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Four Seasons in Puddleby

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Puddleby-on-the-Marsh was a sight to see in the springtime, awash in golden light, signs of the awakening earth everywhere. Matthew Mugg, the Cat's Meat Man, had finished his rounds early that morning, and was now in Doctor John Dolittle's kitchen, while the Doctor puttered and fretted all over the rest of the building.

Word had come from the local squirrels that there was an expectant mother hedgehog in the nearby forest who needed some aide with her delivery. This would be her first litter, and she was very nervous. John didn't expect to need to do more than a bit of handholding (logistics to be decided) but, nonetheless, was throwing himself into the task with gusto.

Matthew thought the Doctor was amazing. It hadn't been long after their return from Sea Star Island before John invited him to move in, and pay for his lodgings with food for the carnivores in the house. Matthew had been very grateful to leave his rented room in town--and even more grateful to be near the marvelous Doctor. Since that day he had helped John's enterprise in every way he could, acting as his assistant in any tasks he felt competant enough to do, acting as a sounding-board for the many ideas and proposed experiments that flowed from that genius mind. He did repairs on the house, ran errands while he was out on his rounds with the cart, and generally did everything he could to be what John required.

So today (as Chee Chee had grown bored of cooking, since he preferred his food whole, uncooked, and unseasoned) he was preparing a simple meal with care, for John to eat while he sat nest-side for the tiny creature. Into the basket went watercress sandwiches, a pouch full of raspberries, and a fresh bottle of milk. He bundled it up and carried it to the doorway, handing it to the Doctor along with his hat and coat. After John left he tidied up the tabletops, which were now scattered with bits of herbs, well-loved books, and blanket scraps.

Today he could serve as anything the Doctor needed, in addition to being the local meat-scraps seller: chef, butler, maid. Maybe one day he could settle into a single role.

Before he found his true calling in life, Matthew had come from a fishing family, so when one summer day he was invited to fill an empty space on a local boat, he couldn't resist.

He had been out of sorts all week, ever since Long Arrow arrived. Things were all well and good when it was just Matthew and John, when Matthew could quietly listen to the Doctor's marvelous stories, sharing his own comparatively (in his mind) simple tales and advice, but it was quite another thing when there were two Great Naturalists of the World under one roof, going back and forth day and night about topics Matthew could barely understand. It was stifling in that house, and lonely to boot, and it was so refreshing to be out on the water, in the sea spray, the sun looking kindly down on he and his fishing party.

He endured the kindly ribbing from the fishermen, regarding ruffled feathers and challenged nests, taking it all in stride. Matthew had earned their respect long ago, either helping to add a bit of extra money to the pockets, or keeping their household pets well-fed--or a combination of both--so he knew they meant no ill will. Who couldn't comment on a somewhat isolated home occupied solely by two eccentric bachelors? He would do so himself, if he weren't a part of it.

By the time they got back to shore, he had four fat fish ready to clean--an impressive haul indeed.

He returned home to find out from Polynesia that John and Long Arrow were going to be staying out until at least twilight, studying the local wildlife. There was something shockingly relaxing about being the only man in the house for once.

Only man, yes, but not alone by any means. From the outset of his arrival with fish in hand, he was surrouded by creatures: local cats, Jip, ferrets, foxes, all peacefully coexisting in exchange for simple raw fish. He passed most of it along to them, only saving enough for his own supper, which he broiled over the fire.

He ate in the sitting room, feet up on the table. Matthew felt quiet and self-satisfied, surveying his domain.

This was his life, his home, and still would be long after Long Arrow resumed his explorations of the globe.

Mushroom-picking after the first great fall rains is one of life's most satisfying pleasures, and John Dolittle was able to make it even more rewarding. Matthew had always loved the outings, the rich smell of the soil, but before he met John, he had never come home with more than a handful of chantarelles.

That autumn, though, he was with the great animal doctor, and so they had the field mice to scout ahead and locate the colonies of fungi, and Gub-Gub's keen nose to steer them clear of harmful or bad-tasting varieties. As a result there was a seemingly neverending abundance of not just chantarelles, but also puffballs, shaggy inkcaps, and penny buns. Mushrooms were such an important part of John's vegetarian diet that he was eager to gather all they could, and set to drying what they couldn't consume right away.

Sometimes they worked silently, save for John's little cheep and chirrup exchanges with the mice, but now and then Matthew's heart was just too swelled with the beauty of the woods: the thin, yellow autumnal sunlight knifing through the brilliantly red and orange trees; quick, icy little streams cutting their way through the forest floor; twittering birdsong in the branches. When this happened he sang songs from home, quietly but passionately, needing some sort of outlet for all the feeling in his breast.

John never hushed him, simply listened without comment, even though no doubt it did make it a bit harder to communicate with the small creatures.

They returned to the house exhausted, after dark, a full large basket in each hand. All day they had spoken of the delicious supper they would have--mushroom soup, mushroom cassarole, or perhaps just a big heaping plate of mushrooms browned in butter. But now that they were home, neither could stop yawning, so they decided to retire and deal with sorting the mushrooms the next day.

Matthew went upstairs to Sarah's old room, where the bed--long before he moved in--had been replaced with a simple feather mattress on the floor. ("Much easier to tuck especially ill patients into," as the Doctor had explained) He was already halfway undressed and eager to drop down into bed--until he discovered that the house rabbit had decided it was his new nest. He was awfully soft and warm, of course, but as prior experience had shown, he made a terrible bedpartner. He kicked and kicked all night long, dreaming about hopping about the countryside no doubt.

Passing on the way to his own room, John saw his predicament. "Ah, well then. I see. You'll have to climb in with me then, there's nothing for it."

"But, John--your bed's so small--"

"Don't worry, Matthew. I shan't crush you. I sleep like a stone."

There wasn't much to say in response to that, honestly, except to follow.

One winter morning Matthew woke up suddenly, inexplicably, in the chill pre-dawn light. John was pressed against him, back-to-back, still fast asleep. His early-riser habits must finally have been wearing off on Matthew, who normally arose long after the Doctor had gotten up to make his rounds.

There was no getting back to sleep, so he decided to rise and light the hearth-fire, as John normally did for the household every other morning. It had never really occured to Matthew, until that morning when he set foot outside the warm nest of blankets and onto the cold hard floor of the room, how much work the Doctor really did, all the time, and how many lives he cared for every day. John hardly ever complained, and went about all his work as if he equally enjoyed it, but mornings like this were clearly a chore, whether he ever spoke of it or not.

So,Matthew quickly bundled up and descended the stairs, having to carefully climb over one sleeping animal body or another to get to the small pile of wood next to the fireplace. It was a very solid, old house, not draughty at all, but nonetheless it was just damn cold that morning. After building a pyramid of logs and kindling, he paused to rub his hands together, blessedly thankful for that long-ago invention of matches so that he wouldn't have to rub sticks together instead.

After the fire was positively roaring, and the chill was once again off his bones, he set to making a breakfast of oatmeal made with fresh milk and butter, with dried blackberries and nuts. The smell of spices (Long Arrow, on his most recent visit, had brought gifts of nutmeg and cinnamon) began to rise through the house, and as if in answer, he heard the creaking of floorboards overhead that signaled John's awakening.

Matthew was surprised to see a great smile of excitement on his face as he arrived at the hearth.

"Ah, what's this, John Dolittle, did you have lovely dreams the night through?"

John ducked his head at the question--did Matthew detect a blush, then? "Ah, well, Matthew, I was just thinking on some news I received last evening while you were out tending the barn. You see, I had an avian messenger yesterday evening."

Matthew dished out the hot oats. "A relative of Polynesia's?"

"Oh no, no, it's much too cold for parrots to be gallivanting about! But the messenger isn't the point, you see. It's the message. It was from our old friend Sophie!"

"Sophie? How are she and her husband getting on, then?"

"Splendidly! She says they've found something particularly interesting--some surprise--for me to study at their winter home, and that I should come to meet them post haste. It's been terribly troubling me because I'd very much like to go, but there's the usual issue of money for shelter--in the winter it's unavoidable--especially where we're going!"

"We? Am I to be joining you, then? And where?" Matthew couldn't help but be charmed by John's excitement, by the endless turning of gears in the dear man's head. He was like a child about to go off on holiday.

"That's the perfection of it! I only made the connection this morning. They're in Ireland, you see, Matthew!"

Now Matthew matches his grin, perking up immediately. "Indeed, are they now?"

"Yes, yes! I'm sorry to volunteer you for the journey--it's not exactly as grand and glamourous as the last--but I believe you have some family there, don't you? Do you think perhaps we could impose on them?"

That was putting it mildly. God bless the abundance of Catholic relations, when one needs a roof over one's head and a warm plate of food in front of you. As to the rest, well, Matthew knew that with the Doctor, life didn't have to be glamorous in order to be grand.

"Ah, John, I'm taking you home to meet Mother, now, am I? At this rate I may just be the happiest man in the world!" And he couldn't help it--he threw his arm around the shoulder of that darling man, his dearest friend, and kissed him soundly, firmly, speaking in a human language that even John Dolittle, the animal doctor who couldn't understand the human race, would know by heart.