The fairy tales of science/The Mermaid's Home

The fairy tales of science by John Cargill Brough
The Mermaid's Home
"The Mermaid's Home"

The Mermaid's Home.

"Oh, what an endless work have I in hand,
To count the sea's abundant progeny!"—Spencer.

Fortunate youth! What would we not give for a glimpse of a live mermaid, especially if she happened to be as beautiful as the submarine lady portrayed by our artist! We do not wonder to see you peering over the rocks so earnestly, but we entreat you to be careful, lest you tumble into the water. The belle of the sea is prettily dressed in her robe of sea-weed, and the star-fish on her forehead is a most becoming ornament. But how would you look in the sea with your clean blouse and collar all wet and limp, with your trousers shrank up to your knees, and your boots full of water? Held tight to the rock then, inquisitive youth, for we fear you would look a pitiable object as a sea-boy!

Would the reader like to take a peep at the home of the mermaid? If so, let him follow us in imagination to the bottom of the sea. We cannot promise him a sight of the mermaid herself, but we can show him some of the inhabitants of the deep that are scarcely less wonderful. Candidly speaking, we do not believe in the existence of the fair lady with the fishy tail; but for the sake of our fairy tale, we will assume that she does exist, but is so excessively shy that she makes a point of concealing herself at the approach of strangers.

The mermaid's home is beneath the wave, but we must not suppose that it is situated at an unfathomable depth in the ocean. The lady is far too fond of life and light to reside in a region beyond the reach of the genial influence of the sunbeam. Depend upon it, she has selected some quiet bay, guarded by impassable rocks, for her habitation—a bay whose waters are not too deep nor yet too shallow.

Here is just such a bay as a mermaid might choose as a safe abode. Look how snugly the rocks shut it in on either side: a sea-nymph might pass her days here without fear of molestation. Let us walk to the end of yonder jutting rock. Now, if you wish to visit the mermaid's home, prepare for a dive, so—one, two, three—and in you go head foremost!

We are now safe on land; not on dry land, be it understood, but on the floor of the sea, with a good many feet of water overhead. We have ceased to be human beings subject to death by drowning, and have become the heroes of a fairy tale whom the elements cannot harm.

Looking around, we perceive a host of wonders. We are in a new world, whose plants and animals have no resemblance to those of the world we have just quitted. Dense forests of many-coloured algæ are outspread before us; uncouth creatures crawl at our feet, and fairy-like forms flit around us.

If we wish to obtain a correct impression of these submarine wonders, we must examine them separately in regular order. We will therefore confine our attention at present to the beautiful herbs that grow in the mermaid's garden, and the miniature trees of her parks and forests.

This lovely group of algæ, misnamed weeds, will afford us ample types of marine vegetation. One of these plants has broad leaves of a beautiful emerald-green, as thin as the finest cambric, and strangely puckered and folded at their edges.[1] The mermaid doubtless makes use of these delicate leaves in place of silk or muslin, unless indeed she eats them as a salad. Beside this flimsy plant we see a cluster of crimson leaves, some five or six inches long, and of a most graceful form.[2] The mermaid must take some pains to cultivate this herb, as its gorgeous colouring renders it a striking feature in her garden. Here is a tuft of what seems to be fine grass; here a group of rosy leaves; and here a tiny tree of a beautiful purple hue.

In this little parterre we may find all the colours of the rainbow, and a wonderful variety of forms; some of the plants are cut into fringes, some are spread out like fans; and others are divided into as many segments as are the graceful ferns of our woods. None of the marine plants in this group bear flowers, but nature has given them such brilliant hues that this fact might easily have escaped our notice.

Let us now glance at some of the mermaid's subjects, assuming the invisible lady to be the queen of these submarine realms.

Among the "happy living things" of the sea, the fishes occupy the foremost rank, but we cannot bestow much time upon them, as we have to examine many less familiar creatures. But here comes one little fish whose strongly marked peculiarities at once attract our attention. His body is of a pale brown colour, with drab clouds, and patches of white specks. He looks a terrible fellow, in spite of his mild eyes, which are light blue, and closely resemble turquoises.[3] Now he hides beneath a broad frond of sea-weed, but we can see his wicked face projecting from the covert. We will watch this gentleman closely, as we half suspect that there is some mischief brewing. Another fish now appears upon the scene, a gentle and an unsuspicious fish to judge from his expression, a fish who would not hurt a fly—unless he happened to be hungry. Now this simple-minded creature approaches the place where he with the turquoise eyes waits in ambush. Assassin-like, the blue-eyed monster darts from his hiding-place, seizes his victim by the tail, and swallows him alive! Just look at the cannibal now; his distended body has become almost black, and bears witness to the blackness of his crime! How can the mermaid tolerate such a subject in her dominions!

As we stand on the sea-floor, the fishes that dart through the pale green atmosphere of water seem to be birds. That shoal overhead looks very like a flight of swallows; and these restless little fishes, who are perpetually quarrelling and chasing each other, remind us forcibly of sparrows. What grace and symmetry belong to the forms of these finny inhabitants of the deep, and what exquisite hues gleam from their resplendent coats of mail!

See, here come emissaries from the Court of Oberon! No, they are merely shrimps and prawns, though their transparency and lightness, their graceful gliding movements, and the long and slender wands they wave, entitle them to be considered the fairies of the sea. Those who are only familiar with these creatures in their boiled condition, can form no adequate conception of their appearance during life. In the mermaid's garden these fairy-like beings take the place of moths and butterflies.

Look at this little fellow, who moves about by discharging jets of water from a small tube or siphon—a mode of progression not uncommon among marine organisms. He hovers over a clear patch of sand, as though about to settle, while by means of his magic siphon he blows the sand from under him until a slight hollow is formed. Now he settles, but it is quite evident that his siphon is still at work, for the sand issues from all sides of his globular body in a little cloud, and he gradually sinks till nothing can be seen of him save his straggling arms and curious eyes. The mermaid has many expert miners in her service, but none to excel this cunning little well-sinker.[4]

These submarine regions are thickly populated by wondrous beings so transparent that they can only be distinguished by the flashes of light that gleam from their surfaces. Their substance is gelatinous, and, strange as it may appear, consists chiefly of seawater. Let us now examine a few of these living bubbles with the superior powers of vision which we possess as heroes of a fairy tale.

How can we doubt the existence of mermaids, when we find animals assuming the forms of umbrellas, goblets, and bells! Look! here comes a living umbrella, moving through the water by opening and shutting itself. Now, reader, it flaps itself under your very nose, and you may inspect it narrowly. You will perceive, that it is rather an uncommon sort of umbrella, as it has four sticks instead of one, and is furnished with a number of tendril-like appendages. You will also see that it is neither made of silk nor gingham, but of a delicate transparent jelly.[5] This living umbrella may be taken as a type of the numerous gelatinous parachutes, bells, vases, and cups that glide through the sea.

But here is a little object which deserves a separate notice, for it bears no outward resemblance to the bell-shaped creatures, though closely related to them. It is not easy to distinguish the form of this living lump of jelly. Now you may see it, though, if you look closely as the light just catches its surface. See, it is a little egg-shaped ball of crystal, marked with longitudinal bands of the prismatic colours. Two long threads, that look like spun glass, may be seen depending from its exterior, and these threads, if examined attentively, will be found to be fringed with yet finer threads or tendrils. Now this creature vanishes, and we are left to wonder how so much beauty could be compressed into so small a compass![6]

Many of these gelatinous little creatures, which have been learnedly named Acalephæ, are phosphorescent, and at night they cause the sea to assume the appearance of liquid fire. How beautiful must be the mermaid's home, when illuminated by myriads of these living lamps!

Suppose we now take a peep at some of the creatures that dwell in the crannies of these jagged rocks and wander through these miniature forests. We shall find them to be quite as remarkable as the free-swimming inhabitants of these submarine regions. The members of the great crab family are very conspicuous objects. They scuttle about in all directions, and their little bony eyes squint at us from out of every cranny. There goes a monster belonging to the edible species—take care of his formidable nippers, or perhaps you will have cause to repent your visit to the home of the mermaid. Now he passes edgewise through a narrow chink in the rocks, and so disappears. We are not sorry to be rid of such an ugly customer.

Look at that funny little fellow sitting on that large stone. He is a crab with some points that suggest the notion of a lobster—fringed swimming plates on the last joint of the body, large foot-jaws, and very long feelers. Now he jumps off the stone, and by flapping his tail, swims just enough to enable himself to reach the sandy bottom slantwise, instead of going straight down like some of his clumsier brethren. He now crawls about the sea-floor, evidently in search of something, and now he disappears beneath a loose stone. He does not want much space, for he is as flat and thin as if he had been trodden upon.

The naturalist has brought to light some strange facts illustrative of the domestic economy of this little crab. He usually clings to the under side of some flat stone or ledge of rock, and takes in the food that is brought to his door. His long feelers are constantly groping about for provender, which he fishes in with his outer foot-jaws. Each of these jaws is like a sickle, composed of five joints beset with parallel bristles. When the jaw is straightened, the bristles stand apart and let the water flow freely between them; when the joints are bent to a curve, the bristles overlap and form a net or hair spoon. This net is the more perfect because each bristle itself is feathered with two rows of hair. After a haul, the little fisherman picks what he likes to eat out of his net, and casts again. He throws his net out, with the claws extended, and the meshes consequently open, so that all rejected particles are washed away; then he again makes for himself a spoon wherewith to pick up victuals.

In addition to his nippers this crab has four pairs of legs; but only three pairs are at first sight visible. The fourth is a very tiny pair, folded down in a groove beneath the edges of the shell. Each of these little legs has at the end a pair of fingers and a little brush of hairs. With the two brushes it scrubs and cleanses its whole body, and with the two pairs of fingers—each being more properly comparable to a finger and thumb—it picks off any dirt that cannot be removed by brushing.[7]

But who is that long-legged little gentleman with the crusty and prickly body? He is another member of the prolific crab family, and is perhaps one of the most valuable servants in the mermaid's employ. He fulfils the important duties of a scavenger, and takes care that no decaying vegetable or animal matter shall remain long enough to be prejudicial to the purity of the sea. Instead of carting away the offal, this extraordinary little fellow crams it into his stomach, and appears to think it peculiarly palatable.[8]

Look at those shells that are moving about so clumsily among the pebbles. They are the habitations of the soft-tailed crabs, who being unprovided with defensive armour are forced to seek shelter in the empty shells of different mollusca. There is a tolerably large specimen of these creatures inhabiting a whelk-shell. Look how awkwardly his claws, legs, and feelers loll out of the mouth of the shell; you would almost think that such a strange bunch of limbs would be utterly useless to the imprisoned creature. Here comes another, dragging a still larger shell after him, so prepare to witness a battle, for these creatures are terribly pugnacious. Now they meet, and begin to fight in earnest, tossing their legs and claws about in a most excited manner. Look how clumsily they tumble over each other, and you must confess that a more comical duel never took place either above or below the wave. But see, the larger crab appears to have got the worst of the fight, for he is scrambling off as fast as his legs can carry him. These humorous creatures must afford the mermaid considerable amusement, indeed, it is highly probable that they are the jesters of her court.[9]

So many strange forms meet our vision in these submarine realms, that we are puzzled as to which we ought to select for examination. Look at all these richly-coloured and gracefully-formed shells; each has its peculiar tenant, about which many wonderful things might be related. The shells, though beautiful themselves, are not to be compared with some of their inhabitants. Look at that periwinkle, for instance, who is now devouring the tender shoots of that plant, you must own that his zebra stripes and netted markings are exceedingly ornamental. But the periwinkle is not nearly so attractive as some of the fleshy creatures that may be seen protruding from their shells, and which have the richest hues imaginable.

Again, just glance at those sea-slugs.[10] How can we describe their various forms and colours? Here is one of a bright lemon colour, with a beautiful plume of feathers springing from his back; here another of a pearly white, wearing numerous club-like ornaments; and here a third, of a dingy grey, but furnished with a pretty little bouquet of flowers. The reader will perhaps be surprised when we tell him that these plumes, and clubs, and flowers enable the sea-slugs to breathe; yet such is the fact, for all these ornamental appendages perform the same functions as our lungs.

Here is a curious creature, closely resembling those we have just examined, in form and substance, but belonging to a totally different class of beings. It looks like a milk-white slug, but if we inspect it carefully, we shall find that it is provided with five rows of delicate sucking arms, by means of which it clings firmly to the surface of the rock. It also has a chocolate-coloured head, tipped with a ring of feathery gills of white and primrose. Those naturalists who have studied the habits of marine creatures, inform us that this white slug will throw away its inside when irritated, the body remaining but an empty sac; yet in a month or so the creature will begin to eat as greedily as ever, a fresh set of digestive organs having grown in the interim.[11]

Our artist has furnished his mermaid with a couple of star-shaped ornaments, and here we may see plenty of similar stars in motion. Whether we regard their symmetrical forms or their brilliant hues, we must admit these living stars to be the most remarkable inhabitants of these realms of wonder. Even this dusky red one[12] possesses great beauty, though its flaming relatives throw it into the shade. You see it has five broad rays, but you must not suppose that these rays fulfil the office of legs, for the creature’s legs, if so we may call them, are thousands of tiny suckers, protruding through holes in its under surface. Another member of the starry family may be seen clinging to the smooth surface of yonder rock,—a twelve-rayed sun of the richest scarlet.[13] Here is another, a pentagonal disc of scarlet and orange;[14] and here again another, a little flower-like disc with five long prickly arms that move about in a graceful serpentine manner.[15] The last-named creature is extremely sensitive to insult, and were you to handle him too roughly, he would probably commit deliberate suicide by breaking himself into little bits.

But how did that little hedgehog find his way hither? Examine him closely, and you will see that he is not an ordinary hedgehog. He is certainly covered over with prickles, but these instead of being of a dark brown are of a pretty violet colour. Again, his form is much more regular than that of his terrestrial namesake, and he has neither head nor legs. He is a distant relative of the living stars, though you would hardly think so, judging from his external appearance.[16]

Look at these stony tubes twisted so curiously into a tangled group. These are the habitations of some of the mermaid’s subjects. See! from the mouth of one of these tubes a conical stopper of a bright scarlet colour emerges, and now a row of feathery objects which slowly spread themselves out into an elegant scarlet plume. Now another little stopper makes its appearance; another and another; and now each tube is crowned with its lovely tuft of feathers. Presto! they have disappeared, plumes and stoppers vanished like magic as a large fish passed over them.[17]

This rock is studded over with tiny conical shells, each of which contains a living creature, quite as wonderful as the tube-inhabiting worm. If you make good use of your "microscopic eye," you will see that each little shell opens at the tip, and that a delicate white feathery object is alternately protruded and withdrawn through the aperture. This tiny white feather is a veritable casting net, and every time it is spread out it catches some invisible particles of food.[18]

We have glanced at a few of the Mermaid’s subjects, to count them all would indeed be "an endless task." In another chapter we shall describe at length some of the marvellous flowers that bloom in these submarine regions. Would that we could introduce the reader to the mermaid herself, but we sadly fear that she will never figure in the fairy tales of science. We are rather inclined to think that she ceased to exist with the dragons and griffins of that marvellous age known as "once upon a time." But perhaps she does exist after all, and only keeps out of the way of the naturalist, for fear he should bestow upon her some hard Latin name. However this may be, it is quite certain that the naturalist has never caught a glipse of this mysterious being, though he has discovered many objects in the sea quite as extraordinary. And now, reader, we will once more become air-breathers, and bid farewell to the Mermaid’s Home.

  1. Green Laver or Ulva.
  2. Delesseria
  3. The Black Goby.
  4. The Cuttle.
  5. Pelagia.
  6. Cydippe.
  7. The Porcelain Crab.
  8. The Spider Crab.
  9. The Hermit Crabs.
  10. The Nudibranch Mollusca.
  11. The Holothuria.
  12. Five-finger Star.
  13. Sun-star.
  14. Bird’s-foot Star.
  15. Brittle-star.
  16. Echinus, or Sea-urchin.
  17. Serpulæ.
  18. Balanus, or Acorn-shell.