The Riddle of the Sands, by Erskine Childers

28. We Achieve our Double Aim

WHEN, exactly, the atmosphere of misunderstanding on the stranded tug was dissipated, I do not know, for by the time I had fitted the rowlocks and shipped sculls, tide and wind had caught me, and were sweeping me merrily back on the road to Norderney, whose lights twinkled through the scud in the north. With my first few strokes I made towards the lighter — which I could see sagging helplessly to leeward — but as soon as I thought I was out of sight of the tug, I pulled round and worked out my own salvation. There was an outburst of shouting which soon died away. Full speed. on a falling tide! They were pinned there for five hours sure. It was impossible to miss the way, and with my stout allies heaving me forward, I made short work of the two-mile passage. There was a sharp tussle at the last, where the Riff–Gat poured its stream across my path, and then I was craning over my shoulder, God knows with what tense anxiety, for the low hull and taper mast of the Dulcibella, Not there! No, not where I had left her. I pulled furiously up the harbour past a sleeping ferry-steamer and — praise Heaven! — came on her warped alongside the jetty.

‘Who’s that?’ came from below, as I stepped on board.

‘Hush! it’s me.’ And Davies and I were pawing one another in the dark of the cabin.

‘Are you all right, old chap?’ said he.

‘Yes; are you? A match! What’s the time? Quick!’

‘Good Heavens, Carruthers, what the blazes have you done to yourself?’ (I suspect I cut a pretty figure after my two days’ outing.)

‘Ten past three. It’s the invasion of England! Is Dollmann at the villa?’

‘Invasion?’

‘Is Dollmann at the villa?’

‘Yes.’

‘Is the Medusa afloat?’

‘No, on the mud.’

‘The devil! Are we afloat?’

‘I think so still, but they made me shift.’

‘Think! Track her out! Pole her out! Cut those warps!’

For a few strenuous minutes we toiled at the sweeps till the Dulcibella was berthed ahead of the steamer, in deeper water. Meanwhile I had whispered a few facts.

‘How soon can you get under way?’ I asked.

‘Ten minutes.’

‘When’s daylight?’

‘Sunrise about seven, first dawn about five. Where are we bound?’

‘Holland, or England.’

‘Are they invading it now?’ said Davies, calmly.

‘No, only rehearsing!’ I laughed, wildly.

‘Then we can wait.’

‘We can wait exactly an hour and a half. Come ashore and knock up Dollmann; we must denounce him, and get them both aboard; it’s now or never. Holy Saints! man, not as you are!’ (He was in pyjamas.) ‘Sea clothes!’

While he put on Christian attire, I resumed my facts and sketched a plan. ‘Are you watched?’ I asked.

‘I think so; by the Kormoran’s men.’

‘Is the Kormoran here?’

‘Yes.’

‘The men?’

‘Not to-night. Grimm called for them in that tug. I was watching. And, Carruthers. the Blitz is here.’

‘Where?’

‘In the roads outside — didn’t you see her?’

‘Wasn’t looking. Her skipper’s safe anyway; so’s Böhme, so’s the Tertium Quid, and so are the Kormoran’s men. The coast’s clear — it’s now or never.’

Once more we were traversing the long jetty and the silent streets, rain driving at our backs. We trod on air, I think; I remember no fatigue. Davies sometimes broke into a little run, muttering ‘scoundrel’ to himself.

‘I was right — only upside down,’ he murmured more than once. ‘Always really right — those channels are the key to the whole concern. Chatham, our only eastern base — no North Sea base or squadron — they’d land at one of those God-forsaken flats off the Crouch and Blackwater.’

‘It seems a wild scheme,’ I observed.

‘Wild? In a way. So is any invasion. But it’s thorough; it’s German. No other country could do it. It’s all dawning on me — by Jove! It will be at the Wash — much the nearest, and as sandy as this side.’

‘How’s Dollmann been?’ I asked.

‘Polite, but queer and jumpy. It’s too long a story.’

‘Clara?’

’She’s all right. By Jove! Carruthers — never mind.’

We found a night-bell at the villa door and rang it lustily. A window aloft opened, and ‘A message from Commander von Brüning — urgent,’ I called up.

The window shut, and soon after the hall was lighted and the door opened by Dollmann in a dressing-gown.

‘Good morning, Lieutenant X— ’ I said, in English. ‘Stop, we’re friends, you fool!’ as the door was flung nearly to. It opened very slowly again, and we walked in.

‘Silence!’ he hissed. The sweat stood on his steep forehead and a hectic flush on either cheek, but there was a smile — what a smile! — on his lips. Motioning us to tread noiselessly (a vain ideal for me), he led the way to the sitting-room we knew, switched on the light, and faced us.

‘Well?’ he said, in English, still smiling.

I consulted my watch, and I may say that if my hand was an index to my general appearance, I must have looked the most abject ruffian under heaven.

‘We probably understand one another,’ I said, ‘and to explain is to lose time. We sail for Holland, or perhaps England, at five at the latest, and we want the pleasure of your company. We promise you immunity — on certain conditions, which can wait. We have only two berths, so that we can only accommodate Miss Clara besides yourself.’ He smiled on through this terse harangue, but the smile froze, as though beneath it raged some crucial debate. Suddenly he laughed (a low, ironical laugh).

‘You fools,’ he said, ‘you confounded meddlesome young idiots; I thought I had done with you. Promise me immunity? Give me till five? By God, I’ll give you five minutes to be off to England and be damned to you, or else to be locked up for spies! What the devil do you take me for?’

‘A traitor in German service,’ said Davies, none too firmly, We were both taken aback by this slashing attack.

‘A tr —? You pig-headed young marplots! I’m in British service! You’re wrecking the work of years — and on the very threshold of success.’

For an instant Davies and I looked at one another in stupefaction. He lied — I could swear he lied; but how make sure?

‘Why did you try to wreck Davies?’ said I, mechanically.

‘Pshaw! They made me clear him out. I knew he was safe, and safe he is.’

There was only one thing for it — a last finesse, to put him to the proof.

‘Very well,’ I said, after a moment or two, ‘we’ll clear out — silence, Davies! — as it appears we have acted in error; but it’s right to tell you that we know everything.’

‘Not so loud, curse you! What do you know?’

‘I was taking notes at Memmert the other night.’

‘Impossible!’

‘Thanks to Davies. Under difficulties, of course, but I heard quite enough. You were reporting your English tour — Chatham, you know, and the English scheme of attack, a mythical one, no doubt, as you’re on the right side! Böhme and the rest were dealing with the German scheme of defence A to G— I heard it all — the seven islands and the seven channels between them (Davies knows every one of them by heart); and then on land, the ring of railway, Esens the centre, the army corps to mobilize and entrench — all nugatory, wasted, ha! ha! — as you’re on the rights —’

‘Not so loud, you fiend of mischief!’ He turned his back, and made an irresolute pace or two towards the door, his hands kneading the folds of his dressing-gown as they had kneaded the curtain at Memmert. Twice he began a question and twice broke off. ‘I congratulate you, gentlemen,’ he said, finally, and with more composure, facing us again, ‘you have done marvels in your misplaced zeal; but you have compromised me too much already. I shall have to have you arrested — purely for form’s sake —’

‘Thank you,’ I broke in. ‘We have wasted five minutes, and time presses. We sail at five, and — purely for form’s sake — would rather have you with us.’

‘What do you mean?’ he snarled.

‘I had the advantage of you at Memmert, in spite of acoustic obstacles. Your friends made an appointment behind your back, and I, in my misplaced zeal, have taken some trouble to attend it; so that I’ve had a working demonstration on another matter, the invasion of England from the seven siels.’ (Davies nudged me.) ‘No, I should let that pistol alone; and no, I wouldn’t ring the bell. You can arrest us if you like, but the secret’s in safe hands.’

‘You lie!’ He was right there; but he could not know it.

‘Do you suppose I haven’t taken that precaution? But no names are mentioned.’ He gave a sort of groan, sank into a chair, and seemed to age and grizzle before our very eyes.

‘What did you say about immunity, and Clara?’ he muttered. ‘We’re friends — we’re friends!’ burst out Davies, with a gulp in his voice. ‘We want to help you both.’ (Through a sudden mist that filmed my eyes I saw him impetuously walk over and lay his hand on the other’s shoulder.) ‘Those chaps are on our track and yours. Come with us. Wake her, tell her. It’ll be too late soon.’

X— shrank from his touch. ‘Tell her? I can’t tell her. You tell her, boy.’ He was huddling back into his chair. Davies turned to me.

‘Where’s her room?’ I said, sharply.

‘Above this one.’

‘Go up, Carruthers,’ said Davies.

‘Not I— I shall frighten her into a fit.’

‘I don’t like to.’

‘Nonsense, man! We’ll both go then.’

‘Don’t make a noise,’ said a dazed voice. We left that huddled figure and stole upstairs — thickly carpeted stairs, luckily. The door we wanted was half open, and the room behind it lighted. On the threshold stood a slim white figure, bare-footed; barethroated.

‘What is it, father?’ she called in a whisper. ‘Whom have you been talking to?’ I pushed Davies forward, but he hung back.

‘Hush, don’t be frightened,’ I said, ‘it’s I, Carruthers, and Davies — and Davies. May we come in, just for one moment?’

I gently widened the opening of the door, while she stepped back and put one hand to her throat.

‘Please come to your father,’ I said. ‘We are going to take you both to England in the Dulcibella — now, at once.’

She had heard me, but her eyes wandered to Davies.

‘I understand not,’ she faltered, trembling and cowering in such touching bewilderment that I could not bear to look at her.

‘For God’s sake, say something, Davies,’ I muttered.

‘Clara!’ said Davies, ‘will you not trust us?’

I heard a little gasp from her. There was a flutter of lace and cambric and she was in his arms, sobbing like a tired child, her little white feet between his great clumsy sea-boots — her rose-brown cheek on his rough jersey.

‘It’s past four, old chap,’ I remarked, brutally. ‘I’m going down to him again. No packing to speak of, mind. They must be out of this in half an hour.’ I stumbled awkwardly on the stairs (again that tiresome film!) and found him stuffing some papers pell-mell into the stove. There were only slumbering embers in it, but he did not seem to notice that. ‘You must be dressed in half an hour,’ I said, furtively pocketing a pistol which lay on the table.

‘Have you told her? Take her to England, you two boys. I think I’ll stay.’ He sank into a chair again.

‘Nonsense, she won’t go without you. You must, for her sake — in half an hour, too.’

I prefer to pass that half-hour lightly over. Davies left before me to prepare the yacht for sea, and I had to bear the brunt of what followed, including (as a mere episode) a scene with the step-mother, the memory of which rankles in me yet. After all, she was a sensible woman.

As for the other two, the girl when I saw her next, in her short boating skirt and tam-o’-shanter, was a miracle of coolness and pluck. But for her 1 should never have got him away. And ah! how good it was to be out in the wholesome rain again, hurrying to the harbour with my two charges, hurrying them down the greasy ladder to that frail atom of English soil, their first guerdon of home and safety.

Our flight from the harbour was unmolested, unnoticed. Only the first ghastly evidences of dawn were mingling with the strangled moonlight, as we tacked round the pier-head and headed close-reefed down the Riff–Gat on the lees of the ebb-tide. We had to pass under the very quarter of the Blitz, so Davies said; for, of course, he alone was on deck till we reached the open sea. Day was breaking then. It was dead low water, and, far away to the south, between dun swathes of sand, I thought I saw — but probably it was only a fancy — two black stranded specks. Rail awash, and decks streaming, we took the outer swell and clawed close-hauled under the lee of Juist, westward, hurrying westward.

‘Up the Ems on the flood, and to Dutch Delfzyl,’ I urged. No, thought Davies; it was too near Germany, and there was a tidal cut through from Buse Tief. Better to dodge in behind Rottum Island. So on we pressed, past Memmert, over the Juister Reef and the Corinne’s buried millions, across the two broad and yeasty mouths of the Ems, till Rottum, a wee lonesome wafer of an islet, the first of the Dutch archipelago, was close on the weather-bow.

‘We must get in behind that,’ said Davies, ‘then we shall be safe; I think I know the way, but get the next chart; and then take a rest, old chap. Clara and I can manage.’ (She had been on deck most of the time, as capable a hand as you could wish for, better far than I in my present state of exhaustion.) I crawled along the slippery sloping planks and went below.

‘Where are we?’ cried Dollmann, starting up from the lee sofa, where he seemed to have been lying in a sort of trance. A book, his own book, slipped from his knees, and I saw the frontispiece lying on the floor in a pool of oil; for the stove had gone adrift, and the saloon was in a wretched state of squalor and litter.

‘Off Rottum,’ I said, and knelt up to find the chart. There was a look in his eyes that I suppose I ought to have understood, but I can scarcely blame myself, for the accumulated strain, not only of the last three days and nights, but of the whole arduous month of my cruise with Davies, was beginning to tell on me, now that safety and success were at hand. I handed up the chart through the companion, and then crept into the reeling fo’c’sle and lay down on the spare sail-bags, with the thunder and thump of the seas around and above me.

I must quote Davies for the event that happened now; for by the time I had responded to the alarm and climbed up through the fore-hatch, the whole tragedy was over and done with.

‘X— came up the companion,’ he says, ‘soon after you went down. He held on by the runner, and stared to windward at Rottum, as though he knew the place quite well. And then he came towards us, moving so unsteadily that I gave Clara the tiller, and went to help him. I tried to make him go down again, but he wouldn’t, and came aft.

“‘Give me the helm,” he said, half to himself. “Sea’s too bad outside — there’s a short cut here.”

“‘Thanks,” I said, “I know this one.” (I don’t think I meant to be sarcastic.) He said nothing, and settled himself on the counter behind us, safe enough, with his feet against the lee-rail, and then, to my astonishment, began to talk over my shoulder jolly sensibly about the course, pointing out a buoy which is wrong on the chart (as I knew), and telling me it was wrong, and so on. Well, we came to the bar of the Schild, and had to turn south for that twisty bit of beating between Rottum and Bosch Flat. Clara was at the jib-sheet, I had the chart and the tiller (you know how absent I get like that); there was a bobble of sea, and we both had heaps to do, and — well — I happened to look round, and he was gone. He hadn’t spoken for a minute or two, but I believe the last thing I heard him say (I was hardly attending at the time, for we were in the thick of it) was something about a “short cut” again. He must have slipped over quietly . . . He had an ulster and big boots on.’

We cruised about for a time, but never found him.

That evening, after threading the maze of shoals between the Dutch mainland and islands, we anchored off the little hamlet of Ostmahorn, [See Map A] gave the yacht in charge of some astonished fishermen, and thence by road and rail, hurrying still, gained Harlingen, and took passage on a steamer to London. From that point our personal history is of no concern to the outside world, and here, therefore, I bring this narrative to an end.

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