Voyages of Dr. Doolittle

Author: Hugh Lofting

The First Chapter a Great Moment

THE next part of our problem was the hardest of all: how to roll aside, pull down or break open, that gigantic slab. As we gazed up at it towering above our heads, it looked indeed a hopeless task for our tiny strength.

But the sounds of life from inside the mountain had put new heart in us. And in a moment we were all scrambling around trying to find any opening or crevice which would give us something to work on. Chee-Chee scaled up the sheer wall of the slab and examined the top of it where it leaned against the mountain’s side; I uprooted bushes and stripped off hanging creepers that might conceal a weak place; the Doctor got more leaves and composed new picture-letters for the Jabizri to take in if he should turn up again; whilst Polynesia carried up a handful of nuts and pushed them into the beetle’s hole, one by one, for the prisoners inside to eat.

"Nuts are so nourishing," she said.

But Jip it was who, scratching at the foot of the slab like a good ratter, made the discovery which led to our final success.

"Doctor," he cried, running up to John Dolittle with his nose all covered with black mud, "this slab is resting on nothing but a bed of soft earth. You never saw such easy digging. I guess the cave behind must be just too high up for the Indians to reach the earth with their hands, or they could have scraped a way out long ago. If we can only scratch the earth-bed away from under, the slab might drop a little. Then maybe the Indians can climb out over the top."

The Doctor hurried to examine the place where Jip had dug.

"Why, yes," he said, "if we can get the earth away from under this front edge, the slab is standing up so straight, we might even make it fall right down in this direction. It’s well worth trying. Let’s get at it, quick."

We had no tools but the sticks and slivers of stone which we could find around. A strange sight we must have looked, the whole crew of us squatting down on our heels, scratching and burrowing at the foot of the mountain, like six badgers in a row.

After about an hour, during which in spite of the cold the sweat fell from our foreheads in all directions, the Doctor said,

"Be ready to jump from under, clear out of the way, if she shows signs of moving. If this slab falls on anybody, it will squash him flatter than a pancake."

Presently there was a grating, grinding sound.

"Look out!" yelled John Dolittle, "here she comes!—Scatter!"

We ran for our lives, outwards, toward the sides. The big rock slid gently down, about a foot, into the trough which we had made beneath it. For a moment I was disappointed, for like that, it was as hopeless as before— no signs of a cave-mouth showing above it. But as I looked upward, I saw the top coming very slowly away from the mountainside. We had unbalanced it below. As it moved apart from the face of the mountain, sounds of human voices, crying gladly in a strange tongue, issued from behind. Faster and faster the top swung forward, downward. Then, with a roaring crash which shook the whole mountain-range beneath our feet, it struck the earth and cracked in halves.

How can I describe to any one that first meeting between the two greatest naturalists the world ever knew, Long Arrow, the son of Golden Arrow and John Dolittle, M.D., of Puddleby-on-the-Marsh? The scene rises before me now, plain and clear in every detail, though it took place so many, many years ago. But when I come to write of it, words seem such poor things with which to tell you of that great occasion.

I know that the Doctor, whose life was surely full enough of big happenings, always counted the setting free of the Indian scientist as the greatest thing he ever did. For my part, knowing how much this meeting must mean to him, I was on pins and needles of expectation and curiosity as the great stone finally thundered down at our feet and we gazed across it to see what lay behind.

The gloomy black mouth of a tunnel, full twenty feet high, was revealed. In the centre of this opening stood an enormous red Indian, seven feet tall, handsome, muscular, slim and naked—but for a beaded cloth about his middle and an eagle’s feather in his hair. He held one hand across his face to shield his eyes from the blinding sun which he had not seen in many days.

"It is he!" I heard the Doctor whisper at my elbow. "I know him by his great height and the scar upon his chin."

And he stepped forward slowly across the fallen stone with his hand outstretched to the red man.

Presently the Indian uncovered his eyes. And I saw that they had a curious piercing gleam in them—like the eyes of an eagle, but kinder and more gentle. He slowly raised his right arm, the rest of him still and motionless like a statue, and took the Doctor’s hand in his. It was a great moment. Polynesia nodded to me in a knowing, satisfied kind of way. And I heard old Bumpo sniffle sentimentally. Then the Doctor tried to speak to Long Arrow. But the Indian knew no English of course, and the Doctor knew no Indian. Presently, to my surprise, I heard the Doctor trying him in different animal languages.

"How do you do?" he said in dog-talk; "I am glad to see you," in horse-signs; "How long have you been buried?" in deer-language. Still the Indian made no move but stood there, straight and stiff, understanding not a word.

The Doctor tried again, in several other animal dialects. But with no result.

Till at last he came to the language of eagles.

"Great Red-Skin," he said in the fierce screams and short grunts that the big birds use, "never have I been so glad in all my life as I am to-day to find you still alive."

In a flash Long Arrow’s stony face lit up with a smile of understanding; and back came the answer in eagle-tongue,

"Mighty White Man, I owe my life to you. For the remainder of my days I am your servant to command."

Afterwards Long Arrow told us that this was the only bird or animal language that he had ever been able to learn. But that he had not spoken it in a long time, for no eagles ever came to this island.

Then the Doctor signaled to Bumpo who came forward with the nuts and water. But Long Arrow neither ate nor drank. Taking the supplies with a nod of thanks, he turned and carried them into the inner dimness of the cave. We followed him.

Inside we found nine other Indians, men, women and boys, lying on the rock floor in a dreadful state of thinness and exhaustion.

Some had their eyes closed, as if dead. Quickly the Doctor went round them all and listened to their hearts. They were all alive; but one woman was too weak even to stand upon her feet.

At a word from the Doctor, Chee-Chee and Polynesia sped off into the jungles after more fruit and water.

While Long Arrow was handing round what food we had to his starving friends, we suddenly heard a sound outside the cave. Turning about we saw, clustered at the entrance, the band of Indians who had met us so inhospitably at the beach.

They peered into the dark cave cautiously at first. But as soon as they saw Long Arrow and the other Indians with us, they came rushing in, laughing, clapping their hands with joy and jabbering away at a tremendous rate.

Long Arrow explained to the Doctor that the nine Indians we had found in the cave with him were two families who had accompanied him into the mountains to help him gather medicine-plants. And while they had been searching for a kind of moss—good for indigestion—which grows only inside of damp caves, the great rock slab had slid down and shut them in. Then for two weeks they had lived on the medicine-moss and such fresh water as could be found dripping from the damp walls of the cave. The other Indians on the island bad given them up for lost and mourned them as dead; and they were now very surprised and happy to find their relatives alive.

When Long Arrow turned to the newcomers and told them in their own language that it was the white man who had found and freed their relatives, they gathered round John Dolittle, all talking at once and beating their breasts.

Long Arrow said they were apologizing and trying to tell the Doctor how sorry they were that they had seemed unfriendly to him at the beach. They had never seen a white man before and had really been afraid of him—especially when they saw him conversing with the porpoises. They had thought he was the Devil, they said.

Then they went outside and looked at the great stone we had thrown down, big as a meadow; and they walked round and round it, pointing to the break running through the middle and wondering how the trick of felling it was done.

Travelers who have since visited Spidermonkey Island tell me that that huge stone slab is now one of the regular sights of the island. And that the Indian guides, when showing it to visitors, always tell THEIR story of how it came there. They say that when the Doctor found that the rocks had entrapped his friend, Long Arrow, he was so angry that he ripped the mountain in halves with his bare hands and let him out.


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Chicago: Hugh Lofting, "The First Chapter a Great Moment," Voyages of Dr. Doolittle, ed. Hawthorne, Julian, 1846-1934 in Voyages of Dr. Doolittle (New York: Doubleday, Page & Company, 1897), Original Sources, accessed December 2, 2023,

MLA: Lofting, Hugh. "The First Chapter a Great Moment." Voyages of Dr. Doolittle, edited by Hawthorne, Julian, 1846-1934, in Voyages of Dr. Doolittle, Vol. 22, New York, Doubleday, Page & Company, 1897, Original Sources. 2 Dec. 2023.

Harvard: Lofting, H, 'The First Chapter a Great Moment' in Voyages of Dr. Doolittle, ed. . cited in 1897, Voyages of Dr. Doolittle, Doubleday, Page & Company, New York. Original Sources, retrieved 2 December 2023, from