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The Doctor by A. A. Milne

 

"May I look at my watch?" I asked my partner, breaking a silence which had lasted from the beginning of the waltz.

"Oh, HAVE you got a watch?" she drawled. "How exciting!"

"I wasn't going to show it to you," I said, "But I always think it looks so bad for a man to remove his arm from a lady's waist in order to look at his watch—I mean without some sort of apology or explanation. As though he were wondering if he could possibly stick another five minutes of it."

"Let me know when the apology is beginning," said Miss White. Perhaps, after all, her name wasn't White, but, anyhow, she was dressed in white, and it's her own fault if wrong impressions arise.

"It begins at once. I've got to catch a train home. There's one at 12.45, I believe. If I started now I could just miss it."

"You don't live in these Northern Heights then?"

"No. Do you?"

"Yes."

I looked at my watch again.

"I should love to discuss with you the relative advantages of London and Greater London," I said; "the flats and cats of one and the big gardens of the other. But just at the moment the only thing I can think of is whether I shall like the walk home. Are there any dangerous passes to cross?"

"It's a nice wet night for a walk," said Miss White reflectively.

"If only I had brought my bicycle."

"A watch AND a bicycle! You ARE lucky!"

"Look here, it may be a joke to you, but I don't fancy myself coming down the mountains at night."

"The last train goes at one o'clock, if that's any good to you."

"All the good in the world," I said joyfully. "Then I needn't walk." I looked at my watch. "That gives us five minutes more. I could almost tell you all about myself in the time."

"It generally takes longer than that," said Miss White. "At least it seems to." She sighed and added, "My partners have been very autobiographical to-night."

I looked at her severely.

"I'm afraid you're a Suffragette," I said.

As soon as the next dance began I hurried off to find my hostess. I had just caught sight of her, when—

"Our dance, isn't it?" said a voice.

I turned and recognized a girl in blue.

"Ah," I said, coldly cheerful, "I was just looking for you. Come along."

We broke into a gay and happy step, suggestive of twin hearts utterly free from care.

"Why do you look so thoughtful?" asked the girl in blue after ten minutes of it.

"I've just heard some good news," I said.

"Oh, do tell me!"

"I don't know if it would really interest you."

"I'm sure it would."

"Well, several miles from here there may be a tram, if one can find it, which goes nobody quite knows where up till one-thirty in the morning probably. It is now," I added, looking at my watch (I was getting quite good at this), "just on one o'clock and raining hard. All is well."

The dance over, I searched in vain for my hostess. Every minute I took out my watch and seemed to feel that another tram was just starting off to some unknown destination. At last I could bear it no longer and, deciding to write a letter of explanation on the morrow, I dashed off.

My instructions from Miss White with regard to the habitat of trams (thrown in by her at the last moment in case the train failed me) were vague. Five minutes' walk convinced me that I had completely lost any good that they might ever have been to me. Instinct and common sense were the only guides left. I must settle down to some heavy detective work.

The steady rain had washed out any footprints that might have been of assistance, and I was unable to follow up the slot of a tram conductor of which I had discovered traces in Two-hundred-and- fifty-first Street. In Three-thousand-eight-hundred- and-ninety-seventh Street I lay with my ear to the ground and listened intently, for I seemed to hear the ting-ting of the electric car, but nothing came of it; and in Four-millionth Street I made a new resolution. I decided to give up looking for trams and to search instead for London—the London that I knew.

I felt pretty certain that I was still in one of the Home Counties, and I did not seem to remember having crossed the Thames, so that if only I could find a star which pointed to the south I was in a fair way to get home. I set out to look for a star; with the natural result that, having abandoned all hope of finding a man, I immediately ran into him.

"Now then," he said good-naturedly.

"Could you tell me the way to—" I tried to think of some place near my London—"to Westminster Abbey?"

He looked at me in astonishment. His feeling seemed to be that I was too late for the Coronation and too early for the morning service.

"Or—or anywhere," I said hurriedly. "Trams, for instance."

He pointed nervously to the right and disappeared.

Imagine my joy; there were tram-lines, and, better still, a tram approaching. I tumbled in, gave the conductor a penny, and got a workman's ticket in exchange. Ten minutes later we reached the terminus.

I had wondered where we should arrive, whether Gray's Inn Road or Southampton Row, but didn't much mind so long as I was again within reach of a cab. However, as soon as I stepped out of the tram, I knew at once where I was.

"Tell me," I said to the conductor; "do you now go back again?"

"In ten minutes. There's a tram from here every half-hour."

"When is the last?"

"There's no last. Backwards and forwards all night."

I should have liked to stop and sympathize, but it was getting late. I walked a hundred yards up the hill and turned to the right.... As I entered the gates I could hear the sound of music.

"Isn't this our dance?" I said to Miss White, who was taking a breather at the hall door. "One moment," I added, and I got out of my coat and umbrella.

"Is it? I thought you'd gone."

"Oh no, I decided to stay after all. I found out that the trams go all night."

We walked in together.

"I won't be more autobiographical than I can help," I said, "but I must say it's a hard life, a doctor's. One is called away in the middle of a dance to a difficult case of—of mumps or something, and—well, there you are. A delightful evening spoilt. If one is lucky, one may get back in time for a waltz or two at the end.

"Indeed," I said, as we began to dance; "at one time to-night I quite thought I wasn't going to get back here at all."

THE THINGS THAT MATTER

RONALD, surveying the world from his taxi—that pleasant corner of the world, St James's Park—gave a sigh of happiness. The blue sky, the lawn of daffodils, the mist of green upon the trees were but a promise of the better things which the country held for him. Beautiful as he thought the daffodils, he found for the moment an even greater beauty in the Gladstone bags at his feet. His eyes wandered from one to the other, and his heart sang to him, "I'm going away—I'm going away—I'm going away."

The train was advertised to go at 2.22, and at 2.20 Ronald joined the Easter holiday crowd upon the platform. A porter put down his luggage and was then swallowed up in a sea of perambulators and flustered parents. Ronald never saw him again. At 2.40, amidst some applause, the train came in.

Ronald seized a lost porter.

"Just put these in for me," he said. "A first smoker."

"All this lot yours, sir?"

"The three bags—not the milk-cans," said Ronald.

It had been a beautiful day before, but when a family of sixteen which joined Ronald in his carriage was ruthlessly hauled out by the guard, the sun seemed to shine with a warmth more caressing than ever. Even when the train moved out of the station, and the children who had been mislaid emerged from their hiding-places and were bundled in anywhere by the married porters, Ronald still remained splendidly alone ... and the sky took on yet a deeper shade of blue.

He lay back in his corner, thinking. For a time his mind was occupied with the thoughts common to most of us when we go away—thoughts of all the things we have forgotten to pack. I don't think you could fairly have called Ronald over-anxious about clothes. He recognized that it was the inner virtues which counted; that a well-dressed exterior was nothing without some graces of mind or body. But at the same time he did feel strongly that, if you are going to stay at a house where you have never visited before, and if you are particularly anxious to make a good impression, it IS a pity that an accident of packing should force you to appear at dinner in green knickerbockers and somebody else's velvet smoking-jacket.

Ronald couldn't help feeling that he had forgotten something. It wasn't the spare sponge; it wasn't the extra shaving-brush; it wasn't the second pair of bedroom slippers. Just for a moment the sun went behind a cloud as he wondered if he had included the reserve razor-strop; but no, he distinctly remembered packing that.

The reason for his vague feeling of unrest was this. He had been interrupted while getting ready that afternoon; and as he left whatever he had been doing in order to speak to his housekeeper he had said to himself, "If you're not careful, you'll forget about that when you come back." And now he could not remember what it was he had been doing, nor whether he HAD in the end forgotten to go on with it. Was he selecting his ties, or brushing his hair, or—

The country was appearing field by field; the train rushed through cuttings gay with spring flowers; blue was the sky between the baby clouds ... but it all missed Ronald. What COULD he have forgotten?

He went over the days that were coming; he went through all the changes of toilet that the hours might bring. He had packed this and this and this and this—he was all right for the evening. Supposing they played golf? ... He was all right for golf. He might want to ride .... He would be able to ride. It was too early for lawn-tennis, but ... well, anyhow, he had put in flannels.

As he considered all the possible clothes that he might want, it really seemed that he had provided for everything. If he liked, he could go to church on Friday morning; hunt otters from twelve to one on Saturday; toboggan or dig for badgers on Monday. He had the different suits necessary for those who attend a water-polo meeting, who play chess, or who go out after moths with a pot of treacle. And even, in the last resort, he could go to bed.

Yes, he was all right. He had packed EVERYTHING; moreover, his hair was brushed and he had no smut upon his face. With a sigh of relief he lowered the window and his soul drank in the beautiful afternoon. "We are going away—we are going away—we are going away," sang the train.

At the prettiest of wayside stations the train stopped and Ronald got out. There were horses to meet him. "Better than a car," thought Ronald, "on an afternoon like this." The luggage was collected—"Nothing left out," he chuckled to himself, and was seized with an insane desire to tell the coach-man so; and then they drove off through the fresh green hedgerows, Ronald trying hard not to cheer.

His host was at the door as they arrived. Ronald, as happy as a child, jumped out and shook him warmly by the hand, and told him what a heavenly day it was; receiving with smiles of pleasure the news in return that it was almost like summer.

"You're just in time for tea. Really, we might have it in the garden."

"By Jove, we might," said Ronald, beaming.

However, they had it in the hall, with the doors wide open. Ronald, sitting lazily with his legs stretched out and a cup of tea in his hands, and feeling already on the friendliest terms with everybody, wondered again at the difference which the weather could make to one's happiness.

"You know," he said to the girl on his right, "on a day like this, NOTHING seems to matter."

And then suddenly he knew that he was wrong; for he had discovered what it was which he had told himself not to forget ... what it was which he had indeed forgotten.

And suddenly the birds stopped singing and there was a bitter chill in the air.

And the sun went violently out.

. . . . . . .

He was wearing only half a pair of spats.

 
 
 

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