|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 |
ARLY in the morning all the neighbors were talking, from
door to door, on the same subject. It seemed they had had a
narrow escape during the night. Jacques said that about two
o'clock he had been awakened by the bellowing of his cattle,
repeated two or three times. Even Azor himself, the good
Azor, so peaceful in his stall when there was nothing
serious to disturb him, had bellowed mournfully. Jacques had
risen and lighted his lantern, but had been unable to
discover what caused the trouble with the animals.
Mother Ambroisine, who slept with one eye open, told a
longer tale. She had heard the dishes rattling on the
kitchen dresser; some plates had even rolled off and broken
in falling to the ground. Mother Ambroisine was thinking it
was perhaps some misdeed of the cat's, when it seemed to her
that strong arms seized the bed and shook it twice from head
to foot and from foot to head. It was over in the twinkling
of an eye. The worthy woman was so frightened that, throwing
the covers over her head, she commended her soul to God.
Mathieu and his son were away at the time: they were
returning home from the fair, and were making the journey by
night. The weather was fine—no
 wind, and bright moonlight.
They were chatting about their affairs when a dull, deep
noise was heard, coming from under the ground. It sounded
like the roar of the big mill-dam. At the same moment they
staggered as if the ground had been giving way under them.
Then nothing more. The moon continued to shine, the night
was calm and serene. It was so soon over that Mathieu and
his son wondered whether they had not dreamed it.
These were among the more serious incidents related.
Meanwhile there was passing from mouth to mouth, moving some
to incredulous smiles and others to grave reflections, the
terrible word "earthquake."
In the evening Uncle Paul was surrounded by his auditors,
eager for some explanation of the great news of the day.
"Is it true, Uncle," asked Jules, "that the earth sometimes
"Nothing is truer, my dear child. Sometimes here, sometimes
elsewhere, suddenly there is a movement of the ground. In
our privileged countries we are far from having any exact
idea of these terrible agitations of the earth. If once in a
while a slight trembling is felt, it is talked of for days
as a curiosity; then it is forgotten. Many tell to-day of
the events of the past night without attaching much
importance to them, not knowing that the force revealed to
us by a light movement of the earth can, in its brutal
power, bring about frightful disasters. Jacques has told you
of the bellowing of the cattle and Azor's outcry. Mother
de-  scribed to you her fright when her bed was
shaken twice. In all that there is nothing very terrifying;
but earthquakes are not always harmless. Alas, no; and may
God preserve us from ever undergoing the sad experience!"
"Is an earthquake, then, very serious?" Jules again
inquired. "For my part, I thought it only meant a few plates
broken and some furniture displaced."
"It seems to me," said Claire, "that if the movement were
strong enough houses would fall down. But Uncle is going to
tell us about a violent earthquake."
"Earthquakes are often preceded by subterranean noises, a
dull rumbling that swells, abates, swells again, as if a
storm were bursting in the depths of the earth. At this
rumbling, full of menacing mysteries, every creature becomes
quiet, mute with fear, and every one turns pale. Warned by
instinct, animals are struck with stupor. Suddenly the earth
shivers, bulges up, subsides again, whirls, cracks open, and
discloses a yawning gulf."
"Oh, my goodness!" Claire exclaimed. "And what becomes of
"You will see what becomes of them in these terrible
catastrophes. Of all the earthquakes felt in Europe, the
most terrible was that which ravaged Lisbon in 1775, on All
Saints' Day. No danger appeared to menace the festal town,
when suddenly there burst from underground a rumbling like
continuous thunder. Then the ground, shaken violently
several times, rose up, sank down, and in a
 moment the
populous capital of Portugal was nothing but a heap of ruins
and dead bodies. The people that were still left, seeking
refuge from the fall of the ruins, had retired to a large
quay on the seashore. All at once the quay was swallowed up
in the waters, dragging with it the crowd and the boats and
ships moored there. Not a victim, not a piece of wreck came
back to float on the surface. An abyss had opened,
swallowing up waters, quay, ships, people, and, closing up
again, kept them for ever. In six minutes sixty thousand
"While that was happening at Lisbon and the high mountains
of Portugal were shaking on their bases, several towns of
Africa—Morocco, Fez, Mequinez—were overthrown. A village
of ten thousand souls was swallowed up with its entire
population in an abyss suddenly opened and suddenly closed."
"Never, Uncle, have I heard of such terrible things,"
"And I laughed," said Emile, "when Mother Ambroisine told us
of her fright. It was nothing to laugh at. If it had been
God's will, our village might last night have disappeared
from the earth with us all, as did that one in Africa."
"Listen to this, too," Uncle Paul continued. "In February,
1783, in Southern Italy, convulsions began that lasted four
years. During the first year alone nine hundred and
forty-nine were counted. The surface of the ground was
wrinkled in moving waves like the surface of a stormy sea,
and on this unstable ground people felt nauseated as if on
 deck of a vessel. Sea-sickness reigned on land. At every
undulation, the clouds, really immobile, seemed to move
bruskly, just as they do at sea when we are on a vessel
tossed by the wind. Trees bowed in the terrestrial wave and
swept the earth with their tops.
"In two minutes the first shock overthrew the greater part
of towns, villages, and small boroughs of Southern Italy, as
well as of Sicily. The whole surface of the country was
thrown into confusion. In several places the ground was
creviced with fissures, resembling on a large scale the
cracks in a pane of broken glass. Vast tracts of ground,
with their cultivated fields, their dwellings, vines,
olive-trees, slid down the mountain-sides and went
considerable distances, to settle finally on other sites.
Here, hills split in two; there, they were torn from their
places and transported to some other part. Elsewhere, there
was nothing to uphold the ground, and it was engulfed in
yawning abysses, taking with it dwellings, trees, and
animals, which were never seen again; in still other places,
deep funnels full of moving sand opened, forming presently
vast cavities that were soon converted into lakes by the
in-rush of subterranean waters. It is estimated that more
than two hundred lakes, ponds, and marshes were thus
"In certain places the ground, softened by waters turned
from their channels or brought from the interior by the
crevices, was converted into torrents of mud that covered
the plains or filled the valleys. The tops of trees and the
roofs of ruined farm
build-  ings were the only things to be
seen above this sea of mud.
"At intervals sudden quakes shook the ground to a great
depth. The shocks were so violent that street pavements were
torn from their beds and leaped into the air. The masonry of
wells flew out from below the surface in one piece, like a
small tower thrown up from the earth. When the ground rose
and split open, houses, people, and animals were instantly
swallowed up; then, the ground subsiding again, the crevice
closed once more, and, without leaving a vestige, everything
disappeared, crushed between the two walls of the abyss as
they drew together. Some time afterward, when, after the
disaster, excavations were made in order to recover valuable
lost objects, the workmen observed that the buried buildings
and all that they contained were one compact mass, so
violent had been the pressure of this sort of vise formed by
the two edges of the closed-up crevice.
"The number of persons who perished in these terrible
circumstances is estimated at eighty thousand.
"Most of these victims were buried alive under the ruins of
their houses; others were consumed by fires that sprang up
in these ruins after each shock; others, fleeing across the
country, were swallowed up in the abysses that opened under
"The sight of such calamities ought to have awakened pity in
the hearts of barbarians. And yet—who would believe
it?—except for a very few acts of heroism, the conduct of the
people was most
infa-  mous. The Calabrian peasants ran to the
towns, not to give help, but to pillage. Without any concern
about the danger, they traversed the streets in the midst of
burning walls and clouds of dust, kicking and robbing the
victims even before the breath had left their bodies."
"Miserable creatures," cried Jules. "Horrid rascals! Ah, if
I had only been there!"
"If you had been there, what would you have done, my poor
child? There were plenty there with as good hearts and
better fists than yours, but they could do nothing."
"Are those Calabrians very wicked?" asked Emile.
"Wherever education has not been introduced there are brutal
natures that, in time of trouble, spring up, no one knows
whence, and frighten the world with their atrocities.
Another story will teach you more of the Calabrian
Hundreds of additional titles available for
online reading when you join Gateway to the Classics