"What's that for?" the boy asked.
"So that we can look at the reefs at their own level," was the reply. "No matter how much you allow for refraction and foreshortening, you'll find it almost impossible to get correct values by studying a reef from the top only. You know how queer a place looks in a picture that has been taken from an aeroplane?"
"Yes," the boy answered.
"That's what we've got to avoid here. We are looking down on the reefs just as an aviator looks down on a city. This glass, however, will give me the proper perspective. You see I have made it something like a telescope so that I can add segment after segment and watch conditions even in fairly deep water. Now I'll show you how I'm going to manage it."
He took the long L glass with which he was working and fastened it by little hooks to the direct overhead glass which Colin was using, and as he did so the boy noticed that the two glasses were so arranged that they focussed at the same point of the reef, only that one viewed it from above, the other from the side. A little device worked by a thumbscrew varied the angle in proportion to the depth.
"Now," he was instructed, "draw in and color—as well as you know how—everything you see in the field of your glass. You've got all day to do it in, so there's no need for hurry. Remember, I don't want the color you think the sea-fans and other forms would be out of the water, but the color that they seem to you to be when looked at through the water."
"But I don't draw so awfully well, Mr. Collier," said Colin.
"You don't need to," was the reply, "it's the color that I want. There isn't a tint known that you can't find in those pastels and I want it as exact as you can get it. I'm going to do the same thing, you see, only from the side. The light will cause a good deal of difference, and I want to determine just how the shadows fall."
The boy had never had such crayons to work with and he was naturally a good colorist. He became so absorbed that he was quite unaware of the passage of time and it was with something of a surprise that he heard the announcement of lunch. This was due to Early Bird, who, seeing that it was after noon, had unpacked the hamper and set out a good meal. Both artists dined heartily and Early Bird was not forgotten when the artists returned to their drawings. But although Colin worked as hard as he could, it was four o'clock before he felt that he had finished. The museum expert was also still at work when the sun began to fail to give a sufficiently direct light to pierce the water. Colin was eager to see his companion's sketch, but this was denied him.
"No," he was told. "We're coming here to-morrow, and I want you to do what I was doing to-day, while I do the overhead view."
"What's that for, Mr. Collier?" queried Colin, again.
"No two people see color values just alike," was the reply, "and while of course I don't expect you to make a perfect picture, still if your coloring and mine agree, we are nearly sure to have exactly the right shade."
"But if they don't?"
"Then we have two color conceptions, and it is easy for a third person to say which looks the most real to him. Early Bird, for example, could tell which looked the best to him, although, of course, he could not describe the color."
"Then we're coming back here to-morrow?"
"If the wind is suitable, yes."
Colin was simply aching with eagerness to see the other drawing but had to be content with the promise that he could see it as soon as he had done the duplicate, and not before, as he might be prejudiced thereby. Before going home that day they dropped as a marker a heavy lead disk about six inches across, painted white, to which was attached a buoy, so that they could find the identical place again; and the following morning, when they came out, the buoy was picked up without difficulty and the boat moored as before.
The second day on the reefs was an exact counterpart of the first, except that Colin found it much more difficult to work through the L glass. To look down at a picture which was reflected sidewise made the drawing of it quite tricky until he caught the knack. Also, shadows under the water did not behave the same way as above. But, as before, the entire day was given to it, and though the boy had a headache when evening came, he had turned out a very respectable piece of work. The fun came in comparing them.
"You're somewhat of an impressionist," the curator said, as he examined Colin's two pictures carefully, "and you've succeeded in making your sketches look more submarine than I have. But I think your perspective is all out."
"I was afraid that it was," the boy replied, "though I tried hard to get it."
"What do you think of them, Early Bird?" the museum expert asked, "I won't tell you which is which."
The boatman, who had a full share of the intelligence and alertness characteristic of the Bermuda colored population, so excellently governed under British rule, examined the four pictures carefully and then said:
"Wa'al, sah, Ah think Ah like these two the best."
He handed back Mr. Collier's drawing of the reef from the side and the boy's sketch of the reef taken from above.
"I believe you're right, Early Bird," the scientist said, laughing, "the lad beat me out on that one." Then, as he put the drawings away in the portfolio he added, "And now we'll see how near we both came to the right thing."
"How?" queried the boy.
"We'll search a while for perfect specimens. A diver is coming along with us to-morrow and we're going to scour the reefs for fine specimens of coral, sea-anemones, sea-whips, black rods, purple fans, and all the rest of them. Those that we can preserve we will, but the sea-anemones we'll have to work on in the Aquarium on Agar's Island, where they have some magnificent specimens."
"In glass, you mean?" queried Colin. "I should like to see how that's done."
"Come to my laboratory in New York some time and I'll show you," his companion answered, "but I can't do that here. I have a specially prepared black paper here and I'll copy some of the anemone forms so that I can plan them in glass from my drawings. I'll go with you to-morrow, but after that you'll have to go out alone."
Accordingly, Colin and the diver went out with Early Bird every day for a week, Colin spending the entire day peering through the water glass for perfect specimens, which, when sighted, the diver would descend to get. He secured an especially fine example of a long-spined black and white striped sea-urchin, with spines nearly seven inches in length, a number of pale-blue starfish (an unusual color in that genus), and one superb sea-fan of a glowing purple color nearly five feet across. Of sea-anemones he found a large variety, and those he brought to the aquarium, where Mr. Collier was working steadily; several kinds of "sea-puddings," closely allied to the famous beche-de-mer—the table delicacy of China—also were within his discoveries. The boy's eyesight was keen, and the collecting fever found him an easy victim, but it was back-breaking work to stoop over the water glass all day.
After about a week of this, however, a surprise awaited him. He noticed, as they sailed into the bay, a very handsome steam yacht lying at anchor, a sea-going craft flying the New York Yacht Club's burgee. On his return to the hotel Colin found his chief waiting for him, a little impatiently.
"We're going to dinner on the Golden Falcon," he said, as soon as he saw the boy, "she belongs to a friend of mine. He is going down to Florida and has offered to take us along. If I can arrange it, that will save us at least a week's time."
"Bully, fine!" Colin exclaimed. "Is that the yacht down there?"
"She's a beauty. All right, Mr. Collier, I'll get ready just as fast as I can. And you ought to see a feather star I got to-day. It wasn't so awfully deep down either."
"I'll see it later," was the reply, "hurry and get ready now; I don't want to be late going over there. Their launch is to come at half-past six and it is twenty after now, so that you need to move as fast as you know how."
"Right, sir," answered Colin, and off he sped.
The yacht was the finest of its kind that the boy had ever boarded and he spent a very pleasant evening, the more so as the owner of the vessel had his family aboard, including his son Paul, a lad almost the same age as Colin. Mr. Murren was a wealthy capitalist, who had financed a chain of drug-stores throughout the country and still kept a large amount of stock in them. This corporation used many thousands of sponges annually, needing moreover a high-grade article which was found difficult to procure. It had been thought wise to investigate the question of buying a sponge farm, and he had been asked to look into the matter. Accordingly, he was taking a run down the coast, but had come first to see the American Vice Consul at Bermuda—to whom he was related by marriage.
"I heard a good deal about that sponge-farming business," said Colin, when the other boy told him this. "Dr. Crafts told me how it was worked."
"All the more reason for you to join us," his new friend responded. "I hope you're coming."
"I hope so, too," Colin answered, "and it's likely enough that we will, since you say your father has been kind enough to ask us. I think Mr. Collier has nearly finished what he wanted to do in Bermuda, and if you are going straight to Florida, it would save us a lot of time, as well as being a jolly trip in itself."
"Going to do more coral-hunting?" the other boy queried, for Colin had told him about his Bermuda work.
"A little of that, I think; but I believe Mr. Collier intends also to make an exhibit showing the way sponges grow. So you see he is as much interested as your father in reviewing the sponge question."
At this juncture Colin heard his name called.
"Yes, Mr. Collier," he answered.
"Do you think you have been over most of the reef?"
"Yes, sir, I think so," the boy answered; "Early Bird said yesterday that we had covered the sea-garden grounds fairly thoroughly. But, of course, there are miles of reef that we haven't seen."
"I think, Mr. Murren," the scientist said, turning to his host, "that I can finish up all my business here by to-morrow night and be ready for a start the following morning. If that's agreeable to you, we shall be very glad to accept your invitation."
"That's agreed, then," said the capitalist, "and now we'll have some music."
The trip to Florida on the Golden Falcon was one of the pleasantest Colin had ever known. The little craft fairly flew through the water. He liked his host and hostess immensely, both of whom were accomplished musicians, and he struck up quite a friendship with Paul. The capitalist's son, though but a month or two younger than Colin, was quite inclined to give the latter a little hero-worship. And it was significant of Colin's make-up that he was equally ready to take it. Little of note occurred on the voyage save that the yacht almost ran over a sunfish in the water, which turned a sluggish somersault and disappeared. What was of more interest to Colin and indeed to Paul also was the opportunity to use a very powerful microscope belonging to the museum curator and to find out about the almost invisible life of the ocean.
"You must remember," the scientist told them, "that these tiny forms, which look like the most wonderful figures in a fairyland of geometry, exist in such billions that as they die, their light shells fall through the sea like a perpetual rain. Some of them, too, are so very light that it takes them a month to sink to the bottom."
"But what can such tiny bits of things live on, Mr. Collier?" asked Paul; "other animals smaller still?"
"No, my boy," was the reply, "on plants called diatoms. There are over four thousand species of these plants known, which are so small that the microscopic animals readily engulf them. Where it is too cold for surface animal life, as in the Antarctic Ocean, these dead diatoms form the mud on the bottom of the ocean, and in the extremely deep parts, the sea-bed is red clay, but most of it is an 'ooze'—'Globigerina,' as it is called—made up of the shells of those very creatures you have now been seeing on that microscope slide. You drop in and see me at New York, boys," he added kindly, "and I'll show you some models I have made of them."
On arrival at Key West one of the first things that impressed itself upon Colin was the sponge wharf, where tens of thousands of sponges of every sort were drying in the hot September sun. The conversation had run upon sponges very frequently during the voyage, and Mr. Collier, who knew the subject thoroughly from a theoretical point of view, had been of great help to his host. But the economic and commercial side of the question was another matter. From this aspect Colin found that the remembrance of his conversation with Dr. Crafts in Washington stood him in good stead.
"As I understand it, Mr. Murren," he said, as they stood on the wharf together, waiting for an approaching boat, "the government looks on the business of growing sponges much as it does on the growing of wheat or any other form of farming, only it is called aquiculture instead of agriculture. Sponge planting isn't so very different from potato planting."
"It looks entirely different to me," the boy's host replied, as he went down the wharf steps. "I'm sorry Mr. Collier was called away this afternoon, but I may as well give a preliminary look over this sponge-farming business and you boys might as well come along. There's a man here who wants me to buy his sponge farm. Since Mr. Collier is here I'm not going to decide anything without his advice. He doesn't want you this afternoon, does he?"
Colin hesitated a moment.
"Not as far as I know, Mr. Murren," he answered.
"I wish you would come, then," urged the capitalist. "You've picked up some ideas in Washington which may be of help."
"I'll be glad to come, if you feel I'm any use to you," the boy replied, flattered at this evidence that he could be of service, "I was only afraid that I'd be in the way."
Colin followed Paul and his father into the boat, where was waiting a negro as black as the proverbial black hat, a local fisherman who had taken up sponge growing, and who, while shrewd enough for a business deal, knew little about sponges.
"You were saying that the Bureau of Fisheries is going to take up sponge-farming?" the prospective buyer asked. "Do you know what success the government has had so far?"
"Enough to show that it can be done and that's about all," the boy replied. "Before long, I think, the Bureau will have a station down on the Keys here and that will be one of the first questions they will probably take up. As I heard it put, the Bureau aims to farm every acre of water as thoroughly as every acre of land."
"That," said the capitalist, "is an ideal that gives all sorts of chances for development."
Presently the boatman stopped and, resting on his oars, said:
"Lots o' sponges hyeh, boss."
The would-be buyer took the water glass and looked through it at the bottom, but he was unaccustomed to the appearance of growing sponges and also to the use of a water glass, so that he gained little from it.
"I don't see any," he said.
"Aren't there any round liver-colored lumps, Mr. Murren?" the boy asked.
"Yes, there are lots of those," was the reply.
"Those are sponges."
"They don't look like it."
"They are, sir, though. A skeleton doesn't ever look just like a man. The sponge, as you use it in a bath, is just an animal's skeleton, or it may be of several animals that have grown together."
"Yo' suah o' that, boss?" asked the boatman. "I allus hear' dat a sponge was a plant—not any animal."
"It's an animal," Colin said shortly.
"But I thought," interjected Paul, "that the difference between a plant and an animal was that an animal can move around and a plant can't."
"Well, Paul," the boy answered, "the young of sponges are larvae which swim in the water by threshing with short hairs until they find something suitable to stick on. Lots of animals which become fixtures are free-swimming when young, oysters, for instance."
"Then a sponge doesn't seed itself, like a plant?"
"No, Mr. Murren," said Colin; "so far as I understand, the larvae, though of a very simple type, have a certain amount of choice. A seed has got to grow where it falls, or not at all, but a sponge larva, if it doesn't find a suitable place on the first thing it touches, can swim about blindly until it finds one that will do."
"Now about these sponges, Colin," his host said, impressed by the boy's clear though crude way of explaining himself, "look through the glass and tell me what you think about the bed."
"There are quite a lot of sponges there," the boy answered after a few minutes' examination, "some of good size, too, but a number of them are dead. See, the sand has drifted half over them. There's too much sand and too little rock."
"Should they have a rock bottom?" the manufacturer queried.
"Rock am de bes', suah," the owner of the ground put in, "but a li'l bit o' san' don' do no hahm. It shows dat de wateh am runnin'."
"Yes," said the boy, "the boatman is right there, Mr. Murren, sponges must be in a current after they have once taken hold. They can't swim around to get their food, so, like all the fixed forms of life, their food must come to them. If there is no current there is not enough food carried past for them to live on. If the current is too strong the sponge has to make an extra tough skeleton to brace itself against the rush of water and then it becomes too coarse for commercial use. Some of the polyps live on tiny animals with a lot of flint in their shells and the skeleton gets like glass. They call them glass sponges. Conditions have got to be just right for their development, they're a most particular sort of creature."
"But how do they feed?"
"A sponge is a jelly-like colony of cells with a fibrous skeleton," the boy explained; "the outside of him is toward the water and is full of small pores which branch all through his flesh and open at last into a big pore leading to the outside. All these pores are lined with tiny hairs that make a current of water go through the jelly-like flesh, which absorbs any microscopic life there may be. The water is taken in through the little pores and sent out through the big ones. Some sponge forms are of one animal, most are of colonies. But they are all on the same pattern, pumping water in and out again."
"Then is a growing sponge all full of jelly?" asked Paul.
"All that I have seen are," Colin replied.
"How do they get it out?"
"I c'n tell you 'bout that," interjected Pete. "A sponge is all slimy an' nasty. Yo' put him in de sun an' he dies quick an' all de slime runs out. Den yo' buries him in san' 'til his insides all decay. Den you puts him in a pon' an' takes him out, an' beats him wif a stick, lots o' times oveh, maybe, 'til all de jelly an' all de san' an' all de muck am out ob him. Den yo' wash him in fresh wateh 'til he's clean an' lets him dry an' he's done."
"But if sponges will reproduce themselves," the capitalist said, returning to his former point, "what is the need of planting them?"
"You don't have to work that way on their own beds, sir," the boy answered, "planting is done to get more out of the industry, using the sea bottom in shallow waters which now is lying unused."
"And you say only rocky land will do?"
"Any bottom that's hard enough to keep the sponge from being covered up, Mr. Murren. Soft sand will wash, mud will ooze up, and rank marine grass or seaweed will smother the young cells. But any hard bottom in warm salt water with a current is good for sponges."
"I see," was the rejoinder. "As you say, the situation is not unlike farming. You can either farm cultivated sponge land or plant uncultivated land."
"You can get land suitable for sponges for almost nothing, I suppose," Colin said, "and then if you had a small sponge ground you could plant a larger area from it."
"What do you think of this ground?"
The boy hesitated.
"I hardly think I know enough about it to say, Mr. Murren," he said; "you ought to get an expert."
"I'll get an expert before I pay cash," was the prompt answer, "but I want to know what you think."
"Well, then, sir," Colin answered, "I think it's good ground, but not good enough."
"Ah got a betteh one than this hyeh, boss," put in the boatman, "it's mah brotheh's, but he might be willin' to sell. Costs mo' than mine, though."
"Take us there," ordered the capitalist.
The boatman took to his oars with a will, but it was a long pull, almost an hour elapsing before he stopped, wiped his forehead on his arms, and said, as before:
"Lots o' sponges hyeh, boss."
At a nod from the prospective buyer, Colin took the water glass and watched the bottom carefully as the boatman rowed slowly over it. How the boy wished for the lenses in the glasses belonging to Mr. Collier which he had used in Bermuda! But still, though the afternoon was drawing on and the sun did not strike the water at the right angle, Colin could see that it was unusually fine sponge ground.
"Yes," he said, "that's more like."
Mr. Murren looked about him.
"How in the world do you know, Pete," he said to the boatman, "that this is your ground or anybody else's? I don't see any stakes or evidences of ownership."
"If Ah starts to haul up sponges on somebody else's groun' he'll come up and make me get off, suah," replied the boatman.
"But suppose he doesn't see you."
The boatman grinned.
"Dat certainly am his own lookout, boss," he said.
"What a cut-throat game," ejaculated the would-be buyer. "If a man bought a place he'd have to watch it all the time, then?"
"Thank you," was the reply, "I'll take some place in shallow water where I can build a house and hire some fellow to watch it and work it."
"Ain' no trouble hyeh," the boatman said, shrugging his shoulders, "ev'body wo'k his own patch."
"But how do you get the sponges?" was the query. "You have to dive for them, don't you?"
The boatman shook his head.
"Sometimes, if de wateh's mo' than fifty feet deep. Not of'en. See, Ah show you."
He reached under the forward thwart and pulled out a light three-pronged hook and fitted it to a jointed pole, screwing the two sections together so that it made one long pole of about twenty-four feet in length. He took the water glass and rowed the boat until it was directly over a sponge.
"Yo' all keep de boat dere a li'l while," he said to Colin, and the lad took the oars.
Then very deftly the boatman pushed the long unwieldy pole into the water and nicked a sponge from the bed, bringing it up intact. On reaching the surface it was seen to be slimy and with a milky fluid dripping from the bottom.
"That's a ripe sponge, you see, Mr. Murren," the boy said, pointing to the milky fluid; "the slimy stuff that's dropping is full of germs of young sponges all ready to grow and swim and fix to something and then become proper sponges."
"That may be a sponge," said the prospective buyer, "but it looks more like a piece of liver."
"Fine sponge, sah,—good yellow sponge," the boatman said, and Colin did not know enough either to affirm or deny.
"Now, Ah show yo' sheepswool sponge, quite diff'nt," the boatman said, and taking up his water glass he leaned over the edge.
Just as he did so, both Colin and his companion gave a cry.
The boatman looked around contemptuously.
"Nu'sing shahks," he said, "sleep all de time." He splashed his hand in the water and the sharks fled in all directions.
"You wouldn't feel that way if you had been in the water," hazarded the capitalist.
"Ah done ride on 'em," was the reply. "Lots o' boys 'round dese hyeh reefs think it fun to steal up ove' a lot o' nu'sing shahks, an' den dive down an' take a ride. Dey wouldn't bite nothin' biggeh than a sahdine."
"But you have got dangerous sharks here?"
"Yes, sah, you bet," the boatman answered; "dey was one ol' white shahk was a holy terror; he use' to show up hyeh reg'lah once a monf. Folks do say he eat up fo' men at diff'rent times."
"I thought Mr. Collier told us that those shark stories were exaggerated," said Paul, turning to Colin. "I didn't think so, now you see, they weren't."
"Oh, I guess the white shark is the real thing, all right," Colin answered. "Some fishermen found a fair-sized young sea lion almost whole in a shark's stomach about three years ago."
"That must have been the fish that swallowed Jonah," suggested Paul.
"He could have done it all right," the other boy agreed, "and he is about the only fish that could."
"There might be some in the bottom of the sea!"
"I don't think so, Paul. Mr. Collier told me on the steamer that in the very deepest parts of the ocean there were no fish, only worms and sea-cucumbers and things like that."
"If you'll listen a minute, sah," said the boatman, "yo'll heah somefin' wo'se than eveh come from de bottom ob de sea."
The two exclamations rang like one as the two boys strained into attention. They listened intently and then across the water came a whisking rushing sound followed by a deep 'boom' and a distant splash. It was several moments, too, before the swell from that splash reached the boat; when it did, the craft rocked noticeably.
"What is that?" asked Colin.
"Vampa, sah," answered the boatman, as he took his oars and started to row away in the opposite direction.
"Hold on a bit there," the sponge-buyer said, "I never saw a vampire. What does it look like?"
"Some calls 'em sea-bat or devil-ray," was the reply, "an' the're twenty, thirty feet 'cross sometimes. They looks lak a sting ray. Ah don' wan' to see 'em."
"Isn't that a harpoon down there in the boat?" the capitalist asked calmly.
"Yes, sah, oh, yes, sah, but Lordy, sah, yo' can' do nuffin wif a sea vampa. No, sah. Why, jes' oveh yondah dey was a big schooneh towed out to sea by a vampa."
"Yes, sah, a seven'y-ton schooneh. Yes, sah. He mus' ha' been a big fellah an' goin' swimmin' along he struck de anchoh chain wif his hohns. It made him mad, right mad, it did, an' he jes' heave up dat hyeh anchoh an' toted it off to sea, draggin' de ship wif him."
The owner of the Golden Falcon laughed.
"Can you beat that? That's the worst fish story I've heard, Colin. You tell some good ones, too!"
"It's an old story," the boy answered, "and I believe it's true. They have often run away with boats."
The capitalist took off his coat and rolled up his sleeves.
"I've harpooned dozens of porpoises from the Falcon," he said, "but I never had a chance at a sea vampire. This begins to look interesting."
"The devil ray, or manta as it is often called, will give you a run for your money," said Colin, "and after all we can cut the line."
"We'll not cut any line," was the response. "Now, Pete, get after him."
But the negro fairly blubbered in terror.
"Lordy, lordy," he cried, "an' what yo' goin' t' do to a po' ol' niggeh. Ah'll do an'thin' yo' say, Ah'll tell yo' de troof about de sponge fahms, an'thin', onl' don' go afteh dat vampa."
"You'll tell me the truth about the sponge farms, eh?" the prospective buyer remarked sternly. "So you were trying to put up a crooked deal. I'll attend to you when we get ashore. Now you row after that 'vampa,' as you call it, and as quick as you know how."
The negro was about to refuse, but he did not dare.
"Oh, Lordy, boss," he cried, "don' go any neaheh. Yas, sah, yas, sah," he added as he saw the yachtsman make a move towards him, "yas, sah, Ah'll row. But we all gwine to be smoddehed alive. Ah jes' knows it."
Again, close at hand, came the swish and the dull 'boom,' and the negro shivered. Colin was conscious that his heart was pounding a little and he caught himself wishing that it were the middle of the day instead of evening. Then out of the water not ten feet from the boat a dark witch-like specter swooped into the sky, black, horned, with bat-like wings and a long naked tail like a gigantic rat.
Pete gave a squeal of fright.
The monster rose till he was almost three feet clear of the surface, then turned so as to strike the water absolutely flat, and just before the crash and splash of the fall, Murren hurled the harpoon into the fish, and sprang back to clear the line. Although drenched and gasping from the torrent of water thrown over the boat by the devil ray, Colin took a bight of the line from the second coil and passed it around the foremost thwart. He was just in time, for a few seconds later the rope tautened. There was just one jerk and the boat started flying through the water, sending up a green wall on either side that threatened to swamp it every instant.
With the fight really begun, Colin became at once quite calm. Paul, who was an absolutely fearless youngster, was laughing in glee.
"Which way are we going, Pete?" asked the capitalist.
"Lordy, Lordy, don' as' me; gwine to de bottom, boss. Ah knows we'he gwine to de bottom."
The negro crouched down in the bottom of the boat, and the sponge buyer roared at him:
"Sit up and watch where we're going, you coward! You know these reefs."
"It don' matteh, boss, de vampa tuhn roun' in a minute an' jump on de boat an' smoddeh we all."
It was not a pleasant suggestion. The ray was undoubtedly big enough to do that very thing, and everybody in the boat had seen its power to leap. But even the little study that Colin had given to fishes came to his aid.
"All rays live on shellfish," he said, "and they have small mouths with plates instead of teeth to crush the shells with. So that it really couldn't do us any harm, any way."
"It's de smoddehin', boss, de smoddehin'. Oh, why did Ah try an' make trouble ober dem durn sponge beds? Ef Ah eber gets on sho' again Ah'll be a betteh man. Lordy, Lordy, what am Ah gwine to do?"
His voice rose in a shriek.
"He's a-comin' now!"
The pointed fin jerked suddenly and a third of the gigantic shape heaved itself into the air as the devil ray whirled. There was an instant of suspense, but the giant went past, one huge fin beating the air like the waving of some uncanny monstrous moth born in the terrors of a nightmare, and the boat was wrenched around sharply, half filling it and almost throwing Colin out.
Over almost exactly the same course that he had taken, the ray raced back, the weight of the boat seeming to make no difference to its speed; and then a second time the creature turned. It seemed impossible that with a speed of not less than twenty miles an hour so huge a creature—the size of one side of a tennis court—could twist about in its own length. How the rope and the frame of the boat stood the strain no one ever knew.
Once more the vampire turned; the boat nearly went over, but she was a staunch little craft, and the fish started down the lagoon between the reefs at its top speed. Often the creature put its two horn-like tentacles down for a dive, but the water was everywhere shallow and there was no chance to drag the boat under.
"It doesn't seem to be tiring much," the capitalist remarked, "but I don't see what more we can do."
"No," Colin answered, "I don't think the ray feels our weight at all. I believe it's going faster."
"We's all gwine to de bottom," wailed the negro. "Lordy, Ah been a bad man, but ef Ah ebeh gets mah two feet asho' Ah'll nebeh do nuffin again!"
There was no doubt of it, the vampire was going faster and faster every minute. The line hissed as it cut through the water, and Pete, despite his moaning, was baling for dear life. Darkness was closing in and the ray sped on. On either side were reefs, and many times the boat grazed sharp coral which would have ripped the bottom out of her if she had struck. Mr. Murren stood by the bow with knife in hand ready to cut, waiting to the last minute.
Presently a line of breakers, between two islets, appeared directly ahead. It was only a matter of seconds till they would be reached, but remembering how the ray had turned before, Colin clutched the gunwale of the boat to prevent being flung out of it like a stone from a catapult when the creature swerved.
"It's a-comin', now!" shrieked Pete. "We's a-gwine to be smoddehed. Oh, Lordy, Lordy, Ah's a dead niggeh."
"Hold on tight, all, look out for yourself, Paul," Mr. Murren cried; "he's turning!"
But he was wrong.
Instead of the black fin edging its way up, the whole great bulk of the uncanny creature heaved itself above the water like a great cloud and fell into the surf on the rocks, flapped upon them, although half stranded, and with a heave that seemed to make the reef tremble, plunged into the sea beyond.
"Better cut!" cried Colin.
But before the word was fairly out of his lips, the bright steel gleamed in the dark, and with a grinding crash that seemed like the end of the world to Colin, the boat crumpled into splinters on the reef and the three men were thrown in a heap among the breakers.
The negro gave a yell that was enough to scare any one out of a year's growth and lay spread out upon a rock as though he was some ungainly kind of black crab, arms and legs in every direction, while he fairly gibbered with fright.
"Lordy, Lordy, don' let de debbil come an' take me now! Lordy, Ah ain' fit to die! Don' let him come back an' smoddeh us on de rocks! Ah ain' never goin' to get in a boat agen! On'y let me get home dis once!"
Paul, though the youngest of the party, had escaped the most easily. He had pitched clear against Pete and thus had broken his fall, while at the same time the impact of his weight had knocked nearly all the breath out of the negro's body. He had enough left, however, with which to make a powerful complaint.
Bruised, even bleeding in one or two places, Colin picked himself out of the wreckage and looked across in the faint light at the owner of the Golden Falcon, who seemed to have escaped with a few scratches and who was standing on the reef looking out to sea as though he wished that the fight were still on.
"I wonder," he said, as he saw that the boys were not hurt, "if the vampire had as much sport out of that as we did."
FINDING A FORTUNE IN A PEARL
Resisting a strong temptation to kick the blubbering negro, Mr. Murren succeeded in getting the fellow's attention by shouting in his ear, and yanked him up on his feet. The boat was quite unusable, the bow having been crumpled into matchwood by the force with which the sea-bat had dragged it upon the reef, so the question of reaching the shore was not an easy one. However, Pete knew the keys thoroughly and, in response to much questioning, admitted that it was possible with only a short swim here and there, to reach a lighthouse about four miles away.
The negro would have preferred to stay on the reef until morning, for he could sleep as easily on the sand as in a bed, but Mr. Murren knew that the two boys were not inured to hardship, Paul especially, and he compelled the boatman to show the way. It was a toilsome but not particularly dangerous journey, and when they reached the lighthouse, and had done full justice to a quickly-prepared meal, they were quite willing, as Paul declared, to tackle another sea-bat. There was a small motor-boat owned by the lighthouse-keeper, and the party borrowed this, reaching the Golden Falcon without further misadventure, the capitalist recompensing the cowardly negro for the loss of his boat.
Owing to the thorough work that had been done at Bermuda, and having the assistance of his capitalist friend, Mr. Collier speedily secured the specimens and the drawings he needed of the Florida reefs. He kept Colin hustling, but found time to enter into the question of the proposed sponge-farm with a great deal of interest, and went with a party to Anclote Key, where the Bureau of Fisheries had established a station for the investigation of the sponge industry, with especial regard to the transplanting of sponges. The government expert welcomed them heartily, and an arrangement was entered into whereby the Bureau accepted Mr. Murren's offer to use for its experiments a part of such sponge-ground as he should acquire, while he, at the same time, had the benefit of the advice of the investigators.
"It seems to me," the capitalist said, when the details had been concluded, "that's about the best kind of investment I know, getting expert opinion for yourself in such a way that it benefits the whole nation."
"It is, I think," the Fisheries official replied; "but you can't always get people to realize that. Why, even the State governments in many cases are not always ready to co-operate, and only last year the Assembly of a certain State refused to permit the establishment of a hatchery, because a relative of one of the assemblymen owned a summer hotel in the district, and he thought it might reduce the number of fish in a lake near the hotel."
"Of course, it's absurd, but it's amazing how often that sort of thing happens. Still, even State governments are becoming more intelligent now, and some, like Rhode Island, for instance, have been in the very forefront of Fishery administration."
"Yet it means money in the pockets of the people to conserve fish!"
"But also it means a certain small outgo from the Assembly," was the reply; "there's the rub. But," he added, turning to Colin, for the boy had told him of his plans, "by the time you're through college and on the permanent rolls of the Bureau that sort of ignorance about the value of Fisheries control will probably all have passed away."
"I hope so," the boy answered, "and I'm glad that I haven't seen anything except hearty support. Going to Brown University, of course, is a whole lot in my favor, because I understand they've always been strong on the Fisheries side."
"You're going to leave us to-night, then, Colin?" asked his host.
"Yes, Mr. Murren," the boy replied; "by taking the evening train, I can get to Providence in time for the opening of college, and Mr. Collier is kind enough to let me start right away. I can't be grateful enough to you, sir, for all your kindness on this trip."
"That's all right," his friend said heartily, "I've enjoyed having you, and so has Paul, I know. I shall hear from you occasionally, I hope, and maybe the Golden Falcon will have you on board for some other trip."
"Thank you ever so much, sir," Colin answered; "but I guess I'm booked for college steadily until next summer, and the Bureau of Fisheries during vacation."
But Colin was mistaken in his idea that almost a year would elapse before he was busy again with Fisheries work, for shortly before the end of his first term, he received a letter from his father in which the suggestion was made that the boy should spend a week on the Great Lakes during the Christmas vacation, to get an idea of what winter work was like. Colin smiled as he read the letter, for he knew well that he was 'in for it,' since his father would make him go through every step of the training.
Accordingly, one cold day, he found himself aboard the steamer Mary N. Lewis, which had been chartered by the Bureau for a couple of weeks' trawling in Lake Michigan. A bitter wind was blowing and lumps of ice floated near the shores. The whitefish were not plentiful that winter, and when the nets came up and Colin had to pick fish out, b-r-r-r, but it was cold! A great many of the fish were not ripe for spawning and had to be thrown back again, which delayed matters greatly and kept the party on the water for several days.
Frequently Colin's lips were blue and his fingers numb, while his ears and cheekbones and chin felt as though they were being sliced off gradually by the blasts blowing down from icy Canada, but he knew that, to a certain extent, he was on trial, and he laughed and joked and managed to keep his spirits up, though his teeth chattered. There was no great amount of excitement in catching the whitefish and securing the spawn for development in the hatchery, but it was a test of endurance, and incidentally the boy learned much about the fishes of the Great Lakes.
"There's one thing I don't quite see, though," he said one day to the government fish culturist, with whom he was working; "and that is, why we need to do this."
"How do you mean, Dare?"
"Well, in the West, they hatch young salmon because the old salmon are caught going up the river before they spawn, and they die, anyway; but here they have all the room they want for spawning, and I should think Nature would look after it."
"You don't want to forget," the fish culturist replied, "that Nature is very exact. Everything has to balance. The whitefish born are ten times as many as those that mature, but the number that matures is just precisely enough to keep the supply going."
"I see that, all right," the boy answered.
"Well, then, if you disturb this balance by extensive fishing, isn't it easy to see that you've got to make up for it somewhere? We don't have to worry over keeping up the supply of catfish, for example, because Nature is being left alone, and she has worked the problem out. But if suddenly a big catfish market developed—as it easily might, because, in spite of popular opinion, catfish is good eating—and if thousands of them were caught, it would be necessary to find some way to help Nature in keeping up the supply.
"Now, the whitefish," he continued, "isn't like the salmon, which spawns carefully. The lake fish does that in a sort of hit-or-miss manner, with the result that only a small percentage of the eggs get a fair start. It is not difficult for us to put hundreds of millions of young fish into the lakes every year, and the proportion of these that survive will not merely keep the supply constant, but will even increase it."
"Then that will disturb the balance in another way?"
"Yes," was the reply, "but it will be at the expense of other species which are of no use to man. Nature is like the proverbial Irishman, she can't be drove, but she's mighty easy to lead. When you return to the university, get hold of some books on the means by which all the various kinds of living creatures in the world are kept on an even balance, how they all get their food, and how every tiny speck fits into the whole world scheme. You'll find that sort of reading has more grip to it than any novel—except, perhaps, those of a few of the really great writers, of whom there are some in every age."
"I found that out," answered Colin, "when I was working with Mr. Collier. He was always saying that things were 'so much worth while,' and when he started to explain them, they certainly were! It's just like this, I've only seen a little bit of this inland water work, but you handle other species beside whitefish in this work on the Great Lakes, don't you?"
"Yes," was the culturist's reply; "lake trout and pike perch among others. One station alone has handled seventy-one million trout eggs in a season. But the pike perch is a more difficult fish to propagate artificially, though nearly half a million eggs were distributed last year. We gave Canada six million pike perch fry. There's no wasted energy in the Bureau of Fisheries, it's practical all the way through, and you're learning to see it from the right angle—doing the work and seeing the results."
It was this personal contact with the fish-culture work, this direct demonstration of the money value to the country of scientific knowledge, which became Colin's stimulus. His college-mates outdistanced him in many studies, for the boy was not at heart of a scholarly type, but in his scientific work he was far in advance of them all. Seeing his interest and his perseverance, several of the professors and instructors in the scientific department took a liking to Colin, and the lad was sure to be found on every kind of field expedition for which he was eligible. He was quite an athlete, too, but he settled down to swimming as his share in the athletic work of the university. Already quite at home in the water, he worked at improving his stroke with such energy, and was in the tank so much, that before the end of his freshman year, he was by long odds the best swimmer in the college. With his devotion to fish and his prowess in the water, it was a common saying that "Dare's growing fins!" and the college paper took to calling him "Fins," a nickname which stuck to him ever after.
As he had intimated to his father long before, Colin was especially anxious to go to Woods Hole, the great marine station of the Bureau of Fisheries, situated on the southwestern corner of Cape Cod, and the most famous marine biological laboratory in the New World. The work of the Fisheries appealed to him a great deal more when it bore a relation to the sea, rather than to rivers and inland waters, and his application for a position on the summer force at Woods Hole had been sent to headquarters shortly after the New Year. Accordingly, just as soon as the term was over, he hurried to Washington.
Disappointment awaited him. His heart had been set on that especial feature of the work, but when he asked Dr. Crafts about it, the Deputy Commissioner shook his head.
"I have thought the matter over," he said, "and if you are equally anxious next year to go to Woods Hole you shall go. But this season I'm going to send you to the Mississippi to do some work on mussels."
"Very well, sir," Colin answered, his expression betraying his regrets, but his will determining that he would make no seeming complaint. "I wish I'd known this winter, and I would have given more attention to the mollusks."
The Deputy Commissioner, who had friends in Brown University, had heard indirectly once or twice about Colin, and smiled to himself. He was pleased by the lad's self-control, and continued:
"The mussel question is of a great deal more interest than you think. I'm not sure, of course, but there are signs of a pearl-fever, and if there is one, you'll certainly see something doing. The Mississippi and Ohio were like a Klondike in 1903!"
"What is a 'pearl-fever,' Dr. Crafts?" asked the boy.
"A silly infatuation that seems to strike the farmers of the river valleys every few years on hearing that a valuable pearl has been found in a mussel. The get-rich-quick hope is very general, and it seems so much easier to dredge mussels and open them until a fortune is found in one than it does to farm for a living. In 1903, thousands upon thousands of farms were deserted or sold for next to nothing by people who believed that within a week they could be made millionaires by the pearls they would find in Mississippi River mussels."
"But I thought pearls came from oysters!" exclaimed Colin in surprise.
"So they do, but they come from mussels, as well, and clams occasionally. But you ought to remember," the Deputy Commissioner continued, "that the finding of an occasional pearl in an oyster or a mussel is of comparatively little importance, because it's an irregular sort of thing. The mother-of-pearl industry, however, is of big importance, it has an economic value to the country, and consequently it's our business to see that the natural resources are as wisely used as possible. We'll start a party out there on June fifteenth, so you can report here by that time."
"That's three weeks away!"
"Is that too long to wait? I'm afraid you'll have to learn patience, Colin; that's as important as any knowledge of fish culture."
"But I was wondering, Dr. Crafts," the boy urged, "if I had three weeks to spend, why I couldn't go down to Beaufort?"
"One of my instructors in biology is there," Colin said. "I believe the Bureau gave him table-room in the laboratory there for some work on turtles, and he said I could help him if you were willing to have me go. I didn't say anything about it, because I wanted to go to Woods Hole right away, but if I have this time to spare, don't you think I ought to use it?"
"I think you ought to use it for a holiday," the Deputy Commissioner answered.
"But I'd rather be doing something!" protested Colin.
"Perhaps," was the firm reply; "but not necessarily at Beaufort. Aside from the hatching of diamond-back terrapin, there's nothing going on there in which you could be of any service. Besides, you'll get 'stale' unless you have a vacation. 'All work and no play,' you know."
Colin was eager to urge the Deputy Commissioner, but he could see it would be useless.
"I'd read up on turtles, too!" he returned in a disappointed tone.
"H'm—by your instructor you mean Mr. Lark, do you not?"
"Look here, Colin," said the Deputy Commissioner, "since you have practically joined the Bureau by our promise to accept you if you make good, don't forget that we are after results first. I've been a boy myself, and I think I can see what you're driving at. I suppose Lark has been telling you some of his stories about riding diving turtles."
"Yes, Dr. Crafts," the boy replied; "he told me a lot about it."
"I thought so," was the reply. "I remember some magazine articles he did. And I suppose you thought you wanted to take a ride?"
"I'm a good swimmer, sir," Colin answered a little proudly.
"You mean you can swim," the Deputy Commissioner responded a little sharply, for being modest himself, he disliked any appearance of boasting.
"Yes, sir," the boy said; "that was what I meant."
"Well, there's no turtle-riding at Beaufort. If you knew a little more about these subjects, you wouldn't make such breaks, whether you have been reading up on them or not. The leather turtle, the big one on which men dive by holding on to the shell, is an aquatic species and never comes into brackish water. The terrapin lives in the mud, and is only to be found in marshy places. If you want to go turtle-riding for your vacation, why, go ahead, no one's going to stop you, but you can hardly do that while officially or even unofficially acting as an assistant at Beaufort. It's almost as far from Beaufort to the Florida Keys as it is from here to Hudson's Bay."
"I hadn't realized that, sir," Colin answered, surprised.
"Very few people do," was the reply. "Why, the State of Florida alone is as long as the distance from New York to Nova Scotia, or Washington to Detroit. You can't go after leather-turtle from Beaufort unless you've got—not seven-leagued boots, but seven-leagued fins."
"I'm sorry I bothered you about it, Dr. Crafts," the boy answered. "I really hadn't given the distances much thought."
"Wait a bit," said the Deputy Commissioner, as the boy turned to go. "I don't want you to feel badly about your summer. What do you know about mussels?"
"Very little, sir," the boy answered; "hardly anything."
"Let me tell you a story about them," the Deputy Commissioner said, smiling as the boy's face lighted up at the word "story." "Seven or eight centuries ago," his friend began—"that is, if you want to hear it?"
"Oh, yes, sir," came the reply.
"That's a long way back—a small trading-vessel was wrecked in the Bay of Biscay on the west coast of France, near the little village of Esnandes. All hands were lost except one sailor, an Irishman, called Walton."
"Sure to be an Irishman who got ashore," commented the boy.
"This was a particularly ingenious son of Erin," the other continued. "Although he did not speak a word of French, with the likeableness that seems to have been the chief note of the Irish character then, and which they have never lost, Walton speedily became popular in the little French village. This was the more remarkable, as there was a great scarcity of food in the village, the inhabitants depending entirely on fishing, and the fishing-grounds having become worked out. Hence the presence of a stranger for whom to provide food became a serious problem.
"But the Irish had not been the teachers and scholars of Europe during the five preceding centuries for nothing, and though Walton was but a sailor, he shared the quick-wittedness of his race. He had heard somewhere that people often starved in the midst of plenty, and he started exploring for food on his own account. The village was built near a wide stretch of mud, which was covered by the sea at high tide, but dry when the water went down, and he noticed that numbers of land- and sea-birds were in the habit of skimming over the mud at low tide, apparently picking up worms.
"Birds could be eaten, he thought. Accordingly, patching together all the old bits of net that could be found and mending the holes, the Irishman made a huge net two or three hundred yards long. Then he drove a number of stakes into the mud, working almost night and day, and stretched the net vertically about ten feet above the mud. The net was made something like a fish-trap, so that birds flying under would find it difficult to get out. On the very first night the net was spread, he caught enough birds to feed the village for a week."
"Bully for him!" cried Colin.
"That was only the beginning," the Deputy Commissioner continued. "The ingenious stranger now began to consider what food it was that attracted these birds, and to his surprise, instead of worms, found that they lived on an unknown black shellfish, now called mussels. If the birds ate mussels and the birds were good to eat, Walton reasoned that mussels must be fit for food. He ate some in order to find out."
"That's the real scientific spirit," said Colin, laughing.
"He was Irish and willing to take a chance," was the smiling rejoinder. "However that may be, he not only found that they were good to eat, but that they were good eating. He had hard work to persuade the villagers to his point of view, although his success with the birds had made him a sort of hero. Soon, however, mussels came to be in great demand. Then Walton noticed that young mussels in great numbers were gathering on the submerged stakes of his net, and being prolific of ideas, he promptly had several hundred more stakes cut and driven into the mud. He found, then, that mussels thus suspended over the mud grew fatter and of better flavor, and accordingly designed frames with interlacing branches which collected them by hundreds. This system, known as the 'buchot' system, has been practiced continuously at the village of Esnandes during all the centuries since that time, and the income to the little village last year was over one hundred and twelve thousand dollars as a result of the ingenuity of the castaway Irishman."
"Then mussels are fit for food," Colin said in surprise. "I thought they were only used for bait."
"Mussels, sea-mussels that is, are as good a food as clams,—some people claim that they are better,—and they have just about three times as much food value as the oyster. That's why I told you the story. We expect to make the mussel industry as important as the clam fishery, giving employment to thousands of people and establishing what is practically a new food supply in the United States, although it is common throughout the shore countries of Europe."
"But the pearl mussels," queried Colin, "can you eat those, too?"
"It is doubtful," was the reply, "but their value lies so largely in their use for mother-of-pearl in the button industry, that their food value would be of only secondary importance, unless they could be pickled or canned, as is done sometimes with the sea-mussels. But, Colin," he added, "if you think that the mussel doesn't sound an interesting subject, let me tell you that I think it is, in itself, one of the most interesting creatures in the water. Its life history is astounding, and there are scores of problems yet to be worked out. Read this," he added, handing the lad a Bulletin of the Bureau; "it has only just come out, and if I have judged you rightly, you'll come here on June fifteenth so eager to get to a mussel-bed that there will be no holding you!"
Two hours later, the Deputy Commissioner, leaving the office for the day, started on his walk home, going through the park in the direction of the Smithsonian Museum. On his way he was surprised to see Colin sitting on a bench near the Fisheries Building, absolutely engrossed in a gray, paper-covered folio. Dr. Crafts recognized it as the Bulletin he had given the lad early in the afternoon, and he laughed aloud at the boyish impatience which had made it impossible for Colin even to wait until he got the book home. The Deputy Commissioner had to speak twice before he was heard.
"Well, Colin," he said, "are you learning it off by heart?"
The boy jumped up as soon as he saw his friend, fairly stuttering with all the questions he wanted to ask.
"I've got to go home," the Deputy Commissioner said, when Colin stopped to take breath; "and you've put queries enough to keep a staff of men answering for a week! Didn't I tell you that there's a world of work to be done over the mussel? But if you like to walk along, why, I'll tell you anything I can."
"Thanks, ever so much," the boy said; "but what puzzles me in this Bulletin is the mussel's marsupium, or pouch. Has a fresh-water mussel really got a pouch like a kangaroo?"
The Deputy Commissioner pushed his hat back over his forehead.
"Colin," he said, "you have a knack of putting questions in the most awkward fashion. I suppose, in a way, the answer is 'not quite,' because in the kangaroo, the baby is almost completely formed when it is placed in the pouch, while in the mussel, only the egg goes there. The word 'marsupium' was what threw you off. What really happens is that the egg passes into this pouch or pocket in the gills, and is there fertilized as the current of water flows in and out over the gills."
"And it stays there until it has a shell of its own, doesn't it?" asked the boy.
"It does," was the reply.
"Well," said the eager questioner, "if it has a shell and is able to look out for itself, why doesn't it? Yet the book says that it always attacks a fish and lives as a parasite for a while."
"It doesn't attack a fish, Colin," the other answered; "it only fastens on to one. Besides which, although the mussel has a shell, it isn't able to look out for itself. There is a change of form while it is fastened to the fish."
"But doesn't it hurt the fish?"
"Not permanently. It causes a local sore or a cyst, like the tiniest kind of a blister, in the middle of which the larva of the mussel is safely curled up and stays there until fully developed. Then the cyst breaks, the mussel drops out, and the tiny wound heals rapidly. Even a small fish, four inches in length, can carry five hundred of these little creatures on its fins and in its gills without serious injury."
"Suppose it can't find a fish?"
"That's the end of the mussel, then! There is one kind of mussel that develops without going through the parasite stage, but it is not as common as the others. Curiously enough, the only way to raise the mussel artificially is by means of parasitism on the fish. As you read there, it is a simple matter to get these tiny creatures from the 'pouch' of the mother mussel, put them in an aquarium with some fish, and keep the water stirred up. In a few minutes the larvae will have fastened themselves on. It is wise to keep these fish in a hatchery for a month or so and then simply release them; when the mussels are ready they will drop off, and a new crop of mussels is on the way. By this means you can start them without much trouble in rivers and streams where there were none before, so that you see what chances there are for the development of the industry."
"Are all mussels equally good for making mother-of-pearl?"
"No," was the reply. "There are two chief commercial varieties, of different species, one larva having a hook on the shell, so that it can attach to fins or tail, the other being smaller and without hooks and making its way into the gills. But you'll go into all that when you get to Fairport, and even after you have worked at mussels all summer there will be a lot of problems you won't have touched. Don't forget now, the fifteenth."
"Never fear, Dr. Crafts," Colin answered; "I won't forget. I wish it were here now."
Time did not hang heavily on the boy's hands, for he was interested in all phases of fishing, and spent a couple of weeks on a trout stream in Northern Maine, not only catching the fish, but—as he had been advised—making notes of any peculiarities he saw in those he caught. Many stories had been told him of the finding of new species by young investigators, and he was amazed to see what wide differences existed in fish of the same species.
Colin examined so carefully every one he caught, that he began to think that if the fish were thrown back into the stream and hooked out again, he could recognize each one of them. His eagerness to be at work reached boiling point when a newspaper arrived at the camp with a brief item telling of the excitement caused by the finding of pearls near Fairport. Fortunately, it was only a day or two before the date set for his departure, and Colin was on the point of starting for Washington, when he received a letter ordering him to his post on the Mississippi immediately. He took the next train, and reported two days later at the hatchery.
"Are you coming for any special line of work?" the superintendent asked him. "I was informed from Washington that you were coming, but nothing was said as to the nature of your duties."
"Nothing more than that Dr. Crafts said I should probably be working on mussels, sir," the boy answered. "I was just told to report."
"The Deputy Commissioner states," the superintendent continued, looking over the letter, "that you expect to join the Bureau permanently, and that you have been doing some work at college on fishes."
"I haven't done very much, as yet, sir."
"I suppose not. But I want to find out what you know about mussels."
This put the boy on his mettle.
Colin told briefly, but quite clearly, what he remembered of the life-history of the fresh-water mussel as described in the Bulletin that had been given him, and added the information he had secured from the Deputy Commissioner. The superintendent of the station put a few leading questions to him, and nodded his head with satisfaction.
"So far as theory goes," he said, "I think you have a fairly good idea of it, although here and there you made some statements showing the need of a good deal of practical work with mussels. But, since you seem to have a general idea of the anatomy and physiology, I think I will put you in as Dr. Edelstein's assistant."
"What is he doing, sir?" queried Colin.
"He is working on pearl formations," was the answer. "You have heard, I suppose, that there has been some excitement over pearl finds?"
"Yes, I heard that away up in Maine," the boy replied.
"It's exaggerated a good deal," the superintendent said; "but as a matter of fact, there have been a few good finds. Dr. Edelstein is studying the differences between oyster and mussel pearls. Of course, when one of these 'rushes' comes, a very large number of inferior pearls are found, which are of no commercial value but which afford good material to work on. Just now," he added, "I think it is the most interesting part of the work. Come along, and I'll introduce you to Dr. Edelstein."
Colin's new chief was an entirely different type from any of the scientists whom he had met in the Bureau. In the first place, he was a gem expert by profession, and consequently, more of a mineralogist than biologist. Tall, powerfully built, black-bearded, and abrupt, he gave an impression of volcanic force, and at the same time of great keenness. A scientist of remarkable discernment, he possessed with all his broad views a marvelous capacity for detail, and Colin soon learned that the somewhat slipshod methods of a college laboratory would not be accepted by Dr. Edelstein.
"It iss of no use to think that a result iss right!" he said, when Colin betrayed a hint of impatience at performing the same experiment over and over again, scores of times. "It iss to know for certainly, that we work."
"I really believe, Dr. Edelstein," Colin said, "that you would like to see this fail once or twice."
"Of gourse! Then we find out why it iss a failure. That iss a good way to learn."
But in spite of the strictness of the discipline under which he was kept by his chief, Colin enjoyed the work. His duties were manifold. Some days he would spend entirely in the laboratory preparing microscope slides or observing mussel parasites through the microscopes, and making copious notes. His power as a colorist stood him in good stead again, and more than once he received a rare word of praise, feeling quite elated when, one day, late in the summer, Dr. Edelstein said to him:
"I have much gonfidence in your golor sense, Golin."
At the same station, one of the younger men was finishing a monograph on the spoonbill-cat, a sturgeon of the lower Mississippi, often six feet in length and a hundred pounds in weight, just coming into commercial importance as the source of caviare. The 'paddle-fish,' as the creature is often called by the negroes, because of its long paddle-shaped jaw, or 'nose,' formed an interesting study to Colin, for he knew enough about the make-up of fishes to realize that this was a very ancient form, midway between the sharks and the true bony fishes. The paddle-fish is closely allied to the sturgeon, and its roe has recently been found to be almost as good for caviare as the Russian variety. Thus, within ten years, a new fishing industry has developed on the Mississippi River.
In addition to his laboratory work and to his share in the investigations of his friend who was studying the paddle-fish, Colin frequently took short trips up or down the river for Dr. Edelstein, the latter being anxious to procure measurements and other data on every pearl found. It was on one of these trips that Colin had the opportunity of seeing the panicky side of a 'pearl fever,' of which he had heard so much. The report had come to the station that a pearl of fair size, valued at about five hundred dollars, had been found, four miles below the station, and Colin was told to go down and make a report on it as soon as he had finished his afternoon's work. Accordingly, after supper, he took a small power-boat and ran downstream, taking with him a very sensitive pair of scales to determine the exact weight of the pearl, calipers to ascertain its size, and other instruments especially designed by Dr. Edelstein. At the same time, he was ordered to secure the shell from which the pearl had been taken, should it be obtainable.
The pearl was measured carefully and found to be a fine one, not large and not unusual in any way, though a certain irregularity in the position of its formation on the shell gave it a scientific interest. The lucky finder was entirely willing to yield up the shell of the mussel from which the pearl had been taken, and was glad to be informed as to its weight and purity. It was pleasant to Colin to see—as he so often did—the success of the pearl-hunters. But while the boy was examining the stone, a loud knock at the door, was heard, and a neighbor came in, breathless and excited.
"I've got one," he cried. "I've got a big one!"
Every one present crowded round with cries of congratulation.
Slowly the newcomer opened his hand and revealed a large pearl almost twice the size of the gem Colin had been examining, and, therefore, if of equal purity, worth eight times as much. The finder handed it around, and in course of time it reached the boy, who scrutinized it carefully.
"Isn't it a beauty?" the newcomer cried. "And just on the very last day! I haven't a penny left in the world, and I sold my old farm to come up here. It's been getting harder and harder for me every day, and we had decided to give it all up. I hadn't a bit of hope left, and now——!"
The cottager whose pearl Colin had come down to inspect, slapped the farmer on the back, and without a trace of enviousness—for he himself had been lucky—joined in his delight. The farmer's wife had followed him more sedately, and she came in to share the general enthusiasm.
But Colin sat silent.
Over and over again, with a childish persistence, the farmer told how he had sold his farm, how he had come up with every penny he owned, how, little by little, it had all oozed away, and how in disgust he had decided to sell his boat, which would give him just enough money to get back to Missouri.
"But now, Mary," he said, "we can go back and get a better farm than we ever had, and we'll have a house in the village so that the children can go to a good school, and you'll have lots o' friends, and pretty things about you. It's been hard, neighbors, I tell you," he said, looking round; "but the luck has turned at last."
Colin said not a word, but kept his eyes fixed on the table. His host, the mussel-gatherer, whose stone he had been examining, noticed this, but the newcomer was boisterous in his joy. He babbled of the wealth that was his, until if the stone had been a diamond of equal size, it would not have sufficed to have financed his dreams.
But the boy with the instruments on the table before him, said not a word of congratulation or delight. He had only seen the pearl for a moment, but he knew.
With hearty and jovial hospitality, the farmer invited every one in the room to come and stay with him as soon as he was settled down. He would show them, he said, what real life was like on a farm.
Suddenly he stopped.
"Mister!" he said, in an altered voice.
Colin, sitting alone, still beside his testing instruments, did not look up.
"Mister!" he said again.
In spite of himself the boy raised his eyes. Do what he might, he could not keep the sorrow out of them, and those of the finder of the pearl met his fairly.
The room was full of people but it grew still as death.
The woman clasped her husband's arm and gave a low moan. He touched her shoulder gently.
"Mister," he said again, with a humbleness that seemed strangely gentle after all his bluster and brag, "will you look at this and tell me what you think it's worth?"
"I'm not an expert," the boy said hastily. "I couldn't judge its value. You ought to take it to some one that knows all about these things."
"I can see what you think," the farmer said with a pitiful, sad smile; "you think it isn't worth much. Is it worth anything at all?"
Colin took the discolored pearl and looked at it closely. He put it on the scales and weighed it carefully, measured it, and scrutinized it as closely as he could in the lamplight, but he knew himself that these were devices to gain time. The pearl showed all too clearly a flaw that would make it valueless. Every one waited for his verdict. He was conscious that his voice was a little shaky, but he answered as steadily as he could:
"I'm afraid, sir——"
"I don't believe, sir——"
"That it's worth anything at all?" the farmer interrupted.
A solemn dignity, the accompaniment of great trouble, came to the man's aid and gave him strength. "Thank you," he said; "I understand."
He looked around with a troubled glance and saw the far smaller but more valuable pearl that his neighbor had found, which was still lying on the table beside the instruments. A strong shiver shook him, but he made no other sign. He turned to Colin.
"I see that it's no good," he said, "but I shall keep it just the same. If you have finished with it——"
Colin stood up and placed the pearl in his hand.
"Please take it to some one else right away," he said. "I couldn't sleep—suppose I were wrong!"
The old farmer looked at him gravely.
"No man would do as you have done and say what you have said, unless it was so clear that he couldn't help but know," he replied. He turned to the neighbors. "I'm afraid," he said, "I have in part spoiled your pleasure, and," he added, with a twitch of the muscles of his face, "made a fool of myself, besides. Come, Mary, we'll go home."
The others pressed forward with words of sympathy, but the stricken man paid no heed and passed out of the door. Colin sat heavily back in his chair staring moodily at the instruments, his heart sore within him, but he knew he could have done nothing else. Yet the thought of the old farmer's sorrow was powerfully before him, and he had to keep a strong grip on himself to keep from showing an unmanly emotion.
Outside the little cottage could be heard a murmur of voices, as the old farmer tried to comfort his wife, while inside the house no one spoke lest he should seem careless of the grief and disappointment of those who were still within hearing. Suddenly a third voice was heard outside, speaking excitedly. Once again that tense clutch of suppressed emotion permeated the room and Colin, with his heart in his mouth, looked up. No one moved. Outside the voices ceased.
Then, through the open door, rushed a boy about twelve years old, muddy from head to foot, but with his two eyes shining like lights from his grimy face. The mussel-gatherer recognized instantly the farmer's son.
"What is it, John?" he asked.
"I was goin' over some shells father hadn' opened, after he'd found that other pearl, an' I got this! Father he says the other one's no good an' that this isn' likely to be any better! But I don' know! It looks all right!"
He glanced down at the object in his hand.
"Father said it was no good," he repeated, a little less certainly; "but I don' know."
He held out his hand and passed the pearl to the mussel-gatherer, who glanced at it hastily.
"Mr. Dare!" he said excitedly.
Colin looked up and caught his glance, then tried to take the stone. But his hand shook as though he were in a violent fever, and the mussel-gatherer placed it on the table beside his own, in front of the boy. Clear, flawless, and of fair size, it gleamed like a star of hope before them all. A moment's examination was enough. Leaping from his seat Colin seized the pearl and rushed out of the door.
"It's real, sir; it's real!" he cried. "And will do all you said!"
The old farmer never looked at him. He turned his face toward the stars and reverently removed his hat.
A TUSSLE WITH THE MONARCH OF THE SEA
In spite of his interest in the pearl work, Colin began to feel the strain of the steady and persistent grind required from him by Dr. Edelstein, who himself seemed absolutely untiring. At the beginning of July, moreover, the weather turned wet, and the rain poured down steadily, not heavily, but soaking the ground thoroughly. For a week or so no notice was taken of the rain, other than the discomfort it caused, but one day Colin overheard one of the head workers saying to the superintendent:
"It looks as though we might have trouble unless there's a let-up to the rain soon!"
"I'm afraid of it," was the reply, and the grave tone of the answer surprised Colin; "and I hear that it's raining in torrents in Montana."
"We're safe enough, I suppose," was the comment.
"Yes," the superintendent answered, "but hundreds of other people are not. Floods always catch some of them."
This was an idea that had not occurred to Colin. The word "flood" called up a host of graphic ideas, and a flood on the Mississippi, the largest river in the world flowing through a populated country, seemed a serious matter. He spoke of it to his friend of the paddlefish investigation.
"Yes," the other answered, "there have been many scores of lives lost and many millions of dollars swept away on the 'Father of Waters,' and I doubt if the time will ever come when the flood danger will be at an end. Remember that the Mississippi River Valley is the only water outlet for two-thirds of the entire United States."
"It's protected by levees, too, isn't it?" Colin queried. "At least, during the flood on the Mississippi, you always hear of the levees breaking or just going to break."
"They give way very seldom now," his chief replied, "and that means wonderful engineering, for there are sixteen hundred miles of levee, the river banks being built up clear from Illinois to the Gulf."
"Then where are the floods one hears of so often?"
"There are bad floods on the Ohio," was the reply, "and there is always danger when a flood tide comes down the Mississippi. You see, if part of a levee does give way, or as they say, if a 'crevasse' comes, thousands of square miles are inundated, hundreds of people made homeless, and the property loss is incalculable. All the land around the lower part of the Mississippi is just a flood plain which used to be covered with water every year. That land has been rescued from the river just as Holland has been rescued from the sea."
"Then there is danger every year?"
"There is always danger," was the reply, "and the levees are carefully patrolled. But during the high water of early summer there is more danger, and a week's rain means trouble. We're going to have a bad flood this year unless the rain stops soon."
"But the river isn't rising?"
"Not yet. Why should it? It isn't the water that flows directly into the Mississippi, but that which floods the tributaries that causes disaster. From the Rocky Mountains on the one side to the Alleghanies on the other, and from the Gulf of Mexico to Canada—nearly every drop of rain that isn't evaporated or used by plants has to be carried to the sea by the Mississippi."
"It seems like a big job for one river bed," Colin agreed. "But how can it be made safer?"
"The way is easy," was the answer, "but costly. If big reservoirs are built on all the headwater streams so that—no matter what the rainfall may be—only a constant amount is allowed to flow out of these reservoirs, then floods will be avoided, there will be plenty of water for irrigation, and a steady depth of water in the channel will extend navigation that is now stopped during low-water periods. Besides which, it will make the Mississippi fish question a great deal easier."
"I don't quite see what it has to do with the fish!" the boy said.
"Supposing five thousand square miles of land are flooded. When the water goes down, at least half that amount of land is still flooded, though no longer connected with the river, but forming shallow lakes and pools. These are all full of fish. As the pools dry up, everything that is in them dies, and millions of food fish are lost."
"But how can we stop that?"
"The Bureau of Fisheries does a great deal to stop it," was the answer, "and if this rain holds—though we are all praying that it won't—you'll probably have a chance to see. The Bureau seines as many as it can of those bayous and pools and lakes to save the fish and return them to the river. If a couple of men can save several thousand fish a day, isn't that worth while? Think of a farmer who could get a thousand bushels of wheat in a day! And that's about the proportion of food value."
"Well," said Colin, as he was leaving the laboratory to take up another piece of work he had been told to do, "I don't want a flood to come, of course, but if there is one, I'd like to have a chance to see how the Bureau handles that sort of fish rescue work."
The reports the next morning were no more encouraging,—the Weather Bureau reporting heavy rain in Montana and the Milk River in flood. Fortunately the weather was fine in the eastern States, but a flood on the Milk River usually means a Missouri River flood, and that takes in nearly two-fifths of the Mississippi basin. Around the Iowa station the rain still poured heavily. By the end of the week more hopeful reports came from the west. As the southwest had escaped entirely no serious trouble was expected, but in the region near the laboratory the rain was coming down in torrents and the Wapsipinicon and Cedar Rivers were overflowing their banks.
The neighboring stations at Bellevue, Iowa, and North MacGregor, Iowa, were reported to be preparing for collecting black bass, crappies, sun-fishes, yellow perch, pike, buffalo-fish, and catfish as soon as the water should recede and leave the fish stranded in lakes and pools. One Sunday, Colin took the power-boat up the river and had a chat with the men at Bellevue regarding the nature of the work. He found that the flood dangers were small above the junction of the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers, and when an opportunity arrived to do some fish collection in the overflows, the boy thanked the superintendent of the station, and said he would rather keep to the mussel work. This, a day or two later, came to the notice of Dr. Edelstein.
"I haf observed," his chief said, "that you haf been taking much more interest lately in your work. Why is it?"
"I have been trying to do a little investigating on my own account," Colin said confusedly, "and there's a lot of fun in working things out all by yourself."
"Haf you any objegtions to telling me what you haf been gonsidering?"
"Not at all, sir," Colin answered. "I'd be glad to show you, if you'd care to see. I've been trying to find out the cause of the difference in the secretions of the mussels that have very bright pearly shells and those that are dull. But I haven't got very far along yet."
"Fery good subject," was the reply; "let me see your notebooks."
Colin brought him a number of small notebooks filled with records of experiments that he had been doing in the evenings, and over some of them the gem expert smiled.
"You haf done a great deal of unnecessary work," he said, "work that I gould haf told you had no bearing on the results, but it isn't time wasted at all, for you will haf learned more that way than if I had told you. And you haf two series of eggsperiments that are very useful. If you only had time to make the series gomplete, the information would be of value to the Bureau."
"Would you include them in your report, sir, if I completed the series?"
His chief leaned back in his chair.
"Seriously," he said, "I think your eggsperiments on the garacter of the secretions are very interesting. You don't know as much organic gemistry as you should, but if you will take a few suggestions from me, I think your work would be worth publigation."
"You mean in your article?" asked Colin.
"No," was the answer, "in your own."
"My article! You mean that I should write it up?"
"But I don't know enough!"
"If we all waited until we thought we knew enough about a subject," the scientist answered, "there never yet would haf been a line written. Don't gif any opinions, Golin, for they will not be worth much, nor any gonglusions, because you hafn't reached any. But make a simple statement of what was the problem you had, how you went about it, and the results of your eggsperiments so far. Remember, too," he added, "that a negative result is often of just as much value as a positive, for it solves the problem to the eggstent of eliminating that partigular fagtor."
"And you really think I should write it up, Dr. Edelstein?"
"But would the Bureau take it?"
"That is for the Gommissioner to say, and he would decide on its merits. If it is not too long—just two or three pages, perhaps, I feel sure he would aggsept it. If you like I will go over the manuscript and advise you about it."
"Would you really do that for me?" asked Colin.
"Very gladly," was the reply; "but you will need a series almost twice as large as you haf now in order to make it of any value."
"Indeed I'll complete the series, Dr. Edelstein," Colin said. "I'll work at it every minute of spare time I can get."
From that moment time seemed to Colin all too short—the days appeared to fly. He was up long before breakfast getting out specimens both for himself and his chief and till late in the evening he would sit over his microscope working out the details of his experiments. The expert, who had realized earlier in the summer that Colin was restless, now saw that the reason was that none of the work he had been given to do possessed an individual note, and perceiving—as did every one—the enthusiastic nature of the lad, he helped him in every way possible. Thus it came about that before the day set for the reopening of college, Colin had finished the series of experiments which had been thought necessary, and had sent the manuscript of his article to Washington. And in the very first batch of letters that he received on his arrival at college was one from the Commissioner accepting his report and promising publication in the Bulletin.
Colin ever afterward declared that this was a great stimulus during his college work. He had done well the first year, but his late training under Dr. Edelstein and the spur of research had taught him how to concentrate upon his studies. He did not neglect the out-of-doors life, however, and he still had the swimming championship to defend, but every minute that he was not actively at play he was hard at work. Idle minutes were scarce. Nor did he fail of his reward. Just before the spring examination he received a letter from the Bureau of Fisheries telling him that his application for the next summer had been accepted and assigning him to duty at Woods Hole, the station where he had long desired to be.