The Riddle of the Sands, by Erskine Childers

4. Retrospect

‘WAKE up!’ I rubbed my eyes and wondered where I was; stretched myself painfully, too, for even the cushions had not given me a true bed of roses. It was dusk, and the yacht was stationary in glassy water, coloured by the last after-glow. A roofing of thin upper-cloud had spread over most of the sky, and a subtle smell of rain was in the air. We seemed to be in the middle of the fiord, whose shores looked distant and steep in the gathering darkness. Close ahead they faded away suddenly, and the sight lost itself in a grey void. The stillness was absolute.

‘We can’t get to Sonderburg to-night,’ said Davies.

‘What’s to be done then?’ I asked, collecting my senses.

‘Oh! we’ll anchor anywhere here, we’re just at the mouth of the fiord; I’ll tow her inshore if you’ll steer in that direction.’ He pointed vaguely at a blur of trees and cliff. Then he jumped into the dinghy, cast off the painter, and, after snatching at the slack of a rope, began towing the reluctant yacht by short jerks of the sculls. The menacing aspect of that grey void, combined with a natural preference for getting to some definite place at night, combined to depress my spirits afresh. In my sleep I had dreamt of Morven Lodge, of heather tea-parties after glorious slaughters of grouse, of salmon leaping in amber pools — and now —

‘Just take a cast of the lead, will you?’ came Davies’s voice above the splash of the sculls.

‘Where is it?’ I shouted back.

‘Never mind — we’re close enough now; let — Can you manage to let go the anchor?’

I hurried forward and picked impotently at the bonds of the sleeping monster. But Davies was aboard again, and stirred him with a deft touch or two, till he crashed into the water with a grinding of chain.

‘We shall do well here,’ said he.

‘Isn’t this rather an open anchorage?’ I suggested.

‘It’s only open from that quarter,’ he replied. ‘If it comes on to blow from there we shall have to clear out; but I think it’s only rain. Let’s stow the sails.’

Another whirlwind of activity, in which I joined as effectively as I could, oppressed by the prospect of having to ‘clear out’— who knows whither? — at midnight. But Davies’s sang froid was infectious, I suppose, and the little den below, bright-lit and soon fragrant with cookery, pleaded insistently for affection. Yachting in this singular style was hungry work, I found. Steak tastes none the worse for having been wrapped in newspaper, and the slight traces of the day’s news disappear with frying in onions and potato-chips. Davies was indeed on his mettle for this, his first dinner to his guest; for he produced with stealthy pride, not from the dishonoured grave of the beer, but from some more hallowed recess, a bottle of German champagne, from which we drank success to the Dulcibella.

‘I wish you would tell me all about your cruise from England,’ I asked. ‘You must have had some exciting adventures. Here are the charts; let’s go over them.’

‘We must wash up first,’ he replied, and I was tactfully introduced to one of his very few ‘standing orders’, that tobacco should not burn, nor post-prandial chat begin, until that distasteful process had ended. ‘It would never get done otherwise,’ he sagely opined. But when we were finally settled with cigars, a variety of which, culled from many ports — German, Dutch, and Belgian — Davies kept in a battered old box in the net-rack, the promised talk hung fire.

‘I’m no good at description,’ he complained; ‘and there’s really very little to tell. We left Dover — Morrison and I— on 6th August; made a good passage to Ostend.’

‘You had some fun there, I suppose?’ I put in, thinking of — well, of Ostend in August.

‘Fun! A filthy hole I call it; we had to stop a couple of days, as we fouled a buoy coming in and carried away the bobstay; we lay in a dirty little tidal dock, and there was nothing to do on shore.’

‘Well, what next?’

‘We had a splendid sail to the East Scheldt, but then, like fools, decided to go through Holland by canal and river. It was good fun enough navigating the estuary — the tides and banks there are appalling — but farther inland it was a wretched business, nothing but paying lock-dues, bumping against schuyts, and towing down stinking canals. Never a peaceful night like this — always moored by some quay or tow-path, with people passing and boys. Heavens! shall I ever forget those boys! A perfect murrain of them infests Holland; they seem to have nothing in the world to do but throw stones and mud at foreign yachts.’

‘They want a Herod, with some statesmanlike views on infanticide.’

‘By Jove! yes; but the fact is that you want a crew for that pottering inland work; they can smack the boys and keep an eye on the sculls. A boat like this should stick to the sea, or out-of-the-way places on the coast. Well, after Amsterdam.’

‘You’ve skipped a good deal, haven’t you?’ I interrupted.

‘Oh! have I? Well, let me see, we went by Dordrecht to Rotterdam; nothing to see there, and swarms of tugs buzzing about and shaving one’s bows every second. On by the Vecht river to Amsterdam, and thence — Lord, what a relief it was! — out into the North Sea again. The weather had been still and steamy; but it broke up finely now, and we had a rattling three-reef sail to the Zuyder Zee.’

He reached up to the bookshelf for what looked like an ancient ledger, and turned over the leaves.

‘Is that your log?’ I asked. ‘I should like to have a look at it.’

‘Oh! you’d find it dull reading — if you could read it at all; it’s just short notes about winds and bearings, and so on.’ He was turning some leaves over rapidly. ‘Now, why don’t you keep a log of what we do? I can’t describe things, and you can.’

‘I’ve half a mind to try,’ I said.

‘We want another chart now,’ and he pulled down a second yet more stained and frayed than the first. ‘We had a splendid time then exploring the Zuyder Zee, its northern part at least, and round those islands which bound it on the north. Those are the Frisian Islands, and they stretch for 120 miles or so eastward. You see, the first two of them, Texel and Vlieland, shut in the Zuyder Zee, and the rest border the Dutch and German coasts.’ [See Map A]

‘What’s all this?’ I said, running my finger over some dotted patches which covered much of the chart. The latter was becoming unintelligible; clean-cut coasts and neat regiments of little figures had given place to a confusion of winding and intersecting lines and bald spaces.

‘All sand,’ said Davies, enthusiastically. ‘You can’t think what a splendid sailing-ground it is. You can explore for days without seeing a soul. These are the channels, you see; they’re very badly charted. This chart was almost useless, but it made it all the more fun. No towns or harbours, just a village or two on the islands, if you wanted stores.’

‘They look rather desolate,’ I said.

‘Desolate’s no word for it; they’re really only gigantic sand-banks themselves.’

‘Wasn’t all this rather dangerous?’ I asked.

‘Not a bit; you see, that’s where our shallow draught and flat bottom came in-we could go anywhere, and it didn’t matter running aground — she’s perfect for that sort of work; and she doesn’t really look bad either, does she?’ he asked, rather wistfully. I suppose I hesitated, for he said, abruptly:

‘Anyway, I don’t go in for looks.’

He had leaned back, and I detected traces of incipient absentmindedness. His cigar, which he had lately been lighting and relighting feverishly — a habit of his when excited — seemed now to have expired for good.

‘About running aground,’ I persisted; ‘surely that’s apt to be dangerous?’

He sat up and felt round for a match.

‘Not the least, if you know where you can run risks and where you can’t; anyway, you can’t possibly help it. That chart may look simple to you’—(‘simple!’ I thought)—‘but at half flood all those banks are covered; the islands and coasts are scarcely visible, they are so low, and everything looks the same.’ This graphic description of a ‘splendid cruising-ground’ took away my breath. ‘Of course there is risk sometimes — choosing an anchorage requires care. You can generally get a nice berth under the lee of a bank, but the tides run strong in the channels, and if there’s a gale blowing —’

“Didn’t you ever take a pilot?’ I interrupted.

‘Pilot? Why, the whole point of the thing’— he stopped short —‘I did take one once, later on,’ he resumed, with an odd smile, which faded at once.

‘Well?’ I urged, for I saw a reverie was coming.

‘Oh! he ran me ashore, of course. Served me right. I wonder what the weather’s doing’; he rose, glanced at the aneroid, the clock, and the half-closed skylight with a curious circular movement, and went a step or two up the companion-ladder, where he remained for several minutes with head and shoulders in the open air.

There was no sound of wind outside, but the Dulcibella had begun to move in her sleep, as it were, rolling drowsily to some taint send of the sea, with an occasional short jump, like the start of an uneasy dreamer.

‘What does it look like?’ I called from my sofa. I had to repeat the question.

‘Rain coming,’ said Davies, returning, ‘and possibly wind; but we’re safe enough here. It’s coming from the sou’-west; shall we turn in?’

‘We haven’t finished your cruise yet,’ I said. ‘Light a pipe and tell me the rest.’

‘All right,’ he agreed, with more readiness than I expected.

‘After Terschelling — here it is, the third island from the west — I pottered along eastward.’ [See Map A]

‘I?’

‘Oh! I forgot. Morrison had to leave me there. I missed him badly. but I hoped at that time to get — to join me. I could manage all right single-handed, but for that sort of work two are much better than one. The plate’s beastly heavy; in fact, I had to give up using it for fear of a smash.’

‘After Terschelling?’ I jogged his memory.

‘Well, I followed the Dutch islands, Ameland, Schiermonnikoog, Rottum (outlandish names, aren’t they?), sometimes outside them, sometimes inside. It was a bit lonely, but grand sport and very interesting. The charts were shocking, but I worried out most of the channels.’

‘I suppose those waters are only used by small local craft?’ I put in; that would account for inaccuracies.’ Did Davies think that Admiralties had time to waste on smoothing the road for such quixotic little craft as his, in all its inquisitive ramblings? But he fired up.

‘That’s all very well,’ he said, ‘but think what folly it is. However, that’s a long story, and will bore you. To cut matters short, for we ought to be turning in, I got to Borkum — that’s the first of the German islands.’ He pointed at a round bare lozenge lying in the midst of a welter of sandbanks. ‘Rottum — this queer little one — it has only one house on it — is the most easterly Dutch island, and the mainland of Holland ends here, opposite it, at the Ems River’— indicating a dismal cavity in the coast, sown with names suggestive of mud, and wrecks, and dreariness.

‘What date was this?’ I asked.

‘About the ninth of this month.’

‘Why, that’s only a fortnight before you wired to me! You were pretty quick getting to Flensburg. Wait a bit, we want another chart. Is this the next?’

‘Yes; but we scarcely need it. I only went a little way farther on — to Norderney, in fact, the third German island — then I decided to go straight for the Baltic. I had always had an idea of getting there, as Knight did in the Falcon. So I made a passage of it to the Eider River, there on the West Schleswig coast, took the river and canal through to Kiel on the Baltic, and from there made another passage up north to Flensburg. I was a week there, and then you came, and here we are. And now let’s turn in. We’ll have a fine sail tomorrow!’ He ended with rather forced vivacity, and briskly rolled up the chart. The reluctance he had shown from the first to talk about his cruise had been for a brief space forgotten in his enthusiasm about a portion of it, but had returned markedly in this bald conclusion. I felt sure that there was more in it than mere disinclination to spin nautical yarns in the ‘hardy Corinthian’ style, which can be so offensive in amateur yachtsmen; and I thought I guessed the explanation. His voyage single-handed to the Baltic from the Frisian Islands had been a foolhardy enterprise, with perilous incidents, which, rather than make light of, he would not refer to at all. Probably he was ashamed of his recklessness and wished to ignore it with me, an inexperienced acquaintance not yet enamoured of the Dulcibella’s way of life, whom both courtesy and interest demanded that he should inspire with confidence. I liked him all the better as I came to this conclusion, but I was tempted to persist a little.

‘I slept the whole afternoon,’ I said; ‘and, to tell the truth, I rather dread the idea of going to bed, it’s so tiring. Look here, you’ve rushed over that last part like an express train. That passage to the Schleswig coast — the Eider River, did you say? — was a longish one, wasn’t it?’

‘Well, you see what it was; about seventy miles, I suppose, direct.’ He spoke low, bending down to sweep up some cigar ashes on the floor.

‘Direct?’ I insinuated. ‘Then you put in somewhere?’

‘I stopped once, anchored for the night; oh, that’s nothing of a sail with a fair wind. By Jove! I’ve forgotten to caulk that seam over your bunk, and it’s going to rain. I must do it now. You turn in.’

He disappeared. My curiosity, never very consuming, was banished by concern as to the open seam; for the prospect of a big drop, remorseless and regular as Fate, falling on my forehead throughout the night, as in the torture-chamber of the Inquisition, was alarming enough to recall me wholly to the immediate future. So I went to bed, finding on the whole that I had made progress in the exercise, though still far from being the trained contortionist that the occasion called for. Hammering ceased, and Davies reappeared just as I was stretched on the rack — tucked up in my bunk, I mean.

‘I say,’ he said, when he was settled in his, and darkness reigned, ‘do you think you’ll like this sort of thing?’

‘If there are many places about here as beautiful as this,’ I replied, ‘I think I shall. But I should like to land now and then and have a walk. Of course, a great deal depends on the weather, doesn’t it? I hope this rain’ (drops had begun to patter overhead) ‘doesn’t mean that the summer’s over for good.’

‘Oh, you can sail just the same,’ said Davies, ‘unless it’s very bad. There’s plenty of sheltered water. There’s bound to be a change soon. But then there are the ducks. The colder and stormier it is, the better for them.’

I had forgotten the ducks and the cold, and, suddenly presented as a shooting-box in inclement weather, the Dulcibella lost ground in my estimation, which she had latterly gained.

‘I’m fond of shooting,’ I said, ‘but I’m afraid I’m only a fair-weather yachtsman, and I should much prefer sun and scenery.’

‘Scenery,’ he repeated, reflectively. ‘I say, you must have thought it a queer taste of mine to cruise about on that outlandish Frisian coast. How would you like that sort of thing?’

‘I should loathe it,’ I answered, promptly, with a clear conscience. ‘Weren’t you delighted yourself to get to the Baltic? It must be a wonderful contrast to what you described. Did you ever see another yacht there?’

‘Only one,’ he answered. ‘Good night!’

‘Good night!’

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/c/childers/erskine/riddle/chapter4.html

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