INTRODUCTION TO THE INHABITANTS.
WHILST fitting myself physically for the new life I was about to enter on, I was also engaged in adapting myself intellectually for the same object.
I have said nothing about the mode in which conversation is carried on below the water. Sound, as is well known, is transmitted more readily and with greater velocity through water than through air, but talking in the ordinary way is not practicable in water; for, with every word uttered, there comes out of the mouth a great bubble of air that very much interferes with the distinctness of the sound emitted, and has a most unbecoming and ridiculous appearance. Therefore, though a single word may occasionally be ejaculated, no conversation could be carried on in this way. And yet these submarine people are as great talkers as are to be found anywhere, and they have several different modes of conversing with one another; but all these modes are based on a common principle.
I have already stated that among the books in the Instructor's grotto were some which were filled with a strange character which I could not understand, consisting of dots and lines, like what we use in our telegraphic printing.
Conversation below water is carried on either by touch when the conversers are close enough together, or by sight or sound when they are at a distance.
In the former case, the speaker applies his forefinger to any part of the body of the person he is speaking to, and, by a rapid succession of gentle taps and strokes, conveys to him a sensible perception of what he wishes to say. While accompanying my Instructor, he was frequently accosted by persons whose business or pleasure brought them to where we were, and I was astonished at the rapidity and animation with which they seemed to converse by means of the tactile language I have attempted to describe.
When they wished to converse without coming in contact they took from their pockets two thimble-like instruments which they placed on their thumb and middle finger, and, by knocking them together, would produce a clicking noise, which could be distinctly heard at a considerable distance, and which conveyed what they wanted to say by means of slight and louder, rapid or more prolonged taps and pauses, perfectly comprehensible to those familiar with the language.
Or they would converse with equal facility by merely moving their fore-finger hither and thither with a rapidity the unaccustomed eye could scarcely follow, but which was equally efficacious in conveying a meaning to the initiated. As with our deaf and dumb people the conversation was much aided by shrugs, nods, and conventional signs which conveyed a great deal of meaning without the necessity for spelling out each word.
By diligent study of the elementary books I found in the Instructor's house, I soon acquired tolerable proficiency in the language; and, as one common principle lay at the root of these three modes of conversing, in acquiring one I learned all three.
I was complimented by my instructor on the facility with which I had mastered all the accomplishments required to make me feel at my ease in the society of the subaqueous community, among whom he proposed to introduce me, when his duties as instructor would cease, and I might become practically acquainted with the institutions, the manners and the customs of my adopted country.
Hitherto we had seen but few of the inhabitants, as the spot where we had been sojourning was a sort of reserved space, not open to the general community, and only visited occasionally by persons who had some official connexion with my tutor, and who came thither to transact business with him.
I burned with eager desire to escape from the narrow limits to which I had all this time been confined, and to see and mingle with the word beyond. I was beginning to weary of the irksome discipline of study and exercise which my instructor imposed on me, and I felt quite capable of taking care of myself in a more extensive field of operations.
It was, therefore, with much satisfaction that I learned from my tutor that he considered my education sufficiently advanced to enable me to dispense with his further services.
"You are not, of course," he said, "by any means perfect in the accomplishments needed in your new abode, but you have obtained a smattering of them sufficient to enable you to mingle in society without much awkwardness, and your further development will be best effected by contact with your new fellow-citizens."
He informed me that a house had been assigned to me, the lease of which would be ready for my signature as soon as I should present myself before the magistrate who presided over such arrangements.
He then conducted me to the confines of the little bay, which was divided off from the great inner lake by a barrier of living coral, that did not rise to the surface of the water and therefore could be no impediment to any one wishing to pass in or out of the bay. It was generally understood, however, that the bay was reserved for the use of strangers, until their education was complete and they were able to mingle with the ordinary inhabitants of Colymbia, for that, I learned, was the name by which the subaqueous country went.
Passing the barrier, I at once found myself in the midst of a thickly-peopled region, with numerous elegant edifices of the strangest shapes, constructed chiefly of corals and corallines of every variety of hue.
My appearance seemed to be expected; for a number of young men and women were collected at the other side of the barrier, who warmly greeted me, and began talking so eagerly and quickly in the various manners I have attempted to describe, that I became utterly confused and bewildered.
Seeing this, most of them, with friendly smiles, moved off and left only one of their number with me as a guide, with whom I found it easy to converse. He told me, as we glided along, that it was a considerable time since his country had been visited by strangers, and that those last thrown among them had not been very favourable specimens of the outside world. My tutor had sent such laudatory reports of me, that my coming among them had been looked forward to with pleasure; and, as I had seen, a considerable number of the young people of both sexes had assembled to give me a welcome, which had proved so embarrassing to me. But a little practice, he assured me, would soon enable me to feel quite at ease in their society.
I did not explain to him that my confusion was partly occasioned by seeing for the first time some lovely specimens of the opposite sex.
In the well-clad beauties of our northern latitudes, their garments serve more to conceal than to display their shape; their arms are seldom moved from their sides, and the motions of their legs are carefully hidden beneath their flowing robes. But here all this was altered. No tight straps, stiff stays or cumbrous garments interfered with the free action of the limbs and bodies of the fair denizens of this crystal abode.
The graceful movements of their limbs and the lithe suppleness of their bodies gave to them a mode of progression so utterly different from, and so immeasurably superior in elegance to, the mincing gait of our high-heeled and tight-laced damsels at home, that they seemed beings of another and much superior race. Their limbs and bodies were beautifully moulded, exquisitely round and smooth, and their skin looked dazzlingly white in the blue-tinted water. One would have said they were made of flexible marble. The beauty of their feet especially struck me. No shoe or boot had ever compressed the toes or distorted the ankles.
And then the ordinary movements were full of an uncommon grace, that was the very poetry of motion. The body, being of the same specific gravity as the medium in which it was suspended, was not subject to the laws of gravitation, and no force had to be expended in supporting the weight of, or lifting the body, as must be done at every step and every movement we perform in air. Movement in this sustaining fluid is a delight, and every attitude a model of voluptuous grace.
I could not take my eyes off the figures who accompanied us in our progress. Without apparent effort, they glided onwards, above, below, and on either hand; now on their front, now on their back, sideways, or darting perpendicularly upwards and downwards.
Every movement seemed to be natural, thoroughly unaffected and effortless. Sometimes only the arms were moved, sometimes only the legs, and sometimes a scarcely perceptible motion of a hand or a foot sufficed to give the needful impulse. Usually their movements were languid and slow, but they could at will dart quickly in any direction they chose.
The dress of the ladies differs but slightly from that of the gentlemen. The trousers are fuller, generally of brighter colours, and ornamented with embroidery, ribbons, and often with gold lace and pearls. The hair is generally arranged in large plaits, twisted round the head, or gathered into a sort of coronet on the top. But some wear their hair of moderate length hanging down the back, with a fillet to keep it smooth round the head, and to me this appeared the most elegant mode of dressing the hair under water.
Of course, both men and women wear the weight-belt to counteract their natural buoyancy. The ladies' girdles are always highly ornamented, the weights being generally in the form of numerous polished pieces of metal of all shapes, suspended by short chains from the girdle. The men's belts are more substantially made, and the weights can be increased or diminished at pleasure to suit the varying requirements of the wearer. It is desirable that the specific gravity should be sometimes greater, sometimes less, than that of water, and these alterations are easily effected.
The small party who accompanied me circled and gyrated around me in graceful curves until they brought me to the house assigned me for my residence.
The houses of Colymbia are of various sizes and various degrees of architectural beauty. One principle governs the construction of all. Whether the house consists of one or several rooms, of one or several stories, each room is fitted up with the view of allowing it to be used as a place of rest or repose.
Now, as the specific gravity of the body is considerably less than that of water, and as the weight-belts are generally removed during repose, the body has a tendency to ascend. Hence the floors of the rooms in the private houses in Colymbia are where the ceiling is with us, and the Colymbians sit down to rest or work and lie down to sleep at the top of the room.
The top of the room is grown over with living sponges so as to form a soft elastic bed or couch, the contact of which is very pleasant to the body. But as the slightest pressure against the couch of sponge would suffice to displace the body, straps, hoops or hooks are everywhere attached to the spongy bed, which can be readily fastened across the body or through which one or more limbs may be thrust, so as to retain the body on one spot.
The mouths of breathing-tubes are very freely distributed over every part of the interior of the house, and, in addition, each room contains a sort of dome in its centre, which serves as a reservoir for pure fresh air that is kept constantly circulating through it. By this arrangement, the inmates can at any time bring their heads into the air for the purpose of respiration, in case breathing through the tubes should be difficult or impossible from any cause either in the tubes themselves or the person using them. But these air-reservoirs are most frequently used for conversational purposes. People get tired of the telegraphic language, and long to indulge in a good chat with their tongues; so, in place of going up above the water's surface, they can bring their faces into the air-tank and chatter away at their ease.
When the older houses were built the use of these reservoirs as talking places was not contemplated, and their domes are therefore small and inconvenient, but in the more modern houses the dome forms the chief feature in each room, and some of them are of great size, so as to allow of a considerable number to make use of them at once.
In the poorer houses the domes are made of what seemed to me to be japanned iron, but in all houses having any pretensions to luxury they are made of glass, so as to be light and cheerful retreats.
My house consisted of but one room, and was evidently of modern construction, as it had a large glass dome, and the sponges were of the softest kind and were arranged in the most fashionable manner. The walls of the house were built of corals artistically disposed as regards colour and shape, so as to present a very pleasing pattern. The corals forming the walls were not close enough together to prevent the free admission of water, it being necessary to keep up everywhere a circulation of water in the house, otherwise it is apt to become stagnant, oxygenless and disagreeable.
There was a glazed window in each wall through which I could see what was going on outside. At pleasure I could completely close the windows by blinds.
The young gentleman who had attached himself to me accompanied me into my dwelling, and kindly initiated me into all the mysteries of my new house. He was a very good-looking lad, about twenty years old, beautifully made, and conspicuous by the elegance of his movements among a graceful set of companions. With frank courtesy he offered to be my guide until I became thoroughly conversant with the mode of life I had just entered on, and I readily accepted his offer. As he belonged to the upper ranks of society, he was able to introduce me to the best company, and I was soon thoroughly at my ease and able to partake of the amusements and diversions which form a large portion of the occupations of this singular people.
The following morning he took me to the office of the magistrate from whom I obtained the lease of my house. By this lease I bound myself to remain in this house during the whole term of my life, a condition I considered singular at the time, but the reason for which was afterwards explained to me. Space is extremely valuable here, and it was found necessary to enact a law forbidding anyone to possess more than one house, in order that all might be accommodated. Why a change of house is forbidden I could not so well understand, supposing the tenant should find his domicile inconvenient or unfitted for his wants. It is, however, generally believed and held that to sanction anything of the sort would be to loosen the bonds of society, to sap the foundations of morality and to produce certain disastrous consequences not clearly defined but probably all the more dreaded on that account. All houses are, I was told, thus held for life; and though in particular cases great discomfort is thereby occasioned, on the whole, the law of life-tenancy is believed to act well, and no departure from it is allowed except in cases where, as sometimes happens, the house is destroyed by natural decay or some unforeseen catastrophe. It is only in the case of strangers that houses are assigned to them by the authorities, as in my case. As regards the inhabitants, when they come of age they are allowed to select any house that may be vacant at the time, provided they obtain the permission of the authorities. But once having made their choice they are bound to stick to it for life. Under certain circumstances, such as proof given that the house they have chosen and for which they have signed the lease is prejudicial to their health or incompatible with their employment, by a complicated and expensive legal process they can obtain a release from their engagement and be permitted to make a new selection. But instances of such a change of domicile are extremely rare, and it is generally felt that the lease is binding for life, and those who make an unfortunate choice have to make the best of a bad bargain.
Various attempts have been made to have the law altered and to render the leases terminable at will or after a series of years. But the conservative spirit is so strong, that these attempts have always hitherto ended in failure, and the general sentiment is that the law of irrevocable leases is one of the great bulwarks of the constitution. Those few who have succeeded in obtaining a release are generally looked on with suspicion and dislike.
It is curious to remark that, notwithstanding the obvious importance of exercising the utmost care and circumspection in selecting a life-long abode, the choice was often hurriedly made, and after a mere superficial inspection of the house. These hasty selections were, as may easily be conceived, often followed by leisurely repentance and regret, occasioned by the unsuitable character of the house chosen to the requirements of the chooser.
It occasionally happens that a covetous spirit will induce some one to insinuate himself into his neighbour's house during his absence, and attempt to oust him from it; but such offences are severely punished and the offender is held to be a reprobate of the vilest character. And yet such are the strange inconsistencies of society, that several persons were pointed out to me who were well known to have invaded their neighbours' houses, and who yet had never lost the consideration of their fellows nor been punished for their illegal proceedings; even though they retained possession of the houses from which they had ousted the legitimate possessors.
However, these were exceptional cases, and the delinquencies of the offenders were supposed not to be known, though every one knew them. The open and acknowledged possession of two houses, as a town house and a country house, is altogether unknown, and would not be permitted. When I observed that, in my country, people who possessed more than one house were rather looked up to, I could perceive that I had produced a painful impression and raised some prejudice against myself, which I could only do away with by remarking that I highly disapproved of the practice.
The magistrate from whom I obtained my lease was a venerable looking man, and the ceremony of signing and registering the agreement was solemn and imposing. Two witnesses were required to attest the signature, and the magistrate delivered an impressive discourse, in which he painted in glowing terms the pure pleasures attending the strict observance of the engagement I had just entered into, and the certain misery that awaited any attempt to evade its obligations.
The friends of the lessee presented him with gifts of more or less valuable ornaments for the decoration of his new abode. My newly found friends showed their goodwill towards myself by supplying me with many tokens of their friendship, which were displayed in my room for the admiration of all the callers who came to congratulate me on this great event of my life.
Strangers arriving in Colymbia are assigned a certain salary, enough to keep them in comfort until they have become sufficiently at home in their aquatic life to enable them to earn their own livelihood. A period of five years is considered adequate for this purpose, after which the salary would be discontinued, unless special reasons were assigned for its continuance. But I was informed that the state was not very particular in enforcing this term, and that I might continue to draw my salary for a much longer time if I did not feel myself quite able to do without it. Certain formalities had to be gone through before another official, and when these were completed I was duly enrolled on the pension-list of the state, and become entitled to receive a moderate allowance in monthly instalments.
In the long period during which I resided in Colymbia, I gradually became initiated into all the peculiarities of its people, their occupations, amusements, form of government, and arrangements of all descriptions. Few of their habits, institutions and contrivances resembled anything I had formerly been accustomed to; but in my intercourse with the people I made many agreeable acquaintances, and formed some intimate friendships.
I shall not attempt to give anything like a connected narrative of my life, but I shall, to the best of my ability, endeavour to give a. truthful account of what I observed during my sojourn in this aquatic country.
The air-supply is not undertaken by the central government, but is conducted by private enterprise. Certain districts are allotted to different companies, who undertake to lay the pipes and supply pure air, or rather a mixture of air and oxygen, to their respective districts.
The engines required for pumping in the air are on land. The motive power of these, as well as of most of the machines used in Colymbia, is obtained by the rise and fall of the sea in the tides. The mechanism is simple and effective. The principle is the same as that made use of by our plumbers in the ball- tap they put in our cisterns. Gravity and buoyancy, which they have got rid of entirely as regards their own bodies, is what they avail themselves of for the chief motive power of their machinery. A large basin is excavated, at such a level that it shall be filled at high tide and nearly emptied at low tide. On the water in this basin floats a huge iron caisson of a circular shape, but flat at top and bottom, like an ordinary gasometer. According to the power required, these caissons are larger or smaller. The largest weigh many hundreds of tons. It is obvious that as the tide flows and ebbs, the caisson will rise and fall with it. To the top of it is attached one arm of a lever, which is hinged on to a strong upright on land; the other arm of the lever being attached to a crank that moves a shaft. As the caisson rises the crank is depressed, and as the caisson falls it is raised.
But it is obvious that at the turn of the tide both ways, there will be a period of rest during which no force will be exerted. In order to keep up the moving power, so as to communicate a continuous and equable rotatory movement to the shaft, there is a second caisson with another lever attached to a crank, so arranged that when it comes to the perpendicular, the other crank is nearly at right angles to it in advance. The period of rest of this second crank occurs some time after that of the first crank. In fact it is the same arrangement as we see in the shaft in double-cylinder steam-engines. The retardation of the second crank is caused by allowing the tidal water to enter a reservoir, before coming into the basin of the second caisson, and so regulating the admission of the water that it shall still raise the second caisson after the first has come to rest. By this arrangement the shaft is turned round with irresistible force once in little more than twelve hours; and by the common arrangement of cog-wheels, as in a clock, or wheels and endless bands, the slow movement can be accelerated to any required velocity. The tides in this region of the ocean only raise the water a few feet, but that is amply sufficient to provide the necessary power to move the huge caissons and their levers.
As the height of the tides differs every day, increasing towards the period of spring-tides, and again declining towards the period of neap-tides, there are contrivances for meeting these variations. A small machine, separately connected with the water and moving up and down with the tides, acts on machinery so contrived that when the tide rises high it shortens the perpendicular shaft of the large caisson to which the lever is attached, and so counteracts the effect of the greater height of water, and lengthens this shaft when the caisson sinks lower, than the average: or the same effect is produced by a similar machinery that lengthens the horizontal arm of the lever of the larger caisson as the tide rises higher. When this plan is adopted, the basin in which the large caisson floats is necessarily longer than when the first plan is followed, in order to admit of the to-and-fro movement of the caisson. Another plan is to supply both of the basins in which the caissons float not directly from the sea, but at second-hand, through reservoirs in immediate connexion with the tide, whereby both the height of the water in the basins and the time of its entrance can be regulated. The engines are not necessarily close to the sea. In many instances they are some miles inland, the tidal water being conveyed to them by canals. The Colymbians avail themselves of this simple motive power to work all their machinery, and they use machinery for all their manufactures to a much greater extent than even we do.
The irresistible power of the ocean's tides, as regular as clock-work and as inexhaustible as the ocean itself, acts with unfailing constancy, and without the noise, the smoke and the destructive effects of our steam-engines. The tides are nature's own motive power, which she offers to us without stint and free of expense. The Colymbians utilize the generous gift which we neglect for inferior forces that deafen us with their noise, ruin us with their costliness, and destroy us by their ill-regulated action. These tidal machines are gigantic sphygmographs, recording the pulses of the mighty ocean.
There were occasional complaints about the impurity of the air supplied by the air-companies. In some cases it was found that the air-supply was derived from localities which were incapable of furnishing air of perfect purity.
To preserve the purity of the water, there is a very perfect system of what we would call sewerage, the sewage being conveyed to the land, and deposited in various localities appropriated for the purpose, or employed in fertilizing the soil for the growth of cereals. Now it so happened that some of the air-supply companies drew their air from sources where it was apt to be contaminated by the effluvia of the sewage heaps, and Government inspectors and chemists would be appointed to investigate the quality of the air supplied, and the sources whence it was obtained. But, in spite of the unfavourable reports these experts gave, it was a most difficult matter to compel the air-companies, which are great and powerful monopolies, to make the necessary changes in their plant and machinery, in order to secure the necessary purity of their air. The monopolists would resist the orders of the Government to the last, and when at length public opinion compelled them to make the requisite alterations, they took much credit to themselves for their zeal in the cause of the public health and happiness, and rewarded their virtue and philanthropy by charging somewhat more per thousand cubic feet for their purer air.
I expressed my surprise that the Government did not take the air-supply into its own hands, and was told that it had often threatened to do so, but was frustrated by the influences opposed by the monopolist companies, who, though always fighting among themselves for the possession of new districts, invariably combined their forces to resist the interference and encroachments of Government.
On the whole, however, the air-supply was copious and tolerably pure; and if occasionally it was not quite as good as it might have been, very little was said about it, and it was looked on as a necessary but temporary evil that would right itself without any person troubling himself about it.
I should mention that large beds of living bivalves are distributed throughout the subaqueous country, beautifully arranged in various patterns, for which their various colours render them very suitable. These shell-fish answer another purpose besides that of ornamentation: they consume every little impurity that may accidentally escape into the water, and so keep it perfectly transparent, which, without their aid, it would not be.
Living, as the Colymbians do, constantly in the water, they imbibe a sufficient amount of fluid by the pores of the skin to render it quite unnecessary for them to drink; and the same condition of life renders washing and ablutions of all kinds quite superfluous. Therefore, drinking and drinking vessels, washing and basins, are only to be met with on land. Below the water nothing of the sort is to be seen.
But in order to impart an artificial hilarity to them when they stand in need of it, they occasionally inhale something different from the ordinary oxygenated air. Houses fitted with tubes supplied with some artificially manufactured gases having curious exciting and exhilarating properties are numerous, and are much frequented, especially by the lower classes. The wealthier classes have private reservoirs of such gases, which they liberally offer to their visitors and friends. Some were reported to be in the habit of partaking of these gases more freely than was altogether good for them.
When the sun shines in full meridian splendour, the light at the bottom of the water is never overpowering, and no shades or screens are required to ward off his rays. And when he is low on the horizon his brilliancy is very much subdued. At sunset darkness sets in with great rapidity, and starlight or even moonlight scarcely affords any illumination. But the ingenuity of the Colymbians and their great acquirements in chemical science had, at an early stage of their existence as a nation, enabled them to illuminate the depths of their aqueous tenement in a very perfect manner.
This illumination is effected by means of electricity or galvanism. Wires are laid in every direction. Every house has its wires for illumination, and all the open spaces betwixt the houses are well furnished with electric lamps. These lamps are globes of dead white glass in which the charcoal points are fixed. As soon as the sun sinks so low as to render the depths of the water obscure, the lamps are all lighted at the same moment by connecting the wires with the great electric apparatus on shore, and the whole subaqueous space is immediately illuminated as bright as day. The effect of the thousands of lamps hung in every direction is extremely beautiful. Every nook and cranny of the vast space glows with a marvellous brilliancy. The dazzling white of the coral branches looks like burnished silver, and the elegant forms and exquisite tints of the many sea-plants produce a series of the most charming pictures the imagination can conceive. The exquisite forms and graceful movements of the men and women, youths ,and maidens, darting or gliding rapidly or slowly hither and thither among the natural grottoes and artificial habitations of these watery depths, as their occupations or amusements require, form a scene more lovely than a poet's dream.
The galvanic action that produces this magic illumination is not, as with us, derived from voltaic cells but from the earth itself. While cells of the kind we use are subject to waste and deterioration, the electricity of the earth is practically inexhaustible and the supply never fails. The machinery for drawing off the electricity so bountifully furnished by the earth once set up, no care is required except to regulate its intensity, and this is effected by a self-acting regulating apparatus of the most ingenious construction.
Without some illuminating power of this, sort the watery depths would have been uninhabitable during twelve hours out of the twenty-four. I was told that the illumination of the country had from a very early period occupied the attention of the scientific men. They had discovered the photogenic property of electricity long before it had been thought of by us terrestrial mortals. The present perfection of the lighting apparatus, however, has only been attained by slow degrees and after numerous and persevering attempts. The discovery of the mode of extracting the electricity of the earth itself was the crowning event in the series of experiments, as it had rendered the inexpensive illumination of the whole country practicable.
That a constant and powerful current of electricity circulates through the earth in a given direction is well known to physicists, and is shown by the phenomenon of the magnetic needle always pointing to the north; thunderstorms have made us familiar with its stupendous power. In our own country this terrestrial electricity has sometimes been made use of on a very limited scale in the construction of electrical clocks, but the Colymbians have discovered the method of tapping it in any desired quantity and of any required intensity.
The disagreeable glare of the electric light as we know it is removed by the simple expedient of enclosing each light in a globe of milk-white glass, so that the illumination is as soft and pleasant to the eye as the diffused light of a cloudy day.
The Colymbians devote a considerable portion of their time to amusement. One of their favourite pastimes is what they call "gyrating," equivalent to our dancing, though very different in appearance. It is practised in large buildings or halls constructed for the purpose. The amusement is extremely fascinating, and I gladly availed myself of all the invitations I received to join in it. A committee or council of ladies and gentlemen preside over the arrangements of these festal meetings, and determine who shall be invited to them and who excluded. Their decisions on all matters connected with the balls are unhesitatingly submitted to. These assemblies only take place by artificial light.
Imagine a vast coral grotto profusely decorated with flowers and plants of the most brilliant colours, and numerous lamps tastefully interspersed, so as to show off the graceful flowers and leaves to the greatest advantage. The flowers are not all sea-flowers; the most exquisite land-flowers are also used for the decoration of the hall. These are preserved in all their freshness under water for a considerable time by being dipped in a kind of transparent varnish, which protects them from the water. Bouquets and garlands of these are largely distributed over the walls of the hall, and many of the young ladies wear a few of the bright blossoms in their hair and about their persons.
The upper part of the hall is a smooth surface of softest and whitest sponges, where those not engaged in the dance recline luxuriously, and amuse themselves by playing at some games or by looking on at the performances of the gyrators.
In the centre of this ceiling-floor is a large glass dome filled with pure fresh air, into which, ever and anon, a performer will plunge his head, or a couple will occasionally remain chatting there for a considerable time, when they wish to let loose their tongues and to discard for a while the telegraphic language.
The bottom of the grotto is entirely formed of branching corals with lamps distributed among them. The length of these halls is sometimes as much as fifty yards, and their height not less than twenty yards. An orchestra placed in a niche at one end or at the side of the hall play a succession of lively melodies on their peculiar musical instruments, which are on the principle of our glass and metal accordions or musical glasses, the notes being elicited by sharp taps administered with a small hammer. The thin notes producible from the corresponding instruments at home give no idea of the full volume of sound emitted by the musical instruments of Colymbia, where, indeed, music is cultivated to a much higher degree and much more universally than it is with us.
It is well known that sonorous bodies, though they retain their pitch or timbre when struck under water lose much of their sonorousness. The sound is not prolonged as in air but abruptly cut short as when the damper is applied to the strings of the piano. The ingenuity of the Colymbians has enabled them to overcome this defect, and to give to every note any amount of prolongation required. Unless they had been able to accomplish this their music would have been absolutely expressionless; whereas, on the contrary, it abounds in the most exquisite cadences, and even their ordinary instruments are capable of calling forth an amount of expression and feeling in the notes they produce that is scarcely to be matched by the finest performances on our own wind and stringed instruments.
The company begins to arrive simultaneously with the striking up of the music. The sole garment of the gentlemen is of gayer colours than that usually worn by them in the daytime, and the ladies are further decorated with necklaces of pearls or beautiful shells. The same ornaments are intertwined with the plaits of their hair, and they have armlets and bracelets of gold and silver, and similar ornaments on their legs and ankles.
They have various descriptions of dances—as I must call them for want of a better name. Sometimes a number of couples execute a regular figure, reminding me of our quadrilles at home, though very different. A large central space being cleared, a young man darts out from one side of the hall, and is met by a lady from the opposite side. Touching hands, they whirl round one another several times, then dart back to their original position. Sometimes one, sometimes many couples do this at once; sometimes all the performers mingle together, and gyrate round one another promiscuously; then suddenly all dart back to their respective places, soon to recommence with a new figure. In all their evolutions, the performers keep time to the music, which is distinctly heard in the most distant parts of the hall. This dance, with the graceful movements and attitudes of the performers, is like nothing I had ever seen before. It sometimes reminded me a little of the figures executed by good skaters on the ice, but on the whole I think it more nearly resembles the mazy evolutions performed by flies round a tassel on a summer morning.
Another dance, which reminded me of the round dances of our country, consists in a lady and gentleman whirling rapidly round the hall, their hands just touching and their bodies gliding gracefully, now above, now below one another. Sometimes the whole company would thus form into couples, and keep on gyrating round the room as long as the music played.
The lithe and supple figures whose development had not been marred by any straps or cords, whose bodies no stays had compressed, whose legs no garters had indented, whose feet no boots had squeezed out of shape,—these pictures of natural beauty skimming about and around, with more than the freedom of birds in the air, never two consecutive instants in the same attitude, it was a delight to behold; but it was ecstasy to thread the mazes of this watery dance in companionship with one of the bewitching mermaidens.
Immersed in the clear, pure water, all positions are alike pleasant. It does not matter whether head or heels be uppermost, for the equal pressure of the water prevents anything like congestion of blood to the head when our position is inverted.
Although at first these dances appeared to me more like the mad orgies of a set of bacchanals than the amusements of a party of self-respecting ladies and gentlemen, this feeling soon wore off, and I found that it was only the strangeness of the scene that made it appear to me indecorous. As I got more used to these entertainments their novelty wore off, and I saw that no feeling of indecorum or immodesty possessed the performers. The young ladies were as correct in their ideas as those we meet with in the best society at home; and, though their garments were scanty, their conversation was innocent, and their thoughts apparently pure. I found that modesty does not require yards of silk or muslin for its preservation, but may exist independently of flowing robes. Manners and customs that differ from those we are used to we are apt at first to consider improper and immodest, until we find that to those who are used to them they convey no prurient ideas, and lead to no immoral consequences.
While going through these graceful acrobatics with a beautiful dark-eyed mermaid, I endeavoured to explain to her the waltz of terrestrial mortals. She looked shocked, and exclaimed, "How dreadfully immodest! What would mama say to see me whirled round, clasped in the embrace of a man?" And yet mama smiled placid approval at her more than semi-nude daughter gyrating round the hall, attended by a man as scantily clad, and mixed up with a whole bevy of similarly-attired, or unattired, men and women.
It is not the custom of the Colymbians to eat in company; drinking, I have said is not needed in the water, where quite sufficient moisture is absorbed through the pores of the skin to supply all the wants of the system. Instead of refreshments the performers resort to certain tubes which supply the exhilarating gases I have before alluded to, and which are plentifully distributed throughout the hall. These gases are similar in properties to the nitrous oxyde with which we are familiar; they are never inhaled pure, but diluted with a certain proportion of air, so that they do not stupefy, but only cause a sensation of pleasant excitement.
After some hours spent in this fascinating amusement the company disperses, and the young ladies retire to their respective homes under the careful guidance of their matron chaperones.
I received many invitations to visit at the private domiciles of my fair partners and thus was enabled to see a good deal of the domestic life of the Colymbians.
I became particularly intimate with the family of the beautiful dark-eyed maiden I have before alluded to. Her father held some important office connected with Government, and was usually absent from home most of the day. Her mother was a pleasant lady, scarcely past her prime, and still very handsome. She had a brother—the same young man who had attached himself to me and acted as my cicerone in showing me many of the curious ways and institutions of the country. During my morning visits I usually found the ladies occupied. in reading, or engaged in some pretty fancy-work for the embellishment of their house.
The young lady, whose name was Lily, had several pets. She had a cage containing several pairs of the beautiful little paradise or peacock fish, with their brilliant spots and bands of red and green, and their quaintly-cut fins and tails. The habits of these pretty creatures are interesting and amusing. The male gathers up in his mouth the eggs deposited by the female, and conveys them to a nest he has built, and over which he forms a canopy, studded with innumerable air-bubbles, which glisten like gems, and which are emitted from his mouth. The vivacity with which he defends the nest and its contents against all comers, and even against the female whom he drives away if ever she ventures to approach the nest, was a constant source of amusement. The only creature he did not attack was his pretty mistress, who might approach her hand as near the nest as she liked, without any display of irritation on the part of its faithful guardian.
In another cage were some large lobsters, whose singular gait and voracious appetites were very funny.
Her favourite pet, however, was a very diminutive seal, which gambolled about her like a spaniel, and displayed the most lively affection. She could not train this animal to use the breathing tubes, so it had frequently to go to the air-reservoir in the ceiling to breathe or to the surface of the water when out of doors.
Seals I found to be very numerous in Colymbia, and there are several different sorts, indigenous and imported.
The indigenous seal is a very intelligent and easily-domesticated animal, varying from four to six feet in length and with much longer flippers than those inhabiting our coasts; in fact, they are so long that the animal can walk on shore without its body being in contact with the ground. These seals, being so tame and sensible, are much used for hunting purposes, chiefly for hunting the turtle whose flesh forms a staple article of the food of the country. A small variety of it is kept as a domestic pet, like this one of Miss Lily's. Their intelligence and attachment to human beings are marvellous. They will attack and destroy any cuttles, crabs, or other sea vermin that might invade the house, and will give warning of the intrusion of a stranger. For these good qualities they are in great request in the houses of the better class of people. Great pains are bestowed by the Colymbians on the breeding of them, and by dint of careful selection of stock, numerous useful and beautiful varieties have been produced from the indigenous seal that differ as much from the typical original as our varieties of dogs differ from their wild progenitor.
A large and ferocious kind, with a head like a leopard's, and a formidable array of teeth, are used as watch-dogs along the reef to give notice of the approach of ships and shipwrecked persons. They are chained up in order to keep them at their post on the reef, and by their loud barking noise, which I had heard when I first approached the barrier, they warn the police of the approach of anything strange. I remembered having seen in England a large barking seal, which was exhibited under the name of the "Talking fish," and whose bark was similar to that of these watch-seals.
I was told that the naturalists of the country do not consider these fierce seals as indigenous to the country. It is supposed that the original parents had been found on board some vessel—a whaler, probably—that had been wrecked on its voyage from the South Seas, or that they had been captured when endeavouring to make their way from one latitude to another. From some peculiarities about them, the parent stock is believed to have inhabited a much colder region of the earth. However this may be, their descendants seem thoroughly acclimatized to the scorching heat of the tropics, and perform their duties in the most satisfactory manner.
Other pets this charming water Lily possessed, such as sea-anemones, of every variety of shape and colour, which she daintily fed every morning with tiny morsels of mussels, or other common shell-fish. She also kept a hideous squid in a dark hole, and would pull it out and let it crawl all over her with its eight long arms. Crabs and sea-urchins she detested, and she had trained her little seal to attack and destroy any that might venture into her room.
Like other girls of her station in life, Lily had received a tolerable education. She was well read in English literature, an accomplished musician, and skilled in the small ornamental arts which occupy much of the time of the Colymbian ladies. In her parents' house there was a small but select library of English authors; and from a neighbouring establishment all the recent works of lighter literature were procurable. All books used in the subaqueous country are printed on the waterproof paper I formerly mentioned, and in many of them the character used is the sort of telegraphic symbols I have endeavoured to describe.
I found great pleasure in conversing with this amiable young lady in the manner of her country, and confess to having experienced a certain thrill through me the first time I was permitted to use the language of intimate friends and spell the words on her soft white skin. Constant use has, however, divested this mode of communication of all feelings of indelicacy among the Colymbians, and ladies and gentlemen tap out their chats on one another's skins with no more sense of impropriety than though they were drumming away on a deal table.
But the tapping conversation implies a certain amount of intimacy and equality among those who use it. Strangers or inferiors always address in the visible or audible language; and the rapidity with which conversation is carried on by either of these methods is the result of constant practice.
In addition to the modes of speech I have described, there is a higher style of language employed by orators, public speakers, and lecturers. The telegraphic system before described forms the basis of this language, but it is expressed musically. The music is not like a tune; indeed the proficients in the musical oratory affect to despise and discard melody, leaving it to nurses and the performers in the gyrating halls.
The time and tact of the music convey the words; the notes themselves the expression. Thus, every note struck has a precise meaning, and the system expresses the highest flights of eloquence, the finest shades of passion and emotion, and is equally fitted for conveying the sublimest truths of philosophy, the most important revelations of science, the deepest tragedy, or the most humorous comedy.
The orators of the legislature, and all public lecturers, invariably adopt this mode of speaking. It was extraordinary to observe how well adapted the musical oratory is to express the various themes on which it was employed. If the orator's subject were a dull one, the music became correspondingly dull; and if his subject were interesting, the interesting character of the music never flagged. Tender emotions, refined sentiments, fierce passions, caustic remarks, sarcasm, merry banter, broad jokes, have each their appropriate music; and as every word is distinctly uttered, the harmonious mode in which it is emitted gives a charm to this mode of speaking perfectly indescribable, combining, as it does, the most brilliant eloquence, with the subtlest expression of scientific harmonies.
There are, of course, degrees of eloquence, as there are of other arts. But this art is so carefully cultivated by the Colymbians that it is surprising how many are proficients in it. It does not require one to possess a knowledge of the laws of the highest development of music to be able fully to appreciate the performance of its adepts. The art, however painfully acquired, is at once appreciated by all cultivated persons who listen to the artist.
To uneducated or imperfectly-educated persons, the highest flights of this musical oratory are as incomprehensible as is the eloquence of our most brilliant English statesmen to our unlettered country bumpkins; for it is not to be supposed that a person whose vocabulary is limited to a couple of hundred words would appreciate or thoroughly understand the discourse of one who has several thousand words at his command. But the mysteries of counter-point and thorough bass form part of the elementary education of all cultivated Colymbians, and it is only the very stupidest and the ill-educated among these whose knowledge of music does not go beyond the first principles of the art. And even they can understand sufficiently the drift of a brilliant orator to listen to him with pleasure; just as our unlettered rustics are pleased to hear the eloquence of our best speakers, though they cannot be credited with understanding all they hear.
A very brilliant orator, with whom I conversed, would hardly believe that we, in old European countries, still consider pieces of which melodies form the staple as the highest development of music.
"Melodies," he exclaimed, "are mere twaddle. We have long since done with them here. You miss the chief delight of music, if, for instance, in the case of a ballad, whose every verse and every line conveys some different idea, you sing all of them to one unvarying tune; and as a rule you can only hear the tune, and not the words, when it is sung. Pshaw!" he said, "leave tunes to children and fools and cultivate that higher style of art where every note has its meaning, every cadence and every chord expresses an idea, an emotion or a scientific fact; where, in short, the notes are the words, a language of sweet sounds."
I could not altogether share the enthusiasm of the orator, and often, after a seance, when I had listened to the finest outpouring of this highly-finished and scientific music, I longed for some of the sweet melodies of my native land, and could even enjoy the meaningless dance-tunes of the evening assemblies. Just as one does not like to go about always on stilts, so one wearies sometimes of hating one's mind always strung up to the concert pitch of the abstractly sublime and beautiful. However, it was sheer heresy to utter a word against the infinite superiority of the musical oratory of the Colymbians over all the melody-music of past times. So, to avoid incurring the contempt of my new friends, I pretended to acquiesce in the assertion of the utterly despicable character of any music with a tune in it.
It is a rule I have made to myself, never to differ from an enthusiast unless I wish to make him angry and quarrel with him; and as I had no desire to do so in the present instance, I kept my opinions to myself, and listened to the musical fanatic with the utmost deference.