David Bal four, a sixteen-year-old boy, is on board a brig bound for America. The brig meets with a violent storm off the coast of Scotland. During the shipwreck that follows David is cast overboard. He cannot swim and is being carried along by the waves and choked until, fortunately, he manages to get hold of a floating board. After a desperate struggle he is flung upon the shore.
He spends the first night walking to and fro upon the beach for fear he might be frozen. At dawn he finds to his horror that he has been cast on a rocky island, cut off from the mainland by a strait. All his attempts to get across the strait end in failure. Completely exhausted, David gives himself up for lost.
In all the books I have read of people cast away on a desert island, they had either their pockets full of tools or a chest of things would be thrown upon the beach as if on purpose. My case was very different. What with the cold and hunger, I felt more miserable than words can tell. I stood shivering in the rain, wet and bare foot, and wondered what to do till it occurred to me that shellfish, of which there were plenty on the island, might be good to eat. I ate them cold and raw; and they seemed to me delicious. They must have poisoned me, for I had no sooner eaten my first meal, than felt miserably sick and lay for a long time no better than dead.
In fact as long as I was on the island I never could distinguish what particular shellfish it was that hurt me: sometimes the shellfish restored my strength, and sometimes I felt sick for hours.
The second day I explored the entire island and chose a place on a hillside to be my home. I had a good reason for my choice: from there I could distinguish the top of a great ancient church and the roofs of houses on the mainland. Morning and evening I saw smoke go up. I used to watch this smoke when I was wet and cold and lonely. It kept hope alive and saved me from the sense of horror I had when I was alone with the dead rocks and the rain, and the sea.
It seemed impossible that I should die on the shores of my own country and within view of men’s houses.
But the second day passed; and though I kept a look out for boats or men, no help came. It had been raining for more than twenty-four hours. My clothes were beginning to rot; my throat was so sore that I could hardly swallow; the very sight of shellfish sickened me. I f elt completely exhausted.
It did not clear until the afternoon of the third day; this was the day of incidents. As soon as the sun came up, I lay down on the top of the rock to dry myself. My mood changed, I was hopeful and searched the sea with a fresh interest. All of a sudden a boat with a pair of fishers came flying round the corner of the isle. I shouted out and ran along the shore from rock to rock.
There was no doubt they had observed me, for they cried out something and laughed. But the boat never turned aside and flew on. It was unbelievable that they should have seen me and left me to die! I could not believe in such wickedness! Even after they were out of reach of my voice, I still cried and waved to them; I thought my heart would burst. But all was in vain. If a wish could kill men, those fishers would have died.
On the fourth day of this horrible life of mine I observed a boat heading for my island. Unable to hold myself back, with my heart beating wildly and my legs shaking under me, I ran to the seaside. It was the same boat with the same men as yesterday. But now there was a third man with them. As soon as they were within hearing, they let down their sail and lay quiet. They drew no nearer and, what increased my fear, the new man roared with laughter as he looked at me. Then he addressed me, speaking fast and waving his hand towards the mainland. Was he suggesting that I should try and make my way across the strait? I picked out the word «tide.» I had a flash of hope! «Do you mean when the tide is out…» I cried and could not finish.
«Yes, yes,» said he. «Tide.»
At that I set off running as I had never run in my life. Before long I came out on the shore of the strait; and sure enough, it had become a little stream of water, through which I dashed, splashing, not above my knees, and landed with a shout on the mainland.
A sea-bred boy would not have stayed a day on the isle which is only a tidal islet, and can be entered and left twice in every twenty-four hours.
Even I, if I had sat down to think, might have guessed the secret. But for the fishers, I might have left my bones there.
I have seen wicked men and fools; and I believe they both get paid in the end; but the fools first.