ONE Monday afternoon towards the end of April my father asked me to take some shoes which he had mended to a house on the other side of the town. They were for a Colonel Bellowes who was very particular.
I found the house and rang the bell at the front door. The Colonel opened it, stuck out a very red face and said, “Go round to the tradesmen’s entrance—go to the back door.” Then he slammed the door shut.
I felt inclined to throw the shoes into the middle of his flower-bed. But I thought my father might be angry, so I didn’t. I went round to the back door, and there the Colonel’s wife met me and took the shoes from me. She looked a timid little woman and had her hands all over flour as though she were making bread. She seemed to be terribly afraid of her husband whom I could still hear stumping round the house somewhere, grunting indignantly because I had come to the front door. Then she asked me in a whisper if I would have a bun and a glass of milk. And I said, “Yes, please.”
After I had eaten the bun and milk, I thanked the Colonel’s wife and came away. Then I thought that before I went home I would go and see if the Doctor had come back yet. I had been to his house once already that morning. But I thought I’d just like to go and take another look. My squirrel wasn’t getting any better and I was beginning to be worried about him.
So I turned into the Oxenthorpe Road and started off towards the Doctor’s house. On the way I noticed that the sky was clouding over and that it looked as though it might rain.
I reached the gate and found it still locked. I felt very discouraged. I had been coming here every day for a week now. The dog, Jip, came to the gate and wagged his tail as usual, and then sat down and watched me closely to see that I didn’t get in.
I began to fear that my squirrel would die before the Doctor came back. I turned away sadly, went down the steps on to the road and turned towards home again.
I wondered if it were supper-time yet. Of course I had no watch of my own, but I noticed a gentleman coming towards me down the road; and when he got nearer I saw it was the Colonel out for a walk. He was all wrapped up in smart overcoats and mufflers and bright-colored gloves. It was not a very cold day but he had so many clothes on he looked like a pillow inside a roll of blankets. I asked him if he would please tell me the time.
He stopped, grunted and glared down at me—his red face growing redder still; and when he spoke it sounded like the cork coming out of a gingerbeer-bottle.
“Do you imagine for one moment,” he spluttered, “that I am going to get myself all unbuttoned just to tell a little boy like you the time!” And he went stumping down the street, grunting harder than ever.
I stood still a moment looking after him and wondering how old I would have to be, to have him go to the trouble of getting his watch out. And then, all of a sudden, the rain came down in torrents.
I have never seen it rain so hard. It got dark, almost like night. The wind began to blow; the thunder rolled; the lightning flashed, and in a moment the gutters of the road were flowing like a river. There was no place handy to take shelter, so I put my head down against the driving wind and started to run towards home.
I hadn’t gone very far when my head bumped into something soft and I sat down suddenly on the pavement. I looked up to see whom I had run into. And there in front of me, sitting on the wet pavement like myself, was a little round man with a very kind face. He wore a shabby high hat and in his hand he had a small black bag.
“I’m very sorry,” I said. “I had my head down and I didn’t see you coming.”
To my great surprise, instead of getting angry at being knocked down, the little man began to laugh.
“You know this reminds me,” he said, “of a time once when I was in India. I ran full tilt into a woman in a thunderstorm. But she was carrying a pitcher of molasses on her head and I had treacle in my hair for weeks afterwards—the flies followed me everywhere. I didn’t hurt you, did I?”
“No,” I said. “I’m all right.”
“It was just as much my fault as it was yours, you know,” said the little man. “I had my head down too—but look here, we mustn’t sit talking like this. You must be soaked. I know I am. How far have you got to go?”
“My home is on the other side of the town,” I said, as we picked ourselves up.
“My Goodness, but that was a wet pavement!” said he. “And I declare it’s coming down worse than ever. Come along to my house and get dried. A storm like this can’t last.”
He took hold of my hand and we started running back down the road together. As we ran I began to wonder who this funny little man could be, and where he lived. I was a perfect stranger to him, and yet he was taking me to his own home to get dried. Such a change, after the old red-faced Colonel who had refused even to tell me the time! Presently we stopped.
“Here we are,” he said.
I looked up to see where we were and found myself back at the foot of the steps leading to the little house with the big garden! My new friend was already running up the steps and opening the gate with some keys he took from his pocket.
“Surely,” I thought, “this cannot be the great Doctor Dolittle himself!”
I suppose after hearing so much about him I had expected some one very tall and strong and marvelous. It was hard to believe that this funny little man with the kind smiling face could be really he. Yet here he was, sure enough, running up the steps and opening the very gate which I had been watching for so many days!
The dog, Jip, came rushing out and started jumping up on him and barking with happiness. The rain was splashing down heavier than ever.
“Are you Doctor Dolittle?” I shouted as we sped up the short garden-path to the house.
“Yes, I’m Doctor Dolittle,” said he, opening the front door with the same bunch of keys. “Get in! Don’t bother about wiping your feet. Never mind the mud. Take it in with you. Get in out of the rain!”
I popped in, he and Jip following. Then he slammed the door to behind us.
The storm had made it dark enough outside; but inside the house, with the door closed, it was as black as night. Then began the most extraordinary noise that I have ever heard. It sounded like all sorts and kinds of animals and birds calling and squeaking and screeching at the same time. I could hear things trundling down the stairs and hurrying along passages. Somewhere in the dark a duck was quacking, a cock was crowing, a dove was cooing, an owl was hooting, a lamb was bleating and Jip was barking. I felt birds’ wings fluttering and fanning near my face. Things kept bumping into my legs and nearly upsetting me. The whole front hall seemed to be filling up with animals. The noise, together with the roaring of the rain, was tremendous; and I was beginning to grow a little bit scared when I felt the Doctor take hold of my arm and shout into my ear.
“Don’t be alarmed. Don’t be frightened. These are just some of my pets. I’ve been away three months and they are glad to see me home again. Stand still where you are till I strike a light. My Gracious, what a storm!—Just listen to that thunder!”
So there I stood in the pitch-black dark, while all kinds of animals which I couldn’t see chattered and jostled around me. It was a curious and a funny feeling. I had often wondered, when I had looked in from the front gate, what Doctor Dolittle would be like and what the funny little house would have inside it. But I never imagined it would be anything like this. Yet somehow after I had felt the Doctor’s hand upon my arm I was not frightened, only confused. It all seemed like some queer dream; and I was beginning to wonder if I was really awake, when I heard the Doctor speaking again:
“My blessed matches are all wet. They won’t strike. Have you got any?”
“No, I’m afraid I haven’t,” I called back.
“Never mind,” said he. “Perhaps Dab-Dab can raise us a light somewhere.”
Then the Doctor made some funny clicking noises with his tongue and I heard some one trundle up the stairs again and start moving about in the rooms above.
Then we waited quite a while without anything happening.
“Will the light be long in coming?” I asked. “Some animal is sitting on my foot and my toes are going to sleep.”
“No, only a minute,” said the Doctor. “She’ll be back in a minute.”
And just then I saw the first glimmerings of a light around the landing above. At once all the animals kept quiet.
“I thought you lived alone,” I said to the Doctor.
“So I do,” said he. “It is Dab-Dab who is bringing the light.”
I looked up the stairs trying to make out who was coming. I could not see around the landing but I heard the most curious footstep on the upper flight. It sounded like some one hopping down from one step to the other, as though he were using only one leg.
As the light came lower, it grew brighter and began to throw strange jumping shadows on the walls.
“Ah—at last!” said the Doctor. “Good old Dab-Dab!”
And then I thought I really must be dreaming. For there, craning her neck round the bend of the landing, hopping down the stairs on one leg, came a spotless white duck. And in her right foot she carried a lighted candle!