Guinevere the Mysterious


AGAIN the Guiana jungle comes wonderfully to the eye and mysteriously to the mind; again my khakis and sneakers are skin-comfortable; again I am squatted on a pleasant mat of leaves in a miniature gorge, miles back of my Kartabo bungalow. Life elsewhere has already become unthinkable. I recall a place boiling with worried people, rent with unpleasing sounds, and beset with unsatisfactory pleasures. It is, I believe, called New York. I have read, during the last week, of a great yacht race, of war still seething in Europe, and of much money—or the lack of it. But these have passed from mind, and I settle down another notch, head snuggled on knees, and sway, elephantfashion, with sheer joy, as a musky, exciting odor comes drifting, apparently by its own volition, down through the windless little gorge.

If I permit a concrete, scientific reaction, I must acknowledge the source to be a passing bug,—a giant bug, — related distantly to our malodorous northern squash-bug, but emitting a scent as different as orchids’ breath from grocery garlic. But I accept this delicate volatility as simply another pastille-soft sense-impression — as an earnest of the worthy, smelly things of old jungles. There is no breeze, no slightest shift of air-particles; yet down the gorge comes this cloud, — a cloud unsensible except to nostrils, — eddying as if swirling around the edges of leaves, riding on the air as gently as the low, distant crooning of great, sleepy jungle doves.

With two senses so perfectly occupied, sight becomes superfluous and I close my eyes. And straightway the scent and the murmur usurp my whole mind with a vivid memory. I am still squatting, but in a dark, fragrant room; and the murmur is still of doves; but the room is in the cool, still heart of the Queen’s Golden Monastery in northern Burma, within storm-sound of Thibet, and the doves are perched among the glitter and tinkling bells of the pagoda roofs. I am squatting very quietly, for I am tired, after photographing carved peacocks and junglefowl in the marvelous fretwork of the outer balconies. There are idols all about me — or so it would appear to a missionary; for my part, I can think only of the wonderful face of the old Lama who sits near me, a face peaceful with the something for which most of us would desert what we are doing, if by that we could attain it. Near him are two young priests, sitting as motionless as the Buddha in front of them.

After a half-hour of the strange thing that we call time, the Lama speaks, very low and very softly: —

‘The surface of the mirror is clouded with a breath.’

Out of a long silence one of the neophytes replies, ‘The mirror can be wiped clear.’

Again the world becomes incense and doves, — in the silence and peace of that monastery, it may have been a few minutes or a decade, — and the second Thibetan whispers, ‘There is no need to wipe the mirror.’

When I have left behind the world of inharmonious colors, of polluted waters, of soot-stained walls and smoketinged air, the green of jungle comes like a cooling bath of delicate tints and shades. I think of all the green things I have loved — of malachite in matrix and table-top; of jade, not factory-hewn baubles, but age-mellowed signets, fashioned by lovers of their craft, and seasoned by the toying yellow fingers of generations of forgotten Chinese emperors—jade, as Dunsany would say, of the exact shade of the right color. I think too, of dainty emerald scarves that are seen and lost in a flash at a dance; of the air-cooled, living green of curling breakers; of a lonely light that gleams to starboard of an unknown passing vessel, and of the transparent green of northern lights that flicker and play on winter nights high over the garish glare of Broadway.

Now, in late afternoon, when I opened my eyes in the little gorge, the soft green vibrations merged insensibly with the longer waves of the doves’ voices and with the dying odor. Soon the green alone was dominant; and when I had finished thinking of pleasant, faroff green things, the wonderful emerald of my great tree-frog of last, year came to mind, — Gawain the mysterious, — and I wondered if I should ever solve his life.

In front of me was a little jungle rainpool. At the base of the miniature precipice of the gorge, this pool was a thing of clay. It was milky in consistence, from the roiling of suspended clay; and when the surface caught a glint of light and reflected it, only the clay and mud walls about came to the eye. It was a very regular pool, a man’s height in diameter, and from two inches to two miles deep. I became absorbed in a sort of subaquatie mirage, in which I seemed to distinguish reflections beneath the surface. My eyes refocused with a jerk, and I realized that something had unconsciously been perceived by my rods and cones, and short-circuited to my duller brain. Where a moment before was an unbroken translucent surface, were now thirteen strange beings who had appeared from the depths, and were mumbling oxygen with trembling lips.

In days to come, through all the months, I should again and again be surprised and cheated and puzzled all phases of delight, in the beings who share the earth’s life with me. This was one of the first of the year, and I stiffened into one large eye.

I did not know whether they were fish, fairy shrimps, or frogs; I had never seen anything like them, and they were wholly unexpected. I so much desired to know what they were, that I sat quietly — as I enjoy keeping a treasured letter to the last, or reserving the frosting until the cake is eaten. It occurred to me that, had it not been for the Kaiser, I might have been forbidden this mystery; a chain of occurrences : Kaiser — war — submarines — glass-shortage for dreadnoughts — mica port-holes needed — Guiana prospector — abandoned pits — rainy season — mysterious tenants— me!

When I squatted by the side of the pool, no sign of life was visible. Far up through the green foliage of the jungle I could see a solid ceiling of cloud, while beneath me the liquid clay of the pool was equally opaque and lifeless. As a seer watches the surface of his crystal ball, so I gazed at my six-foot circle of milky water. My shift forward was like the fall of a tree: it brought into existence about it a temporary circle of silence and fear — a circle whose periphery began at once to contract; and after a few minutes the gorge again accepted me as a part of its harmless self. A huge bee zoomed past, and just behind my head a humming-bird beat the air into a froth of sound, as vibrant as the richest tones of a ’cello. My concentrated interest scented to become known to the life of the surrounding glade, and I was bombarded with sight, sound, and odor, as if on purpose to distract my attention. But I remained unmoved, and indications of rare and desirable beings passed unheeded.

A flotilla of little water-striders came rowing themselves along, racing for a struggling ant which had fallen into the milky quicksand. These were in my line of vision, so I watched them for a while, letting the corner of my eye keep guard for the real aristocrats of the milky sea — whoever they were. My eye was close enough, my elevation sufficiently low to become one with the water-striders, and to become excited over the adventures of these little petrels; and in my absorption I almost forgot my chief quest. As soaring birds seem at times to rest against the very substance of cloud, upheld by some thin lift of air, so these insects glided as easily and skimmed as swiftly upon the surface film of water. I did not know even the genus of this tropical form; but insect taxonomists have been particularly happy in their given names — I recalled Hydrobafes, Aquarius, and Remigis.

The spur-winged jacanas are very skillful in their dainty treading of water-lily leaves; but here were goodsized insects rowing about on the water itself. They supported themselves on the four hinder legs, rowing with the middle pair, and steering with the hinder ones, while the front limbs were held aloft ready for the seizing of prey. I watched three of them approach the ant, which was struggling to reach the shore, and the first to reach it hesitated not a moment, but leaped into the air from a take-off of mere aqueous surface film, landed full upon the drowning unfortunate, grasped it, and at the same instant gave a mighty sweep with its oars, to escape from its pursuing, envious companions. Off went the twelve dimples, marking the aquatic footprints of the trio of striders; and as the bearer of the ant dodged one of its own kind, it was suddenly threatened by a small, jet submarine of a diving beetle. At the very moment when the pursuit was hottest, and it seemed anybody’s ant, I looked aside, and the little water-bugs passed from my sight forever — for scattered over the surface were seven strange, mumbling mouths. Close as I was, their nature still eluded me. At my slightest movement all vanished, not with the virile splash of a fish or the healthy roll and dip of a porpoise, but with a weird, vertical withdrawing — the seven dissolving into the milk to join their six fellows.

This was sufficient to banish further meditative surmising, and I crept swiftly to a point of vantage, and with sweepnet awaited their reappearance. It was five minutes before faint, discolored spots indicated their rising, and at least two minutes more before they actually disturbed the surface. With eight or nine in view, I dipped quickly and got nothing. Then I sank my net deeply and waited again. This time ten minutes passed, and then I swept deep and swiftly, and drew up the net with four flopping, struggling super-tadpoles. They struggled for only a moment, and then lay quietly waiting for what might be sent by the guardian of the fate of tadpoles — surely some quaint little god relation of Neptune, Pan, and St. Vitus. Gently shunted into a glass jar, these surprising tads accepted the new environment with quiet philosophy; and when I reached the laboratory and transferred them again, they dignifiedly righted themselves in the swirling current, and hung in mid-aquarium, waiting — forever waiting.

It was difficult to think of them as tadpoles, when the word brought to mind hosts of little black wrigglers filling puddles and swamps of our northern country. These were slow-moving, graceful creatures, partly transparent, partly reflecting every hue of the spectrum, with broad, waving scarlet, and hyaline fins, and strange, fish-like mouths and eyes. Their habits were as unpollywoglike as their appearance. I visited their micaceous pool again and again; and if I could have spent days instead of hours wit h them, no moment of ennui would have intervened.

My acquaintanceship with tadpoles in the past had not aroused me to enthusiasm in the matter of their mental ability; as, for example, the inmates of the next aquarium to that of the Redfins, where I kept a herd or brood or school of Short-tailed Blacks — pollywogs of the Giant Toad (Bufo marinus). At earliest dawn they swam aimlessly about and mumbled; at high noon they mumbled and still swam; at midnight they refused to be otherwise occupied. It was possible to alarm them; but even while they fled they mumbled.

In bodily form my Redfins were fish, but mentally they had advanced a little beyond the usual tadpole train of reactions, reaching forward toward the varied activities of the future amphibian. One noticeable thing was their segregation, whether in the mica pools, or in two other smaller ones near by, in which I found them. Each held a pure culture of Redfins, and I found that, this was no accident, but aided and enforced by the tads themselves. Twice, while I watched them, I saw definite pursuit of an alien pollywog, — the larva of the Scarlet-thighed Leaf-walker (Phyllobates inguinalis), — which fled headlong. The second time the attack was so persistent that the lesser tadpole leaped from the water, waiggled its way to a damp heap of leaves, and slipped down between them. For tadpoles to take such action as this was as reasonable as for an orchid to push a fellow blossom aside on the approach of a fertilizing hawk-moth. This momentary coöperation, and the concerted elimination of the undesired tadpole, affected me as the thought of the first consciousness of power of synchronous rhythm coming to ape men: it seemed a spark of tadpole genius —an adumbration of possibilities which now would end in the dull consciousness of the future frog, but which might, in past ages, have been a vital link in the development of an ancestral Ereops.

My Redfins were assuredly no common tadpoles, and an intolerant pollywog offers worthy research for the naturalist. Straining their medium of its opacity, I drew off the clayey liquid and replaced it with the clearer brown, wallaba-stained water of the Mazaruni; and thereafter all their doings, all their intimacies, were at my mercy. I felt as must have felt the first aviator who flew unheralded over an oriental city, with its patios and house-roofs spread naked beneath him.


It was on one of the early days of observation that an astounding thought came to me — before I had lost perspective in intensive watching, before familiarity had assuaged some of the marvel of these super-tadpoles. Most of those in my jar were of a like size, just short of an inch ; but one was much larger, and correspondingly gorgeous in color and graceful in movement. As she swept slowly past my line of vision, she turned and looked, first at me, then up at the limits of her world, with a slow deliberateness and a hint of expression which struck deep into my memory. Green came to mind, — something clad in a smock of emerald, with a waistcoat of mother-of-pearl, and great sprawling arms, — and I found myself thinking of Gawain, our mystery frog of a year ago, who came without warning, and withheld all the secrets of his life. And I glanced again at this super-tad, — as unlike her ultimate development as the grub is unlike the beetle, — and one of us exclaimed, ‘It is the same, or nearly, but more delicate, more beautiful; it must be Guinevere.’ And so, probably for the first time in the world, there came to be a pet tadpole, one with an absurd name which will forever be more significant to us than the term applied by a forgotten herpetologist many years ago.

And Guinevere became known to all who had to do with the laboratory. Her health and daily development and color-change were things to be inquired after and discussed; one of us watched her closely and made notes of her life, one painted every radical development of color and pattern, another photographed her, and another brought her delectable scum. She was waited upon as sedulously as a termite queen. And she rewarded us by living, which was all we asked.

It is difficult for a diver to express his emotions on paper, and verbal arguments with a dentist are usually onesided. So must the spirit of a tadpole suffer greatly from handicaps of the flesh. A mumbling mouth and an uncontrollable, flagellating tail, connected by a pinwheel of intestine, are scant material w herew ith to attempt, new experiments, whereon to nourish aspirations. Yet the Redfins, as typified by Guinevere, have done both, and given time enough, they may emulate or surpass the achievements of larval axolotls, or the astounding egg-producing maggots of certain gnat s, thus realizing all the possibilities of froghood while yet cribbed within the lowly casing of a pollywog.

In the first place Guinevere had ceased being positively thigmotactic, and, writing as a technical herpetologist, I need add no more. In fact, all my readers, whether Batrachologists or Casuals, will agree that this is an unheard-of achievement. But before I loosen the technical etymology and become casually more explicit, let me hold this term in suspense a moment, as I once did, fascinated by the sheer sound of the syllables, as they first came to my ears years ago in a university lecture. There is that of possibility in being positively thigmotactic which makes one dread the necessity of exposing and limiting its meaning, of digging down to its mathematically accurate roots. It could never be called a flower of speech: it is an over-ripe fruit rather: heavystoned, thin-fleshed — an essentially practical term. It is eminently suited to its purpose, and so widely used that my friend the editor must accept it; not looking askance as he did at my definition of a vampire as a vespertilial anæsthetist, or breaking into open but wholly ineffectual rebellion, as at the past tense of the verb to candelabra. I admit that the parsing

I candelabra
You candelabra
He candelabras

arouses a ripple of confusion in the mind; but it is far more important to use words than to parse them, anyway, so I acclaim perfect clarity for ‘The fireflies candelabraed the trees!’

Not to know the precise meaning of being positively thigmotactic is a stimulant to the imagination, which opens the way to an entire essay on the disadvantages of education — a thought once strongly aroused by the glorious red-and-gold hieroglyphic signs of the Peking merchants — signs which have always thrilled me more than the utmost efforts of our modern psychological advertisers.

Having crossed unconsciously by such a slender etymological bridge from my jungle tadpole to China, it occurs to me that the Chinese are the most positively thigmotactic people in the world. I have walked through block after block of subterranean catacombs, beneath city streets which were literally packed full of humanity, and I have seen hot mud pondlets along the Min River wholly eclipsed by shivering Chinamen packed sardinewise, twenty or thirty in layers, or radiating like the spokes of a great wheel which has fallen into the mud.

From my brood of Short-tailed Blacks, a half-dozen tadpoles wandered off now and then, each scum-mumbling by himself. Shortly his positivism asserted itself and back he wriggled, twisting in and out of the mass of his fellows, or at the approach of danger nuzzling into the dead leaves at the bottom, content only with the feeling of something pressing against his sides and tail. His physical make-up, simple as it is, has proved perfectly adapted to this touch system of life: flat-bottomed, with rather narrow, paddleshaped tail-fins which, beginning well back of the body, interfere in no way with the pollywog’s instincts, he can thigmotact to his heart’s content. His eyes are also adapted to looking upward, discerning dimly dangers from above, and whatever else catches the attention of a bottom-loving pollywog. His mouth is well below, as best suits bottom mumbling.

Compared with these polloi pollywogs, Redfins were as humming-birds to quail. Their very origin was unique; for while the toad tadpoles wriggled their way free from egg gelatine deposited in the water itself, the Redfins were literally rained down. Within a folded leaf the parents left the eggs — a leaf carefully chosen as overhanging a suitable ditch, or pit, or puddle. If all signs of weather and season failed and a sudden drought set in, sap would dry, leaf would shrivel, and the pitiful gamble for life of the little jungle frogs would be lost; the spoonful of froth would collapse bubble by bubble, and, finally, a thin dry film on the brown leaf would in turn vanish, and Guinevere and her companions would never have been.

But untold centuries of unconscious necessity have made these tree-frogs infallible weather prophets, and the liberating rain soon sifted through the jungle foliage. In the streaming drops which funneled from the curled leaf, tadpole after tadpole hurtled downward and splashed headlong into the water; their parents and the rain and gravitation had performed their part, and from now on fate lay with the super-tads themselves — except when a passing naturalist brought new complications, new demands of Karma, as strange and unpredictable as if from another planet or universe.

Only close examination showed that those were tadpoles, not fish, judged by the staring eyes, and broad fins stained above and below with orange-scarlet — colors doomed to oblivion in the native, milky waters, but glowing brilliantly in my aquarium. Although they were provided with such an expanse of fin, the only part used for ordinary progression was the extreme tip, a mere threadlike streamer, which whipped in never-ending spirals, lashing forward, backward, and sideways. So rapid was this motion, and so short the flagellum, that the tadpole did not even tremble or vibrate as it moved, but forged steadily onward, without a tremor.

The head was huffy yellow, changing to bittersweet orange back of the eyes and on the gills. The body was dotted with a host of minute specks of gold and silver. On the sides and below, this gave place to a rich bronze, and then to a clear, iridescent silvery blue. The eye proper was silvery white, but the upper part of the eyeball fairly glowed with color. In front it was jet black flecked with gold, merging behind into a brilliant blue. Yet this patch of jeweled tissue was visible only rarely as the tadpole t urned forward, and in the opaque liquid of the mica pool must have ever been hidden. And even if plainly seen, of what use was a shred of rainbow to a sexless tadpole in the depths of a shady pool!

With high-arched fins, beginning at neck and throat, body compressed as in a racing yacht, there could be no bottom life for Guinevere. Whenever she touched a horizontal surface, —whether leaf or twig, — she careened; when she sculled through a narrow passage in the floating algæ, her fins bent and rippled as they were pressed bodywards. So she and her fellow brood lived in mid-aquarium, or at most rested lightly against stem or glass, suspended by gentle suction of the complex mouth. Once, when I inserted a long streamer of delicate water-weed, it remained upright, like some strange tree of carboniferous memory. After an hour I found this the perching-place of fourteen Redfin tads, and at the very summit was Guinevere. The rest were arranged nearly in altitudinal size — two large tadpoles being close below Guinevere, and a bevy of six tiny chaps lowest down. All were lightly poised, swaying in mid-water, at a gently sloping angle, like some unheard-of, orange-stained, aquatic autumn foliage.

For two weeks Guinevere remained almost as I have described her, gaining slightly in size, but with little alteration of color or pattern. Then came the time of the great change: we felt it to be imminent before any outward signs indicated its approach. And for four more days there was no hint except the sudden growth of the hind legs. From tiny dangling appendages with minute toes and indefinite knees, they enlarged and bent, and became miniature but perfect frog’s limbs.

She had now reached a length of two inches, and her delicate colors and waving fins made her daily more marvelous. The strange thing about the hind limbs was that, although so large and perfect, they were quite useless. They could not even be unflexed; and other mere pollywogs near by were wriggling toes, calves, and thighs while yet these were but imperfect buds. When she dived suddenly, the toes occasionally moved a little; but as a whole, they merely sagged and drifted like some extraneous things entangled in the body.

Smoothly and gracefully Guinevere moved about the aquarium. Her gills lifted and closed rhythmically — twice as slowly as compared with the three or four times every second of her breathless young tadpolehood. Several times on the fourteenth day, she came quietly to the surface for a gulp of air.

Looking at her from above, two little bulges were visible on either side of the body — the ensheathed elbows pressing outward. Twice, when she lurched forward in alarm, I saw these front limbs jerk spasmodically; and when she was resting quietly, they rubbed and pushed impatiently against their mittened tissue.

And now began a restless shifting, a slow, strange dance in mid-water, wholly unlike any movement of her smaller companions; up and down, slowly revolving on oblique planes, with rhythmical turns and sinkings — this continued for an hour, when I was called for lunch. And as if to punish me for this material digression and desertion, when I returned, in half an hour, the miracle had happened.

Guinevere still danced in stately cadence, with the other Redfins at a distance going about their several businesses. She danced alone —a dance of change, of happenings of tremendous import, of symbolism as majestic as it was age-old. Here in this little glass aquarium the tadpole Guinevere had just freed her arms — she, with waving scarlet fins, watching me with lidless white and staring eyes, still with fishlike, fin-bound body. She danced upright, with new-born arms folded across her breast, tail-tip flagellating frenziedly, stretching long fingers with disks like cymbals, reaching out for the land she had never trod, limbs flexed for leaps she had never made.

A few days before and Guinevere had been a fish, then a helpless biped, and now suddenly, somewhere between my salad and coffee, she became an aquatic quadruped. Strangest of all, her hands were mobile, her feet useless; and when the dance was at an end, and she sank slowly to the bottom, she came to rest on the very tips of her two longest fingers; her legs and toes still drifting high and useless. Just before she ceased, her arms stretched out right froggily, her weird eyes rolled about, and she gulped a mighty gulp of the strange thin medium that covered the surface of her liquid home.

At midnight of this same day only three things existed in the world — on my table I turned from the Bhagavad-Gita to Drinkwater’s Reverie and back again; then I looked up to the jar of clear water and watched Guinevere hovering motionless. At six the next morning she was crouched safely on a bit of paper a foot from the aquarium. She had missed the open window, the four-foot drop to the floor, and a neighboring aquarium stocked with voracious fish: surely the gods of pollywogs were kind to me. The great fins were gone — dissolved into blobs of dull pink; the tail was a mere stub, the feet drawn close, and a glance at her head showed that Guinevere had become a frog almost within an hour. Three things I hastened to observe: the pupils of her eyes were vertical, revealing her genus Phyllomedusa (making apt our choice of the feminine); by a gentle urging I saw that the first and second toes were equal in length; and a glance at her little humped back showed a scattering of white calcareous spots, giving the clue to her specific personality— bicolor: thus were we introduced to Phyllomedusa bicolor, alias Guinevere, and thus was established beyond doubt her close relationship to Gawain.

During that first day, within three hours, during most of which I watched her closely, Guinevere’s change in color was beyond belief. For an hour she leaped from time to time; but after that, and for the rest of her life, she crept in strange unfroglike fashion, raised high on all four limbs, with her stubby tail curled upward, and reaching out one weird limb after another. If one’s hand approached within a foot, she saw it and stretched forth appealing, skinny fingers.

At two o’clock she was clad in a general cinnamon buff; then a shade of glaucous green began to creep over head and upper eyelids, onward over her face, finally coloring body and limbs. Beneath, the little pollyfrog fairly glowed with bright apricot orange, throat and tail amparo purple, mouth green, and sides rich pale blue. To this maze of color we must add a strange, new expression, born of the prominent eyes, together with the line of the mouth extending straight back with a final jeering, upward lift; in front, the lower lip thick and protruding, which, with the slanting eyes, gave a leering, devilish smirk, while her set, stiff, exact posture compelled a vivid thought of the sphinx. Never have I seen such a remarkable combination. It fascinated us. We looked at Guinevere, and then at the tadpoles swimming quietly in their tank, and evolution in its wildest conceptions appeared a tame truism.

This was the acme of Guinevere’s change, the pinnacle of her development. Thereafter her transformations were rhythmical, alternating with the day and night. Through the nights of activity she was garbed in rich, warm brown. With the coming of dawn, as she climbed slowly upward, her color shifted through chestnut to maroon; this maroon then died out on the mid-back to a delicate, dull violet-blue, which in turn became obscured in the sunlight by turquoise, which crept slowly along the sides. Carefully and laboriously she clambered up, up to the topmost frond, and there performed her little toilet, scraping head and face with her hands, passing the hinder limbs over her back to brush off every grain of sand. The eyes had meanwhile lost their blackflecked, golden, nocturnal iridescence, and had gradually paled to a clear silvery blue, while the great pupil of darkness narrowed to a slit.

Little by little her limbs and digits were drawn in out of sight, and the tiny jeweled being crouched low, hoping for a day of comfortable clouds, a little moisture, and a swift passage of time to the next period of darkness, when it was fitting and right for the Guineveres to seek their small meed of sustenance, to grow to the frog’s full estate, and to fulfill as well as might be what destiny the jungle offered. To unravel the meaning of it all is beyond even attempting. The breath of mist ever clouds the mirror, and only as regards a tiny segment of the life-history of Guinevere can I say, ‘There is no need to wipe the mirror.’