RICHARD HOWELLS WATKINS
THE TWO stood on the foredeck of Juanita— Elwell the possible purchaser, and Upson, his adviser— looking aloft at the tall mast of the little yacht and talking in low voices.
Elwell, a tall young man with buckteeth and drooping shoulders, seemed definitely enthusiastic. But Upson’s short stocky body and aggressive close-clipped brown mustache bristled with questioning suspicion. He kept shoving his yachting cap around on his head and frowning with assorted forelxxlings.
It didn’t look too hopeful to Bill Fielding, Juanita's owner, who waited in the cockpit. They thought, did those two forward, that they were debating the purchase of a thirty-eight-foot cutter. But Bill knew that what they were really deciding was whether he. Bill Fielding, was to have a chance to ask his girl to marry him.
They started aft, with Upson, the aggressive, striding ahead.
Bill Fielding quaked inside his sneakers. His fingers dropped to a spoke of her wheel and his eyes followed his hand as Upson paused, tweaked his brown mustache and looked him over with cold eyes.
“Why did you say you wanted to sell her, Mr. Fielding?*’ Upson asked in a significant tone.
Bill Fielding cleared his throat. Even so his voice sounded very rusty in his own ears as he answered:
“I’m an Ottawa man—transplanted to St. Kitts, British West Indiesjob with a shipping agency. I’ve been up here since July—on leave—and I bought her to do a little cruising along this Scotian coast. I 'ín due back in a month,
and I must confess that I have got to sell before I leave.’’ Upson jerked a hand toward shore, the green rim of Annapolis Basin, and spoke with the sharpness of a prosecuting attorney.
“But I understood from some people I know' that you intended to sail her down and use her there among the islands. What made you change your mind, Mr. Fielding?” Bill Fielding perspired a drop or two and wished to heaven that he were a salesman.
“She’s a bit small,” he said unhappily. How could he tell this gimlet-eyed yachtsman that he’d sell ten Juamlos for the mere chance of asking Ruth Lord to marry him? He couldn’t ask a girl like that to marry him w hen his only asset was a cutter he really couldn’t afford to own. But with Juanita's price, a good year’s upkeep for two in his pocket and a job, he could say what had been on his lips for over a month.
“A bit small,” Upson repeated. He jibed over his cap and his younger companion followed suit. "You were going to sail her among the islands, weren’t you, Mr. Fielding? But you decided that she was a bit small.”
He emphasized those last two words as if between him and Bill there was some secret guilty knowledge that the words actually meant that Juanita was a nail-sick, dryrotted wreck fit for nothing but beaching. It wasn’t true, but Bill had to struggle to retain command of his belief in
Of crashing seas, a screaming gale, and a man who gambled both his future and his girl
the little boat. Elwell, Upson’s friend, showed positive alarm, as if he had already been cheated. And he was the one with the money.
TZ> ILL FIELDING said nothing. Upson paused nungrily -L' for him to speak, like a crab waiting to tear a chunk of red meat. Bill’s desperate desire to sell lent him the acuteness to realize that-his silence was smart.
“A bit small,” repeated Upson, but there was the slightest weakening in his voice. “Well, Mr. Fielding, under the circumstances we’d like you to show her to us under sail. In fact we want to sock it to her. There isn’t much weight left in this easterly. How about taking us across to Saint John in her this afternoon?”
They might merely be out for a free ride to the Brunswick coast, but Bill Fielding could afford to miss no chance.
“Certainly,” he said, with a doubtful glance at the low, hurrying clouds overhead.
Upson smiled patronizingly. “You needn’t worry about the weather, Mr. Fielding,” he said. “I’ll guarantee the weather. This half-gale is puffing out. Shall we say one o’clock?”
“Better have some food and water aboard,” Upson suggested. “I never like to shove off even a few miles into Fundy without supplies aboard. Uh—you say the motor isn’t much good?”
“I was going to put in a new four-cylinder job when I . . . No, I can’t give this motor much.”
Upson pondered that remark, frowning as if certain that there was a pitfall here. An owner who admitted his motor wasn’t much! He abandoned consideration of this suspicious circumstance and turned to engulf his friend Elwell in a flood of nautical conversation—a learned flow of marine architectural vocabulary that Bill Fielding could barely follow. Elwell nodded at intervals.
Bill Fielding rowed them ashore, shared their car from the pier and hurried uphill to the tea room. As he entered, Mrs. Blake, who was listening to a charming old gentleman, turned on him her fixed professional smile, the smile Bill dreaded because it meant so little. He glanced anxiously at Ruth’s face as she looked up from the menus she was dashing off, but there was nothing fixed about Ruth’s flashing grin. She hadn’t gone tea-room hostess on him. Or on anybody else, for that matter. Not yet. The girl had stirring life in her. Also a strangely pleasing tilted nose, a gallant nose. And she was as competent and sure as a watch with jewelled bearings. So different from tropicborn girls. He shuddered to think that he might not have spent his leave in Canada.
“Hungry?” she asked.
“Sort of,” he answered. “Ruth. I’ve got to take those two possible purchasers across to Saint John this afternoon. Could you get the kitchen to turn out a flock of sandwiches? I’ll be too busy to do any cooking for them.”
“Saint John? With customers? Nothing is too good for customers. Bill, why not ship a cook?”
Bill’s heart thumped like a motor about to lift off its bedplates.
Lest there be some mistake, she indicated herself with a quick finger on her diaphragm. “I’m due at Saint John to see about another tea-room proposition on the Fredericton road for Mrs. Blake and me.”
“Sold !” he said as fast as he could. “You’re shipped.”
There was always a chance she might change her mind. Girls did. He sewed her up with thanks and specific plans —food, times, clothes, everything he could think of, all jumbled up. Even though she was going only because of this tea-room proposition, he was grateful. She was all business when it came to tea rooms, and probably made more money than he did. He cursed tea rooms with Wrest Indian heat.
His high heart crashed as he reflected that no girl who was really interested in a young man would invite herself sailing with him. Or would she? Ruth was no blueprint of a typical girl. Anyhow, she’d be with him and that was everything.
TWO HOURS later he was still a little uneasy about the weather as he rowed Ruth out to the cutter. She looked small and not so efficient in the stern of the rowboat. He didn’t know much about Fundy weather, but he respected the Fundy tide. The drizzle had stopped and the sky was partly clear. But what blue he could see had a hard look to it.
“Good sailor?” he asked her. “This time it will be rough.”
“Anybody who can run a tea room can stand things,” she asserted calmly. She crinkled her nose at the unfriendly sky, dodged his helping hand and climbed nimbly over the rail. “I’ll have a look at this stove of yours, please.”
He led her below to the tiny galley, consisting of an alcohol stove, a shelf, a sink, two drawers and a locker.
“Don’t tell me it’s always like this,” she said, surveying the spotless setup with businesslike eyes.
“I didn’t want you to get too discouraged before we lifted anchor,” he said. »
She sniffed at him.
He tapped one of the carlings supporting the low deck. “This is the one I’m always cracking my skull on. But if it kicks up outside and she gets to jumping, you can knock out your brains on any of ’em.”
He had the sail covers off before a hail came from the pier. He rowed there, and on the way back Upson reassured him about the weather.
“I know you don’t get that kind of a sky down in the trade winds, but I’m watching it,” Upson said, setting his cap firmly over his eyes. “It may blow tomorrow out of the northward, but not today.”
His elbow jogged Elwell, who was staring in transfixed admiration at the cutter. Elwell started, veiled his eyes and yawned elaborately. Bill Fielding took heart. He might yet have a chance to ask these two to his wedding.
If Ruth accepted him he’d never miss Juanita. He could make his trips among the islands as he always had, on the frequent steamers. Ruth made him want to settle down to quiet domesticity, and a boat was no aid in settling down. But he hadn’t much to offer her—not as much as she could make for herself.
They got the cutter under way in a hurry. Bill took her out under motor, to show them there still was some punch left in the old mill. But this only threw Upson and Elwell into a perplexed huddle, because he had told them the motor wasn’t much good. They didn’t understand his candor, and they turned suspicious eyes on him as he sat at the wheel.
Outside, while still in the lee of the land, they made sail. The Bay looked a bit stiff. Juanita filled away with thrumming wind sounds softly supplanting the raucous coughing of the engine. Her powerful bow sliced through the chop in the shelter, and then, feeling the breeze and the sea, she heeled over and settled down to work.
Bill still stood the wheel. Upson was slit-eyed with scrutiny; Elwell wide-eyed—when he forgot—with admiration at the way the cutter slid through the seas. Bill
Fielding wondered just how much weight Upson’s opinion carried with Elwell.
From the narrow little companion ladder, Ruth watched everything with quick brown eyes.
“She’s tender,” Upson said, as the cutter heeled to a puff. He shook his head.
“She lies over to her sailing lines easily, and then she’s stiff enough,” Bill Fielding replied.
But Upson shook his head again. He dismissed that contention with a rapid critique which included more strange words than Bill Fielding had ever heard used about a boat. Metacentric height, centre of buoyancy, righting lever—Bill had sailed ’em most of his life, but he didn’t get all that jargon. Maybe Upson was right. He sounded right. Bill had never had Juanita out in a real blow. But he was betting on her.
“She can take it,” he told Ruth quietly.
The girl nodded. “She likes it,” she said at the end of a deep breath of salt air.
TL-TE WATCHED the boat as she swept out beyond the
-L lee and ran into the big seas charging down the Bay. The mighty tide was running with the wind. Some tops of combers came flying overin a douse of flying white water. But it was the power of her drive that sent the spray leaping like that; you couldn’t kick about it. Upson was frowning again. Ruth had ducked below. Now she came out on deck in a long slicker, and licked the salt water experimentally from her lips.
“Tastes good,” she said. “Just the right amount of seasoning.”
Bill didn’t answer. He was looking over the weather bow. Out here in the open, the wind was snarling through the stays of the tall mast. The seas were coming down on her from the east, but the present wind was more from the northeast. That was what held Bill’s attention. He got her on the course for Saint John that he had laid off on the chart, and found that, with allowance for tide, she could barely sail it. Undoubtedly the wind was backing; it was working-around ahead of them, threatening to make this trip a long zigzag beat to windward instead of an easy reach.
Bill looked at Upson. “We’re getting headed,” he said.
Upson glanced around and then down at the compass. He shook his head—for heaven knew what time.
“Just veering about a bit,” he pronounced authoritatively. “You needn’t be afraid of a northeaster.”
Ruth turned to him with disfavor. “Bill isn’t afraid of a northsoutheastwester,” she said, clipping her words slightly. “Glorious the way she charges along, isn't it?"
Upson didn’t say a word.
Bill grinned at the compass.
Upson hadn’t even shaken his head.
But in spite of his grin Bill was worried. There is a definite limit to the amount of wind and sea against which a small boat can make her way. And this blow had increasing weight in it. The puffing out of the gale that Upson had predicted hadn’t come off. It was blowing harder now than it had been this morning.
Bill looked at Ruth, red as an apple, with lively brown eyes following every sea that came towering at them, every gust cupped by their curving mainsail. Though there was Bluenose blood in her, she
didn’t know much about sailing—only what he had taught her in a few days of fair weather going. But she was learning now.
Juanita plunged on, rising to them, slashing down their steep sides, shaking herself free of water to lift again. There was life in her, the same sort of life there was in Ruth, vibrant, willing life. He warmed to the boat.
But how far out into this smother on the Bay was a man entitled to take a girl? Especially when his one reason for going out was to get the money that would permit him to ask her to marry him? That, it seemed to Bill, depended upon how she felt about him. And who was Bill to know that? All he had was hope, and not too much hope. She'd looked at him rather queerly several times lately.
Juanita took a blast of wind just then that sent her reeling dead into it, in spite of all Bill could do at the helm. The big mainsail thundered and slatted.
“Trim those head sheets!” he shouted at Upson. “Get ’em down tight!”
WITH HIS buckteeth pressed down over h;s lower lip, Elwell heaved on the jib sheet and got a couple of inches, but Upson couldn’t flatten the staysail a hair. He jammed on his cap and tried again, •« ’
“Double up on that!" Bill cómmanded, and together Upson and Elwell strained on the staysail sheet.
Juanita plunged on. Her taut windward shrouds and stays, supporting the mast, looked as straight and thin as ruled ink lines on a broad white sheet of paper.
“You wanted to sock it to her,” Bill Fielding said to Upson between his teeth. “Come and take the wheel.” Upson shook his head. “You know her better.”
Bill Fielding glanced at Ruth; then looked at Upson and pointed to the compass. “If this wind hauls another point we’re going back to the Basin,” he said. “She can take it, but no boat of this size could work to windward. I don’t want to wind up out on the Atlantic in a gale of wind.” Upson nodded. There was mean triumph in his grin. The lines of Elwell’s mouth curved glumly downward.
Ruth tugged at Bill’s sleeve. “What’s the idea?” she demanded. “You'll never sell her to them if you go back now.”
From the seas to windward Bill turned his uneasy eyes to her wind-whipped face.
“I'm skipper as well as salesman,” he growled at her. “I’ve lives in my hand. This is getting tougher fast.”
She examined him coolly, taking her time about it. Then she moved nearer to him, so that she could put her lips close to his ear.
“It isn’t that bad, Bill,” she said. “And you know it. You're a poor liar.”
Bill watched the luff of the mainsail in silence.
“What’s worrying you, Bill? Me?”
“All of us,” he said gruffly and saw disbelief in her face. “All of us,” he repeated. “But there's no sense in not admitting it—you particularly.” His words tumbled out in a quick flood. “I ought to be the last man in the world to take you into danger, Ruth. Because I’m in love with you—badly. I want to marry you. I want to take care of you. I’m going to take you back.”
She stuck her hand hard against the cockpit seat. “I knew it!” she exclaimed. "It’s me!”
The little cutter shuddered under the onset of a squall, shuddered, heeled steeply and plunged on as Bill eased her through it. The girl waited only until the worst of it was past before she spoke again:
“I won’t marry you, Bill. Life in a tea room is better than that.”
Bill did not look at her. He could not look at her then. His heart had become a cold stone. He had had his answer. His dream was over. He stared to windward, watching for a lull. She meant it.
“Right!” he shouted. “You won’t marry me. But I’m still going to take you back.”
There was no lull. Another gust, riding close on the tail of the last, bore down on the laboring Juanita. Her tall mast under its high spread of canvas reeled over sharply; water ixiured across her leeward rail. She was heeling far down beyond her sailing angle; she was dragging part of her deck, shrouds and house through it, and her movement was sluggish. Ruth slid from the high side of the cockpit, slid against his braced body almost into the wheel. She clawed back out of the way at once.
“Don't be a coward, Bill!” she appealed.
“That's going too far!” he protested and turned his white, streaming face to her. “I’m no hero, but I can face what comes with the next man.”
“You can’t!” she retorted. “You are a coward, Bill. You’ll risk things “yourself, but you won’t risk me even when I’m willing. You won't risk everything to win. And winning’s worth the risk. Yo ’re a coward—for me.”
“Watch that wheel, will you?” Upson cried at him. His voice was high. That last heeling had doused him thoroughly on the low side of the cockpit.
Bill nodded. Both his hands were on the wheel and he was luffing along, trying to keep her coaming out of solid water.
“W’inning what?” he demanded of the girl. “What’s worth the risk?”
“You know!” Ruth’s face could not be redder than the wind and flying water had made it, but it became a little darker. “Maybe I would take you rather than the next man, Bill. But you don't want me to feel that tepid way about it, do you?”
“No!” Bill’s voice was as savage as the wind. “No!” The girl’s fingers touched his arm briefly. “Don’t go back—forme!”
Bill stood up, gripping the spokes. His long body was the only vertical thing in that slanting world. “I can’t help what you think of me,” he said grimly. “We’re going back. It's the right move to make.” He caught Upson's eye. “Stand by to go about !” he called.
He shook the water out of his eyes and looked hard to starboard, off at the diminishing bulk of the Scotian coast. He studied the bearing of the entrance to the Basin while the men waited at sheets and quarterstays. Bill’s face became grim and taut.
“Hold it!” he commanded. “We’re staying on this tack.”
He looked down at the girl. “You needn’t worry about my taking you back now,” lie said, and flung a hand toward the streaky seas. “I can’t! The tide’s too stiff. This wind is beating us. It’s shifted. Fve no better chance left of getting you back into the Basin or St. Mary’s Bay now than I have of taking you to Saint John We’re for it.”
T TPSON had followed Bill Fielding's gaze; he and Elwell both stood up, crouching a little at the break of the house, to stare at the distant Digby Neck. The tide was dragging them hard to westward.
It became plainer every moment that in spite of her gallant fight Juanita had been flung back. With that gale storming out of the northeast there was no port, no shelter that the cutter could reach. In that tideway everything along that seaboard was to windward now, and Juanita could not go to windward against the assault of the combined elements of air and water. She must fight througli it on the broad Atlantic.
Bill Fielding turned to Upson and Elwell. They weren’t customers any more. They were his crew.
“We’ve got to heave her to and ride this out,” he said, looking at Upson, who had guaranteed the weather. He nodded toward the smaller sails set forward of the mast. “Get the jib and staysail off her before they're blown off. Then we’ll try to take in the main.”
Elwell’s buckteeth chewed at his lower lip as he faced forward readily enough. What caught Bill’s eye was Upson. The man moved slowly, as if he were chilled beyond stiffness, chilled almost to inanition.
With Elwell leading, they climbed to the windward side of the deck. Clinging to house and rail, young Elwell charged forward, with spray dousing his face and gushes of solid water dragging at his legs. Bill grunted doubtfully. Tnis youngster was the furious blind-bull type in a jam, as apt to mess things up or go overboard as do the job lie was set. On those queerly leaden limbs of his. Upson followed Elwell at a slow pace. Upson was worse than the other man.
Between them they lost the jib. Elwell tried wildly to control the flogging triangle of canvas as it was lowered. But Upson, clinging to the mast, was no help to him. The sail tore away from Elwell’s fingers and beat itself to tatters against the port shrouds.
Bill, helpless at the wheel, managed to make his voice carry forward before they tackled the staysail.
“Come aft!” he roared.
“Can’t I steer?” asked Ruth. She did not speak again when he shook his head.
Bill beckoned the two men back to the cockpit. Elwell came shamefacedly, but there was no shame in the face of Upson. His face was white and set, devoid of emotion, devoid even of fear.
Bill knew what it was. The man was freezing up. He was gripped by that queer ailment that comes upon some men when their strength is most needed. It is not panic; it is paralysis. Not heart alone is gone out of them; muscle is gone also.
Upson knew all the words. But in a jam. words were of no avail and he had nothing else. He sat down on the leeward side of the cockpit; just sat there. Frozen up; his mind turned inward on his misery. There was something in Upson’s state that
reminded Bill Fielding vaguely of something else—-something of great importance. But he was too busy to search his brain now.
T) ILL HAD a go immediately at trying to start the motor. But it was as useless in an emergency as Upson. He gripped young Elwell by the shoulder and shoved him toward the wheel. He’d be safer there than charging around on deck. Elwell grabbed the spokes and none too skilfully luffed her through the puffs.
Ruth’s eyes were eager for a command but he ignored her. He clambered forward alone, lowered the staysail and beat it into submission. Then he stood by the mast and looked warily at the thundering mainsail. The wind meant business. The big sail must come off before they were overpowered, knocked down. Ruth was still waiting silently, waiting for a chance to help. She looked more fragile than ever in the oversize slicker that enveloped her.
Bill swore and came aft. Her plight tormented him. He shouldn't have taken her.
It would be quite a trick to lower and furl that huge sail before the wind got it or the slatting boom took command. He sent Elwell forward to let go the halyard, prodded Upson onto his feet, and prepared to handle sheet, wheel, crutch and the after edge of the sail himself.
“Keep your head down!” he warned the girl. “If the boom hits j'ou it’ll crack your head or knock you overboard.”
“Can’t I do anything?” she asked forlornly.
He shook his head.
“You still want to protect your little flower,” she burst out. “Rats!”
He didn’t answer. This was no time to invent any easy job to keep her quiet. Smothering this mainsail was going to be a job. He hauled the boom on which it was set in amidships as tightly as he could. He put a foot on a spoke of the wheel and motioned to Elwell.
Elwell cast loose the halyard and flung himself at the downhaul. The big triangle of canvas, lashing in the wind, came down. Its flogging folds enveloped house, cockpit. wheel, men, everything. In spite of all Bill could do, the boat fell off and began rolling in the seas. At every roll the long boom whipped across the boat like the swing of a mighty bat. No man’s strength, nor even the shortened sheet rope, could stop it.
Bill, fronting it, was lifted off his feet. He clung to the shaking spar, fighting to beat the lashing canvas into some sort of compactness. Elwell was struggling too, but Upson was working as gingerly as if his hands were made of glass. The sail was almost taking command. Bill caught a glimpse of Ruth’s face upturned under the boom. Her hands were ready, but she was still waiting for word from him.
Things were on the edge of disaster.
Of a sudden he realized that he was like Upson. True, his muscles were hard and hot in the struggle. But in not making Ruth work he was freezing up one of his resources, as Upson permitted his muscles to freeze up, and Bill needed all his powers just then if he were to save her life.
He clawed again at the boom.
“Come on!” he gasped to her. “Help— get a line around !”
Why was Upson’s freezing up always in the back of his mind, nagging at him? He had time for that vagrant thought even as the boom once more wrenched free of his Krip.
She flung herself into the fight. Her slim body was as strong and supple as a thin stainless-steel wire. 'Yet there was no blind fury about it. The girl helped. She used her strength coolly, and cool strength goes twice as far as wild vigor. Bill fought harder with her at his side.
They mastered the crashing boom. Bit by bit they got the mainsail gathered up somehow. Working together, they lifted the boom into the crutch that held it immovable.
They had won. Wet with sweat and sea water, Bill stretched out a hand and dragged the girl down into the cockpit. “That’s all,” he said. “Good work.”
WEARILY he began securing the mainsail more surely. He worked in silence. Ruth sat still, her face turned up to watch him. It wasn’t admiring, her expression. He read strong disapproval, or perhaps it was dislike, in her expression.
Without a rag on her, Juanita more or less fronted the wind. With no press of canvas putting her rail down, she rode the sea like a gull, taking no solid water aboard. Bill’s eyes shifted from the cutter to the girl.
“She’ll take a full gale,” he said to Ruth. “She’s like you. And we’ve got the whole Atlantic for sea room.”
“We just wait for it to blow itself out?” Ruth asked.
He nodded and glanced at the two other men. “It may be a long demonstration sail before we hit port, but so far nobody can say a word against her.”
Driving seaward, they waited through a long night for that summer gale to lose its steam.
Bill Fielding, standing an unending watch in the cockpit, was haunted by a mental picture of the rigid Upson. Why was that? He had seen men freeze up before.
The first sign that the wind was easing up came -with the slow dawn. It came from Upson. The man began suddenly to calculate their drift. He didn’t seem in the least aware that he had been a fumbling^, useless nuisance during the jam. He spoke aloud and learnedly. Bill let him talk and went below to give Ruth a hand in the upset galley. Her hair curled seductively at the back of her neck. Not to kiss it cost him agony.
An hour later they had staysail and double-reefed mainsail on her. When the wind went southeast Bill put her on the course for Saint John. It had to be Saint John. Ruth told him that.
Elwell got enthusiastic again at the way she handled herself in the confused sea. Up on top of the house, he went into another huddle with Upson. Upson was talking freely now.
“Do you think they’ll buy her?” Ruth asked.
“I know well they’ll buy her,” Bill replied with grim confidence. “Ruth, do I rank higher with you than the next man along—or a tea room?”
Ruth considered the matter coolly. “It’s close,” she said at last. “I guess you just about top the tea room. Did I ever tell you I hate tea rooms?”
Bill felt hot blood running under his tanned face. He smothered an angry retort. And again, Upson, frozen to the boom, flashed into his head.
Ruth stood up on the bench to look toward the growing bulk of the land. “What kind of clothes would you advise a girl to wear on a steamer heading south at this time of year?”
T_JIS EAR detected bittemess rather than flippancy in her voice. He stared at her. His hands tightened on the wheel. A girl shouldn’t be bitter about accepting a man’s proposal.
Elwell came aft suddenly. “I’ll give you twenty-two hundred ...”
Bill didn’t hear any more. In his mind the frozen Upson had flashed for the hundredth time. Now that mute image made connection, blinding connection, in his head. He knew what it meant. This girl had always frozen him up, as danger froze Upson. With her he had always been wooden, paralyzed—not Bill Fielding at all. And in his rigid way he had tried to protect her like a mid-Victorian hero shielding a perfect lady.
He put a knee against a spoke of the wheel, freeing both his hands. He reached out, gripped Ruth’s ankles and jerked her legs out from under her. She sat down on the cockpit bench with a thud. Her brown eyes blinked.
“I’m not selling,” said Bill, looking harshly around at the bucktoothed young man. “I’m keeping her.”
Bill turned irately to the girl. “Listen, you little hellion,” he said with grim earnestness. “I’ve quit protecting you. You can take care of yourself like a carpet tack.”
Hastily the startled Elwell retreated from the cockpit.
“Can I, Bill?” The bitterness in her voice was gone.
“If you want to marry me,” Bill rasped, “you’ve got to help work Juanita down to the Leeward Islands—offshore, pulling your own weight, standing your own watch.”
“But you won’t be able to settle down with a boat, Bill,” Ruth said breathlessly. “We’ll be forced to cut loose—risk things.”
“Risk!” He laughed. "We may hit gales that’ll make this one look like Sunday on a duck pond. By the time I buy supplies, there’ll be no money left for a new motor. We’ll get there on the rags alone if we do get there. And then we’ll be broke. What about it?”
He couldn’t tell whether the bitterness was still gone from her voice, for she didn’t speak. Her eyes were agleam with tears, so he didn’t worry about it. He reached out an arm and swept her in behind the wheel, and put her hands, in his, on the spokes.
“Keep her on nor’nor’east, you!” he commanded. “I’ll teach you to sail now if I have to squeeze the fingers off you.”
“Oh, Bill !” she whispered, looking at him. “The tea room’s gone ’way down to leeward now.”
His nod was very curt, to keep the fire in him from bursting out of control.
“Sea room is what’s ahead of us now.” he said.