Gateway to the Classics: For the Children's Hour by Carolyn S. Bailey
For the Children's Hour by  Carolyn S. Bailey

Tom, the Water Baby

O NCE upon a time there was a little chimney sweep, and his name was Tom. He lived in a great town in the North Country, where there were plenty of chimneys to sweep, and plenty of money for Tom to earn and his master to spend. Tom could not read, nor write; and he never washed himself. He cried half the time when he climbed the dark flues, and the soot got in his eyes, and his master beat him, and he had not enough to eat; he laughed the other half, when he was playing with the boys, or jumping over the posts at leap-frog.

One day a smart little groom drove into the court where Tom lived, and he said that Mr. Grimes, Tom's master, was to come up the next morning to a big house where the chimneys needed sweeping. Then he rode away again.

I dare say you never got up at three o'clock of a midsummer morning. But it is the pleasantest time of the twenty-four hours, and that was the time Tom and his master set out for the big house. Mr. Grimes rode the donkey in front, and Tom with the brushes walked behind, out of the court, and up the street, past the closed window shutters, past the roofs all shining gray in the gray dawn.

On and on they went, and Tom looked and looked, for he had never been so far in the country before. And now they had gone three miles or more, and they came to the lodge gates before the big house.

Grimes rang at the gate, and out came the keeper and opened it. Then the keeper went with them, around the back way, and into a little back door. In a passage the housekeeper met them, and she gave Grimes solemn orders about the chimneys. And Grimes listened, and said, under his breath, to Tom: "Mind that, you little beggar!"

Then they came to a big room and, after a whimper, and a kick or two from his master, into the grate went Tom with his brushes, and up the chimney.

I don't know how many chimneys he swept, but he got quite tired and puzzled, too. They were crooked chimneys, and, somehow, Tom lost his way in them. At last, what did he do but come down the wrong one, and found himself standing in a room—the like he had never seen before.

The room was all dressed in white—white window curtains, white bed curtains, white furniture, and white walls. The carpet was all over gay little flowers, and the walls were hung with pictures. He saw a washing-stand, with soap, and brushes, and towels; all for washing. "She must be a very dirty lady," thought Tom.

Then, looking toward the bed, he saw the "dirty lady." Under a snow-white coverlet, upon a snow-white pillow, lay the most beautiful little girl Tom had ever seen. Her cheeks were as white as the pillow, and her hair, like threads of gold, was spread all over the bed. Tom wondered if she could be one of the wax dolls he had seen in the shops; but, no—she could breathe.

"Are all people like that when they are washed?" wondered Tom.

He looked at his hands, and tried to rub off the soot. Then he saw, standing close to him, a little, ragged, ugly, black dwarf. It was himself, reflected in a mirror; and Tom found out that he was dirty!

He burst into tears, and tried to climb up the chimney again, but the fender upset with a terrible noise. Up jumped the little lady, and, seeing Tom, began screaming. In ran her nurse from the next room, and Tom jumped out of the window and down to the garden below. The gardener, and the groom, and the dairy-maid, and Mr. Grimes all ran after Tom, but he made for the woods, and they could not catch him.

But when he got into the woods, the boughs laid hold of his legs, and poked into his face, and scratched him. Still, he pushed bravely on through it all. On and on he went—over a great moor, where there were huge spiders, and green lizards, and little foxes; higher and higher, up a hill and then down the other side, until he was a long way off from Mr. Grimes.

He was tired and hungry, for the sun was high now, but on he went like the brave little man he was—a mile off, and a thousand feet down. Of course, he dirtied everything as he went. There has been a black smudge all down the crag ever since; and there have been more black beetles, for Tom dirtied the papa of them all.

On and on! He was so thirsty and footsore! But, at last, he came to a neat, pretty little cottage, with clipped yew hedges all around the garden, and yews inside, too, cut into peacocks, and trumpets, and teapots, and all sorts of queer shapes. He came slowly up to the open door; and then peeped in, half afraid.

And there, by the fireplace, sat the nicest old woman that ever was seen, in her red petticoat, and short dimity gown, and clean white cap, with a black silk handkerchief over it, tied under her chin. At her feet sat the grandfather of all the cats.

"What art thou, and what dost thou want?" she cried, as she saw Tom. "A dirty chimney sweep! Away with thee!"

"Water!" said poor little Tom, quite faint.

The old woman looked at him through her spectacles. "The bairn's ill," she said. So she gave Tom a cup of milk and a bit of bread, and put him in an outhouse on sweet, soft hay, and bade him sleep. Then she went in again, but Tom did not fall asleep.

He turned and tossed. He seemed to hear the little lady crying to him: "Oh, you're so dirty!" And he kept saying, though he was half asleep: "I must be clean. I must be clean."

All of a sudden he found himself, not in the outhouse upon the hay, but in the middle of a meadow, with a stream of water just before him. He had come there on his own legs, between sleep and awake, and he was not a bit surprised. He lay down in the grass and looked at the clear, clear water. He dipped his hands in and found it cool, so cool!

"I will be a fish," he said. "I will swim in the water. I must be clean!"

So he pulled off his poor, ragged clothes, and he put his little hot, sore feet in the water, and then his legs—and he suddenly saw a beautiful fairy rising up out of the water reaching her hands to him. Green water weeds floated around her sides, and white water lilies around her head. The fairies of the stream came up from the bottom and circled around her, for she was their queen; and she said to them, as she took Tom in her strong arms: "I have brought you a new little brother!"

Then Tom fell asleep—the sunniest, coziest, quietest sleep that ever he had in his life, because the fairies had taken him. And now comes the most wonderful part of the story. When Tom awoke he was swimming about in the stream, as white, and clean, and happy as possible. He was not a poor little chimney sweep any longer. The fairies had turned him into a water-baby.

— Adapted from Charles Kingsley's "Water Babies"
by Carolyn Sherwin Bailey

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