The Lynx and the Cameleon by Albany Poyntz

The title of this chapter seems to promise a fable rather than a dissertation; and a very amusing one might be grounded on the attributes of the two animals, considering the perspicacity affected by poor short-sighted mortals, and the mutability of colour of so many a human mind. It is not, however, as emblems that we are about to treat of the lynx and the cameleon.

The lynx figures extensively in the poetry of the ancients. Not only do they attribute miraculous properties to the eyes of the animal, as being able to see through walls, but Pliny assures us that the excrements of the lynx were transformed into amber, rubies, and carbuncles. The nature or habits of this animal were so delicate, however, that its secretions were as difficult to discover as those of cats; in consequence of which much treasure was lost! They might as well have asserted at once, that jewels found in mines were the produce of antediluvian lynxes. They proceeded, however, to attribute the optical powers of the lynx to a variety of individuals; nor have modern writers hesitated to follow their example.

Valerius Maximus, Varro, and even Cicero, speak with ecstasies of the powers of vision of the Sicilian, Strabo; who, from Cape Lilybœum could descry Carthage, and count the vessels sailing out of the port; the distance being forty-five leagues! These worthies forgot, that even had the sight of Strabo been still more powerful, the intermediary obstacles caused by the rotundity of the globe must have circumvented his view. Cæsar is said to have seen from Gaul all that passed in a port in Britain; probably by a figure of speech purporting that he knew all that passed in conquered countries, just as the eye of Napoleon was said to survey at once his whole empire.

About the year 1725, the marvellous history of a Portuguese woman set the whole world of science into confusion, as will be found by referring to the Mercure de France. This female was said to possess the gift of discovering treasures. Without any other aid than the keen penetration of her eyes, she was able to distinguish the different strata of earth, and pronounce unerringly upon the utmost distances at a single glance. Her eye penetrated through every substance, even the human body; and she could discern the mechanism, and circulation of all animal fluids, and detect latent diseases; although less skilful than the animal magnetiser, she did not affect to point out infallible remedies. Ladies could learn from her the sex of their forthcoming progeny. In short, her triumphs were universal.

The King of Portugal, greatly at a loss for water in his newly built palace, consulted her; and after a glance at the spot, she pointed out an abundant spring, upon which his Majesty rewarded her with a pension, the Order of Christ, and a patent of nobility.

In the exercise of her miraculous powers, certain preliminaries were indispensable. She was obliged to observe a rigid fast; indigestion, or the most trifling derangement of the stomach, suspending the marvellous powers of her visual organs.

The men of science of the day were of course confounded by such prodigies. But instead of questioning the woman, they consulted the works of their predecessors; not forgetting the inevitable Aristotle. By dint of much research, they found a letter from Huygens asserting that there was a prisoner of war at Antwerp, who could see through stuffs of the thickest texture provided they were not red. The wonderful man was cited in confirmation of the wonderful woman, and vice versâ.

The Antwerp lynx, meanwhile, had attained considerable credit, from the fact of two ladies visiting him in person, upon which he burst into immoderate laughter. On the cause of his mirth being inquired into, he stated that one of them had on no under garment, the truth of which statement caused the ladies to take a hasty departure, in the dread of revelations still more indiscreet.

In the beginning of the present century there lived a physician at Lyons, who seriously asserted that one of his patients had the power of reading letters, though sealed. This was evidently a device to obtain notoriety, and fill his purse at the expense of a credulous public. For what, in fact, can be more grossly absurd than the assertion that either human eyes, or those of the lynx possess the faculty of reading through opaque bodies? Many attempts have been recently made by the upholders of Magnetism to exhibit similar impositions.

From the lynx we proceed to the cameleon; hoping to exonerate this much defamed animal from the imputations of mutability so long lavished upon its nature. Instead of being adopted as the symbol of fickleness, the cameleon ought, in fact, to become the emblem of frankness and truth, betraying in its changes of hue every impression of which it is susceptible.

The ancients denied the existence of the cameleon, treating it as an ideal animal devoid of natural colour. They conceded to it, on the other hand, a radiant body, and the faculty of existing without food. Such were the opinions of Pliny, Aristotle, and Œlian. But Daubenton and Lacépède devoted serious attention to the nature of the cameleon; and the scrutiny of science has served to rectify a popular error.

Cameleons have been brought alive to France, and a pair is now living in the Zoological Gardens of England. But till lately, they were known in Europe only through the preparations of our Museums of Natural History. This singular animal belongs to the lizard tribe, and is found in hot climates. Its length is from thirteen to fourteen inches; of which the tail counts for half. The head is surmounted by a kind of cartilaginous pyramid inclining backwards. The mouth is so formed as scarcely to afford a view of its disproportionably large swallow. For some time too, the cameleon passed for being devoid of hearing; but Camper has established that it possesses that faculty, though in a limited degree. The organs of sight on the other hand, are so acute as to exceed by far those of the lynx. It can turn its eyes in every direction; moves with deliberate dignity, and feeds on insects. But is not entitled to the encomiums of the ancients with respect to sobriety; though it can fast for a period exceeding a year. Of a pacific nature, it has numerous enemies; and being timid to excess, its endless variations of hue are perceptible through a very transparent skin. Heat and light influence the changes of its colours; which vary between yellow, red, black, green, and white.

Mademoiselle de Scudery possessed a pair of cameleons, from observations upon which, it was seen that adjacent colours produced no effect upon them; other colours than those near them often manifesting themselves on the body. Bichat supposed that the mutations of the cameleon proceeded from the quantity of air contained in the arterial blood; an opinion the better founded, that this animal is able to fill itself with air and discharge it at will. When asleep, or cold, or dead, the hue of the cameleon is white. Such is the exact truth concerning two animals which poets and historians have invested with fabulous properties; and to which mankind have often been assimilated—by analogies now admitted to be groundless.