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THE ELEVENTH CHAPTER - MY SCHOOLMASTER, POLYNESIA
WELL, there were not many days after that, you may be sure, when I did not come to see my new friend. Indeed I was at his house practically all day and every day. So that one evening my mother asked me jokingly why I did not take my bed over there and live at the Doctor's house altogether.
After a while I think I got to be quite useful to the Doctor, feeding his pets for him; helping to make new houses and fences for the zoo; assisting with the sick animals that came; doing all manner of odd jobs about the place. So that although I enjoyed it all very much (it was indeed like living in a new world) I really think the Doctor would have missed me if I had not come so often.
And all this time Polynesia came with me wherever I went, teaching me bird language and showing me how to understand the talking signs of the animals. At first I thought I would never be able to learn at all - it seemed so difficult. But the old parrot was wonderfully patient with me - though I could see that occasionally she had hard work to keep her temper.
Soon I began to pick up the strange chatter of the birds and to understand the funny talking antics of the dogs. I used to practise listening to the mice behind the wainscot after I went to bed, and watching the cats on the roofs and pigeons in the market-square of Puddleby.
And the days passed very quickly - as they always do when life is pleasant; and the days turned into weeks, and weeks into months; and soon the roses in the Doctor's garden were losing their petals and yellow leaves lay upon the wide green lawn. For the summer was nearly gone.
One day Polynesia and I were talking in the library. This was a fine long room with a grand mantlepiece and the walls were covered from the ceiling to the floor with shelves full of books: books of stories, books on gardening, books about medicine, books of travel; these I loved - and especially the Doctor's great atlas with all its maps of the different countries of the world.
This afternoon Polynesia was showing me the books about animals which John Dolittle had written himself.
"My!" I said, "what a lot of books the Doctor has - all the way around the room! Goodness! I wish I could read! It must be tremendously interesting. Can you read, Polynesia?"
"Only a little," said she. "Be careful how you turn those pages - don't tear them. No, I really don't get time enough for reading - much. That letter there is a K and this is a B."
"What does this word under the picture mean?" I asked.
"Let me see," she said, and started spelling it out. "B-A-B-O-O-N - that's MONKEY. Reading isn't nearly as hard as it looks, once you know the letters."
"Polynesia," I said, "I want to ask you something very important."
"What is it, my boy?" said she, smoothing down the feathers of her right wing. Polynesia often spoke to me in a very patronizing way. But I did not mind it from her. After all, she was nearly two hundred years old; and I was only ten.
"Listen," I said, "my mother doesn't think it is right that I come here for so many meals. And I was going to ask you: supposing I did a whole lot more work for the Doctor - why couldn't I come and live here altogether? You see, instead of being paid like a regular gardener or workman, I would get my bed and meals in exchange for the work I did. What do you think?"
"You mean you want to be a proper assistant to the Doctor, is that it?"
"Yes. I suppose that's what you call it," I answered. "You know you said yourself that you thought I could be very useful to him."
"Well" - she thought a moment - "I really don't see why not. But is this what you want to be when you grow up, a naturalist?"
"Yes," I said, "I have made up my mind. I would sooner be a naturalist than anything else in the world."
"Humph! - Let's go and speak to the Doctor about it," said Polynesia. "He's in the next room - in the study. Open the door very gently - he may be working and not want to be disturbed."
I opened the door quietly and peeped in. The first thing I saw was an enormous black retriever dog sitting in the middle of the hearth-rug with his ears cocked up, listening to the Doctor who was reading aloud to him from a letter.
"What is the Doctor doing?" I asked Polynesia in a whisper.
"Oh, the dog has had a letter from his mistress and he has brought it to the Doctor to read for him. That's all. He belongs to a funny little girl called Minnie Dooley, who lives on the other side of the town. She has pigtails down her back. She and her brother have gone away to the seaside for the Summer; and the old retriever is heart-broken while the children are gone. So they write letters to him - in English of course. And as the old dog doesn't understand them, he brings them here, and the Doctor turns them into dog language for him. I think Minnie must have written that she is coming back - to judge from the dog's excitement. Just look at him carrying on!"
Indeed the retriever seemed to be suddenly overcome with joy. As the Doctor finished the letter the old dog started barking at the top of his voice, wagging his tail wildly and jumping about the study. He took the letter in his mouth and ran out of the room snorting hard and mumbling to himself.
"He's going down to meet the coach," whispered Polynesia. "That dog's devotion to those children is more than I can understand. You should see Minnie! She's the most conceited little minx that ever walked. She squints too."
Turn to the next chapter: THE TWELFTH CHAPTER - MY GREAT IDEA