The Parting Guest by A. A. Milne

When nice people ask me to their houses for the week-end, I reply that I shall be delighted to come, but that pressure of work will prevent my staying beyond Tuesday. Sometimes, in spite of this, they try to kick me out on the Monday; and if I find that they are serious about it I may possibly consent to go by an evening train. In any case, it always seems to me a pity to have to leave a house just as you are beginning to know your way to the bathroom.

“Is the 9.25 too early for you?” said Charles on Sunday night a propos of nothing that I had said.

“Not if it’s in the evening,” I answered.

“It’s in the morning.”

“Then it’s much too early. I never travel before breakfast. But why do you ask?”

“Well, I’ve got to ride over to Newtown to-morrow—-“

“To-morrow?” I said in surprise. “Aren’t we talking about Tuesday?”

It appeared that we weren’t. It also came out that Charles and his wife, not anticipating the pleasure of my company beyond Monday, had arranged to ride over the downs to Newtown to inspect a horse. They would not be back until the evening.

“But that’s all right, Charles,” I said. “If you have a spare horse, a steady one which doesn’t wobble when it canters, I will ride with you.”

“There’s only the old pony,” said Charles, “and he will be wanted to drive you to the station.”

“Not until Tuesday,” I pointed out.

Charles ignored this remark altogether.

“You couldn’t ride Joseph, anyway,” he said.

“Then I might run beside you, holding on to your stirrup. My ancestors always went into battle like that. We are still good runners.”

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Charles turned over some more pages of his timetable.

“There is a 10.41,” he announced.

“Just when I shall be getting to like you,” I sighed.

“Molly and I have to be off by ten. If you caught the 10.41, you would want to leave here by a quarter past.”

“I shouldn’t want to leave,” I said reproachfully; “I should go with the greatest regret.”

“The 9.25, of course, gets you up to town much earlier.”

“Some such idea, no doubt, would account for its starting before the 10.41. What have you at about 4.30?”

“If you don’t mind changing at Plimton, there’s a 10.5—-“

I got up and lit my candle.

“Let’s wait till to-morrow and see what the weather’s like,” I said sleepily. “I am not a proud man, but after what you’ve said, and if it’s at all wet, I may actually be glad to catch an early train.” And I marched upstairs to bed.

However, a wonderful blue sky next morning made any talk of London utterly offensive. My host and hostess had finished breakfast by the time I got down, and I was just beginning my own when the sound of the horses on the gravel brought me out.

“I’m sorry we’ve got to dash off like this,” said Mrs. Charles, smiling at me from the back of Pompey. “Don’t you be in any hurry to go. There are plenty of trains.”

“Thank you. It would be a shame to leave the country on a morning like this, wouldn’t it? I shall take a stroll over the hills before lunch, and sit about in the garden in the afternoon. There’s a train at five, I think.”

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“We shan’t be back by then, I’m afraid, so this will be good-bye.”

I made my farewells, and Pompey, who was rather fresh, went off sideways down the drive. This left me alone with Charles.

“Good-bye, Charles,” I said, patting him with one hand and his horse with the other. “Don’t you bother about me. I shall be quite happy by myself.”

He looked at me with a curious smile and was apparently about to say something, when Caesar suddenly caught sight of my stockings. These, though in reality perfectly tasteful, might well come as a surprise to a young horse, and Caesar bolted down the drive to tell Pompey about it. I waved to them all from the distance and returned to my breakfast.

After breakfast I lit a pipe and strolled outside. As I stood at the door drinking in the beauty of the morning I was the victim of a curious illusion. It seemed to me that outside the front door was the pony-cart–Joseph in the shafts, the gardener’s boy holding the reins, and by the side of the boy my bag!

“We’ll only just have time, sir,” said the boy.

“But–but I’m going by the five train,” I stammered.

“Well, sir, I shall be over at Newtown this afternoon–with the cart.”

I did not like to ask him why, but I thought I knew. It was, I told myself, to fetch back the horse which Charles was going over to inspect, the horse to which I had to give up my room that night.

“Very well,” I said. “Take the bag now and leave it in the cloak-room. I’ll walk in later.” What the etiquette was when your host gave you a hint by sending your bag to the station and going away himself, I did not know. But however many bags he packed and however many horses he inspected, I was not to be moved till the five o’clock train.

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Half an hour after my bag was gone I made a discovery. It was that, when I started walking to the five o’clock train, I should have to start in pumps….

. . . . .

“My dear Charles,” I wrote that night, “it was delightful to see you this week-end, and I only wish I could have stayed with you longer, but, as you know, I had to dash up to town by the five train to inspect a mule. I am sorry to say that a slight accident happened just before I left you. In the general way, when I catch an afternoon train, I like to pack my bag overnight, but on this occasion I did not begin until nine in the morning. This only left me eight hours, and the result was that in my hurry I packed my shoes by mistake, and had to borrow a pair of yours in which to walk to the station. I will bring them down with me next time I come.”

I may say that they are unusually good shoes, and if Charles doesn’t want me he must at least want them. So I am expecting another invitation by every post. When it arrives I shall reply that I shall be delighted to come, but that, alas! pressure of work will prevent my staying beyond Tuesday.

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