Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 7/Nest-building apes




A little holiday group, lately standing before M. Du Chaillu’s nest-building apes, in the British Museum, bitterly lamented the fact that these animals were not alive. A similar feeling of disappointment was recently experienced at Liverpool, when Mr. Walker arrived from the Gaboon, or Baboon, River, bringing to land only a few stuffed skins instead of a tribe of living Gorillas. The public mind had been so prepared by wonderful stories about this missing link of humanity, that thousands were ready to welcome it with all the honours accorded to the Japanese Ambassadors. Lord Monboddo was taken down once more from the dusty library shelf; the theory of progression was looked at with kindly tolerance; and the pot-bellied African stranger was met half way with the acknowledgment that he was all but “a man and a brother.”

This sympathetic yearning towards the nest-building ape is probably caused by one of those mysterious affinities which run through the whole animal world. It would be so easy to show that certain gorillas are nest-building men, or that certain men are nest-building apes, that we can hardly wonder at the interest taken in our newly-discovered cousins. If anything would prove that M. Du Chaillu has not been guilty of giving to hairy nothings “a local habitation and a name,” it would be the large and easily recognised family of nest-building apes, who have long been taking very active parts in the drama of life. Few of us can lay our paws upon our hearts and say honestly that we are unworthy of this classification. We are constantly gathering the big and little twigs—constantly hedging ourselves in from all disasters—constantly making ourselves snug. There is small need to go to a distant howling wilderness for a few dry skins to prove that the nest-building faculty is cultivated by a large and industrious class.

Since the days of Lord Bacon (not to go too far back into the mists of antiquity) it is probable that nest building has been cultivated with great success. We find traces of the art in chapels, churches, and palaces, in town halls, picture galleries and industrial museums. It may be seen in full development at such places as South Kensington; but shops, warehouses, public offices, and a hundred other places are equally governed by it. It reigns almost as absolutely in Tottenham Court Road as it does in Downing Street; in Belgravia and May Fair as in Lombard Street or Chancery Lane. It may be called by various names,—such as prudence, industry, success, or, property qualification; because language, like figures, is given to us to conceal the truth.

A very good sample of the nest-building ape—shrewd, active, and watchful—may be seen at the Museum of Universal Taste. He is the main prop of that comfortable institution, and is prepared to raise any number of such nests at the shortest notice, and on the most unreasonable terms. The nest of this knowing ape was first built of the humblest twigs—a structure hideous, but cheap, and therefore not calculated to alarm the British tax-payer. Thick and squat as it appeared, it was the thin edge of the wedge. By slow and silent degrees the nest spread into something between a show and a school, and while it professed to improve the lower orders of the east, its home was at the extreme west of London. Minor nests were built for a number of minor apes; grants of money were got from ear-wigged parliamentary committees; and at last the thick end of the wedge—the full-blown nest—was allowed to emerge from behind the official curtain.

Another thriving specimen of the nest-building ape may be seen any day in the person of the Rev. Mr. Tabernacle. He has covered himself in with a very eligible and valuable freehold by shouting out the Gospel according to St. Lucre. Nothing less than an absolute command of a well-built nest would satisfy the acquisitiveness of this calculating apostle. The hat went round very pushingly for twigs in the name of the Christian faith, and the backward in giving were reminded with sternness that the labourer was worthy of his hire. The nest, like many other similar nests, will always command a good market price, as the title to it is made clear by a good store of worldly precaution.

The official and clerical nest-building apes have worthy companions in the persons of their commercial brethren. The trading ape, wedged up in snug quarters by his cash-books and ledgers, is generally distinguished for his power of nest-building. He has surrounded himself with banks, insurance offices, and a thousand varieties of nests, each one furnishing homes for other apes, more or less enterprising. In the language of commerce, a nest is often called a “basis of operations,” a pretty and expressive name, and one that is not at all offensive. The trading ape generally manages to build his nest, whether he is honest and successful, or dishonest and unsuccessful. In the first case he buys a few small palaces, and takes rank as a merchant prince; in the second he arrives at a smaller degree of comfort and elegance, through a marriage settlement. The nest in the last instance is built with creditors’ twigs, and put out of the reach of hungry assignees by a legal family conveyance.

The legal profession, who so often build or destroy other people’s nests, furnish a very good number of these particular apes. Starring barristers who neglect every case that does not lead to notoriety; who address juries from half-built nests only to collect more twigs, or to be lifted bodily into a warm woolsacky retreat, are certainly no unworthy members of this species. The web-spinning lawyer, who partly feeds the barrister—who looks out from a bower of bills of costs—is about as fine a specimen of the “nest-building ape” as any fancier of the tribe would like to examine. They all have one little fault,—selfishness a little too strongly developed; they all believe devoutly in the same worldly-wise maxim,—each one for himself and God for us all. And yet are they not all “men and brethren?”

John Hollingshead.