The Riddle of the Sands, by Erskine Childers

8. The Theory

DAVIES leaned back and gave a deep sigh, as though he still felt the relief from some tension. I did the same, and felt the same relief. The chart, freed from the pressure of our fingers, rolled up with a flip, as though to say, ‘What do you think of that?’ I have straightened out his sentences a little, for in the excitement of his story they had grown more and more jerky and elliptical.

‘What about Dollmann?’ I asked.

‘Of course,’ said Davies, ‘what about him? I didn’t get at much that night. It was all so sudden. The only thing I could have sworn to from the first was that he had purposely left me in the lurch that day. I pieced out the rest in the next few days, which I’ll just finish with as shortly as I can. Bartels came aboard next morning, and though it was blowing hard still we managed to shift the Dulcibella to a place where she dried safely at the mid-day low water, and we could get at her rudder. The lower screw-plate on the stern post had wrenched out, and we botched it up roughly as a make-shift. There were other little breakages, but nothing to matter, and the loss of the jib was nothing, as I had two spare ones. The dinghy was past repair just then, and I lashed it on deck.

‘It turned out that Bartels was carrying apples from Bremen to Kappeln (in this fiord), and had run into that channel in the sands for shelter from the weather. To-day he was bound for the Eider River, whence, as I told you, you can get through (by river and canal) into the Baltic. Of course the Elbe route, by the new Kaiser Wilhelm Ship Canal, is the shortest. The Eider route is the old one, but he hoped to get rid of some of his apples at Tönning, the town at its mouth. Both routes touch the Baltic at Kiel. As you know, I had been running for the Elbe, but yesterday’s muck-up put me off, and I changed my mind — I’ll tell you why presently — and decided to sail to the Eider along with the Johannes and get through that way. It cleared from the east next day, and I raced him there, winning hands down, left him at Tönning, and in three days was in the Baltic. It was just a week after I ran ashore that I wired to you. You see, I had come to the conclusion that that chap was a spy.

In the end it came out quite quietly and suddenly, and left me in profound amazement. ‘I wired to you — that chap was a spy.’ It was the close association of these two ideas that hit me hardest at the moment. For a second I was back in the dreary splendour of the London club-room, spelling out that crabbed scrawl from Davies, and fastidiously criticizing its proposal in the light of a holiday. Holiday! What was to be its issue? Chilling and opaque as the fog that filtered through the skylight there flooded my imagination a mist of doubt and fear.

‘A spy!’ I repeated blankly. ‘What do you mean? Why did you wire to me? A spy of what — of whom?’

‘I’ll tell you how I worked it out,’ said Davies. ‘I don’t think “spy” is the right word; but I mean something pretty bad.

‘He purposely put me ashore. I don’t think I’m suspicious by nature, but I know something about boats and the sea. I know he could have kept close to me if he had chosen, and I saw the whole place at low water when we left those sands on the second day. Look at the chart again. Here’s the Hohenhörn bank that I showed you as blocking the road. [See Chart A] It’s in two pieces — first the west and then the east. You see the Telte channel dividing into two branches and curving round it. Both branches are broad and deep, as channels go in those waters. Now, in sailing in I was nowhere near either of them. When I last saw Dollmann he must have been steering straight for the bank itself, at a point somewhere here, quite a mile from the northern arm of the channel, and two from the southern. I followed by compass, as you know, and found nothing but breakers ahead. How did I get through? That’s where the luck came in. I spoke of only two channels, that is, round the bank — one to the north, the other to the south. But look closely and you’ll see that right through the centre of the West Hohenhörn runs another, a very narrow and winding one, so small that I hadn’t even noticed it the night before, when I was going over the chart. That was the one I stumbled into in that tailor’s fashion, as I was groping along the edge of the surf in a desperate effort to gain time. I bolted down it blindly, came out into this strip of open water, crossed that aimlessly, and brought up on the edge of the East Hohenhörn, here. It was more than I deserved. I can see now that it was a hundred to one in favour of my striking on a bad place outside, where I should have gone to pieces in three minutes.’

‘And how did Dollmann go?’ I asked.

‘It’s as clear as possible,’ Davies answered. ‘He doubled back into the northern channel when he had misled me enough. Do you remember my saying that when I last saw him I thought he had luffed and showed his broadside? I had another bit of luck in that. He was luffing towards the north — so it struck me through the blur — and when I in my turn came up to the bank, and had to turn one way or the other to avoid it, I think I should naturally have turned north too, as he had done. In that case I should have been done for, for I should have had a mile of the bank to skirt before reaching the north channel, and should have driven ashore long before I got there. But as a matter of fact I turned south.’

‘Why?’

‘Couldn’t help it. I was running on the starboard tack — boom over to port; to turn north would have meant a jibe, and as things were I couldn’t risk one. It was blowing like fits; if anything had carried away I should have been on shore in a jiffy. I scarcely thought about it at all, but put the helm down and turned her south. Though I knew nothing about it, that little central channel was now on my port hand, distant about two cables. The whole thing was luck from beginning to end.’

Helped by pluck, I thought to myself, as I tried with my landsman’s fancy to conjure up that perilous scene. As to the truth of the affair, the chart and Davies’s version were easy enough to follow, but I felt only half convinced. The ‘spy’, as Davies strangely called his pilot, might have honestly mistaken the course himself, outstripped his convoy inadvertently, and escaped disaster as narrowly as she did. I suggested this on the spur of the moment, but Davies was impatient.

‘Wait till you hear the whole thing,’ he said. ‘I must go back to when I first met him. I told you that on that first evening he began by being as rude as a bear and as cold as stone, and then became suddenly friendly. I can see now that in the talk that followed he was pumping me hard. It was an easy game to play, for I hadn’t seen a gentleman since Morrison left me, I was tremendously keen about my voyage, and I thought the chap was a good sportsman, even if he was a bit dark about the ducks. I talked quite freely — at least, as freely as I could with my bad German — about my last fortnight’s sailing; how I had been smelling out all the channels in and out of the islands, how interested I had been in the whole business, puzzling out the effect of the winds on the tides, the set of the currents, and so on. I talked about my difficulties, too; the changes in the buoys, the prehistoric rottenness of the English charts. He drew me out as much as he could, and in the light of what followed I can see the point of scores of his questions.

‘The next day and the next I saw a good deal of him, and the same thing went on. And then there were my plans for the future. My idea was, as I told you, to go on exploring the German coast just as I had the Dutch. His idea — Heavens, how plainly I see it now! — was to choke me off, get me to clear out altogether from that part of the coast. That was why he said there were no ducks. That was why he cracked up the Baltic as a cruising-ground and shooting-ground. And that was why he broached and stuck to that plan of sailing in company direct to the Elbe. It was to see me clear.

‘He improved on that.’

‘Yes, but after that, it’s guess-work. I mean that I can’t tell when he first decided to go one better and drown me. He couldn’t count for certain on bad weather, though he held my nose to it when it came. But, granted that he wanted to get rid of me altogether, he got a magnificent chance on that trip to the Elbe

lightship. I expect it struck him suddenly, and he acted on the impulse. Left to myself I was all right; but the short cut was a grand idea of his. Everything was in its favour — wind, sea, sand, tide. He thinks I’m dead.’

‘But the crew?’ I said; ‘what about the crew?’

‘That’s another thing. When he first hove to, waiting for me, of course they were on deck (two of them, I think) hauling at sheets. But by the time I had drawn tip level the Medusa had worn round again on her course, and no one was on deck but Dollmann at the wheel. No one overheard what he said.’

‘Wouldn’t they have seen you again?’

‘Very likely not; the weather was very thick, and the Dulce is very small.’

The incongruity of the whole business was striking me. Why should anyone want to kill Davies, and why should Davies, the soul of modesty and simplicity, imagine that anyone wanted to kill him? He must have cogent reasons, for he was the last man to give way to a morbid fancy.

‘Go on,’ I said. What was his motive? A German finds an Englishman exploring a bit of German coast, determines to stop him, and even to get rid of him. It looks so far as if you were thought to be the spy.

Davies winced. ‘But he’s not a German,’ he said, hotly. ‘He’s an Englishman.’

‘An Englishman?’

‘Yes, I’m sure of it. Not that I’ve much to go on. He professed to know very little English, and never spoke it, except a word or two now and then to help me out of a sentence; and as to his German, he seemed to me to speak it like a native; but, of course, I’m no judge.’ Davies sighed. ‘That’s where I wanted someone like you. You would have spotted him at once, if he wasn’t German. I go more by a — what do you call it? — a —’

‘General impression,’ I suggested.

‘Yes, that’s what I mean. It was something in his looks and manner; you know how different we are from foreigners. And it wasn’t only himself, it was the way he talked — I mean about cruising and the sea, especially. It’s true he let me do most of the talking; but, all the same — how can I explain it? I felt we understood one another, in a way that two foreigners wouldn’t.

He pretended to think me a bit crazy for coming so far in a small boat, but I could swear he knew as much about the game as I did; for lots of little questions he asked had the right ring in them. Mind you, all this is an afterthought. I should never have bothered about it — I’m not cut out for a Sherlock Holmes — if it hadn’t been for what followed.

‘It’s rather vague,’ I said. ‘Have you no more definite reason for thinking him English?’

‘There were one or two things rather more definite,’ said Davies, slowly. ‘You know when he hove to and hailed me, proposing the short cut, I told you roughly what he said. I forget the exact words, but “abschneiden” came in-“durch Watten” and “abschneiden” (they call the banks “watts”, you know); they were simple words, and he shouted them loud, so as to carry through the wind. I understood what he meant, but, as I told you, I hesitated before consenting. I suppose he thought I didn’t understand, for just as he was drawing ahead again he pointed to the suth’ard, and then shouted through his hands as a trumpet “Verstehen Sie? short-cut through sands; follow me!” the last two sentences in downright English. I can hear those words now, and I’ll swear they were in his native tongue. Of course I thought nothing of it at the time. I was quite aware that he knew a few English words, though he had always mis-pronounced them; an easy trick when your hearer suspects nothing. But I needn’t say that just then I was observant of trifles. I don’t pretend to be able to unravel a plot and steer a small boat before a heavy sea at the same moment.’

‘And if he was piloting you into the next world he could afford to commit himself before you parted! Was there anything else? By the way, how did the daughter strike you? Did she look English too?’

Two men cannot discuss a woman freely without a deep foundation of intimacy, and, until this day, the subject had never arisen between us in any form. It was the last that was likely to, for I could have divined that Davies would have met it with an armour of reserve. He was busy putting on this armour now; yet I could not help feeling a little brutal as I saw how badly he jointed his clumsy suit of mail. Our ages were the same, but I laugh now to think how old and blasé I felt as the flush warmed his brown skin, and he slowly propounded the verdict, ‘Yes, I think she did.’

‘She talked nothing but German, I suppose?’

‘Oh, of course.’

‘Did you see much of her?’

‘A good deal.’

‘Was she — ’ (how frame it?) ‘Did she want you to sail to the Elbe with them?’

‘She seemed to,’ admitted Davies, reluctantly, clutching at his ally, the match-box. ‘But, hang it, don’t dream that she knew what was coming,’ he added, with sudden fire.

I pondered and wondered, shrinking from further inquisition, easy as it would have been with so truthful a victim, and banishing all thought of ill-timed chaff. There was a cross-current in this strange affair, whose depth and strength I was beginning to gauge with increasing seriousness. I did not know my man yet, and I did not know myself. A conviction that events in the near future would force us into complete mutual confidence withheld me from pressing him too far. I returned to the main question; who was Dollmann, and what was his motive? Davies struggled out of his armour.

‘I’m convinced,’ he said, ‘that he’s an Englishman in German service. He must be in German service, for he had evidently been in those waters a long time, and knew every inch of them; of course, it’s a very lonely part of the world, but he has a house on Norderney Island; and he, and all about him, must be well known to a certain number of people. One of his friends I happened to meet; what do you think he was? A naval officer. It was on the afternoon of the third day, and we were having coffee on the deck of the Medusa, and talking about next day’s trip, when a little launch came buzzing up from seaward, drew alongside, and this chap I’m speaking of came on board, shook hands with Dollmann, and stared hard at me. Dollmann introduced us, calling him Commander von Brüning, in command of the torpedo gunboat Blitz. He pointed towards Norderney, and I saw her — a low, grey rat of a vessel — anchored in the Roads about two miles away. It turned out that she was doing the work of fishery guardship on that part of the coast.

‘I must say I took to him at once. He looked a real good sort, and a splendid officer, too — just the sort of chap I should have liked to be. You know I always wanted — but that’s an old story, and can wait. I had some talk with him, and we got on capitally as far as we went, but that wasn’t far, for I left pretty soon, guessing that they wanted to be alone.’

Were they alone then?’ I asked, innocently.

‘Oh, Fräulein Dollmann was there, of course,’ explained Davies, feeling for his armour again.

‘Did he seem to know them well?’ I pursued, inconsequently.

‘Oh, yes, very well.’

Scenting a faint clue, I felt the need of feminine weapons for my sensitive antagonist. But the opportunity passed.

‘That was the last I saw of him,’ he said. ‘We sailed, as I told you, at daybreak next morning. Now, have you got any idea what I’m driving at?’

‘A rough idea,’ I answered. ‘Go ahead.’

Davies sat up to the table, unrolled the chart with a vigorous sweep of his two hands, and took up his parable with new zest.

‘I start with two certainties,’ he said. ‘One is that I was “moved on” from that coast, because I was too inquisitive. The other is that Dollmann is at some devil’s work there which is worth finding out. Now’— he paused in a gasping effort to be logical and articulate. ‘Now — well, look at the chart. No, better still, look first at this map of Germany. It’s on a small scale, and you can see the whole thing.’ He snatched down a pocket-map from the shelf and unfolded it. [See Map A] ‘Here’s this huge empire, stretching half over central Europe — an empire growing like wildfire, I believe, in people, and wealth, and everything. They’ve licked the French, and the Austrians, and are the greatest military power in Europe. I wish I knew more about all that, but what I’m concerned with is their sea-power. It’s a new thing with them, but it’s going strong, and that Emperor of theirs is running it for all it’s worth. He’s a splendid chap, and anyone can see he’s right. They’ve got no colonies to speak of, and must have them, like us. They can’t get them and keep them, and they can’t protect their huge commerce without naval strength. The command of the sea is the thing nowadays, isn’t it? I say, don’t think these are my ideas,’ he added, naively. ‘It’s all out of Mahan and those fellows. Well, the Germans have got a small fleet at present, but it’s a thundering good one, and they’re building hard. There’s the — and the —.’ He broke off into a digression on armaments and speeds in which I could not follow him. He seemed to know every ship by heart. I had to recall him to the point. ‘Well, think of Germany as a new sea-power,’ he resumed. ‘The next thing is, what is her coast-line? It’s a very queer one, as you know, split clean in two by Denmark, most of it lying east of that and looking on the Baltic, which is practically an inland sea, with its entrance blocked by Danish islands. It was to evade that block that William built the ship canal from Kiel to the Elbe, but that could be easily smashed in war-time. Far the most important bit of coast-line is that which lies west of Denmark and looks on the North Sea. It’s there that Germany gets her head out into the open, so to speak. It’s there that she fronts us and France, the two great sea-powers of Western Europe, and it’s there that her greatest ports are and her richest commerce.

‘Now it must strike you at once that it’s ridiculously short compared with the huge country behind it. From Borkum to the Elbe, as the crow flies, is only seventy miles. Add to that the west coast of Schleswig, say 120 miles. Total, say, two hundred. Compare that with the seaboard of France and England. Doesn’t it stand to reason that every inch of it is important? Now what sort of coast is it? Even on this small map you can see at once, by all those wavy lines, shoals and sand everywhere, blocking nine-tenths of the land altogether, and doing their best to block the other tenth where the great rivers run in. Now let’s take it bit by bit. You see it divides itself into three. Beginning from the west the first piece is from Borkum to Wangeroog — fifty odd miles. What’s that like? A string of sandy islands backed by sand; the Ems river at the western end, on the Dutch border, leading to Emden — not much of a place. Otherwise, no coast towns at all. Second piece: a deep sort of bay consisting of the three great estuaries — the Jade, the Weser, and the Elbe — leading to Wilhelmshaven (their North Sea naval base), Bremen, and Hamburg. Total breadth of bay twenty odd miles only; sandbanks littered about all through it. Third piece: the Schleswig coast, hopelessly fenced in behind a six to eight mile fringe of sand. No big towns; one moderate river, the Eider. Let’s leave that third piece aside. I may be wrong, but, in thinking this business out, I’ve pegged away chiefly at the other two, the seventy-mile stretch from Borkum to the Elbe — half of it estuaries, and half islands. It was there that I found the Medusa, and it’s that stretch that, thanks to him, I missed exploring.’

I made an obvious conjecture. ‘I suppose there are forts and coast defences? Perhaps he thought you would see too much. By the way, he saw your naval books, of course?’

‘Exactly. Of course that was my first idea; but it can’t be that. It doesn’t explain things in the least. To begin with, there are no forts and can be none in that first division, where the islands are. There might be something on Borkum to defend the Ems; but it’s very unlikely, and, anyway, I had passed Borkum and was at Norderney. There’s nothing else to defend. Of course it’s different in the second division, where the big rivers are. There are probably hosts of forts and mines round Wilhelmshaven and Bremerhaven, and at Cuxhaven just at the mouth of the Elbe. Not that I should ever dream of bothering about them; every steamer that goes in would see as much as me. Personally, I much prefer to stay on board, and don’t often go on shore. And, good Heavens!’ (Davies leant back and laughed joyously) ‘do I look like that kind of spy?’

I figured to myself one of those romantic gentlemen that one reads of in sixpenny magazines, with a Kodak in his tie-pin, a sketch-book in the lining of his coat, and a selection of disguises in his hand luggage. Little disposed for merriment as I was, I could not help smiling, too.

‘About this coast,’ resumed Davies. ‘In the event of war it seems to me that every inch of it would be important, sand and all. Take the big estuaries first, which, of course, might be attacked or blockaded by an enemy. At first sight you would say that their main channels were the only things that mattered. Now, in time of peace there’s no secrecy about the navigation of these. They’re buoyed and lighted like streets, open to the whole world, and taking an immense traffic; well charted, too, as millions of pounds in commerce depend on them. But now look at the sands they run through, intersected, as I showed you, by threads of channels, tidal for the most part, and probably only known to smacks and shallow coasters, like that galliot of Bartels.

‘It strikes me that in a war a lot might depend on these, both in defence and attack, for there’s plenty of water in them at the right tide for patrol-boats and small torpedo craft, though I can see they take a lot of knowing. Now, say we were at war with Germany — both sides could use them as lines between the three estuaries; and to take our own case, a small torpedo-boat (not a destroyer, mind you) could on a dark night cut clean through from the Jade to the Elbe and play the deuce with the shipping there. But the trouble is that I doubt if there’s a soul in our fleet who knows those channels. We haven’t coasters there; and, as to yachts, it’s a most unlikely game for an English yacht to play at; but it does so happen that I have a fancy for that sort of thing and would have explored those channels in the ordinary course.’ I began to see his drift.

‘Now for the islands. I was rather stumped there at first, I grant, because, though there are lashings of sand behind them, and the same sort of intersecting channels, yet there seems nothing important to guard or attack.

‘Why shouldn’t a stranger ramble as he pleases through them? Still Dollmann had his headquarters there, and I was sure that had some meaning. Then it struck me that the same point held good, for that strip of Frisian coast adjoins the estuaries, and would also form a splendid base for raiding midgets, which could travel unseen right through from the Ems to the Jade, and so to the Elbe, as by a covered way between a line of forts.

‘Now here again it’s an unknown land to us. Plenty of local galliots travel it, but strangers never, I should say. Perhaps at he most an occasional foreign yacht gropes in at one of the gaps between the islands for shelter from bad weather, and is precious lucky to get in safe. Once again, it was my fad to like such places, and Dollmann cleared me out. He’s not a German, but he’s in with Germans, and naval Germans too. He’s established on that coast, and knows it by heart. And he tried to drown me. Now what do you think?’ He gazed at me long and anxiously.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/c/childers/erskine/riddle/chapter8.html

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