"It's not the sort of thing to tell 'em," remarked Henry, as, with his napkin over his arm, he leant against one of the pillars of the verandah, and sipped the glass of Burgundy I had poured out for him; "and they wouldn't believe it if you did tell 'em, not one of 'em. But it's the truth, for all that. Without the clothes they couldn't do it."
"Who wouldn't believe what?" I asked. He had a curious habit, had Henry, of commenting aloud upon his own unspoken thoughts, thereby bestowing upon his conversation much of the quality of the double acrostic. We had been discussing the question whether sardines served their purpose better as a hors d'oeuvre or as a savoury; and I found myself wondering for the moment why sardines, above all other fish, should be of an unbelieving nature; while endeavouring to picture to myself the costume best adapted to display the somewhat difficult figure of a sardine. Henry put down his glass, and came to my rescue with the necessary explanation.
"Why, women--that they can tell one baby from another, without its clothes. I've got a sister, a monthly nurse, and she will tell you for a fact, if you care to ask her, that up to three months of age there isn't really any difference between 'em. You can tell a girl from a boy and a Christian child from a black heathen, perhaps; but to fancy you can put your finger on an unclothed infant and say: 'That's a Smith, or that's a Jones,' as the case may be--why, it's sheer nonsense. Take the things off 'em, and shake them up in a blanket, and I'll bet you what you like that which is which you'd never be able to tell again so long as you lived."
I agreed with Henry, so far as my own personal powers of discrimination might be concerned, but I suggested that to Mrs. Jones or Mrs. Smith there would surely occur some means of identification.
"So they'd tell you themselves, no doubt," replied Henry; "and of course, I am not thinking of cases where the child might have a mole or a squint, as might come in useful. But take 'em in general, kids are as much alike as sardines of the same age would be. Anyhow, I knew a case where a fool of a young nurse mixed up two children at an hotel, and to this day neither of those women is sure that she's got her own."
"Do you mean," I said, "there was no possible means of distinguishing?"
"There wasn't a flea-bite to go by," answered Henry. "They had the same bumps, the same pimples, the same scratches; they were the same age to within three days; they weighed the same to an ounce; and they measured the same to an inch. One father was tall and fair, and the other was short and dark. The tall, fair man had a dark, short wife; and the short, dark man had married a tall, fair woman. For a week they changed those kids to and fro a dozen times a day, and cried and quarrelled over them. Each woman felt sure she was the mother of the one that was crowing at the moment, and when it yelled she was positive it was no child of hers. They thought they would trust to the instinct of the children. Neither child, so long as it wasn't hungry, appeared to care a curse for anybody; and when it was hungry it always wanted the mother that the other kid had got. They decided, in the end, to leave it to time. It's three years ago now, and possibly enough some likeness to the parents will develop that will settle the question. All I say is, up to three months old you can't tell 'em, I don't care who says you can."
He paused, and appeared to be absorbed in contemplation of the distant Matterhorn, then clad in its rosy robe of evening. There was a vein of poetry in Henry, not uncommon among cooks and waiters. The perpetual atmosphere of hot food I am inclined to think favourable to the growth of the softer emotions. One of the most sentimental men I ever knew kept a ham-and-beef shop just off the Farringdon Road. In the early morning he could be shrewd and business-like, but when hovering with a knife and fork above the mingled steam of bubbling sausages and hissing peas-pudding, any whimpering tramp with any impossible tale of woe could impose upon him easily.
"But the rummiest go I ever recollect in connection with a baby," continued Henry after a while, his gaze still fixed upon the distant snow- crowned peaks, "happened to me at Warwick in the Jubilee year. I'll never forget that."
"Is it a proper story," I asked, "a story fit for me to hear?"
On consideration, Henry saw no harm in it, and told it to me accordingly.
* * * * *
He came by the 'bus that meets the 4.52. He'd a handbag and a sort of hamper: it looked to me like a linen-basket. He wouldn't let the Boots touch the hamper, but carried it up into his bedroom himself. He carried it in front of him by the handles, and grazed his knuckles at every second step. He slipped going round the bend of the stairs, and knocked his head a rattling good thump against the balustrade; but he never let go that hamper--only swore and plunged on. I could see he was nervous and excited, but one gets used to nervous and excited people in hotels. Whether a man's running away from a thing, or running after a thing, he stops at a hotel on his way; and so long as he looks as if he could pay his bill one doesn't trouble much about him. But this man interested me: he was so uncommonly young and innocent-looking. Besides, it was a dull hole of a place after the sort of jobs I'd been used to; and when you've been doing nothing for three months but waiting on commercial gents as are having an exceptionally bad season, and spoony couples with guide- books, you get a bit depressed, and welcome any incident, however slight, that promises to be out of the common.
I followed him up into his room, and asked him if I could do anything for him. He flopped the hamper on the bed with a sigh of relief, took off his hat, wiped his head with his handkerchief, and then turned to answer me.
"Are you a married man?" says he.
It was an odd question to put to a waiter, but coming from a gent there was nothing to be alarmed about.
"Well, not exactly," I says--I was only engaged at that time, and that not to my wife, if you understand what I mean--"but I know a good deal about it," I says, "and if it's a matter of advice--"
"It isn't that," he answers, interrupting me; "but I don't want you to laugh at me. I thought if you were a married man you would be able to understand the thing better. Have you got an intelligent woman in the house?"
"We've got women," I says. "As to their intelligence, that's a matter of opinion; they're the average sort of women. Shall I call the chambermaid?"
"Ah, do," he says. "Wait a minute," he says; "we'll open it first."
He began to fumble with the cord, then he suddenly lets go and begins to chuckle to himself.
"No," he says, "you open it. Open it carefully; it will surprise you."
I don't take much stock in surprises myself. My experience is that they're mostly unpleasant.
"What's in it?" I says.
"You'll see if you open it," he says: "it won't hurt you." And off he goes again, chuckling to himself.
"Well," I says to myself, "I hope you're a harmless specimen." Then an idea struck me, and I stopped with the knot in my fingers.
"It ain't a corpse," I says, "is it?"
He turned as white as the sheet on the bed, and clutched the mantlepiece. "Good God! don't suggest such a thing," he says; "I never thought of that. Open it quickly."
"I'd rather you came and opened it yourself, sir," I says. I was beginning not to half like the business.
"I can't," he says, "after that suggestion of yours--you've put me all in a tremble. Open it quick, man; tell me it's all right."
Well, my own curiosity helped me. I cut the cord, threw open the lid, and looked in. He kept his eyes turned away, as if he were frightened to look for himself.
"Is it all right?" he says. "Is it alive?"
"It's about as alive," I says, "as anybody'll ever want it to be, I should say."
"Is it breathing all right?" he says.
"If you can't hear it breathing," I says, "I'm afraid you're deaf."
You might have heard its breathing outside in the street. He listened, and even he was satisfied.
"Thank Heaven!" he says, and down he plumped in the easy-chair by the fireplace. "You know, I never thought of that," he goes on. "He's been shut up in that basket for over an hour, and if by any chance he'd managed to get his head entangled in the clothes--I'll never do such a fool's trick again!"
"You're fond of it?" I says.
He looked round at me. "Fond of it," he repeats. "Why, I'm his father." And then he begins to laugh again.
"Oh!" I says. "Then I presume I have the pleasure of addressing Mr. Coster King?"
"Coster King?" he answers in surprise. "My name's Milberry."
I says: "The father of this child, according to the label inside the cover, is Coster King out of Starlight, his mother being Jenny Deans out of Darby the Devil."
He looks at me in a nervous fashion, and puts the chair between us. It was evidently his turn to think as how I was mad. Satisfying himself, I suppose, that at all events I wasn't dangerous, he crept closer till he could get a look inside the basket. I never heard a man give such an unearthly yell in all my life. He stood on one side of the bed and I on the other. The dog, awakened by the noise, sat up and grinned, first at one of us and then at the other. I took it to be a bull-pup of about nine months old, and a fine specimen for its age.
"My child!" he shrieks, with his eyes starting out of his head, "That thing isn't my child. What's happened? Am I going mad?"
"You're on that way," I says, and so he was. "Calm yourself," I says; "what did you expect to see?"
"My child," he shrieks again; "my only child--my baby!"
"Do you mean a real child?" I says, "a human child?" Some folks have such a silly way of talking about their dogs--you never can tell.
"Of course I do," he says; "the prettiest child you ever saw in all your life, just thirteen weeks old on Sunday. He cut his first tooth yesterday."
The sight of the dog's face seemed to madden him. He flung himself upon the basket, and would, I believe, have strangled the poor beast if I hadn't interposed between them.
"'Tain't the dog's fault," I says; "I daresay he's as sick about the whole business as you are. He's lost, too. Somebody's been having a lark with you. They've took your baby out and put this in--that is, if there ever was a baby there."
"What do you mean?" he says.
"Well, sir," I says, "if you'll excuse me, gentlemen in their sober senses don't take their babies about in dog-baskets. Where do you come from?"
"From Banbury," he says; "I'm well known in Banbury."
"I can quite believe it," I says; "you're the sort of young man that would be known anywhere."
"I'm Mr. Milberry," he says, "the grocer, in the High Street."
"Then what are you doing here with this dog?" I says.
"Don't irritate me," he answers. "I tell you I don't know myself. My wife's stopping here at Warwick, nursing her mother, and in every letter she's written home for the last fortnight she's said, 'Oh, how I do long to see Eric! If only I could see Eric for a moment!'"
"A very motherly sentiment," I says, "which does her credit."
"So this afternoon," continues he, "it being early-closing day, I thought I'd bring the child here, so that she might see it, and see that it was all right. She can't leave her mother for more than about an hour, and I can't go up to the house, because the old lady doesn't like me, and I excite her. I wish to wait here, and Milly--that's my wife--was to come to me when she could get away. I meant this to be a surprise to her."
"And I guess," I says, "it will be the biggest one you have ever given her."
"Don't try to be funny about it," he says; "I'm not altogether myself, and I may do you an injury."
He was right. It wasn't a subject for joking, though it had its humorous side.
"But why," I says, "put it in a dog-basket?"
"It isn't a dog-basket," he answers irritably; "it's a picnic hamper. At the last moment I found I hadn't got the face to carry the child in my arms: I thought of what the street-boys would call out after me. He's a rare one to sleep, and I thought if I made him comfortable in that he couldn't hurt, just for so short a journey. I took it in the carriage with me, and carried it on my knees; I haven't let it out of my hands a blessed moment. It's witchcraft, that's what it is. I shall believe in the devil after this."
"Don't be ridiculous," I says, "there's some explanation; it only wants finding. You are sure this is the identical hamper you packed the child in?"
He was calmer now. He leant over and examined it carefully. "It looks like it," he says; "but I can't swear to it."
"You tell me," I says, "you never let it go out of your hands. Now think."
"No," he says, "it's been on my knees all the time."
"But that's nonsense," I says; "unless you packed the dog yourself in mistake for your baby. Now think it over quietly. I'm not your wife, I'm only trying to help you. I shan't say anything even if you did take your eyes off the thing for a minute."
He thought again, and a light broke over his face. "By Jove!" he says, "you're right. I did put it down for a moment on the platform at Banbury while I bought a 'Tit-Bits.'"
"There you are," I says; "now you're talking sense. And wait a minute; isn't to-morrow the first day of the Birmingham Dog Show?"
"I believe you're right," he says.
"Now we're getting warm," I says. "By a coincidence this dog was being taken to Birmingham, packed in a hamper exactly similar to the one you put your baby in. You've got this man's bull-pup, he's got your baby; and I wouldn't like to say off-hand at this moment which of you's feeling the madder. As likely as not, he thinks you've done it on purpose."
He leant his head against the bed-post and groaned. "Milly may be here at any moment," says he, "and I'll have to tell her the baby's been sent by mistake to a Dog Show! I daresn't do it," he says, "I daresn't do it."
"Go on to Birmingham," I says, "and try and find it. You can catch the quarter to six and be back here before eight."
"Come with me," he says; "you're a good man, come with me. I ain't fit to go by myself."
He was right; he'd have got run over outside the door, the state he was in then.
"Well," I says, "if the guv'nor don't object--"
"Oh! he won't, he can't," cries the young fellow, wringing his hands. "Tell him it's a matter of a life's happiness. Tell him--"
"I'll tell him it's a matter of half sovereign extra on to the bill," I says. "That'll more likely do the trick."
And so it did, with the result that in another twenty minutes me and young Milberry and the bull-pup in its hamper were in a third-class carriage on our way to Birmingham. Then the difficulties of the chase began to occur to me. Suppose by luck I was right; suppose the pup was booked for the Birmingham Dog Show; and suppose by a bit more luck a gent with a hamper answering description had been noticed getting out of the 5.13 train; then where were we? We might have to interview every cabman in the town. As likely as not, by the time we did find the kid, it wouldn't be worth the trouble of unpacking. Still, it wasn't my cue to blab my thoughts. The father, poor fellow, was feeling, I take it, just about as bad as he wanted to feel. My business was to put hope into him; so when he asked me for about the twentieth time if I thought as he would ever see his child alive again, I snapped him up shortish.
"Don't you fret yourself about that," I says. "You'll see a good deal of that child before you've done with it. Babies ain't the sort of things as gets lost easily. It's only on the stage that folks ever have any particular use for other people's children. I've known some bad characters in my time, but I'd have trusted the worst of 'em with a wagon- load of other people's kids. Don't you flatter yourself you're going to lose it! Whoever's got it, you take it from me, his idea is to do the honest thing, and never rest till he's succeeded in returning it to the rightful owner."
Well, my talking like that cheered him, and when we reached Birmingham he was easier. We tackled the station-master, and he tackled all the porters who could have been about the platform when the 5.13 came in. All of 'em agreed that no gent got out of that train carrying a hamper. The station-master was a family man himself, and when we explained the case to him he sympathised and telegraphed to Banbury. The booking-clerk at Banbury remembered only three gents booking by that particular train. One had been Mr. Jessop, the corn-chandler; the second was a stranger, who had booked to Wolverhampton; and the third had been young Milberry himself. The business began to look hopeless, when one of Smith's newsboys, who was hanging around, struck in:
"I see an old lady," says he, "hovering about outside the station, and a- hailing cabs, and she had a hamper with her as was as like that one there as two peas."
I thought young Milberry would have fallen upon the boy's neck and kissed him. With the boy to help us, we started among the cabmen. Old ladies with dog-baskets ain't so difficult to trace. She had gone to a small second-rate hotel in the Aston Road. I heard all particulars from the chambermaid, and the old girl seems to have had as bad a time in her way as my gent had in his. They couldn't get the hamper into the cab, it had to go on the top. The old lady was very worried, as it was raining at the time, and she made the cabman cover it with his apron. Getting it off the cab they dropped the whole thing in the road; that woke the child up, and it began to cry.
"Good Lord, Ma'am! what is it?" asks the chambermaid, "a baby?"
"Yes, my dear, it's my baby," answers the old lady, who seems to have been a cheerful sort of old soul--leastways, she was cheerful up to then. "Poor dear, I hope they haven't hurt him."
The old lady had ordered a room with a fire in it. The Boots took the hamper up, and laid it on the hearthrug. The old lady said she and the chambermaid would see to it, and turned him out. By this time, according to the girl's account, it was roaring like a steam-siren.
"Pretty dear!" says the old lady, fumbling with the cord, "don't cry; mother's opening it as fast as she can." Then she turns to the chambermaid--"If you open my bag," says she, "you will find a bottle of milk and some dog-biscuits."
"Dog-biscuits!" says the chambermaid.
"Yes," says the old lady, laughing, "my baby loves dog-biscuits."
The girl opened the bag, and there, sure enough, was a bottle of milk and half a dozen Spratt's biscuits. She had her back to the old lady, when she heard a sort of a groan and a thud as made her turn round. The old lady was lying stretched dead on the hearthrug--so the chambermaid thought. The kid was sitting up in the hamper yelling the roof off. In her excitement, not knowing what she was doing, she handed it a biscuit, which it snatched at greedily and began sucking.
Then she set to work to slap the old lady back to life again. In about a minute the poor old soul opened her eyes and looked round. The baby was quiet now, gnawing the dog-biscuit. The old lady looked at the child, then turned and hid her face against the chambermaid's bosom.
"What is it?" she says, speaking in an awed voice. "The thing in the hamper?"
"It's a baby, Ma'am," says the maid.
"You're sure it ain't a dog?" says the old lady. "Look again."
The girl began to feel nervous, and to wish that she wasn't alone with the old lady.
"I ain't likely to mistake a dog for a baby, Ma'am," says the girl. "It's a child--a human infant."
The old lady began to cry softly. "It's a judgment on me," she says. "I used to talk to that dog as if it had been a Christian, and now this thing has happened as a punishment."
"What's happened?" says the chambermaid, who was naturally enough growing more and more curious.
"I don't know," says the old lady, sitting up on the floor. "If this isn't a dream, and if I ain't mad, I started from my home at Farthinghoe, two hours ago, with a one-year-old bulldog packed in that hamper. You saw me open it; you see what's inside it now."
"But bulldogs," says the chambermaid, "ain't changed into babies by magic."
"I don't know how it's done," says the old lady, "and I don't see that it matters. I know I started with a bulldog, and somehow or other it's got turned into that."
"Somebody's put it there," says the chambermaid; "somebody as wanted to get rid of a child. They've took your dog out and put that in its place."
"They must have been precious smart," says the old lady; "the hamper hasn't been out of my sight for more than five minutes, when I went into the refreshment-room at Banbury for a cup of tea."
"That's when they did it," says the chambermaid, "and a clever trick it was."
The old lady suddenly grasped her position, and jumped up from the floor. "And a nice thing for me," she says. "An unmarried woman in a scandal- mongering village! This is awful!"
"It's a fine-looking child," says the chambermaid.
"Would you like it?" says the old lady.
The chambermaid said she wouldn't. The old lady sat down and tried to think, and the more she thought the worse she felt. The chambermaid was positive that if we hadn't come when we did the poor creature would have gone mad. When the Boots appeared at the door to say there was a gent and a bulldog downstairs enquiring after a baby, she flung her arms round the man's neck and hugged him.
We just caught the train to Warwick, and by luck got back to the hotel ten minutes before the mother turned up. Young Milberry carried the child in his arms all the way. He said I could have the hamper for myself, and gave me half-a-sovereign extra on the understanding that I kept my mouth shut, which I did.
I don't think he ever told the child's mother what had happened--leastways, if he wasn't a fool right through, he didn't.