The Riddle of the Sands, by Erskine Childers

5. Wanted, a North Wind

NOTHING disturbed my rest that night, so adaptable is youth and so masterful is nature. At times I was remotely aware of a threshing of rain and a humming of wind, with a nervous kicking of the little hull, and at one moment I dreamt I saw an apparition by candle-light of Davies, clad in pyjamas and huge top-boots, grasping a misty lantern of gigantic proportions. But the apparition mounted the ladder and disappeared, and I passed to other dreams.

A blast in my ear, like the voice of fifty trombones, galvanized me into full consciousness. The musician, smiling and tousled, was at my bedside, raising a foghorn to his lips with deadly intention. ‘It’s a way we have in the Dulcibella,’ he said, as I started up on one elbow. ‘I didn’t startle you much, did I?’ he added.

‘Well, I like the mattinata better than the cold douche,’ I answered, thinking of yesterday.

‘Fine day and magnificent breeze!’ he answered. My sensations this morning were vastly livelier than those of yesterday at the same hour. My limbs were supple again and my head clear. Not even the searching wind could mar the ecstasy of that plunge down to smooth, seductive sand, where I buried greedy fingers and looked through a medium blue, with that translucent blue, fairy-faint and angel-pure, that you see in perfection only in the heart of ice. Up again to sun, wind, and the forest whispers from the shore; down just once more to see the uncouth anchor stabbing the sand’s soft bosom with one rusty fang, deaf and inert to the Dulcibella’s puny efforts to drag him from his prey. Back, holding by the cable as a rusty clue from heaven to earth, up to that bourgeois little maiden’s bows; back to breakfast, with an appetite not to be blunted by condensed milk and somewhat passé bread. An hour later we had dressed the Dulcibella for the road, and were foaming into the grey void of yesterday, now a noble expanse of wind-whipped blue, half surrounded by distant hills, their every outline vivid in the rain-washed air.

I cannot pretend that I really enjoyed this first sail into the open, though I was keenly anxious to do so. I felt the thrill of those forward leaps, heard that persuasive song the foam sings under the lee-bow, saw the flashing harmonies of sea and sky; but sensuous perception was deadened by nervousness. The yacht looked smaller than ever outside the quiet fiord. The song of the foam seemed very near, the wave crests aft very high. The novice in sailing clings desperately to the thoughts of sailors — effective, prudent persons, with a typical jargon and a typical dress, versed in local currents and winds. I could not help missing this professional element. Davies, as he sat grasping his beloved tiller, looked strikingly efficient in his way, and supremely at home in his surroundings; but he looked the amateur through and through, as with one hand, and (it seemed) one eye, he wrestled with a spray-splashed chart half unrolled on the deck beside him. All his casual ways returned to me — his casual talk and that last adventurous voyage to the Baltic, and the suspicions his reticence had aroused.

‘Do you see a monument anywhere?’ he said, all at once’ and, before I could answer; ‘We must take another reef.’ He let go of the tiller and relit his pipe, while the yacht rounded sharply to, and in a twinkling was tossing head to sea with loud claps of her canvas and passionate jerks of her boom, as the wind leapt on its quarry, now turning to hay, with redoubled force. The sting of spray in my eyes and the Babel of noise dazed me; but Davies, with a pull on the fore-sheet, soothed the tormented little ship, and left her coolly sparring with the waves while he shortened sail and puffed his pipe. An hour later the narrow vista of Als Sound was visible, with quiet old Sonderburg sunning itself on the island shore, amid the Dybbol heights towering above — the Dybbol of bloody memory; scene of the last desperate stand of the Danes in ‘64, ere the Prussians wrested the two fair provinces from them.

‘It’s early to anchor, and I hate towns,’ said Davies, as one section of a lumbering pontoon bridge opened to give us passage. But I was firm on the need for a walk, and got my way on condition that I bought stores as well, and returned in time to admit of further advance to a ‘quiet anchorage’. Never did I step on the solid earth with stranger feelings, partly due to relief from confinement, partly to that sense of independence in travelling, which, for those who go down to the sea in small ships, can make the foulest coal-port in Northumbria seem attractive. And here I had fascinating Sonderburg, with its broad-eaved houses of carved woodwork, each fresh with cleansing, yet reverend with age; its fair-haired Viking-like men, and rosy, plain-faced women, with their bullet foreheads and large mouths; Sonderburg still Danish to the core under its Teuton veneer. Crossing the bridge I climbed the Dybbol — dotted with memorials of that heroic defence — and thence could see the wee form and gossamer rigging of the Dulcibella on the silver ribbon of the Sound. and was reminded by the sight that there were stores to be bought. So I hurried down again to the old quarter and bargained over eggs and bread with a dear old lady, pink as a débutante, made a patriotic pretence of not understanding German, amid called in her strapping son, whose few words of English, being chiefly nautical slang picked up on a British trawler, were peculiarly useless for the purpose. Davies had tea ready when I came aboard again, and, drinking it on deck, we proceeded up the sheltered Sound, which, in spite of its imposing name, was no bigger than an inland river, only the hosts of rainbow jelly-fish reminding us that we were threading a highway of ocean. There is no rise and fall of tide in these regions to disfigure the shore with mud. Here was a shelving gravel bank; there a bed of whispering rushes; there again young birch trees growing to the very brink, each wearing a stocking of bright moss and setting its foot firmly in among golden leaves amid scarlet fungus.

Davies was preoccupied, but he lighted up when I talked of the Danish war. ‘Germany’s a thundering great nation,’ he said; ‘I wonder if we shall ever fight her.’ A little incident that happened after we anchored deepened the impression left by this conversation. We crept at dusk into a shaded back-water, where our keel almost touched the gravel bed. Opposite us on the Alsen shore there showed, clean-cut against the sky, the spire of a little monument rising from a leafy hollow.

‘I wonder what that is,’ I said. It was scarcely a minute’s row in the dinghy, and when the anchor was down we sculled over to it. A bank of loam led to gorse and bramble. Pushing aside some branches we came to a slender Gothic memorial in grey stone, inscribed with bas-reliefs of battle scenes, showing Prussians forcing a landing in boats and Danes resisting with savage tenacity. In the failing light we spelt out an inscription: ‘Den bei dem Meeres–Uebergange und der Eroberung von Alsen am 29. Juni 1864 heldenmüthig gefallenen zum ehrenden Gedächtniss.’ ‘To the honoured memory of those who died heroically at the invasion and storming of Alsen.’ I knew the German passion for commemoration; I had seen similar memorials on Alsatian battlefields, and several on the Dybbol only that afternoon; but there was something in the scene, the hour, and the circumstances, which made this one seem singularly touching. As for Davies, I scarcely recognized him; his eyes flashed and filled with tears as he glanced from the inscription to the path we had followed and the water beyond. ‘It was a landing in boats, I suppose,’ he said, half to himself. ‘I wonder they managed it. What does heldenmüthig mean?’—‘Heroically.’— Heldenmüthig gefallenen,’ he repeated, under his breath, lingering on each syllable. He was like a schoolboy reading of Waterloo.

Our conversation at dinner turned naturally on war, and in naval warfare I found I had come upon Davies’s literary hobby. I had not hitherto paid attention to the medley on our bookshelf, but I now saw that, besides a Nautical Almanack and some dilapidated Sailing Directions, there were several books on the cruises of small yachts, and also some big volumes crushed in anyhow or lying on the top. Squinting painfully at them I saw Mahan’s Life of Nelson, Brassey’s Naval Annual, and others.

‘It’s a tremendously interesting subject,’ said Davies, pulling down (in two pieces) a volume of Mahan’s Influence of Sea Power.

Dinner flagged (and froze) while he illustrated a point by reference to the much-thumbed pages. He was very keen, and not very articulate. I knew just enough to be an intelligent listener, and, though hungry, was delighted to hear him talk.

‘I’m not boring you, am I?’ he said, suddenly.

‘I should think not,’ I protested. ‘But you might just have a look at the chops.’

They had indeed been crying aloud for notice for some minutes, and drew candid attention to their neglect when they appeared. The diversion they caused put Davies out of vein. I tried to revive the subject, but he was reserved and diffident.

The untidy bookshelf reminded me of the logbook, and when Davies had retired with the crockery to the forecastle, I pulled the ledger down and turned over the leaves. It was a mass of short entries, with cryptic abbreviations, winds, tides, weather, and courses appearing to predominate. The voyage from Dover to Ostend was dismissed in two lines: ‘Under way 7 p.m., wind W.S.W. moderate; West Hinder 5 a.m., outside all banks Ostend 11 a.m.’ The Scheldt had a couple of pages very technical and staccato in style. bland Holland was given a contemptuous summary, with some half-hearted allusions to windmills, and so on, and a caustic word or two about boys, paint, and canal smells.

At Amsterdam technicalities began again, and a brisker tone pervaded the entries, which became progressively fuller as the writer cruised on the Frisian coast. He was clearly in better spirits, for here and there were quaint and laboured efforts to describe nature out of material which, as far as I could judge, was repellent enough to discourage the most brilliant and observant of writers; with an occasional note of a visit on shore, generally reached by a walk of half a mile over sand, and of talks with shop people and fishermen. But such lighter relief was rare. The bulk dealt with channels and shoals with weird and depressing names, with the centre-plate, the sails, and the wind, buoys and ‘booms’, tides and ‘berths’ for the night. ‘Kedging off’ appeared to be a frequent diversion; ‘running aground’ was of almost daily occurrence.

It was not easy reading, and I turned the leaves rapidly. I was curious, too, to see the latter part. I came to a point where the rain of little sentences, pattering out like small shot, ceased abruptly. It was at the end of 9th September. That day, with its ‘kedging’ and ‘boom-dodging’, was filled in with the usual detail. The log then leapt over three days, and went on: ‘13th. Sept. — Wind W.N.W. fresh. Decided to go to Baltic. Sailed 4 a.m. Quick passage E. S. to mouth of Weser. Anchored for night under Hohenhörn Sand. 14th Sept. — Nil. 15th Sept. — Under way at 4 a.m. Wind East moderate. Course W. by S.: four miles; N.E. by N. fifteen miles Norderpiep 9.30. Eider River 11.30.’ This recital of naked facts was quite characteristic when ‘passages’ were concerned, and any curiosity I had felt about his reticence on the previous night would have been rather allayed than stimulated had I not noticed that a page had been torn out of the book just at this point. The frayed edge left had been pruned and picked into very small limits; but dissimulation was not Davies’s strong point, and a child could have seen that a leaf was missing, and that the entries, starting from the evening of 9th September (where a page ended), had been written together at one sitting. I was on the point of calling to Davies, and chaffing him with having committed a grave offence against maritime law in having ‘cooked’ his log; but I checked myself, I scarcely know why, probably because I guessed the joke would touch a sensitive place and fail. Delicacy shrank from seeing him compelled either to amplify a deception or blunder out a confession — he was too easy a prey; and, after all, the matter was of small moment. I returned the book to the shelf, the only definite result of its perusal being to recall my promise to keep a diary myself, and I then and there dedicated a notebook to the purpose.

We were just lighting our cigars when we heard voices and the splash of oars, followed by a bump against the hull which made Davies wince, as violations of his paint always did. ‘Guten Abend; wo fahren Sie bin?’ greeted us as we climbed on deck. It turned out to be some jovial fishermen returning to their smack from a visit to Sonderburg. A short dialogue proved to them that we were mad Englishmen in bitter need of charity.

‘Come to Satrup,’ they said; ‘all the smacks are there, round the point. There is good punch in the inn.’

Nothing loth, we followed in the dinghy, skirted a bend of the Sound, and opened up the lights of a village, with some smacks at anchor in front of it. We were escorted to the inn, and introduced to a formidable beverage, called coffee-punch, and a smoke-wreathed circle of smacksmen, who talked German out of courtesy, but were Danish in all else. Davies was at once at home with them, to a degree, indeed, that I envied. His German was of the crudest kind, bizarre in vocabulary and comical in accent; but the freemasonry of the sea, or some charm of his own, gave intuition to both him and his hearers. I cut a poor figure in this nautical gathering, though Davies, who persistently referred to me as ‘meiner Freund’, tried hard to represent me as a kindred spirit and to include me in the general talk. I was detected at once as an uninteresting hybrid. Davies, who sometimes appealed to me for a word, was deep in talk over anchorages and ducks, especially, as I well remember now, about the chance of sport in a certain Schlei Fiord. I fell into utter neglect, till rescued by a taciturn person in spectacles and a very high cap, who appeared to be the only landsman present. After silently puffing smoke in my direction for some time, he asked me if I was married, and if not, when I proposed to be. After this inquisition he abandoned me.

It was eleven before we left this hospitable inn, escorted by the whole party to the dinghy. Our friends of the smack insisted on our sharing their boat out of pure good-fellowship — for there was not nearly room for us — and would not let us go till a bucket of fresh-caught fish had been emptied into her bottom. After much shaking of scaly hands, we sculled back to the Dulcibella, where she slept in a bed of tremulous stars.

Davies sniffed the wind and scanned the tree-tops, where light gusts were toying with the leaves.

‘Sou’-west still,’ he said, ‘and more rain coming. But it’s bound to shift into the north.’

‘Will that be a good wind for us?’

‘It depends where we go,’ he said, slowly. ‘I was asking those fellows about duck-shooting. They seemed to think the best place would be Schlei Fiord. That’s about fifteen miles south of Sonderburg, on the way to Kiel. They said there was a pilot chap living at the mouth who would tell us all about it. They weren’t very encouraging though. We should want a north wind for that.’

‘I don’t care where we go,’ I said, to my own surprise.

‘Don’t you really?’ he rejoined, with sudden warmth. Then, with a slight change of voice. ‘You mean it’s all very jolly about here?’

Of course I meant that. Before we went below we both looked for a moment at the little grey memorial; its slender fretted arch outlined in tender lights and darks above the hollow on the Alsen shore. The night was that of 27th September, the third I had spent on the Dulcibella.

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