The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle by Hugh Lofting
XI. Blind Travel
This news about Long Arrow made us all very sad. And I could see from the silent dreamy way the Doctor took his tea that he was dreadfully upset. Every once in a while he would stop eating altogether and sit staring at the spots on the kitchen table-cloth as though his thoughts were far away; till Dab-Dab, who was watching to see that he got a good meal, would cough or rattle the pots in the sink.
I did my best to cheer him up by reminding him of all he had done for Luke and his wife that afternoon. And when that didn't seem to work, I went on talking about our preparations for the voyage.
"But you see, Stubbins," said he as we rose from the table and Dab-Dab and Chee-Chee began to clear away, "I don't know where to go now. I feel sort of lost since Miranda brought me this news. On this voyage I had planned going to see Long Arrow. I had been looking forward to it for a whole year. I felt he might help me in learning the language of the shellfish--and perhaps in finding some way of getting to the bottom of the sea. But now?--He's gone! And all his great knowledge has gone with him."
Then he seemed to fall a-dreaming again.
"Just to think of it!" he murmured. "Long Arrow and I, two students-- Although I'd never met him, I felt as though I knew him quite well. For, in his way--without any schooling--he has, all his life, been trying to do the very things which I have tried to do in mine-- And now he's gone!--A whole world lay between us--And only a bird knew us both!"
We went back into the study, where Jip brought the Doctor his slippers and his pipe. And after the pipe was lit and the smoke began to fill the room the old man seemed to cheer up a little.
"But you will go on some voyage, Doctor, won't you?" I asked--"even if you can't go to find Long Arrow."
He looked up sharply into my face; and I suppose he saw how anxious I was. Because he suddenly smiled his old, boyish smile and said,
"Yes, Stubbins. Don't worry. We'll go. We mustn't stop working and learning, even if poor Long Arrow has disappeared--But where to go: that's the question. Where shall we go?"
There were so many places that I wanted to go that I couldn't make up my mind right away. And while I was still thinking, the Doctor sat up in his chair and said,
"I tell you what we'll do, Stubbins: it's a game I used to play when I was young--before Sarah came to live with me. I used to call it Blind Travel. Whenever I wanted to go on a voyage, and I couldn't make up my mind where to go, I would take the atlas and open it with my eyes shut. Next, I'd wave a pencil, still without looking, and stick it down on whatever page had fallen open. Then I'd open my eyes and look. It's a very exciting game, is Blind Travel. Because you have to swear, before you begin, that you will go to the place the pencil touches, come what way. Shall we play it?"
"Oh, let's!" I almost yelled. "How thrilling! I hope it's China-- or Borneo--or Bagdad."
And in a moment I had scrambled up the bookcase, dragged the big atlas from the top shelf and laid it on the table before the Doctor.
I knew every page in that atlas by heart. How many days and nights I had lingered over its old faded maps, following the blue rivers from the mountains to the sea; wondering what the little towns really looked like, and how wide were the sprawling lakes! I had had a lot of fun with that atlas, traveling, in my mind, all over the world. I can see it now: the first page had no map; it just told you that it was printed in Edinburgh in 1808, and a whole lot more about the book. The next page was the Solar System, showing the sun and planets, the stars and the moon. The third page was the chart of the North and South Poles. Then came the hemispheres, the oceans, the continents and the countries.
As the Doctor began sharpening his pencil a thought came to me.
"What if the pencil falls upon the North Pole," I asked, "will we have to go there?"
"No. The rules of the game say you don't have to go any place you've been to before. You are allowed another try. I've been to the North Pole," he ended quietly, "so we shan't have to go there." I could hardly speak with astonishment.
"You've been to the North Pole!" I managed to gasp out at last. "But I thought it was still undiscovered. The map shows all the places explorers have reached to, trying to get there. Why isn't your name down if you discovered it?"
"I promised to keep it a secret. And you must promise me never to tell any one. Yes, I discovered the North Pole in April, 1809. But shortly after I got there the polar bears came to me in a body and told me there was a great deal of coal there, buried beneath the snow. They knew, they said, that human beings would do anything, and go anywhere, to get coal. So would I please keep it a secret. Because once people began coming up there to start coal-mines, their beautiful white country would be spoiled--and there was nowhere else in the world cold enough for polar bears to be comfortable. So of course I had to promise them I would. Ah, well, it will be discovered again some day, by somebody else. But I want the polar bears to have their play-ground to themselves as long as possible. And I daresay it will be a good while yet--for it certainly is a fiendish place to get to--Well now, are we ready?--Good! Take the pencil and stand here close to the table. When the book falls open, wave the pencil round three times and jab it down. Ready?--All right. Shut your eyes."
It was a tense and fearful moment--but very thrilling. We both had our eyes shut tight. I heard the atlas fall open with a bang. I wondered what page it was: England or Asia. If it should be the map of Asia, so much would depend on where that pencil would land. I waved three times in a circle. I began to lower my hand. The pencil-point touched the page.
"All right," I called out, "it's done."