|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 |
MOTHER-OF-PEARL AND PEARLS
OME of the shells you have just shown us," said Jules,
"shine inside like the handle of that pretty penknife you
bought me the day of the fair—you know?—that four-bladed
penknife with the mother-of-pearl handle."
"That is plain enough. Mother-of-pearl, that pretty
substance that shines with all the colors of the rainbow,
comes from certain shells. We use for delicate ornamentation
what was once the dwelling of a glairy animal, near relation
to the oyster. Truly, this dwelling is a veritable palace in
richness. It shines with all imaginable tints, as if the
rainbow had deposited its colors there.
"This is the shell that furnishes the most beautiful
mother-of-pearl. It is called the meleagrina margaritifera.
Outside it is wrinkled and blackish-green; inside it is
smoother than polished marble, richer in color than the
rainbow. All tints are found there, bright, but soft and
changeable, according to the point of view."
"That superb shell is the house of a miserable, slimy
animal! In fairy tales the fairies themselves have none to
equal it. Oh! how beautiful, how beautiful it is!"
"Every one has his portion in this world. The
 slimy animal
has for his a splendid palace of mother-of-pearl."
"Where does the meleagrina live?"
"In the seas that wash the shores of Arabia."
"Is Arabia very far away?" inquired Emile.
"Very far, my dear. Why do you ask?"
"Because I should like to pick up a lot of these beautiful
"Don't dream of such a thing. It is too far away, and,
besides, they are not to be gathered by every one that wants
them. To get the meleagrina men have to dive to the bottom
of the sea, and some of them never come up again."
"And there are people who dare to dive to the bottom of the
sea just to get shells?" asked Claire.
"Plenty. So profitable, too, is the trade that we should be
badly received by the first-comers if we took a notion to go
and fish with them."
"Then those shells are very precious?"
"You shall judge for yourself. First the inner layer of the
shell, sawed into sheets and tablets, is the mother-of-pearl
that we use for fine ornamentation. Jules' penknife-handle
is covered with a sheet of mother-of-pearl that was part of
the inside of a pearl-shell. But that is the least part of
what the precious shell produces. There are pearls as well."
"But pearls are not very dear. With a few sous I bought a
whole boxful, to embroider you a purse."
"Let us make a distinction: there are pearls and pearls.
The pearls you mention are little pieces of
 colored glass
pierced with a hole. Their price is very moderate. The
pearls of the meleagrina are globules of the richest and
finest mother-of-pearl. If they are unusually large, they
attain the fabulous price of the diamond, up to hundreds of
thousands and millions of francs."
"I don't know those pearls."
"God keep you from ever knowing them,
for in becoming
interested in pearls one sometimes loses common sense and
honor. It is well, though, to know how they are produced.
"Between the two parts of the shell lives an animal like the
oyster. It is a mass of slime in which you would find it
difficult to recognize an animal. It digests, however, and
breathes, and is sensitive to pain, so sensitive that a
grain of dust, a mere nothing, renders existence painful to
it. What does the animal do when it feels itself tickled by
some foreign substance? It begins to sweat mother-of-pearl
around the place that itches. This mother-of-pearl piles up
in a little smooth ball, and there you have a pearl made by
the sick, slimy animal. If it is of any considerable size,
it will cost a fine bag of crowns, and the person who wears
it around her neck will be very proud of it.
"But before getting to the neck, it must be fished for. The
fishermen are in a boat. They descend into the sea, one
after another, with the aid of a rope
 to which is tied a
large stone that drags them rapidly to the bottom. The man
about to dive seizes the weighted rope with his right hand
and the toes of his right foot; with his left hand he closes
his nostrils; to his left foot is fastened a bag-shaped net.
The stone is thrown into the sea. The man sinks like lead.
Hastily he fills the net with shells, and then pulls the
rope to give the signal for ascent. Those in the boat pull
him up. Half-suffocated, the diver reaches the surface with
his fishing. The efforts he has made to suspend respiration
are so painful that sometimes blood gushes from his mouth
and nose. Sometimes the diver comes up with a leg gone;
sometimes he never comes up. A shark has swallowed him.
"Some of those pearls that shine in a jeweler's windows cost
much more than a fine bag of crowns: they may have cost a
"If Arabia were at the end of the village, I would not go
pearl-fishing," declared Emile.
"To open the shells, they are exposed to the sun until the
animals are dead. Then men rummage in the pile, which smells
horribly, and get the pearls. There is nothing more to do
except pierce them with a hole."
 "One day," said Jules, "when they were cleaning the big
mill-race I found some shells that shone inside like
"We have in our streams and ditches shells in two parts of a
greenish black. They are called fresh-water mussels. Their
inside is mother-of-pearl. Some, very large and living by
preference in mountain streams, even produce pearls. But
these pearls are far from having the luster and consequently
the price of those of the meleagrina."
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