The Riddle of the Sands, by Erskine Childers

2. The ‘Dulcibella’

THAT two days later I should be found pacing the deck of the Flushing steamer with a ticket for Hamburg in my pocket may seem a strange result, yet not so strange if you have divined my state of mind. You will guess, at any rate, that I was armed with the conviction that I was doing an act of obscure penance, rumours of which might call attention to my lot and perhaps awaken remorse in the right quarter, while it left me free to enjoy myself unobtrusively in the remote event of enjoyment being possible.

The fact was that, at breakfast on the morning after the arrival of the letter, I had still found that inexplicable lightening which I mentioned before, and strong enough to warrant a revival of the pros and cons. An important pro which I had not thought of before was that after all it was a good-natured piece of unselfishness to join Davies; for he had spoken of the want of a pal, and seemed honestly to be in need of me. I almost clutched at this consideration. It was an admirable excuse, when I reached my office that day, for a resigned study of the Continental Bradshaw, and an order to Carter to unroll a great creaking wall-map of Germany and find me Flensburg. The latter labour I might have saved him, but it was good for Carter to have something to do; and his patient ignorance was amusing. With most of the map and what it suggested I was tolerably familiar, for I had not wasted my year in Germany, whatever I had done or not done since. Its people, history, progress, and future had interested me intensely, and I had still friends in Dresden and Berlin. Flensburg recalled the Danish war of ‘64, and by the time Carter’s researches had ended in success I had forgotten the task set him, and was wondering whether the prospect of seeing something of that lovely region of Schleswig–Holstein, [See Map A] as I knew from hearsay that it was, was at all to be set against such an uncomfortable way of seeing it, with the season so late, the company so unattractive, and all the other drawbacks which I counted and treasured as proofs of my desperate condition, if I were to go. It needed little to decide me, and I think K—‘s arrival from Switzerland, offensively sunburnt, was the finishing touch. His greeting was ‘Hullo, Carruthers, you here? Thought you had got away long ago. Lucky devil, though, to be going now, just in time for the best driving and the early pheasants. The heat’s been shocking out there. Carter, bring me a Bradshaw’—(an extraordinary book, Bradshaw, turned to from habit, even when least wanted, as men fondle guns and rods in the close season).

By lunch-time the weight of indecision had been removed, and I found myself entrusting Carter with a telegram to Davies, P.O., Flensburg. ‘Thanks; expect me 9.34 p.m. 26th’; which produced, three hours later, a reply: ‘Delighted; please bring a No. 3 Rippingille stove’— a perplexing and ominous direction, which somehow chilled me in spite of its subject matter.

Indeed, my resolution was continually faltering. It faltered when I turned out my gun in the evening and thought of the grouse it ought to have accounted for. It faltered again when I contemplated the miscellaneous list of commissions, sown broadcast through Davies’s letter, to fulfil which seemed to make me a willing tool where my chosen rôle was that of an embittered exile, or at least a condescending ally. However, I faced the commissions manfully, after leaving the office.

At Lancaster’s I inquired for his gun, was received coolly, and had to pay a heavy bill, which it seemed to have incurred, before it was handed over. Having ordered the gun and No. 4’s to be sent to my chambers, I bought the Raven mixture with that peculiar sense of injury which the prospect of smuggling in another’s behalf always entails; and wondered where in the world Carey and Neilson’s was, a firm which Davies spoke of as though it were as well known as the Bank of England or the Stores, instead of specializing in ‘rigging-screws’, whatever they might be. They sounded important, though, and it would be only polite to unearth them. I connected them with the ‘few repairs’

and awoke new misgivings. At the Stores I asked for a No. 3 Rippingille stove, and was confronted with a formidable and hideous piece of ironmongery, which burned petroleum in two capacious tanks, horribly prophetic of a smell of warm oil. I paid for this miserably, convinced of its grim efficiency, but speculating as to the domestic conditions which caused it to be sent for as an afterthought by telegram. I also asked about rigging-screws in the yachting department, but learnt that they were not kept in stock; that Carey and Neilson’s would certainly have them, and that their shop was in the Minories, in the far east, meaning a journey nearly as long as to Flensburg, and twice as tiresome. They would be shut by the time I got there, so after this exhausting round of duty I went home in a cab, omitted dressing for dinner (an epoch in itself), ordered a chop up from the basement kitchen, and spent the rest of the evening packing and writing, with the methodical gloom of a man setting his affairs in order for the last time.

The last of those airless nights passed. The astonished Withers saw me breakfasting at eight, and at 9.30 I was vacantly examining rigging-screws with what wits were left me after a sulphurous ride in the Underground to Aldgate. I laid great stress on the 3/8’s, and the galvanism, and took them on trust, ignorant as to their functions. For the eleven-shilling oilskins I was referred to a villainous den in a back street, which the shopman said they always recommended, and where a dirty and bejewelled Hebrew chaffered with me (beginning at 18s.) over two reeking orange slabs distantly resembling moieties of the human figure. Their odour made me close prematurely for 14s., and I hurried back (for I was due there at eleven) to my office with my two disreputable brown-paper parcels, one of which made itself so noticeable in the close official air that Carter attentively asked if I would like to have it sent to my chambers, and K— was inquisitive to bluntness about it and my movements. But I did not care to enlighten K— whose comments I knew would be provokingly envious or wounding to my pride in some way.

I remembered, later on, the prismatic compass, and wired to the Minories to have one sent at once, feeling rather relieved that I was not present there to be cross-examined as to size and make.

The reply was, ‘Not stocked; try surveying-instrument maker’— a reply both puzzling and reassuring, for Davies’s request for a compass had given me more uneasiness than anything, while, to find that what he wanted turned out to be a surveying-instrument, was a no less perplexing discovery. That day I made my last précis and handed over my schedules — Procrustean beds, where unwilling facts were stretched and tortured — and said good-bye to my temporary chief, genial and lenient M— who wished me a jolly holiday with all sincerity.

At seven I was watching a cab packed with my personal luggage and the collection of unwieldy and incongruous packages that my shopping had drawn down on me. Two deviations after that wretched prismatic compass — which I obtained in the end secondhand, faute de mieux, near Victoria, at one of those showy shops which look like jewellers’ and are really pawnbrokers’— nearly caused me to miss my train. But at 8.30 I had shaken off the dust of London from my feet, and at 10.30 1 was, as I have announced, pacing the deck of a Flushing steamer, adrift on this fatuous holiday in the far Baltic.

An air from the west, cooled by a midday thunderstorm, followed the steamer as she slid through the calm channels of the Thames estuary, passed the cordon of scintillating lightships that watch over the sea-roads to the imperial city like pickets round a sleeping army, and slipped out into the dark spaces of the North Sea. Stars were bright, summer scents from the Kent cliffs mingled coyly with vulgar steamer-smells; the summer weather held Immutably. Nature, for her part, seemed resolved to be no party to my penance, but to be imperturbably bent on shedding mild ridicule over my wrongs. An irresistible sense of peace and detachment, combined with that delicious physical awakening that pulses through the nerve-sick townsman when city airs and bald routine are left behind him, combined to provide me, however thankless a subject, with a solid background of resignation. Stowing this safely away, I could calculate my intentions with cold egotism. If the weather held I might pass a not intolerable fortnight with Davies. When it broke up, as it was sure to, I could easily excuse myself from the pursuit of the problematical ducks; the wintry logic of facts would, in any case, decide him to lay up his yacht, for he could scarcely think of sailing home at such a season. I could then take a chance lying ready of spending a few weeks in Dresden or elsewhere. I settled this programme comfortably and then turned in.

From Flushing eastward to Hamburg, then northward to Flensburg, I cut short the next day’s sultry story. Past dyke and windmill and still canals, on to blazing stubbles and roaring towns; at the last, after dusk, through a quiet level region where the train pottered from one lazy little station to another, and at ten o’clock I found myself, stiff and stuffy, on the platform at Flensburg, exchanging greetings with Davies.

‘It’s awfully good of you to come.’

‘Not at all; it’s very good of you to ask me.’

We were both of us ill at ease. Even in the dim gaslight he clashed on my notions of a yachtsman — no cool white ducks or neat blue serge; and where was the snowy crowned yachting cap, that precious charm that so easily converts a landsman into a dashing mariner? Conscious that this impressive uniform, in high perfection, was lying ready in my portmanteau, I felt oddly guilty. He wore an old Norfolk jacket, muddy brown shoes, grey flannel trousers (or had they been white?), and an ordinary tweed cap. The hand he gave me was horny, and appeared to be stained with paint; the other one, which carried a parcel, had a bandage on it which would have borne renewal. There was an instant of mutual inspection. I thought he gave me a shy, hurried scrutiny as though to test past conjectures, with something of anxiety in it, and perhaps (save the mark!) a tinge of admiration. The face was familiar, and yet not familiar; the pleasant blue eyes, open, clean-cut features, unintellectual forehead were the same; so were the brisk and impulsive movements; there was some change; but the moment of awkward hesitation was over and the light was bad; and, while strolling down the platform for my luggage, we chatted with constraint about trivial things.

‘By the way,’ he suddenly said, laughing, ‘I’m afraid I’m not fit to be seen; but it’s so late it doesn’t matter. I’ve been painting hard all day, and just got it finished. I only hope we shall have some wind tomorrow — it’s been hopelessly calm lately. I say, you’ve brought a good deal of stuff,’ he concluded, as my belongings began to collect.

Here was a reward for my submissive exertions in the far east!

‘You gave me a good many commissions!’

‘Oh, I didn’t mean those things,’ he said, absently. ‘Thanks for bringing them, by the way. That’s the stove, I suppose; cartridges, this one, by the weight. You got the rigging-screws all right, I hope? They’re not really necessary, of course’ (I nodded vacantly, and felt a little hurt); ‘but they’re simpler than lanyards, and you can’t get them here. It’s that portmanteau,’ he said, slowly, measuring it with a doubtful eye. ‘Never mind! we’ll try. You couldn’t do with the Gladstone only, I suppose? You see, the dinghy — h’m, and there’s the hatchway, too’— he was lost in thought. ‘Anyhow, we’ll try. I’m afraid there are no cabs; but it’s quite near, and the porter’ll help.’

Sickening forebodings crept over me, while Davies shouldered my Gladstone and clutched at the parcels.

‘Aren’t your men here?’ I asked, faintly.

‘Men?’ He looked confused. ‘Oh, perhaps I ought to have told you, I never have any paid hands; it’s quite a small boat, you know — I hope you didn’t expect luxury. I’ve managed her single-handed for some time. A man would be no use, and a horrible nuisance.’ He revealed these appalling truths with a cheerful assurance, which did nothing to hide a naive apprehension of their effect on me. There was a check in our mobilization.

‘It’s rather late to go on board, isn’t it?’ I said, in a wooden voice. Someone was turning out the gaslights, and the porter yawned ostentatiously. ‘I think I’d rather sleep at an hotel to-night.’ A strained pause.

‘Oh, of course you can do that, if you like,’ said Davies, in transparent distress of mind. ‘But it seems hardly worth while to cart this stuff all the way to an hotel (I believe they’re all on the other side of the harbour), and back again to the boat tomorrow. She’s quite comfortable, and you’re sure to sleep well, as you’re tired.’

‘We can leave the things here,’ I argued feebly, ‘and walk over with my bag.’

‘Oh, I shall have to go aboard anyhow,’ he rejoined; ‘I never sleep on shore.’

He seemed to be clinging timidly, but desperately, to some diplomatic end. A stony despair was invading me and paralysing resistance. Better face the worst and be done with it.

‘Come on,’ I said, grimly.

Heavily loaded, we stumbled over railway lines and rubble heaps, and came on the harbour. Davies led the way to a stairway, whose weedy steps disappeared below in gloom.

‘If you’ll get into the dinghy,’ he said, all briskness now, ‘I’ll pass the things down.

I descended gingerly, holding as a guide a sodden painter which ended in a small boat, and conscious that I was collecting slime on cuffs and trousers.

‘Hold up!’ shouted Davies, cheerfully, as I sat down suddenly near the bottom, with one foot in the water.

I climbed wretchedly into the dinghy and awaited events.

‘Now float her up close under the quay wall, and make fast to the ring down there,’ came down from above, followed by the slack of the sodden painter, which knocked my cap off as it fell. ‘All fast? Any knot’ll do,’ I heard, as I grappled with this loathsome task, and then a big, dark object loomed overhead and was lowered into the dinghy. It was my portmanteau, and, placed athwart, exactly filled all the space amidships. ‘Does it fit?’ was the anxious inquiry from aloft.

‘Beautifully.’

‘Capital!’

Scratching at the greasy wall to keep the dinghy close to it, I received in succession our stores, and stowed the cargo as best I could, while the dinghy sank lower and lower in the water, and its precarious superstructure grew higher.

‘Catch!’ was the final direction from above, and a damp soft parcel hit me in the chest. ‘Be careful of that, it’s meat. Now back to the stairs!’

I painfully acquiesced, and Davies appeared.

‘It’s a bit of a load, and she’s rather deep; but I think we shall manage,’ he reflected. ‘You sit right aft, and I’ll row.’

I was too far gone for curiosity as to how this monstrous pyramid was to be rowed, or even for surmises as to its foundering by the way. I crawled to my appointed seat, and Davies extricated the buried sculls by a series of tugs, which shook the whole structure, and made us roll alarmingly. How he stowed himself into rowing posture I have not the least idea, but eventually we were moving sluggishly out into the open water, his head just visible in the bows. We had started from what appeared to be the head of a narrow loch, and were leaving behind us the lights of a big town. A long frontage of lamp-lit quays was on our left, with here and there the vague hull of a steamer alongside. We passed the last of the lights and came out into a broader stretch of water, when a light breeze was blowing and dark hills could be seen on either shore.

‘I’m lying a little way down the fiord, you see,’ said Davies. ‘I hate to be too near a town, and I found a carpenter handy here — There she is! I wonder how you’ll like her!’

I roused myself. We were entering a little cove encircled by trees, and approaching a light which flickered in the rigging of a small vessel, whose outline gradually defined itself.

‘Keep her off,’ said Davies, as we drew alongside.

OTE

In a moment he had jumped on deck, tied the painter, and was round at my end.

‘You hand them up,’ he ordered, ‘and I’ll take them.’

It was a laborious task, with the one relief that it was not far to hand them — a doubtful compensation, for other reasons distantly shaping themselves. When the stack was transferred to the deck I followed it, tripping over the flabby meat parcel, which was already showing ghastly signs of disintegration under the dew. Hazily there floated through my mind my last embarkation on a yacht; my faultless attire, the trim gig and obsequious sailors, the accommodation ladder flashing with varnish and brass in the August sun; the orderly, snowy decks and basket chairs under the awning aft. What a contrast with this sordid midnight scramble, over damp meat and littered packing-cases! The bitterest touch of all was a growing sense of inferiority and ignorance which I had never before been allowed to feel in my experience of yachts.

Davies awoke from another reverie over my portmanteau to say, cheerily: ‘I’ll just show you round down below first, and then we’ll stow things away and get to bed.’

He dived down a companion ladder, and I followed cautiously. A complex odour of paraffin, past cookery, tobacco, and tar saluted my nostrils.

‘Mind your head,’ said Davies, striking a match and lighting a candle, while I groped into the cabin. ‘You’d better sit down; it’s easier to look round.’

There might well have been sarcasm in this piece of advice, for I must have cut a ridiculous figure, peering awkwardly and suspiciously round, with shoulders and head bent to avoid the ceiling, which seemed in the half-light to be even nearer the floor than it was.

‘You see,’ were Davies’s reassuring words, ‘there’s plenty of room to sit upright’ (which was strictly true; but I am not very tall, and he is short). ‘Some people make a point of head-room, but I never mind much about it. That’s the centre-board case,’ he explained, as, in stretching my legs out, my knee came into contact with a sharp edge.

I had not seen this devilish obstruction, as it was hidden beneath the table, which indeed rested on it at one end. It appeared to be a long, low triangle, running lengthways with the boat and dividing the naturally limited space into two.

‘You see, she’s a flat-bottomed boat, drawing very little water without the plate; that’s why there’s so little headroom. For deep water you lower the plate; so, in one way or another, you can go practically anywhere.’

I was not nautical enough to draw any very definite conclusions from this, but what I did draw were not promising. The latter sentences were spoken from the forecastle, whither Davies had crept through a low sliding door, like that of a rabbit-hutch, and was already busy with a kettle over a stove which I made out to be a battered and disreputable twin brother of the No. 3 Rippingille.

‘It’ll be boiling soon,’ he remarked, ‘and we’ll have some grog.’

My eyes were used to the light now, and I took in the rest of my surroundings, which may be very simply described. Two long cushion-covered seats flanked the cabin, bounded at the after end by cupboards, one of which was cut low to form a sort of miniature sideboard, with glasses hung in a rack above it. The deck overhead was very low at each side but rose shoulder high for a space in the middle, where a ‘coach-house roof’ with a skylight gave additional cabin space. Just outside the door was a fold-up washing-stand. On either wall were long net-racks holding a medley of flags, charts, caps, cigar-boxes, banks of yam, and such like. Across the forward bulkhead was a bookshelf crammed to overflowing with volumes of all sizes, many upside down and some coverless. Below this were a pipe-rack, an aneroid, and a clock with a hearty tick. All the woodwork was painted white, and to a less jaundiced eye than mine the interior might have had an enticing look of snugness. Some Kodak prints were nailed roughly on the after bulkhead, and just over the doorway was the photograph of a young girl.

‘That’s my sister,’ said Davies, who had emerged and saw me looking at it. ‘Now, let’s get the stuff down.’ He ran up the ladder, and soon my portmanteau blackened the hatchway, and a great straining and squeezing began. ‘I was afraid it was too big,’ came down; ‘I’m sorry, but you’ll have to unpack on deck — we may be able to squash it down when it’s empty.’

Then the wearisome tail of packages began to form a fresh stack in the cramped space at my feet, and my back ached with stooping and moiling in unfamiliar places. Davies came down, and with unconcealed pride introduced me to the sleeping cabin (he called the other one ‘the saloon’). Another candle was lit and showed two short and narrow berths with blankets, but no sign of sheets; beneath these were drawers, one set of which Davies made me master of, evidently thinking them a princely allowance of space for my wardrobe.

‘You can chuck your things down the skylight on to your berth as you unpack them,’ he remarked. ‘By the way, I doubt if there’s room for all you’ve got. I suppose you couldn’t manage —’

‘No, I couldn’t,’ I said shortly.

The absurdity of argument struck me; two men, doubled up like monkeys, cannot argue.

‘If you’ll go out I shall be able to get out too,’ I added. He seemed miserable at this ghost of an altercation, but I pushed past, mounted the ladder, and in the expiring moonlight unstrapped that accursed portmanteau and, brimming over with irritation, groped among its contents, sorting some into the skylight with the same feeling that nothing mattered much now, and it was best to be done with it; repacking the rest with guilty stealth ere Davies should discover their character, and strapping up the whole again. Then I sat down upon my white elephant and shivered, for the chill of autumn was in the air. It suddenly struck me that if it had been raining things might have been worse still. The notion made me look round. The little cove was still as glass; stars above and stars below; a few white cottages glimmering at one point on the shore; in the west the lights of Flensburg; to the east the fiord broadening into unknown gloom. From Davies toiling below there were muffled sounds of wrenching, pushing, and hammering, punctuated occasionally by a heavy splash as something shot up from the hatchway and fell into the water.

How it came about I do not know. Whether it was something pathetic in the look I had last seen on his face — a look which I associated for no reason whatever with his bandaged hand; whether it was one of those instants of clear vision in which our separate selves are seen divided, the baser from the better, and I saw my silly egotism in contrast with a simple generous nature; whether it was an impalpable air of mystery which pervaded the whole enterprise and refused to be dissipated by its most mortifying and vulgarizing incidents — a mystery dimly connected with my companion’s obvious consciousness of having misled me into joining him; whether it was only the stars and the cool air rousing atrophied instincts of youth and spirits; probably, indeed, it was all these influences, cemented into strength by a ruthless sense of humour which whispered that I was in danger of making a mere commonplace fool of myself in spite of all my laboured calculations; but whatever it was, in a flash my mood changed. The crown of martyrdom disappeared, the wounded vanity healed; that precious fund of fictitious resignation drained away, but left no void. There was left a fashionable and dishevelled young man sitting in the dew and in the dark on a ridiculous portmanteau which dwarfed the yacht that was to carry it; a youth acutely sensible of ignorance in a strange and strenuous atmosphere; still feeling sore and victimized; but withal sanely ashamed and sanely resolved to enjoy himself. I anticipate; for though the change was radical its full growth was slow. But in any case it was here and now that it took its birth.

‘Grog’s ready!’ came from below. Bunching myself for the descent I found to my astonishment that all trace of litter had miraculously vanished, and a cosy neatness reigned. Glasses and lemons were on the table, and a fragrant smell of punch had deadened previous odours. I showed little emotion at these amenities, but enough to give intense relief to Davies, who delightedly showed me his devices for storage, praising the ‘roominess’ of his floating den. ‘There’s your stove, you see,’ he ended; ‘I’ve chucked the old one overboard.’ It was a weakness of his, I should say here, to rejoice in throwing things overboard on the flimsiest pretexts. I afterwards suspected that the new stove had not been ‘really necessary’ any more than the rigging-screws, but was an excuse for gratifying this curious taste.

We smoked and chatted for a little, and then came the problem of going to bed. After much bumping of knuckles and head, and many giddy writhings, I mastered it, and lay between the rough blankets. Davies, moving swiftly and deftly, was soon in his.

‘It’s quite comfortable, isn’t it?’ he said, as he blew out the light from where he lay, with an accuracy which must have been the fruit of long practice.

I felt prickly all over, and there was a damp patch on the pillow, which was soon explained by a heavy drop of moisture falling on my forehead.

‘I suppose the deck’s not leaking?’ I said, as mildly as I could. ‘I’m awfully sorry,’ said Davies, earnestly, tumbling out of his bunk. ‘It must be the heavy dew. I did a lot of caulking yesterday, but I suppose I missed that place. I’ll run up and square it with an oilskin.’

‘What’s wrong with your hand?’ I asked, sleepily, on his return, for gratitude reminded me of that bandage.

‘Nothing much; I strained it the other day,’ was the reply; and then the seemingly inconsequent remark: ‘I’m glad you brought that prismatic compass. It’s not really necessary, of course; but’ (muffled by blankets) ‘it may come in useful.’

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