The Riddle of the Sands, by Erskine Childers

17. Clearing the Air

‘HAS he gone to get the police, do you think?’ said Davies, grimly.

‘I don’t think so,’ said I. ‘Let’s go aboard before that customs fellow buttonholes us.’

A diminished row of stolid Frisians still ruminated over the Dulcibella. Friend Grimm was visible smoking on his forecastle. We went on board in silence.

‘First of all, where exactly is Memmert?’ I said.

Davies pulled down the chart, said ‘There,’ and flung himself at full length on a sofa.

The reader can see Memmert for himself. South of Juist, [see Map B] abutting on the Ems delta, lies an extensive sandbank called Nordland, whose extreme western rim remains uncovered at the highest tides; the effect being to leave a C-shaped island, a mere paring of sand like a boomerang, nearly two miles long. but only 150 yards or so broad, of curiously symmetrical outline, except at one spot, where it bulges to the width of a quarter of a mile. On the English chart its nakedness was absolute, save for a beacon at the south; but the German chart marked a building at the point where the bulge occurs. This was evidently the depot. ‘Fancy living there!’ I thought, for the very name struck cold. No wonder Grimm was grim; and no wonder he was used to seek change of air. But the advantages of the site were obvious. It was remarkably isolated, even in a region where isolation is the rule; yet it was conveniently near the wreck, which, as we had heard, lay two miles out on the Juister Reef. Lastly, it was clearly accessible at any state of the tide, for the six-fathom channel of the Ems estuary runs hard up to it on the south, and thence sends off an eastward branch which closely borders the southern horn, thus offering an anchorage at once handy, deep, and sheltered from seaward gales.

Such was Memmert, as I saw it on the chart, taking in its features mechanically, for while Davies lay there heedless and taciturn, a pretence of interest was useless. I knew perfectly well what was between us, but I did not see why I should make the first move; for I had a grievance too, an old one. So I sat back on my sofa and jotted down in my notebook the heads of our conversation at the inn while it was fresh in my memory, and strove to draw conclusions. But the silence continuing and becoming absurd, I threw my pride to the winds, and my notebook on the table.

‘I say, Davies,’ I said, ‘I’m awfully sorry I chaffed you about Fräulein Dollmann.’ (No answer.) ‘Didn’t you see I couldn’t help it?’

‘I wish to Heaven we had never come in here,’ he said, in a hard voice; ‘it comes of landing ever.’ (I couldn’t help smiling at this, but he wasn’t looking at me.) ‘Here we are, given away, moved on, taken in charge, arranged for like Cook’s tourists. I couldn’t follow your game — too infernally deep for me, but —‘That stung me.

‘Look here,’ I said, ‘I did my best. It was you that muddled it. Why did you harp on ducks?’

‘We could have got out of that. Why did you harp on everything idiotic — your letter, the Foreign office, the Kormoran, the wreck, the —?’

‘You’re utterly unreasonable. Didn’t you see what traps there were? I was driven the way I went. We started unprepared, and we’re jolly well out of it.’

Davies drove on blindly. ‘It was bad enough telling all about the channels and exploring —’

‘Why, you agreed to that yourself!’

‘I gave in to you. We can’t explore any more now.

‘There’s the wreck, though.’

‘Oh, hang the wreck! It’s all a blind, or he wouldn’t have made so much of it. There are all these channels to be-’

‘Oh, hang the channels! I know we wanted a free hand, but we’ve got to go to Norderney some time, and if Dollmann’s away —’

‘Why did you harp on Miss Dollmann?’ said Davies.

We had worked round, through idle recrimination, to the real point of departure. I knew Davies was not himself, and would not return to himself till the heart of the matter was reached.

‘Look here,’ I said, ‘you brought me out here to help you, because, as you say, I was clever, talked German, and — liked yachting (I couldn’t resist adding this). But directly you really want me you turn round and go for me.’

‘Oh, I didn’t mean all that, really,’ said Davies; ‘I’m sorry — I was worried.’

‘I know; but it’s your own fault. You haven’t been fair with me. There’s a complication in this business that you’ve never talked about. I’ve never pressed you because I thought you would confide in me. You —’

‘I know I haven’t,’ said Davies.

‘Well, you see the result. Our hand was forced. To have said nothing about Dollmann was folly — to have said he tried to wreck you was equal folly. The story we agreed on was the best and safest, and you told it splendidly. But for two reasons I had to harp on the daughter — one because your manner when they were mentioned was so confused as to imperil our whole position. Two, because your story, though the safest, was, at the best, suspicious. Even on your own showing Dollmann treated you badly — discourteously, say: though you pretended not to have seen it. You want a motive to neutralize that, and induce you to revisit him in a friendly way. I supplied it, or rather I only encouraged von Brüning to supply it.’

‘Why revisit him, after all?’ said Davies.

‘Oh, come —’

‘But don’t you see what a hideous fix you’ve put me in? How caddish I feel about it?’

I did see, and I felt a cad myself, as his full distress came home to me. But I felt, too, that, whosesoever the fault, we had drifted into a ridiculous situation, and were like characters in one of those tiresome plays where misunderstandings are manufactured and so carefully sustained that the audience are too bored to wait for the dénouement. You can do that on the stage; but we wanted our dénouement.

‘I’m very sorry,’ I said, ‘but I wish you had told me all about it. Won’t you now? Just the bare, matter-of-fact truth. I hate sentiment, and so do you.’

‘I find it very difficult to tell people things,’ said Davies, ‘things like this.’ I waited. ‘I did like her — very much.’ Our eyes met for a second, in which all was said that need be said, as between two of our phlegmatic race. ‘And she’s — separate from him. That was the reason of all my indecisions.’ he hurried on. ‘I only told you half at Schlei. I know I ought to have been open, and asked your advice. But I let it slide. I’ve been hoping all along that we might find what we want and win the game without coming to close quarters again.’

I no longer wondered at his devotion to the channel theory, since, built on conviction, it was thus doubly fortified.

‘Yet you always knew what might happen,’ I said. ‘At Schlei you spoke of “settling with” Dollmann.’

‘I know. When I thought of him I was mad. I made myself forget the other part.’

‘Which recurred at Brunsbüttel?’ I thought of the news we had there.

‘Yes.’

‘Davies, we must have no more secrets. I’m going to speak out. Are you sure you’ve not misunderstood her? You say — and I’m willing to assume it — that Dollmann’s a traitor and a murderer.’

‘Oh, hang the murder part!’ said Davies, impatiently. ‘What does that matter?’

‘Well, traitor. Very good; but in that case I suspect his daughter. No! let me go on. She was useful, to say the least. She encouraged you — you’ve told me that — to make that passage with them.’

‘Stop, Carruthers,’ said Davies, firmly. ‘I know you mean kindly; but it’s no use. I believe in her.’

I thought for a moment.

‘In that case,’ I said, ‘I’ve something to propose. When we get out of this place let’s sail straight away to England.’ ‘(There, Commander von Brüning,’ I thought, ‘you never can say I neglected your advice.’)

‘No!’ exclaimed Davies, starting up and facing me. ‘I’m hanged if we will. Think what’s at stake. Think of that traitor — plotting with Germans. My God!’

‘Very good,’ I said. ‘I’m with you for going on. But let’s face facts. We must scotch Dollmann. We can’t do so without hurting her.’

‘Can’t we possibly?’

‘Of course not; be sensible, man. Face that. Next point; it’s absurd to hope that we need not revisit them — it’s ten to one that we must, if we’re to succeed. His attempt on you is the whole foundation of our suspicions. And we don’t even know for certain who he is yet. We’re committed, I know, to going straight to Norderney now; but even if we weren’t, should we do any good by exploring and prying? It’s very doubtful. We know we’re watched, if not suspected, and that disposes of nine-tenths of our power. The channels? Yes, but is it likely they’ll let us learn them by heart, if they’re of such vital importance, even if we are thought to be bona fide yachtsmen? And, seriously, apart from their value in war, which I don’t deny, are they at the root of this business? But we’ll talk about that in a moment. The point now is, what shall we do if we meet the Dollmanns?’

Beads of sweat stood on Davies’s brow. I felt like a torturer, but it could not be helped. ‘Tax him with having wrecked you? Our quest would be at an end! We must be friendly. You must tell the story you told today, and chance his believing it. If he does, so much the better; if he doesn’t, he won’t dare say so, and we still have chances. We gain time, and have a tremendous hold on him — if we’re friendly.’ Davies winced. I gave another turn to the screw. ‘Friendly with them both, of course. You were before, you know; you liked her very much — you must seem to still.’

‘Oh, stop your infernal logic.’

‘Shall we chuck it and go to England?’ 1 asked again, as an inquisitor might say, ‘Have you had enough?’ No answer. I went on: ‘To make it easier, you do like her still.’ I had roused my victim at last.

‘What the devil do you mean, Carruthers? That I’m to trade on my liking for her — on her innocence, to — good God! what do you mean?’

‘No, no, not that. I’m not such a cad, or such a fool, or so ignorant of you. If she knows nothing of her father’s character and likes you — and you like her — and you are what you are — oh Heavens! man, face it, realize it! But what I mean is this: is she, can she be, what you think? Imagine his position if we’re right about him; the vilest creature on God’s earth — a disgraceful past to have been driven to this — in the pay of Germany. I want to spare you misery.’ I was going to add: ‘And if you’re on your guard, to increase our chances.’ But the utter futility of such suggestions silenced me. What a plan I had foreshadowed! An enticing plan and a fair one, too, as against such adversaries; turning this baffling cross-current to advantage as many a time we had worked eddies of an adverse tide in these difficult seas. But Davies was Davies, and there was an end of it; his faith and simplicity shamed me. And the pity of it, the cruelty of it, was that his very qualities were his last torture, raising to the acutest pitch the conflict between love and patriotism. Remember that the latter was his dominant life-motive, and that here and now was his chance — if you would gauge the bitterness of that conflict.

It was in its last throes now. His elbows were on the table, and his twitching hands pressed on his forehead. He took them away.

‘Of course we must go on. It can’t be helped, that’s all.’

‘And you believe in her?’

‘I’ll remember what you’ve said. There may be some way out. And — I’d rather not talk about that any more. What about the wreck?’

Further argument was futile. Davies by an effort seemed to sweep the subject from his thoughts, and I did my best to do the same. At any rate the air was cleared — we were friends; and it only remained to grapple with the main problem in the light of the morning’s interview.

Every word that I could recollect of that critical conversation I reviewed with Davies, who had imperfectly understood what he had not been directly concerned in; and, as I did so, I began to see with what cleverness each succeeding sentence of von Brüning’s was designed to suit both of two contingencies. If we were innocent travellers, he was the genial host, communicative and helpful. If we were spies, his tactics had been equally applicable. He had outdone us in apparent candour, hiding nothing which he knew we would discover for ourselves, and contriving at the same time both to gain knowledge and control of our movements, and to convey us warnings, which would only be understood if we were guilty, that we were playing an idle and perilous game, and had better desist. But in one respect we had had the advantage, and that was in the version Davies had given of his stranding on the Hohenhörn. Inscrutable as our questioner was, he let it appear not only that the incident was new to him, but that he conjectured at its sinister significance. A little cross-examination on detail would have been fatal to Davies’s version; but that was where our strength lay; he dared not cross-examine for fear of suggesting to Davies suspicions which he might never have felt. Indeed, I thought I detected that fear underlying his whole attitude towards us, and it strengthened a conviction which had been growing in me since Grimm’s furtive midnight visit, that the secret of this coast was of so important and delicate a nature that rather than attract attention to it at all, overt action against intruders would be taken only in the last resort, and on irrefragable proofs of guilty intention.

Now for our clues. I had come away with two, each the germ of a distinct theory, and both obscured by the prevailing ambiguity. Now, however, as we thumbed the chart and I gave full rein to my fancy, one of them, the idea of Memmert, gained precision and vigour every moment. True, such information as we had about the French wreck and his own connection with it was placed most readily at our disposal by von Brüning; but I took it to be information calculated only to forestall suspicion, since he was aware that we already associated him with Dollmann, possibly also with Grimm, and it was only likely that in the ordinary course we should learn that the trio were jointly concerned in Memmert. So much for the facts; as for the construction he wished us to put on them, I felt sure it was absolutely false. He wished to give us the impression that the buried treasure itself was at the root of any mystery we might have scented. I do not know if the reader fully appreciated that astute suggestion — the hint that secrecy as to results was necessary owing both to the great sum at stake and the flaw in the title, which he had been careful to inform us had passed through British hands. What he meant to imply was, ‘Don’t be surprised if you have midnight visitors; Englishmen prowling along this coast are suspected of being Lloyd’s agents.’ An ingenious insinuation, which, at the time it was made, had caused me to contemplate a new and much more commonplace solution of our enigma than had ever occurred to us; but it was only a passing doubt, and I dismissed it altogether now.

The fact was, it either explained everything or nothing. As long as we held to our fundamental assumption — that Davies had been decoyed into a death-trap in September — it explained nothing. It was too fantastic to suppose that the exigencies of a commercial speculation would lead to such extremities as that. We were not in the South Sea Islands; nor were we the puppets of a romance. We were in Europe, dealing not only with a Dollmann, but with an officer of the German Imperial Navy, who would scarcely be connected with a commercial enterprise which could conceivably be reduced to forwarding its objects in such a fashion. It was shocking enough to find him in relations with such a scoundrel at all, but it was explicable if the motive were imperial — not so if it were financial. No; to accept the suggestion we must declare the whole quest a mare’s nest from beginning to end; the attempt on Davies a delusion of his own fancy, the whole structure we had built on it, baseless.

‘Well,’ I can hear the reader saying, ‘why not? You, at any rate, were always a little sceptical.’

Granted; yet I can truthfully say I scarcely faltered for a moment. Much had happened since Schlei Fiord. I had seen the mechanism of the death-trap; I had lived with Davies for a stormy fortnight, every hour of which had increased my reliance on his seamanship, and also, therefore, on his account of an event which depended largely for its correct interpretation on a balanced nautical judgement. Finally, I had been unconsciously realizing, and knew from his mouth today, that he had exercised and acted on that judgement in the teeth of personal considerations, which his loyal nature made overwhelming in their force.

What, then, was the meaning of Memmert? At the outset it riveted my attention on the Ems estuary, whose mouth it adjoins. We had always rather neglected the Ems in our calculations; with some excuse, too, for at first sight its importance bears no proportion to that of the three greater estuaries. The latter bear vessels of the largest tonnage and deepest draught to the very quays of Hamburg, Bremerhaven, and the naval dockyard of Wilhelmshaven; while two of them, the Elbe and the Weser, are commerce carriers on the vastest scale for the whole empire. The Ems, on the other hand, only serves towns of the second class. A glance at the chart explains this. You see a most imposing estuary on a grander scale than any of the other three taken singly, with a length of thirty miles and a frontage on the North Sea of ten miles. or one-seventieth, roughly, of the whole seaboard; encumbered by outlying shoals, and blocked in the centre by the island of Borkum, but presenting two fine deep-water channels to the incoming vessel. These roll superbly through enormous sheets of sand, unite and approach the mainland in one stately stream three miles in breadth. But then comes a sad falling off. The navigable fairway shoals and shrinks, middle grounds obstruct it, and shelving foreshores persistently deny it that easy access to the land that alone can create great seaboard cities. All the ports of the Ems are tidal; the harbour of Delfzyl, on the Dutch side, dries at low water, and Emden, the principal German port, can only be reached by a lock and a mile of canal.

But this depreciation is only relative. Judged on its merits, and not by the standard of the Elbe, it is a very important river. Emden is a flourishing and growing port. For shallow craft the stream is navigable far into the interior, where, aided by tributaries and allied canals (notably the connection with the Rhine at Dortmund, then approaching completion), it taps the resources of a great area. Strategically there was still less reason for underrating it. It is one of the great maritime gates of Germany; and it is the westernmost gate, the nearest to Great Britain and France. contiguous to Holland. Its great forked delta presents two yawning breaches in that singular rampart of islets and shoals which masks the German seaboard — a seaboard itself so short in proportion to the empire’s bulk, that, as Davies used to say, every inch of it must be important’. Warships could force these breaches, and so threaten the mainland at one of its few vulnerable points. Quay accommodation is no object to such visitors; intricate navigation no deterrent. Even the heaviest battleships could approach within striking distance of the land, while cruisers and military transports could penetrate to the level of Emden itself. Emden, as Davies had often pointed out, is connected by canal with Wilhelmshaven on the Jade, a strategic canal, designed to carry gunboats as well as merchandise.

Now Memmert was part of the outer rampart; its tapering sickle of sand directly commanded the eastern breach; it must be connected with the defence of this breach. No more admirable base could be imagined; self-contained and isolated, yet sheltered, accessible — better than Juist and Borkum. And supposing it were desired to shroud the nature of the work in absolute secrecy, what a pretext lay to hand in the wreck and its buried bullion, which lay in the offing opposite the fairway!

On Memmert was the depot for the salvage operations. Salvage work, with its dredging and diving, offered precisely the disguise that was needed. It was submarine, and so are some of the most important defences of ports, mines, and dirigible torpedoes. All the details of the story were suggestive: the ‘small local company’; the ‘engineer from Bremen’ (who, I wondered, was he?); the few shares held by von Brüning, enough to explain his visits; the stores and gear coming from Wilhelmshaven, a naval dockyard.

Try as I would I could not stir Davies’s imagination as mine was stirred. He was bent on only seeing the objections, which, of course, were numerous enough. Could secrecy be ensured under pretext of salving a wreck? It must be a secret shared by many — divers, crews of tugs, employees of all sorts. I answered that trade secrets are often preserved under no less difficult conditions, and why not imperial secrets?

‘Why the Ems and not the Elbe?’ he asked.

‘Perhaps,’ I replied, ‘the Elbe, too, holds similar mysteries.’ Neuerk Island might, for all we knew, be another Memmert; when cruising in that region we had had no eyes for such things, absorbed in a preconceived theory of our own. Besides, we must not take ourselves too seriously. We were amateurs, not experts in coast defence, and on such vague grounds to fastidiously reject a clue which went so far as this one was to quarrel with our luck. There was a disheartening corollary to this latter argument that in my new-born zeal I shut my eyes to. As amateurs, were we capable of using our clue and gaining exact knowledge of the defences in question? Davies, I knew, felt this strongly, and I think it accounted for his lukewarm view of Memmert more than he was aware. He clung more obstinately than ever to his ‘channel theory’, conscious that it offered the one sort of opportunity of which with his peculiar gifts he was able to take advantage. He admitted, however, that it was under a cloud at present, for if knowledge of the coastwise navigation were a crime in itself we should scarcely be sitting here now. ‘It’s something to do with it, anyhow!’ he persisted.

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