| 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 |
"I see in part
That all, as in some piece of art,
Is toil c÷operant to an end."
 "THIS is dreadful! What can I do?"
"Why, follow me, to be sure! Here! quick! sideways! to
the left! into this crevice of the rock! there! all's
"Oh, it's easy to talk, when people can trip away as
lightly as you do. But look at me with the ground
slipping away wherever I try to lay hold."
"Come along; all's right," repeated the Crab (for such
was the speaker) from his crevice in the rock.
And all was right certainly, as far as he was
concerned; but as for the poor Star-fish, who was left
on the sand, all was as wrong as possible, for he was
much too hot; and no wonder.
It was a low tide—a spring tide—and even for a spring
tide, a particularly low one; for there was very little
wind astir, and what there was, blew off the shore.
So the rocks were uncovered now, which seldom tasted
the air, and the stems of the great oarweed, or tangle,
which grew from them, were bent into a
 half-circle by
the weight of their broad leathery fronds, as, no
longer buoyed up by the sea, they lay trailing on the
What a day it was, to be sure! one of those rare,
serene ones, when there is not a cloud in the delicate
blue sky, and when the sea lies so calm and peaceful
under it, that one might almost be persuaded to believe
nothing would ever again ruffle its surface. The
white-sailed vessels in the distance, too, looked as if
they had nothing in the world to do for ever, but to
float from one beautiful end of the world to the other,
in security and joy.
delicious—as the day was, it brought discomfort to some
who lived under it. The numberless star-fishes, for
instance, who had been unexpectedly left stranded on
the shore by the all-too-gently-retreating waves, how
could they rejoice in the beautiful sunshine, when it
was streaming so pitilessly on their helpless limbs,
and scorching them by its dry cruel heat? And as for
the jelly-fishes, who had shared a similar fate, they
had died almost at once from the shock, as the wave
cast them ashore; so of the merits of the delicious day
they knew nothing at all.
All creatures did not suffer, of course. The Crab, for
instance, who had given such good advice to his friend
(if he could but have followed it), did very well. In
the first place, he liked the air nearly as well as the
water, so that being left high and dry on the shore now
and then was quite to his taste.
Moreover, he could
scuttle off and hide in a crevice of the rocks whenever
he chose. Or he could shelter under the large
sea-weeds, and because of his hard coat was even able
to take a short walk from time to time, to see how
matters went on, and observe how
 far the tide had gone
down; and if the sun did happen to bake him a little
too much, he had only to run off to a pool and take a
bath, and then was as fresh as ever in a minute.
And now, just as the tide was at the lowest, where it
was likely to beat about for some time without much
change, two other creatures appeared on the sands, and
approached the very spot where the Star-fish lay in his
distress, and near which the Crab was hid. Now there
was a ledge of rocks here, which would have furnished
seats for dozens of human beings, and from the front of
it grew almost a forest of oarweed plants.
What the creatures were who came up to this place and
stopped to observe it, I shall not say; but one of them
remarked to the other, "Here again, you see; the same
old story as before. Wasted life and wasted death, and
all within a few inches of each other! Useless,
lumbering plants, not seen half a dozen times in the
year; and helpless, miserable sea-creatures, dying in
health and strength, one doesn't know why."
As the creature who spoke said this, it lifted up two
or three tangle fronds with a stick it carried in its
hand, and then let them flop suddenly down on the sand;
after which it used the end of the same stick to chuck
the unhappy Star-fish into the air, who, tumbling by a
lucky accident under the shelter of the tangle, was hid
for a time from sight.
"And so we go up, and so we go down, ourselves,"
continued the creature; "a good many of us, with no
more end in life, and of no more use, that one can see,
than these vile, useless seaweeds; coming into the
world, in fact, for no earthly purpose but to go out of
it, in some such wretched manner as this!"
 And here the creature kicked three or four more
stranded star-fishes across the narrow sands, till he
had fairly kicked them into the sea; muttering as he
did so, "What did you come into the world for, I
wonder, and you, and you, and you? Purposeless life
and purposeless death—the fate of thousands. And I for
one as useless as any of them, but at any rate having
the grace to acknowledge that the world would get on
quite as cleverly without me as with! Whereunto,
whereunto, whereunto? Answer it if you can!"
creature finished speaking, the two moved on together;
but what the companion answered was never exactly
known; for though the voice sounded as if in dispute,
what was said was not heard by those who were left
behind, for they began at once to chatter among
And first out popped the head of the Crab from the
crevice he had taken shelter in; and he cocked his eyes
knowingly, first to one side, and then to the other,
and began to talk; for he had always plenty to say for
himself, and was remarkably bold when there was no
"Miserable sea-creatures!" was his first
exclamation, repeating what the land-creature had said.
"I suppose I am included in that elegant compliment. I
say! where are you, old Lilac-legs? Have you contrived
to crawl away after all? Come out of your corner, or
wherever you are, for a bit. Who was the creature that
was talking such nonsense just now? Only let me come
across him, that's all! Helpless sea-creatures, indeed!
I should like to have seen him hiding in a crevice as
nimbly as I can do! He'd better not come within reach
of me any more, I can tell him!"
 It was all very well for the Crab to sit outside the
rock looking so fierce, and brushing his mouth so
boldly with his whisker-like feelers, now that there
was nobody to fight with. How he would have scuttled
away sideways into his hole, if the creature had
re-appeared, everybody can guess.
"You happy fellow!" answered the meek voice of the
Star-fish, Lilac-legs; "you can afford to joke about
everything, and can do whatever you please. You have so
many things in your favour—your stiff coat, and your
jointed legs, and your claws with pincers at their
ends; and your large eyes. Dear me, what advantages!
and yet I have an advantage too, and that a very great
one, over you all, so I shall not grumble, especially
not now that I am in the shade. That sun was very
unpleasant, certainly; I felt something between scalded
and baked. Horrible! but I am sheltered now. And how
did that come to pass, do you think?"
The Star-fish paused for an answer; but the Crab
declared he couldn't think—had no time for thinking; it
was too slow work to suit him. So Lilac-legs told him
how she had been chucked into the air by the stick, and
how she had come down in the midst of the tangle, and
fallen under shelter.
"So you see," added she in
conclusion, "that you were quite right in saying what
nonsense the creature talked. Why, he said he was as
useless as these vile useless seaweeds, and had come
into the world, like them, for nothing; whereas, don't
you see, he was born to save me, which was something to
be born for, at any rate, that's quite clear; and so
was the vile useless seaweed, as he called it, too. I,
with my advantages, can tell them both that!"
"You go in and out, and in and out, over people's
 remarks, till you make me quite giddy, I get so
puzzled," replied the Crab; "and then you are always
talking of your advantages," he continued, whisking his
feelers backwards and forwards conceitedly as he spoke,
"and I can't make out what they are. I wish you would
say at once what you mean."
"Oh, my advantages, you want to know about?" answered
Lilac-legs. "Well, I certainly have one in each leg,
near the end, with which I—but I don't think I can
describe it exactly. You have several advantages
yourself, as I told you just now, and we have one or
two in common; for instance, the loss of a leg or two
is nothing to either of us; they grow again so quickly;
but still I am very helpless now and then, I must
admit! on the sand, for instance—it is so soft—and the
more I try to lay hold, the more it slips away.
these advantages in my legs make amends for a good
deal, for at any rate I know my own superiority, and
there's a great comfort in that; I can't explain, but
you may safely take it for granted, that with my
advantages, I know a good deal more than you give me
credit for. I know, for instance, that the poor
ignorant creature need not consider himself useless,
since he was the means of chucking me here, and that
this fine old tangle hasn't lived for nothing, since it
is sheltering me."
"How conceited some people are with their advantages!"
murmured a silver voice from one of the tangle fronds.
"If the tangle had come into the world for nothing but
to shelter you, there would have been a fuss to very
little purpose indeed! Can't your advantages tell you
there are other creatures in the world quite as
important as yourself, if not more so, you poor
helpless Lilac-legs? Do
 you know who is speaking? It is
the blue-eyed limpet, I beg to say—the Patella
pellucida, if you please.
"I have an advantage or two
myself! My coat is harder even than the crab's, and it
is studded with a row of azure spots, as bright as the
turquoise itself. That is something to reflect upon in
one's solitude, I can assure you! and the tangle plants
are the natural home and food of our lovely race. The
creature was ignorant enough in calling them useless,
therefore, of course; but you were not much wiser in
thinking they were put into the world to shelter you.
"I flatter myself I have said enough! To be the home and
the food of beings like us, is cause sufficient—almost
more than sufficient, I venture to think—for the
existence of any vegetable that fringes these shores.
And while they live for us, our turquoise-gemmed backs
are, in return, their highest ornament and pride. The
whole thing is perfect and complete. Anybody with half
an eye, and a grain of understanding, may see that!"
"Oh, the narrow-mindedness of people who live under a
shell!" murmured a score of whispers, in unison, from
another tangle frond close by. "Oh, the assurance of
you poor moveable limpets in talking about your home,
when you do but stick to first one part of these vast
leaves and then another, moving from place to place,
and never fairly settling anywhere! Home, indeed, you
call it? What sort of a home is it, when an unlucky
chance can force you off at any moment, or some passing
creature pick you from your hold? The pretension would
be disgusting, if it were not so absurd. Think of mere
travellers, as one may say, talking of their
lodging-  house as if it were their own, and belonged to
them by a natural right!—how ridiculous, if not wrong!
We can afford to speak—we, of whose dwelling-places
it is the foundation and support. Talk of the useless
tangle, indeed! Yes, the creature was ignorant indeed
who said so. Little he knew that it was the basis of
the lives of millions. Little he knew of the silver
net-work we spread over it from year to year, or of the
countless inhabitants of the beautiful web—a fairyland
of beings, so small, that the crab can scarcely see us,
yet spreading so far and wide, and accomplishing so
much; but that is because we work in unison, of course.
We never quarrel among ourselves, as some folks do—not
altogether unlike the crab in the crevice yonder. We
work to one end, so that we are sure to continue
strong. Useless tangles, forsooth! when they have been
the foundations of colonies like ours from the
beginning of the world! Of course the thing is clear
enough to those who choose to look into it; any one who
knows us, can tell people what the tangle is in the
world for, I should think!"
"Hear how they talk," murmured another shell-fish,
distant relation of the blue-eyed limpet who had spoken
before, and who lay hidden in the midst of the twisted
roots by which the tangle stem held fast to the rock;
"hear how the poor scurfy creatures talk, to be sure,
as if there was nobody in the world but themselves. But
anything can talk, which has so many mouths to talk
with. I could say a good deal myself, if I chose to
try, with only one; but I don't care to let out my
 into everybody's foolish ears. Much better hold
my tongue, than let certain people, not a hundred miles
off, know I am here. I don't fancy being sucked at by
star-fishes, or picked out of my place by crab's claws.
Of course I know what the tangle is in the world for,
as well as anybody else. For while they are fighting
merely about his flapping leathery ends, here I sit in
the very heart of the matter; safe in the roots
themselves, knowing what's what with the cleverest of
them. Useless tangle, the creature said—useless enough,
perhaps, as far as he could tell, who only looked at
the long, loose, rubbishy leaves; but those who want to
know the truth of the matter, must use their eyes to a
little more purpose, and find out what's going on at
the roots. Ah, they'd soon see then what the tangle is
for! I don't speak of myself alone, though of course I
know one very sufficient reason why the tangle is in
the world, if I chose to say. Am I right, little
Silver-tuft, in the corner there, with the elegant
doors to your house?"
Now, little Silver-tuft,
the coralline, piqued
herself particularly on the carving of the curious
doors which guarded the front of every one of the
numberless cells in which her family lived; so she was
flattered by the compliment, and owned that the limpet
was right in the main. She was, nevertheless, rather
cool in her manner, for, thought she to herself:
rough fellow forgets that he is but a lodger here, as
the sea-mat said of his blue-eyed cousin; whereas
everybody knows that I am a bona fide
though with a little more freedom of movement than
people who stick to their friends so closely as to
cover them up! No offence to the sea-mat, or anybody
who can't help himself. Nevertheless, my fibres being
firmly interlaced with the roots, I am here by right
for ever. These limpets may talk as they please, but
nobody in their senses can suppose the tangle came into
the world merely to accommodate chance travellers like
them, even though they may now and then spend their
lives in the place. But vanity blinds the judgment,
that's very clear. Roots and plants have to grow for
such as myself and my silver-tuft cousins, however; but
that's quite another affair. There's a reason in that—a
necessity, I may say; we want them, and of course,
therefore, they are here. The thing is as
straightforward and plain to anybody of sense, as—"
But, unfortunately, the simile was lost; for a wave of
the now-returning tide interrupted Silver-tuft's
speech, by breaking suddenly over the tangle with a
noisy splash. It drew back again for a bit immediately
after; but, meantime, both plants and animals were
revelling in the delicious moisture, and for a few
moments thought of nothing else. And just then,
hurrying along the narrow strip of sand that yet
remained exposed, as fast as their legs could carry
them, came the land-creature and its companion.
Before, however, they had passed the spot where they
had stopped to talk when the tide was low, another wave
was seen coming; to avoid which, the friends sprang
together on the ledge of rock, and from thence watched
the gathering water, as it fell tumbling over the
forest of tangle plants. And again and again this
happened, and they remained
 to observe it, and see how
the huge fronds surged up like struggling giants, as
the waves rushed in below; and how by degrees, as the
tide rose higher and higher, their curved stems unbent,
so that they resumed their natural position, till at
last they were bending and bowing in graceful
undulations to the swell of the water, as was their
And, "Look at them!" cried the creature's companion.
"For the existence of even these poor plants in the
world, I could give you a hundred reasons, and believe
that as many more might be found. Of their use, I could
tell you a hundred instances in proof; there is not one
of them but what gives shelter to the helpless, food to
the hungry, a happy home to as many as desire it, and
vigour and health to the element in which it lives.
Purposeless life you talk of! Such a thing exists
nowhere. Come, I will explain. To begin—but see, we
must move on, for the wind as well as the tide is
rising, and we might chance to be caught. Follow me
quick, for even we might be missed; and, besides, it is
cowardly to shirk one's appointed share of work and
welldoing before one's time. For if the vile seaweeds
are able to do good in the world, how much more——"
But here, too, the discourse was cut short by the roar
of a breaking wave, which carried the conclusion out of
People talk of the angry sea; was he angry now at what
he had heard? No, he was only loud and in earnest,
after all. But undoubtedly he and the risen wind
between them contrived to make a great noise over the
tangle beds. And he gave his opinion pretty strongly on
the subject in hand. For, cried he:
 "You foolish
creatures, one and all! what is all this nonsense
about? Who dares to talk of useless seaweeds while I
am here to throw their folly in their face? And you,
poor little worms and wretches, who have been talking
your small talk together, as if it was in your power to
form the least idea of anything an inch beyond your own
noses—well, well, well, I won't undeceive you! There,
there! believe what you like about yourselves and your
trumpery little comforts and lives; but if any really
philosophical enquirer wants to know what seaweeds are
in the world for, and what good they do, I will roar
them the true answer all day long, if they please—to
keep me, the great sea, pure, and sweet, and healthy!
There, now, that's the reply! They suck in my foul
vapours as food, and give me back life-supporting
vapours in return. Vile and useless! What fool has
called anything so? Only let me catch him—thus—"
Bang!—with what a roar that wave came down! and yet it
did no harm—didn't even dislodge the Crab from the new
crevice he had squeezed himself into for the present.
And as to Star-fish Lilac-legs, she was spreading
herself out in the rocking water, rejoicing in her
regained freedom, and telling all her friends of her
wonderful escape, and of the creature who had been born
into the world on purpose to save her from an untimely
It was a very fine story indeed; and the longer she
told it, the more pathetic she made it, till at last
there was not a creature in the sea who could listen to
it with dry eyes.
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