"T HIS 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 right!"
"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 sands.
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.
Yet delicious—unspeakably 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!"
As the 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 themselves.
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 danger.
"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.
"Still 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, no 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 secrets 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:
"The 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 inhabitant, 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 wont.
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 hearing.
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 death.
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.