"S 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 shells."
"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 man's life."
"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 mother-of-pearl."
"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."