A Weekend Adventure by William Webster
For several years it has been my habit to spend my week-ends during the
summer and autumn months in a small yacht called the Thelma, of about
five tons, as a welcome change from the confined life of the City.
Many and many a happy, lazy time have I spent in her, sometimes by
myself, at others with a companion, at various delightful spots round
our eastern and southern coasts, occasionally taking short cruises along
the seaboard, but more often lounging about harbours and estuaries, or
even exploring inland waters.
On these occasions many little incidents and adventures have occurred,
which, though full of interest to any one fond of yachting, yet are
hardly worthy of print, and it was not until about a year and a half ago
that the following events took place, and seemed to me of sufficient
interest to record.
The Thelma was at the time at an anchorage in one of my favourite
spots, a somewhat lonely East-coast estuary, within easy reach of the
open sea, and, more important still in a way, fairly close to a
main-line railway-station, so that I could get to her from town without
wasting much of my precious time on the way. I had run down late on a
Friday night early in September, rejoicing, as only a hard-worked City
man can rejoice, in the thought of a good forty-eight hours of freedom
and fresh air. I was alone, as my exit from town was rather unexpected,
and I had no time to find a friend to keep me company; but that did not
worry me, as I felt fully able to enjoy myself in solitary peace.
I found everything prepared for my arrival, having wired to the
longshoreman and his wife, in whose charge I had left the yacht, and I
should much like to describe in full detail all my enjoyment, but must
pass over the little events of my first day—the Saturday—as they have
nothing to do with my "adventure," though to me the day was brimful of
It was one of those splendid bright days which are happily so frequent
on the East coast in September—so calm, indeed, that sailing was out of
the question, and I spent my time in the small boat or dinghy out in the
open sea a mile or more, fishing in an indolent way for whiting, etc.,
and basking in the sun.
I saw no one all day, and there was little shipping about. A private
wherry anchored opposite the village above the Thelma was the only
craft in the river, and a few trawlers and coasting steamers far out
were the only vessels to be seen at sea.
Nothing could have less suggested the likelihood of anything in the
shape of "adventure," and I caught my whiting and dabs in blissful peace
About four o'clock in the afternoon, however, I was roused from my
fishing by feeling the air suddenly begin to get chill, and on looking
out to sea saw that a breeze was springing up from the eastward, and
bringing with it a bank of thick white sea-fog, which had already
blotted out the horizon, and was coming in rapidly.
This meant rowing home as quickly as possible, as I did not want to be
caught in the "thick" before reaching my temporary home, as it might
mean an hour or two's search for such a small yacht in a half-mile wide
So, hastily laying aside my fishing-tackle and hauling up the little
anchor, I put my back into the task of "racing the fog," feeling
intensely thankful that the tide was on the flood, and, therefore, an
immense help to me.
Even as it was, I was in a glowing heat by the time I reached the
Thelma, and only just in time at that, as the first chilly wreaths of
mist were closing round me by the time I got on board. When all was
"snug," and I was ready to go below into my little cabin for tea, a last
glance round showed me that already the low hills on each side of the
river were blotted out, and I could hardly distinguish the wherry
anchored away up above me, or the houses of the village off which she
Oh, how cosy and bright the little cabin looked when I settled down for
a nondescript meal, half-tea, half-dinner, about an hour later!
The lamp, hung from the deck above, gave a mellow light, the kettle sang
on the stove, and the fresh-caught whiting were simply delicious (I
pride myself on my cooking on these occasions), whilst London, work, and
my fellow-beings seemed far away in some other sphere.
This feeling of isolation was considerably increased later on, when,
after a hearty meal and a dip into a story, I put my head out of the
hatch to take a customary "last look round" before turning in.
I suppose it was about 10 p.m.; there was no moon, and I never remember
a denser fog. At first, after the lighted cabin, I could distinguish
absolutely nothing, except where the beam of light from the cabin lamp
struggled past me through the open hatch into a white thickness which I
can only liken to vaporous cotton-wool.
Even when my eyes got a little accustomed to the change from light to
darkness, I could only just make out the mizzen-mast astern and the
lower part of the main-mast forward; beyond these was nothing but
Not a sound reached me, except the mournful muffled hooting of a
steamer's syren at intervals; no doubt some wretched collier, nosing her
way at half-speed through the fog, in momentary terror of collision.
I don't think I ever felt so cut off from humanity in my life as in that
tiny yacht, surrounded as I was by impenetrable density above and
around, and the deep rushing tide below in a lonely water-way.
No doubt this eerie feeling of loneliness had a great deal to do with my
sensations later on, which, on looking back in after-days, have often
struck me as being more acute and nervous than they had any right to be.
Be that as it may, I was not nervous when I closed the hatch and "turned
in," for I recollect congratulating myself that I was in a safe
anchorage, out of the way of traffic, and not on board the steamer which
I had heard so mournfully making known her whereabouts in the open sea.
I think my "nerves" had their first real unsettling about half an hour
afterwards, just as I was sinking off into a peaceful, profound slumber,
for it seemed to me that I had been roused by a sound like a scream of
pain or fear, coming muffled and distant through the fog; but from what
direction, whether up or down the river, or from the shore, I could not
I raised myself on my elbow and listened intently, but heard nothing
more, and reflecting that, even if what I had heard was more than fancy,
I was helpless, shut in on every hand by impenetrable fog, to render
aid; I could do no more than utter a fervent hope, amounting to a
prayer, that no poor soul had strayed into the water on such a night. It
is easy, too, when roused out of a doze, to imagine one has only
fancied a thing, and I had soon persuaded myself that what I had
heard was no more than the shriek of a syren or cry of a disturbed
sea-gull, and sank once more into a doze, which this time merged into
that solid sleep which comes to those who have had a long day in
Somewhere in that vague period we are apt to call "the middle of the
night," and which may mean any time between our falling asleep and
daybreak, I dreamt that I was in bed in my London lodgings, that a chum
of mine had come in to arouse me, and to do so had gently kicked the
bedpost, sending a jarring sensation up my spine.
At first I was merely angry, and only stirred in my sleep; but he did it
again, and I awoke, intending to administer a scathing rebuke to the
disturber of my peace.
But I awoke on board the Thelma, and realised, with a feeling akin to
alarm, that the sensation of "jarring" had been real, and the knocking
which caused it came from something or some one outside the boat.
At first I could hardly believe my senses, and raised myself on my
elbow, my whole being strained as it were into the one faculty for
Again, this time close to my head, against the starboard bulkhead, came
the sound, like two gentle "thuds" on the planking, causing a distinct
tremor to thrill through the yacht.
I cannot imagine any more "eerie" sensation than to go to sleep as I had
done, with a profound sense of isolation and loneliness, cut off from
humanity by a waste of fog and darkness and far-stretching water, and to
be awakened in the dead of night by the startling knowledge that outside
there, in that very loneliness, only divided from my little cabin by a
thin planking—was something—and that something not shouting as any
human being would shout at such a time—but knocking—as if wishing to
be let in to warmth and comfort, out of the chill and darkness.
Can I be blamed if my suddenly aroused and somewhat bemused senses
played tricks with me, and my startled imagination began to conjure up
the gruesome stories I had heard of weird visitants, and ghostly beings,
heard but seldom seen, on the East Anglian meres and broads? Then again
came the remembrance of the shriek or cry I had fancied I heard earlier
in the night, and with a shudder I thought: "How ghastly if it should be
the drowned body of him whose cry I had heard, knocking thus in grisly
fashion to be taken in before the tide carried it away to sea!"
So far had my excited imagination carried me, when again the yacht shook
with the thud of something striking her, and a great revulsion of relief
came over me as I recognised the dull sound of wood striking wood, this
time farther aft, and I laughed aloud at my cowardice.
No doubt a log of driftwood, bumping its way along the side of the
yacht, as logs will, as the ebbing tide carried it seawards.
However, by this time I had lighted the lamp; so, to satisfy my still
perturbed though much ashamed mind, I thrust my feet into sea-boots and
my body into a pea-jacket over my clothes, and went on deck, lamp in
hand, to see what my unwelcome visitor really was.
Through the mist, dimly illumined by the lamp, I made out the shadowy
outline of a boat, drifting slowly towards the stern of the yacht, and
occasionally bumping gently against her side.
Another moment or two and the derelict would have vanished into the
night. But the long boathook lay at my feet along the bulwark, and,
almost instinctively, I caught it up with one hand, whilst setting the
lamp down with the other, ran to the stern and made a wild grab in the
dark towards where I thought she would be.
The hook caught, and I hauled my prize alongside; stooping down, I felt
for the painter, which I naturally expected to find trailing in the
water, thinking the boat had broken loose from somewhere through
carelessness in making her fast.
To my surprise it was coiled up inside the bows. Puzzling over this, I
made the end fast to a cleat on the yacht, then took the lamp and turned
the light over the side, so that it shone fairly into the boat.
Then, for the second time that night, my pulses beat fast, and my scalp
tingled with something approaching fear, and I wished I had a friend on
board with me.
It seemed as if my foolish idea of a dead body asking for compassion
was coming true. For there was a huddled-up form lying on the bottom of
the boat, its head inclined half on and half off the stern thwart, its
whole attitude suggestive of the helplessness of death.
I stood as if paralysed for a few seconds, filled with a craven longing
to get back to the cosy cabin, shut the hatch, and wait till daylight
before approaching any nearer that still form, dreading what horrors an
examination might reveal. But more humane and reasonable thoughts soon
came; perhaps this poor drifting bit of humanity was not dead, but had
been sent my way in the dead of night to revive and shelter.
Feeling that I must act at once, or I might not act at all—or at least
till daybreak—I put a great restraint upon my feelings of repugnance,
caught up the lamp, stepped into the boat, and raised the drooping head
on to my arm.
As I did so, the hood-like covering which had concealed the face fell
back, and in a moment all my shrinking and horror vanished once for
all—swallowed up in pity, compassion, and amazement—for on my arm
rested the sweet face of a young and very pretty girl, marred only by
its pallor and a bad bruise on the right temple.
Even in the lamplight I could see she was a lady born and bred; her face
alone told me that, and the rich material of fur-lined cloak and hood
merely confirmed it.
Here was no horrible midnight visitor, then; but certainly what seemed
to me a great mystery—far more so than the dead body of labourer or
wherry-man floating down with the tide would have furnished.
A lady, insensible apparently from a blow on the forehead, floating
alone in an open boat at midnight, on a lonely tidal water, far from any
resort of the class to which she seemed to belong, and saved from long
hours of exposure—perhaps death—by the marvellous chance (if it could
be called so) of colliding with my yacht on the way to the open sea.
It was too great a puzzle to attempt to solve on the spur of the moment,
and I had first to apply myself to the evident duty of getting my fair
and mysterious visitor into my cabin, there to try to undo the effects
of whatever untoward accidents had befallen her.
It was no easy matter, single-handed and in darkness, except for the
hazy beam of light from the lamp on deck, to get her from the swinging,
lurching boat to the yacht. But, luckily for me, my burden was light and
slender, and I did it without mishap, I hardly know how, and then soon
had her in the little cabin, laid carefully upon my blankets and rugs,
with a pillow under her head.
I soon knew she was alive, for there was a distinct, though slight, rise
and fall of her bosom as she breathed, but my difficulty was to know
what remedies to apply. I have a little experience in resuscitating the
half-drowned, but in this case insensibility seemed to have been caused
by the blow on her forehead, if it was not from shock or fear.
So all I could do was to force a few drops of brandy between the white
teeth, and bathe the forehead patiently, and hope that nature would soon
reassert itself with these aids.
After what seemed a long while to me, but which I suppose was not more
than a quarter of an hour or twenty minutes, one of the little white
hands moved, a deep sigh came from the lips, and I thought she was
But it was merely a change from one state of insensibility to another;
for, though a colour came back into the cheeks and the breathing grew
stronger and more regular, the warmth of the cabin had its effect, and
she sank into a natural and peaceful sleep.
My greatest anxiety being now relieved, and my fair young visitor
restored to animation and resting peacefully enough, my mind naturally
turned to the consideration of the strange position I was so
unexpectedly placed in; but in my state of absolute ignorance as to the
identity of my charge, where she came from, what had happened, and of
the whole chain of circumstances which led up to her strange visit, I
came to the conclusion that I could only wait for her to awake and
enlighten me before taking any steps whatever. It might mean losing
valuable time to try to find out anything by going off in the fog and
darkness; whilst, meanwhile, the poor girl might awake and find herself
deserted, instead of finding me ready and waiting to take her
instructions for her safe restoration to her friends.
So there was nothing for me to do but wait, and having made up the fire
in the stove and put the kettle on in readiness for a cup of tea, I made
myself as comfortable as I could in a corner and longed for daylight.
As I watched the face of the sleeping girl, now rather flushed from the
warmth of the cabin and the unaccustomed drops of spirit I had given
her, I thought I had never before seen a fairer and sweeter countenance,
and even then began to bless the chance which had allowed me to become
Once she stirred, and a look of dread, almost terror, came into her
face, and I heard her utter in an agonised voice the single word
It may sound ridiculous, but, coming so soon after my feelings of tender
"protectiveness," I felt quite a pang of jealousy against the unknown
owner of the name, and wondered in what relation she stood to him and
why her thought of him should bring such evident pain. However, she did
not awake as yet, and I had to possess my soul in patience for this and
all the other enlightenment I longed for.
I must have slept at last, for the next thing I remember was seeing a
faint daylight struggling through the skylight and realising that the
fire was nearly out, in spite of my resolve to keep a watch over it. In
making it up I clumsily dropped a lump of coal, and the girl stirred,
opened her eyes, and sat up at once, evidently refreshed by her sleep
and in full possession of all her faculties, and, of course, utterly
bewildered at her surroundings and at finding a perfect stranger in
charge of her.
It made my heart ache to see, as memory came back and she recalled the
(to me unknown) events of the night, a cloud of dread and anxiety come
over her, and her eyes fill with tears at the recollection; and if I had
felt drawn to her before, I was doubly so now, when I saw her bravely
brace herself to talk of them, and even smile up at me as she said—
"Will you tell me where I am, and how I got here? It seems to me I have
a lot to thank you for!"
I told her as briefly as I could the happenings of the night as far as I
knew them, and then said—
"Now I am burning to hear your adventures, and longing to help you to
get back to your friends; but I beg of you not to tell me more than you
feel inclined, nor to put any strain on yourself at present, but just
tell me sufficient for me to know how to act for you."
She assured me she felt quite well, except for a headache (which
certainly was only to be expected with such a bruise on her poor white
forehead), and would like to tell me everything, as it would be a relief
to her mind to do so, and with the most charming little blush she
"I feel so sure you will know just what is best to be done, and I
should like to confide my fears to you."
So, whilst I busied myself in getting a sort of hasty breakfast ready,
partly because we both needed it, but more for the sake of making it
easier for her to speak of things which might be painful for her to
mention with my eyes upon her, she told me all, and it was quite amazing
how simply everything was explained.
Her name—which she mentioned no doubt because I had carefully told her
mine—was Lilian Burfield, and she and her brother Harold (I felt
foolishly relieved to hear it was her brother's name she had called on
in her sleep) lived with their father at a large house some three miles
from the village up the river. A day or two before these events, some
friends of theirs, a Mr. and Mrs. Small, had brought their wherry up the
river to visit them, whilst on a cruise. On the Friday they had spent
the afternoon on board, and she and her brother had been induced to stay
to dinner, and play a game or two afterwards; but her father had been
obliged to leave earlier on account of some engagement.
About 10.30 they left (although the Smalls pressed them to stop on board
all night when they saw how thick the fog had become), feeling confident
that they could not well miss the landing-stage, as it was not more than
a hundred yards from the yacht.
However, it seemed that they had done so, as the boat took the ground
on a mud-bank, and stuck fast.
Her brother was unable to push off, and asked her to help, so she stood
up and, with the other oar, moved to assist him. The shifting of her
weight must have loosened the boat, as at that very moment her brother
gave a shove and they shot off the mud with a lurch, sending her with
great violence into the bottom of the boat and stunning her.
As she fell (and here I heard a break in the low, sweet voice which was
telling me the tale) she remembered seeing her brother disappear
overboard, upset by the sudden movement of the boat beneath him, and
believed she gave a cry at the sight; but knew no more till she awakened
in the cabin of the Thelma.
The simple narrative ceased, and I wondered that when trying to puzzle
out where she could have come from, I had never thought to connect the
wherry I had seen in the morning with my visitor's sudden appearance.
How marvellous it seemed, though, that the boat with its helpless
freight should have been carried by the ebbing tide straight into my
care, and how deeply thankful I was that it had been so ordered, saving
the poor girl from a terrible, lonely drift out to sea, from many hours'
exposure, perhaps from being run down by a passing vessel, certainly
from grave danger in many ways!
Now I could see my way at last as to my next move, and hastened to
assure my anxious visitor that I had little fear for her brother's
safety, as I knew there were no mudbanks in that part of the river
except those along the edge of the shore, and therefore he would almost
certainly have been able to scramble out.
There were still one or two things I did not quite understand, however,
so, whilst we ate a fairly hearty meal off the remainder of my whiting,
I plied her with a question or two, and by-and-by we got very friendly
and cheerful, and I quite disliked the idea of going out into the misty
morning to make arrangements for giving up my fair and charming visitor.
As for Miss Burfield (as I now must call her), her spirits rose with my
hopeful words, and as the food had its effect on her physically.
But in my mind was a sinister fear, which I carefully kept from her.
I had heard no shouts, no sound of any search, either in the night nor
since daybreak, which seemed strange; and it had occurred to me that
if the young fellow had been drowned this would be explained, for
those on the wherry might know nothing, thinking their visitors had
reached the shore, while those ashore might think they had stopped
overnight on board on account of the fog, and so no search would be
made, no alarm taken.
I asked whose was the boat they were in and which I had secured,
wondering if it would be missed.
"It belonged to a man in the village," she said. "We borrowed it because
the man who works the wherry for the Smalls was away for the night, and
we thought we would save Mr. Small the trouble of rowing us ashore so
late at night in his own boat."
"Was the owner waiting up for you to bring the boat back?" I asked.
"No, we promised to tie it up safely, so that he need not worry about
it," she answered.
So, there again, they would not be missed till the man failed to find
his boat, which might not be for hours yet. It seemed to me that I might
have the terrible duty of breaking the bad news of the loss of the young
man, instead of, as I had thought, the good tidings of the finding of
the lost girl.
But that remained to be proved, and I could only hope for the best.
In any case my duty was now plain, and with a few cheering words to my
companion, telling her that I was going to the village to report her
safety, and to send a messenger to her home that they might come and
fetch her, and would be back as soon as possible with (I hoped) the good
news of her brother's safety, I set off, early as it was, and rowed
myself ashore in the dinghy. I was glad to see that the fog was thinning
even then, and by the time I had landed and run along the towing-path to
the village, the sun was just visible through the haze, giving every
hope of a lovely day.
With mingled feelings of dread and hope I approached the scattered
houses of the little hamlet, half fearing to see groups of men by the
river-side searching for some gruesome object, and, again, when all
seemed still and peaceful, fearing that the absence of movement might
mean the very thing I dreaded—namely, that the catastrophe had
happened, and no one any the wiser.
There lay the wherry, without sight or sound of any living person on
board; no one was moving in the little straggling street; not a dog
I went straight to the old inn, which stood about a hundred yards from
the landing-stage, opposite the wherry's anchorage, and knocked loudly
at the door. No one answered, so I tried the latch, the door opened to
my hand, and I walked into the brick-floored bar, and at first thought
it was empty.
Then I heard a slight movement and the sound of a yawn, and, looking
towards the large settle by the side of the hearth, saw my old
acquaintance, the innkeeper, evidently aroused by my knocking from a
sound sleep, rubbing his eyes and stiffly getting to his feet.
Much astonished he looked when he saw who his visitor was, as he did not
know I had come down to the yacht, and certainly was not accustomed to
such early rising on my part.
His first words gave me a cold feeling of apprehension, for on
recognising me he said—
"Oh, sir, I am glad you are here; perhaps you will be able to help us in
this dreadful business."
"What dreadful business?" I said, sharply enough, for I feared his
answer, and dared not ask a more direct question, for the thought of
the sweet girl I had left behind in the Thelma, and the news it
seemed I was to take back to her, was almost too much for me.
"Dear, dear, haven't you heard, sir?" went on the old man, thoroughly
awake now in his eagerness to impart the news. "There's that poor, dear
Miss Burfield, the sweetest young lady as ever I knew, gone floating
down the river last night in the fog all alone, and goodness knows what
has become of her, poor dear, by now—and her young brother, too, wet
through as he was, gone off with the gentleman from yonder wherry in a
boat to look for her, hours ago—and a poor chance of finding her, I
say, till the fog blows off, even if they don't lose themselves as well
as her. And the poor old squire, too, he be in a dreadful way, and
sendin' messengers to all the coastguards for miles, he is, to look out
for the lady——"
Here the old man paused for want of breath, and I—completely relieved
by his rambling statement from my fear about the girl's brother,
hastened to relieve him with my astonishing news that Miss Burfield was
safe and sound in my yacht, and had been so for some hours.
Eager as I was to get back to the Thelma with my good news, I could
not get away till I had told the good old fellow how it had happened
that I had rescued her, and he in return told me how young Burfield had
rushed, muddy and dripping, into the inn as they were all going to bed,
and demanded help in the search for his sister. No boat was to be had at
the moment, and so they had shouted till Mr. Small came ashore in his
own boat, and had at once rowed away with young Burfield down the river,
in the thick darkness, with the faint hope of finding the missing girl
before she drifted into the open sea.
"I told 'em it warn't much good," ended the old man, "and that they'd
best wait till daylight, but they would go. As for me, I reckon I've
done the best thing, for I druv' over at once to the coastguards down
yonder, and told 'em to keep a look out at the mouth o' the river. I
ain't been back long, and was just takin' a nap when you found me, as I
hadn't the 'art to go to bed."
Having arranged with him to send the good news to all concerned,
especially to the Hall, where old Mr. Burfield must doubtless be in a
terrible state of anxiety, I hurried back along the towing-path,
rejoicing in the thought that I should now be able to relieve my fair
visitor's mind of her anxiety.
I found her on deck, looking anxious, indeed, but so pretty and fresh in
spite of her trying night's experiences, that my impressions of the
night were greatly intensified, and I began to bless the unusual
circumstances that had brought us together and made us friends, as it
were, from the first moment of our acquaintance; and I registered a
mental vow that the bond thus created between us should never be broken,
if it lay in my power to prevent it.
And when I had told her the good news, and we had at last an opportunity
of friendly converse unclouded by forebodings and anxious thoughts, I
for one thoroughly enjoyed the companionship, and allowed myself to hope
that it was not altogether disagreeable to my charming visitor.
It did not seem long, therefore, to me before the arrival of Mr.
Burfield, who overwhelmed me with far more thanks and gratitude than I
deserved, and insisted on my spending the rest of that week-end at the
Hall—an invitation backed up in irresistible fashion by his daughter.
To complete the general satisfaction, whilst we were talking we heard
the sound of oars, and saw a boat approaching, containing two of the
most weary and dispirited-looking men I ever saw.
They proved to be Mr. Small and Mr. Harold Burfield, returning dead-beat
and miserable after a fruitless and wretched search for the missing
boat, to get food and to make arrangements for a further expedition. How
can I describe their intense relief and astonishment when—summoned by a
mighty shout—they pulled to shore, and saw the girl they imagined
drifting helplessly miles out at sea standing on shore, safe and sound,
and in infinitely better case than themselves, and heard that she had
never been farther than where she now was from the scene of the accident
the night before?
Later on I asked Harold Burfield why he had not shouted as he rowed down
the river after his sister in the darkness, when I might have heard and
He said that at first he thought it no use, as he knew his sister's
boat must have had a long start of them; and later, when they had rowed
some way, and considered they must have caught up with it, they had done
so at intervals all night long, on the chance of her hearing.
So I suppose that, either they were past the Thelma before they began
to call, or else in the fog had got so far over on the other side of the
channel that their voices had not reached me, as I was shut up in my
So all the little mysteries were cleared up, and everything had "come
right in the end," as such things should.
I have spent many a happy week-end since then at the Hall and on board
the Thelma, and to my dying day I shall bless the fog of that
September night, for Lilian has promised shortly to fix the day of our
wedding, and we have both decided that part of the honeymoon at least is
to be spent on board the Thelma; and I really believe that we shall
both be rather disappointed if we do not get a bit of foggy weather to
remind us how we first made each other's acquaintance, and made friends
over "whiting and tea" in the little cabin at six o'clock in the