Open main menu

Under the Sun/Visitors in Fur, and Others

III.

VISITORS IN FUR, AND OTHERS.

AS a contrast to the fidgetty birds, glance your eye along the garden path and take note of that pink-nosed mungoose[1] gazing placidly out of the water-pipe. It looks as shy as Oliver Twist before the Board; but that is only because it sees no chance of being able to chase you about, catch you and eat you. If you were a snake or a lizard you would find it provokingly familiar, and as brisk as King Ferdinand at an auto-da-fé, for the scent of a likely snake is to the mungoose as pleasant as that of valerian to cats, attar to a Begum, aniseed to pigeons, or burning Jews to His Most Catholic Majesty aforementioned; and when upon the war-trail the mungoose is as different to the every-day animal as the Sunday gentleman in the Park, in green gloves and a blue necktie, is to the obsequious young man who served you across the counter on Saturday. Usually the mungoose is to be seen slinking timorously along the narrow watercourses, or, under cover of the turf edge, gliding along to some hunting-ground among the aloes; whence, if it unearths a quarry, it will emerge with its fur on end and its tail like a bottle-brush, its eyes dancing in its head, and all its body agog with excitement, — reckless of the dead leaves crackling as it scuttles after the flying reptile, flinging itself upon the victim with a zest and single-mindedness wonderful to see. That pipe is its city of refuge, the asylum in all times of trouble, to which it betakes itself when annoyed by the cat who lives in the carrot-bed, or the bird-boy who by his inhuman cries greatly perplexes the robins in the peas, or when its nerves have been shaken by the sudden approach of the silent-footed gardener or by a rencontre with the long-tailed pariah dog that lives in the outer dust. The mungoose, although his own brothers in Nepaul have the same smell in a worse degree, is the sworn foe of musk-rats. “All is not mungoose that smells of musk,” it reasons, as it follows up the trail of its chitt-chittering victim; but although it enjoys this le sport it sometimes essays the less creditable battue. Jerdon says, “It is very destructive to such birds as frequent the ground. Not unfrequently it gets access to tame pigeons, rabbits, or poultry, and commits great havoc, sucking the blood only of several.” He adds that he has “often seen it make a dash into a verandah where caged birds were placed, and endeavor to tear them from their cages.” The mungoose family, in fact, do duty for weasels, and if game were preserved in India would be vermin. Even at present some of the blame so lavishly showered on the tainted musk-rat might be transferred to the mungoose. A little more of that same blame might perhaps be made over to another popular favorite, the grey squirrel.

The palm squirrel, as it is more properly called, will come into a room and eat the fruit on your sideboard, or into a vinery and incontinently borrow your grapes. A rat-trap in such cases may do some good, but a complete cure is hopeless. Nothing but the Arminian doctrine of universal grace will save the squirrel from eternal damnation, for its presumption is unique. The plummet of reflection cannot sound it, nor the net of memory bring up a precedent. It is gratuitous, unprovoked, and aimless. It is all for love. There are no stakes such as the crow plays for, and in its shrill gamut there is no string of menace or of challenge. Its scrannel quips are pointless, — so let them pass. Any one, unless he be a Scotch piper, has a right to stone the Seven Sisters for their fulsome clatter, but the tongue of the squirrel is free as air. There is no embargo on it; it is out of bond, and wags when and where it lists. Let the craven kite (itself the butt of smaller birds) swoop at it, but give your sympathy to the squirrel. A woman who cannot kiss and a bird which cannot sing ought to be at any rate taught, but who would look for harmony from a squirrel? Was wisdom ever found in Gotham or truth in the compliments of beggars? Would you hook Leviathan by the nose, or hedge a cuckoo in? Again, besides its voice, people have been found to object to its tail. But Hiawatha liked it. There is no malice in the motion of a squirrel’s tail. It does not resemble the cocked-tip gesture of the robin’s or the wren’s. It does n’t swing like the cat’s, or dart like the scorpion’s. It is never offensively straight on end like a cow’s on a windy day, nor slinking like a pariah dog’s. It has none of the odious mobility of the monkey’s, nor the three-inch arrogance of the goat’s. Neither is there in it the pendulous monotony of the wagtail’s, nor the spasmodic wriggle of the sucking lamb’s. Yet it is a speaking feature. That fluffy perkiness is an index of the squirrel mind. With an upward jerk it puts a question, with a downward one emphasizes an assertion; gives plausibility with a wave, and stings with sarcasm in a series of disconnected lilts; for the squirrel is as inquisitive as Empedocles, as tediously emphatic as the Ephesians, and in self-confidence a Croesus. It would not have hesitated to suggest to Solomon solutions to the Queen of Sheba’s conundrums, nor to volunteer likely answers to the riddle of the Sphinx. It is impervious to jibes. Scoffs and derision are thrown away upon it as much as solid argument. Hard names do it no hurt. It would not be visibly affected if you called it a parallelopiped, or the larva of a marine ascidian. Perhaps it is a philosopher, for, since squirrels dropped their nutshells on Primeval Man, no instance is on record of a melancholy squirrel. Its emotions (precipitate terror excepted) are shallow, and though it may be tamed, it will form no strong attachments; while its worldly wisdom is great. Like the frog in Æsop, it is “extreme wise.” Given a three-inch post, the squirrel can always keep out of sight. You may go round and round, but it will always be “on the other side.”

Squirrels excepted, the most prominent members of Indian garden life are ants, for they stamp their broad-arrow everywhere; their advertisements may be read on almost every tree-trunk, and samples of their work seen on all the paths. They have a head office in most verandahs, with branch establishments in the bathrooms; while their agents are ubiquitous, laying earth-heaps wherever they travel, — each heap the outward and visible sign of much inward tunnelling, which, towards the end of the rainy season, will fall in. Engineering seems to be their favorite profession, although some have a passion for plastering, and when other surfaces fail will lay a coat of mud on the level ground, for the after-pleasure of creeping under it. Others are bigots to geographical discovery, and are constantly wandering into dangerous places, whence they escape only by a series of miracles. Of some a pastoral life is all the joy, for they keep herds of green aphides — better known as “blight” — which they milk regularly for the sake of the sweet leaf-juice they secrete. Others, again, are hunters and live on the produce of the chase. They organize foraging parties and issue forth a host of Lilliputians to drag home a Brobdignag cricket; or, marshalled on the war-trail, file out to plunder the larders of their neighbors. The bulk, however, are omnivorous and jacks-of-all-trades, with a decided leaning towards vegetable food and excavation; and it is in this, the enormous consumption of seeds in the ant nurseries, that this family contributes its quota to the well-being of creation, a quota which after all scarcely raises it, in point of usefulness, to the level of butterflies and moths — popularly supposed to be the idlest and least useful of created insects. It ought, however, to be kept in mind that butterflies are only beautified caterpillars; and when we see them flying about, we should remember that their work is over and they are enjoying their vacation. They have been raised to the Upper House. From being laborious managers they have become the sleeping partners in a thriving business. While they were caterpillars they worked hard and well; so Nature, to reward them, dresses them up to look attractive, and sends them out as butterflies — to get married. The ants, on the other hand, did no work when they were grubs, so they have to do a good deal in their maturity. They have to provide food for successive broods of hungry youngsters, who, when grown up, will join them in feeding their younger brothers and sisters; or, if they are of the favored few, will enter ant life with wings, and be blown away by the wind a few hundred yards, to become the founders of new colonies. The actual balance of work done by caterpillars and ants respectively is indeed about equal; the only difference being that caterpillars check vegetation by feeding themselves, and ants by feeding their babies; while the balance of mischief done is very much against the ants. The commonest of all the Indian ants, or at any rate the most conspicuous, are the black ones, to be found marauding on every sideboard, and whose normal state seems to be one of criminal trespass. These from their size are perhaps also the most interesting, as it requires little exertion to distinguish between the classes of individuals that in the aggregate make up a nest of ants. There is the blustering soldier, or policeman ant, who goes about wagging his great head and snapping his jaws at nothing; furious exceedingly when insulted, but as a rule preferring to patrol in shady neighborhoods, the backwaters of life, where he can peer idly into cracks and holes. See him as he saunters up the path, pretending to be on the lookout for suspicious characters, stopping strangers with impertinent inquiries, leering at that modest wire-worm who is hurrying home. Watch him swaggering to meet a friend whose beat ends at the corner, and with whom he will loiter for the next hour. Suddenly a blossom falls from the orange-tree overhead. His display of energy is now terrific. He dashes about in all directions, jostles the foot-passengers, and then pretends that they had attacked him. He continually loses his own balance, and has to scramble out of worm-holes and dusty crevices; or he comes in collision with a blade of grass which he bravely turns upon and utterly discomfits, and then on a sudden, tail up, he whirls home to report at headquarters the recent violent volcanic disturbances, which, being at his post, he was fortunately able to suppress! Another and more numerous section of the community of ants are the loafers, who spend lives of the most laborious idleness. Instead of joining the long thread of honest worker ants, stretching from the nest to the next garden and busy importing food to the nurseries, they hang about the doors and eke out a day spent in sham industry by retiring at intervals to perform an elaborate toilet. Between whiles the loafer affects a violent energy He makes a rush along the highroad, jostling all the laden returners, stops most of them to ask commonplace questions or to wonder idly at their burdens; and then, as if struck by a bright idea or the sudden remembrance of something he had forgotten, he turns sharp round and rushes home, — tumbling headlong into the nest with an avalanche of rubbish behind him which it will take the whole colony a longtime to bring out again. The loafer, meanwhile, retires to clean his legs. Sometimes also, in order to be thought active and vigilant, he raises a false alarm of danger and skirmishes valiantly in the rear with an imaginary foe, a husk of corn-seed or a thistle-down. One such loafer came, under my own observation, to a miserable end. Thinking to be busy cheaply, he entered into combat with a very small fly. But the small fly was the unsuspected possessor of a powerful sting, whereupon the unhappy loafer, with his tail curled up to his mouth, rolled about in agony until a policeman catching sight of him, and seeing that he was either drunk, riotous, or incapable, nipped him into two pieces; and a “worker,” happening to pass by carried Mm off to the nest as food for the family! An honest ant, on the other hand, has no equal for fixedness of purpose, and an obstinate, unflagging industry. The day breaks, the front door is opened, and the honest ant ascends to daylight. He finds that a passer-by has effaced the track along which he ran so often yesterday, but his memory is good, and natural landmarks abound. He casts about like a pigeon when first thrown up in the air, and then he is off. Straight up the path to the little snag of stone that is sticking out — up one side of it and down the other — over the bank — through a forest of weeds — round a lake of dew, and then, with an extraordinary instinct, for a straight fine, he goes whirling off across the cucumber-bed to some far spot, where he knows is lying a stem of maize heavily laden with grain. Then, with a fraction of a seed in his pincers, he hurries home, hands it over to the commissariat, and is off again for another. And so, if the grain holds out, he will go on until sunset, and when the pluffy, roundfaced owls, sitting on the sentinel cypress-trees, are screeching an ilicet to the lingering day-birds, the honest ant is busy closing up his doors; and before the mynas passing overhead, and calling as they go to belated wanderers, have reached the bamboo clumps which sough by the river, he will be sleeping the sleep of the honest. With industry, however, the catalogue of the virtues of ants begins and ends. They have an instinct for hard work, and, useless or not, they do it — in the most laborious way they can; but except for the wisdom which industry argues, ants have no title whatever to the epithet of “wise.” Until they learn that to run up one side of a post and down the other is not the quickest way of getting past the post, and that in throwing up mounds on garden-paths they are giving hostages to a ruthless gardener, they can scarcely be accused of even common sense.

· · · · · · ·

There has lately been discovered a species of ant which deserves to be at once introduced to the attention of all children, servants, and ladies keeping house. No vestry should be ignorant of the habits of so admirable a creature, and sanitary boards of all kinds should without loss of time be put in possession of the leading facts.

This excellent ant, it appears, abominates rubbish. If its house is made in a mess it gets disgusted, goes away, and never comes back. Dirt breaks its heart.

The insect in question is a native of Colombia, and hatches its eggs by artificial heat, procuring for this purpose quantities of foliage, which, in the course of natural fermentation, supply the necessary warmth. When the young brood is hatched the community carefully carry away the decomposed rubbish that has served its purpose as a hotbed, and stack it by itself at a distance from the nest. The damage which they inflict upon gardens and plantations when collecting the leaves required is so enormous that colonists have exhausted their ingenuity in devising means for their expulsion or extermination; but all in vain, for the ant, where-ever it “squats,” strikes very firm roots indeed, and neither plague, pestilence, nor famine, neither fire nor brimstone, nor yet holy water, can compel it to go away. It takes no notice whatever of writs of ejectment, and looks upon bell, book, and candle as mere idle mummeries. The nest may be dug up with a plough or blown up with gunpowder, soaked with hot water or swamped out with cold, smothered with smoke, or made abominable with chemical compounds, strewn with poison or scattered abroad with pitchforks, — the ants return all the same, and, apparently, with a gayety enhanced by their recent ordeals. The Inquisition would have had no chance with them, for all the tortures of the martyrs have been tried upon them in vain. Their heroic tenacity to their homesteads would have baffled the malignity of a Bonner or the persecuting zeal of an Alva. But where force may fail moral suasion often meets with success, and this has proved true with the ants in question. An observant negro, remarking that the creatures were impervious to the arguments of violence and knowing their cleanly habits, suggested that if the ants could not be hunted or blown or massacred off the premises, they might be disgusted with them. The experiment was made, and with complete success. The refuse foliage which the ants had so carefully stacked away in tidy heaps was scattered over the ground, and some other basketfuls of rubbish added, and the whole community fled on the instant!

They did not even go home to pack up their carpetbags, but just as they were, in the clothes they stood in, so to speak, they fled from the disordered scene.

Ant habits have always furnished ample material for the moralist, but this, the latest recorded trait of their character, makes a delightful addition to the already interesting history of these “tiny creatures, strong by social league,” the “parsimonidus” emmet folk. It destroys, it is true, something of their traditional reputation for industry that they should thus abandon themselves to despair rather than set to work to clear away the rubbish strewn about their dwelling-places. It sets them in this respect below the bees, who never seem to weary of repairing damages, and far below the white ant of the East, which has an absolutely ferocious passion for mending breaches and circumventing accidents. Nothing beats them except utter annihilation.

The ants of Colombia, however, if they fail in that nobility of diligence which seems to be only whetted by disaster, rise infinitely superior to their congeners in the moral virtues of respect for sanitation and punctilious cleanliness. There is, however, even a more admirable psychological fact behind than this, for it appears that the rubbish which scatters them most promptly is not their own but their neighbors’. Their own rubbish, it is true, sends them off quickly enough, but the exodus is, if possible, accelerated by employing that from an adjoining nest. To have their own litter lying about makes home intolerable, but that their neighbors should “shoot” theirs also upon them is the very extremity of abomination. Life under such conditions is at once voted impossible, and rather than exist where the next-door people can empty their dust-bins and slop-pails over their walls, they go away headlong. A panic of disgust seizes upon the whole colony, and the bonds of society snap and shrivel up on the instant, like a spider’s web above a candle-flame. Without a thought of wife or child, of household gods or household goods, they rush tumultuously from the polluted spot. No pious son stays to give the aged Anchises a lift; none loiters to spoil the Egyptians before he goes; none looks back upon the doomed city. Forward and anywhere is the motto of the pell-mell flight; all throw down their burdens that they may run the faster, and shamefully abandon their shields that their arms may not impede their course. Big and little, male and female, old and young, all scamper off alike over the untidy thresholds, and there is no distinction of caste under the common horror of a home that requires sweeping up.

Such a spectacle is truly sublime, for behind the ants there is no avenging Michael-arm, that they should thus precipitately fall into “hideous rout;” no Zulu impi; no hyena horde of Bashkirs, as there was after the flying Tartars; no remorseless pursuit of any kind. Indeed, persecution and fiery trials they confront unmoved, so there is no element of fear in their conduct.

It arises entirely from a generous impatience of neighbors’ untidy habits, from a superb intolerance of dirt. When was such an example ever set, or when will it ever be followed, by human beings? No single city, not even a village, is ever recorded to have been abandoned on account of uncleanliness; and yet what a grand episode in national history it would be, if such had happened, — had the men of Cologne, for instance, ever gone out into the country-side and all encamped there, in dignified protest against the “six-and-seventy separate stinks” of their undrained city! No instance even is on record of a single householder rushing from his premises with all his family rather than endure cobwebs and dust; nor, indeed, of a single child refusing to stay in its nursery because it was untidy. We are still, therefore, far behind the Colombia ant in the matter of cleanliness.

In another aspect, perhaps, this impetuous detestation of dirt is not altogether admirable; for, as I have noticed, it argues a declension in industry from the true ant standard. Thus, the very creatures that urge so headlong a career, when the neatness of their surroundings is threatened, are marvels of diligence in collecting the very leaves which afterwards distress them so much. This assiduity has long been noted. In Cornwall the busy murians, as the people call the ants, are still supposed to be a race of “little people,” disestablished from the world of men and women for their idle habits, and condemned to perpetual labor; while in Ceylon the natives say that the ants feed a serpent, who lives under ground, with the leaves which they pick off the trees, and that, as the reptile’s appetite is never satisfied, the ants have to work on for ever. From West to East, therefore, the same trait of unresting diligence has been remarked; and, in one respect, it is no doubt a deplorable retrogression in the Colombia ants that the mere sight of rubbish should thus dishearten them. Yet, looked at from a higher standpoint, their consuming dislike of uncleanly surroundings is magnificent, for they do not hesitate to sacrifice all that is nearest and dearest, to risk even their public character, so long as sufficient effect can be given to their protest and sufficient emphasis laid upon their indignation. Anything short of flight, immediate and complete, without condition or reservation, would fail to meet the case or adequately represent their feelings. To them the degradation of submitting to a neighbor’s cinders and egg-shells seems too despicable to be borne; and rather than live in a parish where the vestry neglects the drains and the dustbins, they abandon their hearths and homes for ever. We human beings cannot all of us afford to show the same superb horror of defective sanitation, but we can admire the ants who do, and can hold them up as models to all slatterns and sluts, parochial or domestic.


  1. The Ichneumon, Viverrinæ.