Edmund C. Roberts sat in the salon on board his steamship, the Baci Finale. While the vessel itself was utilitarian to the extreme—a reconditioned coal carrier deck over to afford his bleriot XI aeroplane, a place which to take off and land—his salon was an opulent celebration of Art Nouveau. Designed by a social acquaintance, Alphonse Mucha, it was, in total, an homage to beautiful women. The writing table at which the young gentleman now sat and glowered was backed by a seven foot painting referred to as “Puss in boots”; it being of a glorious women holding with apparent skill a foil of the same design as Edmund used when fencing. She wore only a burgundy cape off her left shoulder and mid-thigh riding boots folded down to below her knee in the style of a musketeer.
Jimmy, the Baci Finale’s chief engineer, stood opposite, twisted his hat and waited. The three urchins at his side also fidgeted their eyes downcast. They were triplets with wild hair and clothed in tattered men’s shirts that dragged the polished floor when they walked; all three were black with coal dust. “Stowaways,” the engineer repeated softly, “I guess me gang knowed from the start…fed ‘em, kept ‘em hid in an empty coal bunker an’ sneaked ‘em on deck at night fer fresh air. I only learned today. Sorry, sir.”
Edmund wiped his face with his open hand as if to rub away the situation. “Bloody hell! Three more!” he moaned with resignation (referring to the fact they were female—further dashing his plans to spend at least a year in sole company of men—Sea Maidens excluded—as his heart mended). “We must steer to the nearest port and put them ashore. They can’t remain aboard. Impossible.”
The girl nearest the engineer raised her eyes in panic. “But ya can’t do that, sir; ya just can’t. We got at get to America—-there’s no where’s else at go. We got no one but ourselves now!” The young man looked at the child speaking and then at her sisters. They were filthy. Probably diseased. Unschooled. Mannerless. And female. He studied them with detached distain, his attention finally drawn to the child who stood a little to the rear of the others, her hands behind her back, an unmistakable look of quilt on her face. He looked around the salon trying to ascertain what she had obviously stolen. “Bring your hands to the front!” he ordered as she rose. The little girl resisted. Her sisters’ eyes widened. “Bloody hell—and insubordinate to boot! Show me your hands missy!” She began to cry quietly. “Your bloody hands!” Edmund hissed, allowing himself to be lost in the comfort of bullying anger.
The girl nearest the engineer implored, “Show him, Sarah,” and the child slowly brought her hands forward. The contempt for victory fell from Edmund C. Roberts’ face. So completely was his devastation that Jimmy thought his boss had swooned, when in fact he had simply lost some height as his knees momentarily buckled. Not only were the both of the girl’s tiny hands in fact empty; fully half of her fingers were missing. “Dearest God!” Edmund gasped as he went the child and dropped to one knee. He reached to hold them but she yanked her hands away and hid them once more as she stepped back crying. Her sisters wept also and pleaded hopelessly, “It waren’t her fault; she lost em at the mill!” “They wouldn’t let her work no more; we had at leave together—she’d die without us—it waren’t her fault.”
And so, haltingly, with sniffing pauses their story was told; three abandoned children living in a shed with fifteen others; working at an embroidery mill on the huge power looms by day, their jobs to install new spools when they ran low, this accomplished by climbing barefoot over the whirling gears and clanking, greased machinery at the loom’s side. Sewn up and sent still screaming to join the thousands of wounded orphans wandering the alleys of industrial England.
Stowaways then, with the wild notion of finding the mother who had left them to go to America, years and years earlier. “Dearest God,” Edmund mouthed as he listened. Then, all five stood for a moment in silence and the truth settled about them, he whispered,” Have them bathed, Jimmy; and find proper clothing and a cabin they can use. Feed them and sign them on; we’ll find ways to occupy their time.”
“Sarah-Sue-Marie” they told him they’d be called; one name for all since they began working. Before they left, it was Sue or perhaps Marie, who, impressed with her sister’s effect on the gentlemen, confided as she raised her shirt and showed her filthy feet, “I ain’t got but four toes on each—I was lucky!” Becalmed later, the diving apparatus was lowered and the fourth Sea Maiden of the voyage was sighted, she in the company of a Dolphin fish.
Edmund C. Roberts journal reads simply:
A day of surprises.
Maidenus Allures, “Cindy”
Dolphin fish, Coryphaena hippurus
August 31, 1912