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The Bird of Paradise

Chapter III. The Museum of Natural History at the University

Chapter III. The Museum of Natural History at the University.

The archæological and zoological museum of the University of Philadelphia in the year 18351 was a handsome and stately edifice, overlooking a page 14beautiful and translucent lake, teeming with paradise and California ducks; its walls were covered with English ivy, and bowers of Maréchal Niel roses2 flourished here and there, filling the surrounding air with fragrance. As the light breezes whispered together, the classical imagination could picture fauns peeping from amongst the orange and pomegranate trees. Every specimen in natural history it contained, from the mammoth whale to the most infinitesimal being of the insect order, and it was thrown open to the public three days a week

Hundreds of thousands of visitors every month were counted by the self-registering turnpike gate, and all day long thronged through its corridors, niches and galleries from all parts of the States. Students in arts, natural history, science, and embryo doctors of medicine lingered listlessly about the museum; some investigating the minute anatomies of Nature's wondrous artifice and engrossing themselves sedulously3 with their labours: others apathetic and more inclined to display the cap and gowned form of Adonis4, for the edification of the young ladies, with all the side and swagger of a brass-bound sailor.

Retiring in disposition, a hard worker, ever mindful of the exigencies of his seaside home, brimful of energy, determination and ambition, none could allure Eugene Whitworth away from the object which he held in view, and that was to be emancipated from the schools of science and to relieve his father of the expense. Exhibitions5 and scholarships which he gained contributed largely to his support, but with his father's income greatly reduced and his mother pining away at the foot of his brother's grave, what else could he do but work and wait, till he could ameliorate the conditions in Lily cottage himself? No feminine frippery or finery attracted him to the museum, the kaleidoscopic whirligig of the young ladies had no charm for Eugene. The ossification of the mammalia, or the spore-breathing apparatus of the insect tribe took him there and kept him there for an hour or so during the week in his early terms.

One morning in June, when the call of the blue-bird re-echoed through the orange and pomegranate trees and the gaudy tout ensemble was wandering through the corridors of the museum, he sat in the neighbouring library of the university alone, amidst three hundred thousand volumes at the little table he had sat before during the past year.

Tripping lightly up the long white marble steps and in mistake opening the large folding doors of the library, there peered in amongst the volumes two girlish faces, and presently there stood before Whitworth the matchless forms of what seemed to him to be angels. He had scarcely spoken to a woman in his life, excepting his mother, and the vision as of angels from another world quickened his pulses and overcame him like a charm. Her irradiating6 violet eyes beamed towards Eugene, and the blonde supernal girl inquired in the most guileless manner if the museum was open that day.

Without rising from the table, he replied that they had come to the library, and directed them down the marble steps again and through the page 15quadrangle to where the museum stood. The sublime vision vanished from his eyes, and at once he regretted that he had not gone down to conduct them to the museum personally. As they closed the door behind them, the flashing eyes of the young brunette turned towards him. Descending the steps, she remarked that he was a very impolite fellow: while her companion thought that he was in charge of the library, and could not leave.

Assuming his cap and gown—pause Eugene Whitworth! the day will come when that trifling inattention may be re-paid, and when those eyes, flashing with love-light, like a will-o'-the-wisp will allure you away into the marsh of your incautious life—he betook himself down the marble steps and through the quadrangle to the laboratory for students in biology, through whose little window he peered again upon the ineffable vision, as his erst-while visitors sauntered slowly amongst the manifold beauties of Nature.

Her face in contour like the profile of Juno7, the fairer was dressed in a soft white muslin, embroidered with a soupçon8 of Valenciennes lace9, its folds falling gracefully about her statuesque form and gathered at the waist with a white moiré10 sash. She wore a large Gainsborough hat11 with a fleecy white ostrich feather, and a pearl necklace. She carried a cream sunshade with an air negligé12, as her superb and matchless form moved among the show-cases with the grace of a classic sylph.

Her companion, though apparently about the same age, was not so tall. Her complexion was dark. The beauty of the brunette was the beauty of Psyche13. Her piercing gleaming black eyes glittered beneath her massive black eyebrows and the wealthy fringe of her jet black hair. The mobile lineaments of her attractive face seemed, as she wreathed her lips into expressive pouts and showed her pearly teeth, to change with every varying mood. Diamonds sparkled on her neck and on her wrists. The collar of her gorgeous dress was yellow, while the bodice shone with the hues of cinnamon, and the skirt was peacock blue. Her parasol, which she manipulated to show herself off to greater advantage, showed again the deep dark green hues of the peacock, and it was thickly bordered with blue passemeterie14 lace. The peacock was evidently her favorite bird and her household crest, for again around a cinnamon toque,15 glinting with the sheen of richest satin, was twisted upon itself and fastened down to the rim an enormous peacock's feather, looking like a gaudy-skinned snake asleep. Beneath the ruffled surface of her face volcanic forces seemed to be at work, kindling contending emotions in her mind. There was more below than came to the surface.

Wavering in his intentions to approach the engrossing débutantes, he was about to open the door when Marmaduke Payne, a friend and fellow-student, came into the laboratory.

"Who are those ladies there by the bird-cases?" said Eugene. "Don't know," said Marmaduke, "but it doesn't make any difference. I'll introduce page 16you; can't see very well from this window, but I fancy the girl in white is Guinevere Hood."

Taking Eugene by the arm, they walked towards the bird-cases, and as they drew near Marmaduke stopped, while Eugene withdrew his arm and walked out of the door alone. Payne remained behind; he entered into conversation with the blonde and seemed to have known her before.

Meeting Eugene the next day, "That was Guinevere Hood," he said, "that fair girl in white, and a lovely girl she is too. I don't know the other one, but I heard Guinevere call her Marvel. She went away when I spoke, but I have known Guinevere since Christmas. She comes from the same village as I did, and her father was a medical man at Maconville16. Everybody likes Guinevere, but its very seldom she comes out at all. She said the other girl thought you were a fool not to show them the museum; but Guinevere is a glorious girl, she never sees any faults in anybody. Why are you so interested about them?"

"Oh! nothing," said Eugene, "a mere nothing, a passing fancy, and only a look."

"The fates of empires have depended on a look," he replied, "Peacock plumes—trifles, light as air, are to the lover the poisonous darts of little Cupid."

The memory of the previous day faded like a flower from the mind of Eugene; but like rare foliage, it was pressed between the leaves over which he traversed in his studies of Spinoza and Sir Henry Lewes on philosophy.

Natural science with language and logic was the school to which Whitworth devoted most of his early labours. Through the dying year his lamp might have been seen shining in the tower of the college till the big bell of the city clock boomed out three; when, in the middle of a translation of "Highland Mary" or "Ye banks and braes" into Greek, he would fall asleep, to awake betimes in the morning for the revisals of the most brilliant scholar in the Western World—the patriarch of the affiliated college. There oft till dawn he sat over the binomial theorem outwatching the bear, and with thrice great Hermes unsphering the spirit of Plato.17

The end of the year was fast approaching, and a big stake was to be disputed at the university. Big it was in Eugene's eyes, for it afforded him the emolument of eight hundred dollars for the ensuing year, as well as the gold medal of the university.

Fierce was the contest for the science scholarships; but Whitworth all through was the favorite, and, when the honour lists were posted in the quadrangle, first in the list of first-class honours stood the name of Eugene Percival Whitworth.

Miriam's pulses beat, bounding with pride. Soon again they fell, for soon fell his own.

One Sunday morning he wandered about absent-minded, as indeed he always was, into the cloisters of the Sacred Heart Cathedral, where the intonation of the voice of the priest sounded like a weird, fantastic, re-page 17duplicating bell, whose echoes reverberated without ceasing in his ears every stride he took back to the college.

His appetite failed, his head swam, and his brain seemed to be reeling and floating within. Dark spots changed to blue and purple before his eyes; illusions and phantasmagoria danced before his mind; as, deserted by sleep, he lay in the tower and was not noticed for days. The constitutional fever raged; delirium followed, and for a week he was on the verge of coma.

His only visitors were the rector of the college, Marmaduke and Guinevere. His friend had brought her one morning; she waited and brightened the scene all day. She often came again, bringing him oranges, lemons and delicacies, and her sweet and gentle ways infused convalescence into the air of the tower.

Stranger she was to Whitworth when he first became ill; but to know her was to love her. Her voice was the most exquisite music; her sweet smile a medicinal charm. She brought Dr. Moore to him; but for her he would certainly have died. Typhoid fever in a virulent form was rife in the city and suburbs, and the mortality was rapidly increasing every day. Strong in physique, he passed through the various stages and the third week, which the doctor told Guinevere was the most dangerous. At the end of another he was convalescent. The roar and bubble of the waning fever resounded in his brain for weeks; but it was only a transitory after-effect, and escaping all the dangers of the devouring typhoid, the trend of Eugene's life continued on the tide of time.

1 The University of Philadelphia was actually founded as the Philadelphia Textile School in 1884, and affiliated with the Pennsylvania Museum in the following decade. University of Philadelphia website 2010.

[Note added by Sara Berger as annotator]

2 An anachronistic reference, as Marshal Niel of France, for whom this rose is named, was not yet a marshal in the year 1835. For a source contemporary to Dutton, see the Otago Witness, 28th November 1895, page 8

[Note added by Sara Berger as annotator]

3 Diligently. OED Online.

[Note added by Sara Berger as annotator]

4 A mortal shepherd who was a favourite of the Goddess of Love due to his beauty; a cult figure of Spring. Dictionary of Classical Mythology: 1995.

[Note added by Sara Berger as annotator]

5 A fixed sum given to a student from the funds of an educational institution, generally upon the result of a competitive examination. OED Online. Sense 3b.

[Note added by Sara Berger as annotator]

6 Shining, brightening. OED Online. Senses 1, 2b.

[Note added by Sara Berger as annotator]

7 The principal goddess of Roman mythology; patron of marriage. Dictionary of Classical Mythology 1995.

[Note added by Sara Berger as annotator]

8 A very small quantity of something. OED Online.

[Note added by Sara Berger as annotator]

9 a rich lace which has a six-sided mesh formed of two threads partly twisted and plaited, the pattern being worked in the net. OED Online. See 'Valenciennes', sense 1.

[Note added by Sara Berger as annotator]

10 A type of fabric that has been subjected to heat and pressure rollers after weaving to give it a rippled appearance. OED Online, n.1

[Note added by Sara Berger as annotator]

11 A large broad brimmed hat of the type worn by women in Gainsborough paintings. OED Online. See 'Gainsborough', sense 2

[Note added by Sara Berger as annotator]

12 Informal. OED Online.

[Note added by Sara Berger as annotator]

13 A woman of Greek mythology who was so beautiful that the God of Love fell in love with her. Dictionary of Classical Mythology: 1995.

[Note added by Sara Berger as annotator]

14 Correctly 'passementerie'; a sumptuous trimming variously made from silk, linen, wool, cotton, and silver and gold thread. OED Online.

[Note added by Sara Berger as annotator]

15 Probably a small bonnet or hat, with a very small brim or none. OED Online, sense 1b

[Note added by Sara Berger as annotator]

16 Macon, Georgia.

[Note added by Sara Berger as annotator]

17 Il Pensoroso. John Milton.

[Note added by Sara Berger as annotator]