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The Stories Mother Nature Told Her Children by  Jane Andrews


 

 
[Illustration]

SEA-LIFE

CHAPTER I

THE STAR-FISH TAKES A SUMMER JOURNEY

[63] ONCE there was a little star-fish, and he had five fingers and five eyes, one at the end of each finger,—so that he might be said to have at least one power at his fingers' ends. And he had I can't tell you how many little feet; but being without legs, you see, he couldn't be expected to walk very fast. The feet couldn't move one before the other as yours do: they could only cling like little suckers, by which he pulled himself slowly along from place to place. Nevertheless, he was very proud of this accomplishment; and sometimes this pride led him to an unjust contempt for his neighbors, as you will see by and by. He was very particular about his eating; [64] and besides his mouth, which lay in the centre of his body, he had a little scarlet-colored sieve through which he strained the water he drank. For he couldn't think of taking in common sea-water with every thing that might be floating in it,—that would do for crabs and lobsters and other common people; but anybody who wears such a lovely purple coat, and has brothers and sisters dressed in crimson, feels a little above such living.

Now, one day this star-fish set out on a summer journey,—not to the seaside where you and I went last year: of course not, for he was there already. No; he thought he would go to the mountains. He could not go to the Rocky Mountains, nor to the Catskill Mountains, nor the White Mountains; for, with all his accomplishments, he had not yet learned to live in any drier place than a pool among the rocks, or the very wettest sand at low tide: so, if he travelled to the mountains, it must be to the mountains of the sea.

Perhaps you didn't know that there are mountains in the sea. I have seen them, however, [65] and I think you have, too,—at least their tops, if nothing more. What is that little rocky ledge, where the lighthouse stands, but the stony top of a hill rising from the bottom of the sea? And what are the pretty green islands, with their clusters of trees and grassy slopes, but the summits of hills lifted out of the water?

In many parts of the sea, where the water is deep, are hills and even high mountains, whose tops do not reach the surface; and we should not know where they are, were it not that the sailors, in measuring the depth of the sea, sometimes sail right over these mountain-tops, and touch them with their sounding-lines.

The star-fish set out one day, about five hundred years ago, to visit some of these mountains of the sea. If he had depended upon his own feet for getting there, it would have taken him till this day, I verily believe; but he no more thought of walking, than you or I should think of walking to China. You shall see how he travelled. A great train was coming down from the Northern seas; not a railroad train, but a water train, sweeping on like a river in the sea. Its [66] track lay along near the bottom of the ocean; and above you could see no sign of it, any more than you can see the cars while they go through the tunnel under the street. The principal passengers by this train were icebergs, who were in the habit of coming down on it every year, in order to reduce their weight by a little exercise; for they grow so very large and heavy up there in the North every winter, that some sort of treatment is really necessary to them when summer comes. I only call the icebergs the principal passengers, because they take up so much room; for thousands and millions of other travellers come with them,—from the white bears asleep on the bergs, and brought away quite against their will, to the tiniest little creatures rocking in the cradles of the ripples, or clinging to the delicate branches of the sea-mosses. I said you could see no sign of the great water train from above: that was not quite true, for many of the icebergs are tall enough to lift their heads far up into the air, and shine with a cold, glittering splendor in the sunlight; and you can tell, by the course in which they sail, [67] which way the train is going deep down in the sea.

The star-fish took passage on this train. He didn't start at the beginning of the road, but got in at one of the way-stations somewhere off Cape Cod, fell in with some friends going South, and had altogether a pleasant trip of it. No wearisome stopping-places to feed either engine or passengers; for this train moves by a power that needs no feeding on the way, and the passengers are much in the habit of eating their fellow-travellers by way of frequent luncheons.

In the course of a few weeks, our five-fingered traveller is safely dropped in the Caribbean Sea; and, if you do not know where that sea is, I wish you would take your map of North America and find it, and then you can see the course of the journey, and understand the story better. This Caribbean Sea is as full of mountains as New Hampshire and Vermont are; but none of them have caps of snow like that which Mount Washington sometimes wears, and some of them are built up in a very odd way, as you will presently see.

[68] Now the star-fish is floating in the warm, soft water among the mountains, turning up first one eye and then another to see the wonders about him, or looking all around, before and behind and both sides at once,—as you can't do, if you try ever so hard,—while his fifth eye is on the lookout for sharks, besides; and he meets with a soft little body, much smaller than himself, and not half so handsomely dressed, who invites him to visit her relatives, who live by millions in this mountain region. "And come quickly, if you please," she says, "for I begin to feel as if I must fix myself somewhere; and I should like, if possible, to settle down near my brothers and sisters on the Roncador Bank."

CHAPTER II

CORALTOWN ON RONCADOR BANK

[69] WHERE is Roncador Bank, and who are the little settlers there? If you want me to answer this question, you must go back with me, or rather think back with me, over many thousands of years; and, looking into this same Caribbean Sea, we shall find in its south-western part a little hill formed of mud and sand, and reaching not nearly so high as the top of the water. Not far from it float some little, soft, jelly-like bodies, exactly resembling the one who spoke to the star-fish just now. They are emigrants looking for a new home. They seem to take a fancy to this hill, and fix themselves on bits of rock along its base, until, as more and more of them come, they form a circle around it, and the hill stands up in the middle, while far above the whole blue waves are tossing in the sunlight.

[70] [Illustration] How do you like this little circular town seen in the picture? It is the beginning of Coraltown, just as the landing of the Pilgrims at Plymouth was the beginning of Massachusetts. Now we will see how it grows. First of all, notice this curious fact, that each settler, after once choosing a home, never after stirs from that spot; but, from day to day, fastens himself more and more firmly to the rock where he first stuck. The part of his body touching the rock hardens into stone, and as the months and years go by, the sides of his body, too, turn to stone; and yet he is still alive, eating all the time with a little mouth at his top, taking in the sea-water without a strainer, and getting consequently tiny bits of lime in it, which, once taken in, go to build up the little body into a sort of limestone castle; just as if one of the knights in armor, of whom we read in old stories, had, instead of putting on his steel corselet and helmet and breastplate, turned his own flesh and [71] bones into armor. How safe he would be! So these inhabitants of Coraltown were safe from all the fishes and other fierce devourers of little sea creatures (for who wants to swallow a mail-clad warrior, however small?); and their settlement was undisturbed, and grew from year to year, until it formed a pretty high wall.

[Illustration] But, before going any farther, you may like to know that these settlers were all of the polyp family: fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, uncles and aunts,—all were polyps. And this is the way their families increased: after the first comers were fairly settled, and pretty thoroughly turned to stone, little buds, looking somewhat like the smallest leaf-buds of the spring-time, began to grow out of their edges. These were their children, at least one kind of their children; for they had yet another kind also, [72] coming from eggs, and floating off in the water like the first settlers. These latter we might call the free children or wanderers, while the former could be named the fixed children. But even the wanderers come back after a short time, and settle beside their parents, as you remember the one who met the star-fish was about to do.

It was not very easy for you or me to think back so many thousand years to the very beginning of Coraltown, nor is it less difficult to realize how many, many years were passing while the little town grew, even as far as I have told you.

The old great-grandfathers and great-grandmothers had died, but they left their stone bodies still standing, as a support and assistance to their descendants who had built above them; and the walls had risen, not like walls of common stone or brick, but all alive and busy building themselves, day after day, and year after year, until now, at the time of the star-fish's visit, the topmost towers could sometimes catch a gleam of sunlight when the tide was low; and when storms rolled the great waves that way, [73] they would dash against the little castles, breaking themselves into snowy spray, and crumbling away at the same time the tiny walls that had been the polyps' work of years. Do you think that was too bad, and quite discouraging to the workers. It does seem so; but you will see how the good God, who is their loving Father just the same as he is ours, had a grand purpose in letting the waves break down their houses, just as he always does in all the disappointments he sends to us. Wait till you finish the story, and tell me if you don't think so.

And now let us see what the star-fish thought of the little town and its inhabitants. "Ah, these are your houses!" he said. "Why don't you come out of them, and travel about to see the world?"—"These are not our houses, but ourselves," answered the polyps; "we can't come out, and we don't want to. We are here to build, and building is all we care to do; as for seeing the world, that is all very well for those who have eyes, but we have none."

Then the star-fish turned away in contempt from such creatures,—"people of neither taste [74] nor ability, no eyes, no feet, no water-strainers; poor little useless things, what good are they in the world, with their stupid, blind building of which they think so much?" And he worked himself off into a branch water-train that was setting that way, and, without so much as bidding the polyps good-by, turned his back upon Coraltown, and presently found a fellow-passenger fine enough to absorb all his attention,—a passenger, I say, but we shall find it rather a group of passengers in their own pretty boat; some curled in spiral coils, some trailing like little swimmers behind, some snugly ensconced inside, but all of such brilliant colors and gay bearing that even the star-fish felt his inferiority; and, wishing to make friends with so fine a neighbor, he whirled a tempting morsel of food towards one of the swimming party, and politely offered it to him. "No, I thank you," replied the swimmer, "I don't eat; my sister does the eating, I only swim." Turning to another of the gay company with the same offer, he was answered, "Thank you, the eaters are at the other side; I only lay eggs." "What strange [75] people!" thought the star-fish; but, with all his learning he didn't know every thing, and had never heard how people sometimes live in communities, and divide the work as suits their fancy.

While we leave him wondering, let us go back to Coraltown. The crumbling bits, beaten off by the waves, floated about, filling all the chinks of the wall, while the rough edges at the top caught long ribbons of seaweed, and sometimes drifting wood from wrecked vessels, and then the sea washed up sand in great heaps against the walls, building buttresses for them. Do you know what buttresses are? If you don't, I will leave you to find out. And the polyps, who do not know how to live in the light and air, had all died; or those who were wanderers had emigrated to some new place. Poor little things, their useless lives had ended, and what good had they done in the world?

CHAPTER III

LITTLE SUNSHINE

[76] AND now let us look at Coraltown once more. It is the first day of June of 1865. The sun is low in the West, and lights up the crests of the long lines of breakers that are everywhere curling and dashing among the topmost turrets of the coral walls. But here is something new and strange indeed for this region; along one of the ledges of rock, fitted as it were into a cradle, lies the great steamship "Golden Rule," a vessel full two hundred and fifty feet long, and holding six or seven hundred people. Her masts are gone, and so are the tall chimneys from which the smoke of her engine used to rise like a cloud. The rocks have torn a great hole through her strong planks, and the water is washing in; while the biggest waves that roll that way lift them- [77] selves in mountainous curves, and sweep over the deck.

This fine, great vessel sailed out of New York harbor a week ago to carry all these people to Greytown, on their way to California; and here she is now at Coraltown instead of Greytown, and the poor people, nearly a hundred miles away from land, are waiting through the weary hours, while they see the ocean swallowing up their vessel, breaking it, and tearing it to pieces, and they do not know how soon they may find themselves drifting in the sea. But, although they may be a hundred miles from land, they are just as near to God as they ever were; and he is even at this moment taking most loving care of them.

On the more sheltered parts of the deck are men and women, holding on by ropes and bulwarks: they are all looking one way out over the water. What are they watching for? See, it comes now in sight,—only a black speck in the golden path of the sunlight! No, it is a boat sent out two hours ago to search for some island where the people might find refuge when the ship should go to pieces. Do you wonder that [78] the men and women are watching eagerly? Look! it has reached the outer ledge of rock. The men spring out of it, waving their hats, and shouting "Success;" and the men on board answer with a loud hurrah, while the women cannot keep back their tears. What land have they discovered? You could hardly call it land. It is only a larger ledge of coral, built up just out of reach of the waves, its crevices filled in firmly with broken bits of rock and drifts of sand; but it seems to-day, to these shipwrecked people, more beautiful than the loveliest woods and meadows do to you and me.

It would be too long a story if I should tell you how the people were moved from the wreck to this little harbor of refuge, lowered over the vessel's side with ropes, taken first to a raft which had been made of broken parts of the vessel, and the next day in little boats to the rocky island; but you can make a picture in your mind of the boats full of people, and the sailors rowing through the breakers, and the great sea-birds coming to meet their strange visitors, peering curiously at them, as if they wondered [79] what new kind of creatures were these, without wings or beaks. And you must see in the very first boat little May Warner, three years and a half old, with her sunny hair all wet with spray, and her blue eyes wide open to see all the wonders about her. For May doesn't know what danger is: even while on the wreck, she clapped her little hands in delight to see the great curling crests of the waves; and now she is singing her merry songs to the sea-birds, and laughing in their funny faces, and fairly shouting with joy, as, at landing, she rides to the shore perched high on the shoulder of sailor Jack, while he wades knee-deep through the water.

So we have come to a second settlement of Coraltown: first the polyps; then the men, women, and children. Do you see how the good Father teaches all his creatures to help each other? Here the tiny polyps have built an island for people who are so much larger and stronger than themselves, and the seeming destruction of their upper walls was only a better preparation for the reception of these distinguished visitors. The birds, too, are helping [80] them to food, for every little cave and shelf in the rock is full of eggs. And now should you like to see how little May Warner helps them in even a better way?

Did you ever fall asleep on the floor, and, waking, find yourself aching and stiff because it was so hard? Then you know, in part, what hard beds rocks make. And in a hot, sunny day, haven't you often been glad to keep under the trees, or even to stay in the house for shade? Then you can understand a little how hot it must have been on Roncador Island, where there were no trees nor houses. And haven't you sometimes, when you were very hot and tired and hungry, and had, perhaps, also been kept waiting a long hour for somebody who didn't come,—haven't you felt a little cross and fretful and impatient, so that nothing seemed pleasant to you, and you seemed pleasant to nobody? Now, shouldn't you think there was great danger that these people on the island, in the hot sun, tired, hungry, and waiting, waiting, day and night, for some vessel to come and take them to their homes again, and not feeling at all sure that [81] any such vessel would ever come,—shouldn't you think there was danger of their becoming cross and fretful and impatient? And if one begins to say, "Oh, how tired I am, and how hard the rocks are, and how little dinner I have had, and how hot the sun is, and what shall we ever do waiting here so long, and how shall we ever get home again!" don't you see that all would begin to be discouraged? And sometimes on this island it did happen just so: first one would be discouraged, and then another; and as soon as you begin to feel in this way, you know at once every thing grows even worse than it was before,—the sun feels hotter, the rocks harder, the water tastes more disagreeably, and the crab's claws less palatable. But in the midst of all the trouble, May would come tripping over the rocks,—a little sunburnt girl now, with tattered clothes and bare feet,—and she would bring a pretty pink conch-shell or the lovely rose-colored sea-mosses, and tell her funny little story of where she found them. The discontented people would gather around her: she would give a sailor kiss to one, and a French kiss to another, [82] and, best of all, a Yankee kiss, with both arms round his neck, to her own dear father; and then, somehow or other, the discontent and trouble would be gone, for a little while at least,—just as a cloud sometimes seems to melt away in the sunshine; and so May Warner carried the name of "Little Sunshine."

If anybody had picked up driftwood enough to make a fire, and could get an old battered kettle and some water to make soup of shell-fish, "Little Sunshine" must be invited to dinner, for half the enjoyment would be wanting without her.

If a great black cloud came up threatening a shower, the roughest man on the island forgot his own discomfort, in making a tent to keep "Little Sunshine" safe from the rain. And so, in a thousand ways, she cheered the weary days, making everybody happier for having her there.

Do you think there are any children who would have made the people less happy by being there? who would have complained and fretted, and been selfish and disagreeable?

[83] Ten days go by, so slowly that they seem more like weeks or months than like days. The people have suffered from the rain, from heat, from want of food. They are very weak now; some of them can hardly stand. Can you imagine how they feel, when, in the early morning, two great gun-boats come in sight, making straight for their island as fast as the strong steam-engines will take them? Can you think how tenderly and carefully they are taken on board, fed with broth and wine, and nursed back into health and strength? And do not forget the little treasures that go in May's pocket,—the bits of coral, the tinted sea-shells, and ruby-colored mosses; and nested among them all, and chief in her regard, a little five-fingered star, spiny and dry, but still showing a crimson coat, and dots which mark the places of five eyes, and a little scarlet water-strainer, now of no further use to the owner. Do you remember our old friend the star-fish? Well, this is his great-great-great-great-great-grandchild. In a week or two more, the rescued people have all reached California, and gone their [84] separate ways, never to meet again. But all carry in their hearts the memory of "Little Sunshine," who lightened their troubles, and cheered their darkest days.


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