The Riddle of the Sands, by Erskine Childers

25. I Double Back

‘GOOD-BYE, old chap,’ called Davies.

‘Good-bye,’ the whistle blew and the ferry-steamer forged ahead, leaving Davies on the quay, bareheaded and wearing his old Norfolk jacket and stained grey flannels, as at our first meeting in Flensburg station. There was no bandaged hand this time, but he looked pinched and depressed; his eyes had black circles round them; and again I felt that same indefinable pathos in him.

‘Your friend is in low spirits,’ said Böhme, who was installed on a seat beside me, voluminously caped and rugged against the biting air. It was a still, sunless day.

‘So am I,’ I grunted, and it was the literal truth. I was only half awake, felt unwashed and dissipated, heavy in head and limbs. But for Davies I should never have been where I was. It was he who had patiently coaxed me out of my bunk, packed my bag, fed me with tea and an omelette (to which I believe he had devoted peculiarly tender care), and generally mothered me for departure. While I swallowed my second cup he was brushing the mould and smoothing the dents from my felt hat, which had been entombed for a month in the sail-locker; working at it with a remorseful concern in his face. The only initiative I am conscious of having shown was in the matter of my bag. ‘Put in my sea clothes, oils, and all,’ I had said; ‘I may want them again.’ There was mortal need of a thorough consultation, but this was out of the question. Davies did not badger or complain, but only timidly asked me how we were to meet and communicate, a question on which my mind was an absolute blank.

‘Look out for me about the 26th,’ I suggested feebly.

Before we left the cabin he gave me a scrap of pencilled paper and saw that it went safely into my pocket-book. ‘Look at it in the train,’ he said.

Unable to cope with Böhme, I paced the deck aimlessly as we swung round the See–Gat into the Buse Tief, trying to identify the point where we crossed it yesterday blindfold. But the tide was full, and the waters blank for miles round till they merged in haze. Soon I drifted down into the saloon, and crouching over a stove pulled out that scrap of paper. In a crabbed, boyish hand, and much besmudged with tobacco ashes, I found the following notes:

(1) Your journey. [See Maps A and B.] Norddeich 8.58, Emden 10.32, Leer 11.16 (Böhme changes for Bremen), Rheine 1.8 (change), Amsterdam 7.17 p.m. Leave again via Hook 8.52, London 9 am.

(2) The coast-station — their rondezvous — querry is it Norden? (You pass it 9.13)— there is a tidal creek up to it. High-water there on 25th, say 10.30 to 11 p.m. It cannot be Norddeich, which I find has a dredged-out low-water channel for the steamer, so tide ‘serves’ would not apply.

(3) Your other clews (tugs, pilots, depths, railway, Esens, seven of something). Querry; Scheme of defence by land and sea for North Sea Coast?

Sea — 7 islands, 7 channels between (counting West Ems), very small depths (what you said) in most of them. Tugs and pilots for patrol work behind islands, as I always said. Querry; Rondezvous is for inspecting channels?

Land — Look at railway (map in ulster pocket) running in a loop all round Friesland, a few miles from coast. Querry: To be used as line of communication for army corps. Troops could be quickly sent to any threatened point. Esens the base? It is in top centre of loop. Von Brooning dished us fairly over that at Bensersiel.

Chatham — D. was spying after our naval plans for war with Germany.

Von Brooning runs naval part over here.

Where does Burmer come in? Querry — you go to Breman and find out about him?

I nodded stupidly over this document — so stupidly that I found myself wondering whether Burmer was a place or a person. Then I dozed, to wake with a violent start and find the paper on the floor. Panic-stricken, I hid it away, and went on deck, when I found we were close to Norddeich, running up to the bleakest of bleak jetties thrown out from the dyke-bound polders of the mainland. Böhme and I landed together, and he was at my elbow as I asked for a ticket for Amsterdam, and was given one as far as Rheine, a junction near the Dutch frontier. He was ensconced in an opposite corner to me in the railway carriage, looking like an Indian idol. ‘Where do you come in?’ I pondered, dreamily. Too sleepy to talk, I could only blink at him, sitting bolt upright with my arms folded over my precious pocket-book. Finally, I gave up the struggle, buttoned my ulster tightly up, and turning my back upon him with an apology, lay down to sleep, the precious pocket nethermost. He was at liberty to rifle my bag if he chose, and I dare say he did. I cannot say, for from this point till Rheine, for the best part of four hours, that is, I had only two lucid intervals.

The first was at Emden, where we both had to change. Here, as we pushed our way down the crowded platform, Böhme, after being greeted respectfully by several persons, was at last buttonholed without means of escape by an obsequious gentleman, whose description is of no moment, but whose conversation is. It was about a canal; what canal I did not gather, though, from a name dropped, I afterwards identified it as one in course of construction as a feeder to the Ems. The point is that the subject was canals. At the moment it was seed dropped in unreceptive soil, but it germinated later. I passed on, mingling with the crowd, and was soon asleep again in another carriage where Böhme this time did not follow me.

The second occasion was at Leer, where I heard myself called by name, and woke to find him at the window. He had to change trains, and had come to say good-bye. ‘Don’t forget to go to Lloyd’s,’ he grated in my ear. I expect it was a wan smile that I returned, for I was at a very low ebb, and my fortress looked sarcastically impregnable. But the sapper was free; ‘free’ was my last conscious thought.

Even after Rheine, where I changed for the last time, a brutish drowsiness enchained me, and the afternoon was well advanced before my faculties began to revive.

The train crept like a snail from station to station. I might, so a fellow-passenger told me, have waited three hours at Rheine for an express which would have brought me to Amsterdam at about the same time; or, if I had chosen to break the journey farther back, two hours at either Emden or Leer would still have enabled me to catch the said express at Rheine. These alternatives had escaped Davies, and, I surmised, had been suppressed by Böhme, who doubtless did not want me behind him, free either to double back or to follow him to Bremen.

The pace, then, was execrable, and there were delays; we were behind time at Hengelo, thirty minutes late at Apeldoorn; so that I might well have grown nervous about my connexions at Amsterdam, which were in some jeopardy. But as I battled out of my lethargy and began to take account of our position and prospects, quite a different thought at the outset affected me. Anxiety to reach London was swamped in reluctance to quit Germany, so that I found myself grudging every mile that I placed between me and the frontier. It was the old question of urgency. To-day was the 23rd. The visit to London meant a minimum absence of forty-eight hours, counting from Amsterdam; that is to say, that by travelling for two nights and one day, and devoting the other day to investigating Dollmann’s past, it was humanly possible for me to be back on the Frisian coast on the evening of the 25th. Yes, I could be at Norden, if that was the ‘rendezvous’, at 7 p.m. But what a scramble! No margin for delays, no physical respite. Some pasts take a deal of raking up — other persons may be affected; men are cautious, they trip you up with red tape; or the man who knows is out at lunch — a protracted lunch; or in the country — a protracted week-end. Will you see Mr So-and-so, or leave a note? Oh! I know those public departments — from the inside! And the Admiralty! . . . I saw myself baffled and racing back the same night to Germany, with two days wasted, arriving, good for nothing, at Norden, with no leisure to reconnoitre my ground; to be baffled again there, probably, for you cannot always count on fogs (as Davies said). Esens was another clue, and ‘to follow Burmer’— there was something in that notion. But I wanted time, and had I time? How long could Davies maintain himself at Norderney? Not so very long, from what I remembered of last night. And was he even safe there? A feverish dream recurred to me — a dream of Davies in a diving-dress; of a regrettable hitch in the air-supply — Stop, that was nonsense! . . . Let us be sane. What matter if he had to go? What matter if I took my time in London? Then with a flood of shame I saw Davies’s wistful face on the quay, heard his grim ejaculation: ‘He’s our game or no one’s’; and my own sullen ‘Oh, I’ll keep the secret!’ London was utterly impossible. If I found my informant, what credentials had I, what claim to confidences? None, unless I told the whole story. Why, my mere presence in Whitehall would imperil the secret; for, once on my native heath, I should be recognized — possibly haled to judgement; at the best should escape in a cloud of rumour —‘last heard of at Norderney’; ‘only this morning was raising Cain at the Admiralty about a mythical lieutenant.’ No! Back to Friesland, was the word. One night’s rest — I must have that — between sheets, on a feather bed; one long, luxurious night, and then back refreshed to Friesland, to finish our work in our own way, and with none but our own weapons.

Having reached this resolve, I was nearly putting it into instant execution, by alighting at Amersfoort, but thought better of it. I had a transformation to effect before I returned North, and the more populous centre I made it in the less it was likely to attract notice. Besides, I had in my mind’s eye a perfect bed in a perfect hostelry hard by the Amstel River. It was an economy in the end.

So, at half-past eight I was sipping my coffee in the aforesaid hostelry, with a London newspaper before me, which was unusually interesting, and some German journals, which, ‘in hate of a wrong not theirs’, were one and all seething with rancorous Anglophobia. At nine I was in the Jewish quarter, striking bargains in an infamous marine slop-shop. At half-past nine I was despatching this unscrupulous telegram to my chief —‘Very sorry, could not call Norderney; hope extension all right; please write to Hôtel du Louvre, Paris.’ At ten I was in the perfect bed, rapturously flinging my limbs abroad in its glorious redundancies. And at 8.28 on the following morning, with a novel chilliness about the upper lip, and a vast excess of strength and spirits, I was sitting in a third-class carriage, bound for Germany, and dressed as a young seaman, in a pea-jacket, peaked cap, and comforter.

The transition had not been difficult. I had shaved off my moustache and breakfasted hastily in my bedroom, ready equipped for a journey in my ulster and cloth cap. I had dismissed the hotel porter at the station, and left my bag at the cloak-room, after taking out of it an umber bundle and substituting the ulster. The umber bundle, which consisted of my oilskins, and within them my sea-boots and a few other garments and necessaries, the whole tied up with a length of tarry rope, was now in the rack above me, and (with a stout stick) represented my luggage. Every article in it — I shudder at their origin — was in strict keeping with my humble métier, for I knew they were liable to search at the frontier custom-house; but there was a Baedeker of Northern Germany in my jacket pocket.

For the nonce, if questions were asked, I was an English seaman, going to Emden to join a ship, with a ticket as far as the frontier. Beyond that a definite scheme of action had still to be thought out. One thing, however, was sure. I was determined to be at Norden tomorrow night, the 25th. A word about Norden, which is a small town seven miles south of Norddeich. When hurriedly scanning the map for coast stations in the cabin yesterday, I had not thought of Norden, because it did not appear to be on the coast, but Davies had noticed it while I slept, and I now saw that his pencilled hint was a shrewd one. The creek he spoke of, though barely visible on the map, [see Map B] flowed into the Ems Estuary in a south-westerly direction. The ‘night train’ tallied to perfection, for high tide in the creek would be, as Davies estimated, between 10.30 and 11 p.m. on the night of the 25th; and the time-table showed that the only night train arriving at Norden was one from the south at 10.46 p.m. This looked promising. Emden, which I had inclined to on the spur of the moment, was out of court in comparison, for many reasons; not the least being that it was served by three trains between 9 p.m. and 1 a.m., so that the phrase ‘night train’ would be ambiguous and not decisive as with Norden.

So far good; but how was I to spend the intervening time? Should I act on Davies’s ‘querry’ and go to Bremen after Böhme? I soon dismissed that idea. It was one to act upon if others failed; for the present it meant another scramble. Bremen is six hours from Norden by rail. I should spend a disproportionate amount of my limited time in trains, and I should want a different disguise. Besides, I had already learnt something fresh about Böhme; for the seed dropped at Emden Station yesterday had come to life. A submarine engineer I knew him to be before; I now knew that canals were another branch of his labours — not a very illuminating fact; but could I pick up more in a single day?

There remained Esens, and it was thither I resolved to go tonight — a tedious journey, lasting till past eight in the evening; but there I should only be an hour from Norden by rail.

And at Esens?

All day long I strove for light on the central mystery, collecting from my diary, my memory, my imagination, from the map, the time-table, and Davies’s grubby jottings, every elusive atom of material. Sometimes I issued from a reverie with a start, to find a phlegmatic Dutch peasant staring strangely at me over his china pipe. I was more careful over the German border. Davies’s paper I soon knew by heart. I pictured him writing it with his cramped fist in his corner by the stove, fighting against sleep, absently striking salvos of matches, while 1 snored in my bunk; absently diverging into dreams, I knew, of a rose-brown face under dewy hair and a grey tam-o’-shanter; though not a word of her came into the document. I smiled to see his undying faith in the ‘channel theory’ reconciled at the eleventh hour, with new data touching the neglected ‘land’.

The result was certainly interesting, but it left me cold. That there existed in the German archives some such scheme of defence for the North Sea coast was very likely indeed. The seven islands, with their seven shallow channels (though, by the way, two of them, the twin branches of the Ems, are by no means so shallow), were a very fair conjecture, and fitted in admirably with the channel theory, whose intrinsic merits I had always recognized; my constant objection having been that it did not go nearly far enough to account for our treatment. The ring of railway round the peninsula, with Esens at the apex, was suggestive, too; but the same objection applied. Every country with a maritime frontier has, I suppose, secret plans of mobilization for its defence, but they are not such as could be discovered by passing travellers, not such as would warrant stealthy searches, or require for their elaboration so recondite a meeting-place as Memmert. Dollmann was another weak point; Dollmann in England, spying. All countries, Germany included, have spies in their service, dirty though necessary tools; but Dollmann in such intimate association with the principal plotters on this side; Dollmann rich, influential, a power in local affairs — it was clear he was no ordinary spy.

And here I detected a hesitation in Davies’s rough sketch, a reluctance, as it were, to pursue a clue to its logical end. He spoke of a German scheme of coast defence, and in the next breath of Dollmann spying for English plans in the event of war with Germany, and there he left the matter; but what sort of plans? Obviously (if he was on the right track) plans of attack on the German coast as opposed to those of strategy on the high seas. But what sort of an attack? Obviously again, if his railway-ring meant anything, an attack by invasion on that remote and desolate littoral which he had so often himself declared to be impregnably secure behind its web of sands and shallows. My mind went back to my question at Bensersiel, ‘Can this coast be invaded?’ to his denial and our fruitless survey of the dykes and polders. Was he now reverting to a fancy we had both rejected, while shrinking from giving it explicit utterance? The doubt was tantalizing.

A brief digression here about the phases of my journey. At Rheine 1 changed trains, turned due north and became a German seaman. There was little risk in a defective accent — sailors are so polyglot; while an English sailor straying about Esens might excite curiosity. Yesterday I had paid no heed to the landscape; today I neglected nothing that could conceivably supply a hint.

From Rheine to Emden we descended the valley of the Ems; at first through a land of thriving towns and fat pastures, degenerating farther north to spaces of heathery bog and moorland — a sad country, but looking at its best, such as that was, for I should mention here that the weather, which in the early morning had been as cold and misty as ever, grew steadily milder and brighter as the day advanced; while my newspaper stated that the glass was falling and the anticyclone giving way to pressure from the Atlantic.

At Emden, where we entered Friesland proper, the train crossed a big canal, and for the twentieth time that day (for we had passed numbers of them in Holland, and not a few in Germany), I said to myself, ‘Canals, canals. Where does Böhme come in?’ It was dusk, but light enough to see an unfamiliar craft, a torpedo-boat in fact, moored to stakes at one side. In a moment I remembered that page in the North Sea Pilot where the Ems–Jade Canal is referred to as deep enough to carry gun-boats, and as used for that strategic purpose between Wilhelmshaven and Emden, along the base, that is, of the Frisian peninsula. I asked a peasant opposite; yes, that was the Ems–Jade Canal. Had Davies forgotten it? It would have greatly strengthened his halting sketch.

At the bookstall at Emden I bought a pocket ordnance map [There is. of course, no space to reproduce this, but here and henceforward the reader is referred to Map B] of Friesland, on a much larger scale than anything I had used before, and when I was unobserved studied the course of the canal, with an impatience which, alas! quickly cooled. From Emden northwards I used the same map to aid my eyesight, and with its help saw in the gathering gloom more heaths and bogs once a great glimmering lake, and at intervals cultivated tracts; a watery land as ever; pools, streams and countless drains and ditches, Extensive woods were marked also, but farther inland. We passed Norden at seven, just dark. I looked out for the creek, and sure enough, we crossed it just before entering the station. Its bed was nearly dry, and I distinguished barges lying aground in it. This being the junction for Esens, I had to wait three-quarters of an hour, and then turned east through the uttermost northern wilds, stopping at occasional village stations and keeping five or six miles from the sea. It was during this stage, in a wretchedly lit compartment, and alone for the most part, that I finally assembled all my threads and tried to weave them into a cable whose core should be Esens; ‘a town’, so Baedeker said, ‘of 3,500 inhabitants, the centre of a rich agricultural district. Fine spire.’

Esens is four miles inland from Bensersiel. I reviewed every circumstance of that day at Bensersiel, and boiled to think how von Brüning had tricked me. He had driven to Esens himself, and read me so well that he actually offered to take me with him, and I had refused from excess of cleverness. Stay, though; if I had happened to accept he would have taken very good care that I saw nothing important. The secret, therefore, was not writ large on the walls of Esens. Was it connected with Bensersiel too, or the country between? I searched the ordnance map again, standing up to get a better light and less jolting. There was the road northwards from Esens to Bensersiel, passing through dots and chess-board squares, the former meaning fen, the latter fields, so the reference said. Something else, too, immediately caught my eye, and that was a stream running to Bensersiel. I knew it at once for the muddy stream or drain we had seen at the harbour, issuing through the sluice or siel from which Bensersiel took its name. But it arrested my attention now because it looked more prominent than I should have expected. Charts are apt to ignore the geography of the mainland, except in so far as it offers sea-marks to mariners. On the chart this stream had been shown as a rough little corkscrew, like a sucking-pig’s tail. On the ordnance map it was marked with a dark blue line, was labelled ‘Benser Tief’, and was given a more resolute course; bends became angles, and there were what appeared to be artificial straightnesses at certain points. One of the threads in my skein, the canal thread, tingled sympathetically, like a wire charged with current. Standing astraddle on both seats, with the map close to the lamp, I greedily followed the course of the ‘tief’ southward. It inclined away from the road to Esens and passed the town about a mile to the west, diving underneath the railway. Soon after it took angular tacks to the eastward, and joined another blue line trending south-east, and lettered ‘Esens — Wittmunde Canal.’ This canal, however, came to an abrupt end halfway to Wittmund, a neighbouring town.

For the first time that day there came to me a sense of genuine inspiration. Those shallow depths and short distances, fractions of metres and kilometres, which I had overheard from Böhme’s lips at Memmert, and which Davies had attributed to the outside channels — did they refer to a canal? I remembered seeing barges in Bensersiel harbour. I remembered conversations with the natives in the inn, scraps of the post-master’s pompous loquacity, talks of growing trade, of bricks and grain passing from the interior to the islands: from another source — was it the grocer of Wangeroog? — of expansion of business in the islands themselves as bathing resorts; from another source again — von Brüning himself, surely — of Dollmann’s personal activity in the development of the islands. In obscure connexion with these things, I saw the torpedo-boat in the Ems–Jade Canal.

It was between Dornum and Esens that these ideas came, and I was still absorbed in them when the train drew up, just upon nine o’clock, at my destination, and after ten minutes’ walk, along with a handful of other passengers, I found myself in the quiet cobbled streets of Esens, with the great church steeple, that we had so often seen from the sea, soaring above me in the moonlight.

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