|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 |
THE STORY OF PLINY
O teach you what the cinders thrown up by a volcano can
do, I am now going to tell you a very old story, just as it
was transmitted to us by a celebrated writer of those old
times. This writer is called Pliny. His writing is in Latin,
the great language of those days.
"It was in the year 79 of our era. Contemporaries of our
Savior were still living. Vesuvius was then a peaceful
mountain. It was not terminated then, as to-day, by a
smoking cone, but by a table-land slightly concave, the
remains of an old filled-up crater where thin grasses and
wild vines grew. Very fertile crops covered its sides; two
populous towns, Herculaneum and Pompeii, lay stretched at
"The old volcano, which seemed forever lulled, and whose
last eruptions went back to times beyond the memory of man,
suddenly awakened and began to smoke. On the 23d of August,
about one o'clock in the afternoon, an extraordinary cloud,
sometimes white, sometimes black, was seen hovering over
Vesuvius. Impelled violently by some subterranean force, it
first rose straight up in the form of a tree-trunk; then,
after attaining a great height, it sank down under its own
weight and spread out over a wide area.
 "Now, there was at that time at Messina, a seaport not far
from Vesuvius, an uncle of the author who has handed down
these things to us. He was called Pliny, like his nephew. He
commanded the Roman fleet stationed at this port. He was a
man of great courage, never retreating from any danger if he
could gain new knowledge or render aid to others. Surprised
at the singular cloud that hovered over Vesuvius, Pliny
immediately set out with his fleet to go to the aid of the
menaced coast towns and to observe the terrible cloud from a
nearer point. The people at the foot of Vesuvius were
fleeing in haste, wild with fear. He went to the side where
all were in flight and where the peril appeared the
"Fine!" cried Jules. "Courage comes to you when you are with
those who are not afraid. I love Pliny for hastening to the
volcano to learn about the danger. I should like to have
"Alas! my poor child, you would not have found it a picnic.
Burning cinders mixed with calcined stones were falling on
the vessels; the sea, lashed to fury, was rising from its
bed; the shore, encumbered with debris from the mountain,
was becoming inaccessible. There was nothing to do but
retreat. The fleet came to land at Stabiæ, where the
danger, still distant, but all the time approaching, had
already caused consternation. In the meantime, from several
points on Vesuvius great flames burst forth, their
terrifying glare rendered more frightful by the darkness
caused by the cloud of cinders.
re-  assure his companions
Pliny told them that these flames came from some abandoned
villages caught by the fire."
"He told them that to give them courage," Jules conjectured,
"but he himself well knew the truth of the matter."
"He knew it well, he knew the danger was great;
nevertheless, overcome by fatigue, he fell into a deep
sleep. Now, while he slept, the cloud reached Stabiæ.
Little by little the court leading to his apartment was
filled with cinders, so that in a short time he would not
have been able to get out. They woke him to prevent his
being buried alive and to deliberate on what was to be done.
The houses, shaken by continual shocks, seemed to be torn
from their foundations; they swayed from side to side. Many
fell. It was decided to put to sea again. A shower of stones
was falling—small ones, it is true, and calcined by the
fire. As a protection from them, the men covered their heads
with pillows, and going through the most horrible darkness,
hardly relieved by the light of the torches they carried,
they made their way toward the shore. There Pliny sat on the
ground a moment to rest, when violent flames, accompanied by
a strong smell of sulphur, put everybody to flight. He rose
and then instantly fell back dead. The emanations, cinders,
and smoke from the volcano had suffocated him."
"Poor Pliny! To be stifled to death like that by the
horrible mountain, and he so courageous!" lamented Jules.
"Whilst the uncle was dying at Stabiæ, the
 nephew, left at Messina with his mother, was witness of what
he relates to us. 'The night after my uncle's departure,' he
tells us, 'the earth began to tremble violently. My mother
hastened in alarm to waken me. She found me getting up to
go and waken her. As the house threatened to collapse, we
sat outside in the court, not far from the sea. With the
carelessness of youth—I was then eighteen—I began to
read. A friend of my uncle's came along. Seeing my mother
and me both of us seated, and me with a book in my hand, he
blamed us for our confidence and induced us to look out for
our safety. Although it was seven o'clock in the morning, we
could hardly see, the air was so obscured. At times
buildings were so shaken that their fall was imminent at any
moment. We followed the example of the rest and left the
town. We stopped some distance off in the country. The
wagons that were brought away swayed continually with the
shaking of the ground. Even with their wheels blocked with
stones they could hardly be held in place. The sea flowed
back on itself: driven from the shore by the earthquake
shocks, it receded from the beach and left a multitude of
fish dry on the sand. A horrible black cloud came toward us.
On its flanks were serpentine lines of fire like immense
flashes of lightning. Soon the cloud descends, covering
earth and sea. Then my mother begs me to flee with all the
speed of my youth, and not to expose myself to imminent
death by adapting my pace to hers, weighed down as she was
by years. She would die content if she knew I was out of
 "And Pliny left his old mother behind in order to get away
the faster?" queried Jules.
"No, my child, he did what you would all have done. He
remained, sustaining and encouraging her, resolved to save
himself with her or else die with her."
"Good!" cried Jules. "The nephew was worthy of his uncle.
And then what happened?"
"Then it was frightful. Cinders began to fall; darkness
descended, so intense that they could see nothing. There was
general confusion, outcry, and moaning. Wild with terror,
the people fled at random, knocking down and treading on
those who were in their way. The greater part were convinced
that that night was the last, the eternal night that was to
swallow the world. Mothers went groping for their children,
lost in the crowd or perhaps crushed under the feet of the
fugitives; they called them with doleful cries to embrace
them once more and then die. Pliny and his old mother had
seated themselves apart from the crowd. From time to time
they were obliged to get up and shake off the cinders which
would soon have buried them. At last the cloud dispersed and
daylight reappeared. The earth was unrecognizable;
everything had disappeared under a thick shroud of calcined
"And the houses, were they buried in the cinders?" asked
"At the foot of the mountain the dust thrown up by the
volcano lay deeper than the height of the tallest houses,
and whole towns had disappeared under
 the enormous bed of
cinders. Amongst these were Herculaneum and Pompeii. The
volcano buried them alive."
"With the inhabitants?" inquired Jules.
"With a small number, for most of them, like Pliny and his
mother, had time to flee to Messina. To-day, after being
buried eighteen centuries, Herculaneum and Pompeii are
exhumed by the miner's pick, just as they were when caught
by the cloud of volcanic cinders. Vineyards cover them where
they are not yet cleared."
"These vineyards, then, are the roofs of houses!" said
"Higher than the roofs of houses. The traveler who visits
the quarters not yet uncovered, but made accessible by means
of wells dug for the purpose, descends underground to a
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