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Chapter XXV. A Chat about Natural History.

‘Pray, Mr Naturalist,’ said a gentle voice, as Horace and a lady walked together, ‘how do those noisy insects in the trees there make so loud a sound?’

‘The Cicada, Annie, has a pair of concave membranes, on each side of the first joint of the abdomen. They do make a rattle indeed, and quite enough to disturb anything but the absorbing communion of lovers.’

The last remark was intended to convey a personal meaning, and was duly enforced by pathos in delivery, and beaming glances as an accompaniment. A blush was the response, although no ill-humour was positively manifested.

‘Will it please you, sir, to keep to your Cicada text?’ said she. ‘You are at liberty to enlarge upon it.’

‘I bow to your imperial will. Our noisy friend of the rattle has but a short time to beat its drum,—only six weeks. The juices of plants suffice for its meals. After depositing its tiny eggs by puncturing the tree, it abandons the world. As soon as the grub comes forth, it rolls out of its cave, drops to the ground, and crawls down to the roots, where it buries itself to feed on their juices at leisure. As if to compensate for the

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brevity of its mirth, while flying from tree to tree in the sun, and joining in a tumultuous concert, the grub is permitted to enjoy a dark subterranean existence for a dozen years or more.’

‘That is a sad story, Horace, I could have liked it the other way.’

‘Nature is very wayward, you see. Remember, though, you have not your wings yet, my fair one; and you may have to pledge your sweet word to grub along with me in this gloomy world, though it be even fifty years.’

‘That is another story altogether. But then, you know, I might fancy I lived not in the darkness when under your eye.’

‘Most loyally said, dear friend. You make me chirrup like the cicada. But do you admire the clicking of the grasshopper?’

‘That active tribe are no especial favourites of mine. They spring upon my dress, poke their legs in my shoes, and dash rudely against me as I walk in the grass. But tell me if it be true that our colonial grasshoppers are the true locust?’

‘They are more like crickets,—another noisy set. But while these have their wing-covers folding horizontally, the grasshoppers have them in a roof-like position. The last differ again from the locust in inferior robustness of body, as well as length and slenderness of legs and antennæ. Our grasshoppers have, as you may have observed, considerable leaping

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powers; but the locusts spring further on their long and strong hind legs.’

‘Where is the drum of our musical leaper?’

‘It has a pair of taborets, formed of thin, transparent membrane stretched in strong half oval frame in the triangular overlapping portion of each wing cover.’

‘I wish all mischievous things gave a beat of their drum in the bush, that we might be warned of their approach.’

‘Do you include my sex among the mischievous things?’

‘Oh, they do give warning pretty often by silly speeches.’

‘Thank you for the compliment.’

‘But you know,’ observed she with a sly look, ‘present company are always excepted. I was thinking of other charming deceivers,—snakes, for instance.’

‘Poor things, they do their best to get away from you, as I did at one time of day, until you, with serpent's eyes’—

‘Stop!’ cried the lady in an attempted fury, ‘if you dare.’—Here she looked so awful that the gentleman proceeded quietly with his lecture.

‘I was going to say that snakes are harmless enough. I admit it is ugly to come in sight of one, as we did in a short walk on the sand-ridge. Some have got bitten, but some, also, have been suffocated with a piece of meat.’

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‘But surely you don't mean to say snakes in Tasmania and Australia are dove-like in nature?’

‘People anyhow frighten themselves without occasion. There is Mr Gerard Krefft, who had such a cluster of snaky pets at his Sydney Museum, to the dread of all approachers, and better than watch-dogs for his premises; he will assure you that the chances are ever so many to one against your being hurt by a snake.’

‘His assertions will not diminish my fright at the sight of one.’

‘And yet, Annie, he finds all over these Australian regions only five species of poisonous ones out of eighty.’

‘Quite enough too, for any one's comfort in the bush.’

‘But you must know that this little island has not all of the fatal five species. I need not describe to a colonial girl the features of the Diamond Snake, pretty enough to captivate any, but fearfully venomous. But I would contrast it with the Australian Tiger Snake. Both are brown, though the latter is banded. The first has two outer rows of scales with reddish yellow spots, and the second has the two rows paler than the rest. The scales of the head are more elongated in the former. The head of the Australian is twice the size of the other; and, while its neck is very flat, the other is rather round. The Tasmanian scales are in fifteen rows, while the Continental are in eighteen.’

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‘Well, after so luminous a description of these charmers, you may restore them to the Museum, and bottle them up. I would counsel you to avoid the fate of Underwood, our Colonial snake tamer, who found the Tiger such a Tiger.’

‘But the poor fellow wanted to sell his antidote. The Indian Jugglers pull out the teeth of their snakes, but he only broke those of his, not thinking of their growing again. Professor Halford of Melbourne has been the means of saving life by introducing ammonia to the blood of the sufferer.’

‘You have said nothing of the Black Snake, so common with us here, and so fond of water to swim in. I have seen it catch frogs and water rats.’

‘I don't approve of its fashion of darting at one, especially as it is so venomous, though only some six feet long. Its scales are in seventeen rows. How lucky its winter retirement under ground keeps us safe half the year! Yet far more risk is encountered from English vipers than Tasmanian snakes, which are too glad to get out of the way.’

‘O do please, Mr Professor, close this subject,’ entreated the young lady, ‘I could sooner put up with Palæozoic and Labyrinthodon.’

‘Be thankful you are not in Queensland, with alligators from twelve to twenty feet long.’

‘I certainly prefer our own dear little lizards. They are harmless enough, Horace. I have made pets of them. They are so fond of bread and milk.’

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‘Even lizards have had bad names. The Geeko, with its broad feet able to walk on under surfaces like a fly, and warted all over, was once said to be poisonous, but is not. It should be allowed in peace to chase the insects. The Molock, however harmless, has a horrid look, with spines on its back and tail, and with horns on its head.’

‘But I was reading Gray's Travels in Northwest Australia, where he saw that curious lizard like Queen Elizabeth, with an immense ruff around the neck.’

‘Yet living in trees, and being six feet long, it would frighten you as it glared at you when passing under the branches.’

‘O dear! O dear! what dreadful topics of discussion. Really, Horace, if you don't change the subject at once, and go into raptures over a German Baron locking up young ladies in his castle dungeon by the Rhine, or play dulcet notes on the lute, or pay me some decidedly pretty compliment, I shall go into raptures over somebody else, who don't put young ladies in a dungeon, but who do pay pretty compliments to them.’

‘Hold! hold! Mercy! Mercy! my fair one. I will promise—yes, I will verily promise anything to prevent you going into such extravagant ecstacies with the Baron, or any other man but my own estimable self.’

‘Then I magnanimously grant you my pardon, and accord to you a prolongation of my favour. After that, evidence your devotion by giving me a full and

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particular account of the English relations of my colonial pets, the birds of Tasmania.’

‘Poor things! I pity your pets.’

‘Do you? Then I declare I pity your poor snow-bound, half-starved twitterers, hopping disconsolately about trees with not a leaf to shield the unhappy things for half the year. And you, too, Horace, must have presented as lively an appearance as the birds in such a horrid climate.’

‘Granted, my sunny Tasmanian. But your birds have more feathers than throats.’

‘Granted, my witty Englishman,’ replied the lady, with an arch smile at her lover, ‘your birds are similarly endowed.’

Horace laughed well at his blunder, but he declared that he meant by feathers and throats to contrast their beautiful plumage with their inferior power of song.

‘Thanks,’ she said, ‘it was kind of you to explain your jest. I am glad you acknowledge the superiority of the charms of my pets, in appearance, at least. I have read a deal of your nightingale.’

‘And you must believe in its song.’

‘I don't believe all I read; and so I have asked everybody from England to tell me about the bird. But what do you think? I can hardly discover a single person who has heard the wonderful note.’

‘But I have heard it, Annie, my dear, and must pronounce that the nightingale has a charming voice, although you have warbled to me.’

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‘Well, there now. That, I suppose, is intended as a compliment; but it only means you prefer a song from a bird to a discourse from me.’

‘O! I didn't mean’—

‘Never mind, my friend; I will bear it. So proceed with your natural history. Are any of our birds to be seen in Britain?’

‘One might think you have the same, to hear of Whistling Dicks, Wrens, Robins, Plovers, Larks, Cuckoos, Peewits, Sparrows, Magpies, Doves, Kingfishers, &c., &c. But then, in this country your honeysuckle is a big, ugly, coarse, stiff tree, instead of a delicate climber; and your Jackass, though a laughing one, is a bird, rather than the humble and useful quadruped of that cognomen.’

‘Positively, Horace, you are growing dangerously witty.’

‘That is a complaint which must be catching, then.’

‘Your affection is undeniable, I admit.’

‘Thank you, Annie, for such an acknowledgment of my affection—toward you.’

‘Really, you are quite trifling, my philosopher. Is that a proof of your gravity or sanity? I pray you keep to your text.’

‘I obey once more. A number of your birds, I was going to say, have an English name but not the English characteristics. Your crow does belong to the original stock. I recognise, also, hawks, eagles,

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ducks, cranes, owls, shags, gulls, and robins, having a family likeness to those of Europe.’

‘Robin, indeed! I saw an imported English robin. What a mean specimen it was! I suppose its breast would pass for red in your London smoke, but not in our bright atmosphere. Our Robin is as gay as yours is sombre. Ours is an independent gentleman and yours a humble suitor for cast-out crumbs.’

‘I will admit, Annie, your robin's brighter plumage.’

‘But have you seen our varieties? There is the dusky Robin, the pink-breasted Wood Robin, the scarlet-breasted, and the flame-breasted. Can you boast of a Diamond-bird in that half-benighted region?’

‘Alas! no. That sort of Pardalotus quite captivated me. It seemed all gold and amber, spotted over with silver. It is a lovely little creature; but it has a poor note.’

‘You unreasonable man. Don't you know there are three Graces? Are you so presumptuous as to fancy you can find a goddess with the charms of the three? Just because you Englishmen discover that your own poor birds are such dowdy little things, in comparison with the Venus grace and Juno majesty of ours, you fly off in abuse of our songsters.’

‘But I have not abused them. There are certainly no nightingales and thrushes to be heard, yet your Blue-cap is a fine warbler. His patch of metallic blue gives his head a most distinguished appearance; and

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he is so swift in movement and jolly in manner. But his wife is a very quiet creature.’

‘Likely enough, likely enough. Many a man goes sporting his gay smiles and fine clothes abroad, leaving his unhappy drudge of a partner as a Cinderella at home.’

‘But you, my dear, have all the liveliness, happiness, and loveliness to be found,’ quoth the smiling lover.

‘I have simply one word in reply, sir, to that pretty statement of the case,—I am unmarried. But proceed with the lesson, sir.’

‘Your Blue Wren is a Malurus, and is a gay fellow, with crown and ear-coverts of blue, and his tail of a deep blue. But his wings, I see, are brown, his chest a blue-black, and his back black.’

‘Yet have you observed that he is only particularly demonstrative when he has his new summer dress on? He is dull enough when his finery has faded. I suppose he is then disposed to take some pity upon his browny mate. But have you no compliment to spare for the Emu Wren?’

‘Most certainly. Its tail is like the double feathers of the Emu. In one bird's tail I saw seven feathers, each four inches long. After running down your songsters, I will do justice to one, the Black-Cap, which sings like a mock nightingale.’

‘Thanks, on behalf of my little friend. You have known our island thrush, the Ground Dove.’

‘Yes, but I was not taken with its gentle cooing.

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The dove beside me would frighten me if she made such a loud whirring noise.’

‘Then be very good, and not provoke it from me.’

‘Your large tribe of honey-eaters much interested me.’

‘I doubt it not, for men have a great sympathy with all feeders. Some of you think to offer us girls some honey, but it is cheaply tendered in the form of speech. Just now you were severely criticising our rough, homespun honeysuckle, the Banksia; but did you not perceive that its sweet bags of flowers are courted by your lively honey-eaters, including the chattering Miner?’

‘That must be conceded. I beg pardon of the Banksia. These birds were so happy there, with their gold-edged wings and pretty brush-like tongue. What a curious lunar-shaped black mark down each side of the breast the male has! The tail feathers, I find, are of brownish-black, fringed with golden yellow at the base.’

‘Yes,’ cried the lady; ‘but have you noticed the two long, lateral feathers, with long, oval, white spots? The bill and feet are black, but the throat and chest are white. I examined a nest once, and admired the inner lining of the soft woolly parts of blossoms. Our Tasmanian honeyeater revels in the tubular flowers of the Epacris. It flies very high, and after long drawing out a single note rattles off a double one in quick succession.’

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‘I was some time before I understood your Leather-head, with his bare crown and neck, and his long tail and bill. Then I recognised his likeness to the English Poor Soldier. His note is like our Four o'clock, and his pate like the Monk-bird's shaven top. What does he feed upon?’

‘It is not at all particular, taking the pollen or piece of fruit when no insect is at hand. It has such a funny cup-like nest! But curious as its note is, that of the Wattle-bird is more peculiar.’

‘Right. It put me in mind of the noise a landsman makes when crossing the channel in a rough sea. As it loves the Banksia, which grows on bad land, it is not a welcome sight to a farm-hunter. Your Podargus, the Morepork, so called from its calling everlastingly for more pork, is not of the Jenny Lind order.’

‘And a sleepy-headed fellow is that owl night-roamer. I heard of one, that might have been overtired insect-hunting the evening before, but which never waked at the report of a gun, though his mate fell dead beside him.’

‘Your night-birds, Annie, are very numerous, I learn.’

‘Our nights, as you must have observed, are so often attractive that others besides owls admire them.’

‘Lovers do, most assuredly, when Romeos and Juliets can walk beneath stars and moon, without fear of toothache or rheumatism. But your bright days are just the times for your merry flocks of shrieking

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parrakeets. I have been astonished at the clouds of them. There are the blue-banded, the yellow, the blue-and-orange-bellied, the rosehill, the swift, the small, the ground parrakeet, and I know not what else more. The honey-eaters are the most numerous of the lot.’

‘How do you naturalists class the family?’

‘The Psittacidæ are in four groups. The first are found in the banksia and she-oaks; the second delight in the orchis; the third love the nectar of your gumtrees; while the fourth, as ground and grass parrakeets, have their affections set on grass seeds. There are about sixty species.’

‘Ah, Horace! you should see the flocks of white and black cockatoos on the Huon, and a flight of many bronze-winged sort.’

‘You are certainly great in the ornamental, dear, but sadly wanting in the useful. You are indebted for breakfast eggs to the hens imported from abroad.’

‘Bless me! Horace, you must not imagine that I am so ardently Tasmanian as to object to importations. I certainly prefer the English pear-tree to that producing wooden nuts on the side of Mount Wellington. I am not bound to pluck the wretched fruit of the Macquarie Harbour vine rather than the luscious grape introduced into our gardens. It does not follow’—

‘Let me finish the rest, my beauty; it does not follow that you should decline so agreeable an importation as myself to accept a half-caste Tasmanian.’

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‘That observation, sir, did not escape me. To your birds, sir. Have you anything more to remark of them?’

‘I have no strength of will to go further, but would fain take my flight from birds on the wings of love.’

‘Now that is really most unkind of you,’ said the young lady, with the prettiest of pouts on her pretty lips. ‘You know I can't even mount to the region of the birds, and you desire a flight even from them. Is that the extent of imported affection for a Tasmanian lass?’

The natural history was then forgotten in some very natural proceedings, of more interest and value to the two persons themselves than to the general reader.