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The fog hung heavy still at daybreak on the 20th [21st!], 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 ‘Fräulein 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 inat 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 Brüning 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 Brüning 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 Brüning 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 Fräulein 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 Brüning.’
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.
‘I told Mr Davies when we first met,’ she went on. ‘I expect him back very soon–to-morrow in fact; he wrote from Amsterdam. He left me at Hamburg and has been away since. Of course, he will not know your yacht is back again. I think he expected Mr Davies would stay in the Baltic, as the season was so late. But–but I am sure he will be glad to see you.’
‘Is the Medusa in harbour?’ said Davies.
‘Yes; but we are not living on her now. We are at our villa in the Schwannallée–my stepmother and I, that is.’ She added some details, and Davies gravely pencilled down the address on a leaf of the log-book; a formality which somehow seemed to regularize the present position.
‘We shall be at Norderney to-morrow,’ he said.
Meanwhile the kettle was boiling merrily, and I made the tea–cocoa, I should say, for the menu was changed in deference to our visitor’s tastes. ‘This is fun!’ she said. And by common consent we abandoned ourselves, three youthful, hungry mariners, to the enjoyment of this impromptu picnic. Such a chance might never occur again–carpamus diem.
But the banquet was never celebrated. As at Belshazzar’s feast, there was a writing on the wall; no supernatural inscription, but just a printed name; an English surname with title and initials, in cheap gilt lettering on the back of an old book; a silent, sneering witness of our snug party. The catastrophe came and passed so suddenly that at the time I had scarcely even an inkling of what caused it; but I know now that this is how it happened. Our visitor was sitting at the forward end of the starboard sofa, close to the bulkhead.
Davies and I were opposite her. Across the bulkhead, on a level with our heads, ran the bookshelf, whose contents, remember, I had carefully straightened only half an hour ago, little dreaming of the consequence.
Some trifle, probably the logbook which Davies had reached down from the shelf, called her attention to the rest of our library. While busied with the cocoa I heard her spelling out some titles, fingering leaves, and
twitting Davies with the little care he took of his books. Suddenly there was a silence which made me look up, to see a startled and pitiful change in her. She was staring at Davies with wide eyes and parted lips, a burning flush mounting on her forehead, and such an expression on her face as a sleep-walker might wear, who wakes in fear he knows not where.
Half her mind was far away, labouring to construe some hideous dream of the past; half was in the present, cringing before some sickening reality. She remained so for perhaps ten seconds, and then–plucky girl that she was–she mastered herself, looked deliberately round and up with a circular glance, strangely in the manner of Davies himself, and spoke. How late it was, she must be going–her boat was not safe. At the same time she rose to go, or rather slid herself along the sofa, for rising was impossible. We sat like mannerless louts, in blank amazement. Davies at the outset had said, ‘What’s the matter?’ in plain English, and then relapsed into stupefaction. I recovered myself the first, and protested in some awkward fashion about the cocoa, the time, the absence of fog. In trying to answer, her self-possession broke down, poor child, and her retreat became a blind flight, like that of a wounded animal, while every sordid circumstance seemed to
accentuate her panic.
She tilted the corner of the table in leaving the sofa and spilt cocoa over her skirt; she knocked her head with painful force against the sharp lintel of the doorway, and stumbled on the steps of the ladder. I was close behind, but when I reached the deck she was already on the counter hauling up the dinghy. She had even jumped in and laid hands on the sculls before any check came in her precipitate movements. Now there occurred to her the patent fact that the dinghy was ours, and that someone must accompany her to bring it back.
‘Davies will row you over,’ I said.
‘Oh no, thank you,’ she stammered. ‘If you will be so kind, Herr Carruthers. It is your turn. No, I mean, I want–‘
‘Go on,’ said Davies to me in English.
I stepped into the dinghy and motioned to take the sculls from her. She seemed not to see me, and pushed off while Davies handed down her jacket, which she had left in the cabin. Neither of us tried to better the situation by conventional apologies. It was left to her, at the last moment, to make a show of excusing herself, an attempt so brave and yet so wretchedly lame that I tingled all over with hot shame. She only made matters worse, and Davies interrupted her.
‘Auf Wiedersehen,’ he said, simply.
She shook her head, did not even offer her hand, and pulled away; Davies turned sharp round and went below.
There was now no muddy Rubicon to obstruct us, for the tide had risen a good deal, and the sands were covering. I offered again to take the sculls, but she took no notice and rowed on, so that I was a silent passenger on the stem seat till we reached her boat, a spruce little yacht’s gig, built to the native model, with a spoon-bow and tiny lee-boards. It was already afloat, but riding quite safely to a rope and a little grapnel, which she proceeded to haul in.
‘It was quite safe after all, you see,’ I said.
‘Yes, but I could not stay. Herr Carruthers, I want to say something to you.’ (I knew it was coming; von Brüning’s warning over again.) ‘I made a mistake just now; it is no use your calling on us to-morrow.’
‘You will not see my father.’
‘I thought you said he was coming back?’
‘Yes, by the morning steamer; but he will be very busy.’
‘We can wait. We have several days to spare, and we have to call for letters anyhow.’
‘You must not delay on our account. The weather is very fine at last. It would be a pity to lose a chance of a smooth voyage to England. The season–‘
‘We have no fixed plans. Davies wants to get some shooting.
‘My father will be much occupied.’
‘We can see you.’
I insisted on being obtuse, for though this fencing with an unstrung girl was hateful work, the quest was at stake. We were going to Norderney, come what might, and sooner or later we must see Dollmann. It was no use promising not to. I had given no pledge to von Brüning, and I would give none to her. The only alternative was to violate the compact (which the present fiasco had surely weakened), speak out, and try and make an ally of her. Against her own father? I shrank from the responsibility and counted the cost of failure–certain failure, to judge by her conduct. She began to hoist her lugsail in a dazed, shiftless fashion, while our two boats drifted slowly to leeward.
‘Father might not like it,’ she said, so low and from such tremulous lips that I scarcely caught her words. ‘He does not like foreigners much. I am afraid … he did not want to see Herr Davies again.’
‘But I thought–‘
‘It was wrong of me to come aboard–I suddenly remembered; but 1 could not tell Herr Davies.’
‘I see,’ I answered. ‘I will tell him.’
‘Yes, that he must not come near us.
‘He will understand. I know he will be very sorry, but,’ I added, firmly, ‘you can trust him implicitly to do the right thing.’ And how I prayed that this would content her! Thank Heaven, it did.
‘Yes,’ she said, ‘I am afraid I did not say good-bye to him. You will do so?’ She gave me her hand.
‘One thing more,’ I added, holding it, ‘nothing had better be said about this meeting?’
‘No, no, nothing. It must never be known.’
I let go the gig’s gunwale and watched her tighten her sheet and make a tack or two to windward. Then I rowed back to the Dulcibella as hard as I could.
[20 The Little Drab Book]
I FOUND Davies at the cabin table, surrounded with a litter of books. The shelf was empty, and its contents were tossed about among the cups and on the floor. We both spoke together.
‘Well, what was it?’
‘Well, what did she say?’
I gave way, and told my story briefly. He listened in silence, drumming on the table with a book which he held.
‘It’s not good-bye,’ he said. ‘But I don’t wonder; look here!’ and he held out to me a small volume, whose appearance was quite familiar to me, if its contents were less so. As I noted in an early chapter, Davies’s library, excluding tide-tables, ‘pilots’, etc., was limited to two classes of books, those on naval warfare, and those on his own hobby, cruising in small yachts. He had six or seven of the latter, including Knight’s Falcon in the Baltic, Cowper’s Sailing Tours, Macmullen’s Down Channel, and other less-known stories of adventurous travel. I had scarcely done more than look into some of them at off-moments, for our life had left no leisure for reading. This particular volume was–no, I had better not describe it too fully; but I will say that it was old and unpretentious, bound in cheap cloth of a rather antiquated style, with a title which showed it to be a guide for yachtsmen to a certain British estuary. A white label partly scratched away bore the legend ‘3d.’ I had glanced at it once or twice with no special interest.
‘Well?’ I said, turning over some yellow pages.
‘Dollmann!’ cried Davies. ‘Dollmann wrote it.’ I turned to the title-page, and read: ‘By Lieut. X–, R.N.’ The name itself conveyed nothing to me, but I began to understand. Davies went on: The name’s on the back, too–and I’m certain it’s the last she looked at.’
‘But how do you know?’
‘And there’s the man himself. Ass that I am not to have seen it before! Look at the frontispiece.’
It was a sorry piece of illustration of the old-fashioned sort, lacking definition and finish, but effective notwithstanding; for it was evidently the reproduction, though a cheap and imperfect process, of a photograph.
It represented a small yacht at anchor below some woods, with the owner standing on deck in his shirt sleeves: a well-knit, powerful man, young, of middle height, clean shaved. There appeared to be nothing remarkable about the face; the portrait being on too small a scale, and the expression, such as it was, being of the fixed ‘photographic’ character.
‘How do you know him? You said he was fifty, with a greyish beard.’
‘By the shape of his head; that hasn’t changed. Look how it widens at the top, and then flattens–sort of wedge shaped–with a high, steep forehead; you’d hardly notice it in that’ (the points were not very noticeable, but I saw what Davies meant). ‘The height and figure are right, too; and the dates are about right. Look at the bottom.’
Underneath the picture was the name of a yacht and a date. The publisher’s date on the title-page was the same.
‘Sixteen years ago,’ said Davies. ‘He looks thirty odd in that, doesn’t he? And fifty now.’
‘Let’s work the thing out. Sixteen years ago he was still an Englishman, an officer in Her Majesty’s Navy. Now he’s a German. At some time between this and then, I suppose, he came to grief–disgrace, flight, exile. When did it happen?’
‘They’ve been here three years; von Brüning said so.’
‘It was long before that. She has talked German from a child. What’s her age, do you think–nineteen or twenty?’
‘Say she was four when this book was published. The crash must have come not long after.’
‘And they’ve been hiding in Germany since.
‘Is this a well-known book?’
‘I never saw another copy; picked this up on a second-hand bookstall for threepence.’
‘She looked at it, you say?’
‘Yes, I’m certain of it.’
‘Was she never on board you in September?’
‘No; I asked them both, but Dollmann made excuses.’
‘But he–he came on board? You told me so.’
‘Once; he asked himself to breakfast on the first day. By Jove! yes; you mean he saw the book?
‘It explains a good deal.’
‘It explains everything.’
We fell into deep reflexion for a minute or two.
‘Do you really mean everything?’ I said. ‘In that case let’s sail straight away and forget the whole affair. He’s only some poor devil with a past, whose secret you stumbled on, and, half mad with fear, he tried to silence
you. But you don’t want revenge, so it’s no business of ours. We can ruin him if we like; but is it worth it?’
‘You don’t mean a word you’re saying,’ said Davies, ‘though I know why you say it; and many thanks, old chap. I didn’t mean “everything”. He’s plotting with Germans, or why did Grimm spy on us, and von Brüning cross-examine us? We’ve got to find out what he’s at, as well as who he is. And as to her–what do you think of her now?’
I made my amende heartily. ‘Innocent and ignorant,’ was my verdict. ‘Ignorant, that is, of her father’s treasonable machinations; but aware, clearly, that they were English refugees with a past to hide.’ I said other things, but they do not matter. ‘Only,’ I concluded, ‘it makes the dilemma infinitely worse.’
‘There’s no dilemma at all,’ said Davies. ‘You said at Bensersiel that we couldn’t hurt him without hurting her. Well, all I can say is, we’ve got to. The time to cut and run, if ever, was when we sighted her dinghy. I had a baddish minute then.’
‘She’s given us a clue or two after all.’
‘It wasn’t our fault. To refuse to have her on board would have been to give our show away; and the very fact that she’s given us clues decides the matter. She mustn’t suffer for it.’
‘What will she do?’
‘Stick to her father, I suppose.’
‘And what shall we do?’
‘I don’t know yet; how can I know? It depends,’ said Davies, slowly. ‘But the point is, that we have two objects, equally important–yes, equally, by Jove!–to scotch him, and save her.’
There was a pause.
‘That’s rather a large order,’ I observed. ‘Do you realize that at this very moment we have probably gained the first object? If we went home now, walked into the Admiralty and laid our facts before them, what would be the result?’
‘The Admiralty!’ said Davies, with ineffable scorn.
‘Well, Scotland Yard, too, then. Both of them want our man, I dare say. It would be strange if between them they couldn’t dislodge him, and, incidentally, either discover what’s going on here or draw such attention to
this bit of coast as to make further secrecy impossible.’
‘It’s out of the question to let her betray her father, and then run away! Besides, we don’t know enough, and they mightn’t believe us. It’s a cowardly course, however you look at it.’
‘Oh! that settles it,’ I answered, hastily. ‘Now I want to go back over the facts. When did you first see her?’
‘That first morning.’
‘She wasn’t in the saloon the night before?’
‘No; and he didn’t mention her.’
‘You would have gone away next morning if he hadn’t called?’
‘Yes; I told you so.’
‘He allowed her to persuade you to make that voyage with them?’
‘I suppose so.’
‘But he sent her below when the pilotage was going on?’
‘She said just now, “Father said you would be safe.” What had you been saying to her?’
‘It was when I met her on the sand. (By the way, it wasn’t a chance meeting; she had been making inquiries and heard about us from a skipper who had seen the yacht near Wangeroog, and she had been down this way before.) She asked at once about that day, and began apologizing, rather awkwardly, you know, for their rudeness in not having waited for me at Cuxhaven. Her father found he must get on to Hamburg at once.’
‘But you didn’t go to Cuxhaven; you told her that? What exactly did you tell her? This is important.’
‘I was in a fearful fix, not knowing what he had told her. So I said something vague, and then she asked the very question von Brüning did, “Wasn’t there a schrecklich sea round the Scharhorn?”‘
‘She didn’t know you took the short cut, then?’
‘No; he hadn’t dared to tell her.’
‘She knew that they took it?’
‘Yes. He couldn’t possibly have hidden that. She would have known by the look of the sea from the portholes, the shorter time, etc.’
‘But when the Medusa hove to and he shouted to you to follow him–didn’t she understand what was happening?’
‘No, evidently not. Mind you, she couldn’t possibly have heard what we said, in that weather, from below. I couldn’t cross-question her, but it was clear enough what she thought; namely, that he had hove to for exactly the opposite reason, to say he was taking the short cut, and that I wasn’t to attempt to follow him.’
‘That’s why she laid stress on waiting for you at Cuxhaven?’
‘ Of course; mine would have been the longer passage.’
‘She had no notion of foul play?’
‘None–that I could see. After all, there I was, alive and well.’
‘But she was remorseful for having induced you to sail at all that day, and for not having waited to see you arrived safely.’
‘That’s about it.’
‘Now what did you say about Cuxhaven?’
‘Nothing. I let her understand that I went there, and, not finding them, went on to the Baltic by the Eider river, having changed my mind about the ship canal.’
‘Now, what about her voyage back from Hamburg? Was she alone?’
‘No; the stepmother joined her.’
‘Did she say she had inquired about you at Brunsbüttel?’
‘No; I suppose she didn’t like to. And there was no need, because my taking the Eider explained it.’
I reflected. ‘You’re sure she hadn’t a notion that you took the short cut?’
‘Quite sure; but she may guess it now. She guessed foul play by seeing that book.’
‘Of course she did; but I was thinking of something else. There are two stories afloat now–yours to von Brüning, the true one, that you followed the Medusa to the short cut; and Dollmann’s to her, that you went round the Scharhorn. That’s evidently his version of the affair–the version he would have given if you had been drowned and inquiries were ever made; the version he would have sworn his crew to if they discovered the truth.’
‘But he must drop that yarn when he knows I’m alive and back again.’
‘Yes; but meanwhile, supposing von Brüning sees him before he knows you’re back again, and wants to find out the truth about that incident. If I were von Brüning I should say, “By the way, what’s become of that young Englishman you decoyed away to the Baltic?” Dollmann would give his version, and von Brüning. having heard ours, would know he was lying, and had tried to drown you.’
‘Does it matter? He must know already that Dollmann’s a scoundrel.’
‘So we’ve been supposing; but we may be wrong. We’re still in the dark as to Dollmann’s position towards these Germans. They may not even know he’s English, or they may know that and not know his real name and past. What effect your story will have on their relations with him we can’t forecast. But I’m clear about one thing, that it’s our paramount interest to maintain the status quo as long as we can, to minimize the danger you ran that day, and act as witnesses in his defence. We can’t do that if his story and yours don’t tally. The discrepancy will not only damn him (that may be immaterial), but it will throw doubt on us.’
‘Because if the short cut was so dangerous that he dared not own to having led you to it, it was dangerous enough to make you suspect foul play; the very supposition we want to avoid. We want to be thought mere travellers, with no scores to wipe out, and no secrets to pry after.’
‘Well, what do you propose?’
‘Hitherto I believe we stand fairly well. Let’s assume we hoodwinked von Brüning at Bensersiel, and base our policy on that assumption. It follows that we must show Dollmann at the earliest possible moment that you have come back, and give him time to revise his tactics before he commits himself. Now–‘
‘But she’ll tell him we’re back,’ interrupted Davies.
‘I don’t think so. We’ve just agreed to keep this afternoon’s episode a secret. She expects never to see us again.’
Now, he comes to-morrow by the morning boat, she said. What did that mean? Boat from where?’
‘I know. From Norddeich on the mainland opposite. There’s a railway there from Norden, and a steam ferry crosses to the island.’
‘At what time?’
‘Your Bradshaw will tell us–here it is: “Winter Service, 8.30 a.m., due at 9.5.”‘
‘Let’s get away at once.’
We had a tussle with the tide at first, but once over the watershed the channel improved, and the haze lightened gradually. A lighthouse appeared among the sand-dunes on the island shore, and before darkness fell we dimly saw the spires and roofs of a town, and two long black piers stretching out southwards. We were scarcely a mile away when we lost our wind altogether, and had to anchor. Determined to reach our destination that night we waited till the ebb stream made, and then towed the yacht with the dinghy. In the course of this a fog dropped on us suddenly, just as it had yesterday. I was towing at the time, and, of course,
stopped short; but Davies shouted to me from the tiller to go on, that he could manage with the lead and compass. And the end of it was that, at about nine o’clock, we anchored safely in the five-fathom roadstead, close to the eastern pier, as a short reconnaissance proved to us. It had been a little masterpiece of adroit seamanship.
There was utter stillness till our chain rattled down, when a muffled shout came from the direction of the pier, and soon we heard a boat groping out to us. It was a polite but sleepy portofficer, who asked in a perfunctory way for our particulars, and when he heard them, remembered the Dulcibella’s previous visit.
‘Where are you bound to?’ he asked.
‘England–sooner or later,’ said Davies.
The man laughed derisively. ‘Not this year,’ he said; ‘there will be fogs for another week; it is always so, and then storms. Better leave your yawl here. Dues will be only sixpence a month for you.
‘I’ll think about it,’ said Davies. ‘Good-night.’
The man vanished like a ghost in the thick night.
‘Is the post-office open?’ I called after him.
‘No; eight to-morrow,’ came back out of the fog.
We were too excited to sup in comfort, or sleep in peace, or to do anything but plan and speculate. Never till this night had we talked with absolute mutual confidence, for Davies broke down the last barriers of reserve and let me see his whole mind. He loved this girl and he loved his country, two simple passions which for the time absorbed his whole moral capacity. There was no room left for casuistry. To weigh one passion against the other, with the discordant voices of honour and expediency dinning in his ears, had too long involved him in fruitless torture. Both were right; neither could be surrendered. If the facts showed them irreconcilable, tant pis pour les faits. A way must be found to satisfy both or neither.
I should have been a spiritless dog if I had not risen to his mood. But in truth his cutting of the knot was at this juncture exactly what appealed to me. I, too, was tired of vicarious casuistry, and the fascination of our
enterprise, intensified by the discovery of that afternoon, had never been so strong in me. Not to be insincere, I cannot pretend that I viewed the situation with his single mind. My philosophy when I left London was of a very worldly sort, and no one can change his temperament in three weeks. I plainly said as much to Davies, and indeed took perverse satisfaction in stating with brutal emphasis some social truths which bore on this attachment of his to the daughter of an outlaw. Truths I call them, but I uttered them more by rote than by conviction, and he heard them unmoved. And meanwhile I snatched recklessly at his own solution. If it imparted into our adventure a strain of crazy chivalry more suited to knights-errant of the Middle Ages than to sober modern youths–well, thank Heaven, I was not too sober, and still young enough to snatch at that fancy with an ardour of imagination, if not of character; perhaps, too, of character, for Galahads are not so common but that ordinary folk must needs draw courage from their example and put something of a blind trust in their tenfold strength.
To reduce a romantic ideal to a working plan is a very difficult thing.
‘We shall have to argue backwards,’ I said. ‘What is to be the final stage? Because that must govern the others.’
There was only one answer–to get Dollmann, secrets and all, daughter and all, away from Germany altogether. So only could we satisfy the double aim we had set before us. What a joy it is, when beset with doubts, to find a bed-rock necessity, however unattainable! We fastened on this one and reasoned back from it. The first lesson was that, however many and strong were the enemies we had to contend with, our sole overt fee must be Dollmann. The issue of the struggle must be known only to ourselves and him. If we won, and found out ‘what he was at’, we must at all costs conceal our success from his German friends, and detach him from them before he was compromised. (You will remark that to blithely accept this limitation showed a very sanguine spirit in us.) The next question, how to find out what he was at, was a deal more thorny. If it had not been for the discovery of Dollmann’s identity, we should have found it as hard a nut to crack as ever. But this discovery was illuminating. It threw into relief two methods of action which hitherto we had been hazily seeking to combine, seesawing between one and the other, each of us influenced at different times by different motives. One was to rely on independent research; the other to extort the secret from Dollmann direct, by craft or threats. The moral of to-day was to abandon the first and embrace the second.
The prospects of independent research were not a whit better than before. There were only two theories in the field, the channel theory and the Memmert theory. The former languished for lack of corroboration; the latter also appeared to be weakened. To Fräulein Dollmann the wreck-works were evidently what they purported to be, and nothing more. This fact in itself was unimportant, for it was clear as crystal that she was no party to her father’s treacherous intrigues, if he was engaged in such. But if Memmert was his sphere for them, it was disconcerting to find her so familiar with that sphere, lightly talking of a descent in a diving-bell–hinting, too, that the mystery as to results was only for local consumption. Nevertheless, the charm of Memmert as the place we had traced Grimm to, and as the only tangible clue we had obtained, was still very great. The really cogent objection was the insuperable difficulty, known and watched as we were, of learning its significance. If there was anything important to see there we should never be allowed to see it, while by trying and failing we risked everything. It was on this point that the last of all misunderstandings between me and Davies was dissipated. At Bensersiel he had been influenced more than he owned by my arguments about Memmert; but at that time (as I hinted) he was biased by a radical prejudice. The channel theory had become a sort of religion with him, promising double salvation–not only avoidance of the Dollmanns, but success in the quest by methods in which he was past master. To have to desert it and resort to spying on naval defences was an idea he dreaded and distrusted. It was not the morality of the course that bothered him. He was far too clear-headed to blink at the essential fact that at heart we were spies on a foreign power in time of peace, or to salve his conscience by specious distinctions as to our mode of operation. The foreign power to him was Dollmann, a traitor. There was his final justification, fearlessly adopted and held to the last. It was rather that, knowing his own limitations, his whole nature shrank from the sort of action entailed by the Memmert theory. And there was strong common sense in his antipathy.
So much for independent research.
On the other hand the road was now clear for the other method. Davies no longer feared to face the imbroglio at Norderney; and that day fortune had given us a new and potent weapon against Dollmann; precisely how potent we could not tell, for we had only a glimpse of his past, and his exact relations with the Government were unknown to us. But we knew who he was. Using this knowledge with address, could we not wring the rest from him? Feel our way, of course, be guided by his own conduct, but in the end strike hard and stake everything on the stroke? Such at any rate was our scheme to-night. Later, tossing in my bunk, I be-thought me of the little drab book, lit a candle, and fetched it. A preface explained that it had been written during a spell of two months’ leave from naval duty, and expressed a hope that it might be of service to Corinthian sailors. The style was unadorned, but scholarly and pithy. There was no trace of the writer’s individuality, save a certain subdued relish in describing banks and shoals, which reminded me of Davies himself. For the rest, I found the book dull, and, in fact, it sent me to sleep.
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