Classic Story: The Tortoise

The Tortoise
 A classic tale of terror by 

William Fryer Harvey

One word as to the documentary part of my story.

The letter was written by Tollerton, the butler, five weeks before his death. Sandys, to whom he addressed it, was, I believe, his brother; in any case the man was not known at Revelstoke Mansions, and the letter came back to Baldby Manor unopened.

I read it twice before it dawned upon me that the man was writing of himself. I then remembered the diary which, with the rest of his belongings, had never been claimed. Each partly explains the other. Nothing to my mind will ever explain the tortoise.

Here is the letter—

"Baldby Manor.

"My Dear Tom.—You asked in your last for particulars. I suppose, as the originator of the story, I am the only person able to supply them, but the task is rather hard. First as to the safety of the hero. You need not be alarmed about that; my stories have always ended happily.

"You wonder how it all came about so successfully. Let me give you the general hang of the plot. To begin with, the man was old, a miser, and consequently eccentric. The villain of the piece (the same in this case as the hero, you know) wanted money badly, and moreover knew where the money was kept.

"Do you remember Oppenheim's Forensic Medicine, and how we used to laugh over the way they always bungled these jobs? There was no bungling here, and consequently no use for the luck that attended the hero. (I still think of him as hero, you see; each man is a hero to himself.)

"The victim occasionally saw the doctor, and the doctor knew that the old fellow was suffering from a disease which might end suddenly. The hero knew what the graver symptoms of the disease were, and with diabolical cunning told the doctor's coachman how his master had begun to complain, but refused to see any medical man. Three days later that 'intelligent old butler—I rather think he must have come down in the world, poor fellow'—is stopped in the village street by Æsculapius.

"'How is your master, John?' 'Very bad, sir.' Then follows an accurate account of signs and symptoms, carefully cribbed up from old Banks's Handbook. Æsculapius is alarmed at the gravity of the case, but delighted at the accuracy of the observations. The butler suggests that an unofficial visit should be paid on the morrow; he complains of the responsibility. Æsculapius replies that he was about to suggest the very same thing himself. 'I fear I can do little,' he adds as he drives away.

"The old man sleeps soundly at night. The butler goes his usual round at twelve, and enters his master's room to make up the fire, and then—well, after all the rest can be imagined. De Quincey himself would have approved of the tooling, cotton-wool wrapped in a silk handkerchief. There was no subsequent bleeding, no fracture of the hyoid or thyroid, and this because the operator remembered that aphorism in Oppenheim, that murderers use unnecessary violence. Only gold is taken, and only a relatively small quantity. I have invented another aphorism: The temperate man is never caught.

"Next day the butler enters the bedroom with his master's breakfast. The tray drops to the floor with a crash, he tugs frantically at the bell-rope, and the servants rush into the room. The groom is sent off post haste for help. The doctor comes, shakes his head, and says, 'I told you so; I always feared the end would be this!'

"Even if there had been an inquest, nothing would have been discovered. The only thing at all suspicious was a slight hemorrhage into the right conjunctiva, and that would be at best a very doubtful sign.

"The butler stays on; he is re-engaged by the new occupier, a half-pay captain, who has the sincerity not to bemoan his cousin's death.

"And here comes a little touch of tragedy. When the will is read, a sum of two hundred pounds is left to John the butler, as 'some slight reward for faithful service rendered.' Question for debate: 'Would a knowledge of the will have induced a different course of action?' It is difficult to decide. The man was seventy-seven and almost in his dotage, and, as you say, the option of taking up those copper shares is not a thing to be lightly laid aside.

"It's not a bad story, is it? But I am surprised at your wanting to hear more than I told you at first. One of the captain's friends—I have forgotten his name—met you last winter in Nice; he described you as 'respectability embalmed.' We hear all these things in the servants' hall. That I got from the parlour maid, who was uncertain of the meaning of the phrase. Well, so long. I shall probably chuck this job at the end of the year.

"P.S.—Invest anything that is over in Arbutos Rubbers. They are somewhere about 67 at present, but from a straight tip I overheard in the smoke-room, they are bound to rise."

That is the letter. What follows are extracts from Tollerton's diary.

"Kingsett came in this morning with a large tortoise they had found in the kitchen-garden. I suppose it is one of the half-dozen Sir James let loose a few years ago. The gardeners are always turning them out, like the ploughshares did the skulls in that rotten poem we used to learn at school about the battle of Blenheim. This one I haven't seen before. He's much bigger than the others, a magnificent specimen of Chelonia what's-its-name.

"They brought it into the conservatory and gave it some milk, but the beast was not thirsty. It crawled to the back of the hot-water pipes, and there it will remain until the children come back from their aunt's. They are rather jolly little specimens, and like me are fond of animals.


"The warmth must have aroused the tortoise from its lethargy, for this morning I found it waddling across the floor of the hall. I took it with me into my pantry; it can sleep very well with the cockroaches in the bottom cupboard. I rather think tortoises are vegetable feeders, but I must look the matter up.


"There is something fascinating in a tortoise. This one reminds one of a cat in a kennel. Its neck muscles are wonderfully active, especially the ones that withdraw the head. There is something quite feline in the eyes—wise eyes, unlike a dog's in never for a moment betraying the purpose of the brain behind them.


"The temperature of the pantry is exactly suited to the tortoise. He keeps awake and entertains me vastly, but has apparently no wish to try the draughty passages again. A cat in a kennel is a bad simile; he is more like a god in a shrine. The shrine is old, roofed with a great ivory dome. Only occasionally do the faithful see the dweller in the shrine, and then nothing but two eyes, all-seeing and all-knowing. The tortoise should have been worshipped by the Egyptians.


"I still hear nothing from Tom; he ought to have replied by now. But he is one of those rare men whom one can trust implicitly. I often think of the events of the past two months, not at night, for I let nothing interfere with that excellent habit of sleeping within ten minutes from the time my head has touched the pillow, but in the daytime when my hands are busy over their work.

"I do not regret what I have done, though the two hundred would weigh on my mind if I allowed it to do so. I am thankful to say I bore my late master no ill-will. I never annoyed him; he always treated me civilly. If there had been spite or malice on my side I should never have acted as I did, for death would only have removed him beyond my reach. I have found out by bitter experience that by fostering malice one forfeits that peaceable equanimity which to my mind is the crown of life, besides dwarfing one's nature. As it is, I can look back with content to the years we have spent together, and if in some future existence we should meet again, I, for my part, shall bear no grudge.

"Tortoises do not eat cockroaches. Mine has been shut up in a box for the last half-hour with three of the largest I can find. They are still undevoured.


"Some day I shall write an essay upon tortoises, or has the thing been already botched by someone else? I should lead off with that excellent anecdote of Sydney Smith's. A child, if I remember, was found by that true-hearted divine stroking the back of a tortoise. 'My dear,' he said, 'you might as well stroke the dome of St. Paul's in order to propitiate the Dean and Chapter.' Tortoises are not animals to be fondled. They have too much dignity, they are far too aloof to be turned aside from their purpose by any of our passing whims.


"The pantry has grown too warm, and the tortoise has taken to perambulating the passages, returning always at night to the cupboard. He seems to have been tacitly adopted as an indoor fixture, and what is more, he has been named. I named him. The subject cropped up at lunchtime. The captain suggested 'Percy' because he was so 'Shelley,' a poor sort of joke with which to honour the illustrious dead, but one which of course found favour with a table full of limerick makers. There followed a host of inappropriate suggestions. I am the last person to deny the right of an animal to a name, but there is invariably one name, and one name only, that is suitable. The guests seemed to think as I did, for all agreed that there was some one of whom the beast was the very image, not the vicar, not Dr. Baddely, not even Mrs. Gilchrist of the Crown. As they talked, I happened to notice an enlargement of an old portrait of Sir James, which had just come back from being framed. It showed him seated in his bath-chair, the hood of which was drawn down. He was wrapped up in his great sealskin cape; his sealskin cap was on his head, with the flaps drawn close over his ears. His long, scraggy neck, covered with shrivelled skin, was bent forward, and his eyes shone dark and penetrating. He had not a vestige of eyebrow to shade their brilliance. The captain laughingly turned to me to end their dispute. The old man's name was on my lips. As it was, I stuttered out 'Jim,' and so Jim he is in the dining-room. He will never be anything else than Sir James in the butler's pantry.

"Tortoises do not drink milk; or, to avoid arguing from the particular to the general, Sir James does not drink milk, or indeed anything at all. If it were not so irreverent I should dearly like to try him with some of our old port.


"The children have come back. The house is full of their laughter. Sir James, of course, was a favourite at once. They take him with them everywhere, in spite of his appalling weight. If I would let them they would be only too glad to keep him upstairs in the dolls'-house: as it is, the tortoise is in the nursery half the day, unless he is being induced to beat his own record from the night-nursery door to the end of the passage.

"I still have no news of Tom. I have made up my mind to give notice next month; I well deserve a holiday.

"Oh, I must not forget. Sir James does, as I thought, take port. One of the gentlemen drank too deep last night; I think it must have been the Admiral. Anyhow there was quite a pool of dark liquid on the floor that exactly suited my purpose. I brought Sir James in. He lapped it up in a manner that seemed to me uncanny. It is the first time I ever used that word, which, till now, has never conveyed any meaning to my mind. I must try him some day with hot rum and water.


"I was almost forgetting the fable of the hare and the tortoise. That must certainly figure in my essay; for the steady plod plod of Sir James as he follows one (I have taught him to do that) would be almost pathetic if one did not remember that perseverance can never be pathetic, since perseverance means ultimate success. He reminds me of those old lines, I forget whose they are, but I think they must be Elizabethan—

'Some think to lose him
By having him confined;
And some do suppose him,
Poor heart, to be blind;
But if ne'er so close ye wall him,
Do the best that ye may,
Blind love, if so ye call him,
He will find out his way.

'There is no striving
To cross his intent;
There is no contriving
His plots to prevent;
But if once the message greet him
That his True Love doth stay,
If Death should come and meet him
Love will find out the way.'

"I have given notice. The captain was exceedingly kind. Kindness and considerate treatment to servants seem to belong to the family. He said that he was more than sorry to lose me, but quite understood my wish to settle down. He asked me if there was any favour he could do me. I told him yes, I should like to take 'Jim' with me. He seemed amused, but raised no objection, but I can imagine the stormy scenes in the nursery.

"Mem. important.—There is a broken rail in the balustrade on the top landing overlooking the hall. The captain has twice asked me to see to it, as he is afraid one of the children might slip through. Only the bottom part of the rail is broken, and there should be no fear of any accidents. I cannot think how with a good memory like mine I have forgotten to see to this."

These are the only extracts from Tollerton's diary that have a bearing upon what followed. They are sufficient to show his extraordinary character, his strong imagination, and his stronger self-control.

I, the negligible half-pay captain of his story, little dreamed what sort of a man had served me so well as butler; but strange as his life had been, his death was stranger.

The hall at Baldby Manor is exceedingly lofty, extending the full height of the three-storied house. It is surrounded by three landings; from the uppermost a passage leads to the nursery. The day after the last entry in the diary I was crossing the hall on my way to the study, when I noticed the gap in the banisters. I could hear distinctly the children's voices as they played in the corridor. Doubly annoyed at Tollerton's carelessness (he was usually the promptest and most methodical of servants), I rang the bell. I could see at once that he was vexed at his own forgetfulness. "I made a note of it only last night," he said. Then as we looked upward a curious smile stole across his lips. "Do you see that?" he said, and pointed to the gap above. His sight was keener than mine, but I saw at last the thing that attracted his gaze—the two black eyes of the tortoise, the withered head, the long, protruded neck stretched out from the gap in the rail. "You'll excuse a liberty, sir, I hope, from an old servant, but don't you see the extraordinary resemblance between the tortoise and the old master? He's the very image of Sir James. Look at the portrait behind you." Half instinctively I turned. I must have passed the picture scores of times in the course of a day, I must have seen it in sunlight and lamplight, from every point of view; it was a clever picture, well painted, if the subject was not exactly a pleasing one, but that was all.

Yes, I knew at once what the butler meant. It was the eyes—no, the neck—that caused the resemblance, or was it both? together with the half-open mouth with its absence of teeth.

I had been used to think of the smile as having something akin to benevolence about it; time had seemed to be sweetening a nature once sour. Now I saw my mistake—the expression was wholly cynical. The eyes held me by their discerning power, the lips with their subtle mockery.

Suddenly the silence was broken by a cry of terror, followed by an awful crash.

I turned round in amazement.

The body of Tollerton lay stretched on the floor, strangely limp; in falling he had struck the corner of a heavy oak table.

His head lay in a little pool of blood, which the tortoise—I shudder as I think of it—was lapping greedily.


  1. Weird...although tortoises, in the main, are herbivores with the odd bit of scavenging thrown in, I've always found aquatic turtles vaguely unsettling when they're on the hunt (African mud turtles going so far as to drown drinking pigeons and sandgrouse, and I once watched a snapper drag a good-sized gull to its death.) But this is reminiscent of the Greek legend of the bandit/ogre Sciron. Sciron used to make travelers stop to wash his feet, whereupon he would kick them over the edge of a cliff to a stretch of water where a giant turtle prowled. He met his undoing when the hero Theseus--wise to Sciron's tricks--dodged the kick, grabbed the robber's foot and threw him over the ledge to the turtle instead.

  2. There used to be a video on Youtube of a guy feeding rats to his pet snapping turtle--a very impressive predator. Unfortunately, that video fell victim to the censors.

    I wasn't familiar with Sciron, but he sounds like my kind of guy.

  3. My former snapper houseguests, Eponine and Amy, both grew large enough to take rodents--mice--before I released them back to their ponds (I still see them occasionally: Amy has a distinct scar over one eye, Eponine has a stub tail). The noise of a snapper eating a mouse is akin to a kid munching hard candy.

  4. OK, now I know what I want for Christmas. . .


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