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 Brunsbttel (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 Brunsbttel,' 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.
10 His Chance
'I SAY, Davies,' I said, 'how long do you think this trip will last? I've only got a month's leave.'
We were standing at slanting desks in the Kiel post-office, Davies scratching diligently at his letter-card, and I staring feebly at mine.
'By Jove!' said Davies, with a start of dismay; 'that's only three weeks more; I never thought of that. You couldn't manage to get an extension, could you?'
'I can write to the chief,' I admitted; 'but where's the answer to come to? We're better without an address, I suppose.'
'There's Cuxhaven,' reflected Davies; 'but that's too near, and there's—but we don't want to be tied down to landing anywhere. I tell you what: say "Post Office, Norderney", just your name, not the yacht's. We may get there and be able to call for letters.' The casual character of our adventure never struck me more strongly than then.
'Is that what you're doing?' I asked.
'Oh, I shan't be having important letters like you.'
'But what are you saying?'
'Oh, just that we're having a splendid cruise, and are on our way home.'
The notion tickled me, and I said the same in my home letter, adding that we were looking for a friend of Davies's who would be able to show us some sport. I wrote a line, too, to my chief (unaware of the gravity of the step I was taking) saying it was possible that I might have to apply for longer leave, as I had important business to transact in Germany, and asking him kindly to write to the same address. Then we shouldered our parcels and resumed our business.
Two full dinghy-loads of Stores we ferried to the Dulcibella, chief among which were two immense cans of petroleum, constituting our reserves of heat and light, and a sack of flour. There were spare ropes and blocks, too; German charts of excellent quality; cigars and many weird brands of sausage and tinned meats, besides a miscellany of oddments, some of which only served in the end to slake my companion's craving for jettison. Clothes were my own chief care, for, freely as I had purged it at Flensburg, my wardrobe was still very unsuitable, and I had already irretrievably damaged two faultless pairs of white flannels. ('We shall be able to throw them overboard,' said Davies, hopefully.) So I bought a great pair of seaboots of the country, felt-lined and wooden-soled, and both of us got a number of rough woollen garments (as worn by the local fishermen), breeches, jerseys, helmets, gloves; all of a colour chosen to harmonize with paraffin stains and anchor mud.
The same evening we were taking our last look at the Baltic, sailing past warships and groups of idle yachts battened down for their winter's sleep; while the noble shores of the fiord, with its villas embowered in copper foliage, grew dark and dim above us.
We rounded the last headland, steered for a galaxy of coloured lights, tumbled down our sails, and came to under the colossal gates of the Holtenau lock. That these would open to such an infinitesimal suppliant seemed inconceivable. But open they did, with ponderous majesty, and our tiny hull was lost in the womb of a lock designed to float the largest battleships. I thought of Boulter's on a hot August Sunday, and wondered if I really was the same peevish dandy who had jostled and sweltered there with the noisy cockney throng a month ago. There was a blaze of electricity overhead, but utter silence till a solitary cloaked figure hailed us and called for the captain. Davies ran up a ladder, disappeared with the cloaked figure, and returned crumpling a paper into his pocket. It lies before me now, and sets forth, under the stamp of the Knigliches Zollamt, that, in consideration of the sum of ten marks for dues and four for tonnage, an imperial tug would tow the vessel Dulcibella (master A. H. Davies) through the Kaiser Wilhelm Canal from Holtenau to Brunsbttel. Magnificent condescension! I blush when I look at this yellow document and remember the stately courtesy of the great lock gates; for the sleepy officials of the Knigliches Zollamt little knew what an insidious little viper they were admitting into the imperial bosom at the light toll of fourteen shillings.
'Seems cheap,' said Davies, joining me, 'doesn't it? They've a regular tariff on tonnage, same for yachts as for liners. We start at four to-morrow with a lot of other boats. I wonder if Bartels is here.'
The same silence reigned, but invisible forces were at work. The inner gates opened and we prised ourselves through into a capacious basin, where lay moored side by side a flotilla of sailing vessels of various sizes. Having made fast alongside a vacant space of quay, we had our dinner, and then strolled out with cigars to look for the Johannes. We found her wedged among a stack of galliots, and her skipper sitting primly below before a blazing stove, reading his Bible through spectacles. He produced a bottle of schnapps and some very small and hard pears, while Davies twitted him mercilessly about his false predictions.
'The sky was not good,' was all he said, beaming indulgently at his incorrigible young friend.
Before parting for the night it was arranged that next morning we should lash alongside the Johannes when the flotilla was marshalled for the tow through the canal.
'Karl shall steer for us both,' he said, 'and we will stay warm in the cabin.'
The scheme was carried out, not without much confusion and loss of paint, in the small hours of a dark and drizzling morning. Boisterous little tugs sorted us into parties, and half lost under the massive bulwarks of the Johannes we were carried off into a black inane. If any doubt remained as to the significance of our change of cruising-grounds, dawn dispelled it. View there was none from the deck of the Dulcibella; it was only by standing on the mainboom that you could see over the embankments to the vast plain of Holstein, grey and monotonous under a pall of mist. The soft scenery of the Schleswig coast was a baseless dream of the past, and a cold penetrating rain added the last touch of dramatic completeness to the staging of the new act.
For two days we travelled slowly up the mighty waterway that is the strategic link between the two seas of Germany. Broad and straight, massively embanked, lit by electricity at night till it is lighter than many a great London street; traversed by great war vessels, rich merchantmen, and humble coasters alike, it is a symbol of the new and mighty force which, controlled by the genius of statesmen and engineers, is thrusting the empire irresistibly forward to the goal of maritime greatness.
'Isn't it splendid?' said Davies. 'He's a fine fellow, that emperor.'
Karl was the shock-headed, stout-limbed boy of about sixteen, who constituted the whole crew of the Johannes, and was as dirty as his master was clean. I felt a certain envious reverence for this unprepossessing youth, seeing in him a much more efficient counterpart of myself; but how he and his little master ever managed to work their ungainly vessel was a miracle I never understood. Phlegmatically impervious to rain and cold, he steered the Johannes down the long grey reaches in the wake of the tug, while we and Bartels held snug gatherings down below, sometimes in his cabin, sometimes in ours. The heating arrangements of the latter began to be a subject of serious concern. We finally did the only logical thing, and brought the kitchen-range into the parlour, fixing the Rippingille stove on the forward end of the cabin table, where it could warm as well as cook for us. As an ornament it was monstrous, and the taint of oil which it introduced was a disgusting drawback; but, after all, the great thing—as Davies said—is to be comfortable, and after that to be clean.
Davies held long consultations with Bartels, who was thoroughly at home in the navigation of the sands we were bound for, his own boat being a type of the very craft which ply in them. I shall not forget the moment when it first dawned on him that his young friend's curiosity was practical; for he had thought that our goal was his own beloved Hamburg, queen of cities, a place to see and die.
'It is too late,' he wailed. 'You do not know the Nord See as I do.'
'Oh, nonsense, Bartels, it's quite safe.'
'Safe! And have I not found you fast on Hohenhrn, in a storm, with your rudder broken? God was good to you then, my son.'
'Yes, but it wasn't my f—' Davies checked himself. 'We're going home. There's nothing in that.' Bartels became sadly resigned.
'It is good that you have a friend,' was his last word on the subject; but all the same he always glanced at me with a rather doubtful eye. As to Davies and myself, our friendship developed quickly on certain limited lines, the chief obstacle, as I well know now, being his reluctance to talk about the personal side of our quest.
On the other hand, I spoke about my own life and interests, with an unsparing discernment, of which I should have been incapable a month ago, and in return I gained the key to his own character. It was devotion to the sea, wedded to a fire of pent-up patriotism struggling incessantly for an outlet in strenuous physical expression; a humanity, born of acute sensitiveness to his own limitations, only adding fuel to the flame. I learnt for the first time now that in early youth he had failed for the navy, the first of several failures in his career. 'And I can't settle down to anything else,' he said. 'I read no end about it, and yet I am a useless outsider. All I've been able to do is to potter about in small boats; but it's all been wasted till this chance came. I'm afraid you'll not understand how I feel about it; but at last, for once in a way, I see a chance of being useful.'
'There ought to be chances for chaps like you,' I said, 'without the accident of a job such as this.'
'Oh, as long as I get it, what matter? But I know what you mean. There must be hundreds of chaps like me—I know a good many myself—who know our coasts like a book—shoals, creeks, tides, rocks; there's nothing in it, it's only practice. They ought to make some use of us as a naval reserve. They tried to once, hut it fizzled out, and nobody really cares. And what's the result? Using every man of what reserves we've got, there's about enough to man the fleet on a war footing, and no more. They've tinkered with fishermen, and merchant sailors, and yachting hands, but everyone of them ought to be got hold of; and the colonies, too. Is there the ghost of a doubt that if war broke out there'd be wild appeals for volunteers, aimless cadging, hurry, confusion, waste? My own idea is that we ought to go much further, and train every able-bodied man for a couple of years as a sailor. Army? Oh, I suppose you'd have to give them the choice. Not that I know or care much about the Army, though to listen to people talk you'd think it really mattered as the Navy matters. We're a maritime nation—we've grown by the sea and live by it; if we lose command of it we starve. We're unique in that way, just as our huge empire, only linked by the sea, is unique. And yet, read Brassey, Dilke, and those "Naval Annuals", and see what mountains of apathy and conceit have had to be tackled. It's not the people's fault. We've been safe so long, and grown so rich, that we've forgotten what we owe it to. But there's no excuse for those blockheads of statesmen, as they call themselves, who are paid to see things as they are. They have to go to an American to learn their A B C, and it's only when kicked and punched by civilian agitators, a mere handful of men who get sneered at for their pains, that they wake up, do some work, point proudly to it, and go to sleep again, till they get another kick. By Jove! we want a man like this Kaiser, who doesn't wait to be kicked, but works like a nigger for his country, and sees ahead.'
'We're improving, aren't we?'
'Oh, of course, we are! But it's a constant uphill fight; and we aren't ready. They talk of a two-power standard—' He plunged away into regions where space forbids me to follow him. This is only a sample of many similar conversations that we afterwards held, always culminating in the burning question of Germany. Far from including me and the Foreign Office among his targets for vague invective, he had a profound respect for my sagacity and experience as a member of that institution; a respect which embarrassed me not a little when I thought of my prcis writing and cigarette-smoking, my dancing, and my dining. But I did know something of Germany, and could satisfy his tireless questioning with a certain authority. He used to listen rapt while I described her marvellous awakening in the last generation, under the strength and wisdom of her rulers; her intense patriotic ardour; her seething industrial activity, and, most potent of all, the forces that are moulding modern Europe, her dream of a colonial empire, entailing her transformation from a land-power to a sea-power. Impregnably based on vast territorial resources which we cannot molest, the dim instincts of her people, not merely directed but anticipated by the genius of her ruling house, our great trade rivals of the present, our great naval rival of the future, she grows, and strengthens, and waits, an ever more formidable factor in the future of our delicate network of empire, sensitive as gossamer to external shocks, and radiating from an island whose commerce is its life, and which depends even for its daily ration of bread on the free passage of the seas.
'And we aren't ready for her,' Davies would say; 'we don't look her way. We have no naval base in the North Sea, and no North Sea Fleet. Our best battleships are too deep in draught for North Sea work. And, to crown all, we were asses enough to give her Heligoland, which commands her North Sea coast. And supposing she collars Holland; isn't there some talk of that?'
That would lead me to describe the swollen ambitions of the Pan-Germanic party, and its ceaseless intrigues to promote the absorption of Austria, Switzerland, and—a direct and flagrant menace to ourselves—of Holland.
'I don't blame them,' said Davies, who, for all his patriotism, had not a particle of racial spleen in his composition. 'I don't blame them; their Rhine ceases to be German just when it begins to be most valuable. The mouth is Dutch, and would give them magnificent ports just opposite British shores. We can't talk about conquest and grabbing. We've collared a fine share of the world, and they've every right to be jealous. Let them hate us, and say so; it'll teach us to buck up; and that's what really matters.'
In these talks there occurred a singular contact of minds. It was very well for me to spin sonorous generalities, but I had never till now dreamed of being so vulgar as to translate them into practice. I had always detested the meddlesome alarmist, who veils ignorance under noisiness, and for ever wails his chant of lugubrious pessimism. To be thrown with Davies was to receive a shock of enlightenment; for here, at least, was a specimen of the breed who exacted respect. It is true he made use of the usual jargon, interlarding his stammering sentences (sometimes, when he was excited, with the oddest effect) with the conventional catchwords of the journalist and platform speaker. But these were but accidents; for he seemed to have caught his innermost conviction from the very soul of the sea itself. An armchair critic is one thing, but a sunburnt, brine-burnt zealot smarting under a personal discontent, athirst for a means, however tortuous, of contributing his effort to the great cause, the maritime supremacy of Britain, that was quite another thing. He drew inspiration from the very wind and spray. He communed with his tiller, I believe, and marshalled his figures with its help. To hear him talk was to feel a current of clarifying air blustering into a close club-room, where men bandy ineffectual platitudes, and mumble old shibboleths, and go away and do nothing.
In our talk about policy and strategy we were Bismarcks and Rodneys, wielding nations and navies; and, indeed, I have no doubt that our fancy took extravagant flights sometimes. In plain fact we were merely two young gentlemen in a seven-ton pleasure boat, with a taste for amateur hydrography and police duty combined. Not that Davies ever doubted. Once set on the road he gripped his purpose with child-like faith and tenacity. It was his 'chance'.
11 The Pathfinders
IN the late afternoon of the second day our flotilla reached the Elbe at Brunsbttel and ranged up in the inner basin, while a big liner, whimpering like a fretful baby, was tenderly nursed into the lock. During the delay Davies left me in charge, and bolted off with an oil-can and a milk-jug. An official in uniform was passing along the quay from vessel to vessel counter-signing papers. I went up to meet him with our receipt for dues, which he signed carelessly. Then he paused and muttered 'Dooltzhibella,' scratching his head, 'that was the name. English?' he asked.
'Little lust-cutter, that is so; there was an inquiry for you.'
'A friend of yours from a big barge-yacht.'
'Oh, I know; she went on to Hamburg, I suppose?'
'No such luck, captain; she was outward bound.'
What did the man mean? He seemed to be vastly amused by something.
'When was this—about three weeks ago?' I asked, indifferently.
'Three weeks? It was the day before yesterday. What a pity to miss him by so little!' He chuckled and winked.
'Did he leave any message?' I asked.
'It was a lady who inquired,' whispered the fellow, sniggering. 'Oh, really,' I said, beginning to feel highly absurd, but keenly curious. 'And she inquired about the Dulcibella?'
'Herrgott! she was difficult to satisfy! Stood over me while I searched the books. "A very little one," she kept saying, and "Are you sure all the names are here?" I saw her into her kleine Boot, and she rowed away in the rain. No, she left no message. It was dirty weather for a young frulein to be out alone in. Ach! she was safe enough, though. To see her crossing the ebb in a chop of tide was a treat.'
'And the yacht went on down the river? Where was she bound to?'
'How do I know? Bremen, Wilhelmshaven, Emden - somewhere in the North Sea; too far for you.'
'I don't know about that,' said I, bravely.
'Ach! you will not follow in that? Are not you bound to Hamburg?'
'We can change our plans. It seems a pity to have missed them.'
'Think twice, captain, there are plenty of pretty girls in Hamburg. But you English will do anything. Well, viel Glck!'
He moved on, chuckling, to the next boat. Davies soon returned with his cans and an armful of dark, rye loaves, just in time, for, the liner being through, the flotilla was already beginning to jostle into the lock and Bartels was growing impatient.
'They'll last ten days,' he said, as we followed the throng, still clinging like a barnacle to the side of the Johannes. We spent the few minutes while the lock was emptied in a farewell talk to Bartels. Karl had hitched their main halyards on to the windlass and was grinding at it in an acharnement of industry, his shock head jerking and his grubby face perspiring. Then the lock gates opened; and so, in a Babel of shouting, whining of blocks, and creaking of spars, our whole company was split out into the dingy bosom of the Elbe. The Johannes gathered way under wind and tide and headed for midstream. A last shake of the hand, and Bartels reluctantly slipped the head-rope and we drifted apart. 'Gute Reise! Gute Reise!' It was no time for regretful gazing, for the flood-tide was sweeping us up and out, and it was not until we had set the foresail, edged into a shallow bight, and let go our anchor, that we had leisure to think of him again; but by that time his and the other craft were shades in the murky east.
We swung close to a glacis of smooth blue mud which sloped up to a weed-grown dyke; behind lay the same flat country, colourless, humid; and opposite us, two miles away, scarcely visible in the deepening twilight, ran the outline of a similar shore. Between rolled the turgid Elbe. 'The Styx flowing through Tartarus,' I thought to myself, recalling some of our Baltic anchorages.
I told my news to Davies as soon as the anchor was down, instinctively leaving the sex of the inquirer to the last, as my informant had done.
'The Medusa called yesterday?' he interrupted. 'And outward bound? That's a rum thing. Why didn't he inquire when he was going up?'
'It was a lady,' and I drily retailed the official's story, very busy with a deck-broom the while. 'We're all square now, aren't we?' I ended. 'I'll go below and light the stove.'
Davies had been engaged in fixing up the riding-light. When I last saw him he was still so engaged, but motionless, the lantern under his left arm. and his right hand grasping the forestay and the half-knotted lanyard; his eyes staring fixedly down the river, a strange look in his face, half exultant, half perplexed. When he joined me and spoke he seemed to be concluding a difficult argument.
'Anyway, it proves,' he said, 'that the Medusa has gone back to Norderney. That's the main thing.'
'Probably,' I agreed, 'but let's sum up all we know. First, it's certain that nobody we've met as yet has any suspicion of us' 'I told you he did it off his own bat,' threw in Davies. 'Or, secondly, of him. If he's what you think it's not known here.'
'I can't help that.'
'Thirdly, he inquires for you on his way back from Hamburg, three weeks after the event. It doesn't look as if he thought he had disposed of you—it doesn't look as if he had meant to dispose of you. He sends his daughter, too—a curious proceeding under the circumstances. Perhaps it's all a mistake.'
'It's not a mistake,' said Davies, half to himself. 'But did he send her? He'd have sent one of his men. He can't be on board at all.'
This was a new light.
'What do you mean?' I asked.
'He must have left the yacht when he got to Hamburg; some other devil's work, I suppose. She's being sailed back now, and passing here—'
'Oh, I see! It's a private supplementary inquiry.'
'That's a long name to call it.'
'Would the girl sail back alone with the crew?'
'She's used to the sea—and perhaps she isn't alone. There was that stepmother—But it doesn't make a ha'porth of difference to our plans: we'll start on the ebb to-morrow morning.'
We were busier than usual that night, reckoning stores, tidying lockers, and securing movables. 'We must economize,' said Davies, for all the world as though we were castaways on a raft. 'It's a wretched thing to have to land somewhere to buy oil,' was a favourite observation of his.
Before getting to sleep I was made to recognize a new factor in the conditions of navigation, now that the tideless Baltic was left behind us. A strong current was sluicing past our sides, and at the eleventh hour I was turned out, clad in pyjamas and oilskins (a horrible combination), to assist in running out a kedge or spare anchor.
'What's kedging-off?' I asked, when we were tucked up again. 'Oh, it's when you run aground; you have to—but you'll soon learn all about it.' I steeled my heart for the morrow.
So behold us, then, at eight o'clock on 5th October, standing down the river towards the field of our first labours. It is fifteen miles to the mouth; drab, dreary miles like the dullest reaches of the lower Thames; but scenery was of no concern to us, and a south-westerly breeze blowing out of a grey sky kept us constantly on the verge of reefing. The tide as it gathered strength swept us down with a force attested by the speed with which buoys came in sight, nodded above us and passed, each boiling in its eddy of dirty foam. I scarcely noticed at first—so calm was the water, and so regular were the buoys, like milestones along a road—that the northern line of coast was rapidly receding and that the 'river' was coming to be but a belt of deep water skirting a vast estuary, three—seven—ten miles broad, till it merged in open sea.
'Why, we're at sea!' I suddenly exclaimed, 'after an hour's sailing!'
'Just discovered that?' said Davies, laughing.
'You said it was fifteen miles,' I complained.
'So it is, till we reach this coast at Cuxhaven; but I suppose you may say we're at sea; of course that's all sand over there to starboard. Look! some of it's showing already.'
He pointed into the north. Looking more attentively I noticed that outside the line of buoys patches of the surface heaved and worked; in one or two places streaks and circles of white were forming; in the midst of one such circle a sleek mauve hump had risen, like the back of a sleeping whale. I saw that an old spell was enthralling Davies as his eye travelled away to the blank horizon. He scanned it all with a critical eagerness, too, as one who looks for a new meaning in an old friend's face. Something of his zest was communicated to me, and stilled the shuddering thrill that had seized me. The protecting land was still a comforting neighbour; but our severance with it came quickly. The tide whirled us down, and our straining canvas aiding it, we were soon off Cuxhaven, which crouched so low behind its mighty dyke, that of some of its houses only the chimneys were visible. Then, a mile or so on, the shore sharpened to a point like a claw, where the innocent dyke became a long, low fort, with some great guns peeping over; then of a sudden it ceased, retreating into the far south in a dim perspective of groins and dunes.
We spun out into the open and leant heavily over to the now unobstructed wind. The yacht rose and sank to a little swell, but my first impression was one of wonder at the calmness of the sea, for the wind blew fresh and free from horizon to horizon.
'Why, it's all sand there now, and we're under the lee of it,' said Davies, with an enthusiastic sweep of his hand over the sea on our left, or port, hand. 'That's our hunting ground.'
'What are we going to do?' I inquired.
'Pick up Sticker's Gat,' was the reply. 'It ought to be near Buoy K.'
A red buoy with a huge K on it soon came into view. Davies peered over to port.
'Just pull up the centre-board, will you?' he remarked abstractedly, adding, 'and hand me up the glasses as you re down there.'
'Never mind the glasses. I've got it now; come to the main-sheet,' was the next remark.
He put down the helm and headed the yacht straight for the troubled and discoloured expanse which covered the submerged sands. A 'sleeping whale', with a light surf splashing on it, was right in our path.
'Stand by the lead, will you?' said Davies, politely. 'I'll manage the sheets, it's a dead beat in. Ready about!'
The wind was in our teeth now, and for a crowded half-hour we wormed ourselves forward by ever-shortening tacks into the sinuous recesses of a channel which threaded the shallows westward. I knelt in a tangle of line, and, under the hazy impression that something very critical was going on, plied the lead furiously, bumping and splashing myself, and shouting out the depths, which lessened steadily, with a great sense of the importance of my function. Davies never seemed to listen, but tacked on imperturbably, juggling with the tiller, the sheets, and the chart, in a way that made one giddy to look at. For all our zeal we seemed to be making very slow progress.
'It's no use, tide's too strong: we must chance it,' he said at last.
'Chance what?' I wondered to myself. Our tacks suddenly began to grow longer, and the depths, which I registered, shallower. All went well for some time though, and we made better progress. Then came a longer reach than usual.
'Two and a half—two—one and a half—one—only five feet,' I gasped, reproachfully. The water was growing thick and frothy.
'It doesn't matter if we do,' said Davies, thinking aloud. 'There's an eddy here, and it's a pity to waste it—ready about! Back the jib!'
But it was too late. The yacht answered but faintly to the helm, stopped, and heeled heavily over, wallowing and grinding. Davies had the mainsail down in a twinkling; it half smothered me as I crouched on the lee-side among my tangled skeins of line, scared and helpless. I crawled out from the folds, and saw him standing by the mast in a reverie.
'It's not much use,' he said, 'on a falling tide, but we'll try kedging-off. Pay that warp out while I run out the kedge.'
Like lightning he had cast off the dinghy's painter, tumbled the kedge-anchor and himself into the dinghy, pulled out fifty yards into the deeper water, and heaved out the anchor.
'Now haul,' he shouted.
I hauled, beginning to see what kedging-off meant.
'Steady on! Don't sweat yourself,' said Davies, jumping aboard again.
'It's coming,' I spluttered, triumphantly.
'The warp is, the yacht isn't; you're dragging the anchor home. Never mind, she'll lie well here. Let's have lunch.'
The yacht was motionless, and the water round her visibly lower. Petulant waves slapped against her sides, but, scattered as my senses were, I realized that there was no vestige of danger. Round us the whole face of the waters was changing from moment to moment, whitening in some places, yellowing in others, where breadths of sand began to be exposed. Close on our right the channel we had left began to look like a turbid little river; and I understood why our progress had been so slow when I saw its current racing back to meet the Elbe. Davies was already below, laying out a more than usually elaborate lunch, in high content of mind.
'Lies quiet, doesn't she?' he remarked. 'If you do want a sit-down lunch, there's nothing like running aground for it. And, anyhow, we're as handy for work here as anywhere else. You'll see.'
Like most landsmen I had a wholesome prejudice against running aground', so that my mentor's turn for breezy paradox was at first rather exasperating. After lunch the large-scale chart of the estuaries was brought down, and we pored over it together, mapping out work for the next few days. There is no need to tire the general reader with its intricacies, nor is there space to reproduce it for the benefit of the instructed reader. For both classes the general map should be sufficient, taken with the large-scale fragment [See Chart A] which gives a fair example of the region in detail. It will be seen that the three broad fairways of the Jade, Weser, and Elbe split up the sands into two main groups. The westernmost of these is symmetrical in outline, an acute-angled triangle, very like a sharp steel-shod pike, if you imagine the peninsula from which it springs to be the wooden haft. The other is a huge congeries of banks, its base resting on the Hanover coast, two of its sides tolerably clean and even, and the third, that facing the north-west, ribboned and lacerated by the fury of the sea, which has eaten out deep cavities and struck hungry tentacles far into the interior. The whole resembles an inverted E, or, better still, a rude fork, on whose three deadly prongs, the Scharhorn Reef, the Knecht Sand, and the Tegeler Flat, as on the no less deadly point of the pike, many a good ship splinters herself in northerly gales. Following this simile, the Hohenhrn bank, where Davies was wrecked, is one of those that lie between the upper and middle prongs.
Our business was to explore the Pike and the Fork and the channels which ramify through them. I use the general word 'channel', but in fact they differ widely in character, and are called in German by various names: Balje, Gat, Loch, Diep. Rinne. For my purpose I need only divide them into two sorts -those which have water in them at all states of the tide, and those which have not, which dry off, that is, either wholly or partly at low-tide.
Davies explained that the latter would take most learning, and were to be our chief concern, because they were the 'through-routes'—the connecting links between the estuaries. You can always detect them on the chart by rows of little Y-shaped strokes denoting 'booms', that is to say, poles or saplings fixed in the sand to mark the passage. The strokes, of course, are only conventional signs, and do not correspond in the least to individual 'booms', which are far too numerous and complex to be indicated accurately on a chart, even of the largest scale. The same applies to the course of the channels themselves, whose minor meanderings cannot be reproduced.
It was on the edge of one of these tidal swatchways that the yacht was now lying. It is called Sticker's Gat, and you cannot miss it [See Chart A] if you carry your eye westward along our course from Cuxhaven. It was, so Davies told me, the last and most intricate stage of the 'short cut' which the Medusa had taken on that memorable day—a stage he himself had never reached. Discussion ended, we went on deck, Davies arming himself with a notebook, binoculars, and the prismatic compass, whose use—to map the angles of the channels—was at last apparent. This is what I saw when we emerged.
12 My Initiation
THE yacht lay with a very slight heel (thanks to a pair of small bilge-keels on her bottom) in a sort of trough she had dug for herself, so that she was still ringed with a few inches of water, as it were with a moat.
For miles in every direction lay a desert of sand. To the north it touched the horizon, and was only broken by the blue dot of Neuerk Island and its lighthouse. To the east it seemed also to stretch to infinity, but the smoke of a steamer showed where it was pierced by the stream of the Elbe. To the south it ran up to the pencil-line of the Hanover shore. Only to the west was its outline broken by any vestiges of the sea it had risen from. There it was astir with crawling white filaments, knotted confusedly at one spot in the north-west, whence came a sibilant murmur like the hissing of many snakes. Desert as I call it, it was not entirely featureless. Its colour varied from light fawn, where the highest levels had dried in the wind, to brown or deep violet, where it was still wet, and slate-grey where patches of mud soiled its clean bosom. Here and there were pools of water, smitten into ripples by the impotent wind; here and there it was speckled by shells and seaweed. And close to us, beginning to bend away towards that hissing knot in the north-west, wound our poor little channel, mercilessly exposed as a stagnant, muddy ditch with scarcely a foot of water, not deep enough to hide our small kedge-anchor, which perked up one fluke in impudent mockery. The dull, hard sky, the wind moaning in the rigging as though crying in despair for a prey that had escaped it, made the scene inexpressibly forlorn.
Davies scanned it with gusto for a moment, climbed to a point of vantage on the boom, and swept his glasses to and fro along the course of the channel.
'Fairly well boomed,' he said, meditatively, 'but one or two are very much out. By Jove! that's a tricky bend there.' He took a bearing with the compass, made a note or two, and sprang with a vigorous leap down on to the sand.
This, I may say, was the only way of 'going ashore' that he really liked. We raced off as fast as our clumsy sea-boots would let us, and followed up the course of our channel to the west, reconnoitring the road we should have to follow when the tide rose.
'The only way to learn a place like this,' he shouted, 'is to see it at low water. The banks are dry then, and the channels are plain. Look at that boom'—he stopped and pointed contemptuously—'it's all out of place. I suppose the channel's shifted there. It's just at an important bend too. If you took it as a guide when the water was up you'd run aground.'
'Which would be very useful,' I observed.
'Oh, hang it!' he laughed, 'we're exploring. I want to be able to run through this channel without a mistake. We will, next time.' He stopped, and plied compass and notebook. Then we raced on till the next halt was called.
'Look,' he said, the channel's getting deeper, it was nearly dry a moment ago; see the current in it now? That's the flood tide coming up—from the west, mind you; that is, from the Weser side. That shows we're past the watershed.'
'Watershed?' I repeated, blankly.
'Yes, that's what I call it. You see, a big sand such as this is like a range of hills dividing two plains, it's never dead flat though it looks it; there's always one point, one ridge, rather, where it's highest. Now a channel cutting right through the sand is, of course, always at its shallowest when it's crossing this ridge; at low water it's generally dry there, and it gradually deepens as it gets nearer to the sea on either side. Now at high tide, when the whole sand is covered, the water can travel where it likes; but directly the ebb sets in the water falls away on either side the ridge and the channel becomes two rivers flowing in opposite directions from the centre, or watershed, as I call it. So, also, when the ebb has run out and the flood begins, the channel is fed by two currents flowing to the centre and meeting in the middle. Here the Elbe and the Weser are our two feeders. Now this current here is going eastwards; we know by the time of day that the tide's rising, therefore the watershed is between us and the yacht.'
'Why is it so important to know that?'
'Because these currents are strong, and you want to know when you'll lose a fair one and strike a foul one. Besides, the ridge is the critical point when you're crossing on a falling tide, and you want to know when you're past it.'
We pushed on till our path was barred by a big lagoon. It looked far more imposing than the channel; but Davies, after a rapid scrutiny, treated it to a grunt of contempt.
'It's a cul de sac,' he said. ' See that hump of sand it's making for, beyond?'
'It's boomed,' I remonstrated, pointing to a decrepit stem drooping over the bank, and shaking a palsied finger at the imposture.
'Yes, that's just where one goes wrong, it's an old cut that's silted up. That boom's a fraud; there's no time to go farther, the flood's making fast. I'll just take bearings of what we can see.'
The false lagoon was the first of several that began to be visible in the west, swelling and joining hands over the ribs of sand that divided them. All the time the distant hissing grew nearer and louder, and a deep, thunderous note began to sound beneath it. We turned our backs to the wind and hastened back towards the Dulcibella, the stream in our channel hurrying and rising alongside of us.
'There's just time to do the other side,' said Davies, when we reached her, and I was congratulating myself on having regained our base without finding our communications cut. And away we scurried in the direction we had come that morning, splashing through pools and jumping the infant runnels that were stealing out through rifts from the mother-channel as the tide rose. Our observations completed, back we travelled, making a wide circuit over higher ground to avoid the encroaching flood, and wading shin-deep in the final approach to the yacht.
As I scrambled thankfully aboard, I seemed to hear a far-off voice saying, in languid depreciation of yachting, that it did not give one enough exercise. It was mine, centuries ago, in another life. From east and west two sheets of water had overspread the desert, each pushing out tongues of surf that met and fused.
I waited on deck and watched the death-throes of the suffocating sands under the relentless onset of the sea. The last strongholds were battered, stormed, and overwhelmed; the tumult of sounds sank and steadied, and the sea swept victoriously over the whole expanse. The Dulcibella, hitherto contemptuously inert, began to wake and tremble under the buffetings she received. Then, with an effort, she jerked herself on to an even keel and bumped and strained fretfully, impatient to vanquish this insolent invader and make him a slave for her own ends. Soon her warp tightened and her nose swung slowly round; only her stern bumped now, and that with decreasing force. Suddenly she was free and drifting broadside to the wind till the anchor checked her and she brought up to leeward of it, rocking easily and triumphantly. Good-humoured little person! At heart she was friends alike with sand and sea. It was only when the old love and the new love were in mortal combat for her favours, and she was mauled in the fracas, that her temper rose in revolt.
We swallowed a hasty cup of tea, ran up the sails, and started off west again. Once across the 'watershed' we met a strong current, but the trend of the passage was now more to the north-west, so that we could hold our course without tacking, and consequently could stem the tide. 'Give her just a foot of the centre-plate,' said Davies. 'We know the way here, and she'll make less leeway; but we shall generally have to do without it always on a falling tide. If you run aground with the plate down you deserve to be drowned.' I now saw how valuable our walk had been. The booms were on our right; but they were broken reeds, giving no hint as to the breadth of the channel. A few had lost their tops, and were being engulfed altogether by the rising water. When we came to the point where they ceased, and the false lagoon had lain, I should have felt utterly lost. We had crossed the high and relatively level sands which form the base of the Fork, and were entering the labyrinth of detached banks which obstruct the funnel-shaped cavity between the upper and middle prongs. This I knew from the chart. My unaided eye saw nothing but the open sea, growing dark green as the depths increased; a dour, threatening sea, showing its white fangs. The waves grew longer and steeper, for the channels, though still tortuous, now begin to be broad and deep.
Davies had his bearings, and struck on his course confidently. 'Now for the lead,' he said; 'the compass'll be little use soon. We must feel the edge of the sands till we pick up more booms.'
'Where are we going to anchor for the night?' I asked.
'Under the Hohenhrn,' said Davies, 'for auld lang syne!'
Partly by sight and mostly by touch we crept round the outermost alley of the hidden maze till a new clump of booms appeared, meaningless to me, but analysed by him into two groups. One we followed for some distance, and then struck finally away and began another beat to windward.
Dusk was falling. The Hanover coast-line, never very distinct, had utterly vanished; an ominous heave of swell was under-running the short sea. I ceased to attend to Davies imparting instruction on his beloved hobby, and sought to stifle in hard manual labour the dread that had been latent in me all day at the prospect of our first anchorage at sea.
'Sound, like blazes now!' he said at last. I came to a fathom and a half. 'That's the bank,' he said; 'we'll give it a bit of a berth and then let go.'
'Let go now!' was the order after a minute, and the chain ran out with a long-drawn moan. The Dulcibella snubbed up to it and jauntily faced the North Sea and the growing night.
'There we are!' said Davies, as we finished stowing the mainsail, 'safe and snug in four fathoms in a magnificent sand-harbour, with no one to bother us and the whole of it to ourselves. No dues, no stinks, no traffic, no worries of any sort. It's better than a Baltic cove even, less beastly civilization about. We're seven miles from the nearest coast, and five even from Neuerk—look, they're lighting up.' There was a tiny spark in the east.
'I suppose it's all right,' I said, 'but I'd rather see a solid breakwater somewhere; it's a dirty-looking night, and I don't like this swell.'
'The swell's nothing,' said Davies; 'it's only a stray drain from outside. As for breakwaters, you've got them all round you, only they're hidden. Ahead and to starboard is the West Hohenhrn, curling round to the sou'-west for all the world like a stone pier. You can hear the surf battering on its outside over to the north. That's where I was nearly wrecked that day, and the little channel I stumbled into must be quite near us somewhere. Half a mile away—to port there—is the East Hohenhrn, where I brought up, after dashing across this lake we're in. Another mile astern is the main body of the sands, the top prong of your fork. So you see we're shut in—practically. Surely you remember the chart? Why, it's—'
'Oh, confound the chart!' I broke out, finding this flow of plausible comfort too dismally suggestive for my nerves. 'Look at it, man! Supposing anything happens—supposing it blows a gale! But it's no good shivering here and staring at the view. I'm going below.'
There was a mauvais quart d'heure below, during which, I am ashamed to say, I forgot the quest.
'Which soup do you feel inclined for?' said Davies, timidly, after a black silence of some minutes.
That simple remark, more eloquent of security than a thousand technical arguments, saved the situation.
'I say, Davies,' I said, 'I'm a white-livered cur at the best, and you mustn't spare me. But you're not like any yachtsman I ever met before, or any sailor of any sort. You're so casual and quiet in the extraordinary things you do. I believe I should like you better if you let fly a volley of deep-sea oaths sometimes, or threatened to put me in irons.'
Davies opened wide eyes, and said it was all his fault for forgetting that I was not as used to such anchorages as he was. 'And, by the way,' he added, 'as to its blowing a gale, I shouldn't wonder if it did; the glass is falling hard; but it can't hurt us. You see, even at high water the drift of the sea—'
'Oh, for Heaven's sake, don't begin again. You'll prove soon that we're safer here than in an hotel. Let's have dinner, and a thundering good one!'
Dinner ran a smooth course, but just as coffee was being brewed the hull, from pitching regularly, began to roll.
'I knew she would,' said Davies. 'I was going to warn you, only—the ebb has set in against the wind. It's quite safe—'
'I thought you said it would get calmer when the tide fell?'
'So it will, but it may seem rougher. Tides are queer things,' he added, as though in defence of some not very respectable acquaintances.
He busied himself with his logbook, swaying easily to the motion of the boat; and I for my part tried to write up my diary, but I could not fix my attention. Every loose article in the boat became audibly restless. Cans clinked, cupboards rattled, lockers uttered hollow groans. Small things sidled out of dark hiding-places, and danced grotesque drunken figures on the floor, like goblins in a haunted glade. The mast whined dolorously at every heel, and the centre-board hiccoughed and choked. Overhead another horde of demons seemed to have been let loose. The deck and mast were conductors which magnified every sound and made the tap-tap of every rope's end resemble the blows of a hammer, and the slapping of the halyards against the mast the rattle of a Maxim gun. The whole tumult beat time to a rhythmical chorus which became maddening.
'We might turn in now,' said Davies; 'it's half-past ten.'
'What, sleep through this?' I exclaimed. 'I can't stand this, I must do something. Can't we go for another walk?'
I spoke in bitter, half-delirious jest.
'Of course we can,' said Davies, 'if you don't mind a bit of a tumble in the dinghy.'
I reconsidered my rash suggestion, but it was too late now to turn back, and some desperate expedient was necessary. I found myself on deck, gripping a backstay and looking giddily down and then up at the dinghy, as it bobbed like a cork in the trough of the sea alongside, while Davies settled the sculls and rowlocks.
'Jump!' he shouted, and before I could gather my wits and clutch the sides we were adrift in the night, reeling from hollow to hollow of the steep curling waves. Davies nursed our walnut-shell tenderly over their crests, edging her slantwise across their course. He used very little exertion, relying on the tide to carry us to our goal. Suddenly the motion ceased. A dark slope loomed up out of the night, and the dinghy rested softly in a shallow eddy.
'The West Hohenhrn,' said Davies. We jumped out and sank into soft mud, hauled up the dinghy a foot or two, then mounted the bank and were on hard, wet sand. The wind leapt on us, and choked our voices.
'Let's find my channel,' bawled Davies. 'This way. Keep Neuerk light right astern of you.'
We set off with a long, stooping stride in the teeth of the wind, and straight towards the roar of the breakers on the farther side of the sand. A line of Matthew Arnold's, 'The naked shingles of the world,' was running in my head. 'Seven miles from land,' I thought, 'scuttling like sea-birds on a transient islet of sand, encircled by rushing tides and hammered by ocean, at midnight in a rising gale—cut off even from our one dubious refuge.' It was the time, if ever, to conquer weakness. A mad gaiety surged through me as I drank the wind and pressed forward. It seemed but a minute or two and Davies clutched me.
'Look out!' he shouted. 'It's my channel.'
The ground sloped down, and a rushing river glimmered before us. We struck off at a tangent and followed its course to the north, stumbling in muddy rifts, slipping on seaweed, beginning to be blinded by a fine salt spray, and deafened by the thunder of the ocean surf. The river broadened, whitened, roughened. gathered itself for the shock, was shattered, and dissolved in milky gloom. We wheeled away to the right, and splashed into yeasty froth. I turned my back to the wind, scooped the brine out of my eyes, faced back and saw that our path was barred by a welter of surf. Davies's voice was in my ear and his arm was pointing seaward.
'This—is—about where—I—bumped first—worse then nor'-west wind—this—is—nothing. Let's—go—right—round.'
We galloped away with the wind behind us, skirting the line of surf. I lost all account of time and direction. Another sea barred our road, became another river as we slanted along its shore. Again we were in the teeth of that intoxicating wind. Then a point of light was swaying and flickering away to the left, and now we were checking and circling. I stumbled against something sharp—the dinghy's gunwale. So we had completed the circuit of our fugitive domain, that dream-island—nightmare island as I always remember it.
'You must scull, too,' said Davies. 'It's blowing hard now. Keep her nose up a little—all you know!'
We lurched along, my scull sometimes buried to the thwart, sometimes striking at the bubbles of a wave top. Davies, in the bows, said 'Pull!' or 'Steady!' at intervals. I heard the scud smacking against his oilskin back. Then a wan, yellow light glanced over the waves. 'Easy! Let her come!' and the bowsprit of the Dulcibella, swollen to spectral proportions, was stabbing the darkness above me. 'Back a bit! Two good strokes. Ship your scull! Now jump!' I clawed at the tossing hull and landed in a heap. Davies followed with the painter, and the dinghy swept astern.
'She's riding beautifully now,' said he, when he had secured the painter. 'There'll be no rolling on the flood, and it's nearly low water.'
I don't think I should have cared, however much she had rolled. I was finally cured of funk.
It was well that I was, for to be pitched out of your bunk on to wet oil-cloth is a disheartening beginning to a day. This happened about eight o'clock. The yacht was pitching violently, and I crawled on all fours into the cabin, where Davies was setting out breakfast on the floor.
'I let you sleep on,' he said; 'we can't do anything till the water falls. We should never get the anchor up in this sea. Come and have a look round. It's clearing now,' he went on, when we were crouching low on deck, gripping cleats for safety. 'Wind's veered to nor'-west. It's been blowing a full gale, and the sea is at its worst now—near high water. You'll never see worse than this.'
I was prepared for what I saw—the stormy sea for leagues around, and a chaos of breakers where our dream-island had stood—and took it quietly, even with a sort of elation. The Dulcibella faced the storm as doggedly as ever, plunging her bowsprit into the sea and flinging green water over her bows. A wave of confidence and affection for her welled through me. I had been used to resent the weight and bulk of her unwieldy anchor and cable, but I saw their use now; varnish, paint, spotless decks, and snowy sails were foppish absurdities of a hateful past.
'What can we do to-day?' I asked.
'We must keep well inside the banks and be precious careful wherever there's a swell. It's rampant in here, you see, in spite of the barrier of sand. But there's plenty we can do farther back.'
We breakfasted in horrible discomfort; then smoked and talked till the roar of the breakers dwindled. At the first sign of bare sand we got under way, under mizzen and head-sails only, and I learned how to sail a reluctant anchor out of the ground. Pivoting round, we scudded east before the wind, over the ground we had traversed the evening before, while an archipelago of new banks slowly shouldered up above the fast weakening waves. We trod delicately among and around them, sounding and observing; heaving to where space permitted, and sometimes using the dinghy. I began to see where the risks lay in this sort of navigation. Wherever the ocean swell penetrated, or the wind blew straight down a long deep channel, we had to be very cautious and leave good margins. 'That's the sort of place you mustn't ground on,' Davies used to say.
In the end we traversed the Steil Sand again, but by a different swatchway, and anchored, after an arduous day, in a notch on its eastern limit, just clear of the swell that rolled in from the turbulent estuary of the Elbe. The night was fair, and when the tide receded we lay perfectly still, the fresh wind only sending a lip-lip of ripples against our sides.
13 The Meaning of our Work
NOTHING happened during the next ten days to disturb us at our work. During every hour of daylight and many of darkness, sailing or anchored, aground or afloat, in rain and shine, wind and calm, we studied the bed of the estuaries, and practised ourselves in threading the network of channels; holding no communication with the land and rarely approaching it. It was a life of toil, exposure, and peril; a struggle against odds, too; for wild autumnal weather was the rule, with the wind backing and veering between the south-west and north-west, and only for two placid days blowing gently from the east, the safe quarter for this region. Its force and direction determined each fresh choice of ground. If it was high and northerly we explored the inner fastnesses; in moderate intervals the exterior fringe, darting when surprised into whatever lair was most convenient.
Sometimes we were tramping vast solitudes of sand, sometimes scudding across ephemeral tracts of shallow sea. Again, we were creeping gingerly round the deeper arteries that surround the Great Knecht, examining their convolutions as it were the veins of a living tissue, and the circulation of the tide throbbing through them like blood. Again, we would be staggering through the tide-rips and overfalls that infest the open fairway of the Weser on our passage between the Fork and the Pike. On one of our fine days I saw the scene of Davies's original adventure by daylight with the banks dry and the channels manifest. The reader has seen it on the chart, and can, up to a point, form his opinion; I can only add that I realized by ocular proof that no more fatal trap could have been devised for an innocent stranger; for approaching it from the north-west under the easiest conditions it was hard enough to verify our true course. In a period so full of new excitements it is not easy for me to say when we were hardest put to it, especially as it was a rule with Davies never to admit that we were in any danger at all. But I think that our ugliest experience was on the 10th. when, owing to some minute miscalculation, we stranded in a dangerous spot. Mere stranding, of course, was all in the day's work; the constantly recurring question being when and where to court or risk it. This time we were so situated that when the rising tide came again we were on a lee shore, broadside on to a gale of wind which was sending a nasty sea—with a three-mile drift to give it force—down Robin's Balje, which is one of the deeper arteries I spoke of above, and now lay dead to windward of us. The climax came about ten o'clock at night. 'We can do nothing till she floats,' said Davies; and I can see him now quietly smoking and splicing a chafed warp while he explained that her double skin of teak fitted her to stand anything in reason. She certainly had a terrific test that night, for the bottom was hard, unyielding sand, on which she rose and fell with convulsive vehemence. The last half-hour was for me one of almost intolerable tension. I spent it on deck unable to bear the suspense below. Sheets of driven sea flew bodily over the hull, and a score of times I thought she must succumb as she shivered to the blows of her keel on the sand. But those stout skins knit by honest labour stood the trial. One final thud and she wrenched herself bodily free, found her anchor, and rode clear.
On the whole I think we made few mistakes. Davies had a supreme aptitude for the work. Every hour, sometimes every minute, brought its problem, and his resource never failed. The stiffer it was the cooler he became. He had, too, that intuition which is independent of acquired skill, and is at the root of all genius; which, to take cases analogous to his own, is the last quality of the perfect guide or scout. I believe he could smell sand where he could not see or touch it.
As for me, the sea has never been my element, and never will be; nevertheless, I hardened to the life, grew salt, tough, and tolerably alert. As a soldier learns more in a week of war than in years of parades and pipeclay, so, cut off from all distractions, moving from bivouac to precarious bivouac, and depending, to some extent, for my life on my muscles and wits, I rapidly learnt my work and gained a certain dexterity. I knew my ropes in the dark, could beat economically to windward through squalls, take bearings, and estimate the interaction of wind and tide.
We were generally in solitude, but occasionally we met galliots like the Johannes tacking through the sands, and once or twice we found a fleet of such boats anchored in a gut, waiting for water. Their draught, loaded, was from six to seven feet, our own only four, without our centre-plate, but we took their mean draught as the standard of all our observations. That is, we set ourselves to ascertain when and how a vessel drawing six and a half feet could navigate the sands.
A word more as to our motive. It was Davies's conviction, as I have said, that the whole region would in war be an ideal hunting-ground for small free-lance marauders, and I began to know he was right; for look at the three sea-roads through the sands to Hamburg, Bremen, Wilhelmshaven, and the heart of commercial Germany. They are like highways piercing a mountainous district by defiles, where a handful of desperate men can arrest an army.
Follow the parallel of a war on land. People your mountains with a daring and resourceful race, who possess an intimate knowledge of every track and bridle-path, who operate in small bands, travel light, and move rapidly. See what an immense advantage such guerillas possess over an enemy which clings to beaten tracks, moves in large bodies, slowly, and does not 'know the country'. See how they can not only inflict disasters on a foe who vastly overmatches them in strength, but can prolong a semi-passive resistance long after all decisive battles have been fought. See, too, how the strong invader can only conquer his elusive antagonists by learning their methods, studying the country, and matching them in mobility and cunning. The parallel must not be pressed too far; but that this sort of warfare will have its counterpart on the sea is a truth which cannot be questioned.
Davies in his enthusiasm set no limits to its importance. The small boat in shallow waters played a mighty rle in his vision of a naval war, a part that would grow in importance as the war developed and reach its height in the final stages.
'The heavy battle fleets are all very well,' he used to say, 'but if the sides are well matched there might be nothing left of them after a few months of war. They might destroy one another mutually, leaving as nominal conqueror an admiral with scarcely a battleship to bless himself with. It's then that the true struggle will set in; and it's then that anything that will float will be pressed into the service, and anybody who can steer a boat, knows his waters, and doesn't care the toss of a coin for his life, will have magnificent opportunities. It cuts both ways. What small boats can do in these waters is plain enough; but take our own case. Say we're beaten on the high seas by a coalition. There's then a risk of starvation or invasion. It's all rot what they talk about instant surrender. We can live on half rations, recuperate, and build; but we must have time. Meanwhile our coast and ports are in danger, for the millions we sink in forts and mines won't carry us far. They're fixed—pure passive defence. What you want is boats—mosquitoes with stings—swarms of them—patrol-boats, scout-boats, torpedo-boats; intelligent irregulars manned by local men, with a pretty free hand to play their own game. And what a splendid game to play! There are places very like this over there—nothing half so good, but similar—the Mersey estuary, the Dee, the Severn, the Wash, and, best of all, the Thames, with all the Kent, Essex, and Suffolk banks round it. But as for defending our coasts in the way I mean—we've nothing ready—nothing whatsoever! We don't even build or use small torpedo-boats. These fast "destroyers" are no good for this work—too long and unmanageable, and most of them too deep. What you want is something strong and simple, of light draught, and with only a spar-torpedo, if it came to that. Tugs, launches, small yachts—anything would do at a pinch, for success would depend on intelligence, not on brute force or complicated mechanism. They'd get wiped out often, but what matter? There'd be no lack of the right sort of men for them if the thing was organized. But where are the men?
'Or, suppose we have the best of it on the high seas, and have to attack or blockade a coast like this, which is sand from end to end. You can't improvise people who are at home in such waters. The navy chaps don't learn it, though, by Jove! they're the most magnificent service in the world—in pluck, and nerve, and everything else. They'll try anything, and often do the impossible. But their boats are deep, and they get little practice in this sort of thing.'
Davies never pushed home his argument here; but I know that it was the passionate wish of his heart, somehow and somewhere, to get a chance of turning his knowledge of this coast to practical account in the war that he felt was bound to come, to play that 'splendid game' in this, the most fascinating field for it.
I can do no more than sketch his views. Hearing them as I did, with the very splash of the surf and the bubble of the tides in my ears, they made a profound impression on me, and gave me the very zeal for our work he, by temperament, possessed.
But as the days passed and nothing occurred to disturb us, I felt more and more strongly that, as regards our quest, we were on the wrong tack. We found nothing suspicious, nothing that suggested a really adequate motive for Dollmann's treachery. 1 became impatient, and was for pushing on more quickly westward. Davies still clung to his theory, but the same feeling influenced him.
'It's something to do with these channels in the sand,' he persisted, 'but I'm afraid, as you say, we haven't got at the heart of the mystery. Nobody seems to care a rap what we do. We haven't done the estuaries as well as I should like, but we'd better push on to the islands. It's exactly the same sort of work, and just as important, I believe. We're bound to get a clue soon.'
There was also the question of time, for me at least. I was due to be back in London, unless I obtained an extension, on the 28th, and our present rate of progress was slow. But I cannot conscientiously say that I made a serious point of this. If there was any value in our enterprise at all, official duty pales beside it. The machinery of State would not suffer from my absence; excuses would have to be made, and the results braved.
All the time our sturdy little craft grew shabbier and more weather-worn, the varnish thinner, the decks greyer, the sails dingier, and the cabin roof more murky where stove-fumes stained it. But the only beauty she ever possessed, that of perfect fitness for her functions, remained. With nothing to compare her to she became a home to me. My joints adapted themselves to her crabbed limits, my tastes and habits to her plain domestic economy.
But oil and water were running low, and the time had come for us to be forced to land and renew our stock.
14 The First Night in the Islands
A LOW line of sandhills, pink and fawn in the setting sun, at one end of them a little white village huddled round the base of a massive four-square lighthouse—such was Wangeroog, the easternmost of the Frisian Islands, as I saw it on the evening of 15th October. We had decided to make it our first landing-place; and since it possesses no harbour, and is hedged by a mile of sand at low water, we had run in on the rising tide till the yacht grounded, in order to save ourselves as much labour as possible in the carriage to and fro of the heavy water-breakers and oil-cans which we had to replenish. In faint outline three miles to the south of us was the flat plain of Friesland, broken only by some trees, a windmill or two, and a church spire. Between, the shallow expanse of sea was already beginning to shrink away into lagoons, chief among which was the narrow passage by which we had approached from the east. This continued its course west, directly parallel to the island, and in it, at a distance of half a mile from us, three galliots lay at anchor.
Before supper was over the yacht was high and dry, and when we had eaten, Davies loaded himself with cans and breakers. I was for taking my share, but he induced me to stay aboard; for I was dead tired after an unusually long and trying day, which had begun at 2 a.m., when, using a precious instalment of east wind, we had started on a complete passage of the sands from the Elbe to the Jade. It was a barely possible feat for a boat of our low speed to perform in only two tides; and though we just succeeded, it was only by dint of tireless vigilance and severe physical strain.
'Lay out the anchor when you've had a smoke,' said Davies, and keep an eye on the riding-light; it's my only guide back.'
He lowered himself, and I heard the scrunch of his sea-boots as he disappeared in the darkness. It was a fine starry night, with a touch of frost in the air. I lit a cigar, and stretched myself on a sofa close to the glow of the stove. The cigar soon languished and dropped, and I dozed uneasily, for the riding-light was on my mind. I got up once and squinted at it through the half-raised skylight, saw it burning steadily, and lay down again. The cabin lamp wanted oil and was dying down to a red-hot wick, but I was too drowsy to attend to it, and it went out. I lit my cigar stump again, and tried to keep awake by thinking. It was the first time I and Davies had been separated for so long; yet so used had we grown to freedom from interference that this would not have disturbed me in the least were it not for a sudden presentiment that on this first night of the second stage of our labours something would happen. All at once I heard a sound outside, a splashing footstep as of a man stepping in a puddle. I was wide awake in an instant, but never thought of shouting 'Is that you, Davies?' for I knew in a flash that it was not he. It was the slip of a stealthy man. Presently I heard another footstep—the pad of a boot on the sand—this time close to my ear, just outside the hull; then some more, fainter and farther aft. I gently rose and peered aft through the skylight. A glimmer of light, reflected from below, was wavering over the mizzen-mast and bumpkin; it had nothing to do with the riding-light, which hung on the forestay. My prowler, I understood, had struck a match and was reading the name on the stern. How much farther would his curiosity carry him? The match went out, and footsteps were audible again. Then a strong, guttural voice called in German, 'Yacht ahoy!' I kept silence. 'Yacht ahoy!' a little louder this time. A pause, and then a vibration of the hull as boots scraped on it and hands grasped the gunwale. My visitor was on deck. I bobbed down, sat on the sofa, and I heard him moving along the deck, quickly and confidently, first forward to the bows, where he stopped, then back to the companion amidships. Inside the cabin it was pitch dark, but I heard his boots on the ladder, feeling for the steps. In another moment he would be in the doorway lighting his second match. Surely it was darker than before? There had been a little glow from the riding-lamp reflected on to the skylight, but it had disappeared. I looked up, realized, and made a fool of myself. In a few seconds more I should have seen my visitor face to face, perhaps had an interview: but I was new to this sort of work and lost my head. All I thought of was Davies's last words, and saw him astray on the sands, with no light to guide him back, the tide rising, and a heavy load. I started up involuntarily, bumped against the table, and set the stove jingling. A long step and a grab at the ladder, but just too late! I grasped something damp and greasy, there was tugging and hard breathing, and I was left clasping a big sea-boot, whose owner I heard jump on to the sand and run. I scrambled out, vaulted overboard, and followed blindly by the sound. He had doubled round the bows of the yacht, and I did the same, ducked under the bowsprit, forgetting the bobstay, and fell violently on my head, with all the wind knocked out of me by a wire rope and block whose strength and bulk was one of the glories of the Dulcibella. I struggled on as soon as I got some breath, but my invisible quarry was far ahead. I pulled off my heavy boots, carried them, and ran in my stockings, promptly cutting my foot on some cockle-shells. Pursuit was hopeless, and a final stumble over a bit of driftwood sent me sprawling with agony in my toes.
Limping back, I decided that I had made a very poor beginning as an active adventurer. I had gained nothing, and lost a great deal of breath and skin, and did not even know for certain where I was. The yacht's light was extinguished, and, even with Wangeroog Lighthouse to guide me, I found it no easy matter to find her. She had no anchor out, if the tide rose. And how was Davies to find her? After much feeble circling I took to lying flat at intervals in the hopes of seeing her silhouetted against the starry sky. This plan succeeded at last, and with relief and humility I boarded her, relit the riding-light, and carried off the kedge anchor. The strange boot lay at the foot of the ladder, but it told no tales when I examined it. It was eleven o'clock, past low water. Davies was cutting it fine if he was to get aboard without the dinghy's help. But eventually he reappeared in the most prosaic way, exhausted with his heavy load, but full of talk about his visit ashore. He began while we were still on deck.
'Look here, we ought to have settled more about what we're to say when we're asked questions. I chose a quiet-looking shop, but it turned out to be a sort of inn, where they were drinking pink gin—all very friendly, as usual, and I found myself under a fire of questions. I said we were on our way back to England. There was the usual rot about the smallness of the boat, etc. It struck me that we should want some other pretence for going so slow and stopping to explore, so I had to bring in the ducks, though goodness knows we don't want to waste time over them. The subject wasn't quite a success. They said it was too early—jealous, I suppose; but then two fellows spoke up, and asked to be taken on to help. Said they would bring their punt; without local help we should do no good. All true enough, no doubt, but what a nuisance they'd be. I got out of it—'
'It's just as well you did,' I interposed. 'We shall never be able to leave the boat by herself. I believe we're watched,' and I related my experience.
'H'm! It's a pity you didn't see who it was. Confound that bob-stay!' (his tactful way of reflecting on my clumsiness); 'which way did he run?' I pointed vaguely into the west. 'Not towards the island? I wonder if it's someone off one of those galliots. There are three anchored in the channel over there; you can see their lights. You didn't hear a boat pulling off?'
I explained that I had been a miserable failure as a detective.
'You've done jolly well, I think,' said Davies. 'If you had shouted when you first heard him we should know less still. And we've got a boot, which may come in useful. Anchor out all right? Let's get below.'
We smoked and talked till the new flood, lapping softly round the Dulcibella, raised her without a jar.
Of course, I argued, there might be nothing in it. The visitor might have been a commonplace thief; an apparently deserted yacht was a tempting bait. Davies scouted this possibility from the first.
'They're not like that in Germany,' he said. 'In Holland, if you like, they'll do anything. And I don't like that turning out of the lantern to gain time, if we were away.'
Nor did I. In spite of my blundering in details, I welcomed the incident as the first concrete proof that the object of our quest was no mare's nest. The next point was what was the visitor's object? If to search, what would he have found?
'The charts, of course, with all our corrections and notes, and the log. They'd give us away,' was Davies's instant conclusion. Not having his faith in the channel theory, I was lukewarm about his precious charts.
'After all, we're doing nothing wrong, as you've often said yourself,' I said.
Still, as a true index to our mode of life they were the only things on board that could possibly compromise us or suggest that we were anything more than eccentric young Englishmen cruising for sport (witness the duck guns) and pleasure. We had two sets of charts, German and English. The former we decided to use in practice, and to hide, together with the log, if occasion demanded. My diary, I resolved, should never leave my person. Then there were the naval books. Davies scanned them with a look I knew well.
'There are too many of them,' he said, in the tone of a cook fixing the fate of superfluous kittens. 'Let's throw them overboard. They're very old anyhow, and I know them by heart.'
'Well, not here!' I protested, for he was laying greedy hands on the shelf; 'they'll be found at low water. In fact, I should leave them as they are. You had them when you were here before, and Dollmann knows you had them. If you return without them, it will look queer.' They were spared.
The English charts, being relatively useless, though more suitable to our rle as English yachtsmen, were to be left in evidence, as shining proofs of our innocence. It was all delightfully casual, I could not help thinking. A seven-ton yacht does not abound in (dry) hiding-places, and we were helpless against a drastic search. If there were secrets on this coast to guard, and we were suspected as spies, there was nothing to prevent an official visit and warning. There need be no prowlers scuttling off when alarmed, unless indeed it was thought wisest to let well alone, if we were harmless, and not to arouse suspicions where there were none. Here we lost ourselves in conjecture. Whose agent was the prowler? If Dollmann's, did Dollmann know now that the Dulcibella was safe, and back in the region he had expelled her from? If so, was he likely to return to the policy of violence? We found ourselves both glancing at the duck guns strung up under the racks, and then we both laughed and looked foolish. 'A war of wits, and not of duck guns,' I opined. 'Let's look at the chart.'
The reader is already familiar with the general aspect of this singular region, and I need only remind him that the mainland is that district of Prussia which is known as East Friesland. It is a [See Map B] short, flat-topped peninsula, bounded on the west by the Ems estuary and beyond that by Holland, and on the east by the Jade estuary; a low-lying country, containing great tracts of marsh and heath, and few towns of any size; on the north side none. Seven islands lie off the coast. All, except Borkum, which is round, are attenuated strips, slightly crescent-shaped, rarely more than a mile broad, and tapering at the ends; in length averaging about six miles, from Norderney and Juist, which are seven and nine respectively, to little Baltrum, which is only two and a half.
Of the shoal spaces which lie between them and the mainland, two-thirds dry at low-water, and the remaining third becomes a system of lagoons whose distribution is controlled by the natural drift of the North Sea as it forces its way through the intervals between the islands. Each of these intervals resembles the bar of a river, and is obstructed by dangerous banks, over which the sea pours at every tide scooping out a deep pool. This fans out and ramifies to east and west as the pent-up current frees itself, encircles the islands, and spreads over the intervening flats. But the farther it penetrates the less coursing force it has, and as a result no island is girt completely by a low-water channel. About midway at the back of each of them is a 'watershed', only covered for five or six hours out of the twelve. A boat, even of the lightest draught, navigating behind the islands must choose its moment for passing these. As to navigability, the North Sea Pilot sums up the matter in these dry terms: 'The channels dividing these islands from each other and the shore afford to the small craft of the country the means of communication between the Ems and the Jade, to which description of vessels only they are available.' The islands are dismissed with a brief note or two about beacons and lights.
The more I looked at the chart the more puzzled I became. The islands were evidently mere sandbanks. with a cluster of houses and a church on each, the only hint of animation in their desolate ensemble being the occasional word 'Bade-strand', suggesting that they were visited in the summer months by a handful of townsfolk for the sea-bathing. Norderney, of course, was conspicuous in this respect; but even its town, which I know by repute as a gay and fashionable watering-place, would be dead and empty for some months in the year, and could have no commercial importance. No man could do anything on the mainland coast—a monotonous line of dyke punctuated at intervals by an infinitesimal village. Glancing idly at the names of these villages, I noticed that they most of them ended in siel—a repulsive termination, that seemed appropriate to the whole region. There were Carolinensiel, Bensersiel, etc. Siel means either a sewer or a sluice, the latter probably in this case, for I noticed that each village stood at the outlet of a little stream which evidently carried off the drainage of the lowlands behind. A sluice, or lock, would be necessary at the mouth, for at high tide the land is below the level of the sea. Looking next at the sands outside, I noticed that across them and towards each outlet a line of booms was marked, showing that there was some sort of tidal approach to the village, evidently formed by the scour of the little stream.
'Are we going to explore those?' I asked Davies.
'I don't see the use,' he answered; 'they only lead to those potty little places. I suppose local galliots use them.'
'How about your torpedo-boats and patrol-boats?'
'They might, at certain tides. But I can't see what value they'd be, unless as a refuge for a German boat in the last resort. They lead to no harbours. Wait! There's a little notch in the dyke at Neuharlingersiel and Dornumersiel, which may mean some sort of a quay arrangement, but what's the use of that?'
'We may as well visit one or two, I suppose?'
'I suppose so; but we don't want to be playing round villages. There's heaps of really important work to do, farther out.'
'Well, what do you make of this coast?'
Davies had nothing but the same old theory, but he urged it with a force and keenness that impressed me more deeply than ever.
'Look at those islands!' he said. 'They're clearly the old line of coast, hammered into breaches by the sea. The space behind them is like an immense tidal harbour, thirty miles by five, and they screen it impenetrably. It's absolutely made for shallow war-boats under skilled pilotage. They can nip in and out of the gaps, and dodge about from end to end. On one side is the Ems, on the other the big estuaries. It's a perfect base for torpedo-craft.'
I agreed (and agree still), but still I shrugged my shoulders.
'We go on exploring, then, in the same way?'
'Yes; keeping a sharp look-out, though. Remember, we shall always be in sight of land now.'
'What's the glass doing?'
'Higher than for a long time. I hope it won't bring fog. I know this district is famous for fogs, and fine weather at this time of the year is bad for them anywhere. I would rather it blew, if it wasn't for exploring those gaps, where an on-shore wind would be nasty. Six-thirty to-morrow; not later. I think I'll sleep in the saloon for the future, after what happened to-night.'
[For this chapter see Map B.]
THE decisive incidents of our cruise were now fast approaching. Looking back on the steps that led to them, and anxious that the reader should be wholly with us in our point of view, I think I cannot do better than give extracts from my diary of the next three days:
'16th Oct._ (up at 6.30, yacht high and dry). Of the three galliots out at anchor in the channel yesterday, only one is left ... I took my turn with the breakers this morning and walked to Wangeroog, whose village I found half lost in sand drifts, which are planted with tufts of marram-grass in mathematical rows, to give stability and prevent a catastrophe like that at Pompeii. A friendly grocer told me all there is to know, which is little. The islands are what we thought them—barren for the most part, with a small fishing population, and a scanty accession of summer visitors for bathing. The season is over now, and business slack for him. There is still, however, a little trade with the mainland in galliots and lighters, a few of which come from the "siels" on the mainland. "Had these harbours?" I asked. "Mud-holes!" he replied, with a contemptuous laugh. (He is a settler in these wilds, not a native.) Said he had heard of schemes for improving them, so as to develop the islands as health-resorts, but thought it was only a wild speculation.
'A heavy tramp back to the yacht, nearly crushed by impedimenta. While Davies made yet another trip, I stalked some birds with a gun, and obtained what resembled a specimen of the smallest variety of jack-snipe, and small at that; but I made a great noise, which I hope persuaded somebody of the purity of our motives.
'We weighed anchor at one o'clock, and in passing the anchored galliot took a good look at her. Kormoran was on her stern; otherwise she was just like a hundred others. Nobody was on deck.
'We spent the whole afternoon till dark exploring the Harle, or gap between Wangeroog and Spiekeroog; the sea breaking heavily on the banks outside ... Fine as the day was, the scene from the offing was desolate to the last degree. The naked spots of the two islands are hideous in their sterility: melancholy bits of wreck-wood their only relief, save for one or two grotesque beacons, and, most bizarre of all, a great church-tower, standing actually in the water, on the north side of Wangeroog, a striking witness to the encroachment of the sea. On the mainland, which was barely visible, there was one very prominent landmark, a spire, which from the chart we took to be that of Esens, a town four miles inland.
'The days are growing short. Sunset is soon after five, and an hour later it is too dark to see booms and buoys distinctly. The tides also are awkward just now.
(I exclude all the technicalities that I can, but the reader should take note that the tide-table is very important henceforward.)
'High-water at morning and evening is between five and six—just at twilight. For the night, we groped with the lead into the Muschel Balge, the tributary channel which laps round the inside of Spiekeroog, and lay in two fathoms, clear of the outer swell, but rolling a little when the ebb set in strong against the wind.
'A galliot passed us, going west, just as we were stowing sails; too dark to see her name. Later, we saw her anchor-light higher up our channel.
'The great event of the day has been the sighting of a small German gunboat, steaming slowly west along the coast. That was about half-past four, when we were sounding along the Harle.
'Davies identified her at once as the Blitz, Commander von Brning's gunboat. We wondered if he recognized the Dulcibella, but, anyway, she seemed to take no notice of us and steamed slowly on. We quite expected to fall in with her when we came to the islands, but the actual sight of her has excited us a good deal. She is an ugly, cranky little vessel, painted grey, with one funnel. Davis is contemptuous about her low freeboard forward; says he would rather go to sea in the Dulce. He has her dimensions and armament (learnt from Brassey) at his fingers' ends: one hundred and forty feet by twenty-five, one 4.9 gun, one 3.4, and four maxims—an old type. Just going to bed; a bitterly cold night.
'17th Oct._—Glass falling heavily this morning, to our great disgust. Wind back in the SW and much warmer. Starting at _5.30_ we tacked on the tide over the "water-shed" behind Spiekeroog. So did the galliot we had seen last night, but we again missed identifying her, as she weighed anchor before we came up to her berth. Davies, however, swore she was the Kormoran. We lost sight of her altogether for the greater part of the day, which we spent in exploring the Otzumer Ee (the gap between Langeoog and Spiekeroog), now and then firing some perfunctory shots at seals and sea-birds... (nautical details omitted). . . In the evening we were hurrying back to an inside anchorage, when we made a bad mistake; did, in fact, what we had never done before, ran aground on the very top of high water, and are now sitting hard and fast on the edge of the Rute Flat, south of the east spit of Langeoog. The light was bad, and a misplaced boom tricked us; kedging-off failed, and at 8 p.m. we were left on a perfect Ararat of sand, and only a yard or two from that accursed boom, which is perched on the very summit, as a lure to the unwary. It is going to blow hard too, though that is no great matter, as we are sheltered by banks on the sou'-west and nor'-west sides, the likely quarters. We hope to float at _6.15_ to-morrow morning, but to make sure of being able to get her off, we have been transferring some ballast to the dinghy, by way of lightening the yacht—a horrid business handling the pigs of lead, heavy, greasy, and black. The saloon is an inferno, the deck like a collier's, and ourselves like sweeps.
'The anchors are laid out, and there is nothing more to be done.
'18th Oct._—Half a gale from the sou'-west when we turned out, but it helped us to float off safely at six. The dinghy was very nearly swamped with the weight of lead in it, and getting the ballast back into the yacht was the toughest job of all. We got the dinghy alongside, and Davies jumped in (nearly sinking it for good), balanced himself, fended off, and, whenever he got a chance, attached the pigs one by one on to a bight of rope, secured to the peak halyards, on which I hoisted from the deck. It was touch and go for a few minutes, and then easier.
'It was nine before we had finished replacing the pigs in the hold, a filthy but delicate operation, as they fit like a puzzle, and if one is out of place the floor-boards won't shut down. Coming on deck after it, we saw to our surprise the Blitz, lying at anchor in the Schill Balje, inside Spiekeroog, about a mile and a half off. She must have entered the Otzumer Ee at high-water for shelter from the gale: a neat bit of work for a vessel of her size, as Davies says she draws nine-foot-ten, and there can't be more than twelve on the bar at high-water neaps. Several smacks had run in too, and there were two galliots farther up our channel, but we couldn't make out if the Kormoran was one.