St. Nicholas/Volume 40/Number 6/Babes of the Wild
THE BABY AND THE BEAR
FOURTH STORY OF THE SERIES ENTITLED “BABES OF THE WILD”
BY CHARLES G. D. ROBERTS
The raft was a tiny one, four logs pinned together with two lengths of spruce pole. It was made for just the use to which the Child was now putting it. A raft was so much more convenient than a boat or a canoe, when the water was still and one had to make long, delicate casts in order to drop one’s fly along the edges of the lily-pads. But the Child was not making long, delicate casts. On such a day as this, the some- what simple trout of Silverwater demanded no subtleties. They were hungry, and they were feeding close inshore; and the Child was having great sport. The fish were not large, but they were clean, trim-jawed, bright fellows, some of them not far short of the half-pound; and the only flaw in the Child’s exultation was that Uncle Andy was not on hand to see his triumph. To be sure, the proof would be in the pan that night, browned in savory corn-meal after the fashion of the New Brunswick backwoods. But the Child had in him the making of a true sportsman; and for him a trout had just one brief moment of unmatchable perfection—the moment when it was taken off the hook and held up to be gloated over or coveted.
The raft had been anchored, carelessly enough, by running an inner corner lightly aground. The Child’s weight, slight as it was, on the outer end, together with his occasional ecstatic, though silent, hoppings up and down, had little by little sufficed to slip the haphazard mooring. This the Child was far too absorbed to notice.
All at once, having just slipped a nice half-pounder onto the forked stick which served him instead of a fishing-basket, he noticed that the wooded point which had been shutting off his view on the right seemed to have politely drawn back. His heart jumped into his throat. He turned, and there were twenty yards or so of clear water between the raft and the shore. The raft was gently, but none too slowly, gliding out toward the tumbling whitecaps.
Always methodical, the Child laid his rod and his string of fish carefully down on the logs, and then stood for a second or two quite rigid. This was one of those dreadful things which, as he knew, did happen, sometimes, to other people, so that he might read about it. But that it should actually happen to him! Why, it was as if he had been reading some terrible adventure, and suddenly found himself thrust, trembling, into the midst of it. All at once those whitecaps out in the lake seemed to be turning dreadful eyes his way, and clamoring for him! He opened his mouth and gave two piercing shrieks, which cut the air like saws.
“What ’s the matter?” shouted an anxious voice from among the trees.
It was the voice of Uncle Andy. He had returned sooner than he was expected. And instantly the Child’s terror vanished. He knew that everything would be all right in just no time.
“I’m afloat. Bill’s raft ’s carrying me away!” he replied, in an injured voice.
“Oh!” said Uncle Andy, emerging from the trees and taking in the situation. “You are afloat, are you! I was afraid, from the noise you made, that you were sinking. Keep your hair on, and I ‘ll be with you in five seconds. And we ‘ll see what Bill’s raft has to say for itself after such extraordinary behavior.”
Putting the canoe into the water, he thrust out, overtook the raft in a dozen strokes of his paddle, and proceeded to tow it back to the shore in disgrace.
“What on earth did you make those dreadful noises for,’ demanded Uncle Andy, “instead of simply calling for me, or Bill, to come and get you?”
“You see, Uncle Andy,” answered the Child, after some consideration, “I was in a hurry, rather, and I thought you or Bill might be in a hurry, too, if I made a noise like that, instead of just calling.”
“Well, I believe,’ said Uncle Andy, seating himself on the bank and getting out his pipe, “that at last the unexpected has happened. I believe, in other words, that you are right. I once knew of a couple of youngsters who might have saved themselves and their parents a lot of trouble 1f they could have made some such sound as you did, at the right time. But they could n’t, or, at least, they did n’t; and, therefore, things happened, which I ’ll tell you about if you like.”
The Child carefully laid his string of fish in a cool place under some leaves, and then came and sat on the grass at his uncle’s feet to listen.
“They were an odd pair of youngsters,” began Uncle Andy, and paused to get his pipe going.
“They were a curious pair, and they eyed each other curiously. One was about five years old, and the other about five months. One was all pink and white, and ruddy tan, and fluffy gold; and the other all glossy black. One, in fact, was a baby; and the other was a bear.
“‘IT WOULD HAVE BEEN HARD TO SAY WHICH OF THE PAIR REGARDED THE OTHER WITH MOST SUSPICION.’”
“Neither had come voluntarily into this strange fellowship; and it would have been hard to say which of the pair regarded the other with most suspicion. The bear, to be sure, at five months old, was more grown-up, more self-sufficing and efficient, than the baby at five years; but he had the disadvantage of feeling himself an intruder. He had come to the raft quite uninvited, and found the baby in possession! On that account, of course, he rather expected the baby to show her white, little teeth, and snarl at him, and try to drive him off into the water. In that case, he would have resisted desperately, because he was in mortal fear of the boiling, seething flood. But he was very uneasy, and kept up a whimpering that was intended to be conciliatory; for though the baby was small, and by no means ferocious, he regarded her as the possessor of the raft, and it was an axiom of the wilds that very small and harmless-looking creatures might become dangerous when resisting an invasion of their rights.
“The baby, on the other hand, was momentarily expecting that the bear would come over and bite her. Why else, if not from some such sinister motive, had he come aboard her raft, when he had been traveling on a perfectly good tree? The tree looked so much more interesting than her bare raft, on which she had been voyaging for over an hour, and of which she was now heartily tired. To be sure, the bear was not much bigger than her own Teddy bear at home, which she was wont to carry around by one leg, or to slap without ceremony whenever she thought it needed discipline. But the glossy black of the stranger was quite unlike the mild and grubby whiteness of her Teddy, and his shrewd, little, twinkling eyes were quite unlike the bland shoe-buttons which adorned the face of her uncomplaining pet. She wondered when her mother would come and relieve the strain of the situation.
“All at once, the raft, which had hitherto voyaged with a discreet deliberation, seemed to become agitated. Boiling upthrusts of the current, caused by some hidden unevenness in the bottom, shouldered it horridly from beneath, threatening to tear it apart; and unbridled eddies twisted it this way and that with sickening lurches. The tree was torn from it and snatched off reluctant all by itself, rolling over and over in a fashion that must have made the cub rejoice to think that he had quitted a refuge so unreliable in its behavior. As a matter of fact, the flood was now sweeping the raft over what was, at ordinary times, a series of low falls, a succession of saw-toothed ledges which would have ripped the raft to bits. Now the ledges were buried deep under the immense volume of the freshet. But they were not to be ignored, for all that. And they made their submerged presence felt in a turmoil that became more and more terrifying to the two little passengers on the raft.
“There was just one point in the raft, one only, that was farther away than any other part from those dreadful, seething, crested, black surges, and that was the very center. The little bear backed toward it, whimpering and shivering, from his corner.
“From her corner, directly opposite, the baby, too, backed toward it, hitching herself along, and eying the waves in the silence of her terror. They arrived at the same instant. Each was conscious of something alive, and warm, and soft, and comfortable, with motherly suggestion in the contact. The baby turned, with a sob, and flung her arms about the bear. The bear, snuggling his narrow, black snout under her arm, as if to shut out the fearful sight of the waves, made futile efforts to crawl into a lap that was many sizes too small to accommodate him.
“In some ten minutes more, the wild ledges were past. The surges sank to foaming swirls, and the raft once more journeyed smoothly. The two little voyagers, recovering from their ecstasy of fear, looked at each other in surprise; and the bear, slipping off the baby’s lap, squatted on his furry haunches and eyed her with a sort of guilty apprehension.
“Here it was that the baby showed herself of the dominant breed. The bear was still uneasy and afraid of her. But she, for her part, had no more dread of him whatever. Through all her panic, she had been dimly conscious that he had been in the attitude of seeking her protection. Now she was quite ready to give it, quite ready to take possession of him, in fact, as really a sort of glorified Teddy bear come to life; and she felt her authority complete. Half coaxingly, but quite firmly, and with a note of command in her little voice which the animal instinctively understood, she said: ‘Tum here, Teddy!’ and pulled him back unceremoniously to her lap. The bear, with the influence of her comforting warmth still strong upon him, yielded. It was nice, when one was frightened and had lost one’s mother, to be cuddled so softly by a creature that was evidently friendly in spite of the dreaded man-smell that hung about her. His mother had tried to teach him that that smell was the most dangerous of all the warning smells his nostrils could encounter. But the lesson had been most imperfectly learned, and now was easily forgotten. He was tired, moreover, and wanted to go to sleep. So he snuggled his glossy, roguish face down into the baby’s lap, and shut his eyes. And the baby, filled with delight over such a novel and interesting plaything, shook her yellow hair down over his black fur and crooned to him a soft babble of endearment.
“The swollen flood was comparatively quiet now, rolling full and turbid over the drowned lands, and gleaming sullenly under a blaze of sun. The bear having gone to sleep, the baby presently followed his example, her rosy face falling forward into his woodsy-smelling black fur. At last the raft, catching in the trees of a submerged islet, came softly to a stop, so softly as not to awaken the little pair of sleepers.
“In the meantime, two distraught mothers, quite beside themselves with fear and grief, were hurrying down-stream in search of the runaway raft and its burden.“The mother of the baby, when she saw the flood sweeping the raft away, was for some moments perilously near to flinging herself in after it. Then her backwoods common sense came to the rescue. She reflected, in time, that she could not swim, while the raft, on the other hand, could and did, and would carry her treasure safely enough for a while. Wading waist-deep through the drowned fields behind the house, she gained the uplands, and rushed, dripping, along the ridge to the next farm, where, as she knew, a boat was kept. This farm-house, perched on a bluff, was safe from all floods; and the farmer was at home, congratulating himself. Before he quite knew what was happening, he found himself being dragged to the boat,—for his neighbor was an energetic woman whom few in the settlement presumed to argue with, and it was plain to him now that she was laboring under an unwonted excitement. It was not until he was in the boat, with the oars in his hands, that he gathered clearly what had happened. Then, however, he bent to the oars with a will which convinced even
“‘SHE SWAM FRANTICALLY, HER GREAT MUSCLES HEAVING AS SHE SHOULDERED THE WAVES APART.’” (SEE PAGE 490.)
489 that frantic and vehement mother that nothing better could be commanded of him. Dodging logs and wrecks and rooted trees, the boat went surging down the flood, while the woman sat stiffly erect in the stern, her face white, her eyes staring far ahead.
“The other mother had the deeper and more immediate cause for anguish. Coming to the bank where she had left her cub in the tree, she found the bank caved in, and tree and cub together vanished. Unlike the baby’s mother, she could swim; but she knew that she could run faster and farther. In stoic silence, but with a look of piteous anxiety in her eyes, she started on a gallop down the half-drowned shores, clambering through the heaps of debris, and swimming the deep, still inlets where the flood had backed up into the valleys of the tributary brooks.
“At last, with laboring lungs and pounding heart, she came out upon a low, bare bluff over-looking the flood, and saw, not a hundred yards out, the raft with its two little passengers asleep. She saw her cub, lying curled up with his head in the baby’s arms, his black fur mixed with the baby’s yellow locks. Her first thought was that he was dead—that the baby had killed him and was carrying him off. With a roar of pain and vengeful fury, she rushed down the bluff and hurled herself into the water.
“Not till then did she notice that a boat was approaching the raft, a boat with two human beings in it. It was very much nearer the raft than she was, and traveling very much faster than she could swim. Her savage heart went near to bursting with rage and fear. She knew those beings in the boat could have but one object, the slaughter, or, at least, the theft, of her little one. She swam frantically, her great muscles heaving as she shouldered the waves apart. But in that race she was hopelessly beaten from the first.
“The boat reached the raft, bumped hard upon it, and the baby’s mother leaped out, while the man, with his boat-hook, held the two craft close together. The woman, thrusting the cub angrily aside, clutched the baby to her breast, sobbing over her, and threatening to punish her when she got her home for giving so much trouble. The baby did not seem in the least disturbed by these threats, to which the man in the boat was listening with a grin, but when her mother started to carry her to the boat, she reached out her arms rebelliously for the cub.
“‘Won't go wivout my Teddy bear,’ she announced, with tearful decision.
“‘Ye’d better git a move on, Mrs. Murdoch,’ admonished the man in the boat. ‘Here ’s the old b’ar comin’ after her young un, an’ I ’ve a notion she ain’t exackly ca’m.’
“The woman hesitated. She was willing enough to indulge the baby’s whim, the more so as she felt in her heart that it was in some respects her fault that the raft had got away. She measured the distance to that formidable black head, cleaving the water some thirty yards away.
“‘Well,’ said she, ‘we may as well take the little varmint along, if Baby wants him.’ And she stepped over to pick up the now shrinking and anxious cub.
“‘You quit that, an’ git into the boat, quick!’ ordered the man, in a voice of curt authority. The woman whipped round and stared at him in amazement. She was accustomed to having people defer to her; and Jim Simmons, in particular, she had always considered such a mild-mannered man.
“‘Git in!’ reiterated the man, in a voice that she found herself obeying in spite of herself.
“‘D’ ye want to see Baby et up afore yo’r eyes?’ he continued sternly, hiding a grin beneath the sandy droop of his big mustaches. And with the baby kicking and wailing, and stretching out her arms to the all-unheeding cub, he rowed rapidly away, just as the old bear dragged herself up on the raft.
“Then Mrs. Murdoch’s wrath found words, and she let it flow forth while the man listened as indifferently as if it had been the whistling of the wind. At last she stopped.
“‘Anything more to say, ma’am?’ he asked politely.
“Mrs. Murdoch answered with a curt ‘No.’
“‘Then all I hev’ to say,’ he went on, ‘is, that to my mind mothers has rights. That there b’ar ’s a mother, an’ she ’s got feelin’s, like you, an’ she ’s come after her young un, like you,—an’ I was n’t a-goin’ to see her robbed of him.’”