The Riddle of the Sands, by Erskine Childers

9. I Sign Articles

IT was not an easy question to answer, for the affair was utterly outside all my experience; its background the sea, and its actual scene a region of the sea of which I was blankly ignorant. There were other difficulties that I could see perhaps better than Davies, an enthusiast with hobbies, who had been brooding in solitude over his dangerous adventure. Yet both narrative and theory (which have lost, I fear, in interpretation to the reader) had strongly affected me; his forcible roughnesses, tricks of manner, sudden bursts of ardour, sudden retreats into shyness, making up a charm I cannot render. I found myself continually trying to see the man through the boy, to distinguish sober judgement from the hot-headed vagaries of youth. Not that I dreamed for a moment of dismissing the story of his wreck as an hallucination. His clear blue eyes and sane simplicity threw ridicule on such treatment.

Evidently, too, he wanted my help, a matter that might well have influenced my opinion on the facts, had he been other than he was. But it would have taken a ‘finished and finite clod’ to resist the attraction of the man and the enterprise; and I take no credit whatever for deciding to follow him, right or wrong. So, when I stated my difficulties, I knew very well that we should go.

‘There are two main points that I don’t understand,’ I said. ‘First, you’ve never explained why an Englishman should be watching those waters and ejecting intruders; secondly, your theory doesn’t supply sufficient motive. There may be much in what you say about the navigation of those channels, but it’s not enough. You say he wanted to drown you — a big charge, requiring a big motive to support it. But I don’t deny that you’ve got a strong case.’ Davies lighted up. ‘I’m willing to take a good deal for granted — until we find out more.’

He jumped up, and did a thing I never saw him do before or since — bumped his head against the cabin roof.

‘You mean that you’ll come?’ he exclaimed. ‘Why, I hadn’t even asked you! Yes, I want to go back and clear up the whole thing. I know now that I want to; telling it all to you has been such an immense relief. And a lot depended on you, too, and that’s why I’ve been feeling such an absolute hypocrite. I say, how can I apologize?’

‘Don’t worry about me; I’ve had a splendid time. And I’ll come right enough; but I should like to know exactly what you —’

‘No; but wait till I just make a clean breast of it — about you, I mean. You see, I came to the conclusion that I could do nothing alone; not that two are really necessary for managing the boat in the ordinary way, but for this sort of job you do want two; besides, I can’t speak German properly, and I’m a dull chap all round. If my theory, as you call it, is right, it’s a case for sharp wits, if ever there was one; so I thought of you. You’re clever, and I knew you had lived in Germany and knew German, and I knew,’ he added, with a little awkwardness, ‘that you had done a good deal of yachting; but of course I ought to have told you what you were in for — roughing it in a small boat with no crew. I felt ashamed of myself when you wired back so promptly, and when you came — er —’ Davies stammered and hesitated in the humane resolve not to wound my feelings. ‘Of course I couldn’t help noticing that it wasn’t what you expected,’ was the delicate summary he arrived at. ‘But you took it splendidly,’ he hastened to add. ‘Only, somehow, I couldn’t bring myself to talk about the plan. It was good enough of you to come out at all, without bothering you with hare-brained schemes. Beside, I wasn’t even sure of myself. It’s a tangled business. There were reasons, there are reasons still’— he looked nervously at me —‘which — well, which make it a tangled business.’ I had thought a confidence was coming, and was disappointed. ‘I was in an idiotic state of uncertainty,’ he hurried on; ‘but the plan grew on me more and more, when I saw how you were taking to the life and beginning to enjoy yourself. All that about the ducks on the Frisian coast was humbug; part of a stupid idea of decoying you there and gaining time. However, you quite naturally objected, and last night I meant to chuck the whole thing up and give you the best time here I could. Then Bartels turned up —’

‘Stop,’ I put in. ‘Did you know he might turn up when you sailed here?’

‘Yes,’ said Davies, guiltily. ‘I knew he might; and now it’s all come out, and you’ll come! What a fool I’ve been!’

Long before he had finished I had grasped the whole meaning of the last few days, and had read their meaning into scores of little incidents which had puzzled me.

‘For goodness’ sake, don’t apologize,’ I protested. ‘I could make confessions, too, if I liked. And I doubt if you’ve been such a fool as you think. I’m a patient that wants careful nursing, and it has been the merest chance all through that I haven’t rebelled and bolted. We’ve got a good deal to thank the weather for, and other little stimulants. And you don’t know yet my reasons for deciding to try your cure at all.’

‘My cure?’ said Davies; ‘what in the world do you mean? It was jolly decent of you to —’

‘Never mind! There’s another view of it, but it doesn’t matter now. Let’s return to the point. What’s your plan of action?’

‘It’s this,’ was the prompt reply: ‘to get back to the North Sea, via Kiel and the ship canal. Then there will be two objects: one, to work back to Norderney, where I left off before, exploring all those channels through the estuaries and islands; the other, to find Dollmann, discover what he’s up to, and settle with him. The two things may overlap, we can’t tell yet. I don’t even know where he and his yacht are; but I’ll be bound they’re somewhere in those same waters, and probably back at Norderney.’

‘It’s a delicate matter,’ I mused, dubiously, ‘if your theory’s correct. Spying on a spy —’

‘It’s not like that,’ said Davies, indignantly. ‘Anyone who likes can sail about there and explore those waters. I say, you don’t really think it’s like that, do you?’

‘I don’t think you’re likely to do anything dishonourable,’ I hastened to explain. ‘I grant you the sea’s public property in your sense. I only mean that developments are possible, which you don’t reckon on. There must be more to find out than the mere navigation of those channels, and if that’s so, mightn’t we come to be genuine spies ourselves?’

‘And, after all, hang it!’ exclaimed Davies, ‘if it comes to that, why shouldn’t we? I look at it like this. The man’s an Englishman, and if he’s in with Germany he’s a traitor to us, and we as Englishmen have a right to expose him. If we can’t do it without spying we’ve a right to spy, at our own risk —’

‘There’s a stronger argument than that. He tried to take your life.’

‘I don’t care a rap about that. I’m not such an ass as to thirst for revenge and all that, like some chap in a shilling shocker. But it makes me wild to think of that fellow masquerading as a German, and up to who knows what mischief — mischief enough to make him want to get rid of any one. I’m keen about the sea, and I think they’re apt to be a bit slack at home,’ he continued inconsequently. ‘Those Admiralty chaps want waking up. Anyway, as far as I’m concerned, it’s quite natural that I should look him up again.’

‘Quite,’ I agreed; ‘you parted friends, and they may be delighted to see you. You’ll have plenty to talk about.’

‘I— I’m,’ said Davies, withered into silence by the ‘they’. ‘Hullo! I say, do you know it’s three o’clock? How the time has gone! And, by Jove! I believe the fog’s lifting.’

I returned, with a shock, to the present, to the weeping walls, the discoloured deal table, the ghastly breakfast litter — all the visible symbols of the life I had pledged myself to. Disillusionment was making rapid headway when Davies returned, and said, with energy:

‘What do you say to starting for Kiel at once? The fog’s going, and there’s a breeze from the sou’-west.’

‘Now?’ I protested. ‘Why, it’ll mean sailing all night, won’t it?’

‘Oh, no,’ said Davies. ‘Not with luck.’

‘Why, it’s dark at seven!’

‘Yes, but it’s only twenty-five miles. I know it’s not exactly a fair wind, but we shall lie closehauled most of the way. The glass is falling, and we ought to take this chance.’

To argue about winds with Davies was hopeless, and the upshot was that we started lunchless. A pale sun was flickering out of masses of racing vapour, and through delicate vistas between them the fair land of Schleswig now revealed and now withdrew her pretty face, as though smiling adieux to her faithless courtiers.

The clank of our chain brought up Bartels to the deck of the Johannes, rubbing his eyes and pulling round his throat a grey shawl, which gave him a comical likeness to a lodging-house landlady receiving the milk in morning déshabillé.

‘We’re off, Bartels,’ said Davies, without looking up from his work. ‘See you at Kiel, I hope.’

‘You are always in a hurry, captain,’ bleated the old man, shaking his head. ‘You should wait till tomorrow. The sky is not good, and it will be dark before you are off Eckenförde.’

Davies laughed, and very soon his mentor’s sad little figure was lost in haze.

That was a curious evening. Dusk soon fell, and the devil made a determined effort to unman me; first, with the scrambled tea which was the tardy substitute for an orderly lunch, then with the new and nauseous duty of filling the side-lights, which meant squatting in the fo’c’sle to inhale paraffin and dabble in lamp-black; lastly, with an all-round attack on my nerves as the night fell on our frail little vessel, pitching on her precarious way through driving mist. In a sense I think I went through the same sort of mental crisis as when I sat upon my portmanteau at Flensburg. The main issue was not seriously in question, for I had signed on in the Dulcibella for good or ill; but in doing so I had outrun myself, and still wanted an outlook, a mood suited to the enterprise, proof against petty discouragements. Not for the first time a sense of the ludicrous came to my assistance, as I saw myself fretting in London under my burden of self-imposed woes, nicely weighing that insidious invitation, and stepping finally into the snare with the dignity due to my importance; kidnapped as neatly as ever a peaceful clerk was kidnapped by a lawless press-gang, and, in the end, finding as the arch-conspirator a guileless and warm-hearted friend, who called me clever, lodged me in a cell, and blandly invited me to talk German to the purpose, as he was aiming at a little secret service on the high seas. Close in the train of Humour came Romance, veiling her face, but I knew it was the rustle of her robes that I heard in the foam beneath me; I knew that it was she who handed me the cup of sparkling wine and bade me drink and be merry. Strange to me though it was, I knew the taste when it touched my lips. It was not that bastard concoction I had tasted in the pseudo-Bohemias of Soho; it was not the showy but insipid beverage I should have drunk my fill of at Morven Lodge; it was the purest of her pure vintages, instilling the ancient inspiration which, under many guises, quickens thousands of better brains than mine, but whose essence is always the same; the gay pursuit of a perilous quest. Then and there I tried to clinch the matter and keep that mood. In the main I think I succeeded, though I had many lapses.

For the present my veins tingled with the draught. The wind humming into the mainsail, the ghostly wave-crests riding up out of the void, whispered a low thrilling chorus in praise of adventure. Potent indeed must the spell have been, for, in reality, that first night sail teemed with terrors for me. It is true that it began well, for the haze dispersed, as Davies had prophesied, and Bulk Point Lighthouse guided us safely to the mouth of Kiel Fiord. It was during this stage that, crouching together aft, our pipe-bowls glowing sympathetically, we returned to the problem before us; for we had shot out on our quest with volcanic precipitation, leaving much to be discussed. I gleaned a few more facts, though I dispelled no doubts. Davies had only seen the Dollmanns on their yacht, where father and daughter were living for the time. Their villa at Norderney, and their home life there, were unknown to him, though he had landed once at the harbour himself. Further, he had heard vaguely of a stepmother, absent at Hamburg. They were to have joined her on their arrival at that city, which, be it noted, stands a long way up the Elbe, forty miles and more above Cuxhaven, the town at the mouth.

The exact arrangement made on the day before the fatal voyage was that the two yachts should meet in the evening at Cuxhaven and proceed up the river together. Then, in the ordinary course, Davies would have parted company at Brunsbüttel (fifteen miles up), which is the western terminus of the ship canal to the Baltic. Such at least had been his original intention; but, putting two and two together, I gathered that latterly, and perhaps unconfessed to himself, his resolve had weakened, and that he would have followed the Medusa to Hamburg, or indeed the end of the world, impelled by the same motive that, contrary to all his tastes and principles, had induced him to abandon his life in the islands and undertake the voyage at all. But on that point he was immovably reticent, and all I could conclude was that the strange cross-current connected with Dollmann’s daughter had given him cruel pain and had clouded his judgement to distraction, but that he now was prepared to forget or ignore it, and steer a settled course.

The facts I elicited raised several important questions. Was it not known by this time that he and his yacht had survived? Davies was convinced that it was not. ‘He may have waited at Cuxhaven, or inquired at the lock at Brunsbüttel,’ he said. ‘But there was no need, for I tell you the thing was a certainty. If I had struck and stuck on that outer bank, as it was a hundred to one I should do, the yacht would have broken up in three minutes. Bartels would never have seen me, and couldn’t have got to me if he had. No one would have seen me. And nothing whatever has happened since to show that they know I’m alive.’

‘They,’ I suggested. ‘Who are “they”? Who are our adversaries?’ If Dollmann were an accredited agent of the German Admiralty — But, no, it was incredible that the murder of a young Englishman should be connived at in modern days by a friendly and civilized government! Yet, if he were not such an agent, the whole theory fell to the ground.

‘I believe,’ said Davies, ‘that Dollmann did it off his own bat, and beyond that I can’t see. And I don’t know that it matters at present. Alive or dead we’re doing nothing wrong, and have nothing to be ashamed of.’

‘I think it matters a good deal,’ I objected. ‘Who will be interested in our resurrection, and how are we to go to work, openly or secretly? I suppose we shall keep out of the way as much as we can?’

‘As for keeping out of the way,’ said Davies, jerkily, as he peered to windward under the foresail, ‘we must pass the ship canal; that’s a public highway, where anyone can see you. After that there won’t be much difficulty. Wait till you see the place!’ He gave a low, contented laugh, which would have frozen my marrow yesterday. ‘By the way, that reminds me,’ he added; ‘we must stop at Kiel for the inside of a day and lay in a lot of stores. We want to be independent of the shore.’ I said nothing. Independence of the shore in a seven-tonner in October! What an end to aim at!

About nine o’clock we weathered the point, entered Kiel Fiord, and began a dead beat to windward of seven miles to the head of it where Kiel lies. Hitherto, save for the latent qualms concerning my total helplessness if anything happened to Davies, interest and excitement had upheld me well. My alarms only began when I thought them nearly over. Davies had frequently urged me to turn in and sleep, and I went so far as to go below and coil myself up on the lee sofa with my pencil and diary. Suddenly there was a flapping and rattling on deck, and I began to slide on to the floor. ‘What’s happened?’ I cried, in a panic, for there was Davies stooping in at the cabin door.

‘Nothing,’ he said, chafing his hands for warmth; ‘I’m only going about. Hand me the glasses, will you? There’s a steamer ahead. I say, if you really don’t want to turn in, you might make some soup. Just let’s look at the chart.’ He studied it with maddening deliberation, while I wondered how near the steamer was, and what the yacht was doing meanwhile.

‘I suppose it’s not really necessary for anyone to be at the helm?’ I remarked.

‘Oh, she’s all right for a minute,’ he said, without looking up. ‘Two — one and a half — one — lights in line sou’-west by west — got a match?’ He expended two, and tumbled upstairs again.

‘You don’t want me, do you?’ I shouted after him.

‘No, but come up when you’ve put the kettle on. It’s a pretty beat up the fiord. Lovely breeze.’

His legs disappeared. A sort of buoyant fatalism possessed me as I finished my notes and pored over the stove. It upheld me, too, when I went on deck and watched the ‘pretty beat’, whose prettiness was mainly due to the crowd of fog-bound shipping — steamers, smacks, and sailing-vessels — now once more on the move in the confined fairway of the fiord, their baleful eyes of red, green, or yellow, opening and shutting, brightening and fading; while shore-lights and anchor-lights added to my bewilderment, and a throbbing of screws filled the air like the distant roar of London streets. In fact, every time we spun round for our dart across the fiord I felt like a rustic matron gathering her skirts for the transit of the Strand on a busy night. Davies, however, was the street arab who zigzags under the horses’ feet unscathed; and all the time he discoursed placidly on the simplicity and safety of night-sailing if only you are careful, obeying rules, and burnt good lights. As we were nearing the hot glow in the sky that denoted Kiel we passed a huge scintillating bulk moored in mid-stream. ‘Warships,’ he murmured, ecstatically.

At one o’clock we anchored off the town.

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