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Doctor Dolittle's Zoo
by Hugh Lofting
Copyright 1925 Hugh Lofting.
This edition published by Essential Reading.
All Rights Reserved.
“POLYNESIA,” I said, leaning back in my chair and chewing the end of a quill pen, “what should you say would be the best way to begin another book of Doctor Dolittle's memoirs?”
The old parrot, who was using the glass inkpot on my desk as a mirror, stopped admiring her reflection and glanced at me sharply.
“Another!” she exclaimed. “Is there going to be another Dolittle book?”
“Why—er—yes,” I said. “After all, we are writing the Doctor's life and we haven't nearly finished yet.”
“Oh, yes, I quite see that,” said Polynesia. “I was only wondering who decides how many books there shall be.”
“Well, I suppose—in the end—the public does,” said I. “But tell me now: how would you begin?”
“Thomas Stubbins Esquire,” said she, screwing up her eyes, “that's a very difficult question to answer. There is so much of interest in the life of John Dolittle that the problem is what to leave2 out, rather than what to put in. Already I see gray hairs showing at your temples, Tommy. If you try to write down everything the Doctor did, you'll be nearly my age before you've finished. Of course, you're not writing this book for the scientists exactly, though I confess I often think since you are the only person so far—besides the Doctor—to talk animal languages at all well, that you ought to write something sort of—er—highbrow in natural history. Usefully highbrow, I mean, of course. But that can be done later perhaps. As you said, we are still engaged on the story of the great man's life.... How to begin?—Humph! Well, why not go on from where we all got back to Puddleby River inside the Giant Sea Snail, you remember?—after our journey under the ocean?”
“Yes,” I said, “I thought of beginning there. But it was more how than where—I mean, the things to leave out and the things to put in; what parts to choose as the most interesting.”
“Ah!” said she. “Yes, that's the problem. How often have I heard the Doctor himself say those very words as he was packing his little black bag to go on a voyage: 'What to leave out and what to put in? That's the problem.' I've seen him spend half an hour wondering over his razor—whether he should pack it or not. He said a broken bottle did just as well, once you had learned how to use it. You remember how he hated a lot3 of baggage. He usually decided to go without the razor. But Dab-Dab and I were so scared he'd cut himself with the broken glass we always secretly opened the bag later and slipped the razor in before starting. And as he never could remember which way he had decided the problem, it was all right.”
“Indeed,” said I. “But you haven't answered my question yet.”
Polynesia pondered a moment.
“What are you calling the book?” she asked presently.
“'Doctor Dolittle's Zoo,'” I said.
“Humph!” she murmured. “Then I suppose you ought to get on to the zoo part as soon as possible. But first I think you had better put in a little about your own homecoming and your parents and all that. You had been away nearly three years, you know. Of course it's sort of sentimental. But some people like a little sentiment in their books. In fact, I knew an old lady once who simply loved books that made her weep. She used to——”
“Yes, yes,” I said hurriedly, seeing that the old parrot was drifting into another story, “but let us keep to the point.”
“Well,” said she, “I think this would be the best way: you read it all out aloud to me as you put it down; and if it starts to get tiresome you'll know, because you'll see me dropping off to sleep. You4 will have to keep it bright and lively though, for as I grow older I find it harder and harder to stay awake after lunch—and I've just had a big one. Have you got enough paper? Yes. And the inkpot is full? Yes. All right. Get along with it.”
So taking a new quill pen and sharpening the point very carefully, I began:
It suddenly occurred to John Dolittle that in the excitement of getting back he had not said good-by to the snail who had brought us through this long and perilous voyage and landed us safely on our home shores. He called to us to wait and ran down the beach again.
The farewell did not take long; and presently he left the great creature's side and rejoined us. Then for a few moments the whole party stood there watching, with our bundles in our hands, while the giant snail, half-hidden in the mists that writhed about his towering shell, got under way. Truly, he seemed to belong to this landscape—or seascape—for his long, gray body looked like a part of the long, gray sandbar on which he rested. With easy muscular motion, so fluid and smooth that you could not tell how he moved at all, his5 great hulk slid out into deeper water. And as he went forward he went down, and down, and down, till only the top of his shell's dome, a dim gray pink in the colorless sea, could be seen. Then, without sound or splash, he was gone.
We turned our faces toward the land, Puddleby and home.
“I wonder what supplies Dab-Dab has in the house,” said the Doctor, as we formed into single file and, following Jip, began to pick our way across the boggy marshland. “I hope she has plenty to eat. I am thoroughly hungry.”
“So am I,” said Bumpo.
At that moment, out of the wet, misty air above our heads two handsome wild ducks curved fluttering down and came to a standstill at John Dolittle's feet.
“Dab-Dab asked us to tell you,” said they, “that you're to hurry up and get home out of this rain. She's waiting for you.”
“Good gracious!” cried the Doctor. “How did she know that we were coming?”
“We told her,” said the ducks. “We were flying inland—there's a pretty bad storm over the Irish Sea, and it's headed this way—and we saw you landing out of the snail's shell. We dropped down at the house to let her know the news. We were awfully glad to see you back. And she asked would we return and bring you a message—she herself6 was busy airing the bed linen, it seems. She says you're to stop in at the butcher's on the way home and bring along a pound of sausages. Also she's short of sugar, she says, and needs a few more candles, too.”
“Thank you,” said the Doctor. “You are very kind. I will attend to these things. You didn't take long over getting there and back; it doesn't seem to me as though more than a minute had passed since we landed.”
“No, we're pretty good flyers,” said the ducks; “nothing fancy, but steady.”
“Didn't you find the rain a great handicap?” asked the Doctor.
“No, the rain doesn't bother us,” said the ducks, “though some of the land birds are very badly hampered by wet feathers. But, of course, for all, the going is a little slower in rain on account of the air being heavier.”
“I see,” said the Doctor. “Well, now, let us be getting along. Jip, you lead the way, will you, please? You can pick out the firm ground so much better than the rest of us.”7
“Look here, you fellows,” said Polynesia, as the ducks prepared to take wing; “don't be spreading the news of the Doctor's arrival too fast, will you? He's only just back from a long and tiresome journey. You know what happens when it gets known that he's home: all the birds and beasts of the8 countryside come around to the back door with coughs and colds and what not. And those who haven't anything wrong with them invent some ailment just to have an excuse to call. He needs to rest up a bit before he starts in doctoring.”
“No, we won't tell any one,” said the ducks; “not to-night, anyway, though a tremendous lot of wildfowl have been inquiring for him for ever so long, wondering when he was going to get back. He has never been gone so long before, you see.”
“Humph!” muttered Polynesia, as the ducks, with a whir of feathers, disappeared again into the rainy mist above our heads. “I suppose John Dolittle has to give an account of his actions now to every snipe and sandpiper that ever met him. Poor man! How dare he be away so long! Well, such is fame, I suppose. But I'm glad I'm not a doctor myself. Oh, bless this rain! Let me get under your coat, Tommy. It's trickling down between my wings and ruining my disposition.”
If it had not been for Jip's good guidance we would have had a hard job to make our way to the town across the marshes. The light of the late afternoon was failing. And every once in a while the fog would come billowing in from the sea and blot out everything around us, so that you could see no further than a foot before your nose. The chimes of the quarter-hours from Puddleby church9 tower were the only sounds or signs of civilization to reach us.
But Jip, with that wonderful nose of his, was a guide worth having in a place like this. The marsh was riddled and crossed in all directions by deep dykes, now filling up like rivers with the incoming tide. These could very easily cut off the unwary traveler and leave him stranded at the mercy of the rising waters. But in spite of continuous temptation to go off on the scent of water rats, Jip, like a good pilot, steered a safe course through all the dangers and kept us on fairly solid ground the whole way.
Finally we found he had brought us round to the long, high mound that bordered the Puddleby River. This we knew would lead us to the bridge. Presently we passed a hut or two, the outposts of the town. And occasionally in the swiftly flowing water on our left we would see through the lifting mists the gray, ghostly sails of a fishing boat coming home, like us, from the sea.10
AS we came nearer to the town and the lights about Kingsbridge twinkled at us through the gray mist Polynesia said: “It would be wiser, Doctor, if you sent Tommy in to get the sausages and went around the town yourself. You'll never get home if the children and dogs start recognizing you. You know that.”
“Yes, I think you're right, Polynesia,” said the Doctor. “We can turn off here to the North and get around on to the Oxenthorpe Road by Baldwin's Pool and the Mill Fields.”
So the rest of the party went off with the Doctor, while I went on into the town alone. I was a little sorry not to have been present at John Dolittle's homecoming, I must admit. But I had another thrill which partly made up for it. Swaggering across Kingsbridge, alone, I returned to my native town a conquering adventurer from foreign parts. Oh, my! Christopher Columbus just back from his discovery of the New World could not have felt prouder than I, Tommy Stubbins, the cobbler's son, did that night.
12One of the little things that added to the thrill of it was that no one recognized me. I was like some enchanted person in the Arabian Nights who could see without being seen. I was three years older than when I had left, at an age when a boy shoots up and changes like a weed. As I swung along beneath the dim street lamps toward the butcher's in the High Street I knew the faces of more than half the folk who passed me by. And I chuckled to myself to think how surprised they'd be if I told them who I was and all the great things I had seen and done since last I trod these cobble-stones. Then in a flash I saw myself back again on the river wall, where I had so often sat with legs dangling over the water, watching the ships come and go, dreaming of the lands I had never seen.
In the Market Square, before a dimly lighted shop, I saw a figure which I would have known anywhere, seen from the back or the front. It was Matthew Mugg, the Cats'-meat-Man. Just out of mischief, to see if he, too, would be unable to recognize me, I went up the shop front and stood, like him, looking in at the window. Presently he turned and looked at me. No. He didn't know me from Adam. Highly amused, I went on to the butcher's.
I asked for the sausages. They were weighed out, wrapped and handed to me. The butcher was13 an old acquaintance of mine, but beyond glancing at my old clothes (they were patched and mended and sadly outgrown) he showed no sign of curiosity or recognition. But when I came to pay for my purchases I found to my dismay that the only money I had in my pockets was two large Spanish silver pieces, souvenirs of our stormy visit to the Capa Blanca Islands. The butcher looked at them and shook his head.
“We only take English money here,” he said.
“I'm sorry,” I said apologetically, “but that is all I have. Couldn't you exchange it for me? It is, as you see, good silver. One of these pieces should be worth a crown at least.”
“Maybe it is,” said the butcher. “But I can't take it.”
He seemed sort of suspicious and rather annoyed. While I was wondering what I should do I became aware that there was a third party in the shop interested in what was going on. I turned to look. It was Matthew Mugg. He had followed me.
This time his eye (the one that didn't squint) fixed me with a curious look of half-recognition. Suddenly he rushed at me and grabbed me by the hand.
“It's Tommy!” he squeaked. “As I live it's Tommy Stubbins, grown so tall and handsome his own mother wouldn't know him, and as brown as a berry.”
14Matthew was, of course, well known to the tradesmen of the town—especially to the butcher, from whom he bought the bones and odd pieces of meat he fed to the dogs. He turned to the shopkeeper.
“Why, Alfred,” he cried, “this is Tommy Stubbins, Jacob Stubbins's lad, back from furrin parts. No need to be worried about his credit, Alfred. He's shopping for the Doctor, I'll be bound. You brought the Doctor back with you?” he asked, peering at me anxiously. “Don't tell me you come back alone?”
“No,” I said. “The Doctor's here, safe and sound.”
“You're just in, eh?” said he. “To-night—huh? John Dolittle couldn't be in this town long without my knowing it.”
“Yes,” I said. “He's on his way up to the house now. Asked me to do a little shopping for him. But all the money I have is foreign.”
I said this with the superior air of an experienced traveler, raising my eyebrows a little disdainfully at the obstinate butcher, whose stay-at-home mind couldn't be expected to appreciate a real adventurer's difficulties.
“Oh, well, Alfred will let you have the sausages, I'm sure,” said Matthew.15
“Why, yes, that's all right, Tommy,” said the butcher, smiling at my airs. “Though we ain't16 exactly a money exchange, you know. But if you had said at first who you were, and who the sausages were for, I'd have charged them to the Doctor without a word—even though his credit hasn't always been of the best. Take the meat—and tell John Dolittle I'm glad he's back safe.”
“Thank you,” I said, with dignity.
Then, with my package beneath one arm and Matthew Mugg firmly grasping the other, I stepped forth into the street.
“You know, Tommy,” said Matthew, as we set off in the direction of the Oxenthorpe Road, “all the years that John Dolittle's been returning from voyages he ain't never got home once without me to welcome him the first night he got in. Not that he ever tells me he's coming, mind you. No, indeed. As often as not, I fancy, he'd rather no one knew. But somehow or other I always finds out before he's been in the town an hour, and right away I'm up there to welcome him. And once I'm inside the house, he seems to get used to me and be glad I'm there. I suppose you seen an awful lot of adventures and strange sights and things since I saw you last?”
“Yes, Matthew,” I said. “We saw even more than I had thought or hoped we would. We have brought back notebooks by the barrow-load and a collection of wonderful herbs which were gathered by an Indian naturalist—frightfully valuable and17 important. And—what do you think, Matthew?—we came back inside the shell of a giant sea snail who crawled along the bottom of the ocean with us all the way from the other side of the Atlantic!”
“Oh, well,” said Matthew, “there be no end to the strange things Doctor John Dolittle's seen and gone through. I've given up talking about his voyagings and queer doings. Down in the tap-room of the Red Lion I used to tell about his travels—of an evening like, when folk enjoy a tale. But never no more. It's like this business of his speaking animal languages: people don't believe you; so what's the good?”
We were now some half-mile along the Oxenthorpe Road and within a short distance of the Doctor's house. It was quite dark. But in the hedges and the trees all about us I could hear birds fluttering and chattering. In spite of Polynesia's request, the news had already spread, in that mysterious way it does in the Animal Kingdom. The season was still cold and few more than the winter birds could be found in England now. But round about the famous Little House with the Big Garden they were gathered in thousands—sparrows, robins, blackbirds, crows and starlings—to welcome the great man back, prepared to sit up all night just to see him in the morning.
And it occurred to me, as I walked up the steps and opened the little gate at the top, that such was18 the great difference between this strange popularity and friendship that the Doctor enjoyed and that of ordinary human society: with some friends, if you were away three years, it would mean you'd find yourself forgotten when you returned. But with John Dolittle and his animal friends, the longer he was gone the greater the welcome and rejoicing when he came home again.19
AS a matter of fact, I did not entirely miss witnessing the Doctor's homecoming. When Matthew and I entered at the kitchen door we found an air of mystery in the house. We had expected, of course, an enormous amount of noise—greetings, questions and so forth. But there wasn't a soul even visible besides the Doctor himself—and Dab-Dab who promptly berated me for taking so long over getting the sausages.
“But where is Gub-Gub?” the Doctor was asking as we came in.
“How on earth should I know, Doctor?” said Dab-Dab. “He'll turn up presently—and the rest of them, no doubt. Have you washed your hands for supper? Please don't leave it to the last moment. The food will be on the table in five minutes. I'll want you to help me, Tommy, with the sausages. By the way, Doctor, we're going to have supper in the dining room.”
“In the dining room!” cried John Dolittle. “What on earth for? Why don't we use the kitchen as usual?”21
“Not big enough,” grunted Dab-Dab.
I suspected from an odd look in the house-keeper's eye that there was some surprise in store. And, sure enough, when the dining room door was opened, there it was. The whole crowd of them, Gub-Gub, Too-Too, Swizzle, Toby and the white mouse, all in fancy dress. It was a surprise party given in the Doctor's honor.
The dining room was a funny old stately chamber which the Doctor had closed up years and years ago—in fact, it had not been used since his sister Sarah had left him. But to-night it was gaily decorated with colored papers, ribbons and evergreens. The animals were all in their old pantomime costumes, even the white mouse was wearing a tiny waistcoat and pants in which he used to appear in the famous Dolittle Circus of bygone days.
Now, with the Doctor's appearance at the door, the noise which we had missed began in earnest. Barks, yelps and squeals of greeting broke forth. But there was very little disorderly behavior, for apparently a regular program of entertainment had been arranged. The meal was most elaborate, the table piled high with fruits and dainties of every kind. Between courses each one of the animals who had stayed at home had some performance to give. Gub-Gub recited one of his own food poems, entitled “The Wilted Cauliflower”; Toby and Swizzle gave a boxing match (the stage was the middle of22 the table) with real boxing gloves tied on their front paws; and the white mouse showed us what he called “The Punchbowl Circus.” This took place in a large glass bowl, and was the most thrilling thing of its kind I have ever seen. The white mouse was ringmaster, and he swaggered about on his hind legs with a tiny top hat on his head made of paper. In his troupe he had a lady bareback rider, a clown and a lion tamer. The rider was another mouse (using a cutlet frill for a ballet skirt), and she rode a squirrel for a horse—the fastest mount I ever saw. The lion tamer was still another mouse, and his lion was a large rat dressed up with strings on his head for a mane.
Taken all in all, the Punchbowl Circus was, I think, the greatest success of the evening. The white mouse had even, in a way, made himself up. With some heavy black grease paint, which Swizzle, the old clown dog of the circus, had lent him from his own private makeup box, he had waxed his whiskers together so that they looked exactly like the long, ferocious mustachios of a regular ringmaster. The lady bareback artist leapt through paper hoops, the mouse clown (also made up with a red and white face), threw somersaults, and the rat lion roared savagely.23
“I don't know how on earth you all managed to get the show ready in time,” said the Doctor, tears of laughter running down his cheeks at the antics24 of the mouse clown. “It's better than anything I ever had in my circus. And you only knew I was coming half an hour before I got here. How did you do it?”
“You'll soon see how it was done if you go upstairs, Doctor,” said Dab-Dab severely. “It was Gub-Gub's idea. They turned the house inside out to get the costumes and the ribbons and they turned the garden upside down to get the evergreens. Tut! Such foolishness! And just when I needed every one of them to help me put the house in proper order against your coming.”
“Oh, well, never mind, Dab-Dab,” said the Doctor, still laughing. “It was worth it. I never enjoyed anything so much in all my life. We can soon get the house straightened out. You have Stubbins and Bumpo and me to help you now, you know.”
“Yes, and I don't know where I'm going to put Bumpo to sleep, either,” said Dab-Dab. “None of the beds we have will fit him.”
“Well, we'll manage,” said the Doctor. “If the worst comes to the worst we can put two mattresses together on the floor.”
“And now, Doctor,” said Gub-Gub, “your part of the performance begins. We want to hear all about your travels since you left here.”
“Yes, yes,” they all cried. “Begin at the beginning.”25
“But, good gracious!” cried John Dolittle. “I couldn't tell you our complete diary for three years in one evening!”
“Well, tell us some of it,” squeaked the white mouse; “and keep the rest for to-morrow night.”
So, lighting his pipe, which, with the tobacco jar, Chee-Chee brought down off the mantelpiece, the Doctor began at the beginning—the tale of his travels. It was a wonderful scene—the long dining room table packed all around with listening faces, animal and human. The Doctor's household had never, to my knowledge, been so complete before: Bumpo, Matthew Mugg, myself, Dab-Dab, Gub-Gub, Chee-Chee, Polynesia, Jip, Too-Too, Toby, Swizzle and the white mouse. And then, just as he was about to begin there came a thud at the window, and a voice said:
“Let me in. I want to listen, too.”
It was the old lame horse from the stable. He had heard the noise, and, realizing that the Doctor had arrived at last, had come across to join the party.
Greatly to Dab-Dab's annoyance the double French windows which opened onto the garden were unlatched and the old lame horse invited to join the party. The good housekeeper did insist, however, that I brush his hoofs clean of mud before he was allowed in onto the carpets. It was surprising to see how naturally he took to such unusual26