| Parables from Nature|
|by Margaret S. Gatty|
|Parables for children inspired by nature. This collection includes all 29 stories from the first, second, third, and fourth series, originally published in separate volumes. Ages 6-12 |
KNOWLEDGE NOT THE LIMIT OF BELIEF
"Canst thou by searching find out God?"—JOB xi. 7.
 IT was but the banging of the door, blown to by a current of
wind from the open window, that made that great noise, and
shook the room so much!
The room was a Naturalist's library, and it was a pity that
some folio books of specimens had been left so near the edge
of the great table, for, when the door clapt to, they fell
down, and many plants, sea-weeds, etc., were scattered on the
And, "Do we meet once again?" said a zoophyte to a seaweed
in whose company he had been thrown
ashore,—"Do we meet once again? This is a real pleasure. What
strange adventures we have gone through since the waves
flung us on the sands together!"
"Ay, indeed," replied the Seaweed, "and what a queer place
we have come to at last! Well, well—but let me first ask you
how you are this morning, after all the washing, and drying,
and squeezing, and gumming, we have undergone?"
Zoophyte. "Oh, pretty well in health, Seaweed, but very,
very sad. You know there is a great difference between you
and me. You have little or
 no cause to be sad. You are just
the same now that you ever were, excepting that you can
never grow any more. But I! ah, I am only the skeleton of
what I once was! All the merry little creatures that
inhabited me are dead and dried up. They died by hundreds at
a time soon after I left the sea; and even if they had
survived longer, the nasty fresh water we were soaked in by
the horrid being who picked us up, would have killed them at
once. What are you smiling at?"
Seaweed. "I am smiling at your calling our new master a
horrid being, and also at your speaking so positively about
the little creatures that inhabited you."
"And why may I not speak positively of what I know so well?"
asked the other.
Seaweed. "Oh, of what you know, by all means! But I wonder
what we do know! People get very obstinate over what they
think they know, and then, lo and behold! it turns out to be
Zoophyte. "What makes you say this?"
Seaweed. "I have learnt it from a very curious creature I
have made acquaintance with here—a bookworm. He walks
through all the books in this library just as he pleases,
and picks up a quantity of information, and knows a great
deal. And he's a mere nothing, he says, compared to the
creature who picked us up—the 'horrid being,' as you call
him. Why, my dear friend, the Bookworm tells me that he who
found us is a man, and that a man is the most wonderful
creature in all the world; that there is nothing in the
least like him. And this particular one here is a
naturalist; that is, he knows all about living creatures,
and plants, and stones, and I don't know what besides. Now,
wouldn't you say that it
 was a great honour to belong to
him, and to have made acquaintance with his friend the
Zoophyte. "Of course I should, and do."
Seaweed. "Very well, I know you would; and yet I can tell
you that this naturalist and his bookworm are just instances
of what I have been saying. They fancy that betwixt them
they know nearly everything, and get as obstinate as
possible over the most ridiculous mistakes."
Zoophyte. "My good friend, are you a competent judge in such
matters as these?"
"Oh, am I not!" the Seaweed rejoined. "Why now, for
instance, what do you think the Bookworm and I have been
quarrelling about half the morning? Actually as to whether I
am an animal or a vegetable. He declares that I am an animal
full of little living creatures like yours, and that there
is a long account of all this written on the page opposite
the one on which I am gummed!"
"Of all the nonsense I ever listened to!" began the
Zoophyte, angrily, yet amused—but he was interrupted by the
"And as for you—I am almost ashamed to tell you—that you and
all your family and connexions were, for generations and
generations, considered as vegetables. It is only lately
that these naturalists found out that you were an animal.
May I not well say that people get very obstinate about what
they think they know, and after all it turns out to be a
mistake? As for me, I am quite confused with these
"O dear, how disappointed I am!" murmured the Zoophyte. "I
thought we had really fallen into the hands of some very
interesting creatures. I am very, very sorry! It seemed so
nice that there
 should be wonderful, wise beings, who spend
their time in finding out all about animals, and plants, and
such things, and keep us all in these beautiful books so
carefully. I liked it so much and now I find the wonderfully
wise creatures are wonderfully stupid ones instead."
"Very much so," laughed the Seaweed, "though our learned
friend, the Bookworm, would tell you quite otherwise; but he
gets quite muddled when he talks about them, poor fellow!"
"It is very easy to ridicule your betters," said a strange
voice; and the Bookworm, who had just then eaten his way
through the back of Lord Bacon's Advancement of Learning,
appeared sitting outside, listening to the conversation. "I
shall be very sorry that I have told you anything, if you
make such a bad use of the little bit of knowledge you have
"Oh, I beg your pardon, dear friend!" cried the Seaweed. "I
meant no harm. You see it is quite new to us to learn
anything; and, really, if I laughed, you must excuse me. I
meant no harm—only I do happen to know—really for a
fact—that I never was alive with little creatures like my
friend the Zoophyte; and he happens to know—really for a
fact—that he never was a vegetable; and so you see it made
us smile to think of your wonderful creature, man, making
such wonderfully odd mistakes."
At this the Bookworm smiled; but he soon shook his head
gravely, and said—"All the mistakes man makes, man can
discover and correct—I mean, of course, all the mistakes he
makes about creatures inferior to himself, whom he learns to
know from his own observation. He may not observe quite
carefully enough one day, but he may put all right when
looks next time. I never give up a statement when I know it
is true: and so I tell you again—laugh as much as you
please—that, in spite of all his mistakes, man is, without
exception, the most wonderful and the most clever of all the
creatures upon earth!"
"You will be a clever creature yourself if you can prove
it!" cried both the Zoophyte and Seaweed at once.
"The idea of taking me with my hundreds of living
inhabitants for a vegetable!" sneered the Zoophyte.
"And me with my vegetable inside, covered over with lime,
for an animal!" smiled the Seaweed.
Bookworm. "Ah! have your laugh out,
and then listen. But, my
good friends, if you had worked your way through as many
wise books as I have done, you would laugh less and know
Zoophyte. "Nay, don't be angry, Bookworm."
Bookworm. "Oh, I am not angry a bit. I know too well the
cause of all the folly you are talking, so I excuse you. And
I am now puzzling my head to find out how I am to prove what
I have said about the superiority of man, so as to make you
Seaweed. "Then you admit there is a little difficulty in
proving it? Even you confess it to be rather puzzling."
Bookworm. "I do; but the difficulty does not lie where you
think it does. I am sorry to say it—but the only thing that
prevents your understanding the superiority of man, is your
own immeasurable inferiority to him! However many mistakes
he may make about you, he can correct them all by a little
closer or more patient observation. But no
 observation can
make you understand what man is. You are quite within the
grasp of his powers, but he is quite beyond the reach of
Seaweed. "You are not over-civil, with all your learning,
Bookworm. "I do not mean to be rude, I assure you. You are
both of you very beautiful creatures, and, I dare say, very
useful too. But you should not fancy either that you do know
everything, or that you are able to know everything. And,
above all, you should not dispute the superiority and powers
of other creatures merely because you cannot understand
Seaweed. "And am I then to believe all the long stories
anybody may choose to come and tell me about the wonderful
powers of other creatures?—and, when I inquire what those
wonderful powers are, am I to be told that I can't
understand them, but am to believe them all the same as if I
Bookworm. "Certainly not, unless the wonderful powers are
proved by wonderful results; but if they are, I advise you
to believe in them, whether you understand them or not."
Seaweed. "I should like to know how I am to believe what I
Bookworm. "Very well, then, don't! and remain an ignorant
fool all your life. Of course, you can't really understand
anything but what is within the narrow limits of your own
powers; so, if you choose to make those powers the limits of
your belief, I wish you joy, for you certainly won't be
overburdened with knowledge."
Seaweed. "I will retort upon you that it is very easy to be
contemptuous to your inferiors, Mr. Bookworm. You would do
much better to try
 and explain to me those wonderful powers
themselves, and so remove all the difficulties that stand in
the way of my belief."
Bookworm. "If I were to try ever so much, I should not
succeed. You can't understand even my superiority."
Seaweed. "Oh, Bookworm! now you are growing conceited."
"Indeed I am not; but you shall judge for
yourself. I can do many things you can't do; among others, I
Seaweed. "What is that?"
Bookworm. "There, now! I knew I should puzzle you directly!
Why, seeing is something that I do with a very curious
machine in my head, called an eye. But as you have not got
an eye, and therefore cannot see, how am I to make you
understand what seeing is?"
Seaweed. "Why, you can tell us, to be sure."
Bookworm. "Tell you what? I can tell you I see. I can say,
Now I see, now I see, as I walk over you and see the little
bits of you that fall under my small eye. Indeed, I can also
tell you what I see; but how will that teach you what seeing
is? You have got no eye, and therefore you can't see, and
therefore also you can never know what seeing is."
Zoophyte. "Then why need we believe there is such a thing as
Bookworm. "Oh, pray, don't believe it! I don't know why you
should, I am sure! There's no harm at all in being ignorant
and narrow-minded. I am sure I had much rather you took no
further trouble in the matter; for you are, both of you,
very testy and tiresome. It is from nothing but pride and
vanity, too, after all. You want to be in a higher
 place in
creation than you are put in, and no good ever comes of
that. If you'd be content to learn wonderful things in the
only way that is open to you, I should have a great deal of
pleasure in telling you more."
Zoophyte. "And pray what way is that?"
Bookworm. "Why, from the effects produced by them. As I said
before, even where you cannot understand the wonderful
powers themselves, you may have the grace to believe in
their existence, from their wonderful results."
Seaweed. "And the results of what you call 'seeing' are—"
"In man," interrupted the Bookworm, "that he gets to know
everything about you, and all the creatures, and plants, and
stones he looks at; so that he knows your shape, and growth,
and colour, and all about the cells of the little creatures
that live in you—how many feelers they have, what they live
upon, how they catch their food, how the eggs come out of
the egg-cells, where you live, where you are to be found,
what other zoophytes are related to you, which are most like
you—in short, the most minute particulars;—so that he puts
you into his collections, not among strange creatures, but
near to those you are nearest related to; and he describes
you, and makes pictures of you, and gives you a name so that
you are known for the same creature, wherever you are found,
all over the world. And now, I'm quite out of breath with
telling you all these wonderful results of seeing."
"But he once took me for a vegetable," mused the Zoophyte.
"Yes; as I said before, he had not observed quite close
enough, nor had he then invented a curious
 instrument which
enables his great big eye to see such little fellows as your
inhabitants are. But when he made that instrument, and
looked very carefully, he saw all about you."
"Ay, but he still calls me an animal," observed the Seaweed.
"I know he does, but I am certain he will not do so long! If
you are a vegetable, I will warrant him to find it out when
he examines you a little more."
"You expect us to believe strange things, Bookworm,"
observed the Zoophyte.
"To be sure, because there is no end of strange things for
you to believe! And what you can't find out for yourself,
you must take upon trust from your betters," laughed the
Bookworm. "It's the only plan. Observation and Revelation
are the sole means of acquiring knowledge."
Just at that moment the door opened, and two gentlemen
entered the room.
"Ah, my new specimens on the floor!" observed the
Naturalist; "but never mind," added he, as he picked them
up; "here is the very one we wanted; it will serve admirably
for our purpose. I shall only sacrifice a small branch of
And the Naturalist cut off a little piece of the Seaweed and
laid it in a saucer, and poured upon it some liquid from a
bottle, and an effervescence began to take place forthwith,
and the Seaweed's limy coat began to give way; and the two
gentlemen sat watching the result.
"Now," whispered the Bookworm to the Zoophyte, "those two
men are looking closely at your Seaweed friend, and trying
what they call experiments, that they may find out what he
is; and if they do not succeed, I will give up all my
arguments in despair."
 But they did succeed!
The gentlemen watched on till all the lime was dissolved,
and there was nothing left in the saucer but a delicate red
branch with little round things upon it, that looked like
"This is the fruit decidedly," remarked the Naturalist; "and
now we will proceed to examine it through the microscope."
And they did so.
And an hour or more passed, and a sort of sleepy
forgetfulness came over the Bookworm and his two friends;
for they had waited till they were tired for further remarks
from the Naturalist. And, therefore, it was with a start
they were aroused at last by hearing him exclaim, "It is
impossible to entertain the slightest doubt. If I ever had
any, I have none now; and the Corallinas must be removed
back once more to their position among vegetables!"
The Naturalist laughed as he loosened the gum from the
specimen, which he placed on a fresh paper, and classed
among Red Seaweeds. And soon after, the two gentlemen left
the room once more.
"So he has really found our friend out!" cried the Zoophyte;
"and he was right about the fruit, too! Oh, Bookworm,
Bookworm! would that I could know what seeing is!"
"Oh, Zoophyte, Zoophyte! I wish you would not waste your
time in struggling after the unattainable! You know what
feeling is. Well, I would tell you that
seeing is something
of the same sort as feeling, only that it is quite
different. Will that do?"
"It sounds like nonsense."
"It is nonsense. There can be no answer but nonsense, if you
want to understand 'really for a fact,' as you call it,
powers that are above you. Explain to the rock on which you
grow, what feeling is!"
 "How could I?" said the Zoophyte; "it has no sensation."
"No more than you have sight," rejoined the Bookworm.
"That is true indeed," cried the Zoophyte. "Bookworm! I am
satisfied—humbled, I must confess, but satisfied. And now I
will rejoice in our position here, glory in our new master,
and admire his wonderful powers, even while I cannot
"I am proud of my disciple," returned the Bookworm kindly.
"I also am one of them," murmured the Seaweed; "but tell me
now, are there any other strange powers in man?"
"Several," was the Bookworm's answer; "but to be really
known they must be possessed. A lower power cannot compass
the full understanding of a higher. But to limit one's
belief to the bounds of one's own small powers, would be to
tie oneself down to the foot of a tree, and deny the
existence of its upper branches."
"There are no powers beyond those that man possesses, I
suppose," mused the Zoophyte.
"I am far from saying that," replied the Bookworm; "on the
But what he would have said further no one knows, for once
more the door opened, and the Naturalist, who now returned
alone, spent his evening in putting by the specimens in
their separate volumes on the shelves. And it was a long,
long time before the Bookworm saw them again; for the
volumes in which they were kept were bound in Russia
leather, to the smell of which he had a particular dislike,
so that he could never make his way to them for a friendly
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