A quarter of a century ago there were still to be seen in the outer
suburbs of London many good old roomy houses, standing in their own
ample and occasionally park-like grounds, which have now ceased to
exist. They were old manor-houses, mostly of the Georgian period, some
earlier, and some, too, were fine large farmhouses which a century or
more ago had been turned into private residences of city merchants and
other persons of means. Any middle-aged Londoner can recall a house or
perhaps several houses of this description, and in one of those that
were best known to me I met with the skull, the story of which I wish
It was a very old-looking, long, low red-brick building, with a
verandah in front, and being well within the grounds, sheltered by old
oak, elm, ash and beech trees, could hardly be seen from the road. The
lawns and gardens were large, and behind them were two good-sized grass
fields. Within the domain one had the feeling that he was far away in
the country in one of its haunts of ancient peace, and yet all round
it, outside of its old hedges and rows of elms, the ground had been
built over, mostly with good-sized brick houses standing in their own
gardens. It was a favourite suburb with well-to-do persons in the city,
rents were high and the builders had long been coveting and trying to
get possession of all this land which was "doing no good," in a
district where haunts of ancients peace were distinctly out of place
and not wanted. But the owner (aged ninety-eight) refused to sell.
Not only the builders, but his own sons and sons' sons had represented
to him that the rent he was getting for this property was nothing but
an old song compared to what it would bring in, if he would let it on a
long building lease. There was room there for thirty or forty good
houses with big gardens. And his answer invariably was: "It shan't be
touched! I was born in that house, and though I'm too old ever to go
and see it again, it must not be pulled down--not a brick of it, not a
tree cut, while I'm alive. When I'm gone you can do what you like,
because then I shan't know what you are doing."
My friends and relations, who were in occupation of the house, and
loved it, hoped that he would go on living many, many years: but alas!
the visit of the feared dark angel was to them and not to the old
owner, who was perhaps "too old to die"; the dear lady of the house and
its head was taken away and the family broken up, and from that day to
this I have never ventured to revisit that sweet spot, nor sought to
know what has been done to it.
At that time it used to be my week-end home, and on one of my early
visits I noticed the skull of an animal nailed to the wall about a yard
above the stable door. It was too high to be properly seen without
getting a ladder, and when the gardener told me that it was a bulldog's
skull, I thought no more about it.
One day, several months later, I took a long look at it and got the
idea that it was not a bulldog's skull--that it was more like the skull
of a human being of a very low type. I then asked my hostess to let me
have it, and she said, "Yes, certainly, take it if you want it." Then
she added, "But what in the world do you want that horrid old skull
for?" I said I wanted to find out what it was, and then she told me
that it was a bulldog's skull--the gardener had told her. I replied
that I did not think so, that it looked to me more like the skull of a
cave-man who had inhabited those parts half a million years ago,
perhaps. This speech troubled her very much, for she was a religious
woman, and it pained her to hear unorthodox statements about the age of
man on the earth. She said that I could not have the skull, that it was
dreadful to her to hear me say it might be a human skull; that she
would order the gardener to take it down and bury it somewhere in the
grounds at a distance from the house. Until that was done she would not
go near the stables--it would be like a nightmare to see that dreadful
head on the wall. I said I would remove it immediately; it was mine, as
she had given it to me, and it was not a man's skull at all--I was only
joking, so that she need not have any qualms about it.
That pacified her, and I took down the old skull, which looked more
dreadful than ever when I climbed up to it, for though the dome of it
was bleached white, the huge eye cavities and mouth were black and
filled with old black mould and dead moss. Doubtless it had been very
many years in that place, as the long nails used in fastening it there
were eaten up with rust.
When I got back to London the box with the skull in it was put away in
my book-room, and rested there forgotten for two or three years. Then
one day I was talking on natural history subjects to my publisher, and
he told me that his son, just returned from Oxford, had developed a
keen interest in osteology and was making a collection of mammalian
skulls from the whale and elephant and hippopotamus to the harvest-
mouse and lesser shrew. This reminded me of the long-forgotten skull,
and I told him I had something to send him for his boy's collection,
but before sending it I would find out what it was. Accordingly I sent
the skull to Mr. Frank E. Beddard, the prosector of the Zoological
Society, asking him to tell me what it was. His reply was that it was
the skull of an adult gorilla--a fine large specimen.
It was then sent on to the young collector of skulls--who will, alas!
collect no more, having now given his life to his country. It saddened
me a little to part with it, certainly not because it was a pretty
object to possess, but only because that bleached dome beneath which
brains were once housed, and those huge black cavities which were once
the windows of a strange soul, and that mouth that once had a fleshy
tongue that youled and clicked in an unknown language could not tell me
its own life-and-death history from the time of its birth in the
African forest to its final translation to a wall over a stable door in
an old house near London.
There are now several writers on animals who are not exactly
naturalists, nor yet mere fictionists, but who, to a considerable
knowledge of animal psychology and extraordinary sympathy with all
wildness, unite an imaginative insight which reveals to them much of
the inner, the mind life of brutes. No doubt the greatest of these is
Charles Roberts, the Canadian, and I only wish it had been he who had
discovered the old gorilla skull above the stable door, and that the
incident had fired the creative brain which gave us _Red Fox_ and
many another wonderful biography.
Now here is an odd coincidence. After writing the skull story it came
into my head to relate it to a lady I was dining with, and I also told
her of my intention of putting it in this book of Little Things. She
said it was funny that she too had a story of a skull which she had
thought of telling in her volume of Little Things; but no, she would
not venture to do so, although it was a better story than mine.
She was good enough to let me hear it, and as it is not to appear
elsewhere I can't resist the temptation of bringing it in here.
On her return to Europe after travelling and residing for some years in
the Far East, she established herself in Paris and proceeded to
decorate her apartment with some of the wonderful rich and rare objects
she had collected in outlandish parts. Gorgeous fabrics, embroideries,
pottery, metal and woodwork, and along with these products of an
ancient civilisation, others of rude or primitive tribes, quaint
headgear and plumes, strings and ropes of beads, worn as garments
by people who run wild in woods, with arrows, spears and other
weapons. These last were arranged in the form of a wheel over the
entrance, with the bleached and polished skull of an orang-utan in the
centre. It was a very perfect skull, with all the formidable teeth
intact and highly effective.
She lived happily for some months in her apartment and was very popular
in Parisian society and visited by many distinguished people, who all
greatly admired her Eastern decorations, especially the skull, before
which they would stand expressing their delight with fervent
One day when on a visit at a friend's house, her host brought up a
gentleman who wished to be introduced to her. He made himself extremely
agreeable, but was a little too effusive with his complimentary
speeches, telling her how delighted he was to meet her, and how much he
had been wishing for that honour.
After hearing this two or three times she turned on him and asked him
in the directest way why he had wished to see her so very much; then,
anticipating that the answer would be that it was because of what he
had heard of her charm, her linguistic, musical and various other
accomplishments, and so on, she made ready to administer a nice little
snub, when he made this very unexpected reply:
"O madame, how can you ask? You must know we all admire you because you
are the only person in all Paris who has the courage and originality to
decorate her _salon_ with a human skull."
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