Page:A Lady's Cruise in a French Man-of-War.djvu/295

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—no easy matter, considering what ponderous monsters many of the clams are—a single shell making an admirable bath for a child, pure as white marble, and highly polished by nature. In many Roman Catholic churches these large shells are used for holy water. The smaller clams, such as are generally used for food, are often picked up on the reef in basket-loads; and many a careless child has playfully thrust its little fingers into a gaping shell, an invasion promptly resented by the owner. Happily the scream of agony generally brings some friends to the rescue: and strong as is the armour of the poor besieged clam, it offers one weak point to the enemy—namely, the cavity through which the byssus passes; a skilful stab through this aperture causes the inmate to relax its hold, and so the child is released—but many a finger is lost in this manner. The multitude of these shell-fish annually consumed on all the isles is something incredible, and the supply is apparently inexhaustible. It is not generally known that these shells also occasionally yield very valuable and lustrous pearls of peculiar brilliancy.

But the treasury of the sea, which lies safe beyond the reach of covetous human beings, is that clean coral-sand which glimmers far below the coral-caves where the oysters congregate, and to which, for untold ages, have dropped the pearls which fell from the gaping shell, when the seven-year-old oyster, having lived his appointed time, melted away in his native brine, and let go the treasures he could no longer clasp. What a dream of delight, even in fancy, to gather up those

"Pale glistening pearls and rainbow-coloured shells,
Bright things that gleam unrecked of and in vain"!

I suppose the water-babies of these seas look upon pearls as we used to look on John o' Groats—probably with less reverence, as being so much more common; and perhaps they are right, for the one was only a disease, and the other a wondrously contrived little home.

One valuable creature which loves the white coral-sand as cordially as the pearl-oyster dreads it, is the black bêche-de-mer,[1] a

  1. Holothuroides. Chinese name, Tripang.