Open main menu



MY young friend Julian, who, as I have intimated, took a great fancy to me, and whose friendly feelings I reciprocated, besides being an adept at all the amusements and games which occupied so much of the time of the young folks, was very well informed, had read much, and was as familiar with the manners and customs of my dear native land as though he had lived there for years. And yet he had never quitted Colymbia, and did not go ashore once in a twelve-month. In fact, it is not considered "the thing" among the genteel classes to quit the water at all, and any one whose occupation takes him much out of the water rather loses caste among his fashionable friends, and is looked on as decidedly vulgar.

Julian had very advanced views in biology, was an enthusiast for the evolution of species, and thoroughly believed in the continuous advance towards perfection of the human race. He looked on the Colymbians as the most advanced of human beings, and as immeasurably superior to any of the terrestrial inhabitants of the globe.

I could not always agree with him on this point, as the prejudices of my education stood in the way of my regarding the aquatic life of my new friends as altogether an improvement on the terrestrial life to which I had been accustomed. Thus it happened that we often had conversations about the relative advantages of the aquatic and terrestrial modes of existence. He would wonder at my preference for our English ways, and would hold forth in something like the following strain:—

"If you consider the structure of the human body, you must allow that it is but ill-adapted for terrestrial life. The smooth hairless skin is so unfitted for exposure to the sun and air, that if you would go about in the air with any comfort, you must cover yourself from head to foot with clothes. Now, these clothes, with their ligatures and fastenings, never fit like the woolly or hairy covering of the brutes; they not only hinder the free play of your muscles, but they cramp and distort the body and limbs out of all their natural proportions. Your tailors, milliners, shoemakers and other providers of clothing have so acted on your frames that your bodies are squeezed in at the waist to the extent of deformity; the various organs of the body are displaced or impeded in their proper functions, and you suffer from innumerable diseases, all occasioned by the pressure of your weight of garments. Your feet are so cramped by the hard leather boots you wear, that the toes soon lose all their natural play, and put you to constant torture, owing to the callosities and distortions they contract from wearing such irrational coverings. Your hats, too, are the cause of perpetual head-aches, loss of hair and congestion of the brain. In short, clothes are the producers of so much misery and ill-health, that it is evident man was never intended by nature to wear them. And yet you cannot exist in the air without them!

"Look, now, how different it is when you live in the water! Clothes here would be not only useless but could not be worn. The body and limbs have therefore perfect liberty to develope themselves to the utmost degree of perfection, and you see what beauty of form prevails here. No deformed limbs, no crooked backs, no dyspepsia, no disturbance of the functions of any of the organs are to be found in this subaqueous abode. The smooth hairless skin is eminently fitted for gliding uninterruptedly through the water; the equable pressure of the fluid medium in which we float renders it a matter of perfect indifference whether our head or our heels are uppermost. The suspension of the laws of gravitation for us when we inhabit a medium of the same specific gravity as our own bodies, enables us to use our limbs entirely for the purpose of working, moving about or engaging in our games and sports.

"How different is it when we live in the air! There, in order to avoid a rush of blood to the head, we must raise ourselves on our legs, and at every step we have to carry forward the whole dead weight of our body, whereby fatigue is soon produced. Then, on land, the least exertion causes us to perspire, and we must be perpetually drinking to supply the waste of fluids thereby produced. Rest is impossible unless we throw the whole weight of our body on to such contrivances as chairs or couches. In short, life on land is a mere burden.

"Whereas here, we have no sense of fatigue except what is produced by the excessive action of our limbs, and we obtain rest and refreshment by merely ceasing to move them. Diseases which, on land, are mostly produced by the excessive labour of carrying about your heavy bodies encumbered by a mass of heavy garments, or by the disastrous pressure of the clothes, which cannot be worn without tight ligatures, or by the mere want of use of the muscles of the body and limbs, owing to the hindrances to free motion these clothes offer,—diseases, I say, are almost entirely unknown here, and we read with astonishment of the multitude of doctors needed in every community of terrestrial mortals.

"And then, consider the expedients you are obliged to adopt on land to obviate the disadvantages under which you labour. When you wish to travel any distance, you must employ horses, carriages or steam-engines, and all this because the burden of your own weight is too great for you; and you must always take along with you great boxes full of clothes. For purposes of locomotion, your erect posture, whereby you have the use of only two limbs, puts you at a disadvantage compared with the lowest class of animals, which have all at least four limbs that they can use for progressive motion, and for supporting the weight of the body. On land, man is inferior, as regards his power of moving, to the horse, the dog, the deer, and even those contemptible animals the hare and the rabbit. These animals, too, have all a special covering of wool or hair that fits them for life in the air, and does not interfere with the play of their muscles or obstruct the action of their organs, like your artificial covering of clothes.

"On the other hand, in water man has no superior, nor even an equal among the lower animals, as far as locomotion is concerned. The long leverage of his arms and the powerful thrust of his legs enable him to excel the seal in speed as well as in all the subtler evolutions that he can perform in the water.

"When you terrestrials do go into the water you imitate the dog or the horse and swim with your heads above the water, whereby you lose all the advantage for aquatic life your physical construction gives you over these animals.

"The structure and shape of your limbs, of your hands and your feet, show that you were intended not for walking—which you do awkwardly and insecurely on two limbs only—but for swimming; and that not on the surface like a dog or a duck, but below the water like a seal. Look at your broad flat palms, and the fingers capable of being so approximated as to give you precisely the flipper of the seal with the additional advantage of a long lever in the arm. How unlike a dog, whose mode of swimming you yet imitate! He has a narrow paw, incapable of offering any great resistance to the water.

"Then look at your foot, so ill adapted for walking that you have to cover it with stout leather to prevent it being cut to pieces by the ground you walk on; but so admirably fitted for propelling you in the water, whilst its curved and arched back offers the least resistance to the water when you draw up your leg towards your body in swimming, preparatory to striking out again.

"Your physiologists pretend to derive the human race from those hideous monsters, the apes; but some of the most sagacious among them are forced to acknowledge that man shows signs of having been derived from a marine ancestor. How it has escaped them that we must have a common ancestor with the seal, I know not. And yet it is a well-ascertained fact that the brain of a seal in size and general appearance more nearly resembles that of man than does the brain of any other animal; and look at the position and appearance of a seal's head when he comes to the surface of the water: can anything more closely resemble the head of a man in like circumstances? You would almost swear it was a human head at the first glance, so round, so elegantly poised on the shoulders, so intelligent-looking, with its large soft eye, and its high broad forehead. And then its voice, which you call a bark, but which is actually the rudiment of the human voice, uttering the first two syllables that children emit, "Mama!" with such distinctness that your ignorant showmen call it the "talking fish." Your men of science may tell you that you descend from monkeys, but I range myself with those who maintain our descent from the seal.

"You terrestrials have never yet been able to understand the use of the spleen; and, indeed, in your aerial life it is of no use at all, except to swell and get painful when you have the ague: it can even be entirely removed without injury to the terrestrial animal. But, if you ask our anatomists, they will tell you that it is of the greatest utility to a lung-breathing animal below the water, for it acts as a receptacle for a large supply of oxygenated blood, to enable us to exist for a longer time submerged, without breathing, than we otherwise could. Of course, as you terrestrials never make any use of it, it degenerates with you to a mere rudimentary organ; but after you have passed some years in the water, you will find that it has gradually regained the function it had lost by long disuse, and you will find that it will enable you to exist a considerable length of time under water without the need of air.

"Another proof of our aquatic origin is afforded by the physiological fact, that a certain and constant proportion of children are born with two or more fingers or toes joined together by a web, as in the seal. This is regarded by our physiologists as an instance of 'atavism,' or the reproduction in a descendant of a feature or organ peculiar to a remote ancestor."

I inquired if it would not be desirable, considering the medium they inhabited, that the race of web handed or footed children should alone be preserved, as they might in turn propagate and develop this peculiarity, so that ultimately the whole population might become provided with fins, in place of hands and feet. Of course, I merely meant this as persiflage, but he replied very seriously,—

"No, we do not wish to see a recrudescence of the organs which denote an inferior animal nature; and it is doubtful if we could ever perpetuate or redevelop in the more perfect being an organ which indicates an inferior grade. For though, doubtless, our fingers and toes if webbed would be more powerful swimming organs than they are, still, the separation of the fingers and toes has been necessitated by the other uses we have acquired for them, and we should not wish to sacrifice their utility in the higher manifestations of muscular movement in order that they might be more fitted for a lower such manifestation. I only mentioned the fact of the constant recurrence of this peculiarity among human beings to prove to you our common origin with seals."

"Or fishes?" I remarked.

"Well, you may say fishes; but that is a further remove, for we should require to trace ourselves through reptiles back to the piscine order.

"Many other circumstances," he continued, "I could adduce to prove to you the community of our origin with aquatic mammalia, but I fear to fatigue you. Thus, when a child is born into the air, it screams with pain and fright, in consequence of entering at once a medium unsuited to its nature. Now, when it is born in water, it shows none of these signs of distress, but continues tranquilly the same sort of existence it had in its mother. It is gradually and quietly taught to use its lungs, without that shock to its system which in air often proves fatal to its tender life. You have, in your own person, experienced the facility with which, when circumstances require it, the power of closing the nostrils by voluntary muscular action, as seals do, is acquired, proving that this is no new faculty, but simply the revival of one which had become obsolete from there being no occasion for it as long as you lived in air.

"In your own part of the world, some of the most ancient inhabitants are shown by their remains to have constructed their dwellings in large lakes. These lacustrine people were, doubtless, the first in descent from the truly aquatic animal the human race sprang from, who, because they inhabited a region too cold to allow them to remain altogether in the water, still retained somewhat of the aquatic habits of their ancestor, and so lived an amphibious life, partly on the land and partly in the water.

"In short," he concluded, "it is obvious that man was never intended to pass his life in the air, where he is the inferior of almost all those he is pleased to call the lower animals. The water is his proper element, and there alone can he assert and prove his superiority to the brute creation, and develop in perfection those faculties of his body with which nature has so liberally endowed him."

I should have had no great difficulty in refuting these gross sophisms, but my experience of Colymbians had taught me that they were singularly intolerant of opposition; that, unlike the true philosophers of my native country, they preferred their system to truth, and disliked those who produced facts that militated against their theories. As I did not wish to forfeit the friendship of my young companion, I left his bundle of arguments unanswered, and merely ventured to hint that, though an aquatic life was possible and perhaps even desirable in these tropical regions where the temperature of the water was high, yet it was not practicable in higher latitudes where the water was so cold that it would rapidly abstract all the heat of the body, and any one who attempted to live in the water must soon perish from the mere abstraction of his animal heat.

"I grant," he said, "that at present such would be the case. But, no doubt, the ingenuity of man is equal to the task of finding some method of warming the water sufficiently to enable him to live in it in comfort, even in the highest latitudes.

"But supposing you are not ripe for such an invention yet, why not come and live where the water is always warm enough for you? There are millions of square miles of warm sea in the tropics, which could easily contain the whole human race. Before these are fully peopled, I have not a doubt that a method of heating the colder water will be discovered. Your objection reminds me of the cry of alarm lately raised in your country about the imminent exhaustion of your coal, when you had still remaining a supply for some thousands of years. It is not only probable, but certain, that long before your coal seams are exhausted, some discovery will be made which will enable you to do without coal altogether. When you have filled all the warm seas, depend on it the secret of living comfortably in the colder will assuredly be found."

"At all events," said I, "you will grant that by living entirely under the water, you are almost altogether deprived of the charm of the human voice."

"Stop!" he interrupted, "charm, do you call it? You know very well that for one human voice it is pleasant to listen to there are fifty one would rather not hear, on account of their harshness, their want of modulation, their deficiency in musical timbre or other defects. Besides, we may hear our friends' voices as often as we please, without coming to the surface, by merely putting our heads into the air-reservoir at the top of every room. I consider the absence of disagreeable voices one of the chief charms of subaqueous existence."

"Well," I observed, "it may be owing to the prejudices of my education; but I confess to a great love of the human voice, and would rather hear what you call harsh and unmelodious voices than none at all."

"Tastes differ," he replied; "perhaps the extreme length to which our musical education is carried makes us fastidious and intolerant of all unmusical sounds. But to come to another point; look at your system of marriage and compare it with ours. You rightly say marriage is a lottery, for you know not what kind of person you are marrying, as you have never seen her for her clothes; and these clothes are employed to hide the defects and deformities they have themselves occasioned. I read that your millinery and tailors have arrived at such a degree of perfection in their art, that they are able, with tight lacing and padding, to make the most ungainly and ill-fashioned figure assume all the appearance of perfect symmetry of form; and I further read, that any kind of complexion and colour of hair may be obtained; that false hair, false eyebrows, false eyes, false teeth, false noses, and false ears, not to mention false arms and legs, are to be had of such surprising naturalness that they cannot be detected. In short, any deceit may be practised in air, but water is incapable of lending itself to such cheats. Here everything is what it seems—our hair and our complexions, our limbs and our other organs, are all our own. Every one is as the hand of nature has fashioned him or her. I can imagine a couple of terrestrials being entrapped into mutual admiration by the beautifying arts of your tailors, milliners, hair-dressers and dealers in cosmetics. And when they got married they would find to their chagrin, that it was not one another they admired, but only clothes and wigs, padding, rouge and powder! When, on the blissful hymeneal evening, monsieur and madame came to unrobe, they would eye one another's movements with the most intense disgust, if not with astonishment. Those coal-black Hyperion curls of monsieur are removed, and a bald or grizzled head exposed to view. Madame takes out a few pins, and lo! the rich fleece of golden tresses falls to the ground. Monsieur doffs his coat and madame sees that those broad and symmetrical shoulders she so admired were only padding. Madame washes her face, and the exquisite red and white complexion changes, as if by magic, to a sallow hue. Bit by bit, the adventitious graces are laid aside, until at last the fond couple are revealed to one another in their true shape and ugliness. I can imagine them saying to one another, 'Oh! Augustus, I did not expect to see you like that!' and 'Ah, Julia! I admired you so much, and what a fright you are!' And then, as if to crown your absurdity, you make the marriage contract a life affair. You don't know what sort of creature you are marrying, and yet you bind yourselves to one another for life! You have an expression, 'buying a pig in a poke,' and I think your matrimonial affairs must be good illustrations of this curious mercantile transaction. In many cases you must get very little pig and a great deal of poke."

I felt a shudder run through me to hear the divine institution of marriage thus ridiculed by this sneering infidel, and said in as severe a manner as I could assume:—

"Forbear to ridicule an institution you are incapable of understanding, being destitute of all religion. If you had had the privilege I have enjoyed of being born and bred in a country that possesses a national Church, such as ours of England is, you would have been able to appreciate the sanctity of marriage, and to have understood how advantageous, nay, how necessary it is for the good of the community, that couples, however unsuited they may be to each other, and however miserable they may make one another, should be bound together for the whole term of their natural lives, and be unable to untie the knot that binds them together without committing an offence that shall ever afterwards exclude them from all respectable society."

"Well," he returned, "I own I am incapable of seeing the excellence of your system, and I think the Church must indeed possess miraculous powers, if it convinces you of the necessity, or even expediency, of making the marriages of ill-assorted couples indissoluble. I am sure you never could persuade our Colymbians of your superiority in this respect."

"I have little doubt of being able to do so," I replied, "if your benighted countrymen would accept the religion and submit to the mild sway of the Church of England—the purest and best of Christian Churches."

I will not record the contemptuous manner in which Julian talked of our venerable ecclesiastical establishment; but though I felt extremely annoyed by his remarks, I made allowances for him, as he was, with all his civilization, learning and refinement, nothing but a heathen.

He soon returned to his favourite theme of vaunting the superiority of Colymbian ways and institutions over those of all the world besides; not excepting those of the unknown country, which were held by most of his countrymen to be the model for universal imitation. He was a positivist and concerned himself only with things that could be seen or proved, and therefore he thought very little of transcendental geography, which he said might be good enough for the lower classes and for women, but was not worthy the attention of a man of sense.

"I am surprised," he continued, "that you do not see the great superiority of the Colymbian institutions in regard to the relation of the sexes. Here, when a man and a woman take a fancy to one another, they know exactly with what and with whom they fall in love. It is not a bundle of clothes, nor a wig, nor padding they adore; it is the actual man and the actual woman such as nature has made them, undisguised by any clothes-maker's art. Our marriages are merely engagements we enter into, to live with one another just as long as we find it agreeable to do so. We would all scout the idea of being obliged to live together for ever, even though we should make one another's lives wretched by reason of incompatablity of temper, of incongruous tastes, or some new inclination. Marriage with you, being a life-long contract, is accompanied by solemn ceremonies, much fuss, and the giving of handsome presents, by way of gilding the bitter pill. But with us marriage is an affair that only concerns the parties married. We would no more think of making it an occasion for festivities and rejoicings, public or private, than we would the purchase of a new book or the introduction to a new friend. And yet, I'll be bound, there are more happy and contented couples among us than there are among you. The very knowledge that their contract can be dissolved at any minute, keeps those who really love one another on better behaviour towards one another, and makes them mutually forbearing and tolerant of one another's little peculiarities. A brutal husband and a nagging wife are characters quite unknown here. No man will be cruel to a woman who can leave him when she chooses, nor would any woman submit to brutality when she can so easily avoid it. No woman who loves a man would alienate his affection by nagging, unless she had the assurance that no amount of nagging would justify him in leaving her. Marriage is such a purely individual affair here, that, in the case of some of our friends who are hard to please, we scarcely know who is their wife or husband to-day, or who may occupy that position to-morrow. No man or woman loses the least in consideration, however frequently he or she may have been married and separated. It seldom happens but that ultimately the most fastidious get suited, and seek no further change; but we would consider it the height of unreason to condemn those to live together who were manifestly incapable of rendering each other happy."

I need not say how highly I disapproved of all this, and how strenuously I argued in favour of the customs of my own country. It is not necessary to repeat what I said, as my English readers are quite familiar with the cogent arguments in favour of the indissolubility of marriage.

With these loose views, concerning marriage, I found that the Colymbians, or at least many of them, had equally loose views regarding the relations of parents and children. While some seemed to cherish and love their children, pay them as much attention, superintend their education, and see to their advancement in life as zealously as any terrestrial parents would; others, on the contrary, would send several or all their children to the Government foundling institutions, where they are reared at the expense of the state, educated, and afterwards employed in situations for which they seem to be suited. Others, again, who either had no children of their own, or children who did not please them, would adopt children of their friends and neighbours, or select, according to their taste, from the large stock of children always to be found in the foundling establishments.