W HAT do they say?—what do they say?—what do they say?—
What can they have to say, those noisy, cawing rooks, as they sail along the sky over our heads, gathering more and more friends as they go, to the appointed place of meeting?
What have they to say?—What have we to say, they may equally ask. They have life, and labour, and food, and children to say their say about; and if they do not say it in what we are pleased to call language, they say it in a way intelligible to each other, which is all that is wanted.
That they do understand each other's say is clear, for they are collecting from far and near in large numbers for a definite object—viz. that of assembling in some field, or open pasturage, or park, where they will settle down together for upwards of an hour, and walk or hop about, as if they had serious thoughts of giving up flying altogether, and taking to an earthly life; saying a say, all the while, whereof we are altogether as ignorant as they would be of ours round a large dinner-table, if they had the opportunity of hearing it.
We call their say noisy cawing; what they would call ours round the large dinner-table one cannot guess; but if they concluded it had no meaning, because they did not happen to understand it, their judgment would not be worth much.
As to the noises, there is not much to choose between them in the matter of agreeableness. Nay, of the two, perhaps the din produced by human voices is the more discordant and confused.
If you never thought of this before, O reader, think of it now, and take an early opportunity of listening and judging for yourself. Listen, not as listening to the meaning of what is uttered, but to the mass of noise as mere noise.
Listen to it, as you might imagine a rook to do, ignorant of human speech, and judging only of the hubbub of sounds; and then own to yourself—for conscience will force you so to do—that there is neither sweetness nor sublimity, neither melody or majesty, in the shouting, and piping, and whistling, and hissing, and barking, of closely intermixed human voices and laughter.
Alas, for the barriers which lie so mysteriously between us and the other creatures among whom we are born, and pass our short existence upon earth!—Alas!—for a desire for intercommunion is one of the strong instincts of our nature, and yet it is one which, as regards all the rest of creation, but our human fellow-beings, we have to unlearn from babyhood.
See the little child as she babbles to her cat on the rug, and would fain be friends with the soft plaything. Observe in every action how she expects it to understand her, and return her love. Look at the angry disappointment, if a vicious bite or scratch disturb the security of the affectionate dream. It is not pain alone the child feels, let the matter-of-fact observer say what he will; there is the vexation of hurt feelings as well. Puss should not have behaved so to her; puss, with whom she had so gladly shared her breakfast of milk; puss, whom she had nursed on her knee; puss, who must have known how much she loved her! . . . .
And then follows the lesson:—it may have been given before, but it has to be given again; and while mamma tells her little one that poor pussy does not know what she means, cannot hear what she says, cannot talk as she can, has no sense to know how much she loves her, and therefore is not to blame for biting, although she must be slapped when she does it, to make her remember not to do it again;—behold! how the wistful eyes of the listening child haze over with a dull dreaminess as she becomes more and more perplexed.
It is all far too puzzling for her to understand, and when she turns again to puss—as if by looking at her to make it out—lo! the veil between the two natures remains as thick as before; neither the bite, nor anything else, has been explained.
But, practically, the unlearning of the instinct has begun, and so, practically, the lesson goes on, until we get so used to it, we forget it was ever a lesson at all; and only a few of us, here and there in grown-up life, are haunted, as we stand among the lower forms of creation, by a painful wonder at the gulf which lies between.
That the lower should not fully understand the higher; that they should not understand us, is comprehensible enough; nay, is a necessity involved in the very idea of a lower and higher; let the philosophers rave as they will at the chains thereby hung around their own necks. But that the higher should not fully understand them, is a mystery indeed, and one of which no solution has been offered.
What more natural than that the dog should not know much about his master? What more strange than that the master should know so little of his dog? In one sense, of course, he knows all about him, i.e. the uses he can put him to, and what he may expect from him; but of the inner world of the dog's life, his feelings and motives of action, he knows almost nothing.
Nay, even of his physical capabilities he has no complete idea. Who has ever explained by what power a dog will take a short cut across the country to the house where his master is, although he has never been the road before? or why he never, even by any accident or mistake, brings back any but the stone his master threw—thrown, perhaps, with a gloved hand, and into wet meadow grass, and not found for several minutes?
Verily, in more than one sense, we are "strangers and pilgrims upon earth;" for, from the first moment of waking to conscious thought, we find ourselves in a country where all utterances but our own are to us a blank; all the creatures strange; all life unintelligible, both in its beginning and its end: all the present, as well as the past and future, a mystery.
"Only children, or child-like men," says Novalis, "have any chance of breaking through the charm which holds nature thus as it were frozen around us, like a petrified magic city." Oh, if this be true, who would not be a child again? Reader, can you hear this and remain unmoved, or shall you and I become children in heart once more? Come! own with me how hateful were the lessons which undeceived us from our earlier instincts of faith and sweet companionship with all created things: and let us go forth together, and for a while forget such teaching.
Hand in hand, in the dear confiding way in which only children use, let us go forth into the fields, and read the hidden secrets of the world. Clasp mine firmly as I clasp yours. See, there is magic in the action itself! So we placed our hands in those of our parents; so our children love to place theirs in our own. So, then, even so, let us two walk trustingly and lovingly together for a while, and join again the broken threads of old feelings, wishes, friendships, and hopes.
Hush! is it a parliament, or a congregation, or what, that darkens over yonder field? Are rook-politics, or rook-faith, or rook domestic hopes and fears, the subjects of that everlasting cawing, those restless movements, those hoppings and peckings, and changes of position?
Cower down here with me by this hole in the hedge;—let us lean against this old elm-root and look through. See! the honeysuckle is twined in the thorn above our heads, and is giving out its scent around us, as if to bid us welcome.
Oh, dear companion, do you see the dark glossy creatures at their play? Their play? am I not bold to do so? They have come here for some object—with some distinct intention and purpose. Yonder, in the tall oak that overlooks the field in the opposite corner, I see the sentinel guard, who will never stir from his post until the assembly has dispersed, unless he hears or sees symptoms of danger or interruption, and then he will dash out and fly among them, making his warning cry, so different from all others, that any one who has once heard it, will recognise it again. We must whisper our remarks very softly then, or he may give notice of our presence here, and all the flock may forsake the field.
How solemn and grave, yet how keen and attentive he looks! How patient and observant! Contented not to join the fun himself, so that he may but promote it. Unselfish, dark watchman, are you paid for your trouble, and if so, how?
Or do you do it out of love and affection for your brethren, expecting love and affection from them in return, on some future occasion, when one of them will watch, and you be allowed to play? Play, I still say; but can this be only play indeed? Surely something graver and more important than play must have brought these different companies and families from their often distant homes, to this spot?
Alas! how vain are my questionings! nature remains mute around me, and man is ignorant and unable to answer, let him say what he will.
Hear this, oh you philosophers,—you lights of the world, with your books and papers and diagrams, and collected facts, and self-confidence unlimited! You who turn the bull's-eye of your miserable lanthorns upon isolated corners of the universe, and fancy you are sitting in the supreme light of creative knowledge! Hear this; you are ignorant and unable to answer; or disprove it if you can, by showing me that you do know this one simple thing which puzzles me now! Tell me what the rooks are doing and saying; those inferior animals about whom you, in your wisdom, ought to know everything. Tell me that, and I will own that your eyes have been opened indeed, and that you are as gods, knowing good and evil.
Tell me what these grand assemblies are for; tell me how they are called; tell me how they are conducted; tell me by what message the distant colonies are warned of the particular spot and hour of meeting. Tell me by what rules the place is chosen. Tell me how the messenger is instructed. Tell me by what means he delivers his message. Tell me why they meet on level ground and walk like men, and not rather in their own deep woods, where they might fly and roost on branches, and run no danger, and need no guard?
Tell me what do they say, what do they say, what do they say, when they meet at last, and whether they are here for business or for play. Tell me these things, and then I will listen to you when you point out to me the counsels and the workings of the Creator of rooks and of men.
But, miserable guides, miserable comforters are ye all! Better a thousand times to be a child as I am now, lying under this twining honeysuckle, and listening reverently to the unknown murmurs in the field! But oh! twining honeysuckle, why do you breathe out only scent around me? Stoop, stoop, stoop! I know you know! Why not whisper in my ear, then, what they say?
Tell me, what do they say? Childlike, I ask, childlike must I always ask in vain?
But hush for a moment! some one speaks; some stranger interrupts us already!—calls, "gentlemen!" as if gentlemen were here. Oh! go, go, go, whoever you may be. There are no gentlemen here—only children: children for one brief hour of weary grown-up life. Leave us; let us dream our dream in peace.
But how is this? I see no one near, yet the voice is louder than before. Companion, where are you? Look! There is no disturbance in the field; the sentry sits firm at his post; the rest are hopping, pecking, jumping as before; and yet I hear—oh, what do I hear?—a voice—and from among the rooks themselves! Have my senses left me, or have I received another? Anyhow the spell is broken at last, and language, language, language, resounds on every side! Quick, then, my tablets! Let me record what I see and hear.
One among them comes forward—a crowd surrounds him—he is congratulated—he inclines his head—he thanks his friends for a reception so far beyond his merits or his hopes. . . . Oh, folly! are they aping the mockeries of men? Wait! he is serious once more, and here on my tablets I record,
"The origin, therefore, of these creatures,—these men,—whom we equally fear and dislike, is decidedly the most useful of all subjects of study. How can it be otherwise? Their treatment of us, and our feelings to them, can never be placed on a proper footing, until we know something of the nature of the people themselves. In fact, my friends, I base my whole enquiry upon these two assumptions; first, that it is desirable to ascertain the exact truth on the subject; secondly, that it is possible to ascertain the exact truth upon any subject, if one chooses to try.
"Whoever goes along with me on these points, will be so good as to rise from the ground by a hop, and give a caw. . . .
. . . "Thank you, thank you, gentlemen, for your applause! My recognition of our common capabilities is acceptable to you I perceive. Unlimited faith in them is indeed the keystone of all knowledge. . . . Thank you, thank you, once more!"
—But I—the transcriber of this arrogant nonsense—am ready, as I listen to their senseless caws, to throw down my tablets in despair. Oh! to think of finding the false glozings of philosophical conceit among the birds of the air, and as welcome as . . . but hush! he speaks again.
"How, when, whence, and why, then, are the questions we must put and learn to answer. How came this creature in the land, and whence? when was he first our foe, and why? Why also is he here at all?
"These are difficult questions indeed, and before we answer them, let us look at the facts of the case. Unhappily they are too well known to need much description. It is, and has been from time immemorial (I have made enquiry of our oldest relations), a system of encroachment on one side, and retreat on the other. He comes near us and we fly; he pursues us again, and again we retire before him. Old solitudes and woodland homes are invaded, and made public; and we seek fresh retreats, only to be driven out afresh. It is a terrible position, and a time will certainly come when we must seek a new world, or cease to exist, unless some remedy for the threatened evil can be found.
"Now, the why of our yielding our place to man is fear. We can none of us deny it: a cowardly terror which seems to have possessed our race as far back as our oldest grandsires can recollect.
"But the why of this fear? What is that? Well! I am told on all sides that it is our sense of man's superiority to ourselves. Hence we give way, overawed by his presence. And here I will at once confess, that I was for a long time myself as firm a believer in this old tradition as any of you can be at the present moment. When I beheld ancient woods deserted, ancient homes forsaken, how could I fail to tremble before him who, I was told, was the mighty cause of such disturbance? But thanks to the awakened spirit of enquiry, I emerged at last from the labyrinth of what I now believe to be an old wife's tale.
"The why of our giving way, was fear: that was obvious enough; the why of the fear, man's superiority. So it was said, at least; but of this, what proofs? was my next demand; and no one could give me an answer! Here was a position for an intelligent creature! Everything mysterious, unknown, and taken for granted; nothing proved. I shouted for proofs till I was hoarse, but every one turned away silent. Who can wonder, then, that my next enquiry was a doubt.
"Is man superior to ourselves after all? No one can show me the fact by proofs. May not this old tradition then be a mere myth? the delusion of timid minds imposed upon weak ones for truth? My friends! the moment when I asked myself these questions was the turning-point of my life. Henceforth I resolved to enquire and investigate for myself, and the result of my labours I am going to place before you.
"Yet, lest you should accuse me also of mere assertion-making, let me guide you into examining the facts of the matter fairly for yourselves.
"Now all common observation is against the superiority of man. While we fly swiftly through the sky, behold him creeping slowly along the ground. While we soar to the very clouds, a brief jump and come down again is all his utmost efforts can accomplish, though I have seen him practising to get higher and higher, in his leaps, as if at a game. And at all times, if one of his legs is up, the other is obliged to be down, or the superior creature would be apt to tumble on his nose. Yet it is in this miserable lop-sided manner he moves from place to place, unless he can get some other being, more skilful than himself, to carry him along.
"Again, while we are clothed in a natural glossy plumage, available equally for summer or winter, behold man, not possessing in himself the means of protection against any sort of weather whatever! Neither the warmth of summer nor the cold of winter suits his uncomfortable skin. In all seasons he must wear clothes. Clumsy incumbrances, with which he is driven by a sad necessity to supply the place of the feathers or fur with which every other creature on earth but himself is blessed. What sort of superiority is this?
"One more instance out of many, and I shall have said enough for the present. It is one, the force of which every philosophical mind will appreciate. While we are satisfied with ourselves and all around us, man is ever discontented and uneasy, seeking rest in everlasting change, but neither finding it himself, nor allowing it to others, as we know to our bitter cost.
"Ah, my friends, if restless dissatisfaction be a proof of superiority, who would not be glad to be an inferior animal?
"Now then, have I shaken the old faith in the old tradition? If so, you will be better disposed to accept the new. Whoever is satisfied of this, let him soar from the ground and give a caw!"
—What a rising of dark forms in the air; what an outburst of caws! Verily 'tis a beautiful language after all, and beautiful creatures they are themselves! Only I am not sure I do not like them better so, than in the would-be wisdom of men. Yes! if they had but the sense not to sit in judgment upon things beyond their power! . . . But hush! he speaks again.
"One objection remains to be answered. It was suggested by a keen-sighted friend, now, I am proud to say, a warm supporter of my views. In some of the unmannerly invasions of our premises already alluded to, painful events occur. While standing under our roosting trees, these creatures, men, will occasionally level at us sticks, of the most contemptible size, but which, owing to some contrivance which I have not at present had the time to investigate, make suddenly an abominable banging noise and a very unpleasant smoke. And no sooner do our youngsters see and hear all this, than some of them are pretty sure to fall down upon the ground, as if crouching at the very feet of our foe. All fathers of families here present will admit the truth of this description, and know the terrible result. The prostrate young ones are carried away unresisting, and are never heard of more.
"Now this has actually been brought forward as a proof of the superiority of man; though in what way wanton cruelty proves superiority, I confess I am unable to see. But what cannot we flatter ourselves we have proved when our minds are warped by a theory! I, looking at the fact with an unprejudiced eye, see in it nothing but the miserable fruits of a delusion encouraged through so long a succession of ages, that we have transmitted to our very offspring an inheritance of paralysing fear! For, observe, it is rarely—very rarely—the grown-up bird who is the victim of this terror. Only the tender and susceptible young ones, with no experience of life to counteract the insane cowardice which our obstinate adherence to the old wife's tale has bequeathed to their constitutions.
"Enough of this. I pass now to the pleasanter part of my task! The statement of a theory respecting the origin of men, which affords a beautiful and consistent explanation of all the puzzling facts we have been considering, and opens up a vista of triumph to the whole rook race!"
—Mercy! what thunders of applause!—I am deafened, but curiosity is awakened at last.—What folly!—Yet if ingenuity were wisdom. . . . Well, well, if it were, judges would be overruled by barristers, and a thousand unjust verdicts become law. Again he opens his bill. . . .
"My friends, man is not our superior, was never so, for he is neither more nor less than a degenerated brother of our own race! Yes, I venture confidently to look back thousands on thousands of generations, and I see that men were once rooks! Like us they were covered with feathers, like us lived in trees, flew instead of walking, roosted instead of squatting in stone boxes, and were happy and contented as we are now!
"This is a bold proposition, and I do not ask you to assent to it at once. But if on testing it in various ways, you are forced to admit that by it you are able to explain things hitherto inexplicable, and to account for things otherwise unaccountable, though ocular proof cannot be had, then I insist that you cannot reasonably reject my solution, without offering me a better one in exchange. If things are not so, how are they? is the ground I stand upon. For remember we have already laid down the maxim that everything ought to be and can be explained.
"Well! here then I advance another step forward. I give an explanation (supported of course by facts), and I challenge you either to accept it, or to answer the searching enquiry, 'If things are not so, how are they?' Gentlemen who see the justice of this remark, will, perhaps, afford me a congratulatory caw.
"Almost unanimous, I declare! and my venerable friends who hesitate—well, well—it is from the young I look for support. A natural distaste to disturbance of ideas comes on with declining years. Thank you, gentlemen, again; the voices of my young supporters are loud and impressive."
—Oh, birds of the air, the world and the vanities and follies of it are as deep in your hearts as in ours! But again he resumes—
"The test I begin with is this. Supposing that my theory be true, and that men are degenerated rooks, what would be the condition of their minds, what their feeling and conduct towards us, the original race? Would not the painful sense of degradation, in the first place, cause them to be restless and uneasy with their present condition, as in fact we see they are? And would it not, in the second place stimulate them to an incessant craving for re-association—a desire to be with us, among us, of us, and like us, once more? What more natural then than that they should pursue us with almost tiresome pertinacity (a fact inexplicable on the theory of man's superiority), and that when we retreat before them in fear, they should still follow us, not, however, as we have for so long imagined, with evil intent, but with the outstretched arms of love?
"My friends, I feel the moisture tremble in my eyes at the thought of the gross misconceptions we have cherished with respect to this much-maligned human race. How cruel, how cold we must have appeared to them! How heartless—pardon my emotion! . . . Give me encouragement by an approving caw." . . .
Louder than ever, only hoarse with suppressed emotion. The dream of nonsense is becoming real and exciting! He speaks—
"And now, even for the terrible loss of our young ones, an explanation dawns; and their probable fate becomes clear; and happily it is one of which, in the midst of parental regrets, we cannot but be proud. Yes! I boldly picture to myself those lost young ones, carried away to become the friends and instructors of the race we have dreaded as enemies. I do not hesitate to imagine them tenderly nursed and watched in the stone boxes into which we cannot see, but which they inhabit as homes—every movement an object of interest to their captors, every action creating admiration, and made a subject of imitation—and I see no improbability in the picture!
"For if, as I shall presently show by unanswerable proofs, men are imitating not only our appearance, but our very customs and manners, their being able to do so can only be attributed to the instructions imparted to them, whether by example or precept, by our own offspring,—for who else can have taught them? Ages may pass away before the re-union of the two races takes place, but when it does (and I look forward to it in confident faith), it will be our own children who will have been the means of bringing the long-parted brethren together: those children who once fell down in fear at the feet of men, and over whose fate, hitherto, the veil of an impenetrable mystery has been thrown. My friends, it is my proud delight at this moment to lift that veil, and reveal to the affectionate mourners the bright and pleasurable reality!
"And thus the mysteries of man's pursuit, and apparent ill-usage of us, become in the light of my theory natural and intelligible facts. But you have a right to reply. 'Clear as all this would be, if the thing itself could be, that still remains to be shown. By what possible means could birds ever degenerate into men?'
"Nothing can be more reasonable than the enquiry; nothing more conclusive I believe than the explanation I am able to give.
"At this very moment, then, my friends, we are ourselves living examples of a first step in the same direction! Here we are assembled from all quarters of the country, having deserted our trees and woods, to meet in an open field, as men meet; walk lopsided as they walk, with one leg up and the other down; or jump in short hops instead of using our wings. What account can we give of this? To descend to the earth for a few moments for food, sticks, or wool, as they are needed, is one thing; to prolong our stay upon it, as we do now, is a matter of dangerous choice. Alas! indolence and a fatal tendency to yield to the ease of the moment, are the causes of our own conduct; and so they were, I can have no doubt whatever, of the degradation of our ancestors.
"Ages indeed may pass away without any perceptible effect being produced upon the individuals of a race, by the bad habits in which all are indulging. In fact, where a gradual change is creeping over all, it attracts the attention of none. But heap ages upon ages, and other ages upon them, in a succession to which the century-lives of our grandfathers are a tiny fraction of time, and what then? Anything is possible in the course of such a period. Can any one disprove what I say? If so, let him caw it publicly out; if not, let him hold his tongue. You are silent: I perceive that you assent.
"Now, then, let us imagine a race of bygone rooks, less energetic even than ourselves; nay, we will, if you please, imagine them with some temporary weakness in their wings (such deviations from a general standard are quite possible), and indulging gradually more and more in the relief afforded to the evil by this pernicious habit of ground-walking.
"There seems to me to be no great difficulty in believing that a weakness so indulged should gain ground in proportion to the extent of the indulgence, until, in the course of the long ages alluded to, and by many inheritances of increased want of power, the mischief, once trifling, became insurmountable, and a race incapable of using their wings at all, arose.
"Now, it is well known to you all, by observation of our young ones, that wings grow by use. After the young brood make efforts at flying, those necessary appendages increase. Thus much therefore is clear. Practice brings power, and power brings on growth and enlargement. And, in a similar manner, want of practice brings a falling away of strength, and diminution in size.
"Why then should there be any insuperable difficulty in further believing it possible that the never-used and consequently constantly diminishing wings of generation after generation, should disappear at last entirely as wings, leaving only the outer bone remaining, as a sort of claw whereby to lay hold on what was wanted—bared of all its beauty and ornament,—in fact, the long uncouth arm of the present man?
"And I can hardly doubt that in a similar manner, the other unused feathers on back and breast and legs, would also gradually fail. No air blowing through them, no freedom of action, no battling with the breeze. On the contrary, a stuffy life in close stone boxes, inclosed on all sides. Well might wings diminish in size, and feathers decrease in quantity, until at length, in the naked, claw-armed, bare-legged creature, not a trace of them could be found!
"Every probability is in favour of such a result, provided you only allow time enough for the imperceptible action of the change.
"And now reflect upon the miserable creature presented to your imagination! Enlarged, it is true, in length, for his lazy habits encourage that sort of feeble growth; and the power which once produced feathers, must needs develop in some other form! But behold him—a featherless, thin-skinned biped—neither beast, nor bird, nor fish; wandering, shivering, over the face of the earth, needing help from every other creature around him, yet never satisfied with anything he gets! Need I fill up the picture further, or will not every one recognise at once in this miserable animal the portrait of the superior being, Man?
—Well may the listeners caw! well may they wheel round and round in exulting flight. I myself grow giddy and confused. Am I then half convinced?—Yet for an imperfect being to hope to fathom the higher nature? Bah! what balderdash of folly! But hark, he has begun afresh.
"That such a degeneration is possible is therefore clear; and of the thousand difficulties cleared away by the establishment of this fact, I will offer you one more.
"You must all admit that one of the most puzzling whys in connexion with man, is, why he wears clothes? A habit which, viewing him as a perfect animal, it would be impossible to account for, but which, on the contrary, considering him as a degenerated one, is just what might be expected. He had his natural clothes once, like the rest of the animals of the earth; he has lost them now, through the disease of his deterioration, and must supply himself with the miserable make-shifts of dress.
"My friends, time does not allow me to give you now more than a few examples of my collection of proofs, the extent of which is enormous; for even after my own convictions were fixed for ever by the discoveries I have already named, I never relaxed in my researches; but being unable to be personally in more places than one at a time, I employed in active investigations several distinguished friends; I will mention particularly Mr. Raven-wing, Mr. Yellow-beak, and Mr. Grey-leg. Furnished with a complete understanding of what I believed and wished to be proved, these gentlemen have been unremitting in their efforts to procure corroborative facts; of which therefore, I will, before I conclude, mention a few of the most striking.
"Mr. Raven-wing's particular line was to find evidence of attempts on the part of man to recover the colour of the original race, namely, black; and to this end he did not shrink even from the distasteful task of approaching those vast masses of men's stone boxes, which they call cities, towns, or villages, in order that he might observe the proceedings of their inhabitants. And he came back to me absolutely overwhelmed with what he had met with. Black in all the streets struggling to overpower every other hue. Black quiescent on the pavements and walls. Black rising triumphantly into the air from the mouths of those smaller boxes, which are placed on the summit of the larger ones, apparently to raise their height—of which singular fact I shall have more to say by and by.
"Black also the usual colour of the coverings with which men protect their heads from the outer air. Black even the clumsy boots which cover their feet. Black pretty nearly everything, everywhere, Mr. Raven-wing positively declared.
"And on another occasion, in some parts of the country, he came upon whole races of men who left their homes every morning at an early hour, white, but returned to them every evening black, having accomplished this transformation during the course of the day. But by what means this significant change was effected he could not precisely ascertain; for the places to which these creatures resorted for the purpose were either deep holes in the earth, into which they descended, and soon disappeared from sight, or large dark inclosures, full of fire and heat and smoke, into which no bird could follow them and live; so that all he knew of them was that everything there being black, people became blackened who remained there long enough.
"Alas! what sufferings men endure in their struggles to become like ourselves, it is pitiful to reflect upon! And the repetition of the endurance is not the least remarkable fact of the case. For unhappily the desired result appears to last for only the period of one day. These men emerge from their stone boxes next morning, pallid as before, again to go forth to similar haunts, and undergo the same tortures, to bring back for the same short time the coveted colour of their cheeks!
"All these circumstances, gentlemen, fell under Mr. Raven-wing's personal observation, and of them, therefore, no doubt can be entertained. But it is fair to tell you also that he did, in the course of his travels, hear of another class of facts, highly corroborative of these, but of which, as depending upon hearsay evidence, I cannot so positively speak.
"That hearsay evidence went to show that there are already existing in the world, a class of men whose black colour remains with them for life—nay, who transmit it to their offspring, so effectual have been the means used by their ancestors in acquiring it! Singular and interesting as this circumstance is, if true, I do not wish to dwell upon it. Imperfect evidence is the one thing in the world on which no fair enquirer likes to build.
"On the other hand, Mr. Yellow-beak's mission was to obtain proofs of man's endeavour to resume his life in trees; and of this some very interesting instances were adduced. In the same cities or towns which were the seat of Mr. Raven-wing's investigations, Mr. Yellow-beak discovered narrow, upright, and very much elongated brick boxes, no thicker than the stems of our large trees, and in many cases strongly resembling them in formation, only destitute altogether of branches and leaves.
"And out of the tops of these Mr. Yellow-beak noticed to issue those same columns of black smoke, as he was told it was called, which Mr. Raven-wing had observed before, and which is evidently one of the many contrivances by which man is endeavouring after a restoration to the appearances of his lost primeval state.
"Indeed, my esteemed and acute friend satisfied himself that there was, at the present day, going on among men a series of systematic and unremitting efforts for a return to the lost forests and the original condition; of which efforts these stem-like buildings furnish a notable example.
"Let some ingenious plan be devised for the construction of branches on each side, and there can be no possible reason why men should not, in the course of time—but, mark me—I do say in the course of time—roost in these brick trees, as they did of yore in the natural ones. In fact, that this will eventually take place, and that men will make their homes in the branched chimneys of cities, I see no difficulty in supposing; nor that this will be one most powerful step towards a return to the common interests and hopes between ourselves and them.
"Mr. Grey-leg's information was of a miscellaneous character. He was out early one morning, near a large village, and having fixed his attention on one of those smaller boxes usually placed on the others to raise the height of the building, he all at once observed emerging from its mouth a living creature. My friends, it is a solemn and important fact that this creature was black all over.
"Black as a black feather coat could have made him. Black in his skin, black in his clothes, black in the arm which lifted itself up and waved round and round triumphantly something also black, and more like a bird's feather than anything else. The gesture was triumphant, and the voice scarcely less so—Sweep-o-oh! Sweep-oh! Sweep-oh! Some feeble attempt, we may suppose, at a return to the caw of their better days, yet, in its monotony, indicating a common origin of language.
"Mr. Grey-leg's observations were specially valuable, however, in his discovery of more than one place near great towns, in which attempts are frequently made, on the part of our poor degenerate brothers, towards bringing to perfection a substitute for the lost power of soaring in the air. Clumsy as the machine or balloon used for this purpose is, the mere fact of its invention forms one of the most valuable links in the chain of evidence of man's determination to return as soon as possible to the habits and manners of his forefathers.
"Weary of his degradation, he is, no doubt, at the very moment we are avoiding and fearing him, longing to make known to us his sense of his misery, and to obtain assistance and hope for the future. But, among other things, the total loss of our language, consequent upon a long cessation of intercourse, remains as an almost insuperable difficulty between us.
"The sounds he emits now from his bill-less mouth are, in truth, an unmeaning jargon, to which it is absolutely painful to listen. It serves his present necessities, we may presume, as orders seem to be given and taken between one individual and another; but beyond this it is mere jaw, and jaw with as little music in it as meaning.
"There is, in fact, 'neither sweetness nor sublimity, neither melody nor majesty, in the shouting, and piping, and whistling, and hissing, and barking of closely intermixed human voices and laughter.' "
—Where am I?—where am I?—what am I about? Is some mocking echo repeating my former words? But, hush once more, for the voice is speaking again:—
—"This is but the faintest outline of what will be laid before you hereafter, if, indeed, we ever meet again as now. These points meanwhile are established as facts which admit of no dispute:—man's degradation from his original brotherhood with ourselves; his yearnings for re-association; his constant efforts in that direction.
"And for my own part, I am equally satisfied of the probability of his success in those efforts. I venture confidently to anticipate futurity, and I see him mounted in his brick-roosting homes, growing wings and feathers, because they have become a necessity; while, as the long ages pass over, and his present vile habits die out from want of use, he will gradually lay aside the unmeaning jargon which he has fallen into since he ceased to be one of us, and return to the original caw of his happier state.
"Alas! my friends, that for us, personally, these bright visions cannot be realized! We shall none of us behold that glorious day! I speak it with regret. As long as we can hope to last, men will probably remain the thin-skinned, clothes-wearing creatures our grandsires remember them; still hop lop-sided on the ground, and only occasionally, and by very clumsy machines, soar into the sky.
"But I find no difficulty in looking forward through innumerable successions of ages to a time when men will again, through gradual successive developments of down and feathers, become swift-flying birds of the air; our friends, companions, brothers—rooks, in fact, like ourselves. All observations tend to show that a change in this direction is already at work, nay, has been so for a considerable length of time, and with increasing symptoms of success, as the observations of Mr. Raven-wing, Mr. Yellow-beak, and Mr. Grey-legs must have convinced you. All probability therefore is in favour of that success becoming one day complete.
"But, in the meantime, knowing the peculiar relations between their race and ours, and anticipating the day when they shall become one, should it not be our endeavour to . . ." . . .
What silence is this, which has cut short the sentence, and which neither their caws nor the voice of the speaker break again? How is this?—where am I?—Do I wake or dream?
I peep through the hedge once more, but see nothing but a bare, deserted field. Gone, gone, all gone. The green pasture lies void and empty under the setting sun. A deathlike silence is around, or so it seems to me. Only the constant honeysuckle wearies not of breathing out its sweetness round my head. Companion, where are you? Alas! no hand is clasped in mine. Alone, then, have I been dreaming some foolish dream, or is some one in secret sympathising with me still?
—Ah! memory re-awakens by degrees. I recall the book that was lying upon my desk when I issued forth into these fields; and the thought of the first temptation of man flashes from another book upon my soul.
Woe upon us! The world grows old, and life is repeated from age to age, and the same sins are sinned. Still we desire to be as God in knowledge; still the hand writes in fire upon our walls: "Except ye become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of Heaven."