The Story of Silk
SARA WARE BASSETT
"THE STORY OF WOOL" "THE STORY OF LEATHER" "THE STORY OF IRON" "THE STORY OF GLASS" "THE STORY OF SUGAR" "THE STORY OF PORCELAIN"
ILLUSTRATED BY HATTIE LONGSTREET PRICE
THE PENN PUBLISHING COMPANY PHILADELPHIA 1925
COPYRIGHT 1918 BY THE PENN PUBLISHING COMPANY
To the Boys and Girls of Auburndale, Massachusetts, this book is affectionately inscribed
I. The Bretton Family 9
II. The Silk House 22
III. Pere Benedict 34
IV. A Supper Party 52
V. The Silkworms 63
VI. Busy Days 76
VII. The Silk Harvest 90
VIII. Pierre Makes a Friend 100
IX. Henri Makes a Suggestion 120
X. The Awakening of the Chrysalis 133
XI. Pierre Takes Another Journey 144
XII. The Home-Coming 156
XIII. Pierre Takes the Helm 172
XIV. Pierre as a Teacher 182
XV. The Great Surprise 206
It Was a Race to Pick the Leaves Frontispiece
"It Is Like a Fairy Story" 46
He Led the Way Into a Long Room 108
"Go on Tiptoe" 140
A Royal Feast 169
"I Shall Do My Best" 190
THE STORY OF SILK
THE BRETTON FAMILY
Madame Antoinette Bretton went for the third time to the door of her tiny cottage and, shading her eyes, looked anxiously up the side of the ice-capped mountain that flanked the garden. There was still no one in sight, and with a shake of her head she returned to the coarse grey socks she was knitting.
It was late afternoon, and through the stillness she could hear the roar of the river, the tinkle of herd-bells, and the faint sound of chimes from the far-away village chapel. How quiet the house seemed without Marie and Pierre! The boy and girl had climbed to the hillside pasture to drive the goats down for milking and Hector, the great St. Bernard dog that had been the children's companion ever since they were born, had gone with them, for Hector was an expert at rounding up a herd. Although he was not a young dog he had the zeal of a puppy; with this he combined the wisdom of a sage, and it was for the latter reason that Madame Bretton never worried about her children when Hector was with them. For to Madame Bretton the boy and the girl were still children. Neither Hector, Marie, nor Pierre had dreamed of being really grown up until the Great War had come and Monsieur Bretton, together with Uncle Jacques, had been called to the colors of France.
Throughout the valley were other boys and girls whose fathers, brothers, and uncles had left their homes behind—boys and girls who were not as old as Marie or Pierre, but who nevertheless were courageously trying to do the work of their elders. Marie was now nearly fifteen, and Pierre was sixteen; but when suddenly called upon to take their father's place, they felt much older. Yesterday they had been children with little to do but play; to-day work was ahead of them, much hard work, which seemed to have aged them in a single night and turned them from boy and girl into responsible grown up persons.
What a different village Bellerivre was with so many of its men away!
Yet how bravely its peasants had responded to the call, and how dauntlessly those left behind had risen to meet the new conditions of living!
"We who remain at home must keep things running in the customary grooves, so that our soldiers may find the town unchanged when they return," had been the cry.
And so these noble-hearted mothers and children had toiled uncomplainingly at garden, vineyard, and loom; had tended flocks of goats and cattle; and had harvested the hay and grain. For Bellerivre, walled in between the river Eisen and the snowy capped Pyrenees, was a fertile valley on which, in spite of the tragedy of national warfare, the sun seemed ever to shine. It was a mere dot of a place, with a vine-covered chapel, a low white convent tucked away among the hills, and a scattering of houses. In the centre of the town stood La Maison de Sainte Genevieve, the home of Monsieur le Cure, the much loved parish priest, who although bent and white-haired was the friend, counselor, and teacher of both young and old. The little schoolhouse where he had been accustomed to meet the children was, however, now closed; for in these troublous war days boys and girls had far more important duties to perform than to learn lessons. There were the great vineyards that striped the hills—these must not perish for want of care; then there were the gardens and hay-fields.
But none of these things, vital as they appeared, were of first importance in the community. It was from quite a different source that the peasants of Bellerivre derived their livelihood—a source peculiar if one was unfamiliar with it, but which had been the primary interest of the valley ever since its people could remember. They raised silkworms!
Not only did the father of Marie and Pierre earn his living thus, but so also did most of the other fathers in that green valley. As long ago as the boy and girl had been old enough to walk they had toddled out into the sunshine and helped gather mulberry leaves; and they had not been much older than this before they had learned exactly what kind of leaves the tiny spinners liked best to eat. The precious grove of white mulberry trees had been planted years before by M. Bretton, and had been cherished with greatest care ever since. Each season new trees had been added and so spaced that their roots might have room to spread. Around each tree a trench was dug to hold the moisture. Some of the trees had been raised from seed and transplanted into the mulberry grove when they were three years old; others had been rooted from slips or cuttings—a much quicker and less troublesome process. It was always necessary to have some new trees at hand that the very young silkworms might have tender leaves to feed upon.
How strange it was that out of the vast variety of vegetation these tiny creatures would eat nothing but mulberry leaves! Over and over again, M. Bretton told his children, people had experimented with the leaves of other plants—with lettuce, spinach, and various of the greens from the garden. But it was useless. The wee spinners scorned every such offering. One woman, it is true, had succeeded in raising a few worms on witch-grass; but they had not prospered, the silk from their cocoons proving poor. Mulberry leaves they craved and mulberry leaves they must have. In time the French peasants as well as the silk raisers of other nations abandoned their experiments and went to learning how to grow mulberry trees, studying with care not only which mulberry was best for their silkworms but also which of the species flourished most successfully in the soil of their particular country.
The more they investigated the more varieties of mulberries came to light. There was the Tartarica, or Tartar mulberry, found on the Volga; the Papyfera, or paper mulberry, from Japan; the Chinese mulberry; and the more common varieties of red, black, and white mulberry. To the soil of southern France the so-called white mulberry tree seemed best adapted, and therefore the French peasants began cultivating it extensively, mingling with it, however, some of the rarer Chinese cuttings when these could be secured.
Many a lesson did the people learn about the mulberry tree while they were perfecting its growth! They found the leaves could be reached much more easily if the top of the tree was clipped so that it would grow low and bushy; this enabled children to harvest the leaves, and did away with expensive labor. But because of the luxuriant climate of France and Italy the trees of those countries could seldom be kept low, and usually gatherers had to use ladders to reach the leaves—a process by which many of them were injured and rendered useless. As no silkworm would touch a bruised leaf much of the crop was wasted. In China, where the trees seldom grew beyond the size of shrubs, the conditions for gathering perfect leaves were ideal; especially as the Chinese cut away much of the under part of the trees, so that the gatherers might go in beneath them. In addition to these interesting facts people discovered that if a single twig was broken from the mulberry tree several new shoots would branch out in its place. This was surely a valuable thing to know. Moreover, they learned that the leaves of the white mulberry were the most tender; that those of the red ranked next; and that the black came last in delicacy. Few French or Italian people used the black, but in the colder countries, where it flourished better than did other kinds, it was used almost entirely. Another delightful discovery of the sericulturists, as silkworm raisers are called, was that when their mulberry trees were once properly planted they would, with good care, live to a marvelous old age—some of them even reaching the dignity of two or three hundred years. But unless snails and other destructive grubs were kept away the trees would not thrive. The finer and more carefully grafted they were the greater the damage resulting from hungry insects. In contrast the wild mulberry with its acid and bitter sap presented far less temptation and therefore lived longer than did the cultivated species.
This and many another lesson did the father of Marie and Pierre have to learn before he could successfully raise mulberry trees—to say nothing of silkworms. He must know how to prepare the mulberry seeds by crushing the fruit, covering the pulp with water, and separating the seeds from the waste part of the berry. He must know, too, how to spread the seeds upon cloth and lay them in the sun to dry, after which they were put away in covered jars, secure from air and moisture, and stored in some dark place until needed for planting.
To Marie and Pierre, brought up amid the environment of many a mulberry grove, these facts were an old story, and how fortunate it was that this was so. Now that their father and Uncle Jacques had gone to the war most of the care of the silkworms would fall to them. There was, to be sure, Josef the old gardener—he could give advice; but he was too old and crippled to do much work.
And therefore it was the two children, together with their mother, who were planning for their first harvest of cocoons, and were eagerly awaiting the unfurling of the mulberry leaves before beginning to hatch out their crop of silkworm eggs. How anxiously they had watched the trees! How eagerly scanned the swelling buds! Ah, it could not be long now. Was not the river a torrent from the melting of the winter's snows? Was not the sun warmer, the heaven bluer, the ground fragrant as if newly awake? Soon the mulberry trees would be sending forth their leaves. Until they did, however, it would be useless to hatch the eggs so carefully laid away, for there would be no food to give the ravenous little spinners should they rouse from their long sleep.
And so Marie, and Pierre, and their mother strove to be patient, contenting themselves in the meantime with preparing the empty rooms of the silk-house, where the caterpillars were to be raised. Many a time they had not only seen this done but had assisted in the process. Every step of the work was familiar. They knew well that the labor of making the place immaculate was far from wasted, for unless the rooms were spotless the fastidious spinners would either sicken and die, or would refuse to fashion their wonderful webs.
M. Bretton, who had spent a good portion of his slender income in constructing the up-to-date shelter that housed his caterpillars, often laughingly declared that their accommodations were far more luxurious than were those where his own family lived. Nevertheless it was money well invested, he argued, since already he had got back from the sale of his cocoons many times over what the plant had cost him. So successful had he been that his example had been followed by many of his more prosperous neighbors until now Bellerivre, tiny as it was, could boast as fine equipment for sericulture as could be found in all France.
Poor M. Bretton! How proud he had been of his handiwork! How modestly exultant over his good fortune! And now that he had been forced to abandon it all and go to the Great War it was unthinkable to his wife and children that they should not take up his work and strive to carry it on. Nay, the very bread they ate depended upon their doing so.
Hence do you marvel that Marie, Pierre, and Madame Bretton labored early and late and denied themselves many things they wanted, that instead the money might be spent to further the industry that M. Bretton had cherished? And since what we work for becomes the centre of our interests it logically followed that all three of them found their task an absorbingly fascinating one. Playtime and study were cast cheerfully aside, and in place of them the boy and girl received each day the more vital compensations that come from unselfishness and hard work.
It was Marie who first detected that the buds near the ends of the mulberry branches were opening.
As she and Pierre drove the flock of goats down the steep mountain trail which led from the plateau where the pasture lay she glanced across the valley. Against the blue sky a tracery of delicate green was showing.
"Pierre!" she cried, "see! The mulberry buds are awaking! Look! Do you not catch that bit of color against the clouds? We will wait no longer. Let us tell Mother to take the silkworm eggs out of the dark room and put them where it is light. Soon there will be plenty of new leaves. Hurrah, Pierre!"
With a rush Marie bounded past her brother and ran down the narrow path scattering the goats before her in every direction, and sending Hector racing homeward with yelps of delight.
Marie's prediction proved a true one, for within another fortnight the mulberry buds were tipped with green, and it was evident they would be in leaf with the coming of a few more days of warm sunshine.
"Our silk-growing will begin in earnest now," declared Madame Bretton, "and before it does I think we'd better take one last careful survey of the silk-house to make sure that everything is all right."
From a peg over the fireplace she took down a key, and going out, crossed the lawn to a building which stood opposite. The children danced after her, entering the silent structure with prancing steps. Once inside, however, they stopped their skipping as if automatically and instead began creeping softly about on their tiptoes. Then Pierre glanced up and laughed.
"I declare if we are not as quiet as though the silkworms were here already," said he.
His mother smiled.
"It is force of habit," she answered. "We always have to be so quiet when they are here that it is hard to remember there is no need for the precaution when the building is empty. How odd it is that their hearing should be so acute! No one who has not had the care of silkworms can realize the disastrous results of startling them."
"Father once told me he had known of a lot of silkworms that stopped eating and died because a sudden noise frightened them," observed Pierre.
"Such a calamity is not at all unusual, Pierre," returned his mother. "And more than that, if anything alarms them after they have begun to spin they will frequently snap the thread of their cocoon and refuse to spin any more; if they do continue the interruption causes a lump, or rough place, in the filament so that it is imperfect and has to be broken and tied. In consequence the silk is poorer and brings a lower price. So you see how really important it is not to jar their sensitive nerves."
"Who would think that one of those green caterpillars had any nerves!" ventured Marie. "Is it true, Mother, that a thunder-storm will check their spinning?"
"Yes. It often does if the thunder is very heavy. Your father once lost an entire crop of silkworms because of a severe thunder-storm. The little creatures died of fright. It is wonderful how delicately attuned they are."
"And their sense of smell is so keen," Marie continued thoughtfully. "I remember one day Father hurried me out of the silk-house because I had some perfume on my handkerchief. I was so cross," she added with a shamefaced little flush, "for I thought the perfume very nice and I couldn't understand why he did not like it."
"Miss Vanity!" cried Pierre. "I guess afterward you saw he was dead right. He couldn't take the chance of losing his silkworms, and I don't blame him, either. It is far too much work to raise them; isn't it, Mother?"
"I rather think you will say so when you have raised your own crop," was the quiet answer.
"Do you remember the Italian Father hired to help him once; and how he afterward sent the man away because he would smoke, and smelled of tobacco all the time?"
"Yes. That was another example of the same thing," replied Madame Bretton. "Your father was afraid to risk keeping the man. The caterpillars might scent the tobacco and object to it."
"I had no idea they were so fussy!" gasped Marie. "I do hope our silkworms won't get frightened and die, or else have something make them stop spinning."
"I don't believe they will if we take good care of them," was her mother's soothing answer. "Still, we never can tell. We must heed everything Father has told us if we want to make a success of our task. To begin with there are the mulberry trees—we must not strip them of leaves too early in the season, for if we do the sap will be lost, and the strength of the tree weakened; in addition we must be careful not to waste the leaves by gathering too many at a time, or by getting the wrong kind. You know the worms will eat only freshly gathered leaves. Let us not forget that. And the young silkworms must have small and tender ones. As they grow older they will need more solid food and their development will keep pace with the advancing vegetation. It is the saccharine they take from the leaf that makes them grow; if you feed them tough leaves with little saccharine in them the poor worm has all the labor of eating a vast quantity of material that simply takes its strength and leaves it exhausted and unnourished. Of course we have plenty of leaves to choose from and we shall not need to economize our supply of food. But where people grow silk in great quantities they calculate very closely, and plan to get the greatest number of pounds of silk from the smallest possible number of leaves. That is the way all professional silk-growers work. Paying their leaf-gatherers is quite an expense, and they do not wish this item needlessly large. They buy the leaves by weight, and the leaf purchasers soon become expert in selecting those lots that are the most nutritious; for every one wants his silkworms to grow large and strong so that they may spin fine cocoons and give out a valuable quality of silk."
"Why, Mother, just feeding them is an absolute science in itself then," sighed Pierre in dismay. "I thought if we kept them from going hungry it was all we had to do. We never shall be wise enough to work out such a problem as you have put to us."
"It is not to be expected that we shall," replied his mother kindly. "Such scientific treatment of silkworms takes both knowledge and experience. Many people raise a good crop of cocoons without knowing much more than we do—sometimes not as much. I was only telling you the possibilities of the industry if one were to pursue it on a large scale. If you and Marie and I keep our silkworms alive, clean, and well-fed, and reap a reasonable harvest of cocoons, we must be satisfied. I shall consider we have done well. Only let us not waste more leaves than we must. In time we shall learn to estimate about how many to gather at a picking. Fortunately here in France the mulberry trees yield more leaves than they do in most countries, so I am not worried lest we fall short. In some countries the number of leaves is very limited, and the gatherers are compelled to be exceedingly careful not to waste them. I remember hearing your father say that in Persia, where the climate is very hot, the natives gather small branches of leaves, that they may be fresher than they would be if picked one at a time."
"Why don't we do that here?" inquired Marie. "I should think it would be a fine plan."
"It isn't," responded her mother. "In the first place it injures the trees to take off so many twigs and let so much sap escape; furthermore, it makes more waste to clear away. We should only be making ourselves work were we to follow such a method. The best way is to gather the single leaves just as we always have done. There will be four of us, for old Josef can help us. It is fortunate he did not go to the war, for while he helped your father he learned many things about silk-raising which will be useful to us, I am sure."
"I wish the silkworms did not eat so much," grumbled Marie.
"They must eat if they are to grow, dear," said Madame Bretton. "Every creature eats more while growing—even children," she added mischievously. "But a silkworm does all its growing in a very short space of time, and in proportion to its size grows faster than almost any other living thing. Remember, its whole life is over in a few short weeks. It must live very fast while it lives."
"If only ours do live," interpolated Marie dubiously.
"I see no reason to fear they won't," Madame Bretton said once more. "But we must neglect nothing. It is the trifling carelessnesses that bring bad results—the tiny things that it seems silly to take the trouble to do. If we lose our crop of cocoons because of slighting the little details it will be our own fault, and we shall deserve failure; if, on the other hand, we do the best we know, we shall have no regrets. We must take every precaution to keep the silk-house clean and well-ventilated, for silkworms demand spotless surroundings as well as plenty of fresh air. Then we must not allow withered leaves or other refuse to collect on the shelves where the worms are feeding, for any waste matter ferments and causes disease."
"Aren't silkworms very likely to get sick anyway, Mother?" queried Pierre.
"They are susceptible to certain diseases," nodded Madame Bretton. "For example, there are epidemics which sometimes sweep away the hatching of an entire season; sometimes, too, the eggs are diseased and hatch into diseased caterpillars, which in turn lay more diseased eggs. This was the tragedy that befell France in 1847. At that time the French people could get no healthy eggs anywhere in their own country, and were forced to send to Italy for them. Afterward the infection spread to Italy. Then those from the region of the Danube, where growers had been purchasing them, also became diseased. The plague spread even to China, until in 1865 the only good eggs to be had were those from India. You can imagine what a terrible experience that was for the peasants. Not only did they lose all the eggs that they had raised and stored, but as most of them were poor they could not afford to import perfect eggs from India. Hence many of them gave up silk-raising entirely and the price both of silkworms and of silk became enormous. Only the very rich could afford to buy either."
"How did people ever get out of such a tangle, Mother?" questioned Marie, much interested.
"Little by little those fortunate persons who secured good eggs sold a few to those who had none, and the crop soon increased, for one silkworm-moth will lay as many as two or three hundred eggs. But even at this rate it took many years to get the industry up to where it was before. It was a terrible misfortune to the French and Italian peasants, and you may be pretty sure that as a result of the calamity every one set about being careful to prevent another such disaster. Now when silkworms are ill they are quickly isolated, just as people are who have contagious diseases. And if there is danger of wide-spread infection, and the growers think best not to take any risks, they will even kill many of the caterpillars outright. The sacrifice is sometimes great, but it is a necessary precaution. Furthermore, present day sericulturists have learned much about growing silkworms, and the importance of keeping the silk-houses clean and well aired; they have found that they must preserve an even temperature within the buildings; wash the walls down with lime to purify the atmosphere; sterilize the trays from which the worms feed; and hatch the eggs in large, airy places. The most up-to-date growers who work on a large scale use incubators. Of course, however, there are still some ignorant peasants who insist on hatching the caterpillars inside their clothing, where the warmth from their bodies will bring the eggs quickly to maturity. Fortunately there are not many who do this. They have learned better."
"I should hope so!" ejaculated both Marie and Pierre in a breath.
There was a moment of silence; then the boy looked up into his mother's face and said:
"I understand now why Father was so particular."
"Your father is an intelligent man, who believes that 'trifles make perfection and that perfection is no trifle,'" answered Madame Bretton. "He has raised some very fine silk and made a good profit by selling it. But every franc of the money was earned—it never came to him easily."
"We'll try to do as well as he has, won't we, Mother?" Marie said softly.
"We must not expect to do anything as well as your father would have done it; he has been a very successful silk-grower. But we will do as well as we are able," returned Madame Bretton with a sad, far-away glance.
When Madame Bretton and the children returned from their inspection of the silk-house they were surprised to find Monsieur le Cure, good Father Benedict, awaiting them. The priest was sitting contentedly in the sunshine, his walking-stick in his hand, and the gentle breeze stirring his white hair. Beside him stood Hector with nose on the Cure's knee and great brown eyes looking into the kindly face of the old man.
Madame Bretton hurried forward.
"Why, Father!" she exclaimed. "Who would have thought of finding you here! Have you been waiting long?"
"But a few minutes, my dear," was the answer. "I knew well you could not have strayed far, for the house was unlocked, and the kettle steaming on the hob."
"So it was," laughed Madame Bretton. "You must stay and share our porridge with us, Father. It is just supper time, and you have had a long walk from the village. You must be hungry. The children and I would be so glad if you would be our guest."
Marie and Pierre added their pleas.
"Do stay, Father," they cried. "Stay and tell us some stories."
Monsieur le Cure smiled into their eager faces.
"I will gladly stay if you are sure the porridge——"
"There is enough, Father, and to spare," declared Madame Bretton. "But had I known you were coming you should have had one of the hot tea cakes that you like so much."
"Ah, a tea cake—how good it is! You are a rare cook, my daughter." He glanced into Madame Bretton's face with radiant smile. "But is not hearty welcome better than a pyramid of tea cakes? If you are sure about the porridge——"
He chuckled playfully.
"There is plenty, Father—plenty," put in Marie. "I saw Mother measure it. And if there weren't you should have mine," she added as she joyously seized his baretta and stick and hurried away with them.
"You are a good child, Marie," the old priest called after her. "Now make haste to put my things away, and then you and Pierre shall come here and tell me how your silk-raising is getting on. Have you begun to hatch out your silkworms yet?"
The boy and girl nestled at his side. Had not Father Benedict brought them up; and was he not friend as well as teacher? In every home in Bellerivre his coming was hailed with delight, and his departure followed with regret. He possessed the rare attributes of sympathy and simplicity sometimes blended in great natures. None of his flock experienced a happiness too trivial for him to exult in, or a grief too personal for him to share.
Madame Bretton glanced for a second at the group on the door-step—at the white-haired man, the bright-faced children, the old dog; then she softly tiptoed into the house to make ready the evening meal.
"We haven't hatched any of our silkworms yet, Father," answered Marie, "but everything is prepared, and we shall begin in a day or two; perhaps to-morrow if there is warm sun."
"That is right," nodded the priest. "It is full time they were under way. That is one reason I came to see you. You live so far away that I feared you might not know that all through the valley the silk-raising is beginning. Already some of the peasants in the village have hatched their eggs; but I think they were a bit too hurried about it, for the trees are hardly leaved out enough yet. Sometimes it is as bad to be too early as too late. I hope you are going to have fine luck, my dears, fine luck! And indeed I don't see why you shouldn't."
"We hope so too, Father. It means a great deal to us to succeed, you know," responded Pierre gravely. "You see it is not alone that we need the money for ourselves. It is for Mother as well; and so that we may also send things to Father and Uncle Jacques."
The priest patted the boy's head.
"I know, I know," he answered softly. "Well, be of good courage, my children, and do not be disheartened if you meet with failure at the start. Try a second time, and a third, and many more. The people who first raised silkworms had to try and fail many, many times before they succeeded."
"Who did first raise silkworms, Father?" questioned Marie. "I was wondering about it the other day. Where did we get the first silkworm eggs, and who thought of reeling the silk from the cocoons?"
"That is a pretty big question, Marie," laughed Father Benedict. "Nobody can be exactly sure who originated the industry of sericulture. Certain it was, however, that before other countries had sugar, or china, or silk, the Chinese people were producing all of these things. But they were a selfish nation, and jealous of allowing any one else to share in their progress. Therefore they shut the rest of the world out of their discoveries and kept to themselves the secret of how they obtained the products they manufactured. For China, you must know, was a great walled country where travelers were not very welcome, and whose people mingled little with the inhabitants of other lands. How the Chinese learned to make silk we do not know; but there are in existence old records showing that as far back as the year 2700 B. C., these ingenious people were making fabrics spun from the filament taken from the cocoons of the silkworm. There is an ancient story that the Empress See-ling-shee hatched and raised silkworms in her garden, afterward winding the silken thread from the cocoons and weaving a delicate gauzy tissue from the fibres. Who taught her to do it no one can tell. Some persons think the Chinese stole the art from India; certain it was that the inhabitants of Persia, Tyre, and other eastern countries got silk thread from somewhere at a very early date and used it. In fact it was because the Greeks and Romans called the land beyond the Ganges 'Seres' that later the name sericulture became the term applied to silk-raising."
The priest paused and gently stroked Hector's head.
"There are many ancient references to the use of silk," he went on. "We read how Alexander the Great brought home from Persia wonderful silk fabrics when he and Aristotle went there to collect curiosities. He even tells how the silkworms produced this material which, by the way, he calls bombykia; but nowhere does he tell in what place the industry had its origin. However, he at least knew more about it than did most people, for the common opinion was that the tissue was made from wool, or the fibre of trees, some persons even thinking it came from the bark. Another notion was that silk was woven from thread spun by the spider; still others argued that the cocoanut was its source."
"How stupid of them!" ejaculated Marie.
"Ah, it was not really so strange after all, my dear," replied the priest. "Suppose you were seeing silk for the first time. Where should you think it came from?"
"I don't know."
"Precisely. And that is just the way the rest of the world felt at that time," continued Pere Benedict. "Nobody knew, and in consequence everybody made the best guess he could. Until the time of Justinian silk-making was confined wholly to China, being in fact little known anywhere in Europe before the reign of Emperor Augustus. What little silk there was cost so much that no one dreamed of wearing it. At last, however, some of the women of the royal houses of Rome ventured to use it for robes of state; and then the very rich men gradually followed their example and began to use it a little, for it was a cool, light material to wear in hot weather. Weavers had not learned at that time to make the rich silks such as we have to-day; nor were the heavy kinds considered so beautiful as were the thinner varieties. But in time it became the common opinion that such fragile textiles were no material for men to wear; the Emperor feared the custom would make them vain and foppish. Accordingly a law was passed forbidding male citizens to use silk apparel."
"But the Romans were no longer content with their coarse woolen robes," went on Monsieur le Cure. "They had seen silk and they wanted it. They were a luxury loving people who eagerly caught up every form of elegance that came in their way. Many of the rich had enjoyed the splendor and comfort of silken garments and they were not to be deterred from possessing them. Persian traders who possibly got their silk thread from China, and who held the monopoly of the woven fabrics, began sending their goods to Rome, charging for them most outrageous prices. Then came the Persian invasion, and the program was reversed; for Rome turned on the Orientals, levying such a high tax on the manufacture of silk that the industry of the Persians was greatly injured. And all this time that the Romans were wearing silk and fighting about it they were still unable to find out where the silk fibre came from."
Pere Benedict broke into a hearty laugh.
"Did they ever find out?" inquired Marie whose eyes had scarcely left the face of the priest.
"Of course they did, silly!" was Pierre's scornful response.
"Gently, son, to your little sister," said Monsieur le Cure.
"They did find out, Marie," continued Pere Benedict kindly. "And it was in a strange way, too."
"Tell us!" exclaimed both the boy and girl simultaneously.
"It chanced that there were two monks who were sent on a mission to India, and who ventured within the borders of China. While there they saw the Chinese raising silkworms, and returning to Rome they related their story to the Emperor Justinian."
"I think it was mean of them!" announced Marie with spirit.
"I'm afraid it was, my child," agreed Father Benedict. "Yet after all was it quite fair for the Chinese to keep to themselves a thing which it was for the world's good to know? Was not such a course both narrow and selfish?"
"Perhaps it was."
"Well, at any rate, the monks were sent back to China with orders to procure some of the silkworm's eggs. Now this was not an easy task, because no one was allowed to carry such treasures out of China. Had a traveler been discovered doing so he would certainly have been killed. Hence the problem was how to accomplish the feat."
Marie and Pierre edged closer.
"The story goes that the wily monks had some hollow staffs made, and that inside these they stowed away the precious eggs, departing out of China in the guise of pilgrims. On their arrival in Rome the eggs were hatched and the stolen silkworms became the ancestors of all the silkworms in Europe—perhaps the great-great-great-great-grandparents of the very ones you are going to raise next week."
The boy and girl laughed merrily.
"The rest of the story is that Emperor Justinian had mulberry trees planted throughout the Roman Empire and brought to Rome weavers from Tyre and Berytus. These workmen trained other weavers, and in the meantime more and more eggs were hatched. All Europe seized upon the industry. Mulberry trees were planted in Greece and in other countries where the climate was sufficiently warm to make them grow. From Greece the trade spread at a later date to Venice, at that time one of the foremost patrons of the arts. But all the silks made up to this period were very plain, because it was not until long afterward that manufacturers learned how to make velvets, satins, and brocades. Then came a revolution in China, and for the next six hundred years Rome and Greece had the principal supply of silkworms and the monopoly of the industry. Was it not fortunate now, Marie, that the Romans had stolen the secret of making silk?" Pere Benedict pinched her cheek playfully. "Had they not done so the art might, perhaps, have been lost, as were so many other of the early arts. Numberless other conquests and wars in various countries followed. I won't stop to tell you about them; but one of the good results evolving out of the turmoil was that silk-making spread to Sicily, Italy, and Spain."
"And France—was she left out, Father?" asked Pierre anxiously.
"Have no fears for your native land, my son. France came into her silk-making heritage about the time of Francis I. England followed her example more slowly because, you know, our English brothers are a little more conservative than we are. All in good time, however, England made silks and very beautiful ones, too, in which her kings and queens were resplendent on state occasions."
"It is like a fairy story, Father," murmured Marie.
"Then you are not tired?"
The priest smiled.
"At the beginning of the sixteenth century Bologna had the finest throwing mills for the twisting and spinning of thread then known. But China with its peculiarly fertile soil still continued to be the land best adapted for raising raw silk, although several other countries surpassed it in the manufacture of fabrics. In Italy silk-making like glass-making was held to be one of the most honorable of occupations; and silk-makers intermarried with the nobility, being accorded equality of rank with the best born families."
Pere Benedict paused for breath; then gave an odd little chuckle.
"I could tell you many an amusing tale of the early uses of silk," he said. "Picture, for example, Henry V celebrating his victory at Agincourt by putting purple silk sails on his ships! And think of Queen Elizabeth receiving as a gift a pair of knitted silk stockings which, by the way, so spoiled her for wearing woolen ones that she disliked ever to wear them again. Silken hose were a rarity in those days, even for queens. Now of course as people saw more and more uses to which silk could be put they came to want it; and the monarchs of all countries, realizing that silk-making would bring money into their coffers, urged their subjects to take up sericulture. Henry IV of France did much to make it popular among the French peasants, offering rewards to those who would grow mulberry trees. England was found to have too cold a climate for silk cultivation; so James I, who was king at that time, tried to have the industry transplanted to the new colony of Virginia. This plan did not succeed, however, as the American planters found the growing of potatoes and tobacco far more profitable. In 1732 another attempt was made in the American states of Georgia and South Carolina and was again abandoned, because although America could raise both mulberry trees and silkworms she lacked the supply of cheap coolie labor in which the Orient abounded. Now the producing of raw silk is left to China, Bengal, the Coromandel coast, India, France, Italy, and Turkey. Bengal proves an ideal silk-raising country, for because of the climate there are yearly three crops of cocoons—one in March, one in July, and one in November. Some of the other countries have two crops; others only one."
"And France?" put in Pierre.
"Ah, Pierre, there should be no need for me to tell you, a French boy, of your own land. The growing of our silk, as you know, is done in our southern provinces; while its manufacture takes place in our great northern cities. Marseilles is the big market for raw silk, and Lyons the centre for the manufactured fabric. Meanwhile England has come to excel in silk manufacture and she now excludes our French made goods whenever she can that her people may patronize their own makers, who get their silk from the English colonies. And it is in this great and wonderful story of silk-making that you and Marie are now to have a share," concluded Father Benedict. "May you and your good mother be successful in a work that has brought to our beloved France much of her prosperity."
There was a moment of silence.
Then Madame Bretton came to the door.
"Supper is ready, Father, and I beg you come in quickly—for while you have been talking I have made you a tea cake!"
The venerable priest smiled with pleasure, and with a child clinging to each of his hands he passed into the tiny cottage.
A SUPPER PARTY
The interior of the Bretton home was extremely simple; and simple, too, was the supper laid out upon the sand-scoured table. In war time even the more well-to-do families were living on the plainest of rations, that all the food which could possibly be spared should be sent to the men on the fighting lines. There was no sugar, little salt, a scant quantity of flour, and no meat to be had in the village. Still no one complained. Was not each serving his country by denying himself those things which, after all, could easily be done without? Healthy boys and girls were as well off—nay, better—without cakes and candies, the grown-ups said; and even the children themselves had come to admit this.
Therefore the little group ate without comment their frugal meal, thankful that their food was as plenty as it was. The kind old priest, like his people, was accustomed to scanty fare, and would have been the first to reprimand his parishioners had any of them offered him anything else. Simple, however, as was the supper it was well-cooked and satisfying; and after the chairs had been pushed back, and Marie and her mother had washed the few dishes, a candle was lighted and the Brettons, together with their guest, drew their seats into the circle of its radiance.
"I wish, Father, you would tell us how they make velvet," ventured Marie, who delighted in the Cure's stories. "That, too, is made from silk, isn't it?"
"Velvet!" ejaculated the priest. "What a frivolous little damsel you are! Are you planning already how you will one day dress yourself in the clothes of a princess, my dear?"
Mischievously he pinched her cheek.
"No, indeed, Father. It was only that on Sunday when I saw the hangings about the high altar it came to me of a sudden to wonder how the velvet was made."
"You would much better have been thinking of your prayers, naughty one," replied Pere Benedict, touching her hair lightly with his long, slender fingers. "However, in order that you may not a second time fill your mind with such questions I will tell you what I can about velvet making."
With a sigh of pleasure Marie settled back onto the tiny stool at the priest's feet.
They all loved to listen to the Father's tales.
"He is better than any story-book!" Pierre often declared.
"The first velvet we know anything about," began the Cure, "was probably brought from India, where it must have been woven on hand-looms. When the Greeks and Romans invaded the East, among other spoils they brought back with them great webs of crimson velvet, with which they immediately began to decorate their palaces. They had no idea how it was made, and of course did not give it the name it now bears. Instead they called it Villosus, meaning shaggy hair. It is from this quaint old term that our modern word velvet is derived."
The children smiled.
"It was not strange they should have chosen that name, for you must remember they had never seen woven material with a fur-like pile, or nap, such as velvet has; and it must have puzzled them not a little. So you see it is due to these conquests of the Orient that velvet found its way into the world. As time went on the supply of velvet increased. People in other places than India learned to make it. By the fourteenth century it was extensively used for hangings in the churches of France and Italy, and was also much seen at court. Robes of blue velvet marvelously embroidered in gold, which evidently had been worn by church dignitaries, have been found in an old French church, and are carefully preserved as curiosities, since all the velvet of that period was either black or of a crimson color. Now as lace-making was one of the arts of the time, and as much wonderful hand-made lace was used on vestments and altar-cloths, you can readily understand how velvet was a rare means of showing it off, and became a favorite material for church use."
He paused thoughtfully.
"And not only did it rise in favor in the churches, but also kings, queens, and noblemen purchased all of it they could afford, to adorn themselves. It was far more expensive than silk, which at that early date was very costly. In fact it is only since present day manufacture has mastered the art of making velvet less expensively that its price has lessened. Although some of the rare patterns and some of the silkiest qualities are still made on hand-looms, the greater part of it is now made by machinery. The coronation robes for the King and Queen of England, for example, are always made on hand-looms."
"Is velvet hard to make, Father?" inquired Pierre.
"Yes. Good velvet weavers are few. You see when our king Louis XIV of France drove the Huguenots, who were famous silk and velvet weavers, out of the country, they took with them the trades of silk and velvet making. Some carried the art to England; some to Germany. The German towns of Elberfeld and Krefeld now make a large part of the velvet used by the world—or did before the war. Krefeld alone has one hundred and twenty velvet factories, besides many others devoted to dyeing the silk from which the velvet is made. The German Government gives to those who will follow the industry free instruction in the chemistry of dyes, in designing, and in other branches furthering the manufacture. As a consequence the making of velvet has increased there until now many varieties formerly only obtainable in other countries are now woven in Germany."
"But some of our own French cities make velvet, too, Father," protested Marie.
"Ah, surely, dear child! The velvet from Lyons has long been famous. Lyons and Genoa, many persons say, make the most beautiful velvets there are to be had. Some are of exquisite design, having great flowers, scrolls, or garlands brocaded upon them; others are of solid color—a rare and rich shade—and are made from the purest of silk, which gives to them a sheen wondrous to see. Such velvets are, of course, very costly, and only the rich can afford them; but as a product they are a magnificent achievement. You see velvet-making has now become a well-perfected art. Time has eliminated ancient methods, and bettered machinery so that effects never before dreamed of can now be obtained. There is, for example, the soft panne velvet made by pressing the goods after it has been woven until it presents a satiny finish, then there is what is known as mirror velvet, a product woven from more than one shade of silk, and which in a strong light has a changeable quality."
"It is wonderful, isn't it?" murmured Madame Bretton, who was leaning forward and listening as intently as were her boy and girl.
"Yes; all that man thinks out with his brain and perfects with his hands is wonderful," agreed the priest. "It is a test of ingenuity and patience, and as such should be respected. Moreover, velvet is a useful product. The best silk varieties are very durable. They ravel little, and can be steamed almost to their original freshness when they become worn. Of course cheap velvets and plushes—which are merely velvets with a longer nap—are another matter. There is much cotton in them, and consequently they catch the dirt, and are soon defaced. More and more they are passing out of use as coverings for furniture, or for seats in cars and halls. The material cannot be cleaned, and as a collector of dust is most unhygienic. It is well it should give place to something that is not such a fosterer of germs."
"Won't you tell us how they make the fur on the velvet, Father?" begged Marie, who was fearing every moment that the good priest would insist on starting homeward.
The Cure laughed.
"You'll have me here until midnight, little one," said he. "Should I tell you just how velvet is made it would take me hours; nor, in fact, am I sure I know every step of the process. I do know, however, that the soft nap is made by drawing the threads of the silk warp over an extra wire which leaves millions of tiny loops standing upright, and packed very close together all over it. In order that the velvet may be smooth, these loops must be perfectly even and very near together. The closer they are, the more rich and beautiful will be the velvet. It is when these loops are cut that we get the silky sheen of the goods. If they are not cut we have instead the material known as uncut velvet, largely used for upholstery purposes. Yet another variety called raised velvet is made by having loops of different lengths so arranged as to form a pattern. Sometimes, too, we see figures of velvet woven into backgrounds of satin. I am sure I need not tell you the name for that sort of goods."
"Brocade!" Marie cried.
"Quite right!" nodded the priest.
"And velveteen, like my trousers, Father—what about that?" questioned Pierre.
"Velveteen? Velveteen, my boy, was first made in England, and is a less expensive material, made largely of cotton."
Pierre looked disappointed.
"Nay, nay, son," exclaimed the kindly priest, noticing his face, "do not scowl at your clothing. Velveteen is a warm and durable kind of cloth, and is most useful. Only a prince would be raising silkworms arrayed in a costume of real velvet; and even then, were he to do it, he would be an extravagant fellow."
"Is velvet made in America?" Madame Bretton asked.
"America makes almost no velvet cloth, but much velvet ribbon, some of which is very fine. The American mills also turn out a great deal of cheaper, cotton-backed velvet ribbon. The best quality of their silk velvet variety is made on looms the exact width of the goods, and has a selvage and back of satin."
"Can people make——" began Pierre.
But the priest had sprung resolutely to his feet, and was standing with his fingers pressed to his ears.
"No more! No more!" he cried. "Not another question will I answer. See, it is already past your bedtime. Besides, I myself must be getting home. Would you keep me here forever? Run fetch my hat and stick—off with you!"
They flew to do his bidding.
Then with a good-night kiss on the brow of each child, and a wave of his hand to their mother, he was gone.
The next few weeks were such busy and exciting ones for the Bretton family that not only did Marie and Pierre find no time for play but Madame Bretton herself could scarcely snatch the necessary moments to cook the meals. Josef, the old servant who had always helped Monsieur Bretton about the silk-house, and who had been too feeble to go to the war, started low fires in the building where the eggs were to be hatched and kept the great rooms at an even temperature in readiness for their coming occupants. The eggs when exposed to the air were so small it seemed incredible that out of them could come the hungry little caterpillars who would spin that delicate silken filament.
"They are about the size of mustard seed, aren't they, Mother?" remarked Marie.
"Just about, and they also are not unlike mustard in color," replied her mother, "although they will not remain so—at least we hope not."
"Because after three or four days they should turn to a light slate color if they are the sort of eggs we want. Those that remain yellow are the unfertilized ones and will be of no use to us; we must discard them."
"And do the eggs always remain slate color until hatched?" questioned Pierre.
"No, they next turn to a dull, brownish slate tint and then the caterpillar comes out. The changes may take place more rapidly than this and the entire process require but a day or two. It all depends on the temperature and the light. Josef knows by long experience just what to do to hurry things along."
As Marie and Pierre glanced at the immaculate white shelves that awaited the newcomers, and realized that for the first time the actual care of the work they had so many times idly watched was upon their young shoulders, it seemed like a dream.
"Now there are many pitfalls which we must be careful to avoid," announced Josef. "In the first place we must beware of rats, mice, spiders, ants—even chickens. All of these creatures can work havoc among the caterpillars. Probably you will not need to worry about them very much; certainly not the rats, mice or chickens. Hens and chickens cannot get in here if you are watchful and close the doors. As for the rats and mice, your father has pretty thoroughly exterminated them. Spiders and ants will find little encouragement in a clean place like this, but we must be on the lookout for them, because one never knows when they will creep into a building. The greatest danger, aside from some epidemic spreading and destroying your crop, lies in feeding your silkworms wrongly. Remember, they must have no wet leaves if we want them to live. You know that already, I guess, or you ought to, for you certainly have gathered enough food for them. Moist leaves will make silkworms ill sooner than almost anything else. So never get leaves that are wet with dew or those that have been rained on. When it looks as if a storm was coming pick a sufficient number of leaves in advance and keep them fresh and cool in the cellar."
"The picking does not trouble us so much as the feeding, Josef. We have never done that. How many times must we feed the worms?"
"At the beginning three times a day; and never forget that the young worms must have the youngest and most tender leaves. Later they will need the tougher ones, with more solid food elements in them, but not at first."
"They are pretty fussy, aren't they, Josef?" laughed Marie. "Lots more particular about their food than we are. Mother makes us eat what is set before us, and never allows us to argue as to whether we like it or not; sometimes it isn't what we'd rather have, either."
"But you manage to live and grow fat on it just the same," grinned the old servant. "Now your silkworms wouldn't. They'd die, and that would be the end of them. Of course some varieties are more robust than others; but they all have to have the same care."
"I didn't know there was more than one kind of silkworm!" exclaimed Marie in surprise.
"Of course there are," Pierre retorted. "Even I knew that. There are lots of kinds, and some make much better silk than others."
"Some give more silk, too," Josef put in. "Their cocoons are much larger. The big white worm such as we raise here is one of the most profitable. It has four moultings."
"You mean it changes its skin four times?" Marie said.
"Just that. It's a queer life it has, isn't it?" mused the man. "First there is the tiny egg; then comes the caterpillar with all its moultings and its ravenous appetite—then follows the spinning of the cocoons; and the long sleep of the chrysalis, or aurelia, as the slumberer inside the cocoon is sometimes called. And last of all is the moth that comes out of the cocoon—when we will let it—and lays hundreds of eggs for future crops of silkworms. What a short, hard-working life it is!"
"They are funny creatures anyway," observed Pierre thoughtfully. "They don't seem to want to do any of the things other animals do. Silkworms never crawl about as most caterpillars would. Shouldn't you think that after they were hatched they would like to see where they were and would go crawling all round the room?"
"You would think so," replied Josef. "But they don't. They seem to have no wish to move. Perhaps they realize that all their strength must be saved for eating and spinning. Now and then, of course, if they do not find food near at hand when they are first hatched they will bestir themselves until they reach it; they move more at this stage than at any other; and yet they would not move then if they were not hungry. Their chief aim in life seems to be to eat. They are no travelers, that's sure. Even when they emerge from the chrysalis into the moth they use their wings very little, only fluttering a short distance when they are mating."
"But suppose, Josef, that one wants to get them somewhere else and they won't go," speculated Marie.
"Oh, it is easy enough to move them. That can be done any time by means of a good tempting mulberry leaf; they will cling to it tight as a leach and you can cart them round wherever you wish."
"When do you suppose our silkworms will first change their skins, Josef?" asked Pierre.
"Yes. I forgot the word for it."
"That all depends on the temperature of the room and on how fast they develop. Usually with the degree of heat we keep here the first moulting takes place within eight days. You see your silkworms are only about a quarter of an inch long at first, and as they increase in size to about three inches their skin is not elastic enough to accommodate their rapid growth. It simply won't hold them. Suppose you or Marie grew twelve times your natural size in a few short weeks?"
"I'd pity Mother, letting out our clothes!" chuckled Marie.
"They couldn't be let out; the material wouldn't be there," replied Josef. "And it would be the same way with your skin. It wouldn't stretch. You'd have to have a new one. That's what the silkworm does—only it does it several times over. No skin made can cover an animal that is a quarter of an inch long one week and three-quarters of an inch long the next, and so on growing in leaps and bounds until it gets up to three inches and sometimes more. Think of growing at that rate! And the little gourmands are not eating all the time, either, because after they are hatched it is three days before they eat much. They act stupid, and as if they didn't feel well. But later they make up for their loss of appetite—don't you fret."
Josef smiled grimly.
"By the fourth day they are eating at a furious rate," he went on, "and they keep right on stuffing themselves for five days. When they are about eight days old they have expanded until their skin is so tight that it makes them uncomfortable. It seems to pinch and make them ill. At any rate they act as if they felt pretty poorly and did not want to eat much more. Their next move is to cast their skins. This takes about three or four minutes and is a strenuous business while it lasts; every bit of the old skin goes—even that from the head, jaws, and feet. The ordeal leaves them weak and exhausted, but they soon cheer up, and are eating again furiously as ever. You can't stop them from eating very long."
"How does the new skin look?" inquired Marie. "Just like the other?"
"Why do you ask such foolish questions, Marie?" grumbled Josef. "Haven't you seen your father's silkworms hundreds of times?"
"I'm ashamed to say I never noticed them very much, Josef," returned the girl. "They seemed such horrid little things that I never was interested in them."
"I don't know much about them either," put in Pierre. "I never expected to be raising them myself. If I had I should have examined them more carefully and asked Father lots of questions. It was such a bother always to be gathering mulberry leaves for them that I came to dislike the thought of a silkworm," confessed the boy. "Ever so many times I had to pick leaves when I wanted to go and play. But now, you see, it is different, because they are our own silkworms and of course we want to learn all we can about them. I wish, Josef, you'd please tell us about their new skins."
Josef glanced up good-naturedly.
"If you really want to know of course I'll tell you," he answered. "The new skin looks just about like the old one, except that it is all loose and wrinkled. You know how you look when you are wearing a new suit that your mother has bought for you to grow to, Pierre. Well, that's the way the silkworm's suit looks on him. It is several sizes too big at first. But by the end of five days he has filled it all out until he is as uncomfortable in it as he was in his old one, and is ready for another."
"And he peels this one off just the same way?"
"Just the same—hat, coat, and gloves. This, as I have said, is not at all easy, for you must remember that his skin fits very closely all about his jaws as well as over all his sixteen legs. These are arranged in pairs so when he shifts his skin it is equal to peeling off eight pairs of stockings. How would you like that?"
The boy and girl shook their heads.
"These legs are very nicely planned, too," went on Josef. "There are six in front—three pairs—neatly covered with a thick, shelly coating; these fit under the first three rings of the silkworm's body and can be used as hands when he is spinning. Then come the other ten legs, or holders, which have tiny hooks on them and are the climbing legs."
"But I thought the silkworm scarcely moved," objected Marie.
"Oh, it can move when it wants to. When it gets ready to spin its cocoon it climbs until it finds a place that suits it. In addition to all these legs it has wonderfully strong jaws. I suppose the good Lord bestowed these upon the silkworm because most of its work in life is done with its jaws—both its eating and spinning. In proportion to its size the silkworm has stronger jaws than any other of the small creatures. Underneath these jaws are two very tiny apertures set close together through which the caterpillar draws and unites into one the two strands of silk. This is sometimes called the spinaret. The silk substance, which is really a yellow gum, passes through the two long glands that run along each side of the silkworm and are fashioned into a single thread in the spinaret."
"And you say the silkworm goes through the process of changing its skin four times, Josef?"
"Yes, four times. You can always tell when it is going to moult, because it raises its head and remains still in that position as if asleep. When it has grown to the full size of its fourth skin it is ready to spin its cocoon. This is all very simple when you understand it; and yet strange and wonderful, too. You'll follow the process more easily when your own silkworms begin to grow and you can watch them go through all these different stages."
"I do hope our silkworms will hatch and develop safely," remarked Pierre anxiously.
"You needn't fear, I guess," was the comforting reply. "I have helped your father hatch out thousands of eggs, and we seldom have had a bit of trouble. I shouldn't worry. By to-morrow or the next day I plan we shall have as fine a crop of silkworms as one could wish to see."
"I hope so—for our sakes and for Father's," said Marie softly.
The Brettons' silkworms hatched as successfully as Josef had foretold they would, and soon Madame Bretton and her boy and girl had all they wished to do. Not that the work was taxing at first. For a while it was a simple matter to gather the fresh young mulberry leaves and keep the juvenile caterpillars amply supplied with food. Even the litter of stems and waste material that had to be cleared away with promptness did not cause much trouble, for most of it fell through the perforations in the tin shelves and could be readily removed. Now and then, of course, some unwary baby silkworm fell through too along with this waste matter and had to be rescued; for the most part, however, the task was simple enough.
"I do not see that it is hard work to raise silkworms," announced Pierre at the end of the first few days. "Why, a six-year-old child could feed them! It is the easiest thing imaginable."
"Just you wait, Pierre Bretton!" was his retort. "Some day in the near future I'll remind you of those words. The first three weeks are not arduous, I'll agree. The next twelve or fourteen days are harder, though; there are more things to think of and more food to gather. And as for the last part of the time—it demands all the care and labor that you will wish to expend."
But Pierre only shrugged his shoulders sceptically.
In the meantime the silkworms continued to thrive. The weather was warm and sunny and no irregular conditions broke in upon the work until one afternoon Josef announced in a warning tone:
"There'll be rain to-morrow. You better gather double your supply of mulberry leaves; for if you wait until morning the trees will be dripping wet, so we cannot find food for our caterpillars."
It was a timely forecast, for the old servant's prediction proved a true one, and thanks to his thoughtfulness, the crop of the youthful sericulturists escaped famine. After that the silk-raisers kept their eyes out for the possibility of showers or stormy weather. Never for an hour did they run out of food to supply the busy little creatures that were to earn for the Bretton family a livelihood. Tirelessly they fed the caterpillars; tirelessly cleared away the litter that it might not ferment and cause malady, or bury the worms beneath its weight and render them hot and torpid. For it was by keeping them vigorous and alert, with plenty of fresh food and fresh air that they would develop the heartiest appetite, grow the fastest, and spin the largest cocoons. All these points were too important to be overlooked. Whenever the litter accumulated too fast or failed to drop through the grating of the shelves the caterpillars were gently removed on a cluster of fresh mulberry leaves to another spot, and the place made clean and tidy.
Then came a day when the silkworms began to cease eating and instead paused idly, with heads upraised.
"They are ready for their first moulting!" exclaimed Josef. "They want to peel off their tight clothing. Watch and see if I am not right."
And sure enough! The great transformation took place even as the old servant had said it would. Off came the skins—cap, shoes, and all!
The boy and girl were delighted.
After the poor, fatigued, wrinkled caterpillars had wriggled themselves free from their hampering garments they were sorry looking creatures indeed! But with a little rest they roused themselves and were soon eating voraciously, just as if nothing had happened. Day by day their appetites increased, and to keep pace with them they grew longer and plumper.
Again they shed their skins, and again were back eating as ravenously as before.
"The wrinkles surely do not have a chance to stay long in their coats," remarked Pierre. "Pretty soon they will want still other larger coats, too."
Full-sized leaves with a more solid fibre were now demanded by the maturing silkworms; but Josef cautioned the silk-raisers not to give their little charges old or tough leaves.
"There is a big difference between full grown vegetation, and old passe stuff," he explained. "You know how tired your jaws get chewing tough food. Well, theirs do, too. Remember they chew day in and day out—nights as well as other times. You've got to conserve their strength, for they will need every bit of it before they finish their work. I knew of some silkworms once that died from sheer exhaustion because they were given food that was too tough for them to masticate. It is not an uncommon happening."
As the caterpillars continued to eat without cessation the odd little sound of the cutting of crisp leaves pervaded the silk-house. It was no such easy task to keep them supplied with food now! Day after day it was a race to pick the necessary quantity of leaves and remove the accumulating litter. Every one in the house worked, and even a boy or two was hired to help in the gathering.
"It is not so easy now, eh?" suggested Josef to Pierre. "Getting tired?"
"A little," admitted the boy. "It keeps one so on the everlasting jump. Taking away the litter is stupid, tedious work; and then there is the double supply of leaves to last through the night!"
"You're right. It is a hard job," the old servant agreed kindly. "But have courage. When you get your first crop of fine cocoons you will say it was worth it all, and you will forget that you ever were tired."
"I hope so," murmured Pierre wearily. "I get discouraged standing and hearing them gnaw those leaves. I know they are just making more work for us."
"You'd have far more cause to be disheartened if you didn't hear them," chuckled Josef. "That would be something to mourn over. But you shouldn't complain at their good healthy appetites."
Cheered by Josef's jests the work went on.
The endless monotony of feeding and clearing up, feeding and clearing up continued. Sometimes it seemed as if nothing was being accomplished. And yet when the young silk-growers compared the present size of their silkworms with that of the early hatched caterpillars the transformation seemed nothing short of a miracle.
Then came a day when Pierre detected a change in the aspect of his crop. Gradually the worms had turned to a transparent green color and ceasing to eat were moving uneasily about. They seemed also to have shrunk to a smaller size.
In consternation the lad fled to Josef.
"Whatever is the matter with them?" he cried. "Are they ill? Has some epidemic come at this late day to sweep away all that we have done?"
The boy's face was pale with distress.
"They're all right," answered Josef reassuringly. "They are just ready to spin, that's all. I did not expect it quite so soon. We must get the arches up without delay."
Both Pierre and Marie clapped their hands. They knew well what was to happen next for they had often seen their father arrange the little arches of brush on which the silkworms were to climb and spin their cocoons. The placing of these rustic half-hoops was a delicate matter, since it was necessary to arrange them so that plenty of air might circulate through the space they enclosed; otherwise the worms would refuse to spin. Twigs or slender pieces of brush were set along the shelves in such a way that when bent the shelf above held them in place and made of them a series of miniature bridges, or arches. For certain varieties of caterpillars Pierre gathered branches of oak shoots with dried leaves clinging to them because Josef explained that this type of silkworm preferred that sort of twig on which to fashion its cocoon; other brush was stripped of leaves. And throughout the following days the greatest care had to be taken that nothing should interrupt the spinning.
The things most to be dreaded were sudden noises; thunder-storms; and above all a drop in temperature, since chilly surroundings congealed the fluid silk in the ducts at each side of the silkworm, rendering it too thick for the creature to spin into fibre.
The noise and the temperature could to an extent be controlled. But the thunder-storms! Those were another matter.
Anxiously the Bretton family studied every passing cloud.
"If a severe storm should wreck our crop now—at the very end—it would be cruel!" declared Pierre. "No matter how careful we are we cannot prevent some great black thunder-head from rolling over the mountains and down through the valley."
"It is useless to worry, dear," answered his mother. "If such a storm comes it will be through no fault of ours."
"It would raise havoc in our harvest just the same," cut in Josef. "The vibrations of thunder sound worse among the metal shelves. They catch the jar, and seem to hold and echo it. Your father told me about a man near Tours who had lightning wires along his shelves to protect his silkworms from electric currents. The wires carried off the worst of the vibration."
"I wish we could afford to equip our silk-house that way," said Marie.
"Just wait until we get rich. Maybe some day we can," answered Pierre gaily.
Fortunately for the Brettons' silkworms, however, no electrical storm came.
The caterpillars climbed serenely into the brush arches above their heads, selected spots that pleased their fancy, and began constructing their cocoons. First came the loose, web-like oval within which the cocoon itself was to be made. This was the work of the first day and its construction was of what is known as floss. Then followed the yellow, compact cocoon requiring three or four days for its spinning. Occasionally two worms would insist upon spinning together, crossing and recrossing their threads; these double cocoons always had to be sorted out from the others, however, as the silk could not be wound off them easily.
The spinning was an interesting sight.
The silkworms poised themselves on the lower extremity of their bodies and using their front legs to guide the thread, sent it hither and thither from their mouths in wavy, irregular motion until the little egg-shaped ball was finished. The two fibres from the right and left side of the worm were so perfectly united in the spinaret that it was impossible to detect more than one thread. Patiently the tiny spinners toiled, and those worms that failed to spin were put into a room by themselves where the temperature was graded to a higher degree of heat that the warmer atmosphere might stimulate them to work.
When at last the cocoons were done the Brettons surveyed them with satisfaction.
The weeks had been busy, fatiguing ones with hastily snatched meals, and interrupted slumbers.
"One could not keep on like this for a long stretch without more help," declared Madame Bretton. "I am glad the caterpillars have their houses made!"
"They are better houses than you think, too," added Josef. "For each silkworm has coated the inside of his little home with a gum-like substance that makes it waterproof. He has no intention of lying down to sleep in a leaky cottage where the rain may drip through."
"But there is no rain in here," objected Marie.
"Of course not. But the silkworm does not know that. He builds his house just as he would if it was out-of-doors where the good Lord intended it should be. Your caterpillar hasn't the wit to realize that conditions have changed with the years, and that he now lives out his days beneath a roof that does away with the need of water-proofing. It is because the cocoons are thus sealed on the inside that the water does not penetrate them when they are floated. You'll notice that if you ever have a chance to see the silk reeled off. It protects the chrysalis until it pierces its way through its silken house and comes out a moth. But of course we shall not let ours do that."
"Why not?" inquired Marie.
"Why not? Because after you have worked so hard to get your silk you do not want it broken into short bits and spoiled, do you? If we were to let the moths mature and make holes in the cocoons it would ruin all our silk. No. We must let only a few moths come out and lay their eggs that we may have them to hatch for our next crop of silkworms. We'll select some of the finest cocoons for the purpose—those that are largest and most perfect. Some must be male and some must be female moths."
"But how can we tell? Aren't they all shut up inside the cocoons?" gasped Pierre.
"Oh, it is quite easy," answered Josef. "The female silkworm spins a house which, like an egg, is a little sharper at one end than at the other. We'll choose about the same number of each gender. There is a knack in selecting good cocoons for breeding, and you've got to know lots of things about them. And after we have chosen them there will be the rest of the cocoons to sort. That will require care, too. We cannot do it as experts do, but still we can group them roughly into lots of various kinds. We can get at it to-morrow. I will give you your first lesson. I fancy your mother knows more about it than the rest of us for she has always helped your father do this part of the work."
"It will be fun to learn!" cried Marie. "Won't it, Pierre?"
"I don't believe it will be very hard," sniffed Pierre. "There can't be much choice in cocoons. Most of them look alike, except that some are bigger than others."
Josef regarded the boy a moment and then laughed.
"Don't be too cock-sure of that!" he retorted ironically.
THE SILK HARVEST
The Bretton family spent the next week collecting and sorting their cocoons into baskets, grouping together as well as they were able those that were to be kept for breeding; those that were soiled or imperfect; and those that were double. They also separated the cocoons that were of different colors, for among the lot were not only white ones but many that were yellow, and even some of a greenish tint. This varied, Josef explained, with the different species of silkworms. Before the silk was reeled off the cocoons would, of course, go through another and more thorough classification under the hands of the experts at the filature, as the reeling factory was called. But even this first rough grouping was a help to the buyers.
In the meantime some of the caterpillars that worked more slowly were still busy with their spinning, and could not be disturbed. Accordingly much care had to be taken in removing the cocoons that were finished. Those in the lower tiers of arches were first taken out, and afterward the ones higher up on the shelves. The sooner the cocoons could be collected, after their completion, Josef said, the better, for within ten days they depreciated from seven to eight per cent., and if sold in bulk, brought a lower price. In consequence the Brettons, who were to sell their crop to a silk merchant who visited the town each year, promptly set about gathering their harvest as soon as possible.
Many of the cocoons were really beautiful, being of a perfect oval outline and of pale golden color.
Marie and Pierre were delighted.
"It is worth all the endless trays of mulberry leaves, isn't it, Mother?" exclaimed Marie. "Why, even Father could raise no finer or larger cocoons, I am sure."
"We have done well," her mother agreed. "But remember, we have had great good luck. No epidemic or disease came to blight the lives of our caterpillars; nor did annoyances of any sort interrupt their spinning. We did our part, certainly; but favorable conditions had much to do with our success."
"I only hope we have kept the right sort of cocoons for breeding," said Josef. "That is all that is troubling me now. Upon our selection will depend the quality of our next season's crop. There are so many things to think of in choosing cocoons for hatching. Not only must they be as perfect as we can get them, but they must have nicely rounded ends and a fine, strong thread. I tried to search out those with the ring-like band round the centre, for I have heard your father say that if we could get those we would be sure of having vigorous silkworms, since only caterpillars of the most powerful constitution make their houses in that way."
"It seems to me we kept out a lot more than we shall need for breeding, Josef," complained Marie.
"We always have to put aside more than we actually require, Marie, because many will fail to hatch successfully and will be a loss," explained Josef. "Usually growers plan to devote about a sixth of their crop to this purpose."
"A sixth! Why, that would cut down our sales dreadfully!" ejaculated the girl.
"Better sell less now and be assured of a plentiful supply of eggs next year," was the dry answer. "Don't you think so?"
Therefore the cocoons for hatching were gathered into one place and after the floss that clung to the outside of them had been removed so that it should not entangle the moth when it came forth from its house, Madame Bretton took a needle and being extremely careful not to pierce the chrysalis inside by putting it through the centre of the cocoons she strung them on strings from three to four feet long and hung them over some wires stretched across the top of the room.
"There!" she said. "Nothing can reach them now. They will be well up out of the way of both mice and chickens, and in a month or two should hatch out all right."
The weather in the meantime had become very hot. The southern sun beat down on Bellerivre, parching its hillsides, and tanning its people to a dusky brown. But the peasants complained not of the high temperature, for was not this torrid sun that burned so fiercely the very factor they were calculating upon to complete for them the final preparation of their cocoons for the market? This consisted in killing the chrysalis, or sleeping worm inside the cocoon, lest it come out and snap the delicate threads that it had spun. In cooler countries the process was accomplished by putting baskets of cocoons covered with paper and wrapped in cloth into ovens about hot enough for the baking of bread. Here they were left an hour or so until all moisture had exuded from them, proving that the worm had been dried up. Sometimes a blast of steam-heat was the method used for the destruction of the chrysalis. Such methods required greatest care, however, lest in employing a degree of heat sufficient to exterminate the worm the silk also be damaged. But in Bellerivre no such artificial means had to be resorted to. Instead the cocoons were spread out beneath the burning rays of the sun and left to bake, being wrapped each night in heavy black cloth that had also absorbed the heat and would retain during the night the high temperature acquired through the day. For three days this process was continued, the cocoons being spread in the sun from dawn until dusk, and then bundled up inside the hot cloth throughout the night.