The Riddle of the Sands, by Erskine Childers

10. His Chance

‘I SAY, Davies,’ I said, ‘how long do you think this trip will last? I’ve only got a month’s leave.’

We were standing at slanting desks in the Kiel post-office, Davies scratching diligently at his letter-card, and I staring feebly at mine.

‘By Jove!’ said Davies, with a start of dismay; ‘that’s only three weeks more; I never thought of that. You couldn’t manage to get an extension, could you?’

‘I can write to the chief,’ I admitted; ‘but where’s the answer to come to? We’re better without an address, I suppose.’

‘There’s Cuxhaven,’ reflected Davies; ‘but that’s too near, and there’s — but we don’t want to be tied down to landing anywhere. I tell you what: say “Post Office, Norderney”, just your name, not the yacht’s. We may get there and be able to call for letters.’ The casual character of our adventure never struck me more strongly than then.

‘Is that what you’re doing?’ I asked.

‘Oh, I shan’t be having important letters like you.’

‘But what are you saying?’

‘Oh, just that we’re having a splendid cruise, and are on our way home.’

The notion tickled me, and I said the same in my home letter, adding that we were looking for a friend of Davies’s who would be able to show us some sport. I wrote a line, too, to my chief (unaware of the gravity of the step I was taking) saying it was possible that I might have to apply for longer leave, as I had important business to transact in Germany, and asking him kindly to write to the same address. Then we shouldered our parcels and resumed our business.

Two full dinghy-loads of Stores we ferried to the Dulcibella, chief among which were two immense cans of petroleum, constituting our reserves of heat and light, and a sack of flour. There were spare ropes and blocks, too; German charts of excellent quality; cigars and many weird brands of sausage and tinned meats, besides a miscellany of oddments, some of which only served in the end to slake my companion’s craving for jettison. Clothes were my own chief care, for, freely as I had purged it at Flensburg, my wardrobe was still very unsuitable, and I had already irretrievably damaged two faultless pairs of white flannels. (‘We shall be able to throw them overboard,’ said Davies, hopefully.) So I bought a great pair of seaboots of the country, felt-lined and wooden-soled, and both of us got a number of rough woollen garments (as worn by the local fishermen), breeches, jerseys, helmets, gloves; all of a colour chosen to harmonize with paraffin stains and anchor mud.

The same evening we were taking our last look at the Baltic, sailing past warships and groups of idle yachts battened down for their winter’s sleep; while the noble shores of the fiord, with its villas embowered in copper foliage, grew dark and dim above us.

We rounded the last headland, steered for a galaxy of coloured lights, tumbled down our sails, and came to under the colossal gates of the Holtenau lock. That these would open to such an infinitesimal suppliant seemed inconceivable. But open they did, with ponderous majesty, and our tiny hull was lost in the womb of a lock designed to float the largest battleships. I thought of Boulter’s on a hot August Sunday, and wondered if I really was the same peevish dandy who had jostled and sweltered there with the noisy cockney throng a month ago. There was a blaze of electricity overhead, but utter silence till a solitary cloaked figure hailed us and called for the captain. Davies ran up a ladder, disappeared with the cloaked figure, and returned crumpling a paper into his pocket. It lies before me now, and sets forth, under the stamp of the Königliches Zollamt, that, in consideration of the sum of ten marks for dues and four for tonnage, an imperial tug would tow the vessel Dulcibella (master A. H. Davies) through the Kaiser Wilhelm Canal from Holtenau to Brunsbüttel. Magnificent condescension! I blush when I look at this yellow document and remember the stately courtesy of the great lock gates; for the sleepy officials of the Königliches Zollamt little knew what an insidious little viper they were admitting into the imperial bosom at the light toll of fourteen shillings.

‘Seems cheap,’ said Davies, joining me, ‘doesn’t it? They’ve a regular tariff on tonnage, same for yachts as for liners. We start at four tomorrow with a lot of other boats. I wonder if Bartels is here.’

The same silence reigned, but invisible forces were at work. The inner gates opened and we prised ourselves through into a capacious basin, where lay moored side by side a flotilla of sailing vessels of various sizes. Having made fast alongside a vacant space of quay, we had our dinner, and then strolled out with cigars to look for the Johannes. We found her wedged among a stack of galliots, and her skipper sitting primly below before a blazing stove, reading his Bible through spectacles. He produced a bottle of schnapps and some very small and hard pears, while Davies twitted him mercilessly about his false predictions.

‘The sky was not good,’ was all he said, beaming indulgently at his incorrigible young friend.

Before parting for the night it was arranged that next morning we should lash alongside the Johannes when the flotilla was marshalled for the tow through the canal.

‘Karl shall steer for us both,’ he said, ‘and we will stay warm in the cabin.’

The scheme was carried out, not without much confusion and loss of paint, in the small hours of a dark and drizzling morning. Boisterous little tugs sorted us into parties, and half lost under the massive bulwarks of the Johannes we were carried off into a black inane. If any doubt remained as to the significance of our change of cruising-grounds, dawn dispelled it. View there was none from the deck of the Dulcibella; it was only by standing on the mainboom that you could see over the embankments to the vast plain of Holstein, grey and monotonous under a pall of mist. The soft scenery of the Schleswig coast was a baseless dream of the past, and a cold penetrating rain added the last touch of dramatic completeness to the staging of the new act.

For two days we travelled slowly up the mighty waterway that is the strategic link between the two seas of Germany. Broad and straight, massively embanked, lit by electricity at night till it is lighter than many a great London street; traversed by great war vessels, rich merchantmen, and humble coasters alike, it is a symbol of the new and mighty force which, controlled by the genius of statesmen and engineers, is thrusting the empire irresistibly forward to the goal of maritime greatness.

‘Isn’t it splendid?’ said Davies. ‘He’s a fine fellow, that emperor.’

Karl was the shock-headed, stout-limbed boy of about sixteen, who constituted the whole crew of the Johannes, and was as dirty as his master was clean. I felt a certain envious reverence for this unprepossessing youth, seeing in him a much more efficient counterpart of myself; but how he and his little master ever managed to work their ungainly vessel was a miracle I never understood. Phlegmatically impervious to rain and cold, he steered the Johannes down the long grey reaches in the wake of the tug, while we and Bartels held snug gatherings down below, sometimes in his cabin, sometimes in ours. The heating arrangements of the latter began to be a subject of serious concern. We finally did the only logical thing, and brought the kitchen-range into the parlour, fixing the Rippingille stove on the forward end of the cabin table, where it could warm as well as cook for us. As an ornament it was monstrous, and the taint of oil which it introduced was a disgusting drawback; but, after all, the great thing — as Davies said — is to be comfortable, and after that to be clean.

Davies held long consultations with Bartels, who was thoroughly at home in the navigation of the sands we were bound for, his own boat being a type of the very craft which ply in them. I shall not forget the moment when it first dawned on him that his young friend’s curiosity was practical; for he had thought that our goal was his own beloved Hamburg, queen of cities, a place to see and die.

‘It is too late,’ he wailed. ‘You do not know the Nord See as I do.’

‘Oh, nonsense, Bartels, it’s quite safe.’

‘Safe! And have I not found you fast on Hohenhörn, in a storm, with your rudder broken? God was good to you then, my son.’

‘Yes, but it wasn’t my f —’ Davies checked himself. ‘We’re going home. There’s nothing in that.’ Bartels became sadly resigned.

‘It is good that you have a friend,’ was his last word on the subject; but all the same he always glanced at me with a rather doubtful eye. As to Davies and myself, our friendship developed quickly on certain limited lines, the chief obstacle, as I well know now, being his reluctance to talk about the personal side of our quest.

On the other hand, I spoke about my own life and interests, with an unsparing discernment, of which I should have been incapable a month ago, and in return I gained the key to his own character. It was devotion to the sea, wedded to a fire of pent-up patriotism struggling incessantly for an outlet in strenuous physical expression; a humanity, born of acute sensitiveness to his own limitations, only adding fuel to the flame. I learnt for the first time now that in early youth he had failed for the navy, the first of several failures in his career. ‘And I can’t settle down to anything else,’ he said. ‘I read no end about it, and yet I am a useless outsider. All I’ve been able to do is to potter about in small boats; but it’s all been wasted till this chance came. I’m afraid you’ll not understand how I feel about it; but at last, for once in a way, I see a chance of being useful.’

‘There ought to be chances for chaps like you,’ I said, ‘without the accident of a job such as this.’

‘Oh, as long as I get it, what matter? But I know what you mean. There must be hundreds of chaps like me — I know a good many myself — who know our coasts like a book — shoals, creeks, tides, rocks; there’s nothing in it, it’s only practice. They ought to make some use of us as a naval reserve. They tried to once, hut it fizzled out, and nobody really cares. And what’s the result? Using every man of what reserves we’ve got, there’s about enough to man the fleet on a war footing, and no more. They’ve tinkered with fishermen, and merchant sailors, and yachting hands, but everyone of them ought to be got hold of; and the colonies, too. Is there the ghost of a doubt that if war broke out there’d be wild appeals for volunteers, aimless cadging, hurry, confusion, waste? My own idea is that we ought to go much further, and train every able-bodied man for a couple of years as a sailor. Army? Oh, I suppose you’d have to give them the choice. Not that I know or care much about the Army, though to listen to people talk you’d think it really mattered as the Navy matters. We’re a maritime nation — we’ve grown by the sea and live by it; if we lose command of it we starve. We’re unique in that way, just as our huge empire, only linked by the sea, is unique. And yet, read Brassey, Dilke, and those “Naval Annuals”, and see what mountains of apathy and conceit have had to be tackled. It’s not the people’s fault. We’ve been safe so long, and grown so rich, that we’ve forgotten what we owe it to. But there’s no excuse for those blockheads of statesmen, as they call themselves, who are paid to see things as they are. They have to go to an American to learn their A B C, and it’s only when kicked and punched by civilian agitators, a mere handful of men who get sneered at for their pains, that they wake up, do some work, point proudly to it, and go to sleep again, till they get another kick. By Jove! we want a man like this Kaiser, who doesn’t wait to be kicked, but works like a nigger for his country, and sees ahead.’

‘We’re improving, aren’t we?’

‘Oh, of course, we are! But it’s a constant uphill fight; and we aren’t ready. They talk of a two-power standard —’ He plunged away into regions where space forbids me to follow him. This is only a sample of many similar conversations that we afterwards held, always culminating in the burning question of Germany. Far from including me and the Foreign Office among his targets for vague invective, he had a profound respect for my sagacity and experience as a member of that institution; a respect which embarrassed me not a little when I thought of my précis writing and cigarette-smoking, my dancing, and my dining. But I did know something of Germany, and could satisfy his tireless questioning with a certain authority. He used to listen rapt while I described her marvellous awakening in the last generation, under the strength and wisdom of her rulers; her intense patriotic ardour; her seething industrial activity, and, most potent of all, the forces that are moulding modern Europe, her dream of a colonial empire, entailing her transformation from a land-power to a sea-power. Impregnably based on vast territorial resources which we cannot molest, the dim instincts of her people, not merely directed but anticipated by the genius of her ruling house, our great trade rivals of the present, our great naval rival of the future, she grows, and strengthens, and waits, an ever more formidable factor in the future of our delicate network of empire, sensitive as gossamer to external shocks, and radiating from an island whose commerce is its life, and which depends even for its daily ration of bread on the free passage of the seas.

‘And we aren’t ready for her,’ Davies would say; ‘we don’t look her way. We have no naval base in the North Sea, and no North Sea Fleet. Our best battleships are too deep in draught for North Sea work. And, to crown all, we were asses enough to give her Heligoland, which commands her North Sea coast. And supposing she collars Holland; isn’t there some talk of that?’

That would lead me to describe the swollen ambitions of the Pan–Germanic party, and its ceaseless intrigues to promote the absorption of Austria, Switzerland, and — a direct and flagrant menace to ourselves — of Holland.

‘I don’t blame them,’ said Davies, who, for all his patriotism, had not a particle of racial spleen in his composition. ‘I don’t blame them; their Rhine ceases to be German just when it begins to be most valuable. The mouth is Dutch, and would give them magnificent ports just opposite British shores. We can’t talk about conquest and grabbing. We’ve collared a fine share of the world, and they’ve every right to be jealous. Let them hate us, and say so; it’ll teach us to buck up; and that’s what really matters.’

In these talks there occurred a singular contact of minds. It was very well for me to spin sonorous generalities, but I had never till now dreamed of being so vulgar as to translate them into practice. I had always detested the meddlesome alarmist, who veils ignorance under noisiness, and for ever wails his chant of lugubrious pessimism. To be thrown with Davies was to receive a shock of enlightenment; for here, at least, was a specimen of the breed who exacted respect. It is true he made use of the usual jargon, interlarding his stammering sentences (sometimes, when he was excited, with the oddest effect) with the conventional catchwords of the journalist and platform speaker. But these were but accidents; for he seemed to have caught his innermost conviction from the very soul of the sea itself. An armchair critic is one thing, but a sunburnt, brine-burnt zealot smarting under a personal discontent, athirst for a means, however tortuous, of contributing his effort to the great cause, the maritime supremacy of Britain, that was quite another thing. He drew inspiration from the very wind and spray. He communed with his tiller, I believe, and marshalled his figures with its help. To hear him talk was to feel a current of clarifying air blustering into a close club-room, where men bandy ineffectual platitudes, and mumble old shibboleths, and go away and do nothing.

In our talk about policy and strategy we were Bismarcks and Rodneys, wielding nations and navies; and, indeed, I have no doubt that our fancy took extravagant flights sometimes. In plain fact we were merely two young gentlemen in a seven-ton pleasure boat, with a taste for amateur hydrography and police duty combined. Not that Davies ever doubted. Once set on the road he gripped his purpose with child-like faith and tenacity. It was his ‘chance’.

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Last updated Thursday, March 13, 2014 at 21:30