The Riddle of the Sands, by Erskine Childers

14. The First Night in the Islands

A LOW line of sandhills, pink and fawn in the setting sun, at one end of them a little white village huddled round the base of a massive four-square lighthouse — such was Wangeroog, the easternmost of the Frisian Islands, as I saw it on the evening of 15th October. We had decided to make it our first landing-place; and since it possesses no harbour, and is hedged by a mile of sand at low water, we had run in on the rising tide till the yacht grounded, in order to save ourselves as much labour as possible in the carriage to and fro of the heavy water-breakers and oil-cans which we had to replenish. In faint outline three miles to the south of us was the flat plain of Friesland, broken only by some trees, a windmill or two, and a church spire. Between, the shallow expanse of sea was already beginning to shrink away into lagoons, chief among which was the narrow passage by which we had approached from the east. This continued its course west, directly parallel to the island, and in it, at a distance of half a mile from us, three galliots lay at anchor.

Before supper was over the yacht was high and dry, and when we had eaten, Davies loaded himself with cans and breakers. I was for taking my share, but he induced me to stay aboard; for I was dead tired after an unusually long and trying day, which had begun at 2 a.m., when, using a precious instalment of east wind, we had started on a complete passage of the sands from the Elbe to the Jade. It was a barely possible feat for a boat of our low speed to perform in only two tides; and though we just succeeded, it was only by dint of tireless vigilance and severe physical strain.

‘Lay out the anchor when you’ve had a smoke,’ said Davies, and keep an eye on the riding-light; it’s my only guide back.’

He lowered himself, and I heard the scrunch of his sea-boots as he disappeared in the darkness. It was a fine starry night, with a touch of frost in the air. I lit a cigar, and stretched myself on a sofa close to the glow of the stove. The cigar soon languished and dropped, and I dozed uneasily, for the riding-light was on my mind. I got up once and squinted at it through the half-raised skylight, saw it burning steadily, and lay down again. The cabin lamp wanted oil and was dying down to a red-hot wick, but I was too drowsy to attend to it, and it went out. I lit my cigar stump again, and tried to keep awake by thinking. It was the first time I and Davies had been separated for so long; yet so used had we grown to freedom from interference that this would not have disturbed me in the least were it not for a sudden presentiment that on this first night of the second stage of our labours something would happen. All at once I heard a sound outside, a splashing footstep as of a man stepping in a puddle. I was wide awake in an instant, but never thought of shouting ‘Is that you, Davies?’ for I knew in a flash that it was not he. It was the slip of a stealthy man. Presently I heard another footstep — the pad of a boot on the sand — this time close to my ear, just outside the hull; then some more, fainter and farther aft. I gently rose and peered aft through the skylight. A glimmer of light, reflected from below, was wavering over the mizzen-mast and bumpkin; it had nothing to do with the riding-light, which hung on the forestay. My prowler, I understood, had struck a match and was reading the name on the stern. How much farther would his curiosity carry him? The match went out, and footsteps were audible again. Then a strong, guttural voice called in German, ‘Yacht ahoy!’ I kept silence. ‘Yacht ahoy!’ a little louder this time. A pause, and then a vibration of the hull as boots scraped on it and hands grasped the gunwale. My visitor was on deck. I bobbed down, sat on the sofa, and I heard him moving along the deck, quickly and confidently, first forward to the bows, where he stopped, then back to the companion amidships. Inside the cabin it was pitch dark, but I heard his boots on the ladder, feeling for the steps. In another moment he would be in the doorway lighting his second match. Surely it was darker than before? There had been a little glow from the riding-lamp reflected on to the skylight, but it had disappeared. I looked up, realized, and made a fool of myself. In a few seconds more I should have seen my visitor face to face, perhaps had an interview: but I was new to this sort of work and lost my head. All I thought of was Davies’s last words, and saw him astray on the sands, with no light to guide him back, the tide rising, and a heavy load. I started up involuntarily, bumped against the table, and set the stove jingling. A long step and a grab at the ladder, but just too late! I grasped something damp and greasy, there was tugging and hard breathing, and I was left clasping a big sea-boot, whose owner I heard jump on to the sand and run. I scrambled out, vaulted overboard, and followed blindly by the sound. He had doubled round the bows of the yacht, and I did the same, ducked under the bowsprit, forgetting the bobstay, and fell violently on my head, with all the wind knocked out of me by a wire rope and block whose strength and bulk was one of the glories of the Dulcibella. I struggled on as soon as I got some breath, but my invisible quarry was far ahead. I pulled off my heavy boots, carried them, and ran in my stockings, promptly cutting my foot on some cockle-shells. Pursuit was hopeless, and a final stumble over a bit of driftwood sent me sprawling with agony in my toes.

Limping back, I decided that I had made a very poor beginning as an active adventurer. I had gained nothing, and lost a great deal of breath and skin, and did not even know for certain where I was. The yacht’s light was extinguished, and, even with Wangeroog Lighthouse to guide me, I found it no easy matter to find her. She had no anchor out, if the tide rose. And how was Davies to find her? After much feeble circling I took to lying flat at intervals in the hopes of seeing her silhouetted against the starry sky. This plan succeeded at last, and with relief and humility I boarded her, relit the riding-light, and carried off the kedge anchor. The strange boot lay at the foot of the ladder, but it told no tales when I examined it. It was eleven o’clock, past low water. Davies was cutting it fine if he was to get aboard without the dinghy’s help. But eventually he reappeared in the most prosaic way, exhausted with his heavy load, but full of talk about his visit ashore. He began while we were still on deck.

‘Look here, we ought to have settled more about what we’re to say when we’re asked questions. I chose a quiet-looking shop, but it turned out to be a sort of inn, where they were drinking pink gin — all very friendly, as usual, and I found myself under a fire of questions. I said we were on our way back to England. There was the usual rot about the smallness of the boat, etc. It struck me that we should want some other pretence for going so slow and stopping to explore, so I had to bring in the ducks, though goodness knows we don’t want to waste time over them. The subject wasn’t quite a success. They said it was too early — jealous, I suppose; but then two fellows spoke up, and asked to be taken on to help. Said they would bring their punt; without local help we should do no good. All true enough, no doubt, but what a nuisance they’d be. I got out of it —’

‘It’s just as well you did,’ I interposed. ‘We shall never be able to leave the boat by herself. I believe we’re watched,’ and I related my experience.

‘H’m! It’s a pity you didn’t see who it was. Confound that bob-stay!’ (his tactful way of reflecting on my clumsiness); ‘which way did he run?’ I pointed vaguely into the west. ‘Not towards the island? I wonder if it’s someone off one of those galliots. There are three anchored in the channel over there; you can see their lights. You didn’t hear a boat pulling off?’

I explained that I had been a miserable failure as a detective.

‘You’ve done jolly well, I think,’ said Davies. ‘If you had shouted when you first heard him we should know less still. And we’ve got a boot, which may come in useful. Anchor out all right? Let’s get below.’

We smoked and talked till the new flood, lapping softly round the Dulcibella, raised her without a jar.

Of course, I argued, there might be nothing in it. The visitor might have been a commonplace thief; an apparently deserted yacht was a tempting bait. Davies scouted this possibility from the first.

‘They’re not like that in Germany,’ he said. ‘In Holland, if you like, they’ll do anything. And I don’t like that turning out of the lantern to gain time, if we were away.’

Nor did I. In spite of my blundering in details, I welcomed the incident as the first concrete proof that the object of our quest was no mare’s nest. The next point was what was the visitor’s object? If to search, what would he have found?

‘The charts, of course, with all our corrections and notes, and the log. They’d give us away,’ was Davies’s instant conclusion. Not having his faith in the channel theory, I was lukewarm about his precious charts.

‘After all, we’re doing nothing wrong, as you’ve often said yourself,’ I said.

Still, as a true index to our mode of life they were the only things on board that could possibly compromise us or suggest that we were anything more than eccentric young Englishmen cruising for sport (witness the duck guns) and pleasure. We had two sets of charts, German and English. The former we decided to use in practice, and to hide, together with the log, if occasion demanded. My diary, I resolved, should never leave my person. Then there were the naval books. Davies scanned them with a look I knew well.

‘There are too many of them,’ he said, in the tone of a cook fixing the fate of superfluous kittens. ‘Let’s throw them overboard. They’re very old anyhow, and I know them by heart.’

‘Well, not here!’ I protested, for he was laying greedy hands on the shelf; ‘they’ll be found at low water. In fact, I should leave them as they are. You had them when you were here before, and Dollmann knows you had them. If you return without them, it will look queer.’ They were spared.

The English charts, being relatively useless, though more suitable to our rôle as English yachtsmen, were to be left in evidence, as shining proofs of our innocence. It was all delightfully casual, I could not help thinking. A seven-ton yacht does not abound in (dry) hiding-places, and we were helpless against a drastic search. If there were secrets on this coast to guard, and we were suspected as spies, there was nothing to prevent an official visit and warning. There need be no prowlers scuttling off when alarmed, unless indeed it was thought wisest to let well alone, if we were harmless, and not to arouse suspicions where there were none. Here we lost ourselves in conjecture. Whose agent was the prowler? If Dollmann’s, did Dollmann know now that the Dulcibella was safe, and back in the region he had expelled her from? If so, was he likely to return to the policy of violence? We found ourselves both glancing at the duck guns strung up under the racks, and then we both laughed and looked foolish. ‘A war of wits, and not of duck guns,’ I opined. ‘Let’s look at the chart.’

The reader is already familiar with the general aspect of this singular region, and I need only remind him that the mainland is that district of Prussia which is known as East Friesland. It is a [See Map B] short, flat-topped peninsula, bounded on the west by the Ems estuary and beyond that by Holland, and on the east by the Jade estuary; a low-lying country, containing great tracts of marsh and heath, and few towns of any size; on the north side none. Seven islands lie off the coast. All, except Borkum, which is round, are attenuated strips, slightly crescent-shaped, rarely more than a mile broad, and tapering at the ends; in length averaging about six miles, from Norderney and Juist, which are seven and nine respectively, to little Baltrum, which is only two and a half.

Of the shoal spaces which lie between them and the mainland, two-thirds dry at low-water, and the remaining third becomes a system of lagoons whose distribution is controlled by the natural drift of the North Sea as it forces its way through the intervals between the islands. Each of these intervals resembles the bar of a river, and is obstructed by dangerous banks, over which the sea pours at every tide scooping out a deep pool. This fans out and ramifies to east and west as the pent-up current frees itself, encircles the islands, and spreads over the intervening flats. But the farther it penetrates the less coursing force it has, and as a result no island is girt completely by a low-water channel. About midway at the back of each of them is a ‘watershed’, only covered for five or six hours out of the twelve. A boat, even of the lightest draught, navigating behind the islands must choose its moment for passing these. As to navigability, the North Sea Pilot sums up the matter in these dry terms: ‘The channels dividing these islands from each other and the shore afford to the small craft of the country the means of communication between the Ems and the Jade, to which description of vessels only they are available.’ The islands are dismissed with a brief note or two about beacons and lights.

The more I looked at the chart the more puzzled I became. The islands were evidently mere sandbanks. with a cluster of houses and a church on each, the only hint of animation in their desolate ensemble being the occasional word ‘Bade-strand’, suggesting that they were visited in the summer months by a handful of townsfolk for the sea-bathing. Norderney, of course, was conspicuous in this respect; but even its town, which I know by repute as a gay and fashionable watering-place, would be dead and empty for some months in the year, and could have no commercial importance. No man could do anything on the mainland coast — a monotonous line of dyke punctuated at intervals by an infinitesimal village. Glancing idly at the names of these villages, I noticed that they most of them ended in siel — a repulsive termination, that seemed appropriate to the whole region. There were Carolinensiel, Bensersiel, etc. Siel means either a sewer or a sluice, the latter probably in this case, for I noticed that each village stood at the outlet of a little stream which evidently carried off the drainage of the lowlands behind. A sluice, or lock, would be necessary at the mouth, for at high tide the land is below the level of the sea. Looking next at the sands outside, I noticed that across them and towards each outlet a line of booms was marked, showing that there was some sort of tidal approach to the village, evidently formed by the scour of the little stream.

‘Are we going to explore those?’ I asked Davies.

‘I don’t see the use,’ he answered; ‘they only lead to those potty little places. I suppose local galliots use them.’

‘How about your torpedo-boats and patrol-boats?’

‘They might, at certain tides. But I can’t see what value they’d be, unless as a refuge for a German boat in the last resort. They lead to no harbours. Wait! There’s a little notch in the dyke at Neuharlingersiel and Dornumersiel, which may mean some sort of a quay arrangement, but what’s the use of that?’

‘We may as well visit one or two, I suppose?’

‘I suppose so; but we don’t want to be playing round villages. There’s heaps of really important work to do, farther out.’

‘Well, what do you make of this coast?’

Davies had nothing but the same old theory, but he urged it with a force and keenness that impressed me more deeply than ever.

‘Look at those islands!’ he said. ‘They’re clearly the old line of coast, hammered into breaches by the sea. The space behind them is like an immense tidal harbour, thirty miles by five, and they screen it impenetrably. It’s absolutely made for shallow war-boats under skilled pilotage. They can nip in and out of the gaps, and dodge about from end to end. On one side is the Ems, on the other the big estuaries. It’s a perfect base for torpedo-craft.’

I agreed (and agree still), but still I shrugged my shoulders.

‘We go on exploring, then, in the same way?’

‘Yes; keeping a sharp look-out, though. Remember, we shall always be in sight of land now.’

‘What’s the glass doing?’

‘Higher than for a long time. I hope it won’t bring fog. I know this district is famous for fogs, and fine weather at this time of the year is bad for them anywhere. I would rather it blew, if it wasn’t for exploring those gaps, where an on-shore wind would be nasty. Six-thirty tomorrow; not later. I think I’ll sleep in the saloon for the future, after what happened to-night.’

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