|The Story Book of Science|
|by Jean Henri Fabre|
|The wonders of plant and animal life told with rare literary charm by Uncle Paul in conversations with three children. Besides such stories as the ants' subterranean city, the spider's suspension bridge, and the caterpillars' processing, he unlocks the mystery behind thunder and lightning, clouds and rain, the year and its seasons, and volcanoes and earthquakes. Ages 9-12 |
ESTERDAY," Uncle Paul resumed, "Jules asked me if the
lava-streams could not reach towns situated near volcanoes.
The following story will answer his question. It is about an
eruption of Mount Etna."
"Etna is that volcano in Sicily where the big chestnut tree
of a hundred horses is?" asked Claire.
"Yes. I must tell you that two hundred years ago there
occurred in Sicily one of the most terrible eruptions on
record. During the night, after a furious storm, the earth
began to tremble so violently that a great many houses fell.
Trees swayed like reeds shaken by the wind; people, fleeing
distracted into the country to avoid being crushed under the
ruins of their buildings, lost their footing on the quaking
ground, stumbled, and fell. At that moment Etna burst in a
fissure four leagues long, and along this fissure rose a
number of volcanic mouths, vomiting, amid the crash of
frightful detonations, clouds of black smoke and calcined
sand. Soon seven of these mouths united in an abyss that for
four months did not cease thundering, glowing, and throwing
up cinders and lava. The crater of Etna, at first quite at
rest, as if its furnaces had no connection with the new
volcanic mouths, woke up a few days after and
 threw to a
prodigious height a column of flames and smoke; then the
whole mountain shook, and all the crests that dominated its
crater fell into the depths of the volcano. The next day
four mountaineers dared to climb to the top of Etna. They
found the crater very much enlarged by the falling-in of the
day before: its orifice, which before had measured one
league, now measured two.
"In the meantime, torrents of lava were pouring from all the
crevasses of the mountain down upon the plain, destroying
houses, forests, and crops. Some leagues from the volcano,
on the seacoast, lies Catania, a large town surrounded then
by strong walls. Already the liquid fire had devoured
several villages, when the stream reached the walls of
Catania and spread over the country. There, as if to show
its strength to the terrified Catanians, it tore a hill away
and transported it some distance; it lifted in one mass a
field planted with vines and let it float for some time,
until the green was reduced to charcoal and disappeared.
Finally, the fiery stream reached a wide and deep valley.
The Catanians believed themselves saved: no doubt the
volcano would exhaust its strength by the time it covered
the vast basin which the lava had just entered. But what an
error of judgment! In the short space of six hours, the
valley was filled, and the lava, overflowing, advanced
straight toward the town in a stream half a league wide and
ten meters high. It would have been all over with Catania
if, by the luckiest chance, another current, whose direction
crossed the first, had not come and struck against the fiery
 and turned it from its course. The stream, thus
turned, coasted the ramparts of the town within pistol-shot,
and turned toward the sea."
"I was very much afraid for those poor Catanians,"
interposed Emile, "when you spoke of that wall of fire, high
as a house, going straight toward the town."
"All is not over yet," his uncle proceeded. "The stream, I
told you, was going toward the sea. There was, then, a
formidable battle between the water and the fire. The lava
presented a perpendicular front of 1500 meters in extent and
a dozen meters high. At the touch of that burning wall,
which continued plunging further and further into the waves,
enormous masses of vapor rose with horrible hissings,
darkened the sky with their thick clouds, and fell in a salt
rain over all the region. In a few days the lava had made
the limits of the shore recede three hundred meters.
"In spite of that, Catania was still menaced. The stream,
swollen with new tributaries, grew from day to day and
approached the town. From the top of the walls the
inhabitants followed with terror the implacable progress of
the scourge. The lava finally reached the ramparts. The
fiery flood rose slowly, but it rose ceaselessly; from hour
to hour it was found to have risen a little higher. It
touched the top of the walls, whereupon, yielding to the
pressure, they were overthrown for the length of forty
meters, and the stream of fire penetrated the town."
"My goodness!" cried Claire. "Those poor people are lost!"
 "No, not the people, for lava runs very slowly, on account
of its sticky nature, and one can be warned in time; it was
the town itself that ran the greatest risk. The quarters
invaded by the lava were the highest; from there the current
could spread everywhere. So Catania seemed destined to total
destruction, when it was saved by the courage of some men
who attempted to battle with the volcano. They bethought
themselves to construct stone walls, which, placed across
the route of the on-coming stream, would change its
direction. This device partly succeeded, but the following
was the most efficacious. Lava streams envelop themselves in
a kind of solid sheath, embank themselves in a canal formed
of blocks coagulated and welded together. Under this
covering the melted matter preserves its fluidity and
continues its ravaging course. They thought, then, that by
breaking these natural dikes at a well-chosen spot, they
would open to the lava a new route across country and would
thus turn it from the town. Followed by a hundred alert and
vigorous men, they attacked the stream, not far from the
volcano, with blows of iron bars. The heat was so great that
each worker could strike only two or three blows in
succession, after which he withdrew to recover his breath.
However, they managed to make a breach in the solid sheath,
when, as they had foreseen, the lava flowed through this
opening. Catania was saved, not without great loss, for
already the larva flood had consumed, within the town walls,
three hundred houses and some palaces and churches. Outside
of Catania, this eruption, so sadly celebrated, covered from
 to six square leagues with a bed of lava in some places
thirteen meters thick, and destroyed the homes of
twenty-seven thousand persons."
"Without those brave men who did not hesitate, at the risk
of being burnt alive, to go and open a new passage for the
stream of fire, Catania would certainly have been lost,"
"Catania would have been all burnt down, there is no doubt.
To-day its calcined ruins would be buried under a bed of
cold lava, and there would be nothing left but the name of
the large town that had disappeared. Three or four
stout-hearted men revive the courage of the terrified
population; they hope that heaven will aid them in their
devotion, and, ready to sacrifice their lives, they prevent
the frightful disaster. Ah! may God give you grace, my dear
child, to imitate them in the time of danger; for, you see,
if man is great through his intelligence, he is still
greater through his heart. In my old age, when I hear you
spoken of, I shall be more gladdened by the good you may
have done than by the knowledge you may have acquired.
Knowledge, my little friend, is only a better means of
aiding others. Remember that well, and when you are a man
bear yourself in danger as did those of Catania. I ask it of
you in return for my love and my stories."
Jules furtively wiped away a tear. His uncle perceived that
he had sown his word in good ground.
Hundreds of additional titles available for
online reading when you join Gateway to the Classics