It really was not such a bad baby—for a baby. Its face was round and quite clean, which babies' faces are not always, as I daresay you know by your own youthful relatives; and Dora said its cape was trimmed with real lace, whatever that may be—I don't see myself how one kind of lace can be realler than another. It was in a very swagger sort of perambulator when we saw it; and the perambulator was standing quite by itself in the lane that leads to the mill.
'I wonder whose baby it is,' Dora said. 'Isn't it a darling, Alice?'
Alice agreed to its being one, and said she thought it was most likely the child of noble parents stolen by gipsies.
'These two, as likely as not,' Noel said. 'Can't you see something crime-like in the very way they're lying?'
They were two tramps, and they were lying on the grass at the edge of the lane on the shady side fast asleep, only a very little further on than where the Baby was. They were very ragged, and their snores did have a sinister sound.
'I expect they stole the titled heir at dead of night, and they've been travelling hot-foot ever since, so now they're sleeping the sleep of exhaustedness,' Alice said. 'What a heart-rending scene when the patrician mother wakes in the morning and finds the infant aristocrat isn't in bed with his mamma.'
The Baby was fast asleep or else the girls would have kissed it. They are strangely fond of kissing. The author never could see anything in it himself.
'If the gipsies DID steal it,' Dora said 'perhaps they'd sell it to us. I wonder what they'd take for it.'
'What could you do with it if you'd got it?' H. O. asked.
'Why, adopt it, of course,' Dora said. 'I've often thought I should enjoy adopting a baby. It would be a golden deed, too. We've hardly got any in the book yet.'
'I should have thought there were enough of us,' Dicky said.
'Ah, but you're none of you babies,' said Dora.
'Unless you count H. O. as a baby: he behaves jolly like one sometimes.'
This was because of what had happened that morning when Dicky found H. O. going fishing with a box of worms, and the box was the one Dicky keeps his silver studs in, and the medal he got at school, and what is left of his watch and chain. The box is lined with red velvet and it was not nice afterwards. And then H. O. said Dicky had hurt him, and he was a beastly bully, and he cried. We thought all this had been made up, and were sorry to see it threaten to break out again. So Oswald said—
'Oh, bother the Baby! Come along, do!'
And the others came.
We were going to the miller's with a message about some flour that hadn't come, and about a sack of sharps for the pigs.
After you go down the lane you come to a clover-field, and then a cornfield, and then another lane, and then it is the mill. It is a jolly fine mill: in fact it is two—water and wind ones—one of each kind—with a house and farm buildings as well. I never saw a mill like it, and I don't believe you have either.
If we had been in a story-book the miller's wife would have taken us into the neat sanded kitchen where the old oak settle was black with time and rubbing, and dusted chairs for us—old brown Windsor chairs—and given us each a glass of sweet-scented cowslip wine and a thick slice of rich home-made cake. And there would have been fresh roses in an old china bowl on the table. As it was, she asked us all into the parlour and gave us Eiffel Tower lemonade and Marie biscuits. The chairs in her parlour were 'bent wood', and no flowers, except some wax ones under a glass shade, but she was very kind, and we were very much obliged to her. We got out to the miller, though, as soon as we could; only Dora and Daisy stayed with her, and she talked to them about her lodgers and about her relations in London.
The miller is a MAN. He showed us all over the mills—both kinds—and let us go right up into the very top of the wind-mill, and showed us how the top moved round so that the sails could catch the wind, and the great heaps of corn, some red and some yellow (the red is English wheat), and the heaps slice down a little bit at a time into a square hole and go down to the mill-stones. The corn makes a rustling soft noise that is very jolly—something like the noise of the sea—and you can hear it through all the other mill noises.
Then the miller let us go all over the water-mill. It is fairy palaces inside a mill. Everything is powdered over white, like sugar on pancakes when you are allowed to help yourself. And he opened a door and showed us the great water-wheel working on slow and sure, like some great, round, dripping giant, Noel said, and then he asked us if we fished.
'Yes,' was our immediate reply.
'Then why not try the mill-pool?' he said, and we replied politely; and when he was gone to tell his man something we owned to each other that he was a trump.
He did the thing thoroughly. He took us out and cut us ash saplings for rods; he found us in lines and hooks, and several different sorts of bait, including a handsome handful of meal-worms, which Oswald put loose in his pocket.
When it came to bait, Alice said she was going home with Dora and Daisy. Girls are strange, mysterious, silly things. Alice always enjoys a rat hunt until the rat is caught, but she hates fishing from beginning to end. We boys have got to like it. We don't feel now as we did when we turned off the water and stopped the competition of the competing anglers. We had a grand day's fishing that day. I can't think what made the miller so kind to us. Perhaps he felt a thrill of fellow-feeling in his manly breast for his fellow-sportsmen, for he was a noble fisherman himself.
We had glorious sport—eight roach, six dace, three eels, seven perch, and a young pike, but he was so very young the miller asked us to put him back, and of course we did. 'He'll live to bite another day,' said the miller.
The miller's wife gave us bread and cheese and more Eiffel Tower lemonade, and we went home at last, a little damp, but full of successful ambition, with our fish on a string.
It had been a strikingly good time—one of those times that happen in the country quite by themselves. Country people are much more friendly than town people. I suppose they don't have to spread their friendly feelings out over so many persons, so it's thicker, like a pound of butter on one loaf is thicker than on a dozen. Friendliness in the country is not scrape, like it is in London. Even Dicky and H. O. forgot the affair of honour that had taken place in the morning. H. O. changed rods with Dicky because H. O.'s was the best rod, and Dicky baited H. O.'s hook for him, just like loving, unselfish brothers in Sunday School magazines.
We were talking fishlikely as we went along down the lane and through the cornfield and the cloverfield, and then we came to the other lane where we had seen the Baby. The tramps were gone, and the perambulator was gone, and, of course, the Baby was gone too.
'I wonder if those gipsies HAD stolen the Baby?' Noel said dreamily. He had not fished much, but he had made a piece of poetry. It was this:
'How I wish
I was a fish.
I would not look
At your hook,
But lie still and be cool
At the bottom of the pool
And when you went to look
At your cruel hook,
You would not find me there,
'If they did steal the Baby,' Noel went on, 'they will be tracked by the lordly perambulator. You can disguise a baby in rags and walnut juice, but there isn't any disguise dark enough to conceal a perambulator's person.'
'You might disguise it as a wheel-barrow,' said Dicky.
'Or cover it with leaves,' said H. O., 'like the robins.'
We told him to shut up and not gibber, but afterwards we had to own that even a young brother may sometimes talk sense by accident.
For we took the short cut home from the lane—it begins with a large gap in the hedge and the grass and weeds trodden down by the hasty feet of persons who were late for church and in too great a hurry to go round by the road. Our house is next to the church, as I think I have said before, some time.
The short cut leads to a stile at the edge of a bit of wood (the Parson's Shave, they call it, because it belongs to him). The wood has not been shaved for some time, and it has grown out beyond the stile and here, among the hazels and chestnuts and young dogwood bushes, we saw something white. We felt it was our duty to investigate, even if the white was only the under side of the tail of a dead rabbit caught in a trap.
It was not—it was part of the perambulator. I forget whether I said that the perambulator was enamelled white—not the kind of enamelling you do at home with Aspinall's and the hairs of the brush come out and it is gritty-looking, but smooth, like the handles of ladies very best lace parasols. And whoever had abandoned the helpless perambulator in that lonely spot had done exactly as H. O. said, and covered it with leaves, only they were green and some of them had dropped off.
The others were wild with excitement. Now or never, they thought, was a chance to be real detectives. Oswald alone retained a calm exterior. It was he who would not go straight to the police station.
He said: 'Let's try and ferret out something for ourselves before we tell the police. They always have a clue directly they hear about the finding of the body. And besides, we might as well let Alice be in anything there is going. And besides, we haven't had our dinners yet.'
This argument of Oswald's was so strong and powerful—his arguments are often that, as I daresay you have noticed—that the others agreed. It was Oswald, too, who showed his artless brothers why they had much better not take the deserted perambulator home with them.
'The dead body, or whatever the clue is, is always left exactly as it is found,' he said, 'till the police have seen it, and the coroner, and the inquest, and the doctor, and the sorrowing relations. Besides, suppose someone saw us with the beastly thing, and thought we had stolen it; then they would say, "What have you done with the Baby?" and then where should we be?' Oswald's brothers could not answer this question, but once more Oswald's native eloquence and far-seeing discerningness conquered.
'Anyway,' Dicky said, 'let's shove the derelict a little further under cover.'
So we did.
Then we went on home. Dinner was ready and so were Alice and Daisy, but Dora was not there.
'She's got a—well, she's not coming to dinner anyway,' Alice said when we asked. 'She can tell you herself afterwards what it is she's got.'
Oswald thought it was headache, or pain in the temper, or in the pinafore, so he said no more, but as soon as Mrs Pettigrew had helped us and left the room he began the thrilling tale of the forsaken perambulator. He told it with the greatest thrillingness anyone could have, but Daisy and Alice seemed almost unmoved. Alice said—
'Yes, very strange,' and things like that, but both the girls seemed to be thinking of something else. They kept looking at each other and trying not to laugh, so Oswald saw they had got some silly secret and he said—
'Oh, all right! I don't care about telling you. I only thought you'd like to be in it. It's going to be a really big thing, with policemen in it, and perhaps a judge.'
'In what?' H. O. said; 'the perambulator?'
Daisy choked and then tried to drink, and spluttered and got purple, and had to be thumped on the back. But Oswald was not appeased. When Alice said, 'Do go on, Oswald. I'm sure we all like it very much,' he said—
'Oh, no, thank you,' very politely. 'As it happens,' he went on, 'I'd just as soon go through with this thing without having any girls in it.'
'In the perambulator?' said H. O. again.
'It's a man's job,' Oswald went on, without taking any notice of H. O.
'Do you really think so,' said Alice, 'when there's a baby in it?'
'But there isn't,' said H. O., 'if you mean in the perambulator.'
'Blow you and your perambulator,' said Oswald, with gloomy forbearance.
Alice kicked Oswald under the table and said—
'Don't be waxy, Oswald. Really and truly Daisy and I HAVE got a secret, only it's Dora's secret, and she wants to tell you herself. If it was mine or Daisy's we'd tell you this minute, wouldn't we, Mouse?'
'This very second,' said the White Mouse.
And Oswald consented to take their apologies.
Then the pudding came in, and no more was said except asking for things to be passed—sugar and water, and bread and things.
Then when the pudding was all gone, Alice said—
And we came on. We did not want to be disagreeable, though really we were keen on being detectives and sifting that perambulator to the very dregs. But boys have to try to take an interest in their sisters' secrets, however silly. This is part of being a good brother.
Alice led us across the field where the sheep once fell into the brook, and across the brook by the plank. At the other end of the next field there was a sort of wooden house on wheels, that the shepherd sleeps in at the time of year when lambs are being born, so that he can see that they are not stolen by gipsies before the owners have counted them.
To this hut Alice now led her kind brothers and Daisy's kind brother. 'Dora is inside,' she said, 'with the Secret. We were afraid to have it in the house in case it made a noise.'
The next moment the Secret was a secret no longer, for we all beheld Dora, sitting on a sack on the floor of the hut, with the Secret in her lap.
It was the High-born Babe!
Oswald was so overcome that he sat down suddenly, just like Betsy Trotwood did in David Copperfield, which just shows what a true author Dickens is.
'You've done it this time,' he said. 'I suppose you know you're a baby-stealer?'
'I'm not,' Dora said. 'I've adopted him.'
'Then it was you,' Dicky said, 'who scuttled the perambulator in the wood?'
'Yes,' Alice said; 'we couldn't get it over the stile unless Dora put down the Baby, and we were afraid of the nettles for his legs. His name is to be Lord Edward.'
'But, Dora—really, don't you think—'
'If you'd been there you'd have done the same,' said Dora firmly. 'The gipsies had gone. Of course something had frightened them and they fled from justice. And the little darling was awake and held out his arms to me. No, he hasn't cried a bit, and I know all about babies; I've often nursed Mrs Simpkins's daughter's baby when she brings it up on Sundays. They have bread and milk to eat. You take him, Alice, and I'll go and get some bread and milk for him.'
Alice took the noble brat. It was horribly lively, and squirmed about in her arms, and wanted to crawl on the floor. She could only keep it quiet by saying things to it a boy would be ashamed even to think of saying, such as 'Goo goo', and 'Did ums was', and 'Ickle ducksums, then'.
When Alice used these expressions the Baby laughed and chuckled and replied—
'Daddadda', 'Bababa', or 'Glueglue'.
But if Alice stopped her remarks for an instant the thing screwed its face up as if it was going to cry, but she never gave it time to begin.
It was a rummy little animal.
Then Dora came back with the bread and milk, and they fed the noble infant. It was greedy and slobbery, but all three girls seemed unable to keep their eyes and hands off it. They looked at it exactly as if it was pretty.
We boys stayed watching them. There was no amusement left for us now, for Oswald saw that Dora's Secret knocked the bottom out of the perambulator.
When the infant aristocrat had eaten a hearty meal it sat on Alice's lap and played with the amber heart she wears that Albert's uncle brought her from Hastings after the business of the bad sixpence and the nobleness of Oswald.
'Now,' said Dora, 'this is a council, so I want to be business-like. The Duckums Darling has been stolen away; its wicked stealers have deserted the Precious. We've got it. Perhaps its ancestral halls are miles and miles away. I vote we keep the little Lovey Duck till it's advertised for.'
'If Albert's uncle lets you,' said Dicky darkly.
'Oh, don't say "you" like that,' Dora said; 'I want it to be all of our baby. It will have five fathers and three mothers, and a grandfather and a great Albert's uncle, and a great grand-uncle. I'm sure Albert's uncle will let us keep it—at any rate till it's advertised for.'
'And suppose it never is,' Noel said.
'Then so much the better,' said Dora, 'the little Duckyux.'
She began kissing the baby again. Oswald, ever thoughtful, said—'Well, what about your dinner?'
'Bother dinner!' Dora said—so like a girl. 'Will you all agree to be his fathers and mothers?'
'Anything for a quiet life,' said Dicky, and Oswald said—
'Oh, yes, if you like. But you'll see we shan't be allowed to keep it.'
'You talk as if he was rabbits or white rats,' said Dora, 'and he's not—he's a little man, he is.'
'All right, he's no rabbit, but a man. Come on and get some grub, Dora,' rejoined the kind-hearted Oswald, and Dora did, with Oswald and the other boys. Only Noel stayed with Alice. He really seemed to like the baby. When I looked back he was standing on his head to amuse it, but the baby did not seem to like him any better whichever end of him was up.
Dora went back to the shepherd's house on wheels directly she had had her dinner. Mrs Pettigrew was very cross about her not being in to it, but she had kept her some mutton hot all the same. She is a decent sort. And there were stewed prunes. We had some to keep Dora company. Then we boys went fishing again in the moat, but we caught nothing.
Just before tea-time we all went back to the hut, and before we got half across the last field we could hear the howling of the Secret.
'Poor little beggar,' said Oswald, with manly tenderness. 'They must be sticking pins in it.'
We found the girls and Noel looking quite pale and breathless. Daisy was walking up and down with the Secret in her arms. It looked like Alice in Wonderland nursing the baby that turned into a pig. Oswald said so, and added that its screams were like it too.
'What on earth is the matter with it?' he said.
'I don't know,' said Alice. 'Daisy's tired, and Dora and I are quite worn out. He's been crying for hours and hours. YOU take him a bit.'
'Not me,' replied Oswald, firmly, withdrawing a pace from the Secret.
Dora was fumbling with her waistband in the furthest corner of the hut.
'I think he's cold,' she said. 'I thought I'd take off my flannelette petticoat, only the horrid strings got into a hard knot. Here, Oswald, let's have your knife.'
With the word she plunged her hand into Oswald's jacket pocket, and next moment she was rubbing her hand like mad on her dress, and screaming almost as loud as the Baby. Then she began to laugh and to cry at the same time. This is called hysterics.
Oswald was sorry, but he was annoyed too. He had forgotten that his pocket was half full of the meal-worms the miller had kindly given him. And, anyway, Dora ought to have known that a man always carries his knife in his trousers pocket and not in his jacket one.
Alice and Daisy rushed to Dora. She had thrown herself down on the pile of sacks in the corner. The titled infant delayed its screams for a moment to listen to Dora's, but almost at once it went on again.
'Oh, get some water!' said Alice. 'Daisy, run!'
The White Mouse, ever docile and obedient, shoved the baby into the arms of the nearest person, who had to take it or it would have fallen a wreck to the ground. This nearest person was Oswald. He tried to pass it on to the others, but they wouldn't. Noel would have, but he was busy kissing Dora and begging her not to. So our hero, for such I may perhaps term him, found himself the degraded nursemaid of a small but furious kid.
He was afraid to lay it down, for fear in its rage it should beat its brains out against the hard earth, and he did not wish, however innocently, to be the cause of its hurting itself at all. So he walked earnestly up and down with it, thumping it unceasingly on the back, while the others attended to Dora, who presently ceased to yell.
Suddenly it struck Oswald that the High-born also had ceased to yell. He looked at it, and could hardly believe the glad tidings of his faithful eyes. With bated breath he hastened back to the sheep-house.
The others turned on him, full of reproaches about the meal-worms and Dora, but he answered without anger.
'Shut up,' he said in a whisper of imperial command. 'Can't you see it's GONE TO SLEEP?'
As exhausted as if they had all taken part in all the events of a very long Athletic Sports, the youthful Bastables and their friends dragged their weary limbs back across the fields. Oswald was compelled to go on holding the titled infant, for fear it should wake up if it changed hands, and begin to yell again. Dora's flannelette petticoat had been got off somehow—how I do not seek to inquire—and the Secret was covered with it. The others surrounded Oswald as much as possible, with a view to concealment if we met Mrs Pettigrew. But the coast was clear. Oswald took the Secret up into his bedroom. Mrs Pettigrew doesn't come there much, it's too many stairs.
With breathless precaution Oswald laid it down on his bed. It sighed, but did not wake. Then we took it in turns to sit by it and see that it did not get up and fling itself out of bed, which, in one of its furious fits, it would just as soon have done as not.
We expected Albert's uncle every minute.
At last we heard the gate, but he did not come in, so we looked out and saw that there he was talking to a distracted-looking man on a piebald horse—one of the miller's horses.
A shiver of doubt coursed through our veins. We could not remember having done anything wrong at the miller's. But you never know. And it seemed strange his sending a man up on his own horse. But when we had looked a bit longer our fears went down and our curiosity got up. For we saw that the distracted one was a gentleman.
Presently he rode off, and Albert's uncle came in. A deputation met him at the door—all the boys and Dora, because the baby was her idea.
'We've found something,' Dora said, 'and we want to know whether we may keep it.'
The rest of us said nothing. We were not so very extra anxious to keep it after we had heard how much and how long it could howl. Even Noel had said he had no idea a baby could yell like it. Dora said it only cried because it was sleepy, but we reflected that it would certainly be sleepy once a day, if not oftener.
'What is it?' said Albert's uncle. 'Let's see this treasure-trove. Is it a wild beast?'
'Come and see,' said Dora, and we led him to our room.
Alice turned down the pink flannelette petticoat with silly pride, and showed the youthful heir fatly and pinkly sleeping.
'A baby!' said Albert's uncle. 'THE Baby! Oh, my cat's alive!'
That is an expression which he uses to express despair unmixed with anger.
'Where did you?—but that doesn't matter. We'll talk of this later.'
He rushed from the room, and in a moment or two we saw him mount his bicycle and ride off.
Quite shortly he returned with the distracted horse-man.
It was HIS baby, and not titled at all. The horseman and his wife were the lodgers at the mill. The nursemaid was a girl from the village.
She SAID she only left the Baby five minutes while she went to speak to her sweetheart who was gardener at the Red House. But we knew she left it over an hour, and nearly two.
I never saw anyone so pleased as the distracted horseman.
When we were asked we explained about having thought the Baby was the prey of gipsies, and the distracted horseman stood hugging the Baby, and actually thanked us.
But when he had gone we had a brief lecture on minding our own business. But Dora still thinks she was right. As for Oswald and most of the others, they agreed that they would rather mind their own business all their lives than mind a baby for a single hour.
If you have never had to do with a baby in the frenzied throes of sleepiness you can have no idea what its screams are like.
If you have been through such a scene you will understand how we managed to bear up under having no baby to adopt. Oswald insisted on having the whole thing written in the Golden Deed book. Of course his share could not be put in without telling about Dora's generous adopting of the forlorn infant outcast, and Oswald could not and cannot forget that he was the one who did get that baby to sleep.
What a time Mr and Mrs Distracted Horseman must have of it, though—especially now they've sacked the nursemaid.
If Oswald is ever married—I suppose he must be some day—he will have ten nurses to each baby. Eight is not enough. We know that because we tried, and the whole eight of us were not enough for the needs of that deserted infant who was not so extra high-born after all.