WELL, now that he was started once more upon his old hobby of the shellfish languages, there was no stopping the Doctor. He worked right through the night.
A little after midnight I fell asleep in a chair; about two in the morning Bumpo fell asleep at the wheel; and for five hours the Curlew was allowed to drift where she liked. But still John Dolittle worked on, trying his hardest to understand the fidgit’s language, struggling to make the fidgit understand him.
When I woke up it was broad daylight again. The Doctor was still standing at the listening-tank, looking as tired as an owl and dreadfully wet. But on his face there was a proud and happy smile.
“Stubbins,” he said as soon as he saw me stir, “I’ve done it. I’ve got the key to the fidgit’s language. It’s a frightfully difficult language—quite different from anything I ever heard. The only thing it reminds me of—slightly—is ancient Hebrew. It isn’t shellfish; but it’s a big step towards it. Now, the next thing, I want you to take a pencil and a fresh notebook and write down everything I say. The fidgit has promised to tell me the story of his life. I will translate it into English and you put it down in the book. Are you ready?”
Once more the Doctor lowered his ear beneath the level of the water; and as he began to speak, I started to write. And this is the story that the fidgit told us.
THIRTEEN MONTHS IN AN AQUARIUM
“I was born in the Pacific Ocean, close to the coast of Chile. I was one of a family of two-thousand five-hundred and ten. Soon after our mother and father left us, we youngsters got scattered. The family was broken up—by a herd of whales who chased us. I and my sister, Clippa (she was my favorite sister) had a very narrow escape for our lives. As a rule, whales are not very hard to get away from if you are good at dodging—if you’ve only got a quick swerve. But this one that came after Clippa and myself was a very mean whale. Every time he lost us under a stone or something he’d come back and hunt and hunt till he routed us out into the open again. I never saw such a nasty, persevering brute.
“Well, we shook him at last—though not before he had worried us for hundreds of miles northward, up the west coast of South America. But luck was against us that day. While we were resting and trying to get our breath, another family of fidgits came rushing by, shouting, ‘Come on! Swim for your lives! The dog-fish are coming!’
“Now dog-fish are particularly fond of fidgits. We are, you might say, their favorite food—and for that reason we always keep away from deep, muddy waters. What’s more, dog-fish are not easy to escape from; they are terribly fast and clever hunters. So up we had to jump and on again.
“After we had gone a few more hundred miles we looked back and saw that the dog-fish were gaining on us. So we turned into a harbor. It happened to be one on the west coast of the United States. Here we guessed, and hoped, the dog-fish would not be likely to follow us. As it happened, they didn’t even see us turn in, but dashed on northward and we never saw them again. I hope they froze to death in the Arctic Seas.
“But, as I said, luck was against us that day. While I and my sister were cruising gently round the ships anchored in the harbor looking for orange-peels, a great delicacy with us—Swoop! Bang!—we were caught in a net.
“We struggled for all we were worth; but it was no use. The net was small-meshed and strongly made. Kicking and flipping we were hauled up the side of the ship and dumped down on the deck, high and dry in a blazing noon-day sun.
“Here a couple of old men in whiskers and spectacles leant over us, making strange sounds. Some codling had got caught in the net the same time as we were. These the old men threw back into the sea; but us they seemed to think very precious. They put us carefully into a large jar and after they had taken us on shore they went to a big house and changed us from the jar into glass boxes full of water. This house was on the edge of the harbor; and a small stream of sea-water was made to flow through the glass tank so we could breathe properly. Of course we had never lived inside glass walls before; and at first we kept on trying to swim through them and got our noses awfully sore bumping the glass at full speed.
“Then followed weeks and weeks of weary idleness. They treated us well, so far as they knew how. The old fellows in spectacles came and looked at us proudly twice a day and saw that we had the proper food to eat, the right amount of light and that the water was not too hot or too cold. But oh, the dullness of that life! It seemed we were a kind of a show. At a certain hour every morning the big doors of the house were thrown open and everybody in the city who had nothing special to do came in and looked at us. There were other tanks filled with different kinds of fishes all round the walls of the big room. And the crowds would go from tank to tank, looking in at us through the glass—with their mouths open, like half-witted flounders. We got so sick of it that we used to open our mouths back at them; and this they seemed to think highly comical.
“One day my sister said to me, ‘Think you, Brother, that these strange creatures who have captured us can talk?’
“‘Surely,’ said I, ‘have you not noticed that some talk with the lips only, some with the whole face, and yet others discourse with the hands? When they come quite close to the glass you can hear them. Listen!’
“At that moment a female, larger than the rest, pressed her nose up against the glass, pointed at me and said to her young behind her, ‘Oh, look, here’s a queer one!’
“And then we noticed that they nearly always said this when they looked in. And for a long time we thought that such was the whole extent of the language, this being a people of but few ideas. To help pass away the weary hours we learned it by heart, ‘Oh, look, here’s a queer one!’ But we never got to know what it meant. Other phrases, however, we did get the meaning of; and we even learned to read a little in man-talk. Many big signs there were, set up upon the walls; and when we saw that the keepers stopped the people from spitting and smoking, pointed to these signs angrily and read them out loud, we knew then that these writings signified, No Smoking and Don’t Spit.
“Then in the evenings, after the crowd had gone, the same aged male with one leg of wood, swept up the peanut-shells with a broom every night. And while he was so doing he always whistled the same tune to himself. This melody we rather liked; and we learned that too by heart—thinking it was part of the language.
“Thus a whole year went by in this dismal place. Some days new fishes were brought in to the other tanks; and other days old fishes were taken out. At first we had hoped we would only be kept here for a while, and that after we had been looked at sufficiently we would be returned to freedom and the sea. But as month after month went by, and we were left undisturbed, our hearts grew heavy within our prison-walls of glass and we spoke to one another less and less.
“One day, when the crowd was thickest in the big room, a woman with a red face fainted from the heat. I watched through the glass and saw that the rest of the people got highly excited—though to me it did not seem to be a matter of very great importance. They threw cold water on her and carried her out into the open air.
“This made me think mightily; and presently a great idea burst upon me.
“‘Sister,’ I said, turning to poor Clippa who was sulking at the bottom of our prison trying to hide behind a stone from the stupid gaze of the children who thronged about our tank, ‘supposing that we pretended we were sick: do you think they would take us also from this stuffy house?’
“‘Brother,’ said she wearily, ‘that they might do. But most likely they would throw us on a rubbish-heap, where we would die in the hot sun.’
“‘But,’ said I, ‘why should they go abroad to seek a rubbish-heap, when the harbor is so close? While we were being brought here I saw men throwing their rubbish into the water. If they would only throw us also there, we could quickly reach the sea.’
“‘The Sea!’ murmured poor Clippa with a far-away look in her eyes (she had fine eyes, had my sister, Clippa). ‘How like a dream it sounds—the Sea! Oh brother, will we ever swim in it again, think you? Every night as I lie awake on the floor of this evil-smelling dungeon I hear its hearty voice ringing in my ears. How I have longed for it! Just to feel it once again, the nice, big, wholesome homeliness of it all! To jump, just to jump from the crest of an Atlantic wave, laughing in the trade wind’s spindrift, down into the blue-green swirling trough! To chase the shrimps on a summer evening, when the sky is red and the light’s all pink within the foam! To lie on the top, in the doldrums’ noonday calm, and warm your tummy in the tropic sun! To wander hand in hand once more through the giant seaweed forests of the Indian Ocean, seeking the delicious eggs of the pop-pop! To play hide-and-seek among the castles of the coral towns with their pearl and jasper windows spangling the floor of the Spanish Main! To picnic in the anemone-meadows, dim blue and lilac-gray, that lie in the lowlands beyond the South Sea Garden! To throw somersaults on the springy sponge-beds of the Mexican Gulf! To poke about among the dead ships and see what wonders and adventures lie inside!—And then, on winter nights when the Northeaster whips the water into froth, to swoop down and down to get away from the cold, down to where the water’s warm and dark, down and still down, till we spy the twinkle of the fire-eels far below where our friends and cousins sit chatting round the Council Grotto—chatting, Brother, over the news and gossip of the Sea!... Oh—’
“And then she broke down completely, sniffling.
“‘Stop it!’ I said. ‘You make me homesick. Look here: let’s pretend we’re sick—or better still, let’s pretend we’re dead; and see what happens. If they throw us on a rubbish-heap and we fry in the sun, we’ll not be much worse off than we are here in this smelly prison. What do you say? Will you risk it?’
“‘I will,’ she said—‘and gladly.’
“So next morning two fidgits were found by the keeper floating on the top of the water in their tank, stiff and dead. We gave a mighty good imitation of dead fish—although I say it myself. The keeper ran and got the old gentlemen with spectacles and whiskers. They threw up their hands in horror when they saw us. Lifting us carefully out of the water they laid us on wet cloths. That was the hardest part of all. If you’re a fish and get taken out of the water you have to keep opening and shutting your mouth to breathe at all—and even that you can’t keep up for long. And all this time we had to stay stiff as sticks and breathe silently through half-closed lips.
“Well, the old fellows poked us and felt us and pinched us till I thought they’d never be done. Then, when their backs were turned a moment, a wretched cat got up on the table and nearly ate us. Luckily the old men turned round in time and shooed her away. You may be sure though that we took a couple of good gulps of air while they weren’t looking; and that was the only thing that saved us from choking. I wanted to whisper to Clippa to be brave and stick it out. But I couldn’t even do that; because, as you know, most kinds of fish-talk cannot be heard—not even a shout—unless you’re under water.
“Then, just as we were about to give it up and let on that we were alive, one of the old men shook his head sadly, lifted us up and carried us out of the building.
“‘Now for it!’ I thought to myself. ‘We’ll soon know our fate: liberty or the garbage-can.’
“Outside, to our unspeakable horror, he made straight for a large ash-barrel which stood against the wall on the other side of a yard. Most happily for us, however, while he was crossing this yard a very dirty man with a wagon and horses drove up and took the ash-barrel away. I suppose it was his property.
“Then the old man looked around for some other place to throw us. He seemed about to cast us upon the ground. But he evidently thought that this would make the yard untidy and he desisted. The suspense was terrible. He moved outside the yard-gate and my heart sank once more as I saw that he now intended to throw us in the gutter of the roadway. But (fortune was indeed with us that day), a large man in blue clothes and silver buttons stopped him in the nick of time. Evidently, from the way the large man lectured and waved a short thick stick, it was against the rules of the town to throw dead fish in the streets.
“At last, to our unutterable joy, the old man turned and moved off with us towards the harbor. He walked so slowly, muttering to himself all the way and watching the man in blue out of the corner of his eye, that I wanted to bite his finger to make him hurry up. Both Clippa and I were actually at our last gasp.
“Finally he reached the sea-wall and giving us one last sad look he dropped us into the waters of the harbor.
“Never had we realized anything like the thrill of that moment, as we felt the salt wetness close over our heads. With one flick of our tails we came to life again. The old man was so surprised that he fell right into the water, almost on top of us. From this he was rescued by a sailor with a boat-hook; and the last we saw of him, the man in blue was dragging him away by the coat-collar, lecturing him again. Apparently it was also against the rules of the town to throw dead fish into the harbor.
“But we?—What time or thought had we for his troubles? We were free! In lightning leaps, in curving spurts, in crazy zig-zags—whooping, shrieking with delight, we sped for home and the open sea!
“That is all of my story and I will now, as I promised last night, try to answer any questions you may ask about the sea, on condition that I am set at liberty as soon as you have done.”
The Doctor: “Is there any part of the sea deeper than that known as the Nero Deep—I mean the one near the Island of Guam?”
The Fidgit: “Why, certainly. There’s one much deeper than that near the mouth of the Amazon River. But it’s small and hard to find. We call it ‘The Deep Hole.’ And there’s another in the Antarctic Sea.”
The Doctor: “Can you talk any shellfish language yourself?”
The Fidgit: “No, not a word. We regular fishes don’t have anything to do with the shellfish. We consider them a low class.”
The Doctor: “But when you’re near them, can you hear the sound they make talking—I mean without necessarily understanding what they say?”
The Fidgit: “Only with the very largest ones. Shellfish have such weak small voices it is almost impossible for any but their own kind to hear them. But with the bigger ones it is different. They make a sad, booming noise, rather like an iron pipe being knocked with a stone—only not nearly so loud of course.”
The Doctor: “I am most anxious to get down to the bottom of the sea—to study many things. But we land animals, as you no doubt know, are unable to breathe under water. Have you any ideas that might help me?”
The Fidgit: “I think that for both your difficulties the best thing for you to do would be to try and get hold of the Great Glass Sea Snail.”
The Doctor: “Er—who, or what, is the Great Glass Sea Snail?”
The Fidgit: “He is an enormous salt-water snail, one of the winkle family, but as large as a big house. He talks quite loudly—when he speaks, but this is not often. He can go to any part of the ocean, at all depths because he doesn’t have to be afraid of any creature in the sea. His shell is made of transparent mother-o’-pearl so that you can see through it; but it’s thick and strong. When he is out of his shell and he carries it empty on his back, there is room in it for a wagon and a pair of horses. He has been seen carrying his food in it when traveling.”
The Doctor: “I feel that that is just the creature I have been looking for. He could take me and my assistant inside his shell and we could explore the deepest depths in safety. Do you think you could get him for me?”
The Fidgit: “Alas! no. I would willingly if I could; but he is hardly ever seen by ordinary fish. He lives at the bottom of the Deep Hole, and seldom comes out—And into the Deep Hole, the lower waters of which are muddy, fishes such as we are afraid to go.”
The Doctor: “Dear me! That’s a terrible disappointment. Are there many of this kind of snail in the sea?”
The Fidgit: “Oh no. He is the only one in existence, since his second wife died long, long ago. He is the last of the Giant Shellfish. He belongs to past ages when the whales were land-animals and all that. They say he is over seventy thousand years old.”
The Doctor: “Good Gracious, what wonderful things he could tell me! I do wish I could meet him.”
The Fidgit: “Were there any more questions you wished to ask me? This water in your tank is getting quite warm and sickly. I’d like to be put back into the sea as soon as you can spare me.”
The Doctor: “Just one more thing: when Christopher Columbus crossed the Atlantic in 1492, he threw overboard two copies of his diary sealed up in barrels. One of them was never found. It must have sunk. I would like to get it for my library. Do you happen to know where it is?”
The Fidgit: “Yes, I do. That too is in the Deep Hole. When the barrel sank the currents drifted it northwards down what we call the Orinoco Slope, till it finally disappeared into the Deep Hole. If it was any other part of the sea I’d try and get it for you; but not there.”
The Doctor: “Well, that is all, I think. I hate to put you back into the sea, because I know that as soon as I do, I’ll think of a hundred other questions I wanted to ask you. But I must keep my promise. Would you care for anything before you go?—it seems a cold day—some cracker-crumbs or something?”
The Fidgit: “No, I won’t stop. All I want just at present is fresh sea-water.”
The Doctor: “I cannot thank you enough for all the information you have given me. You have been very helpful and patient.”
The Fidgit: “Pray do not mention it. It has been a real pleasure to be of assistance to the great John Dolittle. You are, as of course you know, already quite famous among the better class of fishes. Goodbye!—and good luck to you, to your ship and to all your plans!”
The Doctor carried the listening-tank to a port-hole, opened it and emptied the tank into the sea.
“Good-bye!” he murmured as a faint splash reached us from without.
I dropped my pencil on the table and leaned back with a sigh. My fingers were so stiff with writers’ cramp that I felt as though I should never be able to open my hand again. But I, at least, had had a night’s sleep. As for the poor Doctor, he was so weary that he had hardly put the tank back upon the table and dropped into a chair, when his eyes closed and he began to snore.
In the passage outside Polynesia scratched angrily at the door. I rose and let her in.
“A nice state of affairs!” she stormed. “What sort of a ship is this? There’s that colored man upstairs asleep under the wheel; the Doctor asleep down here; and you making pot-hooks in a copybook with a pencil! Expect the ship to steer herself to Brazil? We’re just drifting around the sea like an empty bottle—and a week behind time as it is. What’s happened to you all?”
She was so angry that her voice rose to a scream. But it would have taken more than that to wake the Doctor.
I put the note-book carefully in a drawer and went on deck to take the wheel.