Turtle Eggs for Agassiz: (February 1910)

IT is one of the wonders of the world that so few books are written. With every human being a possible book, and with many a human being capable of becoming more books than the world could contain, is it not amazing that the books of men are so few? And so stupid!

I took down, recently, from the shelves of a great public library, the four volumes of Agassiz’s Contributions to the Natural History of the United States. I doubt if anybody but the charwoman, with her duster, had touched those volumes for twenty-five years. They are an excessively learned, a monumental, an epoch-making work, the fruit of vast and heroic labors, with colored plates on stone, showing the turtles of the United States, and their embryology. The work was published more than half a century ago (by subscription); but it looked old beyond its years — massive, heavy, weathered, as if dug from the rocks. It was difficult to feel that Agassiz could have written it — could have built it, grown it, for the laminated pile had required for its growth the patience and painstaking care of a process of nature, as if it were a kind of printed coral reef. Agassiz do this? The big, human, magnetic man at work upon these pages of capital letters, Roman figures, brackets, and parentheses in explanation of the pages of diagrams and plates! I turned away with a sigh from the weary learning, to read the preface.

When a great man writes a great book he usually flings a preface after it, and thereby saves it, sometimes, from oblivion. Whether so or not, the best things in most books are their prefaces. It was not, however, the quality of the preface to these great volumes that interested me, but rather the wicked waste of durable book material that went to its making. Reading down through the catalogue of human names and of thanks for help received, I came to a sentence beginning: —

‘In New England I have myself collected largely; but I have also received valuable contributions from the late Rev. Zadoc Thompson of Burlington . . . from Mr. D. Henry Thoreau of Concord . . . and from Mr. J. W. P. Jenks of Middleboro’.’ And then it hastens on with the thanks in order to get to the turtles, as if turtles were the one and only thing of real importance in all the world.

Turtles no doubt arc important, extremely important, embryologically, as part of our genealogical tree; but they are away down among the roots of the tree as compared with the late Rev. Zadoc Thompson of Burlington. I happen to know nothing about the Rev. Zadoc, but to me he looks very interesting. Indeed any reverend gentleman of his name and day who would catch turtles for Agassiz must have been interesting. And as for Henry Thoreau, we know he was interesting. The rarest wood turtle in the United States was not so rare a specimen as this gentleman of Walden Woods and Concord. We are glad even for this line in the preface about him; glad to know that he tried, in this untranscendental way, to serve his day and generation. If Agassiz had only put a chapter in his turtle book about it! But this is the material he wasted, this and more of the same human sort, for the Mr. Jenks of Middleboro’ (at the end of the quotation) was, years later, an old college professor of mine, who told me some of the particulars of his turtle contributions, particulars which Agassiz should have found a place for in his big book. The preface says merely that this gentleman sent turtles to Cambridge by the thousands — brief and scanty recognition. For that is not the only thing this gentleman did. On one occasion he sent, not turtles, but turtle eggs to Cambridge — brought them, I should say; and all there is to show for it, so far as I could discover, is a sectional drawing of a bit of the mesoblastic layer of one of the eggs!

Of course, Agassiz wanted to make that mesoblastic drawing, or some other equally important drawing, and had to have the fresh turtle egg to draw it from. He had to have it, and he got it. A great man, when he wants a certain turtle egg, at a certain time, always gets it, for he gets someone else to get it. I am glad he got it. But what makes me sad and impatient is that he did not think it worth while to tell about the getting of it, and so made merely a learned turtle book of what might have been an exceedingly interesting human book.

It would seem, naturally, that there could be nothing unusual or interesting about the getting of turtle eggs when you want them. Nothing at all, if you should chance to want the eggs as you chance to find them. So with anything else — good copper stock, for instance, if you should chance to want it, and should chance to be along when they chance to be giving it away. But if you want copper stock, say of C & H quality, when you want it, and are bound to have it, then you must command more than a college professor’s salary. And likewise, precisely, when it is turtle eggs that you are bound to have.

Agassiz wanted those turtle eggs when he wanted them — not a minute over three hours from the minute they were laid. Yet even that does not seem exacting, hardly more difficult than the getting of hen eggs only three hours old. Just so, provided the professor could have had his private turtle coop in Harvard Yard; and provided he could have made his turtles lay. But turtles will not respond, like hens, to meat scraps and the warm mash. The professor’s problem was not to get from a mud turtle’s nest in the back yard to the table in the laboratory; but to get from the laboratory in Cambridge to some pond when the turtles were laying, and back to the laboratory within the limited time. And this, in the days of Darius Green, might have called for nice and discriminating work — as it did.

Agassiz had been engaged for a long time upon his Contributions. He had brought the great work nearly to a finish. It was, indeed, finished but for one small yet very important bit of observation: he had carried the turtle egg through every stage of its development with the single exception of one — the very earliest — that stage of first cleavages, when the cell begins to segment, immediately upon its being laid. That beginning stage had brought the Contributions to a halt. To get eggs that were fresh enough to show the incubation at this period had been impossible.

There were several ways that Agassiz might have proceeded: he might have got a leave of absence for the spring term, taken his laboratory to some pond inhabited by turtles, and there camped until he should catch the reptile digging out her nest. But there were difficulties in all of that — as those who are college professors and naturalists know. As this was quite out of the question, he did the easiest thing — asked Mr. Jenks of Middleboro’ to get him the eggs. Mr. Jenks got them. Agassiz knew all about his getting of them; and I say the strange and irritating thing is that Agassiz did not think it worth while to tell us about it, at least in the preface to his monumental work.

It was many years later that Mr. Jenks, then a gray-haired college professor, told me how he got those eggs to Agassiz.

‘I was principal of an academy, during my younger years,’ he began, ‘and was busy one day with my classes, when a large man suddenly filled the doorway of the room, smiled to the four corners of the room, and called out with a big, quick voice that he was Professor Agassiz.

‘Of course he was. I knew it, even before he had had time to shout it to me across the room.

‘Would I get him some turtle eggs? he called. Yes, I would. And would I get them to Cambridge within three hours from the time they were laid? Yes, I would. And I did. And it was worth the doing. But I did it only once.

‘When I promised Agassiz those eggs I knew where I was going to get them. I had got turtle eggs there before — at a particular patch of sandy shore along a pond, a few miles distant from the academy.

‘Three hours was the limit. From the railroad station to Boston was thirty-five miles; from the pond to the station was perhaps three or four miles; from Boston to Cambridge we called about three miles. Forty miles in round numbers! We figured it all out before he returned, and got the trip down to two hours — record time: driving from the pond to the station; from the station by express train to Boston; from Boston by cab to Cambridge. This left an easy hour for accidents and delays.

‘Cab and car and carriage we reckoned into our time-table; but what we did n’t figure on was the turtle.’ And he paused abruptly.

‘Young man,’ he went on, his shaggy brows and spectacles hardly hiding the twinkle in the eyes that were bent severely upon me, ‘young man, when you go after turtle eggs, take into account the turtle. No! no! That’s bad advice. Youth never reckons on the turtle — and youth seldom ought to. Only old age does that; and old age would never have got those turtle eggs to Agassiz.

‘It was in the early spring that Agassiz came to the academy, long before there was any likelihood of the turtles laying. But I was eager for the quest, and so fearful of failure that I started out to watch at the pond fully two weeks ahead of the time that the turtles might be expected to lay. I remember the date clearly: it was May 14.

‘A little before dawn — along near three o’clock — I would drive over to the pond, hitch my horse near by, settle myself quietly among some thick cedars close to the sandy shore, and there I would wait, my kettle of sand ready, my eye covering the whole sleeping pond. Here among the cedars I would eat my breakfast, and then get back in good season to open the academy for the morning session.

‘And so the watch began.

‘I soon came to know individually the dozen or more turtles that kept to my side of the pond. Shortly after the cold mist would lift and melt away they would stick up their heads through the quiet water; and as the sun slanted down over the ragged rim of tree tops the slow things would float into the warm, lighted spots, or crawl out and doze comfortably on the hummocks and snags.

‘What fragrant mornings those were! How fresh and new and unbreathed! The pond odors, the woods odors, the odors of the ploughed fields — of water lily, and wild grape, and the dew-laid soil! I can taste them yet, and hear them yet — the still, large sounds of the waking day — the pickerel breaking the quiet with his swirl; the kingfisher dropping anchor; the stir of feet and wings among the trees. And then the thought of the great book being held up for me! Those were rare mornings!

‘But there began to be a good many of them, for the turtles showed no desire to lay. They sprawled in the sun, and never one came out upon the sand as if she intended to help on the great professor’s book. The embryology of her eggs was of small concern to her; her contribution to the Natural History of the United States could wait.

‘And it did wait. I began my watch on the fourteenth of May; June first found me still among the cedars, still waiting, as I had waited every morning, Sundays and rainy days alike. June first was a perfect morning, but every turtle slid out upon her log, as if egg laying might be a matter strictly of next year.

‘I began to grow uneasy — not impatient yet, for a naturalist learns his lesson of patience early, and for all his years; but I began to fear lest, by some subtile sense, my presence might somehow be known to the creatures; that they might have gone to some other place to lay, while I was away at the schoolroom.

‘I watched on to the end of the first week, on to the end of the second week in June, seeing the mists rise and vanish every morning, and along with them vanish, more and more, the poetry of my early morning vigil. Poetry and rheumatism cannot long dwell together in the same clump of cedars, and I had begun to feel the rheumatism. A month of morning mists wrapping me around had at last soaked through to my bones. But Agassiz was waiting, and the world was waiting, for those turtle eggs; and I would wait. It was all I could do, for there is no use bringing a china nest egg to a turtle; she is not open to any such delicate suggestion.

‘Then came a mid-June Sunday morning, with dawn breaking a little after three: a warm, wide-awake dawn, with the level mist lifted from the level surface of the pond a full hour higher than I had seen it any morning before.

‘This was the day: I knew it I have heard persons say that they can hear the grass grow; that they know by some extra sense when danger is nigh. That we have these extra senses I fully believe, and I believe they can be sharpened by cultivation. For a month I had been watching, brooding over this pond, and now I knew. I felt a stirring of the pulse of things that the coldhearted turtles could no more escape than could the clods and I.

‘Leaving my horse unhitched, as if he too understood, I slipped eagerly into my covert for a look at the pond. As I did so, a large pickerel ploughed a furrow out through the spatter-docks, and in his wake rose the head of an enormous turtle. Swinging slowly around, the creature headed straight for the shore, and without a pause scrambled out on the sand.

‘She was about the size of a big scoop shovel; but that was not what excited me, so much as her manner, and the gait at which she moved; for there was method in it, and fixed purpose. On she came, shuffling over the sand toward the higher open fields, with a hurried, determined seesaw that was taking her somewhere in particular, and that was bound to get her there on time.

‘I held my breath. Had she been a dinosaurian making Mesozoic footprints, I could not have been more fearful. For footprints in the Mesozoic mud, or in the sands of time, were as nothing to me when compared with fresh turtle eggs in the sands of this pond.

‘But over the strip of sand, without a stop, she paddled, and up a narrow cow path into the high grass along a fence. Then up the narrow cow path, on all fours, just like another turtle, I paddled, and into the high wet grass along the fence.

‘I kept well within sound of her, for she moved recklessly, leaving a trail of flattened grass a foot and a half wide. I wanted to stand up, — and I don’t believe I could have turned her back with a rail, — but I was afraid if she saw me that she might return indefinitely to the pond; so on I went, flat to the ground, squeezing through the lower rails of the fence, as if the field beyond were a melon patch. It was nothing of the kind, only a wild, uncomfortable pasture, full of dewberry vines, and very discouraging. They were excessively wet vines and briery. I pulled my coat sleeves as far over my fists as I could get them, and, with the tin pail of sand swinging from between my teeth to avoid noise, I stumped fiercely, but silently, on after the turtle.

‘She was laying her course, I thought, straight down the length of this dreadful pasture, when, not far from the fence, she suddenly hove to, warped herself short about, and came back, barely clearing me, at a clip that was thrilling. I warped about, too, and in her wake bore down across the corner of the pasture, across the powdery public road, and on to a fence along a field of young corn.

‘I was somewhat wet by this time, but not so wet as I had been before, wallowing through the deep dry dust of the road. Hurrying up behind a large tree by the fence, I peered down the corn rows and saw the turtle stop, and begin to paw about in the loose soft soil. She was going to lay!

‘I held on to the tree and watched, as she tried this place, and that place, and the other place — the eternally feminine! But the place, evidently, was hard to find. What could a female turtle do with a whole field of possible nests to choose from? Then at last she found it, and, whirling about, she backed quickly at it, and, tail first, began to bury herself before my staring eyes.

‘Those were not the supreme moments of my life; perhaps those moments came later that day; but those certainly were among the slowest, most dreadfully mixed of moments that I ever experienced. They were hours long. There she was, her shell just showing, like some old hulk in the sand alongshore. And how long would she stay there? And how should I know if she had laid an egg?

‘ I could still wait. And so I waited, when, over the freshly awakened fields, floated four mellow strokes from the distant town clock.

‘Four o’clock! Why, there was no train until seven! No train for three hours! The eggs would spoil! Then with a rush it came over me that this was Sunday morning, and there was no regular seven o’clock train — none till after nine.

‘I think I should have fainted had not the turtle just then begun crawling off. I was weak and dizzy; but there, there in the sand, were the eggs! And Agassiz! And the great book! And I cleared the fence, and the forty miles that lay between me and Cambridge, at a single jump. He should have them, trains or no. Those eggs should go to Agassiz by seven o’clock, if I had to gallop every mile of the way. Forty miles! Any horse could cover it in three hours, if he had to; and, upsetting the astonished turtle, I scooped out her round white eggs.

‘On a bed of sand in the bottom of the pail I laid them, with what care my trembling fingers allowed; filled in between them with more sand; so with another layer to the rim; and, covering all smoothly with more sand, I ran back for my horse.

‘That horse knew, as well as I, that the turtles had laid, and that he was to get those eggs to Agassiz. He turned out of that field into the road on two wheels, a thing he had not done for twenty years, doubling me up before the dashboard, the pail of eggs miraculously lodged between my knees.

‘I let him out. If only he could keep this pace all the way to Cambridge! Or even halfway there; and I should have time to finish the trip on foot. I shouted him on, holding to the dasher with one hand, the pail of eggs with the other, not daring to get off my knees, though the bang on them, as we pounded down the wood road, was terrific. But nothing must happen to the eggs; they must not be jarred, or even turned over in the sand before they came to Agassiz.

‘In order to get out on the pike it was necessary to drive back away from Boston toward the town. We had nearly covered the distance, and were rounding a turn from the woods into the open fields, when, ahead of me, at the station it seemed, I heard the quick sharp whistle of a locomotive.

‘What did it mean? Then followed the puff, puff, puff of a starting train. But what train? Which way going? And, jumping to my feet for a longer view, I pulled into a side road that paralleled the track, and headed hard for the station.

‘We reeled along. The station was still out of sight, but from behind the bushes that shut it from view rose the smoke of a moving engine. It was perhaps a mile away, but we were approaching, head-on, and, topping a little hill, I swept down upon a freight train, the black smoke pouring from the stack, as the mighty creature pulled itself together for its swift run down the rails.

‘My horse was on the gallop, going with the track, and straight toward the coming train. The sight of it almost maddened me — the bare thought of it, on the road to Boston! On I went; on it came, a half — a quarter of a mile between us, when suddenly my road shot out along an unfenced field with only a level stretch of sod between me and the engine.

‘With a pull that lifted the horse from his feet, I swung him into the field and sent him straight as an arrow for the track. That train should carry me and my eggs to Boston!

’The engineer pulled the rope. He saw me standing up in the rig, saw my hat blow off, saw me wave my arms, saw the tin pail swing in my teeth, and he jerked out a succession of sharp halts! But it was he who should halt, not I; and on we went, the horse with a flounder landing the carriage on top of the track.

‘The train was already grinding to a stop; but before it was near a standstill I had backed off the track, jumped out, and, running down the rails with the astonished engineers gaping at me, had swung aboard the cab.

‘They offered no resistance; they had n’t had time. Nor did they have the disposition, for I looked strange, not to say dangerous. Hatless, dewsoaked, smeared with yellow mud, and holding, as if it were a baby or a bomb, a little tin pail of sand.

‘“Crazy,” the fireman muttered, looking to the engineer for his cue.

‘I had been crazy, perhaps, but I was not crazy now.

“‘Throw her wide open,” I commanded. “Wide open! These are fresh turtle eggs for Professor Agassiz of Cambridge. He must have them before breakfast.”

‘Then they knew I was crazy, and, evidently thinking it best to humor me, threw the throttle wide open, and away we went.

‘I kissed my hand to the horse, grazing unconcernedly in the open field, and gave a smile to my crew. That was all I could give them, and hold myself and the eggs together. But the smile was enough. And they smiled through their smut at me, though one of them held fast to his shovel, while the other kept his hand upon a big ugly wrench. Neither of them spoke to me, but above the roar of the swaying engine I caught enough of their broken talk to understand that they were driving under a full head of steam, with the intention of handing me over to the Boston police, as perhaps the easiest way of disposing of me.

‘I was only afraid that they would try it at the next station. But that station whizzed past without a bit of slack, and the next, and the next; when it came over me that this was the through freight, which should have passed in the night, and was making up lost time.

‘Only the fear of the shovel and the wrench kept me from shaking hands with both men at this discovery. But I beamed at them; and they at me. I was enjoying it. The unwonted jar beneath my feet was wrinkling my diaphragm with spasms of delight. And the fireman beamed at the engineer, with a look that said, “ See the lunatic grin; he likes it!”

‘He did like it. How the iron wheels sang to me as they took the rails! How the rushing wind in my ears sang to me! From my stand on the fireman’s side of the cab I could catch a glimpse of the track just ahead of the engine, where the ties seemed to leap into the throat of the mile-devouring monster. The joy of it! Of seeing space swallowed by the mile!

‘I shifted the eggs from hand to hand and thought of my horse, of Agassiz, of the great book, of my great luck, — luck, — luck, — until the multitudinous tongues of the thundering train were all chiming “luck! luck! luck!” They knew! They understood! This beast of fire and tireless wheels was doing its very best to get the eggs to Agassiz!

‘We swung out past the Blue Hills, and yonder flashed the morning sun from the towering dome of the State House. I might have leaped from the cab and run the rest of the way on foot, had I not caught the eye of the engineer watching me narrowly. I was not in Boston yet, nor in Cambridge either. I was an escaped lunatic, who had held up a train, and forced it to carry me to Boston.

‘Perhaps I had overdone the lunacy business. Suppose these two men should take it into their heads to turn me over to the police, whether I would or no? I could never explain the case in time to get the eggs to Agassiz. I looked at my watch. There were still a few minutes left, in which I might explain to these men, who, all at once, had become my captors. I3ut it was too late. Nothing could avail against my actions, my appearance, and my little pail of sand.

‘ I had not thought of my appearance before. Here I was, face and clothes caked with yellow mud, my hair wild and matted, my hat gone, and in my full-grown hands a tiny tin pail of sand, as if I had been digging all night with a tiny tin shovel on the shore! And thus to appear in the decent streets of Boston of a Sunday morning!

‘I began to feel like a hunted criminal. The situation was serious, or might be, and rather desperately funny at its best. I must in some way have shown my new fears, for both men watched me more sharply.

‘Suddenly, as we were nearing the outer freight yard, the train slowed down and came to a stop. I was ready to jump, but I had no chance. They had nothing to do, apparently, but to guard me. I looked at my watch again. What time we had made! It was only six o’clock, with a whole hour to get to Cambridge.

‘But I did n’t like this delay. Five minutes — ten — went by.

‘“Gentlemen,” I began, but was cut short by an express train coming past. We were moving again, on — into a siding; on — on to the main track; and on with a bump and a crash and a succession of crashes, running the length of the train; on at a turtle’s pace, but on, when the fireman, quickly jumping for the bell rope, left the way to the step free, and — the chance had come!

‘I never touched the step, but landed in the soft sand at the side of the track, and made a line for the yard fence.

‘There was no hue or cry. I glanced over my shoulder to see if they were after me. Evidently their hands were full, and they did n’t know I had gone.

‘But I had gone; and was ready to drop over the high board fence, when it occurred to me that I might drop into a policeman’s arms. Hanging my pail in a splint on top of a post, I peered cautiously over — a very wise thing to do before you jump a high board fence. There, crossing the open square toward the station, was a big, burly fellow with a club — looking for me.

‘I flattened for a moment, when someone in the yard yelled at me. I preferred the policeman, and, grabbing my pail, I slid over to the street. The policeman moved on past the corner of the station out of sight. The square was free, and yonder stood a cab!

‘Time was flying now. Here was the last lap. The cabman saw me coming, and squared away. I waved a paper dollar at him, but he only stared the more. A dollar can cover a good deal, but I was too much for one dollar. I pulled out another, thrust them both at him, and dodged into the cab, calling, “Cambridge!”

‘He would have taken me straight to the police station had I not said, “Harvard College. Professor Agassiz’s house! I’ve got eggs for Agassiz”; and pushed another dollar up at him through the hole.

‘It was nearly half past six.

‘“Let him go!” I ordered. “Here’s another dollar if you make Agassiz’s house in twenty minutes. Let him out; never mind the police!”

‘He evidently knew the police, or there were none around at that time on a Sunday morning. We went down the sleeping streets as I had gone down the wood roads from the pond two hours before, but with the rattle and crash now of a fire brigade. Whirling a corner into Cambridge Street, we took the bridge at a gallop, the driver shouting out something in Hibernian to a pair of waving arms and a bolt and brass buttons.

‘Across the bridge with a rattle and jolt that put the eggs in jeopardy, and on over the cobblestones, we went. Half standing, to lessen the jar, I held the pail in one hand and held myself in the other, not daring to let go even to look at my watch.

‘But I was afraid to look at the watch. I was afraid to see how near to seven o’clock it might be. The sweat was dropping from my nose, so close was I running to the limit of my time.

‘Suddenly there was a lurch, and I dived forward, ramming my head into the front of the cab, coming up with a rebound that landed me across the small of my back on the seat, and sent half of my pail of eggs helter-skelter over the floor.

‘We had stopped. Here was Agassiz’s house; and without taking time to pick up the scattered eggs I tumbled out, and pounded at the door.

‘No one was astir in the house. But I would stir them. And I did. Right in the midst of the racket the door opened. It was the maid.

‘“Agassiz,” I gasped, “I want Professor Agassiz, quick!” And I pushed by her into the hall.

“‘Go ’way, sir. I’ll call the police. Professor Agassiz is in bed. Go ’way, sir!”

‘ “ Call him — Agassiz — instantly, or I’ll call him myself.”

‘But I did n’t; for just then a door overhead was flung open, a great whiterobed figure appeared on the dim landing above, and a quick loud voice called excitedly: —

“‘Let him in! Let him in! I know him. He has my turtle eggs! ”

‘And the apparition, slipperless, and clad in anything but an academic gown, came sailing down the stairs.

‘The maid fled. The great man, his arms extended, laid hold of me with both hands, and, dragging me and my precious pail into his study, with a swift, clean stroke laid open one of the eggs, as the watch in my trembling hands ticked its way to seven — as if nothing unusual were happening to the history of the world.’

‘You were in time, then?’ I said.

‘To the tick. There stands my copy of the great book. I am proud of the humble part I had in it.’