The Riddle of the Sands, by Erskine Childers

21. Blindfold to Memmert

‘HERE she comes,’ said Davies. It was nine o’clock on the next day, 22nd October, and we were on deck waiting for the arrival of the steamer from Norddeich. There was no change in the weather — still the same stringent cold, with a high barometer, and only fickle flaws of air; but the morning was gloriously clear, except for a wreath or two of mist curling like smoke from the sea, and an attenuated belt of opaque fog on the northern horizon. The harbour lay open before us, and very commodious and civilized it looked, enclosed between two long piers which ran quite half a mile out from the land to the road-stead (Riff–Gat by name) where we lay. A stranger might have taken it for a deep and spacious haven; but this, of course, was an illusion, due to the high water. Davies knew that three-quarters of it was mud, the remainder being a dredged-out channel along the western pier. A couple of tugs, a dredger, and a ferry packet with steam up, were moored on that side — a small stack of galliots on the other. Beyond these was another vessel, a galliot in build, but radiant as a queen among sluts; her varnished sides and spars flashing orange in the sun. These, and her snow-white sail-covers and the twinkle of brass and gun-metal, proclaimed her to be a yacht. I had already studied her through the glasses and read on her stern Medusa. A couple of sailors were swabbing her decks; you could hear the slush of the water and the scratching of the deck-brooms. ‘They can see us anyway,’ Davies had said.

For that matter all the world could see us — certainly the incoming steamer must; for we lay as near to the pier as safety permitted, abreast of the berth she would occupy, as we knew by a gangway and a knot of sailors.

A packet boat, not bigger than a big tug, was approaching from the south.

‘Remember, we’re not supposed to know he’s coming,’ I said; ‘let’s go below.’ Besides the skylight, our ‘coach-house’ cabin top had little oblong side windows. We wiped clean those on the port side and watched events from them, kneeling on the sofa.

The steamer backed her paddles, flinging out a wash that set us rolling to our scuppers. There seemed to be very few passengers aboard, but all of them were gazing at the Dulcibella while the packet was warped alongside. On the forward deck there were some market-women with baskets, a postman, and a weedy youth who might be an hotel waiter; on the after-deck, standing close together, were two men in ulsters and soft felt hats.

‘There he is!’ said Davies, in a tense whisper; ‘the tall one.’ But the tall one turned abruptly as Davies spoke and strode away behind the deck-house, leaving me just a lightning impression of a grey beard and a steep tanned forehead, behind a cloud of cigar smoke. It was perverse of me, but, to tell the truth, I hardly missed him, so occupied was I by the short one, who remained leaning on the rail, thoughtfully contemplating the Dulcibella through gold-rimmed pince-nez: a sallow, wizened old fellow, beetlebrowed, with a bush of grizzled moustache and a jet-black tuft of beard on his chin. The most remarkable feature was the nose, which was broad and flat, merging almost imperceptibly in the wrinkled cheeks. Lightly beaked at the nether extremity, it drooped towards an enormous cigar which was pointing at us like a gun just discharged. He looked wise as Satan, and you would say he was smiling inwardly.

‘Who’s that?’ I whispered to Davies. (There was no need to talk in whispers, but we did so instinctively.)

‘Can’t think,’ said Davies. ‘Hullo! she’s backing off, and they’ve not landed.’

Some parcels and mail-bags had been thrown up, and the weedy waiter and two market-women had gone up the gangway, which was now being hauled up, and were standing on the quay. I think one or two other persons had first come aboard unnoticed by us, but at the last moment a man we had not seen before jumped down to the forward deck. ‘Grimm!’ we both ejaculated at once.

The steamer whistled sharply, circled backwards into the road-stead, and then steamed away. The pier soon hid her, but her smoke showed she was steering towards the North Sea.

‘What does this mean?’ I asked.

‘There must be some other quay to stop at nearer the town,’ said Davies. ‘Let’s go ashore and get your letters.’

We had made a long and painful toilette that morning, and felt quite shy of one another as we sculled towards the pier, in much-creased blue suits, conventional collars, and brown boots. It was the first time for two years that I had seen Davies in anything approaching a respectable garb; but a fashionable watering-place, even in the dead season, exacts respect; and, besides, we had friends to visit.

We tied up the dinghy to an iron ladder, and on the pier found our inquisitor of the night before smoking in the doorway of a shed marked ‘Harbour Master’. After some civilities we inquired about the steamer. The answer was that it was Saturday, and she had, therefore, gone on to Juist. Did we want a good hotel? The ‘Vier Jahreszeiten’ was still open, etc.

‘Juist, by Jove!’ said Davies, as we walked on. ‘Why are those three going to Juist?’

‘I should have thought it was pretty clear. They’re on their way to Memmert.’

Davies agreed, and we both looked longingly westward at a straw-coloured streak on the sea.

‘Is it some meeting, do you think?’ said Davies.

‘Looks like it. We shall probably find the Kormoran here, wind-bound.’

And find her we did soon after, the outermost of the stack of galliots, on the farther side of the harbour. Two men, whose faces we took a good look at, were sitting on her hatch, mending a sail.

Flooded with sun, yet still as the grave, the town was like a dead butterfly for whom the healing rays had come too late. We crossed some deserted public gardens commanded by a gorgeous casino, its porticos heaped with chairs and tables; so past kiosques and cafés, great white hotels with boarded windows, bazaars and booths, and all the stale lees of vulgar frivolity, to the post-office, which at least was alive. I received a packet of letters and purchased a local time-table, from which we learned that the steamer sailed daily to Borkum via Norderney, touching three times a week at Juist (weather permitting). On the return journey today it was due at Norderney at 7.30 p.m. Then I inquired the way to the ‘Vier Jahreszeiten’. ‘For whatever your principles,

Davies,’ I said, ‘we are going to have the best breakfast money can buy! We’ve got the whole day before us.’

The ‘Four Seasons’ Hotel was on the esplanade facing the northern beach. Living up to its name, it announced on an illuminated sign-board, ‘Inclusive terms for winter visitors; special attention to invalids, etc.’ Here in a great glass restaurant, with the unruffled blue of ocean spread out before us, we ate the king of breakfasts, dismissed the waiter, and over long and fragrant Havanas examined my mail at leisure.

‘What a waste of good diplomacy!’ was my first thought, for nothing had been tampered with, so far as we could judge from the minutest scrutiny, directed, of course, in particular to the franked official letters (for to my surprise there were two) from Whitehall.

The first in order of date (6th Oct.) ran: ‘Dear Carruthers. — Take another week by all means. — Yours, etc.’

The second (marked ‘urgent’) had been sent to my home address and forwarded. It was dated 15th October, and cancelled the previous letter, requesting me to return to London without delay —‘I am sorry to abridge your holiday, but we are very busy, and, at present, short-handed. — Yours, etc.’ There was a dry postscript to the effect that another time I was to be good enough to leave more regular and definite information as to my whereabouts when absent.

‘I’m afraid I never got this!’ I said, handing it to Davies.

‘You won’t go, will you?’ said he, looking, nevertheless, with unconcealed awe at the great man’s handwriting under the haughty official crest. Meanwhile I discovered an endorsement on a corner of the envelope: ‘Don’t worry; it’s only the chief’s fuss. — M—’ I promptly tore up the envelope. There are domestic mysteries which it would be indecent and disloyal to reveal, even to one’s best friend. The rest of my letters need no remark; I smiled over some and blushed over others — all were voices from a life which was infinitely far away. Davies, meanwhile, was deep in the foreign intelligence of a newspaper, spelling it out line by line, and referring impatiently to me for the meaning of words.

‘Hullo!’ he said, suddenly; ‘same old game! Hear that siren?’ A curtain of fog had grown on the northern horizon and was drawing shorewards slowly but surely.

‘It doesn’t matter, does it?’ I said.

‘Well, we must get back to the yacht. We can’t leave her alone in the fog.’

There was some marketing to be done on the way back, and in the course of looking for the shops we wanted we came on the Schwannallée and noted its position. Before we reached the harbour the fog was on us, charging up the streets in dense masses. Happily a tramline led right up to the pier-head, or we should have lost our way and wasted time, which, in the event, was of priceless value. Presently we stumbled up against the Harbour Office, which was our landmark for the steps where we had tied up the dinghy. The same official appeared and good-naturedly held the painter while we handed in our parcels. He wanted to know why we had left the flesh-pots of the ‘Vier Jahreszeiten’. To look after our yacht, of course. There was no need, he objected; there would be no traffic moving while the fog lasted, and the fog, having come on at that hour, had come to stay. If it did clear he would keep an eye on the yacht for us. We thanked him, but thought we would go aboard.

‘You’ll have a job to find her now,’ he said.

The distance was eighty yards at the most, but we had to use a scientific method, the same one, in fact, that Davies had used last night in the approach to the eastern pier.

‘Row straight out at right angles to the pier,’ he said now. I did so, Davies sounding with his scull between the strokes. He found the bottom after twenty yards, that being the width of the dredged-out channel at this point. Then we turned to the right, and moved gently forward, keeping touch with the edge of the mud-bank (for all the world like blind men tapping along a kerbstone) and taking short excursions from it, till the Dulcibella hove in view. ‘That’s partly luck,’ Davies.commented; ‘we ought to have had the compass as well.’

We exchanged shouts with the man on the pier to show we had arrived.

‘It’s very good practice, that sort of thing,’ said Davies, when we had disembarked.

‘You’ve got a sixth sense,’ I observed. ‘How far could you go like that?’

‘Don’t know. Let’s have another try. I can’t sit still all day. Let’s explore this channel.’

’Why not go to Memmert?‘ I said, in fun.

‘To Memmert?’ said Davies, slowly; ‘by Jove! that’s an idea!’

‘Good Heavens, man! I was joking. Why, it’s ten mortal miles.’

‘More,’ said Davies, absently. ‘It’s not so much the distance — what’s the time? Ten fifteen; quarter ebb — What am I talking about? We made our plans last night.’

But seeing him, to my amazement, serious, I was stung by the splendour of the idea I had awakened. Confidence in his skill was second nature to me. I swept straight on to the logic of the thing, the greatness, the completeness of the opportunity, if by a miracle it could be seized and used. Something was going on at Memmert today; our men had gone there; here were we, ten miles away, in a smothering, blinding fog. It was known we were here — Dollmann and Grimm knew it; the crew of the Medusa knew it; the crew of the Kormoran knew it; the man on the pier, whether he cared or not, knew it. But none of them knew Davies as I knew him. Would anyone dream for an instant —?

‘Stop a second,’ said Davies; ‘give me two minutes.’ He whipped out the German chart. ‘Where exactly should we go?’ (‘Exactly!’ The word tickled me hugely.)

‘To the depot, of course; it’s our only chance.’

‘Listen then — there are two routes: the outside one by the open sea, right round Juist, and doubling south — the simplest, but the longest; the depot’s at the south point of Memmert, and Memmert’s nearly two miles long.’ [See Chart B]

‘How far would that way be?’

‘Sixteen miles good. And we should have to row in a breaking swell most of the way, close to land.’

‘Out of the question; it’s too public, too, if it clears. The steamer went that way, and will come back that way. We must go inside over the sands. Am I dreaming, though? Can you possibly find the way?’

‘I shouldn’t wonder. But I don’t believe you see the hitch. It’s the time and the falling tide. High water was about 8.15: it’s now 10.15, and all those sands are drying off. We must cross the See–Gat and strike that boomed channel, the Memmert Balje; strike it, freeze on to it — can’t cut off an inch — and pass that “watershed” you see there before it’s too late. It’s an infernally bad one, I can see. Not even a dinghy will cross it for an hour each side of low water.’

‘Well, how far is the “watershed”?’

‘Good Lord! What are we talking for? Change, man, change! Talk while we’re changing.’ (He began flinging off his shore clothes, and I did the same.) ‘It’s at least five miles to the end of it; six, allowing for bends; hour and a half hard pulling; two, allowing for checks. Are you fit? You’ll have to pull the most. Then there are six or seven more miles — easier ones. And then — What are we to do when we get there?’

‘Leave that to me,’ I said. ‘You get me there.’

‘Supposing it clears?’

‘After we get there? Bad; but we must risk that. If it clears on the way there it doesn’t matter by this route; we shall be miles from land.’

‘What about getting back?’

‘We shall have a rising tide, anyway. If the fog lasts — can you manage in a fog and dark?’

‘The dark makes it no more difficult, if we’ve a light to see the compass and chart by. You trim the binnacle lamp — no, the riding-light. Now give me the scissors, and don’t speak a word for ten minutes. Meanwhile, think it out, and load the dinghy —(by Jove! though, don’t make a sound)— some grub and whisky, the boat-compass, lead, riding-light, matches, small boat-hook, grapnel and line.’

‘Foghorn?’

‘Yes, and the whistle too.’

‘A gun?’

‘What for?’

‘We’re after ducks.’

‘All right. And muffle the rowlocks with cotton-waste.’

I left Davies absorbed in the charts, and softly went about my own functions. In ten minutes he was on the ladder, beckoning.

‘I’ve done,’ he whispered. ‘Now shall we go?’

‘I’ve thought it out. Yes,’ I answered.

This was only roughly true, for I could not have stated in words all the pros and cons that I had balanced. It was an impulse that drove me forward; but an impulse founded on reason, with just a tinge, perhaps, of superstition; for the quest had begun in a fog and might fitly end in one.

It was twenty-five minutes to eleven when we noiselessly pushed off. ‘Let her drift,’ whispered Davies, ‘the ebb’ll carry her past the pier.’

We slid by the Dulcibella, and she disappeared. Then we sat without speech or movement for about five minutes, while the gurgle of tide through piles approached and passed. The dinghy appeared to be motionless, just as a balloon in the clouds may appear to its occupants to be motionless, though urged by a current of air. In reality we were driving out of the Riff–Gat into the See–Gat. The dinghy swayed to a light swell.

‘Now, pull,’ said Davies, under his breath; ‘keep it long and steady, above all steady — both arms with equal force.’

I was on the bow-thwart; he vis-à-vis to me on the stern seat, his left hand behind him on the tiller, his right forefinger on a small square of paper which lay on his knees; this was a section cut out from the big German chart. [See Chart B] On the midship-thwart between us lay the compass and a watch. Between these three objects — compass, watch, and chart — his eyes darted constantly, never looking up or out, save occasionally for a sharp glance over the side at the flying bubbles, to see if I was sustaining a regular speed. My duty was to be his automaton, the human equivalent of a marine engine whose revolutions can be counted and used as data by the navigator. My arms must be regular as twin pistons; the energy that drove them as controllable as steam. It was a hard ideal to reach, for the complex mortal tends to rely on all the senses God has given him, so unfitting himself for mechanical exactitude when a sense (eyesight, in my case) fails him. At first it was constantly ‘left’ or ‘right’ from Davies, accompanied by a bubbling from the rudder.

‘This won’t do, too much helm,’ said Davies, without looking up. ‘Keep your stroke, but listen to me. Can you see the compass card?’

‘When I come forward.’

‘Take your time, and don’t get flurried, but each time you come forward have a good look at it. The course is sou’-west half-west. You take the opposite, north-east half-east, and keep her stern on that. It’ll be rough, but it’ll save some helm, and give me a hand free if I want it.’

I did as he said, not without effort, and our progress gradually became smoother, till he had no need to speak at all. The only sound now was one like the gentle simmer of a saucepan away to port — the lisp of surf I knew it to be-and the muffled grunt of the rowlocks. I broke the silence once to say ‘It’s very shallow.’ I had touched sand with my right scull.

‘Don’t talk,’ said Davies.

About half an hour passed, and then he added sounding to his other occupations. ‘Plump’ went the lead at regular intervals, and he steered with his hip while pulling in the line. Very little of it went out at first, then less still. Again I struck bottom, and, glancing aside, saw weeds. Suddenly he got a deep cast, and the dinghy, freed from the slight drag which shallow water always inflicts on a small boat, leapt buoyantly forward. At the same time, I knew by boils on the smooth surface that we were in a strong tideway.

‘The Buse Tief,’ [See Chart B] muttered Davies. ‘Row hard now, and steady as a clock.’

For a hundred yards or more I bent to my sculls and made her fly. Davies was getting six fathom casts, till, just as suddenly as it had deepened, the water shoaled — ten feet, six, three, one — the dinghy grounded.

‘Good!’ said Davies. ‘Back her off! Pull your right only.’ The dinghy spun round with her bow to N.N.W. ‘Both arms together! Don’t you worry about the compass now; just pull, and listen for orders. There’s a tricky bit coming.’

He put aside the chart, kicked the lead under the seat, and, kneeling on the dripping coils of line, sounded continuously with the butt-end of the boat-hook, a stumpy little implement, notched at intervals of a foot, and often before used for the same purpose. All at once I was aware that a check had come, for the dinghy swerved and doubled like a hound ranging after scent.

‘Stop her,’ he said, suddenly, ‘and throw out the grapnel.’

I obeyed and we brought up, swinging to a slight current, whose direction Davies verified by the compass. Then for half a minute he gave himself up to concentrated thought. What struck me most about him was that he never for a moment strained his eyes through the fog; a useless exercise (for five yards or so was the radius of our vision) which, however, I could not help indulging in, while I rested. He made up his mind, and we were off again, straight and swift as an arrow this time. and in water deeper than the boat-hook. I could see by his face that he was taking some bold expedient whose issue hung in the balance . . . Again we touched mud, and the artist’s joy of achievement shone in his eyes. Backing away, we headed west. and for the first time he began to gaze into the fog.

‘There’s one!’ he snapped at last. ‘Easy all!’

A boom, one of the usual upright saplings, glided out of the mist. He caught hold of it, and we brought up.

‘Rest for three minutes now,’ he said. ‘We’re in fairly good time.’

It was 11.10. I ate some biscuits and took a nip of whisky while Davies prepared for the next stage.

We had reached the eastern outlet of Memmert Balje, the channel which runs east and west behind Juist Island, direct to the south point of Memmert. How we had reached it was incomprehensible to me at the time, but the reader will understand by comparing my narrative with the dotted line on the chart. I add this brief explanation, that Davies’s method had been to cross the channel called the Buse Tief, and strike the other side of it at a point well south of the outlet of the Memmert Balje (in view of the northward set of the ebb-tide), and then to drop back north and feel his way to the outlet. The check was caused by a deep indentation in the Itzendorf Flat; a cul-desac, with a wide mouth, which Davies was very near mistaking for the Balje itself. We had no time to skirt dents so deep as that; hence the dash across its mouth with the chance of missing the upper lip altogether, and of either being carried out to sea (for the slightest error was cumulative) or straying fruitlessly along the edge.

The next three miles were the most critical of all. They included the ‘watershed’, whose length and depth were doubtful; they included, too, the crux of the whole passage, a spot where the channel forks, our own branch continuing west, and another branch diverging from it north-westward. We must row against time, and yet we must negotiate that crux. Add to this that the current was against us till the watershed was crossed; that the tide was just at its most baffling stage, too low to allow us to risk short cuts, and too high to give definition to the banks of the channel; and that the compass was no aid whatever for the minor bends. ‘Time’s up,’ said Davies, and on we went. I was hugging the comfortable thought that we should now have booms on our starboard for the whole distance; on our starboard, I say, for experience had taught us that all channels running parallel with the coast and islands were uniformly boomed on the northern side. Anyone less confident than Davies would have succumbed to the temptation of slavishly relying on these marks, creeping from one to the other, and wasting precious time. But Davies knew our friend the ‘boom’ and his eccentricities too well; and preferred to trust to his sense of touch, which no fog in the world could impair. If we happened to sight one, well and good, we should know which side of the channel we were on. But even this contingent advantage he deliberately sacrificed after a short distance, for he crossed over to the south or unboomed side and steered and sounded along it, using the ltzendorf Flat as his handrail, so to speak. He was compelled to do this, he told me afterwards, in view of the crux, where the converging lines of booms would have involved us in irremediable confusion. Our branch was the southern one, and it followed that we must use the southern bank, and defer obtaining any help from booms until sure we were past that critical spot.

For an hour we were at the extreme strain, I of physical exertion, he of mental. I could not get into a steady swing, for little checks were constant. My right scull was for ever skidding on mud or weeds, and the backward suck of shoal water clogged our progress. Once we were both of us out in the slime tugging at the dinghy’s sides; then in again, blundering on. I found the fog bemusing, lost all idea of time and space, and felt like a senseless marionette kicking and jerking to a mad music without tune or time. The misty form of Davies as he sat with his right arm swinging rhythmically forward and back, was a clockwork figure as mad as myself, but didactic and gibbering in his madness. Then the boat-hook he wielded with a circular sweep began to take grotesque shapes in my heated fancy; now it was the antenna of a groping insect, now the crank of a cripple’s selfpropelled perambulator, now the alpenstock of a lunatic mountaineer, who sits in his chair and climbs and climbs to some phantom ‘watershed’. At the back of such mind as was left me lodged two insistent thoughts: ‘we must hurry on,’ ‘we are going wrong.’ As to the latter, take a link-boy through a London fog and you will experience the same thing: he always goes the way you think is wrong. ‘We’re rowing back!’ I remember shouting to Davies once, having become aware that it was now my left scull which splashed against obstructions. ‘Rubbish,’ said Davies. ‘I’ve crossed over’; and I relapsed.

By degrees I returned to sanity, thanks to improved conditions. It is an ill wind that blows nobody good, and the state of the tide, though it threatened us with total failure, had the compensating advantage that the lower it fell the more constricted and defined became our channel; till the time came when the compass and boat-hook were alike unnecessary, because our hand-rail, the muddy brink of the channel, was visible to the eye, close to us; on our right hand always now, for the crux was far behind, and the northern side was now our guide. All that remained was to press on with might and main ere the bed of the creek dried.

What a race it was! Homeric, in effect; a struggle of men with gods, for what were the gods but forces of nature personified’? If the God of the Falling Tide did not figure in the Olympian circle he is none the less a mighty divinity. Davies left his post. and rowed stroke. Under our united efforts the dinghy advanced in strenuous leaps, hurling miniature-rollers on the bank beside us. My palms, seasoned as they were, were smarting with watery blisters. The pace was too hot for my strength and breath.

‘I must have a rest,’ I gasped.

‘Well, I think we’re over it,’ said Davies.

We stopped the dinghy dead, and he stabbed over the side with the boat-hook. It passed gently astern of us, and even my bewildered brain took in the meaning of that.

‘Three feet and the current with us. Well over it,’ he said. ‘I’ll paddle on while you rest and feed.’

It was a few minutes past one and we still, as he calculated. had eight miles before us, allowing for bends.

‘But it’s a mere question of muscle,’ he said.

I took his word for it, and munched at tongue and biscuits. As for muscle, we were both in hard condition. He was fresh, and what distress I felt was mainly due to spasmodic exertion culminating in that desperate spurt. As for the fog. it had more than once shown a faint tendency to lift, growing thinner and more luminous, in the manner of fogs, always to settle down again, heavy as a quilt.

Note the spot marked ‘second rest’ (approximately correct. Davies says) and the course of the channel from that point westward. You will see it broadening and deepening to the dimensions of a great river, and finally merging in the estuary of the Ems. Note, too, that its northern boundary, the edge of the now uncovered Nordland Sand, leads, with one interruption (marked A), direct to Memmert, and is boomed throughout. You will then understand why Davies made so light of the rest of his problem. Compared with the feats he had performed, it was child’s play, for he always had that visible margin to keep touch with if he chose, or to return to in case of doubt. As a matter of fact — observe our dotted line — he made two daring departures from it, the first purely to save time, the second partly to save time and partly to avoid the very awkward spot marked A, where a creek with booms and a little delta of its own interrupts the even bank. During the first of these departures — the shortest but most brilliant — he let me do the rowing, and devoted himself to the niceties of the course; during the second, and through both the intermediate stages, he rowed himself, with occasional pauses to inspect the chart. We fell into a long, measured stroke, and covered the miles rapidly, scarcely exchanging a single word till, at the end of a long pull through vacancy, Davies said suddenly;

‘Now where are we to land?’

A sandbank was looming over us crowned by a lonely boom.

‘Where are we?’

‘A quarter of a mile from Memmert.’

‘What time is it?’

‘Nearly three.’

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/c/childers/erskine/riddle/chapter21.html

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