The Riddle of the Sands, by Erskine Childers

11. The Pathfinders

IN the late afternoon of the second day our flotilla reached the Elbe at Brunsbüttel and ranged up in the inner basin, while a big liner, whimpering like a fretful baby, was tenderly nursed into the lock. During the delay Davies left me in charge, and bolted off with an oil-can and a milk-jug. An official in uniform was passing along the quay from vessel to vessel counter-signing papers. I went up to meet him with our receipt for dues, which he signed carelessly. Then he paused and muttered ’Dooltzhibella,‘ scratching his head, ‘that was the name. English?’ he asked.

‘Yes.’

‘Little lust-cutter, that is so; there was an inquiry for you.’

‘Whom from?’

‘A friend of yours from a big barge-yacht.’

‘Oh, I know; she went on to Hamburg, I suppose?’

‘No such luck, captain; she was outward bound.’

What did the man mean? He seemed to be vastly amused by something.

‘When was this — about three weeks ago?’ I asked, indifferently.

‘Three weeks? It was the day before yesterday. What a pity to miss him by so little!’ He chuckled and winked.

‘Did he leave any message?’ I asked.

‘It was a lady who inquired,’ whispered the fellow, sniggering. ‘Oh, really,’ I said, beginning to feel highly absurd, but keenly curious. ‘And she inquired about the Dulcibella?’

‘Herrgott! she was difficult to satisfy! Stood over me while I searched the books. “A very little one,” she kept saying, and “Are you sure all the names are here?” I saw her into her kleine Boot, and she rowed away in the rain. No, she left no message. It was dirty weather for a young fräulein to be out alone in. Ach! she was safe enough, though. To see her crossing the ebb in a chop of tide was a treat.’

‘And the yacht went on down the river? Where was she bound to?’

‘How do I know? Bremen, Wilhelmshaven, Emden — somewhere in the North Sea; too far for you.’

‘I don’t know about that,’ said I, bravely.

‘Ach! you will not follow in that? Are not you bound to Hamburg?’

‘We can change our plans. It seems a pity to have missed them.’

‘Think twice, captain, there are plenty of pretty girls in Hamburg. But you English will do anything. Well, viel Glück!’

He moved on, chuckling, to the next boat. Davies soon returned with his cans and an armful of dark, rye loaves, just in time, for, the liner being through, the flotilla was already beginning to jostle into the lock and Bartels was growing impatient.

‘They’ll last ten days,’ he said, as we followed the throng, still clinging like a barnacle to the side of the Johannes. We spent the few minutes while the lock was emptied in a farewell talk to Bartels. Karl had hitched their main halyards on to the windlass and was grinding at it in an acharnement of industry, his shock head jerking and his grubby face perspiring. Then the lock gates opened; and so, in a Babel of shouting, whining of blocks, and creaking of spars, our whole company was split out into the dingy bosom of the Elbe. The Johannes gathered way under wind and tide and headed for midstream. A last shake of the hand, and Bartels reluctantly slipped the head-rope and we drifted apart. ‘Gute Reise! Gute Reise!’ It was no time for regretful gazing, for the flood-tide was sweeping us up and out, and it was not until we had set the foresail, edged into a shallow bight, and let go our anchor, that we had leisure to think of him again; but by that time his and the other craft were shades in the murky east.

We swung close to a glacis of smooth blue mud which sloped up to a weed-grown dyke; behind lay the same flat country, colourless, humid; and opposite us, two miles away, scarcely visible in the deepening twilight, ran the outline of a similar shore. Between rolled the turgid Elbe. ‘The Styx flowing through Tartarus,’ I thought to myself, recalling some of our Baltic anchorages.

I told my news to Davies as soon as the anchor was down, instinctively leaving the sex of the inquirer to the last, as my informant had done.

‘The Medusa called yesterday?’ he interrupted. ‘And outward bound? That’s a rum thing. Why didn’t he inquire when he was going up?’

‘It was a lady,’ and I drily retailed the official’s story, very busy with a deck-broom the while. ‘We’re all square now, aren’t we?’ I ended. ‘I’ll go below and light the stove.’

Davies had been engaged in fixing up the riding-light. When I last saw him he was still so engaged, but motionless, the lantern under his left arm. and his right hand grasping the forestay and the half-knotted lanyard; his eyes staring fixedly down the river, a strange look in his face, half exultant, half perplexed. When he joined me and spoke he seemed to be concluding a difficult argument.

‘Anyway, it proves,’ he said, ‘that the Medusa has gone back to Norderney. That’s the main thing.’

‘Probably,’ I agreed, ‘but let’s sum up all we know. First, it’s certain that nobody we’ve met as yet has any suspicion of us’ ‘I told you he did it off his own bat,’ threw in Davies. ‘Or, secondly, of him. If he’s what you think it’s not known here.’

‘I can’t help that.’

‘Thirdly, he inquires for you on his way back from Hamburg, three weeks after the event. It doesn’t look as if he thought he had disposed of you — it doesn’t look as if he had meant to dispose of you. He sends his daughter, too — a curious proceeding under the circumstances. Perhaps it’s all a mistake.’

‘It’s not a mistake,’ said Davies, half to himself. ‘But did he send her? He’d have sent one of his men. He can’t be on board at all.’

This was a new light.

‘What do you mean?’ I asked.

‘He must have left the yacht when he got to Hamburg; some other devil’s work, I suppose. She’s being sailed back now, and passing here —’

‘Oh, I see! It’s a private supplementary inquiry.’

‘That’s a long name to call it.’

‘Would the girl sail back alone with the crew?’

‘She’s used to the sea — and perhaps she isn’t alone. There was that stepmother — But it doesn’t make a ha’porth of difference to our plans: we’ll start on the ebb tomorrow morning.’

We were busier than usual that night, reckoning stores, tidying lockers, and securing movables. ‘We must economize,’ said Davies, for all the world as though we were castaways on a raft. ‘It’s a wretched thing to have to land somewhere to buy oil,’ was a favourite observation of his.

Before getting to sleep I was made to recognize a new factor in the conditions of navigation, now that the tideless Baltic was left behind us. A strong current was sluicing past our sides, and at the eleventh hour I was turned out, clad in pyjamas and oilskins (a horrible combination), to assist in running out a kedge or spare anchor.

‘What’s kedging-off?’ I asked, when we were tucked up again. ‘Oh, it’s when you run aground; you have to — but you’ll soon learn all about it.’ I steeled my heart for the morrow.

So behold us, then, at eight o’clock on 5th October, standing down the river towards the field of our first labours. It is fifteen miles to the mouth; drab, dreary miles like the dullest reaches of the lower Thames; but scenery was of no concern to us, and a south-westerly breeze blowing out of a grey sky kept us constantly on the verge of reefing. The tide as it gathered strength swept us down with a force attested by the speed with which buoys came in sight, nodded above us and passed, each boiling in its eddy of dirty foam. I scarcely noticed at first — so calm was the water, and so regular were the buoys, like milestones along a road — that the northern line of coast was rapidly receding and that the ‘river’ was coming to be but a belt of deep water skirting a vast estuary, three — seven — ten miles broad, till it merged in open sea.

‘Why, we’re at sea!’ I suddenly exclaimed, ‘after an hour’s sailing!’

‘Just discovered that?’ said Davies, laughing.

‘You said it was fifteen miles,’ I complained.

‘So it is, till we reach this coast at Cuxhaven; but I suppose you may say we’re at sea; of course that’s all sand over there to starboard. Look! some of it’s showing already.’

He pointed into the north. Looking more attentively I noticed that outside the line of buoys patches of the surface heaved and worked; in one or two places streaks and circles of white were forming; in the midst of one such circle a sleek mauve hump had risen, like the back of a sleeping whale. I saw that an old spell was enthralling Davies as his eye travelled away to the blank horizon. He scanned it all with a critical eagerness, too, as one who looks for a new meaning in an old friend’s face. Something of his zest was communicated to me, and stilled the shuddering thrill that had seized me. The protecting land was still a comforting neighbour; but our severance with it came quickly. The tide whirled us down, and our straining canvas aiding it, we were soon off Cuxhaven, which crouched so low behind its mighty dyke, that of some of its houses only the chimneys were visible. Then, a mile or so on, the shore sharpened to a point like a claw, where the innocent dyke became a long, low fort, with some great guns peeping over; then of a sudden it ceased, retreating into the far south in a dim perspective of groins and dunes.

We spun out into the open and leant heavily over to the now unobstructed wind. The yacht rose and sank to a little swell, but my first impression was one of wonder at the calmness of the sea, for the wind blew fresh and free from horizon to horizon.

‘Why, it’s all sand there now, and we’re under the lee of it,’ said Davies, with an enthusiastic sweep of his hand over the sea on our left, or port, hand. ‘That’s our hunting ground.’

‘What are we going to do?’ I inquired.

‘Pick up Sticker’s Gat,’ was the reply. ‘It ought to be near Buoy K.’

A red buoy with a huge K on it soon came into view. Davies peered over to port.

‘Just pull up the centre-board, will you?’ he remarked abstractedly, adding, ‘and hand me up the glasses as you re down there.’

‘Never mind the glasses. I’ve got it now; come to the main-sheet,’ was the next remark.

He put down the helm and headed the yacht straight for the troubled and discoloured expanse which covered the submerged sands. A ‘sleeping whale’, with a light surf splashing on it, was right in our path.

‘Stand by the lead, will you?’ said Davies, politely. ‘I’ll manage the sheets, it’s a dead beat in. Ready about!’

The wind was in our teeth now, and for a crowded half-hour we wormed ourselves forward by ever-shortening tacks into the sinuous recesses of a channel which threaded the shallows westward. I knelt in a tangle of line, and, under the hazy impression that something very critical was going on, plied the lead furiously, bumping and splashing myself, and shouting out the depths, which lessened steadily, with a great sense of the importance of my function. Davies never seemed to listen, but tacked on imperturbably, juggling with the tiller, the sheets, and the chart, in a way that made one giddy to look at. For all our zeal we seemed to be making very slow progress.

‘It’s no use, tide’s too strong: we must chance it,’ he said at last.

‘Chance what?’ I wondered to myself. Our tacks suddenly began to grow longer, and the depths, which I registered, shallower. All went well for some time though, and we made better progress. Then came a longer reach than usual.

‘Two and a half — two — one and a half — one — only five feet,’ I gasped, reproachfully. The water was growing thick and frothy.

‘It doesn’t matter if we do,’ said Davies, thinking aloud. ‘There’s an eddy here, and it’s a pity to waste it — ready about! Back the jib!’

But it was too late. The yacht answered but faintly to the helm, stopped, and heeled heavily over, wallowing and grinding. Davies had the mainsail down in a twinkling; it half smothered me as I crouched on the lee-side among my tangled skeins of line, scared and helpless. I crawled out from the folds, and saw him standing by the mast in a reverie.

‘It’s not much use,’ he said, ‘on a falling tide, but we’ll try kedging-off. Pay that warp out while I run out the kedge.’

Like lightning he had cast off the dinghy’s painter, tumbled the kedge-anchor and himself into the dinghy, pulled out fifty yards into the deeper water, and heaved out the anchor.

‘Now haul,’ he shouted.

I hauled, beginning to see what kedging-off meant.

‘Steady on! Don’t sweat yourself,’ said Davies, jumping aboard again.

‘It’s coming,’ I spluttered, triumphantly.

‘The warp is, the yacht isn’t; you’re dragging the anchor home. Never mind, she’ll lie well here. Let’s have lunch.’

The yacht was motionless, and the water round her visibly lower. Petulant waves slapped against her sides, but, scattered as my senses were, I realized that there was no vestige of danger. Round us the whole face of the waters was changing from moment to moment, whitening in some places, yellowing in others, where breadths of sand began to be exposed. Close on our right the channel we had left began to look like a turbid little river; and I understood why our progress had been so slow when I saw its current racing back to meet the Elbe. Davies was already below, laying out a more than usually elaborate lunch, in high content of mind.

‘Lies quiet, doesn’t she?’ he remarked. ‘If you do want a sit-down lunch, there’s nothing like running aground for it. And, anyhow, we’re as handy for work here as anywhere else. You’ll see.’

Like most landsmen I had a wholesome prejudice against running aground’, so that my mentor’s turn for breezy paradox was at first rather exasperating. After lunch the large-scale chart of the estuaries was brought down, and we pored over it together, mapping out work for the next few days. There is no need to tire the general reader with its intricacies, nor is there space to reproduce it for the benefit of the instructed reader. For both classes the general map should be sufficient, taken with the large-scale fragment [See Chart A] which gives a fair example of the region in detail. It will be seen that the three broad fairways of the Jade, Weser, and Elbe split up the sands into two main groups. The westernmost of these is symmetrical in outline, an acute-angled triangle, very like a sharp steel-shod pike, if you imagine the peninsula from which it springs to be the wooden haft. The other is a huge congeries of banks, its base resting on the Hanover coast, two of its sides tolerably clean and even, and the third, that facing the north-west, ribboned and lacerated by the fury of the sea, which has eaten out deep cavities and struck hungry tentacles far into the interior. The whole resembles an inverted E, or, better still, a rude fork, on whose three deadly prongs, the Scharhorn Reef, the Knecht Sand, and the Tegeler Flat, as on the no less deadly point of the pike, many a good ship splinters herself in northerly gales. Following this simile, the Hohenhörn bank, where Davies was wrecked, is one of those that lie between the upper and middle prongs.

Our business was to explore the Pike and the Fork and the channels which ramify through them. I use the general word ‘channel’, but in fact they differ widely in character, and are called in German by various names: Balje, Gat, Loch, Diep. Rinne. For my purpose I need only divide them into two sorts — those which have water in them at all states of the tide, and those which have not, which dry off, that is, either wholly or partly at low-tide.

Davies explained that the latter would take most learning, and were to be our chief concern, because they were the ‘through-routes’— the connecting links between the estuaries. You can always detect them on the chart by rows of little Y-shaped strokes denoting ‘booms’, that is to say, poles or saplings fixed in the sand to mark the passage. The strokes, of course, are only conventional signs, and do not correspond in the least to individual ‘booms’, which are far too numerous and complex to be indicated accurately on a chart, even of the largest scale. The same applies to the course of the channels themselves, whose minor meanderings cannot be reproduced.

It was on the edge of one of these tidal swatchways that the yacht was now lying. It is called Sticker’s Gat, and you cannot miss it [See Chart A] if you carry your eye westward along our course from Cuxhaven. It was, so Davies told me, the last and most intricate stage of the ‘short cut’ which the Medusa had taken on that memorable day — a stage he himself had never reached. Discussion ended, we went on deck, Davies arming himself with a notebook, binoculars, and the prismatic compass, whose use — to map the angles of the channels — was at last apparent. This is what I saw when we emerged.

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