Horace awake

By

Each year, when signs of spring are definite but not yet overwhelming, I meet my neighbour from the corner house and call to her, ''Is Horace awake?''

And this time, once again, she answered as usual, ''Yes, he's stirring. I shan't let him in the cold wind yet, but he's had a long drink of milk and water and I've sponged his face.''

By contrast, each fall, when sunlight grows weak and the leaves clog underfoot, before the real winter, I call, ''Is Horace asleep?''

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And she replies, ''Any day now - he's thinking it over.''

My brief portrait, therefore, is of Horace awake.

His early life is a closed book. I'm told he is an African tortoise, but how he came to England we can only guess. The first known facts were told to my neighbour by her father, once a clergyman in Yorkshire. Early in this century, it seems, Horace - then nameless - was bought in a market in Hull by the owners of a rather gloomy Victorian-style mansion on the city's outskirts. Probably they thought him an exotic novelty; or perhaps it was just becoming fashionable to own a tortoise. When calling on the family, the clergyman often noticed him, helping himself methodically to border plants. Then, some sixty years ago, the house stood empty and the garden grew wild. The clergyman remembered Horace and, as winter approached, curiosity drove him to search the wet jungle that had once been a herbacious border. Here he found the tortoise, who had been left behind, disoriented and tangled in the convolvulus. After some rescue work, he asked the new owners if they would let him buy the creature for his small daughter. Scrupulously, he handed over sixpence, and Horace acquired a name on the way home. He has never been forgotten or left behind since. ''He was,'' said my neighbour, ''exactly what I wanted!'' Moreover, three generations of small girls have now enjoyed him, the youngest shareholder and member of the Friends-of-Horace club being a granddaughter who comes to visit him on her pony, bringing dandelion leaves and the occasional strawberry.

The longevity of Horace has puzzled zoological experts quite a bit. Although he is no Tonga giant but a modest eleven inches long, they feel sure he has been around somewhere for more than a century. But this is not the only rule he breaks. Last time I visited him (he can always be seen by appointment from April to October) I watched the ''party trick'' he never had to learn but has done naturally for a long as anyone can remember.

At our first meeting, he flicked his glittering eyes at me for an instant, then tucked back into his shell and stayed there. But presently my neighbour came out onto the lawn in canvas shoes that make very little sound. Though she was behind him, he turned to face her with a prompt right-about, a not exactly swift but certainly decisive movement. And as she strolled away, he followed purposefully, right across the lawn.

Experts on the tortoise have been slightly worried by this. They have come to visit, saying tolerantly that there is some mistake, no reptile does such a thing, as it lacks the necessary rapport with human beings. And then they have watched Horace doing it and have gone away confused.

Though Horace treats visitors with caution, he will soon relax and ignore them, taking a leisurely course through the garden and lunching as he goes. The family bulldog is on peaceable terms with him; and his youngest human friend - the one with the pony - chats freely to him on all manner of subjects. ''He's so experienced and he does listen. Mother says he's always listened to her, too. I'd like to know all his story, before great-grandfather rescued him. I think he was kidnapped by a sailor on some tropical island. He must have got hungry on the voyage home . . . .''

Anyway, the tides of human affairs have ebbed and flowed round Horace without putting him off his lettuce. He has had justice, he has had care. Fortunate though he is, he's paid his way, linking the generations by his passive but distinctive presence, a constant factor in a changing scene. So, as he turns to follow his staunch friend across the grass, we smile, but are thoughtful too.

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