Gateway to the Classics: The Stories Mother Nature Told Her Children by Jane Andrews
The Stories Mother Nature Told Her Children by  Jane Andrews

A Peep into One of God's Storehouses

O NCE there was a father who thought he would build for his children a beautiful home, putting into it every thing they could need or desire throughout their lives. So he built the beautiful house; and any one just to look at the outside of it would exclaim, how lovely! For its roof was a wide, blue dome like the sky, and the lofty rooms had arching ceilings covered with tracery of leaves and waving boughs. The floors were carpeted with velvet, and the whole was lighted with lamps that shone like stars from above. The sweetest perfumes floated through the air, while thousands of birds answered the music of fountains with their songs. And yet, when you have seen all this, you have not seen the best part of it: for the house has been so wonderfully contrived, that it is full of mysterious closets, storehouses, and secret drawers, all locked by magic keys, or fastened by concealed springs; and each one is filled with something precious or useful or beautiful to look at,—piles upon piles, and heaps upon heaps of wonderful stores. Every thing that the children could want, or dream of wanting, is laid up here; but yet they are not to be told any thing about it. They are to be put into this delightful home, and left to find it all out for themselves.

At first, you know, they will only play. They will roll on the soft carpets, and listen to the fountain and the birds, and wander from room to room to see new beauties everywhere; but some day a boy, full of curiosity, prying here and there into nooks and corners, will touch one of the hidden springs; a door will fly open, and one storehouse of treasures will be revealed. How he will shout, and call upon his brothers and sisters to admire with him; how they will pull out the treasures, and try to learn how to use the new and strange materials. What did my father mean this for? Why did he give that so odd a shape, or so strange a covering? And so through many questions, and many experiments, they learn at last how to use the contents of this one storehouse. But do you imagine that sensible children, after one such discovery, would rest satisfied? Of course they would explore and explore; try every panel, and press every spring, until, one by one, all the closets should be opened, and all the treasures brought out. And then how could they show their gratitude to the dear father who had taken such pains to prepare this wonderful house for them? The least they could do would be to try to use every thing for the purposes intended, and not to destroy or injure any of the precious gifts prepared so lovingly for their use.

Now, God, our loving Father, has made for us, for you and for me and for little Madge and Jenny, and for all the grown people and children too, just such a house. It is this earth on which we live. You can see the blue roof, and the arched ceilings of the rooms, with their canopy of leaves and drooping boughs, and the velvet-covered floors, and the lights and birds and fountains; but do you know any of the secret closets? Have you found the key or spring of a single one, or been called by your mother or father or brother or sister to take a peep into one of them?

If you have not, perhaps you would like to go with me to examine one that was opened a good many years ago, but contains such valuable things that the uses of all of them have not yet been found out, and their beauty is just beginning to be known.

The doorway of this storehouse lies in the side of a hill. It is twice as wide as the great barn-door where the hay-carts are driven in; and two railroad-tracks run out at it, side by side, with a little foot-path between them. The entrance is light, because it opens so wide; but we can see that the floor slopes downward, and the way looks dark and narrow before us. We shall need a guide; and here comes one,—a rough-looking man, with smutty clothes, and an odd little lamp covered with wire gauze, fastened to the front of his cap. He is one of the workmen employed to bring the treasures out of this dark storehouse; and he will show us, by the light of his lamp, some of the wonders of the place. Walk down the sloping foot-path now, and be careful to keep out of the way of the little cars that are coming and going on each side of you, loaded on one side, and empty on the other, and seeming to run up and down by themselves. But you will find that they are really pulled and pushed by an engine that stands outside the doorway and reaches them by long chains. At last we reach the foot of the slope; and, as our eyes become accustomed to the faint light, we can see passages leading to the right and the left, and square chambers cut out in the solid hill. So this great green hill, upon which you might run or play, is inside like what I think some of those large ant-hills must be,—traversed by galleries, and full of rooms and long passages. All about we see men like our guide, working, by the light of their little lamps. We hear the echoing sound of the tools; and we see great blocks and heaps that they have broken away, and loaded into little cars that stand ready, here and there, to be drawn by mules to the foot of the slope.

Now, are you curious to know what this treasure is? Have you seen already that it is only coal, and do you wonder that I think it is so precious? Look a little closer, while our guide lets the light of his lamp fall upon the black wall at your side. Do you see the delicate tracery of ferns, more beautiful than the fairest drawing. See, beneath your feet is the marking of great tree-trunks lying aslant across the floor, and the forms of gigantic palm-leaves strewed among them. Here is something different, rounded like a nut-shell; you can split off one side, and behold there is the nut lying snugly as does any chestnut in its bur!

Did you notice the great pillars of coal that are left to uphold the roof? Let us look at them; for perhaps we can examine them more closely than we can the roof, and the sides of these halls. Here are mosses and little leaves, and sometimes an odd-looking little body that is not unlike some of the sea-creatures we found at the beach last summer; and every thing is made of coal, nothing but coal. How did it happen, and what does it mean? Ferns and palms, mosses and trees and animals, all perfect, all beautiful, and yet all hidden away under this hill, and turned into shining black coal.

Now, I can very well remember when I first saw a coal fire, and how odd it looked to see what seemed to be burning stones. For, when I was a little girl, we always had logs of wood blazing in an open fireplace, and so did many other people, and coal was just coming into use for fuel. What should we have done, if everybody had kept on burning wood to this day? There would have been scarcely a tree left standing; for think of all the locomotives and engines in factories, besides all the fires in houses and churches and schoolhouses. But God knew that we should have need of other fuel besides wood, and so he made great forests to grow on the earth before he had made any men to live upon it. These forests were of trees, different in some ways from those we have now, great ferns as tall as this house, and mosses as high as little trees, and palm-leaves of enormous size. And, when they were all prepared, he planned how they should best be stored up for the use of his children, who would not be here to use them for many thousand years to come. So he let them grow and ripen and fall to the ground, and then the great rocks were piled above them to crowd them compactly together, and they were heated and heavily pressed, until, as the ages went by, they changed slowly into these hard, black, shining stones, and became better fuel than any wood, because the substance of wood was concentrated in them. Then the hills were piled up on top of it all; but here and there some edge of a coal-bed was tilted up, and appeared above the ground. This served for a hint to curious men, to make them ask "What is this?" and "What is it good for?" and so at last, following their questions, to find their way to the secret stores, and make an open doorway, and let the world in.

So much for the fuel; but God meant something else besides fuel when he packed this closet for his children. At first they only understood this simplest and plainest value of the coal. But there were some things that troubled the miners very much: one was gas that would take fire from their lamps, and burn, making it dangerous for men to go into the passages where they were likely to meet it. But by and by the wise men thought about it, and said to themselves, We must find out what useful purpose God made the gas for: we know that he does not make any thing for harm only. The thought came to them that it might be prepared from coal, and conducted through pipes to our houses to take the place of lamps or candles, which until that time had been the only light. But, after making the gas, there was a thick, pitchy substance left from the coal, called coal-tar. It was only a trouble to the gas-makers, who had no use for it, and even threw it away, until some one, more thoughtful than the others, found out that water would not pass through it. And so it began to be used to cover roofs of buildings, and, mixed with some other substances, made a pavement for streets; and being spread over iron-work it protected it from rust. Don't you see how many uses we have found for this refuse coal-tar? And the finest of all is yet to come; for the chemists got hold of it, and distilled and refined it, until they prepared from the black, dirty pitch lovely emerald-colored crystals which had the property of dying silk and cotton and wool in beautiful colors,—violet, magenta, purple, or green. What do you think of that from the coal-tar. When you have a new ribbon for your hat, or a pretty red dress, or your grandmamma buys a new violet ribbon for her cap, just ask if they are dyed with aniline colors; and if the answer is "Yes," you may know that they came from the coal-tar. Besides the dyes, we shall also have left naphtha, useful in making varnish, and various oils that are used in more ways than I can stop to tell you, or you would care now to hear. If your Cousin Annie has a jet belt-clasp or bracelet, and if you find in aunt Edith's box of old treasures an odd-shaped brooch of jet, you may remember the coal again; for jet is only one kind of lignite, which is a name for a certain preparation of coal.

But here is another surprise of a different kind. You have seen boxes of hard, smooth, white candles with the name paraffine marked on the cover. Should you think the black coal could ever undergo such a change as to come out in the form of these white candles? Go to the factory where they are made, and you can see the whole process; and then you will understand one more of God's meanings for coal.

And all this time I have not said a word about how, while the great forests lay under pressure for millions of years, the oils that were in the growing plants (just as oils are in many growing plants now) were pressed out, and flowed into underground reservoirs, lying hidden there, until one day not many years ago a man accidentally bored into one. Up came the oil, spouting and running over, gushing out and streaming down to a little river that ran near by. As it floated on the surface of the water (for oil and water will not mix, you know), the boys, for mischief, set fire to it, and a stream of fire rolled along down the river; proving to everybody who saw it, that a new light, as good as gas, had come from the coal. Now those of us who have kerosene lamps may thank the oil-wells that were prepared for us so many years ago.

When your hands or lips are cracked and rough from the cold, does your mother ever put on glycerine to heal them? If she does, you are indebted again to the coal oil, for of that it is partly made.

And now let me tell you that almost all the uses for coal have been found out since I was a child; and, by the time you are men and women, you may be sure that as many more will be discovered, if not from that storehouse, certainly from some of the many others that our good Father has prepared for us, and hidden among the mountains or in the deserts, or perhaps under your very feet to-day; for thousands of people walked over those hills of coal, before one saw the treasures that lay hidden there. I have only told you enough to teach you how to look for yourselves; a peep, you know, is all I promised you. Sometime we may open another door together.

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