The Riddle of the Sands, by Erskine Childers

22. The Quartette

HIS tour de force was achieved, and for the moment something like collapse set in.

‘What in the world have we come here for?’ he muttered; ‘I feel a bit giddy.’

I made him drink some whisky, which revived him; and then, speaking in whispers, we settled certain points.

I alone was to land. Davies demurred to this out of loyalty, hut common sense, coinciding with a strong aversion of his own, settled the matter. Two were more liable to detection than one. I spoke the language well, and if challenged could cover my retreat with a gruff word or two; in my woollen overalls, sea-boots, oilskin coat, with a sou’-wester pulled well over my eyes, I should pass in a fog for a Frisian. Davies must mind the dinghy; but how was I to regain it? I hoped to do so without help, by using the edge of the sand; but if he heard a long whistle he was to blow the foghorn.

‘Take the pocket-compass,’ he said. ‘Never budge from the shore without using it, and lay it on the ground for steadiness. Take this scrap of chart, too — it may come in useful; but you can t miss the depot, it looks to be close to the shore. How long will you be’?’

‘How long have I got’?’

‘The young flood’s making — has been for nearly an hour — that bank (he measured it with his eye) will be covering in an hour and a half.’

‘That ought to be enough.’

‘Don’t run it too fine. It’s steep here, but it may shelve farther on. If you have to wade you’ll never find me, and you’ll make a deuce of a row. Got your watch, matches, knife? No knife? Take mine; never go anywhere without a knife.’ (It was his seaman’s idea of efficiency.)

‘Wait a bit, we must settle a place to meet at in case I’m late and can’t reach you here.’

’Don’t be late. We’ve got to get back to the yacht before we’re missed.’

‘But I may have to hide and wait till dark — the fog may clear.’

‘We were fools to come, I believe,’ said Davies, gloomily. ‘There are no meeting-places in a place like this. Here’s the best I can see on the chart — a big triangular beacon marked on the very point of Memmert. You’ll pass it.’

‘All right. I’m off.’

‘Good luck,’ said Davies, faintly.

I stepped out, climbed a miry glacis of five or six feet, reached hard wet sand, and strode away with the sluggish ripple of the Balje on my left hand. A curtain dropped between me and Davies, and I was alone — alone, but how I thrilled to feel the firm sand rustle under my boots; to know that it led to dry land, where, whatever befell, I could give my wits full play. I clove the fog briskly.

Good Heavens! what was that? I stopped short and listened. From over the water on my left there rang out, dulled by fog, but distinct to the ear, three double strokes on a bell or gong. I looked at my watch.

‘Ship at anchor,’ I said to myself. ‘Six bells in the afternoon watch.’ I knew the Balje was here a deep roadstead, where a vessel entering the Eastern Ems might very well anchor to ride out a fog.

I was just stepping forward when another sound followed from the same quarter, a bugle-call this time. Then I understood — only men-of-war sound bugles — the Blitz was here then; and very natural, too, I thought, and strode on. The sand was growing drier, the water farther beneath me; then came a thin black ribbon of weed — high-water mark. A few cautious steps to the right and I touched tufts of marram grass. It was Memmert. I pulled out the chart and refreshed my memory. No! there could be no mistake; keep the sea on my left and I must go right. I followed the ribbon of weed, keeping it just in view, but walking on the verge of the grass for the sake of silence. All at once I almost tripped over a massive iron bar; others, a rusty network of them, grew into being above and around me, like the arms of a ghostly polyp.

‘What infernal spider’s web is this?’ I thought, and stumbled clear. I had strayed into the base of a gigantic tripod, its gaunt legs stayed and cross-stayed, its apex lost in fog; the beacon, I remembered. A hundred yards farther and I was down on my knees again, listening with might and main; for several little sounds were in the air — voices, the rasp of a boat’s keel, the whistling of a tune. These were straight ahead. More to the left. seaward, that is, I had aural evidence of the presence of a steamboat — a small one, for the hiss of escaping steam was low down. On my right front I as yet heard nothing, but the depot must be there.

I prepared to strike away from my base, and laid the compass on the ground — NW. roughly I made the course. (‘South-east — south-east for coming back,’ I repeated inwardly, like a child learning a lesson.) Then of my two allies I abandoned one, the beach, and threw myself wholly on the fog.

‘Play the game,’ I said to myself. ‘Nobody expects you; nobody will recognize you.’

I advanced in rapid stages of ten yards or so, while grass disappeared and soft sand took its place, pitted everywhere with footmarks. I trod carefully, for obstructions began to show themselves — an anchor, a heap of rusty cable; then a boat bottom upwards, and, lying on it, a foul old meerschaum pipe. I paused here and strained my ears, for there were sounds in many directions; the same whistling (behind me now), heavy footsteps in front, and somewhere beyond — fifty yards away, I reckoned — a buzz of guttural conversation; from the same quarter there drifted to my nostrils the acrid odour of coarse tobacco. Then a door banged.

I put the compass in my pocket (thinking ‘south-east, southeast’), placed the pipe between my teeth (ugh! the rank savour of it!) rammed my sou’-wester hard down, and slouched on in the direction of the door that had banged. A voice in front called, ‘Karl Schicker’; a nearer voice, that of the man whose footsteps I had heard approaching, took it up and called ‘Karl Schicker’: I, too, took it up, and, turning my back, called ‘Karl Schicker’ as gruffly and gutturally as I could. The footsteps passed quite close to me, and glancing over my shoulder I saw a young man passing, dressed very like me, but wearing a sealskin cap instead of a sou’-wester. As he walked he seemed to be counting coins in his palm. A hail came back from the beach and the whistling stopped.

I now became aware that I was on a beaten track. These meetings were hazardous, so I inclined aside, but not without misgivings, for the path led towards the buzz of talk and the banging door, and these were my only guides to the depot. Suddenly, and much before I expected it, I knew rather than saw that a wall was in front of me; now it was visible, the side of a low building of corrugated iron. A pause to reconnoitre was absolutely necessary; but the knot of talkers might have heard my footsteps, and I must at all costs not suggest the groping of a stranger. I lit a match — two — and sucked heavily (as I had seen navvies do) at my pipe, studying the trend of the wall by reference to the sounds. There was a stale dottle wedged in the bowl, and loathsome fumes resulted. Just then the same door banged again; another name, which I forget, was called out. I decided that I was at the end of a rectangular building which I pictured as like an Aldershot ‘hut’, and that the door I heard was round the corner to my left. A knot of men must be gathered there, entering it by turns. Having expectorated noisily, 1 followed the tin wall to my right, and turning a corner strolled leisurely on, passing signs of domesticity, a washtub, a water-butt, then a tiled approach to an open door. I now was aware of the corner of a second building, also of zinc, parallel to the first, but taller, for I could only just see the eave. I was just going to turn off to this as a more promising field for exploration, when I heard a window open ahead of me in my original building.

I am afraid I am getting obscure, so I append a rough sketch of the scene, as I partly saw and chiefly imagined it. It was window (A) that I heard open. From it I could just distinguish through the fog a hand protrude, and throw something out — cigar-end? The hand, a clean one with a gold signet-ring, rested for an instant afterwards on the sash, and then closed the window.

sketch

My geography was clear now in one respect. That window belonged to the same room as the hanging door (B); for I distinctly heard the latter open and shut again, opposite me on the other side of the building. It struck me that it might be interesting to see into that room. ‘Play the game,’ I reminded myself, and retreated a few yards back on tiptoe, then turned and sauntered coolly past the window, puffing my villainous pipe and taking a long deliberate look into the interior as I passed — the more deliberate that at the first instant I realized that nobody inside was disturbing himself about me. As I had expected (in view of the fog and the time) there was artificial light within. My mental photograph was as follows: a small room with varnished deal walls and furnished like an office; in the far right-hand corner a counting-house desk, Grimm sitting at it on a high stool, side-face to me, counting money; opposite him in an awkward attitude a burly fellow in seaman’s dress holding a diver’s helmet. In the middle of the room a deal table, and on it something big and black. Lolling on chairs near it, their backs to me and their faces turned towards the desk and the diver, two men — von Brüning and an older man with a bald yellow head (Dollmann’s companion on the steamer, beyond a doubt). On another chair, with its back actually tilted against the window, Dollmann.

Such were the principal features of the scene; for details I had to make another inspection. Stooping low, I crept back, quiet as a cat, till I was beneath the window, and, as I calculated, directly behind Dollmann’s chair. Then with great caution I raised my head. There was only one pair of eyes in the room that I feared in the least, and that was Grimm’s, who sat in profile to me, farthest away. I instantly put Dollmann’s back between Grimm and me, and then made my scrutiny. As I made it, I could feel a cold sweat distilling on my forehead and tickling my spine; not from fear or excitement, but from pure ignominy. For beyond all doubt I was present at the meeting of a bona-fide salvage company. It was pay-day, and the directors appeared to be taking stock of work done; that was all.

Over the door was an old engraving of a two-decker under full sail; pinned on the wall a chart and the plan of a ship. Relics of the wrecked frigate abounded. On a shelf above the stove was a small pyramid of encrusted cannon-balls, and supported on nails at odd places on the walls were corroded old pistols, and what I took to be the remains of a sextant. In a corner of the floor sat a hoary little carronade, carriage and all. None of these things affected me so much as a pile of lumber on the floor, not firewood but unmistakable wreck-wood, black as bog-oak, still caked in places with the mud of ages. Nor was it the mere sight of this lumber that dumbfounded me. It was the fact that a fragment of it, a balk of curved timber garnished with some massive bolts, lay on the table, and was evidently an object of earnest interest. The diver had turned and was arguing with gestures over it; von Brüning and Grimm were pressing another view. The diver shook his head frequently, finally shrugged his shoulders, made a salutation, and left the room. Their movements had kept me ducking my head pretty frequently, but I now grew almost reckless as to whether I was seen or not. All the weaknesses of my theory crowded on me — the arguments Davies had used at Bensersiel; Fräulein Dollmann’s thoughtless talk; the ease (comparatively) with which I had reached this spot, not a barrier to cross or a lock to force; the publicity of their passage to Memmert by Dollmann, his friend, and Grimm; and now this glimpse of business-like routine. In a few moments I sank from depth to depth of scepticism. Where were my mines, torpedoes, and submarine boats, and where my imperial conspirators? Was gold after all at the bottom of this sordid mystery? Dollmann after all a commonplace criminal? The ladder of proof 1 had mounted tottered and shook beneath me. ‘Don’t be a fool,’ said the faint voice of reason. ‘There are your four men. Wait.’

Two more employés came into the room in quick succession and received wages; one looking like a fireman, the other of a superior type, the skipper of a tug, say. There was another discussion with this latter over the balk of wreck-wood, and this man, too, shrugged his shoulders. His departure appeared to end the meeting. Grimm shut up a ledger, and I shrank down on my knees, for a general shifting of chairs began. At the same time, from the other side of the building, I heard my knot of men retreating beachwards, spitting and chatting as they went. Presently someone walked across the room towards my window. I sidled away on all fours, rose and flattened myself erect against the wall, a sickening despondency on me; my intention to slink away south-east as soon as the coast was clear. But the sound that came next pricked me like an electric shock; it was the tinkle and scrape of curtain-rings.

Quick as thought I was back in my old position, to find my view barred by a cretonne curtain. It was in one piece, with no chink for my benefit, but it did not hang straight, bulging towards me under the pressure of something — human shoulders by the shape. Dollmann, I concluded, was still in his old place. I now was exasperated to find that I could scarcely hear a word that was said, not even by pressing my ear against the glass. It was not that the speakers were of set purpose hushing their voices — they used an ordinary tone for intimate discussion — but the glass and curtain deadened the actual words. Still, I was soon able to distinguish general characteristics. Von Brüning’s voice — the only one I had ever heard before — I recognized at once: he was on the left of the table, and Dollmann’s I knew from his position. The third was a harsh croak, belonging to the old gentleman whom, for convenience, I shall prematurely begin to call Herr Böhme. It was too old a voice to be Grimm’s; besides, it had the ring of authority, and was dealing at the moment in sharp interrogations. Three of its sentences I caught in their entirety. ‘When was that?’ ‘They went no farther?’ and ‘Too long; out of the question.’ Dollmann’s voice, though nearest to me, was the least audible of all. It was a dogged monotone, and what was that odd movement of the curtain at his back? Yes, his hands were behind him clutching and kneading a fold of the cretonne. ‘You are feeling uncomfortable, my friend,’ was my comment. Suddenly he threw back his head — I saw the dent of it — and spoke up so that I could not miss a word. ‘Very well, sir, you shall see them at supper to-night; I will ask them both.’

(You will not be surprised to learn that I instantly looked at my watch — though it takes long to write what I have described — but the time was only a quarter to four.) He added something about the fog, and his chair creaked. Ducking promptly I heard the curtain-rings jar, and: ‘Thick as ever.’

‘Your report, Herr Dollmann,’ said Böhme, curtly. Dollmann left the window and moved his chair up to the table; the other two drew in theirs and settled themselves.

’Chatham,‘ said Dollmann, as if announcing a heading. It was an easy word to catch, rapped out sharp, and you can imagine how it startled me. ‘That’s where you’ve been for the last month!’ I said to myself. A map crackled and I knew they were bending over it, while Dollmann explained something. But now my exasperation became acute, for not a syllable more reached me. Squatting back on my heels, I cast about for expedients. Should I steal round and try the door? Too dangerous. Climb to the roof and listen down the stove-pipe? Too noisy, and generally hopeless. I tried for a downward purchase on the upper half of the window, which was of the simple sort in two sections, working vertically. No use; it resisted gentle pressure, would start with a sudden jar if I forced it. I pulled out Davies’s knife and worked the point of the blade between sash and frame to give it play — no result; but the knife was a nautical one, with a marlin-spike as well as a big blade.

Just now the door within opened and shut again, and I heard steps approaching round the corner to my right. I had the presence of mind not to lose a moment, but moved silently away (blessing the deep Frisian sand) round the corner of the big parallel building. Someone whom I could not see walked past till his boots clattered on tiles, next resounded on boards. ‘Grimm in his living-room,’ I inferred. The precious minutes ebbed away — five, ten, fifteen. Had he gone for good? I dared not return otherwise. Eighteen — he was coming out! This time I stole forward boldly when the man had just passed, dimly saw a figure, and clearly enough the glint of a white paper he was holding. He made his circuit and re-entered the room.

Here I felt and conquered a relapse to scepticism. ‘If this is an important conclave why don’t they set guards?’ Answer, the only possible one, ‘Because they stand alone. Their employés, like everyone we had met hitherto, know nothing. The real object of this salvage company (a poor speculation, I opined) is solely to afford a pretext for the conclave.’ ‘Why the curtain, even?’ ‘Because there are maps, stupid!’

I was back again at the window, but as impotent as ever against that even stream of low confidential talk. But I would not give up. Fate and the fog had brought me here, the one solitary soul perhaps who by the chain of circumstances had both the will and the opportunity to wrest their secret from these four men.

The marlin-spike! Where the lower half of the window met the sill it sank into a shallow groove. I thrust the point of the spike down into the interstice between sash and frame and heaved with a slowly increasing force, which I could regulate to the fraction of an ounce, on this powerful lever. The sash gave, with the faintest possible protest, and by imperceptible degrees I lifted it to the top of the groove, and the least bit above it, say half an inch in all; but it made an appreciable difference to the sounds within, as when you remove your foot from a piano’s soft pedal. I could do no more, for there was no further fulcrum for the spike, and I dared not gamble away what I had won by using my hands.

Hope sank again when I placed my cheek on the damp sill, and my ear to the chink. My men were close round the table referring to papers which I heard rustle. Dollmann’s ‘report’ was evidently over, and I rarely heard his voice; Grimm’s occasionally, von Brüning’s and Böhme’s frequently; but, as before, it was the latter only that I could ever count on for an intelligible word. For, unfortunately, the villains of the piece plotted without any regard to dramatic fitness or to my interests. Immersed in a subject with which they were all familiar, they were allusive, elliptic, and persistently technical. Many of the words I did catch were unknown to me. The rest were, for the most part, either letters of the alphabet or statistical figures, of depth, distance, and, once or twice, of time. The letters of the alphabet recurred often, and seemed, as far as I could make out, to represent the key to the cipher. The numbers clustering round them were mostly very small, with decimals. What maddened me most was the scarcity of plain nouns.

To report what I heard to the reader would be impossible; so chaotic was most of it that it left no impression on my own memory. All I can do is to tell him what fragments stuck, and what nebulous classification I involved. The letters ran from A to G, and my best continuous chance came when Böhme, reading rapidly from a paper, I think, went through the letters, backwards, from G, adding remarks to each; thus: ‘G . . . completed.’ ‘F . . . bad . . . 1.3 (metres?) . . . 2.5 (kilometres?).’ ‘E . . . thirty-two . . . 1.2.’ ‘D . . . 3 weeks . . . thirty.’ ‘C . . . ‘and soon.

Another time he went through this list again, only naming each letter himself, and receiving laconic answers from Grimm — answers which seemed to be numbers, but I could not be sure. For minutes together I caught nothing but the scratching of pens and inarticulate mutterings. But out of the muck-heap I picked five pearls — four sibilant nouns and a name that I knew before. The nouns were ‘Schlepp-boote’ (tugs); ‘Wassertiefe’ (depth of water); ‘Eisenbahn’ (railway); ‘ (pilots). The name, also sibilant and thus easier to hear, was ‘Esens’.

Two or three times I had to stand back and ease my cramped neck, and on each occasion I looked at my watch, for I was listening against time, just as we had rowed against time. We were going to be asked to supper, and must be back aboard the yacht in time to receive the invitation. The fog still brooded heavily and the light, always bad, was growing worse. How would they get back? How had they come from Juist? Could we forestall them? Questions of time, tide, distance — just the odious sort of sums I was unfit to cope with — were distracting my attention when it should have been wholly elsewhere. 4.20 — 4.25 — now it was past 4.30 when Davies said the bank would cover. I should have to make for the beacon; but it was fatally near that steamboat path, etc., and I still at intervals heard voices from there. It must have been about 4.35 when there was another shifting of chairs within. Then someone rose, collected papers, and went out; someone else, without rising (therefore Grimm), followed him.

There was silence in the room for a minute, and after that, for the first time, I heard some plain colloquial German, with no accompaniment of scratching or rustling. ‘I must wait for this,’ I thought, and waited.

‘He insists on coming,’ said Böhme.

‘Ach!’ (an ejaculation of surprise and protest from von Brüning).

‘I said the 25th.’

‘Why?’

‘The tide serves well. The night-train, of course. Tell Grimm to be ready —’ (An inaudible question from von Brüning.) ‘No, any weather.’ A laugh from von Brüning and some words I could not catch.

‘Only one, with half a load.’

‘ . . . meet?’

‘At the station.’

‘So — how’s the fog?’

This appeared to be really the end. Both men rose and steps came towards the window. I leapt aside as I heard it thrown up, and covered by the noise backed into safety. Von Brüning called ‘Grimm!’ and that, and the open window, decided me that my line of advance was now too dangerous to retreat by. The only alternative was to make a circuit round the bigger of the two buildings — and an interminable circuit it seemed — and all the while I knew my compass-course ‘south-east’ was growing nugatory. I passed a padlocked door, two corners, and faced the void of fog. Out came the compass, and I steadied myself for the sum. ‘South-east before — I’m farther to the eastward now — east will about do’; and off I went, with an error of four whole points, over tussocks and deep sand. The beach seemed much farther off than I had thought, and I began to get alarmed, puzzled over the compass several times, and finally realized that I had lost my way. I had the sense not to make matters worse by trying to find it again, and, as the lesser of two evils, blew my whistle, softly at first, then louder. The bray of a foghorn sounded right behind me. I whistled again and then ran for my life, the horn sounding at intervals. In three or four minutes I was on the beach and in the dinghy.

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