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I had known for some time that Sir Gilbert Carstairs had a small yacht lying at one of the boathouses on the riverside; indeed, I had seen her before ever I saw him. She was a trim, graceful thing, with all the appearance of an excellent sea-boat, and though she looked like a craft that could stand a lot of heavy weather, she had the advantage of being so light in draught--something under three feet--that it was possible for her to enter the shallowest harbour. I had heard that Sir Gilbert was constantly sailing her up and down the coast, and sometimes going well out to sea in her. On these occasions he was usually accompanied by a fisherlad whom he had picked up somehow or other: this lad, Wattie Mason, was down by the yacht when I reached her, and he gave me a glowering look when he found that I was to put his nose out for this time at any rate. He hung around us until we got off, as a hungry dog hangs around a table on the chance of a bone being thrown to him; but he got no recognition from Sir Gilbert, who, though the lad had been useful enough to him before, took no more notice of him that day than of one of the pebbles on the beach. And if I had been more of a student of human nature, I should have gained some idea of my future employer's character from that small circumstance, and have seen that he had no feeling or consideration for anybody unless it happened to be serving and suiting his purpose.
But at that moment I was thinking of nothing but the pleasure of taking a cruise in the yacht, in the company of a man in whom I was naturally interested. I was passionately fond of the sea, and had already learned from the Berwick sea-going folk how to handle small craft, and the management of a three-oar vessel like this was an easy matter to me, as I soon let Sir Gilbert know. Once outside the river mouth, with a nice light breeze blowing off the land, we set squaresail, mainsail, and foresail and stood directly out to sea on as grand a day and under as fair conditions as a yachtsman could desire; and when we were gaily bowling along Sir Gilbert bade me unpack the basket which had been put aboard from the hotel--it was a long time, he said, since his breakfast, and we would eat and drink at the outset of things. If I had not been hungry myself, the sight of the provisions in that basket would have made me so--there was everything in there that a man could desire, from cold salmon and cold chicken to solid roast beef, and there was plenty of claret and whisky to wash it down with. And, considering how readily and healthily Sir Gilbert Carstairs ate and drank, and how he talked and laughed while we lunched side by side under that glorious sky, gliding away over a smooth, innocent-looking sea, I have often wondered since if what was to come before nightfall came of deliberate intention on his part, or from a sudden yielding to temptation when the chance of it arose--and for the life of me I cannot decide! But if the man had murder in his heart, while he sat there at my side, eating his good food and drinking his fine liquor, and sharing both with me and pressing me to help myself to his generous provision--if it was so, I say, then he was of an indescribable cruelty which it makes me cringe to think of, and I would prefer to believe that the impulse to bring about my death came from a sudden temptation springing from a sudden chance. And yet--God knows it is a difficult problem to settle!
For this was what it came to, and before sunset was reddening the western skies behind the Cheviots. We went a long, long way out--far beyond the thirty-fathom line, which is, as all sailors acquainted with those waters know, a good seven miles from shore; indeed, as I afterwards reckoned, we were more than twice that distance from Berwick pier-end when the affair happened--perhaps still further. We had been tacking about all the afternoon, first south, then north, not with any particular purpose, but aimlessly. We scarcely set eyes on another sail, and at a little after seven o'clock in the evening, when there was some talk of going about and catching the wind, which had changed a good deal since noon and was now coming more from the southeast, we were in the midst of a great waste of sea in which I could not make out a sign of any craft but ours--not even a trail of smoke on the horizon. The flat of the land had long since disappeared: the upper slopes of the Cheviots on one side of Tweed and of the Lammermoor Hills on the other, only just showed above the line of the sea. There was, I say, nothing visible on all that level of scarcely stirred water but our own sails, set to catch whatever breeze there was, when that happened which not only brought me to the very gates of death, but, in the mere doing of it, gave me the greatest horror of any that I have ever known.
I was standing up at the moment, one foot on the gunwale, the other on the planking behind me, carelessly balancing myself while I stared across the sea in search of some object which he--this man that I trusted so thoroughly and in whose company I had spent so many pleasant hours that afternoon, and who was standing behind me at the moment--professed to see in the distance, when he suddenly lurched against me, as if he had slipped and lost his footing. That was what I believed in that startling moment--but as I went head first overboard I was aware that his fall was confined to a sprawl into the scuppers. Overboard I went!--but he remained where he was. And my weight--I was weighing a good thirteen stone at that time, being a big and hefty youngster--carried me down and down into the green water, for I had been shot over the side with considerable impetus. And when I came up, a couple of boat's-lengths from the yacht, expecting to find that he was bringing her up so that I could scramble aboard, I saw with amazed and incredulous affright that he was doing nothing of the sort; instead, working at it as hard as he could go, he was letting out a couple of reefs which he had taken up in the mainsail an hour before--in another minute they were out, the yacht moved more swiftly, and, springing to the tiller, he deliberately steered her clear away from me.
I suppose I saw his purpose all at once. Perhaps it drove me wild, mad, frenzied. The yacht was going away from me fast--faster; good swimmer though I was, it was impossible for me to catch up to her--she was making her own length to every stroke I took, and as she drew away he stood there, one hand on the tiller, the other in his pocket (I have often wondered if it was fingering a revolver in there!), his eyes turned steadily on me. And I began first to beg and entreat him to save me, and then to shout out and curse him--and at that, and seeing that we were becoming further and further separated, he deliberately put the yacht still more before the freshening wind, and went swiftly away, and looked at me no more.
So he left me to drown.
We had been talking a lot about swimming during the afternoon, and I had told him that though I had been a swimmer ever since boyhood, I had never done more than a mile at a stretch, and then only in the river. He knew, therefore, that he was leaving me a good fourteen miles from land with not a sail in sight, not a chance of being picked up. Was it likely that I could make land?--was there ever a probability of anything coming along that would sight me? There was small likelihood, anyway; the likelihood was that long before the darkness had come on I should be exhausted, give up, and go down.
You may conceive with what anger, and with what fierce resentment, I watched this man and his yacht going fast away from me--and with what despair too. But even in that moment I was conscious of two facts--I now knew that yonder was the probable murderer of both Phillips and Crone, and that he was leaving me to die because I was the one person living who could throw some light on those matters, and, though I had kept silence up to then, might be tempted, or induced, or obliged to do so--he would silence me while he had so good a chance. And the other was, that although there seemed about as much likelihood of my ever seeing Berwick again as of being made King of England, I must do my utmost to save my strength and my life. I had a wealth of incentives--Maisie, my mother, Mr. Lindsey, youth, the desire to live; and now there was another added to them--the desire to circumvent that cold-hearted, cruel devil, who, I was now sure, had all along been up to some desperate game, and to have my revenge and see justice done on him. I was not going to give in without making a fight for it.
But it was a poor chance that I had--and I was well aware of it. There was small prospect of fishing boats or the like coming out that evening; small likelihood of any coasting steamer sighting a bit of a speck like me. All the same, I was going to keep my chin up as long as possible, and the first thing to do was to take care of my strength. I made shift to divest myself of a heavy pea-jacket that I was wearing and of the unnecessary clothing beneath it; I got rid, too, of my boots. And after resting a bit on my back and considering matters, I decided to make a try for land--I might perhaps meet some boat coming out. I lifted my head well up and took a glance at what I could see--and my heart sank at what I did see! The yacht was a speck in the distance by that time, and far beyond it the Cheviots and the Lammermoors were mere bits of grey outline against the gold and crimson of the sky. One thought instantly filled and depressed me--I was further from land than I had believed.
At this distance from it I have but confused and vague recollections of that night. Sometimes I dream of it--even now--and wake sweating with fear. In those dreams I am toiling and toiling through a smooth sea--it is always a smooth, oily, slippery sea--towards something to which I make no great headway. Sometimes I give up toiling through sheer and desperate aching of body and limbs, and let myself lie drifting into helplessness and a growing sleep. And then--in my dream--I start to find myself going down into strange cavernous depths of shining green, and I wake--in my dream--to begin fighting and toiling again against my compelling desire to give up.
I do not know how long I made a fight of it in reality; it must have been for hours--alternately swimming, alternately resting myself by floating. I had queer thoughts. It was then about the time that some men were attempting to swim the Channel. I remember laughing grimly, wishing them joy of their job--they were welcome to mine! I remember, too, that at last in the darkness I felt that I must give up, and said my prayers; and it was about that time, when I was beginning to feel a certain numbness of mind as well as weariness of body, that as I struck out in the mechanical and weakening fashion which I kept up from what little determination I had left, I came across my salvation--in the shape of a piece of wreckage that shoved itself against me in the blackness, as if it had been some faithful dog, pushing its nose into my hand to let me know it was there. It was no more than a square of grating, but it was heavy and substantial; and as I clung to and climbed on to it, I knew that it made all the difference to me between life and death.
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