27 The Luck of the Stowaway
AT Esens Station I reversed my Norden tactics, jumped out smartly, and got to the door of egress first of all, gave up my ticket, and hung about the gate of the station under cover of darkness. Fortune smiled still; there was no vehicle in waiting at all, and there were only half a dozen passengers. Two of these were the cloaked gentlemen who had been so nearly left behind at Norden, and another was von Brning. The latter walked well in advance of the first pair, but at the gate on to the high road the three showed a common purpose, in that, unlike the rest, who turned towards Esens town, they turned southwards; much to my perplexity, for this was the contrary direction to Bensersiel and the sea. I, with my bundle on my shoulder, had been bringing up the rear, and, as their faithful shadow, turned to the right too, without foreseeing the consequence. When it was too late to turn back I saw that, fifty yards ahead, the road was barred by the gates of a level crossing, and that the four of us must inevitably accumulate at the barrier till the train had steamed away. This, in fact, happened, and for a minute or two we were all in a group, elaborately indifferent to one another, silent, but I am sure very conscious. As for me, 'secret laughter tickled all my soul'. When the gates were opened the three seemed disposed to lag, so I tactfully took my cue, trudged briskly on ahead, and stopped after a few minutes to listen. Hearing nothing I went cautiously back and found that they had disappeared; in which direction was not long in doubt, for I came on a grassy path leading into the fields on the left or west of the road, and though I could see no one I heard the distant murmur of receding voices.
I took my bearings collectedly, placed one foot on the path, thought better of it, and turned back towards Esens. I knew without reference to the map that that path would bring them to the Benser Tief at a point somewhere near the timber-yard. In a fog I might have followed them there; as it was, the night was none too dark, and I had my strength to husband; and stamped on my memory were the words 'the tide serves'. I judged it a wiser use of time and sinew to anticipate them at Bensersiel by the shortest road, leaving them to reach it by way of the devious Tief, to examine which was, I felt convinced, one of their objects.
It was nine o'clock of a fresh wild night, a halo round the beclouded moon. I passed through quiet Esens, and in an hour I was close to Bensersiel, and could hear the sea. In the rooted idea that I should find Grimm on the outskirts, awaiting visitors, I left the road short of the village, and made a circuit to the harbour by way of the sea-wall. The lower windows of the inn shed a warm glow into the night, and within I could see the village circle gathered over cards, and dominated as of old by the assertive little postmaster, whose high-pitched, excitable voice I could clearly distinguish, as he sat with his cap on the back of his head and a 'feine schnapps' at his elbow. The harbour itself looked exactly the same as I remembered it a week ago. The post-boat lay in her old berth at the eastern jetty, her mainsail set and her twin giants spitting over the rail. I hailed them boldly from the shore (without showing them who I was), and was told they were starting for Langeoog in a few minutes; the wind was off-shore, the mails aboard, and the water just high enough. 'Did I want a passage?' 'No, I thought I would wait.' Positive that my party could never have got here so soon, I nevertheless kept an eye on the galliot till she let go her stern-rope and slid away. One contingency was eliminated. Some loiterers dispersed, and all port business appeared to be ended for the night.
Three-quarters of an hour of strained suspense ensued. Most of it I spent on my knees in a dark angle between the dyke and the western jetty, whence I had a strategic survey of the basin; but I was driven at times to relieve inaction by sallies which increased in audacity. I scouted on the road beyond the bridge, hovered round the lock, and peered in at the inn parlour; but nowhere could I see a trace of Grimm. I examined every floating object in the harbour (they were very few), dropped on to two lighters and pried under tarpaulins, boarded a deserted tug and two or three clumsy rowboats tied up to a mooring-post. Only one of these had the look of readiness, the rest being devoid of oars and rowlocks; a discouraging state of things for a prospective boat-lifter. It was the sight of these rowboats that suggested a last and most distracting possibility, namely, that the boat in waiting, if boat there were, might be not in the harbour at all, but somewhere on the sands outside the dyke, where, at this high state of the tide, it would have water and to spare. Back to the dyke then; but as I peered seaward on the way, contingencies evaporated and a solid fact supervened, for I saw the lights of a steamboat approaching the harbour mouth. I had barely time to gain my coign of vantage before she had swept in between the piers, and with a fitful swizzling of her screw was turning and backing down to a berth just ahead of one of the lighters, and not fifty feet from my hiding-place. A deck-hand jumped ashore with a rope, while the man at the wheel gave gruff directions. The vessel was a small tug, and the man at the wheel disclosed his identity when, having rung off his engines, he jumped ashore also, looked at his watch in the beam of the sidelight, and walked towards the village. It was Grimm, by the height and build—Grimm clad in a long tarpaulin coat and a sou'wester. I watched him cross the shaft of light from the inn window and disappear in the direction of the canal.
Another sailor now appeared and helped his fellow to tie up the tug. The two together then went aft and began to set about some job whose nature I could not determine. To emerge was perilous, so I set about a job of my own, tearing open my bundle and pulling an oilskin jacket and trousers over my clothes, and discarding my peaked cap for a sou'-wester. This operation was prompted instantaneously by the garb of two sailors, who in hauling on the forward warp came into the field of the mast-head light.
It was something of a gymnastic masterpiece, since I was lying—or, rather, standing aslant—on the rough sea-wall, with crannies of brick for foothold and the water plashing below me; but then I had not lived in the Dulcibella for nothing. My chain of thought, I fancy, was this—the tug is to carry my party; I cannot shadow a tug in a rowboat, yet I intend to shadow my party; I must therefore go with them in the tug, and the first and soundest step is to mimic her crew. But the next step was a hard matter, for the crew having finished their job sat side by side on the bulwarks and lit their pipes. However, a little pantomime soon occurred, as amusing as it was inspiriting. They seemed to consult together, looking from the tug to the inn and from the inn to the tug. One of them walked a few paces inn-wards and beckoned to the other, who in his turn called something down the engine-room skylight, and then joined his mate in a scuttle to the inn. Even while I watched the pantomime I was sliding off my boots, and it had not been consummated a second before I had them in my arms and was tripping over the mud in my stocking feet. A dozen noiseless steps and I was over the bulwarks between the wheel and the smoke-stack, casting about for a hiding-place. The conventional stowaway hides in the hold, but there was only a stokehold here, occupied moreover; nor was there an empty apple-barrel, such as Jim of Treasure Island found so useful. As far as I could see—and I dared not venture far for fear of the skylight—the surface of the deck offered nothing secure. But on the farther or starboard side, rather abaft the beam, there was a small boat in davits, swung outboard, to which common sense, and perhaps a vague prescience of its after utility, pointed irresistibly. In any case, discrimination was out of place, so I mounted the bulwark and gently entered my refuge. The tackles creaked a trifle, oars and seats impeded me; but well before the thirsty truants had returned I was settled on the floor boards between two thwarts, so placed that I could, if necessary, peep over the gunwale.
The two sailors returned at a run, and very soon after voices approached, and I recognized that of Herr Schenkel chattering volubly. He and Grimm boarded the tug and went down a companion-way aft, near which, as I peeped over, I saw a second skylight, no bigger than the Dulcibella's, illuminated from below. Then I heard a cork drawn, and the kiss of glasses, and in a minute or two they re-emerged. It was apparent that Herr Schenkel was inclined to stay and make merry, and that Grimm was anxious to get rid of him, and none too courteous in showing it. The former urged that to-morrow's tide would do, the latter gave orders to cast off, and at length observed with an angry oath that the water was falling, and he must start; and, to clinch matters, with a curt good-night, he went to the wheel and rang up his engines. Herr Schenkel landed and strutted off in high dudgeon, while the tug's screw began to revolve. We had only glided a few yards on when the engines stopped, a short blast of the whistle sounded, and, before I had had time to recast the future, I heard a scurry of footsteps from the direction of the dyke, first on the bank, next on the deck. The last of these new arrivals panted audibly as he got aboard and dropped on the planks with an unelastic thud.
Her complement made up, the tug left the harbour, but not alone. While slowly gathering way the hull checked all at once with a sharp jerk, recovered, and increased its speed. We had something in tow—what? The lighter, of course, that had been lying astern of us.
Now I knew what was in that lighter, because I had been to see, half an hour ago. It was no lethal cargo, but coal, common household coal; not a full load of it, I remembered—just a good-sized mound amidships, trimmed with battens fore and aft to prevent shifting. 'Well,' thought I, 'this is intelligible enough. Grimm was ostensibly there to call for a load of coal for Memmert. But does that mean we are going to Memmert?' At the same time I recalled a phrase overheard at the depot, 'Only one—half a load.' Why half a load?
For some few minutes there was a good deal of movement on deck, and of orders shouted by Grimm and answered by a voice from far astern on the lighter. Presently, however, the tug warmed to her work, the hull vibrated with energy, and an ordered peace reigned on board. I also realized that having issued from the boomed channel we had turned westward, for the wind, which had been blowing us fair, now blew strongly over the port beam.
I peeped out of my eyrie and was satisfied in a moment that as long as I made no noise, and observed proper prudence, I was perfectly safe until the boat was wanted. There were no deck lamps; the two skylights diffused but a sickly radiance, and I was abaft the side-lights. I was abaft the wheel also, though thrillingly near it in point of distance—about twelve feet, I should say; and Grimm was steering. The wheel, I should mention here, was raised, as you often see them, on a sort of pulpit, approached by two or three steps and fenced by a breasthigh arc of boarding. Only one of the crew was visible, and he was acting as look-out in the extreme bows, the rays of the masthead lights—for a second had been hoisted in sign of towage—glistening on his oilskin back. The other man, I concluded, was steering the lighter, which I could dimly locate by the pale foam at her bow.
And the passengers? They were all together aft, three of them, leaning over the taffrail, with their backs turned to me. One was short and stout—Bhme unquestionably; the panting and the thud on the planks had prepared me for that, though where he had sprung from I did not know. Two were tall, and one of these must be von Brning. There ought to be four, I reckoned; but three were all I could see. And what of the third? It must be he who 'insists on coming', the unknown superior at whose instance and for whose behoof this secret expedition had been planned. And who could he be? Many times, needless to say, I had asked myself that question, but never till now, when I had found the rendezvous and joined the expedition, did it become one of burning import.
'Any weather' was another of those stored-up phrases that were apropos. It was a dirty, squally night, not very cold, for the wind still hung in the S.S.W.—an off-shore wind on this coast, causing no appreciable sea on the shoal spaces we were traversing. In the matter of our bearings, I set myself doggedly to overcome that paralysing perplexity, always induced in me by night or fog in these intricate waters; and, by screwing round and round, succeeded so far as to discover and identify two flashing lights—one alternately red and white, far and faint astern; the other right ahead and rather stronger, giving white flashes only. The first and least familiar was, I made out, from the lighthouse on Wangeroog; the second, well known to me as our beacon star in the race from Memmert, was the light on the centre of Norderney Island, about ten miles away.
I had no accurate idea of the time, for I could not see my watch, but I thought we must have started about a quarter past eleven. We were travelling fast, the funnel belching out smoke and the bow-wave curling high; for the tug appeared to be a powerful little craft, and her load was comparatively light.
So much for the general situation. As for my own predicament, I was in no mood to brood on the hazards of this mad adventure, a hundredfold more hazardous than my fog-smothered eavesdropping at Memmert. The crisis, I knew, had come, and the reckless impudence that had brought me here must serve me still and extricate me. Fortune loves rough wooing. I backed my luck and watched.
The behaviour of the passengers struck me as odd. They remained in a row at the taffrail, gazing astern like regretful emigrants, and sometimes, gesticulating and pointing. Now no vestige of the low land was visible, so I was driven to the conclusion that it was the lighter they were discussing; and I date my awakening from the moment that I realized this. But the thread broke prematurely; for the passengers took to pacing the deck, and I had to lie low. When next I was able to raise my head they were round Grimm at the wheel, engaged, as far as I could discover from their gestures, in an argument about our course and the time, for Grimm looked at his watch by the light of a hand-lantern.
We were heading north, and I knew by the swell that we must be near the Accumer Ee, the gap between Langeoog and Baltrum. Were we going out to open sea? It came over me with a rush that we must, if we were to drop this lighter at Memmert. Had I been Davies I should have been quicker to seize certain rigid conditions of this cruise, which no human power could modify. We had left after high tide. The water therefore was falling everywhere; and the tributary channels in rear of the islands were slowly growing impassable. It was quite thirty miles to Memmert, with three watersheds to pass; behind Baltrum, Norderney, and Juist. A skipper with nerve and perfect confidence might take us over one of these in the dark, but most of the run would infallibly have to be made outside. I now better understood the protests of Herr Schenkel to Grimm. Never once had we seen a lighter in tow in the open sea, though plenty behind the barrier of islands; indeed it was the very existence of the sheltered byways that created such traffic as there was. It was only Grimm's mtier and the incubus of the lighter that had suggested Memmert as our destination at all, and I began to doubt it now. That tricky hoop of sand had befooled us before.
At this moment, and as if to corroborate my thought, the telegraph rang and the tug slowed down. I effaced myself and heard Grimm shouting to the man on the lighter to starboard his helm, and to the look-out to come aft. The next order froze my very marrow; it was 'lower away'. Someone was at the davits of my boat fingering the tackles; the forward fall-rope actually slipped in the block and tilted the boat a fraction. I was just wondering how far it was to swim to Langeoog, when a strong, imperious voice (unknown to me) rang out, 'No, no! We don't want the boat. The swell's nothing; we can jump! Can't we, Bhme?' The speaker ended with a jovial laugh. 'Mercy!' thought I, 'are they going to swim to Langeoog?' but I also gasped for relief. The tug rolled lifelessly in the swell for a little, and footsteps retreated aft. There were cries of 'Achtung!' and some laughter, one big bump and a good deal of grinding; and on we moved again, taking the strain of the tow-rope gingerly, and then full-speed ahead. The passengers, it seemed, preferred the lighter to the tug for cruising in; coal-dust and exposure to clean planks and a warm cuddy. When silence reigned again I peeped out. Grimm was at the wheel still, impassively twirling the spokes, with a glance over his shoulder at his precious freight. And, after all, we were going outside.
Close on the port hand lay a black foam-girt shape, the east of spit Baltrum. It fused with the night, while we swung slowly round to windward over the troubled bar. Now we were in the spacious deeps of the North Sea; and feeling it too in increase of swell and volleys of spray.
At this point evolutions began. Grimm gave the wheel up to the look-out, and himself went to the taffrail, whence he roared back orders of 'Port!' or 'Starboard!' in response to signals from the lighter. We made one complete circle, steering on each point of the wind in succession, after that worked straight out to sea till the water was a good deal rougher, and back again at a tangent, till in earshot of the surf on the island beach. There the manoeuvres, which were clearly in the nature of a trial trip, ended. and we hove to, to transship our passengers. They, when they came aboard, went straight below, and Grimm, having steadied the tug on a settled course and entrusted the wheel to the sailor again, stripped off his dripping oilskin coat, threw it down on the cabin skylight, and followed them. The course he had set was about west, with Norderney light a couple of points off the port bow. The course for Memmert? Possibly; but I cared not, for my mind was far from Memmert to-night. It was the course for England too. Yes, I understood at last. I was assisting at an experimental rehearsal of a great scene, to be enacted, perhaps, in the near future—a scene when multitudes of seagoing lighters, carrying full loads of soldiers, not half loads of coals, should issue simultaneously, in seven ordered fleets, from seven shallow outlets, and, under escort of the Imperial Navy, traverse the North Sea and throw themselves bodily upon English shores.
Indulgent reader, you may be pleased to say that I have been very obtuse; and yet, with humility, I protest against that verdict. Remember that, recent as are the events I am describing, it is only since they happened that the possibility of an invasion of England by Germany has become a topic of public discussion. Davies and I had never—I was going to say had never considered it; but that would not be accurate, for we had glanced at it once or twice; and if any single incident in his or our joint cruise had provided a semblance of confirmation, he, at any rate, would have kindled to that spark. But you will see how perversely from first to last circumstances drove us deeper and deeper into the wrong groove, till the idea became inveterate that the secret we were seeking was one of defence and not offence. Hence a complete mental somersault was required, and, as an amateur, I found it difficult; the more so that the method of invasion, as I darkly comprehended it now, was of such a strange and unprecedented character; for orthodox invasions start from big ports and involve a fleet of ocean transports, while none of our clues pointed that way. To neglect obvious methods, to draw on the obscure resources of an obscure strip of coast, to improve and exploit a quantity of insignificant streams and tidal outlets, and thence, screened by the islands, to despatch an armada of light-draught barges, capable of flinging themselves on a correspondingly obscure and therefore unexpected portion of the enemy's coast; that was a conception so daring, aye, and so quixotic in some of its aspects, that even now I was half incredulous. Yet it must be the true one. Bit by bit the fragments of the puzzle fell into order till a coherent whole was adumbrated. [The reader will find the whole matter dealt with in the Epilogue.]
The tug surged on into the night; a squall of rain leapt upon us and swept hissing astern. Baltrum vanished and the strands of Norderney beamed under transient moonlight. Drunk with triumph, I cuddled in my rocking cradle and ransacked every unvisited chamber of the memory, tossing out their dusty contents, to make a joyous bonfire of some, and to see the residue take life and meaning in the light of the great revelation.
My reverie was of things, not persons; of vast national issues rather than of the poignant human interests so closely linked with them. But on a sudden I was recalled, with a shock, to myself, Davies, and the present.
We were changing our course, as I knew by variations in the whirl of draughts which whistled about me. I heard Grimm afoot again, and, choosing my moment, surveyed the scene. Broad on the port-beam were the garish lights of Norderney town and promenade, and the tug, I perceived, was drawing in to enter the See-Gat. [See Chart B.]
Round she came, hustling through the broken water of the bar, till her nose was south and the wind was on the starboard bow. Not a mile from me were the villa and the yacht, and the three persons of the drama—three, that is, if Davies were safe.
Were we to land at Norderney harbour? Heavens, what a magnificent climax!—if only I could rise to it. My work here was done. At a stroke to rejoin Davies and be free to consummate our designs!
A desperate idea of cutting the davit-tackles—I blush to think of the stupidity—was rejected as soon as it was born, and instead, I endeavoured to imagine our approach to the pier. My boat hung on the starboard side; that would be the side away from the quay, and the tide would be low. I could swarm down the davits during the stir of arrival, drop into the sea and swim the few yards across the dredged-out channel, wade through the mud to within a short distance of the Dulcibella, and swim the rest. I rubbed the salt out of my eyes and wriggled my cramped legs ... Hullo! why was Grimm leaving the helm again? Back he went to the cabin, leaving the sailor at the helm. . . We ought to be turning to port now; but no—on we went, south, for the mainland.
Though one plan was frustrated, the longing to get to Davies, once implanted, waxed apace.
Our destination was at last beyond dispute. [See Chart.] The channel we were in was the same that we had cut across on our blind voyage to Memmert, and the same my ferry-steamer had followed two days ago. It was a cul-de-sac leading to one place only, the landing stage at Norddeich. The only place on the whole coast, now I came to think of it, where the tug could land at this tide. There the quay would be on the starboard side, and I saw myself tied to my eyrie while the passengers landed and the tug and lighter turned back for Memmert; at Memmert, dawn, and discovery.
There was some way out—some way out, I repeated to myself; some way to reap the fruit of Davies's long tutelage in the lore of this strange region. What would he do?
For answer there came the familiar frou-frou of gentle surf on drying sands. The swell was dying away, the channel narrowing; dusky and weird on the starboard hand stretched leagues of new-risen sand. Two men only were on deck; the moon was quenched under the vanguard clouds of a fresh squall.
A madcap scheme danced before me. The time, I must know the time! Crouching low and cloaking the flame with my jacket I struck a match; 2.30 a.m.—the tide had been ebbing for about three hours and a half. Low water about five; they would be aground till 7.30. Danger to life? None. Flares and rescuers? Not likely, with 'him who insists' on board; besides, no one could come, there being no danger. I should have a fair wind and a fair tide for my trip. Grimm's coat was on the skylight; we were both clean shaved.
The helmsman gazed ahead, intent on his difficult course, and the wind howled to perfection. I knelt up and examined one of the davit-tackles. There was nothing remarkable about it, a double and a single block (like our own peak halyards), the lower one hooked into a ring in the boat, the hauling part made fast to a cleat on the davit itself. Something there must be to give lateral support or the boat would have racketed abroad in the roll outside. The support, I found, consisted of two lanyards spliced to the davits and rove through holes in the keel. These I leaned over and cut with my pocket-knife; the result being a barely perceptible swaying of the boat, for the tug was under the lee of sands and on an even keel. Then I left my hiding-place, climbing out of the stern sheets by the after-davit, and preparing every successive motion with exquisite tenderness, till I stood on the deck. In another moment I was at the cabin skylight, lifting Grimm's long oilskin coat. (A second's yielding to temptation here; but no, the skylight was ground glass, fastened from below. So, on with the coat, up with the collar, and forward to the wheel on tiptoe.) As soon as I was up to the engine-room skylight (that is to say, well ahead of the cabin roof) I assumed a natural step, went up to the pulpit and touched the helmsman on the arm, as I had seen Grimm do. The man stepped aside, grunting something about a light, and I took the wheel from him. Grimm was a man of few words, so I just jogged his satellite, and pointed forward. He went off like a lamb to his customary place in the bows, not having dreamt—why should he?—of examining me, but in him I had instantly recognized one of the crew of the Kormoran.
My ruse developed in all its delicious simplicity. We were, I estimated, about half-way to Norddeich, in the Buse Tief, a channel of a navigable breadth, at the utmost of two hundred yards at this period of the tide. Two faint lights, one above the other, twinkled far ahead. What they meant I neither knew nor cared, since the only use I put them to was to test the effect of the wheel, for this was the first time I had ever tasted the sweets of command on a steamboat. A few cautious essays taught me the rudiments, and nothing could hinder the catastrophe now.
I edged over to starboard—that was the side I had selected—and again a little more, till the glistening back of the look-out gave a slight movement; but he was a well-drilled minion, with implicit trust in the 'old man'. Now, hard over! and spoke by spoke I gave her the full pressure of the helm. The look-out shouted a warning, and I raised my arm in calm acknowledgement. A cry came from the lighter, and I remember I was just thinking 'What the dickens'll happen to her?' when the end came; a euthanasia so mild and gradual (for the sands are fringed with mud) that the disaster was on us before I was aware of it. There was just the tiniest premonitory shuddering as our keel clove the buttery medium, a cascade of ripples from either beam, and the wheel jammed to rigidity in my hands, as the tug nestled up to her resting-place.
In the scene of panic that followed, it is safe to say that I was the only soul on board who acted with methodical tranquillity. The look-out flew astern like an arrow, bawling to the lighter. Grimm, with the passengers tumbling up after him, was on deck in an instant, storming and cursing; flung himself on the wheel which I had respectfully abandoned, jangled the telegraph, and wrenched at the spokes. The tug listed over under the force of the tide; wind, darkness, and rain aggravated the confusion.
For my part, I stepped back behind the smoke stack, threw off my robe of office, and made for the boat. Long and bitter experience of running aground had told me that that was sure to be wanted. On the way I cannoned into one of the passengers and pressed him into my service; incidentally seeing his face, and verifying an old conjecture. It was one who, in Germany. has a better right to insist than anyone else.
As we reached the davits there was a report like a pistol-shot from the port-side—the tow-rope parting, I believe, as the lighter with her shallower draught swung on past the tug. Fresh tumult arose, in which I heard: 'Lower the boat,' from Grimm; but the order was already executed. My ally the Passenger and I had each cast off a tackle, and slacked away with a run; that done, I promptly clutched the wire guy to steady myself, and tumbled in. (It was not far to tumble, for the tug listed heavily to starboard; think of our course, and the set of the ebb stream, and you will see why.) The forward fall unhooked sweetly; but the after one lost play. 'Slack away,' I called, peremptorily, and felt for my knife. My helper above obeyed; the hook yielded; I filliped away the loose tackle, and the boat floated away.
28 We Achieve our Double Aim
WHEN, exactly, the atmosphere of misunderstanding on the stranded tug was dissipated, I do not know, for by the time I had fitted the rowlocks and shipped sculls, tide and wind had caught me, and were sweeping me merrily back on the road to Norderney, whose lights twinkled through the scud in the north. With my first few strokes I made towards the lighter—which I could see sagging helplessly to leeward—but as soon as I thought I was out of sight of the tug, I pulled round and worked out my own salvation. There was an outburst of shouting which soon died away. Full speed. on a falling tide! They were pinned there for five hours sure. It was impossible to miss the way, and with my stout allies heaving me forward, I made short work of the two-mile passage. There was a sharp tussle at the last, where the Riff-Gat poured its stream across my path, and then I was craning over my shoulder, God knows with what tense anxiety, for the low hull and taper mast of the Dulcibella, Not there! No, not where I had left her. I pulled furiously up the harbour past a sleeping ferry-steamer and—praise Heaven!—came on her warped alongside the jetty.
'Who's that?' came from below, as I stepped on board.
'Hush! it's me.' And Davies and I were pawing one another in the dark of the cabin.
'Are you all right, old chap?' said he.
'Yes; are you? A match! What's the time? Quick!'
'Good Heavens, Carruthers, what the blazes have you done to yourself?' (I suspect I cut a pretty figure after my two days' outing.)
'Ten past three. It's the invasion of England! Is Dollmann at the villa?'
'Is Dollmann at the villa?'
'Is the Medusa afloat?'
'No, on the mud.'
'The devil! Are we afloat?'
'I think so still, but they made me shift.'
'Think! Track her out! Pole her out! Cut those warps!'
For a few strenuous minutes we toiled at the sweeps till the Dulcibella was berthed ahead of the steamer, in deeper water. Meanwhile I had whispered a few facts.
'How soon can you get under way?' I asked.
'Sunrise about seven, first dawn about five. Where are we bound?'
'Holland, or England.'
'Are they invading it now?' said Davies, calmly.
'No, only rehearsing!' I laughed, wildly.
'Then we can wait.'
'We can wait exactly an hour and a half. Come ashore and knock up Dollmann; we must denounce him, and get them both aboard; it's now or never. Holy Saints! man, not as you are!' (He was in pyjamas.) 'Sea clothes!'
While he put on Christian attire, I resumed my facts and sketched a plan. 'Are you watched?' I asked.
'I think so; by the Kormoran's men.'
'Is the Kormoran here?'
'Not to-night. Grimm called for them in that tug. I was watching. And, Carruthers. the Blitz is here.'
'In the roads outside—didn't you see her?'
'Wasn't looking. Her skipper's safe anyway; so's Bhme, so's the Tertium Quid, and so are the Kormoran's men. The coast's clear—it's now or never.'
Once more we were traversing the long jetty and the silent streets, rain driving at our backs. We trod on air, I think; I remember no fatigue. Davies sometimes broke into a little run, muttering 'scoundrel' to himself.
'I was right—only upside down,' he murmured more than once. 'Always really right—those channels are the key to the whole concern. Chatham, our only eastern base—no North Sea base or squadron—they'd land at one of those God-forsaken flats off the Crouch and Blackwater.'
'It seems a wild scheme,' I observed.
'Wild? In a way. So is any invasion. But it's thorough; it's German. No other country could do it. It's all dawning on me—by Jove! It will be at the Wash—much the nearest, and as sandy as this side.'
'How's Dollmann been?' I asked.
'Polite, but queer and jumpy. It's too long a story.'
'She's_ all right. By Jove! Carruthers—never mind.'
We found a night-bell at the villa door and rang it lustily. A window aloft opened, and 'A message from Commander von Brning—urgent,' I called up.
The window shut, and soon after the hall was lighted and the door opened by Dollmann in a dressing-gown.
'Good morning, Lieutenant X—,' I said, in English. 'Stop, we're friends, you fool!' as the door was flung nearly to. It opened very slowly again, and we walked in.
'Silence!' he hissed. The sweat stood on his steep forehead and a hectic flush on either cheek, but there was a smile—what a smile!—on his lips. Motioning us to tread noiselessly (a vain ideal for me), he led the way to the sitting-room we knew, switched on the light, and faced us.
'Well?' he said, in English, still smiling.
I consulted my watch, and I may say that if my hand was an index to my general appearance, I must have looked the most abject ruffian under heaven.
'We probably understand one another,' I said, 'and to explain is to lose time. We sail for Holland, or perhaps England, at five at the latest, and we want the pleasure of your company. We promise you immunity—on certain conditions, which can wait. We have only two berths, so that we can only accommodate Miss Clara besides yourself.' He smiled on through this terse harangue, but the smile froze, as though beneath it raged some crucial debate. Suddenly he laughed (a low, ironical laugh).
'You fools,' he said, 'you confounded meddlesome young idiots; I thought I had done with you. Promise me immunity? Give me till five? By God, I'll give you five minutes to be off to England and be damned to you, or else to be locked up for spies! What the devil do you take me for?'
'A traitor in German service,' said Davies, none too firmly, We were both taken aback by this slashing attack.
'A tr—? You pig-headed young marplots! I'm in British service! You're wrecking the work of years—and on the very threshold of success.'
For an instant Davies and I looked at one another in stupefaction. He lied—I could swear he lied; but how make sure?
'Why did you try to wreck Davies?' said I, mechanically.
'Pshaw! They made me clear him out. I knew he was safe, and safe he is.'
There was only one thing for it—a last finesse, to put him to the proof.
'Very well,' I said, after a moment or two, 'we'll clear out—silence, Davies!—as it appears we have acted in error; but it's right to tell you that we know everything.'
'Not so loud, curse you! What do you know?'
'I was taking notes at Memmert the other night.'
'Thanks to Davies. Under difficulties, of course, but I heard quite enough. You were reporting your English tour—Chatham, you know, and the English scheme of attack, a mythical one, no doubt, as you're on the right side! Bhme and the rest were dealing with the German scheme of defence A to G—I heard it all—the seven islands and the seven channels between them (Davies knows every one of them by heart); and then on land, the ring of railway, Esens the centre, the army corps to mobilize and entrench—all nugatory, wasted, ha! ha!—as you're on the rights—'
'Not so loud, you fiend of mischief!' He turned his back, and made an irresolute pace or two towards the door, his hands kneading the folds of his dressing-gown as they had kneaded the curtain at Memmert. Twice he began a question and twice broke off. 'I congratulate you, gentlemen,' he said, finally, and with more composure, facing us again, 'you have done marvels in your misplaced zeal; but you have compromised me too much already. I shall have to have you arrested—purely for form's sake—'
'Thank you,' I broke in. 'We have wasted five minutes, and time presses. We sail at five, and—purely for form's sake—would rather have you with us.'
'What do you mean?' he snarled.
'I had the advantage of you at Memmert, in spite of acoustic obstacles. Your friends made an appointment behind your back, and I, in my misplaced zeal, have taken some trouble to attend it; so that I've had a working demonstration on another matter, the invasion of England from the seven siels.' (Davies nudged me.) 'No, I should let that pistol alone; and no, I wouldn't ring the bell. You can arrest us if you like, but the secret's in safe hands.'
'You lie!' He was right there; but he could not know it.
'Do you suppose I haven't taken that precaution? But no names are mentioned.' He gave a sort of groan, sank into a chair, and seemed to age and grizzle before our very eyes.
'What did you say about immunity, and Clara?' he muttered. 'We're friends—we're friends!' burst out Davies, with a gulp in his voice. 'We want to help you both.' (Through a sudden mist that filmed my eyes I saw him impetuously walk over and lay his hand on the other's shoulder.) 'Those chaps are on our track and yours. Come with us. Wake her, tell her. It'll be too late soon.'
X— shrank from his touch. 'Tell her? I can't tell her. You tell her, boy.' He was huddling back into his chair. Davies turned to me.
'Where's her room?' I said, sharply.
'Above this one.'
'Go up, Carruthers,' said Davies.
'Not I—I shall frighten her into a fit.'
'I don't like to.'
'Nonsense, man! We'll both go then.'
'Don't make a noise,' said a dazed voice. We left that huddled figure and stole upstairs—thickly carpeted stairs, luckily. The door we wanted was half open, and the room behind it lighted. On the threshold stood a slim white figure, bare-footed; barethroated.
'What is it, father?' she called in a whisper. 'Whom have you been talking to?' I pushed Davies forward, but he hung back.
'Hush, don't be frightened,' I said, 'it's I, Carruthers, and Davies—and Davies. May we come in, just for one moment?'
I gently widened the opening of the door, while she stepped back and put one hand to her throat.
'Please come to your father,' I said. 'We are going to take you both to England in the Dulcibella—now, at once.'
She had heard me, but her eyes wandered to Davies.
'I understand not,' she faltered, trembling and cowering in such touching bewilderment that I could not bear to look at her.
'For God's sake, say something, Davies,' I muttered.
'Clara!' said Davies, 'will you not trust us?'
I heard a little gasp from her. There was a flutter of lace and cambric and she was in his arms, sobbing like a tired child, her little white feet between his great clumsy sea-boots—her rose-brown cheek on his rough jersey.
'It's past four, old chap,' I remarked, brutally. 'I'm going down to him again. No packing to speak of, mind. They must be out of this in half an hour.' I stumbled awkwardly on the stairs (again that tiresome film!) and found him stuffing some papers pell-mell into the stove. There were only slumbering embers in it, but he did not seem to notice that. 'You must be dressed in half an hour,' I said, furtively pocketing a pistol which lay on the table.
'Have you told her? Take her to England, you two boys. I think I'll stay.' He sank into a chair again.
'Nonsense, she won't go without you. You must, for her sake—in half an hour, too.'
I prefer to pass that half-hour lightly over. Davies left before me to prepare the yacht for sea, and I had to bear the brunt of what followed, including (as a mere episode) a scene with the step-mother, the memory of which rankles in me yet. After all, she was a sensible woman.
As for the other two, the girl when I saw her next, in her short boating skirt and tam-o'-shanter, was a miracle of coolness and pluck. But for her 1 should never have got him away. And ah! how good it was to be out in the wholesome rain again, hurrying to the harbour with my two charges, hurrying them down the greasy ladder to that frail atom of English soil, their first guerdon of home and safety.
Our flight from the harbour was unmolested, unnoticed. Only the first ghastly evidences of dawn were mingling with the strangled moonlight, as we tacked round the pier-head and headed close-reefed down the Riff-Gat on the lees of the ebb-tide. We had to pass under the very quarter of the Blitz, so Davies said; for, of course, he alone was on deck till we reached the open sea. Day was breaking then. It was dead low water, and, far away to the south, between dun swathes of sand, I thought I saw—but probably it was only a fancy—two black stranded specks. Rail awash, and decks streaming, we took the outer swell and clawed close-hauled under the lee of Juist, westward, hurrying westward.
'Up the Ems on the flood, and to Dutch Delfzyl,' I urged. No, thought Davies; it was too near Germany, and there was a tidal cut through from Buse Tief. Better to dodge in behind Rottum Island. So on we pressed, past Memmert, over the Juister Reef and the Corinne's buried millions, across the two broad and yeasty mouths of the Ems, till Rottum, a wee lonesome wafer of an islet, the first of the Dutch archipelago, was close on the weather-bow.
'We must get in behind that,' said Davies, 'then we shall be safe; I think I know the way, but get the next chart; and then take a rest, old chap. Clara and I can manage.' (She had been on deck most of the time, as capable a hand as you could wish for, better far than I in my present state of exhaustion.) I crawled along the slippery sloping planks and went below.
'Where are we?' cried Dollmann, starting up from the lee sofa, where he seemed to have been lying in a sort of trance. A book, his own book, slipped from his knees, and I saw the frontispiece lying on the floor in a pool of oil; for the stove had gone adrift, and the saloon was in a wretched state of squalor and litter.
'Off Rottum,' I said, and knelt up to find the chart. There was a look in his eyes that I suppose I ought to have understood, but I can scarcely blame myself, for the accumulated strain, not only of the last three days and nights, but of the whole arduous month of my cruise with Davies, was beginning to tell on me, now that safety and success were at hand. I handed up the chart through the companion, and then crept into the reeling fo'c'sle and lay down on the spare sail-bags, with the thunder and thump of the seas around and above me.
I must quote Davies for the event that happened now; for by the time I had responded to the alarm and climbed up through the fore-hatch, the whole tragedy was over and done with.
'X— came up the companion,' he says, 'soon after you went down. He held on by the runner, and stared to windward at Rottum, as though he knew the place quite well. And then he came towards us, moving so unsteadily that I gave Clara the tiller, and went to help him. I tried to make him go down again, but he wouldn't, and came aft.
"'Give me the helm," he said, half to himself. "Sea's too bad outside—there's a short cut here."
"'Thanks," I said, "I know this one." (I don't think I meant to be sarcastic.) He said nothing, and settled himself on the counter behind us, safe enough, with his feet against the lee-rail, and then, to my astonishment, began to talk over my shoulder jolly sensibly about the course, pointing out a buoy which is wrong on the chart (as I knew), and telling me it was wrong, and so on. Well, we came to the bar of the Schild, and had to turn south for that twisty bit of beating between Rottum and Bosch Flat. Clara was at the jib-sheet, I had the chart and the tiller (you know how absent I get like that); there was a bobble of sea, and we both had heaps to do, and—well—I happened to look round, and he was gone. He hadn't spoken for a minute or two, but I believe the last thing I heard him say (I was hardly attending at the time, for we were in the thick of it) was something about a "short cut" again. He must have slipped over quietly ... He had an ulster and big boots on.'
We cruised about for a time, but never found him.
That evening, after threading the maze of shoals between the Dutch mainland and islands, we anchored off the little hamlet of Ostmahorn, [See Map A] gave the yacht in charge of some astonished fishermen, and thence by road and rail, hurrying still, gained Harlingen, and took passage on a steamer to London. From that point our personal history is of no concern to the outside world, and here, therefore, I bring this narrative to an end.
BY THE EDITOR
[For this chapter see Map A.]
AN interesting document, somewhat damaged by fire, lies on my study table.
It is a copy (in cipher) of a confidential memorandum to the German Government embodying a scheme for the invasion of England by Germany. It is unsigned, but internal evidence, and the fact that it was taken by Mr 'Carruthers' from the stove of the villa at Norderney, leave no doubt as to its authorship. For many reasons it is out of the question to print the textual translation of it, as deciphered; but I propose to give an outline of its contents.
Even this must strain discretion to its uttermost limits, and had I only to consider the instructed few who follow the trend of professional opinion on such subjects, I should leave the foregoing narrative to speak for itself. But, as was stated in the preface, our primary purpose is to reach everyone; and there may be many who, in spite of able and authoritative warnings frequently uttered since these events occurred, are still prone to treat the German danger as an idle 'bogey', and may be disposed, in this case, to imagine that a baseless romance has been foisted on them.
A few persons (English as well as German) hold that Germany is strong enough now to meet us single-handed, and throw an army on our shores. The memorandum rejects this view, deferring isolated action for at least a decade; and supposing, for present purposes, a coalition of three Powers against Great Britain. And subsequent researches through the usual channels place it beyond dispute that this condition was relied on by the German Government in adopting the scheme. They realized that even if, owing to our widely scattered forces, they gained that temporary command of the North Sea which would be essential for a successful landing, they would inevitably lose it when our standing fleets were concentrated and our reserve ships mobilized. With its sea-communications cut, the prospects of the invading army would be too dubious. I state it in that mild way, for it seems not to have been held that failure was absolutely certain; and rightly, I think, in spite of the dogmas of the strategists—for the ease transcends all experience. No man can calculate the effect on our delicate economic fabric of a well-timed, well-planned blow at the industrial heart of the kingdom, the great northern and midland towns, with their teeming populations of peaceful wage-earners. In this instance, however, joint action (the occasion for which is perhaps not difficult to guess) was distinctly contemplated, and Germany's rle in the coalition was exclusively that of invader. Her fleet was to be kept intact, and she herself to remain ostensibly neutral until the first shock was over, and our own battle-fleets either beaten, or, the much more likely event, so crippled by a hard-won victory as to be incapable of withstanding compact and unscathed forces. Then, holding the balance of power, she would strike. And the blow? It was not till I read this memorandum that I grasped the full merits of that daring scheme, under which every advantage, moral, material, and geographical, possessed by Germany, is utilized to the utmost, and every disadvantage of our own turned to account against us.
Two root principles pervade it: perfect organization; perfect secrecy. Under the first head come some general considerations. The writer (who is intimately conversant with conditions on both sides of the North Sea) argued that Germany is pre-eminently fitted to undertake an invasion of Great Britain. She has a great army (a mere fraction of which would suffice) in a state of high efficiency, but a useless weapon, as against us, unless transported over seas. She has a peculiar genius for organization, not only in elaborating minute detail, but in the grasp of a coherent whole. She knows the art of giving a brain to a machine, of transmitting power to the uttermost cog-wheel, and at the same time of concentrating responsibility in a supreme centre. She has a small navy, but very effective for its purpose, built, trained, and manned on methodical principles, for defined ends, and backed by an inexhaustible reserve of men from her maritime conscription. She studies and practises co-operation between her army and navy. Her hands are free for offence in home waters, since she has no distant network of coveted colonies and dependencies on which to dissipate her defensive energies. Finally, she is, compared with ourselves, economically independent, having commercial access through her land frontiers to the whole of Europe. She has little to lose and much to gain.
The writer pauses here to contrast our own situation, and I summarize his points. We have a small army, dispersed over the whole globe, and administered on a gravely defective system. We have no settled theory of national defence, and no competent authority whose business it is to give us one. The matter is still at the stage of civilian controversy. Co-operation between the army and navy is not studied and practised; much less do there exist any plans, worthy of the name, for the repulse of an invasion, or any readiness worth considering for the prompt equipment and direction of our home forces to meet a sudden emergency. We have a great and, in many respects, a magnificent navy, but not great enough for the interests it insures, and with equally defective institutions; not built or manned methodically, having an utterly inadequate reserve of men, all classes of which would be absorbed at the very outset, without a vestige of preparation for the enrolment of volunteers; distracted by the multiplicity of its functions in guarding our colossal empire and commerce, and conspicuously lacking a brain, not merely for the smooth control of its own unwieldy mechanism, but for the study of rival aims and systems. We have no North Sea naval base, no North Sea Fleet, and no North Sea policy. Lastly, we stand in a highly dangerous economical position.
The writer then deals with the method of invasion, and rejects the obvious one at once, that of sending forth a fleet of transports from one or more of the North Sea ports. He combats especially the idea of making Emden (the nearest to our shores) the port of departure. I mention this because, since his own scheme was adopted, it is instructive to note that Emden had been used (with caution) as a red herring by the inspired German press, when the subject was mentioned at all, and industriously dragged across the trail. His objections to the North Sea ports apply, he remarks, in reality to all schemes of invasion, whether the conditions be favourable or not. One is that secrecy is rendered impossible—and secrecy is vital. The collection of the transports would be known in England weeks before the hour was ripe for striking; for all large ports are cosmopolitan and swarm with potential spies. In Germany's case, moreover, suitable ships are none too plentiful, and the number required would entail a large deduction from her mercantile marine. The other reason concerns the actual landing. This must take place on an open part of the east coast of England. No other objective is even considered. Now the difficulty of transshipping and landing troops by boats from transports anchored in deep water, in a safe, swift, and orderly fashion, on an open beach, is enormous. The most hastily improvised resistance might cause a humiliating disaster. Yet the first stage is the most important of all. It is imperative that the invaders should seize and promptly intrench a pre-arranged line of country, to serve as an initial base. This once done, they can use other resources; they can bring up transports, land cavalry and heavy guns, pour in stores, and advance. But unless this is done, they are impotent, be their sea-communications never so secure.
The only logical alternative is then propounded: to despatch an army of infantry with the lightest type of field-guns in big sea-going lighters, towed by powerful but shallow-draught tugs, under escort of a powerful composite squadron of warships; and to fling the flotilla, at high tide, if possible, straight upon the shore.
Such an expedition could be prepared in absolute secrecy, by turning to account the natural features of the German coast. No great port was to be concerned in any way. All that was required was sufficient depth of water to float the lighters and tugs; and this is supplied by seven insignificant streams, issuing from the Frisian littoral, and already furnished with small harbours and sluice-gates, with one exception, namely, the tidal creek at Norden; for this, it appeared, was one of the chosen seven, and not, as 'Carruthers' supposed, Hilgenriedersiel, which, if you remember, he had no time to visit, and which has, in fact, no stream of any value at all, and no harbour. All of these streams would have to be improved, deepened, and generally canalized; ostensibly with a commercial end, for purposes of traffic with the islands, which are growing health resorts during a limited summer season.
The whole expedition would be organized under seven distinct sub-divisions—not too great a number in view of its cumbrous character. Seawards, the whole of the coast is veiled by the fringe of islands and the zone of shoals. Landwards, the loop of railway round the Frisian peninsula would form the line of communication in rear of the seven streams. Esens was to be the local centre of administration when the scheme grew to maturity, but not till then. Every detail for the movement of troops under the seven different heads was to be arranged for with secrecy and exactitude many months in advance, and from headquarters at Berlin. It was not expected that nothing would leak out, but care was to be taken that anything that did do so should be attributed to defensive measures—a standing feature in German mobilization being the establishment of a corps of observation along the Frisian coast; in fact, the same machinery was to be used, and its conversion for offence concealed up to the latest possible moment. The same precautions were to be taken in the preliminary work on the spot. There, four men only (it was calculated) need be in full possession of the secret. One was to represent the Imperial Navy (a post filled by our friend von Brning). Another (Bhme) was to superintend the six canals and the construction of the lighters. The functions of the third were twofold. He was to organize what I may call the local labour—that is, the helpers required for embarkation, the crews of the tugs, and, most important of all, the service of pilots for the navigation of the seven flotillas through the corresponding channels to the open sea. He must be a local man, thoroughly acquainted with the coast, of a social standing not much above the average of villagers and fishermen, and he must be ready when the time was ripe with lists of the right men for the right duties, lists to which the conscription authorities could when required, give instant legal effect. His other function was to police the coast for spies, and to report anything suspicious to von Brning, who would never be far away. On the whole I think that they found the grim Grimm a jewel for their purpose.
As fourth personage, the writer designates himself, the promoter of the scheme, the indispensable link between the two nations. He undertakes to furnish reliable information as to the disposition of troops in England, as to the hydrography of the coast selected for the landing, as to the supplies available in its vicinity, and the strategic points to be seized. He proposes to be guide-in-chief to the expedition during transit. And in the meantime (when not otherwise employed) he was to reside at Norderney, in close touch with the other three, and controlling the commercial undertakings which were to throw dust in the eyes of the curious. [Memmert, by the way, is not mentioned in this memorandum.]
He speaks of the place 'selected for the landing', and proceeds to consider this question in detail. I cannot follow him in his review, deeply interesting though it is, and shall say at once that he reduces possible landing-places to two, the flats on the Essex coast between Foulness and Brightlingsea, and the Wash—with a decided preference for the latter. Assuming that the enemy, if they got wind of an invasion at all, would expect transports to be employed, he chooses the sort of spot which they would be least likely to defend, and which, nevertheless, was suitable to the character of the flotillas, and similar to the region they started from. There is such a spot on the Lincolnshire coast, on the north side of the Wash, [See Map A] known as East Holland. It is low-lying land, dyked against the sea, and bordered like Frisia with sand-flats which dry off at low water. It is easy of access from the east, by way of Boston Deeps, a deep-water channel formed by a detached bank, called the Long Sand, lying parallel to the shore for ten miles. This bank makes a natural breakwater against the swell from the east (the only quarter to be feared); and the Deeps behind it, where there is an average depth of thirty-four feet at low-water, would form an excellent roadstead for the covering squadron, whose guns would command the shore within easy range. It is noted in passing that this is just the case where German first-class battleships would have an advantage over British ships of the same calibre. The latter are of just too heavy a draught to navigate such waters without peril, if, indeed, they could enter this roadstead at all, for there is a bar at the mouth of it with only thirty-one feet at high water, spring tides. The former, built as they were with a view to manoeuvring in the North Sea, are just within the margin of safety. East Holland is within easy striking distance of the manufacturing districts, a vigorous raid on which is, the writer urges, the true policy of an invader. He reports positively that there exist (in a proper military sense) no preparations whatever to meet such an attack. East Holland is also the nearest point on the British shores to Germany, excepting the coast of Norfolk; much nearer, indeed, than the Essex flats alluded to, and reached by a simple deep-sea passage, without any dangerous region to navigate, like the mouth of the Channel and the estuary of the Thames from Harwich westwards. The distance is 240 sea-miles, west by south roughly, from Borkum Island, and 280 from Wangeroog. The time estimated for transit after the flotillas had been assembled outside the islands is from thirty to thirty-four hours.
Embarkation is the next topic. This could and must be effected in one tide. At the six siels there was a mean period of two and a half hours in every twelve, during which the water was high enough. At Norden a rather longer time was available. But this should be amply sufficient if the machinery were in good working order and were punctually set in motion. High water occurs approximately at the same time at all seven outlets, the difference between the two farthest apart, Carolinensiel and Greetsiel, being only half an hour.
Lastly, the special risks attendant on such an expedition are dispassionately weighed. X—, though keenly anxious to recommend his scheme, writes in no blindly sanguine spirit. There are no modern precedents for any invasion in the least degree comparable to that of England by Germany. Any such attempt will be a hazardous experiment. But he argues that the advantages of his method outweigh the risks, and that most of the risks themselves would attach equally to any other method. Whatever skill in prediction was used, bad weather might overtake the expedition. Yes; but if transports were used transhipment into boats for landing would in bad weather be fraught with the same and a greater peril. But transports could stand off and wait. Delay is fatal in any case; unswerving promptitude is the essence of such an enterprise. The lighters would be in danger of foundering? Beside the point; if the end is worth gaining the risks must be faced. Soldiers' lives are sacrificed in tens of thousands on battlefields. The flotilla would be demoralized during transit by the assault of a few torpedo-boats? Granted; but the same would apply to a fleet of transports, with the added certainty that one lucky shot would send to the bottom ten times the number of soldiers, with less hope of rescue. In both cases reliance must be placed on the efficiency and vigilance of the escort. It is admitted, however, in a passage which might well make my two adventurers glow with triumph, that if by any mischance the British discovered what was afoot in good time, and were able to send over a swarm of light-draught boats, which could elude the German warships and get amongst the flotillas while they were still in process of leaving the siels; it is admitted that in that case the expedition was doomed. But it is held that such an event was not to be feared. Reckless pluck is abundant in the British Navy, but expert knowledge of the tides and shoals in these waters is utterly lacking. The British charts are of no value, and there is no evidence (he reports) that the subject has been studied in any way by the British Admiralty. Let me remark here, that I believe Mr 'Davies's' views, as expressed in the earlier chapters, when they were still among the great estuaries, are all absolutely sound. The 'channel theory', though it only bore indirectly on the grand issue before them, was true, and should be laid to heart, or I should not have wasted space on it.
One word more, in conclusion. There is an axiom, much in fashion now, that there is no fear of an invasion of the British Isles, because if we lose command of the sea, we can be starved—a cheaper and surer way of reducing us to submission. It is a loose, valueless axiom, but by sheer repetition it is becoming an article of faith. It implies that 'command of the sea' is a thing to be won or lost definitely; that we may have it to-day and lose it for ever to-morrow. On the contrary, the chances are that in anything like an even struggle the command of the sea will hang in the balance for an indefinite time. And even against great odds, it would probably be impossible for our enemies so to bar the avenues of our commerce, so to blockade the ports of our extensive coast-line, and so to overcome the interest which neutrals will have in supplying us, as to bring us to our knees in less than two years, during which time we can be recuperating and rebuilding from our unique internal resources, and endeavouring to regain command.
No; the better axiom is that nothing short of a successful invasion could finally compel us to make peace. Our hearts are stout, we hope; but facts are facts; and a successful raid, such as that here sketched, if you will think out its consequences, must appal the stoutest heart. It was checkmated, but others may be conceived. In any case, we know the way in which they look at these things in Germany.
Postscript (March 1903)
IT so happens that while this book was in the press a number of measures have been taken by the Government to counteract some of the very weaknesses and dangers which are alluded to above. A Committee of National Defence has been set up, and the welcome given to it was a truly extraordinary comment on the apathy and confusion which it is designed to supplant. A site on the Forth has been selected for a new North Sea naval base—an excellent if tardy decision; for ten years or so must elapse before the existing anchorage becomes in any sense a 'base'. A North Sea fleet has also been created—another good measure; but it should be remembered that its ships are not modern, or in the least capable of meeting the principal German squadrons under the circumstances supposed above.
Lastly, a Manning Committee has (among other matters) reported vaguely in favour of a Volunteer Reserve. There is no means of knowing what this recommendation will lead to; let us hope not to the fiasco of the last badly conceived experiment. Is it not becoming patent that the time has come for training all Englishmen systematically either for the sea or for the rifle?