The Fatal Cradle

Otherwise, the Heart-Rending Story of Mr. Heavysides.

Wilkie Collins

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The University of Adelaide Library
University of Adelaide
South Australia 5005

The Fatal Cradle

Otherwise, the Heart-Rending Story of Mr. Heavysides.

THERE has never yet been discovered a man with a grievance who objected to mention it. I am no exception to this general human rule. I have got a grievance, and I don’t object to mention it. Compose your spirits to hear a pathetic story, and kindly picture me in your own mind as a baby five minutes old.

Do I understand you to say that I am too big and too heavy to be pictured in anybody’s mind as a baby? Perhaps I may be — but don’t mention my weight again, if you please. My weight has been the grand misfortune of my life. It spoiled all my prospects (as you will presently hear) before I was two days old.

My story begins thirty-one years ago, at eleven o’clock in the forenoon, and starts with the great mistake of my first appearance in this world, at sea, on board the merchant ship Adventure, Captain Gillop, five hundred tons burden, coppered, and carrying an experienced surgeon.

In presenting myself to you (which I am now about to do) at that eventful period of my life when I was from five to ten minutes old, and in withdrawing myself again from your notice (so as not to trouble you with more than a short story) before the time when I cut my first tooth, I need not hesitate to admit that I speak on hearsay knowledge only. It is knowledge, however, that may be relied on, for all that. My information comes from Captain Gillop, commander of the Adventure (who sent it to me in the form of a letter); from Mr. Jolly, experienced surgeon of the Adventure (who wrote it for me — most unfeelingly, as I think — in the shape of a humorous narrative); and from Mrs. Drabble, stewardess of the Adventure (who told it me by word of mouth). Those three persons were, in various degrees, spectators — I may say astonished spectators — of the events which I have now to relate.

The Adventure, at the time I speak of, was bound out from London to Australia. I suppose you know without my telling you that thirty years ago was long before the time of the gold-finding and the famous clipper ships. Building in the new colony and sheep-farming far up inland were the two main employments of those days, and the passengers on board our vessel were consequently builders or sheep-farmers, almost to a man.

A ship of five hundred tons, well loaded with cargo, doesn’t offer first-rate accommodation to a large number of passengers. Not that the gentlefolk in the cabin had any great reason to complain. There the passage-money, which was a good round sum, kept them what you call select. One or two berths in this part of the ship were even empty and going a-begging, in consequence of there being only four cabin passengers. These are their names and descriptions:

Mr. Sims, a middle-aged man, going out on a building speculation; Mr. Purling, a weakly young gentleman, sent on a long sea-voyage, for the benefit of his health; and Mr. and Mrs. Smallchild, a young married couple, with a little independence, which Mr. Smallchild proposed to make a large one by sheep-farming.

This gentleman was reported to the captain as being very good company when on shore. But the sea altered him to a certain extent. When Mr. Smallchild was not sick, he was eating and drinking; and when he was not eating and drinking, he was fast asleep. He was perfectly patient and good-humored, and wonderfully nimble at running into his cabin when the qualms took him on a sudden; but, as for his being good company, nobody heard him say ten words together all through the voyage. And no wonder. A man can’t talk in the qualms; a man can’t talk while he is eating and drinking; and a man can’t talk when he is asleep. And that was Mr. Smallchild’s life. As for Mrs. Smallchild, she kept her cabin from first to last. But you will hear more of her presently.

These four cabin passengers, as I have already remarked, were well enough off for their accommodation. But the miserable people in the steerage — a poor place at the best of times on board the Adventure— were all huddled together, men and women and children, higgledy-piggledy, like sheep in a pen, except that they hadn’t got the same quantity of fine fresh air to blow over them. They were artisans and farm-laborers, who couldn’t make it out in the Old Country. I have no information either of their exact numbers or of their names. It doesn’t matter; there was only one family among them which need be mentioned particularly — namely, the family of the Heavysides. To wit, Simon Heavysides, intelligent, and well-educated, a carpenter by trade; Susan Heavysides, his wife; and seven little Heavysides, their unfortunate offspring. My father and mother and brothers and sisters, did I understand you to say? Don’t be in a hurry! I recommend you to wait a little before you make quite sure of that circumstance.

Though I myself had not, perhaps, strictly speaking, come on board when the vessel left London, my ill luck, as I firmly believe, had shipped in the Adventure to wait for me — and decided the nature of the voyage accordingly.

Never was such a miserable time known. Stormy weather came down on us from all points of the compass, with intervals of light, baffling winds or dead calms. By the time the Adventure had been three months out, Captain Gillop’s naturally sweet temper began to get soured. I leave you to say whether it was likely to be much improved by a piece of news which reached him from the region of the cabin on the morning of the ninety-first day. It had fallen to a dead calm again; and the ship was rolling about helpless, with her head all round the compass, when Mr. Jolly (from whose facetious narrative I repeat all conversations exactly as they passed) came on deck to the captain, and addressed him in these words:

“I have got some news that will rather surprise you,” said Mr. Jolly, smiling and rubbing his hands. (Although the experienced surgeon has not shown much sympathy for my troubles, I won’t deny that his disposition was as good as his name. To this day no amount of bad weather or hard work can upset Mr. Jolly’s temper.)

“If it’s news of a fair wind coming,” grumbled the captain, “that would surprise me on board this ship, I can promise you!”

“It’s not exactly a wind coming,” said Mr. Jolly. “It’s another cabin passenger.”

The captain looked round at the empty sea, with the land thousands of miles away, and with not a ship in sight — turned sharply on the experienced surgeon — eyed him hard — changed color suddenly — and asked what he meant.

“I mean there’s a fifth cabin passenger coming on board,” persisted Mr. Jolly, grinning from ear to ear —“introduced by Mrs. Smallchild — likely to join us, I should say, toward evening — size, nothing to speak of — sex, not known at present — manners and customs, probably squally.”

“Do you really mean it?” asked the captain, backing away, and turning paler and paler.

“Yes, I do,” answered Mr. Jolly, nodding hard at him.

“Then I’ll tell you what,” cried Captain Gillop, suddenly flying into a violent passion, “I won’t have it! the infernal weather has worried me out of my life and soul already — and I won’t have it! Put it off, Jolly — tell her there isn’t room enough for that sort of thing on board my vessel. What does she mean by taking us all in in this way? Shameful! Shameful!”

“No! no!” remonstrated Mr. Jolly. “Don’t look at it in that light. It’s her first child, poor thing. How should she know? Give her a little more experience, and I dare say —”

“Where’s her husband?” broke in the captain, with a threatening look. “I’ll speak my mind to her husband, at any rate.”

Mr. Jolly consulted his watch before he answered.

“Half-past eleven,” he said. “Let me consider a little. It’s Mr. Smallchild’s regular time just now for squaring accounts with the sea. He’ll have done in a quarter of an hour. In five minutes more he’ll be fast asleep. At one o’clock he’ll eat a hearty lunch, and go to sleep again. At half-past two he’ll square accounts as before — and so on till night. You’ll make nothing out of Mr. Smallchild, captain. Extraordinary man — wastes tissue, and repairs it again perpetually, in the most astonishing manner. If we are another month at sea, I believe we shall bring him into port totally comatose. — Halloo! What do you want?”

The steward’s mate had approached the quarter-deck while the doctor was speaking. Was it a curious coincidence? This man also was grinning from ear to ear, exactly like Mr. Jolly.

“You’re wanted in the steerage, sir,” said the steward’s mate to the doctor. “A woman taken bad, name of Heavysides.”

“Nonsense!” cried Mr. Jolly “Ha, ha, ha! You don’t mean — eh?”

“That’s it, sir, sure enough,” said the steward’s mate, in the most positive manner.

Captain Gillop looked all around him in silent desperation; lost his sea-legs for the first time these twenty years; staggered back till he was brought up all standing by the side of his own vessel; dashed his fist on the bulwark, and found language to express himself in, at the same moment.

“This ship is bewitched,” said the captain, wildly. “Stop!” he called out, recovering himself a little as the doctor bustled away to the steerage. “Stop! If it’s true, Jolly, send her husband here aft to me. Damme, I’ll have it out with one of the husbands!” said the captain, shaking his fist viciously at the empty air.

Ten minutes passed; and then there came staggering toward the captain, tottering this way and that with the rolling of the becalmed vessel, a long, lean, melancholy, light-haired man, with a Roman nose, a watery blue eye, and a complexion profusely spotted with large brown freckles. This was Simon Heavysides, the intelligent carpenter, with the wife and the family of seven small children on board.

“Oh! you’re the man, are you?” said the captain.

The ship lurched heavily; and Simon Heavysides staggered away with a run to the opposite side of the deck, as if he preferred going straight overboard into the sea to answering the captain’s question.

“You’re the man — are you?” repeated the captain, following him, seizing him by the collar, and pinning him up fiercely against the bulwark. “It’s your wife — is it? You infernal rascal! what do you mean by turning my ship into a lying-in hospital? You have committed an act of mutiny; or, if it isn’t mutiny, it’s next door to it. I’ve put a man in irons for less! I’ve more than half a mind to put you in irons! Hold up, you slippery lubber! What do you mean by bringing passengers I don’t bargain for on board my vessel? What have you got to say for yourself, before I clap the irons on you?”

“Nothing, sir,” answered Simon Heavysides, accepting the captain’s strong language without a word of protest. “As for the punishment you mentioned just now, sir,” continued Simon, “I wish to say — having seven children more than I know how to provide for, and an eighth coming to make things worse — I respectfully wish to say, sir, that my mind is in irons already; and I don’t know as it will make much difference if you put my body in irons along with it.”

The captain mechanically let go of the carpenter’s collar; the mild despair of the man melted him in spite of himself.

“Why did you come to sea? Why didn’t you wait ashore till it was all over?” asked the captain, as sternly as he could.

“It’s no use waiting, sir,” remarked Simon. “In our line of life, as soon as it’s over it begins again. There’s no end to it that I can see,” said the miserable carpenter, after a moment’s meek consideration —“except the grave.”

“Who’s talking about the grave?” cried Mr. Jolly, coming up at that moment. “It’s births we’ve got to do with on board this vessel — not burials. Captain Gillop, this woman, Mrs. Heavysides, can’t be left in your crowded steerage in her present condition. She must be moved off into one of the empty berths — and the sooner the better, I can tell you!”

The captain began to look savage again. A steerage passenger in one of his “state-rooms” was a nautical anomaly subversive of all discipline. He eyed the carpenter once more, as if he was mentally measuring him for a set of irons.

“I’m very sorry, sir,” Simon remarked, politely —“very sorry that any inadvertence of mine or Mrs. Heavysides —”

“Take your long carcass and your long tongue forward!” thundered the captain. “When talking will mend matters, I’ll send for you again. Give your own orders, Jolly,” he went on, resignedly, as Simon staggered off. “Turn the ship into a nursery as soon as you like!”

Five minutes later — so expeditious was Mr. Jolly — Mrs. Heavysides appeared horizontally on deck, shrouded in blankets and supported by three men. When this interesting procession passed the captain, he shrank aside from it with as vivid an appearance of horror as if a wild bull was being carried by him instead of a British matron.

The sleeping-berths below opened on either side out of the main cabin. On the left-hand side (looking toward the ship’s bowsprit) was Mrs. Smallchild. On the right-hand side, opposite to her, the doctor established Mrs. Heavysides. A partition of canvas was next run up, entirely across the main cabin. The smaller of the two temporary rooms thus made lay nearest the stairs leading on deck, and was left free to the public. The larger was kept sacred to the doctor and his mysteries. When an old clothes-basket, emptied, cleaned, and comfortably lined with blankets (to serve for a makeshift cradle), had been in due course of time carried into the inner cabin, and had been placed midway between the two sleeping-berths, so as to be easily producible when wanted, the outward and visible preparations of Mr. Jolly were complete; the male passengers had all taken refuge on deck; and the doctor and the stewardess were left in undisturbed possession of the lower regions.

While it was still early in the afternoon the weather changed for the better. For once in a way, the wind came from a fair quarter, and the Adventure bowled along pleasantly before it almost on an even keel. Captain Gillop mixed with the little group of male passengers on the quarter-deck, restored to his sweetest temper; and set them his customary example, after dinner, of smoking a cigar.

“If this fine weather lasts, gentlemen,” he said, “we shall make out very well with our meals up here, and we shall have our two small extra cabin passengers christened on dry land in a week’s time, if their mothers approve of it. How do you feel in your mind, sir, about your good lady?”

Mr. Smallchild (to whom the inquiry was addressed) had his points of external personal resemblance to Simon Heavysides. He was neither so tall nor so lean, certainly — but he, too, had a Roman nose, and light hair, and watery blue eyes. With careful reference to his peculiar habits at sea, he had been placed conveniently close to the bulwark, and had been raised on a heap of old sails and cushions, so that he could easily get his head over the ship’s side when occasion required. The food and drink which assisted in “restoring his tissue,” when he was not asleep and not “squaring accounts with the sea,” lay close to his hand. It was then a little after three o’clock; and the snore with which Mr. Smallchild answered the captain’s inquiry showed that he had got round again, with the regularity of clock-work, to the period of the day when he recruited himself with sleep.

“What an insensible blockhead that man is!” said Mr. Sims, the middle-aged passenger, looking across the deck contemptuously at Mr. Smallchild.

“If the sea had the same effect on you that it has on him,” retorted the invalid passenger, Mr. Purling, “you would just be as insensible yourself.”

Mr. Purling (who was a man of sentiment) disagreed with Mr. Sims (who was a man of business) on every conceivable subject, all through the voyage. Before, however, they could continue the dispute about Mr. Smallchild, the doctor surprised them by appearing from the cabin.

“Any news from below, Jolly?” asked the captain, anxiously.

“None whatever,” answered the doctor. “I’ve come to idle the afternoon away up here, along with the rest of you.”

As events turned out, Mr. Jolly idled away an hour and a half exactly. At the end of that time Mrs. Drabble, the stewardess, appeared with a face of mystery, and whispered, nervously, to the doctor,

“Please to step below directly, sir.”

“Which of them is it?” asked Mr. Jolly.

Both of them,” answered Mrs. Drabble, emphatically.

The doctor looked grave; the stewardess looked frightened. The two immediately disappeared together.

“I suppose, gentlemen,” said Captain Gillop, addressing Mr. Purling, Mr. Sims, and the first mate, who had just joined the party —“I suppose it’s only fit and proper, in the turn things have taken, to shake up Mr. Smallchild? And I don’t doubt but what we ought to have the other husband handy, as a sort of polite attention under the circumstances. Pass the word forward there, for Simon Heavysides. Mr. Smallchild, sir! rouse up! Here’s your good lady — Hang me, gentlemen, if I know exactly how to put it to him.”

“Yes. Thank you,” said Mr. Smallchild, opening his eyes drowsily. “Biscuit and cold bacon, as usual — when I’m ready. I’m not ready yet. Thank you. Good-afternoon.” Mr. Smallchild closed his eyes again, and became, in the doctor’s phrase, “totally comatose.”

Before Captain Gillop could hit on any new plan for rousing this imperturbable passenger, Simon Heavysides once more approached the quarter-deck.

“I spoke a little sharp to you, just now, my man,” said the captain, “being worried in my mind by what’s going on on board this vessel. But I’ll make it up to you, never fear. Here’s your wife in what they call an interesting situation. It’s only right you should be within easy hail of her. I look upon you, Heavysides, as a steerage passenger in difficulties; and I freely give you leave to stop here along with us till it’s all over.”

“You are very good, sir,” said Simon, “and I am indeed thankful to you and to these gentlemen. But please to remember, I have seven children already in the steerage — and there’s nobody left to mind ’em but me. My wife has got over it uncommonly well, sir, on seven previous occasions — and I don’t doubt but what she’ll conduct herself in a similar manner on the eighth. It will be a satisfaction to her mind, Captain Gillop and gentlemen, if she knows I’m out of the way, and minding the children. For which reason, I respectfully take my leave.” With those words Simon made his bow, and returned to his family.

“Well, gentlemen, these two husbands take it easy enough, at any rate!” said the captain. “One of them is used to it, to be sure; and the other is —”

Here a banging of cabin doors below, and a hurrying of footsteps, startled the speaker and his audience into momentary silence and attention.

“Ease her with the helm, Williamson!” said Captain Gillop, addressing the man who was steering the vessel. “In my opinion, gentlemen, the less the ship pitches the better, in the turn things are taking now.”

The afternoon wore on into evening, and evening into night.

Mr. Smallchild performed the daily ceremonies of his nautical existence as punctually as usual. He was aroused to a sense of Mrs. Smallchild’s situation when he took his biscuit and bacon; lost the sense again when the time came round for “squaring his accounts;” recovered it in the interval which ensued before he went to sleep; lost it again, as a matter of course, when his eyes closed once more — and so on through the evening and early night. Simon Heavysides received messages occasionally (through the captain’s care), telling him to keep his mind easy; returned messages mentioning that his mind was easy, and that the children were pretty quiet, but never approached the deck in his own person. Mr. Jolly now and then showed himself; said “All right — no news;” took a little light refreshment, and disappeared again as cheerful as ever. The fair breeze still held; the captain’s temper remained unruffled; the man at the helm eased the vessel, from time to time, with the most anxious consideration. Ten o’clock came; the moon rose and shone superbly; the nightly grog made its appearance on the quarter-deck; the captain gave the passengers the benefit of his company; and still nothing happened. Twenty minutes more of suspense slowly succeeded each other — and then, at last, Mr. Jolly was seen suddenly to ascend the cabin stairs.

To the amazement of the little group on the quarter-deck, the doctor held Mrs. Drabble, the stewardess, fast by the arm, and, without taking the slightest notice of the captain or the passengers, placed her on the nearest seat he could find. As he did this his face became visible in the moonlight, and displayed to the startled spectators an expression of blank consternation.

“Compose yourself, Mrs. Drabble,” said the doctor, in tones of unmistakable alarm. “Keep quiet, and let the air blow over you. Collect yourself, ma’am — for Heaven’s sake, collect yourself!”

Mrs. Drabble made no answer. She beat her hands vacantly on her knees, and stared straight before her, like a woman panic-stricken.

“What’s wrong?” asked the captain, setting down his glass of grog in dismay. “Anything amiss with those two unfortunate women?”

“Nothing,” said the doctor. “Both doing admirably well.”

“Anything queer with their babies?” continued the captain. “Are there more than you bargained for, Jolly? Twins, for instance?”

“No! no!” replied Mr. Jolly, impatiently. “A baby apiece — both boys — both in first-rate condition. Judge for yourselves,” added the doctor, as the two new cabin passengers tried their lungs below for the first time, and found that they answered their purpose in the most satisfactory manner.

“What the devil’s amiss, then, with you and Mrs. Drabble?” persisted the captain, beginning to lose his temper again.

“Mrs. Drabble and I are two innocent people, and we have got into the most dreadful scrape that ever you heard of!” was Mr. Jolly’s startling answer.

The captain, followed by Mr. Purling and Mr. Sims, approached the doctor with looks of horror. Even the man at the wheel stretched himself over it as far as he could to hear what was coming next. The only uninterested person present was Mr. Smallchild. His time had come round for going to sleep again, and he was snoring peacefully, with his biscuit and bacon close beside him.

“Let’s hear the worst of it at once, Jolly,” said the captain, a little impatiently.

The doctor paid no heed to his request. His whole attention was absorbed by Mrs. Drabble. “Are you better now, ma’am?” he asked, anxiously.

“No better in my mind,” answered Mrs. Drabble, beginning to beat her knees again. “Worse, if anything.”

“Listen to me,” said Mr. Jolly, coaxingly. “I’ll put the whole case over again to you, in a few plain questions. You’ll find it all come back to your memory, if you only follow me attentively, and if you take time to think and collect yourself before you attempt to answer.”

Mrs. Drabble bowed her head in speechless submission — and listened. Everybody else on the quarter-deck listened, except the impenetrable Mr. Smallchild.

“Now, ma’am!” said the doctor. “Our troubles began in Mrs. Heavysides’s cabin, which is situated on the starboard side of the ship?”

“They did, sir,” replied Mrs. Drabble.

“Good! We went backward and forward, an infinite number of times, between Mrs. Heavysides (starboard) and Mrs. Smallchild (larboard)— but we found that Mrs. Heavysides, having got the start, kept it — and when I called out, ‘Mrs. Drabble! here’s a chopping boy for you; come and take him!’— I called out starboard, didn’t I?”

“Starboard, sir — I’ll take my oath of it,” said Mrs. Drabble.

“Good again! ‘Here’s a chopping boy,’ I said. ‘Take him, ma’am, and make him comfortable in the cradle.’ And you took him, and made him comfortable in the cradle, accordingly? Now where was the cradle?”

“In the main cabin, sir,” replied Mrs. Drabble.

“Just so! In the main cabin, because we hadn’t got room for it in either of the sleeping cabins. You put the starboard baby (otherwise Heavysides) in the clothes-basket cradle in the main cabin. Good once more. How was the cradle placed?”

“Crosswise to the ship, sir,” said Mrs. Drabble.

“Crosswise to the ship? That is to say, with one side longwise toward the stern of the vessel, and one side longwise toward the bows. Bear that in mind — and now follow me a little further. No! no! don’t say you can’t, and your head’s in a whirl. My next question will steady it. Carry your mind on half an hour, Mrs. Drabble. At the end of half an hour you heard my voice again; and my voice called out, ‘Mrs. Drabble! here’s another chopping boy for you; come and take him!’— and you came and took him larboard, didn’t you?”

“Larboard, sir, I don’t deny it,” answered Mrs. Drabble.

“Better and better! ‘Here is another chopping boy,’ I said. ‘Take him, ma’am, and make him comfortable in the cradle, along with number one.’ And you took the larboard baby (otherwise Smallchild), and made him comfortable in the cradle along with the starboard baby (otherwise Heavysides), accordingly! Now what happened after that?”

“Don’t ask me, sir!” exclaimed Mrs.. Drabble, losing her self-control, and wringing her hands desperately.

“Steady, ma’am! I’ll put it to you as plain as print. Steady! and listen to me. Just as you had made the larboard baby comfortable I had occasion to send you into the starboard (or Heavysides) cabin to fetch something which I wanted in the larboard (or Smallchild) cabin; I kept you there a little while along with me; I left you and went into the Heavysides cabin, and called to you to bring me something I wanted out of the Smallchild cabin, but before you got half-way across the main cabin I said, ‘No; stop where you are, and I’ll come to you;’ immediately after which Mrs. Smallchild alarmed you, and you came across to me of your own accord; and thereupon I stopped you in the main cabin, and said, Mrs. Drabble, your mind’s getting confused; sit down and collect your scattered intellects;’ and you sat down and tried to collect them —”

(“And couldn’t, sir,” interposed Mrs. Drabble, parenthetically. “Oh, my head! my head!")

—“And tried to collect your scattered intellects, and couldn’t?” continued the doctor. “And the consequence was, when I came out from the Smallchild cabin to see how you were getting on, I found you with the clothes-basket cradle hoisted up on the cabin table, staring down at the babies inside, with your mouth dropped open, and both your hands twisted in your hair? And when I said, ‘Anything wrong with either of those two fine boys, Mrs. Drabble?’ you caught me by the coat collar, and whispered in my right ear these words, ‘Lord save us and help us, Mr. Jolly, I’ve confused the two babies in my mind, and I don’t know which is which!’”

“And I don’t know now!” cried Mrs. Drabble, hysterically. “Oh, my head! my head! I don’t know now!”

“Captain Gillop and gentlemen,” said Mr. Jolly, wheeling round and addressing his audience with the composure of sheer despair, “that is the Scrape — and, if you ever heard of a worse one, I’ll trouble you to compose this miserable woman by mentioning it immediately.”

Captain Gillop looked at Mr. Purling and Mr. Sims. Mr. Purling and Mr. Sims looked at Captain Gillop. They were all three thunderstruck — and no wonder.

“Can’t you throw any light on it, Jolly?” inquired the captain, who was the first to recover himself.

“If you knew what I have had to do below you wouldn’t ask me such a question as that,” replied the doctor. “Remember that I have had the lives of two women and two children to answer for — remember that I have been cramped up in two small sleeping-cabins, with hardly room to turn round in, and just light enough from two miserable little lamps to see my hand before me; remember the professional difficulties of the situation, the ship rolling about under me all the while, and the stewardess to compose into the bargain; bear all that in mind, will you, and then tell me how much spare time I had on my hands for comparing two boys together inch by inch — two boys born at night, within half an hour of each other, on board a ship at sea. Ha, ha! I only wonder the mothers and the boys and the doctor are all five of them alive to tell the story!”

“No marks on one or other of them that happened to catch your eye?” asked Mr. Sims.

“They must have been strongish marks to catch my eye in the light I had to work by, and in the professional difficulties I had to grapple with,” said the doctor. “I saw they were both straight, well formed children — and that’s all I saw.”

“Are their infant features sufficiently developed to indicate a family likeness?” inquired Mr. Purling. “Should you say they took after their fathers or their mothers?”

“Both of them have light eyes, and light hair — such as it is,” replied Mr. Jolly, doggedly. “Judge for yourself.”

“Mr. Smallchild has light eyes and light hair,” remarked Mr. Sims.

“And Simon Heavysides has light eyes and light hair,” rejoined Mr. Purling.

“I should recommend waking Mr. Smallchild, and sending for Heavysides, and letting the two fathers toss up for it,” suggested Mr. Sims.

“The parental feeling is not to be trifled with in that heartless manner,” retorted Mr. Purling. “I should recommend trying the Voice of Nature.”

“What may that be, sir?” inquired Captain Gillop, with great curiosity.

“The maternal instinct,” replied Mr. Purling. “The mother’s intuitive knowledge of her own child.”

“Ay, ay!” said the captain. “Well thought of. What do you say, Jolly, to the Voice of Nature?”

The doctor held up his hand impatiently. He was engaged in resuming the effort to rouse Mrs. Drabble’s memory by a system of amateur cross-examination, with the unsatisfactory result of confusing her more helplessly than ever.

Could she put the cradle back, in her own mind, into its original position? No. Could she remember whether she laid the starboard baby (otherwise Heavysides) on the side of the cradle nearest the stern of the ship, or nearest the bows? No. Could she remember any better about the larboard baby (otherwise Smallchild)? No. Why did she move the cradle on to the cabin table, and so bewilder herself additionally, when she was puzzled already? Because it came over her, on a sudden, that she had forgotten, in the dreadful confusion of the time, which was which; and of course she wanted to look closer at them, and see; and she couldn’t see; and to her dying day she should never forgive herself; and let them throw her overboard, for a miserable wretch, if they liked — and so on, till the persevering doctor was wearied out at last, and gave up Mrs. Drabble, and gave up, with her, the whole case.

“I see nothing for it but the Voice of Nature,” said the captain, holding fast to Mr. Purling’s idea. “Try it, Jolly — you can but try it.”

“Something must be done,” said the doctor. “I can’t leave the women alone any longer, and the moment I get below they will both ask for their babies. Wait here till you’re fit to be seen, Mrs. Drabble, and then follow me. Voice of Nature!” added Mr. Jolly, contemptuously, as he descended the cabin stairs. “Oh yes, I’ll try it — much good the Voice of Nature will do us, gentlemen. You shall judge for yourselves.”

Favored by the night, Mr. Jolly cunningly turned down the dim lamps in the sleeping-cabins to a mere glimmer, on the pretext that the light was bad for his patients’ eyes. He then took up the first of the two unlucky babies that came to hand, marked the clothes in which it was wrapped with a blot of ink, and carried it in to Mrs. Smallchild, choosing her cabin merely because he happened to be nearest to it. The second baby (distinguished by having no mark) was taken by Mrs. Drabble to Mrs. Heavysides. For a certain time the two mothers and the two babies were left together. They were then separated again by medical order; and were afterward re-united, with the difference that the marked baby went on this occasion to Mrs. Heavysides, and the unmarked baby to Mrs. Smallchild — the result, in the obscurity of the sleeping-cabins, proving to be that one baby did just as well as the other, and that the Voice of Nature was (as Mr. Jolly had predicted) totally incompetent to settle the existing difficulty.

“While night serves us, Captain Gillop, we shall do very well,” said the doctor, after he had duly reported the failure of Mr. Purling’s suggested experiment. “But when morning comes, and daylight shows the difference between the children, we must be prepared with a course of some kind. If the two mothers below get the slightest suspicion of the case as it stands, the nervous shock of the discovery may do dreadful mischief. They must be kept deceived, in the interests of their own health. We must choose a baby for each of them when to-morrow comes, and then hold to the choice, till the mothers are well and up again. The question is, who’s to take the responsibility? I don’t usually stick at trifles — but I candidly admit that I‘m afraid of it.”

“I decline meddling in the matter, on the ground that I am a perfect stranger,” said Mr. Sims.

“And I object to interfere, from precisely similar motives,” added Mr. Purling, agreeing for the first time with a proposition that emanated from his natural enemy all through the voyage.

“Wait a minute, gentlemen,” said Captain Gillop. “I’ve got this difficult matter, as I think, in its right bearings. We must make a clean breast of it to the husbands, and let them take the responsibility.”

“I believe they won’t accept it,” observed Mr. Sims.

“And I believe they will,” asserted Mr. Purling, relapsing into his old habits.

“If they won’t,” said the captain, firmly, “I’m master on board this ship — and, as sure as my name is Thomas Gillop, I’ll take the responsibility!”

This courageous declaration settled all difficulties for the time being and a council was held to decide on future proceedings. It was resolved to remain passive until the next morning, on the last faint chance that a few hours’ sleep might compose Mrs. Drabble’s bewildered memory. The babies were to be moved into the main cabin before the daylight grew bright — or, in other words, before Mrs. Smallchild or Mrs. Heavysides could identify the infant who had passed the night with her. The doctor and the captain were to be assisted by Mr. Purling, Mr. Sims, and the first mate, in the capacity of witnesses; and the assembly so constituted was to meet, in consideration of the emergency of the case, at six o’clock in the morning, punctually. At six o’clock, accordingly, with the weather fine, and the wind still fair, the proceedings began. For the last time Mr. Jolly cross-examined Mrs. Drabble, assisted by the captain, and supervised by the witnesses. Nothing whatever was elicited from the unfortunate stewardess. The doctor pronounced her confusion to be chronic, and the captain and the witnesses unanimously agreed with him.

The next experiment tried was the revelation of the true state of the case to the husbands.

Mr. Smallchild happened, on this occasion, to be “squaring his accounts” for the morning; and the first articulate words which escaped him in reply to the disclosure were, “Deviled biscuit and anchovy paste.” Further perseverance merely elicited an impatient request that they would “pitch him overboard at once, and the two babies along with him.” Serious remonstrance was tried next, with no better effect. “Settle it how you like,” said Mr. Smallchild, faintly. “Do you leave it to me, sir, as commander of this vessel?” asked Captain Gillop. (No answer.) “Nod your head, sir, if you can’t speak.” Mr. Smallchild nodded his head roundwise on his pillow — and fell asleep. “Does that count for leave to me to act?” asked Captain Gillop of the witnesses. And the witnesses answered, decidedly, Yes.

The ceremony was then repeated with Simon Heavysides, who responded, as became so intelligent a man, with a proposal of his own for solving the difficulty.

“Captain Gillop and gentlemen,” said the carpenter, with fluent and melancholy politeness, “I should wish to consider Mr. Smallchild before myself in this matter. I am quite willing to part with my baby (whichever he is); and I respectfully propose that Mr. Smallchild should take both the children, and so make quite sure that he has really got possession of his own son.”

The only immediate objection to this ingenious proposition was started by the doctor, who sarcastically inquired of Simon, “what he thought Mrs. Heavysides would say to it?” The carpenter confessed that this consideration had escaped him, and that Mrs. Heavysides was only too likely to be an irremovable obstacle in the way of the proposed arrangement. The witnesses all thought so too; and Heavysides and his idea were dismissed together after Simon had first gratefully expressed his entire readiness to leave it all to the captain.

“Very well, gentlemen,” said Captain Gillop. “As commander on board, I reckon next after the husbands in the matter of responsibility. I have considered this difficulty in all its bearings, and I’m prepared to deal with it. The Voice of Nature (which you proposed, Mr. Purling) has been found to fail. The tossing up for it (which you proposed, Mr. Sims) doesn’t square altogether with my notions of what’s right in a very serious business. No, sir! I’ve got my own plan; and I’m now about to try it. Follow me below, gentlemen, to the steward’s pantry.”

The witnesses looked round on one another in the profoundest astonishment — and followed.

“Pickerel,” said the captain, addressing the steward, “bring out the scales.”

The scales were of the ordinary kitchen sort, with a tin tray on one side to hold the commodity to be weighed, and a stout iron slab on the other to support the weights. Pickerel placed these scales upon a neat little pantry table, fitted on the ball-and-socket principle, so as to save the breaking of crockery by swinging with the motion of the ship.

“Put a clean duster in the tray,” said the captain. “Doctor,” he continued, when this had been done, “shut the doors of the sleeping-berths (for fear of the women hearing anything), and oblige me by bringing those two babies in here.”

“Oh, sir!” exclaimed Mrs. Drabble, who had been peeping guiltily into the pantry —“oh, don’t hurt the little dears! If anybody suffers, let it be me!”

“Hold your tongue, if you please, ma’am,” said the captain. “And keep the secret of these proceedings, if you wish to keep your place. If the ladies ask for their children, say they will have them in ten minutes’ time.”

The doctor came in, and set down the clothes-basket cradle on the pantry floor. Captain Gillop immediately put on his spectacles, and closely examined the two unconscious innocents who lay beneath him.

“Six of one and half a dozen of the other,” said the captain. “I don’t see any difference between them. Wait a bit, though! Yes, I do. One’s a bald baby. Very good. We’ll begin with that one. Doctor, strip the bald baby, and put him in the scales.”

The bald baby protested — in his own language — but in vain. In two minutes he was flat on his back in the tin tray, with the clean duster under him to take the chill off.

“Weigh him accurately, Pickerel,” continued the captain. “Weigh him, if necessary, to an eighth of an ounce. Gentlemen! watch this proceeding closely; it’s a very important one.”

While the steward was weighing and the witnesses were watching, Captain Gillop asked his first mate for the log-book of the ship, and for pen and ink.

“How much, Pickerel?” asked the captain, opening the book.

“Seven pounds one ounce and a quarter,” answered the steward.

“Right, gentlemen?” pursued the captain.

“Quite right,” said the witnesses.

“Bald child — distinguished as Number One — weight, seven pounds one ounce and a quarter (avoirdupois),” repeated the captain, writing down the entry in the log-book. “Very good. We’ll put the bald baby back now, doctor, and try the hairy one next.”

The hairy one protested — also in his own language — and also in vain.

“How much, Pickerel?” asked the captain.

“Six pounds fourteen ounces and three-quarters,” replied the steward.

“Right, gentlemen?” inquired the captain.

“Quite right,” answered the witnesses.

“Hairy child — distinguished as Number Two — weight, six pounds fourteen ounces and three-quarters (avoirdupois),” repeated and wrote the captain. “Much obliged to you, Jolly — that will do. When you have got the other baby back in the cradle, tell Mrs. Drabble neither of them must be taken out of it till further orders; and then be so good as to join me and these gentlemen on deck. If anything of a discussion rises up among us, we won’t run the risk of being heard in the sleeping-berths.” With these words Captain Gillop led the way on deck, and the first mate followed with the log-book and the pen and ink.

“Now, gentlemen,” began the captain, when the doctor had joined the assembly, “my first mate will open these proceedings by reading from the log a statement which I have written myself, respecting this business, from beginning to end. If you find it all equally correct with the statement of what the two children weigh, I’ll trouble you to sign it, in your quality of witnesses, on the spot.”

The first mate read the narrative, and the witnesses signed it, as perfectly correct. Captain Gillop then cleared his throat, and addressed his expectant audience in these words:

“You’ll all agree with me, gentlemen, that justice is justice, and that like must to like. Here’s my ship of five hundred tons, fitted with her spars accordingly. Say she’s a schooner of a hundred and fifty tons, the veriest landsman among you, in that case, wouldn’t put such masts as these into her. Say, on the other hand, she’s an Indiaman of a thousand tons, would our spars (excellent good sticks as they are, gentlemen) be suitable for a vessel of that capacity? Certainly not. A schooner’s spars to a schooner, and a ship’s spars to a ship, in fit and fair proportion.”

Here the captain paused, to let the opening of his speech sink well into the minds of the audience. The audience encouraged him with the parliamentary cry of “Hear! hear!” The captain went on:

“In the serious difficulty which now besets us, gentlemen, I take my stand on the principle which I have just stated to you. My decision is as follows Let us give the heaviest of the two babies to the heaviest of the two women; and let the lightest then fall, as a matter of course, to the other. In a week’s time, if this weather holds, we shall all (please God) be in port; and if there’s a better way out of this mess than my way, the parsons and lawyers ashore may find it, and welcome.”

With those words the captain closed his oration; and the assembled council immediately sanctioned the proposal submitted to them with all the unanimity of men who had no idea of their own to set up in opposition.

Mr. Jolly was next requested (as the only available authority) to settle the question of weight between Mrs. Smallchild and Mrs. Heavysides, and decided it, without a moment’s hesitation, in favor of the carpenter’s wife, on the indisputable ground that she was the tallest and stoutest woman of the two. Thereupon the bald baby, “distinguished as Number One,” was taken into Mrs. Heavysides’ cabin; and the hairy baby, “distinguished as Number Two,” was accorded to Mrs. Smallchild; the Voice of Nature, neither in the one case nor in the other, raising the slightest objection to the captain’s principle of distribution. Before seven o’clock Mr. Jolly reported that the mothers and sons, larboard and starboard, were as happy and comfortable as any four people on board ship could possibly wish to be; and the captain thereupon dismissed the council with these parting remarks:

“We’ll get the studding-sails on the ship now, gentlemen, and make the best of our way to port. Breakfast, Pickerel, in half an hour, and plenty of it! I doubt if that unfortunate Mrs. Drabble has heard the last of this business yet. We must all lend a hand, gentlemen, and pull her through if we can. In other respects the job’s over, so far as we are concerned; and the parsons and lawyers must settle it ashore.”

The parsons and the lawyers did nothing of the sort, for the plain reason that nothing was to be done. In ten days the ship was in port, and the news was broken to the two mothers. Each one of the two adored her baby, after ten day’s experience of it — and each one of the two was in Mrs. Drabble’s condition of not knowing which was which.

Every test was tried. First, the test by the doctor, who only repeated what he had told the captain. Secondly, the test by personal resemblance; which failed in consequence of the light hair, blue eyes, and Roman noses shared in common by the fathers, and the light hair, blue eyes, and no noses worth mentioning shared in common by the children. Thirdly, the test of Mrs. Drabble, which began and ended in fierce talking on one side and floods of tears on the other. Fourthly, the test by legal decision, which broke down through the total absence of any instructions for the law to act on. Fifthly, and lastly, the test by appeal to the husbands, which fell to the ground in consequence of the husbands knowing nothing about the matter in hand. The captain’s barbarous test by weight remained the test still — and here am I, a man of the lower order, without a penny to bless myself with, in consequence.

Yes! I was the bald baby of that memorable period. My excess in weight settled my destiny in life. The fathers and mothers on either side kept the babies according to the captain’s principle of distribution, in despair of knowing what else to do. Mr. Smallchild, who was sharp enough when not seasick, made his fortune. Simon Heavysides persisted in increasing his family, and died in the work-house.

Judge for yourself (as Mr. Jolly might say) how the two boys born at sea fared in afterlife. I, the bald baby, have seen nothing of the hairy baby for years past. He may be short, like Mr. Smallchild — but I happen to know that he is wonderfully like Heavysides, deceased, in the face. I may be tall, like the carpenter — but I have the Smallchild eyes, hair, and expression, notwithstanding. Make what you can of that! You will find it come, in the end, to the same thing. Smallchild, junior, prospers in the world, because he weighed six pounds, fourteen ounces and three-quarters. Heavysides, junior, fails in the world, because he weighed seven pounds one ounce and a quarter. Such is destiny, and such is life. I’ll never forgive my destiny as long as I live. There is my grievance. I wish you good-morning.

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