HOME | About | Surprise! | More ≡

The Water-Babies
a Fairy Tale for a Land-Baby

by Charles Kingsley
The original, squashed down to read in about 25 minutes

Kingsley and frontispiece to an edition illustrated by Henry Altemus


Charles Kingsley (12 June 1819 - 23 January 1875) from Holne in Devon, was a priest of the Church of England, a university teacher, historian and novelist. He is particularly associated with the West Country and northeast Hampshire. He was a friend and correspondent with Charles Darwin, and one of the first public figures to praise The Origin of Species. Like Dickens before him, most of his novels contain an element of social campaigning.

Abridged: JH

For more works by Charles Kingsley, see The Index

The Water-Babies

I. - "I Must be Clean!"

Once 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 drunken master to spend. He could not read nor write, and did not care to do either; and he never washed himself, for there was no water up the court where he lived. Chimney-sweeping and hunger and beatings, he took all for the way of the world, and when his master let him have a pull at the leavings of his beer Tom was the jolliest boy in the whole town.

One day, Tom's master, Mr. Grimes, was sent for to sweep all the chimneys at Sir John Harthover's mansion, Harthover Place.

At four in the morning they passed through the silent town together and along the peaceful country roads to Sir John's, Mr. Grimes riding the donkey in front and Tom and the brushes walking behind. On the way they came up with an old Irishwoman, limping slowly along and carrying a heavy bundle. She walked along with Tom and asked him many questions about himself, and seemed very sad when he told her that he knew no prayers to say. She told him that she lived far away by the sea; and, how the sea rolled and roared on winter nights and lay still in the bright summer days, for the children to bathe and play in it; and many a story more till Tom longed to go and see the sea and bathe in it likewise.

When, at length, they came to a spring, Grimes got off his donkey, to refresh himself by dipping his head in the water. Because Tom followed his example, his master immediately thrashed him.

"Are you not ashamed of yourself, Thomas Grimes?" said the Irishwoman.

Grimes looked up, startled at her knowing his name; but he answered: "No, nor never was yet," and went on beating Tom.

"True for you. If you ever had been ashamed of yourself, you would have gone into Vendale long ago."

"What do you know about Vendale?" shouted Grimes; but he left off beating Tom.

"I know about Vendale and about you, too, and if you strike that boy again I can tell you what I know."

Grimes seemed quite cowed and got on his donkey without another word.

"Stop!" said the Irishwoman. "I have one more word for you both, for you will see me again. Those that wish to be clean, clean they will be; and those that wish to be foul, foul they will be. Remember."

She turned away into a meadow and disappeared. And Tom and Grimes went on their way. When they came to Harthover Place, the housekeeper turned them into a grand room all covered up in sheets of brown paper. Up the chimney went Tom with a kick from his master.

How many chimneys Tom swept I cannot say; but he swept so many that he got tired, and puzzled too, for they ran into one another so that he fairly lost his way in them. At last he came down. But it was the wrong chimney, and he found himself in a room the like of which he had never seen before. The room was all dressed in white: white window-curtains, white bed-curtains, white furniture, and white walls. There was a washhand-stand, with ewers and basins, and soap and brushes and towels; and a large bath full of clean water. What a heap of things - all for washing!

And then he happened to look towards the bed, and there lay the most beautiful little girl Tom had ever seen. He wondered whether all people were as white as she when they were washed. Thinking of this, he tried to rub some of the soot from his own wrist, and thought, perhaps, he might look better himself if he were clean.

And looking round, he suddenly saw a little ugly black figure with bleared eyes and grinning teeth. And behold, it was himself reflected in the mirror. With tears of shame and anger at the contrast he turned to sneak up the chimney and hide. But in his haste he upset the fire-irons.

Up jumped the little white lady with a scream; in rushed her nurse and made a dash at Tom. But out of the window went he and down a tree and away through the garden and the park into the wood beyond, with the gardener, the groom, the dairymaid, Grimes, the steward, the keeper, Sir John, and the Irishwoman all in hot pursuit.

Through the wood rushed Tom until he came to a wall, where his quick wits enabled him to evade his pursuers - except the Irishwoman, who followed him all the way, although he never knew.

At length he stood on a limestone rock which overhung a valley a thousand feet below, and down there he could see a little stream winding in and out, and by the stream a cottage. It was a dangerous descent, but down went Tom without a moment's hesitation; sick and giddy, on he went until at last he dropped on the grass and lay there unconscious. But after a time he roused himself and stumbled on to the cottage.

The old dame of the cottage took pity on him and laid him on a bed of sweet hay. But Tom could not rest, and think of the little white lady, he found his way to the river murmuring. "I must be clean! I must be clean!"

And still he had not seen the Irishwoman; in front of him now, for she had stepped into the river just before Tom, and had changed into the most beautiful of fairies underneath the water. For she was, indeed, the Queen of the Water-Fairies, who were all waiting to receive her the moment she came back from the land-world.

Tom was so hot and longed so to be clean for once that he tumbled as quick as he could into the cool stream. And he had not been in it half a minute before he fell into the quietest, coolest sleep that ever he had in his life. The reason of his falling into such a delightful sleep is very simple. It was merely that the fairies took him. In fact, they turned him into a water-baby.

Meanwhile, of course, the chase after Tom had come to an end, although Sir John and his keepers made a second search the next day, for he felt sorry for the little sweep, and was afraid he might have fallen over some of the crags. They found the little fellow's rags by the side of the stream, and they also discovered his body in the water, and buried it over in Vendale churchyard.

II. - A Lonely, Mischievous Water-Baby

Tom was very happy swimming about in the river, although he was now only about four inches long, with a set of external gills, just like those of an eft. There are land-babies, and why not water-babies? Some people tell us that water-babies are contrary to nature, but there are so many things in nature which we don't expect to find that there may as well be water-babies as not.

He was still as mischievous as any land-baby, and made himself a perfect nuisance to the other creatures of the water, teasing them as they went about their work, until they were all afraid of him, and got out of his way, or crept into their shells; so that he had no one to speak to or to play with.

It was from a dragon-fly that he learned some valuable lessons in good conduct. For all his short sight the dragon-fly had noticed a great many interesting things in nature, about which Tom knew nothing, and of which he heard with wonder. One day he might have been eaten by an otter; but, behold, seven little terrier dogs rushed at the otter, and drove her off, much to Tom's relief, though he did not guess that these were really water-fairies sent to protect him.

But before the otter had been headed off she had twitted Tom with being only an eft, and told him he would be eaten by the salmon when they came up from the sea - the great wide sea. Tom himself decided he would go down the stream, and discover what the great wide sea was like.

One night Tom noticed a curious light, and heard voices of men coming from the bank of the river.

Soon after a large salmon was speared. Then other men seemed to arrive; there were shouts and scufflings; and then a tremendous splash, and one of the men fell into the river close to Tom. He lay so still that Tom thought the water must have sent him to sleep as it had done him; so he screwed up courage to go and look at him. The moonlight lit up the man's face, and Tom recognised his old master, Grimes. Suppose he should turn into a water-baby! But he lay quite still at the bottom of the pool, and never went poaching salmon any more.

Every creature in the stream seemed to be hurrying down to the sea, and Tom, being the only water-baby among all the squirming eels and the scores of different things, big and little, he had many strange adventures before he came to the sea. But great was his disappointment to find no water-babies there to play with, though he asked the sea-snails, and the hermit crabs, and the sun-fish, and the bass, and the porpoises. But though one fish told him that he had been helped the previous night by the water-babies, Tom could find no trace of them at all.

Now, one day it befell that on the rocks where Tom was sitting with a lobster there walked the little lady, Ellie, herself, and with her a very wise man, Professor Pttmllnsprts, who was a very great naturalist. He was showing her about one in ten thousand of all the beautiful and curious things that are to be seen among the rocks. Presently, as he groped with his net among the weeds he caught poor Tom.

"Dear me!" he cried, "what a large pink Holothurian. It has actually eyes. Why, it must be a Cephalopod!"

"It is a water-baby," cried Ellie.

"Water-fiddlesticks, my dear!" said the professor sharply.

Now, Tom was in a most horrible fright, and between fright and rage he turned to bay and bit the professor's finger.

"Oh! Eh!" cried he, and dropped Tom on to the seaweed, whence he was gone in a moment.

"But it was a water-baby!" cried Ellie. "Ah, it is gone!" And she jumped down off the rock. But she slipped and fell with her head on a sharp rock, and lay quite still.

The professor picked her up and took her home, and she was put to bed. But she would not waken at all, and after a week, one moonlight night the fairies came flying in at the window, and brought her a pair of wings. And she flew away, and nobody heard or saw anything of her for a long while.

III. - In St. Brandon's Fairy Isle

After Tom slipped away into the water again, he could not help thinking of Ellie, and longed to have her to play with, for he had not succeeded in finding any other water-babies. But soon he had something else to think of. One day he helped a lobster caught in a lobster-pot to get free; and then, five minutes after, he came upon a real live water-baby, sitting on the white sand.

And it ran to Tom, and Tom ran to it, and they hugged and kissed each other for ever so long. At last Tom said. "Well, this is wonderful! I have seen things just like you again and again, but I thought you were shells or sea-creatures."

Now, was not this very odd? So odd, indeed, that you will, no doubt, want to know how it happened, and why Tom could never find a water-baby till after he had got the lobster out of the pot. But if you will read this story nine times over, you will find out why. It is not good for little boys and girls to be told everything and never to be forced to make use of their own wits.

"Now," said the baby, "come and help me plant this rock which got all its flowers knocked off in the last storm, or I shall not have finished before my brothers and sisters come, and it is now time to go home."

So they worked away at the rock, and planted it, and smoothed the sand down round it, and capital fun they had till the tide began to turn. And then Tom heard all the other babies coming, laughing and singing and romping; and the noise they made was just like the noise of a ripple.

And in they came, dozens and dozens of them, and when they found that he was a new baby, they hugged and kissed him. And there was no one ever so happy as poor little Tom, and he gaily swam away with them to their home in the caves beneath St. Brandan's fairy isle. But I wish Tom had given up all his naughty tricks. He would meddle with the creatures, frighten the crabs, and put stones in the anemones' mouths to make them fancy dinner was coming.

The other children warned him, and said, "Take care what you are at, as Mrs. Bedonebyasyoudid is coming on Friday."

Early one Friday morning this tremendous lady came, indeed. Very ugly Tom thought her, with her green spectacles on a great hooked nose and a big birch rod under her arm. She looked at all the children, and seemed pleased with them, for she gave sea-cakes or sea-lollipops to them all.

At last Tom's turn came, and she put something in his mouth, and lo! and behold, it was a cold, hard pebble.

"Who put pebbles in the sea-anemones' mouths to make them fancy they had caught a good dinner? As you did to them, so I must do to you."

Tom thought her very hard, but she showed him she had to do it because it was her work. She told him, too, that she was the ugliest fairy in the world, and would be until people learned to behave as they should, when she would grow as handsome as her sister, Mrs. Doasyouwouldbedoneby, the loveliest fairy in the world.

Tom tried hard to be good on Saturday; he did not frighten one crab, nor put one pebble into a sea-anemone's mouth.

Sunday came, and so did Mrs. Doasyouwouldbedoneby. All the children danced round her, for she had the sweetest, merriest face Tom had ever seen.

"He's the new water-baby," they informed the fairy. "He never had any mother."

"Then I will be his mother," she said, and took him in her arms. And Tom looked up in her face, and loved her, and fell asleep for very love. When he awoke she was telling the children a story.

"Now," she said to Tom, as she prepared to go, "will you be good, and torment no sea-beasts until I come again?"

Tom promised, and tormented no sea-beasts after that as long as he lived; and he is quite alive, I assure you, still.

IV. - At the Other-End-of-Nowhere

Being happy and comfortable does not always mean being good; and so it was with Tom. He had everything he could wish for in St. Brandan's fairy isle. But now he had grown so fond of lollipops that he could think of nothing else, and longed to go to the cabinet where they were kept. At last he went to take just one; then he had one more, and another, and another, until they were all gone. And all the while Mrs. Bedonebyasyoudid stood close behind him, though he neither heard nor saw her.

Tom was very surprised when she came again to see that she had just as many lollipops as before. He thought therefore that she could not know.

But he was very unhappy all that week, and long after it, too. And because his conscience had been pricking him inside, his outside grew horny and prickly as well, until he could bear it no longer, and told Mrs. Bedonebyasyoudid all about it, and asked her to take away the prickles. But she told him only he could do that, that he must go to school, and she would fetch him a schoolmistress.

Illustration by Henry Altemus

Soon she returned with the most beautiful little girl that was ever seen. Tom begged her to show him how to be good, and get rid of his prickles. So she began, and taught him every day except on Sunday, when she went away. In a short time all Tom's prickles had disappeared. Then the little girl knew him, she said, for the little chimney-sweep who had come into the bedroom.

"And I know you," said Tom; "you are the little white lady I saw in bed." And then they began telling each other all their story. And then they set to work at their lessons again, and both liked them so well that they went on till seven full years were past and gone.

Tom began to be very curious to know where Ellie went on Sundays, and why he could not go, too.

"Those who go there," said Mrs. Bedonebyasyoudid, "must first learn to go where they do not want to go, and to help someone they do not like."

And Mrs. Doasyouwouldbedoneby said the same. Tom was very unhappy now. He knew the fairy wanted him to go and help Grimes; he did not want to go, and was ashamed of himself for not going. But just when he was feeling most discontented Mrs. Bedonebyasyoudid encouraged him until he was quite anxious to seek for Grimes.

"Mr. Grimes is now at the Other-end-of-Nowhere," said the fairy. "To get there you must go to Shiny Wall, and through the White Gate which has never yet been opened. You will then be at Peacepool, where you will find Mother Carey, who will direct you to the Other-end-of-Nowhere."

Tom immediately set out to find his way to Shiny Wall, asking the way of all the birds and beasts he met. He at length received help from the petrels, who are Mother Carey's chickens, and so reached Shiny Wall. He was dismayed to find that there was no gate, but taking the birds' advice, he dived underneath the wall, and went along the bottom of the sea for seven days and seven nights, until he arrived in Peacepool. There sat Mother Carey, a marble lady on a marble throne - motionless, restful, gazing down into the depths of the sea.

Following Mother Carey's directions, Tom at length arrived at the Other-end-of-Nowhere, after meeting with many strange adventures. He had not long arrived in this strange land when he was overtaken by several policemen's truncheons, one of which conducted him to the prison where Grimes was quartered. Here, on the roof, his head and shoulders just showing above the top of chimney No. 343, was poor Mr. Grimes, with a pipe that would not draw.

He thought Tom had simply come to laugh at him until he assured him that he had only come to help. Suddenly Mrs. Bedonebyasyoudid appeared. She reminded Grimes that he was only suffering now what he had inflicted on Tom. She told him, too, how his mother had gone to heaven, and would no more weep for him. Gradually Grimes's heart softened, and when Tom described her kindness to him at Vendale, Grimes wept. Then his tears did for him what his mother's could not do, for as they fell they washed the soot off his face and his clothes, and loosened the mortar from the bricks of the chimney.

"Will you obey me if I give you a chance?" said Mrs. Bedonebyasyoudid.

"As you please, ma'am. For I'm beat, and that's the truth," said he.

"Be it so, then - you may come out. But remember, disobey me again, and into a worse place still you will go."

"I beg your pardon, ma'am, but I never disobeyed you that I know of. I never set eyes upon you until I came to these ugly quarters."

"Never saw me? Who said 'Those that will be foul, foul they will be'?"

Grimes looked up, and Tom looked up, too; for the voice was that of the Irishwoman who met them the day they went out together to Harthover. She ordered Grimes to march off in the custody of the truncheon, who was to see that he devoted himself to the considerable task of sweeping out the crater of Etna.

Tom went back to St. Brandan's Isle, and there found Ellie - grown into a beautiful woman. And he looked at her, and she looked at him; and they liked the employment so much that they stood and looked for seven years more, and neither spoke nor stirred.

At last they heard the fairy say, "Attention, children! Are you never going to look at me again?"

They looked, and both of them cried out at once: "You are our dear Mrs. Doasyouwouldbedoneby! No, you are good Mrs. Bedonebyasyoudid; but you are grown quite beautiful now."

"To you," she said. "But look again."

"You are Mother Carey," said Tom, in a very low, solemn voice. For he had found out something which made him very happy, and yet frightened him more than all that he had ever seen.

And when they looked again she was neither of them, and yet all of them at once.

"My name is written in my eyes, if you have eyes to see it there."

And her eyes flashed, for one moment, clear, white, blazing light; but the children could not read her name, for they were dazzled, and hid their faces in their hands.

"Not yet, young things, not yet," said she, smiling. And then she turned to Ellie.

"You may take him home with you on Sundays, Ellie. He has won his spurs in the great battle, and become fit to be a man; because he has done the thing he did not like."

MORE FROM The Hundred Books...

Surprise A Christmas Carol A Study in Scarlet A Voyage to the Moon Aesop's Fables Alice in Wonderland An English Opium-Eater Anna Karenina Antarctic Journals Arabian Nights Aristotle's Ethics Barnaby_Rudge Beowulf Beyond Good and Evil Bleak House Book of the Dead Caesar's Commentaries Crime and Punishment Dalton's Chemical Philosophy David Copperfield Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire Descartes' Meditations Dombey and Son Don Quixote Dulce et Decorum Est Einstein's Relativity Elements of Geometry Fairy Tales Father Goriot Frankenstein Gilgamesh Great Expectations Gulliver's Travels Hamlet Hard Times Heart of Darkness History of Tom Jones I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud If - Ivanhoe Jane Eyre Jekyll and Mr Hyde Kant Lady Chatterley's Lover Le Morte D'Arthur Le Repertoire de La Cuisine Les Miserables Little Dorrit Lysistrata Martin Chuzzlewit Meditations Metamorphosis Micrographia Moby-Dick My Confession Newton's Natural Philosophy Nicholas Nickleby Notebooks Of Miracles On Liberty On Old Age On The Social Contract On War Our Mutual Friend Paradise Lost Pepys' Diary Philosophy in The Boudoir Piers Plowman Pilgrims Progress Poems, chiefly in the Scottish dialect Pride and Prejudice Principles of Human Knowledge Principles of Morals and Legislation Psychoanalysis Revolutions of the Celestial Orbs Robinson Crusoe Romeo and Juliet Songs of Innocence and Experience Sorrows of Werther Sovran Maxims Tale of Two Cities Tess of the d'Urbervilles The Advancement of Learning The Adventures of Oliver Twist The Analects The Ballad of Reading Gaol The Bhagavad-Gita The Canterbury Tales The Communist Manifesto The Confessions The Decameron The Divine Comedy The Gospels of Jesus Christ The Great Gatsby The Histories The Life of Samuel Johnson The Magna Carta The Motion of the Heart and Blood The Odyssey The Old Curiosity Shop The Origin of Species The Pickwick Papers The Prince The Quran The Remembrance of Times Past The Republic The Rights of Man The Rights of Woman The Rime of the Ancient Mariner The RubaiyƔt Of Omar Khayyam The Torah The Travels of Marco Polo The Wealth of Nations The Wind in the Willows Three Men in a Boat Tom Brown's Schooldays Tristram Shandy Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea Ulysses Uncle Tom's Cabin Utopia Voyages of Discovery Walden Wilhelm Meister Wuthering Heights