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Gazelle, edited by Andrew Lang

PASSAGES IN THE LIFE OF A TORTOISE

Alexandre Dumas, in whose book, as I told you, I read the story of Tom the Bear, as well as those of other animals, was one day walking past the shop of a large fishmonger in Paris. As he glanced through the window he saw an Englishman in the shop holding a tortoise, which he was turning about in his hands. Dumas felt an instant conviction that the Englishman proposed to make the tortoise into turtle soup, and he was so touched by the air of patient resignation of the supposed victim that he entered the shop, and with a sign to the shopwoman asked whether she had kept the tortoise for him which he had bespoken.

The shopwoman (who had known Dumas for many years) understood with half a word, and gently slipping the tortoise out of the Englishman’s grasp, she handed it to Dumas, saying, ‘Pardon, milord, the tortoise was sold to this gentleman this morning.’

The Englishman seemed surprised, but left the shop without remonstrating, and Dumas had nothing left for it but to pay for his tortoise and take it home.

As he carried his purchase up to his rooms on the third floor he wondered what could have possessed him to buy it, and what on earth he was to do with it now he had got it. It was certainly a remarkable tortoise, for the moment he put it down on the floor of his bedroom it started off for the fireplace at such a pace as to earn for itself the name of ‘Gazelle.’

 Once near the fire, Gazelle settled herself in the warmest corner she could find, and went to sleep.

Dumas, who wished to go out again and was afraid of his new possession coming to any harm, called his servant and said: ‘Joseph, whilst I am out you must look after this creature.’

Joseph approached with some curiosity. ‘Ah!’ he remarked, ‘why, it’s a tortoise; that creature could bear a carriage on its back.’

‘Yes, yes, no doubt it might, but I beg you won’t try any experiments with it.’

‘Oh, it wouldn’t hurt it,’ assured Joseph, who enjoyed showing off his information. ‘The Lyons diligence might drive over it without hurting it.’

‘Well,’ replied his master, ‘I believe the great sea turtle might bear such a weight, but I doubt whether this small variety——’

‘Oh, that’s of no consequence,’ interrupted Joseph; ‘it’s as strong as a horse, and small though it is, a cartload of stones might pass——’

‘Very good, very good; never mind that now. Just buy the creature a lettuce and some snails.’

‘Snails! why, is its chest delicate?’

‘No, why on earth do you ask such a thing?’

‘Well, my last master used to take an infusion of snails for his chest—not that it prevented——’

Dumas left the room without waiting for the end. Before he was half-way downstairs he found that he had forgotten his handkerchief, and on returning surprised Joseph standing on Gazelle’s back, gracefully poised on one leg, with the other out-stretched behind him in such a way that not an ounce of his eleven-stone weight was lost on the poor creature.

‘Idiot! what are you about?’

‘There, sir, didn’t I say so?’ rejoined Joseph, proudly.

‘There, there, give me a handkerchief and mind you don’t touch that creature again.’

Joseph balances precariously on one leg

DUMAS FINDS JOSEPH STANDING ON GAZELLE’S BACK

‘There, sir,’ said the irrepressible Joseph, bringing the handkerchief. ‘But indeed you need not be at all afraid; a waggon could drive over——’

 Dumas fled.

He returned rather late at night, and no sooner took a step into his room than he felt something crack under his boot. He hastily raised his foot and took a further step with the same result: he thought he must be treading on eggs. He lowered his candlestick—the carpet was covered with snails.

Joseph had obeyed orders literally. He had bought the lettuces and the snails, had placed them all in a basket and Gazelle on the top, and then put the basket in the middle of his master’s bedroom. Ten minutes later the warmth of the fire thawed the snails into animation, and the entire caravan set forth on a voyage of discovery round the room, leaving silvery tracks behind them on carpet and furniture.

As for Gazelle, she was quietly reposing at the bottom of the basket, where a few empty shells proved that all the fugitives had not been brisk enough to make their escape.

Dumas, feeling no fancy for a possible procession of snails over his bed, carefully picked up the stragglers one by one, popped them back into the basket, and shut down the lid. But in five minutes’ time he realised that sleep would be out of the question with the noise going on, which sounded like a dozen mice in a bag of nuts. He decided to move the basket to the kitchen.

On the way there it occurred to him that if Gazelle went on at this rate she would certainly die of indigestion before morning. He remembered that the owner of the restaurant on the ground floor had a tank in the back yard where he often put fish to keep till wanted, and it struck him that the tank would be the very place for his tortoise. He at once put his idea into execution, got back to his room and to bed, and slept soundly till morning.

Joseph woke him early.

‘Oh, sir, such a joke!’ he exclaimed, standing at the foot of the bed.

 ‘What joke?’

‘Why, what your tortoise has been up to!’

‘What on earth do you mean?’

‘Well, sir, could you believe that it got out of your room—goodness knows how—and walked downstairs and right into the tank?’

‘You owl! you might have guessed I put it there myself.’

‘Did you indeed, sir? Well, you certainly have made a mess of it then.’

‘How so?’

‘Why the tortoise has eaten up a tench—a superb tench weighing three pounds—which the master of the restaurant put into the tank only last night. The waiter has just been telling me about it.’

‘Go at once and fetch me Gazelle and the scales.’

During Joseph’s absence his master took down a volume of Buffon, and consulted that eminent authority on the subject of tortoises and turtles. There seemed to be no doubt, according to the celebrated naturalist, that these creatures did eat fish voraciously when they got the chance.

‘Dear, dear,’ thought Dumas, ‘I fear the owner of the tank has Buffon on his side.’

Just then Joseph returned with the accused in one hand and the kitchen scales in the other.

‘You see,’ began the irrepressible valet, ‘these sort of creatures eat a lot. They need it to keep up their strength, and fish is particularly nourishing. Only see how strong sailors are, and they live so much on fish——’

His master cut him short.

‘How much did you say that tench weighed?’

‘Three pounds. The waiter asks nine francs for it.’

‘And Gazelle ate it all?’

‘Every bit except the head, the back-bone, and the inside.’

‘Quite correct, Monsieur Buffon had said as much.  Very well—but still—three pounds seems a good deal.’

He put Gazelle in the scale. She weighed exactly two pounds and a half! The deduction was simple. Either Gazelle had been falsely accused or the theft had been much smaller than was represented. Indeed the waiter readily took this view of the matter, and was quite satisfied with five francs as an indemnity.

The varied adventures of Gazelle had become rather a bore, and her owner felt that he must try to find some other home for her. She spent the following night in his room, but thanks to the absence of snails all went well. When Joseph came in next morning, his first act as usual was to roll up the hearth-rug, and, opening the window, to shake it well out in the air. Suddenly he uttered an exclamation and flung himself half out of the window.

‘What’s the matter, Joseph?’ asked his master, only half awake.

‘Oh, sir—it’s your tortoise. It was on the rug, and I never saw it—and——’

‘Well! and——?’

‘And I declare, before I knew what I was about, I shook it out of the window.’

‘Imbecile!’ shouted Dumas, springing out of bed.

‘Ah!’ cried Joseph with a sigh of relief. ‘See, she’s eating a cabbage!’

And so she was. Her fall had been broken by a rubbish heap, and after a few seconds in which to recover her equanimity, she had ventured to thrust her head out, when finding a piece of cabbage near, she at once began her breakfast.

‘Didn’t I say so, sir?’ cried Joseph, delighted. ‘Nothing hurts those creatures. There now, whilst she’s eating that cabbage a coach-and-four might drive over her——’

‘Never mind, never mind; just run down and fetch her up quick.’

Dumas introduces the tortoise to the other inhabitants

DUMAS BRINGS GAZELLE TO NO. 109 FAUBOURG ST.-DENIS

Joseph obeyed, and as soon as his master was dressed he called a cab, and taking Gazelle with him, drove off to No. 109 in the Faubourg St.-Denis. Here he climbed to the fifth floor and walked straight into the studio of his friend, who was busy painting a delightful little picture of performing dogs. He was surrounded by a bear, who was playing with a log as he lay on his back, a monkey, busy pulling a paint brush to pieces, and a frog, who was half-way up a little ladder in a glass jar. You will, I dare say, have guessed already that the painter’s name was Décamps, the bear’s Tom, the monkey’s Jacko I., and the frog’s Mademoiselle Camargo, and you will not wonder that Dumas felt that he could not better provide for Gazelle than by leaving her as an addition to the menagerie in his friend’s studio.