Excerpt from The Tower, the Zoo, and the Tortoise by Julia Stuart, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Tower, the Zoo, and the Tortoise

A Novel

by Julia Stuart

The Tower, the Zoo, and the Tortoise
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  • First Published:
    Aug 2010, 320 pages
    Aug 2011, 320 pages

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When his collection had swollen to the satisfying figure of one hundred, the Beefeater promised his wife, who now detested wet weather even more than was natural for a Greek who couldn’t swim, he would stop. And for a while it seemed that Balthazar Jones was cured of his habit. But the truth was that England was going through an extraordinary dry patch, and as soon as the rain started to fall again, the Beefeater, who had already been reprimanded by the Chief Yeoman Warder for gazing up at the sky while he should have been answering the tourists’ tiresome questions, returned to his compulsion.

Hebe Jones satisfied herself with the thought that eventually her husband would complete his collection and be done with it. But her hopes evaporated when he was sitting on the edge of the bed one night and, after pulling off his damp left sock, revealed with the demented conviction of a man about to prove the existence of dragons that he had only touched the tip of the iceberg. It was then that he had some official writing paper printed with matching envelopes, and set up the St. Heribert of Cologne Club, named after the patron saint of rain, hoping to compare notes with fellow wet weather enthusiasts. He placed adverts in various newspapers around the world, but the only correspondence he ever received was a heavily watermarked letter from an anonymous resident of Mawsynram, in northeastern India, which suffered from one of the world’s heaviest rainfalls. “Mr Balthazar, You must desist from this utter madness at the most soonest. The only thing worse than a lunatic is a wet one” was all that it said.

But the lack of interest only fuelled his obsession. The Beefeater spent all his spare time writing to meteorologists around the world about his discoveries. He received replies from them all, his fingers, as lithe as a watchmaker’s, quiver- ing as he opened them. However, the experts’ politeness was matched by their disinterest. He changed tack and buried himself in dusty parchments and books at the British Library that were as fragile as his sanity. And with eyes magnified by the strength of his reading glasses, he scoured everything ever written about rain.

Eventually, Balthazar Jones discovered a variant that, from what he could make out, hadn’t fallen since 1892 in Colombo, making it the world’s rarest. He read and reread the descriptions of the sudden shower, which, through a catalogue of misfortunes, had resulted in the untimely death of a cow. He became adamant that he would recognise it from its scent even before seeing it. Every day he waited, hoping for it to fall. Obsession eventually loosened his tongue, and one afternoon he heard himself telling his wife of his desperate desire to include it in his collection. With a mixture of incredulity and pity, she gazed up at the man who had never shed a tear over the death of their son, Milo. And when she looked back down at the daffodil bulbs she was planting in a tub on the Salt Tower roof, she wondered yet again what had happened to her husband.

Standing with his back against the Salt Tower’s oak door, the Beefeater glanced around in the darkness to make sure that he wouldn’t be spotted by any of the other inhabitants of the fortress. The only movement came from a pair of flesh-coloured tights swinging on a washing line strung up on the roof of the Casemates. These ancient terraced cottages built against the fortress walls housed many of the thirty-five Beefeaters who lived with their families at the Tower. The rest, like Balthazar Jones, had had the misfortune of being allocated one of the monument’s twenty-one towers as their home or, worse still, a house on Tower Green, the site of seven beheadings, five of them women.

Balthazar Jones listened carefully. The only sound emerging through the darkness was a sentry marking his territory, his footfall as precise as a Swiss clock. He sniffed the night again and for a moment he doubted himself. He hesitated, cursing himself for being so foolish as to believe that the moment had finally come. He imagined his wife emitting an aviary of sounds as she dreamt, and decided to return to the warm familiarity of the bed. But just as he was about to retrace his steps, he smelt it again.

Excerpted from The Tower, The Zoo, and The Tortoise by Julia StuartCopyright © 2010 by Julia Stuart. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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