Find this Story

Print, a form you can hold

Wireless download to your Amazon Kindle

Look for a summary or analysis of this Story.

Enjoy this? Share it!

Seven-Year Sleepers
by [?]

For many generations past that problematical animal, the toad-in-a-hole
(literal, not culinary) has been one of the most familiar and
interesting personages of contemporary folk-lore and popular natural
history. From time to time he turns up afresh, with his own wonted
perennial vigour, on paper at least, in company with the great
sea-serpent, the big gooseberry, the shower of frogs, the two-headed
calf, and all the other common objects of the country or the seaside in
the silly season. No extraordinary natural phenomenon on earth was ever
better vouched for–in the fashion rendered familiar to us by the
Tichborne claimant–that is to say, no other could ever get a larger
number of unprejudiced witnesses to swear positively and unreservedly in
its favour. Unfortunately, however, swearing alone no longer settles
causes off-hand, as if by show of hands, ‘the Ayes have it,’ after the
fashion prevalent in the good old days when the whole Hundred used to
testify that of its certain knowledge John Nokes did not commit such and
such a murder; whereupon John Nokes was forthwith acquitted accordingly.
Nowadays, both justice and science have become more exacting; they
insist upon the unpleasant and discourteous habit of cross-examining
their witnesses (as if they doubted them, forsooth!), instead of
accepting the witnesses’ own simple assertion that it’s all right, and
there’s no need for making a fuss about it. Did you yourself see the
block of stone in which the toad is said to have been found, before the
toad himself was actually extracted? Did you examine it all round to
make quite sure there was no hole, or crack, or passage in it anywhere?
Did you satisfy yourself after the toad was released from his close
quarters that no such hole, or crack, or passage had been dexterously
closed up, with intent to deceive, by plaster, cement, or other
artificial composition? Did you ever offer the workmen who found it a
nominal reward–say five shillings–for the first perfectly unanswerable
specimen of a genuine unadulterated antediluvian toad? Have you got the
toad now present, and can you produce him here in court (on writ of
habeas corpus or otherwise), together with all the fragments of the
stone or tree from which he was extracted? These are the disagreeable,
prying, inquisitorial, I may even say insulting, questions with which a
modern man of science is ready to assail the truthful and reputable
gentlemen who venture to assert their discovery, in these degenerate
days, of the ancient and unsophisticated toad-in-a-hole.

Now, the worst of it is that the gentlemen in question, being unfamiliar
with what is technically described as scientific methods of
investigation, are very apt to lose their temper when thus
cross-questioned, and to reply, after the fashion usually attributed to
the female mind, with another question, whether the scientific person
wishes to accuse them of downright lying. And as nothing on earth could
be further from the scientific person’s mind than such an imputation, he
is usually fain in the end to give up the social pursuit of postprandial
natural history (the subject generally crops up about the same time as
the after-dinner coffee), and to let the prehistoric toad go on his own
triumphant way, unheeded.

As a matter of fact, nobody ever makes larger allowances for other
people, in the estimate of their veracity, than the scientific
inquirer. Knowing himself, by painful experience, how extremely
difficult a matter it is to make perfectly sure you have observed
anything on earth quite correctly, and have eliminated all possible
chances of error, he acquires the fixed habit of doubting about one-half
of whatever his fellow-creatures tell him in ordinary conversation,
without for a single moment venturing to suspect them of deliberate
untruthfulness. Children and servants, if they find that anything they
have been told is erroneous, immediately jump at the conclusion that the
person who told them meant deliberately to deceive them; in their own
simple and categorical fashion they answer plumply, ‘That’s a lie.’ But
the man of science is only too well acquainted in his own person with
the exceeding difficulty of ever getting at the exact truth. He has
spent hours of toil, himself, in watching and observing the behaviour of
some plant, or animal, or gas, or metal; and after repeated experiments,
carefully designed to exclude all possibility of mistake, so far as he
can foresee it, he at last believes he has really settled some moot
point, and triumphantly publishes his final conclusions in a scientific
journal. Ten to one, the very next number of that same journal contains
a dozen supercilious letters from a dozen learned and high-salaried
professors, each pointing out a dozen distinct and separate precautions
which the painstaking observer neglected to take, and any one of which
would be quite sufficient to vitiate the whole body of his observations.
There might have been germs in the tube in which he boiled the water
(germs are very fashionable just at present); or some of the germs might
have survived and rather enjoyed the boiling; or they might have adhered
to the under surface of the cork; or the mixture might have been
tampered with during the experimenter’s temporary absence by his son,
aged ten years (scientific observers have no right, apparently, to have
sons of ten years old, except perhaps for purposes of psychological
research); and so forth, ad infinitum. And the worst of it all is that
the unhappy experimenter is bound himself to admit that every one of the
objections is perfectly valid, and that he very likely never really saw
what with perfect confidence he thought and said he had seen.