Dickory Dock - Part 1

Part 1

d.i.c.kory Dock.

by L. T. Meade.


Of course there was a baby in the case--a baby and mongrel dog, and a little boy and girl. They baby was small, and not particularly fair, but it had round limbs and a dimple or two, and a soft, half-pathetic, half- doggy look in its blue eyes, and the usual knack, which most helpless little babies have, of twining itself round the hearts of those who took care of it.

The caretakers of this baby were the two children and the dog. Of course a woman, who went by the name of nurse, did duty somewhere in the background; she washed the baby and dressed it in the morning, and she undressed it at night, and she prepared food for it; but the caretakers who called up smiles to the little white face, who caused the baby to show that enticing little dimple which it had in one of its cheeks, who made that strange, sweet, half-pathetic, half-humorous look come into its eyes, were the children and the dog. The baby had a sad history; it had entered the world with sorrow. Its mother had died at its birth, and the little wee orphan creature had been brought away almost directly to an uncle's house.

'We must do it, wife,' said Mr Franklin; 'there's poor John died two months back, and now there's his widow following him, poor creature, and no one to look after that wee mite of a babe. We must have it here, it's our plain duty, and I don't suppose one extra mouth to feed can make much difference.'

'That's all you men know,' replied Mrs Franklin, who was a very tall, thin, fretful-looking woman. 'No difference indeed! A baby make no difference! And who's to tend on the lodgers, and bring in the grist to the mill, if all my time, day and night, is taken up minding the baby!'

'Well, well,' said Mr Franklin. He was as peaceable as his wife was the reverse. He did not want the baby, but neither did he wish to send poor John's child to the workhouse.

'You must make the best of it, wife,' he said. 'Martha'll help you, and I daresay Peter and Flossy will take a turn in looking after the young 'un.'

Mrs Franklin said no more; she went up-stairs, and got a certain disused attic into some sort of order. The attic was far away from the rest of the house; it was the top story of a wing, which had been added on to the tall, ramshackle old house. In some of the rooms underneath, the Franklin family themselves slept; in others they lived, and in others they cooked. The rest of the house, therefore, was free for the accommodation of lodgers.

Mrs Franklin earned the family bread by taking in lodgers. She was far more active than her husband, who had a very small clerkship in the city; without her aid the children, Peter and Flossy, could scarcely have lived, but by dint of toiling from morning to night, of saving every penny, of turning and re-turning worn-out clothes, and scrubbing and cooking and brushing and cleaning, Mrs Franklin contrived to make two ends meet. Her lodgers said that the rooms they occupied were clean and neat, that their food was well cooked, and above all things that the house was quiet. Therefore they stayed on; year after year the same people lived in the parlours, and occupied the genteel drawing-room floor; and hard as her lot was, Mrs Franklin considered herself a lucky woman, and her neighbours often envied her.

The house where the Franklins lived was in one of those remote old-world half-forgotten squares which are to be found at the back of Bloomsbury.

In their day these squares had seen fashion and life, but the gay world had long, long ago pa.s.sed them by and forgotten them, and in consequence, although the houses were large and commodious, the rents were low.

Things had gone fairly well with the Franklins since they took the old house--that is, things had gone fairly well until the arrival of the baby--but, as Mrs Franklin said to her husband, no baby could come into any house without making a sight of difference. She had only two servants to help her in all her heavy work, and how could either she or they devote much time to nursing and tending a little new-born child?

The baby, however, arrived. It was sent up at once to the nursery which was hastily prepared for it. Flossy, aged six, and Peter, who was between eight and nine, followed it up-stairs, and watched it with profound and breathless interest, while Martha, the most trustworthy of the servants, undressed it, and fed it, and put it to sleep.

'It's a perfect duck,' said Flossy. 'Look at its wee little face, and isn't its skin soft! Might we kiss it, Martha? Would it break it, or anything, if we was to kiss it very soft and tender like?'

'It ain't a doll, child,' said Martha. 'It won't break with you loving of it. Kiss it, Flossy--babes is meant for kissing of.'

The children bent down, and printed a tender salute on the wee baby's face, and that night they scarcely slept themselves for fear of disturbing it.

'I hope we'll be allowed to take care of the wee baby,' whispered Flossy to her brother. 'I think we could do it werry nice; don't you, Peter?'

'Yes,' replied Peter. 'It would be something to amuse us; it's rather dull, you know, always having to keep quiet on account of the lodgers.'

Peter and Flossy soon found they were to have their wish. Martha could only spare a very short time to attending to the baby's wants, and the poor little mite would have had a very unhappy and neglected life but for the children.

As it happened, however, the wee white baby had not a dull life of it at all; when its teeth were not troubling it, and when it was not very hungry, it had quite a merry time. It was devoted to the children, and even when it was sending forth its wail for more food and some real mother's love, it would stop crying and give a clear hearty little laugh if Flossy shook her head of tangled red-brown hair in front of it, or if Snip-snap, the mongrel terrier, stood on his hind-legs and begged to it.

Peter and Flossy had been rather troublesome children before the arrival of the baby. Mrs Franklin's lodgers were fond of calling them 'little termagants,' and liked exceedingly to hint to the mother that if the termagants did not make themselves scarce they would be obliged to seek other quarters. Poor Mrs Franklin was always extremely frightened when these things were said, for she knew the rent, and to a certain extent the daily bread of the children, depended on the lodgers. When she learned that the baby must inevitably come to them, she laid one very solemn command upon her household.

'On no account whatever let out to Mrs Sinclair, and Mrs Potts, and Mr Martin that there is a baby in the house. If you do, go they will, and nothing that I can possibly say will keep them. I'm terribly frightened to think how the baby's existence can be kept from them, but if they know it, most certainly go they will.'

'Mother,' said Flossy, who was rather afraid of her mother, and did not often put a direct question to her, 'if the baby stays up in the old, old attic-nursery, and if Pete and me and Snip can play with it and it never cries, then Mrs Potts and Mr Martin needn't know nothing about it, need they, mother?'

'If it never cries, Flossy, they need not know about it,' answered Mrs Franklin; 'but whoever yet heard of a baby not crying? Of course it will cry all day and all night. I know it will be the ruin of us, and I think it was very unkind of your father to allow it to be brought here.'

'But suppose, mother, Pete and I play with the baby, and we make it so happy that it doesn't cry?' answered little Flossy.

Mrs Franklin gave a short sniff, and said in decidedly an unbelieving voice, 'You may try your best, my dear, of course.'

Then Flossy looked at Peter, and Peter looked back at her, and they called Snip-snap and went out of the room.

This was the way in which the baby became the children's special care; she was immediately thrown upon their tender mercies, they considered themselves answerable for her good behaviour, and Flossy almost wore herself out in devising amus.e.m.e.nts for her. She would toss all her hair over her face and dance wildly up and down, and contort that same little, funny, freckled face into all sorts of grimaces; and when the baby laughed and crowed, and made chirrupy sounds, she was abundantly satisfied. Peter, too, was most ingenious in keeping off the fatal sounds of baby's wailing: he would blow into a paper bag, and then when the baby had screwed up her face, and was preparing to let out a whole volley of direful notes, he would clap his hands violently on the bag and cause it to explode, thereby absolutely frightening the poor little creature into smiles.

Peter would sing all kinds of nursery rhymes for the baby, and walk up and down with it, and even run with it until his arms ached very badly indeed. But after all, the one who suffered most in the cause of the baby was Snip-snap. The patience with which he bore being dressed up in all kinds of costumes, being made to represent grannie with her spectacles, and lame John with his crutch, and a soldier in full-dress uniform, and a sailor with a broken arm, and everything in the world, in short, except a spirited little dog with four legs, was truly wonderful.

He never did attempt to bite, and he was only once guilty of barking; but during the grandmother exhibition he could not help throwing up his head and giving a prolonged and unearthly howl. But the naughty baby only laughed quite merrily over the howl, and the two children begged of Snip- snap to do it again. He never did howl any more--that was his last despairing protest--in future he submitted to the baby's caprices, but with the air of a broken-hearted dog.

Peter and Flossy had commenced their care of the baby without any special love for her, but of course they could not long hold her in their arms, and play with her, and think for her, and earnestly desire to win her smiles and banish her tears, without the usual thing happening. The baby stole their little hearts into her own safe keeping. Notwithstanding his sufferings she also stole Snip-snap's heart. After that the baby was of course mistress of the situation.

The children took care of her by day, and the lodgers knew nothing about her existence; but at night Martha, the old nurse, went into her nursery and slept with her, and attended to her wants. Peter and Flossy having learned the mystery of amusing the small mite, were tolerably happy about her during the daytime, but at night they were obliged to be parted from her, and in consequence at night they were full of fears. Martha meant to be kind, but she was tired, and she often slept soundly, and did not hear the baby when she awoke and demanded attention.

Flossy became quite a light sleeper herself, and would sometimes steal into the nursery and try to quiet the baby; so that, on the whole, for some time, even at night, the lodgers heard no sound of the new little inmate. But all happy and worthy things come to an end, and so, alas!

did the baby's good behaviour. There came a night, about three months after her arrival, and when she was about six months old, when baby was very restless, cross, and fidgety, with the cutting of her first tooth.

The children had quite worn themselves out in her cause in the daytime, and Snip-snap had allowed himself to be arrayed in all his costumes for her benefit; but Martha had come to bed as tired and weary as the baby herself, and in consequence she fell fast asleep, and never heard the little creature's cries.

Peter and Flossy heard them at the other side of the wall, and knowing that they were much louder and more piercing than usual, they both got up and, hand-in-hand, went to the nursery door. Snip-snap also followed them, but unwillingly, and with his tail between his legs. The door on this unfortunate night was locked, and the children could not get in.

Martha slept on, and the baby screamed on, and presently poor Peter and Flossy heard Mr Martin get up and ring his bell violently. Mrs Potts was also heard to open her room door and come out on the landing, and sniff in a very disagreeable way, and go back again. Flossy's heart quite beat with terror, and Peter said:

'It's all up, Flossy; they'll all know about our baby in the morning.'

'What'll they do?' asked Flossy in an awe-struck voice.

'I don't know,' answered Peter. 'I daren't think. Something bad I 'spect.'

Then the two children crept back to their beds, and Flossy cried herself to sleep.

{The Sleeping Baby: p20.jpg}


'You must answer me this question very decidedly, ma'am: am I to go, or the baby? Is my night's sleep to be again disturbed by the peevish wails of a troublesome infant? I must know at once, madam, what you intend to do? Miss Jenkins, over the way, has offered me her front parlour with the bedroom behind, and her terms are lower than yours. You have but to say the word, ma'am, and my bed will be well aired, and the room at Miss Jenkins's all comfortable for me to-night. I don't want you to turn that infant away, oh dear me! no, but I must decide my own plans; stay in the house with a baby, and have my sleep broken, I will not!'

The speaker was Mr Martin. He had come into Mrs Franklin's little back parlour and expressed his mind very freely. The poor woman was standing up and regarding her best lodger with a puzzled and almost despairing air. She did not know that Flossy had crept into the room and was hiding herself behind her chair, and that Flossy's little face had grown even more white and despairing than her own.

'Give me until to-night, sir,' she said. 'Mrs Potts has also been in and complaining about the poor child. She's an orphan child, and my husband's niece, but we are in no way bound to support her. I would not treat her badly, sir, but there are limits; and, of course, as you say, your night's sleep must not be broken. Rather than that should happen, Mr Martin, I would send the child to the workhouse, for, of course, she has no legal claim on us. If you will be so kind, sir, as to give me until to-morrow morning, I will then let you know what I have decided to do with the baby, and I faithfully promise that you are not to be disturbed to-night, sir.'

'That is all right,' said Mr Martin, with a mollified air. 'Of course it is not to be expected that an old bachelor such as I am should be worried by an infant's screams. The screams of a baby have to me an appalling sound. Do what you think well with the child, ma'am, and let me know in the morning; only I may as well state that I think the workhouse an extreme measure.'

Then Mr Martin left the house. Mrs Franklin followed him out of the room, and Flossy crept slowly back to the nursery.