Beings by Albany Poyntz
There is no species of supernatural power to which some impostor or other
has not pretended; some to incombustibility; some to insubmergeability;
some to invulnerability; some to invisibility. Men have been found who
pretend to fly,—to walk upon the surface of the waters,—to penetrate, by
the acuteness of their optics, into the depths of the earth. But though an
announcement of a balloon, a diving-bell, an electrical telegraph, or even
a railroad, would have appeared as much a matter of empty vaunt to the
ancients as these pretensions to ourselves, no extent of modern discovery
has enabled or is likely to enable mankind so thoroughly to defy the
existing laws of nature. The conformation of the human form expressly
points out the purposes and capabilities for which it was created.
We read in old books, in proverbial reference to human speed, that such a
one ‘runs like a man without a spleen;’ and it has been asserted that the
bearers of the posts of the ancients, had their spleen extracted in order
to facilitate despatch.
Even with our present chirurgical proficiency, such an operation would be
somewhat hazardous. But certain it is that dogs from which the spleen has
been removed in the way of experiment, are observed to grow unnaturally
fat, which would be no great advantage to a pedestrian. If the operation
in question were both harmless and effectual, it is deserving the
consideration of the King of Naples; who is accompanied by running footmen
from his palace in that city to his country palace of Caserta at some
leagues’ distance; the unfortunate men being compelled to keep up on foot
with the hard trotting of the horses. Not a year passes, but one of these
victims of royal state drops dead from the exertion.
Running footmen constituted a very imposing portion of royal and noble
equipage in former times, when preceding the stately carriages of
prelates, drawn by mules, or the lumbering coaches and six of the days of
the Stuarts; when part of their business was to forewarn the coachmen of
holes in the pavement, or water-courses in the imperfect roads. But the
office of running footman in the days of macadamization, is a work of
supererogation. The act of barbarity of removing the spleen from such men
would not be much more cruel, however, than killing them by so terrible an
excess of exertion.
Nothing could be more remarkable than the feats of activity performed in
France by the coureurs, or running-footmen of the nobility prior to the
Revolution, and without any dangerous consequences. They were generally
Basques, or natives of the frontier country of Gascony, proverbially light
In the Landes, adjoining their district, another species of activity
prevails—the walking or running on stilts, necessitated by the sandy
nature of the soil. A large company of the inhabitants of that curious
desart, proceeding to market, resembles the course of a troop of
ostriches, or emus, over the Pampas.
The first aspect of these strangely-mounted men, probably gave rise to
some of the fictions of our early fairy-tales, such as the seven-leagued
boots of the ogre; just as the Laplanders and Patagonians originated races
of beings which exaggeration rendered fabulous.
The marvels related by the traveller, Mandeville, and the more recent
wonders described by Mungo Park, drew down upon their narrators a charge
of mendacity, for which we have been forced to make atonement to their
memory. How curious will be the first book of travels in England, written
by a New Zealander!—The author would be sacrificed by his countrymen, on
his return, as a wanton impostor!
It is related in French jest-books, that during the period of the
religious troubles of France, when decapitation was so common, a Gascon
executioner, boasting of his skill, was heard to protest that his victims
were so artistically despatched as to remain unconscious of their
execution. He was forced to say to them, ‘have the goodness to shake your
head!’—when it rolled to the ground. In emulation of this foolish joke,
people used to assert during the Reign of Terror, that they were forced to
shake their heads every morning to be certain that, amid the general
massacre, they had escaped the guillotine. A century hence, what with the
acceleration of motion in every department—the application of caoutchouc
and bitumen to all sorts of purposes—and the general diffusion of
chemical science, we shall scarcely know whether we are on terra-firma, or
in the air; and the reflective powers of the human race may chance to
become strangely confused by such universal motation.
We may at least anticipate from the same source, the obliteration of
vulgar errors, and the dissolution of popular prejudices. Our successors
will have no time to cherish such chimeras as omens, presages, or
presentiments: no leisure for listening to old wives’ tales, or traditions
of ghosts and devils.
For all classes, education effects the miracle of making the blind see,
the deaf hear, the lame walk; and in our own, its operations commence at
too early an age to leave our children at the mercy of ignorant
nurses—the fountain-head of all popular superstition.
A love of the marvellous is, however, so strongly implanted in certain
natures, and our capacity is after all so finite, that prejudices must
ever, to a certain extent, prevail. Hypochondriacs, invalids, and pregnant
women, will always be susceptible of the terrors of superstition; and so
long as children are born with the marks and deformities to which all
animated nature is liable, so long as the winter wind howls, ‘the owls
shriek, and the crickets cry,’ nervous persons will not be wanting to
listen to the foolish interpretations of any empty-headed gossip at hand.
To remedy the mischief, it becomes a peremptory duty to render the rising
generation ‘wise virgins’ in their youth, in order that they may not
become foolish old women in their age, to perpetuate the evils of POPULAR
PREJUDICES and NATIONAL SUPERSTITIONS.