A Bed in the Museum

J. W. P. JENKS, who got the turtle eggs for Agassiz,1 was one of my college professors. I shared his room in the museum for three years of my college course — until the day of his death. No, you perhaps have never shared a naturalist’s room — not the old-fashioned sort of naturalist, anyway, who went up and down the world with his traps and gun, collecting and skinning and mounting his specimens; who was quite as much of an explorer and discoverer as he was a collector.

Perhaps you would not have wished to share his room — but I shall come to that in a minute. First let me tell how it chanced that I did share that room, for all this goes back some three or four years previous to my going to college.

I was seventeen years old and was attending the South Jersey Institute, a preparatory school in my home town, when Dr. Trask, the principal, returning from a trip to New England, told us that a great museum of mounted birds and animals, shells, and alcoholic specimens had been given to the Institute by a Professor Jenks, an old naturalist, who had collected them when principal of Pierce Academy in Middleboro, Massachusetts. The academy had been closed for years, and the collection was now on its way to the Institute.

Probably that would not have excited you at all; but it did me. A twoheaded kitten and a horned toad had constituted the whole of the Institute’s museum up to that time, with the exception of some fossil specimens that another boy and I had gathered from the sandstone quarries and marl pits — gathered and toted, fifty pounds of them at a time, on our backs for seven miles over the road!

This news of the coming museum was highly exciting. Greek and Latin had a hard time of it and my algebra actually suffered. But then, my mathematics always has suffered. My life has always been too exciting for mathematics. Then one day, just before the big cases began to arrive, Dr. Trask called me into his office and handed me a book, a zoölogy, written by this naturalist and professor who was sending us the collection, saying as he did so: —

’ Professor Jenks is coming down to see us as soon as we get the specimens unpacked. I want you to go to work on the birds and meet him when he comes down.’

That is how it began. I had taken some self-conducted lessons in taxidermy before this, and knew a great deal more about birds than I did about some other things that a boy of seventeen might be expected to know. So I went to work after school hours upon the birds, and it was while this was going on that the old naturalist, professor, author, museum-maker, — wonderworker!— came to see how it fared with his birds and beasts.

I had never seen the like of this man. I had read about such men — Linnæus, White of Selborne, Agassiz, Audubon. I knew the life of Audubon by heart. There was a picture of him in the Life I had read when I was about fourteen, and I had my mother cut my shirts low in the neck with wide, rolling collars — just like his; and I had tried to let my hair grow long on my shoulders — just like his. Mother got on very well with the collars; but I had a terrible time with the hair. It grew up my neck and stuck out straight from my rolling collar like Horace Greeley’s whiskers!

That, to be sure, did not lessen my admiration for Audubon, or deaden my interest in naturalists and natural history. And here, at last, was a real naturalist — the man who had been the first to explore Lake Okeechobee, who had been bitten by centipedes, who had written a book, who had collected turtle eggs for Agassiz, and who had been so nearly paralyzed by arsenic, absorbed in his mounting of skins, that he walked with a sort of quick scuff and shuffle!

If anything of the heroic was lacking in his appearance, it was more than made up by that shuffle caused by arsenical poisoning. Arsenic in his very bones! A martyr to science!

He arrived at the Institute, and we had been working together for some time that morning when the old man suddenly exclaimed: —

‘You ought to have a lesson in skinning and mounting! Run out into the grove and get me a bird!’

Eager feet brought me quickly back, cuckoo in hand, remarking, expectant of approval: —

‘This is the only bad bird I could find. ’

‘No, no,’ Professor Jenks protested, ‘not a bad bird, but a very useful one, and I shall prove it when I open the gizzard and show you how stuck full it is of caterpillar hairs.’

Meanwhile his deft fingers removed the skin, cut open the body, and took out the gizzard, turned it inside out, and showed me the lining stuffed with thousands of caterpillar hairs.

Only a wizard could have foretold that mystery, only X-ray eyes have seen through that body wall and beheld the plush-like coating of woolly-bear caterpillar hairs. So that is what it is to be a naturalist, a scientist — to know the cuckoo’s languid shape, its dreamy call, and the bird’s very place in the scheme of creation! Wisdom, indeed, hidden from ordinary mortals!

The caution that came with that lesson has stayed by me to this day. Those hairs in the gizzard of my ‘bad’ cuckoo still stick into me. They almost spoiled my lesson in taxidermy, but not quite, for as, out of the mass of rumpled feathers, the long, loose-hung bird shook himself into shape, then hopped in a characteristic pose, with eye cocked aloft for a worm, I was lost in admiration.

When the lesson was done — I had many another later — he turned and, as suddenly as before, asked: —

‘Are you going to college?’

Certainly I was, though up to that instant I had scarcely known it, for it is quite impossible to explain how faraway and unreal a place ‘college’ had been to my thoughts and opportunity. But then and there I was as sure of going to college as I am now sure that I have been to college.

‘Well,’ said the old naturalist, ‘when you get ready to come, let me know.’

And when I got ready to come, I did let him know. I was out of my teens before I could write him that I was ready. But he had not forgotten, and back came his prompt reply on a postal card: — ‘Come! You can share my room with me.’

How would you feel? What would you do if a great naturalist should tell you to come to college and share his room in the museum with him? And if he should tell you all that on a postal card? Could you believe it? No! Instead of believing it, you would grip that postal card in your hand, and go out alone into the fields, and along your old wood roads, and try to believe that you were you, and that the big solid earth still lay beneath your feet, and that you moved on feet and not on wings. You would hold your breath, open your hand, and, with all the courage of your soul, you would dare to read that postal again. Then you would whoop like a wild Indian, and bolt away through the bushes until you stopped short somewhere, anywhere, to read that postal again.

It has been many years since that postal came, but the thrill it gave me I feel yet. That was one of the great invitations of my life. And I accepted it.

College was to open three days later. But I was ready. Why should I not be? I had nothing to take but myself — not even money. Money is not a very necessary thing to start college on when you have youth and health — and the offer of an old naturalist who is to share his room with you! But I went to one of my friends, borrowed twenty-five dollars, lent ten of it to another friend on my way to the station, and landed in Providence, Rhode Island, in time for the opening exercises at Brown University with eight dollars and fifty cents in my pocket!

Plenty! Anybody can begin college on eight dollars and fifty cents — unless he is past twenty-one. I have known many a college student since to begin on less than eight dollars and finish his course in four years, fresh, glad, and strong.

I would do it again. I should like the chance — were the old naturalist and his room to be mine again. And such a room!

‘Come in,’ he called in answer to my knock that September morning. ‘I’m ready for you’ — taking my hand. ‘We’ll keep house together here. That lower shelf is for your books. You can have the stool and this sink shelf for a table. Your clothes can go into the specimen case outside!’ — and his eyes twinkled through his glasses with humor and the joy of being a boy again.

But the room I was to share! It was the old naturalist’s workshop, about eight feet wide by fourteen feet long, built, like a big packing box, right in the middle of the main museum hall, with a door at one end and a sink and a window at the other.

Besides the sink, window, and door, it was furnished with a bookcase, a chair and a stool, a small table, a workbench in front of the window, a oneburner gas stove, skins, bones, bottles, and walls hung with tools, and a pine board six feet long by two feet wide on brackets against the wall for a bed.

Aladdin and his lamp! Such things, as I say, had happened before — in books I had read. But where were my lamp and genie that such wildest wishes should thus come true to me?

I seized a pair of long stuffers — used in mounting geese and cranes — and pinched myself. The old naturalist watched with beaming face.

‘Think it will do?’ he asked, taking in the whole room with a rested, happy look.

‘Do!’ I exclaimed. ‘Am I really to have half of all this for four years?’

‘Half of it all except the bed. I think perhaps you’ll need all of that,’ he said, running his eye along the narrow shelf, but seeing me with the same eye, I am now sure.

I looked at the pine board, too. It was exactly six feet long, and exactly twenty-four inches wide. Then I looked at the old naturalist. He was about twenty-four inches through any way you might put the calipers on him. That twenty-four-inch shelf would not hold both of us at the same time by the closest figuring.

‘Could n’t we find another board,’ I ventured, ‘to go against the opposite wall?’

Perhaps he had not been watching me with anxiety, but at my reply his face broke into an all-over smile, which I came to know later was very rare, and he answered heartily: —

‘No, no. I have n’t slept on that shelf now for some time. My children insist upon my sleeping somewhere else than alone here in the empty museum. But you’ll enjoy it.’

Did I ever enjoy sounder, sweeter sleep? Sound sleep is a matter of bones, not beds, a matter quite as much of contentment as of covers.

The walls of my chamber were crowded with tools, wires, and the thousand other things of the taxidermist and curator. Skins, skeletons, shells, and alcoholic specimens were on the table, a tassel of tiny rattlesnake tails dangled just above my pillow, while outside my door, in the echoing room of the great museum, hung the articulated skeleton of a human being.

No, that grim presence never disturbed my dreams; neither did the big, spotted panther, crouching in the case next to the skeleton, disturb them. Yet sometimes at night, coming back alone to my room, with the dim moonlight falling through the windowed roof upon the crouching cat and swinging bones, I would quicken my steps and close my door — securely.

But not often, for not often had I any business to be out of my room at night. Here I lived and studied and worked afternoons and evenings with the old naturalist. I would get us a simple lunch over the small gas stove by the sink, and then at night he and I would go out for dinner together, especially when there was a job to finish, some bird or beast to mount, and, returning, we would work and talk the evening away.

And here, as we worked, the old naturalist would talk — wiring the delicate bones of some small skeleton together, or flipping the feathers of some bird into shape, while his stories of turtle eggs and panthers and snakes and alligators, of men and of the ends of the earth, went on.

He was a museum-maker. During the latter half of the last century he had ransacked every wild corner of this continent, bringing back a museumful of skins and mounted specimens, but more stories than specimens. Stories, the more’s the pity, were not in his line. No museum has had a section, or even a glass case, for stories. Life was adventure to him and he simply took the adventure for granted. It was the birds and the animals he was after, not how he got them, nor what he went through to get them.

He was a teacher, not a story-teller, and seldom spoke in a reminiscent vein. He was not without imagination, and had really a great narrative gift, but as he never counted the cost to himself of his expeditions, either of effort, of time, of money, or of danger, so he could see no human value to others in his adventures, and seldom could be led to talk about himself.

Three of my stories are of his telling: ‘The Panther in the Pulpit,’ ‘The Gator Hole,’ and ‘The Whir of the Rattlers.’ A fourth, ‘Turtle Eggs for Agassiz,’ published in the Atlantic, is also his. They are not as he told them, for I was not wise enough, then and there, to write them down. And so, if I have put words into his mouth that he never uttered, it is only to give form to the story whose substance or suggestion came largely from him.

  1. See ‘Turtle Eggs for Agassiz,’ in the Atlantic for February 1910. — EDITOR