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A Heathen Baby by Jacob A. Riis


A stack of mail comes to Police Headquarters every morning from the precincts by special department carrier. It includes the reports for the last twenty-four hours of stolen and recovered goods, complaints, and the thousand and one things the official mail-bag contains from day to day. It is all routine, and everything has its own pigeonhole into which it drops and is forgotten until some raking up in the department turns up the old blotters and the old things once more. But at last the mail-bag contained something that was altogether out of the usual run, to wit, a Chinese baby.

Pickaninnies have come in it before this, lots of them, black and shiny, and one pappoose from a West Side wigwam; but a Chinese baby never.

Sergeant Jack was so astonished that it took his breath away. When he recovered he spoke learnedly about its clothes as evidence of its heathen origin. Never saw such a thing before, he said. They were like they were sewn on; it was impossible to disentangle that child by any way short of rolling it on the floor.

Sergeant Jack is an old bachelor, and that is all he knows about babies. The child was not sewn up at all. It was just swaddled, and no Chinese had done that, but the Italian woman who found it. Sergeant Jack sees such babies every night in Mulberry Street, but that is the way with old bachelors. They don't know much, anyhow.

It was clear that the baby thought so. She was a little girl, very little, only one night old; and she regarded him through her almond eyes with a supercilious look, as who should say, “Now, if he was only a bottle, instead of a big, useless policeman, why, one might put up with him;” which reflection opened the flood-gates of grief and set the little Chinee squalling: “Yow! Yow! Yap!” until the Sergeant held his ears, and a policeman carried it upstairs in a hurry.

Downstairs first, in the Sergeant's big blotter, and upstairs in the matron's nursery next, the baby's brief official history was recorded. There was very little of it, indeed, and what there was was not marked by much ceremony. The stork hadn't brought it, as it does in far-off Denmark; nor had the doctor found it and brought it in, on the American plan.

An Italian woman had just scratched it out of an ash barrel. Perhaps that's the way they find babies in China, in which case the sympathy of all American mothers and fathers will be with the present despoilers of the heathen Chinee, who is entitled to no consideration whatever until he introduces a new way.

The Italian woman was Mrs. Maria Lepanto. She lives in Thompson Street, but she had come all the way down to the corner of Elizabeth and Canal streets with her little girl to look at a procession passing by. That, as everybody knows, is next door to Chinatown. It was ten o'clock, and the end of the procession was in sight, when she noticed something stirring in an ash barrel that stood against the wall. She thought first it was a rat, and was going to run, when a noise that was certainly not a rat's squeal came from the barrel. The child clung to her hand and dragged her toward the sound.

“Oh, mamma!” she cried, in wild excitement, “hear it! It isn't a rat! I know! Hear!”

It was a wail, a very tiny wail, ever so sorry, as well it might be, coming from a baby that was cradled in an ash barrel. It was little Susie's eager hands that snatched it out. Then they saw that it was indeed a child, a poor, helpless, grieving little baby.

It had nothing on at all, not even a rag. Perhaps they had not had time to dress it.

“Oh, it will fit my dolly's jacket!” cried Susie, dancing around and hugging it in glee. “It will, mamma! A real live baby! Now Tilde needn't brag of theirs. We will take it home, won't we, mamma?”

The bands brayed, and the flickering light of many torches filled the night. The procession had gone down the street, and the crowd with it. The poor woman wrapped the baby in her worn shawl and gave it to the girl to carry. And Susie carried it, prouder and happier than any of the men that marched to the music. So they arrived home. The little stranger had found friends and a resting-place.

But not for long. In the morning Mrs. Lepanto took counsel with the neighbors, and was told that the child must be given to the police. That was the law, they said, and though little Susie cried bitterly at having to part with her splendid new toy, Mrs. Lepanto, being a law-abiding woman, wrapped up her find and took it to the Macdougal Street station.

That was the way it got to Headquarters with the morning mail, and how Sergeant Jack got a chance to tell all he didn't know about babies. Matron Travers knew more, a good deal. She tucked the little heathen away in a trundle-bed with a big bottle, and blessed silence fell at once on Headquarters. In five minutes the child was asleep.

While it slept, Matron Travers entered it in her book as “No. 103” of that year's crop of the gutter, and before it woke up she was on the way with it, snuggled safely in a big gray shawl, up to the Charities. There Mr. Bauer registered it under yet another number, chucked it under the chin, and chirped at it in what he probably thought might pass for baby Chinese. Then it got another big bottle and went to sleep once more.

At ten o'clock there came a big ship on purpose to give the little Mott Street waif a ride up the river, and by dinner-time it was on a green island with four hundred other babies of all kinds and shades, but not one just like it in the whole lot. For it was New York's first and only Chinese foundling. As to that Superintendent Bauer, Matron Travers, and Mrs. Lepanto agreed. Sergeant Jack's evidence doesn't count, except as backed by his superiors. He doesn't know a heathen baby when he sees one.

The island where the waif from Mott Street cast anchor is called Randall's Island, and there its stay ends, or begins. The chances are that it ends, for with an ash barrel filling its past and a foundling asylum its future, a baby hasn't much of a show. Babies were made to be hugged each by one pair of mother's arms, and neither white-capped nurses nor sleek milch cows fed on the fattest of meadow-grass can take their place, try as they may. The babies know that they are cheated, and they will not stay.


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