The Fifth of September
The Fifth of September
By Clarence Budington Kelland
ILLUSTRATED BY PERCY E. COWEN
"AND here's my mate's papers," said the young man, drawing a long envelope from his pocket and holding it out to Captain Spruce.
"All shipshape," acknowledged the captain after glancing over the documents. "You're my man if you want the berth."
The young man hesitated, cleared his throat, and lifted to his knee a little girl of some three years who stood beside him timidly clutching the hem of his coat. She snuggled against his shoulder and his arm tightened about her. Over her head he looked uncertainly at Captain Spruce.
"This here is my daughter," he said with seeming irrelevance.
"Perty baby," smiled the old sailorman, winking at her and smirking broadly under the impression he was behaving as babies like their elders to behave.
"I'll ship with you." said the young man slowly, hesitatingly, "if I can fetch her along. Her and me we can't be separated nohow."
Captain Spruce widened his eyes and stared. "Fetch her along! Aboard the Parsons? Whoever heard of sich a thing, I'd like to know? A baby aboard a vessel! I s'pose you're calc'latin' to have her mother along too?"
"No," said the young man, "her mother hain't able to come. I got to look after her alone."
The young man shook his head and moistened his lips uncomfortably.
"No, she hain't sick. She's perty well, perty fair, considerin'—"
"Humph," grunted the captain, "one of these here fam'ly squabbles, eh? I never see the beat of things nowadays with wimmin leavin' their men and men leavin' their wimmin jest for nothin', so to speak . Why, young feller, me and my wife has had quarrels that would 'a' busted up a whole city block of couples to-day—and thought nothin' of it. Folks hain't able to bear and forbear like they used to be."
"IT HAIN'T that, neither," said the young man in a voice that was not even and certain as a man's voice should be. "My wife and me hain't never had no quarrels. She jest hain't able to look after leetle Emmy situated like she is at present."
"Um," grumbled the captain, "kinda mysteriouslike. I don't seem to git no head nor tail to it."
"It hain't mysterious, cap'n." The young man looked with level eyes into the older man's face, and the quaver was absent from his voice. "It's jest my own business, and nobody else's. I'm willin' to ship with you. pervidin' Emmy can come along, and that's all there is to talk about betwixt you and me—that's all."
Presently the young man spoke again:
"She won't be no trouble to speak of. Havin' a baby around hain't so bothersome as folks think—I promised my wife I wouldn't leave Emmy even for a day."
CAPTAIN SPRUCE considered. He was in sore need of a second mate; he loved children, had sons and daughters of his own, now grown: and there was something about the young man and his unfinished, unsatisfactory story which aroused the old sailorman's liking and his pity, something straight-forward, something dependable, something intangibly pathetic in his eyes and in his words.
"Fetch her along," he said, "but keep her out of mischief."
So Gideon Downs and Emmy his daughter became a part of the crew of the Parsons. That night, the child on her father's shoulder, they watched the receding lights of Detroit as the vessel rounded Windmill Point to follow the Path of Buoys across Lake St. Clair on her way to the ore docks of Superior.
"We'll be comin' back to Mommy 'fore long," Gideon whispered. "'Fore long. Three months hain't a awful while, honey, and we'll be there to meet her on the fifth of September like we promised."
The child, one arm crooked around his head, reached down with the other hand and stroked his cheek.
EVERYBODY aboard the Parsons, from the uncouth stokers, emerging grimy from the hold, to Captain Spruce himself, found minutes to play with little Emmy. Before the first day was gone the men had become accustomed to the unusual presence; were one and all putting their best foot forward to win her favor. So she was not without playmates full of thrilling tales; capable of fashioning marvelous toys with skillful jackknives. Jealous eyes followed her as she toddled about the deck to oversee her comings and goings lest she fall into danger.
It was the merriest, heartiest, best-natured ship's crew that ever sailed the lakes, and Captain Spruce was quick to congratulate himself that he had permitted the child aboard. The men's superstition told them she was "ladened" with good luck, so they were contented; her presence repressed them, so there were no quarrels; she seemed to raise the morals of them all, so there was no shirking.
As for Gideon Downs, he went about his duties quietly; a smile for his daughter now and then lifted the shadow of melancholy that darkened his face. He was a mystery to Captain Spruce; more of a mystery to the crew, who, wondering, put their curiosity into words. They discussed him in the forecastle; speculated on his condition in the mess room; when other topics failed he was always there, Gideon and his daughter, to furnish them food for debate.
"Ma's dead, I calc'late," ventured old Sam Weaver, wheelsman, with voice of sympathy.
"No," Gideon replied, "not dead."
Sam felt he had blundered; struggled to apologize, floundered. "I didn't mean to go touchin' on sore subjec's. Things will happen sure enough, and all folks can't live happy together, and nobody's fault, I say."
"Emmy's ma and me hain't separated," Gideon said reluctantly, as though he felt compelled to guard against even a hint of infelicity between him and his wife.
Sam shook his head in bewilderment. He had stated the two cases that might make it necessary for a father to do as Gideon was doing, but neither hit the truth of the matter. He repeated the conversation in the forecastle.
"Maybe she's sick," a hand suggested.
"She hain't or he'd 'a' said so. If a feller's wife is ailin' or in a horspittle or somethin' he's goin' to do consid'able talkin' about it, off and on. Stands to reason, don't it?"
AND so it went. If Gideon was conscious of the curiosity he excited he gave no sign; if anyone tried to pry under his reserve he was well able to rebuff. But to little Emmy he spoke freely of her mother, always lovingly, always gently.
"We promised her we'd be there, didn't we, honey? We give her our word we'd be a-standin' right on the spot waitin' for her. And we'll be there, come the fifth of September, like we said we would, even if we have to swim across the Atlantic Ocean to do it. Mommy'll be needin' us to sort of lean on, won't she?"
Sometimes he could be seen to show the child a picture inside his watch, and old Sam vowed that tears stood in Gideon's eyes as he showed it. Always he tended Emmy with the skill of a woman. He dressed her, bathed her, was heard teaching her babyish prayers which never omitted mention of that mysterious mother.
"You're that handy with the baby," Sam admired, "that it don't seem possible. I never seen a man could git around to do the like."
"I promised her I would," Gideon replied. "I said Emmy shouldn't suffer no neglect, and she shan't suffer none while I can make out to move hand or leg."
GIDEON seldom joined in discussions, plentiful though they were. Forecastle arguments held no fascination for him; but once—and only once—did he make himself heard when the men commented on a newspaper story of a wife who erred, and a husband who deserted her and their child in consequence.
Opinion ran strong in the man's favor. Reasons were given which justified a man in abandoning his wife, some valid, others captious. Gideon listened, disapproval stamped on his face. At last he spoke, it seemed involuntarily, as though urged to speech.
"A man," he said slowly, "hadn't oughter marry a woman till he knows she's the only woman in the world for him. He oughter be a'mighty sure. Then, if he does marry her, there hain't nothin' in the world should set him agin her. If she does wrong it hain't his work to punish her, but to perfect her, like. Wimmin makes mistakes—good wimmin—but that don't give no reason for leavin' 'em. Why, sich wimmin need their husbands more'n ever. A man that'd up and leave his wife onless he knowed she was all had, through and through, hain't, to my mind, no kind of a man at all. He's a slinkin' animile, he is, with more fear for what his neighbors is goin' to say than love for the woman that's mother to his little folks." He stopped, flushed, squirmed uncomfortably, and soon found an excuse to take himself away.
"Queer feller," nodded old Sam, and the crew agreed with him.
FROM June till mid August, Gideon Downs and little Emmy sailed with Captain Spruce. Then, while the Parsons was taking on her load at Cleveland in readiness for the northward trip, the second mate sought out the captain.
"1 calc'late," said the young man, "that you want me to keep on for the season?"
Captain Spruce nodded.
"I'm willin'—exceptin' for one day. I got to be in Detroit on the fifth of September, cap'n. There ain't nothin' must keep me away. I figger it we'll he about hittin' the Detroit River on the third or maybe the fourth, so's I could git off with Emmy, in the mail boat. 'Twouldn't he necessary for me to stay long—jest for the day, maybe. Then I could take the train and meet the Parsons in Cleveland, gittin' there most as quick as she will. Is that there suitable to you, cap'n?"
Captain Spruce nodded again, but with ill-concealed curiosity. "I guess we can git along that far without you," he said. Then, after a pause: "Goin' to see your wife?"
"On the fifth of September," said Gideon, like one repeating a formula—or a ritual. "I'm a-goin' to see her. I promised I'd be there—me and Emmy."
THE run to Superior was accompanied by fair weather, but once the nose of the Parsons pointed southward again the greatest of the lakes rose in fury against her. For days and nights she surged and plunged onward, decks awash, superstructure wrecked, boats crushed, seams aleak. But she was a stanch vessel built against such emergencies, and manned by able sailormen, she came safely through, hut sore and strained and bearing many scars of furious combat.
Nor did the crew pass the ordeal without harm. Half a dozen men were injured, some more, some less: Second Mate Gideon Downs, in traversing the deck, had been seized by a wave and hurled against the deck house, but for which he would have been swept overboard. It took toll of him in the shape of a leg broken above the knee.
ROUGH but none the less skilled surgery did its best; at the Soo a physician examined the splints and pronounced the setting good, and would have had Gideon sent ashore to a hospital, but the injured man would not be moved, became excited, demanded that Captain Spruce be sent for.
"I can't git off here," he said wildly to the captain. "I got to be there on the fifth of September—I got to be. I promised."
Captain Spruce looked at the doctor, who nodded. It would not be safe to go contrary to the man's will, his fixed purpose, in his condition, and Gideon remained aboard.
To Captain Spruce it seemed that the fifth of September possessed the man like a monomania. He repeated the words over and over: he assured little Emmy as she sat timidly on his bed that they would not fail, that they would be at the appointed spot on time. On the very spot. "I showed Mommy the spot where we'd be waitin'—and we got to be there, hain't we?"
It was when they entered the St. Clair River that Gideon first conceived the impossibility of getting ashore at Detroit by way of the mail boat. To do so it was necessary to descend a ladder into a rolling, tossing skiff, and thus to he conveyed to land. It was a dangerous, difficult feat for a well man—impossible for one with a fractured limb. Again he summoned the captain to him.
"Cap'n," he began weakly, yet with excitement in his voice, "be you int'rested in folks' souls? What would you do, cap'n, to pervent one from goin' to hell?"
The captain looked at him long, perceived he was not delirious, and answered: "I'd do consid'able, Gideon, I reckon, consid'able."
"Cap'n, if I hain't ashore fifth of September, a woman's goin' to hell. She's my wife, cap'n—and Emmy's ma—and she's goin' to hell if I don't come. I promised her I'd he there, cap'n, and p'inted out the spot where I'd he standin'. She'll look for me—and Emmy—and if we hain't there she'll think we've failed her, and, cap'n, she—won't be able to—to stand it. It'll drive her down, cap'n."
CAPTAIN SPRUCE had no words. To soothe such emotion he was unskilled, but he put a gnarled hand on the young man's shoulder and patted it comfortingly. "There," he whispered, "there—there."
"You got to land me, cap'n. I can't git ashore no other way. Land jest for a minnit, long enough to se me ashore. Put me into a carriage with Emmy, cap'n, and that's all I ask. you'd do that to save a sould, cap'n, wouldn't you? Wouldn't you, cap'n?"
CAPTAIN SPRUCE spoke very gently, tenderly. "Hadn't you best tell me about it, Gideon, so's I can sort of fetch my jedgment to bear? I guess you can trust me with it. boy."
Gideon shut his eyes and groped for Emmy's hand.
For several minutes he lay silent, and tears squeezed slowly, one by one, between his lids. At last he looked into the captain's face and motioned to the door.
"Send—Emmy—away," he whispered.
WHEN the baby was gone, Captain Spruce drew a chair to the edge of the berth and waited.
With an effort Gideon began speaking:
"She hain't nothin' hut a girl." he began in a murmur, "younglike, and not knowledgeful of the world. We was gittin' on fine—her and me and Emmy. But she made a mistake like folks will. All of a sudden, without thinkin' if was. or she wouldn't never have done it. Never. It was in a store, cap'n—and she took somethin'. Took it suddenlike, before she thought, and stuffed it in her waist. And then come one of these here woman detectives. Well, what could I do? Nothin' as I could see. 'cept tell her I'd stick by her—and I'm a-stickin'. They arrested her, cap'n, and put her into jail—jest like she was a—a—crim'nal. I hain't complainin', cap'n, it was right. She done it and it was agin the law. It was right she should be punished."
He nodded once or twice as though verifying his decision.
"If a woman stole from me I'd have her arrested, cap'n—so why should my wife git off? But I promised her I'd stick by her, and that I'd care for leetle Emmy and never leave her out of my sight: and I promised, cap'n, that I'd be there, jest at the left of the door when she come out—waitin' for her, with leetle Emmy. I showed her the very spot. And she gits out on the fifth of Septemher!" His eyes shut again and he breathed heavily. "If I hain't there, cap'n, she'll think I've deserted her, and she—she won't be able to stand it. I got to git there, cap'n, to—to—save her soul."
That was all.
Captain Spruce leaned over the young man as he would have leaned over his own son. and pressed hack his hair.
"Son," he said huskily. "I'll land you in Detroit if they take my papers away from me for doin' it."
A CARRIAGE stood on Russell Street just at the left of the entrance to the House of Correction, waiting, waiting. Since daylight it had been there, door open, watching eyes strained toward the gloomy building.
Sometimes little Emmy played on the grass close by, sometimes she sat on the seat by her father's side, happy, prattling, talking of Mommy—of Mommy whom she was soon to see.
At length the great doors opened and a young woman stepped forth. She looked around her wildly, shrinkingly. Her eyes sought the spot at the left where her husband, her baby, were to have awaited her—and there was no one, nothing but a carriage. She cowered against the building, clutched her cheek, repressed a cry of anguish.
THEY had failed her. He had not kept his word: his love had not been stronger than prison stigma. Down the steps she tottered.
On the walk she paused, listened unbelievingly, wavered as though she would have fallen, for a baby voice sounded in her ears: "Mommy—Mommy." She dared not look, but tiny hands clutched her skirt. "My Mommy—my Mommy. Daddy's waitin' in carriage. He's broke, Mommy, an' it hurts."
She snatched the baby in her arms and wet its cheeks with her glad tears—tears that flowed from a soul that had seen into the depths. Slowly she walked to the carriage carrying the child.
At its door she halted, drew hack. What could she expect from a man who hid himself in its depths? Who was ashamed to face the world with her? He spoke her name and she dared look within. His arms were extended to her—open. "I promised—I promised we'd he here," he said brokenly, "and we come. The fifth of September."
The carriage door closed behind her tightly. It seemed to shut off all that had gone before—to seal her safely in a new and better future.