He knew in that moment that this woman had suffered, and his heart gave a wild, tumultuous throb. From that moment he also knew that she had taken his heart by storm.
Half-an-hour later they were out on the open sea beyond the harbour in a cockleshell even frailer than Quiller’s little craft which they had not been able to secure.
The sea was very quiet, only broken by an occasional long swell that drove them southward like driftwood. Merefleet, who had been persuaded to quit the harbour against his better judgment, was not greatly disturbed by this fact. He did not anticipate any difficulty in returning. A little extra labour was the worst he expected, for he knew that a southward course would bring him into no awkward currents. Away to the eastward he was aware of treacherous streams and shoals. But he had no intention of going in that direction, and Mab, who steered, knew the water well.
There was no sun, a circumstance which Mab deplored, but for which Merefleet was profoundly grateful.
“You’re not nearly so lazy as you used to be,” she said to him approvingly, as he rested his oars after a long pull.
“No,” said Merefleet. “I am beginning to see the error of my ways.”
“I’m real glad to hear you say so,” she said heartily. “And I want to tell you, Big Bear—that as I’m never going to New York again, I’ve decided to be an Englishwoman. And you’ve got to help me.”
Merefleet looked at her with undisguised appreciation, but he shook his head at her words. She was marvellous; she was inimitable; she was unique. She would never, never be English. His gesture said as much. But she was not discouraged.
“I guess I’ll try, anyhow,” she said with brisk determination. “You don’t like American women, Mr. Merefleet.”
“Depends,” said Merefleet.
And she laughed gaily.
They were drifting in long sweeps towards the south. Imperceptibly also the distance was widening between the boat and the shore. The wind was veering to the west.
“My! Look at that oar!” Mab suddenly exclaimed.
Merefleet started at the note of dismay in her tone. He had shipped his oars. They were the only ones that had been provided. He glanced hastily at the oar Mab indicated. It had been broken and roughly spliced together. The wood that had been used for the splicing was rotten, and the friction in the rowlocks had almost worn it through. Merefleet examined it in silence.
The girl’s voice, high, with a quiver in it that might have stood for either laughter or consternation, broke in on him.
“Well,” she said, “I guess we’re in the suds this time, Big Bear; and no mistake about it.”
Merefleet glanced at her helplessly. He did not think she realised the gravity of the situation, but something in the little smile that twitched her lips undeceived him.