The Riddle of the Sands, by Erskine Childers

19. The Rubicon

IT was a cold, vaporous dawn, the glass rising, and the wind fallen to a light air still from the north-east. Our creased and sodden sails scarcely answered to it as we crept across the oily swell to Langeoog. ‘Fogs and calms,’ Davies prophesied. The Blitz was astir when we passed her, and soon after steamed out to sea. Once over the bar, she turned westward and was lost to view in the haze. I should be sorry to have to explain how we found that tiny anchor-buoy, on the expressionless waste of grey. I only know that I hove the lead incessantly while Davies conned, till at last he was grabbing overside with the boat-hook, and there was the buoy on deck. The cable was soon following it, and finally the rusty monster himself, more loathsome than usual, after his long sojourn in the slime.

‘That’s all right,’ said Davies. ‘Now we can go anywhere.’

‘Well, it’s Norderney, isn’t it? We’ve settled that.’

‘Yes, I suppose we have. I was wondering whether it wouldn’t be shortest to go inside the Langeoog after all.’

‘Surely not,’ I urged. ‘The tide’s ebbing now, and the light’s bad; it’s new ground, with a “watershed” to cross, and we’re safe to get aground.’

‘All right — outside. Ready about.’ We swung lazily round and headed for the open sea. I record the fact, but in truth Davies might have taken me where he liked, for no land was visible, only a couple of ghostly booms.

‘It seems a pity to miss over that channel,’ said Davies with a sigh; ‘just when the Kormoran can’t watch us.’ (We had not seen her at all this morning.)

I set myself to the lead again, averse to reopening a barren argument. Grimm had done his work for the present, I felt certain, and was on his way by the shortest road to Norderney and Memmert.

We were soon outside and heading west, our boom squared away and the island sand-dunes just apparent under our lee. Then the breeze died to the merest draught, and left us rolling inert in a long swell. Consumed with impatience to get on I saw fatality in this failure of wind, after a fortnight of unprofitable meanderings, when we had generally had too much of it, and always enough for our purpose. I tried to read below, but the vile squirting of the centre-board drove me up.

‘Can’t we go any faster?’ I burst out once. I felt that there ought to be a pyramid of gauzy canvas aloft, spinnakers, flying jibs, and what not.

‘I don’t go in for speed,’ said Davies, shortly. He loyally did his best to ‘shove her’ along, but puffs and calms were the rule all day, and it was only by towing in the dinghy for two hours in the afternoon that we covered the length of Langeoog, and crept before dark to an anchorage behind Baltrum, its slug-shaped neighbour on the west. Strictly, I believe, we should have kept the sea all night; but I had not the grit to suggest that course, and Davies was only too glad of an excuse for threading the shoals of the Accumer Ee on a rising tide. The atmosphere had been slowly clearing as the day wore on; but we had scarcely anchored ten minutes before a blanket of white fog, rolling in from seaward, swallowed us up. Davies was already afield in the dinghy, and I had to guide him back with a foghorn, whose music roused hosts of sea birds from the surrounding flats, and brought them wheeling and complaining round us, a weird invisible chorus to my mournful solo.

The fog hung heavy still at daybreak on the 20th, but dispersed partially under a catspaw from the south about eight o’clock, in time for us to traverse the boomed channel behind Baltrum, before the tide left the watershed.

‘We shan’t get far today,’ said Davies, with philosophy. ‘And this sort of thing may go on for any time. It’s a regular autumn anti-cyclone — glass thirty point five and steady. That gale was the last of a stormy equinox.’

We took the inside route as a matter of course today. It was now the shortest to Norderney harbour, and scarcely less intricate than the Wichter Ee, which appeared to be almost totally blocked by banks, and is, in fact, the most impassable of all these outlets to the North Sea. But, as I say, this sort of navigation, always puzzling to me, was utterly bewildering in hazy weather. Any attempt at orientation made me giddy. So I slaved at the lead, varying my labour with a fierce bout of kedge-work when we grounded somewhere. I had two rests before two o’clock, one of an hour, when we ran into a patch of windless fog; another of a few moments, when Davies said, ‘There’s Norderney!’ and I saw, surmounting a long slope of weedy sand, still wet with the receding sea, a cluster of sandhills exactly like a hundred others I had seen of late, but fraught with a new and unique interest.

The usual formula, ‘What have you got now?’ checked my reverie, and ‘Helm’s a-lee,’ ended it for the time. We tacked on (for the wind had headed us) in very shoal water.

Suddenly Davies said: ‘Is that a boat ahead?’

‘Do you mean that galliot?’ I asked. I could plainly distinguish one of those familiar craft about half a mile away, just within the limit of vision.

‘The Kormoran, do you think?’ I added. Davies said nothing, but grew inattentive to his work. ‘Barely four,’ from me passed unnoticed, and we touched once, but swung off under some play of the current. Then came abruptly, ‘Stand by the anchor. Let go,’ and we brought up in mid-stream of the narrow creek we were following. I triced up the main-tack, and stowed the headsails unaided. When I had done Davies was still gazing to windward through his binoculars, and, to my astonishment, I noticed that his hands were trembling violently. I had never seen this happen before, even at moments when a false turn of the wrist meant death on a surf-battered bank.

‘What is it?’ I asked; ‘are you cold?’

‘That little boat,’ he said. I gazed to windward, too, and now saw a scrap of white in the distance, in sharp relief.

‘Small standing lug and jib; it’s her, right enough,’ said Davies to himself, in a sort of nervous stammer.

‘Who? What?’

‘Medusa’s dinghy.’

He handed, or rather pushed, me the glasses, still gazing.

‘Dollmann?’ I exclaimed.

‘No, it’s hers — the one she always sails. She’s come to meet m — us.’

Through the glasses the white scrap became a graceful little sail, squared away for the light following breeze. An angle of the creek hid the hull, then it glided into view. Someone was sitting aft steering, man or woman I could not say, for the sail hid most of the figure. For full two minutes — two long, pregnant minutes — we watched it in silence. The damp air was fogging the lenses, but I kept them to my eyes; for I did not want to look at Davies. At last I heard him draw a deep breath, straighten himself up, and give one of his characteristic ‘h’ms’. Then he turned briskly aft, cast off the dinghy’s painter, and pulled her up alongside.

‘You come too,’ he said, jumping in, and fixing the rowlocks. (His hands were steady again.) I laughed, and shoved the dinghy off.

‘I’d rather you did,’ he said, defiantly.

‘I’d rather stay. I’ll tidy up, and put the kettle on.’ Davies had taken a half stroke, but paused.

‘She oughtn’t to come aboard.’ he said.

‘She might like to,’ I suggested. ‘Chilly day, long way from home, common courtesy  —

‘Carruthers,’ said Davies, ‘if she comes aboard, please remember that she’s outside this business. There are no clues to be got from her.’

A little lecture which would have nettled me more if I had not been exultantly telling myself that, once and for all, for good or ill, the Rubicon was passed.

‘It’s your affair this time,’ I said; ‘run it as you please.’

He sculled away with vigorous strokes. ‘Just as he is,’ I thought to myself: bare head, beaded with fog-dew, ancient oilskin coat (only one button); grey jersey; grey woollen trousers (like a deep-sea fisherman’s) stuffed into long boots. A vision of his antitype, the Cowes Philanderer, crossed me for a second. As to his face — well, I could only judge by it, and marvel, that he was gripping his dilemma by either horn, as firmly as he gripped his sculls.

I watched the two boats converging. They would meet in the natural course about three hundred yards away, but a hitch occurred. First, the sail-boat checked and slewed; ‘aground,’ I concluded. The row-boat leapt forward still; then checked, too. From both a great splashing of sculls floated across the still air, then silence. The summit of the watershed, a physical Rubicon, prosaic and slimy, had still to be crossed, it seemed. But it could be evaded. Both boats headed for the northern side of the creek: two figures were out on the brink, hauling on two painters. Then Davies was striding over the sand, and a girl — I could see her now — was coming to meet him. And then I thought it was time to go below and tidy up.

Nothing on earth could have made the Dulcibella’s saloon a worthy reception-room for a lady. I could only use hurried efforts to make it look its best by plying a bunch of cotton-waste and a floor-brush; by pitching into racks and lockers the litter of pipes, charts, oddments of apparel, and so on, that had a way of collecting afresh, however recently we had tidied up; by neatly arranging our demoralized library, and by lighting the stove and veiling the table under a clean white cloth.

I suppose about twenty minutes had elapsed, and I was scrubbing fruitlessly at the smoky patch on the ceiling, when I heard the sound of oars and voices outside. I threw the cotton-waste into the fo’c’sle, made an onslaught on my hands, and then mounted the companion ladder. Our own dinghy was just rounding up alongside, Davies sculling in the bows, facing him in the stern a young girl in a grey tam-o’-shanter, loose waterproof jacket and dark serge skirt, the latter, to be frigidly accurate, disclosing a pair of workman-like rubber boots which, mutatis mutandis, were very like those Davies was wearing. Her hair, like his, was spangled with moisture. and her rose-brown skin struck a note of delicious colour against the sullen Stygian background.

‘There he is,’ said Davies. Never did his ‘meiner Freund, Carruthers,’ sound so pleasantly in my ears; never so discordantly the ‘Fräulein Dollmann’ that followed it. Every syllable of the four was a lie. Two honest English eyes were looking up into mine; an honest English hand — is this insular nonsense? Perhaps so, but I stick to it — a brown, firm hand — no, not so very small, my sentimental reader — was clasping mine. Of course I had strong reasons, apart from the racial instinct, for thinking her to be English, but I believe that if I had had none at all I should at any rate have congratulated Germany on a clever bit of plagiarism. By her voice, when she spoke, I knew that she must have talked German habitually from childhood; diction and accent were faultless, at least to my English ear; but the native constitutional ring was wanting.

She came on board. There was a hollow discussion first about time and weather, but it ended as we all in our hearts wished it to end. None of us uttered our real scruples. Mine, indeed, were too new and rudimentary to be worth uttering, so I said common-sense things about tea and warmth; but I began to think about my compact with Davies.

‘Just for a few minutes, then,’ she said.

I held out my hand and swung her up. She gazed round the deck and rigging with profound interest — a breathless, hungry interest — touching to see.

‘You’ve seen her before, haven’t you?’ I said.

‘I’ve not been on board before,’ she answered.

This struck me in passing as odd; but then I had only too few details from Davies about his days at Norderney in September.

‘Of course, that is what puzzled me,’ she exclaimed, suddenly, pointing to the mizzen. ‘I knew there was something different.’

Davies had belayed the painter, and now had to explain the origin of the mizzen. This was a cumbrous process, and his hearer’s attention soon wandered from the subject and became centred in him — his was already more than half in her — and the result was a golden opportunity for the discerning onlooker. It was very brief, but I made the most of it; buried deep a few regrets, did a little heartfelt penance, told myself I had been a cynical fool not to have foreseen this, and faced the new situation with a sinking heart; I am not ashamed to admit that, for I was fond of Davies, and I was keen about the quest.

She had never been a guilty agent in that attempt on Davies. Had she been an unconscious tool or only an unwilling one? If the latter, did she know the secret we were seeking? In the last degree unlikely, I decided. But, true to the compact, whose importance I now fully appreciated, I flung aside my diplomatic weapons, recoiling, as strongly, or nearly as strongly, let us say, from any effort direct or indirect to gain information from such a source. It was not our fault if by her own conversation and behaviour she gave us some idea of how matters stood. Davies already knew more than I did.

We spent a few minutes on deck while she asked eager questions about our build and gear and seaworthiness, with a quaint mixture of professional acumen and personal curiosity.

‘How did you manage alone that day?’ she asked Davies, suddenly.

‘Oh, it was quite safe,’ was the reply. ‘But it’s much better to have a friend.’

She looked at me; and — well, I would have died for Davies there and then.

‘Father said you would be safe,’ she remarked, with decision — a slight excess of decision, I thought. And at that turned to some rope or block and pursued her questioning. She found the compass impressive, and the trappings of that hateful centre-board had a peculiar fascination for her. Was this the way we did it in England? was her constant query.

Yet, in spite of a superficial freedom, we were all shy and constrained. The descent below was a welcome diversion, for we should have been less than human if we had not extracted some spontaneous fun from the humours of the saloon. I went down first to see about the tea, leaving them struggling for mutual comprehension over the theory of an English lifeboat. They soon followed, and I can see her now stooping in at the doorway, treading delicately, like a kitten, past the obstructive centre-board to a place on the starboard sofa, then taking in her surroundings with a timid rapture that broke into delight at all the primitive arrangements and dingy amenities of our den. She explored the cavernous recesses of the Rippingille, fingered the duck-guns and the miscellany in the racks, and peeped into the fo’c’sle with dainty awe. Everything was a source of merriment, from our cramped attitudes to the painful deficiency of spoons and the ‘yachtiness’ (there is no other word to describe it) of the bread, which had been bought at Bensersiel, and had suffered from incarceration and the climate. This fact came out, and led to some questions, while we waited for the water to boil, about the gale and our visit there. The topic, a pregnant one for us, appeared to have no special significance to her. At the mention of von Brüning she showed no emotion of any sort; on the contrary, she went out of her way, from an innocent motive that anyone could have guessed, to show that she could talk about him with dispassionate detachment.

‘He came to see us when you were here last, didn’t he?’ she said to Davies. ‘He often comes. He goes with father to Memmert sometimes. You know about Memmert? They are diving for money out of an old wreck.’

Yes, we had heard about it.

‘Of course you have. Father is a director of the company, and Commander von Brüning takes great interest in it; they took me down in a diving-bell once.’

I murmured, ‘Indeed!’ and Davies sawed laboriously at the bread. She must have misconstrued our sheepish silence, for she stopped and drew herself up with just a touch of momentary hauteur, utterly lost on Davies. I could have laughed aloud at this transient little comedy of errors.

‘Did you see any gold?’ said Davies at last, with husky solemnity. Something had to be said or we should defeat our own end; but I let him say it. He had not my faith in Memmert.

‘No, only mud and timber — oh, I forgot —’

‘You mustn’t betray the company’s secrets,’ I said, laughing; ‘Commander von Brüning wouldn’t tell us a word about the gold.’ (‘There’s self-denial!’ I said to myself.)

‘Oh, I don’t think it matters much,’ she answered, laughing too. ‘You are only visitors.’

‘That’s all,’ I remarked, demurely. ‘Just passing travellers.’

‘You will stop at Norderney?’ she said, with naive anxiety. ‘Herr Davies said —’

I looked to Davies; it was his affair. Fair and square came his answer, in blunt dog-German.

‘Yes, of course, we shall. I should like to see your father again.’

Up to this moment I had been doubtful of his final decision; for ever since our explanation at Bensersiel I had had the feeling that I was holding his nose to a very cruel grindstone. This straight word, clear and direct, beyond anything I had hoped for, brought me to my senses and showed me that his mind had been working far in advance of mine; and more, shaping a double purpose that I had never dreamt of.

‘My father?’ said Fräulein Dollmann; ‘yes, I am sure he will be very glad to see you.

There was no conviction in her tone, and her eyes were distant and troubled.

‘He’s not at home now, is he?’ I asked.

‘How did you know?’ (a little maidenly confusion). ‘Oh, Commander von Brüning.’

I might have added that it had been clear as daylight all along that this visit was in the nature of an escapade of which her father might not approve. I tried to say ‘I won’t tell,’ without words, and may have succeeded.

‘I told Mr Davies when we first met,’ she went on. ‘I expect him back very soon — tomorrow in fact; he wrote from Amsterdam. He left me at Hamburg and has been away since. Of course, he will not know your yacht is back again. I think he expected Mr Davies would stay in the Baltic, as the season was so late. But — but I am sure he will be glad to see you.’

‘Is the Medusa in harbour?’ said Davies.

‘Yes; but we are not living on her now. We are at our villa in the Schwannallée — my stepmother and I, that is.’ She added some details, and Davies gravely pencilled down the address on a leaf of the log-book; a formality which somehow seemed to regularize the present position.

‘We shall be at Norderney tomorrow,’ he said.

Meanwhile the kettle was boiling merrily, and I made the tea — cocoa, I should say, for the menu was changed in deference to our visitor’s tastes. ‘This is fun!’ she said. And by common consent we abandoned ourselves, three youthful, hungry mariners, to the enjoyment of this impromptu picnic. Such a chance might never occur again — carpamus diem.

But the banquet was never celebrated. As at Belshazzar’s feast, there was a writing on the wall; no supernatural inscription, but just a printed name; an English surname with title and initials, in cheap gilt lettering on the back of an old book; a silent, sneering witness of our snug party. The catastrophe came and passed so suddenly that at the time I had scarcely even an inkling of what caused it; but I know now that this is how it happened. Our visitor was sitting at the forward end of the starboard sofa, close to the bulkhead. Davies and I were opposite her. Across the bulkhead, on a level with our heads, ran the bookshelf, whose contents, remember, I had carefully straightened only half an hour ago, little dreaming of the consequence. Some trifle, probably the logbook which Davies had reached down from the shelf, called her attention to the rest of our library. While busied with the cocoa I heard her spelling out some titles, fingering leaves, and twitting Davies with the little care he took of his books. Suddenly there was a silence which made me look up, to see a startled and pitiful change in her. She was staring at Davies with wide eyes and parted lips, a burning flush mounting on her forehead, and such an expression on her face as a sleep-walker might wear, who wakes in fear he knows not where.

Half her mind was far away, labouring to construe some hideous dream of the past; half was in the present, cringing before some sickening reality. She remained so for perhaps ten seconds, and then — plucky girl that she was — she mastered herself, looked deliberately round and up with a circular glance, strangely in the manner of Davies himself, and spoke. How late it was, she must be going — her boat was not safe. At the same time she rose to go, or rather slid herself along the sofa, for rising was impossible. We sat like mannerless louts, in blank amazement. Davies at the outset had said, ‘What’s the matter?’ in plain English, and then relapsed into stupefaction. I recovered myself the first, and protested in some awkward fashion about the cocoa, the time, the absence of fog. In trying to answer, her self-possession broke down, poor child, and her retreat became a blind flight, like that of a wounded animal, while every sordid circumstance seemed to accentuate her panic.

She tilted the corner of the table in leaving the sofa and spilt cocoa over her skirt; she knocked her head with painful force against the sharp lintel of the doorway, and stumbled on the steps of the ladder. I was close behind, but when I reached the deck she was already on the counter hauling up the dinghy. She had even jumped in and laid hands on the sculls before any check came in her precipitate movements. Now there occurred to her the patent fact that the dinghy was ours, and that someone must accompany her to bring it back.

‘Davies will row you over,’ I said.

‘Oh no, thank you,’ she stammered. ‘If you will be so kind, Herr Carruthers. It is your turn. No, I mean, I want —’

‘Go on,’ said Davies to me in English.

I stepped into the dinghy and motioned to take the sculls from her. She seemed not to see me, and pushed off while Davies handed down her jacket, which she had left in the cabin. Neither of us tried to better the situation by conventional apologies. It was left to her, at the last moment, to make a show of excusing herself, an attempt so brave and yet so wretchedly lame that I tingled all over with hot shame. She only made matters worse, and Davies interrupted her.

Auf Wiedersehen,’ he said, simply.

She shook her head, did not even offer her hand, and pulled away; Davies turned sharp round and went below.

There was now no muddy Rubicon to obstruct us, for the tide had risen a good deal, and the sands were covering. I offered again to take the sculls, but she took no notice and rowed on, so that I was a silent passenger on the stem seat till we reached her boat, a spruce little yacht’s gig, built to the native model, with a spoon-bow and tiny lee-boards. It was already afloat, but riding quite safely to a rope and a little grapnel, which she proceeded to haul in.

‘It was quite safe after all, you see,’ I said.

‘Yes, but I could not stay. Herr Carruthers, I want to say something to you.’ (I knew it was coming; von Brüning’s warning over again.) ‘I made a mistake just now; it is no use your calling on us tomorrow.’

‘Why not?’

‘You will not see my father.’

‘I thought you said he was coming back?’

‘Yes, by the morning steamer; but he will be very busy.’

‘We can wait. We have several days to spare, and we have to call for letters anyhow.’

‘You must not delay on our account. The weather is very fine at last. It would be a pity to lose a chance of a smooth voyage to England. The season —’

‘We have no fixed plans. Davies wants to get some shooting.

‘My father will be much occupied.’

‘We can see you.’

I insisted on being obtuse, for though this fencing with an unstrung girl was hateful work, the quest was at stake. We were going to Norderney, come what might, and sooner or later we must see Dollmann. It was no use promising not to. I had given no pledge to von Brüning, and I would give none to her. The only alternative was to violate the compact (which the present fiasco had surely weakened), speak out, and try and make an ally of her. Against her own father? I shrank from the responsibility and counted the cost of failure — certain failure, to judge by her conduct. She began to hoist her lugsail in a dazed, shiftless fashion, while our two boats drifted slowly to leeward.

‘Father might not like it,’ she said, so low and from such tremulous lips that I scarcely caught her words. ‘He does not like foreigners much. I am afraid . . . he did not want to see Herr Davies again.’

‘But I thought —’

‘It was wrong of me to come aboard — I suddenly remembered; but 1 could not tell Herr Davies.’

‘I see,’ I answered. ‘I will tell him.’

‘Yes, that he must not come near us.

‘He will understand. I know he will be very sorry, but,’ I added, firmly, ‘you can trust him implicitly to do the right thing.’ And how I prayed that this would content her! Thank Heaven, it did.

‘Yes,’ she said, ‘I am afraid I did not say good-bye to him. You will do so?’ She gave me her hand.

‘One thing more,’ I added, holding it, ‘nothing had better be said about this meeting?’

‘No, no, nothing. It must never be known.’

I let go the gig’s gunwale and watched her tighten her sheet and make a tack or two to windward. Then I rowed back to the Dulcibella as hard as I could.

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