The Romance of Natural History - BestLightNovel.com
You’re reading novel The Romance of Natural History Part 18 online at BestLightNovel.com. Please use the follow button to get notification about the latest chapter next time when you visit BestLightNovel.com. Use F11 button to read novel in full-screen(PC only). Drop by anytime you want to read free – fast – latest novel. It’s great if you could leave a comment, share your opinion about the new chapters, new novel with others on the internet. We’ll do our best to bring you the finest, latest novel everyday. Enjoy
Another family of birds that is conspicuous for gorgeous beauty is that of the Pheasants. Our own familiar species, which is said to have been brought long ages ago from the banks of the Phasis in Colchis, by Jason in the Argo,--
"Argiva primum sum transportata carina,"--
is a very splendid bird, and is well painted in a few lines by Pope;--who speaks of his
"Glossy varying dyes, His purple crest and scarlet-circled eyes; The vivid green his s.h.i.+ning plumes unfold, His painted wings, and breast that flames with gold."
But besides this, there are Indian and Chinese species which excel it in glory. There are the richly-pencilled Gold and Silver Pheasants, and the n.o.ble Reeves' and Amherst Pheasants, with their extraordinary long-barred tail plumes. The last named is a bird of unusual magnificence.
Then there is the splendid Fire-back of Sumatra and Java, which is adorned with a crest of slender stalked feathers, each expanding into a disk with spreading barbs. The head, neck, breast, and belly of this rare bird are of deep steel-blue, very l.u.s.trous, the lower part of the back fiery orange-red or flame-colour, varying in intensity according to the incidence of the light, and pa.s.sing like a zone of fire round the body, though less brilliant on the abdomen; the rump and tail-coverts broad and truncate, bluish-green, each feather tipped by a paler bar.
The tail is erect and arched, somewhat like that of the common c.o.c.k, its middle feathers are pure white, and all the rest black, with green reflections. The legs and feet, which are scarlet, and the skin of the face, purple, complete the toilet of this magnificent oriental.
What shall we say to the Argus Pheasant, the bird of Malacca with the magnificent pinions? How fine a sight must it be to see this n.o.ble fowl displaying his c.o.xcombery in the presence of his admiring hens, strutting to and fro with his long tail feathers spread and erected, and his broad wings expanded and sc.r.a.ping the ground far on each side! The colours, it is true, are sober browns, varied with black and white; but how exquisitely are these arranged! Perhaps no brilliancy of tint would more charm the eye than the row of ocellated spots,--each a dark circular disk surrounded by concentric circles,--that runs along the centre of each of the enormously-developed secondary wing-quills.
To come back to colour and metallic refulgence. We must not overlook the Monal, or Scaly Impeyan of the Himalaya chain. This fowl, which is little less than a turkey, looks as if clothed in scale armour of iridescent metal, of which the specific hues can scarcely be indicated, so changeable are they; green, steel-blue, crimson, purple, and golden-bronze,--all of the utmost intensity of colour, and of dazzling refulgence, adorn this bird, set off by a broad square patch of pure white in the middle of the back, while the crown of the head carries a drooping crest of naked-shafted, broad-tipped, green feathers. This splendid fowl is as hardy as the turkey or pheasant, and will probably before long be domesticated in British preserves, to which it would be a n.o.ble addition, being perhaps exceeded by nothing in nature for refulgence.
In the same regions are found the Polyplectrons, or Pheasant Peac.o.c.ks, birds of the same family. Look at one of these in detail, the Crested Polyplectron of the Sunda Isles. It much resembles a peac.o.c.k in contour, the head and neck black, with steely reflections, relieved by a long stripe of white arching over each eye, and a broad patch of the same on the ears. The forehead and crown carry a crest of tall feathers capable of erection, and making a fine ornament. The whole under parts are velvet black; the back and rump warm brown, with paler wavy bands and lines. The coverts and secondary feathers of the wings are of the richest blue, each feather tipped with velvety black. But the tail is the grand display. It is a true tail, not a train of superinc.u.mbent feathers as in the peac.o.c.k, the quill-feathers being of great length and breadth, and the whole capable of being widely expanded into an enormous rounded fan. The individual feathers are brown, pencilled and sprinkled with pale buff,--a pretty ground, on each of which is painted two large oval eye-spots of the most brilliant metallic blue or green, according to the light, contained within encircling double rings of black and white. These refulgent eyes are so set that they const.i.tute two curved bands placed at some distance apart, running across the tail, and when this organ is expanded they impart to it a most regal appearance.
Last, but not least, in this distinguished tribe, there is the familiar Peac.o.c.k, a proverb of splendour in raiment from the remote antiquity of Aristophanes and Aristotle to Mr Hollingshead, who lashes the sumptuary tendencies of our modern ladies under the t.i.tle of "Peac.o.c.kism."
The true Peac.o.c.k, however, the genuine bird, may at least plead that no milliners' bills of 3000 are ever proved against him in Bankruptcy Courts.
I am not going to be so impertinent as to describe in detail the plumage of a bird so well known as the Peac.o.c.k. Who does not know his empurpled neck so elegantly bridled, his aigrette of four-and-twenty battledore-feathers, his pencilled body-clothing, and, above all, his grand erectile train with its rows of eyelets? Who has not admired the l.u.s.tre and beauty of those eyelets,--the kidney-like nucleus of deepest purple, the surrounding band of green, widening in front and filling the notch of the pupil, the broad circle of brown, and the narrow black ring edged with chestnut, and then the decomposed barbs of the feather, gilded green, all presenting the effulgence of burnished metal, or rather the glitter and glow of precious gems, flas.h.i.+ng in the varying light? One can hardly imagine the splendour of the scene described by Colonel Williamson, as seen by him in the Jungleterry District in India, when, being engaged shooting these beautiful fowl, he estimates that not fewer than twelve or fifteen hundred Peafowl of various sizes were within sight of him for nearly an hour. "Whole woods were covered with their beautiful plumage, to which the rising sun imparted additional brilliancy. Small patches of plain among the long gra.s.s, most of them cultivated, and with mustard then in bloom, which induced the birds to feed, increased the beauty of the scene."
In the preceding volume I have spoken of the gorgeous beauty of the Birds of Paradise, and have quoted the description given by Lesson of his rapt feelings when, on first seeing a specimen in the forests of Papua, he could not shoot from emotion. A chapter on animal beauty cannot pa.s.s over this magnificent family, though to my own taste there is something in the refulgent radiance of the Humming-birds and Pheasants which is superior to anything seen in the Paradise-birds. The latter, or some of them at least, give me the idea of being over-dressed, particularly that one called the Superb, whose singular forked gorget and shoulder-cape, gorgeous as these adornments are, with their l.u.s.trous violet and green flushes, are somewhat inelegant in form.
Yet some of them are softly beautiful;--
"So richly deck'd in variegated down, Green, sable, s.h.i.+ning yellow, shading brown, Tints softly with each other blended, Hues doubtfully begun and ended; Or intershooting, and to sight Lost and recover'd, as the rays of light Glance in the conscious plumes touch'd here and there.
"This the Sun's Bird, whom Glendoveers might own, As no unworthy partner in their flight Through seas of ether, where the ruffling sway Of nether air's rude billows is unknown: Whom sylphs, if e'er for casual pastime they Through India's spicy regions wing their way, Might bow to as their lord."
The Emerald Paradise, the best known of the family, seems to have been in the poet's eye; and certainly the combination of form and colour in this species is very charming. The rich chocolate of the upper parts, and the delicate lemon-yellow of the neck, contrast well with the gemmeous green l.u.s.tre of the front, when the velvety plumage flashes and gleams in the sunlight. And the numerous soft floating plumes that arch out from the flanks to a great distance on all sides are exquisite in loveliness. "Even in the absolute quiet of a stuffed skin under a gla.s.s case," as Mr Wood remarks, "these plumes are full of astonis.h.i.+ng beauty, their translucent golden-white vanelets producing a most superb effect as they cross and recross each other, forming every imaginable shade of white, gold and orange, and then deepening towards their extremities into a soft purplish red."
Mr G. Bennett, who saw a living specimen in an aviary at Macao, describes these long, elegant, loose-barbed plumes as occupying a good deal of the bird's own attention and care. "One of the best opportunities of seeing this splendid bird in all its beauty of action as well as display of plumage, is early in the morning, when he makes his toilet: the beautiful sub-alar plumage is then thrown out and cleaned from any spot that may sully its purity, by being pa.s.sed gently through the bill; the short chocolate wings are extended to the utmost, and he keeps them in a steady flapping motion as if in imitation of their use in flight, at the same time raising up the delicate long feathers over the back, which are spread in a chaste and elegant manner, floating like films in the ambient air. In this position the bird would remain for a short time, seemingly proud of its heavenly beauty, and in raptures of delight with its most enchanting self; it would then a.s.sume various att.i.tudes, so as to regard its plumage in every direction."
Pa.s.sing over all other cla.s.ses of animate existence, I shall say a few words on the surpa.s.sing loveliness which is displayed by many of the Insect tribes. The nursery prejudice, that these creatures are worthy only to be trodden under foot, as things repulsive and disgusting, is certainly decaying, though it retains its hold still in some minds. A glance through an entomological cabinet would prove how unjust are such notions. If brilliant hues, polished surface, sculptured chasings, graceful forms, and lively motions can command admiration, these are displayed by Insects to a degree which we should in vain look for in any other cla.s.s of creatures. We need not speak of simple colours; these occur in profusion, of all hues, of all shades of intensity, and of the very highest degrees of brightness; combined too, in the most elegant manner, and very frequently, particularly in the _Lepidoptera_, presenting that peculiar charm which results from the a.s.sociation of tints that are complemental to each other.
Words are always felt to be too poor to describe the refulgence of the hues of many of the feathered tribes;--the metallic gloss of the Trogons and the oriental _Gallinaceae_, the gem-like flas.h.i.+ngs of the Humming-birds and the Birds of Paradise. Perhaps it would be deemed extravagant to a.s.sert, that these glories can be _excelled_ by the tiny races I am now discussing; but equalled, _most fully equalled_, they a.s.suredly are. To possess the glow of burnished metal upon the most varied hues, is, in the order _Coleoptera_, a common thing. Most of the _Eumolpidae_ are remarkable for this; of which I may instance _Chrysochus fulgidus_, a beetle from Bombay. The _Buprestidae_ have long been celebrated, for the same reason; and portions of their bodies have been used in the toilet of ladies, in a.s.sociation with diamonds and rubies.
Many of the _Chlamydae_ blaze with golden-crimson, purple, and the most fiery orange. The species of the small genus _Eurhinus_ seem to send forth the coloured flames of the pyrotechnic art. The _Longicornes_ display the same beauties, a.s.sociated with gigantic size. _Cheloderus Childreni_, for example, a large beetle from Columbia, is equal to any _Buprestis_ for the radiance of the green, crimson, purple, blue, scarlet, and gold, that are all at the same time flaming from its singularly-sculptured surface.
But there are impressions conveyed by the reflection of light from the bodies of many beetles, which far exceed the metallic fulgor of which I have been speaking, beautiful as it is. I cannot hope to describe them intelligibly; I know of no combination of words which will give an idea of them. I mean the soft, almost velvety radiance of some of the _Goliathi_; of many of the _Cetoniae_, as the genus _Eudicella_, for instance; and of not a few of the _Phanaei_, in the former two, the hue is generally green; in the latter, this colour is a.s.sociated with other hues, most glowing, yet of an indescribable softness. I cannot imagine anything of this sort more charming than the soft golden and orange hue upon the green of the magnificent _Phanaeus imperialis_.
Others again, as _Hoplia farinosa_, a little chafer from Southern Europe, and many of the weevil tribe (_Curculionidae_), are covered with scales of vivid splendour, but so minute, and so closely set, that the whole surface reflects one soft but rich l.u.s.tre of tints, differing according to the species. We would instance, of these, the n.o.ble species of the genus _Cyphus_. Others of the same great family, on a dark but still richly-coloured ground, have the minute scales cl.u.s.tered in spots or bands, forming regular patterns in much variety; and in these they reflect rainbow hues, as if a sunbeam decomposed through a prism had been solidified and pulverised; or if viewed through a lens, looking like powdered gems, each individual scale changing its hues with the slightest motion of the eye. Among these we may mention _Hypsonotus elegans_, _Cyphus spectabilis_, _Entimus splendidus_, and _E.
imperialis_, commonly known as diamond beetles; and the elegantly-shaped genus _Pachyrhynchus_, of which the _P._ _gemmatus_, from the Philippine Islands, is, perhaps, the most lovely of all earthly creatures.
And if we look at the _Lepidoptera_, the order more especially under review, we feel that beauty belongs to them rather as an essence than as an accident. Their broad fan-like wings have an airy lightness and grace to which the painter and the poet pay homage, when they endow the sylphs and loves of their fancy with b.u.t.terfly pinions.
They are clothed with minute scales, which are the vehicle of their colours, somewhat resembling in this respect the beetles last spoken of; but they have beauties peculiar to themselves. Fine combinations and contrasts of colours are too much the rule in this order to need specification; and these are often shaded and blended with a downy softness, as in the Sphinges and Moths. As ill.u.s.trious examples, I will mention the _Gynautocera_, a group of Oriental Moths approaching in some points the b.u.t.terflies, as exhibiting the most brilliant hues in bands and clouds, but softly blended and mingled, with exceeding chasteness and beauty.
Many species of the genus _Catagramma_, a group of b.u.t.terflies marked on the inferior surface of the fore-wings with scarlet and black, and on that of the hind with singular concentric circles of black on a white ground, have on the superior surface the metallic l.u.s.tre common in the beetles, the wings being of golden green or blue. The genus _Urania_ has this radiance still more conspicuous; while the inferior surface of some of the _Theclae_, as _T. imperialis_, _T. Actaeon_, _T. Endymion_, &c., is covered with the most rich and varied metallic hues, as if powdered with gold, copper, and silver filings. Some b.u.t.terflies, as several of our native _Fritillaries_, and more vividly an American species, (_Argynnis pa.s.siflorae_,) one from New Zealand, (_Argyrophenga antipodum_,) and the beautiful _Paphia Clytemnestra_, have spots of burnished silver on their inferior surface; and several of our own moths, as the genus _Plusia_, are so spotted on the upper surface.
Others display a l.u.s.tre between that of silver and that of pearl, as several species of _Charaxes_ on one, and the magnificent _Morpho Laertes_ on both surfaces. But of this sort of beauty, perhaps nothing can excel the gemmeous green, changing to azure, of _Papilio Ulysses_, or that of _Apatura (?) laurentia_; or, above all, of some of the great Brazilian _Morphos_. The blaze of silvery azure that flashes from _M.
Adonis_, _M. Cytheris_, and _M. Menelaus_, is indescribable; the eyes are pained as they gaze upon it; yet there is said to be an unnamed species from the emerald mountains of Bogota, of which a single specimen is in a private cabinet in London, which is far more l.u.s.trous than these.
The change from one hue to another produced by the play of light in altering the angle of its reflection, has always been much admired; and this occurs in great perfection, and with much diversity, in the lovely insects of the _Lepidopterous_ order.
Some of the genus _Haetera_, (as _H. piera_, and _H. esmeralda_,) and many of the _Heliconiadae_, as _Hymenitis diaphana_, &c., have the wings nearly or quite dest.i.tute of the ordinary scaly clothing, presenting only a transparent membrane of great delicacy; over which the light plays with a beautiful iridescence. _Papilio Arcturus_ and some allied species, are of a golden-green, changing to blue, or to glowing purple.
Very many of the _Nymphalidae_ are distinguished for a flush of surpa.s.sing richness, that in one particular light gleams over the surface. Our own _Apatura Iris_, commonly known as the purple emperor, is a native example of this beauty, and still more _A. namoura_; but especially the species of the genus _Thaumantis_, as well as _Morpho Martia_, and _M. Automedon_. _Diadema bolina_ also displays a purple flush over and around the white spots, which is exquisitely beautiful.
In general this glow is found only in the male, but in the lovely _Epiphile chrysitis_ it is common to the female.
In _Colias Electra_ a warm purple glow plays over the surface in a strong light, which is the more singularly beautiful, because the permanent colour which is thus suffused is a rich golden orange. There is, however, a species (_C. Lesbia_) of which only a single specimen is known, and that is in fragments, in the Banksian Collection, which is in this respect vastly superior to the former. In all these cases, the playing gleam is more or less empurpled; in _Paphia Portia_, however, it may be called crimson.
But still more exquisitely beautiful than any of these is the fine opalescence that irradiates some b.u.t.terflies in the changing beam. There is a white b.u.t.terfly from Senegal (_Anthocharis Ione_) allied to our common garden whites, marked at the tips of the wings with a spot of violet, surrounded by black. In a certain aspect, there plays over this spot a violet opalescence of exceeding richness. And to mention no more, (for, indeed, we know not that we could mention anything to surpa.s.s this,) the carnation spots on the black wings of _Papilio Anchises_, _P.
aeneas_, _P. Tullus_, &c., are at intervals flushed with a violet opalescence, so brilliant, that we know no other object to compare with it.
In contemplating such objects, we cannot help concurring in the sentiments expressed by the pious Ray:--"Quaeri forta.s.se a nonnullis potest, quis Papilionum usus sit? Respondeo, Ad ornatum universi, et ut hominibus spectaculo sint: ad rura ill.u.s.tranda velut tot bracteae inservientes. Quis enim eximiam earum pulchritudinem et varietatem contemplans mira voluptate non afficiatur? Quis tot colorum et schematum elegantias naturae ipsius ingenio excogitatas et artifici penicillo depictas curiosis oculis intuens, divinae artis vestigia eis impressa non agnoscat et miretur?" And I may add, since such exquisite traces of loveliness remain in a world which Satan has spoiled and sin defiled, what must have been its glory when He who made it could take complacency in beholding it, and in the minutest details could p.r.o.nounce it "very good!"
The Rev. James Smith of Monquhitter thus alludes to the exquisite beauty of some South American b.u.t.terflies. One or two of the species I have already alluded to, but even these can yield additional themes of admiration. "I hold," he says, "that there are hues and shades of colour which are positively beautiful in themselves, and independently of all a.s.sociations whatever; and to look upon which merely as patches of colour, affords a gratification of no mean description. And for the truth of such an opinion, I know not where I should obtain a stronger and a more pleasing proof, than from the _Lepidoptera_ to which I have alluded. The patch, for instance, which is on the posterior wings of the _Haetera Esmeralda_, and which may be characterised as a compound of carmine and of the deepest blue dotted with two spots of vermilion, will in itself, and irrespectively of a.s.sociation, communicate a pleasure to every eye which looks upon it. The band of silver blue on the wing of a large _Morpho_; the deep tone, to speak in pictorial phrase, of the black in the _Papilio Sesostris_, finer even than the finest velvet of Genoa; the rich dark orange on _Epicilia Ancaea_; the blue, s.h.i.+ning in one unnamed species like polished steel, in another (_Thecla_) with a radiant clearness, which ultramarine itself could not surpa.s.s; the satin-like golden green, the pearly l.u.s.trous white, and the deep s.h.i.+ning emerald ribbons in _Urania Boisduvalii_; the crimson lines and spots deeper and clearer than blood, in a species to which no name is attached, of _Papilio_; the small spangles of silver with which the under surface of one of the least among them (_Cupido_) is, as it were, incrusted; the iridescent and delicate violet with which, on the same surface, a particular species of _Haetera_ is, so to speak, washed over, in a way which calls to our remembrance the 'sc.u.mbling' given by Rembrandt as the finis.h.i.+ng touch to his finest productions; all these, and many more, possess a beauty which I contend, in opposition to the doctrine of Alison and Jeffrey, is absolute in itself; which is altogether irrespective of a.s.sociation; and which the most skilful of human pencils would find it impossible completely and properly to copy."
I must apologise to fair readers for alluding to Spiders--"nasty spiders!"--in a chapter on beauty; but prejudice must not make us shut our eyes to glories even among these. In the tropical species there is often metallic splendour and brilliance of colour. In my "Naturalist's Sojourn in Jamaica," my friend Mr Hill has written some very interesting observations on the web of a certain Spider, and on the relations of its structure with that of the Spider itself; but I allude to it now because of the elegance of the creature, the _Epeira argentata_ of Fabricius.
The upper surface of the body is of a glistening satiny or silvery whiteness, the belly yellow, spotted with black, and the legs marked with alternate rings of the same contrasted hues.
In the same island I was familiar with another species, (_Nephila clavipes_,) remarkable for the length and strength of its silken cords.
The body, which is lengthened, is studded with round white spots, each encircled with a black border, on a rich greenish brown ground, reminding one of the characteristic markings of the Tragopans among birds. The cephalothorax is s.h.i.+ning black, its l.u.s.tre half concealed by a clothing of short silvery down: the legs are very long, and have a remarkably elegant appearance from having a bunch of black hair set around the extremity of the first and second joints, like the bristles of a bottle-brush.
I fortify my own verdict with the observations of a brother naturalist on the Spiders of Borneo, presuming that those which he alludes to appear to belong to the genus _Gastracantha_, of which I have seen species in Jamaica.
"The spiders, so disgusting in appearance in many other countries, are here of quite a different nature, and are the most beautiful of the insect tribe; they have a skin of a sh.e.l.l-like texture, furnished with curious processes, in some long, in others short, in some few, in others numerous; but are found, of this description, only in thick woods and shaded places: their colours are of every hue, brilliant and metallic as the feathers of the humming-bird, but are, unlike the bright colours of the beetle, totally dependent on the life of the insect which they beautify, so that it is impossible to preserve them."
It is possible that this beauty might be less evanescent if the animals were preserved in spirit or other antiseptic fluid. A writer in the _Zoologist_ (p. 5929) mentions the fact that the iridescence of certain beetles (_Ca.s.sida_) which is peculiarly splendid and metallic, and which disappears immediately on the insects' becoming dry, is perpetuated in its original loveliness when the specimens are preserved in spirit, even after the lapse of several years.
The tropical species of this genus are far finer and richer than our little English kinds, though these are pretty. I was much delighted by the brilliance of some of the Jamaican species, and Sir Emerson Tennent thus speaks of them in Ceylon:--
"There is one family of insects, the members of which cannot fail to strike the traveller by their singular beauty, the _Ca.s.sidadae_, or tortoise beetles, in which the outer sh.e.l.l overlaps the body, and the limbs are susceptible of being drawn entirely within it. The rim is frequently of a different tint from the centre, and one species which I have seen is quite startling from the brilliancy of its colouring, which gives it the appearance of a ruby inclosed in a frame of pearl; but this wonderful effect disappears immediately on the death of the insect."
If we turn to the vegetable world, what a profusion of beauty do we find! Exquisite are the tiny Mosses, when the fogs and rains of winter, so inimical to other vegetation, have quickened them into verdure and fruit. How they spread along the hedgerow banks in soft fleeces of vivid emerald, and shoot up their slender stalks, each crowned with its tiny urn, and wearing its fairy nightcap! Beautiful are the tiny dark-green feather-like leaves of the Forkmoss crowded on the clayey bank; beautiful the wild sprays of the plumy Hypnum; and beautiful the little round velvet cus.h.i.+ons of Tortula, that grow on every old wall-top.
"The tiny moss, whose silken verdure clothes The time-worn rock, and whose bright capsules rise, Like fairy urns, on stalks of golden sheen, Demand our admiration and our praise, As much as cedar kissing the blue sky Or Krubul's giant-flower. G.o.d made them all, And what _He_ deigns to make should ne'er be deem'd Unworthy of our study."
Exquisite too are the Ferns, in their arching fronds, so richly cut in elegant tracery. See a fine crown of the Lady Fern in a shaded Devons.h.i.+re lane, and confess that grace and beauty are triumphant there.
And in the saturated atmosphere of the tropical islands, where these lovely plants form a very large proportion of the entire vegetation, and some of them rise on slender stems thirty or forty feet in alt.i.tude, from the summit of which the wide-spreading fronds arch gracefully on every side, like a vast umbrella of twinkling verdure, through whose filagree work the sunbeams are sparkling,--what can be more charming than Ferns?
The queenly Palms, too, are models of stately beauty. Linnaeus called them _vegetabilium principes_; and, when we see them in some n.o.ble conservatory of adequate dimensions, such as the gla.s.s palm-house at Kew, crowded side by side, with their crowned heads, and lofty stature, and proud, erect bearing, we are involuntarily reminded of the monarchs of many kingdoms met in august conclave.
"Lo! higher still the stately palm-trees rise, Chequering the clouds with their unbending stems, And o'er the clouds, amid the dark-blue skies, Lifting their rich unfading diadems.
How calm and placidly they rest Upon the heaven's indulgent breast, As if their branches never breeze had known!