But of all the particoloured reptiles the chameleon is by far the best known, and on the whole the most remarkable for his inconstancy of coloration. Like a lacertine Vicar of Bray, he varies incontinently from buff to blue, and from blue back to orange again, under stress of circumstances. The mechanism of this curious change is extremely complex. Tiny corpuscles of different pigments are sometimes hidden in the depths of the chameleon’s skin, and sometimes spread out on its surface in an interlacing network of brown or purple. In addition to this prime colouring matter, however, the animal also possesses a normal yellow pigment, and a bluish layer in the skin which acts like the iridium glass so largely employed by Dr. Salviati, being seen as straw-coloured with a transmitted light, but assuming a faint lilac tint against an opaque absorbent surface. While sleeping the chameleon becomes almost white in the shade, but if light falls upon him he slowly darkens by an automatic process. The movements of the corpuscles are governed by opposite nerves and muscles, which either cause them to bury themselves under the true skin, or to form an opaque ground behind the blue layer, or to spread out in a ramifying mass on the outer surface, and so produce as desired almost any necessary shade of grey, green, black, or yellow. It is an interesting fact that many chrysalids undergo precisely similar changes of colour in adaptation to the background against which they suspend themselves, being grey on a grey surface, green on a green one, and even half black and half red when hung up against pieces of particoloured paper.
Nothing could more beautifully prove the noble superiority of the human intellect than the fact that while our grouse are russet-brown to suit the bracken and heather, and our caterpillars green to suit the lettuce and the cabbage leaves, our British soldier should be wisely coated in brilliant scarlet to form an effective mark for the rifles of an enemy. Red is the easiest of all colours at which to aim from a great distance; and its selection by authority for the uniform of unfortunate Tommy Atkins reminds me of nothing so much as Mr. McClelland’s exquisite suggestion that the peculiar brilliancy of the Indian river carps makes them serve ’as a better mark for kingfishers, terns, and other birds which are destined to keep the number of these fishes in check.’ The idea of Providence and the Horse Guards conspiring to render any creature an easier target for the attacks of enemies is worthy of the decadent school of natural history, and cannot for a moment be dispassionately considered by a judicious critic. Nowadays we all know that the carp are decked in crimson and blue to please their partners, and that soldiers are dressed in brilliant red to please the aesthetic authorities who command them from a distance.