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THE FOURTH CHAPTER - THE SEA-SERPENT
FOR a long time after that Cabinet Meeting of which I have just told you we did not ask the Doctor anything further about going home. Life in Spidermonkey Island went forward, month in month out, busily and pleasantly. The Winter, with Christmas celebrations, came and went, and Summer was with us once again before we knew it.
As time passed the Doctor became more and more taken up with the care of his big family; and the hours he could spare for his natural history work grew fewer and fewer. I knew that he often still thought of his house and garden in Puddleby and of his old plans and ambitions; because once in a while we would notice his face grow thoughtful and a little sad, when something reminded him of England or his old life. But he never spoke of these things. And I truly believe he would have spent the remainder of his days on Spidermonkey Island if it hadn't been for an accident - and for Polynesia.
The old parrot had grown very tired of the Indians and she made no secret of it.
"The very idea," she said to me one day as we were walking on the seashore - "the idea of the famous John Dolittle spending his valuable life waiting on these greasy natives! - Why, it's preposterous!"
All that morning we had been watching the Doctor superintend the building of the new theatre in Popsipetel - there was already an opera-house and a concert-hall; and finally she had got so grouchy and annoyed at the sight that I had suggested her taking a walk with me.
"Do you really think," I asked as we sat down on the sands, "that he will never go back to Puddleby again?"
"I don't know," said she. "At one time I felt sure that the thought of the pets he had left behind at the house would take him home soon. But since Miranda brought him word last August that everything was all right there, that hope's gone. For months and months I've been racking my brains to think up a plan. If we could only hit upon something that would turn his thoughts back to natural history again - I mean something big enough to get him really excited - we might manage it. But how?" - she shrugged her shoulders in disgust - "How? - when all he thinks of now is paving streets and teaching papooses that twice one are two!"
It was a perfect Popsipetel day, bright and hot, blue and yellow. Drowsily I looked out to sea thinking of my mother and father. I wondered if they were getting anxious over my long absence. Beside me old Polynesia went on grumbling away in low steady tones; and her words began to mingle and mix with the gentle lapping of the waves upon the shore. It may have been the even murmur of her voice, helped by the soft and balmy air, that lulled me to sleep. I don't know. Anyhow I presently dreamed that the island had moved again - not floatingly as before, but suddenly, jerkily, as though something enormously powerful had heaved it up from its bed just once and let it down.
How long I slept after that I have no idea. I was awakened by a gentle pecking on the nose.
"Tommy! - Tommy!" (it was Polynesia's voice) "Wake up! - Gosh, what a boy, to sleep through an earthquake and never notice it! - Tommy, listen: here's our chance now. Wake up, for goodness' sake!"
"What's the matter?" I asked sitting up with a yawn.
"Sh! - Look!" whispered Polynesia pointing out to sea.
Still only half awake, I stared before me with bleary, sleep-laden eyes. And in the shallow water, not more than thirty yards from shore I saw an enormous pale pink shell. Dome-shaped, it towered up in a graceful rainbow curve to a tremendous height; and round its base the surf broke gently in little waves of white. It could have belonged to the wildest dream.
"What in the world is it?" I asked.
"That," whispered Polynesia, "is what sailors for hundreds of years have called the Sea-serpent. I've seen it myself more than once from the decks of ships, at long range, curving in and out of the water. But now that I see it close and still, I very strongly suspect that the Sea-serpent of history is no other than the Great Glass Sea-snail that the fidgit told us of. If that isn't the only fish of its kind in the seven seas, call me a carrion-crow - Tommy, we're in luck. Our job is to get the Doctor down here to look at that prize specimen before it moves off to the Deep Hole. If we can, then trust me, we may leave this blessed island yet. You stay here and keep an eye on it while I go after the Doctor. Don't move or speak - don't even breathe heavy: he might get scared - awful timid things, snails. Just watch him; and I'll be back in two shakes."
Stealthily creeping up the sands till she could get behind the cover of some bushes before she took to her wings, Polynesia went off in the direction of the town; while I remained alone upon the shore fascinatedly watching this unbelievable monster wallowing in the shallow sea.
It moved very little. From time to time it lifted its head out of the water showing its enormously long neck and horns. Occasionally it would try and draw itself up, the way a snail does when he goes to move, but almost at once it would sink down again as if exhausted. It seemed to me to act as though it were hurt underneath; but the lower part of it, which was below the level of the water, I could not see.
I was still absorbed in watching the great beast when Polynesia returned with the Doctor. They approached so silently and so cautiously that I neither saw nor heard them coming till I found them crouching beside me on the sand.
One sight of the snail changed the Doctor completely. His eyes just sparkled with delight. I had not seen him so thrilled and happy since the time we caught the Jabizri beetle when we first landed on the island.
"It is he!" he whispered - "the Great Glass Sea-snail himself-not a doubt of it. Polynesia, go down the shore a way and see if you can find any of the porpoises for me. Perhaps they can tell us what the snail is doing here - It's very unusual for him to be in shallow water like this. And Stubbins, you go over to the harbor and bring me a small canoe. But be most careful how you paddle it round into this bay. If the snail should take fright and go out into the deeper water, we may never get a chance to see him again."
"And don't tell any of the Indians," Polynesia added in a whisper as I moved to go. "We must keep this a secret or we'll have a crowd of sightseers round here in five minutes. It's mighty lucky we found the snail in a quiet bay."
Reaching the harbor, I picked out a small light canoe from among the number that were lying there and without telling any one what I wanted it for, got in and started off to paddle it down the shore.
I was mortally afraid that the snail might have left before I got back. And you can imagine how delighted I was, when I rounded a rocky cape and came in sight of the bay, to find he was still there.
Polynesia, I saw, had got her errand done and returned ahead of me, bringing with her a pair of porpoises. These were already conversing in low tones with John Dolittle. I beached the canoe and went up to listen.
"What I want to know," the Doctor was saying, "is how the snail comes to be here. I was given to understand that he usually stayed in the Deep Hole; and that when he did come to the surface it was always in mid-ocean."
"Oh, didn't you know? - Haven't you heard?" the porpoises replied: "you covered up the Deep Hole when you sank the island. Why yes: you let it down right on top of the mouth of the Hole - sort of put the lid on, as it were. The fishes that were in it at the time have been trying to get out ever since. The Great Snail had the worst luck of all: the island nipped him by the tail just as he was leaving the Hole for a quiet evening stroll. And he was held there for six months trying to wriggle himself free. Finally he had to heave the whole island up at one end to get his tail loose. Didn't you feel a sort of an earthquake shock about an hour ago?"
"Yes I did," said the Doctor, "it shook down part of the theatre I was building."
"Well, that was the snail heaving up the island to get out of the Hole," they said. "All the other fishes saw their chance and escaped when he raised the lid. It was lucky for them he's so big and strong. But the strain of that terrific heave told on him: he sprained a muscle in his tail and it started swelling rather badly. He wanted some quiet place to rest up; and seeing this soft beach handy he crawled in here."
"Dear me!" said the Doctor. "I'm terribly sorry. I suppose I should have given some sort of notice that the island was going to be let down. But, to tell the truth, we didn't know it ourselves; it happened by a kind of an accident. Do you imagine the poor fellow is hurt very badly?"
"We're not sure," said the porpoises; "because none of us can speak his language. But we swam right around him on our way in here, and he did not seem to be really seriously injured."
"Can't any of your people speak shellfish?" the Doctor asked.
"Not a word," said they. "It's a most frightfully difficult language."
"Do you think that you might be able to find me some kind of a fish that could?"
"We don't know," said the porpoises. "We might try."
"I should be extremely grateful to you if you would," said the Doctor. "There are many important questions I want to ask this snail - And besides, I would like to do my best to cure his tail for him. It's the least I can do. After all, it was my fault, indirectly, that he got hurt."
"Well, if you wait here," said the porpoises, "we'll see what can be done."
Turn to the next chapter: THE FIFTH CHAPTER - THE SHELLFISH RIDDLE SOLVED AT LAST