The Triumphs of A Taxidermist, by H. G. Wells
Bacillus and Other Incidents
Here are some of the secrets of taxidermy. They were told me by the
taxidermist in a mood of elation. He told me them in the time between
the first glass of whisky and the fourth, when a man is no longer
cautious and yet not drunk. We sat in his den together; his library it
was, his sitting and his eating-room—separated by a bead curtain, so
far as the sense of sight went, from the noisome den where he plied
He sat on a deck chair, and when he was not tapping refractory bits of
coal with them, he kept his feet—on which he wore, after the manner
of sandals, the holy relics of a pair of carpet slippers—out of the
way upon the mantel-piece, among the glass eyes. And his trousers,
by-the-by—though they have nothing to do with his triumphs—were a
most horrible yellow plaid, such as they made when our fathers wore
side-whiskers and there were crinolines in the land. Further, his hair
was black, his face rosy, and his eye a fiery brown; and his coat was
chiefly of grease upon a basis of velveteen. And his pipe had a bowl
of china showing the Graces, and his spectacles were always askew, the
left eye glaring nakedly at you, small and penetrating; the right,
seen through a glass darkly, magnified and mild. Thus his discourse
ran: "There never was a man who could stuff like me, Bellows, never. I
have stuffed elephants and I have stuffed moths, and the things have
looked all the livelier and better for it. And I have stuffed human
beings—chiefly amateur ornithologists. But I stuffed a nigger once.
"No, there is no law against it. I made him with all his fingers out
and used him as a hat-rack, but that fool Homersby got up a quarrel
with him late one night and spoilt him. That was before your time. It
is hard to get skins, or I would have another.
"Unpleasant? I don't see it. Seems to me taxidermy is a promising
third course to burial or cremation. You could keep all your dear ones
by you. Bric-à-brac of that sort stuck about the house would be as
good as most company, and much less expensive. You might have them
fitted up with clockwork to do things.
"Of course they would have to be varnished, but they need not shine
more than lots of people do naturally. Old Manningtree's bald head….
Anyhow, you could talk to them without interruption. Even aunts. There
is a great future before taxidermy, depend upon it. There is fossils
He suddenly became silent.
"No, I don't think I ought to tell you that." He sucked at his pipe
thoughtfully. "Thanks, yes. Not too much water.
"Of course, what I tell you now will go no further. You know I have
made some dodos and a great auk? No! Evidently you are an amateur at
taxidermy. My dear fellow, half the great auks in the world are about
as genuine as the handkerchief of Saint Veronica, as the Holy Coat of
Treves. We make 'em of grebes' feathers and the like. And the great
auk's eggs too!"
"Yes, we make them out of fine porcelain. I tell you it is worth
while. They fetch—one fetched £300 only the other day. That one was
really genuine, I believe, but of course one is never certain. It is
very fine work, and afterwards you have to get them dusty, for no one
who owns one of these precious eggs has ever the temerity to clean the
thing. That's the beauty of the business. Even if they suspect an egg
they do not like to examine it too closely. It's such brittle capital
at the best.
"You did not know that taxidermy rose to heights like that. My boy, it
has risen higher. I have rivalled the hands of Nature herself. One of
the genuine great auks"—his voice fell to a whisper—one of the
genuine great auks was made by me."
"No. You must study ornithology, and find out which it is yourself.
And what is more, I have been approached by a syndicate of dealers
to stock one of the unexplored skerries to the north of Iceland with
specimens. I may—some day. But I have another little thing in hand
just now. Ever heard of the dinornis?
"It is one of those big birds recently extinct in New Zealand. 'Moa'
is its common name, so called because extinct: there is no moa now.
See? Well, they have got bones of it, and from some of the marshes
even feathers and dried bits of skin. Now, I am going to—well, there
is no need to make any bones about it—going to forge a complete
stuffed moa. I know a chap out there who will pretend to make the find
in a kind of antiseptic swamp, and say he stuffed it at once, as it
threatened to fall to pieces. The feathers are peculiar, but I have
got a simply lovely way of dodging up singed bits of ostrich plume.
Yes, that is the new smell you noticed. They can only discover the
fraud with a microscope, and they will hardly care to pull a nice
specimen to bits for that.
"In this way, you see, I give my little push in the advancement of
"But all this is merely imitating Nature. I have done more than that
in my time. I have—beaten her."
He took his feet down from the mantel-board, and leant over
confidentially towards me. "I have created birds," he said in a low
voice. "New birds. Improvements. Like no birds that was ever seen
He resumed his attitude during an impressive silence.
"Enrich the universe; rath-er. Some of the birds I made were new
kinds of humming birds, and very beautiful little things, but some of
them were simply rum. The rummest, I think, was the Anomalopteryx
Jejuna. Jejunus-a-um—empty—so called because there was really
nothing in it; a thoroughly empty bird—except for stuffing. Old
Javvers has the thing now, and I suppose he is almost as proud of it
as I am. It is a masterpiece, Bellows. It has all the silly clumsiness
of your pelican, all the solemn want of dignity of your parrot,
all the gaunt ungainliness of a flamingo, with all the extravagant
chromatic conflict of a mandarin duck. Such a bird. I made it out
of the skeletons of a stork and a toucan and a job lot of feathers.
Taxidermy of that kind is just pure joy, Bellows, to a real artist in
"How did I come to make it? Simple enough, as all great inventions
are. One of those young genii who write us Science Notes in the papers
got hold of a German pamphlet about the birds of New Zealand, and
translated some of it by means of a dictionary and his mother-wit—he
must have been one of a very large family with a small mother—and he
got mixed between the living apteryx and the extinct anomalopteryx;
talked about a bird five feet high, living in the jungles of the North
Island, rare, shy, specimens difficult to obtain, and so on. Javvers,
who even for a collector, is a miraculously ignorant man, read these
paragraphs, and swore he would have the thing at any price. Raided
the dealers with enquiries. It shows what a man can do by
persistence—will-power. Here was a bird-collector swearing he would
have a specimen of a bird that did not exist, that never had existed,
and which for very shame of its own profane ungainliness, probably
would not exist now if it could help itself. And he got it. He got
"Have some more whisky, Bellows?" said the taxidermist, rousing
himself from a transient contemplation of the mysteries of will-power
and the collecting turn of mind. And, replenished, he proceeded to
tell me of how he concocted a most attractive mermaid, and how an
itinerant preacher, who could not get an audience because of it,
smashed it because it was idolatry, or worse, at Burslem Wakes. But
as the conversation of all the parties to this transaction,
creator, would-be preserver, and destroyer, was uniformly unfit for
publication, this cheerful incident must still remain unprinted.
The reader unacquainted with the dark ways of the collector may
perhaps be inclined to doubt my taxidermist, but so far as great auks'
eggs, and the bogus stuffed birds are concerned, I find that he has
the confirmation of distinguished ornithological writers. And the note
about the New Zealand bird certainly appeared in a morning paper of
unblemished reputation, for the Taxidermist keeps a copy and has shown
it to me.