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    5. Seven Year Sleepers

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    Chapter 6
    Previous Chapter
    For many generations past that problematical animal, the toad-in-a-hole
    (literal, not culinary) has been one of the most familiar and
    interesting personages of contemporary folk-lore and popular natural
    history. From time to time he turns up afresh, with his own wonted
    perennial vigour, on paper at least, in company with the great
    sea-serpent, the big gooseberry, the shower of frogs, the two-headed
    calf, and all the other common objects of the country or the seaside in
    the silly season. No extraordinary natural phenomenon on earth was ever
    better vouched for--in the fashion rendered familiar to us by the
    Tichborne claimant--that is to say, no other could ever get a larger
    number of unprejudiced witnesses to swear positively and unreservedly in
    its favour. Unfortunately, however, swearing alone no longer settles
    causes off-hand, as if by show of hands, 'the Ayes have it,' after the
    fashion prevalent in the good old days when the whole Hundred used to
    testify that of its certain knowledge John Nokes did not commit such and
    such a murder; whereupon John Nokes was forthwith acquitted accordingly.
    Nowadays, both justice and science have become more exacting; they
    insist upon the unpleasant and discourteous habit of cross-examining
    their witnesses (as if they doubted them, forsooth!), instead of
    accepting the witnesses' own simple assertion that it's all right, and
    there's no need for making a fuss about it. Did you yourself see the
    block of stone in which the toad is said to have been found, before the
    toad himself was actually extracted? Did you examine it all round to
    make quite sure there was no hole, or crack, or passage in it anywhere?
    Did you satisfy yourself after the toad was released from his close
    quarters that no such hole, or crack, or passage had been dexterously
    closed up, with intent to deceive, by plaster, cement, or other
    artificial composition? Did you ever offer the workmen who found it a
    nominal reward--say five shillings--for the first perfectly unanswerable
    specimen of a genuine unadulterated antediluvian toad? Have you got the
    toad now present, and can you produce him here in court (on writ of
    _habeas corpus_ or otherwise), together with all the fragments of the
    stone or tree from which he was extracted? These are the disagreeable,
    prying, inquisitorial, I may even say insulting, questions with which a
    modern man of science is ready to assail the truthful and reputable
    gentlemen who venture to assert their discovery, in these degenerate
    days, of the ancient and unsophisticated toad-in-a-hole.

    Now, the worst of it is that the gentlemen in question, being unfamiliar
    with what is technically described as scientific methods of
    investigation, are very apt to lose their temper when thus
    cross-questioned, and to reply, after the fashion usually attributed to
    the female mind, with another question, whether the scientific person
    wishes to accuse them of downright lying. And as nothing on earth could
    be further from the scientific person's mind than such an imputation, he
    is usually fain in the end to give up the social pursuit of postprandial
    natural history (the subject generally crops up about the same time as
    the after-dinner coffee), and to let the prehistoric toad go on his own
    triumphant way, unheeded.

    As a matter of fact, nobody ever makes larger allowances for other
    people, in the estimate of their veracity, than the scientific
    inquirer. Knowing himself, by painful experience, how extremely
    difficult a matter it is to make perfectly sure you have observed
    anything on earth quite correctly, and have eliminated all possible
    chances of error, he acquires the fixed habit of doubting about one-half
    of whatever his fellow-creatures tell him in ordinary conversation,
    without for a single moment venturing to suspect them of deliberate
    untruthfulness. Children and servants, if they find that anything they
    have been told is erroneous, immediately jump at the conclusion that the
    person who told them meant deliberately to deceive them; in their own
    simple and categorical fashion they answer plumply, 'That's a lie.' But
    the man of science is only too well acquainted in his own person with
    the exceeding difficulty of ever getting at the exact truth. He has
    spent hours of toil, himself, in watching and observing the behaviour of
    some plant, or animal, or gas, or metal; and after repeated experiments,
    carefully designed to exclude all possibility of mistake, so far as he
    can foresee it, he at last believes he has really settled some moot
    point, and triumphantly publishes his final conclusions in a scientific
    journal. Ten to one, the very next number of that same journal contains
    a dozen supercilious letters from a dozen learned and high-salaried
    professors, each pointing out a dozen distinct and separate precautions
    which the painstaking observer neglected to take, and any one of which
    would be quite sufficient to vitiate the whole body of his observations.
    There might have been germs in the tube in which he boiled the water
    (germs are very fashionable just at present); or some of the germs might
    have survived and rather enjoyed the boiling; or they might have adhered
    to the under surface of the cork; or the mixture might have been
    tampered with during the experimenter's temporary absence by his son,
    aged ten years (scientific observers have no right, apparently, to have
    sons of ten years old, except perhaps for purposes of psychological
    research); and so forth, _ad infinitum_. And the worst of it all is that
    the unhappy experimenter is bound himself to admit that every one of the
    objections is perfectly valid, and that he very likely never really saw
    what with perfect confidence he thought and said he had seen.

    This being an unbelieving age, then, when even the book of Deuteronomy
    is 'critically examined,' let us see how much can really be said for and
    against our old friend, the toad-in-a-hole; and first let us begin with
    the antecedent probability, or otherwise, of any animal being able to
    live in a more or less torpid condition, without air or food, for any
    considerable period of time together.

    A certain famous historical desert snail was brought from Egypt to
    England as a conchological specimen in the year 1846. This particular
    mollusk (the only one of his race, probably, who ever attained to
    individual distinction), at the time of his arrival in London, was
    really alive and vigorous; but as the authorities of the British Museum,
    to whose tender care he was consigned, were ignorant of this important
    fact in his economy, he was gummed, mouth downward, on to a piece of
    cardboard, and duly labelled and dated with scientific accuracy, '_Helix
    desertorum_, March 25, 1846.' Being a snail of a retiring and contented
    disposition, however, accustomed to long droughts and corresponding naps
    in his native sand-wastes, our mollusk thereupon simply curled himself
    up into the topmost recesses of his own whorls, and went placidly to
    sleep in perfect contentment for an unlimited period. Every conchologist
    takes it for granted, of course, that the shells which he receives from
    foreign parts have had their inhabitants properly boiled and extracted
    before being exported; for it is only the mere outer shell or skeleton
    of the animal that we preserve in our cabinets, leaving the actual flesh
    and muscles of the creature himself to wither unobserved upon its
    native shores. At the British Museum the desert snail might have snoozed
    away his inglorious existence unsuspected, but for a happy accident
    which attracted public attention to his remarkable case in a most
    extraordinary manner. On March 7, 1850, nearly four years later, it was
    casually observed that the card on which he reposed was slightly
    discoloured; and this discovery led to the suspicion that perhaps a
    living animal might be temporarily immured within that papery tomb. The
    Museum authorities accordingly ordered our friend a warm bath (who shall
    say hereafter that science is unfeeling!), upon which the grateful
    snail, waking up at the touch of the familiar moisture, put his head
    cautiously out of his shell, walked up to the top of the basin, and
    began to take a cursory survey of British institutions with his four
    eye-bearing tentacles. So strange a recovery from a long torpid
    condition, only equalled by that of the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus,
    deserved an exceptional amount of scientific recognition. The desert
    snail at once awoke and found himself famous. Nay, he actually sat for
    his portrait to an eminent zoological artist, Mr. Waterhouse; and a
    woodcut from the sketch thus procured, with a history of his life and
    adventures, may be found even unto this day in Dr. Woodward's 'Manual of
    the Mollusca,' to witness if I lie.

    I mention this curious instance first, because it is the best
    authenticated case on record (so far as my knowledge goes) of any animal
    existing in a state of suspended animation for any long period of time
    together. But there are other cases of encysted or immured animals
    which, though less striking as regards the length of time during which
    torpidity has been observed, are much more closely analogous to the real
    or mythical conditions of the toad-in-a-hole. That curious West African
    mud-fish, the Lepidosiren (familiar to all readers of evolutionary
    literature as one of the most singular existing links between fish and
    amphibians), lives among the shallow pools and broads of the Gambia,
    which are dried up during the greater part of the tropical summer. To
    provide against this annual contingency, the mud-fish retires into the
    soft clay at the bottom of the pools, where it forms itself a sort of
    nest, and there hibernates, or rather æstivates, for months together, in
    a torpid condition. The surrounding mud then hardens into a dry ball;
    and these balls are dug out of the soil of the rice-fields by the
    natives, with the fish inside them, by which means many specimens of
    lepidosiren have been sent alive to Europe, embedded in their natural
    covering. Here the strange fish is chiefly prized as a zoological
    curiosity for aquariums, because of its possessing gills and lungs
    together, to fit it for its double existence; but the unsophisticated
    West Africans grub it up on their own account as a delicacy, regardless
    of its claims to scientific consideration as the earliest known ancestor
    of all existing terrestrial animals. Now, the torpid state of the
    mud-fish in his hardened ball of clay closely resembles the real or
    supposed condition of the toad-in-a-hole; but with one important
    exception. The mud-fish leaves a small canal or pipe open in his cell at
    either end to admit the air for breathing, though he breathes (as I
    shall proceed to explain) in a very slight degree during his æstivation;
    whereas every proper toad-in-a-hole ought by all accounts to live
    entirely without either feeding or breathing in any way. However, this
    is a mere detail; and indeed, if toads-in-a-hole do really exist at all,
    we must in all probability ultimately admit that they breathe to some
    extent, though perhaps very slightly, during their long immurement.

    And this leads us on to consider what in reality hibernation is.
    Everybody knows nowadays, I suppose, that there is a very close analogy
    between an animal and a steam-engine. Food is the fuel that makes the
    animal engine go; and this food acts almost exactly as coal does in the
    artificial machine. But coal alone will not drive an engine; a free
    draught of open air is also required in order to produce combustion.
    Just in like manner the food we eat cannot be utilised to drive our
    muscles and other organs unless it is supplied with oxygen from the air
    to burn it slowly inside our bodies. This oxygen is taken into the
    system, in all higher animals, by means of lungs or gills. Now, when we
    are working at all hard, we require a great deal of oxygen, as most of
    us have familiarly discovered (especially if we are somewhat stout) in
    the act of climbing hills or running to catch a train. But when we are
    doing very little work indeed, as in our sleeping hours, during which
    muscular movement is suspended, and only the general organic life
    continues, we breathe much more slowly and at longer intervals. However,
    there is this important difference (generally speaking) between an
    animal and a steam-engine. You can let the engine run short of coals and
    come to a dead standstill, without impairing its future possibilities of
    similar motion; you have only to get fresh coals, after weeks or months
    of inaction, and light up a fresh fire, when your engine will
    immediately begin to work again, exactly the same as before. But if an
    animal organism once fairly runs down, either from want of food or any
    other cause--in short, if it dies--it very seldom comes to life again.

    I say 'very seldom' on purpose, because there are a few cases among the
    extreme lower animals where a water-haunting creature can be taken out
    of the water and can be thoroughly dried and desiccated, or even kept
    for an apparently unlimited period wrapped up in paper or on the slide
    of a microscope; and yet, the moment a drop of water is placed on top of
    it, it begins to move and live again exactly as before. This sort of
    thorough-going suspended animation is the kind we ought to expect from
    any well-constituted and proper-minded toad-in-a-hole. Whether anything
    like it ever really occurs in the higher ranks of animal life, however,
    is a different question; but there can be no doubt that to some slight
    extent a body to all intents and purposes quite dead (physically
    speaking) by long immersion in water--a drowned man, for example--may
    really be resuscitated by heat and stimulants, applied immediately,
    provided no part of the working organism has been seriously injured or
    decomposed. Such people may be said to be _pro tem._ functionally,
    though not structurally, dead. The heart has practically ceased to beat,
    the lungs have ceased to breathe, and physical life in the body is
    temporarily extinct. The fire, in short, has gone out. But if only it
    can be lighted again before any serious change in the system takes
    place, all may still go on precisely as of old.

    Many animals, however, find it convenient to assume a state of less
    complete suspended animation during certain special periods of the year,
    according to the circumstances of their peculiar climate and mode of
    life. Among the very highest animals, the most familiar example of this
    sort of semi-torpidity is to be found among the bears and the dormice.
    The common European brown bear is a carnivore by descent, who has become
    a vegetarian in practice, though whether from conscientious scruples or
    mere practical considerations of expediency, does not appear. He feeds
    chiefly on roots, berries, fruits, vegetables, and honey, all of which
    he finds it comparatively difficult to procure during winter weather.
    Accordingly, as everyone knows, he eats immoderately in the summer
    season, till he has grown fat enough to supply bear's grease to all
    Christendom. Then he hunts himself out a hollow tree or rock-shelter,
    curls himself up quietly to sleep, and snores away the whole livelong
    winter. During this period of hibernation, the action of the heart is
    reduced to a minimum, and the bear breathes but very slowly. Still, he
    does breathe, and his heart does beat; and in performing those
    indispensable functions, all his store of accumulated fat is gradually
    used up, so that he wakes in spring as thin as a lath and as hungry as a
    hunter. The machine has been working at very low pressure all the
    winter: but it _has_ been working for all that, and the continuity of
    its action has never once for a moment been interrupted. This is the
    central principle of all hibernation; it consists essentially of a very
    long and profound sleep, during which all muscular motion, except that
    of the heart and lungs, is completely suspended, while even these last
    are reduced to the very smallest amount compatible with the final
    restoration of full animal activity.

    Thus, even among warm-blooded animals like the bears and dormice,
    hibernation actually occurs to a very considerable degree; but it is far
    more common and more complete among cold-blooded creatures, whose bodies
    do not need to be kept heated to the same degree, and with whom,
    accordingly, hibernation becomes almost a complete torpor, the breathing
    and the action of the heart being still further reduced to very nearly
    zero. Mollusks in particular, like oysters and mussels, lead very
    monotonous and uneventful lives, only varied as a rule by the welcome
    change of being cut out of their shells and eaten alive; and their
    powers of living without food under adverse circumstances are really
    very remarkable. Freshwater snails and mussels, in cold weather, bury
    themselves in the mud of ponds or rivers; and land-snails hide
    themselves in the ground or under moss and leaves. The heart then
    ceases perceptibly to beat, but respiration continues in a very faint
    degree. The common garden snail closes the mouth of his shell when he
    wants to hibernate, with a slimy covering; but he leaves a very small
    hole in it somewhere, so as to allow a little air to get in, and keep up
    his breathing to a slight amount. My experience has been, however, that
    a great many snails go to sleep in this way, and never wake up again.
    Either they get frozen to death, or else the respiration falls so low
    that it never picks itself up properly when spring returns. In warm
    climates, it is during the summer that mollusks and other mud-haunting
    creatures go to sleep; and when they get well plastered round with clay,
    they almost approach in tenacity of life the mildest recorded specimens
    of the toad-in-a-hole.

    For example, take the following cases, which I extract, with needful
    simplifications, from Dr. Woodward.

    'In June 1850, a living pond mussel, which had been more than a year out
    of water, was sent to Mr. Gray, from Australia. The big pond snails of
    the tropics have been found alive in logs of mahogany imported from
    Honduras; and M. Caillaud carried some from Egypt to Paris, packed in
    sawdust. Indeed, it isn't easy to ascertain the limit of their
    endurance; for Mr. Laidlay, having placed a number in a drawer for this
    very purpose, found them alive after _five years'_ torpidity, although
    in the warm climate of Calcutta. The pretty snails called _cyclostomas_,
    which have a lid to their shells, are well known to survive
    imprisonments of many months; but in the ordinary open-mouthed
    land-snails such cases are even more remarkable. Several of the enormous
    tropical snails often used to decorate cottage mantelpieces, brought by
    Lieutenant Greaves from Valparaiso, revived after being packed, some for
    thirteen, others for twenty months. In 1849, Mr. Pickering received
    from Mr. Wollaston a basketful of Madeira snails (of twenty or thirty
    different kinds), three-fourths of which proved to be alive, after
    several months' confinement, including a sea voyage. Mr. Wollaston has
    himself recorded the fact that specimens of two Madeira snails survived
    a fast and imprisonment in pill-boxes of two years and a half duration,
    and that large numbers of a small species, brought to England at the
    same time, were _all_ living after being inclosed in a dry bag for a
    year and a half.'

    Whether the snails themselves liked their long deprivation of food and
    moisture we are not informed; their personal tastes and inclinations
    were very little consulted in the matter; but as they and their
    ancestors for many generations must have been accustomed to similar long
    fasts during tropical droughts, in all likelihood they did not much mind

    The real question, then, about the historical toad-in-a-hole narrows
    itself down in the end merely to this--how long is it credible that a
    cold-blooded creature might sustain life in a torpid or hibernating
    condition, without food, and with a very small quantity of fresh air,
    supplied (let us say) from time to time through an almost imperceptible
    fissure? It is well known that reptiles and amphibians are particularly
    tenacious of life, and that some turtles in particular will live for
    months, or even for years, without tasting food. The common Greek
    tortoise, hawked on barrows about the streets of London and bought by a
    confiding British public under the mistaken impression that its chief
    fare consists of slugs and cockroaches (it is really far more likely to
    feed upon its purchaser's choicest seakale and asparagus), buries itself
    in the ground at the first approach of winter, and snoozes away five
    months of the year in a most comfortable and dignified torpidity. A
    snake at the Zoo has even been known to live eighteen months in a
    voluntary fast, refusing all the most tempting offers of birds and
    rabbits, merely out of pique at her forcible confinement in a strange
    cage. As this was a lady snake, however, it is possible that she only
    went on living out of feminine obstinacy, so that this case really
    counts for very little.

    Toads themselves are well known to possess all the qualities of mind and
    body which go to make up the career of a successful and enduring
    anchorite. At the best of times they eat seldom and sparingly, while a
    forty days' fast, like Dr. Tanner's, would seem to them but an ordinary
    incident in their everyday existence. In the winter they hibernate by
    burying themselves in the mud, or by getting down cracks in the ground.
    It is also undoubtedly true that they creep into holes wherever they can
    find one, and that in these holes they lie torpid for a considerable
    period. On the other hand, there is every reason to believe that they
    cannot live for more than a certain fixed and relatively short time
    entirely without food or air. Dr. Buckland tried a number of experiments
    upon toads in this manner--experiments wholly unnecessary, considering
    the trivial nature of the point at issue--and his conclusion was that no
    toad could get beyond two years without feeding or breathing. There can
    be very little doubt that in this conclusion he was practically correct,
    and that the real fine old crusted antediluvian toad-in-a-hole is really
    a snare and a delusion.

    That, however, does not wholly settle the question about such toads,
    because, even though they may not be all that their admirers claim for
    them, they may yet possess a very respectable antiquity of their own,
    and may be very far from the category of mere vulgar cheats and
    impostors. Because a toad is not as old as Methuselah, it need not
    follow that he may not be as old as Old Parr; because he does not date
    back to the Flood, it need not follow that he cannot remember Queen
    Elizabeth. There are some toads-in-a-hole, indeed, which, however we may
    account for the origin of their legend, are on the very face of it
    utterly incredible. For example, there is the favourite and immensely
    popular toad who was extracted from a perfectly closed hole in a marble
    mantelpiece. The implication of the legend clearly is that the toad was
    coeval with the marble. But marble is limestone, altered in texture by
    pressure and heat, till it has assumed a crystalline structure. In other
    words we are asked to believe that that toad lived through an amount of
    fiery heat sufficient to burn him up into fine powder, and yet remains
    to tell the tale. Such a toad as this obviously deserves no credit. His
    discoverers may have believed in him themselves, but they will hardly
    get other people to do so.

    Still, there are a great many ways in which it is quite conceivable that
    toads might get into holes in rocks or trees so as to give rise to the
    common stories about them, and might even manage to live there for a
    considerable time with very small quantities of food or air. It must be
    remembered that from the very nature of the conditions the hole can
    never be properly examined and inspected until after it has been split
    open and the toad has been extracted from it. Now, if you split open a
    tree or a rock, and find a toad inside it, with a cavity which he
    exactly fills, it is extremely difficult to say whether there was or was
    not a fissure before you broke the thing to pieces with your hatchet or
    pickaxe. A very small fissure indeed would be quite sufficient to
    account for the whole delusion; for if the toad could get a little air
    to breathe slowly during his torpid period, and could find a few dead
    flies or worms among the water that trickled scantily into his hole, he
    could manage to drag out a peaceful and monotonous existence almost
    indefinitely. Here are a few possible cases, any one of which will
    quite suffice to give rise to at least as good a toad-in-the-hole as
    ninety-nine out of a hundred published instances.

    An adult toad buries himself in the mud by a dry pond, and gets coated
    with a hard solid coat of sun-baked clay. His nodule is broken open with
    a spade, and the toad himself is found inside, almost exactly filling
    the space within the cavity. He has only been there for a few months at
    the outside; but the clay is as hard as a stone, and to the bucolic mind
    looks as if it might have been there ever since the Deluge. Good blue
    lias clay, which dries as solid as limestone, would perform this trick
    to perfection; and the toad might easily be relegated accordingly to the
    secondary ages of geology. Observe, however, that the actual toads so
    found are not the geological toads we should naturally expect under such
    remarkable circumstances, but the common everyday toads of modern
    England. This shows a want of accurate scientific knowledge on the part
    of the toads which is truly lamentable. A toad who really wished to
    qualify himself for the post ought at least to avoid presenting himself
    before a critical eye in the foolish guise of an embodied anachronism.
    He reminds one of the Roman mother in a popular burlesque, who suspects
    her son of smoking, and vehemently declares that she smells tobacco,
    but, after a moment, recollects the historical proprieties, and mutters
    to herself, apologetically, 'No, not tobacco; that's not yet invented.'
    A would-be silurian or triassic toad ought, in like manner, to remember
    that in the ages to whose honours he aspires his own amphibian kind was
    not yet developed. He ought rather to come out in the character of a
    ceratodus or a labyrinthodon.

    Again, another adult toad crawls into the hollow of a tree, and there
    hibernates. The bark partially closes over the slit by which he entered,
    but leaves a little crack by which air can enter freely. The grubs in
    the bark and other insects supply him from time to time with a frugal
    repast. There is no good reason why, under such circumstances, a placid
    and contented toad might not manage to prolong his existence for several
    consecutive seasons.

    Once more, the spawn of toads is very small, as regards the size of the
    individual eggs, compared with the size of the full-grown animal.
    Nothing would be easier than for a piece of spawn or a tiny tadpole to
    be washed into some hole in a mine or cave, where there was sufficient
    water for its developement, and where the trickling drops brought down
    minute objects of food, enough to keep up its simple existence. A toad
    brought up under such peculiar circumstances might pass almost its
    entire life in a state of torpidity, and yet might grow and thrive in
    its own sleepy vegetative fashion.

    In short, while it would be difficult in any given case to prove to a
    certainty either that the particular toad-in-a-hole had or had not
    access to air and food, the ordinary conditions of toad life are exactly
    those under which the delusive appearance of venerable antiquity would
    be almost certain frequently to arise. The toad is a nocturnal animal;
    it lives through the daytime in dark and damp places; it shows a decided
    liking for crannies and crevices; it is wonderfully tenacious of life;
    it possesses the power of hibernation; it can live on extremely small
    quantities of food for very long periods of time together; it buries
    itself in mud or clay; it passes the early part of its life as a
    water-haunting tadpole; and last, not least, it can swell out its body
    to nearly double its natural size by inflating itself, which fully
    accounts for the stories of toads being taken out of holes every bit as
    big as themselves. Considering all these things, it would be wonderful
    indeed if toads were not often found in places and conditions which
    would naturally give rise to the familiar myth. Throw in a little
    allowance for human credulity, human exaggeration, and human love of the
    marvellous, and you have all the elements of a very excellent
    toad-in-the-hole in the highest ideal perfection.

    At the same time I think it quite possible that some toads, under
    natural circumstances, do really remain in a torpid or semi-torpid
    condition for a period far exceeding the twenty-four months allowed as
    the maximum in Dr. Buckland's unpleasant experiments. If the amount of
    air supplied through a crack or through the texture of the stone were
    exactly sufficient for keeping the animal alive in the very slightest
    fashion--the engine working at the lowest possible pressure, short of
    absolute cessation--I see no reason on earth why a toad might not remain
    dormant, in a moist place, with perhaps a very occasional worm or grub
    for breakfast, for at least as long a time as the desert snail slept
    comfortably in the British Museum. Altogether, while it is impossible to
    believe the stories about toads that have been buried in a mine for
    whole centuries, and still more impossible to believe in their being
    disentombed from marble mantelpieces or very ancient geological
    formations, it is quite conceivable that some toads-in-a-hole may really
    be far from mere vulgar impostors, and may have passed the traditional
    seven years of the Indian philosophers in solitary meditation on the
    syllable Om, or on the equally significant Ko-ax, Ko-ax of the
    irreverent Attic dramatist. "Certainly not a centenarian, but perhaps a
    good seven-year sleeper for all that," is the final verdict which the
    court is disposed to return, after due consideration of all the
    probabilities _in re_ the toad-in-a-hole.
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