WHEN Thursday evening came there was great excitement at our house. My mother had asked me what were the Doctor’s favorite dishes, and I had told her: spare ribs, sliced beet-root, fried bread, shrimps and treacle-tart. To-night she had them all on the table waiting for him; and she was now fussing round the house to see if everything was tidy and in readiness for his coming.
At last we heard a knock upon the door, and of course it was I who got there first to let him in.
The Doctor had brought his own flute with him this time. And after supper was over (which he enjoyed very much) the table was cleared away and the washing-up left in the kitchen-sink till the next day. Then the Doctor and my father started playing duets.
They got so interested in this that I began to be afraid that they would never come to talking over my business. But at last the Doctor said,
“Your son tells me that he is anxious to become a naturalist.”
And then began a long talk which lasted far into the night. At first both my mother and father were rather against the idea—as they had been from the beginning. They said it was only a boyish whim, and that I would get tired of it very soon. But after the matter had been talked over from every side, the Doctor turned to my father and said,
“Well now, supposing, Mr. Stubbins, that your son came to me for two years—that is, until he is twelve years old. During those two years he will have time to see if he is going to grow tired of it or not. Also during that time, I will promise to teach him reading and writing and perhaps a little arithmetic as well. What do you say to that?”
“I don’t know,” said my father, shaking his head. “You are very kind and it is a handsome offer you make, Doctor. But I feel that Tommy ought to be learning some trade by which he can earn his living later on.”
Then my mother spoke up. Although she was nearly in tears at the prospect of my leaving her house while I was still so young, she pointed out to my father that this was a grand chance for me to get learning.
“Now Jacob,” she said, “you know that many lads in the town have been to the Grammar School till they were fourteen or fifteen years old. Tommy can easily spare these two years for his education; and if he learns no more than to read and write, the time will not be lost. Though goodness knows,” she added, getting out her handkerchief to cry, “the house will seem terribly empty when he’s gone.”
“I will take care that he comes to see you, Mrs. Stubbins,” said the Doctor—“every day, if you like. After all, he will not be very far away.”
Well, at length my father gave in; and it was agreed that I was to live with the Doctor and work for him for two years in exchange for learning to read and write and for my board and lodging.
“Of course,” added the Doctor, “while I have money I will keep Tommy in clothes as well. But money is a very irregular thing with me; sometimes I have some, and then sometimes I haven’t.”
“You are very good, Doctor,” said my mother, drying her tears. “It seems to me that Tommy is a very fortunate boy.”
And then, thoughtless, selfish little imp that I was, I leaned over and whispered in the Doctor’s ear,
“Please don’t forget to say something about the voyages.”
“Oh, by the way,” said John Dolittle, “of course occasionally my work requires me to travel. You will have no objection, I take it, to your son’s coming with me?”
My poor mother looked up sharply, more unhappy and anxious than ever at this new turn; while I stood behind the Doctor’s chair, my heart thumping with excitement, waiting for my father’s answer.
“No,” he said slowly after a while. “If we agree to the other arrangement I don’t see that we’ve the right to make any objection to that.”
Well, there surely was never a happier boy in the world than I was at that moment. My head was in the clouds. I trod on air. I could scarcely keep from dancing round the parlor. At last the dream of my life was to come true! At last I was to be given a chance to seek my fortune, to have adventures! For I knew perfectly well that it was now almost time for the Doctor to start upon another voyage. Polynesia had told me that he hardly ever stayed at home for more than six months at a stretch. Therefore he would be surely going again within a fortnight. And I—I, Tommy Stubbins, would go with him! Just to think of it!—to cross the Sea, to walk on foreign shores, to roam the World!