“The sea was full of boats a little while ago,” he said. “They have probably gone in for the lunch hour. But they will be out again presently. We shall have to drift about for a while and then run up a distress signal. It will be all right.”
She nodded to him and laughed.
“Splendid, Big Bear! You talk like an oracle. I guess we’ll run up my red parasol on the end of an oar for a danger sign. Bert could see that from the terrace.” She glanced shorewards as she spoke, and he saw her face change momentarily. “Why,” she said quickly, “I thought we were close in. What’s happened?”
Merefleet looked round with sullen perception of a difficult situation.
“The wind is blowing off shore,” he explained. “It was north when we started. But it has gone round to the west. It will be all right, you know. We can’t drift very far in an hour.”
But he did not speak with conviction. The sea tumbled all around them, a mighty grey waste. And the shore seemed very far away. A dismal outlook in truth. Moreover it was beginning to rain.
Mab sheltered herself under her sunshade and began to laugh. “It’s just skittles to what it might be,” she said consolingly.
But Merefleet did not respond. He knew that the wind was rising with every second, and already the little boat tipped and tossed with perilous buoyancy.
Mab still held the rudder-lines. She sat in the stern, a serene and smiling vision, while Merefleet toiled with one oar to counteract the growing strength of the off-shore wind. But she very soon put down her sunshade, and he saw that she must speedily be drenched to the skin. For the rain was heavy, drifting over the water in thick, grey gusts. They were being driven steadily eastwards out to sea.
“I don’t think my steering makes much difference, Big Bear,” she said, after a long silence.
“No,” said Merefleet. “It would take all the strength of two rowers to make headway against this wind.”
He shipped his oar with the words and began to take off his coat. Mab watched him with some wonder. He was seated on the thwart nearest to her. He stooped forward at length very cautiously and, taking the rudder-lines from her, made them fast.
“Now get into this!” he said. “Mind you don’t upset the boat!”
She stared at him for one speechless second. Then:
“No, I won’t, Big Bear,” she declared emphatically. “Put it on again at once! Do you suppose I’ll sit here in your coat while you shiver in nothing but flannels?”
“Do as I say!” said Merefleet, with a grim hardening of the jaw.
And quite meekly she obeyed. There was something about him that inspired her with awe at that moment. She felt as if she had run against some obstacle in the dark.
The rain began to beat down in great, shifting clouds. The sea grew higher at every moment. Flecks of white gleamed here and there on all sides. The boat was dancing like a cork.