Hundreds of additional titles available for
online reading when you join Gateway to the Classics
MADAM HOW'S TWO GRANDSONS
OU 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
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 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
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
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,
 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 ensure 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
states-  men, 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
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
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' 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
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?
And what is oxygen gas?
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
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
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 CaCO3, 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
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 Terebratulæ; 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
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
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
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 books 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
 cuttle-fish, 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 cuttle-fish 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,
 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
No one knew anything, I believe, about them, save that two or
three kinds of them were found in chalk, till a famous Frenchman,
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 Ægean 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 2,500 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
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 1,300 feet thick? How many inches are there
in 1,300 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!"