The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle by Hugh Lofting
VII. The Doctor's Decision
Well, you can guess how glad we were when next morning the Doctor, after his all-night conversation with the snail, told us that he had made up his mind to take the holiday. A proclamation was published right away by the Town Crier that His Majesty was going into the country for a seven-day rest, but that during his absence the palace and the government offices would be kept open as usual.
Polynesia was immensely pleased. She at once set quietly to work making arrangements for our departure--taking good care the while that no one should get an inkling of where we were going, what we were taking with us, the hour of our leaving or which of the palace-gates we would go out by.
Cunning old schemer that she was, she forgot nothing. And not even we, who were of the Doctor's party, could imagine what reasons she had for some of her preparations. She took me inside and told me that the one thing I must remember to bring with me was all of the Doctor's note-books. Long Arrow, who was the only Indian let into the secret of our destination, said he would like to come with us as far as the beach to see the Great Snail; and him Polynesia told to be sure and bring his collection of plants. Bumpo she ordered to carry the Doctor's high hat--carefully hidden under his coat. She sent off nearly all the footmen who were on night duty to do errands in the town, so that there should be as few servants as possible to see us leave. And midnight, the hour when most of the towns-people would be asleep, she finally chose for our departure.
We had to take a week's food-supply with us for the royal holiday. So, with our other packages, we were heavy laden when on the stroke of twelve we opened the west door of the palace and stepped cautiously and quietly into the moonlit garden.
"Tiptoe incognito," whispered Bumpo as we gently closed the heavy doors behind us.
No one had seen us leave.
At the foot of the stone steps leading from the Peacock Terrace to the Sunken Rosary, something made me pause and look back at the magnificent palace which we had built in this strange, far-off land where no white men but ourselves had ever come. Somehow I felt it in my bones that we were leaving it to-night never to return again. And I wondered what other kings and ministers would dwell in its splendid halls when we were gone. The air was hot; and everything was deadly still but for the gentle splashing of the tame flamingoes paddling in the lily-pond. Suddenly the twinkling lantern of a night watchman appeared round the corner of a cypress hedge. Polynesia plucked at my stocking and, in an impatient whisper, bade me hurry before our flight be discovered.
On our arrival at the beach we found the snail already feeling much better and now able to move his tail without pain.
The porpoises (who are by nature inquisitive creatures) were still hanging about in the offing to see if anything of interest was going to happen. Polynesia, the plotter, while the Doctor was occupied with his new patient, signaled to them and drew them aside for a little private chat.
"Now see here, my friends," said she speaking low: "you know how much John Dolittle has done for the animals--given his whole life up to them, one might say. Well, here is your chance to do something for him. Listen: he got made king of this island against his will, see? And now that he has taken the job on, he feels that he can't leave it-- thinks the Indians won't be able to get along without him and all that-- which is nonsense, as you and I very well know. All right. Then here's the point: if this snail were only willing to take him and us-- and a little baggage--not very much, thirty or forty pieces, say--inside his shell and carry us to England, we feel sure that the Doctor would go; because he's just crazy to mess about on the floor of the ocean. What's more this would be his one and only chance of escape from the island. Now it is highly important that the Doctor return to his own country to carry on his proper work which means such a lot to the animals of the world. So what we want you to do is to tell the sea-urchin to tell the starfish to tell the snail to take us in his shell and carry us to Puddleby River. Is that plain?"
"Quite, quite," said the porpoises. "And we will willingly do our very best to persuade him--for it is, as you say, a perfect shame for the great man to be wasting his time here when he is so much needed by the animals."
"And don't let the Doctor know what you're about," said Polynesia as they started to move off. "He might balk if he thought we had any hand in it. Get the snail to offer on his own account to take us. See?"
John Dolittle, unaware of anything save the work he was engaged on, was standing knee-deep in the shallow water, helping the snail try out his mended tail to see if it were well enough to travel on. Bumpo and Long Arrow, with Chee-Chee and Jip, were lolling at the foot of a palm a little way up the beach. Polynesia and I now went and joined them. Half an hour passed.
What success the porpoises had met with, we did not know, till suddenly the Doctor left the snail's side and came splashing out to us. quite breathless.
"What do you think?" he cried, "while I was talking to the snail just now he offered, of his own accord, to take us all back to England inside his shell. He says he has got to go on a voyage of discovery anyway, to hunt up a new home, now that the Deep Hole is closed. Said it wouldn't be much out of his way to drop us at Puddleby River, if we cared to come along--Goodness, what a chance! I'd love to go. To examine the floor of the ocean all the way from Brazil to Europe! No man ever did it before. What a glorious trip!-- Oh that I had never allowed myself to be made king! Now I must see the chance of a lifetime slip by."
He turned from us and moved down the sands again to the middle beach, gazing wistfully, longingly out at the snail. There was something peculiarly sad and forlorn about him as he stood there on the lonely, moonlit shore, the crown upon his head, his figure showing sharply black against the glittering sea behind.
Out of the darkness at my elbow Polynesia rose and quietly moved down to his side.
"Now Doctor," said she in a soft persuasive voice as though she were talking to a wayward child, "you know this king business is not your real work in life. These natives will be able to get along without you--not so well as they do with you of course-- but they'll manage--the same as they did before you came. Nobody can say you haven't done your duty by them. It was their fault: they made you king. Why not accept the snail's offer; and just drop everything now, and go? The work you'll do, the information you'll carry home, will be of far more value than what you're doing here."
"Good friend," said the Doctor turning to her sadly, "I cannot. They would go back to their old unsanitary ways: bad water, uncooked fish, no drainage, enteric fever and the rest. . . . No. I must think of their health, their welfare. I began life as a people's doctor: I seem to have come back to it in the end. I cannot desert them. Later perhaps something will turn up. But I cannot leave them now."
"That's where you're wrong, Doctor," said she. "Now is when you should go. Nothing will 'turn up.' The longer you stay, the harder it will be to leave-- Go now. Go to-night."
"What, steal away without even saying good-bye to them! Why, Polynesia, what a thing to suggest!"
"A fat chance they would give you to say good-bye!" snorted Polynesia growing impatient at last. "I tell you, Doctor, if you go back to that palace tonight, for goodbys or anything else, you will stay there. Now--this moment-- is the time for you to go."
The truth of the old parrot's words seemed to be striking home; for the Doctor stood silent a minute, thinking.
"But there are the note-books," he said presently: "I would have to go back to fetch them."
"I have them here, Doctor," said I, speaking up--" all of them."
Again he pondered.
"And Long Arrow's collection," he said. "I would have to take that also with me."
"It is here, Oh Kindly One," came the Indian's deep voice from the shadow beneath the palm.
"But what about provisions," asked the Doctor--" food for the journey?"
"We have a week's supply with us, for our holiday," said Polynesia--"that's more than we will need."
For a third time the Doctor was silent and thoughtful.
"And then there's my hat," he said fretfully at last. "That settles it: I'll have to go back to the palace. I can't leave without my hat. How could I appear in Puddleby with this crown on my head?"
"Here it is, Doctor," said Bumpo producing the hat, old, battered and beloved, from under his coat. Polynesia had indeed thought of everything.
Yet even now we could see the Doctor was still trying to think up further excuses.
"Oh Kindly One," said Long Arrow, "why tempt ill fortune? Your way is clear. Your future and your work beckon you back to your foreign home beyond the sea. With you will go also what lore I too have gathered for mankind-- to lands where it will be of wider use than it can ever here. I see the glimmerings of dawn in the eastern heaven. Day is at hand. Go before your subjects are abroad. Go before your project is discovered. For truly I believe that if you go not now you will linger the remainder of your days a captive king in Popsipetel."
Great decisions often take no more than a moment in the making. Against the now paling sky I saw the Doctor's figure suddenly stiffen. Slowly he lifted the Sacred Crown from off his head and laid it on the sands.
And when he spoke his voice was choked with tears.
"They will find it here," he murmured, "when they come to search for me. And they will know that I have gone. . . . My children, my poor children!-- I wonder will they ever understand why it was I left them. . . . I wonder will they ever understand--and forgive."
He took his old hat from Bumpo; then facing Long Arrow, gripped his outstretched hand in silence.
"You decide aright, oh Kindly One," said the Indian--"though none will miss and mourn you more than Long Arrow, the son of Golden Arrow--Farewell, and may good fortune ever lead you by the hand!"
It was the first and only time I ever saw the Doctor weep. Without a word to any of us, he turned and moved down the beach into the shallow water of the sea.
The snail humped up its back and made an opening between its shoulders and the edge of its shell. The Doctor clambered up and passed within. We followed him, after handing up the baggage. The opening shut tight with a whistling suction noise.
Then turning in the direction of the East, the great creature began moving smoothly forward, down the slope into the deeper waters.
Just as the swirling dark green surf was closing in above our heads, the big morning sun popped his rim up over the edge of the ocean. And through our transparent walls of pearl we saw the watery world about us suddenly light up with that most wondrously colorful of visions, a daybreak beneath the sea.
The rest of the story of our homeward voyage is soon told.
Our new quarters we found very satisfactory. Inside the spacious shell, the snail's wide back was extremely comfortable to sit and lounge on-- better than a sofa, when you once got accustomed to the damp and clammy feeling of it. He asked us, shortly after we started, if we wouldn't mind taking off our boots, as the hobnails in them hurt his back as we ran excitedly from one side to another to see the different sights.
The motion was not unpleasant, very smooth and even; in fact, but for the landscape passing outside, you would not know, on the level going, that you were moving at all.
I had always thought for some reason or other that the bottom of the sea was flat. I found that it was just as irregular and changeful as the surface of the dry land. We climbed over great mountain-ranges, with peaks towering above peaks. We threaded our way through dense forests of tall sea-plants. We crossed wide empty stretches of sandy mud, like deserts--so vast that you went on for a whole day with nothing ahead of you but a dim horizon. Sometimes the scene was moss-covered, rolling country, green and restful to the eye like rich pastures; so that you almost looked to see sheep cropping on these underwater downs. And sometimes the snail would roll us forward inside him like peas, when he suddenly dipped downward to descend into some deep secluded valley with steeply sloping sides.
In these lower levels we often came upon the shadowy shapes of dead ships, wrecked and sunk Heaven only knows how many years ago; and passing them we would speak in hushed whispers like children seeing monuments in churches.
Here too, in the deeper, darker waters, monstrous fishes, feeding quietly in caves and hollows would suddenly spring up, alarmed at our approach, and flash away into the gloom with the speed of an arrow. While other bolder ones, all sorts of unearthly shapes and colors, would come right up and peer in at us through the shell.
"I suppose they think we are a sort of sanaquarium," said Bumpo--"I'd hate to be a fish."
It was a thrilling and ever-changing show. The Doctor wrote or sketched incessantly. Before long we had filled all the blank note-books we had left. Then we searched our pockets for any odd scraps of paper on which to jot down still more observations. We even went through the used books a second time, writing in between the lines, scribbling all over the covers, back and front.
Our greatest difficulty was getting enough light to see by. In the lower waters it was very dim. On the third day we passed a band of fire-eels, a sort of large, marine glow-worm; and the Doctor asked the snail to get them to come with us for a way. This they did, swimming alongside; and their light was very helpful, though not brilliant.
How our giant shellfish found his way across that vast and gloomy world was a great puzzle to us. John Dolittle asked him by what means he navigated-- how he knew he was on the right road to Puddleby River. And what the snail said in reply got the Doctor so excited, that having no paper left, he tore out the lining of his precious hat and covered it with notes.
By night of course it was impossible to see anything; and during the hours of darkness the snail used to swim instead of crawl. When he did so he could travel at a terrific speed, just by waggling that long tail of his. This was the reason why we completed the trip in so short a time five and a half days.
The air of our chamber, not having a change in the whole voyage, got very close and stuffy; and for the first two days we all had headaches. But after that we got used to it and didn't mind it in the least.
Early in the afternoon of the sixth day, we noticed we were climbing a long gentle slope. As we went upward it grew lighter. Finally we saw that the snail had crawled right out of the water altogether and had now come to a dead stop on a long strip of gray sand.
Behind us we saw the surface of the sea rippled by the wind. On our left was the mouth of a river with the tide running out. While in front, the low flat land stretched away into the mist-- which prevented one from seeing very far in any direction. A pair of wild ducks with craning necks and whirring wings passed over us and disappeared like shadows, seaward.
As a landscape, it was a great change from the hot brilliant sunshine of Popsipetel.
With the same whistling suction sound, the snail made the opening for us to crawl out by. As we stepped down upon the marshy land we noticed that a fine, drizzling autumn rain was falling.
"Can this be Merrie England?" asked Bumpo, peering into the fog--"doesn't look like any place in particular. Maybe the snail hasn't brought us right after all."
"Yes," sighed Polynesia, shaking the rain oft her feathers, "this is England all right--You can tell it by the beastly climate."
"Oh, but fellows," cried Jip, as he sniffed up the air in great gulps, "it has a smell--a good and glorious smell!--Excuse me a minute: I see a water-rat."
"Sh!--Listen!" said Chee-Chee through teeth that chattered with the cold. "There's Puddleby church-clock striking four. Why don't we divide up the baggage and get moving. We've got a long way to foot it home across the marshes."
"Let's hope," I put in, "that Dab-Dab has a nice fire burning in the kitchen."
"I'm sure she will," said the Doctor as he picked out his old handbag from among the bundles--"With this wind from the East she'll need it to keep the animals in the house warm. Come on. Let's hug the river-bank so we don't miss our way in the fog. You know, there's something rather attractive in the bad weather of England--when you've got a kitchen-fire to look forward to. . . . Four o'clock! Come along--we'll just be in nice time for tea."