Marion's Mid-ocean Secret
MARION'S MID-OCEAN SECRET.
The Pacific liner Southern Cross was steaming out of the harbor of Honolulu, westward bound, after one day's break in her long voyage to the Orient. As the tropical city and its palm-gardens vanished behind Diamond Head, a girl in her early teens walked forward along the promenade deck and said laughingly:
"You must be worn out, admiral. You did give me such a good time ashore, and I never let you rest, did I?"
The grizzled old sailor, who was for once a passenger, freed of sea cares, caressed the rumpled brown head and said:
"Well, when a young lady, not quite sixteen, is going all the way to Manila by herself to cheer up a lonely daddy, we old folks ought to take good care of her. Your grandfather and I were midshipmen together at the Naval Academy, Marion, and—and if my boy had lived—well, he died when he was just your age. But you did give my rheumatics a pretty stiff program yesterday. Winding up with that swim in the surf was the last straw."
Marion Coxe courtesied her thanks and pretended to be busily counting on her fingers.
"Goodness!" she rippled. "And I'm not half through thanking people. There's dear old Mrs. Walters. Why, she chaperoned me to the band concert last night, and she was up at six o'clock this morning to get me started down to Waikiki Beach; and there's the young man who's so near-sighted that I had to keep him from getting run over while he thought he was taking care of me. And, let me see; there's Captain Holt of the Southern Cross! He sent to my room an armful of Hawaiian flowers, and—I'm a very lucky girl, admiral."
The admiral smiled at her enthusiasm and said to himself as she ran away to seek her other lavish friends:
"People are nice to her because she's as—good and sweet as she is pretty. And now she's all her father has left. She's been a little trump to stay in boarding-school these two years, and then sail off alone across the Pacific when her daddy couldn't do without her a minute longer."
Marion had dreaded this voyage. It seemed so long to be at sea—a whole month—among strangers, all bound for the other side of the world. But with a brave heart she had boarded the Southern Cross at San Francisco to find that all her fears were foolish. Her fellow passengers soon learned her story, and were anxious to be her friends, guardians, and playmates. But, alas! many of them had left the ship at Honolulu, and her jolly company was partly disbanded. The little pilgrim was feeling somewhat sad and forlorn under her gay manner.
And on the next day out she had her first fit of the "blues." She stole up in the bow to be by herself. Three weeks more at sea, she thought; and, oh! the Pacific was so endless, and the ship seemed such a speck in this rolling waste of blue water and dazzle of cloudless sky. While she brooded there, a sudden thought made her jump to her feet, and dimpling smiles chased the frowns away. It was such a big thought that she wondered how she could have forgotten it for a whole week. She started to run aft, then checked the impulse, put a finger to her lips, and whispered to herself:
"I won't say a word to anybody. It will be a surprise—and such a stunner, too! I must have been awfully busy to let it slide clear out of my mind. And only three days more—isn't that splendid?"
That evening, while the admiral was strolling thirteen times around the deck in his routine daily exercise, Marion joined him, and tucking her hand under his arm, confided:
"Admiral, can you keep a secret? Well, you're not going to have a chance. But I have a surprise, and don't you wish you could guess? If I was a poor little navy lieutenant, you'd growl at me, 'Produce your secret or consider yourself under arrest,' wouldn't you? But I can mutiny all I please."
Before the admiral could clear his throat and make reply, she was flitting aft to find Mrs. Walters. That elderly lady became much excited at the dark hints of mystery, and called to her aid Captain Holt, who was enjoying the twilight hour away from his duties in the chart-room and on the bridge.
These two caught Marion in a corner and threatened to put her in irons if she did not explain her awful secret. But she slipped away and fled to play backgammon with the near-sighted young man who needed companionship.
Next day a score of passengers shared the interest in Marion's surprise, and all sorts of guesses were made, with no light from that perplexing young will-o'-the-wisp. The ship was four days out from Honolulu when the company met at breakfast with Marion so rosily elated that Mrs. Walters looked over her glasses with an air of: "What's that child up to now?"
The young girl's merriment coaxed the admiral into rumbling laughter which threatened to split the seams of his white blouse. He was trying to tell Captain Holt a whaling yarn, and got only as far as this:
"I told the skipper, when he came aboard my gunboat, that he was sure to be nipped in the ice if he went after that whale. You know, captain, how the current sets along that part of the Bering coast?"
But bright-eyed Marion could no longer keep her precious secret to herself, and called out:
"Please excuse me, admiral. It's cruel to leave your poor whaler out there in the ice, but I simply must give you, one and all, a piece of news of the greatest importance to me. This is the twenty-ninth of February by my calendar, which has been torn to tatters counting the months and weeks. And this is my birthday, and I haven't had a single birthday in eight years. Isn't that awful? Nineteen hundred was not a leap-year, and I was passed rudely by with no twenty-ninth of February. So I've been waiting for this year of Nineteen hundred and four ever since I was a wee little tot, eight years old. I don't believe I slept a wink last night. Wasn't it worth keeping—a secret like that—to surprise you with?"
All hands were as much surprised as she could have hoped. But upon the captain and the admiral the news made a fairly stunning impression. Captain Holt's deep-tanned face seemed to bleach, his jaw dropped, and he stared at the happy girl as if his ship were on fire and sinking. As for the admiral, he looked as sheepish as if he had been caught pilfering an orchard fifty years before. Marion looked at them with wondering eyes. They did not seem as delighted as she had a right to expect of two such stanch friends. Then Captain Holt stammered feebly:
"Many happy returns of the day, Miss Marion. I'm delighted. I never heard anything like it. But—but—you haven't got any birthday. You have lost it. I mean I lost it for you. I dropped it overboard at midnight. You see, we have just crossed the Hundred and eightieth meridian of longitude. Going west, we gain a whole day on the sun crossing the Pacific, and to keep the calendar from getting mixed up, why, we have to drop a day right out. Yesterday was the twenty-eighth of February, and to-day is the first of March. And there isn't any twenty-ninth of February at all. I never meant to do it, honestly. I'd have dropped myself overboard first."
Poor Marion's eyes filled with tears that could not be held back, as she sobbed:
"Oh! oh! and I won't have a birthday in t-w-e-l-v-e years! I must go all the way from eight years old to twenty without a birthday! It's cruel of you. You lost my birthday on purpose. How could you be so careless?"
She fled to the deck without looking behind her, and the admiral was so disturbed that he left his poor whaler nipped in the ice and forgot all about him. Mrs. Walters looked at him with stern reproof in her gaze.
"Don't blame me, madam," exclaimed the admiral. "There's the guilty man. I noticed this morning that we had skipped from Sunday to Tuesday, but I had nothing to do with it."
"Then you ought to have known better, Captain Holt," said Mrs. Walters, with great severity. "You've gone and broken that poor child's heart with your foolish navigation folderols. You ought to be ashamed of yourself."
The captain dodged any more explanation, and sought the bridge. Mrs. Walters went to the door of Marion's state-room, and found it locked. After persistent knocking, there came from within a tearful wail:
"Please let me alone. I've lost my beautiful birthday, after waiting eight years for it; and I'll be an old lady before the next one comes round. I'm not coming out again to-day."
These sad tidings were carried to the admiral, and he passed them along to Captain Holt, who was fairly wrapped in gloom. Later in the day these two veteran mariners held a long council in the chart-room, after which the admiral bustled aft, as if he had important business in hand. Through the afternoon Mrs. Walters became very busy among the passengers, the admiral puffed to and fro as an errand-boy, and the near-sighted young man tried to help and got in everybody's way.
Poor little Marion had come out of her retreat as far as the library, and was curled up on a sofa picking out the saddest pages of "A Tale of Two Cities," to fit her reading to her mood.
She was finally persuaded to go down to dinner, where much sympathy was showered upon her. But she remained quite crushed and silent. When the coffee had been finished, Captain Holt arose with much dignity and offered his arm to the pensive girl. She drew back indignantly, but just then the admiral winked at her from across the table, and she accepted the escort. The captain led the way up the main staircase, while the other passengers trailed behind them. On the cabin wall at the head of the stairs was posted the chart on which was traced the day's run of the ship, and beneath this was the date. But some one had pasted a slip of paper over the captain's figures, and in bold handwriting Marion now read:
"February 29, 1904."
"It's just for to-night," explained the captain. "That's the admiral's work. At sea we commanders can drop days and pick them up again if they're badly needed for an emergency. Our word is law."
Marion smiled for the first time since breakfast. Something was in the wind, and she obediently followed her escort's lead to the after promenade deck. Then she uttered a little cry of astonished joy. Willing hands had worked wonders. The whole space was inclosed with gay bunting, like a fairy bower. Captain Holt had ransacked his lockers for signal-flags, and these curtained in the deck, while stars and stripes, union jacks, and trailing pennants made a new ceiling beneath the awnings.
Signal-lamps and strings of Chinese lanterns, in fantastic dragon shapes, glowed against the beams and stanchions. Sailors had even hoisted the piano from the deck below. Grandest of all, there flamed in incandescent-light bulbs from the rear of this beautiful out-door room the welcoming motto:
"Oh!" gasped Marion. "My two birthdays at last! Will you ever forgive me?"
"We did the best we could to make up for carelessness," said the captain, with a twinkle in his eye. "Here comes the admiral. He outranks me. He'll take care of you now."
The admiral led the bewildered girl to a flag-draped chair in the middle of this little fairyland of hers. Then six Chinese sailors shuffled in, bearing on their shoulders a huge cake, blazing with sixteen candles. After them came a file of stewards with violins, a cornet, two guitars, and a clarinet. They assembled themselves around the piano, Mrs. Walters bravely advanced to the keyboard, and the musicians merrily struck up, "Nancy Lee."
Then the admiral made a speech, and the captain made a speech, and the second mate did some wonderful tricks with cards, a sailor's sheath-knife, three oranges, and two empty bottles.
The fourth officer, who was also off duty, danced a sailors' hornpipe with the most finished grace, and a quartet of young men bound on a round-the-world tour sang old Yale and Harvard songs with long-drawn and melodious chords.
Presto! and the deck was cleared of chairs by the agile Chinese sailors, and the orchestra swung into a "two-step." The admiral whirled away with Marion, Captain Holt grasped stout Mrs. Walters, and the other passengers found partners in no time.
When the mellow notes of the ship's bell forward told them that eleven o'clock had passed, Marion rose at the head of the table on which supper was served, and tried to tell her thanks.
Her closing sentiment was:
"And the very next time I lose a birthday, or somebody else loses one for me, I am going to send for you all—every one of you. There never was such a birthday, nor such a double birthday, afloat or ashore."