Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 8/A modern vivarium

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Letter from Miss Aquaria Stickleback to Miss Fluminia Minnow:—

The Vivarium.

My dearest Fluminia,—Here we are, delightfully settled in our sweet little hermitage—such a bijou of a residence—quite a “multum in parvo,” papa calls it. Believe me, except for the loss of your society, darling, I do not at all regret having left our spacious mansion under the banks of Trent.

I know that ill-natured people will say that we were compelled by straitened circumstances to contract our establishment. My Fluminia will not listen to such malicious whispers. It will be enough for her to receive my assurance that we all of us prefer such a snug, cosy, compact little place as this.

We find here everything we could desire: excellent water—so like that which we have been accustomed to, that we could almost believe it came from the same source; provisions abundant, and close at hand; considerable variety of scenery, considering the small extent of our domain; delightful shelter from the heat of the sun, and plenty of open surface for enjoying his rays, when the weather is cold.

But that which pleases us most in our present situation, indeed the thing which above all decided us in choosing this locale, is the unexampled opportunities it gives us of studying the habits of a race of creatures of the highest interest to the lovers of natural history. I mean the family that Dr. Gudgeon describes in his lectures under the rather repulsive name of “Bipes vorax,” declaring that he only knows them by their two propensities,—that of walking on two feet, and that of devouring fish! Horrible, my dear, if true; but the dear good creature has been deceived in the last particular, I am sure; for I have watched their habits now for many weeks, indeed I am in almost daily contact with them; but I can safely say (and so you may tell the Doctor), that they evince not the slightest indications of a desire to eat fish.

Our cottage commands a close and clear view of the interior of the abode of a group or family of these strange creatures. Papa arranged it all on purpose. At first, I confess, I did not like being so near them, especially as they seemed to be actuated by a sort of stupid curiosity about us, and would put their great heavy-looking heads close to our windows and look at us by the hour, as if they had never seen a fish before! But I soon found that, in spite of their enormous size and strength, they are perfectly harmless; and no fear now prevents me from being heartily interested and amused by their peculiarities.

I will endeavour to describe some of them. First of all, they really are, as Dr. G. always told us—bipeds. Conceive a young willow-tree, such as those which you have about your place in such numbers, split up half-way from the ground, and the two lower portions fitted with joints, and endowed with the power of moving (stumping, I should say) heavily and laboriously over the ground, and you have some idea of the figure and movements of a biped. There is, of course, none of the ease and grace, the smoothness and rapidity, of our movements. This arrangement of the lower parts of the body (putting me in mind of those frightful neighbours of yours, the rats, to whom, by the way, papa thinks they are allied) would seem at first sight to be confined to the males; but I feel quite sure it is not so. In the female this arrangement is indeed concealed by a singular exuberance of the epidermis, or outer skin—which hangs over it in a profusion of folds—about which I shall speak more at length presently but that it does exist, I have no doubt.

As far then as I can gather from studying the habits of the male, these lower limbs, or legs, as papa calls them, seem to be of use only for motion; at other times they serve no purpose that I can discover, and the poor creature seems to find them sadly in the way, tucking them up, and then stretching them out, and doubling them up under him, while his body remains upright, as he reposes in the most grotesque way you can imagine.

And now for a most extraordinary fact, and one which you will find it difficult to believe; but I have ascertained it beyond a doubt. These creatures exist, live, and, in their strange way, enjoy life—without water.

To us, my dearest Fluminia, who cannot conceive the possibility of existing for a minute out of our dear native element, this is indeed marvellous. Papa says, that he believes they live in a fluid of their own, invisible to our eye, possibly that very fluid which used to disturb our peaceful waters by its sudden and violent passage through them in large bubbles. This may be so; and if so, their internal structure must of course be different from ours. The fact cannot be ascertained perfectly until the progress of science has enabled our anatomists to make a thorough investigation, with a view to throw light on this point. I can testify that they have no gills. In the younger males, indeed, I see what I may call an attempt of nature to throw out something of the sort; but, strangely enough, while these generally lie as ours do, in the case of some whose epidermis is black they invariably turn upward towards the eyes, serving no purpose but to embarrass the movements of the head. Sometimes, even in youth, and almost in every case in old age, they disappear altogether.

The habits of these bipeds in respect of food also greatly perplex me. I certainly have seen them occasionally eat and drink, but in such very small quantities, that I cannot believe that their huge bodies can be maintained on so little nourishment.

I must observe that the large den, of which we command a view, is only a part, and, I should conceive, a small part, of their dwelling. They can leave it by large holes left in the wall and closed by an ingenious contrivance, that forcibly reminds me of our old traditions about the beaver. I should pronounce them to be beavers, did I not know the beaver was not a biped, and, also, that the genus is extremely rare, if not altogether extinct.

However, the fact of their having other chambers than that which our windows command gives me some sort of clue to their feeding habits. I think they are shy of eating in our presence, and having, probably by night, collected a store of provisions in some inner apartment, repair thither at stated times; and you know, my dear, other and higher classes of beings have their feeding places and feeding times, to satisfy the cravings of nature.

I am confirmed in this view from having continually observed, at certain stated hours of the day (not so punctual, by the way, as one could desire, to establish so interesting a theory; but, at all events, never less than three times a day), all the individuals of our collection assemble, and pass out of one of the side doors, with a certain eager expression of face which, to my thinking, denotes appetite.

Papa holds, on the other hand, that they subsist on the animalculæ with which the fluid in which they live is said to teem. For my part, I think they are far too solid to live on animalculæ.

Do they sleep? I believe they do—probably in the night, when they are shrouded from our view, partly by the darkness, and partly by a curious contrivance of these ingenious creatures, who place a sort of thick screen before our windows, evidently to guard themselves from our inspection.

Not that they sleep all the night; for long after they have thus closed themselves in, we hear them ceaselessly chattering in their strange fashion, and sometimes making rude attempts to imitate the singing of birds—at which times the sides of our cottage, well built as it is, literally vibrate with the sound.

But I feel sure they do sleep, for I once saw one of them (a male), in broad daylight, extend himself at full length, shut his eyes, and remain perfectly still for several minutes, except that he uttered at regular intervals a soft sound, something like the snop of dear old Admiral Chub, as he takes his after-dinner nap, with his head up-stream.

The mechanical ingenuity of these creatures is astonishing. The ground of their apartment is strewn with a soft substance, of close texture and many colours, really almost as soft and as pretty as a bed of anacharis, and the whole den is filled with ingenious contrivances to support their ungainly forms when they are at rest. I should be at a loss to guess how they could produce such things, had I not observed that they show some ingenuity in the use of a pair of large—I must not say fins, they are so heavy and clumsy, but flappers furnished with strong and flexible claws, such as the beaver is said to have had, and to have used with such dexterity.

But I cannot stay to describe the many wonderful results of the instinctive sagacity of these curious beings—their artificial light, their artificial music, &c. I am preparing a little set of papers for the “Trent and Humber Illustrated Minnows’ Magazine,” which will contain the result of all my observations. I will pass at once to the great Epidermis question, as I call it.

I mentioned above the fact that in the female of the “bipes vorax,” the lower part of the body is shrouded by a remarkably luxuriant epidermis, or outer skin, which, indeed, extends over the whole form, except the head and the extremity of the flappers.

Now papa says this is not an epidermis at all, but an extraneous artificial covering, which their instinct teaches them to form out of the leaves of the trees or grass of the field, to protect themselves from the cold, to which they are liable in their fluid.

When I think of my own feelings on this subject,—of the simple, beautiful, and convenient covering with which nature has provided me; of the excusable pride I feel, as, in the height of the season and the prime of my youth, I display my spangling scales under the bright sunlight,—I confess I can hardly realise the possibility of any creature being taught by nature to cover itself up in so curious and cumbrous and grotesque a manner; and I cannot say I can trace the slightest resemblance to the simplicity of leaves or grasses, either in the colour or the form of these outer coverings of the female bipeds.

The male, too, who certainly has an outer coating, though of a very different form, shows no symptom of its being extraneous: he never changes it, as I can assert after the closest observation, and seems insensible and indifferent to it altogether. But to the female, this epidermis, whether natural or artificial, seems to possess the highest interest; in fact, it occupies her attention all day long. Her flappers are busy with little scraps and portions of it at all hours. The male, by the way, never seems to know what to do with his flappers.

Two or three of the females may be seen getting together in groups, hard at work, preparing, apparently, a new epidermis; turning it about; showing it to one another; trying it on themselves or each other, their eyes sparkling with animation, and an incessant chattering going on the whole time.

When I hear them thus (conversing, I have no doubt, in their way), I long to understand their language. The real lover of knowledge does not disdain to learn even from the lowest classes in the scale of creation, and I doubt not I should learn much from them at these times. I ought to say, in reference to this question, that the changes which take place in the epidermis of the female are quite extraordinary. New colours, new shapes, new ornaments from head to foot, every day, and sometimes two or three times a day. And the vain creatures evidently think that we are admiring them all the time.

My dearest Fluminia, come to us soon: come and enjoy with us at once the delicious indulgences of our charming retreat, and the pleasures of scientific research, for which the remarkable creatures I have attempted to describe afford a seemingly inexhaustible subject.

I kiss your fin, and remain,
Dearest Fluminia,
Your attached