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We Four, and the Stories We Told


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“Talking about Babies,” said Harry Clare, the father of twins, “I mind a strange adventure we had with one of ours.” “Which of 'em was it?” asked Jack Conliffe. “Well, let me see,” said Harry, reflectively, “I think it was Johnny: no, but it couldn't, for now I mind it was a girl. Then, perhaps it was Mary Ann, or, let me see, it might have been Sally, or maybe, Dick,—oh! but that's a boy again, well, I think it was Sally. You see, mates, when a man has a dozen or more of 'em it isn't always easy to say which is which, but the missis, she knows.”

“They are a pretty regular annual event, ain't they?” queries young Archie Black, as he stretched his brawny limbs towards the fire.

“Yes,” admitted Harry, mournfully, “pretty regular, and this time, good Heavens, it's twins!”

His dismay and terror at this unlooked-for catastrophe was so evident that Archie Black, with a consideration that did honour to his bachelorhood, immediately called for “drinks.” A glass restored Harry's equanimity, and enabled him to continue his story.

“Well, when first we came to the Creek there wasn't a house or tent to be had for love or money, so I spoke to the boys and asked them to lend a hand to put up a sod hut, for it was about the time for an ‘annual event,’ and the missis didn't care about staying in the rowdy shanty. I shan't forget how those boys stuck to me and worked like niggers, but some of them were married men, and could understand. Well, we got the roof on, but very little more, when the missis was moved in and the baby was born. A real pretty wee girl she was, and I was proud of her too. You see, mates,” he added apologetically, “this was only our second or third. I don't feel quite so much pride about it now.”

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The men nodded to show they understood he had grown wiser; then Harry went on.

“May be some of you mind that idiot boy of Barton's? No? Well, it is ten or twelve years since, but there are people on the Creek still who could tell you about him. I don't know why parents keep those deformed poor creatures. It's not right. It's against nature. If a calf comes to light with two heads or five legs don't people always put them out of the way? Unless they keep 'em for a show and turn an honest penny with them. But Barton never could show his. Why, the thing was so infernally ugly, I don't think you'd get any one to look at it if you paid them. What was it like? Well, though only about ten years old it was as big and strong as a boy of fourteen, it had no forehead to speak of, a flat nose, a wide ugly mouth, and small sharp eyes. His head was covered with coarse red hair that grew down almost to his eyelashes, and his head was sunk down between the shoulders. It had only one arm, the other was nothing but a stump, but with this arm it could climb and tear, and do the deuce's own mischief, and it couldn't speak, no, not a blessed syllable, only yabber and scream. The first time I ever saw the boy was one evening I went to Barton's —the missis and he were out—so as I had a parcel for them and the door was ajar I thought I would leave it on the table. There was a good fire on, and lying in front of it was what I took to be a dog. I went over and gave it a push with my foot. Now, boys, I ain't generally nervous, so to speak, but when this thing sprang up with a yell, its eyes glaring, its red hair on end, its ugly mouth yabbering and gaping, and the stump of an arm going up and down, I did think I'd trodden on the devil. I jumped back, and he came limping up to me, for he had a club foot, and clawed at the buttons on my coat. They were made of brass, and shining. I let him finger them, but when he went for a knife to cut them off, I cleared. Yes, if I'd been Barton I'd have drowned that boy as soon as he was born.”

“‘Well,” said Archie, “‘you see you could spare half a dozen, and perhaps he had only the one.’

“Yes, there's something in that, Archie, there's something in that, and I doubt if I could spare any of mine, for page 14 all that there's thirteen of 'em now with the twins. Well, as I was saying, that was the first time I saw Barton's idiot, though I had heard of it often enough. Well, when the missis was laid up, Mrs. Barton offered to come and look after the children.

“That's real kind of you,” says I, “and my missis will be main pleased; but, no offence, Mrs. Barton, only don't bring him with you.

“‘You mean Peter,’ says she, speaking a little short and sharp.

“And it's true, boys, they had actually gone and given a christened name to a thing like that. Isn't it terrible what some fond folks will do?

“‘Oh, very well,’ says she, ‘I'll take care he don't get in.’

“And come she did every day, though it was a goodish step where she lived to our place across the creek, and I had spoken rough about Peter—but Mrs. Barton was a real kind creature, she was. Now it was a strange thing about the boy, but he was very fond of children—the younger the better. He would never harm or bite them as he would do to grown folk when he was put out, but play with them as nice as possible, and after a bit the children would take to him too, just as I've seen some youngsters in the gardens at home go and play with the big monkeys; but I never could abide them. As I was saying, Mrs. Barton came every day, and the boy was left outside. He used to carry the youngsters about, and hop along with the club foot, and be as lively as you please.

“One day it was awfully warm, and when Mrs. Barton was going home the missis asked her to leave the door ajar so as to let the breeze blow in. When the house was quiet the missus fell asleep with the baby on her arm. Bye-and-bye she awoke all in a tremble, and there, squatted on the rafters above her head was Peter. He was looking down at her, pointing to baby, grinning and chattering, and making his red hair twitch up and down. The missis folded the baby in her arms, too frightened to stir. Then Peter twisted his legs around the rafter and lowered himself down, pointing to baby and chattering as if pleased. The missis could bear it no longer; she managed to get the hair-brush off the table, and when next the boy lowered his ugly face she started up and gave him a good smack on the cheek. With a fierce yell he swung himself to the floor and was away. Mrs. page 15 Barton seeing him dart out, came running over, and there lay my poor missis as white as a sheet in a dead faint.

“A couple of nights after this, just about midnight, I was awakened by the missis calling out in a queer and shaky voice,

“‘Harry, Harry, I can't find baby!’

“‘Nonsense,’ says I, ‘she's rolled up in the blankets somewhere.’

“‘No, no,’ says the wife, fairly crying now, ‘she's not; oh, do get up, Harry.’

“I struck a match, then got up and searched. All through the house we looked, me and the missis, she, poor thing, crying and shaking all over; into every corner and crevice, but no use—the baby was gone. It was very strange. A baby of a few days old couldn't have unlocked the door, and it wasn't likely to have slipped out of bed and hidden itself just to aggravate you, as some of those youngsters will do, and its wonderful how soon they begin. Sure enough the baby was gone, and it was not long before we had found out who had taken her and how he had made his way into the house. While searching around the place, I suddenly noticed that the fire-place was half-full of soot, and says I to myself, ‘Peter has carried her off, and there's the way he got in.’ It was easy enough for an ape like him to clamber up the wide chimney, made of wattle and dab, even with the baby. For he could hold things under that stump as firm and fast as in a vice and have the good arm left for climbing. The missus was nearly mad when I told her. She began to scream and cry out ‘that her pretty baby was killed.’ This woke up the other children. They began to howl, and there was me flying round from one to the other, and such a scene you never saw. If I could have put my hands on Peter I'd have throttled him there and then! Well, I started to go over to Barton's to tell them what was up, but as soon as I got outside the first thing I saw in the moonlight was the boy sitting down by the creek, nursing baby. He was holding her quite comfortably in his one arm, soothing her and yabbering softly, while the baby, poor thing, was crying her very life out. I tried to steal up quietly, but that boy had ears as sharp as a cat's, and when he saw me coming he was off. He hobbled away across the creek, and went as fast on his lame legs as you would on your page 16 sound ones, off towards the town. I went to Barton's, and it was plain enough how Peter had made his way out, for there was the big window at the end of the house wide open. I roused Barton up, and he said we had better wait awhile; Peter, he was sure, would bring back the baby all safe and sound in the morning. But I knew my missis couldn't and wouldn't wait, and I myself did not much like the idea of our pretty child being all night in that brute's arms. So we started off, and as we came to the township we heard a soft ‘yabber, yabber’ going on, and knew the pair were close to us. We walked as quietly as could be, but Peter either saw or heard us, for the noise ceased. I was real mad by this time, and, stooping down, picked up a stone. Presently out from behind a pile of wood crept the boy, and I never saw him look half so horrible as he did that night. His flat, ugly face reeping cunningly round from between his shoulders, his sound arm holding baby, who was quiet, and the stump of an arm going up and down. He saw me and was making off, but I thought I might stop him with the stone. I didn't mean to kill him, poor mortal, but I did think I'd may be lame him. Well, I threw the stone, and hit him right in the middle of the back. The wild, shrill yell he gave made my blood run cold, and, thinks I, ‘I've done for baby now; he'll kill her as sure as fate,’ for he was off again full split towards the river. The yell brought Barton round from the back of the house, and we ran on together. I never told him about the stone—I never dared to. It is a good mile to the river, and in those days you could get a fair run across the plain, so we were gaining on Peter fast, but when we came to the river he ran right up to the top of the ‘Milestone,’ and there, on the top of that big hillock of rock and earth, he stood grinning and dancing like a devil, and holding the poor baby in his one hand just over the deep, dark water where the Mataura sweeps round the base of the ‘Milestone.’ We didn't know what to do. At last we made it up that Barton was to climb up one side of the mound and I the other, and try to take Peter by surprise. But when we got to the top there was nothing! Shaking all over I looked down into the deep pool, expecting to see the baby's white night dress floating there, but not a break was on the black water. We searched all round and over the ‘Milestone,’ and about the place, but not a trace of either could page 17 we find. Well, we had to go home at last, and then there was a scene. Oh Lord!—I can't describe it. You married men may imagine, but you that are bachelors can't fancy nothing like it till you do get married—so there.

“Harry paused and wiped his face with a red bandana, while Archie Black, as kind a fellow as ever walked, said, ‘Have another drink, old son?’

“Well, Archie, I don't mind if I do.” That recruited Harry, and he continued—

“Early next morning, Barton and I half the men in the place started down the flat. We looked and searched everywhere, till after nightfall, but not a trace could we find. Next day, however, Mrs. Barton made a strange discovery. The big window had been left open in the hope of Peter coming home, and when they got up in the morning an old feeding bottle that she kept over the mantel-piece, and with which Peter was very fond of playing, was gone. And when the goats were brought home that evening they were all milked dry! She hurried over to our place, and says she to my missis, ‘Look here, Mrs. Clare, that baby of yours is just as safe as can be. Peter will bring her home all right, you mark me.’

“But the wife wouldn't be satisfied; she did not like the idea of that idiot for a wet nurse to her baby.

“Well, Peter hid himself securely, for our searchings were fruitless, but every evening the goats were milked, and every night a lot of bread and meat that Mrs. Barton left outside was taken except on the evenings when we kept watch about the house; then master Peter, with an idiot's cunning, kept out of the way. One day I hit upon a plan, and this was it—to go away and watch by myself. So about midnight I set off, and kept on the spur opposite the ‘Milestone.’ All night I, by the bright moonlight, watched and saw nothing; but just about dawn I made out a dark figure moving cautiously along the spur that joins the ‘Milestone.’ At once I knew it was Peter on his way to the town for supplies. As soon as he was out of sight I went over to the ‘Milestone,’ climbed to the top, and hid amongst the bushes. It was bright and clear, although the sun was not up, when I saw Peter returning, following a ‘race’ that runs along the spur. He was carrying a bundle of something under the stump, and a ‘billy’ in his hand. He came on steadily, then page 18 all of a sudden was gone. But the secret was out. I knew that there was a deserted ‘drive’ up on the spur, the more fool I for not remembering sooner, and there they must be hidden—Peter at any rate—and I was wild to know whether the baby was there too, alive or dead. But I had to wait for another twenty-four hours, for Peter would not stir out again that day. So I went home, but I never let on to the missis, for, bless you, she'd have gone off there and then, and would have fought the boy, tooth and nail, till she got her baby. You can't teach a woman caution; they don't understand the thing. Away I went about three o'clock next morning, and had to wait an hour and a-half before Peter showed up. After he got well away I ran up the spur and into the tunnel. I pushed along; then it got dark, so I struck a match, lit a bit of candle I had brought in my pocket, and hurried on. And there, at the end of the drive, on a bed made of some torn-up grass and fern, covered with a couple of bags and some old clothes, lay the baby fast asleep, and smiling as natural as possible, with its thumb in its mouth. I caught it up, and before another hour the youngster was safe in her mother's arms, and the missis crying over it worse than the night it was lost. It's strange the way that women have; they cry when they are sorry, and they cry worse when they are glad. I can't make it out, but then there's a deal to understand about a woman. When Peter found the baby was gone he came home as quiet as a lamb. But he couldn't be kept away from our place—morning, noon, and night he was prowling round. So the missis had the windows barred up, and the door with a new lock, and at night a blessed great heavy door sort of a thing up on the top of the chimney. I used sometimes to forget it when I was lighting the fire in the morning, and nearly smoothered the family with smoke before they were out of bed. Well, everything went on all right. Barton used to make sure that Peter was well secured at night, and in the day time he used often to come over and sit in front of our door, moaning and crying like, but yabbering away jolly enough when he caught a sight of baby.

“Something turned up that I had to go away from home for a day or two, and of course, if any evil is going to happen, that's the time it will come. The very night I left, the missis was putting the youngsters to bed, baby was asleep in the inside room, one of the children was already undressed, and page 19 the other was playing and kicking as its mother took off its clothes, when it managed to knock the candle down, which rolled under the bed; in a moment the valance was in a blaze, and before the missis could open the front door and get water the partition was alight. It was only made of scrim and a bit of paper, so it burned like tinder. Before the poor missis in her fright and confusion had the door unlocked the thatch had caught. She dragged one child out, and was just in time to save the other when all the lower end of the house was blazing. Poor thing! she was like one mad. The neighbours came running, but before they could even get across the creek, the baby, who was asleep in the bedroom near the partition, would be roasted. She dashed into the fire, but the fierce flames drove her back, with her hair singed and her clothes burning. Suddenly a strong arm pulled her back, and as she fell she saw Peter rush past her into the flames. The men were at the house now, and there, standing at the window, tearing away the fastenings with his one hand, while under the stump he held the baby, yelling wildly at the flames close behind, was Peter. At last the window gave way and he handed baby out gently and tenderly, but dropped down himself. The men got on the roof, tore away the thatch, called to Peter to get up and be pulled out, but he never stirred. The heat was too fierce to be borne, so the men had to jump down to save their lives. In two hours' time nothing was left but a chimney, a few blackened poles, and a halfcharred shapeless mass, that every one feared to look at. But when all that remained of Barton's poor idiot was placed in the coffin, and my missis went to look at him for the last time, she cried as bitterly as if he had been her own.’