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A short story by A. A. Milne

Napoleon At Work

Title:     Napoleon At Work
Author: A. A. Milne [More Titles by Milne]

When I am in any doubt or difficulty I say to myself, "What would Napoleon have done?" The answer generally comes at once: "He would have borrowed from Henry," or "He would have said his aunt was ill"--the one obviously right and proper thing. Then I weigh in and do it.

"What station is this?" said Beatrice, as the train began to slow up. "Baby and I want to get home."

"Whitecroft, I expect," said John, who was reading the paper. "Only four more."

"It's grown since we were here last," I observed. "Getting quite a big place."

"Good; then we're at Hillstead. Only three more stations."

I looked out of the window, and had a sudden suspicion.

"Where have I heard the name Byres before?" I murmured thoughtfully.

"You haven't," said John. "Nobody has."

"Say 'Byres,' baby," urged Beatrice happily.

"You're quite sure that there isn't anything advertised called 'Byres'? You're sure you can't drink Byres or rub yourself down with Byres?"


"Well, then, we must be AT Byres."

There was a shriek from Beatrice, as she rushed to the window.

"We're in the wrong train--Quick! Get the bags!--Have you got the rug?--Where's the umbrella?--Open the window, stupid!"

I got up and moved her from the door.

"Leave this to me," I said calmly. "Porter!-- PORTER!!--PORTER!!!--Oh, guard, what station's this?"

"Byres, sir."


"Yes, sir." He blew his whistle and the train went on again.

"At any rate we know now that it WAS Byres," I remarked, when the silence began to get oppressive.

"It's all very well for you," Beatrice burst out indignantly, "but you don't think about Baby. We don't know a bit where we are--"

"That's the one thing we do know," I said. "We're at this little Byres place."

"It was the porter's fault at Liverpool Street," said John consolingly. "He told us it was a through carriage."

"I don't care whose fault it was; I'm only thinking of Baby."

"What time do babies go to bed as a rule?" I asked.

"This one goes at six."

"Well, then, she's got another hour. Now, what would Napoleon have done?"

"Napoleon," said John, after careful thought, "would have turned all your clothes out of your bag, would have put the baby in it diagonally, and have bored holes in the top for ventilation. That's as good as going to bed--you avoid the worst of the evening mists. And people would only think you kept caterpillars."

Beatrice looked at him coldly.

"That's a way to talk of your daughter," she said in scorn.

"Don't kill him," I begged, "We may want him. Now I've got another idea. If you look out of the window you observe that we are on a SINGLE line."

"Well, I envy it. And, however single it is, we're going away from home in it."

"True. But the point is that no train can come back on it until we've stopped going forward. So, you see, there's no object in getting out of this train until it has finished for the day. Probably it will go back itself before long, out of sheer boredom. And it's much better waiting here than on a draughty Byres platform."

Beatrice, quite seeing the point, changed the subject.

"There's my trunk will go on to Brookfield, and the wagonette will meet the train, and as we aren't there it will go away without the trunk, and all baby's things are in it."

"She's not complaining," I said. "She's just mentioning it."

"Look here," said John reproachfully, "we're doing all we can. We're both thinking like anything." He picked up his paper again.

I was beginning to get annoyed. It was, of course, no good to get as anxious and excited as Beatrice; that wouldn't help matters at all. On the other hand, the entire indifference of John and the baby was equally out of place. It seemed to me that there was a middle and Napoleonic path in between these two extremes which only I was following. To be convinced that one is the only person doing the right thing is always annoying.

"I've just made another discovery," I said in a hurt voice. "There's a map over John's head, if he'd only had the sense to look there before. There we are," and I pointed with my stick; "there's Byres. The line goes round and round and eventually goes through Dearmer. We get out at Dearmer, and we're only three miles from Brookfield."

"What they call a loop line," assisted John, "because it's in the shape of a loop."

"It's not so bad as it might be," admitted Beatrice grudgingly, after studying the map, "but it's five miles home from Dearmer; and what about my trunk?"

I sighed and pulled out a pencil.

"It's very simple. We write a telegram:--

'Stationmaster, Brookfield. Send wagonette and trunk to wait for us at Dearmer Station.'"

"Love to mother and the children," added John.

Our train stopped again. I summoned a porter and gave him the telegram.

"It's so absurdly simple," I repeated, as the train went on. "Just a little presence of mind; that's all."

We got out at Dearmer and gave up our tickets to the porter-station-master-signalman.

"What's this?" he said. "These are no good to me."

"Well, they're no good to us. We've finished with them."

We sat in the waiting-room with him for half an hour and explained the situation. We said that, highly as we thought of Dearmer, we had not wantonly tried to defraud the Company in order to get a sight of the place; and that, so far from owing him three shillings apiece, we were prepared to take a sovereign to say nothing more about it.... And still the wagonette didn't come.

"Is there a post-office here?" I asked the man. "Or a horse?"

"There might be a horse at the 'Lion.' There's no post-office."

"Well, I suppose I could wire to Brookfield Station from here?"

"Not to Brookfield."

"But supposing you want to tell the station-master there that the train's off the line, or that you've won the first prize at the Flower Show in the vegetable class, how would you do it?"

"Brookfield's not on this line. That's why you've got to pay three shill--"

"Yes, yes. You said all that. Then I shall go and explore the village."

I explored, as Napoleon would have done, and I came back with a plan.

"There is no horse," I said to my eager audience; "but I have found a bicycle. The landlady of the 'Lion' will be delighted to look after Beatrice and the baby, and will give her tea; John will stay here with the bags in case the wagonette turns up, and I will ride to Brookfield and summon help."

"That's all right," said John, "only I would suggest that _I_ go to the 'Lion' and have tea, and Beatrice and the child--"

We left him in disgust at his selfishness. I established the ladies at the inn, mounted the bicycle, and rode off. It was a windy day, and I had a long coat and a bowler hat. After an extremely unpleasant two miles something drove past me. I lifted up my head and looked round. It was the wagonette.

I rode back behind it in triumph. When it turned up the road to the station, I hurried straight on to the "Lion" to prepare Beatrice. I knocked, and peered into rooms, and knocked again, and at last the landlady came.

"Er--is the lady--"

"Oh, she's gone, sir, a long time ago. A gentleman she knew drove past, and she asked him to give her a lift home in his trap. She was going to tell the other gentleman, and he'd wait for you."

"Oh yes. That's all right."

I returned my bicycle to its owner, distributed coppers to his children, and went up to the station. The porter came out to meet me. He seemed surprised.

"The gentleman thought you wouldn't be coming back, sir, as you didn't come with the wagonette."

"I just went up to the 'Lion'--"

"Yessir. Well, he drove off quarter of an hour ago; said it was no good waiting for you, as you'd ride straight 'ome when you found at Brookfield that the wagonette 'ad come."

And now I ask you--What would Napoleon have said?


EVERYTHING promised well for my week-end with Charles. The weather was warm and sunny, I was bringing my golf clubs down with me, and I had just discovered (and meant to put into practice) an entirely new stance which made it impossible to miss the object ball. It was this that I was explaining to Charles and his wife at dinner on Friday, when the interruption occurred.

"By the way," said Charles, as I took out a cigarette, "I've got a cigar for you. Don't smoke that thing."

"You haven't let him go in for cigars?" I said reproachfully to Mrs Charles. I can be very firm about other people's extravagances.

"This is one I picked up in Portugal," explained Charles. "You can get them absurdly cheap out there. Let's see, dear; where did I put it?"

"I saw it on your dressing-table last week," said his wife, getting up to leave us. He followed her out and went in search of it, while I waited with an interest which I made no effort to conceal. I had never heard before of a man going all the way to Portugal to buy one cigar for a friend.

"Here it is," said Charles, coming in again. He put down in front of me an ash-tray, the matches and a--and a--well, as I say, a cigar. I examined it slowly. Half of it looked very tired.

"Well," said Charles, "what do you think of it?"

"When you say you--er--PICKED IT UP in Portugal," I began carefully, "I suppose you don't mean--" I stopped and tried to bite the end off.

"Have a knife," said Charles.

I had another bite, and then I decided to be frank.

"WHY did you pick it up?" I asked.

"The fact was," said Charles, "I found myself one day in Lisbon without my pipe, and so I bought that thing; I never smoke them in the ordinary way."

"Did you smoke this?" I asked. It was obvious that SOMETHING had happened to it.

"No, you see, I found some cigarettes at the last moment, and so, knowing that you liked cigars, I thought I'd bring it home for you."

"It's very nice of you, Charles. Of course I can see that it has travelled. Well, we must do what we can with it."

I took the knife and started chipping away at the mahogany end. The other end--the brown-paper end, which had come ungummed--I intended to reserve for the match. When everything was ready I applied a light, leant back in my chair, and pulled.

"That's all right, isn't it?" said Charles. "And you'd be surprised if I told you what I paid for it."

"No, no, you mustn't think that," I protested. "Probably things are dearer in Portugal." I put it down by my plate for a moment's rest. "All I've got against it at present is that its pores don't act as freely as they should."

"I've got a cigar-cutter somewhere, if--"

"No, don't bother. I think I can do it with the nut-crackers. There's no doubt it was a good cigar once, but it hasn't wintered well."

I squeezed it as hard as I could, lit it again, pressed my feet against the table and pulled.

"Now it's going," said Charles.

"I'm afraid it keeps very reticent at my end. The follow-through is poor. Is your end alight still?"

"Burning beautifully."

"It's a pity that I should be missing all that. How would it be if we were to make a knitting-needle red-hot, and bore a tunnel from this end? We might establish a draught that way. Only there's always the danger, of course, of coming out at the side."

I took the cigar up and put it to my ear.

"I can't HEAR anything wrong," I said. "I expect what it really wants is massage."

Charles filled his pipe again and got up. "Let's go for a stroll," he said. "It's a beautiful night. Bring your cigar with you."

"It may prefer the open air," I said. "There's always that. You know we mustn't lose sight of the fact that the Portuguese climate is different from ours. The thing's pores may have acted more readily in the South. On the other hand, the unfastened end may have been more adhesive. I gather that though you have never actually met anybody who has smoked a cigar like this, yet you understand that the experiment is a practicable one. As far as you know, this had no brothers. No, no, Charles, I'm going on with it, but I should like to know all that you can tell me of its parentage. It had a Portuguese father and an American mother, I should say, and there has been a good deal of trouble in the family. One moment"--and as we went outside I stopped and cracked it in the door.

It was an inspiration. At the very next application of the match I found that I had established a connection with the lighted end. Not a long and steady connection, but one that came in gusts. After two gusts I decided that it was perhaps safer to blow from my end, and for a little while we had in this way as much smoke around us as the most fastidious cigar-smoker could want. Then I accidentally dropped it; something in the middle of it shifted, I suppose--and for the rest of my stay behind it only one end was at work.

"Well," said Charles, when we were back in the smoking-room, and I was giving the cigar a short breather, "it's not a bad one, is it?"

"I have enjoyed it," I said truthfully, for I like trying to get the mastery over a thing that defies me.

"You'll never guess what it cost," he chuckled.

"Tell me," I said. "I daren't guess."

"Well, in English money it works out at exactly three farthings."

I looked at him for a long time and then shook my head sadly.

"Charles, old friend," I said, "you've been done."

[The end]
A. A. Milne's short story: Napoleon At Work