The Riddle of the Sands, by Erskine Childers

20. The Little Drab Book

I FOUND Davies at the cabin table, surrounded with a litter of books. The shelf was empty, and its contents were tossed about among the cups and on the floor. We both spoke together.

‘Well, what was it?’

‘Well, what did she say?’

I gave way, and told my story briefly. He listened in silence, drumming on the table with a book which he held.

‘It’s not good-bye,’ he said. ‘But I don’t wonder; look here!’ and he held out to me a small volume, whose appearance was quite familiar to me, if its contents were less so. As I noted in an early chapter, Davies’s library, excluding tide-tables, ‘pilots’, etc., was limited to two classes of books, those on naval warfare, and those on his own hobby, cruising in small yachts. He had six or seven of the latter, including Knight’s Falcon in the Baltic, Cowper’s Sailing Tours, Macmullen’s Down Channel, and other less-known stories of adventurous travel. I had scarcely done more than look into some of them at off-moments, for our life had left no leisure for reading. This particular volume was — no, I had better not describe it too fully; but I will say that it was old and unpretentious, bound in cheap cloth of a rather antiquated style, with a title which showed it to be a guide for yachtsmen to a certain British estuary. A white label partly scratched away bore the legend ‘3d.’ I had glanced at it once or twice with no special interest.

‘Well?’ I said, turning over some yellow pages.

‘Dollmann!’ cried Davies. ‘Dollmann wrote it.’ I turned to the title-page, and read: ‘By Lieut. X— R.N.’ The name itself conveyed nothing to me, but I began to understand. Davies went on: The name’s on the back, too — and I’m certain it’s the last she looked at.’

‘But how do you know?’

‘And there’s the man himself. Ass that I am not to have seen it before! Look at the frontispiece.’

It was a sorry piece of illustration of the old-fashioned sort, lacking definition and finish, but effective notwithstanding; for it was evidently the reproduction, though a cheap and imperfect process, of a photograph. It represented a small yacht at anchor below some woods, with the owner standing on deck in his shirt sleeves: a well-knit, powerful man, young, of middle height, clean shaved. There appeared to be nothing remarkable about the face; the portrait being on too small a scale, and the expression, such as it was, being of the fixed ‘photographic’ character.

‘How do you know him? You said he was fifty, with a greyish beard.’

‘By the shape of his head; that hasn’t changed. Look how it widens at the top, and then flattens — sort of wedge shaped — with a high, steep forehead; you’d hardly notice it in that’ (the points were not very noticeable, but I saw what Davies meant). ‘The height and figure are right, too; and the dates are about right. Look at the bottom.’

Underneath the picture was the name of a yacht and a date. The publisher’s date on the title-page was the same.

‘Sixteen years ago,’ said Davies. ‘He looks thirty odd in that, doesn’t he? And fifty now.’

‘Let’s work the thing out. Sixteen years ago he was still an Englishman, an officer in Her Majesty’s Navy. Now he’s a German. At some time between this and then, I suppose, he came to grief — disgrace, flight, exile. When did it happen?’

‘They’ve been here three years; von Brüning said so.’

‘It was long before that. She has talked German from a child. What’s her age, do you think — nineteen or twenty?’

‘About that.’

‘Say she was four when this book was published. The crash must have come not long after.’

‘And they’ve been hiding in Germany since.

‘Is this a well-known book?’

‘I never saw another copy; picked this up on a second-hand bookstall for threepence.’

‘She looked at it, you say?’

‘Yes, I’m certain of it.’

‘Was she never on board you in September?’

‘No; I asked them both, but Dollmann made excuses.’

‘But he — he came on board? You told me so.’

‘Once; he asked himself to breakfast on the first day. By Jove! yes; you mean he saw the book?

‘It explains a good deal.’

‘It explains everything.’

We fell into deep reflexion for a minute or two.

‘Do you really mean everything?’ I said. ‘In that case let’s sail straight away and forget the whole affair. He’s only some poor devil with a past, whose secret you stumbled on, and, half mad with fear, he tried to silence you. But you don’t want revenge, so it’s no business of ours. We can ruin him if we like; but is it worth it?’

‘You don’t mean a word you’re saying,’ said Davies, ‘though I know why you say it; and many thanks, old chap. I didn’t mean “everything”. He’s plotting with Germans, or why did Grimm spy on us, and von Brüning cross-examine us? We’ve got to find out what he’s at, as well as who he is. And as to her — what do you think of her now?’

I made my amende heartily. ‘Innocent and ignorant,’ was my verdict. ‘Ignorant, that is, of her father’s treasonable machinations; but aware, clearly, that they were English refugees with a past to hide.’ I said other things, but they do not matter. ‘Only,’ I concluded, ‘it makes the dilemma infinitely worse.’

‘There’s no dilemma at all,’ said Davies. ‘You said at Bensersiel that we couldn’t hurt him without hurting her. Well, all I can say is, we’ve got to. The time to cut and run, if ever, was when we sighted her dinghy. I had a baddish minute then.’

‘She’s given us a clue or two after all.’

‘It wasn’t our fault. To refuse to have her on board would have been to give our show away; and the very fact that she’s given us clues decides the matter. She mustn’t suffer for it.’

‘What will she do?’

‘Stick to her father, I suppose.’

‘And what shall we do?’

‘I don’t know yet; how can I know? It depends,’ said Davies, slowly. ‘But the point is, that we have two objects, equally important — yes, equally, by Jove! — to scotch him, and save her.’

There was a pause.

‘That’s rather a large order,’ I observed. ‘Do you realize that at this very moment we have probably gained the first object? If we went home now, walked into the Admiralty and laid our facts before them, what would be the result?’

‘The Admiralty!’ said Davies, with ineffable scorn.

‘Well, Scotland Yard, too, then. Both of them want our man, I dare say. It would be strange if between them they couldn’t dislodge him, and, incidentally, either discover what’s going on here or draw such attention to this bit of coast as to make further secrecy impossible.’

‘It’s out of the question to let her betray her father, and then run away! Besides, we don’t know enough, and they mightn’t believe us. It’s a cowardly course, however you look at it.’

‘Oh! that settles it,’ I answered, hastily. ‘Now I want to go back over the facts. When did you first see her?’

‘That first morning.’

‘She wasn’t in the saloon the night before?’

‘No; and he didn’t mention her.’

‘You would have gone away next morning if he hadn’t called?’

‘Yes; I told you so.’

‘He allowed her to persuade you to make that voyage with them?’

‘I suppose so.’

‘But he sent her below when the pilotage was going on?’

‘Of course.’

‘She said just now, “Father said you would be safe.” What had you been saying to her?’

‘It was when I met her on the sand. (By the way, it wasn’t a chance meeting; she had been making inquiries and heard about us from a skipper who had seen the yacht near Wangeroog, and she had been down this way before.) She asked at once about that day, and began apologizing, rather awkwardly, you know, for their rudeness in not having waited for me at Cuxhaven. Her father found he must get on to Hamburg at once.’

‘But you didn’t go to Cuxhaven; you told her that? What exactly did you tell her? This is important.’

‘I was in a fearful fix, not knowing what he had told her. So I said something vague, and then she asked the very question von Brüning did, “Wasn’t there a schrecklich sea round the Scharhorn?”’

‘She didn’t know you took the short cut, then?’

‘No; he hadn’t dared to tell her.’

‘She knew that they took it?’

‘Yes. He couldn’t possibly have hidden that. She would have known by the look of the sea from the portholes, the shorter time, etc.’

‘But when the Medusa hove to and he shouted to you to follow him — didn’t she understand what was happening?’

‘No, evidently not. Mind you, she couldn’t possibly have heard what we said, in that weather, from below. I couldn’t cross-question her, but it was clear enough what she thought; namely, that he had hove to for exactly the opposite reason, to say he was taking the short cut, and that I wasn’t to attempt to follow him.’

‘That’s why she laid stress on waiting for you at Cuxhaven?’

‘ Of course; mine would have been the longer passage.’

‘She had no notion of foul play?’

‘None — that I could see. After all, there I was, alive and well.’

‘But she was remorseful for having induced you to sail at all that day, and for not having waited to see you arrived safely.’

‘That’s about it.’

‘Now what did you say about Cuxhaven?’

‘Nothing. I let her understand that I went there, and, not finding them, went on to the Baltic by the Eider river, having changed my mind about the ship canal.’

‘Now, what about her voyage back from Hamburg? Was she alone?’

‘No; the stepmother joined her.’

‘Did she say she had inquired about you at Brunsbüttel?’

‘No; I suppose she didn’t like to. And there was no need, because my taking the Eider explained it.’

I reflected. ‘You’re sure she hadn’t a notion that you took the short cut?’

‘Quite sure; but she may guess it now. She guessed foul play by seeing that book.’

‘Of course she did; but I was thinking of something else. There are two stories afloat now — yours to von Brüning, the true one, that you followed the Medusa to the short cut; and Dollmann’s to her, that you went round the Scharhorn. That’s evidently his version of the affair — the version he would have given if you had been drowned and inquiries were ever made; the version he would have sworn his crew to if they discovered the truth.’

‘But he must drop that yarn when he knows I’m alive and back again.’

‘Yes; but meanwhile, supposing von Brüning sees him before he knows you’re back again, and wants to find out the truth about that incident. If I were von Brüning I should say, “By the way, what’s become of that young Englishman you decoyed away to the Baltic?” Dollmann would give his version, and von Brüning. having heard ours, would know he was lying, and had tried to drown you.’

‘Does it matter? He must know already that Dollmann’s a scoundrel.’

‘So we’ve been supposing; but we may be wrong. We’re still in the dark as to Dollmann’s position towards these Germans. They may not even know he’s English, or they may know that and not know his real name and past. What effect your story will have on their relations with him we can’t forecast. But I’m clear about one thing, that it’s our paramount interest to maintain the status quo as long as we can, to minimize the danger you ran that day, and act as witnesses in his defence. We can’t do that if his story and yours don’t tally. The discrepancy will not only damn him (that may be immaterial), but it will throw doubt on us.’

‘Why?’

‘Because if the short cut was so dangerous that he dared not own to having led you to it, it was dangerous enough to make you suspect foul play; the very supposition we want to avoid. We want to be thought mere travellers, with no scores to wipe out, and no secrets to pry after.’

‘Well, what do you propose?’

‘Hitherto I believe we stand fairly well. Let’s assume we hoodwinked von Brüning at Bensersiel, and base our policy on that assumption. It follows that we must show Dollmann at the earliest possible moment that you have come back, and give him time to revise his tactics before he commits himself. Now —’

‘But she’ll tell him we’re back,’ interrupted Davies.

‘I don’t think so. We’ve just agreed to keep this afternoon’s episode a secret. She expects never to see us again.’

Now, he comes tomorrow by the morning boat, she said. What did that mean? Boat from where?’

‘I know. From Norddeich on the mainland opposite. There’s a railway there from Norden, and a steam ferry crosses to the island.’

‘At what time?’

‘Your Bradshaw will tell us — here it is: “Winter Service, 8.30 a.m., due at 9.5.”’

‘Let’s get away at once.’

We had a tussle with the tide at first, but once over the watershed the channel improved, and the haze lightened gradually. A lighthouse appeared among the sand-dunes on the island shore, and before darkness fell we dimly saw the spires and roofs of a town, and two long black piers stretching out southwards. We were scarcely a mile away when we lost our wind altogether, and had to anchor. Determined to reach our destination that night we waited till the ebb stream made, and then towed the yacht with the dinghy. In the course of this a fog dropped on us suddenly, just as it had yesterday. I was towing at the time, and, of course, stopped short; but Davies shouted to me from the tiller to go on, that he could manage with the lead and compass. And the end of it was that, at about nine o’clock, we anchored safely in the five-fathom roadstead, close to the eastern pier, as a short reconnaissance proved to us. It had been a little masterpiece of adroit seamanship.

There was utter stillness till our chain rattled down, when a muffled shout came from the direction of the pier, and soon we heard a boat groping out to us. It was a polite but sleepy portofficer, who asked in a perfunctory way for our particulars, and when he heard them, remembered the Dulcibella’s previous visit.

‘Where are you bound to?’ he asked.

‘England — sooner or later,’ said Davies.

The man laughed derisively. ‘Not this year,’ he said; ‘there will be fogs for another week; it is always so, and then storms. Better leave your yawl here. Dues will be only sixpence a month for you.

‘I’ll think about it,’ said Davies. ‘Good-night.’

The man vanished like a ghost in the thick night.

‘Is the post-office open?’ I called after him.

‘No; eight tomorrow,’ came back out of the fog.

We were too excited to sup in comfort, or sleep in peace, or to do anything but plan and speculate. Never till this night had we talked with absolute mutual confidence, for Davies broke down the last barriers of reserve and let me see his whole mind. He loved this girl and he loved his country, two simple passions which for the time absorbed his whole moral capacity. There was no room left for casuistry. To weigh one passion against the other, with the discordant voices of honour and expediency dinning in his ears, had too long involved him in fruitless torture. Both were right; neither could be surrendered. If the facts showed them irreconcilable, tant pis pour les faits. A way must be found to satisfy both or neither.

I should have been a spiritless dog if I had not risen to his mood. But in truth his cutting of the knot was at this juncture exactly what appealed to me. I, too, was tired of vicarious casuistry, and the fascination of our enterprise, intensified by the discovery of that afternoon, had never been so strong in me. Not to be insincere, I cannot pretend that I viewed the situation with his single mind. My philosophy when I left London was of a very worldly sort, and no one can change his temperament in three weeks. I plainly said as much to Davies, and indeed took perverse satisfaction in stating with brutal emphasis some social truths which bore on this attachment of his to the daughter of an outlaw. Truths I call them, but I uttered them more by rote than by conviction, and he heard them unmoved. And meanwhile I snatched recklessly at his own solution. If it imparted into our adventure a strain of crazy chivalry more suited to knights-errant of the Middle Ages than to sober modern youths — well, thank Heaven, I was not too sober, and still young enough to snatch at that fancy with an ardour of imagination, if not of character; perhaps, too, of character, for Galahads are not so common but that ordinary folk must needs draw courage from their example and put something of a blind trust in their tenfold strength.

To reduce a romantic ideal to a working plan is a very difficult thing.

‘We shall have to argue backwards,’ I said. ‘What is to be the final stage? Because that must govern the others.’

There was only one answer — to get Dollmann, secrets and all, daughter and all, away from Germany altogether. So only could we satisfy the double aim we had set before us. What a joy it is, when beset with doubts, to find a bed-rock necessity, however unattainable! We fastened on this one and reasoned back from it. The first lesson was that, however many and strong were the enemies we had to contend with, our sole overt fee must be Dollmann. The issue of the struggle must be known only to ourselves and him. If we won, and found out ‘what he was at’, we must at all costs conceal our success from his German friends, and detach him from them before he was compromised. (You will remark that to blithely accept this limitation showed a very sanguine spirit in us.) The next question, how to find out what he was at, was a deal more thorny. If it had not been for the discovery of Dollmann’s identity, we should have found it as hard a nut to crack as ever. But this discovery was illuminating. It threw into relief two methods of action which hitherto we had been hazily seeking to combine, seesawing between one and the other, each of us influenced at different times by different motives. One was to rely on independent research; the other to extort the secret from Dollmann direct, by craft or threats. The moral of today was to abandon the first and embrace the second.

The prospects of independent research were not a whit better than before. There were only two theories in the field, the channel theory and the Memmert theory. The former languished for lack of corroboration; the latter also appeared to be weakened. To Fräulein Dollmann the wreck-works were evidently what they purported to be, and nothing more. This fact in itself was unimportant, for it was clear as crystal that she was no party to her father’s treacherous intrigues, if he was engaged in such. But if Memmert was his sphere for them, it was disconcerting to find her so familiar with that sphere, lightly talking of a descent in a diving-bell — hinting, too, that the mystery as to results was only for local consumption. Nevertheless, the charm of Memmert as the place we had traced Grimm to, and as the only tangible clue we had obtained, was still very great. The really cogent objection was the insuperable difficulty, known and watched as we were, of learning its significance. If there was anything important to see there we should never be allowed to see it, while by trying and failing we risked everything. It was on this point that the last of all misunderstandings between me and Davies was dissipated. At Bensersiel he had been influenced more than he owned by my arguments about Memmert; but at that time (as I hinted) he was biased by a radical prejudice. The channel theory had become a sort of religion with him, promising double salvation — not only avoidance of the Dollmanns, but success in the quest by methods in which he was past master. To have to desert it and resort to spying on naval defences was an idea he dreaded and distrusted. It was not the morality of the course that bothered him. He was far too clear-headed to blink at the essential fact that at heart we were spies on a foreign power in time of peace, or to salve his conscience by specious distinctions as to our mode of operation. The foreign power to him was Dollmann, a traitor. There was his final justification, fearlessly adopted and held to the last. It was rather that, knowing his own limitations, his whole nature shrank from the sort of action entailed by the Memmert theory. And there was strong common sense in his antipathy.

So much for independent research.

On the other hand the road was now clear for the other method. Davies no longer feared to face the imbroglio at Norderney; and that day fortune had given us a new and potent weapon against Dollmann; precisely how potent we could not tell, for we had only a glimpse of his past, and his exact relations with the Government were unknown to us. But we knew who he was. Using this knowledge with address, could we not wring the rest from him? Feel our way, of course, be guided by his own conduct, but in the end strike hard and stake everything on the stroke? Such at any rate was our scheme to-night. Later, tossing in my bunk, I bethought me of the little drab book, lit a candle, and fetched it. A preface explained that it had been written during a spell of two months’ leave from naval duty, and expressed a hope that it might be of service to Corinthian sailors. The style was unadorned, but scholarly and pithy. There was no trace of the writer’s individuality, save a certain subdued relish in describing banks and shoals, which reminded me of Davies himself. For the rest, I found the book dull, and, in fact, it sent me to sleep.

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