Part Two
Chapter XIX. At the End of the Storm
 

"This is very nice--but it won't exactly contribute towards finishing the picture!"

As she spoke Magda leaned back luxuriously against her cushions and glanced smilingly across at Michael where he sat with his hand on the tiller of the Bella Donna, the little sailing-yacht which Lady Arabella kept for the amusement of her guests rather than for her own enjoyment, since she herself could rarely be induced to go on board.

It had been what Magda called a "blue day"--the sky overhead a deep unbroken azure, the dimpling, dancing waters of the Solent flinging back a blue almost as vivid--and she and Quarrington had put out from Netherway harbour in the morning and crossed to Cowes.

Here they had lunched and Magda had purchased one or two of the necessities of life (from a feminine point of view) not procurable in the village emporia at Netherway. Afterwards, as there was still ample time before they need think of returning home, Michael had suggested an hour's run down towards the Needles.

The Bella Donna sped gaily before the wind, and neither of its occupants, engrossed in conversation, noticed that away to windward a bank of sullen cloud was creeping forward, slowly but surely eating up the blue of the sky.

"Of course it will contribute towards finishing the picture." Quarrington answered Magda's laughing comment composedly. "A blow like this will have done you all the good in the world, and I shan't have you collapsing on my hands again as you did a week ago."

"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.

"Frightened?" queried Quarrington when he had made fast the mainsheet.

Magda smiled straight into his eyes.

"No. We almost capsized then, didn't we?"

"It was a near shave," he answered bluntly.

They did not speak much after that. They had enough to do to catch the wind which seemed to bluster from all quarters at once, coming in violent, gusty spurts that shook the frail little vessel from stem to stern. Time after time the waves broke over her bows, flooding the deck and drenching them both with stinging spray.

Magda sat very still, maintaining her grip of the wet and slippery tiller with all the strength of her small, determined hands. Her limbs ached with cold. The piercing wind and rain seemed to penetrate through her thin summer clothing to her very skin. But unwaveringly she responded to Michael's orders as they reached her through the bellowing of the gale. Her eyes were like stars and her lips closed in a scarlet line of courage.

"Port your helm! Hard! . . . Hold on!"

Then the thudding swing of the boom as the Bella Donna slewed round on a fresh tack.

The hurly-burly of the storm was bewildering. In the last hour or so the entire aspect of things had altered, and Magda was conscious of a freakish sense of the unreality of it all. With the ridiculous inconsequence of thought that so often accompanies moments of acute anxiety she reflected that Noah probably experienced a somewhat similar astonishment when he woke up one morning to find that the Flood had actually begun.

It seemed as though the storm had reached out long arms and drawn the whole world of land and sea and sky into its turbulent embrace. Driving sheets of rain blurred the coastline on either hand, while the wind caught up the grey waters into tossing, crested billows and flung them down again in a smother of angry spume.

Overhead, it screamed through the rigging of the little craft like a tormented devil, tearing at the straining canvas with devouring fingers while the slender mast groaned beneath its force.

Suddenly a terrific gust of wind seemed to strike the boat like an actual blow. Magda saw Michael leap aside, and in the same instant came a splitting, shattering report as the mast snapped in half and a tangled mass of wood and cordage and canvas fell crash on to the deck where he had been standing.

Magda uttered a cry and sprang to her feet. For an instant her heart seemed to stop beating as she visioned him beneath the mass of tackle. Or had he been swept off his feet--overboard into the welter of grey, surging waters that clamoured round the boat?

The moment of uncertainty seemed endless, immeasurable. Then Michael appeared, stepping across the wreckage, and came towards her. The relief was almost unendurable. She stretched out shaking hands.

"Oh, Michael! . . . Michael!" she cried sobbingly.

And all at once she was in his arms. She felt them close about her, strong as steel and tender as love itself. In the rocking, helpless boat, with the storm beating up around them and death a sudden, imminent hazard, she had come at last into haven.

An hour later the storm had completely died away. It had begun to abate in violence almost immediately after the breaking of the Bella Donna's mast. It was as though, having wreaked its fury and executed all the damage possible short of absolute destruction, it was satisfied. With the same suddenness with which it had arisen it sank away, leaving a sulky, sunless sky brooding above a sullen sea still heaving restlessly with the aftermath of tempest.

The yacht had drifted gradually out of mid-channel shorewards, and after one or two unsuccessful efforts Quarrington at last succeeded in casting anchor. Then he turned to Magda, who had been assisting in the operation, with a smile.

"That's about all we can do," he said. "We're perfectly helpless till some tug or steamer comes along."

"Probably they'll run us down," she suggested. "We're in the fairway, aren't we?"

"Yes--which is about our best hope of getting picked up before night." Then, laying his hand on her arm: "Are you very cold and wet?"

Magda laughed--laughed out of sheer happiness. What did being cold matter, or wet either, if Michael loved her? And she was sure now that he did, though there had been but the one moment's brief embrace. Afterwards he had had his hands full endeavouring to keep the Bella Donna afloat.

"I think the wind has blown my things dry," she said. "How about you?"

"Oh, I'm all right--men's clothing being adapted for use, not ornament! But I must find something to wrap you up in. We may be here for hours and the frock you're wearing has about as much warming capacity as a spider's web."

He disappeared below into the tiny, single-berthed cabin, and presently returned armed with a couple of blankets, one of which he proceeded to wrap about Magda's shoulders, tucking the other over her knees where she sat in the stern of the boat.

"I don't want them both," she protested, resisting. "You take one."

There was something rather delightful in this unconventional comradeship of discomfort.

"You'll obey orders," replied Michael firmly. "Especially as you're going to be my wife so soon."

A warm flush dyed her face from brow to throat. He regarded her with quizzical eyes. Behind their tender mockery lurked something else-- something strong and passionate and imperious, momentarily held in leash. But she knew it was there--could feel the essential, imperative demand of it.

"Well? Does the prospect alarm you?"

Magda forced herself to meet his glance.

"So soon?" she repeated hesitantly.

"Yes. As soon as it can be accomplished," he said triumphantly.

He seated himself beside her and took her in his arms, blankets and all.

"Did you think I'd be willing to wait?" he said.

"I didn't think you wanted to marry me at all!" returned Magda, the words coming out with a little rush. "I thought you--you disapproved of me too much!"

His mouth twisted queerly.

"So I did. I'm scrapping the beliefs of half a lifetime because I love you. I've fought against it--tried not to love you--kept away from you! But it was stronger than I."

"Saint Michel, I'm so glad--glad it was stronger," she said tremulously, a little break in her voice.

He bent his head and kissed her lips, and with the kiss she gave him back she surrendered her very self into his keeping. She felt his arms strain about her, and the fierce pressure of their clasp taught her the exquisite joy of pain that is born of love.

She yielded resistlessly, every fibre of her being quivering responsive to the overwhelming passion of love which had at last stormed and broken down all barriers--both the man's will to resist and her own defences.

Somewhere at the back of her consciousness Diane's urgent warning: "Never give your heart to any man. Take everything, but do not give!" tinkled feebly like the notes of a worn-out instrument. But even had she paused to listen to it she would only have laughed at it. She knew better.

Love was the most wonderful thing in the world. If it meant anything at all, it meant giving. And she was ready to give Michael everything she had--to surrender body, soul, and spirit, the threefold gift that a man demands of his mate.

She drew herself out of his arms and slipped to her knees beside him.

"Saint Michel, do you believe in me now?"

"Believe in you? I don't know whether I believe in you or not. But I know I love you! . . . That's all that matters. I love you!"

"No, no!" She resisted his arms that sought to draw her back into his embrace. "I want more than that. I'm beginning to realise things. There must be trust in love. . . . Michael, I'm not really hard--and selfish, as they say. I've been foolish and thoughtless, perhaps. But I've never done any harm. Not real harm. I've never"--she laughed a little brokenly--"I've never turned men into swine, Michael. . . . I've hurt people, sometimes, by letting them love me. But, I didn't know, then! Now--now I know what love is, I shall be different. Quite different. Saint Michel, I know now--love is self-surrender."

The tremulous sweetness of her, the humble submissiveness of her appeal, could not but win their way. Michael's lingering disbelief wavered and broke. She had been foolish, spoilt and thoughtless, but she had never done any real harm. Men had loved her--but how could it be otherwise? And perhaps, after all, they were none the worse for having loved her.

Deliberately Michael flung the past behind him and with it his last doubt of her. He drew her back into his arms, against his heart, and their lips met in a kiss that held not only love but utter faith and confidence--a pledge for all time.

"Beloved!" he whispered. "My beloved!"