The War with the Newts, by Karel Čapek

Chapter 9

Andrew Scheuchzer

One Thursday afternoon, when London zoo was closed to the public, Mister Thomas Greggs, who was in charge of the lizard pavillion, was cleaning out the tanks and terraria. He was entirely alone in the newt section where the great Japanese newt, the American hellbender, Andrias Scheuchzeri and a number of small amphibians, axolotls, eels, reptiles and frogs were exhibited. Mister Greggs went round with his duster and his broom, singing Annie Laurie as he went; when suddenly a rasping voice behind him said:

“Look Mum.”

Mister Thomas Greggs looked round, but there was nobody there; there was just the hellbender slopping around in its mud and that big black newt, that Andrias, which was leant up against the edge of the tank with its front paws and twisting its body round. Must have imagined it, thought Mister Greggs, and continued to sweep the floor till it shone.

“Look, a newt,” he heard from behind him. Mister Greggs turned quickly round; that black newt, that Andrias, was watching him, blinking with its lower eyelids.

“Ugh, it’s ugly, isn’t it,” the newt said suddenly. “Dont get too close to it, love.” Mister Greggs opened his mouth in astonishment.

“What?”

“You sure it doesnt bite?” the newt rasped.

“You . . . you can speak!” Mister Greggs stammered, unable to believe his ears.

“Im scared of that one,” the newt exclaimed. “What does it eat, Mum?”

“Say Good afternoon,” said the astonished Mister Greggs. The newt twisted its body round. “Good afternoon,” it rasped. “Good afternoon. Good afternoon. Can I give it a cake?” In some confusion, Mister Greggs reached into his pocket and drew out a piece of bread.

“Here you are, then”

The newt took the lump of bread into its paw and tried a piece of it. “Look, a newt,” it muttered contentedly. “Dad, why is it so black?” Suddenly the newt dived back into the water and just its head re-emerged. “Whys it in the water? Why? Ooh, it’s not very nice!”

Mister Thomas Greggs scratched the back of his neck in surprise. Oh, it’s just repeating what it’s heard people saying. “Say Greggs,” he tried.

“Say Greggs,” the newt repeated.

“Mister Thomas Greggs.”

“Mister Thomas Greggs.”

“Good afternoon.”

“Good afternoon. Good afternoon. Good afternoon.” The newt seemed able to continue talking without getting tired of it; but by now Greggs did not know what he could say; Mister Thomas Greggs was not a talkative man.

“Shut your mouth for now,” he said, “and then when Im ready I’ll teach you how to talk.”

“Shut your mouth for now,” gurgled the newt. “Good afternoon. Look, a newt. I’ll teach you how to talk.”

The management of the zoo, however, did not look kindly on it when its zookeepers taught the animals tricks; with the elephant it was different, but the other animals were there for educational purposes and not to be presented like in a circus. Mister Greggs therefore kept a secret of the time he spent in the newt pavilion, and was there after all the other people had left, and as he was a widower nobody was curious about his being there by himself. Everyone has his own taste. And not many people went to the newt pavilion anyway; the crocodiles were popular with everyone but Andrias Scheuchzeri spent his days in relative solitude.

One day, when it was getting dark and the pavilions were closing, the director of the zoo, Sir Charles Wiggam, was wandering round the different sections just to see that everything was in order. As he went past the newt pavilion there was a splash in one of the tanks and a rasping voice said, “Good evening”.

“Good evening,” the director answered, somewhat surprised. “Whos there?”

“I beg your pardon,” the rasping voice said, “I thought it was Mister Greggs.”

“Whos there?” the director repeated.

“Andy. Andrew Scheuchzer.”  Sir Charles went closer to the tank. All he saw was one newt sitting upright and immobile.

“Who said that?”

“Andy,” said the newt. “Who are you?”

“Wiggam,” exclaimed Sir Charles in astonishment.

“Pleased to meet you,” said Andrias politely. “How do you do?”

“Damn it all!” Sir Charles roared. “Greggs! Hey, Greggs!” The newt flipped quickly away and hid in the water. Mister Thomas Greggs hurried in through the door, out of breath and somewhat uneasy.

“How can I help you, sir?”

“Greggs, what’s the meaning of this?” Sir Charles began.

“Has something happened, sir?” stammered Mister Greggs, rather unsure of himself.

“This animal is speaking!”

“I do beg your pardon, sir,” replied Mister Greggs contritely. “You’re not to do that, Andy. I’ve told you a thousand times you’re not to bother the people with all your talk. I am sorry, sir, it won’t happen again.”

“Is it you that’s taught this newt to speak?”

“Well it was him what started it, sir,” Greggs defended himself.

“I hope it won’t happen again, Greggs,” said Sir Charles severely. “I’ll be keeping an eye on you.”

Some time after this incident, Sir Charles was sitting with Professor Petrov and talking about so-called animal intelligence, conditioned responses, and about how the popular view will over estimate how much an animal is capable of understanding. Professor Petrov expressed his doubts about Elberfeld’s horses who, it was said, could not only count but also work out squares and square roots; after all, not even a normal educated man can work out square roots, said the great scientist. Sir Charles thought of Greggs talking newt. “I have a newt here,” he began hesitantly, “that famous andrias scheuchzer it is, and it has learned to talk like a parrot.”

“Out of the question,” said the scientist. “Newts don’t have the right sort of tongue.”

“Then come and have a look,” said Sir Charles. “It’s cleaning day today, so there won’t be too many people there.” And out they went.

At the entrance to the newt pavillion sir Charles stopped. From inside could be heard the scraping of a broom and a monotonous voice saying something very slowly.

“Wait,” Sir Charles whispered.

“Is there life of Mars?” the monotonous voice said. “Shall I read it?”

“No, read us something else, Andy,” another voice answered.

“Who’s to win this years Derby; Pelham Beauty or Gobernador?”

“Pelham Beauty,” the second voice replied. “But read it anyway.”

Sir Charles opened the door very quietly. Mister Thomas Greggs was sweeping the floor; and in the tank of sea water sat Andrias Scheuchzeri, slowly, word by word in a rasping voice, reading out the evening paper which he held in his front paws. “Greggs,” shouted Sir Charles. The newt flipped over backwards and disappeared under the water. Mister Greggs was startled and dropped his broom.

“Yes sir?”

“What is the meaning of this?”

“Please forgive me, sir,” stuttered the unfortunate Greggs. “Andy always reads to me when I’m doing the sweeping. And then when he’s sweeping it’s me what reads to him.”

“And who taught him to do that?”

“He worked it out for himself, sir. I . . . I just gave him my paper so that he wouldn’t keep talking all the time. He was always talking, sir. So I just thought he could at least learn how to talk proper . . . ”

“Andy,” called Sir Charles. A black head emerged from the water.

“Yes sir,” it rasped.

“Professor Petrov has come to look at you.”

“Glad to meet you Professor. I’m Andy Scheuchzer.”

“How do you know your name is Andrias Scheuchzeri?”

“Well it’s written down here, sir. Andreas Scheuchzer. Gilbert Islands.”

“And do you often read the newspaper?”

“Oh yes sir. Every day.”

“And what parts do you most like to read?”

“Court cases, horse racing, football, . . . ”

“Have you ever seen a football match?”

“No sir.”

“Or a horse race?”

“No sir.”

“Then why do you read it?”

“Cause it’s in the paper, sir.”

“Do you have no interest in politics?”

“No sir. Is there going to be a war?”

“Nobody can tell you that, Andy.”

“Germanys building a new type of submarine,” said Andy anxiously. “Death rays can turn a whole continent to dust.”

“That’s what you’ve read in the paper, is it?” asked Sir Charles.

“Yes sir. Who’s going to win this years Derby; Pelham Beauty or Gobernador?”

“What do you think, Andy?”

“I think Gobernador, sir; but Mister Greggs thinks Pelham Beauty.” Andy nodded his head. “Always buy English products. Snider’s braces are the best. Do you have the new six-cylinder Tancred Junior yet? Fast, economic and elegant.”

“Thank you, Andy. That will be enough now.”

“Who’s your favourite film star?” The hair of Professor Petrov’s head and moustache bristled.

“Excuse me, Sir Charles,” he complained, “I really have to go now.”

“Very well, lets go. Andy, would you mind if some very learned gentlemen came to see you? I think they would be very glad to talk to you.”

“I shall look forward to it, sir,” the newt rasped. “Goodbye Sir Charles. Goodbye Professor.”

The professor ran from the pavillion snorting and gasping in amazement. “Forgive me, Sir Charles,” he said at last, “but could you not show me an animal that does not read the newspapers?”

The three learned gentlemen turned out to be Sir Bertram, D.M., Professor Ebbigham, Sir Oliver Dodge, Julian Foxley and others. The following is part of the record of the experiment with Andrias Scheuchzeri.

What is your name?

Answer: Andrezu Scheuchzer

How old are you?

A.: I don’t know. If you want to look younger, wear the Libella corset.

What is the date today?

A.: Monday. It’s nice weather today. Gibraltar is running in the Epsom this Saturday.

What is three times five?

A.: Why?

Are you able to count?

A.: Oh yes. What is seventeen times twenty-nine?

Leave us to ask the questions, Andrew. Name some English rivers for us.

A.: The Thames . . .

What else?

A.: Thames.

You don’t know any others, do you. Who governs England?

A.: King George. God bless him.

Very good Andy. Who is the greatest English writer?

A.: Kipling.

Splendid. Have you read anything by him?

A.: No. How do you like Mae West?

It’s better if we ask the questions, Andy. What do you know of English history?

A.: Henry VIII.

And what do you know about him?

A.: The best film in recent years. Fantastic costumes. A great show.

Have you seen it?

A.: I haven’t. Get to know England: Buy yourself a Ford Baby.

What would you most like to see, Andy?

A.: The Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race.

How many continents are there?

A.: Five.

Very good. And what are they called.

A.: England, and the other ones.

What are the other ones called?

A.: There are the Bolsheviks and the Germans. And Italy.

Where are the Gilbert Islands?

A.: In England. England will not lay a hand on the continent. England needs ten thousand aeroplanes. Visit the English south coast.

May we have a look at your tongue, Andy?

A.: Yes sir. Clean your teeth with Flit toothpaste: it’s economic, it’s the best and it’s English. For sweet smelling breath, use Flit toothpaste.

Thank you, Andy, that will be enough. And now, Andy, tell us . . .

 

And so on. The transcript of the conversation with Andrias Scheuchzeri covered sixteen pages and was published in Natural Science. At the end of the transcript the committee of specialists summarised its findings thus:

1. Andrias Scheuchzeri, a newt kept in London Zoo, is capable of speech, albeit it in a somewhat rasping voice; it has around four hundred words at its disposal; it says only what it has already heard or read. There is, of course, no question of any independent thought. Its tongue is quite mobile; under the circumstances we were unable to examine the vocal cords any closer.

2. The newt is also able to read, although only the evening paper. It takes an interest in the same subjects as the average Englishman and reacts to them in a similar way, ie. with fixed and generally accepted views. Its spiritual life - if it is possible to speak of such a thing - remains in conformity with the conceptions and opinions of our times. 

3. Its intelligence should not be over-estimated, as it in no way surpasses that of the average modern man.

Despite this sober assessment by the committee of specialists, the Talking Newt became the sensation of London Zoo. Andy was the darling of the crowds that surrounded him and wanted to talk to him on every possible subject, starting with the weather and finishing with the economic crisis and the political situation. At the same time he was given so much chocolate and sweets by his visitors that he became seriously ill in his gastro-intestinal tract. In the end the newt section had to be closed down, but it was already too late; Andrias Scheuchzeri, known as Andy, died as a result of his popularity, showing that even newts can be corrupted by fame.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/c/capek/karel/newts/chapter9.html

Last updated Thursday, March 13, 2014 at 21:34