Turtles, The: A Fable

One day, it was before a civic dinner,
Two London Aldermen, no matter which,
Cordwainer, Girdler, Patten-maker, Skinner —
But both were florid, corpulent, and rich,
And both right fond of festive demolition,
Set forth upon a secret expedition.
Yet not, as might be fancied from the token,
To Pudding Lane, Pie Corner, or the Street
Of Bread, or Grub, or anything to eat,
Or drink, as Milk, or Vintry, or Portsoken,
But eastward to that more aquatic quarter,
Where folks take water,
Or bound on voyages, secure a berth
For Antwerp or Ostend, Dundee or Perth,
Calais, Boulogne, or any Port on earth!

Jostled and jostling, through the mud,
Peculiar to the Town of Lud,
Down narrow streets and crooked lanes they dived,
Past many a gusty avenue, through which
Came yellow fog, and smell of pitch,
From barge, and boat, and dusky wharf derived;
With darker fumes, brought eddying by the draught,
From loco-smoko-motive craft;
Mingling with scents of butter, cheese, and gammons,
Tea, coffee, sugar, pickles, rosin, wax,
Hides, tallow, Russia-matting, hemp and flax,
Salt-cod, red-herrings, sprats, and kipper'd salmons,
Nuts, oranges, and lemons,
Each pungent spice, and aromatic gum,
Gas, pepper, soaplees, brandy, gin, and rum;
Alamode-beef and greens — the London soil —
Glue, coal, tobacco, turpentine, and oil,
Bark, assafaetida, squills, vitriol, hops,
In short, all whiffs, and sniffs, and puffs, and snuffs,
From metals, minerals, and dyewood stuffs,
Fruits, victual, drink, solidities, or slops —
In flasks, casks, bales, trucks, wagons, taverns, shops,
Boats, lighters, cellars, wharfs, and warehouse-tops,
That, as we walk upon the river's ridge,
Assault the nose — below the bridge.

A walk, however, as tradition tells,
That once a poor blind Tobit used to choose,
Because, incapable of other views,
He met with " such a sight of smells. "
But on, and on, and on,
In spite of all unsavoury shocks,
Progress the stout Sir Peter and Sir John,
Steadily steering ship-like for the docks —
And now they reach a place the Muse, unwilling,
Recalls for female slang and vulgar doing,
The famous Gate of Billing
That does not lead to cooing —
And now they pass that House that is so ugly
A Customer to people looking smuggl'y —
And now along that fatal Hill they pass
Where centuries ago an Oxford bled,
And proved — too late to save his life, alas! —
That he was " off his head. "

At last before a lofty brick-built pile
Sir Peter stopp'd, and with mysterious smile
Tingled a bell that served to bring
The wire-drawn genius of the ring,
A species of commercial Samuel Weller —
To whom Sir Peter, tipping him a wink,
And something else to drink,
" Shew us the cellar. "

Obsequious bow'd the man, and led the way
Down sundry flights of stairs, where windows small,
Dappled with mud, let in a dingy ray —
A dirty tax, if they were tax'd at all.
At length they came into a cellar damp,
With venerable cobwebs fringed around,
A cellar of that stamp
Which often harbours vintages renown'd,
The feudal Hock, or Burgundy the courtly,
With sherry, brown or golden,
Or port, so olden,
Bereft of body 'tis no longer portly —
But old or otherwise — to be veracious —
That cobwebb'd cellar, damp, and dim, and spacious,
Held nothing crusty — but crustaceous.

Prone on the chilly floor,
Five splendid turtles — such a five!
Natives of some West Indian shore
Were flapping all alive,
Late landed from the Jolly Planter's yawl —
A sight whereon the dignitaries fix'd
Their eager eyes, with ecstasy unmix'd,
Like fathers that behold their infants crawl,
Enjoying every little kick and sprawl.
Nay — far from fatherly the thoughts they bred,
Poor loggerheads from far Ascension ferried!
The aldermen too plainly wish'd them dead
And Aldermanbury'd!
" There! " cried Sir Peter, with an air
Triumphant as an ancient victor's,
And pointing to the creatures rich and rare,
" There's picters! "
" Talk of Olympic Games! They're not worth mention;
The real prize for wrestling is when Jack,
In Providence or Ascension,
Can throw a lively turtle on its back! "

" Aye! " cried Sir John, and with a score of nods,
Thoughtful of classical symposium,
" There's food for Gods!
There's nectar! there's ambrosium!
There's food for Roman Emperors to eat —
Oh, there had been a treat
(Those ancient names will sometimes hobble us)
For Helio-gobble-us! "

" There were a feast for Alexander's Feast!
The real sort — none of your mock or spurious! "
And then he mention'd Aldermen deceased,
And " Epicurius, "
And how Tertullian had enjoy'd such foison;
And speculated on that verdigrease
That isn't poison.

" Talk of your Spring, and verdure, and all that!
Give me green fat!
As for your Poets with their groves of myrtles
And billing turtles,
Give me, for poetry, them Turtles there,
A-billing in a bill of fare!

" Of all the things I ever swallow —
Good, well-dress'd turtle beats them hollow —
It almost makes me wish, I vow,
To have two stomachs, like a cow! "
And lo! as with the cud, an inward thrill
Upheaved his waistcoat and disturb'd his frill,
His mouth was oozing and he work'd his jaw —
" I almost think that I could eat one raw! "

And thus, as " inward love breeds outward talk, "
The portly pair continued to discourse;
And then — as Gray describes of life's divorce, —
With " longing lingering look " prepared to walk, —
Having thro' one delighted sense, at least,
Enjoy'd a sort of Barmecidal feast,
And with prophetic gestures, strange to see,
Forestall'd the civic Banquet yet to be,
Its callipash and callipee!

A pleasant prospect — but alack!
Scarcely each Alderman had turn'd his back,
When seizing on the moment so propitious,
And having learn'd that they were so delicious
To bite and sup,
From praises so high flown and injudicious, —
And nothing could be more pernicious!
The turtles fell to work, and ate each other up!


Never, from folly or urbanity,
Praise people thus profusely to their faces,
Till quite in love with their own graces,
They're eaten up by vanity!
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