An Insurance Act by A. A. Milne

Of course, I had always known that a medical examination was a necessary preliminary to insurance, but in my own case I had expected the thing to be the merest formality. The doctor, having seen at a glance what a fine, strong, healthy fellow I was, would look casually at my tongue, apologise for having doubted it, enquire genially what my grandfather had died of, and show me to the door. This idea of mine was fostered by the excellent testimonial which I had written myself at the Company’s bidding. “Are you suffering from any constitutional disease?–No. Have you ever had gout?–No. Are you deformed?–No. Are you of strictly sober and temperate habits?–No,” I mean Yes. My replies had been a model of what an Assurance Company expects. Then why the need of a doctor?

However, they insisted.

The doctor began quietly enough. He asked, as I had anticipated, after the health of my relations. I said that they were very fit; and, not to be outdone in politeness, expressed the hope that his people, too, were keeping well in this trying weather. He wondered if I drank much. I said, “Oh, well, perhaps I will,” with an apologetic smile, and looked round for the sideboard. Unfortunately he did not pursue the matter….

“And now,” he said, after the hundredth question, “I should like to look at your chest.”

I had seen it coming for some time. In vain I had tried to turn the conversation–to lead him back to the subject of drinks or my relations. It was no good. He was evidently determined to see my chest. Nothing could move him from his resolve.

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Trembling, I prepared for the encounter. What terrible disease was he going to discover?

He began by tapping me briskly all over in a series of double knocks. For the most part one double-knock at any point appeared to satisfy him, but occasionally there would be no answer and he would knock again. At one spot he knocked four times before he could make himself heard.

“This,” I said to myself at the third knock, “has torn it. I shall be ploughed,” and I sent an urgent message to my chest, “For ‘eving’s sake do something, you fool! Can’t you hear the gentleman?” I suppose that roused it, for at the next knock he passed on to an adjacent spot….

“Um,” he said, when he had called everywhere, “um.”

“I wonder what I’ve done,” I thought to myself. “I don’t believe he likes my chest.”

Without a word he got out his stethoscope and began to listen to me. As luck would have it he struck something interesting almost at once, and for what seemed hours he stood there listening and listening to it. But it was boring for me, because I really had very little to do. I could have bitten him in the neck with some ease … or I might have licked his ear. Beyond that, nothing seemed to offer.

I moistened my lips and spoke.

“Am I dying?” I asked in a broken voice.

“Don’t talk,” he said. “Just breathe naturally.”

“I am dying,” I thought, “and he is hiding it from me.” It was a terrible reflection.

“Um,” he said and moved on.

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By and by he went and listened behind my back. It is very bad form to listen behind a person’s back. I did not tell him so, however. I wanted him to like me.

“Yes,” he said. “Now cough.”

“I haven’t a cough,” I pointed out.

“Make the noise of coughing,” he said severely.

Extremely nervous, I did my celebrated imitation of a man with an irritating cough.

“H’m! h’m! h’m! h’m!”

“Yes,” said the doctor. “Go on.”

“He likes it,” I said to myself, “and he must obviously be an excellent judge. I shall devote more time to mimicry in future. H’m! h’m! h’m!…”

The doctor came round to where I could see him again.

“Now cough like this,” he said. “Honk! honk!”

I gave my celebrated imitation of a sick rhinoceros gasping out its life. It went well. I got an encore.

“Um,” he said gravely, “um.” He put his stethoscope away and looked earnestly at me.

“Tell me the worst,” I begged. “I’m not bothering about this stupid insurance business now. That’s off, of course. But–how long have I? I must put my affairs in order. Can you promise me a week?”

He said nothing. He took my wrists in his hands and pressed them. It was evident that grief over-mastered him and that he was taking a silent farewell of me. I bowed my head. Then, determined to bear my death-sentence like a man, I said firmly, “So be it,” and drew myself away from him.

However, he wouldn’t let me go.

“Come, come,” I said to him, “you must not give way”; and I made an effort to release one of my hands, meaning to pat him encouragingly on the shoulder.

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He resisted….

I realized suddenly that I had mistaken his meaning, and that he was simply feeling my pulses.

“Um,” he said, “um,” and continued to finger my wrists.

Clenching my teeth, and with the veins starting out on my forehead, I worked my pulses as hard as I could.

. . . . .

“Ah,” he said, as I finished tying my tie; and he got up from the desk where he had been making notes of my disastrous case, and came over to me. “There is just one thing more. Sit down.”

I sat down.

“Now cross your knees.”

I crossed my knees. He bent over me and gave me a sharp tap below the knee with the side of his hand.

My chest may have disappointed him…. He may have disliked my back…. Possibly I was a complete failure with my pulses…. But I knew the knee-trick.

This time he should not be disappointed.

I was taking no risks. Almost before his hand reached my knee, my foot shot out and took him fairly under the chin. His face suddenly disappeared.

“I haven’t got that disease,” I said cheerily.

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