You want to know, then, what chalk is? I suppose you mean what chalk is made of?
Yes. That is it.
That we can only help by calling in the help of a very great giant whose name is Analysis.
Yes. And before we call for him I will tell you a very curious story about him and his younger brother, which is every word of it true.
Once upon a time, certainly as long ago as the first man, or perhaps the first rational being of any kind, was created, Madam How had two grandsons. The elder is called Analysis, and the younger Synthesis. As for who their father and mother were, there have been so many disputes on that question that I think children may leave it alone for the present. For my part, I believe that they are both, like St. Patrick, "gentlemen, and come of decent people;" and I have a great respect and affection for them both, as long as each keeps in his own place and minds his own business.
Now you must understand that, as soon as these two baby giants were born, Lady Why, who sets everything to do that work for which it is exactly fitted, set both of them their work. Analysis was to take to pieces everything he found, and find out how it was made. Synthesis was to put the pieces together again, and make something fresh out of them. In a word, Analysis was to teach men Science; and Synthesis to teach them Art.
But because Analysis was the elder, Madam How commanded Synthesis never to put the pieces together till Analysis had taken them completely apart. And, my child, if Synthesis had obeyed that rule of his good old grandmother's, the world would have been far happier, wealthier, wiser, and better than it is now.
But Synthesis would not. He grew up a very noble boy. He could carve, he could paint, he could build, he could make music, and write poems: but he was full of conceit and haste. Whenever his elder brother tried to do a little patient work in taking things to pieces, Synthesis snatched the work out of his hands before it was a quarter done, and began putting it together again to suit his own fancy, and, of course, put it together wrong. Then he went on to bully his elder brother, and locked him up in prison, and starved him, till for many hundred years poor Analysis never grew at all, but remained dwarfed, and stupid, and all but blind for want of light; while Synthesis, and all the hasty conceited people who followed him, grew stout and strong and tyrannous, and overspread the whole world, and ruled it at their will. But the fault of all the work of Synthesis was just this: that it would not work. His watches would not keep time, his soldiers would not fight, his ships would not sail, his houses would not keep the rain out. So every time he failed in his work he had to go to poor Analysis in his dungeon, and bully him into taking a thing or two to pieces, and giving him a few sound facts out of them, just to go on with till he came to grief again, boasting in the meantime that he and not Analysis had found out the facts. And at last he grew so conceited that he fancied he knew all that Madam How could teach him, or Lady Why either, and that he understood all things in heaven and earth; while it was not the real heaven and earth that he was thinking of, but a sham heaven and a sham earth, which he had built up out of his guesses and his own fancies.
And the more Synthesis waxed in pride, and the more he trampled upon his poor brother, the more reckless he grew, and the more willing to deceive himself. If his real flowers would not grow, he cut out paper flowers, and painted them and said that they would do just as well as natural ones. If his dolls would not work, he put strings and wires behind them to make them nod their heads and open their eyes, and then persuaded other people, and perhaps half-persuaded himself, that they were alive. If the hand of his weather-glass went down, he nailed it up to insure a fine day, and tortured, burnt, or murdered every one who said it did not keep up of itself. And many other foolish and wicked things he did, which little boys need not hear of yet.
But at last his punishment came, according to the laws of his grandmother, Madam How, which are like the laws of the Medes and Persians, and alter not, as you and all mankind will sooner or later find; for he grew so rich and powerful that he grew careless and lazy, and thought about nothing but eating and drinking, till people began to despise him more and more. And one day he left the dungeon of Analysis so ill guarded, that Analysis got out and ran away. Great was the hue and cry after him; and terribly would he have been punished had he been caught. But, lo and behold, folks had grown so disgusted with Synthesis that they began to take the part of Analysis. Poor men hid him in their cottages, and scholars in their studies. And when war arose about him,--and terrible wars did arise,--good kings, wise statesmen, gallant soldiers, spent their treasure and their lives in fighting for him. All honest folk welcomed him, because he was honest; and all wise folk used him, for, instead of being a conceited tyrant like Synthesis, he showed himself the most faithful, diligent, humble of servants, ready to do every man's work, and answer every man's questions. And among them all he got so well fed that he grew very shortly into the giant that he ought to have been all along; and was, and will be for many a year to come, perfectly able to take care of himself.
As for poor Synthesis, he really has fallen so low in these days, that one cannot but pity him. He now goes about humbly after his brother, feeding on any scraps that are thrown to him, and is snubbed and rapped over the knuckles, and told one minute to hold his tongue and mind his own business, and the next that he has no business at all to mind, till he has got into such a poor way that some folks fancy he will die, and are actually digging his grave already, and composing his epitaph. But they are trying to wear the bear's skin before the bear is killed; for Synthesis is not dead, nor anything like it; and he will rise up again some day, to make good friends with his brother Analysis, and by his help do nobler and more beautiful work than he has ever yet done in the world.
So now Analysis has got the upper hand; so much so that he is in danger of being spoilt by too much prosperity, as his brother was before him; in which case he too will have his fall; and a great deal of good it will do him. And that is the end of my story, and a true story it is.
Now you must remember, whenever you have to do with him, that Analysis, like fire, is a very good servant, but a very bad master. For, having got his freedom only of late years or so, he is, like young men when they come suddenly to be their own masters, apt to be conceited, and to fancy that he knows everything, when really he knows nothing, and can never know anything, but only knows about things, which is a very different matter. Indeed, nowadays he pretends that he can teach his old grandmother, Madam How, not only how to suck eggs, but to make eggs into the bargain; while the good old lady just laughs at him kindly, and lets him run on, because she knows he will grow wiser in time, and learn humility by his mistakes and failures, as I hope you will from yours.
However, Analysis is a very clever young giant, and can do wonderful work as long as he meddles only with dead things, like this bit of lime. He can take it to pieces, and tell you of what things it is made, or seems to be made; and take them to pieces again, and tell you what each of them is made of; and so on, till he gets conceited, and fancies that he can find out some one Thing of all things (which he calls matter), of which all other things are made; and some Way of all ways (which he calls force), by which all things are made: but when he boasts in that way, old Madam How smiles, and says, "My child, before you can say that, you must remember a hundred things which you are forgetting, and learn a hundred thousand things which you do not know;" and then she just puts her hand over his eyes, and Master Analysis begins groping in the dark, and talking the saddest nonsense. So beware of him, and keep him in his own place, and to his own work, or he will flatter you, and get the mastery of you, and persuade you that he can teach you a thousand things of which he knows no more than he does why a duck's egg never hatches into a chicken. And remember, if Master Analysis ever grows saucy and conceited with you, just ask him that last riddle, and you will shut him up at once.
Because Analysis can only explain to you a little about dead things, like stones--inorganic things as they are called. Living things--organisms, as they are called--he cannot explain to you at all. When he meddles with them, he always ends like the man who killed his goose to get the golden eggs. He has to kill his goose, or his flower, or his insect, before he can analyse it; and then it is not a goose, but only the corpse of a goose; not a flower, but only the dead stuff of the flower.
And therefore he will never do anything but fail, when he tries to find out the life in things. How can he, when he has to take the life out of them first? He could not even find out how a plum-pudding is made by merely analysing it. He might part the sugar, and the flour, and the suet; he might even (for he is very clever, and very patient too, the more honour to him) take every atom of sugar out of the flour with which it had got mixed, and every atom of brown colour which had got out of the plums and currants into the body of the pudding, and then, for aught I know, put the colouring matter back again into the plums and currants; and then, for aught I know, turn the boiled pudding into a raw one again,--for he is a great conjurer, as Madam How's grandson is bound to be: but yet he would never find out how the pudding was made, unless some one told him the great secret which the sailors in the old story forgot--that the cook boiled it in a cloth.
This is Analysis's weak point--don't let it be yours--that in all his calculations he is apt to forget the cloth, and indeed the cook likewise. No doubt he can analyse the matter of things: but he will keep forgetting that he cannot analyse their form.
Do I mean their shape?
No, my child; no. I mean something which makes the shape of things, and the matter of them likewise, but which folks have lost sight of nowadays, and do not seem likely to get sight of again for a few hundred years. So I suppose that you need not trouble your head about it, but may just follow the fashions as long as they last.
About this piece of lime, however, Analysis can tell us a great deal. And we may trust what he says, and believe that he understands what he says.
Think now. If you took your watch to pieces, you would probably spoil it for ever; you would have perhaps broken, and certainly mislaid, some of the bits; and not even a watchmaker could put it together again. You would have analysed the watch wrongly. But if a watchmaker took it to pieces then any other watchmaker could put it together again to go as well as ever, because they both understand the works, how they fit into each other, and what the use and the power of each is. Its being put together again rightly would be a proof that it had been taken to pieces rightly.
And so with Master Analysis. If he can take a thing to pieces so that his brother Synthesis can put it together again, you may be sure that he has done his work rightly.
Now he can take a bit of chalk to pieces, so that it shall become several different things, none of which is chalk, or like chalk at all. And then his brother Synthesis can put them together again, so that they shall become chalk, as they were before. He can do that very nearly, but not quite. There is, in every average piece of chalk, something which he cannot make into chalk again when he has once unmade it.
What that is I will show you presently; and a wonderful tale hangs thereby. But first we will let Analysis tell us what chalk is made of, as far as he knows.
He will say--Chalk is carbonate of lime.
But what is carbonate of lime made of?
Lime and carbonic acid.
And what is lime?
The oxide of a certain metal, called calcium.
What do you mean?
That quicklime is a certain metal mixed with oxygen gas; and slacked lime is the same, mixed with water.
So lime is a metal. What is a metal? Nobody knows.
And what is oxygen gas? Nobody knows.
Well, Analysis, stops short very soon. He does not seem to know much about the matter.
Nay, nay, you are wrong there. It is just "about the matter" that he does know, and knows a great deal, and very accurately; what he does not know is the matter itself. He will tell you wonderful things about oxygen gas--how the air is full of it, the water full of it, every living thing full of it; how it changes hard bright steel into soft, foul rust; how a candle cannot burn without it, or you live without it. But what it is he knows not.
Will he ever know?
That is Lady Why's concern, and not ours. Meanwhile he has a right to find out if he can. But what do you want to ask him next?
What? Oh! What carbonic acid is. He can tell you that. Carbon and oxygen gas.
But what is carbon?
Why, here is this stupid Analysis at fault again.
Nay, nay, again. Be patient with him. If he cannot tell you what carbon is, he can tell you what is carbon, which is well worth knowing. He will tell you, for instance, that every time you breathe or speak, what comes out of your mouth is carbonic acid; and that, if your breath comes on a bit of slacked lime, it will begin to turn it back into the chalk from which it was made; and that, if your breath comes on the leaves of a growing plant, that leaf will take the carbon out of it, and turn it into wood. And surely that is worth knowing,--that you may be helping to make chalk, or to make wood, every time you breathe.
Well; that is very curious.
But now, ask him, What is carbon? And he will tell you, that many things are carbon. A diamond is carbon; and so is blacklead; and so is charcoal and coke, and coal in part, and wood in part.
What? Does Analysis say that a diamond and charcoal are the same thing?
Then his way of taking things to pieces must be a very clumsy one, if he can find out no difference between diamond and charcoal.
Well, perhaps it is: but you must remember that, though he is very old--as old as the first man who ever lived--he has only been at school for the last three hundred years or so. And remember, too, that he is not like you, who have some one else to teach you. He has had to teach himself, and find out for himself, and make his own tools, and work in the dark besides. And I think it is very much to his credit that he ever found out that diamond and charcoal were the same things. You would never have found it out for yourself, you will agree.
No: but how did he do it?
He taught a very famous chemist, Lavoisier, about ninety years ago, how to burn a diamond in oxygen--and a very difficult trick that is; and Lavoisier found that the diamond when burnt turned almost entirely into carbonic acid and water, as blacklead and charcoal do; and more, that each of them turned into the same quantity of carbonic acid, And so he knew, as surely as man can know anything, that all these things, however different to our eyes and fingers, are really made of the same thing,--pure carbon.
But what makes them look and feel so different?
That Analysis does not know yet. Perhaps he will find out some day; for he is very patient, and very diligent, as you ought to be. Meanwhile, be content with him: remember that though he cannot see through a milestone yet, he can see farther into one than his neighbours. Indeed his neighbours cannot see into a milestone at all, but only see the outside of it, and know things only by rote, like parrots, without understanding what they mean and how they are made.
So now remember that chalk is carbonate of lime, and that it is made up of three things, calcium, oxygen, and carbon; and that therefore its mark is CaCO(3), in Analysis's language, which I hope you will be able to read some day.
But how is it that Analysis and Synthesis cannot take all this chalk to pieces, and put it together again?
Look here; what is that in the chalk?
Oh! a shepherd's crown, such as we often find in the gravel, only fresh and white.
Well; you know what that was once. I have often told you:--a live sea- egg, covered with prickles, which crawls at the bottom of the sea.
Well, I am sure that Master Synthesis could not put that together again: and equally sure that Master Analysis might spend ages in taking it to pieces, before he found out how it was made. And--we are lucky to-day, for this lower chalk to the south has very few fossils in it--here is something else which is not mere carbonate of lime. Look at it.
A little cockle, something like a wrinkled hazel-nut.
No; that is no cockle. Madam How invented that ages and ages before she thought of cockles, and the animal which lived inside that shell was as different from a cockle-animal as a sparrow is from a dog. That is a Terebratula, a gentleman of a very ancient and worn-out family. He and his kin swarmed in the old seas, even as far back as the time when the rocks of the Welsh mountains were soft mud; as you will know when you read that great book of Sir Roderick Murchison's, Siluria. But as the ages rolled on, they got fewer and fewer, these Terebratulae; and now there are hardly any of them left; only six or seven sorts are left about these islands, which cling to stones in deep water; and the first time I dredged two of them out of Loch Fyne, I looked at them with awe, as on relics from another world, which had lasted on through unnumbered ages and changes, such as one's fancy could not grasp.
But you will agree that, if Master Analysis took that shell to pieces, Master Synthesis would not be likely to put it together again; much less to put it together in the right way, in which Madam How made it.
And what was that?
By making a living animal, which went on growing, that is, making itself; and making, as it grew, its shell to live in. Synthesis has not found out yet the first step towards doing that; and, as I believe, he never will.
But there would be no harm in his trying?
Of course not. Let everybody try to do everything they fancy. Even if they fail, they will have learnt at least that they cannot do it.
But now--and this is a secret which you would never find out for yourself, at least without the help of a microscope--the greater part of this lump of chalk is made up of things which neither Analysis can perfectly take to pieces, nor Synthesis put together again. It is made of dead organisms, that is, things which have been made by living creatures. If you washed and brushed that chalk into powder, you would find it full of little things like the Dentalina in this drawing, and many other curious forms. I will show you some under the microscope one day.
They are the shells of animals called Foraminifera, because the shells of some of them are full of holes, through which they put out tiny arms. So small they are and so many, that there may be, it is said, forty thousand of them in a bit of chalk an inch every way. In numbers past counting, some whole, some broken, some ground to the finest powder, they make up vast masses of England, which are now chalk downs; and in some foreign countries they make up whole mountains. Part of the building stone of the Great Pyramid in Egypt is composed, I am told, entirely of them.
And how did they get into the chalk?
Ah! How indeed? Let us think. The chalk must have been laid down at the bottom of a sea, because there are sea-shells in it. Besides, we find little atomies exactly like these alive now in many seas; and therefore it is fair to suppose these lived in the sea also.
Besides, they were not washed into the chalk by any sudden flood. The water in which they settled must have been quite still, or these little delicate creatures would have been ground into powder--or rather into paste. Therefore learned men soon made up their minds that these things were laid down at the bottom of a deep sea, so deep that neither wind, nor tide, nor currents could stir the everlasting calm.
Ah! it is worth thinking over, for it shows how shrewd a giant Analysis is, and how fast he works in these days, now that he has got free and well fed;--worth thinking over, I say, how our notions about these little atomies have changed during the last forty years.
We used to find them sometimes washed up among the sea-sand on the wild Atlantic coast; and we were taught, in the days when old Dr. Turton was writing his book on British shells at Bideford, to call them Nautili, because their shells were like Nautilus shells. Men did not know then that the animal which lives in them is no more like a Nautilus animal than it is like a cow.
For a Nautilus, you must know, is made like a cuttlefish, with eyes, and strong jaws for biting, and arms round them; and has a heart, and gills, and a stomach; and is altogether a very well-made beast, and, I suspect, a terrible tyrant to little fish and sea-slugs, just as the cuttlefish is. But the creatures which live in these little shells are about the least finished of Madam How's works. They have neither mouth nor stomach, eyes nor limbs. They are mere live bags full of jelly, which can take almost any shape they like, and thrust out arms--or what serve for arms--through the holes in their shells, and then contract them into themselves again, as this Globigerina does. What they feed on, how they grow, how they make their exquisitely-formed shells, whether, indeed, they are, strictly speaking, animals or vegetables, Analysis has not yet found out. But when you come to read about them, you will find that they, in their own way, are just as wonderful and mysterious as a butterfly or a rose; and just as necessary, likewise, to Madam How's work; for out of them, as I told you, she makes whole sheets of down, whole ranges of hills.
No one knew anything, I believe, about them, save that two or three kinds of them were found in chalk, till a famous Frenchman, called D'Orbigny, just thirty years ago, told the world how he had found many beautiful fresh kinds; and, more strange still, that some of these kinds were still alive at the bottom of the Adriatic, and of the harbour of Alexandria, in Egypt.
Then in 1841 a gentleman named Edward Forbes,--now with God--whose name will be for ever dear to all who love science, and honour genius and virtue,--found in the AEgean Sea "a bed of chalk," he said, "full of Foraminifera, and shells of Pteropods," forming at the bottom of the sea.
And what are Pteropods?
What you might call sea-moths (though they are not really moths), which swim about on the surface of the water, while the right-whales suck them in tens of thousands into the great whalebone net which fringes their jaws. Here are drawings of them. 1. Limacina (on which the whales feed); and 2. Hyalea, a lovely little thing in a glass shell, which lives in the Mediterranean.
But since then strange discoveries have been made, especially by the naval officers who surveyed the bottom of the great Atlantic Ocean before laying down the electric cable between Ireland and America. And this is what they found:
That at the bottom of the Atlantic were vast plains of soft mud, in some places 2500 fathoms (15,000 feet) deep; that is, as deep as the Alps are high. And more: they found out, to their surprise, that the oozy mud of the Atlantic floor was made up almost entirely of just the same atomies as make up our chalk, especially globigerinas; that, in fact, a vast bed of chalk was now forming at the bottom of the Atlantic, with living shells and sea-animals of the most brilliant colours crawling about on it in black darkness, and beds of sponges growing out of it, just as the sponges grew at the bottom of the old chalk ocean, and were all, generation after generation, turned into flints.
And, for reasons which you will hardly understand, men are beginning now to believe that the chalk has never ceased to be made, somewhere or other, for many thousand years, ever since the Winchester Downs were at the bottom of the sea: and that "the Globigerina-mud is not merely a chalk formation, but a continuation of the chalk formation, so that we may be said to be still living in the age of Chalk." Ah, my little man, what would I not give to see you, before I die, add one such thought as that to the sum of human knowledge!
So there the little creatures have been lying, making chalk out of the lime in the sea-water, layer over layer, the young over the old, the dead over the living, year after year, age after age--for how long?
Who can tell? How deep the layer of new chalk at the bottom of the Atlantic is, we can never know. But the layer of live atomies on it is not an inch thick, probably not a tenth of an inch. And if it grew a tenth of an inch a year, or even a whole inch, how many years must it have taken to make the chalk of our downs, which is in some parts 1300 feet thick? How many inches are there in 1300 feet? Do that sum, and judge for yourself.
One difference will be found between the chalk now forming at the bottom of the ocean, if it ever become dry land, and the chalk on which you tread on the downs. The new chalk will be full of the teeth and bones of whales--warm-blooded creatures, who suckle their young like cows, instead of laying eggs, like birds and fish. For there were no whales in the old chalk ocean; but our modern oceans are full of cachalots, porpoises, dolphins, swimming in shoals round any ship; and their bones and teeth, and still more their ear-bones, will drop to the bottom as they die, and be found, ages hence, in the mud which the live atomies make, along with wrecks of mighty ships
"Great anchors, heaps of pearl,"
and all that man has lost in the deep seas. And sadder fossils yet, my child, will be scattered on those white plains:--
"To them the love of woman hath gone down, Dark roll their waves o'er manhood's noble head. O'er youth's bright locks, and beauty's flowing crown; Yet shall they hear a voice, 'Restore the dead.' Earth shall reclaim her precious things from thee. Give back the dead, thou Sea!"
 I could not resist the temptation of quoting this splendid generalisation from Dr. Carpenter's Preliminary Report of the Dredging Operations of H.M.S. "Lightening," 1868. He attributes it, generously, to his colleague, Dr. Wyville Thomson. Be it whose it may, it will mark (as will probably the whole Report when completed) a new era in Bio-Geology.