IT has always struck me that a great void exists in popular physiology, from the comparative neglect with which it has treated the legs of mankind. Many and heavy folios have been written on the subject of the heart, the brain, the nerves, amid the lungs. Some men have thrown themselves on the kidneys with admirable spirit and perseverance; a very large section of medical and physiological writers have devoted themselves to time stomach with an ardour and erudition worthy of our sincerest admiration; while others have attacked blood with a keen gusto amid relish that have been productive of the most gratifying results to the cause of science. Sir Charles Bell wrote an elaborate and delightful treatise on The Hand. Still we are lamentably deficient in our knowledge of The Leg. Satisfied with the possession of that indispensable member, our pathologists and physiologists seem to consider it as quite unworthy of attention; and, but for a few meagre treatises on the gout and on varicose veins, an occasional advertisement "To those with tender feet," emanating from some commercially-minded shoemaker, and the periodical recapitulation of the royal and noble cures of a great corn-cutter and his brother chiropodists, we might as well, for the mental attention we bestow upon our legs and feet, be so many Miss Biffins.
Fashion, even, that ubiquitous and capricious visitant of the human form divine, has looked coldly upon legs. While the shirt of man within the last few years has undergone as many improvements, annotations, emendations, illustrations, and transformations as the text of an Act of Parliament; while the human shirt-collar has enjoyed a perfect Ovidian series of metamorphoses; while each succeeding season has brought changes vast and radical into the constitution of ladies' sleeves and men's wristbands; while the collars of coats and the flounces of dresses have continually changed their shapes like the chimera, and their colours like the cameleon; while the bonnet of beauty has fallen from its cocked-up elevation on the frontal bone to its accumbent position on the dorsal vertebrae; while even that conservative institution, the hat of man, has fluctuated between the chimney-pot and the D'Orsay, the wide-awake and the Jim-Crow, the Guerilla and the Kossuth, and now seems to lean somewhat towards the Turkish Fez; while all these multifarious transitions of the other parts of our garb have taken place, the coverings of the leg and the foot have been untangible to the attacks of time, and fashion, and convenience. Shoe-strings have held their own since the Birmingham buckle-makers petitioned the Prince Regent against their introduction. The British Blucher has remained unchangeable for thirty-nine years; the Wellington is the same boot that spurred Copenhagen's sides o'er the field of Waterloo; the tasselled Hessian, though it has seen its coeval pig-tail sink into the limbo of oblivion, is yet worshipped in secret by devout votaries; abbreviated continuations of black silk, kerseymere, plush, corduroy, cord and leather, yet shine in the court, the diplomatic service, the servants' hall, the hunting-field, and the charity-school. Prejudice has tried to banish shorts, and Invention to improve upon stockings; the whole results of centuries of trousers wearing (the ancient Gauls wore them: see Bracchae) have been in the ridiculous items of straps and stripes down the sides; and, apparently despairing of the possibility of doing anything for legs in the improvement line, fashion has left legs alone. The world following, like an obedient slave as it is, upon fashion's heels, has quite neglected and forgotten legs. Philosophy has turned the cold shoulder upon them; and the dramatist has scouted them, and the epic poet has disdained them. Legs have fallen to the province of mountebanks, tight-rope dancers, acrobats, and ballet girls. From neglect they have even fallen into opprobrium; and we cannot find a baser term for a swindling gambler than to call him a "Leg."
Yet only consider the immense importance of legs! What should we be without them? Ask that infinitely poor and miserable person, a bedridden man. To be deprived of the blessed faculty of locomotion at will—not to posses that glorious privilege of riding "Shanks's mare," or of taking the " Marrowbone stage;" of bidding defiance to stage coaches, carriages, cabs and railway trains; of feeling the firm earth beneath our tread; of footing it over the daisies, or strolling over the velvetty sward, or climbing the hill, or descending the valley, or paddling through the brook: to he unable to take a walk, in fact, is to he deprived of nine tithes of our pleasures here below, of half our capacity for enjoyment, of nearly all our faculty of observation. A man may learn with his legs very nearly as much as he can with his eyes; and he learns it more cheerfully, more genially, more naturally. It was a true word spoken in jest, that named the legs the understandings. A great walker is nearly always a contented, happy, and philosophically observant man. The free use of his legs makes the penny postman satisfied with his twenty-five shillings a-week, reconciles the policeman to his weary night watch, solaces the sentinel on his guard; makes the ploughboy whistle as he follows his team, the milkmaid balance her pails merrily, and the peddler carry his pack as if it were a pleasure. Legs are a consolation in trouble, and the grand remover of spleen, care, and evil humours. The first thing that a man does when he is immured in jail is to walk about (if so he be allowed) his prison yard. If you have been angry with your brother, or if your wife has vexed you, or your affairs are in gloomy case, or your periodical hatred of the world and those that are in it, come upon you, you cannot do better than "walk it off."
In infancy what intense interest is concentrated upon legs! We watch the first endeavours to walk of a little child with as much, if not more, interest and anxiety than its first attempts to speak. We seem to look upon articulation as upon one of Nature's spontaneous good gifts which will come in its own good time; but to teach the child the use of its legs, and to watch over the proper development of his paces—from the shaky ill-balanced toddle to the straight strong step—seem to require all our energies and caution and attention. Heavens! What tortures mothers must endure, what heroic sacrifices they would submit to, to avert the horrible possibility of baby being bandy! However remiss science and erudition may have been, the poorer classes appreciate legs. They know of what infinite service those extremities will be to the child—how absolutely indispensable they will one day become, in conjunction with the hands as bread-winners. They fondle and admire their children's legs; they recommend them passionately as objects for care and prudence to the child-nurses who carry the babies. It is only among this strongly feeling class, and not among the apathetic rich, that I have heard such a term applied to a child's extremities as "his blessed legs."
Consider of what importance legs are to high as well as low. Lord Viscount Protocol sitting down on the Treasury Bench is but a mean little man with a broad-rimmed hat pulled over his eyes; but, "on his legs" he is Cicero in eloquence, Demosthenes in delivery, Grattan in force of invective. The due management of the legs is the soul pf military discipline: an army that did not keep step would be beaten by a Calmuck corporal. Legs carry the hod up ladders, with the mortar that cements the stones of our Victoria Tower. The ague use of our legs will remove us from within the deadly presence of the officer of the Sheriff of Middlesex, munished with a warrant for our arrest, and will convey us swiftly out of his bailiwick—a process evasion denominated, “leg bail.”
The leg is time most honoured part of the body. It opens the ball with queens; its foot treads the carpet of thrones; without it Edward the Third could never have instituted the most honuorable order of the garter. Do you think the Pope's Legate is so called because he is legatus sent? No! It is because of his legs clothed in his cardinal's red stockings. What would Louis the Fourteenth have been without the padding on his legs amid the high heels to his shoes? He would have been le petit Monarque. What would monumental brasses and Templars’ tombs be without the crossed legs of the knights and barons? Could our coats, out- vests, our continuations, have been fashioned in all ages without the cross-legged tailors? The gravity of the Turk, the wisdom of his beard, the splendour of his yataghan, the perfume of his chibouk and the aroma of his coffee would be as naught without papouche-feeted legs folded under him on the cushioned divan.
Passing from honour to dishonour, we must not forget that to punish a man’s legs and feet is the most dreadful infliction short of death in the East; and to know the true value of legs you should be some miserable bastinadoed Turkish or Egyptian wretch crawling on your stomach from the court of justice, where the Cadi has just ordered you five hundred blows of the bastinado on your feet. The human legs have it in their power to confer the most grievous insult to human honour that is known. The hand can slap, the arm can strike, the head can butt, but it is the leg that directs the foot to confer the deadly kick; and it is a retributory leg and foot that steps out the twelve paces when the kick is washed out in blood. The legs have it in their power to conduct us to the top-most rounds of Ambition's ladder; to carry us at the head of the forlorn hope, into the crumbling smoking breach; with our legs we trample on the carcasses of our enemies; and scamper over obstacles, and run that race of fortune which for all our legs is not always to the swift; with our huge legs we "bestride this narrow world like a Colossus," and make petty men creep under them.
But, O! Our legs often play us sorry tricks. Bad legs, wicked legs, untrustworthy legs, they lead us to sorrow and shame, and danger and death. Ensign Whitefellow would have been as brave a young officer as ever waved a pair of colours, but for those pusillanimous legs of his, which ran away with him so shamefully at the siege of Ticonderago. It was Private Swabbins's knavish legs that caused him to abscond from barracks with his regimental necessaries; it was those same legs that took him to a marine-store shop in Back-lane, Chatham, where he sold said necessaries; and what but his legs enticed him to the beer-shop, where he spent his ill-gotten earnings? It was his legs that brought him to be tried by court-martial, and that conducted him to the military prison at Fortclarence. Those that have sinned by their legs suffer by the legs; as the shameful stocks, amid the galleries of time French bagues, and the manacled convicts of our dockyards, and the leg-chained street-sweepers of the Italian towns can testify. Those likewise, who abuse their legs by running about to strange ale-houses, and standing at gin-shop bars, first get unsteady on their legs, and then their legs slide away from under them, and forsake them utterly, and they fall into the shame of the gutter, and the ignominy of the mud. Badly-disposed legs carry otherwise virtuously minded men into gambling houses, broils and contentions; they lead them in quarrels to interpose, by which they oft-times get an ensanguined nose; finally, dissipation must have legs, else how would it enable its votaries to "run through" their property, and "outrun the constable?"
The times have been when the legs have not been deemed unworthy of performing sacerdotal functions. Many were the chore-graphic solemnities of the old temples of Eleusis and Ephesus and Memphis. The priests of Baal had sacerdotal orgies. The witches in Macbeth danced. The Fakirs of India leap, and the Dervishes of Stamboul whirl on the tips of their toes; and there are Hindoo fanatics who hope to go to heaven by standing, flamingo-wise, upon one leg.
How many and what magnificent fortunes have been made by nothing but legs? Clad in pink tights, those extremities have gathered millions of golden pieces from the opera stage. Say, ye Anatoles, ye Vestrises, ye Carlotta Grisis; ye Taglionis married to Russian princes, ye Cerritos, ye Eisslers and ye Duvernays, what would you have been without your legs? Say ye English and continental managers how often have you escaped bankruptcy through the legs of your figurantes and the judicious selection of ballets, otherwise "leg pieces." Captain Barclay walked himself into a comfortable annuity; and I understand that more than one professional pedestrian has realized a handsome competency by moving their legs a thousand miles in a thousand hours, in the presence of thousands of spectators at a shilling a head.
Setting riches on one side, what numbers of industrious persons there are who earn their daily bread by their legs. At the very moment I write a company of acrobats are vaulting, leaping, tumbling, climbing, standing with their legs on each other's heads beneath my window. At an adjoining exhibition hall, Professor Squadaccini, and his three talented sons, nightly tie their legs into knots, and raise them to a level with their shoulders for a living. Madame Saqui has supported herself on her legs (on the tight-rope) since the days of the first French Revolution. Clowns, rope-dancers, tumblers, and mountebanks of every description, would starve were it not for their legs. Even the ragged little street Bedouin who tumbles cartwheels by the side of your cab as you come from the railway station; the brown-faced, ragged, scarlet-jacketed varlet who follows the hounds with bare feet; the Ethiopian Serenaders, who reverberate the tambourines on their knees, their shins, and the soles of their feet; the little Highland-dressed children who dance on the scrap of carpet in the muddy street, all look to their legs, as an auxiliary, if not a means, of subsistence. Nay, the piteous cripple of Italian extraction, who sits in the truck beside the barrel organ upon which the other exile grinds melancholy tunes; the stunted jack-in-the water paddling about, without legs, in his little canoe; and the legless beggar on the little platform on rollers who pushes himself along by means of instruments, something between dumb-bells and railway buffers, support themselves indefinitely by their legs for passers-by remember sympathisingly that they had legs once, and relieve their leglessness with moneys.
If the heart be the stronghold of vitality, the legs are the outposts of life. The legs die first. The outposts are captured before the citadel is stormed. Mrs. Quickly put her hand upon poor dying Sir John Falstaff's legs, and they were "as cold as a stone." We speak of a man likely to die, that he will come out of the house "feet foremost." We say of one that is dead, that he has "turned his toes up." No one can mistake a dead man's legs. Put them in fishermen's boots, swathe them in fifty yards of sheeting, and you could not mistake them. Not many days since, at my dear old Dumbledowndeary, a man fell from the topmast of a Dutch vessel in the river on to the deck. They brought him to the jetty in a boat, covering the body with a tarpaulin, while medical assistance was sent for. I can see now the cold, gloomy grey February day; the knot of idlers on the jetty, a solitary gull rising from the marshes opposite with dull flapping wings and swaying fitfully in the rising tide beneath, the wounded man lying at full length in the boat, and, standing on the thwarts over him, one of his messmates, a clumsy tallow-faced Dutchman, with a Jingo for cap and earrings, who was wringing his honest tarry hands and crying out that he loved him; all the while the tears trickling down his face and pattering sharply, like commencing rain, as they fell on the tarpaulin. But we needed not the verdict of the doctor, to know that the man in the boat was dead. None but a dead man could have had the legs, stark, stiff, awful, which we saw protruding from the tarpaulin as the boat rowed to shore.
I am not at all a believer in "graphiology,” and have never been tempted to send specimens of my hand-writing, accompanied by a certain number of postage stamps, to Professor Anybody. Neither do I hold by those theorists who assert that all bald-headed men ill-treat their wives; neither do I swear by those who believe that all red-headed people are hypocrites. But I am a believer in the idea that a man's character can be tolerably well deciphered from his face; and I would advise all physiognomists who are of my opinion, to extend their scrutiny from a person's visage to his legs. The advantages to science would be incalculable. I have found it of prodigious service to me in my speculations upon the characters of mankind. There are as infinite varieties of expression in legs as in faces, and I wait with impatience for the day when some learned man shall give to the world an elaborate commentary on all the legs he has met with: the long and the short, the thick and the thin, the bandy and the how, the in-kneed and the out-toed.
We are told that we can tell a man by the company he keeps; why not by the legs that take him into that company?
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