The Riddle of the Sands, by Erskine Childers

18. Imperial Escort

MEMMERT gripped me, then, to the exclusion of a rival notion which had given me no little perplexity during the conversation with von Brüning. His reiterated advice that we should lose no time in picking up our anchor and chain had ended by giving me the idea that he was anxious to get us away from Bensersiel and the mainland. At first I had taken the advice partly as a test of our veracity (as I gave the reader to understand), and partly as an indirect method of lulling any suspicions which Grimm’s midnight visit may have caused. Then it struck me that this might be over-subtlety on my part, and the idea recurred when the question of our future plans cropped up, and hampered me in deciding on a course. It returned again when von Brüning offered to tow us out in the evening. It was in my mind when I questioned him as to his business ashore, for it occurred to me that perhaps his landing here was not solely due to a wish to inspect the crew of the Dulcibella. Then came his perfectly frank explanation (with its sinister double entente for us), coupled with an invitation to me to accompany him to Esens. But, on the principle of ’tinieo Danaos’ etc., I instantly smelt a ruse, not that I dreamt that I was to be decoyed into captivity; but if there was anything here which we two might discover in the few hours left to us, it was an ingenious plan to remove the most observant of the two till the hour of departure.

Davies scorned them, and I had felt only a faint curiosity in these insignificant hamlets, influenced, I am afraid, chiefly by a hankering after terra firma which the pitiless rigour of his training had been unable to cure.

But it was imprudent to neglect the slightest chance. It was three o’clock, and I think both our brains were beginning to be addled with thinking in close confinement. I suggested that we should finish our council of war in the open, and we both donned oilskins and turned out. The sky had hardened and banked into an even canopy of lead, and the wind drove before it a fine cold rain. You could hear the murmur of the rising flood on the sands outside, but the harbour was high above it still, and the Dulcibella and the other boats squatted low in a bed of black slime. Native interest seemed to be at last assuaged, for not a soul was visible on the bank (I cannot call it a quay); but the top of a black sou’wester with a feather of smoke curling round it showed above the forehatch of the Kormoran.

‘I wish I could get a look at your cargo, my friend,’ I thought to myself.

We gazed at Bensersiel in silence.

‘There can’t be anything here?’ I said.

‘What can there be?’ said Davies.

‘What about that dyke?’ I said, with a sudden inspiration.

From the bank we could see all along the coast-line, which is dyked continuously, as I have already said. The dyke was here a substantial brick-faced embankment, very similar, though on a smaller scale, to that which had bordered the Elbe near Cuxhaven, and over whose summit we had seen the snouts of guns.

‘I say, Davies,’ I said, ‘do you think this coast could be invaded? Along here, I mean, behind these islands?’

Davies shook his head. ‘I’ve thought of that,’ he said. ‘There’s nothing in it. It’s just the very last place on earth where a landing would be possible. No transport could get nearer than where the Blitz is lying, four miles out.’

‘Well, you say every inch of this coast is important?’

‘Yes, but it’s the water I mean.’

‘Well, I want to see that dyke. Let’s walk along it.’

My mushroom theory died directly I set foot on it. It was the most innocent structure in the world — like a thousand others in Essex and Holland — topped by a narrow path, where we walked in single file with arms akimbo to keep our balance in the gusts of wind. Below us lay the sands on one side and rank fens on the other, interspersed with squares of pasture ringed in with ditches. After half a mile we dropped down and came back by a short circuit inland, following a mazy path — which was mostly right angles and minute plank bridges, till we came to the Esens road. We crossed this and soon after found our way barred by the stream I spoke of. This involved a détour to the bridge in the village, and a stealthy avoidance of the post-office, for dread of its garrulous occupant. Then we followed the dyke in the other direction, and ended by a circuit over the sands, which were fast being covered by the tide, and so back to the yacht.

Nobody appeared to have taken the slightest notice of our movements.

As we walked we had tackled the last question, ‘What are we to do?’ and found very little to say on it. We were to leave to-night (unless the Esens police appeared on the scene), and were committed to sailing direct to Norderney, as the only alternative to duck shooting under the espionage of a ‘trustworthy’ nominee of von Brüning’s. Beyond that — vagueness and difficulty of every sort.

At Norderney I should be fettered by my letter. If it seemed to have been opened and it ordered my return, I was limited to a week, or must risk suspicion by staying. Dollmann was away (according to von Brüning), ‘would probably be back soon’; but how soon? Beyond Norderney lay Memmert. How to probe its secret? The ardour it had roused in me was giving way to a mortifying sense of impotence. The sight of the Kormoran, with her crew preparing for sea, was a pointed comment on my diplomacy, and most of all on my ridiculous survey of the dykes. When all was said and done we were protégés of von Brüning, and dogged by Grimm. Was it likely they would let us succeed?

The tide was swirling into the harbour in whorls of chocolate froth, and as it rose all Bensersiel, dominated as before by Herr Schenkel, straggled down to the quay to watch the movements of shipping during the transient but momentous hour when the mud-hole was a seaport. The captain’s steam-cutter was already afloat, and her sailors busy with sidelights and engines. When it became known that we, too, were to sail, and under such distinguished escort, the excitement intensified.

Again our friend of the customs was spreading out papers to sign, while a throng of helpful Frisians, headed by the twin giants of the post-boat, thronged our decks and made us ready for sea in their own confused fashion. Again we were carried up to the inn and overwhelmed with advice, and warnings, and farewell toasts. Then back again to find the Dulcibella afloat, and von Brüning just arrived, cursing the weather and the mud, chaffing Davies, genial and débonnaire as ever.

‘Stow that mainsail, you won’t want it,’ he said. ‘I’ll tow you right out to Spiekeroog. It’s your only anchorage for the night in this wind — under the island, near the Blitz, and that would mean a dead beat for you in the dark.’

The fact was so true, and the offer so timely, that Davies’s faint protests were swept aside in a torrent of ridicule.

‘And now I think of it,’ the commander ended, ‘I’ll make the trip with you, if I may. It’ll be pleasanter and drier.’

We all three boarded the Dulcibella, and then the end came. Our tow-rope was attached, and at half-past six the little launch jumped into the collar, and amidst a demonstration that could not have been more hearty if we had been ambassadors on a visit to a friendly power, we sidled out through the jetties.

It took us more than an hour to cover the five miles to Spiekeroog, for the Dulcibella was a heavy load in the stiff head wind, and Davies, though he said nothing, showed undisguised distrust of our tug’s capacities. He at once left the helm to me and flung himself on the gear, not resting till every rope was ready to hand, the mainsail reefed, the binnacle lighted, and all ready for setting sail or anchoring at a moment’s notice. Our guest watched these precautions with infinite amusement. He was in the highest and most mischievous humour, raining banter on Davies and mock sympathy on me, laughing at our huge compass, heaving the lead himself, startling us with imaginary soundings, and doubting if his men were sober. I offered entertainment and warmth below, but he declined on the ground that Davies would be tempted to cut the tow-rope and make us pass the night on a safe sandbank. Davies took the raillery unmoved. His work done, he took the tiller and sat bareheaded, intent on the launch, the course, the details, and chances of the present. I brought up cigars and we settled ourselves facing him, our backs to the wind and spray. And so we made the rest of the passage, von Brüning cuddled against me and the cabin-hatch, alternately shouting a jest to Davies and talking to me in a light and charming vein, with just that shade of patronage that the disparity in our ages warranted, about my time in Germany, places, people, and books I knew, and about life, especially young men’s life, in England, a country he had never visited, but hoped to; I responding as well as I could, striving to meet his mood, acquit myself like a man, draw zest instead of humiliation from the irony of our position, but scarcely able to make headway against a numbing sense of defeat and incapacity. A queer thought was haunting me, too, that such skill and judgement as I possessed was slipping from me as we left the land and faced again the rigours of this exacting sea. Davies, I very well knew, was under exactly the opposite spell — a spell which even the reproach of the tow-rope could not annul. His face, in the glow of the binnacle, was beginning to wear that same look of contentment and resolve that I had seen on it that night we had sailed to Kiel from Schlei Fiord. Heaven knows he had more cause for worry than I— a casual comrade in an adventure which was peculiarly his, which meant everything on earth to him; but there he was, washing away perplexity in the salt wind, drawing counsel and confidence from the unfailing source of all his inspirations — the sea.

‘Looks happy, doesn’t he?’ said the captain once. I grunted that he did, ashamed to find how irritated the remark made me.

‘You’ll remember what I said,’ he added in my ear.

OTE

‘Yes,’ I said. ‘But I should like to see her. What is she like?’

‘Dangerous.’ I could well believe it.

The hull of the Blitz loomed up, and a minute later our kedge was splashing overboard and the launch was backing alongside.

‘Good-night, gentlemen,’ said our passenger. ‘You’re safe enough here, and you can run across in ten minutes in the morning and pick up your anchor, if it’s there still. Then you’ve a fair wind west — to England if you like. If you decide to stay a little longer in these parts, and I’m in reach, count on me to help you, to sport or anything else.’

We thanked him, shook hands, and he was gone.

‘He’s a thundering good chap, anyhow,’ said Davies; and I heartily agreed.

The narrow vigilant life began again at once. We were ‘safe enough’ in a sense, but a warp and a twenty-pound anchor were poor security if the wind backed or increased. Plans for contingencies had to be made, and deck-watches kept till midnight, when the weather seemed to improve, and stars appeared. The glass was rising, so we turned in and slept under the very wing, so to speak, of the Imperial Government.

‘Davies,’ I said, when we were settled in our bunks, ‘it’s only a day’s sail to Norderney, isn’t it?’

‘With a fair wind, less, if we go outside the islands direct.’

‘Well, it’s settled that we do that tomorrow?’

‘I suppose so. We’ve got to get the anchor first. Good-night.’

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