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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 thorough happiness.

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 of mind.

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 estuary.

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 lay.

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 impenetrable thickness.

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 tell.

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 sea-air.

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 listening.

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 "coming to."

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 her protector.

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 "Harold."

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 added—

"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 barked.

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 answered.

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 cabin.

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 morning.