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A Breath of the Sea by Ada Cambridge

 

Lizzie Dawson's friends sat in the drawing-room over the bank offices, and talked about Emma. For Emma had excused herself from coming in. "She's got one of her bad headaches," said Lizzie, "and doesn't feel up to seeing people."

"It was the same on your last day," remarked Mrs. Dean, who suspected "airs" on Emma's part. "She seems to be always having headaches."

"How different from what she used to be!" another lady ejaculated. "I don't believe she ever had a thing the matter with her before she was married."

"Different!" echoed the hostess, nearly smashing a cup with the teapot as she banged it down. "You wouldn't know her for the same! And all through that—that—that beast! I can't help it—it's impossible to call him a man."

The visitors drew their chairs closer.

"Now, tell us, Lizzie—you can trust us—it won't go any further—did he really throw her downstairs, and give her concussion of the brain? Everybody says so, you know."

It was the champion scandalmonger of the town who asked this question, with all her soul in her pretty, eager face.

"No, I don't think he went quite so far as that," Miss Dawson admitted, with evident reluctance. "At any rate, Emma says he didn't. She was very angry when somebody asked her. But then, she's so soft! Sometimes I get really out of patience with her—standing up for him, when everybody knows he was too bad to live with. Why, he'd have killed her if we hadn't taken her away from him. She has been home six months, living in peace and comfort, and even now she hasn't got over it. She's nothing but a bag of bones, and her spirit broken—crushed"—Lizzie stopped pouring out the tea to blow her nose savagely—"so that you wouldn't know her for what she used to be before she fell into his hands. Brute!"

"But," urged the young matron, who was always anxious to get to the bottom of these things, "if he did not throw her downstairs and injure her brain, how comes she by these constant headaches? She never used to have headaches."

"Anybody's head would ache, if they were always crying like she is," replied Lizzie, as gloomy as she was ungrammatical. "Though what she has to fret for now—!"

"But he did throw the soup-plate at her, with all the hot soup in it?"

"It didn't hit her—it didn't actually touch her. He knocked it over in one of his rages with her, all over a nice clean tablecloth just fresh from the wash."

"What a wretch!"

"But he was quite capable of throwing it at her. I myself saw him throw a thing at her once. It hit her in the face."

"No! did you really? What was it?"

"It was a bank-note—a five-pound note. He bought her a dress once—a hideous thing—and gave it to her in such a way that she wouldn't accept it as a gift. She wanted to pay him for it, and gave him the note; and he took it and flung it in her face, using the most dreadful language. She put up her hand to ward off the blow, and the note went flying into the fire, and was burnt up in an instant before our eyes. As it happened, those were the good times, when we were all well off—when five-pound notes were more plentiful than they are now."

Lizzie sighed. The other ladies sighed. For the moment they became indifferent to Emma Knox and her affairs. It was the beginning of December, '92, and the depression was still deepening and deepening, instead of getting lighter; and everybody felt it. The great financial scandals were still in their most scandalous stage, and these little country people had lost their little savings, or their friends and relatives had lost theirs, through a mistaken confidence in balance-sheets. Therefore they found a private and local scandal less supremely interesting than it used to be. They fell to talking of their afflicted colony, their disreputable Government, their personally altered circumstances, the sad, sad blight that was over all. When they wanted to cheer themselves, they returned to a discussion of the iniquities of Emma's husband.

Meanwhile, Emma lay on the narrow bed that had been hers in the happy years when she had no husband, glad to be out of the way of their talk—glad, even, to be out of the way of Lizzie's talk for once, dear and devoted as Lizzie was. It seemed to Mrs. Knox that nobody remembered she was Mrs. Knox; they seemed to imagine that she could come back just as she went away, and take her old place as if nothing had happened. It was a great mistake. When you have been married—even if married miserably—you have been spoilt for any other life. You can't be a girl again, occupied with the trivial affairs of girlhood, if you would. You can't stand having your father lord it over you, as if you were still nothing but his child. It is maddening to hear people—when it is no concern of theirs—discussing your husband, who, after all, is your husband, before your face, and making him out to be the lowest cad on the face of the earth. In short, the whole position is intolerable—particularly if you are not well. Emma was not well. She had no strength, and her nerves had gone to pieces. Her father and sister were beginning to get cross about it, and to talk of sending for the doctor. The doctor—pooh! She knew what would do her good better than any doctor could tell her—as she confided to Tommy, when he came, on his return from school, to ask if her headache was better.

Tommy was merely a rough, ugly, dirty, untidy schoolboy; but he was fond of his sister Emma, and worried to see her so out of health and spirits.

"What is it you think would do you good?" he asked her, as he sat by her bedside, his hat and books scattered over the floor. "If it's anything from the shop, I'll run and get it."

"It is nothing from the shop," said Emma, drawing herself up into a sitting posture, with unusual animation. "It is nothing that can be got here, Tommy. It's something better than doctor's stuff—something that I have been longing for for weeks and months past."

"I know—a letter from David," said the boy brightly.

Emma's pale young face flushed crimson, and one could see the signs of a haughty spirit behind it. She pretended to be both surprised and angry at this audacious suggestion. For David was the wicked husband from whose clutches she had been rescued by an indignant family.

"David!" she exclaimed. "What are you thinking of? Why should I want a letter from David? I have not written to him; I don't even know where he is. He—he is nothing to me. Pray don't run away with the idea that I am fretting about him."

"Oh!" faltered Tommy, with an abashed and disappointed air; "I didn't know. I thought perhaps—"

"Don't think, dear boy. The less we all think on that subject, the better—and the less we talk, too. I can't"—with a sudden change of front—"oh, I can't bear to hear them all discussing him and abusing him behind his back, when he can't defend himself. I do think it is so mean!"

"So do I," said the boy promptly. "But I don't do it. I never did think he was as bad as they made out. You know you've got a bit of a temper yourself, Emmie. Perhaps you riled him sometimes—without knowing it, you know."

"Perhaps I did," said Mrs. Knox. "I often wonder—however, it is no use thinking about that now. The thing is done, and it can't be helped." She sighed; then, with an effort, roused herself. "I'll tell you what I want, Tommy—a breath of the sea! You know how I love the sea, and what good it always does me. I feel, if I could have just one day on it, away from all these people—say a run down to Sorrento in the Hygeia—I should be set up for the summer. I should begin to get strong at once. I do want to get away for a little, Tommy—I do want to get strong." Her voice quivered.

"Then, why don't you go?" he asked her.

"If only for a couple of days!" she ejaculated longingly. "Even one day—one sight of the sea—one breath of it—would make a new creature of me. I know it would. Of course, it is expensive, and I haven't much money, and I won't ask father now—now that I am married; but just a couple of days would not cost much, would it? I could go second-class, for that matter."

"You wouldn't go alone, would you?"

"I don't want to. It's lonely enough at the best of times; I don't want to make it worse. But I would not like to drag Lizzie away; I'd rather not do that. I was thinking—you haven't got examinations next week, have you?"

"Not till the week after," the boy replied, breathless with delighted anticipation. "Oh, I say! you don't mean you would take me?"

"You could look after me very well," said Mrs. Knox, who, unfortunately for one in her position, had no vocation for independence. "I want somebody, and yet I don't want to be bothered. Suppose you and I go together—shall we? It wouldn't put you off your examinations?"

"Not the least little bit," he assured her fervently. "If you stew up to the last moment, your head only gets muddled. It is far better to try and forget everything for a few days—freshens the brain, you know—puts you regularly into form."

"I believe it is the best plan," she said, when she had thought it over. "Then we'll do it, Tommy."

"Good egg!" he cried in rapture. This was the correct form of expression with schoolboys at that date.

Lizzie, when she came to hear of the projected enterprise, was dissatisfied with it.

"I should have thought," she remarked, "that the sea, and Sorrento particularly, would have been the last place you'd wish to go to." And she said so because it was near the sea that Emma had lived her disastrous married life, and at Sorrento that she had spent the honeymoon which began it. Emma assured her that, on the contrary, the sea was the first and only thing she longed for; and it seemed like pure perversity to Lizzie's mind. Lizzie then declared that she must go too, to take charge of her sister, who was not strong enough to travel alone. She ridiculed the idea of Tommy as a protector, to his great wrath. "That child!" she called him.

"He is fourteen, and he is devoted to me," protested Emma. "He is all the protector I want, and I have promised him, Lizzie. And of course father cannot do without you. It is only for a couple of days."

"A couple of days is not long enough to do you any good; and then suppose—just suppose you were to come across that man?"

"Well? What if I did?"—blushing furiously. "He would not kill me."

"You don't know what he wouldn't do. I would not have you run such a risk for the world, without me with you."

"There's no fear of that," said Emma, with set lips. "Not the slightest fear. I should think he'd be like the snakes, and get as far out of one's way as possible."

"A very good name for him," said Lizzie: "a snake. He is just like a snake—that snake in the fable that was warmed in somebody's bosom and then turned to bite. Little we thought what we were doing when we let him into this house!"

Emma's flush deepened, and the hard line of her mouth grew harder.

"You may be sure," she said bitterly, "that he regrets the day he entered it quite as much as we do. I've no doubt he hates the very thought of me—loathes it—would not touch me with a pair of tongs if he could help it."

She had her way about going to Melbourne, with Tommy for an escort. On Monday night he scrubbed himself all over in a hot bath, and on Tuesday morning went to have his hair cut and to buy himself a new necktie; for it was not until Tuesday that Mr. Dawson gave his married daughter leave to please herself.

Then, on Tuesday afternoon, brother and sister set off by the slow train, Tommy gravely elated over his responsibilities, and Emma in better spirits than he had seen her at any time since her separation from her husband. They did not travel second-class, which in Australia is thought a low thing to do, even by the little shopkeepers; Mr. Dawson had forbidden it. "For we have not come to that yet," he said, "poor as we are these times." And Lizzie would not hear of eight hours of hard seat for a weakened back. They wanted Emma to wait until next morning for the express, but she could not wait. That was the one thing about which she was irresistibly obstinate.

"Father might change his mind, or the weather might change; let us go while we can," she urged Tommy confidentially; and the boy sincerely assured her that he was "on."

They left, therefore, at 3.30, and reached Melbourne before 11. It was a delightful journey to both; weather warm, without sultriness or dust, and the country, that looks so lonesome to un-Australian eyes, beautiful to theirs, after the heavy rains of the cool spring. The grass was seeding, of course, and therefore taking its tawny summer tints, but never had they seen it so thick and fresh in the last month of the year. The corn was being cut in the cultivated fields, scattered like isles in the sea of bush. The plenteous harvest was almost the single sign of prosperity left to the country in its day of unexampled adversity, and it was easy for the most superficial eye to read it. Emma's eyes, having looked on a landscape of wild hills only since she fled home from her cruel husband, feasted upon the scene, so full of associations of other times and journeyings.

"My word!" was the bush boy's frequent comment, "do look at that grass! Won't there be some bush fires presently!"

Yes, she supposed there would. She talked to Tommy from time to time, but for the most part she sat silent, thinking her own thoughts. It was in December, she remembered, that she had gone on her honeymoon over this same line, by this same slow train. Then the grass had been burnt up by weeks of blazing weather. What a roasting day it was! and how strange and home-sick she had felt, how heart-broken at parting with Lizzie, how terrified at the prospect before her! She smiled as she recalled her girlish foolishness, and Tommy thought it made her look like her old self again. Now she could not disguise from herself that she was home-sick in quite a different way. It was homesickness that was drawing her from her father's house back to Sorrento and the sea. She was beginning to feel, though she did not understand the fact—which really is a fact, though it is the fashion to deny it—that it is not only better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all, but better to have even a bad husband than to have none; meaning, of course, a bad husband like David, who was still a man—not a brute-beast in human shape, like Neill and Deeming.

I don't think I have mentioned that Emma Knox was pretty—very pretty—and only twenty-five last birthday. In her dark serge skirt and jacket and striped cotton blouse, with the neatest sailor hat on her curly fringe and protuberant Clytie knot, and a trim little veil to keep all in order, she was a charming figure—that kind of figure which you see, as soon as you look at it, was never meant to go about the world without a man to take care of it. Emma had never known what it was to want a man—certainly not at a railway station in the night—and so felt a little timorous, a little of the castaway, on stepping upon the platform at Spencer Street. But Tommy rose to the occasion, shaking himself from the fetters of untimely sleep. He shouldered the bag they shared between them, thrust his arm gallantly between his sister and the crowd, and escorted her to the tram and the Victoria Coffee Palace with the air of a father in charge of a toddling babe. He had not seen the lights of Melbourne since he was a petticoated child himself, but nothing daunted him.

They had little bedrooms side by side, in one of which they shared a frugal supper of Lizzie's sandwiches and wine and water from a travelling flask and the toilet bottle. In the old days David used to put up at Menzies', and she remembered how he once brought her the most delicious trayful after she had gone to bed, with his own hands.

"How odd it feels," she mused aloud, "to be in a place like this without him!"

"I should think it does," said Tommy, knowing whom she meant by him. "I should think you'd miss him awfully sometimes."

She was not angry. She sighed, and looked tired. "Well, you are a good substitute, dear," she rejoined, gathering the crumbs of their repast into a screw of paper. "But now we must get to sleep as fast as we can, so as to be fresh for our trip in the morning."

She saw him to bed and tucked him up, and he was asleep in five minutes. But she could not get away from her thoughts of David—David at his good times—for hours. It was four o'clock before she ceased to hear the post-office chimes. At seven she awoke, and the first sound she was conscious of as the pattering of rain.

"Oh-h-h!"

Tommy heard her groan and came running in.

"It won't be much—it can't be—so lovely as it was yesterday," he cried.

"Even if it is, we must go, Tommy."

"Of course we must."

They dressed themselves, and found their way through a public drawing-room to a balcony overlooking the street.

"Hurrah!" cried the boy. "It's left off! I told you so!"

It had; but the sky had a dull and stormy look, and a fierce, muggy wind was blowing.

"North," remarked Emma gloomily, with her hands over her hair, and her eyes screwed up. "Just my luck!"

"Well, a north wind will be much better on the sea than on the land."

"If Lizzie were here, she'd make me wait till tomorrow."

"Oh, I wouldn't wait, if I were you."

"I can't! I must go! I feel as if something was drawing me—that I can't resist. But I know all my pleasure is going to be spoilt. It is my fate—always."

Tommy continued to combat this point of view, and they went to breakfast. Before breakfast they bought a paper from the little girl on the doorstep, to assure themselves that nothing had happened to prevent the Hygeia from keeping her engagements. No; that was all right. She was to start at 10.30, as usual.

They were ready to set off by a little after nine, and then it was raining again. "A few heat drops," said Tommy; adding, when they soon ceased to fall, the inevitable and triumphant "I told you so!" When they sat down on a bench at the railway station, tickets in hand, to wait for a Port Melbourne train, a little sheltered from the howling blast, they persuaded themselves that it was really going to be a fine day, and Emma's spirits rose. She began to think of the Back Beach, and the ocean rollers, and the sweet little bowery paths cut in the scrubby cliffs, where she and David used to wander, yawning for weariness of them and of each other (a disagreeable detail that she chose to forget), in the first long week of their married life. How she longed to see them again! And it was going to be fine, after all.

The wind blew them on to the pier and up the gangway of the boat, Tommy holding on to his hat and his bag of bananas, Emma trying to keep her hair and her skirts together; and then they reached a haven of peace in two of the Hygeia's little chairs, on her spacious covered deck. There the wind, if only it had been not quite so boisterous, was beautiful. Wind and sea go naturally together. The bay was lumpy and ruffled, full of little waves; they lapped and splashed against the piles of the pier, and seethed along the vessel's side; and Emma's ears drank in the sound like music, and her heart swelled as if with the exhilaration of strong wine.

"This is what I wanted!" she said, settling herself in a quiet corner by the open rails. "Oh, I know it is going to do me such a lot of good! Oh, Tommy, you don't know what the sight of the sea is to me after all this long time!"

She caught her breath hysterically, and was silent for a minute; then, with cheerful calmness, urged the boy to walk about and amuse himself, and not mind her. She was all right now. She had her book. She wanted nothing more.

Tess of the D'Urbervilles, in one volume, lay ostentatiously open on her knee, and she turned the pages over. But never a word, even of that new and notorious work, did she read, or want to read, to-day. However, Tommy was satisfied, and went to look at the saloon and the machinery, and to make friends with the ship's officers, who fed his country curiosity and entertained him gloriously for the whole voyage.

Even after the last train had arrived there were not many passengers—a mere handful, compared with the hundreds that used to crowd the bay boats in the old times—the good old times, when she and David took trips together. And the ships were few at the port piers, not jammed together from end to end, and overflowing into the open, as she had always seen them. And all was changed! Where life used to be bright and stirring, it was now flat and dull—"stale," to use the expressive schoolboy adjective so much in vogue—stale as soda-water uncorked since yesterday. The fizz was gone out of everything. But then a north wind always predisposes you to look on the dark side; and not only did the wind keep in that detestable quarter, and blow as it always does blow therefrom, but the rain came on before the boat reached Queenscliff, destroying all hope of a fine day.

Tommy came to tell his sister when Queenscliff was in sight—the pretty hill of trees, and the town that rises so charmingly out of the water on a fine day. In its sad, wet veil she did not want to look at it. She sat still where she was, with her face to the sea, while Tommy watched, with deep interest, the debarking passengers scrambling under their umbrellas down to the streaming pier. "After all," he said, when this sensation was past, "it's a pity we did not wait another day. I can see you are not enjoying yourself a bit."

"Oh, but I am—I am!" she responded to the reproach in his voice. "And there's plenty of time for it to clear before we reach Sorrento. The wind is going down. I daresay it will be delightful when we get there."

And when they got there it did not rain much, not enough to wet them seriously between the pier and the hotel. Dinner at the Continental was an essential part of the programme. She and David had lived at the Continental during their honeymoon, and she had been tantalising Tommy with descriptions of the meals they used to have.

When they reached the house, the feeling of things being changed came back in force. There were no gay visitors flocking around, as they used to do at this hungry hour; and, having been accustomed to walk into hotels under the wing of a big husband, Emma felt vaguely small and mean—as if she had greatly come down in the world—when she entered this one without him. The large dining-room, where they had eaten so many nice things together, had the air of desolation that prevailed elsewhere. All its tables were fully set, with flowers in the middle and spiky napkins sticking out of the wine-glasses, as for a hundred guests; but no guests were there. Yes—five; so few that they were lost in the expanse, but enough to show that the dinner had not vanished, if the company had. Mrs. Knox sat down in the wilderness of white damask, and drew off her gloves. A silent waiter stole up with a couple of soup plates, and Tommy fell to with all his heart. And gradually the room grew so dark that they could hardly see the end of it, and the rain swept past the windows in an opaque sheet.

"Isn't it too, too bad!" wailed Emma, under her breath. "My one day!"

"Perhaps we might come again to-morrow," suggested Tommy, with his mouth full of fish.

"I can't afford two days," she sighed. "And we shall never, never get to the Back Beach!"

"Oh, yes, we shall," he replied comfortingly. "This won't last. It is too heavy. Have some beer, old girl—it'll cheer you up."

"I really believe I will," she said, with a tearful laugh. And she ordered some. "Well, at any rate, whatever else goes wrong, the dinner is all right, isn't it?"

"Rather!" assented Tommy, with all the emphasis at his command. He had got hold of the bill of fare, and found that he could go on for as long as he liked without adding to the necessary fee.

They had enjoyed an excellent ragout of beef and olives, and Emma had finished, and Tommy was starting a course of poultry, when a belated guest entered—making eight. It was still raining heavily, and the room was a cave of shadows; but this person, by reason of his size, the light colour of his clothes, and the bright redness of his beard, shone in the doorway like the sun through clouds. It was impossible to overlook him, unless your back was turned, like Tommy's. Emma sat against the wall, with her face to the door, and had nothing to do but to gaze about her; consequently she saw him the moment he entered, and to the best advantage. Also, he saw her. But whereas she started as if she had been shot, turned crimson as a peony and then white as milk, his cold eyes travelled calmly over her, and he walked to his seat, shook out his napkin, and signalled for his dinner, as indifferent to her presence, apparently, as if she had been a piece of furniture.

In a dry voice she said to Tommy, as soon as she could speak, "Make haste, dear; I want to go."

"It's no use going while it pours like this," he answered reasonably. "Where could you go? Better stay under shelter till it holds up. And I want some lemon tart, if you don't mind—and some maraschino jelly, and cheese. Wouldn't you like some cheese and salad? You haven't had half a dinner."

"I can't eat any more," she whispered faintly. "But you have what you like. Only don't be long."

She leaned back against the wall, and tried to look indifferent and calm, like David. But she felt sick. Was this what she had made such frantic efforts to get to Sorrento for? To meet her husband like a stranger, and to be spurned in that insulting manner, as if she were the dirt under his feet—as if he were the injured instead of the injurer! She should have listened to Lizzie. Oh, if Lizzie were here, how she could pay him out for that! But she had no Lizzie—she was alone and defenceless. That was his opportunity. That was what he had always done—taken advantage of her helplessness to be cruel to her. Oh, it was cruel! How could he do it—when she was not well—when he could see how solitary she was, straying about unattended and uncared for, save by a little schoolboy, too little to defend her against a big, strong man. Tears of self-pity came into her eyes, but she got rid of them quickly, terrified lest he should see her letting herself down to care. She did not care—not she. But a great lump stuck fast in her throat, and she could not keep her eyes off him.

Of course he had turned his back on her, or nearly turned it. She could just see the tip of his blunt nose and the line of his hairy cheek. What a fine man he was! She thought he was a little stouter than of old—their troubles had not told on him as they had on her—and his rough grey suit was very becoming. Positively he was handsome. They used to jeer at his red beard, but it was a beautiful beard. Auburn—not red. His severe tranquillity, under the circumstances, was astounding. He ate his dinner as calmly as if she were a hundred miles away from him—as, doubtless, he wished she was. No, it was a matter of perfect indifference to him. He didn't care where she was or what she did. He would not care if she were dead. Perhaps he wished she was, so that he could marry somebody else. And she wondered with terror—for it had never occurred to her before—whether he had begun to love somebody else. She wondered what he had come to Sorrento for. Not with any idea of seeing her, and making the quarrel up, clearly. With her heart swelling and thumping in every part of her body at once, burning through and through with mortification and resentment, she wondered whether she could sit out Tommy's dinner without bursting into tears.

Fortunately, she managed that. When, with a satisfied sigh, he announced that he had done, there was nothing in her veiled face to attract the attention that was again wholly at her service. He was quite happy and comfortable, and assumed that she was, too. And now all her desire was to get him out of the room in ignorance of his brother-in-law's presence there, and to get herself past that maddening person with a proper show of dignity. This, also, she managed fairly well, by keeping her nose very much up in the air, and hustling the boy along at a run. And great was her satisfaction, when out of doors again, to feel that she had not made a fool of herself for David's amusement.

Out of doors it rained still, and she did not know where to go. In the bright and stirring old days the trams would be running to and from the Back Beach every few minutes, but now they had stopped, and the cabs were at the pier. She could walk to the Back Beach, but it would tire her dreadfully, and there would hardly be time to walk there and back too. Besides, she would be soaked; not that that mattered. There was no one to care whether she took her death of cold or not. It would be the best thing that could happen. But in the first place it was necessary to get out of the path that David would traverse when he had finished his dinner.

She stepped over a magnificent dog lying on the door-mat, and led Tommy round the house to a quiet corner that she knew of, where a verandah sheltered them, and they were out of view from the public approach. Here they stood and watched the rain, until the grey sky lightened, and Emma calculated that David must have finished his meal and gone.

Then she said to her brother: "Tommy, dear, go to the Back Beach I must! It is clearing up, and we have over an hour still. Run, like a good boy, and find out if any trams are starting. If not, get a cab and bring it here. I am a little tired, and you'll go quicker without me."

Off went Tommy at full speed. Emma stood on the steps of the paved path to the hotel dining-room, to wait for his return. And David quietly came down that path behind her.

As soon as she knew that it was he—and she knew it the moment she heard his step—she moved aside to let him pass, and stood very rigidly, staring at the sky. And he did pass her—almost. Just as she was seized with an insane impulse to beg him to take some notice of her, he checked his stride and spoke. His voice was abrupt and cold, but she had never before been so glad to hear it.

"Won't you get wet?"

She answered, without looking at him, "Oh, no; I have my ulster on"—and then wished she had not been so familiar. She remembered how she had been humiliated, and pressed her lips together.

"I think you had better stand under the verandah. There's no use in catching cold for nothing."

"I shall do very well where I am, thank you."

"Where's Tommy gone?"

"To get me a cab or a tram. I want to go to the Back Beach."

"I'll see about it. Perhaps he doesn't know where to find them."

"Pray don't trouble. He knows perfectly. We don't require any assistance."

She was quite pleased with her lofty tone and demeanour. But when he took her at her word, and then and there walked off, without even a good-bye, she raged at herself for having spoken so nastily, and was seriously upset. "That was my first chance," she said, "and perhaps it will be my last. It would serve me right." Yet she looked eagerly for the coming cab or tram, making sure—almost sure—that David would return with it. He had evidently noticed that she was not strong, and was alive to the fact that she was not adequately protected. He really had a kind heart at bottom. And he must care something about her still. He was not anxious for her to die, so that he might marry somebody else.

It was the tram that came, and she ran across the road to meet it. But only Tommy sat in the open carriage, and she saw by his face that he had not seen David. She was absurdly disappointed, and could not speak when the boy pointed out to her that it had quite left off raining. She thought of the times when she and David had gone spinning together over the bosky tram-road to the ocean shore. Could he have forgotten them? He had heard her say that she was going now; had he no wish to return to those old haunts with her? But of course he had not. And it was all her fault.

The little engine whisked them through the wet bushes, and set them down upon the lovely headland overhanging the sea—the real outside sea, with breakers spouting round the big rock, and foaming like whipped cream along the sands; and as she gazed at the familiar scene her throat ached, and her eyes burned, and her excited pulses shook her all over, worse than ever. The wind had died down, and the rain cleared off; beyond the breakers and the rock the waters seemed almost calmer than the bay. And the colours were too wonderful for words. A wide band of dove-blue sky—herald of another squall—lay over the horizon, and under it a breadth of peacock-purple sea that no painter would dare to imitate, because the critics, people who don't notice atmospheric effects, would turn up their noses and exclaim, "Who ever saw sea like that?" And the sea in the middle, under the clearer sky, was more artistically unnatural still—a metallic, translucent, bright pea-green, with pinky-lilac shadows under the clouds. It had almost a stagey glare and gaudiness about it—or that is what a faithful picture of it would have had; the real thing was so exquisitely beautiful that no one in a pensive mood could stand it. Emma stumbled down the winding paths a little way, until she came to a bench where she could sit at ease and look out, as from a lighthouse tower, upon the scene, and there she dropped, feeling as if her heart would break. It had come to this—cry she must. She had borne up gallantly, considering that she had no health to support her, but she could bear up no longer. So she said to her brother, "Tommy, dear, I feel as if I should like to be alone a little while. I'm—I'm tired. You go down to the beach and amuse yourself. Get some shells and things for Lizzie. I'll sit here and rest till it is time to start."

This, of course, was Tommy's natural impulse, and down he went, promising to be back by a quarter to four, when the last tram started for the steamer. He was out of sight immediately, and not another soul was to be seen. She looked all round to satisfy herself of that, and then took out her pocket-handkerchief, laid her two arms on the back of the bench, buried her face in them, and thoroughly enjoyed a good hearty outburst—got the lump out of her throat, and the swelling out of her breast, and felt better after it than she had done for months.

While still abandoned to this paroxysm, but over the first violence of it, the big grey man from the hotel came down upon her, and this time she did not hear him. For not only did she indulge in tears, she also moaned aloud, because that was a luxury denied her in her father's house, where Lizzie was for ever watching her. She cried, "Oh—oh—oh-h-h!" in long-drawn wails and sighs, which filled her ears to the exclusion of other sounds. Thus the noise of solid steps on the soft sand of the winding footpaths was lost.

David saw her while yet some yards away, and paused to look at her. He had fully intended to cut her if he met her again—to cut her with particular precision and emphasis—but now he changed his mind. He had the temper of a fiend, no doubt, but there was a little something of the angel under it, if one took the trouble to look deep enough, and that part of him was touched by her forlorn attitude. It was a very pretty attitude for a slender figure, particularly about the waist. She sat as on a horse, only much more gracefully, and under her twisted shoulders and upraised arms the curves of her girlish shape were very dainty. Her jacket was under her, for the bench was wet, and the simplicity of a cotton blouse and close-clinging serge skirt exactly suited her. She had an instinct for dress, and therefore her clothes always suited her; they were quite simple, but never lacked distinction and style. People are born with this attribute in all classes of life.

Presently she lifted her head to dab her red eyes and set her hat straight, and then she saw her husband. He was behind the seat, but not behind her face, which looked thunderstruck for the moment. As there was not time to think how she should behave, she did not behave at all. She cried out, piteously, "Oh, David, why do you torment me?"

He came forward at once.

"I have no thought of doing such a thing," he said stiffly. "I did not know you were here, or I would have taken another path."

There was a little pause, and then she burst out vehemently, "One would think I had the plague!"

He raised his brows. "Isn't that what you wish?"

"Oh," she cried, "I don't know what I wish! I'm miserable!"

Then she turned round upon the seat, and sat up primly, giving hasty twitches to hat and veil. He hesitated for a moment, and boldly sat down beside her.

"That cloud," said he, "is getting thicker. There's another storm coming."

"I am afraid so," she answered, looking at the dove-blue belt, which had a more slaty hue and a greater width than when she last noticed it. "But it doesn't matter. There is more shelter here than there used to be."

"Yes. They've built that shed since our time."

The mention of "our time" was paralysing. She racked her brains for another topic, but could not find one. A terrible silence ensued.

David broke it—with a thunderbolt. "What makes you miserable?" he asked her. And, though he looked quite away from her when he spoke, she cowered and cast her eyes upon the ground. Of course she gave the inevitable answer—"Nothing!"

"People don't say they are miserable, and cry their hearts out, for nothing."

"How do you know I was crying?"

"I saw you. I heard you."

"Have you been watching me?"

She took on her indignant tone, and he disdained to reply. Upon which she veered round hastily.

"Everything makes me miserable! How can I be otherwise than miserable?"

"Why, I thought it was only being with me that made you miserable. I have been imagining you quite enjoying yourself—with that dear, amiable sister of yours."

"Say what you like to me, but don't sneer at her," she exclaimed in a quarrelsome tone, and again—since he did not "answer back"—repenting. She had no real heart for quarrelling now; nor, it appeared, had he. Lest he should get up and go—lest this brief but precious opportunity should be wasted like the last—she hastened to make herself more agreeable.

"Are you—are you quite well, David? You look well."

"Yes, thanks. I'm all right." He silently poked the damp ground with his umbrella, and, having rooted up a weed or two, stole a side glance at her. "I'm afraid I can't return the compliment," he remarked. "I don't think you are looking well at all. I noticed it directly I saw you."

"Just now?"

"No—at lunch."

"Did you really take the trouble to notice me at lunch?"

"I did." Another palpitating pause. "What's been the matter with you, Emmie?"

"Oh, nothing."

"Of course. I expected you would say that. Well, I suppose it is no business of mine—"

"I mean, nothing serious; I haven't been really ill. It's—it's more mind than body, I think."

"How's that?"

He poked five holes in the gravel while he waited vainly for an explanation.

"I daresay," she presently continued, "I shall be ever so much the better for this little change. The sea always does me good."

"Are you staying here?"

"No. We came by the boat this morning, and are going back now. It must be nearly time, by the way."

"More than half an hour yet," he said, looking at his watch. "Who are 'we'?"

"Tommy and I. He has gone down to the beach to look for shells."

"Only Tommy? Are the rest of them in town?"

"No—at home. We came by ourselves, just for the trip—just because I pined so for a breath of sea. We shall return to-morrow. Are you—?"

But she could say no more. Both jerked their heads sharply towards the sound of an approaching step hurrying up an unseen path beneath them. In a moment Tommy's freckled face appeared above the bushes.

"Oh, here you are!" exclaimed Emma weakly. She pretended to be much relieved, but she was ready to cry with chagrin.

"Well, my boy," said David, with assumed heartiness, "how are you?"

Tommy stopped dead with amazement, red and breathless; then came forward to shake hands with his brother-in-law, accepting his presence without comment—for even a rough school-boy has a wonderful knack of behaving like a gentleman at times in such awkward crises. His first idea was to make himself scarce immediately.

"It's coming on to rain," he stammered. "Hadn't I better run up and see if there's a tram about?"

He looked at David, and David looked at him, with shy affection. They had always been good friends.

"Perhaps you'd better," said David, as Emma's reluctance to move kept her silent. "Yes, it is coming on to pour badly. Put on your jacket, Emma."

She stood up, and he helped her on with her light coat, just as he used to do in the honeymoon days. Perhaps he would have done something more, and so would she, had not the storm cloud burst in a fierce shower and driven them to seek instant shelter. They scrambled up the hill to the long shed that was a strange place to them, and there stood side by side behind David's umbrella—for the rain drove from the sea; and Emma began to wonder, with a shaking heart, how the adventure was going to end. Tommy was at the tram platform, skipping up and down with glee.

"You needn't," said David, "hug that damp thing against your thin skirt, need you? Give it to me." He alluded to her ulster, which hung over her folded arms.

"It is all right, thank you."

"Give it to me."

She handed it over with a smile—her first smile—pleased to hear the imperious tone at which she used to be so absurdly offended. When he had carefully felt it all over, he bade her put it on. He also helped her to adjust it with the hand that was not holding the umbrella. As his big fingers fumbled with a button near her throat, she cast down her eyes, and blushed and trembled, as if she were being tentatively wooed again. The old girl bashfulness prompted her to frustrate their mutual ends by a stupid and commonplace remark:—

"What a day for a bay excursion!"

"Yes," he said slowly. "What made you choose such a day?"

"I did not choose it." And she went into explanations. "I might say," looking at him almost archly, "how came you to choose such a day?"

"I? Oh—business."

"Not pleasure?"

"No, indeed. I haven't been thinking much about pleasure these days. I'm like the rest, as I suppose you know—pretty nearly stone-broke."

"What? You don't mean that! No; I never, never knew!"

"Well, I've lost a good two-thirds of the income I had when you were with me, and Heaven knows whether I am going to save the rest. So you see," with sudden bitterness, "you timed it very well."

She moved closer, and looked squarely up at him, and there were tears in her eyes. "Oh, David, how can you speak so? Do you suppose I cared for money—for anything—"

"You certainly did not care for me," he broke in roughly. "That's all I know."

"But, if you come to that, did you care for me?"

"I never deserted you, at any rate."

"But, Davie—"

Alas! At this critical juncture they were interrupted again. Tommy came running to inform them that the tram was about to start. Stern duty compelled him.

"Oh!" Emma faintly ejaculated; and then a deadly silence fell.

When all three were in the car, exposed to a rush of rain that was like a volley of bullets, she whispered under David's umbrella, held broadside to the gale, "Are you going by the Hygeia too?"

He said "Yes." And then they spoke no more, except to Tommy, until they reached the boat. On the way thither they had to shelter for some minutes in the tram-shed on the bay side. When they walked down the pier and climbed on board, the air was clear and soft, and a pallid sky gleaming over a mauve and pea-green sea.

On deck David picked up a chair, and asked his wife where she preferred to sit. She chose a place astern, between two of the fixed seats, where there were fewest people. There, being comfortably settled, with her feet upon the rail, and her back to everybody, she felt that all she wanted in the world was to have him in another chair beside her, to talk to her all the way to Melbourne, which would be for two hours and a half. In that time, surely, she would be able to explain away some of the misapprehensions that he evidently laboured under. She burned to explain them—to justify herself. No, not to justify herself exactly; perhaps not even to excuse herself; but to disabuse his mind of the idea that she had left him because she did not care for him—to make him understand, above all things, that she was not the woman to seek comfort for herself while those she loved were in difficulty and poverty—to wholly reconsider the situation, in short, with a view to better arrangements.

But, instead of sitting down with her in that deliciously quiet corner, which she had chosen on purpose, he strayed away with Tommy. They disappeared together before she was aware of it, and did not come back. She kept her ears pricked and her eyes turned over her left shoulder for a long time; but the Hygeia is a boat on which one can easily lose and be lost to one's friends, and for nearly the whole distance between Sorrento and Queenscliff she never saw a sign of them. The fact was that David had a great many vital questions to submit to his small brother-in-law before he could proceed further; but this she did not think of. She imagined that Tommy had gone off to leave the coast clear for a lover's tête-à-tête, and that David had gone off to avoid that tête-à-tête. As time went on, and hope and patience failed, and it seemed evident to her that he was quite implacable, she ceased to make any pretences to herself. She admitted that she could never bear now to go back to the country as she had come away from it—that if he refused to let her retrace the mad step she had taken six months ago, her heart would break, and her life become wholly valueless to her.

A very miserable woman she was as she sat forlornly alone in her nook between the empty seats, watching the rough tumble of the water that could hardly shake the floor beneath her, and the floods of swirling foam that ran past her feet, tucked between the open rails. Listening to the sound she loved—the sweetest music in the world—and gazing on the scene for which her soul had hungered as an exile for its home, she said to herself that she wished she was dead—that she would like to jump up from her chair and throw herself overboard. "If I were dead, past troubling him any more, perhaps he would care for me a little," she thought, with tear-filled eyes and a bursting heart. "Oh, I wish I was drowned and dead at the bottom of the sea!"

Then something occurred whereby she nearly had that wish. The Hygeia was nearing Queenscliff—where Emma was convinced that David would get off and finish his journey by train, so as to be finally rid of her—and the Flinders, on its way to Launceston, was making for the Heads. The two fast boats, like long-lost brothers hastening to embrace each other, kept their respective courses at full speed until they met, and the bows of the Tasmanian boat were only a few yards from the side of the bay steamer, rather more than a few yards from the end. To err is human, even in the case of ships' officers, who, it must be admitted, err less, professionally, than any body of known men; and the navigator of the excursion boat had the apparently reasonable idea that he could get past in time. So he did; but an "imminent collision" was spoken of in the evening papers, and the Marine Board, not having enough to do with inquiring into things that did happen, gladly took note of those that might have done so, and decided, in sundry forms and ceremonies lasting over a fortnight, that the Hygeia had incurred penalties for violating—or nearly violating—the rules of the road. Certainly a collision did seem imminent for a moment—even inevitable. Romantic reporters described the Hygeia's people as rushing for life-belts and cork jackets in a panic of fright; but there was no time for that—no time even to turn the button which would have showered those articles upon all in need of them. They simply got up from their chairs and stood for a breathless instant with their hearts in their mouths. Then, the Flinders having already backed her engines, the Hygeia ported her helm, whisking round with the light speed of a waltzing lady; and, sideways to each other, they swept apart, and went their ways as if nothing had happened. In fact, nothing had happened. It was all over in a breath.

But in that breath things changed for Emma. She sat facing the Flinders as it came up, exactly in the path of the towering bows; and as she sprang from her chair an arm was flung round her, and she was whirled from that dangerous place.

"Don't be frightened, dear; stick to me," said David, And the boat slewed round, and they saw they were not going into the water. Emma, though she did not want to drown now, had a moment's keen disappointment. She thought how beautiful it would have been to be shipwrecked, and saved by her gallant husband; for, of course, he would have saved her. Next moment he was leading her back to her seat, laughing confusedly; she, hanging on his arm, bathed in delicious blushes from head to foot.

"Ha! I say, that was a narrow shave! I really thought she was into us," he said, as he handed her a chair.

"Yes; and wasn't it odd?"—her voice quivered and her eyes filled—"I was just wishing I was at the bottom of the sea."

"Don't talk nonsense," he rejoined, very roughly, but with no unkindness in his tone.

"It isn't nonsense. I don't care a bit for my life—as things are now." There was a wail in her voice. "David, you are not going away again, are you?"

"Only to get a chair."

He fetched a chair, and sat down beside her, very close. Flanked by the two empty seats, and with their backs to the deck, where all the passengers, Tommy included, were looking towards Queenscliff pier with their backs to them, they enjoyed some minutes of welcome privacy.

"And so you haven't found it so very jolly, after all?"

He smiled a little to himself, but did not let her see it.

"Oh, David, I have been so miserable—so utterly miserable—without you!"

"And you were utterly miserable with me. So what's to be done?"

"It was my fault, David. I know I don't deserve to be forgiven—"

Too overcome to proceed, she looked at him with swimming eyes, and put out her hand appealingly. He took it and held it, gently kneading it between his own.

"I think it was mostly mine," he said. "I know I've got a vile temper, and you did use to rile me, old girl, now didn't you?"

"I was a beast."

"No, no, you weren't. But—well, we didn't understand each other, did we? We were both too new to it, I suppose. I should have been gentler with a delicate little thing like you. I have been awfully sorry about it many a time."

"You never wrote to me, David!"

"You never wrote to me, Emmie."

"I didn't like to."

"And I couldn't, after your telling me—"

"Oh, don't speak of that! If you knew how I have regretted those hasty, wicked words, how I've wanted to come back—"

"There, there!" he whispered soothingly, for her emotion was so great that it threatened to attract notice. "Let's say no more about it. Come back, if you feel you want to; if you think you can put up with such an ogre as I am—a ruined man, into the bargain."

"Oh, I don't mind your being poor—all the better! I can work for you, as well as you for me. I can do without a servant—"

"No, no; I'm not so badly off as that. I'm not going to let you slave and fag, and wear yourself out. It's for me to take care of you, pet. And I mean to do it—a little better than I did last time. When I get you again, I'll see if I can't fatten you up a bit, and put the roses back into your cheeks. You are looking wretched."

"No wonder! No wonder!"

"Only you must promise not to throw me over again, Emmie, if we happen to quarrel. I daresay I shall be obstreperous sometimes—I'll try not—"

"Darling! Darling!"

She leaned against his bent shoulder, put an arm across his breast, which she could hardly span, and her lips to his prickly red moustache. He clasped her for a moment, and they snatched an eager kiss. Of course people saw them, even with their backs. turned, and were visibly scandalized. But Emma, while blushing for her indiscretion, refused to be ashamed of it.

"Are we not husband and wife?" she demanded bridling.

"Thank God we are!" he replied; "and what we've got to do now is to keep so. But, Emmie, let us behave ourselves in a public place. Put your hat straight, my dear. I am going now to get you a cup of tea."

He lent downstairs, leaving her, in her palpitating happiness, to tuck up her loose hair, arrange her veil, and otherwise compose herself. When he returned, Tommy was with him, grinning from ear to ear, and capering for joy.

"My word," he whispered audibly, "you little thought what you were coming to the seaside for, did you? And on such a bad day too! Wasn't it a bit of luck?"

Emma looked at him with solemn, impassioned eyes.

"I believe," she said, breathing deeply, "that I was led."

It came on to rain and blow again harder than ever—a gale fierce enough to snap hawsers wholesale, according to later reports; but the Hygeia, with weather awnings down, slipped calmly through it, and David and Emma, when they had moved forward a little, were perfectly dry and comfortable. Never in all their lives had they been so comfortable before. Then, at about five o'clock, the colour came into the sea again, and the loveliest rainbow into the sky.

David pointed to it.

"The world is not to be drowned any more, Emmie."

"Not by me," she answered, with a chastened smile.

Tommy had left them for a long time, and now came creeping back to give them the encouragement of his opinion that it was going to be a fine evening after all.

"I believe so," said David. "And I was just regretting that we hadn't stayed at Sorrento. We could have had a nice long ramble before dark."

"Oh, but we couldn't have stayed, you know. We promised to go home to-morrow. I've got my examinations next week."

"Well, my boy, you can go. I'll see you off safely, and get somebody to look after you on the journey. But Emma had better stay with me. One day of the sea isn't enough for her—she wants a longer change. Tell Lizzie I don't think, by the look of her, that she has been at all well taken care of up there—"

"David, hush!"

"And that I think she's safer in my charge. We go back to Sorrento, Emmie, and stop there over Sunday, since the sea does you so much good."

 
 
 

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