Anna Tambour presents 


 

The virtuous medlar circle
thoroughly bletted
 
a classic to enjoy rather than think you should have read
Martha, Jane, and Babette
a true story
from
A Farmer's Year
 
by H. Rider Haggard

 

 

August 6, 1898. In a greenhouse in this garden I have two tame toads, named Martha and Jane respectively. Also there is a tiny one called Babette, but she can hardly be counted, as she is so small and seldom on view. (Martha, there is reason to fear, has recently eaten Babette.)

These toads are strange and interesting creatures, differing much from each other in appearance and character. Martha is stout and dark-coloured, a bold-natured toad of friendly habit; Jane, on the other hand, is pale and thin, with a depressed air which suggests resignation born of long experience of circumstances over which she has no control. Some of this depression may be due to the fact that once, entering the greenhouse in the twilight, I trod upon her accidentally, a shock from which she seems never to have recovered, although, owing to the adaptive powers of toads, beyond a slight flattening she took no physical harm from an adventure which must have been painful. Indeed, I am not sure that of the two of us I did not suffer most, for I know of few things more upsetting than the feel of a fat toad beneath one's foot. Anyhow, since that day Jane has looked reproachful and never quite trusted me.

These toads I feed with lobworms, or sometimes with woodlice and centipedes taken from traps made of hollowed-out potatoes, which are set among the flowerpots to attract such creatures. In the latter case the insects must be thrown before the toad, which never seems to see them until they begin to run, although, its ears being quite thick, it can sometimes hear them as they move along the floor behind it.

When a toad catches sight of an insect its attitude of profound repose changes to one of extraordinary and alarming animation. Its swivel eyes seem to project and fix themselves upon the doomed creature off which it is about to lunch; its throat begins to palpitate with violence, and its general air betrays intense and concentrated interest. Presently, from contemplation it proceeds to action. By slow but purposeful movements of its crooked limbs it advances; pauses, and advances again, till at length it reaches a position which it considers convenient. Then, just as the centipede gains a sheltering pebble, a long pink flash seems to proceed from the head of the toad. That is the tongue. Another instant and the pink thing has twisted itself round the insect and retired into the capacious mouth, and there, once more wrapped in deep peace and rest, sits the toad, its eyes turned in pious thankfulness to heaven, or, rather, to the roof of the greenhouse. The other day even I saw Martha take a woodlouse off her own head. Mistaking the nature of its foothold the insect had been so unfortunate as to run up her back, till, becoming aware of the tickling of its little feet, Martha guessed the unusual situation and acted on it with all the decision of the great.

If the observer wishes to see what my old head gardener calls 'the beauty of the thing,' woodlice and centipedes undoubtedly provide the best show; but for real grim earnest, for a perfect microcosm of the struggle for existence in which somebody has to go down, the spectacle of Martha meeting with a selected lobworm is to be recommended. In this instance she sees the thing at once, for it is long, active, and shiny (toads will not touch anything that is dead), and instantly clears for action. Creeping forward with a dreadful deliberation, she arches her neck over the worm, considering it with her beady eye. Then, as it begins to take refuge beneath the shingle for worms seem to understand that toads are no friends to them Martha pounces and grips it by the middle. Next comes a long strain, like that of a thrush dragging at a branding in the garden, and after the strain, the struggle.

Heavens! what a fight it is! Magnify the size of the combatants by five hundred, and no man would dare to stay to look at it. The worm writhes and rolls; Martha, seated on her bulging haunches, beats its extremities with her front paws cramming, pushing, gulping, and lo! gradually the worm seems to shorten. Shorter it grows, and shorter yet. It is vanishing into Martha's inside. And now nothing is left but a little pink tip projecting from the corner of her mouth, in appearance not unlike that of a lighted cigarette.

The tip vanishes, and you think that the tragedy is overii. But no; presently there is a convulsion, followed by a resurrection as frantic as it is futile. Again the war is waged this time more feebly, and soon, once more shrouded in holy calm as in a garment, Martha sits smiling at the roof of the greenhouse, reflecting probably upon worms that she swallowed years before anybody now living was born. But as a matter of curiosity one would like to know what is happening inside of her. Clearly her digestive fluids must be of the best.

I imagine that toads live a great while at least that is the impression among country people. Old men will declare even that they have known a certain toad all their lives; but this proves nothing, for some descendant may so exactly resemble its ancestor as to deceive the most careful observer.


During the winter of 1898 Martha and Jane vanished and were no more seen. In February 1899, however, they reappeared from their hiding places beneath the hot-water pipes and would sit for hours with their noses glued to the zinc screens of the ventilators, and even against the cracks of the doors, desiring doubtless now that the year had turned towards spring to escape into the open to spawn. Clearly lobworms and woodlice artificially supplied no longer consoled them for captivity. At length I took pity upon the poor things, and on a certain mild damp day let them go. Off they waddled in haste, heading for the rose border, the bold Martha leading the way and the pallid Jane with backbone painfully distinct following humbly at a distance. When I searched for them half an hour later they had departed, probably beneath the soil. Let us hope that in generations to be the recollection of their imprisonment in that shining mysterious place where towering creatures provided them with worms in bewildering abundance will come to be regarded by them as a pleasant episode in a somewhat monotonous career.

The further Manoeuvres of Jane
June 2, 1899
A marvel has come to pass Jane has returned to captivity, plumper and in better condition than she left it four months ago, but without doubt the same pallid, patient, gentle-natured Jane. It happened thus. This very morning, going to the door of the cool glasshouse, which is devoted to hardy cypripediums and other moisture-loving plants, I found sitting on the stone sill and staring hard at the cracks of the door none other than dear Jane. Guessing her wishes I opened it, and in she waddled, turned to the right as usual, and at once established herself amongst the wet shingle. Now what can have brought this creature back in so strange a fashion? My own belief is that the sudden change of the weather from unseasonable cold to summer heat has caused it to remember with pleasure the damp shaded greenhouse with its abounding worms, and to seek shelter there. But this presupposes memory, for instinct would not bring a creature back to a conservatory. And if toads have active memory of such sort? but the problem is too deep for me. At any rate there is Jane all have recognised her pale complexion, her widowed air. I am proud to add also that the sympathy between us, which I thought gone, is quite restored, for now Jane allows me to stroke her speckly head, and puffs herself out with pleasure at the touch of kindness which makes us kin. Her appetite, too, is excellent; she has just breakfasted off three woodlice (one large), two centipedes, and half a worm and yet almost do I wish that I could persuade Jane to become a vegetarian. Another strange occurrence; a second half-grown toad has appeared in the same greenhouse, a weird, wild, fear-haunted creature, that won't sit still. Can this be Babette the lost Babette, whose fate was hid in mystery Babette whom we thought anthro- or Bufopophagically absorbed escaped and adolescent?  Who knows?  But the bold Martha where is She?
 
 






The virtuous medlar circle

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"Martha, Jane, and Babette" is an excerpt from A Farmer's Year by H. Rider Haggard, published as a serial in Longman's Magazine, 1898-9, first published in book form 1899
This is one of my favourite passages in any book, but A Farmer's Year is also one of my favourite books.
This excerpt is the first of of my "classic to enjoy, rather than think you should have read" series.
The Virtuous Medlar Circle contains pieces by people I find deliciously inspiring, always a hoot, and who write like a bletted medlar tastes. A.T.
The Virtuous Medlar Circle 2004 - 2006