Eggs for professor Louis Agassiz
One of Louis Agassiz’s books on the natural history of the united states has a small drawing of the inside of a fresh turtle egg. And at the beginning of the first volume, one line states: “In New England I received valuable help from Mr. J. W. P. Jenks of Middleboro.”
What a story lies hidden in that single line! Mr. J. M. P. Jenks of Middleboro, Massachusetts, became, some years later, one of my college professors; and this is the tale as he told it to me.
“I was the principal of and academy in my younger days,” he began, “and was busy one day with my class when a large man suddenly appeared in the doorway and announced that he was professor Agassiz. Would I get him some turtle eggs? Yes, I would.
“It seems that the books he was writing were finished except for one small yet very important bit of observation: Agassiz had traced the development of the turtle egg through every stage but the earliest – when the cell begins to segment, right after being laid. But he had been unable to get eggs fresh enough to show this happening.”
“We made our plans. From the nearby pond, where numerous turtles lived, to the railroad station was a drive of about three miles; from the station by express train to Boston, 35 miles; from Boston to Cambridge, three – 41 miles altogether. It could be done.
“I started watching on May 14, two weeks ahead of the time that we expected turtles to lay their eggs. Just before dawn I would drive to the pond, tie my horse and lie down close to the shore, with my pail of sand ready for the precious eggs. There I would eat my breakfast, eyes fixed on the pond, and they hurry back to open the academy.
“What mornings they were! The spring air, the fresh flowers, the wet grass – it was the nicest reason of the year. I still remember that sounds of the waking day, the birds breaking the stillness with the air of their feet and wings among the trees.”
Watching and Waiting
“There were many such mornings, for the turtle evidently felt their assistance to professor Agassiz could wait. I watched on, to the end of the second week in June seeing mist rise and vanish every morning. And the willingness with which I began my early morning trips to the pond was also vanishing. But Agassiz was waiting for those turtle eggs, and I would wait.”
A Turtle Appears
“Then came a Sunday around the middle of June. This was the day. As I slipped into my hiding place, I saw and enormous turtle rise from the pond. The creature headed straight for the shore and slowly out on the sand. Up a narrow cow path she moved along, inch by inch. And up the path, on all fours like another turtle, I followed her. Careful not to get too close, I went under fences and around bushes, the pail of sand swinging from between my teeth.
“Suddenly she came to a stop, turned and started moving at a faster pace. Turtle in front, man behind, we went through a pasture, across a road, under another fence and into a field of young corn.”
Turtle Eggs at Last
“There she stopped and began digging in the loose soil. She was going to lay eggs! Tail first, she buried herself before my eyes until only part of her shell showed.
“Then, over the deserted fields, I heard four strokes from the town clock. With a rush I recalled something; this was Sunday morning, and there was no train till after nine. But there in the sand were the eggs! And Agassiz had to have those eggs by seven o’clock! A horse could cover 41 miles in three hours If he had to!
“Lifting the surprised turtle, I took her round white eggs, packed them with trembling fingers in my pail and ran for my horse. The rig left the field on two wheels as I shouted at the horse, urging him to hurry.
“We sped down the road. Rounding a turn, I heard a quick, sharp train whistle and the puff, puff, puff of a starting train. But what train? I reached a road which ran beside the track. Pulling up a long hill I saw a freight train gathering speed, coming toward me – headed for Boston!
“I turned the horse quickly and stopped on the track. The engineer saw me waving my arms, the pail swinging in my teeth. He blew his whistle, but I didn’t move off the track.”
A Strange Ride
“The train came to a stop. I took the horse and rig off the track and quickly climbed up the side of the engine. The startled engineer and fireman mad no objection. They didn’t have time, and I looked very strange, perhabs dangerous. I was hatless, my clothes wet and spotted with dirt, and I was holding, as if it were a baby, a little pail of sand.
“Quick, let’s go!’ I commanded. “these are fresh turtle eggs for professor Agassiz of Harvard college. He must have them before breakfast!”
“Then they felt sure I was a madman. They started the engine and a away we went. They watched me curiously and were ready to protect themselves if necessary. I heard enough of their conversation above the roar of the engine to learn that they intended to put me in the hands of the police as soon as we arrived in Boston.
“As we travelled on, I smiled at them, and they at me. And the fireman smiled at the engineer with an expression that said, ‘Look at this crazy fellow smile. He likes the train ride. Let’s hurry to Boston and deliver him to the city police.’
“The top of the state house came in view. I wanted to leap from the engine and run the rest of the way, but I saw the engineer was watching me.
“Suddenly, as we neared the railroad yard, the train slowed down and stopped. Again I got ready to jump but had no chance. They had nothing to do, apparently, but guard me. I looked at my watch. It was six o’clock, with a whole hour to get to Cambridge. But I didn’t like the delay.”
The Final Dash
“ ‘Gentlemen,’ I began, but my words were lost as an express train went roaring past at that instant. Then we were moving again, slowly, almost at a turtle’s pace.
“The fireman, reaching for the bell rope, left the side of the engine clear for a moment. I jumped, landed in soft sand and ran for the fence. I climbed over it to the street and saw a cab.”
A Wild Ride
“Here was the last part of my trip. The cabman saw me coming and started to drive away. I waved a dollar at him. A dollar can pay for a good deal, but I was too much for one dollar. I pulled out another dollar, handed both to him and got into the cab, calling, ‘Harvard college. Professor Agassiz’s house. I’ve got eggs for Agassiz!’ It was then nearly half-past six.
“Faster,’ I ordered. ‘Another dollar if you reach Agassiz’s house in 20 minutes!”
“Rushing along Cambridge street, we reached a bridge. It was a rough ride across it, and the safety of the eggs worried me. Half-standing, half-sitting, I held the pail with one hand and steadied myself, afraid to look at my watch.
“Suddenly there was a lurch, and my head went forward against the front of the cab with a bang. Half my pail of eggs had fallen to the floor.
“It was Agassiz's house. I jumped out and pounded on the dollar. Soon a frightened maid appeared.
“ ‘Agassiz,’ I said. ‘Quick!’ “Go away, sir. Professor Agassiz is aslee. If you don’t go away, I’ll call the police.’
“Just then a door opened and a figure appeared on the stairs. In a loud voice he called, ‘Let him in! He has my turtle eggs!”
“The maid vanished. The great man seized me with both hands and dragged me with my precious pail into his study. Quickly he opened one of the eggs as the watch in my hand showed seven o’clock.
“I was in time. There you see my copies of Agassiz’s books. I am pleased that I was able to help the professor.
“And here is the picture of what the inside of a fresh turtle eggs looks like and a line of thanks to me for making it possible.”
Louis Agassiz, a professor who made a special study of the natural history, or animal and plant life, of the United States. His most important writings appeared in four volumes called Contributions to the Natural History of the United States. The drawing of the turtle egg was in one of the volumes.
Turtle, a creature with a hard shell covering its soft body.
Academy, a school
Segment, divide; become divided
Pond, a small body of water
Pail, a round, open vessel with a handle.
Evidently, plainly; clearly
Mist, water in the air, in the form of very small drops
Enormous, very large
On all fours, on hands and knees
Pasture, a field where cows and horses can graze. To graze is to eat growing grass.
Rig, a vehicle pulled by one or more horses. A vehicle is anything on wheels used for carrying people or goods.
Puff, puff, puff, words representing the sounds of a train engine
Freight train, a train that carries goods, not passengers
Engineer, a man who drives a train engine
Startled, suddenly surprised or alarmed
Crazy, mad; showing signs of sickness in the mind
State House, the building which is the headquarters of a state’s government
Cab, a vehicle, with driver, which carries passengers for pay
Lurch, a sudden roll or turn to one side
Bang, a hard blow or knock
Frightened, alarmed; suddenly fearful
Study, a room of a house used for reading, writing and studying