The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle by Hugh Lofting
V. The Shellfish Riddle Solved at Last
So Doctor Dolittle with a crown on his head sat down upon the shore like King Knut, and waited. And for a whole hour the porpoises kept going and coming, bringing up different kinds of sea-beasts from the deep to see if they could help him.
Many and curious were the creatures they produced. It would seem however that there were very few things that spoke shellfish except the shellfish themselves. Still, the porpoises grew a little more hopeful when they discovered a very old sea-urchin (a funny, ball-like, little fellow with long whiskers all over him) who said he could not speak pure shellfish, but he used to understand starfish--enough to get along--when he was young. This was coming nearer, even if it wasn't anything to go crazy about. Leaving the urchin with us, the porpoises went off once more to hunt up a starfish.
They were not long getting one, for they were quite common in those parts. Then, using the sea-urchin as an interpreter, they questioned the starfish. He was a rather stupid sort of creature; but he tried his best to be helpful. And after a little patient examination we found to our delight that he could speak shellfish moderately well.
Feeling quite encouraged, the Doctor and I now got into the canoe; and, with the porpoises, the urchin and the starfish swimming alongside, we paddled very gently out till we were close under the towering shell of the Great Snail.
And then began the most curious conversation I have ever witnessed. First the starfish would ask the snail something; and whatever answer the snail gave, the starfish would tell it to the sea-urchin, the urchin would tell it to the porpoises and the porpoises would tell it to the Doctor.
In this way we obtained considerable information, mostly about the very ancient history of the Animal Kingdom; but we missed a good many of the finer points in the snail's longer speeches on account of the stupidity of the starfish and all this translating from one language to another.
While the snail was speaking, the Doctor and I put our ears against the wall of his shell and found that we could in this way hear the sound of his voice quite plainly. It was, as the fidgit had described, deep and bell-like. But of course we could not understand a single word he said. However the Doctor was by this time terrifically excited about getting near to learning the language he had sought so long. And presently by making the other fishes repeat over and over again short phrases which the snail used, he began to put words together for himself. You see, he was already familiar with one or two fish languages; and that helped him quite a little. After he had practised for a while like this he leant over the side of the canoe and putting his face below the water, tried speaking to the snail direct.
It was hard and difficult work; and hours went by before he got any results. But presently I could tell by the happy look on his face, that little by little he was succeeding.
The sun was low in the West and the cool evening breeze was beginning to rustle softly through the bamboo-groves when the Doctor finally turned from his work and said to me,
"Stubbins, I have persuaded the snail to come in on to the dry part of the beach and let me examine his tail. Will you please go back to the town and tell the workmen to stop working on the theatre for to-day? Then go on to the palace and get my medicine-bag. I think I left it under the throne in the Audience Chamber."
"And remember," Polynesia whispered as I turned away, "not a word to a soul. If you get asked questions, keep your mouth shut. Pretend you have a toothache or something."
This time when I got back to the shore--with the medicine-bag-- I found the snail high and dry on the beach. Seeing him in his full length like this, it was easy to understand how old-time, superstitious sailors had called him the Sea-serpent. He certainly was a most gigantic, and in his way, a graceful, beautiful creature. John Dolittle was examining a swelling on his tail.
From the bag which I had brought the Doctor took a large bottle of embrocation and began rubbing the sprain. Next he took all the bandages he had in the bag and fastened them end to end. But even like that, they were not long enough to go more than halfway round the enormous tail. The Doctor insisted that he must get the swelling strapped tight somehow. So he sent me off to the palace once more to get all the sheets from the Royal Linen-closet. These Polynesia and I tore into bandages for him. And at last, after terrific exertions, we got the sprain strapped to his satisfaction.
The snail really seemed to be quite pleased with the attention he had received; and he stretched himself in lazy comfort when the Doctor was done. In this position, when the shell on his back was empty, you could look right through it and see the palm-trees on the other side.
"I think one of us had better sit up with him all night," said the Doctor. "We might put Bumpo on that duty; he's been napping all day, I know--in the summer-house. It's a pretty bad sprain, that; and if the snail shouldn't be able to sleep, he'll be happier with some one with him for company. He'll get all right though--in a few days I should judge. If I wasn't so confoundedly busy I'd sit up with him myself. I wish I could, because I still have a lot of things to talk over with him."
"But Doctor," said Polynesia as we prepared to go back to the town, "you ought to take a holiday. All Kings take holidays once in the while--every one of them. King Charles, for instance-- of course Charles was before your time--but he!--why, he was always holiday-making. Not that he was ever what you would call a model king. But just the same, he was frightfully popular. Everybody liked him-- even the golden-carp in the fish-pond at Hampton Court. As a king, the only thing I had against him was his inventing those stupid, little, snappy dogs they call King Charles Spaniels. There are lots of stories told about poor Charles; but that, in my opinion, is the worst thing he did. However, all this is beside the point. As I was saying, kings have to take holidays the same as anybody else. And you haven't taken one since you were crowned, have you now?"
"No," said the Doctor, "I suppose that's true."
"Well now I tell you what you do," said she: "as soon as you get back to the palace you publish a royal proclamation that you are going away for a week into the country for your health. And you're going without any servants, you understand--just like a plain person. It's called traveling incognito, when kings go off like that. They all do it--It's the only way they can ever have a good time. Then the week you're away you can spend lolling on the beach back there with the snail. How's that?"
"I'd like to," said the Doctor. "It sounds most attractive. But there's that new theatre to be built; none of our carpenters would know how to get those rafters on without me to show them-- And then there are the babies: these native mothers are so frightfully ignorant."
"Oh bother the theatre--and the babies too," snapped Polynesia. "The theatre can wait a week. And as for babies, they never have anything more than colic. How do you suppose babies got along before you came here, for heaven's sake?--Take a holiday. . . . You need it."