“Oh, then, you brought me out on hygienic grounds alone?” derided Magda.
She was feeling unaccountably happy and light-hearted. Since the day when she had fainted during the sitting Michael seemed to have changed. He no longer gave utterance to those sudden, gibing speeches which had so often hurt her intolerably. That sense of his aloofness, as though a great wall rose between them, was gone. Somehow she felt that he had drawn nearer to her, and once or twice those grey, compelling eyes had glowed with a smothered fire that had set her heart racing unsteadily within her.
“Haven’t you enjoyed to-day, then?” he inquired, responding to her question with another.
“I’ve loved it,” she answered simply. “I think if I’d been a man I should have chosen to be a sailor.”
“Then it’s a good thing heaven saw to it that you were a woman. The world couldn’t have done without its Wielitzska.”
“Oh, I don’t know”—half-indifferently, half-wistfully. “It’s astonishing how little necessary anyone really is in this world. If I were drowned this afternoon the Imperial management would soon find someone to take my place.”
“But your friends wouldn’t,” he said quietly.
Magda laughed a little uncertainly.
“Well, I won’t suggest we put them to the test, so please take me home safely.”
As she spoke a big drop of rain splashed down on to her hand. Then another and another. Simultaneously she and Michael glanced upwards to the sky overhead, startlingly transformed from an arch of quivering blue into a monotonous expanse of grey, across which came sweeping drifts of black cloud, heavy with storm.
“By Jove! We’re in for it!” muttered Quarrington.
His voice held a sudden gravity. He knew the danger of those unexpected squalls which trap the unwary in the Solent, and inwardly he cursed himself for not having observed the swift alteration in the weather.
The Bella Donna, too, was by no means the safest of craft in which to meet rough weather. She was slipping along very fast now, and Michael’s keen glance swept the gray landscape to where, at the mouth of the channel, the treacherous Needles sentinelled the open sea.
“We must bring her round—quick!” he said sharply, springing up. “Can you take the tiller? Do you know how to steer?”
Magda caught the note of urgency in his voice.
“I can do what you tell me,” she said quietly.
“Do you know port from starboard?” he asked grimly.
“Yes. I know that.”
Even while they had been speaking the wind had increased, churning the sea into foam-flecked billows that swirled and broke only to gather anew.
It was ticklish work bringing the Bella Donna to the wind. Twice she refused to come, lurching sickeningly as she rolled broadside on to the race of wind-driven waves. The third time she heeled over till her canvas almost brushed the surface of the water and it seemed as though she must inevitably capsize. There was an instant’s agonised suspense. Then she righted herself, the mainsail bellied out as the boom swung over, and the tense moment passed.