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Sisters

CHAPTER I.

Guthrie Carey began life young. He was not a week over twenty-one when, between two voyages, he married Lily Harrison, simply because she was a poor, pretty, homeless little girl, who had to earn her living as a nondescript lady-help in hard situations, and never had a holiday. He saw her in a Sandridge boarding-house, slaving beyond her powers, and made up his mind that she should rest. With sailor zeal and promptitude, he got the consent of her father, who was glad to be rid of her out of the way of a new wife; took the trembling, clinging child to the nearest parson, and made her a pensioner on his small wages in a tiny lodging of her own. They honeymooned for a fortnight, off and on, as his ship could spare him—the happiest pair of mortals in the wide world—and then parted in tears and anguish unspeakable for the best part of a twelvemonth.

He came back to find himself a father. Wonderful experience for twenty-one! Never was such a heavenly mystery of a child! Never such an angelic young mother!—eighteen, and with the bloom of that most beautifying convalescence like a halo about her. He was first mate now, with a master's certificate and a raised salary; it was time to make a home. So while she nursed the baby in Sandridge—with the aid of a devoted friend, the landlady's cousin—Guthrie Carey busied himself across the way at Williamstown, fixing up a modest house. He also had a devoted friend, in the person of a Customs officer, whose experienced wife took charge of the operations. Lily was to see nothing until all was ready for her. It was to be a "pleasant surprise".

The last touches had been given—tea put in the caddy, meat and butter in the safe, flowers in the vases. Mrs Hardacre, in her best gown, spread a festive supper-table, and Bill, her spouse, stood by with a Government launch to take the proud young husband to his wife, and to bring them back together.

Lily awaited him, trembling, tearful, wild with the joy of going home. Her step-mother had come to Sandridge to see her off, and had brought her a present of a macintosh, on the merits of which she dilated with fervour as she twirled it round and round.

"Buttons right down to the feet," she urged persuasively, "and cape hanging below the waist"—the second Mrs Harrison was a big woman. "You might go through a deluge in it. And so stylish, my dear! You can wear it when you go out in threatening weather of an afternoon, and be quite smart."

"Well, it's pretty threatening now," said Guthrie uneasily. "I don't know that it wouldn't be wiser—"

"Oh, no, no!" Lily implored. "No trains tonight! No way but this, Guthrie. I can't get wet—in this nice waterproof. I don't care how it blows—the more the better—with you with me."

"But baby?"

"We can keep him safe. He is going to be rolled in your 'possum rug. We can take him inside if it is cold. Oh, we MUST go by sea, Guthrie!"

"Call this sea?" he mocked.

It was sea to her, who had never been beyond the Heads. She expected to concentrate in the fifteen-minutes' trip across the bay the interest of years of travel on land. There was nothing like blue water to this sailor's wife, whose heart had been upon it for so many anxious months; the extravagance of her partiality was the joke of husband and friends against her.

"All right," said Guthrie; "come along, then!"

He was impatient to get her away from these people, and under his own roof.

The second-hand macintosh was again pressed upon her.

"Oh, thanks—thanks! But I think I won't put it on just yet, as it is not raining. My dress is warm."

Her dress was the wedding dress—chosen for use as well as beauty—a delicate pink stuff, with a watered sash to match, in which she looked like a school-girl on breaking-up day. She had a fancy to go to her home in state, and also to make an appearance that would do her husband credit before Mr and Mrs Hardacre.

"Here is your fascinator, my dear," said the motherly landlady, offering the wisely-selected substitute for Lily's hat. "Let me tie it on for you—there!"

The fascinator of white wool, made and adjusted properly, accounts for its name; and Guthrie was sure that he had never seen a lovelier picture than his darling's face in that soft frame. She was ready now—as ready as she meant to be until the Customs launch had seen her—and turned to pick up the large bundle that had the little baby in the middle of it.

"I'll carry him, Lily."

"No, no, Mr Carey, I'm going to carry him," said the landlady's cousin, a strapping young woman, whose arms were equal to the task—"as far as the boat, at any rate."

She did so, the elder ladies supporting her on either side. Guthrie and Lily led the procession, hand in hand.

Ah, how like another world it was, coming out upon that breezy platform from the gutter-smelling streets! And how royal a proceeding it seemed to Lily to be, the setting apart of a Government vessel solely and entirely to convey her to her new abode, as if she were a little queen going to her husband's kingdom. She could not help holding herself with dignity, if not with a trifle of vaingloriousness, as, between half-a-dozen eager hands and admiring eyes, she stepped down into it.

"Now, have you got everything?" the landlady called from the pier. "Oh, everything—everything in the world!" Guthrie shouted, in reply.

"Where's your waterproof, Lily?" screeched the step-mother. "Better put it on, my dear; and I'd advise you to sit under cover, both of you. You'll be drenched if you don't, in this wind. Why, Mr Hardacre, it's blowing a perfect gale!"

"A bit fresh, ma'am," Bill admitted; "just enough to keep us lively. All aboard, Mr Casey? Pass the word, sir, when you're ready."

"Ready!" called Guthrie. And then he said something to the men, Bill Hardacre and his mate Dugald Finlayson, about having everything on board—all his life and happiness, or something to that effect—at which they laughed and chaffed him as the launch backed from the pier, and started off in the tearing hurry characteristic of Customs boats.

Lily was in the cabin with the baby and the landlady's cousin, who had 'got round' Mr Hardacre to give her a return passage, after seeing the little family safe home. Husband and wife had frowned at the suggestion of having her with them on the launch, but when they had shut her in out of sight and hearing, and found themselves free to follow their own devices untrammelled by their child, they did not mind so much.

"Hadn't you better—?" Guthrie began, when his wife reappeared, clinging to the door-jamb; but she exclaimed again:

"No, no! Let me be outside with you!" She wanted to feel "at sea" with him, to bathe herself, under the shelter of his protection, in the magnificent, tempestuous, inspiring night. To her, cooped up all her life in streets and prosaic circumstances, there was something in the present situation too poetical for words. No bride who had married money, and was setting out by P. & O. upon her luxurious European tour, could have been more keenly sensible of the romance of foreign travel than she, crossing Hobson's Bay in a borrowed Customs launch; while the squally darkness surrounding and isolating her and her mate immeasurably enhanced the charm. "I want to see it—to feel it!" she pleaded. "The air is so clean and fresh! The sea is so grand tonight! How beautiful it smells! Guthrie, I must have been born for a sailor's wife—I love it so!"

"Of course you were," the sailor assented heartily. "No manner of doubt about that. Well, sit here, if you prefer it, sweetheart"—on the stern grating—"only mind you don't catch cold. And don't let us get that pretty frock spoiled before the Williamstown folks have seen it."

He steadied her while she stood to have the big macintosh drawn closely about her—the round cape, flapping far and wide in the rough wind, was like an unmanageable sail, he said—and when she was again seated, he tucked it about her knees and feet. Buttons being hard to find and fasten, he pulled the two fronts of the garment one over the other across her lap, and she sat upon the outer one. Then he readjusted the white fascinator, winding the fluffy ends round her neck, and finally encircling all with his stalwart arm. There she sat, resting against him, her left hand in his left hand, her contented eyes shining like stars in the dark. They were practically alone in space, their deck companions having thoughtfully turned their backs and made themselves as remote as possible.

A long sigh fluttered through Lily's parted lips from her surcharged heart. Guthrie heard it through all the clamour of the gale—for it really was a gale—and the noise of the screw and fiercely snorting funnel. He stopped his face to hers.

"Tired, pet?"

"No," she murmured, "oh, no!"

"What, then?"

"Only happy—PERFECTLY happy."

"Same here," he said, careless how he tempted Fate—"only more so."

Their lips met, and were holding that sweetest kiss of lovers that are man and wife, when a wave, driven by the wind, flung a shower of spray at them, giving each a playful slap of the face as a hint not to be too confident.

"Hadn't you better get inside?" he urged, as he wiped her cheek. "It'll be rougher still directly."

"Oh, no, it's splendid! The rougher the better. I'm so glad it's rough. I can't take any harm, so well wrapped up, and with you, my husband."

"Ah, Lil!" The hug he gave her in acknowledgment of the word made her gasp for breath. He was so carried away that he had to use both arms, whereby a lurch of the boat nearly unseated him. "Never," he declared, in an intense whisper—"never shall you come to harm, my precious one, while you've got me to protect you; I can promise you that."

"Dear," she returned, in the same kind of tone, "I know I never shall."

And she cuddled closer up to him, and he took a firmer grip of her. There was no rail for either to hold to, and drawing out from the shelter of the pier, and meeting the force of the southerly swell, the launch had begun to dance like a cork on boiling water.

"Why, there's quite a sea on," remarked Guthrie, with a laugh. "I hope it won't make you sea-sick."

"Sea-sick!" she echoed, with fine scorn. "I am a sailor's wife, sir."

"Bless your little heart, I've been sea-sick myself many a time, and for not much more than this, either. However, it'll soon be over. There's home waiting for us, Lil—"

"Where? Where?" she interrupted him, with a tender eagerness. The launch was tossed high in the air, and the lights of Williamstown stretched across the darkness in front of them like a band of jewels.

"Oh, you can't distinguish it," said Guthrie, "but it's there—it's one of those lights; Mrs Hardacre said she was going to keep the blind up and the gas flaring, so that we might see it as we came over."

"That's what I shall do when you come back next time," said the girl, with a voice like a dove cooing. "Make a beacon to guide you home."

"No fear that I shall mistake the course, little woman."

He had an irresistible impulse to hug her with both arms again, and they happened to be on the verge of the river current. Hardacre and Finlayson both shouted, "Look out, sir!" but he was not looking out—his sailor eyes were otherwise occupied, and so he did not perceive the enemy of love making the spring to seize him. Just as he was folding his mate to his breast, he heard the warning cry for'ard, and it was then too late to avert the catastrophe. In the same instant a sudden wave struck the launch, and nearly turned her over, and the young wife and husband, holding to nothing but one another, and simply sitting upon an unprotected plank, were tipped out as easily as balls from a capsized basket.

"Oh, this is too absurd!"

That was Guthrie's mental ejaculation in the astonishing first moment. A deep-sea sailor, who had come through what he had come through, to let himself be caught unawares by such a paltry mischance as this! Then, what an unspeakable ass to have been so careless—to have shown himself incapable of protecting his wife, after all his boasts! Would he ever hear the last of it as long as he lived? Poor little woman! How cold the water felt when he thought of her tender skin. And her pretty dress, that she had set such store by, in which she had intended to go to church with him on Sunday—utterly destroyed, of course! Well, he must make shift to afford her another and smarter one, and get it made quickly. She should have her pick and choice. As the following wave soused his uprising head, slapping him full in the face, so as to confuse and blind him for a second or two, the fear that she might get "a dose of it" before they could pull her out made him sharply anxious. If she got a bad cold, a shock to her nerves, perhaps a serious illness, he would never forgive himself. And what a sell that would be—what waste of this precious holiday, this second honeymoon, so much sweeter than the first—after the weary waiting for it!

He cleared his eyes, and had a momentary view of the surroundings before another wave rushed upon him. Waves they were, by George! He would not have believed it possible that such a sea would be running right up here, in this little duck-pond of a bay. It had seemed rough on the boat, but viewed from the surface, it might have been the middle of Atlantic wastes. They were in the river channel—worse luck!—and the south wind was dead on to it, bringing up the swell from outside; and the swell, that had set that way for days, was so heavy as to drive him back faster than his powerful limbs could propel him in the other direction. At first the launch seemed to want to dance over him, but when he rose on a swirl of water to take his bearings after the first bewilderment, she was a couple of lengths away, cutting the most extraordinary capers in her efforts to put about. Her own lights, and those of the beacons at the river mouth, showed him all her stern grating and bright deck fittings as she heeled over, hanging to the side of one of those ridiculous ocean rollers out of bounds; and he thought it no wonder that he—even he—had been tossed off under the circumstances. The crew, who were not sitting on a skimming dish, as it were, had their work cut out to hold on. As he looked, he measured his drift with serious disquietude, although the preposterous idea of anybody being drowned had not as yet occurred to him. Drowned HERE! A good joke, indeed! Why, they were within hail of Sandridge, and half-a-dozen ships—or they would have been, but for the noise of wind and water, which smothered lesser sounds; and the lights of Williamstown—amongst them that of the little home awaiting him—studded the shore on the other hand, near and clear, like the eyes of a host of watching friends. And in Hobson's Bay, which could hardly cover the body of a sunk yacht; and right up by the river, which had to be dredged all the time to keep it open!

But where was Lily? It scared him to find himself out of arm's reach of her, forced back by the swell, and not to see her immediately when he was able to look. He saw the launch—which of course was entirely occupied in her rescue—and saw two white buoys floating, and saw a line thrown, but nothing else, except the wild water that buffeted him, and the moonless night overhead. And he remembered that the river channel—indeed, Hobson's Bay in any part—was just as dangerous as mid-Atlantic to one who could not swim. The thought clutched him like a hand at his throat.

"Got her?" he yelled, in a fury of terror. "Got her? See her?"

He strained to make himself heard by the men on the launch in a way to burst his heart. They shouted something that he could not understand, and a line came whizzing past him. He caught it as it dropped, and soon lessened the distance between them. Then he perceived a long boat-hook stretching out into the darkness; it went up and down with the toss of the boat like the fishing-rod of an impatient school-boy, and a few yards beyond its reach, where it touched water, there was a dim smudge. He knew it for the full cape of Lily's macintosh, outspread upon the waves. They alternately rumpled and smoothed it, flapping it into all shapes as they tossed and toyed with it; but, by the mercy of Heaven, it had held her up. In the middle of the mass he could see her dear little head hanging forward and downward, just under the surface, out of which a larger or smaller speck of her white fascinator rose and gleamed as each roll swung her up into the light of the boat's lamp turned upon the spot. This told him that she was already helpless and unconscious, although ten seconds had not elapsed since she went over. God send that she had not struck anything—that her heart was not weak—that she was not subject to any of the mysterious consequences of shock peculiar to the more than ordinarily complex women! At any rate, she had not had time to drown. He had seen a man recovered after being under for forty minutes, and in less than one they would be taking her full speed to Williamstown, signalling for the doctor as they went. What would the fellows ashore make of the three whistles—three times there before they got across? They would know the launch that blew them, and her present errand, and think, perhaps, that the crew were on the spree. But no, they would have more sense than that; they would look at the wild night, and conclude that something had happened. So would the doctor, who would hear the summons from his bed. What would they all say to him, Guthrie Carey, with his good seaman's record behind him, when he brought his wife home in such a state of dilapidation? However, all's well that ends well. Let him only have her safely there, and he would not mind what anybody said; and he'd take precious good care not to run any risks with her again.

Water-logged as he was, and cramped in his overcoat, he made a violent bound towards the floating cape, lunged twice, caught it at the second try, and pulled it eagerly—alas! too eagerly. He felt the tug of Lily's weight only just long enough to be sure that she was there, and then—the fastenings gave way, and she slipped through! The empty garment swam up to him on the edge of a new wave, which clapped it over his face like a gigantic plaster.

Oh, this was dreadful! She would be rescued eventually, of course—amongst them they would not let her drown, not if skill and courage had any show at all—but the fact that she was in danger could no longer be ignored. She was a little delicate thing, already overcome, and precious time was wasting, when every second was of the most stupendous consequence. With a frenzied gesture, Guthrie shook off the cloak, spluttered, spat, and made a dive to intercept her as she went down, wondering as he did so whether breath and strength would hold out if he missed her and had to follow her to the bottom. The swing of the swell was awful, and the darkness of the blind night too cruel for words.

"If only I had this cursed coat off!" he dumbly sobbed. "If only I could get rid of these damned laced boots!" Bad words would have been forgivable even had he not been a sailor.

He missed her, groped desperately, to the verge of suffocation, and came up to cough, and groan, and pump breath enough to take him down again. It would have cost five minutes to get his clothes off, and there was not a single second to spare—now.

"See her?" he shrieked.

"Ne'er a sign," Bill Hardacre shouted. "But we'll catch her when she rises. Take a turn o' the line round you, sir, so's we can haul you in—"

But there was not even time for that in the frightful race of these vital moments. She was gone, and she must be found, and there was but her husband to look for her. The two other men were few enough for the safety of the launch as she was then situated; and besides, Hardacre could be more useful to Lily above water than below. The neighbouring ships lay undisturbed, putting off no boats to help. In all that band of lights ringing the black welter of the bay, like stars out of the Infinite, shining calmly upon an abandoned world, not one was moving.

Guthrie Carey gave a last look round, identified the window of what was to have been his home, where the fire was burning brightly, the little supper spread, good Mrs Hardacre watching for them at the door—heard the landlady's cousin wailing, "Lil! Lil!"—and again plunged under, arms wide and eyes staring, and heart bursting with despair. Everything in him seemed bursting—an agonising sensation—as his overstrained lungs collapsed, and the power of his strong limbs failed him; then everything seemed to break away and let in the floods of Lethe with a rush—confusion and forgetfulness and a whirl of dreams, settling to a strange peace, an irresistible sleep, as if he had swallowed a magic opiate. The sea took him, as a nurse takes a helpless child, and floated him up from the place where he had been savagely groping; something met him half-way, floating down upon him, and his arms went round it of their own accord. But they were powerless to clasp or hold it. It passed him, sinking gently, and lay where it sank, under all the turmoil, as still as the rocking tide would let it.

The launch sounded her steam whistle furiously. From both sides of the bay it was heard, screeching through the windy night like a fiend possessed, and men got up hastily to ask what was the matter. Another launch put out from Williamstown, and a police boat from Sandridge, and the anchored ships awoke and hailed them. Soon half-a-dozen boats were tossing about the spot; they tossed for two hours, and Bill Hardacre dived seven times with a rope round his waist, while the widowed young husband lay on the cabin floor between two doctors, the baby and the landlady's cousin keening over him.

"Well," said Dugald Finlayson, as at last they headed for Williamstown through the now lessening storm, with a bundle in tarpaulin beside them, "it do seem as if the Powers above take a pleasure in tripping us up when we least expect it."

"Aye," said Bill Hardacre, sitting crying in his wet clothes, "he said as we were starting he'd got all he wanted now. I thinks to myself at the time, thinks I, 'That's an unlucky thing to say.'" But who is to judge luck in this world? Poor little Lily Harrison was a helpless creature, and had almost 'nothing in her' except vanity.





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