Hieronymus Pop and the Baby

“Now, ’Onymus Pop,” said the mother of that gentle boy, “you jis take care of dis chile while I’m gone to the hangin’. An’ don’t you leave dis house on no account, not if de skies fall an’ de earth opens to swaller yer.”

Hieronymus grunted gloomily. He thought it a burning shame that he should not go to the hanging; but never had his mother been willing that he should have the least pleasure in life. It was either to tend the baby, or mix the cow’s food, or to card wool, or cut wood, or to pick a chicken, or wash up the floor, or to draw water, or to sprinkle down the clothes—always something. When everything else failed, she had a way, that seemed to her son simply demoniac, of setting him at the alphabet. To be sure, she did not know the letters herself, but her teaching was none the less vigorous.

“What’s dat, ’Onymus?” she would say, pointing at random with her snuff brush to a letter.

“Q”—with a sniff.

Woe be unto young Pop if he faltered, and said it might be a Z. Mother Pop kept a rod ready, and used it as if she was born for nothing else. Naturally, he soon learned to stick brazenly to his first guess. But unfortunately he could not remember from one day to another what he had said; and his mother learned, after a time, to distinguish the forms of the letters, and to know that a curly letter called S on Tuesday could not possibly be a square-shaped E on Thursday. Her faith once shattered, ’Onymus had to suffer in the usual way.

The lad had been taught at spasmodic intervals by his sister Savannah—commonly called Sissy—who went to school, put on airs, and was always clean. Therefore Hieronymus hated her. Mother Pop herself was a little in awe of her accomplished daughter, and would ask her no questions, even when most in doubt as to which was which of the letters G and C.

“A pretty thing!” she would mutter to herself, “if I must be a-learnin’ things from my own chile, dat wuz’ de mos’ colicky baby I ever had, an’ cos’ me unheerd-of miseries in de time of her teethin’.”

It seemed to Hieronymus that the climax of his impositions had come, when he was forced to stay at home and mind the baby, while his mother and the rest of them trotted off, gay as larks, to see a man hanged. It was a hot afternoon, and the unwilling nurse suffered. The baby wouldn’t go to sleep. He put it on the bed—a feather-bed—and why it didn’t drop off to sleep, as a proper baby should, was more than the tired soul of Hieronymus could tell. He did everything to soothe Tiddlekins. (The infant had not been named as yet, and by way of affection they addressed it as Tiddlekins.) He even went so far as to wave the flies away from it with a mulberry branch for the space of five or ten minutes. But as it still fretted and tossed, he let it severely alone, and the flies settled on the little black thing as if it had been a licorice stick.

After a while Tiddlekins grew aggressive, and began to yell. Hieronymus, who had almost found consolation in the contemplation of a bloody picture pasted on the wall, cut from the weekly paper of a wicked city, was deprived even of this solace. He picked up “de miserable little screech-owl,” as he called it in his wrath. He trotted it. He sang to it the soothing ditty of—

“’Tain’t never gwine to rain no mo’;
Sun shines down on rich and po’,”

But all was vain. Finally, in despair, he undressed Tiddlekins. He had heard his mother say: ‘Of’en and of’en when a chile is ascream’ its breff away, ’t ain’t nothin’ ails i’ ’cep’n pins.”

But there were no pins. Plenty of strings and hard knots; but not a pin to account for the antics of the unhappy Tiddlekins.

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