The Riddle of the Sands, by Erskine Childers

16. Commander von Brüning

TO RESUME my story in narrative form.

I was awakened at ten o’clock on the 19th, after a long and delicious sleep, by Davies’s voice outside, talking his unmistakable German. Looking out, in my pyjamas, I saw him on the quay above in conversation with a man in a long mackintosh coat and a gold-laced navy cap. He had a close-trimmed auburn beard, a keen, handsome face, and an animated manner. It was raining in a raw air.

They saw me, and Davies said: ‘Hullo, Carruthers! Here’s Commander von Brüning from the Blitz — that’s “meiner Freund” Carruthers.’ (Davies was deplorably weak in terminations.)

The commander smiled broadly at me, and I inclined an uncombed head, while, for a moment, the quest was a dream, and I myself felt unutterably squalid and foolish. I ducked down, heard them parting, and Davies came aboard.

‘We’re to meet him at the inn for a talk at twelve,’ he said.

His news was that the Blitz’s steam-cutter had come in on the morning tide, and he had met von Brüning when marketing at the inn. Secondly, the Kormoran had also come in, and was moored close by. It was as clear as possible, therefore, that the latter had watched us, and was in touch with the Blitz, and that both had seized the opportunity of our being cooped up in Bensersiel to take further stock of us. What had passed hitherto? Nothing much. Von Brüning had greeted Davies with cordial surprise, and said he had wondered yesterday if it was the Dulcibella that he had seen anchored behind Langeoog. Davies had explained that we had left the Baltic and were on our way home; taking the shelter of the islands.

‘Supposing he comes on board and asks to see our log?’ I said.

‘Pull it out,’ said Davies, ‘It’s rot, this hiding, after all. I say. I rather funk this interview; what are we to say? It’s not in my line.’

We resolved abruptly on an important change of plan, replaced the log and charts in the rack as the first logical step. They contained nothing but bearings, courses, and the bare data of navigation. To Davies they were hard-won secrets of vital import, to be lied for, however hard and distasteful lying was. I was cooler as to their value, but in any case the same thing was now in both our minds. There would be great difficulties in the coming interview if we tried to be too clever and conceal the fact that we had been exploring. We did not know how much von Brüning knew. When had our surveillance by the Kormoran begun? Apparently at Wangeroog, but possibly in the estuaries, where we had not fired a shot at duck. Perhaps he knew even more — Dollmann’s treachery, Davies’s escape, and our subsequent movements — we could not tell. On the other hand, exploration was known to be a fad of Davies’s, and in September he had made no secret of it.

It was safer to be consistent now. After breakfast we determined to find out something about the Kormoran, which lay on the mud at the other side of the harbour, and accordingly addressed ourselves to two mighty sailors, whose jerseys bore the legend ‘Post’, and who towered conspicuous among a row of stolid Frisians on the quay, all gazing gravely down at us as at a curious bit of marine bric-à-brac. The twins (for such they proved to be) were most benignant giants, and asked us aboard the post-boat galliot for a chat. It was easy to bring the talk naturally round to the point we wished, and we soon gained some most interesting information, delivered in the broadest Frisian, but intelligible enough. They called the Kormoran a Memmert boat, or ‘wreck-works’ boat. It seemed that off the western end of Juist, the island lying west of Norderney, there lay the bones of a French war-vessel, wrecked ages ago. She carried bullion which has never been recovered, in spite of many efforts. A salvage company was trying for it now, and had works on Memmert, an adjacent sand-bank. ‘That is Herr Grimm, the overseer himself,’ they said, pointing to the bridge above the sluice-gates. (I call him ‘Grimm’ because it describes him exactly.) A man in a pilot jacket and peaked cap was leaning over the parapet.

‘What’s he doing here?’ I asked.

They answered that he was often up and down the coast, work on the wreck being impossible in rough weather. They supposed he was bringing cargo in his galliot from Wilhelmshaven, all the company’s plant and stores coming from that port. He was a local man from Aurich; an extug skipper.

We discussed this information while walking out over the sands to see the channel at low water.

‘Did you hear anything about this in September?’ I asked.

‘Not a word. I didn’t go to Juist. I would have, probably, if I hadn’t met Dollmann.’

What in the world did it mean? How did it affect our plans?

‘Look at his boots if we pass him,’ was all Davies had to suggest.

The channel was now a ditch, with a trickle in it, running north by east, roughly, and edged by a dyke of withies for the first quarter of a mile. It was still blowing fresh from the north-east, and we saw that exit was impossible in such a wind.

So back to the village, a paltry, bleak little place. We passed friend Grimm on the bridge; a dark, clean-shaved, saturnine man, wearing shoes. Approaching the inn:

‘We haven’t settled quite enough, have we?’ said Davies. ‘What about our future plans?’

‘Heaven knows, we haven’t,’ I said. ‘But I don’t see how we can. We must see how things go. It’s past twelve, and it won’t do to be late.’

‘Well, I leave it to you.’

‘All right, I’ll do my best. All you’ve got to do is to be yourself and tell one lie, if need be, about the trick Dollmann played you.’

The next scene: von Brüning, Davies, and I, sitting over coffee and Kümmel at a table in a dingy inn-parlour overlooking the harbour and the sea, Davies with a full box of matches on the table before him. The commander gave us a hearty welcome, and I am bound to say I liked him at once, as Davies had done; but I feared him, too, for he had honest eyes, but abominably clever ones.

I had impressed on Davies to talk and question as freely and naturally as though nothing uncommon had happened since he last saw von Brüning on the deck of the Medusa. He must ask about Dollmann — the mutual friend — at the outset, and, if questioned about that voyage in his company to the Elbe, must lie like a trooper as to the danger he had been in. This was the one clear and essential necessity, where much was difficult. Davies did his duty with precipitation, and blushed when he put his question, in a way that horrified me, till I remembered that his embarrassment was due, and would be ascribed, to another cause.

‘Herr Dollmann is away still, I think,’ said von Brüning. (So Davies had been right at Brunsbüttel.) ‘Were you thinking of looking him up again?’ he added.

‘Yes,’ said Davies, shortly.

‘Well, I’m sure he’s away. But his yacht is back, I believe — and Fräulein Dollmann, I suppose.’

‘H’m!’ said Davies; ‘she’s a very fine boat that.’

Our host smiled, gazing thoughtfully at Davies, who was miserable. I saw a chance, and took it mercilessly.

‘We can call on Fräulein Dollmann, at least, Davies,’ I said, with a meaning smile at von Brüning.

‘H’m!, said Davies; ‘will he be back soon, do you think?’

The commander had begun to light a cigar, and took his time in answering. ‘Probably,’ he said, after some puffing, ‘he’s never away very long. But you’ve seen them later than I have. Didn’t you sail to the Elbe together the day after I saw you last?’

‘Oh, part of the way,’ said Davies, with great negligence. ‘I haven’t seen him since. He got there first; outsailed me.’

‘Gave you the slip, in fact?’

‘Of course he beat me; I was close-reefed. Besides —’

‘Oh, I remember; there was a heavy blow — a devil of a heavy blow. I thought of you that day. How did you manage?’

‘Oh, it was a fair wind; it wasn’t far, you see.’

‘Grosse Gott! In that.’ He nodded towards the window whence the Dulcibella’s taper mast could be seen pointing demurely heavenwards.

‘She’s a splendid sea-boat,’ said Davies, indignantly.

‘A thousand pardons!’ said von Brüning, laughing.

‘Don’t shake my faith in her,’ I put in. ‘I’ve got to get to England in her.’

‘Heaven forbid; I was only thinking that there must have been some sea round the Scharhorn that day; a tame affair, no doubt, Herr Davies?’

‘Scharhorn?’ said Davies, who did not catch the idiom in the latter sentence. ‘Oh, we didn’t go that way. We cut through the sands — by the Telte.’

‘The Telte! In a north-west gale!’ The commander started, ceased to smile, and only stared. (It was genuine surprise; I could swear it. He had heard nothing of this before.)

‘Herr Dollmann knew the way,’ said Davies, doggedly. ‘He kindly offered to pilot me through, and I wouldn’t have gone otherwise.’ There was an awkward little pause.

‘He led you well, it seems?’ said von Brüning.

‘Yes; there’s a nasty surf there, though, isn’t there? But it saves six miles — and the Scharhorn. Not that I saved distance. I was fool enough to run aground.’

‘Ah!’ said the other, with interest.

‘It didn’t matter, because I was well inside then. Those sands are difficult at high water. We’ve come back that way, you know.’

(‘And we run aground every day,’ I remarked, with resignation.)

‘Is that where the Medusa gave you the slip?’ asked von Brüning, still studying Davies with a strange look, which I strove anxiously to analyze.

‘She wouldn’t have noticed,’ said Davies. ‘It was very thick and squally — and she had got some way ahead. There was no need for her to stop, anyway. I got off all right; the tide was rising still. But, of course, I anchored there for the night.’

‘Where?’

‘Inside there, under the Hohenhörn,’ said Davies, simply.

‘Under the what?’

‘The Hohenhörn.’

‘Go on — didn’t they wait for you at Cuxhaven?’

‘I don’t know; I didn’t go that way.’ The commander looked more and more puzzled.

‘Not by the ship canal, I mean. I changed my mind about it, because the next day the wind was easterly. It would have been a dead beat across the sands to Cuxhaven, while it was a fair wind straight out to the Eider River. So I sailed there, and reached the Baltic that way. It was all the same.’

There was another pause.

‘Well done, Davies,’ I thought. He had told his story well, using no subtlety. I knew it was exactly how he would have told it to anyone else, if he had not had irrefutable proof of foul play.

The commander laughed, suddenly and heartily.

‘Another liqueur?’ he said. Then, to me: ‘Upon my word, your friend amuses me. It’s impossible to make him spin a yarn. I expect he had a bad time of it.’

‘That’s nothing to him,’ I said; ‘he prefers it. He anchored me the other day behind the Hohenhörn in a gale of wind; said it was safer than a harbour, and more sanitary.’

‘I wonder he brought you here last night. It was a fair wind for England; and not very far.’

‘There was no pilot to follow, you see.’

‘With a charming daughter — no.’

Davies frowned and glared at me. I was merciful and changed the subject.

‘Besides,’ I said, ‘we’ve left our anchor and chain out there.’ And I made confession of my sin.

‘Well, as it’s buoyed, I should advise you to pick it up as soon as you can,’ said von Brüning, carelessly; ‘or someone else will.’

‘Yes, by Jove! Carruthers,’ said Davies, eagerly, ‘we must get out on this next tide.’

‘Oh, there’s no hurry,’ I said, partly from policy, partly because the ease of the shore was on me. To sit on a chair upright is something of a luxury, however good the cause in which you have crouched like a monkey over a table at the level of your knees, with a reeking oil-stove at your ear.

‘They’re honest enough about here, aren’t they?’ I added. While the words were on my lips I remembered the midnight visitor at Wangeroog, and guessed that von Brüning was leading up to a test. Grimm (if he was the visitor) would have told him of his narrow escape from detection, and reticence on our part would show we suspected something. I could have kicked myself, but it was not too late. I took the bull by the horns, and, before the commander could answer, added:

‘By Jove! Davies, I forgot about that fellow at Wangeroog. The anchor might be stolen, as he says.’

Davies looked blank, but von Brüning had turned to me.

‘We never dreamed there would be thieves among these islands,’ I said, ‘but the other night I nearly caught a fellow in the act. He thought the yacht was empty.’

I described the affair in detail, and with what humour I could. Our host was amused, and apologetic for the islanders.

‘They’re excellent folk,’ he said, ‘but they’re born with predatory instincts. Their fathers made their living out of wrecks on this coast, and the children inherit a weakness for plunder. When Wangeroog lighthouse was built they petitioned the Government for compensation, in perfect good faith. The coast is well lighted now, and windfalls are rare, but the sight of a stranded yacht, with the owners ashore, would inflame the old passion; and, depend upon it, someone has seen that anchor-buoy.’

The word ‘wrecks’ had set me tingling. Was it another test? Impossible to say; but audacity was safer than reserve, and might save trouble in the future.

‘Isn’t there the wreck of a treasure-ship somewhere farther west?’ I asked. ‘We heard of it at Wangeroog’ (my first inaccuracy). ‘They said a company was exploiting it.’

‘Quite right,’ said the commander, without a sign of embarrassment. ‘I don’t wonder you heard of it. It’s one of the few things folk have to talk about in these parts. It lies on Juister Riff, a shoal off Juist. [see Map B] She was a French frigate, the Corinne, bound from Hamburg to Havre in 1811, when Napoleon held Hamburg as tight as Paris. She carried a million and a half in gold bars, and was insured in Hamburg; foundered in four fathoms, broke up, and there lies the treasure.’

‘Never been raised?’

‘No. The underwriters failed and went bankrupt, and the wreck came into the hands of your English Lloyd’s. It remained their property till ‘75, but they never got at the bullion. In fact, for fifty years it was never scratched at, and its very position grew doubtful, for the sand swallowed every stick. The rights passed through various hands, and in ‘86 were held by an enterprising Swedish company, which brought modern appliances, dived, dredged, and dug, fished up a lot of timber and bric-à-brac, and then broke. Since then, two Hamburg firms have tackled the job and lost their capital. Scores of lives have been spent over it, all told, and probably a million of money. Still there are the bars, somewhere.’

‘And what’s being done now?’

‘Well, recently a small local company was formed. It has a depot at Memmert, and is working with a good deal of perseverance. An engineer from Bremen was the principal mover, and a few men from Norderney and Emden subscribed the capital. By the way, our friend Dollmann is largely interested in it.’

Out of the corner of my eye I saw Davies’s tell-tale face growing troubled with inward questionings.

‘We mustn’t get back to him,’ I said, laughing. ‘It’s not fair to my friend. But all this is very interesting. Will they ever get those bars?’

‘Ah! that’s the point,’ said von Brüning, with a mysterious twinkle. ‘It’s an undertaking of immense difficulty; for the wreck is wholly disintegrated, and the gold, being the heaviest part of it, has, of course, sunk the deepest. Dredging is useless after a certain point; and the divers have to make excavations in the sand, and shore them up as best they can. Every gale nullifies half their labour, and weather like this of the last fortnight plays the mischief with the work. Only this morning I met the overseer, who happens to be ashore here. He was as black as thunder over prospects.’

‘Well, it’s a romantic speculation,’ I said. ‘They deserve a return for their money.’

‘I hope they’ll get it,’ said the commander. ‘The fact is, I hold a few shares myself.’

‘Oh, I hope I haven’t been asking indiscreet questions?’

‘Oh, dear no; all the world knows what I’ve told you. But you’ll understand that one has to be reticent as to results in such a case. It’s a big stake, and the title is none too sound. There has been litigation over it. Not that I worry much about my investment; for I shan’t lose much by it at the worst. But it gives one an interest in this abominable coast. I go and see how they’re getting on sometimes, when I’m down that way.’

‘It is an abominable coast,’ I agreed, heartily, ‘though you won’t get Davies to agree.’

‘It’s a magnificent place for sailing,’ said Davies, looking wistfully out over the storm-speckled grey of the North Sea. He underwent some more chaff, and the talk passed to our cruising adventures in the Baltic and the estuaries. Von Brüning cross-examined us with the most charming urbanity and skill. Nothing he asked could cause us the slightest offence; and a responsive frankness was our only possible course. So, date after date, and incident after incident, were elicited in the most natural way. As we talked I was astonished to find how little there was that was worth concealing, and heartily thankful that we had decided on candour. My fluency gave me the lead, and Davies followed me; but his own personality was really our tower of strength. I realized that as I watched the play of his eager features, and heard him struggle for expression on his favourite hobby; all his pet phrases translated crudely into the most excruciating German. He was convincing, because he was himself.

‘Are there many like you in England?’ asked von Brüning once.

‘Like me? Of course — lots,’ said Davies.

‘I wish there were more in Germany; they play at yachting over here — on shore half the time, drinking and loafing; paid crews, clean hands, white trousers; laid up in the middle of September.’

‘We haven’t seen many yachts about, said Davies, politely.

For my part, I made no pretence of being a Davies. Faithful to my lower nature, I vowed the Germans were right, and, not without a secret zest, drew a lurid picture of the horrors of crewless cruising, and the drudgery that my remorseless skipper inflicted on me. It was delightful to see Davies wincing when I described my first night at Flensburg, for I had my revenge at last, and did not spare him. He bore up gallantly under my jesting, but I knew very well by his manner that he had not forgiven me my banter about the ‘charming daughter’.

‘You speak German well,’ said von Brüning.

‘I have lived in Germany,’ said I.

‘Studying for a profession, I suppose?’

‘Yes,’ said I, thinking ahead. ‘Civil Service,’ was my prepared answer to the next question, but again (morbidly, perhaps) I saw a pitfall. That letter from my chief awaiting me at Norderney? My name was known, and we were watched. It might be opened. Lord, how casual we have been!

‘May I ask what?’

‘The Foreign Office.’ It sounded suspicious, but there it was. ‘Indeed — in the Government service? When do you have to be back?’

That was how the question of our future intentions was raised, prematurely by me; for two conflicting theories were clashing in my brain. But the contents of the letter dogged me now, and ‘when at a loss, tell the truth’, was an axiom I was finding sound. So I answered, ‘Pretty soon, in about a week. But I’m expecting a letter at Norderney, which may give me an extension. Davies said it was a good address to give,’ I added, smiling.

‘Naturally,’ said von Brüning, dryly; the joke had apparently ceased to amuse him. ‘But you haven’t much time then, have you?’ he added, ‘unless you leave your skipper in the lurch. It’s a long way to England, and the season is late for yachts.’

I felt myself being hurried.

‘Oh, you don’t understand,’ I explained; ‘he’s in no hurry. He’s a man of leisure; aren’t you, Davies?’

‘What?’ said Davies.

I translated my cruel question.

‘Yes,’ said Davies, with simple pathos.

‘If I have to leave him I shan’t be missed — as an able seaman, at least. He’ll just potter on down the islands, running aground and kedging-off. and arrive about Christmas.’

‘Or take the first fair gale to Dover,’ laughed the commander.

‘Or that. So, you see, we’re in no hurry: and we never make plans. And as for a passage to England straight, I’m not such a coward as I was at first, but I draw the line at that.’

‘You’re a curious pair of shipmates; what’s your point of view, Herr Davies?’

‘I like this coast,’ said Davies. ‘And — we want to shoot some ducks.’ He was nervous, and forgot himself. I had already satirized our sporting armament and exploits, and hoped the subject was disposed of. Ducks were pretexts, and might lead to complications. I particularly wanted a free hand.

‘As to wild fowl,’ said our friend, ‘I would like to give you gentlemen some advice. There are plenty to be got, now that autumn weather has set in (you wouldn’t have got a shot in September, Herr Davies; I remember your asking about them when I saw you last). And even now it’s early for amateurs. In hard winter weather a child can pick them up; but they’re wild still, and want crafty hunting. You want a local punt, and above all a local man (you could stow him in your fo’c’sle), and to go to work seriously. Now, if you really wish for sport, I could help you. I could get you a trustworthy —’

‘Oh, it’s too good of you,’ stammered Davies, in a more unhappy accent than usual. ‘We can easily find one for ourselves. A man at Wangeroog offered —’

‘Oh, did he?’ interrupted von Brüning, laughing. ‘I’m not surprised. You don’t know the Frieslanders. They’re guileless, as I said, but they cling to their little perquisites.’ (I translated to Davies.) ‘They’ve been cheated out of wrecks, and they’re all the more sensitive about ducks, which are more lucrative than fish. A stranger is a poacher. Your man would have made slight errors as to time and place.’

‘You said they were odd in their manner, didn’t you, Davies?’ I put in. ‘Look here, this is very kind of Commander von Brüning; but hadn’t we better be certain of my plans before settling down to shoot? Let’s push on direct to Norderney and get that letter of mine, and then decide. But we shan’t see you again, I suppose, commander?’

‘Why not? I am cruising westwards, and shall probably call at Norderney. Come aboard if you’re there, won’t you? I should like to show you the Blitz.’

‘Thanks, very much,’ said Davies, uneasily.

‘Thanks, very much,’ said I, as heartily as I could.

Our party broke up soon after this.

‘Well, gentlemen, I must take leave of you,’ said our friend. ‘I have to drive to Esens. I shall be going back to the Blitz on the evening tide, but you’ll be busy then with your own boat.’

It had been a puzzling interview, but the greatest puzzle was still to come. As we went towards the door, von Brüning made a sign to me. We let Davies pass out and remained standing.

‘One word in confidence with you, Herr Carruthers,’ he said, speaking low. ‘You won’t think me officious, I hope. I only speak out of keen regard for your friend. It is about the Dollmanns — you see how the land lies? I wouldn’t encourage him.’

‘Thanks,’ I said, ‘but really —’

‘It’s only a hint. He’s a splendid young fellow, but if anything — you understand — too honest and simple. I take it you have influence with him, and I should use it.’

‘I was not in earnest,’ I said. ‘I have never seen the Dollmanns; I thought they were friends of yours,’ I added, looking him straight in the eyes.

‘I know them, but’— he shrugged his shoulders —‘I know everybody.’

‘What’s wrong with them?’ I said, point-blank.

‘Softly! Herr Carruthers. Remember, I speak out of pure friendliness to you as strangers, foreigners, and young. You I take to have discretion, or I should not have said a word. Still, I will add this. We know very little of Herr Dollmann, of his origin, his antecedents. He is half a Swede, I believe, certainly not a Prussian; came to Norderney three years ago, appears to be rich, and has joined in various commercial undertakings. Little scope about here? Oh, there is more enterprise than you think — development of bathing resorts, you know, speculation in land on these islands. Sharp practice? Oh, no! he’s perfectly straight in that way. But he’s a queer fellow, of eccentric habits, and — and, well, as I say, little is known of him. That’s all, just a warning. Come along.’

I saw that to press him further was useless.

‘Thanks; I’ll remember,’ I said.

‘And look here,’ he added, as we walked down the passage, ‘if you take my advice, you’ll omit that visit to the Medusa altogether.’ He gave me a steady look, smiling gravely.

‘How much do you know, and what do you mean?’ were the questions that throbbed in my thoughts; but I could not utter them, so I said nothing and felt very young.

Outside we joined Davies, who was knitting his brow over prospects.

‘It just comes of going into places like this,’ he said to me. ‘We may be stuck here for days. Too much wind to tow out with the dinghy, and too narrow a channel to beat in.’

Von Brüning was ready with a new proposal.

‘Why didn’t I think of it before?’ he said. ‘I’ll tow you out in my launch. Be ready at 6.30; we shall have water enough then. My men will send you a warp.’

It was impossible to refuse, but a sense of being personally conducted again oppressed me; and the last hope of a bed in the inn vanished. Davies was none too effusive either. A tug meant a pilot, and he had had enough of them.

‘He objects to towage on principle,’ I said.

‘Just like him!’ laughed the other. ‘That’s settled, then!’ A dogcart was standing before the inn door in readiness for von Brüning. I was curious about Esens and his business there. Esens, he said, was the principal town of the district, four miles inland.

‘I have to go there,’ he volunteered, ‘about a poaching case — a Dutchman trawling inside our limits. That’s my work, you know — police duty.’

Had the words a deeper meaning?

‘Do you ever catch an Englishman?’ I asked, recklessly. ‘Oh, very rarely; your countrymen don’t come so far as this — except on pleasure.’ He bowed to us each and smiled.

‘Not much of that to be got in Bensersiel,’ I laughed. ‘I’m afraid you’ll have a dull afternoon. Look here. I know you can’t leave your boat altogether, and it’s no use asking Herr Davies; but will you drive into Esens with me and see a Frisian town — for what it’s worth? You’re getting a dismal impression of Friesland.’ I excused myself, said I would stop with Davies we would walk out over the sands and prospect for the evening’, sail.

‘Well, good-bye then,’ he said, ‘till the evening. Be ready for the warp at 6.30.’

He jumped up, and the cart rattled off through the mud, crossed the bridge, and disappeared into the dreary hinterland.

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