‘I saw you yesterday,’ said Mr Markham. (It had blown more than half a gale, and late in the afternoon three heavy seas had come aboard. The third officer at this moment was employed with half a dozen seamen in repairing damages.) ’I was watching. As I judged, it was the nicest miss you weren’t overboard. Over and above employers’ liability you should insure. The Hands Across Mutual Exchange— that’s your office.’
Mr Markham leaned back, and put a hand up to his inner breast-pocket—it is uncertain whether for his cigar-case, or for some leaflet relating to the Hands Across.
‘Take care, sir!’ said the third officer sharply. ‘That stanchion—’
He called too late. The hand as it touched the breast-pocket, shot up and clawed at the air. With a voice that was less a cry than a startled grunt, Mr Markham pitched backwards off the fore-deck into the sea.
The third officer stared for just a fraction of a second; ran, seized a life-belt as the liner’s length went shooting past; and hurled it— with pretty good aim, too—almost before a man of his working party had time to raise the cry of ‘Man overboard!’ Before the alarm reached the bridge, he had kicked off his shoes; and the last sound in his ears as he dived was the ping of the bell ringing down to the engine-room—a thin note, infinitely distant, speaking out of an immense silence.
It was a beautifully clean dive; but in the flurry of the plunge the third officer forgot for an instant the right upward slant of the palms, and went a great way deeper than he had intended. By the time he rose to the surface the liner had slid by, and for a moment or two he saw nothing; for instinctively he came up facing aft, towards the spot where Mr Markham had fallen, and the long sea running after yesterday’s gale threw up a ridge that seemed to take minutes—though in fact it took but a few seconds—to sink and heave up the trough beyond. By-and-by a life-belt swam up into sight; then another—at least a dozen had been flung; and beyond these at length, on the climbing crest of the swell two hundred yards away, the head and shoulders of Mr Markham. By great good luck the first life-belt had fallen within a few feet of him, and Mr Markham had somehow managed to get within reach and clutch it—a highly creditable feat when it is considered that he was at best a poor swimmer, that the fall had knocked more than half the breath out of his body, that he had swallowed close on a pint of salt water, and that a heavy overcoat impeded his movements. But after this fair first effort Mr Markham, as his clothes weighed him down, began—as the phrase is—to make very bad weather of it. He made worse and worse weather of it as Dick Rendal covered the distance between them with a superlatively fine side-stroke, once or twice singing out to him to hold on, and keep a good heart. Mr Markham, whether he heard or