P ICTA, the painted turtle, had made her nest, a dugout in the fine hot sand, on the shore of a lake with a name that makes a person smile to hear it. But to Picta a name did not matter. Lake Meddybemps, name or no name, had satisfied her for many years, and the sandy shore was what she needed for a nest. There the heat of the summer days could warm her buried eggs until at last her brood of babies, hatched by the sun, could creep their first journey to the lake.
Only one who knows how to tell the age of turtles could guess how many such nests Picta had dug on the shore of Meddybemps; and no one knows how many eggs she had laid in her life or how many of her son and daughter turtles had paddled out to hunt for polliwogs and other game. But this is certain: Picta will never meet the babies that hatched in the nest she dug on the shore of Lake Meddybemps that particular summer, for just after she had laid the last egg and covered the hole, who should come dancing along the shore but Eleanor!
Now Eleanor is one of those people who cannot see a shy wild creature without wishing to become acquainted with it, and to meet Picta was a joy indeed. How Picta herself felt about the matter could be guessed from the way she struck out with her strong legs, struggling to push aside the hand that held her captive. Failing in this, she opened her mouth and hissed.
That hiss may have meant that Picta was afraid or angry; but it sounded so gentle, so almost like a sigh, that Eleanor smiled. "Don't hiss at me, poor, frightened Picta," she said, "for I will treat you so well that you will be quite comfortable and happy."
It did not seem that it would take much to satisfy Picta. Eleanor had heard of a pet turtle of one kind that ate bananas from the hand of his captor and drank water from a soup plate; and she did not know enough about the different sorts of turtles to understand that she could not make a painted turtle happy the same way.
So it happened that Picta was taken away from her sandy shore and given a ride in a rowboat. After trying many times, and always in vain, to climb the sides, she hid under the seat in the darkest corner. Later she was placed in a tub of water where she spent the night swimming, swimming, swimming, but getting nowhere at all. The next day she rode in a train and spent the minutes walking, walking, walking in a large tin can, but without finding any path that led out of her dark prison.
The journey over, new events awaited her. When she was hungry, she was offered a good ripe banana, but she tried to get away from it. When she was thirsty, she was offered water in a soup plate, but she would have none of it. She just thumped, thumped, thumped around the edge of the room, poking her head against the wall as if hunting for a hole through which she could go.
Next she was put into a pretty white pan. When there was water enough, she swam around and around and around, but could never swim out of it.
Eleanor tried to make Picta happy in a deep white pan.
When there was not much water in it, she stood on her hind feet and reached over the edge with her front feet and head and tried to pull herself out of it. But struggle and kick and stretch and push as best she could, she never reached far enough up to tumble over the edge and escape.
Picta reached over the edge of the pan with her front feet and tried to pull herself out of it.
One after another she was given the best comforts that Eleanor could find, but nothing really suited her. Even a giant box with four inches of fine sand in the bottom and a big pan of water sunk in one corner—even a turtle palace of that sort failed to make her happy. Some kinds of turtles might be pleased with things easy to provide, like a banana and a soup plate of water; but Picta was a painted turtle who for forty years, more or less, had been used to other things than those Eleanor could offer her.
Indeed, day after day passed by until six weeks had come and gone, and Picta was no nearer contentment than at first. She did not at all enjoy being a pet turtle.
There was only one thing she seemed to like, and that was hunting in the water for food when she was hungry. At first she would not eat when any one was near, but after a while she became used to company at mealtimes. She did not eat anything when she was out of the water; but if bits of fish or meat, either raw or cooked, were tossed into her pan, down would go her head and she would follow her funny little nose until she came very near one of the pieces. Then, no matter how still the food lay, Picta would be very careful to grab it into her mouth quickly and with a firm hold, as if it were trying to swim away from her.
If mealtime was the only comfort Picta had in all those weeks, it was natural that the only pleasure Eleanor found in her pet was in feeding it. It was fun to see the turtle push her head out of the water, looking and listening to be sure all was safe and quiet, and then poke it down to catch bits of food in the bottom of the water. If a piece was too big to swallow at a gulp, Picta had the most comical way of carving her meat. She would hold it firmly in her mouth and push it first with one front foot and then the other, one on each side, until it was torn smaller and smaller, becoming at last the right size to swallow easily. After one morsel had been eaten, Picta would put her head down and, like a dog following a scent, move slowly until she came to another bit. Then she would grab that in a hurry, and so with every fragment that she found, as if she expected her food to try to swim away.
When Eleanor held food in her hand under water, Picta would take it from her fingers in the same quick way; but the turtle would never reach up out of the water for her food.
Often Picta grabbed something in her mouth that she did not like. Then she would force it out quickly and push her front feet against the sides of her mouth as if she were trying to be rid of the taste. Then she would blow until little bubbles came up to the top of the water. That seemed to be her way of spitting out what she did not like. After such a time she seemed to sniff more carefully to avoid taking another bit of any bad-tasting stuff.
But a turtle is not a greedy creature, so the delight of eating could not keep Picta happy much of the time. For the most part, her brain seemed to hold one big idea, and that was freedom. She scraped around in the sand in her box hour after hour. She bumped her shell on the edge of her pan every time she crawled in and out. She went whackity thump and thumpity whack against the brick that made an island in her pan. In one way and another she knocked about in her efforts to escape, until she had battered and bruised her firm yellow under shell in four places. That was a pity, for it was a pretty under shell and until she had been taken prisoner there had not been a spot on its clear color. It began to look as if the shell that had lasted her forty years, more or less, would not stand the wear of forty weeks in her prison home.
By the first of September it was hard to know whether to be sorrier for Picta or for Eleanor. For Eleanor had promised to make her pet happy and she did not know how she could keep her promise. It is often easier to catch a wild creature than it is to put it into a place where it can be comfortable. Eleanor, by this time, was certain that nothing less than a big aquarium would do at all for a captive painted turtle, and this she could not provide. So she knew that she must set Picta free, but the question was, how and where?
She thought of sending Picta back to Meddybemps by express and asking the artist who spends his summers there drawing pictures about "when a feller needs a friend," to take the turtle back to her own place by the lake; for surely, if ever a turtle needed a friend, Picta did. But Eleanor did not know the artist well enough to ask such a favor. In fact she had not even met him when she visited at Meddybemps, so she thought she must take care of her own turtle.
She could not spare money enough to travel again to Meddybemps, but she looked at every other lake she saw when she was in country places, and at last she found one that she thought would satisfy a painted turtle in every way.
It was a little lake, so little that it was called a pond. At one side there were three sorts of flat circular leaves floating in the water. Some were those of the white water lily; some were those of the yellow pond lily, and some were those of a plant called the floating heart because of the shape of its leaves.
In the pond was a plant called floating heart because of the shape of its leaves.
Slender stems of pipewort plants with wee round heads grew both in the water and on the shore. But most of the pond was clear and without leaves, so clear that gravelly bottom could be seen far from the shore, and the reflections of the trees on the sloping banks were very beautiful.
Little spotted bronzy frogs were lazing about in the sun on the rocks far back from the water. Bigger green frogs were roosting on lily pads in the pond. Large, strong dragon-flies went overhead and back again, or settled to rest with all four wings spread wide apart. Slender blue and black damsel-flies were there, too, going low, very near the water, or resting on the pipewort with their wings folded close together.
Eleanor loved the pond because of the white water lily that grew there.
Eleanor loved the pond because of all these things, but it was none of them that made her decide to bring Picta there; not frogs spotted or green, or dragon-flies or damsel-flies, or reflections in the water, or lily leaves or floating heart or pipewort. But while she was walking along one end of the pond, she saw a sunken log with just a bit of it up out of the water; and on that little wooden island a painted turtle was sunning itself. It was a little creature with a shell about four inches long, and not a full-sized one like Picta, whose shell measured six inches; but it was large enough to settle matters for Eleanor, for she thought that where one painted turtle lived in comfort another could.
So that was how it happened that Picta was given another train ride, this time only three hours long. She spent the night in a hotel, floating in a bowl of water, and breakfasted on bits of fried fish that she ate hungrily from Eleanor's hand.
Now was the day when Picta was taken to her little lake. When Eleanor reached the shore with her pet, she looked at Picta carefully so that she should never forget that a painted turtle has a smooth, nearly black upper shell, a clear yellow under shell, and gay splashes of red and yellow on its sides.
Eleanor put Picta down on the sandy shore some distance from the water and watched. The turtle stretched her head so far that the yellow on her head and the red on her neck showed, and she seemed to be looking and listening and smelling all at once. Then, very, very slowly, she walked to the water. Without haste, she slipped in and swam slowly about. Her restlessness was gone. She seemed in no hurry to go anywhere else. It began to seem as if Eleanor had kept her promise at last and that she had made her pet happy.
What happened next was a surprise to Eleanor; and as I do not understand the reason for it, I can only tell you just what took place and let you think what you like about it. The turtle had started off in a leisurely way toward the middle of the pond, putting her head up now and then to look about, when Eleanor called, "Good-by, little Picta," for she thought that was the last she should see of her pet. Picta just then turned and came back into the shallow water near the edge where Eleanor stood talking.
Picta swam back into the shallow water near the edge of the pond where Eleanor stood.
Why did she come? Eleanor did not know nor do I. Did she just happen to come back when Eleanor called to her, or can it be that in her weeks of captivity Picta had learned to know Eleanor's voice and to think it was mealtime when Eleanor spoke? Did she come back to be fed? Be that as it may, the turtle made a dive and poked about near Eleanor as if hunting for food. Twice after that she started toward the middle of the pond and twice returned near the shore where Eleanor stood talking to her. Then away she paddled with a slow stroke, and when next she put up her head she was so far away that Eleanor could not see the head itself but only the ripples that circled around it in the water.
At last Picta, the painted turtle, was free and happy.
Eleanor walked along the shore till she came to the sunken log where she had seen the four-inch turtle sunning itself the day she had first visited the pond. There, on the same little wooden island, rested a turtle. It was not the four-inch one she had seen before. This one was only half as long. A moment later another just the same size as the one on the log swam near.
While Eleanor was laughing with delight about the pretty twin turtles, another and bigger turtle paddled slowly around the end of the log very near the shore, and put her head up and looked about. It was Picta!
Do you wish to know how Eleanor could be sure it was her pet? Well, Picta had a chipped shell, a three-cornered nick in the edge of her shell where she tucks her right hind foot. So Eleanor knew it was Picta come back again, and it pleased her to think that perhaps the turtle had come because of her voice. However that may be, Picta was hungry and began hunting for her food, and the tiny turtle on the log craned its neck to watch Picta while she hunted.
There Eleanor left them, and because her visit had been so pleasant she was glad that the place was named "Holiday Pond."
But to Picta a name does not matter. The little pond, name or no name, is suited to her needs. She has made no attempt to go out or away. She is content. And when another summer comes, the fine sand on the shore will lie warm in the sun and it may be hatching turtle eggs in a dugout nest.