The fairy tales of science/The Gnomes

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The fairy tales of science by John Cargill Brough
The Gnomes
"The Gnomes"

The Gnomes.


"Day's dazzling light annoys,
Night's darkness only joys,
The cunning gnomes, who dwell
Deep underneath earth's shell." 

From the German.


Repair we to the home of the Gnomes—to the stalactite cavern, where Fancy may revel and Imagination soar! Where every hue of the rainbow, every sparkle of the gem, and every metal's sheen shall be reflected in the light of the torch we bear in our hands!

Before us, a perspective of brilliancy; a crystalline canopy overhead, which, in the torch flame, sparkles with a myriad diamond rays, and upon whose surface multitudes of sparry globules rival the charms of burnished gold.

Beauty and grace displayed everywhere: in the architecture of the stalactite columns which support the roof; in the simulated forms of altars, trees, and stony organ-barrels which meet our gaze on every side; and in the grouping of the transparent tubes which depend from the ceiling, now hanging singly like monster icicles, now clustering into elegant chandeliers, and now twirling in spiral and festoon, imitating the most elaborate Gothic tracery.

Passing onward through antechambers and corridors of seeming porphyry and jasper, our ears are saluted by the trickle and fall of large heavy drops of water, the only sounds to be heard in this vast and wonderful Gnome Palace. Now we reach a vaulted chamber, the roof of which is sustained by arches springing from pillars of every form and colour. The floor is inlaid with chequered slabs; the walls are composed of broken and detached masses of rock, piled one upon another in picturesque irregularity; while high above us fantastic forms of stalactite are arranged with a grandeur beyond the workmanship of mortal.

We enter another apartment still more magnificent. Its walls are of purple marble, embellished with branching sprays of rock crystal, which, on the purple ground, assume the hue of the amethyst. The festoons of jewelled flowers, and the brilliant scroll-work of the ceiling; the cascades of crystal suddenly arrested into rigidity, and the uneven pavement of gold and red, green and azure, underneath our feet, combine to produce an effect of unparalleled grandeur. Our eyes are dazzled by the scene, and our footsteps are arrested by a vague terror born of so much weird beauty, while our mind is enthralled by its presence.

We are deep, deep down in the bowels of the earth, trespassers in the land of the creatures whom "light annoys." Shall we extinguish our torch, and so allow the thick darkness to fall upon us like a pall? Shall we restore to these subterranean chambers their native gloom? And shall we invoke, by such an act, the presence of those weird beings whom "darkness joys?"

The consequence of our deed would be, not an apparition of the gnomes, but the loss of the track by which we entered these gorgeous caverns now grim and gloomy. Our danger would thus be in the absence of living creatures, and not in their presence. Science, which wars against ignorance on the earth above, has descended to these depths to strike the sceptre from the hand of the Gnome King, and to banish his subjects to the mysterious regions of No-man's-land, leaving only these jewelled caves to astonish and delight us.

The old story-tellers, whose rich and active fancy peopled the air with sylphs, and the waters with nymphs, created the gnomes to be the guardians of the untold wealth of these subterranean realms. Queer little fellows were these underground people, and wonderful stories have been related of them. In the night, when mortals were fast asleep, they would sometimes ascend to the moon-lit surface of the earth, and dance about the hills till cock-crow. Some say that they had no music but howling and whimpering, and that the sounds which proceeded from their midnight assemblies were often mistaken for the cries of children and the mewing of cats. They were jet black and hideously ugly, having misshapen bodies, large heads, and great round eyes, always red as if from weeping; nor was their ill-favoured appearance redeemed by a sweetness of disposition, as they were invariably crabbed and malicious. We are told that they were cunning workers in metals, and that the swords manufactured by them, were as flexible as rushes, and as hard as diamonds. The gnomes figured in our illustration must be the last of their race; indeed, we are inclined to believe that those quaint dwarfs are merely creations of our artist's fancy.

The reader, however, must not suppose that the description we have given of the Gnome Palace is the offspring of imagination. Such caverns do really exist beneath the surface of this planet, and their fantastic architecture is the result of the percolation of water through limestone; their pillars, arches, and stony icicles having been moulded out of the calcareous matter which the fluid dissolved while infiltrating through the fissures and cavities of overlying beds of rock.

The Grotto of Antiparos, in the Grecian Archipelago, is a gnome palace quite as wonderful as that we have just pictured. Countless stalactites depending from above, together with an indescribable accumulation of crystallized masses on the walls, ornament a chamber with an arched roof upwards of one hundred and twenty feet in length. The floor of this cavern is paved with polished marble of a delicate green colour, and the columns which appear to support the roof seem to be formed of a deep burning-red porphyry. But this cavern is merely the entrance-hall of the subterranean palaces; the principal apartment or throne-room is incomparably more gorgeous. At a depth of fifteen hundred feet below the surface of the earth, the traveller finds himself in a grotto whose height is one hundred feet, while it extends to a length of three hundred and forty feet. Here the pillars are of yellow marble; petrifactions resembling snakes, trees, and shrubs abound; and in some places icicles of pure white glistening marble depend from the roof, to a length of ten feet. The tales told of this awe-inspiring gnome palace have assumed the tone of the wildest romance; and its diamond-spangled caves and walls of ruby have been described with all the vividness of over-wrought imagination. Nevertheless, all this wondrous architecture—all these wild and fantastic forms, and every phenomenon attending the production of the roofs, sides, and floors of these caverns, can be accounted for, as we have said, by the percolation of water, clear as crystal, but charged with calcareous material.

In these caverns we discover stalactites in every stage of growth, and are thus enabled to conceive how a single specimen is formed. A drop of water holding a quantity of limestone in solution hangs from the roof, and as the fluid evaporates the calcareous matter is left behind. In course of time a little conical button of spar is formed; and as fresh, matter is constantly being deposited from the water which trickles over it, this button gradually assumes the form of a long stony icicle. Again, the water that falls upon the floor of the cavern, instead of hollowing out a cup-shaped cavity by its continued action during long ages, gradually builds up the accumulation termed the stalagmite, which, rising from the floor, eventually meets the descending stalactite, and thus helps to form a graceful column. When the lapidifying water oozes through a long joint or crevice in the roof, it forms a beautiful transparent curtain of spar; and when it percolates through the sides of the cave, it deposits its calcareous particles in the form of a frozen cascade.

All the sparry ornaments of these underground palaces were formerly held to be the handiwork of the gnomes; and in the present day, those "vacant of our glorious gains" in knowledge, would doubtless regard this opinion with more favour than that which ascribes the fantastic architecture of the caverns to the formative power of a myriad trickling drops of water.

Out of Gnome-land, solid marble is deposited by exactly the same process, wherever water holding carbonate of lime in solution is brought into circumstances favourable to rapid evaporation. Sticks and twigs hanging over brooks often become coated with calcareous matter; and the incrustation of birds' nests, medallions, moss, and even old wigs, by the action of the petrifying springs of Derbyshire, is known to every one who has visited that romantic and interesting county.

In Italy large masses of solid and beautiful travertine[1] are deposited by some of the springs; and in the famous Lake of the Solfatara, the formation of this stone is so rapid, that insects as well as the plants and shell-fish are frequently incrusted and destroyed. A considerable number of edifices in Italy, both ancient and modern, are constructed of stone thus formed. The Cyclopean walls and temples of Paestum, and the Colosseum at Rome, are built of huge blocks of travertine, which must have been deposited particle by particle, in lakes similar to that of the Solfatara.

But the most remarkable instance of the rapid formation of marble occurs in Persia. The beautiful transparent stone called Tabreez marble is formed by deposition from the water of a celebrated spring which rises near Maragha. Here the process of petrifaction may be traced from its first beginning to its termination. In one part the water is perfectly clear; in another dark, muddy, and stagnant; in a third it is quite black, and very thick; while in the last stage it is as white as snow. The petrified ponds look like frozen water; a stone thrown upon them breaks the crust, and a black fluid exudes through the opening; but when the process of petrifaction has reached a certain stage, a man may walk upon the surface without wetting his shoes. The stony mass is finely laminated, and a section of it resembles an accumulation of sheets of coarse paper. Such is the constant tendency of this water to solidify, that the very bubbles on its surface become hard, as if, by a stroke of magic, they had been arrested and metamorphosed into marble.

Return we to our subterranean regions, promising that Ave will not ascend to the surface again unless such a course should appear absolutely necessary to the elucidation of our subject. In Gnome-land there are other wonders besides the capacious caverns, with their glancing roofs and walls and clustering stalactite columns. The hidden treasures of the earth—or, in more ordinary language, "the bowels of the earth"—are only to be exceeded in their wondrous accumulation and occurrence by their vastness and value. The gnomes were formerly held to be the legitimate guardians of these treasures; and for the sake of our fairy tale, we will suppose this view to be founded on facts. As mere story-tellers, we may create just as many giants, fairies, or gnomes as we please, even though we think fit to destroy them afterwards. Let us therefore people our stalactite cavern with elves like those to which our artist's fancy has given birth.

What a wonderful scene meets our mental vision! The grotto is filled with active little beings, all busily employed in different operations connected with mining and metallurgy. On every side there are miniature forges, and the ceaseless clatter of innumerable tiny hammers is absolutely deafening. Each little smith wields his sledge with a superhuman energy, and never seems to require rest. Some of the gnomes are digging holes in the marble floor, and others are carrying away the excavated material in little wheelbarrows, the like of which would make a toyman's fortune. In one part of the cave a crowd of miners are very hard at work with spade and pickaxe, while others near them are turning a windlass, by the action of which a little tram is drawn up from the floor of the cavern to the roof, and probably much higher, as it passes through a fissure and remains out of sight for some time. When it descends, it is either empty or freighted with gnomes who come to relieve their brethren at the windlass. Some of these underground people are chipping shapeless minerals into regular geometric crystals; others are polishing fragments of spar; others are casting metals into beautiful arborescent forms. To describe all the various occupations of these elves would take up too much time, and we are therefore compelled to leave much to the reader's imagination.

The poet tells us that "dazzling light annoys" the gnomes, but this statement is far from being true. The cavern is illuminated not by torches or candles, but by the crystals with which its walls and roof are studded. Each crystal is a lamp, every cluster a dazzling chandelier, and the scintillation of myriads of these natural lamps, produces an effect of indescribable brilliancy.

But see, here comes an aristocratic gnome, arrayed in a tunic of asbestos, and wearing a cap formed of precious stones. He sits on a little stalagmite, and looks up at us with an impudent air, as though he thought us very inferior beings. This conceited little jackanapes has evidently something to say to us, so we will assume a becoming gravity, and endeavour to become attentive listeners.

"I am the chief guardian of the jewels. To me is entrusted the care of the sparkling diamond, the flaming ruby, the cerulean sapphire, the green emerald, the yellow topaz, the purple-streaming amethyst, and all the precious stones which you mortals prize so highly." His small mightiness pauses for a moment, probably to give us time to form an adequate idea of his immense importance.

"As you have been permitted to enter our abode," he continues, "I will reveal to you a few secrets concerning the treasures I guard. You are doubtless aware that the diamond is merely a bit of crystallized charcoal; but I trust you do not think meanly of this princely gem on that account. Were you to estimate the value of things by their composition, the finest marble and the coarsest chalk would be placed on an equality: or to choose an example from human nature, the wisest philosopher would be no better than the greatest dunce. The diamond is my most precious charge. It surpasses all other gems in hardness and lustre, and its beauty and rarity have rendered it peculiarly attractive to you men. My richest diamond beds are situated in the Brazils and in Bengal, but I have scattered these gems over many parts of the world. They may be found in alluvial deposits of sand and gravel, lying in detached octohedral crystals, sometimes with plain, but more frequently with rounded surfaces. When perfectly pure a diamond is as transparent as a drop of the purest water, in which state it is known to you who live overhead as a diamond of the first water; and in proportion as it falls short of this perfection it is said to be of the second, third, or fourth water, till it becomes a coloured one. Coloured diamonds are brown, yellow, green, blue, or red, the deeper the colour the more valuable they are, though still inferior to those absolutely colourless. Many of my largest diamonds have fallen into the hands of man. The famous Koh-i-noor, or Mountain of Light, was removed from the mines of Golconda more than three hundred years ago; but, though it was thus taken out of my keeping, I never lost sight of it, and I was extremely pleased to see it pass into the possession of the Queen of England.

"A slight sketch of the history of this remarkable jewel may, perhaps, be interesting to you. It was first brought to light by the miners of Golconda, in the year 1550, and became the property of the reigning prince. When the Mogul princes extended their pretensions to the sovereignty of the Deccan, the Koh-i-noor passed from Golconda to Delhi, where it was seen in 1665 by the French traveller, Tavernier, who, by the extraordinary indulgence of Aurungzebe, was permitted to handle, examine, and weigh it. In the year 1739, Nadir Shah, the Persian invader, seized the precious jewel and carried it back with him; but it was destined to pass from Persia as quickly as that ephemeral supremacy in virtue of which it had been acquired. Soon after his return the Persian conqueror was assassinated by his own subjects, and the great diamond was carried off by Ahmed Shah.

"At the commencement of the present century, the treasures of Ahmed were vested in Zemaun Shah, who was deposed and imprisoned by his brother, Shah Shuja. For some time the Koh-i-noor was missing, but at length it was discovered ingeniously secreted in the walls of Zemaun Shah's prison. When Shah Shuja was expelled from Cabul by the British, he contrived to make this far-famed diamond the companion of his flight. He found refuge at the court of Runjeet Singh, who demanded the jewel in return for his protection, and thus the great diamond of the Moguls became the property of the warlike chief of the Sikhs. You must be aware that the Koh-i-noor formed part of the spoil taken by the English in the Sikh war; that it was one of the chief attractions of your Great Exhibition in 1851; and that it has since been recut and placed among the jewels of your queen.

"Such is the history of that marvellous gem which, in point of size, is still without a rival, though cutting has reduced it to little more than one-third of its original weight.[2] You would probably like to know something about the previous history of this stone. I could tell you how it was originally formed, and how it came to be deposited with the gravel and sand of Golconda, but I have my own reasons for keeping these matters secret. Science will one day enable you to solve many problems connected with the formation of gems, and will perhaps teach you how to manufacture Koh-i-noors from coal or charcoal. Till then I shall keep my own counsel.

"Many of the jewels under my care are composed of alumina, and bear the same relation to clay, that the diamond bears to coal. Of these aluminous gems the rubies are the most valuable on account of their extreme rarity, their matchless hues, and the brilliant stars of light which they exhibit when viewed in certain directions. The sapphire, another of my precious charges, is merely a blue variety of the same substance as that which, when red, is called ruby.

"Flint, or silica, forms the base of innumerable mineral treasures. Quartz is formed of pure silica, and is often found crystallized in beautiful six-sided prisms, ending in six-sided pyramids. When coloured by slight admixtures of other substances, such as iron and manganese, quartz goes under various names, according to the variety and arrangement of colours, crystalline form, and state of transparency. When purple, it is called amethyst, and is highly prized by you mortals; smoky quartz is called cairngorm; when blue, it is known as siderite; and when yellow, as Scotch or Bohemian topaz. Agate, jasper, carnelian, onyx, chalcedony and opal, are merely varieties of the same abundant substance. The emerald, again, one of the most esteemed gems, is nothing but transparent flint, coloured green by oxide of chromium.

"My time is precious, and although I have given you but an imperfect idea of the mineral treasures that I have to guard, I must now leave you, as my presence is required at the diamond mines of Brazil. The inferior gnomes under my control are continually engaged in building up new minerals, in filling empty veins with spar, in polishing crystals, and in performing a thousand mysterious processes of a chemical or electrical nature. It is no easy task, I can assure you, to superintend these countless operations, and I need scarcely tell you that my time is fully occupied—so, farewell!" The gnome takes off his jewelled cap, makes a low bow, and disappears.

But here comes another little fellow, in far more splendid habiliments than those of the guardian of the gems. He wears a complete suit of armour, every plate of which is formed of a different metal. His helmet is of gold, and surmounted by a graceful plume, formed entirely of the finest conceivable silver wire. Everything about him is metallic, and so highly polished, that our eyes are fairly dazzled by the apparition. As he walks towards us, his armour makes a pleasant jingling noise; and as he sits down on the stalagmite vacated by his brother gnome, we hear such a crash, that we half expect to see the elaborate suit of metal tumble into pieces.

"I come to speak to you of the real treasures of the earth, and not of those useless bodies misnamed precious stones. I am the keeper of the metals, those wonderful substances which have been such important aids to human progress, and without which, indeed, any high degree of civilization were impossible. Unlike the jewels guarded by the boastful gnome who vanished as I approached, the metals are not merely ornamental, for you must be aware that they are essential to every process connected with the tilling of the soil, the building of houses and temples, the construction of roads, the manufacture of clothing, the navigation of seas—to every art, in fine, which elevates man above the condition of the brute.

"I will not attempt to describe the properties of the various metals confided to my care, nor will I speak of the uses to which, they are applied by man, for surely you ought to know more about human works than a gnome. I shall merely allude to the states in which the metals occur in these subterranean regions, for you must know that they are seldom to be met with in a state of purity." The little man of metal now takes off his helmet, and, drawing his tiny legs under him into a comfortable position, speaks as follows:—

"The metals nearly always occur in the crude state of ores. These ores are sulphides, oxides, and carbonates mingled with earthy impurities, generally situated in fissures or rents in the rocks, which are called veins or lodes. I may as well inform you at once, that these fissures are produced by the upheaval and depression of the rocks which they traverse. The internal fires of this wonderful planet sometimes exert a force sufficient to raise vast masses of rock, of unknown but immense thickness, from the bottom of the sea high into the air, in order to form dry land; you may easily imagine, therefore, that this force is also sufficient to crack and rend the earth's crust in every direction, and thus form the veins in which the metallic ores are deposited.

"The respective metals do not always lie in separate veins, for though one metal generally predominates, three, four, or even more metals may be strangely combined and intermixed in the same veinstone; thus, the vein which contains lead as the principal metal, frequently contains small quantities of silver, zinc, and cobalt; manganese is often associated with iron, while platinum is usually mixed with gold. Besides the ores of metals, these veins almost always contain quartz, fluorspar, crystalline carbonate of lime, and other spars.

"Ores and spars, however, are not confined to the deep fissures that occur in the earth's crust. They find their way into all kinds of cracks and cavities, whatever may have been the cause of the hollows, and even into detached holes, often no larger than your fist, and completely surrounded by solid rock. Wherever, indeed, permanent hollows and interstices of any kind, size, shape, or origin exist in hard rocks, crystallized minerals, spars, and ores may be formed in them.

"How do these matters reach the cavities, is a problem which you will perhaps expect me to solve, but if so you will be disappointed. A number of clever mortals are striving to arrive at the true solution of this mysterious question, and were I to tell you all I know, I should be robbing some future philosopher of the fame that will accrue from a great discovery. I will, however, give you one or two hints, which may help you to form some conception of the mode in which the veins and isolated cavities may be filled.

"Look around at these walls of crystal, these pillars of porphyry, this floor of marble, and these hanging stalactites! All these things have been formed since this cavern was hollowed out by the disturbing forces of nature. How did they find their way hither, you will perhaps ask. They came by water, not in large masses, but particle by particle, dissolved in the minute drops of fluid which percolated through the rocks overhead. May not the minerals have been introduced into the rock-cavities by water also? May not each detached and isolated nest of minerals be a miniature stalactite cavern?

"If the mineral contents of veins have not been deposited from aqueous solutions, they may have been introduced by sublimation. Many of the metals can be converted into vapour by intense heat; and provided it be possible for mineral vapours to gain access to fissures in rocks, it is not impossible for some of them to be condensed and deposited on the sides of the lodes.

"Gold ranks first among the metals, though its rarity renders it of less importance to man than some of the less perfect ones. This kingly metal occurs in almost every quarter of the globe, and is obtained by the miner either in the metallic or native state, from alluvial sands and gravels, or from veins in combination with silver, and often mixed with sulphides of other metals. In its native state it occurs in small crystals, in threads, or granular fragments, and in curiously shaped nuggets.

"Silver is a still more widely disseminated product of nature, occurring in veins in granitic mountains, and in the most ancient sedimentary rocks. It is sometimes found in a native state, though less frequently than gold.

"Iron is far more valuable than either of the so-called precious metals, and its ores are scattered over the crust of the globe with a beneficent profusion proportionate to the utility of the metal. One of your best authors has well remarked, that he who first made known the use of iron may be truly styled the father of arts and author of plenty.

"What miserable creatures you mortals would be without this marvellous substance! Banish the ploughshare, the anchor, and the needle from the world, and there would be an end to agriculture, to navigation, and to the fashioning of clothes. You would be reduced to the state of barbarism, and in your naked and forlorn condition your time would be fully occupied in seeking your scanty meal of acorns, and in paddling about in your rude canoe, intent upon spearing a stray fish with your wooden lance. You would cease to be interested in 'The Fairy Tales of Science,' and 'the long result of time' could have no possible attraction for a hungry savage like you.

"Copper, lead, and tin, are also estimable treasures; indeed, there is not a single metal which has not contributed, or at any rate may not contribute, to man's comfort and happiness. Look upon me as the friend of the human race, for it is I who superintend the filling of the veins with ores, and all the metallurgical operations of nature's laboratory. But here is another gnome who, despite his ugliness, has quite as great a claim to your respect as I have. I leave you with him." So saying, the armour-clad spirit vanishes in a most mysterious manner, before we can shape our grateful thoughts into words.

The gnome who now seats himself on the sparry throne is a sombre-looking little imp, with something so repulsive, and at the same time something so ludicrous, in his whole appearance, that we are undecided whether we ought to run away or burst out laughing. His ugly face wears a very comical expression, and is as black as jet. His crooked body is clothed in a suit of shining black; his legs are black, his feet are black; in fine, he is black all over. But what renders this strange being so terrible, is a circle of flames which surrounds his head and forms a sort of fiery crown.

"I am the gnome of the coal-measures," says the little blackamoor; "those wondrous accumulations of ancient vegetable matter that abound in these subterranean realms. I need not tell you that coal is one of the greatest treasures hidden in the bowels of the earth. By it man heats his apartments, cooks his food, fuses the metals, and produces steam, which sets all kinds of machinery in motion. With it he feeds his iron horses, which drag him from place to place with the velocity of the wind; and with it he raises an agent that propels his ships along the pathless deep against wind and tide.

"You are familiar with the general aspect and nature of coal, and are doubtless aware that it is almost wholly composed of the element, carbon. Were I to describe the immense varieties of coal that occur in nature, you would not thank me for my trouble, and would probably fall asleep long before I reached the end of my list. These different varieties of coal may, however, be grouped under three heads:—anthracite, ordinary or pit coal, and brown coal or lignite.

"Anthracite is a natural coke or charcoal, and may be regarded as the most completely mineralized form of coal. If you handle a piece of this substance, you will find that it does not soil the fingers like ordinary coal, that it is much heavier, and that it has a glistening and semi-metallic aspect. It is not easily ignited, but when burning gives out a fierce heat, and neither flames nor smokes.

"Ordinary coal has many varieties, which, however, may be classified into four kinds. The first kind is called caking-coal, from its fusing or running together on the fire, so as to form clinkers. Splint or hard coal comes next, which is not easily broken, nor is it easily kindled, though it affords a clear and lasting fire when once ignited. Cherry or soft coal, is an abundant and beautiful kind, and highly prized by mortals. It does not cake when heated, it can be broken with ease, and it readily catches fire, requiring but little stirring, and giving out a cheerful flame and heat. Another kind is called cannel coal. It is always compact, and does not soil the fingers. It varies much in appearance, from a dull earthy to a lustrous wax-like substance. The bright shining varieties often burn away like wood, leaving scarcely any cinders and only a little white ash, while the duller kinds leave white masses of ash, almost equal in size and shape to the original lumps of coal. Jet, of which you make necklaces and bracelets, is merely an extreme variety of cannel coal.

"Brown coal, or lignite, is a substance of comparatively recent formation, and it sometimes exhibits the structure of the plants from which it is derived, the trunks and branches being plainly perceptible. This brown coal is only had recourse to where there are no older beds beneath, or where they are too far down to be reached by the miner.

"Although you mortals are constantly consuming vast quantities of coal in your stoves, fire-places, and engine-furnaces, I give you my word that there is quite enough in the earth's crust to supply all your wants for thousands of years to come. Many of the great coal-fields are as yet untouched, for until the wood of a new country is used, and civilization has made some progress, man never dreams of looking for his fuel in Gnome-land."

Where have we been? To Gnome-land, or to dream-land? The cavern and all its weird inhabitants have vanished. We are sitting at our desk, with a text-book of mineralogy open before us, the source from which our fairy tale proceeded.


  1. The term travertine is derived from the Tiber, its literal signification being Tiber-stone.
  2. In its rough state the Koh-i-noor is said to have weighed nearly 800 carats—a carat being 3 1/6 troy grains.