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The King's Baby by the Author of the Catskill Fairies


The baby was put to bed as usual, in his wooden cradle, and his mother had rocked him to sleep, singing some national cradle song, like the mothers of all lands. He was a stout little fellow of five months old, with dimples in his brown cheeks, curly dark hair as soft as silk, and great black eyes, such as the children of Spain and Italy alone possess. When the baby was asleep, his parents busied themselves with their duties of the evening, and at an early hour also went to bed.

Their home was located in the province of Murcia, in Spain. The house was built of stone, half in ruins, and was surrounded by a poor little farm. Before going to bed the father had looked out of the door to see that all was safe for the night. Spain is a country where little rain falls, because armies long ago destroyed the forests covering mountain slopes, in time of war. Now the traveller sees these hills as bare rocks, with deserted towns on their sides, and the beds of rivers become heaps of dry stones for the majority of the year, parched with summer drought. In the city of Alicante two years sometimes pass without a drop of rain falling. The season of the year (1879) was very different. In the late summer and autumn fearful storms of thunder and lightning burst over several provinces usually so dusty and arid; persistent rains followed, until the channels of the rivers became filled with rushing torrents from the heights where springs have their source. The waters of the Guadalquivir rose five meters in a few days.

The baby's father looked out of the door on a valley flooded by one of these swollen rivers which had overflowed its banks, and felt safe, as his home was perched on a slope, and the village, with its church, convent, and steep streets of old houses, was between the farm and the stream. Then he had gone to rest, and sleep soon settled on the household. The night was dark, and no sound was to be heard except the drip of the rain or the rustling murmur of the distant river.

At two o'clock in the morning the church bell pealed wildly. "Quick! Danger is at hand, good people; save yourselves!" the bell seemed to say, and its vibrating note rang out on the awful darkness, chilling all hearts with sudden fear.

Stupid with sleep, the baby's father rose. Water was trickling along the floor of the chamber; outside was a deep sound of roaring waves, the crashing of trees, and the fall of buildings, mingled with the clang of the bell and the cries of human beings. Nothing could be more terrible. An embankment had given way, and the river, which already had spread over the lowlands, now deluged the village, sweeping away many houses, and surrounding the poor little farm, where the baby slumbered peacefully in his cradle. Already the cottage swayed and shook on its foundations. The mother awoke, and wept. She had no time to snatch the baby in her arms, for the father opened the door, and lifted the cradle near it. He returned for his wife; and just then a wave entered the door, and washed away the baby. It was not a moment too soon. There was a snapping, grinding sound, and the house fell apart and slid into the dark waters as if it had been a house of cards. The whole country was like a sea, and the church bell no longer rang, because the bell-ringer strove to save himself from being drowned.

The little waif, cast to the mercy of the wind and the flood, did not sink. God watched over it. The wooden cradle became a tiny boat; the baby waked up, stretched out his little hands, and cried; then, in the midst of frightful peril, fell asleep again, rocked by the motion of the stream.

At length the day broke, a cold gray mist seeming to blot out everything except the sheet of water, which was of a muddy and yellow color, and rolled along with giddy swiftness, gathering everything in its course. In some places the trees had their roots under water, and their branches, still dry, gave shelter to whole families. These cried out:

"Oh, look at the little baby! Who will save it?"

But the cradle sailed on, while the trees often bent beneath the wave. The boiling eddies of the current swallowed many objects, and caught the cradle, and spun it about in circles as if it had been a walnut shell, until the baby cried with fear; but then a friendly wave was sure to rescue it, and once more bear it onward.

Ah, at last! The poor baby must be drowned. A great tree had fallen into the river, with all its tangled roots high in the air, and the stream snapped off the smaller twigs and branches as it moved along. Every moment it struck some floating object with its gnarled roots and forest of branches; occasionally the shock was so great that the trunk rolled from side to side; but the object always sank, whether broken boat or dead animal; while the tree floated on. The baby's cradle was alone on the waste of waters; the tree approached slowly and surely. The cradle tossed up and down, and then—the forked branches caught and held it firmly just above the water-line. The tree became a raft.

The young King Alfonso of Spain stood on the shore, near a town, surrounded by officers in brilliant uniforms. Large boats full of his guards had ventured out from shore to try to save objects swept down from the country. They saw a tree with a cradle caught in the branches. Was the cradle empty? No, a little black head could be distinguished inside. Bravely the boat approached; the tree swerved about, and struck it so rudely that it nearly upset; but at that moment the soldier in the bow leaned over, and caught the baby by his little gown. Away whirled the tree on the swift tide, and the cradle, detached by the shock, drifted apart, overturned.

How the people ran about and talked! How the women cried, and caressed the little stranger thus safely brought to shore! The King saw it all, and approached.

"He shall be my child, and I will adopt him," he said.

"May he grow up to serve you, sire!" said one of the councillors, who wore a glittering star on his breast.

Then the "King's Baby," saved in a little wooden cradle from the perils of the night, crowed and smiled.