Natural Science by A. A. Milne

It is when Parliament is not sitting that the papers are most interesting to read. I have found an item of news to-day which would never have been given publicity in the busy times, and it has moved me strangely. Here it is, backed by the authority of Dr. Chalmers Mitchell:–

“The caterpillar of the puss-moth, not satisfied with Nature’s provisions for its safety, makes faces at young birds, and is said to alarm them considreably.”

I like that “is said to.” Probably the young bird would deny indignantly that he was alarmed, and would explain that he was only going away because he suddenly remembered that he had an engagement on the croquet lawn, or that he had forgotten his umbrella. But whether he alarms them or not, the fact remains that the caterpillar of the puss-moth does make faces at young birds; and we may be pretty sure that, even if he began the practice in self-defence, the habit is one that has grown on him. Indeed, I can see him actually looking out for a thrush’s nest, and then climbing up to it, popping his head over the edge suddenly and making a face. Probably, too, the mother birds frighten their young ones by telling them that, if they aren’t good, the puss-moth caterpillar will be after them; while the poor caterpillar himself, never having known a mother’s care, has had no one to tell him that if he goes on making such awful faces he will be struck like that one day.

These delvings into natural history bring back my youth very vividly. I never kept a puss-moth, but I had a goat-moth which ate its way out of a match-box, and as far as I remember took all the matches with it. There were caterpillars, though, of a gentler nature who stayed with me, and of these some were obliging enough to turn into chrysalises. Not all by any means. A caterpillar is too modest to care about changing in public. To conduct his metamorphosis in some quiet corner–where he is not poked every morning to see if he is getting stiffer –is what your caterpillar really wants. Mine had no private life to mention. They were as much before the world as royalty or an actress. And even those who brought off the first event safely never emerged into the butterfly world. Something would always happen to them. “Have you seen my chrysalis?” we used to ask each other. “I left him in the bathroom yesterday.”

But what I kept most successfully were minerals. One is or is not a successful mineralogist according as one is or is not allowed a geological hammer. I had a geological hammer. To scour the cliffs armed with a geological hammer and a bag for specimens is to be a king among boys. The only specimen I can remember taking with my hammer was a small piece of shin. That was enough, however, to end my career as a successful mineralogist. As an unsuccessful one I persevered for some months, and eventually had a collection of eighteen units. They were put out on the bed every evening in order of size, and ranged from a large lump of Iceland spar down to a small dead periwinkle. In those days I could have told you what granite was made of. In those days I had over my bed a map of the geological strata of the district–in different colours like a chocolate macaroon. And in those days I knew my way to the Geological Museum.

As a botanist I never really shone, but two of us joined an open- air course and used to be taken expeditions into Kew Gardens and such places, where our lecturer explained to his pupils–all grown-up save ourselves–the less recondite mysteries. There was one golden Saturday when we missed the rendezvous at Pinner and had a picnic by ourselves instead; and, after that, many other golden Saturdays when some unaccountable accident separated us from the party. I remember particularly a day in Highgate Woods– a good place for losing a botanical lecturer in; if you had been there, you would have seen two little boys very content, lying one each side of a large stone slab, racing caterpillars against each other.

But there was one episode in my career as a natural scientist–a career whose least details are brought back by the magic word, caterpillar– over which I still go hot with the sense of failure. This was an attempt to stuff a toad. I don’t know to this day if toads can be stuffed, but when our toad died he had to be commemorated in some way, and, failing a marble statue, it seemed good to stuff him. It was when we had got the skin off him that we began to realize our difficulties. I don’t know if you have had the skin of a fair-sized toad in your hand; if so, you will understand that our first feeling was one of surprise that a whole toad could ever have got into it. There seemed to be no shape about the thing at all. You could have carried it–no doubt we did, I have forgotten–in the back of a watch. But it had lost all likeness to a toad, and it was obvious that stuffing meant nothing to it.

Of course, little boys ought not to skin toads and carry geological hammers and deceive learned professors of botany; I know it is wrong. And of course caterpillars of the puss-moth variety oughtn’t to make faces at timid young thrushes. But it is just these things which make such pleasant memories afterwards– when professors and toads are departed, when the hammers lie rusty in the coal cellar, and when the young thrushes are grown up to be quite big birds. There are fortunate mortals who can always comfort themselves with a clich�. If any question arises as to the moral value of Racing, whether in war-time or in peace- time, they will murmur something about “improving the breed of horses,” and sleep afterwards with an easy conscience. To one who considers how many millions of people are engaged upon this important work, it is surprising that nothing more notable in the way of a super-horse has as yet emerged; one would have expected at least by this time something which combined the flying-powers of the hawk with the diving-powers of the seal. No doubt this is what the followers of the Colonel’s Late Wire are aiming at, and even if they have to borrow ten shillings from the till in the good cause, they feel that possibly by means of that very ten shillings Nature has approximated a little more closely to the desired animal. Supporters of Hunting, again, will tell you, speaking from inside knowledge, that “the fox likes it,” and one is left breathless at the thought of the altruism of the human race, which will devote so much time and money to amusing a small, bushy-tailed four-legged friend who might otherwise be bored. And the third member of the Triple Alliance, which has made England what it is, is Beer, and in support of Beer there is also a clich� ready. Talk to anybody about Intemperance, and he will tell you solemnly, as if this disposed of the trouble, that “one can just as easily be intemperate in other matters as in the matter of alcohol.” After which, it seems almost a duty to a broad-minded man to go out and get drunk.

It is, of course, true that we can be intemperate in eating as well as in drinking, but the results of the intemperance would appear to be different. After a fifth help of rice-pudding one does not become over-familiar with strangers, nor does an extra slice of ham inspire a man to beat his wife. After five pints of beer (or fifteen, or fifty) a man will “go anywhere in reason, but he won’t go home”; after five helps of rice-pudding, I imagine, home would seem to him the one- desired haven. The two intemperances may be equally blameworthy, but they are not equally offensive to the community. Yet for some reason over- eating is considered the mark of the beast, and over-drinking the mark of rather a fine fellow.

The poets and other gentlemen who have written so much romantic nonsense about “good red wine” and “good brown ale” are responsible for this. I admit that a glass of Burgundy is a more beautiful thing than a blancmange, but I do not think that it follows that a surfeit of one is more heroic than a surfeit of the other. There may be a divinity in the grape which excuses excess, but if so, one would expect it to be there even before the grape had been trodden on by somebody else. Yet no poet ever hymned the man who tucked into the dessert, or told him that he was by way of becoming a jolly good fellow. He is only by way of becoming a pig.

“It is the true, the blushful Hippocrene.” To tell oneself this is to pardon everything. However unpleasant a drunken man may seem at first sight, as soon as one realizes that he has merely been putting away a blushful Hippocrene, one ceases to be angry with him. If Keats or somebody had said of a piece of underdone mutton, “It is the true, the blushful Canterbury,” indigestion would carry a more romantic air, and at the third helping one could claim to be a bit of a devil. “The beaded bubbles winking at the brim”–this might also have been sung of a tapioca- pudding, in which case a couple of tapioca- puddings would certainly qualify the recipient as one of the boys. If only the poets had praised over-eating rather than over-drinking, how much pleasanter the streets would be on festival nights!

I suppose that I have already said enough to have written myself down a Temperance Fanatic, a Thin-Blooded Cocoa-Drinker, and a number of other things equally contemptible; which is all very embarrassing to a man who is composing at the moment on port, and who gets entangled in the skin of cocoa whenever he tries to approach it. But if anything could make me take kindly to cocoa, it would be the sentimental rubbish which is written about the “manliness” of drinking alcohol. It is no more manly to drink beer (not even if you call it good brown ale) than it is to drink beef-tea. It may be more healthy; I know nothing about that, nor, from the diversity of opinion expressed, do the doctors; it may be cheaper, more thirst-quenching, anything you like. But it is a thing the village idiot can do–and often does, without becoming thereby the spiritual comrade of Robin Hood, King Harry the Fifth, Drake, and all the other heroes who (if we are to believe the Swill School) have made old England great on beer.

But to doubt the spiritual virtues of alcohol is not to be a Prohibitionist. For my own sake I want neither England nor America dry. Whether I want them dry for the sake of England and America I cannot quite decide. But if I ever do come to a decision, it will not be influenced by that other clich�, which is often trotted out complacently, as if it were something to thank Heaven for. “You can’t make people moral by Act of Parliament.” It is not a question of making them moral, but of keeping them from alcohol. It may be a pity to do this, but it is obviously possible, just as it is possible to keep them–that is to say, the overwhelming majority of them–from opium. Nor shall I be influenced by the argument that such prohibition is outside the authority of a Government. For if a Government can demand a man’s life for reasons of foreign policy, it can surely demand his whisky for reasons of domestic policy; if it can call upon him to start fighting, it can call upon him to stop drinking.

But if opium and alcohol is prohibited, you say, why not tobacco? When tobacco is mentioned I feel like the village Socialist, who was quite ready to share two theoretical cows with his neighbour, but when asked if the theory applied also to pigs, answered indignantly, “What are you talking about–I’ve GOT two pigs!” I could bear an England which “went dry,” but an England which “went out”–! So before assenting to the right of a Government to rob the working-man of his beer, I have to ask myself if I assent to its right to rob me of my pipe. Well, if it were agreed by a majority of the community (in spite of all my hymns to Nicotine) that England would be happier without tobacco, then I think I should agree also. But I might feel that I should be happier without England. Just a little way without–the Isle of Man, say.

Chess has this in common with making poetry, that the desire for it comes upon the amateur in gusts. It is very easy for him not to make poetry; sometimes he may go for months without writing a line of it. But when once he is delivered of an ode, then the desire to write another ode is strong upon him. A sudden passion for rhyme masters him, and must work itself out. It will be all right in a few weeks; he will go back to prose or bills-of- parcels or whatever is his natural method of expressing himself, none the worse for his adventure. But he will have gained this knowledge for his future guidance–that poems never come singly.

Every two or three years I discover the game of chess. In normal times when a man says to me, “Do you play chess?” I answer coldly, “Well, I know the moves.” “Would you like a game?” he asks, and I say, “I don’t think I will, thanks very much. I hardly ever play.” And there the business ends. But once in two years, or it may be three, circumstances are too strong for me. I meet a man so keen or a situation so dull that politeness or boredom leads me to accept. The board is produced, I remind myself that the queen stands on a square of her own colour, and that the knight goes next to the castle; I push forward the king’s pawn two squares, and we are off. Yes, we are off; but not for one game only. For a month at least I shall dream of chess at night and make excuses to play it in the day. For a month chess will be even more to me than golf or billiards–games which I adore because I am so bad at them. For a month, starting from yesterday when I was inveigled into a game, you must regard me, please, as a chess maniac.

Among small boys with no head for the game I should probably be described as a clever player. If my opponent only learnt yesterday, and is still a little doubtful as to what a knight can do, I know one or two rather good tricks for removing his queen. My subtlest stroke is to wait until Her Majesty is in front of the king, and then to place my castle in front of her, with a pawn in support. Sometimes I forget the pawn and he takes my castle, in which case I try to look as if the loss of my castle was the one necessary preliminary to my plan of campaign, and that now we were off. When he is busy on one side of the board, I work a knight up on the other, and threaten two of his pieces simultaneously. To the extreme novice I must seem rather resourceful.

But then I am an old hand at the game. My career dates from– well, years ago when I won my house championship at school. This championship may have carried a belt with it; I have forgotten. But there was certainly a prize–a prize of five solid shillings, supposing the treasurer had managed to collect the subscriptions. In the year when I won it I was also treasurer. I assure you that the quickness and skill necessary for winning the competition were as nothing to that necessary for collecting the money. If any pride remains to me over that affair, if my name is written in letters of fire in the annals of our house chess club, it is because I actually obtained the five shillings.

After this the game did not trouble me for some time. But there came a day when a friend and I lunched at a restaurant in which chess-boards formed as permanent a part the furniture of the dining tables as the salt and mustard. Partly in joke, because it seemed to be the etiquette of the building, we started a game. We stayed there two hours … and the fever remained with me for two months. Another year or so of normal development followed. Then I caught influenza and spent dull days in bed. Nothing can be worse for an influenza victim than chess, but I suppose my warders did not realize how much I suffered under the game. Anyhow, I played it all day and dreamed of it all night–a riot of games in which all the people I knew moved diagonally and up and down, took each other, and became queens.

And now I have played again, and am once more an enthusiast. You will agree with me, will you not, that it is a splendid game? People mock at it. They say that it is not such good exercise as cricket or golf. How wrong they are. That it brings the same muscles into play as does cricket I do not claim for it. Each game develops a different set of sinews; but what chess-player who has sat with an extended forefinger on the head of his queen for five minutes, before observing the enemy’s bishop in the distance and bringing back his piece to safety–what chess- player, I say, will deny that the muscles of the hand ridge up like lumps of iron after a month at the best of games? What chess-player who has stretched his arm out in order to open with the Ruy Lopez gambit, who has then withdrawn it as the possibilities of the Don Quixote occur to him, and who has finally, after another forward and backward movement, decided to rely upon the bishop’s declined pawn–what chess-player, I ask, will not affirm that the biceps are elevated by this noblest of pastimes? And, finally, what chess-player, who in making too eagerly the crowning move, has upset with his elbow the victims of the preliminary skirmishing, so that they roll upon the floor- -what chess-player, who has to lean down and pick them up, will not be the better for the strain upon his diaphragm? No; say what you will against chess, but do not mock at it for its lack of exercise.

Yet there is this against it. The courtesies of the game are few. I think that this must be why the passion for it leaves me after a month. When at cricket you are bowled first ball, the wicketkeeper can comfort you by murmuring that the light is bad; when at tennis your opponent forces for the dedans and strikes you heavily under the eye, he can shout, “Sorry!” when at golf you reach a bunker in 4 and take 3 to get out, your partner can endear himself by saying, “Hard luck”; but at chess everything that the enemy does to you is deliberate. He cannot say, “Sorry!” as he takes your knight; he does not call it hard luck when your king is surrounded by vultures eager for his death; and though it would be kindly in him to attribute to the bad light the fact that you never noticed his castle leaning against your queen, yet it would be quite against the etiquette of the game.

Indeed, it is impossible to win gracefully at chess. No man yet has said “Mate!” in a voice which failed to sound to his opponent bitter, boastful, and malicious. It is the tone of that voice which, after a month, I find it impossible any longer to stand.