugar in your tea, Anna?"
"No, I thank you."
"The house of Axtell seems to have stolen away your proper self, Anna. I've been watching you, and I don't really think you've any idea of what you are subsisting on. Tell me now, what is upon the table?" and Aaron held a newspaper, lying conveniently near, before my eyes.
"Confession and absolution are synonymous with you, aren't they, Aaron?" I asked. "Please give me some bread"; and I put the disagreeable paper away.
There was no bread upon the table.
"My wisdom is confirmed," said Aaron; and he gave me the delectable substitute, Sophie's handiwork.
METHODS OF STUDY IN NATURAL HISTORY.
If I succeeded in explaining my subject clearly in the last article, my readers will have seen that the five Orders of the Echinoderms are but five expressions of the same idea; and I will now endeavor to show that the same identity of structural conception prevails also throughout the two other Classes of Radiates, and further, that not only the Orders within each Class, but the three Classes themselves, Echinoderms, Acalephs, and Polyps, bear the strictest comparison, founded upon close structural analysis, and are based upon one organic formula.
We will first compare the three Orders of Acalephs,—Hydroids being the lowest, Discophorae; next, and the Ctenophorae highest. The fact that these animals have no popular names shows how little they are known. It is true that we hear some of them spoken of as Jelly-Fishes; but this name is usually applied to the larger Discophore, when it is thrown upon the beach and lies a shapeless mass of gelatinous substance on the sand, or is seen floating on the surface of the water. The name gives no idea of the animal as it exists in full life and activity. When we speak of a Bird or an Insect, the mere name calls up at once a characteristic image of the thing; but the name of Jelly-Fish, or Sun-Fish, or Sea-Blubber, as the larger Acalephs are also called, suggests to most persons a vague idea of a fish with a gelatinous body,—or, if they have lived near the sea-shore, they associate it only with the unsightly masses of jelly-like substance sometimes strewn in thousands along the beaches after a storm. To very few does this term recall either the large Discophore, with its purple disk and its long streamers floating perhaps twenty or thirty feet behind it as it swims,—or the Ctenophore, with its more delicate, transparent structure, and almost invisible fringes in parallel rows upon the body, which decompose the rays of light as the creature moves through the water, so that hues of ruby-red and emerald-green, blue, purple, yellow, all the colors of the rainbow, ripple constantly over its surface when it is in motion,—or the Hydroid, with its little shrub-like communities living in tide-pools, establishing themselves on rocks, shells, or sea-weeds, and giving birth not only to animals attached to submarine bodies, like themselves, but also to free Medusae or Jelly-Fishes that in their turn give birth again to eggs which return to the parent-form, and thus, by alternate generations, maintain two distinct patterns of animal life within one cycle of growth.
Perhaps, of all the three Classes of Radiates, Acalephs are the least known. The general interest in Corals has called attention to the Polyps, and the accessible haunts of the Sea-Urchins and Star-Fishes have made the Echinoderms almost as familiar to the ordinary observer as the common sea-shells, while the Acalephs are usually to be found at a greater distance from the shore, and are not easily kept in confinement. It is true that the Hydroids live along the shore, and may be reared in tanks without difficulty; but they are small, and would be often taken for sea-weeds by those ignorant of their true structure.
Thus this group of animals, with all their beauty of form, color, and movement, and peculiarly interesting from their singular modes of growth, remains comparatively unknown except to the professional naturalist. It may, therefore, be not uninteresting or useless to my readers, if I give some account of the appearance and habits of these animals, keeping in view, at the same time, my ultimate object, namely, to show that they are all founded on the same structural elements and have the same ideal significance. I will begin with some account of the Hydroids, including the story of the alternate generations, by which they give birth to Medusae, while the Medusae, in their turn, reproduce the Hydroids, from which they spring. But first, a few words upon the growth of Radiates in general.
There is no more interesting series of transformations than that of the development of Radiates. They are all born as little transparent globular bodies, covered with vibratile cilia, swimming about in this condition for a longer or shorter time; then, tapering somewhat at one end and broadening at the other, they become attached by the narrower extremity, while at the opposite one a depression takes place, deepening in the centre till it becomes an aperture, and extending its margin to form the tentacles. All Radiates pass through this Polyp-like condition at some period of their lives, either before or after they are hatched from the eggs. In some it forms a marked period of their existence, while in others it passes very rapidly and is undergone within the egg; but, at whatever time and under whatever conditions it occurs, it forms a necessary part of their development, and shows that all these animals have one and the same pattern of growth. This difference in the relative importance and duration of certain phases of growth is by no means peculiar to the Radiates, but occurs in all divisions of the Animal Kingdom. There are many Insects that pass through their metamorphoses within the egg, appearing as complete Insects at the moment of their birth; but the series of changes is nevertheless analogous to that of the Butterfly, whose existence as Worm, Chrysalis, and Winged Insect is so well known to all. Take the Grasshopper, for instance: with the exception of the wings, it is born in its mature form; but it has had its Worm-like stage within the egg as much as the Butterfly that we knew a few months ago as a Caterpillar. In the same way certain of the higher Radiates undergo all their transformations, from the Polyp phase of growth to that of Acaleph or Echinoderm, after birth; while others pass rapidly through the lower phases of their existence within the egg, and are born in their final condition, when all their intermediate changes have been completed. We have appropriate names for all the aspects of life in the Insect: we call it Larva in its first or Worm-like period, Chrysalis in its second or Crustacean-like phase of life, and Imago in its third and last condition as Winged Insect. But the metamorphoses of the Radiates are too little known to be characterized by popular names; and when they were first traced, the relation between their different phases of existence was not understood, so that the same animal in different stages of growth has frequently been described as two or more distinct animals. This has led to a confusion in our nomenclature much to be regretted; for, however inappropriate it may be, a name once accepted and passed into general use is not easily changed.
That early stage of growth, common to all Radiates, in which they resemble the Polyps, has been called the Hydra state, in consequence of their resemblance to the fresh-water Hydra to be found in quantities on the under side of Duck-Weed and Lily-pads. For any one that cares to examine these animals, it may be well to mention that they are easily found and thrive well in confinement. Dip a pitcher into any pool of fresh water where Duck-Weed or Lilies are growing in the summer, and you are sure to bring up hundreds of these fresh-water Hydrae, swarming in myriads in all our ponds. In a glass bowl their motions are easily watched; and a great deal may be learned of their habits and mode of life, with little trouble. Such an animal soon completes its growth: for the stage which I have spoken of as transient for the higher Radiates is permanent for these; and when the little sphere moving about by means of its vibratile cilia has elongated a little, attached itself by the lower end to some surface, while the inversion of the upper end has formed the mouth and digestive cavity, and the expansion of its margin has made the tentacles, the very simple story of the fresh-water Hydra is told. But the last page in the development of these lower Radiates is but the opening chapter in that of the higher ones, and I will give some account of their transformations as they have been observed in the Acalephs.
On shells and stones, on sea-weeds or on floating logs, there may often be observed a growth of exquisitely delicate branches, looking at first sight more like a small bunch of moss than anything else. But gather such a mossy tuft and place it in a glass bowl filled with sea-water, and you will presently find that it is full of life and activity. Every branch of this miniature shrub terminates in a little club-shaped head, upon which are scattered a number of tentacles. They are in constant motion, extending and contracting their tentacles, some of the heads stretched upwards, others bent downwards, all seeming very busy and active. Each tentacle has a globular tip filled with a multitude of cells, the so-called lasso-cells, each one of which conceals a coiled-up thread. These organs serve to seize the prey, shooting out their long threads, thus entangling the victim in a net more delicate than the finest spider's web, and then carrying it to the mouth by the aid of the lower part of the tentacle. The complication of structure in these animals, a whole community of which, numbering from twenty to thirty individuals, is not more than an inch in height, is truly wonderful. In such a community the different animals are hardly larger than a good-sized pin's head; and yet every individual has a digestive cavity and a complete system of circulation. Its body consists of a cavity inclosed in a double wall, continuing along the whole length of each branch till it joins the common stem forming the base of the stock. In this cavity the food becomes softened and liquefied by the water that enters with it through the mouth, and is thus transformed into a circulating fluid which flows from each head to the very base of the community and back again. The inner surface of the digestive cavity is lined with brownish-red granules, which probably aid in the process of digestion; they frequently become loosened, fall into the circulating fluid, and may be seen borne along the stream as it passes up and down. The rosy tint of the little community is due to these reddish granules.
This crowd of beings united in a common life began as one such little Hydra-like animal as I have described above,—floating free at first, then becoming attached, and growing into a populous stock by putting out buds at different heights along the length of the stem. The formation of such a bud is very simple, produced by the folding outwardly of the double wall of the body, appearing first as a slight projection of the stem sideways, which elongates gradually, putting out tentacles as it grows longer, while at the upper end an aperture is formed to make the mouth. This is one of the lower group of Radiates, known as Hydroids, and long believed to be Polyps, from their mode of living in communities and reproducing their kind by budding, after the fashion of Corals. But if such a little tuft of Hydroids has been gathered in spring, a close observer may have an opportunity of watching the growth of another kind of individual from it, which would seem to show its alliance with the Acalephs rather than the Polyps. At any time late in February or early in March, bulb-like projections, more globular than the somewhat elongated buds of the true Hydroid heads, may be seen growing either among the tentacles of one of these little animals, or just below the head where it merges in the stem, Very delicate and transparent in substance, it is hardly perceptible at first; and the gradual formation of its internal structure is the less easily discerned, because a horny sheath, forming the outer covering of the Hydroid stock, extends to inclose and shield the new-comer, whom we shall see to be so different from the animal that gives it birth that one would suppose the Hydroid parent must be as much surprised at the sight of its offspring as the Hen that has accidentally hatched a Duck's egg. At the right moment this film is torn open by the convulsive contractions of the animal, which, thus freed from its envelope, begins at once to expand. By this time this little bud has assumed the form of a Medusoid or Jelly-Fish disk, with its four tubes radiating from the central cavity. The proboscis, so characteristic of all Jelly-Fishes, hangs from the central opening; and the tentacles, coiled within the internal cavity up to this time, now make their appearance, and we have a complete little Medusa growing upon the Hydroid head. Gradually the point by which it is attached to the parent-stock narrows and becomes more and more contracted, till the animal drops off and swims away, a free Jelly-Fish.
The substance of these animals seems to have hardly more density or solidity than their native element. I remember showing one to a friend who had never seen such an animal before, and after watching its graceful motions for a moment in the glass bowl where it was swimming, he asked, "Is it anything more than organized water?" The question was very descriptive; for so little did it seem to differ in substance from the water in which it floated that one might well fancy that some drops had taken upon themselves organic structure, and had begun to live and move. It swims by means of rapid contractions and expansions of its disk, thus impelling itself through the water, its tentacles floating behind it and measuring many times the length of the body. The disk is very convex, as will be seen by the wood-cut; four tubes radiate from the central cavity to the periphery, where they unite in a circular tube around the margin and connect also with the four tentacles; from the centre of the lower surface hangs the proboscis, terminating in a mouth. Notwithstanding the delicate structure of this little being, it is exceedingly voracious. It places itself upon the surface of the animal on which it feeds, and, if it have any hard parts, it simply sucks the juices, dropping the dead carcass immediately after; but it swallows whole the little Acalephs of other Species and other soft animals that come in its way. Early in summer these Jelly-Fishes drop their eggs, little transparent pear-shaped bodies, covered with vibratile cilia. They swim about for a time, until they have found a resting-place, where they attach themselves, each one founding a Hydroid stock of its own, which will in time produce a new brood of Medusae.
This series of facts, presented here in their connection, had been observed separately before their true relation was understood. Investigations had been made on the Hydroid stock, described as Coryne, and upon its Medusoid offspring, described as Sarsia, named after the naturalist Sars, whose beautiful papers upon this class of animals have associated his name with it; but the investigations by which all these facts have been associated in one connected series are very recent. These transformations do not correspond to our common idea of metamorphoses, as observed in the Insect, for instance. In the Butterfly's life we have always one and the same individual,—the Caterpillar passing into the Chrysalis state, and the Chrysalis passing into the condition of the Winged Insect. But in the case I have been describing, while the Hydroid gives birth to the Medusa, it still preserves its own distinct existence; and the different forms developed on one stock seem to be two parallel lives, and not the various phases of one and the same life. This group of Hydroids retains the name of Coryne; and the Medusa born from it, Sarsia, has received, as I have said, the name of the distinguished investigator to whose labors we owe much of our present knowledge of these animals.—Let us look now at another group of Hydroids, whose mode of development is equally curious and interesting.
The little transparent embryos from which they arise, oval in form, with a slight, scarcely perceptible depression at one end, resemble the embryos of Coryne already described. They may be seen in great numbers in the spring, floating about in the water, or rather swimming,—for the motion of all Radiates in their earliest stage of existence is rapid and constant, in consequence of the vibratile cilia that cover the surface. At this stage of its existence such an embryo is perfectly free, but presently its wandering life comes to an end; it shows a disposition to become fixed, and proceeds to choose a suitable resting-place. I use the word "choose" advisedly; for though at this time the little embryo seems to have no developed organs, it yet exercises a certain discrimination in its selection of a home. Slightly pear-shaped in form, it settles down upon its narrower end; it wavers and sways to and fro, as if trying to get a firm foothold and force itself down upon the surface to which it adheres; but presently, as if dissatisfied with the spot it has chosen, it suddenly breaks loose and swims away to another locality, where the same examination is repeated, not more to its own satisfaction apparently, for the creature will renew the experiment half a dozen times, perhaps, before making a final selection and becoming permanently attached to the soil. In the course of this process the lower end becomes flattened, and moulds itself to the shape of the body on which it rests. Once settled, this animal, thus far hardly more than a transparent oblong body without any distinct organs, begins to develop rapidly. It elongates, forming a kind of cup-like base or stem, the upper end spreads somewhat, the depression at its centre deepens, a mouth is formed that gapes widely and opens into the digestive cavity, and the upper margin spreads out to form a number of tentacles, few at first, but growing more and more numerous till a wreath is completed all around it. In this condition the young Jelly-Fish has been described under the name of Scyphostoma. As soon as this wreath of tentacles is formed, a constriction takes place below it, thus separating the upper portion of the animal from the lower by a marked dividing-line. Presently a second constriction takes place below the first, then a third, till the entire length of the animal is divided across by a number of such transverse constrictions, the whole body growing, meanwhile, in height. But now an extraordinary change takes place in the portions thus divided off. Each one assumes a distinct organic structure, as if it had an individual life of its own. The margin becomes lobed in eight deep scallops, and a tube or canal runs through the centre of each such lobe to the centre of the body, where a digestive cavity is already formed. At this time the constrictions have deepened, so that the margins of all the successive divisions of the little Hydroid are very prominent, and the whole animal looks like a pile of saucers, or of disks with scalloped edges and the convex side turned downward. Its general aspect may be compared to a string of Lilac-blossoms, such as the children make for necklaces in the spring, in which the base of one blossom is inserted into the upper side of the one below it. In this condition our Jelly-Fish has been called Strobila.
While these organic changes take place in the lower disks, the topmost one, forming the summit of the pile and bearing the tentacles, undergoes no such modification, but presently the first constriction dividing it from the rest deepens to such a degree that it remains united to them by a mere thread only, and it soon breaks off and dies. This is the signal for the breaking up of the whole pile in the same way by the deepening of the constrictions; but, instead of dying, as they part, they begin a new existence as free Medusae. Only the lowest portion of the body remains, and around the margin of this tentacles have developed corresponding to those which crowned the first little embryo; this repeats the whole history again, growing up during the following season to divide itself into disks like its predecessor.
As each individual separates from the community of which it has made a part, it reverses its position, and, instead of turning the margin of the disk upward, it turns it downward, thus bringing the mouth below and the curve of the disk above. These free individuals have been described under the name of Ephyra. This is the third phase of the existence of our Jelly-Fish. It swims freely about, a transparent, umbrella-like disk, with a proboscis hanging from the lower side, which, to complete the comparison, we may call the handle of the umbrella. The margin of the disk is even more deeply lobed than in the Hydroid condition, and in the middle of each lobe is a second depression, quite deep and narrow, at the base of which is an eye. How far such organs are gifted with the power of vision we cannot decide; but the cells of which they are composed certainly serve the purpose of facets, of lenses and prisms, and must convey to the animal a more or less distinct perception of light and color. The lobes are eight in number, as before, with a tube diverging from the centre of the body into each lobe. Shorter tubes between the lobes alternate with these, making thus sixteen radiating tubes, all ramifying more or less.
From this stage to its adult condition, the animal undergoes a succession of changes in the gradual course of its growth, uninterrupted, however, by any such abrupt transition as that by which it began its life as a free animal. The lobes are gradually obliterated, so that the margin becomes almost an unbroken circle. The eight eyes were, as I have said, at the bottom of depressions in the centre of the several lobes; but, by the equalizing of the marginal line, the gradual levelling, as it were, of all the inequalities of the edge, the eyes are pushed out, and occupy eight spots on the margin, where a faint indentation only marks what was before a deep cut in the lobe. The eight tubes of the lobes have extended in like manner to the edge, and join it just at the point where the eyes are placed, so that the extremity of each tube unites with the base of each eye. Those parts of the margin filling the spaces between the eyes correspond to the depressions dividing the lobes or scallops in the earlier stage, and to those radiate the eight other tubes alternating with the eye-tubes, now divided into numerous branches. Along each of these spaces is developed a fine, delicate fringe of tentacles, hanging down like a veil when the animal is at rest, or swept back when it is in motion. In the previous stage, the tubes ramified toward the margin; but now they branch at or near their point of starting from the central cavity, so extensively that every part of the body is traversed by these collateral tubes, and when one looks down at it from above through the gelatinous transparent disk, the numerous ramifications resemble the fine fibrous structure of a leaf with its net-work of nervules.