The Popsipetel Picture-History of King Jong Thinkalot
ALL that I have written so far about Doctor Dolittle I heard long after it happened from those who had known him — indeed a great deal of it took place before I was born. But I now come to set down that part of the great man’s life which I myself saw and took part in.
Many years ago the Doctor gave me permission to do this. But we were both of us so busy then voyaging around the world, having adventures and filling note-books full of natural history that I never seemed to get time to sit down and write of our doings.
Now of course, when I am quite an old man, my memory isn’t so good any more. But whenever I am in doubt and have to hesitate and think, I always ask Polynesia, the parrot.
That wonderful bird (she is now nearly two hundred and fifty years old) sits on the top of my desk, usually humming sailor songs to herself, while I write this book. And, as every one who ever met her knows, Polynesia’s memory is the most marvelous memory in the world. If there is any happening I am not quite sure of, she is always able to put me right, to tell me exactly how it took place, who was there and everything about it. In fact sometimes I almost think I ought to say that this book was written by Polynesia instead of me.
Very well then, I will begin. And first of all I must tell you something about myself and how I came to meet the Doctor.
MY name was Tommy Stubbins, son of Jacob Stubbins, the cobbler of Puddleby-on-the-Marsh; and I was nine and a half years old. At that time Puddleby was only quite a small town. A river ran through the middle of it; and over this river there was a very old stone bridge, called Kingsbridge, which led you from the market-place on one side to the churchyard on the other.
Sailing-ships came up this river from the sea and anchored near the bridge. I used to go down and watch the sailors unloading the ships upon the river-wall. The sailors sang strange songs as they pulled upon the ropes; and I learned these songs by heart. And I would sit on the river-wall with my feet dangling over the water and sing with the men, pretending to myself that I too was a sailor.
For I longed always to sail away with those brave ships when they turned their backs on Puddleby Church and went creeping down the river again, across the wide lonely marshes to the sea. I longed to go with them out into the world to seek my fortune in foreign lands — Africa, India, China and Peru! When they got round the bend in the river and the water was hidden from view, you could still see their huge brown sails towering over the roofs of the town, moving onward slowly — like some gentle giants that walked among the houses without noise. What strange things would they have seen, I wondered, when next they came back to anchor at Kingsbridge! And, dreaming of the lands I had never seen, I’d sit on there, watching till they were out of sight.
Three great friends I had in Puddleby in those days. One was Joe, the mussel-man, who lived in a tiny hut by the edge of the water under the bridge. This old man was simply marvelous at making things. I never saw a man so clever with his hands. He used to mend my toy ships for me which I sailed upon the river; he built windmills out of packing-cases and barrel-staves; and he could make the most wonderful kites from old umbrellas.
Joe would sometimes take me in his mussel-boat, and when the tide was running out we would paddle down the river as far as the edge of the sea to get mussels and lobsters to sell. And out there on the cold lonely marshes we would see wild geese flying, and curlews and redshanks and many other kinds of seabirds that live among the samfire and the long grass of the great salt fen. And as we crept up the river in the evening, when the tide had turned, we would see the lights on Kingsbridge twinkle in the dusk, reminding us of tea-time and warm fires.
“I would sit on the river-wall with my feet dangling over the water”
Another friend I had was Matthew Mugg, the cat’s-meat-man. He was a funny old person with a bad squint. He looked rather awful but he was really quite nice to talk to. He knew everybody in Puddleby; and he knew all the dogs and all the cats. In those times being a cat’s-meat-man was a regular business. And you could see one nearly any day going through the streets with a wooden tray full of pieces of meat stuck on skewers crying, “Meat! M-E-A-T!” People paid him to give this meat to their cats and dogs instead of feeding them on dog-biscuits or the scraps from the table.
I enjoyed going round with old Matthew and seeing the cats and dogs come running to the garden-gates whenever they heard his call. Sometimes he let me give the meat to the animals myself; and I thought this was great fun. He knew a lot about dogs and he would tell me the names of the different kinds as we went through the town. He had several dogs of his own; one, a whippet, was a very fast runner, and Matthew used to win prizes with her at the Saturday coursing races; another, a terrier, was a fine ratter. The cat’s-meat-man used to make a business of rat-catching for the millers and farmers as well as his other trade of selling cat’s-meat.
My third great friend was Luke the Hermit. But of him I will tell you more later on.
I did not go to school; because my father was not rich enough to send me. But I was extremely fond of animals. So I used to spend my time collecting birds’ eggs and butterflies, fishing in the river, rambling through the countryside after blackberries and mushrooms and helping the mussel-man mend his nets.
Yes, it was a very pleasant life I lived in those days long ago — though of course I did not think so then. I was nine and a half years old; and, like all boys, I wanted to grow up — not knowing how well off I was with no cares and nothing to worry me. Always I longed for the time when I should be allowed to leave my father’s house, to take passage in one of those brave ships, to sail down the river through the misty marshes to the sea — out into the world to seek my fortune.
ONE early morning in the Springtime, when I was wandering among the hills at the back of the town, I happened to come upon a hawk with a squirrel in its claws. It was standing on a rock and the squirrel was fighting very hard for its life. The hawk was so frightened when I came upon it suddenly like this, that it dropped the poor creature and flew away. I picked the squirrel up and found that two of its legs were badly hurt. So I carried it in my arms back to the town.
When I came to the bridge I went into the mussel-man’s hut and asked him if he could do anything for it. Joe put on his spectacles and examined it carefully. Then he shook his head.
“Yon crittur’s got a broken leg,” he said — “and another badly cut an’ all. I can mend you your boats, Tom, but I haven’t the tools nor the learning to make a broken squirrel seaworthy. This is a job for a surgeon — and for a right smart one an’ all. There be only one man I know who could save yon crittur’s life. And that’s John Dolittle.”
“Who is John Dolittle?” I asked. “Is he a vet?”
“No,” said the mussel-man. “He’s no vet. Doctor Dolittle is a nacheralist.”
“What’s a nacheralist?”
“A nacheralist,” said Joe, putting away his glasses and starting to fill his pipe, “is a man who knows all about animals and butterflies and plants and rocks an’ all. John Dolittle is a very great nacheralist. I’m surprised you never heard of him — and you daft over animals. He knows a whole lot about shellfish — that I know from my own knowledge. He’s a quiet man and don’t talk much; but there’s folks who do say he’s the greatest nacheralist in the world.”
“Where does he live?” I asked.
“Over on the Oxenthorpe Road, t’other side the town. Don’t know just which house it is, but ’most anyone ’cross there could tell you, I reckon. Go and see him. He’s a great man.”
So I thanked the mussel-man, took up my squirrel again and started off towards the Oxenthorpe Road.
The first thing I heard as I came into the market-place was some one calling “Meat! M-E-A-T!”
“There’s Matthew Mugg,” I said to myself. “He’ll know where this Doctor lives. Matthew knows everyone.”
So I hurried across the market-place and caught him up.
“Matthew,” I said, “do you know Doctor Dolittle?”
“Do I know John Dolittle!” said he. “Well, I should think I do! I know him as well as I know my own wife — better, I sometimes think. He’s a great man — a very great man.”
“Can you show me where he lives?” I asked. “I want to take this squirrel to him. It has a broken leg.”
“Certainly,” said the cat’s-meat-man. “I’ll be going right by his house directly. Come along and I’ll show you.”
So off we went together.
“Oh, I’ve known John Dolittle for years and years,” said Matthew as we made our way out of the market-place. “But I’m pretty sure he ain’t home just now. He’s away on a voyage. But he’s liable to be back any day. I’ll show you his house and then you’ll know where to find him.”
All the way down the Oxenthorpe Road Matthew hardly stopped talking about his great friend, Doctor John Dolittle — “M. D.” He talked so much that he forgot all about calling out “Meat!” until we both suddenly noticed that we had a whole procession of dogs following us patiently.
“Where did the Doctor go to on this voyage?” I asked as Matthew handed round the meat to them.
“I couldn’t tell you,” he answered. “Nobody never knows where he goes, nor when he’s going, nor when he’s coming back. He lives all alone except for his pets. He’s made some great voyages and some wonderful discoveries. Last time he came back he told me he’d found a tribe of Red Indians in the Pacific Ocean — lived on two islands, they did. The husbands lived on one island and the wives lived on the other. Sensible people, some of them savages. They only met once a year, when the husbands came over to visit the wives for a great feast — Christmas-time, most likely. Yes, he’s a wonderful man is the Doctor. And as for animals, well, there ain’t no one knows as much about ’em as what he does.”
“How did he get to know so much about animals?” I asked.
The cat’s-meat-man stopped and leant down to whisper in my ear.
“He talks their language,” he said in a hoarse, mysterious voice.
“The animals’ language?” I cried.
“Why certainly,” said Matthew. “All animals have some kind of a language. Some sorts talk more than others; some only speak in sign-language, like deaf-and-dumb. But the Doctor, he understands them all — birds as well as animals. We keep it a secret though, him and me, because folks only laugh at you when you speak of it. Why, he can even write animal-language. He reads aloud to his pets. He’s wrote history-books in monkey-talk, poetry in canary language and comic songs for magpies to sing. It’s a fact. He’s now busy learning the language of the shellfish. But he says it’s hard work — and he has caught some terrible colds, holding his head under water so much. He’s a great man.”
“He certainly must be,” I said. “I do wish he were home so I could meet him.”
“Well, there’s his house, look,” said the cat’s-meat-man — “that little one at the bend in the road there — the one high up — like it was sitting on the wall above the street.”
We were now come beyond the edge of the town. And the house that Matthew pointed out was quite a small one standing by itself. There seemed to be a big garden around it; and this garden was much higher than the road, so you had to go up a flight of steps in the wall before you reached the front gate at the top. I could see that there were many fine fruit trees in the garden, for their branches hung down over the wall in places. But the wall was so high I could not see anything else.
When we reached the house Matthew went up the steps to the front gate and I followed him. I thought he was going to go into the garden; but the gate was locked. A dog came running down from the house; and he took several pieces of meat which the cat’s-meat-man pushed through the bars of the gate, and some paper bags full of corn and bran. I noticed that this dog did not stop to eat the meat, as any ordinary dog would have done, but he took all the things back to the house and disappeared. He had a curious wide collar round his neck which looked as though it were made of brass or something. Then we came away.
“The Doctor isn’t back yet,” said Matthew, “or the gate wouldn’t be locked.”
“What were all those things in paper-bags you gave the dog?” I asked.