'When the banks uncovered we lay more quietly, so landed and took a long, tempestuous walk over the Rute, with compass and notebooks. Returning at two, we found the glass tumbling down almost visibly.
'I suggested running for Bensersiel, one of the mainland villages south-west of us, on the evening flood, as it seemed just the right opportunity, if we were to visit one of those "siels" at all. Davies was very lukewarm, but events overcame him. At 3.30 a black, ragged cloud, appearing to trail into the very sea, brought up a terrific squall. This passed, and there was a deathly pause of ten minutes while the whole sky eddied as with smoke-wreaths. Then an icy puff struck us from the north-west, rapidly veering till it reached north-east; there it settled and grew harder every moment.
'"Sou'-west to north-east—only the worst sort do that," said Davies.
'The shift to the east changed the whole situation (as shifts often have before), making the Rute Fiats a lee shore, while to windward lay the deep lagoons of the Otzumer Ee, bounded indeed by Spiekeroog, but still offering a big drift for wind and sea. We had to clear out sharp, to set the mizzen. It was out of the question to beat to windward, for it was blowing a hurricane in a few minutes. We must go to leeward, and Davies was for running farther in well behind the Jans sand, and not risking Bensersiel. A blunder of mine, when I went to the winch to get up anchor, settled the question. Thirty out of our forty fathoms of chain were out. Confused by the motion and a blinding sleet-shower that had come on, and forgetting the tremendous strain on the cable, I cast the slack off the bitts and left it loose. There was then only one turn of the chain round the drum, enough in ordinary weather to prevent it running out. But now my first heave on the winch-lever started it slipping, and in an instant it was whizzing out of the hawse-pipe and overboard. I tried to stop it with my foot, stumbled at a heavy plunge of the yacht, heard something snap below, and saw the last of it disappear. The yacht fell off the wind, and drifted astern. I shouted, and had the sense to hoist the reefed foresail at once. Davies had her in hand in no time, and was steering south-west. Going aft I found him cool and characteristic.
'"Doesn't matter." he said; "anchor's buoyed. (Ever since leaving the Elbe we had had a buoy-line on our anchor against the emergency of having to slip our cable and run. For the same reason the end of the chain was not made permanently fast below.)
'We'll come back to-morrow and get it. Can't now. Should have had to slip it anyhow; wind and sea too strong. We'll try for Bensersiel. Can't trust to a warp and kedge out here."
'An exciting run it was, across country, so to speak, over an unboomed watershed; but we had bearings from our morning's walk. Shoal water all the way and a hollow sea breaking everywhere. We soon made out the Bensersiel booms, but even under mizzen and foresail only we travelled too fast, and had to heave to outside them, for the channel looked too shallow still. We lowered half the centre-board and kept her just holding her own to windward, through a most trying period. In the end had to run for it sooner than we meant, as we were sagging to leeward in spite of all, and the light was failing. Bore up at 5.15, and raced up the channel with the booms on our left scarcely visible in the surf and rising water. Davies stood forward, signalling—port, starboard, or steady—with his arms, while I wrestled with the helm, flung from side to side and flogged by wave-tops. Suddenly found a sort of dyke on our right just covering with sea. The shore appeared through scud, and men on a quay shouting. Davies brandished his left arm furiously; I ported hard, and we were in smoother water. A few seconds more and we were whizzing through a slit between two wood jetties. Inside a small square harbour showed, but there was no room to round up properly and no time to lower sails. Davies just threw the kedge over, and it just got a grip in time to check our momentum and save our bowsprit from the quayside. A man threw us a rope and we brought up alongside, rather bewildered.
'Not more so than the natives, who seemed to think we had dropped from the sky. They were very friendly, with an undercurrent of disappointment, having expected salvage work outside, I think. All showed embarrassing helpfulness in stowing sails, etc. We were rescued by a fussy person in uniform and spectacles, who swept them aside and announced himself as the customhouse officer (fancy such a thing in this absurd mud-hole!), marched down into the cabin, which was in a fearful mess and wringing wet, and producing ink, pen, and a huge printed form, wanted to know our cargo, our crew, our last port, our destination, our food, stores, and everything. No cargo (pleasure); captain, Davies; crew, me; last port, Brunsbttel; destination, England. What spirits had we? Whisky, produced. What salt? Tin of Cerebos, produced, and a damp deposit in a saucer. What coffee? etc. Lockers searched, guns fingered, bunks rifled. Meanwhile the German charts and the log, the damning clues to our purpose, were in full evidence, crying for notice which they did not get. (We had forgotten our precautions in the hurry of our start from the Rute.) When the huge form was as full as he could make it, he suddenly became human, talkative, amid thirsty; and, when we treated him, patronizing. It seemed to dawn on him that, under our rough clothes and crust of brine and grime, we were two mad and wealthy aristocrats, worthy protgs of a high official. He insisted on our bringing our cushions to dry at his house, and to get rid of him we consented, for we were wet, hungry, and longing to change and wash. He talked himself away at last, and we hid the log and charts; but he returned, in the postmaster's uniform this time before we had finished supper, and haled us and our cushions up through dark and mud to his cottage near the quay. To reach it we crossed a small bridge spanning what seemed to be a small river with sluice-gates, just as we had thought.
'He showed his prizes to his wife, who was quite flustered by the distinguished strangers, and received the cushions with awe; and next we were carried off to the Gasthaus and exhibited to the village circle, where we talked ducks and weather. (Nobody takes us seriously; I never felt less like a conspirator.) Our friend, who is a feather-headed chatterbox, is enormously important about his ridiculous little port, whose principal customer seems to be the Langeoog post-boat, a galliot running to and fro according to tide. A few lighters also come down the stream with bricks and produce from the interior, and are towed to the islands. The harbour has from five to seven feet in it for two hours out of twelve! Herr Schenkel talked us back to the yacht, which we found resting on the mud—and here we are. Davies pretends there are harbour smells, and says he won't be able to sleep; is already worrying about how to get away from here. Ashore, they were saying that it's impossible, under sail, in strong north-east winds, the channel being too narrow to tack in. For my part I find it a huge relief to be in any sort of harbour after a fortnight in the open. There are no tides or anchors to think about, and no bumping or rolling. Fresh milk to-morrow!'
16 Commander von Brning
TO RESUME my story in narrative form.
I was awakened at ten o'clock on the 19th, after a long and delicious sleep, by Davies's voice outside, talking his unmistakable German. Looking out, in my pyjamas, I saw him on the quay above in conversation with a man in a long mackintosh coat and a gold-laced navy cap. He had a close-trimmed auburn beard, a keen, handsome face, and an animated manner. It was raining in a raw air.
They saw me, and Davies said: 'Hullo, Carruthers! Here's Commander von Brning from the Blitz—that's "meiner Freund" Carruthers.' (Davies was deplorably weak in terminations.)
The commander smiled broadly at me, and I inclined an uncombed head, while, for a moment, the quest was a dream, and I myself felt unutterably squalid and foolish. I ducked down, heard them parting, and Davies came aboard.
'We're to meet him at the inn for a talk at twelve,' he said.
His news was that the Blitz's steam-cutter had come in on the morning tide, and he had met von Brning when marketing at the inn. Secondly, the Kormoran had also come in, and was moored close by. It was as clear as possible, therefore, that the latter had watched us, and was in touch with the Blitz, and that both had seized the opportunity of our being cooped up in Bensersiel to take further stock of us. What had passed hitherto? Nothing much. Von Brning had greeted Davies with cordial surprise, and said he had wondered yesterday if it was the Dulcibella that he had seen anchored behind Langeoog. Davies had explained that we had left the Baltic and were on our way home; taking the shelter of the islands.
'Supposing he comes on board and asks to see our log?' I said.
'Pull it out,' said Davies, 'It's rot, this hiding, after all. I say. I rather funk this interview; what are we to say? It's not in my line.'
We resolved abruptly on an important change of plan, replaced the log and charts in the rack as the first logical step. They contained nothing but bearings, courses, and the bare data of navigation. To Davies they were hard-won secrets of vital import, to be lied for, however hard and distasteful lying was. I was cooler as to their value, but in any case the same thing was now in both our minds. There would be great difficulties in the coming interview if we tried to be too clever and conceal the fact that we had been exploring. We did not know how much von Brning knew. When had our surveillance by the Kormoran begun? Apparently at Wangeroog, but possibly in the estuaries, where we had not fired a shot at duck. Perhaps he knew even more—Dollmann's treachery, Davies's escape, and our subsequent movements—we could not tell. On the other hand, exploration was known to be a fad of Davies's, and in September he had made no secret of it.
It was safer to be consistent now. After breakfast we determined to find out something about the Kormoran, which lay on the mud at the other side of the harbour, and accordingly addressed ourselves to two mighty sailors, whose jerseys bore the legend 'Post', and who towered conspicuous among a row of stolid Frisians on the quay, all gazing gravely down at us as at a curious bit of marine bric—brac. The twins (for such they proved to be) were most benignant giants, and asked us aboard the post-boat galliot for a chat. It was easy to bring the talk naturally round to the point we wished, and we soon gained some most interesting information, delivered in the broadest Frisian, but intelligible enough. They called the Kormoran a Memmert boat, or 'wreck-works' boat. It seemed that off the western end of Juist, the island lying west of Norderney, there lay the bones of a French war-vessel, wrecked ages ago. She carried bullion which has never been recovered, in spite of many efforts. A salvage company was trying for it now, and had works on Memmert, an adjacent sand-bank. 'That is Herr Grimm, the overseer himself,' they said, pointing to the bridge above the sluice-gates. (I call him 'Grimm' because it describes him exactly.) A man in a pilot jacket and peaked cap was leaning over the parapet.
'What's he doing here?' I asked.
They answered that he was often up and down the coast, work on the wreck being impossible in rough weather. They supposed he was bringing cargo in his galliot from Wilhelmshaven, all the company's plant and stores coming from that port. He was a local man from Aurich; an ex-tug skipper.
We discussed this information while walking out over the sands to see the channel at low water.
'Did you hear anything about this in September?' I asked.
'Not a word. I didn't go to Juist. I would have, probably, if I hadn't met Dollmann.'
What in the world did it mean? How did it affect our plans?
'Look at his boots if we pass him,' was all Davies had to suggest.
The channel was now a ditch, with a trickle in it, running north by east, roughly, and edged by a dyke of withies for the first quarter of a mile. It was still blowing fresh from the north-east, and we saw that exit was impossible in such a wind.
So back to the village, a paltry, bleak little place. We passed friend Grimm on the bridge; a dark, clean-shaved, saturnine man, wearing shoes. Approaching the inn:
'We haven't settled quite enough, have we?' said Davies. 'What about our future plans?'
'Heaven knows, we haven't,' I said. 'But I don't see how we can. We must see how things go. It's past twelve, and it won't do to be late.'
'Well, I leave it to you.'
'All right, I'll do my best. All you've got to do is to be yourself and tell one lie, if need be, about the trick Dollmann played you.'
The next scene: von Brning, Davies, and I, sitting over coffee and Kmmel at a table in a dingy inn-parlour overlooking the harbour and the sea, Davies with a full box of matches on the table before him. The commander gave us a hearty welcome, and I am bound to say I liked him at once, as Davies had done; but I feared him, too, for he had honest eyes, but abominably clever ones.
I had impressed on Davies to talk and question as freely and naturally as though nothing uncommon had happened since he last saw von Brning on the deck of the Medusa. He must ask about Dollmann—the mutual friend—at the outset, and, if questioned about that voyage in his company to the Elbe, must lie like a trooper as to the danger he had been in. This was the one clear and essential necessity, where much was difficult. Davies did his duty with precipitation, and blushed when he put his question, in a way that horrified me, till I remembered that his embarrassment was due, and would be ascribed, to another cause.
'Herr Dollmann is away still, I think,' said von Brning. (So Davies had been right at Brunsbttel.) 'Were you thinking of looking him up again?' he added.
'Yes,' said Davies, shortly.
'Well, I'm sure he's away. But his yacht is back, I believe—and Frulein Dollmann, I suppose.'
'H'm!' said Davies; 'she's a very fine boat that.'
Our host smiled, gazing thoughtfully at Davies, who was miserable. I saw a chance, and took it mercilessly.
'We can call on Frulein Dollmann, at least, Davies,' I said, with a meaning smile at von Brning.
'H'm!, said Davies; 'will he be back soon, do you think?'
The commander had begun to light a cigar, and took his time in answering. 'Probably,' he said, after some puffing, 'he's never away very long. But you've seen them later than I have. Didn't you sail to the Elbe together the day after I saw you last?'
'Oh, part of the way,' said Davies, with great negligence. 'I haven't seen him since. He got there first; outsailed me.'
'Gave you the slip, in fact?'
'Of course he beat me; I was close-reefed. Besides—'
'Oh, I remember; there was a heavy blow—a devil of a heavy blow. I thought of you that day. How did you manage?'
'Oh, it was a fair wind; it wasn't far, you see.'
'Grosse Gott! In that.' He nodded towards the window whence the Dulcibella's taper mast could be seen pointing demurely heavenwards.
'She's a splendid sea-boat,' said Davies, indignantly.
'A thousand pardons!' said von Brning, laughing.
'Don't shake my faith in her,' I put in. 'I've got to get to England in her.'
'Heaven forbid; I was only thinking that there must have been some sea round the Scharhorn that day; a tame affair, no doubt, Herr Davies?'
'Scharhorn?' said Davies, who did not catch the idiom in the latter sentence. 'Oh, we didn't go that way. We cut through the sands—by the Telte.'
'The Telte! In a north-west gale!' The commander started, ceased to smile, and only stared. (It was genuine surprise; I could swear it. He had heard nothing of this before.)
'Herr Dollmann knew the way,' said Davies, doggedly. 'He kindly offered to pilot me through, and I wouldn't have gone otherwise.' There was an awkward little pause.
'He led you well, it seems?' said von Brning.
'Yes; there's a nasty surf there, though, isn't there? But it saves six miles—and the Scharhorn. Not that I saved distance. I was fool enough to run aground.'
'Ah!' said the other, with interest.
'It didn't matter, because I was well inside then. Those sands are difficult at high water. We've come back that way, you know.'
('And we run aground every day,' I remarked, with resignation.)
'Is that where the Medusa gave you the slip?' asked von Brning, still studying Davies with a strange look, which I strove anxiously to analyze.
'She wouldn't have noticed,' said Davies. 'It was very thick and squally—and she had got some way ahead. There was no need for her to stop, anyway. I got off all right; the tide was rising still. But, of course, I anchored there for the night.'
'Inside there, under the Hohenhrn,' said Davies, simply.
'Under the what?'
'Go on—didn't they wait for you at Cuxhaven?'
'I don't know; I didn't go that way.' The commander looked more and more puzzled.
'Not by the ship canal, I mean. I changed my mind about it, because the next day the wind was easterly. It would have been a dead beat across the sands to Cuxhaven, while it was a fair wind straight out to the Eider River. So I sailed there, and reached the Baltic that way. It was all the same.'
There was another pause.
'Well done, Davies,' I thought. He had told his story well, using no subtlety. I knew it was exactly how he would have told it to anyone else, if he had not had irrefutable proof of foul play.
The commander laughed, suddenly and heartily.
'Another liqueur?' he said. Then, to me: 'Upon my word, your friend amuses me. It's impossible to make him spin a yarn. I expect he had a bad time of it.'
'That's nothing to him,' I said; 'he prefers it. He anchored me the other day behind the Hohenhrn in a gale of wind; said it was safer than a harbour, and more sanitary.'
'I wonder he brought you here last night. It was a fair wind for England; and not very far.'
'There was no pilot to follow, you see.'
'With a charming daughter—no.'
Davies frowned and glared at me. I was merciful and changed the subject.
'Besides,' I said, 'we've left our anchor and chain out there.' And I made confession of my sin.
'Well, as it's buoyed, I should advise you to pick it up as soon as you can,' said von Brning, carelessly; 'or someone else will.'
'Yes, by Jove! Carruthers,' said Davies, eagerly, 'we must get out on this next tide.'
'Oh, there's no hurry,' I said, partly from policy, partly because the ease of the shore was on me. To sit on a chair upright is something of a luxury, however good the cause in which you have crouched like a monkey over a table at the level of your knees, with a reeking oil-stove at your ear.
'They're honest enough about here, aren't they?' I added. While the words were on my lips I remembered the midnight visitor at Wangeroog, and guessed that von Brning was leading up to a test. Grimm (if he was the visitor) would have told him of his narrow escape from detection, and reticence on our part would show we suspected something. I could have kicked myself, but it was not too late. I took the bull by the horns, and, before the commander could answer, added:
'By Jove! Davies, I forgot about that fellow at Wangeroog. The anchor might be stolen, as he says.'
Davies looked blank, but von Brning had turned to me.
'We never dreamed there would be thieves among these islands,' I said, 'but the other night I nearly caught a fellow in the act. He thought the yacht was empty.'
I described the affair in detail, and with what humour I could. Our host was amused, and apologetic for the islanders.
'They're excellent folk,' he said, 'but they're born with predatory instincts. Their fathers made their living out of wrecks on this coast, and the children inherit a weakness for plunder. When Wangeroog lighthouse was built they petitioned the Government for compensation, in perfect good faith. The coast is well lighted now, and windfalls are rare, but the sight of a stranded yacht, with the owners ashore, would inflame the old passion; and, depend upon it, someone has seen that anchor-buoy.'
The word 'wrecks' had set me tingling. Was it another test? Impossible to say; but audacity was safer than reserve, and might save trouble in the future.
'Isn't there the wreck of a treasure-ship somewhere farther west?' I asked. 'We heard of it at Wangeroog' (my first inaccuracy). 'They said a company was exploiting it.'
'Quite right,' said the commander, without a sign of embarrassment. 'I don't wonder you heard of it. It's one of the few things folk have to talk about in these parts. It lies on Juister Riff, a shoal off Juist. [see Map B] She was a French frigate, the Corinne, bound from Hamburg to Havre in 1811, when Napoleon held Hamburg as tight as Paris. She carried a million and a half in gold bars, and was insured in Hamburg; foundered in four fathoms, broke up, and there lies the treasure.'
'Never been raised?'
'No. The underwriters failed and went bankrupt, and the wreck came into the hands of your English Lloyd's. It remained their property till '75, but they never got at the bullion. In fact, for fifty years it was never scratched at, and its very position grew doubtful, for the sand swallowed every stick. The rights passed through various hands, and in '86 were held by an enterprising Swedish company, which brought modern appliances, dived, dredged, and dug, fished up a lot of timber and bric—brac, and then broke. Since then, two Hamburg firms have tackled the job and lost their capital. Scores of lives have been spent over it, all told, and probably a million of money. Still there are the bars, somewhere.'
'And what's being done now?'
'Well, recently a small local company was formed. It has a depot at Memmert, and is working with a good deal of perseverance. An engineer from Bremen was the principal mover, and a few men from Norderney and Emden subscribed the capital. By the way, our friend Dollmann is largely interested in it.'
Out of the corner of my eye I saw Davies's tell-tale face growing troubled with inward questionings.
'We mustn't get back to him,' I said, laughing. 'It's not fair to my friend. But all this is very interesting. Will they ever get those bars?'
'Ah! that's the point,' said von Brning, with a mysterious twinkle. 'It's an undertaking of immense difficulty; for the wreck is wholly disintegrated, and the gold, being the heaviest part of it, has, of course, sunk the deepest. Dredging is useless after a certain point; and the divers have to make excavations in the sand, and shore them up as best they can. Every gale nullifies half their labour, and weather like this of the last fortnight plays the mischief with the work. Only this morning I met the overseer, who happens to be ashore here. He was as black as thunder over prospects.'
'Well, it's a romantic speculation,' I said. 'They deserve a return for their money.'
'I hope they'll get it,' said the commander. 'The fact is, I hold a few shares myself.'
'Oh, I hope I haven't been asking indiscreet questions?'
'Oh, dear no; all the world knows what I've told you. But you'll understand that one has to be reticent as to results in such a case. It's a big stake, and the title is none too sound. There has been litigation over it. Not that I worry much about my investment; for I shan't lose much by it at the worst. But it gives one an interest in this abominable coast. I go and see how they're getting on sometimes, when I'm down that way.'
'It is an abominable coast,' I agreed, heartily, 'though you won't get Davies to agree.'
'It's a magnificent place for sailing,' said Davies, looking wistfully out over the storm-speckled grey of the North Sea. He underwent some more chaff, and the talk passed to our cruising adventures in the Baltic and the estuaries. Von Brning cross-examined us with the most charming urbanity and skill. Nothing he asked could cause us the slightest offence; and a responsive frankness was our only possible course. So, date after date, and incident after incident, were elicited in the most natural way. As we talked I was astonished to find how little there was that was worth concealing, and heartily thankful that we had decided on candour. My fluency gave me the lead, and Davies followed me; but his own personality was really our tower of strength. I realized that as I watched the play of his eager features, and heard him struggle for expression on his favourite hobby; all his pet phrases translated crudely into the most excruciating German. He was convincing, because he was himself.
'Are there many like you in England?' asked von Brning once.
'Like me? Of course—lots,' said Davies.
OCKQUOTE'I wish there were more in Germany; they play at yachting over here—on shore half the time, drinking and loafing; paid crews, clean hands, white trousers; laid up in the middle of September.'
'We haven't seen many yachts about, said Davies, politely.
For my part, I made no pretence of being a Davies. Faithful to my lower nature, I vowed the Germans were right, and, not without a secret zest, drew a lurid picture of the horrors of crewless cruising, and the drudgery that my remorseless skipper inflicted on me. It was delightful to see Davies wincing when I described my first night at Flensburg, for I had my revenge at last, and did not spare him. He bore up gallantly under my jesting, but I knew very well by his manner that he had not forgiven me my banter about the 'charming daughter'.
'You speak German well,' said von Brning.
'I have lived in Germany,' said I.
'Studying for a profession, I suppose?'
'Yes,' said I, thinking ahead. 'Civil Service,' was my prepared answer to the next question, but again (morbidly, perhaps) I saw a pitfall. That letter from my chief awaiting me at Norderney? My name was known, and we were watched. It might be opened. Lord, how casual we have been!
'May I ask what?'
'The Foreign Office.' It sounded suspicious, but there it was. 'Indeed—in the Government service? When do you have to be back?'
That was how the question of our future intentions was raised, prematurely by me; for two conflicting theories were clashing in my brain. But the contents of the letter dogged me now, and 'when at a loss, tell the truth', was an axiom I was finding sound. So I answered, 'Pretty soon, in about a week. But I'm expecting a letter at Norderney, which may give me an extension. Davies said it was a good address to give,' I added, smiling.
'Naturally,' said von Brning, dryly; the joke had apparently ceased to amuse him. 'But you haven't much time then, have you?' he added, 'unless you leave your skipper in the lurch. It's a long way to England, and the season is late for yachts.'
I felt myself being hurried.
'Oh, you don't understand,' I explained; 'he's in no hurry. He's a man of leisure; aren't you, Davies?'
'What?' said Davies.
I translated my cruel question.
'Yes,' said Davies, with simple pathos.
'If I have to leave him I shan't be missed—as an able seaman, at least. He'll just potter on down the islands, running aground and kedging-off. and arrive about Christmas.'
'Or take the first fair gale to Dover,' laughed the commander.
'Or that. So, you see, we're in no hurry: and we never make plans. And as for a passage to England straight, I'm not such a coward as I was at first, but I draw the line at that.'
'You're a curious pair of shipmates; what's your point of view, Herr Davies?'
'I like this coast,' said Davies. 'And—we want to shoot some ducks.' He was nervous, and forgot himself. I had already satirized our sporting armament and exploits, and hoped the subject was disposed of. Ducks were pretexts, and might lead to complications. I particularly wanted a free hand.
'As to wild fowl,' said our friend, 'I would like to give you gentlemen some advice. There are plenty to be got, now that autumn weather has set in (you wouldn't have got a shot in September, Herr Davies; I remember your asking about them when I saw you last). And even now it's early for amateurs. In hard winter weather a child can pick them up; but they're wild still, and want crafty hunting. You want a local punt, and above all a local man (you could stow him in your fo'c'sle), and to go to work seriously. Now, if you really wish for sport, I could help you. I could get you a trustworthy—'
'Oh, it's too good of you,' stammered Davies, in a more unhappy accent than usual. 'We can easily find one for ourselves. A man at Wangeroog offered—'
'Oh, did he?' interrupted von Brning, laughing. 'I'm not surprised. You don't know the Frieslanders. They're guileless, as I said, but they cling to their little perquisites.' (I translated to Davies.) 'They've been cheated out of wrecks, and they're all the more sensitive about ducks, which are more lucrative than fish. A stranger is a poacher. Your man would have made slight errors as to time and place.'
'You said they were odd in their manner, didn't you, Davies?' I put in. 'Look here, this is very kind of Commander von Brning; but hadn't we better be certain of my plans before settling down to shoot? Let's push on direct to Norderney and get that letter of mine, and then decide. But we shan't see you again, I suppose, commander?'
'Why not? I am cruising westwards, and shall probably call at Norderney. Come aboard if you're there, won't you? I should like to show you the Blitz.'
'Thanks, very much,' said Davies, uneasily.
'Thanks, very much,' said I, as heartily as I could.
Our party broke up soon after this.
'Well, gentlemen, I must take leave of you,' said our friend. 'I have to drive to Esens. I shall be going back to the Blitz on the evening tide, but you'll be busy then with your own boat.'
It had been a puzzling interview, but the greatest puzzle was still to come. As we went towards the door, von Brning made a sign to me. We let Davies pass out and remained standing.
'One word in confidence with you, Herr Carruthers,' he said, speaking low. 'You won't think me officious, I hope. I only speak out of keen regard for your friend. It is about the Dollmanns—you see how the land lies? I wouldn't encourage him.'
'Thanks,' I said, 'but really—'
'It's only a hint. He's a splendid young fellow, but if anything—you understand—too honest and simple. I take it you have influence with him, and I should use it.'
'I was not in earnest,' I said. 'I have never seen the Dollmanns; I thought they were friends of yours,' I added, looking him straight in the eyes.
'I know them, but'—he shrugged his shoulders—'I know everybody.'
'What's wrong with them?' I said, point-blank.
'Softly! Herr Carruthers. Remember, I speak out of pure friendliness to you as strangers, foreigners, and young. You I take to have discretion, or I should not have said a word. Still, I will add this. We know very little of Herr Dollmann, of his origin, his antecedents. He is half a Swede, I believe, certainly not a Prussian; came to Norderney three years ago, appears to be rich, and has joined in various commercial undertakings. Little scope about here? Oh, there is more enterprise than you think—development of bathing resorts, you know, speculation in land on these islands. Sharp practice? Oh, no! he's perfectly straight in that way. But he's a queer fellow, of eccentric habits, and—and, well, as I say, little is known of him. That's all, just a warning. Come along.'
I saw that to press him further was useless.
'Thanks; I'll remember,' I said.
'And look here,' he added, as we walked down the passage, 'if you take my advice, you'll omit that visit to the Medusa altogether.' He gave me a steady look, smiling gravely.
'How much do you know, and what do you mean?' were the questions that throbbed in my thoughts; but I could not utter them, so I said nothing and felt very young.
Outside we joined Davies, who was knitting his brow over prospects.
'It just comes of going into places like this,' he said to me. 'We may be stuck here for days. Too much wind to tow out with the dinghy, and too narrow a channel to beat in.'
Von Brning was ready with a new proposal.
'Why didn't I think of it before?' he said. 'I'll tow you out in my launch. Be ready at 6.30; we shall have water enough then. My men will send you a warp.'
It was impossible to refuse, but a sense of being personally conducted again oppressed me; and the last hope of a bed in the inn vanished. Davies was none too effusive either. A tug meant a pilot, and he had had enough of them.
'He objects to towage on principle,' I said.
'Just like him!' laughed the other. 'That's settled, then!' A dogcart was standing before the inn door in readiness for von Brning. I was curious about Esens and his business there. Esens, he said, was the principal town of the district, four miles inland.
'I have to go there,' he volunteered, 'about a poaching case—a Dutchman trawling inside our limits. That's my work, you know—police duty.'
Had the words a deeper meaning?
'Do you ever catch an Englishman?' I asked, recklessly. 'Oh, very rarely; your countrymen don't come so far as this—except on pleasure.' He bowed to us each and smiled.
'Not much of that to be got in Bensersiel,' I laughed. 'I'm afraid you'll have a dull afternoon. Look here. I know you can't leave your boat altogether, and it's no use asking Herr Davies; but will you drive into Esens with me and see a Frisian town—for what it's worth? You're getting a dismal impression of Friesland.' I excused myself, said I would stop with Davies we would walk out over the sands and prospect for the evening', sail.
'Well, good-bye then,' he said, 'till the evening. Be ready for the warp at 6.30.'
He jumped up, and the cart rattled off through the mud, crossed the bridge, and disappeared into the dreary hinterland.
17 Clearing the Air
'HAS he gone to get the police, do you think?' said Davies, grimly.
'I don't think so,' said I. 'Let's go aboard before that customs fellow buttonholes us.'
A diminished row of stolid Frisians still ruminated over the Dulcibella. Friend Grimm was visible smoking on his forecastle. We went on board in silence.
'First of all, where exactly is Memmert?' I said.
Davies pulled down the chart, said 'There,' and flung himself at full length on a sofa.
The reader can see Memmert for himself. South of Juist, [see Map B] abutting on the Ems delta, lies an extensive sandbank called Nordland, whose extreme western rim remains uncovered at the highest tides; the effect being to leave a C-shaped island, a mere paring of sand like a boomerang, nearly two miles long. but only 150 yards or so broad, of curiously symmetrical outline, except at one spot, where it bulges to the width of a quarter of a mile. On the English chart its nakedness was absolute, save for a beacon at the south; but the German chart marked a building at the point where the bulge occurs. This was evidently the depot. 'Fancy living there!' I thought, for the very name struck cold. No wonder Grimm was grim; and no wonder he was used to seek change of air. But the advantages of the site were obvious. It was remarkably isolated, even in a region where isolation is the rule; yet it was conveniently near the wreck, which, as we had heard, lay two miles out on the Juister Reef. Lastly, it was clearly accessible at any state of the tide, for the six-fathom channel of the Ems estuary runs hard up to it on the south, and thence sends off an eastward branch which closely borders the southern horn, thus offering an anchorage at once handy, deep, and sheltered from seaward gales.
Such was Memmert, as I saw it on the chart, taking in its features mechanically, for while Davies lay there heedless and taciturn, a pretence of interest was useless. I knew perfectly well what was between us, but I did not see why I should make the first move; for I had a grievance too, an old one. So I sat back on my sofa and jotted down in my notebook the heads of our conversation at the inn while it was fresh in my memory, and strove to draw conclusions. But the silence continuing and becoming absurd, I threw my pride to the winds, and my notebook on the table.
'I say, Davies,' I said, 'I'm awfully sorry I chaffed you about Frulein Dollmann.' (No answer.) 'Didn't you see I couldn't help it?'
'I wish to Heaven we had never come in here,' he said, in a hard voice; 'it comes of landing ever.' (I couldn't help smiling at this, but he wasn't looking at me.) 'Here we are, given away, moved on, taken in charge, arranged for like Cook's tourists. I couldn't follow your game—too infernally deep for me, but—'That stung me.
'Look here,' I said, 'I did my best. It was you that muddled it. Why did you harp on ducks?'
'We could have got out of that. Why did you harp on everything idiotic—your letter, the Foreign office, the Kormoran, the wreck, the—?'
'You're utterly unreasonable. Didn't you see what traps there were? I was driven the way I went. We started unprepared, and we're jolly well out of it.'
Davies drove on blindly. 'It was bad enough telling all about the channels and exploring—'
'Why, you agreed to that yourself!'
'I gave in to you. We can't explore any more now.
'There's the wreck, though.'
'Oh, hang the wreck! It's all a blind, or he wouldn't have made so much of it. There are all these channels to be—'
'Oh, hang the channels! I know we wanted a free hand, but we've got to go to Norderney some time, and if Dollmann's away—'
'Why did you harp on Miss Dollmann?' said Davies.
We had worked round, through idle recrimination, to the real point of departure. I knew Davies was not himself, and would not return to himself till the heart of the matter was reached.
'Look here,' I said, 'you brought me out here to help you, because, as you say, I was clever, talked German, and—liked yachting (I couldn't resist adding this). But directly you really want me you turn round and go for me.'
'Oh, I didn't mean all that, really,' said Davies; 'I'm sorry—I was worried.'
'I know; but it's your own fault. You haven't been fair with me. There's a complication in this business that you've never talked about. I've never pressed you because I thought you would confide in me. You—'
'I know I haven't,' said Davies.
'Well, you see the result. Our hand was forced. To have said nothing about Dollmann was folly—to have said he tried to wreck you was equal folly. The story we agreed on was the best and safest, and you told it splendidly. But for two reasons I had to harp on the daughter—one because your manner when they were mentioned was so confused as to imperil our whole position. Two, because your story, though the safest, was, at the best, suspicious. Even on your own showing Dollmann treated you badly—discourteously, say: though you pretended not to have seen it. You want a motive to neutralize that, and induce you to revisit him in a friendly way. I supplied it, or rather I only encouraged von Brning to supply it.'
'Why revisit him, after all?' said Davies.
'But don't you see what a hideous fix you've put me in? How caddish I feel about it?'
I did see, and I felt a cad myself, as his full distress came home to me. But I felt, too, that, whosesoever the fault, we had drifted into a ridiculous situation, and were like characters in one of those tiresome plays where misunderstandings are manufactured and so carefully sustained that the audience are too bored to wait for the dnouement. You can do that on the stage; but we wanted our dnouement.
'I'm very sorry,' I said, 'but I wish you had told me all about it. Won't you now? Just the bare, matter-of-fact truth. I hate sentiment, and so do you.'
'I find it very difficult to tell people things,' said Davies, 'things like this.' I waited. 'I did like her—very much.' Our eyes met for a second, in which all was said that need be said, as between two of our phlegmatic race. 'And she's—separate from him. That was the reason of all my indecisions.' he hurried on. 'I only told you half at Schlei. I know I ought to have been open, and asked your advice. But I let it slide. I've been hoping all along that we might find what we want and win the game without coming to close quarters again.'
I no longer wondered at his devotion to the channel theory, since, built on conviction, it was thus doubly fortified.
'Yet you always knew what might happen,' I said. 'At Schlei you spoke of "settling with" Dollmann.'
'I know. When I thought of him I was mad. I made myself forget the other part.'
'Which recurred at Brunsbttel?' I thought of the news we had there.
'Davies, we must have no more secrets. I'm going to speak out. Are you sure you've not misunderstood her? You say—and I'm willing to assume it—that Dollmann's a traitor and a murderer.'
'Oh, hang the murder part!' said Davies, impatiently. 'What does that matter?'
'Well, traitor. Very good; but in that case I suspect his daughter. No! let me go on. She was useful, to say the least. She encouraged you—you've told me that—to make that passage with them.'
'Stop, Carruthers,' said Davies, firmly. 'I know you mean kindly; but it's no use. I believe in her.'
I thought for a moment.
'In that case,' I said, 'I've something to propose. When we get out of this place let's sail straight away to England.' '(There, Commander von Brning,' I thought, 'you never can say I neglected your advice.')
'No!' exclaimed Davies, starting up and facing me. 'I'm hanged if we will. Think what's at stake. Think of that traitor—plotting with Germans. My God!'
'Very good,' I said. 'I'm with you for going on. But let's face facts. We must scotch Dollmann. We can't do so without hurting her.'
'Can't we possibly?'
'Of course not; be sensible, man. Face that. Next point; it's absurd to hope that we need not revisit them—it's ten to one that we must, if we're to succeed. His attempt on you is the whole foundation of our suspicions. And we don't even know for certain who he is yet. We're committed, I know, to going straight to Norderney now; but even if we weren't, should we do any good by exploring and prying? It's very doubtful. We know we're watched, if not suspected, and that disposes of nine-tenths of our power. The channels? Yes, but is it likely they'll let us learn them by heart, if they're of such vital importance, even if we are thought to be bona fide yachtsmen? And, seriously, apart from their value in war, which I don't deny, are they at the root of this business? But we'll talk about that in a moment. The point now is, what shall we do if we meet the Dollmanns?'
Beads of sweat stood on Davies's brow. I felt like a torturer, but it could not be helped. 'Tax him with having wrecked you? Our quest would be at an end! We must be friendly. You must tell the story you told to-day, and chance his believing it. If he does, so much the better; if he doesn't, he won't dare say so, and we still have chances. We gain time, and have a tremendous hold on him—if we're friendly.' Davies winced. I gave another turn to the screw. 'Friendly with them both, of course. You were before, you know; you liked her very much—you must seem to still.'
'Oh, stop your infernal logic.'
'Shall we chuck it and go to England?' 1 asked again, as an inquisitor might say, 'Have you had enough?' No answer. I went on: 'To make it easier, you do like her still.' I had roused my victim at last.
'What the devil do you mean, Carruthers? That I'm to trade on my liking for her—on her innocence, to—good God! what do you mean?'
'No, no, not that. I'm not such a cad, or such a fool, or so ignorant of you. If she knows nothing of her father's character and likes you—and you like her—and you are what you are—oh Heavens! man, face it, realize it! But what I mean is this: is she, can she be, what you think? Imagine his position if we're right about him; the vilest creature on God's earth—a disgraceful past to have been driven to this—in the pay of Germany. I want to spare you misery.' I was going to add: 'And if you're on your guard, to increase our chances.' But the utter futility of such suggestions silenced me. What a plan I had foreshadowed! An enticing plan and a fair one, too, as against such adversaries; turning this baffling cross-current to advantage as many a time we had worked eddies of an adverse tide in these difficult seas. But Davies was Davies, and there was an end of it; his faith and simplicity shamed me. And the pity of it, the cruelty of it, was that his very qualities were his last torture, raising to the acutest pitch the conflict between love and patriotism. Remember that the latter was his dominant life-motive, and that here and now was his chance—if you would gauge the bitterness of that conflict.
It was in its last throes now. His elbows were on the table, and his twitching hands pressed on his forehead. He took them away.
'Of course we must go on. It can't be helped, that's all.'
'And you believe in her?'
'I'll remember what you've said. There may be some way out. And—I'd rather not talk about that any more. What about the wreck?'
Further argument was futile. Davies by an effort seemed to sweep the subject from his thoughts, and I did my best to do the same. At any rate the air was cleared—we were friends; and it only remained to grapple with the main problem in the light of the morning's interview.
Every word that I could recollect of that critical conversation I reviewed with Davies, who had imperfectly understood what he had not been directly concerned in; and, as I did so, I began to see with what cleverness each succeeding sentence of von Brning's was designed to suit both of two contingencies. If we were innocent travellers, he was the genial host, communicative and helpful. If we were spies, his tactics had been equally applicable. He had outdone us in apparent candour, hiding nothing which he knew we would discover for ourselves, and contriving at the same time both to gain knowledge and control of our movements, and to convey us warnings, which would only be understood if we were guilty, that we were playing an idle and perilous game, and had better desist. But in one respect we had had the advantage, and that was in the version Davies had given of his stranding on the Hohenhrn. Inscrutable as our questioner was, he let it appear not only that the incident was new to him, but that he conjectured at its sinister significance. A little cross-examination on detail would have been fatal to Davies's version; but that was where our strength lay; he dared not cross-examine for fear of suggesting to Davies suspicions which he might never have felt. Indeed, I thought I detected that fear underlying his whole attitude towards us, and it strengthened a conviction which had been growing in me since Grimm's furtive midnight visit, that the secret of this coast was of so important and delicate a nature that rather than attract attention to it at all, overt action against intruders would be taken only in the last resort, and on irrefragable proofs of guilty intention.
Now for our clues. I had come away with two, each the germ of a distinct theory, and both obscured by the prevailing ambiguity. Now, however, as we thumbed the chart and I gave full rein to my fancy, one of them, the idea of Memmert, gained precision and vigour every moment. True, such information as we had about the French wreck and his own connection with it was placed most readily at our disposal by von Brning; but I took it to be information calculated only to forestall suspicion, since he was aware that we already associated him with Dollmann, possibly also with Grimm, and it was only likely that in the ordinary course we should learn that the trio were jointly concerned in Memmert. So much for the facts; as for the construction he wished us to put on them, I felt sure it was absolutely false. He wished to give us the impression that the buried treasure itself was at the root of any mystery we might have scented. I do not know if the reader fully appreciated that astute suggestion—the hint that secrecy as to results was necessary owing both to the great sum at stake and the flaw in the title, which he had been careful to inform us had passed through British hands. What he meant to imply was, 'Don't be surprised if you have midnight visitors; Englishmen prowling along this coast are suspected of being Lloyd's agents.' An ingenious insinuation, which, at the time it was made, had caused me to contemplate a new and much more commonplace solution of our enigma than had ever occurred to us; but it was only a passing doubt, and I dismissed it altogether now.
The fact was, it either explained everything or nothing. As long as we held to our fundamental assumption—that Davies had been decoyed into a death-trap in September—it explained nothing. It was too fantastic to suppose that the exigencies of a commercial speculation would lead to such extremities as that. We were not in the South Sea Islands; nor were we the puppets of a romance. We were in Europe, dealing not only with a Dollmann, but with an officer of the German Imperial Navy, who would scarcely be connected with a commercial enterprise which could conceivably be reduced to forwarding its objects in such a fashion. It was shocking enough to find him in relations with such a scoundrel at all, but it was explicable if the motive were imperial—not so if it were financial. No; to accept the suggestion we must declare the whole quest a mare's nest from beginning to end; the attempt on Davies a delusion of his own fancy, the whole structure we had built on it, baseless.
'Well,' I can hear the reader saying, 'why not? You, at any rate, were always a little sceptical.'
Granted; yet I can truthfully say I scarcely faltered for a moment. Much had happened since Schlei Fiord. I had seen the mechanism of the death-trap; I had lived with Davies for a stormy fortnight, every hour of which had increased my reliance on his seamanship, and also, therefore, on his account of an event which depended largely for its correct interpretation on a balanced nautical judgement. Finally, I had been unconsciously realizing, and knew from his mouth to-day, that he had exercised and acted on that judgement in the teeth of personal considerations, which his loyal nature made overwhelming in their force.
What, then, was the meaning of Memmert? At the outset it riveted my attention on the Ems estuary, whose mouth it adjoins. We had always rather neglected the Ems in our calculations; with some excuse, too, for at first sight its importance bears no proportion to that of the three greater estuaries. The latter bear vessels of the largest tonnage and deepest draught to the very quays of Hamburg, Bremerhaven, and the naval dockyard of Wilhelmshaven; while two of them, the Elbe and the Weser, are commerce carriers on the vastest scale for the whole empire. The Ems, on the other hand, only serves towns of the second class. A glance at the chart explains this. You see a most imposing estuary on a grander scale than any of the other three taken singly, with a length of thirty miles and a frontage on the North Sea of ten miles. or one-seventieth, roughly, of the whole seaboard; encumbered by outlying shoals, and blocked in the centre by the island of Borkum, but presenting two fine deep-water channels to the incoming vessel. These roll superbly through enormous sheets of sand, unite and approach the mainland in one stately stream three miles in breadth. But then comes a sad falling off. The navigable fairway shoals and shrinks, middle grounds obstruct it, and shelving foreshores persistently deny it that easy access to the land that alone can create great seaboard cities. All the ports of the Ems are tidal; the harbour of Delfzyl, on the Dutch side, dries at low water, and Emden, the principal German port, can only be reached by a lock and a mile of canal.
But this depreciation is only relative. Judged on its merits, and not by the standard of the Elbe, it is a very important river. Emden is a flourishing and growing port. For shallow craft the stream is navigable far into the interior, where, aided by tributaries and allied canals (notably the connection with the Rhine at Dortmund, then approaching completion), it taps the resources of a great area. Strategically there was still less reason for underrating it. It is one of the great maritime gates of Germany; and it is the westernmost gate, the nearest to Great Britain and France. contiguous to Holland. Its great forked delta presents two yawning breaches in that singular rampart of islets and shoals which masks the German seaboard—a seaboard itself so short in proportion to the empire's bulk, that, as Davies used to say, every inch of it must be important'. Warships could force these breaches, and so threaten the mainland at one of its few vulnerable points. Quay accommodation is no object to such visitors; intricate navigation no deterrent. Even the heaviest battleships could approach within striking distance of the land, while cruisers and military transports could penetrate to the level of Emden itself. Emden, as Davies had often pointed out, is connected by canal with Wilhelmshaven on the Jade, a strategic canal, designed to carry gunboats as well as merchandise.
Now Memmert was part of the outer rampart; its tapering sickle of sand directly commanded the eastern breach; it must be connected with the defence of this breach. No more admirable base could be imagined; self-contained and isolated, yet sheltered, accessible—better than Juist and Borkum. And supposing it were desired to shroud the nature of the work in absolute secrecy, what a pretext lay to hand in the wreck and its buried bullion, which lay in the offing opposite the fairway!
On Memmert was the depot for the salvage operations. Salvage work, with its dredging and diving, offered precisely the disguise that was needed. It was submarine, and so are some of the most important defences of ports, mines, and dirigible torpedoes. All the details of the story were suggestive: the 'small local company'; the 'engineer from Bremen' (who, I wondered, was he?); the few shares held by von Brning, enough to explain his visits; the stores and gear coming from Wilhelmshaven, a naval dockyard.
Try as I would I could not stir Davies's imagination as mine was stirred. He was bent on only seeing the objections, which, of course, were numerous enough. Could secrecy be ensured under pretext of salving a wreck? It must be a secret shared by many—divers, crews of tugs, employees of all sorts. I answered that trade secrets are often preserved under no less difficult conditions, and why not imperial secrets?
'Why the Ems and not the Elbe?' he asked.
'Perhaps,' I replied, 'the Elbe, too, holds similar mysteries.' Neuerk Island might, for all we knew, be another Memmert; when cruising in that region we had had no eyes for such things, absorbed in a preconceived theory of our own. Besides, we must not take ourselves too seriously. We were amateurs, not experts in coast defence, and on such vague grounds to fastidiously reject a clue which went so far as this one was to quarrel with our luck. There was a disheartening corollary to this latter argument that in my new-born zeal I shut my eyes to. As amateurs, were we capable of using our clue and gaining exact knowledge of the defences in question? Davies, I knew, felt this strongly, and I think it accounted for his lukewarm view of Memmert more than he was aware. He clung more obstinately than ever to his 'channel theory', conscious that it offered the one sort of opportunity of which with his peculiar gifts he was able to take advantage. He admitted, however, that it was under a cloud at present, for if knowledge of the coastwise navigation were a crime in itself we should scarcely be sitting here now. 'It's something to do with it, anyhow!' he persisted.
18 Imperial Escort
MEMMERT gripped me, then, to the exclusion of a rival notion which had given me no little perplexity during the conversation with von Brning. His reiterated advice that we should lose no time in picking up our anchor and chain had ended by giving me the idea that he was anxious to get us away from Bensersiel and the mainland. At first I had taken the advice partly as a test of our veracity (as I gave the reader to understand), and partly as an indirect method of lulling any suspicions which Grimm's midnight visit may have caused. Then it struck me that this might be over-subtlety on my part, and the idea recurred when the question of our future plans cropped up, and hampered me in deciding on a course. It returned again when von Brning offered to tow us out in the evening. It was in my mind when I questioned him as to his business ashore, for it occurred to me that perhaps his landing here was not solely due to a wish to inspect the crew of the Dulcibella. Then came his perfectly frank explanation (with its sinister double entente for us), coupled with an invitation to me to accompany him to Esens. But, on the principle of 'tinieo Danaos' etc., I instantly smelt a ruse, not that I dreamt that I was to be decoyed into captivity; but if there was anything here which we two might discover in the few hours left to us, it was an ingenious plan to remove the most observant of the two till the hour of departure.
Davies scorned them, and I had felt only a faint curiosity in these insignificant hamlets, influenced, I am afraid, chiefly by a hankering after terra firma which the pitiless rigour of his training had been unable to cure.
But it was imprudent to neglect the slightest chance. It was three o'clock, and I think both our brains were beginning to be addled with thinking in close confinement. I suggested that we should finish our council of war in the open, and we both donned oilskins and turned out. The sky had hardened and banked into an even canopy of lead, and the wind drove before it a fine cold rain. You could hear the murmur of the rising flood on the sands outside, but the harbour was high above it still, and the Dulcibella and the other boats squatted low in a bed of black slime. Native interest seemed to be at last assuaged, for not a soul was visible on the bank (I cannot call it a quay); but the top of a black sou'wester with a feather of smoke curling round it showed above the forehatch of the Kormoran.
'I wish I could get a look at your cargo, my friend,' I thought to myself.
We gazed at Bensersiel in silence.
'There can't be anything here?' I said.
'What can there be?' said Davies.
'What about that dyke?' I said, with a sudden inspiration.
From the bank we could see all along the coast-line, which is dyked continuously, as I have already said. The dyke was here a substantial brick-faced embankment, very similar, though on a smaller scale, to that which had bordered the Elbe near Cuxhaven, and over whose summit we had seen the snouts of guns.
'I say, Davies,' I said, 'do you think this coast could be invaded? Along here, I mean, behind these islands?'
Davies shook his head. 'I've thought of that,' he said. 'There's nothing in it. It's just the very last place on earth where a landing would be possible. No transport could get nearer than where the Blitz is lying, four miles out.'
'Well, you say every inch of this coast is important?'
'Yes, but it's the water I mean.'
'Well, I want to see that dyke. Let's walk along it.'
My mushroom theory died directly I set foot on it. It was the most innocent structure in the world—like a thousand others in Essex and Holland—topped by a narrow path, where we walked in single file with arms akimbo to keep our balance in the gusts of wind. Below us lay the sands on one side and rank fens on the other, interspersed with squares of pasture ringed in with ditches. After half a mile we dropped down and came back by a short circuit inland, following a mazy path—which was mostly right angles and minute plank bridges, till we came to the Esens road. We crossed this and soon after found our way barred by the stream I spoke of. This involved a dtour to the bridge in the village, and a stealthy avoidance of the post-office, for dread of its garrulous occupant. Then we followed the dyke in the other direction, and ended by a circuit over the sands, which were fast being covered by the tide, and so back to the yacht.
Nobody appeared to have taken the slightest notice of our movements.
As we walked we had tackled the last question, 'What are we to do?' and found very little to say on it. We were to leave to-night (unless the Esens police appeared on the scene), and were committed to sailing direct to Norderney, as the only alternative to duck shooting under the espionage of a 'trustworthy' nominee of von Brning's. Beyond that—vagueness and difficulty of every sort.
At Norderney I should be fettered by my letter. If it seemed to have been opened and it ordered my return, I was limited to a week, or must risk suspicion by staying. Dollmann was away (according to von Brning), 'would probably be back soon'; but how soon? Beyond Norderney lay Memmert. How to probe its secret? The ardour it had roused in me was giving way to a mortifying sense of impotence. The sight of the Kormoran, with her crew preparing for sea, was a pointed comment on my diplomacy, and most of all on my ridiculous survey of the dykes. When all was said and done we were protgs of von Brning, and dogged by Grimm. Was it likely they would let us succeed?
The tide was swirling into the harbour in whorls of chocolate froth, and as it rose all Bensersiel, dominated as before by Herr Schenkel, straggled down to the quay to watch the movements of shipping during the transient but momentous hour when the mud-hole was a seaport. The captain's steam-cutter was already afloat, and her sailors busy with sidelights and engines. When it became known that we, too, were to sail, and under such distinguished escort, the excitement intensified.
Again our friend of the customs was spreading out papers to sign, while a throng of helpful Frisians, headed by the twin giants of the post-boat, thronged our decks and made us ready for sea in their own confused fashion. Again we were carried up to the inn and overwhelmed with advice, and warnings, and farewell toasts. Then back again to find the Dulcibella afloat, and von Brning just arrived, cursing the weather and the mud, chaffing Davies, genial and dbonnaire as ever.
'Stow that mainsail, you won't want it,' he said. 'I'll tow you right out to Spiekeroog. It's your only anchorage for the night in this wind—under the island, near the Blitz, and that would mean a dead beat for you in the dark.'
The fact was so true, and the offer so timely, that Davies's faint protests were swept aside in a torrent of ridicule.
'And now I think of it,' the commander ended, 'I'll make the trip with you, if I may. It'll be pleasanter and drier.'
We all three boarded the Dulcibella, and then the end came. Our tow-rope was attached, and at half-past six the little launch jumped into the collar, and amidst a demonstration that could not have been more hearty if we had been ambassadors on a visit to a friendly power, we sidled out through the jetties.
It took us more than an hour to cover the five miles to Spiekeroog, for the Dulcibella was a heavy load in the stiff head wind, and Davies, though he said nothing, showed undisguised distrust of our tug's capacities. He at once left the helm to me and flung himself on the gear, not resting till every rope was ready to hand, the mainsail reefed, the binnacle lighted, and all ready for setting sail or anchoring at a moment's notice. Our guest watched these precautions with infinite amusement. He was in the highest and most mischievous humour, raining banter on Davies and mock sympathy on me, laughing at our huge compass, heaving the lead himself, startling us with imaginary soundings, and doubting if his men were sober. I offered entertainment and warmth below, but he declined on the ground that Davies would be tempted to cut the tow-rope and make us pass the night on a safe sandbank. Davies took the raillery unmoved. His work done, he took the tiller and sat bareheaded, intent on the launch, the course, the details, and chances of the present. I brought up cigars and we settled ourselves facing him, our backs to the wind and spray. And so we made the rest of the passage, von Brning cuddled against me and the cabin-hatch, alternately shouting a jest to Davies and talking to me in a light and charming vein, with just that shade of patronage that the disparity in our ages warranted, about my time in Germany, places, people, and books I knew, and about life, especially young men's life, in England, a country he had never visited, but hoped to; I responding as well as I could, striving to meet his mood, acquit myself like a man, draw zest instead of humiliation from the irony of our position, but scarcely able to make headway against a numbing sense of defeat and incapacity. A queer thought was haunting me, too, that such skill and judgement as I possessed was slipping from me as we left the land and faced again the rigours of this exacting sea. Davies, I very well knew, was under exactly the opposite spell—a spell which even the reproach of the tow-rope could not annul. His face, in the glow of the binnacle, was beginning to wear that same look of contentment and resolve that I had seen on it that night we had sailed to Kiel from Schlei Fiord. Heaven knows he had more cause for worry than I—a casual comrade in an adventure which was peculiarly his, which meant everything on earth to him; but there he was, washing away perplexity in the salt wind, drawing counsel and confidence from the unfailing source of all his inspirations—the sea.
'Looks happy, doesn't he?' said the captain once. I grunted that he did, ashamed to find how irritated the remark made me.
'You'll remember what I said,' he added in my ear.
'Yes,' I said. 'But I should like to see her. What is she like?'
'Dangerous.' I could well believe it.
The hull of the Blitz loomed up, and a minute later our kedge was splashing overboard and the launch was backing alongside.
'Good-night, gentlemen,' said our passenger. 'You're safe enough here, and you can run across in ten minutes in the morning and pick up your anchor, if it's there still. Then you've a fair wind west—to England if you like. If you decide to stay a little longer in these parts, and I'm in reach, count on me to help you, to sport or anything else.'
We thanked him, shook hands, and he was gone.
'He's a thundering good chap, anyhow,' said Davies; and I heartily agreed.
The narrow vigilant life began again at once. We were 'safe enough' in a sense, but a warp and a twenty-pound anchor were poor security if the wind backed or increased. Plans for contingencies had to be made, and deck-watches kept till midnight, when the weather seemed to improve, and stars appeared. The glass was rising, so we turned in and slept under the very wing, so to speak, of the Imperial Government.
'Davies,' I said, when we were settled in our bunks, 'it's only a day's sail to Norderney, isn't it?'
'With a fair wind, less, if we go outside the islands direct.'
'Well, it's settled that we do that to-morrow?'
'I suppose so. We've got to get the anchor first. Good-night.'
19 The Rubicon
IT was a cold, vaporous dawn, the glass rising, and the wind fallen to a light air still from the north-east. Our creased and sodden sails scarcely answered to it as we crept across the oily swell to Langeoog. 'Fogs and calms,' Davies prophesied. The Blitz was astir when we passed her, and soon after steamed out to sea. Once over the bar, she turned westward and was lost to view in the haze. I should be sorry to have to explain how we found that tiny anchor-buoy, on the expressionless waste of grey. I only know that I hove the lead incessantly while Davies conned, till at last he was grabbing overside with the boat-hook, and there was the buoy on deck. The cable was soon following it, and finally the rusty monster himself, more loathsome than usual, after his long sojourn in the slime.
'That's all right,' said Davies. 'Now we can go anywhere.'
'Well, it's Norderney, isn't it? We've settled that.'
'Yes, I suppose we have. I was wondering whether it wouldn't be shortest to go inside the Langeoog after all.'
'Surely not,' I urged. 'The tide's ebbing now, and the light's bad; it's new ground, with a "watershed" to cross, and we're safe to get aground.'
'All right—outside. Ready about.' We swung lazily round and headed for the open sea. I record the fact, but in truth Davies might have taken me where he liked, for no land was visible, only a couple of ghostly booms.
'It seems a pity to miss over that channel,' said Davies with a sigh; 'just when the Kormoran can't watch us.' (We had not seen her at all this morning.)
I set myself to the lead again, averse to reopening a barren argument. Grimm had done his work for the present, I felt certain, and was on his way by the shortest road to Norderney and Memmert.
We were soon outside and heading west, our boom squared away and the island sand-dunes just apparent under our lee. Then the breeze died to the merest draught, and left us rolling inert in a long swell. Consumed with impatience to get on I saw fatality in this failure of wind, after a fortnight of unprofitable meanderings, when we had generally had too much of it, and always enough for our purpose. I tried to read below, but the vile squirting of the centre-board drove me up.
'Can't we go any faster?' I burst out once. I felt that there ought to be a pyramid of gauzy canvas aloft, spinnakers, flying jibs, and what not.
'I don't go in for speed,' said Davies, shortly. He loyally did his best to 'shove her' along, but puffs and calms were the rule all day, and it was only by towing in the dinghy for two hours in the afternoon that we covered the length of Langeoog, and crept before dark to an anchorage behind Baltrum, its slug-shaped neighbour on the west. Strictly, I believe, we should have kept the sea all night; but I had not the grit to suggest that course, and Davies was only too glad of an excuse for threading the shoals of the Accumer Ee on a rising tide. The atmosphere had been slowly clearing as the day wore on; but we had scarcely anchored ten minutes before a blanket of white fog, rolling in from seaward, swallowed us up. Davies was already afield in the dinghy, and I had to guide him back with a foghorn, whose music roused hosts of sea birds from the surrounding flats, and brought them wheeling and complaining round us, a weird invisible chorus to my mournful solo.
The fog hung heavy still at daybreak on the 20th, but dispersed partially under a catspaw from the south about eight o'clock, in time for us to traverse the boomed channel behind Baltrum, before the tide left the watershed.
'We shan't get far to-day,' said Davies, with philosophy. 'And this sort of thing may go on for any time. It's a regular autumn anti-cyclone—glass thirty point five and steady. That gale was the last of a stormy equinox.'
We took the inside route as a matter of course to-day. It was now the shortest to Norderney harbour, and scarcely less intricate than the Wichter Ee, which appeared to be almost totally blocked by banks, and is, in fact, the most impassable of all these outlets to the North Sea. But, as I say, this sort of navigation, always puzzling to me, was utterly bewildering in hazy weather. Any attempt at orientation made me giddy. So I slaved at the lead, varying my labour with a fierce bout of kedge-work when we grounded somewhere. I had two rests before two o'clock, one of an hour, when we ran into a patch of windless fog; another of a few moments, when Davies said, 'There's Norderney!' and I saw, surmounting a long slope of weedy sand, still wet with the receding sea, a cluster of sandhills exactly like a hundred others I had seen of late, but fraught with a new and unique interest.
The usual formula, 'What have you got now?' checked my reverie, and 'Helm's a-lee,' ended it for the time. We tacked on (for the wind had headed us) in very shoal water.
Suddenly Davies said: 'Is that a boat ahead?'
'Do you mean that galliot?' I asked. I could plainly distinguish one of those familiar craft about half a mile away, just within the limit of vision.
'The Kormoran, do you think?' I added. Davies said nothing, but grew inattentive to his work. 'Barely four,' from me passed unnoticed, and we touched once, but swung off under some play of the current. Then came abruptly, 'Stand by the anchor. Let go,' and we brought up in mid-stream of the narrow creek we were following. I triced up the main-tack, and stowed the headsails unaided. When I had done Davies was still gazing to windward through his binoculars, and, to my astonishment, I noticed that his hands were trembling violently. I had never seen this happen before, even at moments when a false turn of the wrist meant death on a surf-battered bank.
'What is it?' I asked; 'are you cold?'
'That little boat,' he said. I gazed to windward, too, and now saw a scrap of white in the distance, in sharp relief.
'Small standing lug and jib; it's her, right enough,' said Davies to himself, in a sort of nervous stammer.
He handed, or rather pushed, me the glasses, still gazing.
'Dollmann?' I exclaimed.
'No, it's hers—the one she always sails. She's come to meet m—, us.'
Through the glasses the white scrap became a graceful little sail, squared away for the light following breeze. An angle of the creek hid the hull, then it glided into view. Someone was sitting aft steering, man or woman I could not say, for the sail hid most of the figure. For full two minutes—two long, pregnant minutes—we watched it in silence. The damp air was fogging the lenses, but I kept them to my eyes; for I did not want to look at Davies. At last I heard him draw a deep breath, straighten himself up, and give one of his characteristic 'h'ms'. Then he turned briskly aft, cast off the dinghy's painter, and pulled her up alongside.
'You come too,' he said, jumping in, and fixing the rowlocks. (His hands were steady again.) I laughed, and shoved the dinghy off.
'I'd rather you did,' he said, defiantly.
'I'd rather stay. I'll tidy up, and put the kettle on.' Davies had taken a half stroke, but paused.
'She oughtn't to come aboard.' he said.
'She might like to,' I suggested. 'Chilly day, long way from home, common courtesy—,
'Carruthers,' said Davies, 'if she comes aboard, please remember that she's outside this business. There are no clues to be got from her.'
A little lecture which would have nettled me more if I had not been exultantly telling myself that, once and for all, for good or ill, the Rubicon was passed.
'It's your affair this time,' I said; 'run it as you please.'
He sculled away with vigorous strokes. 'Just as he is,' I thought to myself: bare head, beaded with fog-dew, ancient oilskin coat (only one button); grey jersey; grey woollen trousers (like a deep-sea fisherman's) stuffed into long boots. A vision of his antitype, the Cowes Philanderer, crossed me for a second. As to his face—well, I could only judge by it, and marvel, that he was gripping his dilemma by either horn, as firmly as he gripped his sculls.
I watched the two boats converging. They would meet in the natural course about three hundred yards away, but a hitch occurred. First, the sail-boat checked and slewed; 'aground,' I concluded. The row-boat leapt forward still; then checked, too. From both a great splashing of sculls floated across the still air, then silence. The summit of the watershed, a physical Rubicon, prosaic and slimy, had still to be crossed, it seemed. But it could be evaded. Both boats headed for the northern side of the creek: two figures were out on the brink, hauling on two painters. Then Davies was striding over the sand, and a girl—I could see her now—was coming to meet him. And then I thought it was time to go below and tidy up.
Nothing on earth could have made the Dulcibella's saloon a worthy reception-room for a lady. I could only use hurried efforts to make it look its best by plying a bunch of cotton-waste and a floor-brush; by pitching into racks and lockers the litter of pipes, charts, oddments of apparel, and so on, that had a way of collecting afresh, however recently we had tidied up; by neatly arranging our demoralized library, and by lighting the stove and veiling the table under a clean white cloth.
I suppose about twenty minutes had elapsed, and I was scrubbing fruitlessly at the smoky patch on the ceiling, when I heard the sound of oars and voices outside. I threw the cotton-waste into the fo'c'sle, made an onslaught on my hands, and then mounted the companion ladder. Our own dinghy was just rounding up alongside, Davies sculling in the bows, facing him in the stern a young girl in a grey tam-o'-shanter, loose waterproof jacket and dark serge skirt, the latter, to be frigidly accurate, disclosing a pair of workman-like rubber boots which, mutatis mutandis, were very like those Davies was wearing. Her hair, like his, was spangled with moisture. and her rose-brown skin struck a note of delicious colour against the sullen Stygian background.
'There he is,' said Davies. Never did his 'meiner Freund, Carruthers,' sound so pleasantly in my ears; never so discordantly the 'Frulein Dollmann' that followed it. Every syllable of the four was a lie. Two honest English eyes were looking up into mine; an honest English hand—is this insular nonsense? Perhaps so, but I stick to it—a brown, firm hand—no, not so very small, my sentimental reader—was clasping mine. Of course I had strong reasons, apart from the racial instinct, for thinking her to be English, but I believe that if I had had none at all I should at any rate have congratulated Germany on a clever bit of plagiarism. By her voice, when she spoke, I knew that she must have talked German habitually from childhood; diction and accent were faultless, at least to my English ear; but the native constitutional ring was wanting.
She came on board. There was a hollow discussion first about time and weather, but it ended as we all in our hearts wished it to end. None of us uttered our real scruples. Mine, indeed, were too new and rudimentary to be worth uttering, so I said common-sense things about tea and warmth; but I began to think about my compact with Davies.
'Just for a few minutes, then,' she said.
I held out my hand and swung her up. She gazed round the deck and rigging with profound interest—a breathless, hungry interest—touching to see.
'You've seen her before, haven't you?' I said.
'I've not been on board before,' she answered.
This struck me in passing as odd; but then I had only too few details from Davies about his days at Norderney in September.
'Of course, that is what puzzled me,' she exclaimed, suddenly, pointing to the mizzen. 'I knew there was something different.'
Davies had belayed the painter, and now had to explain the origin of the mizzen. This was a cumbrous process, and his hearer's attention soon wandered from the subject and became centred in him—his was already more than half in her—and the result was a golden opportunity for the discerning onlooker. It was very brief, but I made the most of it; buried deep a few regrets, did a little heartfelt penance, told myself I had been a cynical fool not to have foreseen this, and faced the new situation with a sinking heart; I am not ashamed to admit that, for I was fond of Davies, and I was keen about the quest.
She had never been a guilty agent in that attempt on Davies. Had she been an unconscious tool or only an unwilling one? If the latter, did she know the secret we were seeking? In the last degree unlikely, I decided. But, true to the compact, whose importance I now fully appreciated, I flung aside my diplomatic weapons, recoiling, as strongly, or nearly as strongly, let us say, from any effort direct or indirect to gain information from such a source. It was not our fault if by her own conversation and behaviour she gave us some idea of how matters stood. Davies already knew more than I did.
We spent a few minutes on deck while she asked eager questions about our build and gear and seaworthiness, with a quaint mixture of professional acumen and personal curiosity.
'How did you manage alone that day?' she asked Davies, suddenly.
'Oh, it was quite safe,' was the reply. 'But it's much better to have a friend.'
She looked at me; and—well, I would have died for Davies there and then.
'Father said you would be safe,' she remarked, with decision—a slight excess of decision, I thought. And at that turned to some rope or block and pursued her questioning. She found the compass impressive, and the trappings of that hateful centre-board had a peculiar fascination for her. Was this the way we did it in England? was her constant query.
Yet, in spite of a superficial freedom, we were all shy and constrained. The descent below was a welcome diversion, for we should have been less than human if we had not extracted some spontaneous fun from the humours of the saloon. I went down first to see about the tea, leaving them struggling for mutual comprehension over the theory of an English lifeboat. They soon followed, and I can see her now stooping in at the doorway, treading delicately, like a kitten, past the obstructive centre-board to a place on the starboard sofa, then taking in her surroundings with a timid rapture that broke into delight at all the primitive arrangements and dingy amenities of our den. She explored the cavernous recesses of the Rippingille, fingered the duck-guns and the miscellany in the racks, and peeped into the fo'c'sle with dainty awe. Everything was a source of merriment, from our cramped attitudes to the painful deficiency of spoons and the 'yachtiness' (there is no other word to describe it) of the bread, which had been bought at Bensersiel, and had suffered from incarceration and the climate. This fact came out, and led to some questions, while we waited for the water to boil, about the gale and our visit there. The topic, a pregnant one for us, appeared to have no special significance to her. At the mention of von Brning she showed no emotion of any sort; on the contrary, she went out of her way, from an innocent motive that anyone could have guessed, to show that she could talk about him with dispassionate detachment.
'He came to see us when you were here last, didn't he?' she said to Davies. 'He often comes. He goes with father to Memmert sometimes. You know about Memmert? They are diving for money out of an old wreck.'
Yes, we had heard about it.
'Of course you have. Father is a director of the company, and Commander von Brning takes great interest in it; they took me down in a diving-bell once.'
I murmured, 'Indeed!' and Davies sawed laboriously at the bread. She must have misconstrued our sheepish silence, for she stopped and drew herself up with just a touch of momentary hauteur, utterly lost on Davies. I could have laughed aloud at this transient little comedy of errors.
'Did you see any gold?' said Davies at last, with husky solemnity. Something had to be said or we should defeat our own end; but I let him say it. He had not my faith in Memmert.
'No, only mud and timber—oh, I forgot—'
'You mustn't betray the company's secrets,' I said, laughing; 'Commander von Brning wouldn't tell us a word about the gold.' ('There's self-denial!' I said to myself.)
'Oh, I don't think it matters much,' she answered, laughing too. 'You are only visitors.'
'That's all,' I remarked, demurely. 'Just passing travellers.'
'You will stop at Norderney?' she said, with naive anxiety. 'Herr Davies said—'
I looked to Davies; it was his affair. Fair and square came his answer, in blunt dog-German.
'Yes, of course, we shall. I should like to see your father again.'
Up to this moment I had been doubtful of his final decision; for ever since our explanation at Bensersiel I had had the feeling that I was holding his nose to a very cruel grindstone. This straight word, clear and direct, beyond anything I had hoped for, brought me to my senses and showed me that his mind had been working far in advance of mine; and more, shaping a double purpose that I had never dreamt of.
'My father?' said Frulein Dollmann; 'yes, I am sure he will be very glad to see you.
There was no conviction in her tone, and her eyes were distant and troubled.
'He's not at home now, is he?' I asked.
'How did you know?' (a little maidenly confusion). 'Oh, Commander von Brning.'
I might have added that it had been clear as daylight all along that this visit was in the nature of an escapade of which her father might not approve. I tried to say 'I won't tell,' without words, and may have succeeded.