The Atlantic Monthly/Volume 2/Number 4/Rambles in Aquidneck

The Atlantic Monthly
Rambles in Aquidneck



Newport has many beaches, each bearing a distinctive appellation. To the one of which we are speaking rightfully belongs the name of Easton; but it is more widely known by that of the town itself, and still more familiarly to the residents as "The Beach." It lies east of the city, a mile from the harbor, and is about half a mile in length. Its form is that of the new moon, the horns pointing southward.

Let us go there now. No better time could be chosen by the naturalist, for the tide will be at its lowest ebb. Descending Bath Road, the beautiful crescent lies before us on the right,--Easton's Pond, with its back-ground of farms, upon the left. There is no wind to-day to break the surface of the standing water, and it gives back the dwarf willows upon its banks and the houses on the hill-side with more than Daguerrian fidelity. The broad ocean lies rocking in the sunshine, not as one a-weary, but resting at his master's bidding, waiting to begin anew the work he loves. In the horizon, the ships, motionless in the calm, spread all sail to catch the expected breeze. The waves idly chase each other to the shore, in childish strife to kiss first the mother Earth.

Turning the sea-wall and crossing a bit of shingle on the right, we stand upon the western extremity of the beach.

At our feet, a smooth, globular object, of the size of a crab-apple, is lying half-buried in the sand. Taking it in your hand, you find it to be a univalve shell, the inhabitant of which is concealed behind a closely-fitting door, resembling a flake of undissolved glue.

It is a Natica. Place it gently in this pool and watch for a few moments. Slowly and cautiously the horny operculum is pushed out, turned back, and hidden beneath a thick fleshy mantle, which spreads over half the shell. Two long tentacles appear upon its front, like the horns of an ox, and it begins to glide along upon its one huge foot.

Had you seen it thus at first, you could not have believed it possible for so bulky a body to be retracted into so small a shell. Lift it into the air, and a stream of water pours forth as it contracts.

Two kinds are common here, one of which has a more conical spire than the other. The animals differ somewhat in other points, but both have a cream-colored base, and a mantle of pale cream clouded with purple. You may get them from half an inch to three inches in diameter. Take them home and domesticate them, and you will see surprising things.

I kept one of middling size for many months. During two or three weeks I wondered how he lived, for he was never seen to eat. He used to climb to the top of the tank and slide down the slippery glass as though it were a _montagne russe_. Then he would wander about upon the bottom, ploughing deep furrows in the sand, and end by burrowing beneath it. There he would stay whole days, entirely out of sight.

One morning I found him on his back, his body bent upward, with the edge of the base turned in all round towards the centre. Did you ever see an apple-dumpling before it was boiled, just as the cook was pinching the dough together? Yes? Then you may imagine the appearance of my Natica; but no greening pared and cored lay within that puckered wrapper.

Two days passed with no visible change; but on the third day the strange gasteropod unfolded both himself and the mystery. From his long embrace fell the shell of a Mactra, nearly as broad as his own. Near the hinge was a smooth, round hole, through which the poor Clam had been sucked. Foot, stomach, siphon, muscles, all but a thin strip of mantle, were gone. The problem of the Natica's existence was solved, and the verification was found in more than one Buccinum minus the animal,--the number of the latter victims being still an unknown quantity.

Not in sport had Natty driven the plough, not in idleness had he hollowed the sand. He sought his food in the furrow, and dug riches in the mine.

Doubtless he killed the bivalve,--for until the time of its disappearance it had been in full vigor,--but with what weapon? And whereabouts in that soft bundle was hidden the wimble which bored the hole?

A few days after, a Crab, of the size of a dime, died. Nat soon learned the fact, and enveloped the crustacean as he had done the mollusk. Thirty hours sufficed to drill through the Crab's foundation-wall, and to abstract the unguarded treasure.

Every week some rifled Trivittatum tells a new tale of his felonious deeds.

His last feat was worthy of a cannibal, for it was the savage act of devouring a fellow-Natica. You might suppose that in this case the trap-like operculum would afford an easy entrance to one familiar with its use; but, true to his secret system, the burglar broke in as before. How did he do this? Did he abrade the stone-work with flinty sand until a hole was worn? Did he apply an acid to the limy wall until it opened before him? Who can find the tools of the cunning workman, or the laboratory where his corrodents are composed?

Some rods farther south, the shore is covered with smooth stones, and there you may find the Limpet in great numbers. Patella is the Latin name, but children call it Tent-Shell. Oval at the base, it slopes upward to a point a little aside from the centre.

In this locality they are small, seldom more than an inch in length. At first, you will not readily distinguish them, they are so nearly of the color of the stones to which they are attached. This is one of those Providential adjustments by which the weak are rendered as secure as the strong. Slow in their movements, without offensive weapons, their form and their coloring are their two great safeguards. The stones to which they adhere are variegated with brown and purple blotches of incipient Coralline, and the shells are beautifully mottled with every shade of those colors. Some are lilac, heightening nearly to crimson; others are dark chocolate and white, sharply checkered.

Pebbles and Patella alike are half-covered with Confervae, and from the top of the latter, fronds of Ulva are often found floating like flags. I have one with a clump of Corallina rising from its apex, like a coppice on the summit of a hill.

By atmospheric pressure, its union with the stone is so close that it is not easy to pull it away without injury; but if you slip it along, until by some slight inequality air is admitted beneath the hitherto exhausted receiver, the little pneumatician is obliged to yield.

When turned upon its back, or resting against glass, the soft arms, sprawling aimlessly about, and the bare, round head, give it the appearance of an infant in a cradle, so that a tank well stocked with them might be taken for a Liliputian foundling-hospital.

They are as innocent as they look, being vegetable-feeders, and finding most of their sustenance in matters suspended in the water. A friend of mine placed several upon the side of a vessel coated with Conferva. In a few days, each industrious laborer had mowed round him a circular space several times larger than himself.

They are not ambulatory, but remain on one spot for successive weeks, perhaps longer.

Sometimes they raise the shell so as to allow a free circulation beneath; but if some predatory Prawn draw near, the tent is lowered in a twink ling, so as effectually to shut out the submarine Tartar.

Tread warily, or you will trip upon the slimy Fucus that fringes the seaward side of every rock. This is one of the few Algae that grow here in luxuriance. The slate has not the deep fissures necessary to afford shelter to the more delicate kinds; and the heavy swell of the sea drags them from their slight moorings. Therefore, though Ulva, Chondrus, Cladophora, Enteromorpha, and as many more, are within our reach, we will not stop to gather them; for Newport has other shores, where we can get them in full perfection.

We will take some tufts of Corallina, however, for that is temptingly fine. What a curious plant it is! Its root, a mere crustaceous disk, and its fronds, depositing shelly matter upon their surface, bear so strong a resemblance to the true Corals, that, until recently, naturalists have thought it a zoophyte.

Here the plants are of a dull brick-red; but in less exposed situations they are purple. If you wish them to live and increase, you must chip off a bit of the rock on which they are growing. With a chisel, or even a knife, you can do it without difficulty, for the soft slate scales and crumbles under a slight blow.

For an herbarium, it ought to be gummed at once to the paper, for it becomes so brittle, in drying, that it falls to pieces with the most careful handling. In the air and light it fades white, but the elegance of its pinnate branches will well repay any pains you may bestow upon it.

If you have a lingering belief in its animal nature, steeping it in acid will cause the carbonate of lime and your credulity to disappear together, leaving the vegetable tissue clearly revealed.

Between low-water and the Cliff are hundreds of pools rich in vegetable and animal life--Look at this one: it is a lakelet of exquisite beauty. Bordered with the olive-colored Rock-Weed, fronds of purple and green Laver rise from its limpid depths. Amphipods of varied hue emerge from the clustering weeds, cleave the clear water with easy swiftness, and hide beneath the opposite bank. Here a graceful Annelid describes Hogarth's line of beauty upon the sandy bottom. There another glides over the surface with sinuous course, rowed by more oars than a Venetian galley, more brilliant in its iridescence than the barge of Cleopatra, albeit

    "The poop was beaten gold,
  Purple the sails."

We loiter here, forgetful that we are only at the first end of the bow along whose curve we propose to walk. Let us go on. The firm sand affords pleasanter footing than the slippery stones we leave behind us, but it seems bare of promise to the curiosity-hunter. Nevertheless we will hunt, and quite at variance with my experience will it be, if we return empty-handed.

Here is something already. Dark-colored, horny, flat, oblong, each corner furnished with a wiry, thorn-like projection;--what is it? A child tells you it is a Mermaid's Purse, and, giving the empty bag a shake, you straightway conclude that the maids of the sea know "hard times," as well as those of the land. But the Purse is not always so light. Sometimes it is found to contain a most precious deposit, the egg which is to produce a future fish.

These egg-cases belong to different members of the Ray family. I saw one last winter, in which the inmate was fully developed. Should some old seaman hear me, he might say that I am telling a "fish-story" in good earnest. He might inform you furthermore, that the object in question is "but a pod of sea-weed, and that he has seen hundreds of them in the Gulf Stream." I cannot help it, neither do I question his veracity. Notwithstanding, these two eyes of mine, in sound condition, awake, and in broad day, did see the supposed pericarp, with one side taken off, and did behold, lying within, as veritable a Raia as ever was caught upon the New-England coast. Moreover, its countenance was no more classical, in its minuteness, than that of its most ancient ancestor in its hugeness.

Observe those bubbles trembling upon the edge of the wave. One is left by the receding tide, and a nearer view shows it to be a jelly-like globe, clearer than the crystal of Merlin. Dropped softly into a vessel of water, at first it lies quiescent and almost invisible upon the bottom. A moment after, it rises in quick undulations, flashing prismatic tints with every motion. Again it rests, and we see that it is banded by eight meridians, composed of square, overlapping plates. It swims, and the plates become paddles, propelling the frail craft,-- prisms, dividing the sunbeams into rainbow hues. Suddenly two lines of gossamer are dropped from unseen openings in its sides, and trailed behind it as it goes. Twisting, lengthening, shortening, they are drawn back and re-coiled within, and

      "The ethereal substance closed,
  Not long divisible."

This delicate wonder is the Cydippe. Though among the most charming of marine creatures, none is more liable to be overlooked, owing to its extreme subtilty. So unsubstantial and shadowy are they, that a lady, on seeing them for the first time, declared them to be "the ghosts of gooseberries." Indeed, you will find them ghost-like, if you attempt to keep them, for they

      "Shrink in haste away
  And vanish from our sight."

The whole high-water line is strewn with the blanched and parted valves of the Beach Clam. Here and there yellowish streaks appear upon the gray sand, formed by the detritus of submarine shells. Among the fragments are often found perfect specimens, some of them with the living animal.

We can examine them as we go back, but now let us cross the "Creek." It is a creek only by courtesy or an Americanism, at the present day; but when those miles of fertile fields upon the north were unreclaimed, the dank herbage hindered evaporation, and Easton's Pond was fed by unfailing streams. Then the vast body of overflowing water swept a deep channel, which the sea, rolling far up towards the pond, widened and made permanent. Boats came from ships in the offing, and followed its course to "Green End," with no fear of grounding; and traditionary pirates there bestowed in secret caves their ill-gotten gains.

Now, the Creek is a mere streamlet, and the flow of the tide is restricted to its mouth. With our rubbers we may ford it dry-shod; but if you choose to cross the bridge, we must wade through shifting sand, and our walk will be the longer. In midsummer the bed is dry, and almost obliterated by the drift. On the approach of autumnal rains, the farmers plough a passage for the water, to prevent their lands from being submerged.

On the east side, masses of conglomerate rock are strewn in wild confusion. By the action of untold ages the connecting cement is worn away from between the pebbles, leaving them prominent; and wherever the attrition of the sea has loosened one from its bed, the hollow has become the habitation of Mollusca and Algae.

Beyond that ponderous boulder are many dark recesses among the overlying stones. Strip back your sleeve, thrust in your hand, and grope carefully about. In this way I once grasped a prickly thing that startled me. Drawing it to light, it proved to be an Echinus, Sea-Urchin, or Sea-Egg. That one was not larger than a walnut, was shaped like a _brioche_, and resembled a chestnut-burr. Its color was a delicate green, verging to brown.

Much larger living Echini are found on this spot. There is a shell now, more than two inches in diameter. It is wholly covered with spines half an inch in length. Radiating from a common centre, flexible at the base, they stand erect at right angles with the shell when the Urchin is in health; but in disease or death order is lost, and they lie across each other in great confusion. Their connection with the shell is very remarkable, for it is by a ball-and-socket joint,--the same articulation which gives the human hip its marvellous liberty of action. Between them are five rows of minute holes, and, in life, a transparent, hair-like foot is protruded from each, at the pleasure of the owner. When disposed to change its situation, it stretches forth those on the side towards which it would go, fixes them by means of the sucker at the tip of each, and, simultaneously withdrawing those in the rear, pulls itself along.

The mouth, placed in the centre of the base, is very large in proportion to the size of the animal. It is formed of five shelly, wedge-shaped pieces, each ending in a hard, triangular tooth. The whole mouth is a conical box, called by naturalists "Aristotle's lantern."

The shell is hardly thicker than that of a hen's egg, and is even more fragile. When the spines are rubbed off, the brioche-like shape is modified, and in place of the depression in the middle of the upper side there is seen a slight prominence.

Mine was a very inoffensive creature. He occupied the same corner for many weeks, and changed his place only when a different arrangement of stones was made. He then wandered to a remote part of the tank and chose a new abode. Both retreats were on the shady side of a stone overhung with plants. There for months he quietly kept house, only going up and down his hand-breadth of room once or twice a day. Minding his own business without hurt to his neighbor, he dwelt in unambitious tranquillity. Had he not fallen a victim to the most cruel maltreatment, he might still adorn his humble station.

As he was sitting one evening at the door of his house, bending about his lithe arms in the way he was wont, two itinerant Sticklebacks chanced to pass that way. They paused, and, not seeing the necessity for organs of which they had never known the use, they at once decided on their removal.

In vain did the poor Hedgehog oppose them. With all the pertinacity of ignorance, they maintained their certainty of his abnormal condition; and with all the officiousness of quackery, they insisted upon immediate amputation. Aided by two volunteer assistants, the self-made surgeons cut off limb after limb before their reckless butchery could be stopped.

At last I effected their dismissal. But their pitiable patient was too far reduced for recovery. His exhausted system never rallied from the shock, and he survived but a few days.

Alas! alas! that so exemplary a member of the community should have perished through piscine empiricism!

How many things you have collected! Your well-filled basket attests your industry and zeal, and suggests the fruitful question of the novelist, "What will you do with it?" Will you throw its contents on the sand, and go away satisfied with these imperfect glimpses of sea-life? Will you take them home indeed, but consign them to a crowded bowl, to die like the prisoners in the Black Hole of Calcutta? Or will you give to each a roomy basin with water, and plants to keep it pure?

This were well; and you could thus study their structure at leisure, but not their habits. To know the character of an individual, you must watch him among his fellows; you must observe his bearing to the small; you must see how he demeans himself in presence of the great. To do this, the surroundings must be such that none shall be conscious of restraint, but that every one, with homely ease, may act out his own peculiar nature. In short, you must make ready for them another Atlantic, in all things but breadth like its grand prototype.

Nor is this a difficult undertaking. By following the advice of some experienced person, you may avoid all those failures which are apt to attend the experiments of a tyro. I will direct you to our pioneer in aquarian science, Mr. Charles E. Hammett. He can furnish you with all you want, give you most efficient aid, and add thereto a great amount of practical in You need have no fears for the population of your colony; for in our future walks we shall meet new objects of beauty and interest, and in such variety and abundance that your only embarrassment will be which to choose.

And now the ramble of to-day is ended. The "punctual sea" has risen, and, waking his dreaming waves, he gives to them their several tasks. Some, with gentle touch, lave the heated rock; these, swift of foot, bring drink to the thirsty sand; those carry refreshing coolness to the tepid pool. Charged with blessings come they all, and, singing 'mid their joyous labor, they join in a chorus of praise to their God and our God; while from each of our hearts goes up the ready response, "Thou, Lord, hast made me glad through thy works, and I will rejoice in giving praise for the operations of thy hands!"


My sister Mary Jane is older than I,—as much as four years. Father died when we were both small, and didn't leave us much means beside the farm. Mother was rather a weakly woman; she didn't feel as though she could farm it for a living. It's hard work enough for a man to get clothes and victuals off a farm in West Connecticut; it's up-hill work always; and then a man can turn to, himself, to ploughin' and mowin';—but a woman a'n't of no use, except to tell folks what to do; and everybody knows it's no way to have a thing done, to send.

Mother talked it all over with Deacon Peters, and he counselled her to sell off all the farm but the home-lot, which was sot out for an orchard with young apple-trees, and had a garden-spot to one end of it, close by the house. Mother calculated to raise potatoes and beans and onions enough to last us the year round, and to take in sewin' so's to get what few groceries we was goin' to want. We kept Old Red, the best cow; there was pasture enough for her in the orchard, for the trees wa'n't growed to be bearin' as yet, and we 'lotted a good deal on milk to our house; besides, it saved butcher's meat.

Mother was a real pious woman, and she was a high-couraged woman too. Old Miss Perrit, an old widder-woman that lived down by the bridge, come up to see her the week after father died. I remember all about it, though I wa'n't but ten years old; for when I see Miss Perrit comin' up the road, with her slimpsy old veil hanging off from her bumbazine bonnet, and her doleful look, (what Nancy Perrit used to call "mother's company-face,") I kinder thought she was comin' to our house; and she was allers so musical to me, I went in to the back-door, and took up a towel I was hemmin', and set down in the corner, all ready to let her in. It don't seem as if I could 'a' been real distressed about father's dyin' when I could do so; but children is just like spring weather, rainin' one hour and shinin' the next, and it's the Lord's great mercy they be; if they begun to be feelin' so early, there wouldn't be nothin' left to grow up. So pretty quick Miss Perrit knocked, and I let her in. We hadn't got no spare room in that house; there was the kitchen in front, and mother's bed-room, and the buttery, and the little back-space opened out on't behind. Mother was in the bed-room; so, while I called her, Miss Perrit set down in the splint rockin'-chair that creaked awfully, and went to rockin' back and forth, and sighin', till mother come in. "Good-day, Miss Langdon!" says she, with a kind of a snuffle, "how dew you dew? I thought I'd come and see how you kep' up under this here affliction. I rec'lect very well how I felt when husband died. It's a dreadful thing to be left a widder in a hard world;—don't you find it out by this?"