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CHAMBERS EDINBURGH JOURNAL


CONDUCTED BY WILLIAM AND ROBERT CHAMBERS, EDITORS OF 'CHAMBERS'S
INFORMATION FOR THE PEOPLE,' 'CHAMBERS'S EDUCATIONAL COURSE,' &c.


No. 418. NEW SERIES. SATURDAY, JANUARY 3, 1852. PRICE 1-1/2_d_.




A CHILD'S TOY.


The afternoon was drawing in towards evening; the air was crisp and
cool, and the wind near the earth, steady but gentle; while above all
was as calm as sleep, and the pale clouds - just beginning in the west to
be softly gilded by the declining sun - hung light and motionless. The
city, although not distant, was no longer visible, being hidden by one
of the many hills which give such enchantment to the aspect of _our_
city. There was altogether something singularly soothing in the
scene - something that disposed not to gravity, but to elevated thought.
As we looked upwards, there was some object that appeared to mingle with
the clouds, to form a part of their company, to linger, mute and
motionless like them, in that breathless blue, as if feeling the
influence of the hour. It was not a white-winged bird that had stolen
away to muse in the solitudes of air: it was nothing more than a paper
kite.

On that paper kite we looked long and intently. It was the moral of the
picture; it appeared to gather in to itself the sympathies of the whole
beautiful world; and as it hung there, herding with the things of
heaven, our spirit seemed to ascend and perch upon its pale bosom like a
wearied dove. Presently we knew the nature of the influence it exercised
upon our imagination; for a cord, not visible at first to the external
organs, though doubtless felt by the inner sense, connected it with the
earth of which we were a denizen. We knew not by what hand the cord was
held so steadily. Perhaps by some silent boy, lying prone on the sward
behind yonder plantation, gazing up along the delicate ladder, and
seeing unconsciously angels ascending and descending. When we had looked
our fill, we went slowly and thoughtfully home along the deserted road,
and nestled as usual, like a moth, among our books. A dictionary was
lying near; and with a languid curiosity to know what was said of the
object that had interested us so much, we turned to the word, and read
the following definition: Kite - _a child's toy_.

What wonderful children there are in this world, to be sure! Look at
that American boy, with his kite on his shoulder, walking in a field
near Philadelphia. He is going to have a fly; and it is famous weather
for the sport, for it is in June - June 1752. The kite is but a rough
one, for Ben has made it himself, out of a silk-handkerchief stretched
over two cross-sticks. Up it goes, however, bound direct for a
thunder-cloud passing overhead; and when it has arrived at the object of
its visit, the flier ties a key to the end of his string, and then
fastens it with some silk to a post. By and by he sees some loose
threads of the hempen-string bristle out and stand up, as if they had
been charged with electricity. He instantly applies his knuckle to the
key, and as he draws from it the electrical spark, this strange little
boy is struck through the very heart with an agony of joy. His labouring
chest relieves itself with a deep sigh, and he feels that he could be
contented to die that moment. And indeed he was nearer death than he
supposed; for as the string was sprinkled with rain, it became a better
conductor, and gave out its electricity more copiously; and if it had
been wholly wet, the experimenter might have been killed upon the spot.
So much for _this_ child's toy. The splendid discovery it made - of the
identity of lightning and electricity - was not allowed to rest by Ben
Franklin. By means of an insulated iron rod the new Prometheus drew down
fire from heaven, and experimented with it at leisure in his own house.
He then turned the miracle to a practical account, constructing a
pointed metallic rod to protect houses from thunder. One end of this
true magic wand is higher than the building and the other end buried in
the ground; and the submissive lightning, instead of destroying life and
property in its gambols, darts direct along the conductor into the
earth. We may add that Ben was a humorous boy, and played at various
things as well as kite-flying. Hear this description of his pranks at an
intended pleasure-party on the banks of the Skuylkill: 'Spirits at the
same time are to be fired by a spark sent from side to side through the
river, without any other conductor than water - an experiment which we
have some time since performed to the amazement of many. A turkey is to
be killed for dinner by the electrical shock; and roasted by the
electrical jack, before a fire kindled by the electric bottle; when the
healths of all the famous electricians in England, Holland, France, and
Germany, are to be drunk in electrified bumpers, under the discharge of
guns from the electrical battery.'

We now turn to a group of capital little fellows who did something more
than fly their kite. These were English skippers, promoted somehow to
the command of vessels before they had arrived at years of discretion;
and, chancing to meet at the port of Alexandria in Egypt, they took it
into their heads - these naughty boys - that they would drink a bowl of
punch on the top of Pompey's Pillar. This pillar had often served them
for a signal at sea. It was composed of red granite, beautifully
polished, and standing 114 feet high, overtopped the town. But how to
get up? They sent for a kite, to be sure; and the men, women, and
children of Alexandria, wondering what they were going to do with it,
followed the toy in crowds. The kite was flown over the Pillar, and with
such nicety, that when it fell on the other side the string lodged upon
the beautiful Corinthian capital. By this means they were able to draw
over the Pillar a two-inch rope, by which one of the youngsters
'swarmed' to the top. The rope was now in a very little while converted
into a sort of rude shroud, and the rest of the party followed, and
actually drank their punch on a spot which, seen from the surface of the
earth, did not appear to be capable of holding more than one man.

By means of this exploit it was ascertained that a statue had once stood
upon the column - and a statue of colossal dimensions it must have been
to be properly seen at such a height. But for the rest - if we except the
carving of sundry initials on the top - the result was only the knocking
down of one of the volutes of the capital, for boys are always doing
mischief; and this was carried to England by one of the skippers, in
order to execute the commission of a lady, who, with the true iconoclasm
of her country, had asked him to be so kind as to bring her a piece of
Pompey's Pillar.

Little fellows, especially of the class of bricklayers, are no great
readers, otherwise we might suspect that the feat of the skipper-boys
had conveyed some inspiration to Steeple Jack. Who is Steeple Jack? asks
some innocent reader at the Antipodes. He is a little spare creature who
flies his kite over steeples when there is anything to do to them, and
lodging a cord on the apex, contrives by its means to reach the top
without the trouble of scaffolding. No fragility, no displacement of
stones, no leaning from the perpendicular, frightens Steeple Jack. He is
as bold as his namesake Jack-the-Giant-Killer, and does as wonderful
things. At Dunfermline, not long ago, when the top of the spire was in
so crazy a state that the people in the street gave it a wide berth as
they passed, he swung himself up without hesitation, and set everything
to rights. At the moment we write his cord is seen stretched from the
tall, slim, and elegant spire of the Assembly Hall in Edinburgh, which
is to receive through his agency a lightning-conductor; and Jack only
waits the subsidence of a gale of wind to glide up that filmy rope like
a spider. He is altogether a strange boy, Steeple Jack. Nobody knows
where he roosts upon the earth, if he roosts anywhere at all. The last
time there was occasion for his services, this advertisement appeared in
the _Scotsman_: 'Steeple Jack is wanted at such a place immediately' - and
immediately Steeple Jack became visible.

In 1827 the child's toy was put to a very remarkable use by one Master
George Pocock. This clever little fellow observed that his kite
sometimes gave him a very strong pull, and it occurred to him that if
made large enough it might be able to pull something else. In fact, he
at length yoked a pair of large kites to a carriage, and travelled in it
from Bristol to London, distancing in grand style every other conveyance
on the road. A twelve-foot kite, it appears, in a moderate breeze, has a
one-man power of draught, and when the wind is brisker, a force equal to
200 lbs. The force in a rather high wind is as the squares of the
lengths; and two kites of fifteen and twelve feet respectively, fastened
one above the other, will draw a carriage and four or five passengers at
the rate of twenty miles an hour. But George's invention went beyond the
simple idea. He had an extra line which enabled him to vary the angle of
the surface of his kites with the horizon, so as to make his aërial
horses go fast or slow as he chose; and side-lines to vary the direction
of the force, till it came almost to right angles with the direction of
the wind. His kites were made of varnished linen, and might be folded up
into small compass. The same principle was successfully applied by a
nautical lad of the name of Dansey to the purpose of saving vessels in a
gale of wind on 'the dread lee-shore.' His kite was of light canvas.

In India, China, and the intermediate countries, the aggregate
population of which includes one-half of mankind, kites are the
favourite toy of both old and young boys, from three years to threescore
and ten. Sometimes they really resemble the conventional dragon, from
which, among Scotch children, they derive their name; sometimes they are
of a diamond shape, and sometimes they are like a great spider with a
narrow waist. Our Old Indian is eloquent on kites, and the glory of
their colours, which, in the days of other years, made her girlish heart
leap, and her girlish eyes dazzle. The kite-shop is like a tulip-bed,
full of all sorts of gay and gorgeous hues. The kites are made of
Chinese paper, thin and tough, and the ribs of finely-split bamboo. A
wild species of silkworm is pressed into the service, and set to spin
_nuck_ for the strings - a kind of thread which, although fine, is
surprisingly strong. Its strength, however, is wanted for aggression as
well as endurance; and a mixture composed of pounded glass and rice
gluten is rubbed over it. Having been dried in the sun, the prepared
string is now wound upon a handsome reel of split bamboo inserted in a
long handle. One of these reels, if of first-rate manufacture, costs a
shilling, although coarser ones are very cheap; and of the nuck, about
four annas, or sixpence worth, suffices for a kite.

In a Hindoo town the kite-flying usually takes place on some common
ground in the vicinity, and there may be seen the young and old boys in
eager groups, and all as much interested in the sport as if their lives
depended upon their success. And sometimes, indeed, their fortunes do.
Many a poor little fellow bets sweetmeats upon his kite to the extent of
his only anna in the world; and many a rich baboo has more rupees at
stake than he can conveniently spare. But the exhilarating sport makes
everybody courageous; and the glowing colours of the kites enable each
to identify his own when in the air, and give him in it, as it were, a
more absolute property. Matches are soon made. Up go the aërial
combatants, and with straining eyes and beating hearts their fate is
watched from below. But their masters are far from passive, for this is
no game of chance, depending upon the wind. Kite-flying is in these
countries an art and mystery; and some there be who would not disclose
their recipe for the nuck-ointment, if their own grandfathers should go
upon their knees to ask it.

Sometimes an event occurs on the common. It is the ascent of a pair of
kites of a _distingué_ air, and whose grand and determined manner shews
that the combat is to be _à l'outrance,_ and that a large stake of money
depends upon the result. The fliers are invisible. They are probably on
the flat roof of some neighbouring house; but the kites are not the less
interesting on account of their origin being unknown. What a host of
anxious faces are turned up to the sky! Some take a liking to the red at
first sight, while others feel attracted by a mysterious sympathy to the
green. Bets are freely offered and accepted either in sweetmeats or
money; and the crowd, condensing, move to and fro in a huge wave, from
which their eager voices arise like the continuous roaring of the sea.
Higher and higher go the kites. Well done, Red! he has shot above his
antagonist, and seems meditating a swoop; but the Green, serenely
scornful, continues to soar, and is soon uppermost. And thus they
go - now up, now down, relatively to each other, but always ascending
higher and higher, till the spectators almost fear that they will vanish
out of sight. But at length the Green, taking advantage of a loftier
position he has gained, makes a sudden circuit, and by an adroit
manoeuvre gets his silken string over the silken string of the other,
Here a shout of triumph and a yell of terror break simultaneously from
the crowd; for this is the crisis of the fight. The victor gives a
fierce cut upon his adversary's line. The backers of the latter fancy
they hear it grate, and in an instant their forebodings are realised;
far the unfortunate Red is seen to waver like a bird struck by a shot,
and then, released from the severed string, he descends in forlorn
gyrations to the earth.

Now rush in the smaller boys to play their part, Their object is that of
the plunderers who traverse the field after a battle, to rob the dying
and the slain. Off run the little Hindoos, like a company of imps from
the nether regions, tearing and fighting as they fly; and on reaching
the fallen kite, the object of their contention is torn to pieces in the
scuffle. Presently the victorious Green is seen descending, and the gross
excitement of the common pauses to watch his majestic flight. He is of
the largest size of Indian kites called _ching_, and of the spider
shape. Before being drawn in, he hangs for an instant high up over the
crowd. It is not, however, to sing _Io Pæans_ for his victory, but
apparently rather to mourn over the ruin he has made; for a wailing
music breathes from his wings as he passes. This is caused by the action
of the wind upon some finely-split bamboo twigs arched over the kite
without touching the paper, and which thus become a true Æolian harp.
Sometimes a kite of this kind is sent up at night, bearing a small
lighted lantern of talc; and the sleepers awakened, called to their
balconies by the unearthly music, gaze after the familiar apparition not
without a poetical thrill.

Upon the whole, it must be admitted, we think, that this is a somewhat
interesting child's toy. But has the kite a future? Will its powers
exhibit new developments, or has it already reached its pride of place?
If a twelve-foot kite has the force of a man, would it take many more
feet to lift a man into the air? And supposing the man to be in a strong
cage of network, with bamboo ribs, and a seat of the same material,
would he have greater difficulty in governing his aërial coursers by
means of the Pocock cords, than if he were flashing along the road from
Bristol to London? Mind, we do not say that this is possible: we merely
ask for the sake of information; and if any little boy will favour us
with his opinion, we shall take it very kind. Come and let us fancy that
it _is_ possible. The traveller feels much more comfortable than in the
car of a balloon, for he knows he can go pretty nearly in what direction
he chooses, and that he can hasten or check the pace of his horses, and
bring them to a stand-still at pleasure. See him, therefore, boldly
careering through the air at the rate of any number of miles the wind
pleases. At a single bound he spans yonder broad river, and then goes
bowling over the plantation beyond, just stirring the leaves as he
passes; trees, water, houses, men, and animals gliding away beneath his
feet like a dream. Now he stoops towards the earth, just to make the
people send up their voices that there may be some sound in the desert
air. Now he swings up again; now he leaps over that little green hill;
now he - Hold! hold, little boy! - that will do: enough for a time of a
Child's Toy.




JAMES FENIMORE COOPER.


'.... Whose trained eye was keen,
As eagle of the wilderness, to scan
His path by mountain, lake, or deep ravine,
Or ken far friendly huts on good savannas green.'
- CAMPBELL: _Gertrude of Wyoming_.

On the 14th of last September, America lost the greatest of
her novelists in the person of James Fenimore Cooper. He was born on the
15th of that month, 1789; so that, had he lived but a few hours longer,
he would have completed his sixty-second year. At the time of his birth,
his father, Judge Cooper, resided at Burlington, New Jersey, where the
future _littérateur_ commenced his education, and in so doing acquired a
decided reputation for talent, which was not tarnished during subsequent
years of tutelage at Newhaven and Yale College. At sixteen he exchanged
the study of ancient literature and the repose of academic life for the
bustling career of a 'middy' in the American navy; continuing for some
half-dozen years his connection with those ocean scenes which he then
learned to love so well and to describe so vividly. His retirement into
private life took place in 1811, soon after which he married Miss de
Lancey (whose brother is known to many as one of the New York bishops),
and settled at Cooper's Town, his patrimonial estate. Ten years elapsed
before his _début_ as an author. In 1821 he presented the public with a
novel bearing the perhaps apposite title of _Precaution_ - apposite, if
the two _lustra_ thus elapsed were passed in preparation for that début,
and as being after all anonymously published. The subject was one with
which Cooper never shewed himself conversant - namely, the household life
of England. Like his latest works, _Precaution_ was a failure, and gave
scanty indications of that genius which was to find its true sphere and
full scope in the trackless prairies of his native land, and its path
upon the mountain-wave he had ridden in buoyant youth. But the same year
produced _The Spy_, still considered by many to be his masterpiece, and
from that production his fame was secure; and not only America but
British voices, exhorted Sir Walter to look to his laurels. Certainly
there was a little more reason in calling Cooper the American Scott than
in pronouncing Klopstock the German Milton.

The successful novelist visited Europe a few years after this 'sign and
seal' of his literary renown, and spent a considerable period among the
principalities and powers of Old-World Christendom. In Paris and London
especially he was lionised to the top of his bent. Sir Walter met him in
the French metropolis in 1826; and in his diary of November 3, after
recording a morning visit to 'Cooper the American novelist,' adds: 'this
man, who has shewn so much genius, has a good deal of the manners or
want of manners peculiar to his countrymen.' Three days later we find
the following entry: 'Cooper came to breakfast, but we were _obsédes
partout_. Such a number of Frenchmen bounced in successively, and
exploded - I mean discharged - their compliments, that I could hardly find
an opportunity to speak a word or entertain Mr Cooper at all.'[Footnote:
Lockhart's Life of Scott.] The 'illustrious stranger' appears to have
spent about ten years in Europe, for which he was, perhaps, in a
literary point of view, none the better; as - to use the words of a
periodical of the day - 'he did not carry back the same fresh spirit that
he brought, something of which must be attributed, no doubt, to the
years which intervened; but something, too, to his abandonment of that
mother-ground which to him, as to the fabled Antaeus, was the source of
strength.' The autumn of his life glided quietly on amid the pleasures
and pains of literature; its sombre close being pleasantly illuminated
by the rays of spring-promise that radiated around the young brow of his
daughter, which the dying veteran might well hope would be matured into
'glorious summer by the sun of' time. _Valeat signum_!

In calling Cooper the greatest of American novelists, we have not
incurred much risk of contradiction. Others may rival - some surpass
him - in this or that province of the art of fiction; but as a master of
the art in its broad aspect, he is _facile princeps_. Brockden Brown
treads a circle of mysterious power but mean circumference: Washington
Irving is admirable at a sketch, one of the liveliest and most graceful
of essayists, and quite equal to the higher demands of imaginative
prose - witness his _Rip Van Winkle_ and _Sleepy Hollow_ - but his forte
is in miniature, and the orthodox dimensions of three volumes
post-octavo would suit him almost as ill as would the Athenian vesture
of Nick Bottom the spruce proportions of royal Oberon: Haliburton is
inimitable in his own line of things; his measure of wit and
humour - qualities unknown, or nearly so, to Cooper - is 'pressed down,
and shaken together, and running over;' but his 'mission' and Cooper's
in the tale-telling art are wide as the poles asunder: John Neale had
once, particularly by his own appraisement, a high repute as the
eccentric author of _Logan_ and _Seventy-six_, but the repute, like the
_Seventy-six_, is quite in the preterite tense now; and to review him
and his works at this time of day would be suspiciously like a
_post-mortem_ examination, resulting possibly in a verdict of temporary
insanity - if not, indeed, of _felo de se_ - so wilful and wrongheaded
were the vagaries of this 'rough, egotistical Yankee,' as he has been
called: Herman Melville is replete with graphic power, and riots in the
exuberance of a fresh, racy style; but whether he can sustain the
'burden and heat' of a well-equipped and full-grown novel as deftly as
the fragmentary autobiographies he loves to indite; remains to be seen:
Longfellow's celebrity in fiction is limited to _Hyperion_ and
_Kavanagh_ - clever, but slight foundations for enduring popularity - as
irregular (the former at least) as Jean Paul's nondescript stories,
without the great German's tumultuous genius: Hawthorne is probably the
most noteworthy of the rising authors of America, and indeed manifests a
degree of psychological knowledge and far-sighted, deep-searching
observation of which there are few traces or none in Cooper; but the
real prowess of the author of _The Scarlet Letter_ is, we apprehend,
still undeveloped, and the harvest of his honours a thing of the future.
All these distinguished persons - not to dwell on the kindred names of
Bird, Kennedy, Ware, Paulding, Myers, Willis, Poe, Sedgwick, &c. - must
yield the palm to him who has attracted all the peoples and tongues of
Europe[Footnote: And, in _one_ instance at least, of Asia also; for _The
Spy_ was translated into Persian!] to follow out the destiny of a Spy on
the neutral ground, of a Pilot on the perilous coasts of a hostile race,
of a Last of the Mohicans disappearing before the onward tramp of the
white man.

As Rob Roy felt the pulses of life quickened when his foot was on his
native heath, so Cooper wrote with vigour and _aplomb_ only when his
themes were the aboriginal forest and the melancholy main. Pity that,
having discovered the fount of his strength - the Samson-lock by which
alone he towered above his fellows - he had not restrained himself, and
concentrated his efforts within the appointed sphere. He repudiated the
oracular counsel which his own consciousness must have approved - _Hoc
signo vinces_; and seemed to assume that whatever province he invaded,
the bulletin of the campaign would be another _Veni, vidi, vici_. Few
things can be more unsatisfactory and insipid than his attempts in the
'silver-fork school' of novel-writing - his dreary commonplaces of
fashionable life - his faded sermonisings on domestic, and political, and


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Online LibraryVariousChambers's Edinburgh Journal, No. 418 Volume 17, New Series, January 3, 1852 → online text (page 1 of 5)