We Four, and the Stories We Told
Frightened by a Baby
Frightened by a Baby.
“Frights!” said Jack Conliffe, blowing a long whiff from his pipe, “well, I've had some queer frights in my time, but the greatest I ever got was from a baby!” “And no wonder,” said Harry Clare, “it's enough to scare any one, particularly when they come unexpected.” Harry, by the bye, was a married man and lately the father of twins. “As to that,” retorted Jack, “you can speak from experience and ought to know, but it wasn't in that way I got my scare.” “Tell us all about it, Jack!” said the rest of us, as we replenished our pipes and drew round the cheerful fire in the parlour.
“Well,” said Jack, “you know when the first Commissioner came to The Creek his eldest boy was only a kid, about two years old maybe, but he was as sensible as a daddy of fifty. First time I saw him was one morning as I was going to work, and took the track round by the Camp. Not much of a place neither was the Camp in those days, not a bit better than many a place in the township. It was a canvass tent, 10 by 12, and they did their cooking outside. The bobby had another little tent further on, and the ground was enclosed with a sod fence. Well, as I was a-saying, I went round by the camp, and at the gate I saw the missus a-watching for the Commissioner, who had gone up the Creek to look for the horse. ‘Good morning, ma'am,’ says I. ‘Good morning,’ says she, with a smile that was as good as a blink of sunshine on a cloudy day—she was a real lady, you bet. ‘Have you seen anything of my husband?’ she page 8 asked. ‘Yes,’ says I, ‘he's just a-driving the horse home. And how's the young commissioner?’ ‘Oh, thank you, he's very well.’ ‘Will you come to me, my lad?’ says I to the boy, who she had in her arms. And I'm blest to goodness! if he didn't hold out his hands as ready as could be. Well, I took him of course. At first he held back, as if to make sure what kind of creature had got hold of him, then he gets friendly and fixes his hands in my beard. And you bet, boys, but he could pull. It was all meant for fun I daresay, but it was sore, very sore. I felt my face getting red, and for the life of me I could not keep the tears out of my eyes. You see, added Jack, in an apologetic tone, “I ain't accustomed to youngsters. Well, his mother wanted to take him away, but not a bit would he go. So I said I would take him for a walk. I put him on my back, and he grabbed hold of the collar of my shirt, sticking his heels into my ribs and singing out, ‘Gee, gee,’ and him not two years old! Well, I took him down the flat, and a good three miles afore we reached the camp again, and him a-chirping and a-kicking as merry as a cricket all the time. When we got home there was the boss, and as soon as the youngster saw his dad he was off. After that I got into a sort of habit of going to see the boy every two or three days. He was such a real jolly little chap. So it went on till Christmas came. Now the youngster's birthday was either just before or just after Christmas, we were not sure which, but we made up our minds that some of us would club together and give the young 'un a good Christmas Box. Why, half the fellows on the creek knew and was fond of that boy. Well, we got a box, ornamental you know, and in it we put a lot of pretty fair specimens. Now we thought it wouldn't do for a lot of us to go crowding up to the camp, so we formed a committee, and they were to take the box on X'mas morning and give it to the kid. I was one of the committee, and as I knew the boy first and best I was to make the present. Well, when we got to the camp that morning who should come toddling to the door but the very youngster himself. He looked at us sort of frightened like at first, but when he sees me he called out, ‘Yak,’ as plain as could be, and him never spoke a blessed word afore! His mother came out presently and wished us ‘Merry Christmas,’ but she couldn't believe it about baby. ‘Just you try him, page 9 ma'am,’ says I; so she brought him up to me, and asks him, ‘Who is this, baby?’ ‘Yak,’ says he, as if he knew all about it. Well, to be sure, the missus was as pleased as pleased, and then the Commissioner came out and the boy had to do it over again. The boss did not say much, but bless you, he looked as proud as Punch. Then we told them about the box, and if it had been £20,000 worth they could not have been more pleased. Then the Commissioner brought out brandy and whisky, and we drank ‘Health and long life to the Young 'Un,’ and each of their healths and I believe each of our own, too; at any rate we were pretty well on afore we left the camp, and after that I never saw daylight for four days. Not that it mattered much, for it rained very nearly all the time, and the snow melted on the ranges and the creek rose very high. Well, towards the end of the week I cleared out for home. In those days the only bridge across the creek was just a plank laid over and chained to keep it fast at both ends, and it sloped down at a pretty sharp incline from one side to the other. It needed a good steady head to walk that plank, I tell you. Well, the water had been running over it for days during the last flood, and I didn't half like the idea of crossing on it, though the flood had gone down. But when I got over the flat and beside the creek I'm blest to goodness! but I thought the sight would leave my eyes, for there at the further end of the plank what should I see but the young Commissioner. Yes, there he was, squatting on all fours, a-laughing and a-chirping at the water that surged and foamed with a current swift enough to sweep away a grown man, let alone a child. I've been in many a queer fix, boys, but never another like this. I darn't sing out for fear of startling him, and I couldn't, nor could any man, cross that stream on foot. I can't swim a stroke if it was to save my life. There I stood like a fool and did not know what to be at. And there was the kid, his curly golden head bent down and his pretty baby face a-smiling at the water. Well, after a bit, he crawls on slowly and steadily into the middle of the plank. There he stopped, and, I suppose, got frightened at something, the slope down of the plank, may be; any way, he began to cry, but, good Lord, mates, I thought it was all over when I saw him trying to turn round. I must do something I knew, so I commenced to whistle softly. He put his head on one side to listen, then looked up, and laughing through his tears, sang page 10 out, quite jolly, ‘Yak?’ ‘That's right, my boy,’ says I, ‘come along to Jack, steady now,’ and I goes to the end of the plank, holding out my arms. But what do you think he did? I'm blessed to goodness if he didn't stand up! yes, right straight up on those tottering baby legs of his, and tried to walk. To walk along that there sloping plank over a boiling, rushing, stream—him as could scarcely walk along a level floor without a fall! Well, he came on pretty steady for a good bit, and me holding out my hands and shaking like a blessed old woman. Well, he got on first-rate until he was three or four yards from the end of the plank, then if he didn't break into a trot. I felt as weak and sick as a fainting girl as he came on, getting faster and faster with the slope of the plank; but he was right until pretty near the end, when his foot slipped, and he fell—but it was into my arms, mates, else I wouldn't be here telling the story. Well, when I had him right I set to a-hugging him and a-dancing round like a blamed old idiot. Then I tried to carry him home. But it wouldn't do. Two steps on the plank turned me dizzy. So I went back to the United States Hotel, and as soon as I came into the bar, the missus said,
“‘Why, Jack, you look as white as chalk! What's the matter? Have you been seeing a ghost?’
“‘No, says I, but I've been seeing a baby, and that's a blamed sight worse; give me a big ‘nip,’ old woman.’ And for all her asking I wouldn't tell her any more. I didn't want the boy's mother to know about it; and I knew if I told the woman it would soon be over all the township. Women can't keep a secret, and the more you tell them to keep it quiet the sooner they'll go and whisper it. It's their nature, poor things, so you can't blame'em. Well, when I did get the boy home, there was his mother in an awful way, for she had missed him.
“‘Oh, where did you find him?’ says she.
“‘I found him playing down by the creek,’ says I, ‘and a real dangerous place it is, ma'am, just now.”
“‘Oh dear, dear! What an escape! Why, he might have tumbled in,’ says she; ‘Oh, you naughty, naughty, boy.’
“And then she began a-kissing him very hard—for punishment, I suppose.page 11
“Well, thought I to myself, I wouldn't mind having a nice young woman a-punishing me all day long,’ but I only said, ‘Well, good morning, now, ma'am.’
‘Good morning, Jack,’ says she, putting her slim, white, dainty hand into my big paw, ‘and many thanks for your kindness in bringing home this bad boy.’
“But she never heard the rights of the story to this day.”